The Lehigh baseball team is set to kick off its 2012 season this weekend with a four-game set in North Carolina with two games vs. Davidson and Fairleigh Dickinson. The Mountain Hawks graduated a veteran group but the players stepping up in those spots this year aren’t new to the system, just taking on bigger roles. The 2012 Mountain Hawks will be built around defense, speed and its bullpen.
“We certainly graduated an experienced group but a lot of the guys who were waiting for their opportunity aren’t freshmen so the guys out there will have had some experience and aren’t going to be new to these moments,” said head coach Sean Leary, who enters his 17th season at the helm for Lehigh. “I’m excited because the returning guys did a great job of winning those jobs early in the season and I’m anxious to see how they respond to having everyday roles.”
Lehigh – which went 24-21 last year and 8-12 in league play - return five position players who played in at least 20 games last season and return nine pitchers who threw at least 20 innings.
Lehigh will be captained by seniors Chad Warga, Brendan McGaheran, Dan Ciccone and Cory Kent as those four highlight a strong senior class.
“We will be leaning on our captains and all of the seniors for leadership on and off the field,” Leary said. “This is a senior class that has exemplified some of the best leadership we’ve had in our program.”
Lehigh will hope that equation of those seniors combined with a strong junior class, an experienced sophomore class and some impact freshmen will lead to a Patriot League Championship.
Here is a look at how the 2012 Mountain Hawks breakdown:
Warga and McGaheran are the two returning starting infielders and will highlight a group that features four seniors and a junior around the diamond. With Warga behind the plate and McGharen at shortstop, senior Joseph Conaway will start the season at first while junior Brandon Sady will be at second and senior Ryan Gajdos slotted in at third.
Lehigh will rely on McGaheran to not only captain the infield defensively, but lead the way at the top of the lineup. McGaheran started all 45 games last season and earned second Team All-Patriot League honors after hitting .317 and led the team with 57 hits, 38 runs, 30 RBIs and a league-leading 19 stolen bases.
Warga started in 34 of the 36 games he played last season and will bring a veteran presence behind the dish while Gajdos started in 15 of the 27 games he played in, hitting .274 in 62 at bats. The right side of the infield is less experienced as Conaway didn’t play last season and Sady had just 12 at bats.
Behind Warga at the plate is sophomore Joe Abeln who hit .261 in 46 at-bats last season and freshman Tim McKay. Along with Conaway, junior Alex Jacquez and sophomore Tyler Brong will be at first while the trio will rotate at DH. Each brings a power bat to the lineup with Conaway slotted in at that cleanup spot to start the 2012 season.
Freshman John Elson will back up McGaheran at short and can also play second or third while freshman Conor Faust will back up Gajdos at third base. And sophomore John McCann will provide more flexibility around the infield.
Flexibility is the key word when describing Lehigh’s infield and it’s something that Leary is really looking forward to working with.
“We really like the flexibility that our infield offers,” Leary said. “We have a number of guys who can play several positions so we it wouldn’t be a shock if we have two or three guys rotating positions to keep some guys fresh and get guys experience. We feel good about this group, now they just have to learn a little chemistry and get used to playing with each other.”
Lehigh returns one starter to its outfield in junior Casey Turner, who hit .271 in 33 games last year and will start in left field this year. Sophomore Brandon Wilt played in nine games last year and will play right field and freshman Justin Pacchioli will patrol centerfield.
Junior Thomas O’Malley and freshman Lance Kirschenbaum along with sophomore Harris Fanaroff and Patrick Walshe will provide depth to an outfield core that Leary is looking forward to seeing in action.
“Our outfield is a fast, athletic group and very good defensively,” he said. “I think they have the potential to become a great outfield over time with a lot of plus-tools guys.”
The group will not only be relied upon to make plays in the field, but will be featured in the heart of Lehigh’s lineup. Pacchioli, Turner and Wilt are slated in the 2-3-5 spots while Kirschenbaum has impressed the coaching staff with his bat.
Turner is the veteran in the group and will be looked upon early in the season to lead the way, but Pacchiolli will eventually fill that role as he gains more experience in center.
“Pacchioli is a guy who will be calm and poised in the big spot and I’m really excited about what he brings to the table,” Leary said. “I’m anxious to see him put on the Brown and White and show people what we think we have in him.”
This is the group that returns the most experience, losing just one weekend starter and highlighted by a stellar bullpen. A trio of sophomore starters in Nick Cassell, Mike Burke and Colin Gotzon will go 1-2-3 this weekend for Lehigh. Cassell, Burke and Gotzon each started three games last season with each having at least eight appearances.
The pitching staff will also feature senior Luke Porter who appeared in 12 games last season, sophomore Jayme Edwards (seven starts in ‘11) and junior Cameron Phillips (six starts ‘11). Sophomore Joey McNamara has had a great spring leading into the season and freshmen Jordan Smith and Nick Stephens will look to make immediate impacts in the rotation as well.
“We feel like our top seven or eight starters are all equal and we really like that,” Leary said. “Our pitching depth offers us a lot of balance and different looks and as the season begins, I’m most anxious to see how our starting pitching has evolved. Our starters have a tremendous amount of experience, now it’s just a matter of them growing and showing what adjustments they made from last year.”
While the starters make adjustments and improvements, they know that if they give Lehigh five strong innings with a lead, there is a good chance it will lead to a victory as the Mountain Hawks’ incredible bullpen awaits for the final three or four innings.
Closer senior Cory Kent saved eight games last year and finished with a 5-2 record and a 3.82 ERA in 37.2 innings of work. Setting him up will be senior Dan Ciccone who was 1-0 with a 2.97 ERA in 30.1 innings and before him is junior Thomas O’Malley who was 3-0 with a 3.13 ERA and 23 IP. Junior Steven Ball will also be thrown in that mix.
Lehigh was 16-2 last year when leading after six innings, 8-1 after seven and 11-0 after eight.
“Having those four veterans at the tail end of the bullpen is a great luxury,” Leary said. “It makes it a little less daunting on our starters and shortens the game up and we’ll be anxious to get the ball to those four guys.”
After endless hours training and working over the offseason and the spring, Lehigh will finally get the chance to begin to put it all together when the Mountain Hawks take the field for its season opener Friday at 6 p.m. vs. Davidson. Lehigh will then face FDU Saturday at noon followed by Davidson 3:30 p.m. The Mountain Hawks opening weekend will conclude against FDU on Sunday at 10 a.m.
You can follow the live stats for the game here: http://www.sidearmstats.com/davidson/baseball/scoreboard.aspx
Lehigh is 3-0 all-time against Davidson including a 7-3 win last season. Davidson split its first two games of the 2012 season, falling 9-4 to Niagara and defeating La Salle 4-3. After the pair of games, the Wildcats have four hitters batting above .375. The question for Davidson entering the 2012 season is pitching with the departure of nearly 68 percent of last year’s innings pitched.
Saturday’s game will be FDU’s season opener as the Knights went 12-38 last season, finishing eighth in the NEC. FDU was picked again to finish eighth this season. The Knights feature 18 newcomers including 16 freshmen, but FDU will return its top two hitters from 2011 in shortstop Ryan Kresky and third baseman/pitcher Mike Eliasen. Each started all 50 games last year while batting .344 and .301, respectively.
“We are looking to see our team gel defensively and chemistry wise,” Leary said. “Offensively, we have a system in place but it’s difficult to see it when we are inside so there is so much you learn early being outside. Our focus will be can we execute our system. From my side, I’m more focused on if we do what we do well, we expect good results.”
Lehigh will make its 2012 home debut on Goodman Campus with back-to-back doubleheaders against Iona on March 17-18.