´╗┐Baseball looks to take next step in 2019

3/1/2019 | Baseball

For a program steeped in winning tradition, four consecutive seasons without a postseason appearance is unfamiliar territory. The Kutztown University baseball team showed it could play with the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference’s best last season and is focused on taking another step on its journey back to the top in 2019.

The message remains simple from 17th-year head coach Chris Blum, who enters the new season three wins shy of becoming just the fifth coach -and third fastest-in PSAC history to reach 500 victories at a conference school. Maximize strengths and improve in a few key areas.

“I’m very optimistic about what’s going on,” said Blum. “Our pitchers are doing well in their bullpen sessions and I think we can have a top-notch defense. We just need to sure up a couple outfield spots and have the bottom of our lineup execute their games, whether that’s speed, drawing walks, hit-and-run situations to get on and get guys into scoring position.”

The Golden Bears finished three games under .500 in 2018 at 19-22 overall, but 12 wins against PSAC East opponents (12-15) were the program’s most since its most recent PSAC championship in 2014.

Kutztown’s seven-win improvement in league play wasn’t enough to shift the mindset of fellow PSAC East coaches, who voted the Golden Bears seventh in this year’s Preseason Poll. “It’s understandable,” noted Blum. “There are a number of teams with very good players coming back from last year.”

Indeed, the East will be ultra-competitive, as it usually is. Last year’s PSAC runner-up, Millersville, and West Chester both opened the season nationally-ranked in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers of America (NCBWA) NCAA Division II Top 25. Bloomsburg is coming off a 31-win season, in which it reached the PSAC semifinals.

Within the Golden Bears’ clubhouse all focus is on getting better each day. The Maroon and Gold have plenty of returning talent to be excited about, too, talent that authored a number of impressive victories last spring.

KU knocked off nationally-ranked No. 4 and eventual PSAC West No. 1 seed Mercyhurst, 7-6, during its annual trip to Wilson, North Carolina. Blum’s squad also split PSAC East series with nationally-ranked No. 17 and East No. 1 West Chester, nationally-ranked No. 18 Lock Haven and Millersville.

The foundation is in place for the Golden Bears to be a surprise contender. Four position players that made 37 starts or more in 2018 return, giving Kutztown a strong core. There are many others that have contributed, but have their sights set on increased opportunities. A number of new faces join the den, while the pitching staff could have a distinctly different look.

The importance of having a reliable game manager behind the plate cannot be understated and Kutztown has one of the conference’s best in senior Nick Lafferty. Lafferty caught 28-of-41 games last season, while sprinkling in nine at designated hitter. Not only is the Croydon, Pennsylvania native a strong defensive option, he’s the Golden Bears’ top returning hitter.

Lafferty, who was an All-PSAC East Second Team pick in 2018, batted .363 with 45 hits, five doubles, three home runs and 36 RBIs. The veteran of 118 games (97 starts) reached 100 career hits with a single in game two at Shippensburg last May. Lafferty is also coming off a season in which he put forth a career-best .987 fielding percentage.

When KU’s catching mainstay needs a rest, juniors Ryan Weller and Connor Teschko are the top options to provide relief. Weller appeared in 17 games behind the dish, throwing out two potential base-stealers and posting a .986 fielding percentage. Teschko caught in nine games.

Blum also suggested senior Jeff Charles and junior Evan Musto could see some time at catcher.

Continuity is the theme among Golden Bear infielders outside of a void at first base left by the graduated Ryan Cox.

Senior shortstop Bo Rottet supplied a team-leading 11 doubles and hit better than .300 for the second year in a row. He gained a few battle scars to reach base, too, being hit by pitch a PSAC-high 19 times. Rottet, who started 39 games at short last season, ranked second on the team with a .425 on base percentage.

Collin Bishop took over as KU’s everyday third baseman in 2018 and has made 61 starts at the hot corner over the last two seasons. The junior from Laurel Springs, New Jersey was the team’s third-leading run-generator with 25 RBIs and nearly mirrored his rookie season in many offensive and defensive categories.

Bishop added some pop to his game with nine doubles (up from two in 2017) and finished 2018 on a high note with hits in eight of his last night games, including four multi-hit efforts.

Fellow junior Mitch Pinder solidified Kutztown’s middle infield with a .305 batting average and 13 RBIs in 18 games (17 starts) at second base, before his second season in maroon and gold was cut short due to injury. Pinder, of nearby Boyertown, has also pieced together back-to-back seasons with batting averages above .300, but he was just as impressive defensively with a .955 fielding percentage on 64 opportunities.

