by Sean Begin
Last season, the Central Connecticut Blue Devils baseball team failed to make the Northeast Conference tournament for this first time since 2005.
The team posted a winning 28-25 record but went just 16-16 in conference play, finishing behind Monmouth (who has since left the NEC), Sacred Heart and Bryant, the eventual conference champion.
“Matching up against Sacred Heart and Bryant, right now, we need our best players to perform,” Coach Charlie Hickey said when comparing the Blue Devils to last season’s top teams.
“One of the things that stood us in the face last year was the other teams’ best players were better than our best players,” Hickey added. “That was indicative of us struggling against the top three teams in the conference. That’s where we measure ourselves.”
Now with Monmouth gone, Central stands a good chance of cracking the top four in the NEC once again. To do so, however, will require help from the newer, younger members of the squad.
Going into the season, the Blue Devils will be without some key players, most notably on the offensive side of the ball. All-Conference selections Tyler McIntyre and Dylan DelaCruz will both be missing from the lineup this coming season.
McIntyre graduated and is now playing semi-pro baseball for the United Baseball League. DelaCruz, according to Coach Charlie Hickey, left school last July for personal reasons.
While both the absence of McIntyre was expected and the loss of DelaCruz happened early enough before the news season, the Blue Devils find themselves looking to replace two of the biggest offensive pieces from last year.
Both players started all 53 games for Central and either led or were among the team leaders in almost every statistical offensive category. McIntyre finished his last season at Central with a .324 average, hitting five home runs and tallying a team high 40 runs batted in. DelaCruz led the team in average (.352), runs scored (42), hits (74) and home runs (six).
Replacing that offense will not easy but it is a part of every college sport, not just baseball. For Hickey, returning seniors and juniors will need to step up their game even more. But perhaps more important is the production Hickey needs from his new, young players.
Eight players are new to this Blue Devils team, consisting of freshman, transfers and junior college players. All will have a chance to see playing time, as Hickey looks to find the pieces that will help the team.
“Some guys are going to get some chances to play,” Hickey said of his newer players. “To be successful we need a good number of them to be productive for us.”
Central will need returning young players like Jeff Osak and Yuri Moran, both sophomores, to step up and play well. Morin knows the system but spent last season redshirting so we’ll get his first field action this year. Osak played in 22 games for the Blue Devils in 2013hitting a solid .316 in the time he was given.
The new players – like junior college transfer Bryan Rivera, a New Britain native – will have a chance to play their way into the starting lineup. Hickey sees Rivera adding infield depth to the team and offering the offense some flexibility, which he feels they were missing last season.
“The last year or two we were very limited in terms of options and flexibility within our lineup or our bench,” said Hickey. “I’d like to think this year we’re going to be able to have more opportunities to use multiple lineups and play a combination of different players.”
The Blue Devils should see success offensively if the younger guys can play well enough to support the returning upper classmen, like seniors J.P. Sportman, Anthony Turgeon and Josh Ingham.
Both Sportman and Ingham were All-Conference players for the Blue Devils last season. Sportman was one of Central’s top offensive players, hitting .327 (and second on the team with 66 hits) and knocked in 33 runs. Sportman also led the team on the base paths with 13 steals.
Base running is yet another aspect of the offense Hickey is looking to improve on, a dimension that had become “stagnant” over the last couple of seasons.
Ingham, in addition to his contributions on offense, will also serve as a valuable member of the pitching staff, coming in out of the bullpen. Ingham had a 2.50 ERA last season while leading the team in saves with seven.
Juniors Brendyn Karinchak and Jesse Frawley will look to match their performance last year out of the bullpen as well. Frawley had a 1.83 in six relief appearances while Karinchak saved three games with a 2.28 ERA.
The starting pitching for the Blue Devils will have to step up following the loss of junior Cody Brown, who will miss the spring for the team after being diagnosed with cancer.
Brown’s twin brother Casey will return to pitch for the team as will seniors Nick Neumann and Tom Coughlin. Neumann was tied for the team lead in starts (12) and wins (five) while throwing five complete games and is perhaps the teams most experienced returning starting pitcher.
Hickey also said freshman Matt Blandino will see some significant time pitching for the Blue Devils this season.
Hickey said that the more experienced guys on the team, like Neumann and Coughlin, will need to shoulder some of the innings that would have been taken by Cody Brown but knows his team’s success starts on the mound.
“Every time you diagnose the team you line up your starting pitching and you have to have consistent starting pitching if you have any hope of being successful,” said Hickey.
“I don’t think, maybe, these guys have been asked to shoulder the load by themselves in the past but we need them to be as good as we hope, to obviously achieve some of the goals we have,” added Hickey.
For the baseball team this season, there are a lot of moving parts that need to click into place for the team to be successful. Luckily, they had six to seven weeks of practice in the fall and have had three weeks of conditioning since semester started and still have just under a month before the first game of the season.
Hickey knows the offense needs improvement in order to take some pressure off the defense and pitching, which will need to remain consistent even with the loss of Cody Brown.
“When you can control the tempo of the game offensively it allows everybody else to play the game relaxed and they usually perform better” said Hickey.
The Blue Devils play their first game of the season on Wed., March 5 at home against UMass-Lowell.