Baseball: 2018 Season Preview
ALBANY, N.Y. – Spring is just around the corner, meaning that the 2018 baseball season is about to get underway. The University at Albany baseball team will return to action following a 2017 campaign that saw the Great Danes go 26-26 and finish fourth in the America East. Both marks were an improvement over the Danes’ 2016 season.
This year’s squad features only three seniors, but has a number of juniors on the roster that have already seen action in over 100 games in their UAlbany careers. The Danes return six of the seven individuals to earn America East All-Conference honors last season, including First Team selections Dominic Savino and Connor Powers. And with an incoming freshman class of 13 student-athletes, UAlbany looks to continue the trend of improving on the previous season that has now lasted for the last three years.
“I think the most exciting thing with this group is that we have a number of guys returning in the field as well as on the mound,” said head coach Jon Mueller. “We have five guys that have thrown a lot of quality innings for us on the front end. We feel good about a lot of guys on the pitching staff and I think their health is the most imperative thing for them. We have a few injuries to start but the good thing about injuries is it allows an opportunity for players they may not normally have. The great thing about playing so many games before the conference schedule starts is that you really get into that role definition idea.”
“The biggest holes left were behind the plate and at first base,” said associate head coach Jeff Kaier, who was promoted for the second time in the last two years during the offseason. “We had two fifth-year seniors there last year. We’re looking to two freshmen to battle it out at first base. Both of them bring a high level of defense and some offensive power. There will also be competition for the spot behind the plate. We have some new arms that will look to contribute, but we bring back everything on the mound: all three of our conference starters are back, the majority of our innings are back, and the majority of our bullpen is back. We have some new guys that we are excited about who will hopefully take on expanded roles, and hopefully we’ll see the guys from last year take the next step moving forward.”
“From a position-player standpoint, we feel this season we really have some established depth,” said Mueller. “We have guys in the infield we feel good about, and I think the interior defense is going to be strong. We have a bunch of freshmen, each of whom have been working extremely hard. I try not to put the young guys, who are not necessarily needed yet, too much into the fold, but there are a number of guys we can mix and match out there depending on right-handed or left-handed pitcher. Early in the year it’s exciting because guys get to have different opportunities in this whole idea of role establishment. You go through your first few series and you try some different things.”
That experimentation early in the season can pay dividends in key situations down the stretch. Last season, the coaching staff used then-freshman Ray Weber early on in high-pressure situations. The experience he gained from those opportunities saw him pitching reliably at a high level down the stretch and into the conference tournament, culminating in his big relief effort to help knock off top-seed Binghamton.
“I think it took some time for Ray,” said Kaier. “I think he always had the arm strength and was solid mentally, it just took him some time to adjust to the Division 1 level. It took him about half the year, but we put him in some situations early in the year to prepare him for the end of the year. He came in and threw some big innings late in the conference season and in the conference tournament. He’s an example of someone we’re looking to take the next step. We’re expecting some big things from him and there’s no reason to think otherwise because he got a lot of valuable experience as a freshman.”
A roster featuring only three seniors would seemingly feature little in the way of experience, but over the last two years the teams that UAlbany has fielded has featured a heavy does of underclassmen. Many of the junior starters this year will be entering their third year as starters.
“We have a veteran team,” said Kaier. “We have a ton of juniors who have contributed for two years. This team is loaded with juniors and a lot of experience. What we bring to the table is experience generally, and experience in the America East tournament specifically. We’re looking to take the next step, and I think that’s the number one thing we’ve been talking about in the preseason. We want to put ourselves in a position in the regular season to have a bye in the tournament. That’s what we’re looking at this year.
“We only have three seniors, but it’s a veteran group with a lot of juniors who have played a lot over their first two years,” Kaier continued. “Anytime you look to a freshman to come in and play 50-60 games, it can sometimes be asking too much of them, simply because of the nature of Northeast baseball. It’s a long season. We open in February and hopefully play into June. You’re challenged at a different level than you were in high school. Having a veteran group allows the younger guys to have a more limited role and grow underneath the guys who have had a lot of experience. But just like any freshman group there will be some bumps in the road and we will work through them, and we’re looking forward to that. We’re really looking forward to getting started.”