Redshirt sophomore Jake Augustus is credited with working hard in the offseason to improve his game and could push for time at either middle infield spot.

Cox led Kutztown in batting average (.377), hits (52), total bases (65), on base percentage (.444) and stolen bases (9) last season, which Blum knows will be hard to replace. The head coach lauded the versatility of sophomore Zach Moretski and Musto, while also expressing confidence on what newcomer Andy Blum, an Owen J. Roberts grad, can bring to the position.

Moretski impressed in limited exposure as a field player, hitting .464 (13-for-28). He also contributed as a relief pitcher, compiling a 1.00 earned run average in nine innings across seven appearances. Musto had a .333 batting average (3-for-9) in the five games he was deployed at the position last spring.

Redshirt junior Tanner Miller can be utilized in a number of different spots. While Miller appeared in five games at second base, most of his damage in 2018 was done as the Golden Bears’ designated hitter. He batted .279, knocked in 11 runs and scored 11 for the season.

“I’m really happy with our infielders,” said Blum. “They all play a strong defensive game and it’s definitely an area of strength for us.”

Senior Mike Villa returns as Kutztown’s starting center fielder, but the corner outfield spots are very much up for grabs following the graduations of left fielders Brady Carras and Zack Delp, and right fielder Dariel Richardson.

Villa, who transferred into the program last season, plays a stellar defensive game, as evidenced by a .980 fielding percentage and four assists –tied for most among KU outfielders in 2018. The Scranton native also drew a team-leading 22 walks, along with producing two triples, seven doubles and 24 runs scored.

“It’s really fun to watch Mike play out there,” explained Blum. “There will be balls hit that you think are going for doubles and he’ll track them down. I think you could make the case for him as the best defensive center fielder in the league.”

Returning players who saw a majority of their time in the outfield include senior Jeff Zebrowski and sophomore Jacoby Pate.

Zebrowski made 16 starts between all three outfield spots last season, collecting 11 hits, two doubles, six RBIs and a .933 fielding percentage.

Blum also has a few incoming options in sophomore Brandon Heere, freshman Ronny Silvestro and junior transfer Greg Power. Power was a .366 hitter with 13 doubles and 25 RBIs at Division III Medaille College last season.

Blum knows that the reliability of his pitching staff is crucial to how successful 2019 will be for the Golden Bears. Kutztown produced three straight seasons of sub-4.00 team earned run averages from 2012-14, culminating in the program’s most recent PSAC title.

In an offense-heavy PSAC, KU has seen its team ERA exceed 5.00 in each of the last four seasons. There is optimism with this year’s crop of arms, however.

Senior Michael Hunter, who played scholastically at Brandywine Heights, led the Golden Bears with a 3.06 ERA, five wins and a complete game shutout over 47 innings in 2018. He started a team-high nine games and opposing hitters batted only .194 against the 6-foot-5 righty.

All-PSAC East Second Team reliever Gavilan Fogarty-Harnish made a team-high 15 appearances last season, including three starts. The junior from Ephrata posted a 5-2 record and was tied for fifth in the conference with five saves.

Steve Wagner started five games for the Maroon and Gold and Zach Peters made three starts. The sophomore duo each gave KU more than 20 innings of work during their rookie seasons.

Kutztown will also benefit from the return of redshirt junior Doug Conrad, a southpaw that missed last season due to injury, but showed promise in 2017 with a 4-3 record and 50 strikeouts across 53 innings. Conrad fanned a career-high 11 in a victory over Fairmont State on March 10, 2017.

The aforementioned Zach Moretski registered six scoreless appearances in seven tries out of the pen. Senior Garrett Alread turned in four consecutive scoreless efforts between Feb. 24-April 11 last spring and Jeff Charles has also been called upon to give the Golden Bears innings.

New to the program are Aaron Cleveland, Noah Davidson, Nick McAuliffe, Eric Petroski and Brandon Staub. Cleveland started four games for Shippensburg a year ago, Davidson and McAuliffe are true freshmen, while Petroski and Staub both come to KU from Cumberland County College in New Jersey.

Kutztown’s season was to open last weekend at the Builder Invitational in Hampton, Virginia, but adverse weather conditions washed out the tournament. Instead, the Golden Bears are in Petersburg, Virginia for round-robin play with UVA-Wise and host Virginia State this weekend. KU’s first home game is scheduled for Saturday, March 23, a PSAC East doubleheader with Shippensburg