BUFFALO, NY - With a 7-2 win over Akron on April 27, the Buffalo baseball team matched its Division I record by winning its 23rd game of the season. In the program's 14 seasons as a D-I school, it had reached 20 wins just three times prior. Now it had set a new high-water mark with another 17 games left to play. Ultimately, the team would win 33 games, setting a program record that was set in the 1980 season.
Fourteen seasons as a Division I program is not much time to define a program tradition, but with all four 20-win seasons coming in the last five years, a tradition of winning is quickly being established by eighth-year head coach Ron Torgalski.
Despite a few key losses – namely Mid-American Conference player of the year Jason Kanzler, second baseman Jon Mestas, and closer River McWilliams – the team welcomes back eight position players who started in at least 15 games along with the entire starting weekend rotation. Added to that is a group of nine newcomers that offer the depth that will have the team strong in the midweek and flexible throughout the entire season.
To say that the UB pitching staff has flourished under Torgalski and fourth-year pitching coach Steve Ziroli would be an understatement. The group had shaved almost an entire run off its cumulative earned run average in the three seasons prior to 2013, but last season proved to be one of the very best. The team posted a combined 3.72 ERA over 486.2 innings pitched, which was two full runs lower than the next-best team mark in its Division I tenure (5.70 in 2005).
The improved numbers were thanks in large part to an improved bullpen and the exploits of number one starter Mike Burke. A two-way player who also excelled at shortstop, Burke set program records for innings pitched (101.2) and threw three complete-game shutouts en route to a 2.66 ERA. Fellow weekend starters Anthony Magovney and Mike McGee also took giant leaps in their second seasons, and could both improve even more as they enter their junior seasons.
"It's a veteran group with guys that have pitched in big games and hopefully they can build on it," said Torgalski, who was the 2013 MAC coach of the year. "I think depth-wise, we're deeper this year and we have a couple of guys who sat out last year that are back and can help us."
The bullpen also pitched in with a big season collectively, led by McWilliams and true freshman Ben Hartz. While McWilliams set the single-season record in saves, Hartz was the number one option out of the bullpen in middle relief, throwing 40.1 innings with a 2.01 ERA that was the eighth-lowest in program history, earning him Freshman All-American honors. The team will have plenty of depth in the pitching staff, one of the more underrated additions will be redshirt senior Kevin Hughes, who returns after missing almost two full seasons due to Tommy John Surgery.
Depth will be the key for the staff this season, as Torgalski sees seniors Cory Folk (46.1 IP) and Dan Ginader (2.08 ERA) joining talented freshmen Dom Francia, Alec Tuohy and Brent Cleland in the mid-week rotation and in a bullpen that was taxed heavily in the team's record-setting 2013 season.
"Last year it seemed like we went through every weekend with five guys, as we wore out the back end of the bullpen as the season went on, so having a bit more depth will help us stay fresh towards the end of the season," Torgalski said.
Part of the pitching staff's success last season came thanks to its confidence in the infield defense, which backed up the pitching staff with the highest fielding percentage in program history, with a 96.5 success rate and just 73 errors committed in 2,068 chances. The five infielders also help the team with its flexibility, with three different starters who are proficient at more than one position. Burke had a career year defensively as the team's shortstop in 2013, but he will likely move predominantly to third base in his senior season. That will allow fellow senior Mike Scarcello play every day at shortstop, where the four-year cornerstone defender started 24 games. On the days where Burke moves to the mound to pitch, the team will move starting first baseman Tyler Mautner to third base, where he started 21 games in a 2013 season that saw him earn Freshman All-American honors while setting a program record with 23 doubles. Over the summer, the sophomore earned the triple crown for his summer league and will be a player to watch in 2014.
Another returning starter in the infield is senior catcher Kyle Figgins. After winning a position battle early on in the season with Kyle Brennan, Figgins went on to have a solid season defensively and offensively. Torgalski has been impressed with the receiver's offensive improvements in the offseason, which will complement his defensive skills that saw him commit just four errors in 44 games.
Filling in the whole at second base will likely be a righty-lefty platoon early on, between junior college transfer Tanner Robinson and true freshman Brian Dudek. The team will also look to work in freshmen Chris Kwitzer and Ben Haefner and prepare for a 2015 season that will come without the entire left side of the infield.
"There's a lot of experience coming back and there is a handful of guys who can play anywhere in the infield, which I like," Torgalski said. "Scarcello has been like having another coach on the field, he's been a big help for all the new guys who play up the middle of our defense. The more guys you have, the better off you'll be."
The Bulls may find its biggest strength will come from the production of its outfield, despite the fact that 2013's starting center fielder Jason Kanzler is currently playing professionally in the Minnesota Twins farm system. While he has moved on, sliding back into the lineup will be Matt Pollock, who missed all of last season with a broken wrist. The redshirt senior had a 2012 season where he batted .357 with 12 home runs and 44 RBI as the team's leadoff hitter. He will return to his spot in left field, moving Jimmy Topps into center field. After being pressed into the starting role following Pollock's injury last season, Topps batted .314 with 11 stolen bases in his first season with the team.
Returning to the starting role in right field is Thomas Richards, who was another UB player who had a standout summer league season. After batting .254 with five home runs and 25 RBI last season, he played for the Quincy Gems of the Prospect League over the summer. Over the 49-game season, he batted. 347 with eight home runs and 33 RBI while being named the league's top pro prospect.
"I think they could be one of the best outfields in the MAC, but it's easy to talk a good game. We need to see how they stack up at the plate and in the field defensively," Torgalski said.
The coaching staff will also have a good deal of flexibility with its outfield depth, starting with sophomore Nick Sinay. He would play in 24 games as a true freshman, and batted .280 while serving as the team's main pinch runner. His production will likely get a big boost in his second season on campus, as Torgalski and his staff have noticed big strides he has made in the offseason. Also entering the depth chart will be freshmen Cleland and Vinny Mallaro, with Mallaro possibly fighting for the every-day spot as the team's designated hitter.
"On paper, it's three veteran guys, three seniors that have been competed at this level and had success at this level," Torgalski said about the team's talented reserves. "The fourth guy who will be pushing them is probably the quickest athlete of them all in Nick Sinay, and Vinny Mallaro has tremendous bat speed with a chance to be a middle of the order hitter for us in the future. I think as of right now, the outfield is our deepest position. We have five or six guys out there that can play right now."
While the Bulls are stocked and ready to build off 2013 memorable season, it will find itself battling a stocked Mid-American Conference schedule that has at least six different teams that can take home the regular season and tournament title. The Bulls were picked to finish third in the MAC East and sixth overall in the preseason coaches poll.
"People have been looking at our lineup and seeing all the guys we're bringing back, but when you look at the other 11 teams in the conference, nobody really lost a lot of contributors," Torgalski said. "The conference, as I see it, is as strong as it has ever been. Everybody has a veteran group, no one is really rebuilding. The competition is going to be tremendous. Our guys are ready, and we won't sneak up on people but I don't think anyone is going to be taking us lightly like they have in the past."
The season is scheduled to begin Sunday Feb. 16, with the Bulls heading south to take on Davidson. The weather-delayed series is now scheduled as a doubleheader that will begin at noon.