“The schedule is set up for us to find some of those answers early in the year, and once those answers are found we can move them into the execution phase and keep tying those over and over until we get them right,” said Mueller. “Unlike pro baseball where everyone has an established role, in college those roles are always changing. The experience that the guys will get early on, win or lose, will pay dividends later this year and moving forward.”
Last season the Great Danes suffered through a higher-than-usual number of schedule alterations due to bouts of inclement weather. In fact, six of UAlbany’s first 15 games were either postponed or cancelled outright. The team scrambled to piece together a three-game series with Hofstra in Virginia in the middle of March to make up some of the games they lost. All told, the Great Danes saw 13 games cancelled last season.
Despite the weather causing issues with the schedule, the Great Danes endured. America East play began at the end of March in Baltimore where UMBC took two of three from UAlbany to start things off. The following weekend, the Danes lost two of three to Stony Brook, and the weekend after they lost two of three to UMass Lowell. In that series, UAlbany was the home team but the conditions of Varsity field forced the series to be played at Lowell.
After getting swept at home by Binghamton and losing two of three at home to UMBC, UAlbany went on a stretch in May that saw them win 10 of their final 12 games to end the regular season, including winning each of the final three America East series. The late run secured the four-seed for the Danes entering the America East Tournament.
“The pitching solidified for us at the end of last season,” said Mueller. “The back end of the bullpen was dominant pretty much all year, but one of the goals for this season is to get some more length out of the front guys. There were a number of guys who got starts early and then moved to the middle. They had developed experience doing different things and once they got going it impacted the whole team.”
“I think the second half of the conference season we were playing our best baseball,” said Kaier. “We struggled early in the season, and sometimes it takes some time for a team to learn how to play together. It took us through the first half of the conference season before we figured that out. I think that’s why our seed in the conference tournament was four, where if we played a little bit better earlier in the season we could have pushed for three or two. In the tournament I think we were in a good spot. We had won a couple of series in a row, and 10 of our final 12 games towards the end of the year. We rode that momentum in those first two games and were playing with a good amount of confidence at that point.”
Arriving in the conference tournament, the Great Danes played five-seed Maine in the first round, defeating the Black Bears 3-0. It was the fourth straight game UAlbany had played against Maine, having closed the regular season in Bangor just four days earlier. Advancing through the winner’s bracket, UAlbany met top-seed Binghamton, who started the recently named America East pitcher of the year. UAlbany defeated the Bearcats 7-3 to put themselves one win away from the championship game.
True to form for the season, the America East tournament suffered significant weather delays, and the Great Danes had a day off after winning its first two games. When they returned to the field, UAlbany lost to eventual champion UMBC and then fell to Maine in an elimination game.
“As a coaching staff we’re hungry after the way the tournament ended but I think the players are even more so,” said Kaier. “And it goes back to their experience. Two years ago we had a lot of freshmen on the field that hadn’t been to the tournament before. Now, they’ve experienced some success and they understand and believe that if we win that third game, or the second game with a bye, we’ll be in a really good position to win a championship. It makes things easier from a coaching standpoint, that the guys are so hungry for a championship, but realistically we’re realistically three or four months from when that will actually happen so we need to make sure we’re getting better on a weekly basis.”
“We carry over the loss through the fall,” said Mueller. “We really try to emphasize controlling the baseball and all the same things everybody talks about. But we’re really trying to improve our defensive percentage and cut down on the walks and the free passes, and advancing the communication from the interior all the way out the exterior of our defense. Once you do that, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win games but you’re going to put yourself in a position to be competitive. We’ve really tried to hammer home the simple fundamental points on a daily basis. We feel the offense will take care of itself with the balance we have in terms of speed and power from both sides of the plate. We’ve addressed the things we needed to over the last few classes in that aspect that we needed to.”
Despite the frustrating way 2017 ended for UAlbany, the team continued its upward trajectory year-to-year. Offensive numbers and wins were improved from the previous year, the tournament seeding improved, and the team got off to a hot start over the first two tournament games. The key for this season is to ensure that the improvement continues.
