College Baseball: Catawba Preview
SALISBURY — With football and men’s basketball working to recapture the glory of the recent past, Catawba baseball is the constant for Catawba athletics and is the school’s flagship program.
On the diamond, the Indians have been so good for so long that coach Jim Gantt is a 601-game winner. There have been 14 straight 30-win seasons, with six 40-win seasons mixed in. There have been seven regional appearances headlined by a World Series trip in 2012.
All that success explains why the 2013 season, which ended with another SAC regular-season championship and a 36-16 record, still left Catawba feeling empty. Catawba didn’t win the league tournament that determines the SAC’s only automatic regional representative. No at-large bid was forthcoming, and the season ended prematurely on April 23.
“I do think last season was a disappointment,” Gantt said. “It was disappointing to a lot of guys. We just didn’t do enough.”
SAC coaches voted Catawba the overwhelming favorite to repeat in 2014, although the league looks fierce. Wingate finished only a game back of Catawba a year ago. Tusculum is always a threat. Lincoln Memorial won the 2013 conference tournament. New SAC member Coker was a power in Conference Carolinas. Gantt believes Newberry can be as good as anyone.
“We lost the league’s player of the year (Chris Dula) and the pitcher of the year (Nick Lomascolo),” Gantt said. “I’m not sure how you lose two guys like that (both were draft picks) and still get picked first, but we are capable of having a good team.”
Even with temperatures in the 20s, hitters have pounded the ball around Newman Park in intrasquad games.
“I’m not sure if that means we’ve got great hitting or bad pitching,” Gantt said with a chuckle. “It’s hard to tell as cold as it’s been.”
Catawba’s lineup should be tough to handle. While Dula was the marquee masher, five exceptional hitters return. All batted well over .300 with on-base percentages in the.400s.
Center fielder Blake Houston (.391) and left fielder Ethan Satterfield (.356) will hit at the top of the lineup. Houston caught fire late last season, and the South Rowan product finished second to Dula in the SAC batting race.
First baseman Paul Kronenfeld (.317), right fielder Keaton Hawks (.346) and second baseman Julio Zubillaga (.328) will swing in the middle of the lineup.
The world was expected last season of Kronenfeld, a transfer from Georgia Tech. He didn’t set records, but he was good. He walked a team-high 42 times, belted seven homers and produced 50 RBIs.
“Everyone pitched around him early,” Gantt said. “Then they started thinking they could get him out and pitched to him and he got some big hits.”
Hawks was unhyped coming out of East Davidson, but his season mirrored Kronenfeld’s. He had eight homers and 48 RBIs.
Zubillaga, a Carson product, is a tremendous defender. He’s won the SAC’s gold glove for his position three straight seasons.
“He turns the double play as well as anyone you’ll see,” Gantt said. “And he can swing it.”
The key addition to the lineup should be catcher T.J. Wharton, who has played at UNC Greensboro and Guilford Tech. He’s been shaking off rust in intrasquad games, but he’ll be in the vital cleanup spot between Kronenfeld and Hawks.
“He’s got a strong arm and a lot of power,” Gantt said. “We’re counting on him as the protection for Kronenfeld.”
Wharton has such a potent bat he’ll often DH when he rests. Returner Jon Wallace (.246), the former Northwest Cabarrus standout, is the No. 2 catcher and will play often.
“Wallace is a leader and a hustler and does a great job managing a game,” Gantt said.
Other potential DHs are lefty-swinging Malachi Hanes and right-handed hitter Mario Parisi.
The No. 8 spot in the lineup usually will be the third baseman — Craig Brooks, Cameron Beard or newcomer Shaefer Shepard. The talented Brooks figures to be the No. 2 starting pitcher. Shaefer also hurls, so Catawba needs multiple players at third. Beard is steady and batted .274 last season.
Dylan Richardson (.222), who transferred from Appalachian State prior to last season, will start at shortstop and bat ninth.
“He can really handle the bat,” Gantt said. “He’s going to have a good season.”
Others to watch include Gary Williams and Carlos Tarrats. Like Hanes and pitcher Joe Watson, they are athletic football players, and they give team speed a serious boost.
“If Tarrats is on first base, he’s always a threat to steal second and third,” Gantt said. “I like his competitive mentality.”
The pitching staff will be headed by right-hander John J. Tuttle.
Tuttle, who starred at A.L. Brown, tied Lomascolo for the SAC lead in wins in 2013 with 10 and performed a Justin Verlander impression in the Coastal Plain League over the summer. He was that elite league’s pitcher of the year.
Catawba will miss dependable Ross Whitley as well as Lomascolo, but Brooks, who has blazed hitters in relief, and lefty Sean Grant, a crafty reliever a year ago, should do fine as starters.
Ryan McClintock (seven saves, 2.38 ERA) is proven and will be counted on to close.
Other key hurlers could be experienced Michael Trombino, freshmen Matt Farmakis and Michael Matheis, junior college transfer Charlie Wienkofsky, Shepard and former Davie stud Watson.
“Watson has the stuff to pitch for money,” Gantt said. “It’s just a matter of consistency. He’ll blow somebody’s doors off, but then he’ll walk the next two. We’ll see.”
“We’ll see” is the operative phrase for this season.
Catawba is undertaking a schedule as tough as it’s ever faced with a pitching staff with only a few sure things. Still, the track record indicates Catawba baseball will come through again.
“I’m proud of how hard these guys have worked,” Gantt said. “Our schedule is tough, but it’s going to be fun. We’re planning on an enjoyable season.”
Zubillaga and Hawks are preseason first-team All-SAC. Tuttle, Houston and Kronenfeld are second team.
Michael Lowman, Todd Miller and Randy Benson will assist Gantt.
It all starts Saturday in Florida with a doubleheader against Lynn in Boca Raton.
Catawba opens at Newman Park on Feb. 7 against Florida Southern.