Baseball, Column, Featured Column, Spring

Despite Obstacles, Birdball Still Seeks A Playoff Berth

Recruiting is hard. It’s challenging enough to figure out what individual 18-year-old kids want (without committing any NCAA violations), but imagine that the pitch you’re forced to use has the relative weakest contents of all your opponents. Even if you try to get creative, it’s still a daunting task.

Boston College baseball head coach Mike Gambino doesn’t have to imagine. He is now nearing the end of his fifth year at the helm for the Eagles, the northernmost team in the ACC. BC’s grassy baseball home, Shea Field, has not changed much since it was first used in April 1961. Since it doesn’t have turf, BC cannot play any home games until the snow is gone and the ground is dry (so April, which wouldn’t be a terrible problem, except the season starts in February). Unlike all 13 other schools with baseball in the ACC, it does not play host to any ESPN3 feeds or other live streaming service.

Overall, BC is primarily a hockey and football school, not a baseball one—another factor that could draw a talented high schooler to a certain program. Since 1963, just six BC alumni have made it to the Majors. The Eagles have made only six appearances in the College World Series, the last one coming in 1967. The only time since then the team has made the NCAA Tournament was in 2009.

In short, no one would be surprised if BC baseball eternally dwelled in sub-.500 land. Despite all that’s against them, Birdball refuses to accept that message.

The team sits at 22-18 overall, and 9-11 in conference play. True, these aren’t remarkable records, and BC still occupies the second-to-last spot in the Atlantic Division of the ACC. But, six of those conference losses were to No. 22 Florida State and No. 13 Louisville, who currently sit at No. 12 and No. 4, respectively. Three more non-conference losses came against No. 2 Louisiana State University—a team that is now ranked top in the nation.

Whenever a team defies expectations, people tend to turn toward the manager, like with Art Howe in the A’s logic-defying 2002 run. In this case, that’s a great place to start looking. Gambino was a solid player during his time at BC from 1997-2000. But he was never destined to become a big-leaguer, hitting just .235 in two seasons for the Red Sox’ Single-A affiliates. Fortunately for BC, he didn’t pan out as a player. Instead, he gave a much-needed boost to the Virginia Tech baseball program as a recruiting coordinator. In four years, MLB teams drafted 15 VT players, compared to 13 in the previous 10 years. And then he brought his recruiting talents to the Heights.

As the head coach for BC, Gambino didn’t try to go for a quick-fix, preferring to play his own recruits. He started five of his freshmen in an ugly 12-40 season in 2013, including two outfielders who ended the year below the Mendoza line. One, Logan Hoggarth, leads the team with a .373 average in ACC play this year. The second was Chris Shaw.

Shaw, who was easily BC’s best hitter and also one of the best hitters in the ACC this season, suffered a hand injury against Wake Forest a couple weeks ago, and it is unknown whether he will recover from surgery in time to play another game for the Eagles this season. And yet, even in the absence of Shaw and steady starter Jeff Burke, who is done for the year with an ACL injury, the Eagles have continued to heat up.

They are fresh off a three-game sweep of No. 29 Georgia Tech last weekend and their first Beanpot Tournament victory since 2011 last night. While BC’s pitching has struggled in the past, it has truly stepped up of late. The staff allowed just one run in all four games, which included a complete-game, one-hitter from Mike King on Friday afternoon and 6 2/3 perfect innings from Jesse Adams to start Sunday’s game.

While you can give credit Gambino for recruiting King and Adams, perhaps the most significant factor was a slightly different line of recruiting—that of former Rhode Island head coach Jim Foster, who joined the Eagles’ staff as the associate head coach and pitching coach last summer. Gambino and others have praised Foster since the beginning of the season for his work with pitchers and catchers, and he already seems to have made significant strides to develop a rather weak BC staff into legitimate ACC contenders.

“Coach Foster came in as my own,” starting catcher Nick Sciortino said. “He worked with me, Stephen Sauter, and Murph [Geoffrey Murphy] catching, just trying to develop a relationship with the pitchers … Hammering those little details of throwing first pitch strikes, where to throw the 2-0, it’s not just throwing it it’s pitching.”

Not only did the Eagles sweep a ranked team and knock them out of the Top 30, but they did it with relative ease. Georgia Tech seemed baffled and overwhelmed all weekend, affected by not just three quality pitchers but also the man behind the plate. Sciortino is becoming a bigger and bigger nightmare for base runners this year, gunning down attempted stealers and attempting pick-offs from behind the plate at will. In the opener against GT, “Scors” threw out two runners and picked off a third, supporting King on the way to his dominant performance.

Of course, there is little doubt that Shaw is missed in the BC lineup. Who wouldn’t miss a guy hitting .339, with 11 homers and an OPS that is scraping the skies? But, the Eagles finally have the depth they have been lacking in previous years to weather such a loss. Including Shaw, BC has eight players hitting above .250 this season, compared to just three last year. That kind of depth allows Gambino to play around with his DH slot by substituting in hot bat and pinch-hitting

Of all the factors the Eagles have, the least physically obvious is former BC ballplayer Pete Frates. Like the 2013 Red Sox had with the Marathon Bombing, the Eagles have had a purpose to play for that extends beyond the realm of regular sport. Of course, there are no sabermetrics or analytics to calculate this advantage, but it’s one that the team has cherished. If things go the right way for BC, it may be the final piece of a puzzle that can lead the team to its first playoff series this decade.

Featured Image by Michael Sullivan / Heights Editor

April 23, 2015