“The number one thing to be aware of when you have success is that it’s not automatically going to happen again,” said Mueller. “You don’t just hit the reset button and everyone is scared of you. Nobody is in awe of anybody else in this conference. The biggest thing is to guard against that complacency, and to continue to manifest this identity that it’s going to take a lot of work to improve on or even match what you did last year. We’re 0-0 and everyone is telling their teams the same thing to start the year. How are we going to approach that on a daily basis? Practicing like a champion is something we’ve talked a lot about. I think that the guys are ready to go.”
“The big thing is to keep the guys motivated,” said Kaier. “You look at our practices two years ago and a lot of the time was spent learning the mentality or learning the basics of the defense or what we want to be on the mound. Now, the practices are advanced. The guys know what our expectations are, what we’re trying to do, and the practices run a lot more smoothly as a result. We’re able to get through a lot. It’s a long season. We’re inside for five weeks before we start, and we have to keep them hungry for the end. We open next week, but we don’t open conference play for another five weeks. And then we don’t play the conference tournament until the week before Memorial Day. So it’s early in the season and we’re trying to establish roles. The goal, as always, is to be playing our best baseball down the stretch. That is what our focus has been since we started the fall season.”
But UAlbany isn’t the only team that’s continuing to improve, or that has unfinished business from last year. Binghamton returns most of its pitching and was picked as the favorite in the conference yet again. 2017 runner-up Maine was picked second with Stony Brook picked third just behind them. UAlbany drew fourth, while defending champion UMBC was picked sixth. Additionally this year, UMass Lowell is eligible for the first time after fulfilling its NCAA reclassification period, meaning there will be one team in the conference missing out on the six-team tournament field.
“There are seven teams in the conference and only six qualify for the tournament,” said Kaier. “It’s something we’re mindful of. We’re setting our sights for the top of the conference but you certainly have to keep it in mind. Lowell is a good team, and they’ll be hungry and motivated to make a run at it in their first year of postseason eligibility.”
“Looking through this conference, Maine is going to be tough, Lowell is going to be tough, Stony Brook is going to be tough, Binghamton is returning its entire weekend staff, UMBC is the reigning champion, and I’m sure Hartford is not going to sit back and accept last season as the norm,” said Mueller. “One thing that is very challenging is you can lose two out of three games on the weekend but have played well. The conference has outstanding coaches, and a lot of teams have put a lot of money in the programs to raise the bar, and with that comes a higher level of competition and challenge. But our goal is simple, we want to finish in the top two and have that first-game bye in the conference tournament. We saw in the tournament last year how much of an advantage that was.”
“I don’t think the conference has ever been any better,” said Kaier. “Top to bottom it’s strong. I think the RPI of the conference has gone up significantly and I think that’s because the depth has increased. It didn’t used to be as strong top to bottom. We could have 8-10 or more guys drafted from the conference. I think every year its getting better. It’s exciting. You need to bring it every weekend but it brings out the best in the coaches and the players.”
Before conference play starts the Great Danes will have to navigate their early-season schedule which features 17 games before the first America East opponent rolls around and 20 games before the home opener on March 27. In-conference, UAlbany will play UMass Lowell and Maine six times each (home and home), and will play additional road series at Binghamton and UMBC.
The Great Danes will start the season with a three-day, three-game series at James Madison, whose season has already started. Next, the Danes will visit Towson for three games in three days, before taking their longest road trip of the regular season for a four-game series at Seattle, whose roster features one of the top pitchers on the west coast. A single game at Central Connecticut State leads into another four-game series at Hofstra before a double-header at Saint Peter’s as the final opponent before conference play begins.
“The biggest thing we’ve been talking about is taking that next step,” said Kaier. “Getting that one or two seed, getting that bye, and then winning your first two games and be in the championship. That’s the goal this year.”
“If we go 8-1 to start and everything is going our way, then great,” said Mueller. “But if we go 1-8 and we accomplished some things from our team standpoint and our staff standpoint then I think that’s a successful start. You obviously want to win games, and the goal for us is top two in the conference this season, the goal is to win it and get to our next regional. That is not going to change as long as we’re here and we’re going to do everything we can early on to find some of those solutions and hopefully be right on some of the estimates we have to make that happen.”
UAlbany’s season begins Friday, February 23 in Harrisonburg, Virginia against James Madison. The conference opener is scheduled for Saturday, March 24 at UMass Lowell. The home opener will be Tuesday, March 27 against Massachusetts.