Seton Hall Baseball- The Little Engine that Could (and Did)

Yup- this is a baseball article by a self-professed basketballer for life.

But in the spring, after basketball season concludes, the baseball team is what goes on. Because of the elimination of track and field, and the cellar-dwelling ways of the softball team, there is usually no other option other than baseball.

This offseason, the Seton Hall baseball team was picked to finish 11th out of 12 teams. It was a young team, with a lot of key contributing roles going to sophomores or freshmen, and given where the team had finished in the past with a more veteran squad, the lack of hype was perhaps deserved.

Right away, Rob Sheppard and company were thrown into the fire and did not come out unscathed. The one guy that did was senior right-hander Joe DiRocco, who helped the Pirates to wins over Iowa and #24 North Carolina early in the season. But the team as a whole was struggling to adapt against some better, southern school competition, not to mention that their first 13 games were away from Owen T. Carroll Field. The Pirates went 5-8 in those games, including a series win over Florida-Atlantic, before dropping their home opener to Manhattan heading into the annual Strike Out Cancer Tournament.

The Pirates ended up sweeping Stony Brook, Fordham, and NJIT as the feel of the season turned around just slightly. Freshman center fielder Zack Granite and sophomore second baseman Mike Genovese emerged as productive players, and would remain so all season long. Genovese not only did well at the plate, but on the mound as well, his sidearm delivery and good pitch movement working wonders. Granite started out at the bottom of the lineup, but soon found himself leading off every game, getting on base, and making things happen.

Next up was a weekend series at Villanova to open Big East play, and the Pirates unexpectedly were able to win that series. Senior first baseman Sean Gusrang emerged, batting 7-15 in the series with 2 triples, and DiRocco continued to shine. It was also in this series that sophomore right-hander Jon Prosinski started to come around, something that would be critical down the stretch.

The Pirates trudged through their mid-season schedule, as they just could not get over the hump in their Big East weekend series, dropping 2 of 3 to Rutgers, West Virginia, and USF despite a pitching staff that was coming into its own as one of, if not the best, staff in the conference. DiRocco led the way, and Prosinski got better and better with each start. The Pirates, never a great offensive team in recent years, started to fall back to earth, with one notable exception- senior shortstop AJ Rusbarsky, who ended up increasing his average nearly 35 points once conference play began.

Then came a weekend home series with Louisville, a normally strong program that was having a down year by their standards. The first game was a barn-burner, the longest game in Seton Hall Baseball history, and they were able to win it 1-0. DiRocco pitched 9 shutout innings in that game, but the bullpen of redshirt sophomore George Fernandez (3 1/3 scoreless) and closer Ryan Harvey (5 scorless with 10 strikeouts) held the Cardinals down.

The momentum from that win carried over the entire series, as the Pirates swept Louisville. In an interview with WSOU on Sunday night on Pirate Primetime, head coach Rob Sheppard said it was the turning point in their season. The team went on to lose 2 of 3 to Cincinnati the weekend after that, but it was clear that the entire team had more confidence. Heading into their final series against Georgetown, the Pirates were on the outside looking in, one game out of the Big East Tournament, a familiar spot for them.

If everything went right, the Pirates could not only get into the Tournament, they could get a middle seed. Well, everything did go right- the Pirates swept the cellar-dwelling Hoyas and got the necessary help to earn the 5 seed as arguably the hottest team in the conference.

The pitching staff is now in form- DiRocco and Prosinski as the dependable starters, with hard-throwing freshman right-hander Brian Gilbert coming on late to claim the 3rd starter's role. DiRocco is a backwards pitcher who works off his breaking pitches, which are tremendous, as well as a location fastball. He is a premium strike-thrower who has had only one or two outings where his control hasn't totally been there. Prosinski is a battler who never gives up at-bats. He just knows how to pitch. Stuff-wise, he has a nice tailing fastball that he paints corners with, as well as a quality curveball that he drops in for change of pace. He won't get the strikeouts that DiRocco will get, but he will get the job done with his will, his savvy, and that tailing fastball that no one has really been able to sit on this year (he's one of 2 pitchers who qualify in the Big East who has not surrendered a single home run, an impressive feat considering all the tough lineups in the conference)

Out of the bullpen, sophomore right-hander Frank Morris and sophomore lefty Greg Terhune settled into long relief roles from their respective sides (although since DiRocco and Prosinski have been so good, they haven't been needed much, but have submitted solid seasons both).

Junior righty Henry Warner, a tall pitcher with great stuff, and Genovese have had solid seasons, although Warner is more of a matchups guy and Genovese has not pitched much in Big East play due to the obvious need for him at second base and the top of the lineup.

The business end of the bullpen includes Fernandez, who throws hard with a tricky 3/4 arm slot delivery and good movement, sophomore lefty Rick Mangione, who has rarely given up a hit this season and located the ball very well, and the closer Ryan Harvey. Harvey has six saves and 68 strikeouts in 37 2/3 innings pitched this year because of his absolutely brilliant late-breaking slider that has to be seen to be believed.

All of these factors in the pitching staff have made it the best in the conference top-to bottom, and timely hitting from Granite, Genovese (especially Genovese), junior college transfer Dale Anderson (solid all year long at the plate and in the field), sophomore third baseman Giuseppe Papaccio (the most aggressive hitter I've ever seen, period), and Gusrang, as well as veterans Rusbarsky, Will Walsh and Frank Esposito have gotten the Pirates where they are, 6 spots ahead of their preseason ranking.

Now, they enter the Big East Tournament for the first time since 2008 as the team no one wants to face (other than top seeded UConn). The Pirates are confident, and armed with a pitching staff that is truly tremendous, they are playing their best right now. Hopefully they can take their game faces down to Clearwater. The tournament can be seen on bigeastbaseball.com*, so cheer on your Pirates!

* = WSOU may or may not be broadcasting it as well. Discussions are still in the works due to budget constraints.

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