By CHASE GORSKI
Note to readers: this article was originally published prior to the 2017 CAC Tournament.
When the Salisbury baseball team’s 2016 playoff run was cut short following a loss to Penn State Berks in the Mid-Atlantic Regional, it left a bitter taste in the mouths of all the would-be returners.
The dominant offense that was known throughout last season for averaging almost 10 runs per game had hit a cold streak at the worst time, scraping across just eight runs in three regional matchups. The lack of production, combined with continued struggles on the mound, gave SU an early exit from the NCAA tournament and a long offseason to ponder what could have been.
But the Sea Gulls had their work cut out for them preparing for their 2017 campaign. It was no question that their formidable offense would return strong.
All eyes would be on the pitching staff after recording the second-worst ERA in the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) at 6.50 and struggling for the majority of the season. Junior right-hander Connor Reeves, a go-to reliever for the Sea Gulls, was a part of the returning bullpen that knew they needed to improve.
“We needed a little bit of everything for this year,” Reeves said. “We really weren’t that strong in relief or starting.”
With a handful of returners, Salisbury was poised to have a comeback year on the mound, especially behind two strong returning seniors in Pete Grasso and Jeff Oster. Both Oster and Grasso were two of the top Sea Gull starters last season, but saw room for improvement in endurance of the starting pitchers.
“We would always start off five innings strong,” Oster said. “But then, in the late innings, giving up two or three runs that would let teams back in the game.”
Using the motivation from the end of last season, the pitchers went to work preparing for the upcoming season. SU head coach Troy Brohawn started the year issuing a challenge to his staff, telling his pitchers they needed to be better this year if the team was going to succeed.
In the beginning of the season, it was a new year, but the same Gulls, with the pitching staff showing similar flaws from the previous season in their first seven games, allowing double-digit runs to opponents in five of those seven. Salisbury began the year with an underwhelming 7.43 ERA and a 3-4 record.
The Sea Gulls were not going to let this be the story of their season again. Following a four-game stretch of losses in mid-February, the pitching staff met to address the recent struggles and to figure out their next steps.
“We didn’t want to be the weak part of the team,” Grasso said. “We had a meeting after those games, and we really came together and said ‘we don’t want to be the weak link of the team.’”
Fast forward to the middle of April, and the Sea Gulls stand at the top of the CAC standings with a 24-8 record. While the offense has produced this year by averaging over eight runs per game, it is the once shaky pitching staff that has formed into the backbone of the squad.
Salisbury holds the second-lowest ERA in the CAC as a team at 3.31 with multiple pitchers recording sub-3.00 ERAs as well. The statistical improvements from last season are numerous, from a better team ERA to lowering opponents’ batting average from over .300 last season to just .235 this year.
“With three seniors leading the staff this year, experience plays a big role,” coach Brohawn said. “We had a young staff last year and they’ve learned from it; I think as a staff in general we are more aggressive this year.”
Those three seniors—Micah Wells, Oster and Grasso—have certainly stepped up to coach Brohawn’s challenge and are not taking anything for granted in their final year.
“All the alumni always say ‘don’t regret anything for your final season,’ so coming into my last year I never wanted to regret something,” Oster said. “It’s my last season and I don’t want to leave anything out there; I think it’s the same for [Pete] and [Micah].”
Oster has been the top starter that coach Brohawn has turned to so far this season, getting the nod nine times and recording a 5-0 record and posting the fifth-best individual ERA in the CAC at 2.91 while also holding opposing batters to an average of .204.
Grasso, a two-way athlete for Salisbury, has been as dominant as ever on the mound this season and holds a CAC-best 1.38 ERA throughout his 11 appearances with a 5-0 record as well.
“I’ve been pitching more to contact this year, last year I would get deeper in counts and it would be 3-2 every batter I faced,” Grasso said. “Now I attack early and let them hit it and our defense makes the plays.”
Other than the Sea Gull standouts, the entire pitching staff has bought into the new aggressive mentality, relying on their mental toughness to help them succeed. The mentality of each SU pitcher has played a big role in the improvements from last year, as well as their work ethic.
“I’ve been here for five years now, and this is the hardest working staff I’ve been around,” Oster said. “We work hard every single day in practice and it’s been showing.”
With the CAC tournament coming up soon, Salisbury seems to be getting hot at just the right time on the mound, with starters putting forth countless quality starts and relievers slamming the door when they enter the late innings.
Coach Brohawn knows exactly who he will rely on down the home stretch of the season. Aside from their top performers, Sea Gull fans can expect to see continued success from bullpen guys such as juniors Ryan Gough, Andrew Kramer and Logan Manz.
“We’ll probably go with a six- or seven-man staff through the tournament and role with it through that,” Brohawn said. “We’re going to rely on [Wells, Oster and Grasso] to continue to set the tone early and hopefully the guys behind them can follow their lead.”
The dominant pitching staff that has formed this season for Salisbury has been exactly what the program has needed, and each member has a few ideas on why this year is the one where everything has fallen into place.
Some attribute it to the closeness of each of the guys on the team, stating that the atmosphere in the pitching staff has improved greatly. Others feel it is the competitive nature teamed with the snowball effect, where the young pitchers see the seniors performing at peak levels and they want to out-do them.
No matter the reason, this is a different effect of that meeting called back in February, and now the pitching staff has turned themselves into the strongest part of this Sea Gull team. With the postseason right around the corner, the timing could not be better and, from the looks of it, the best is yet to come.
“Our confidence is through the roof—we’re going to run through [CACs],” Grasso said.
With a mentality like that, the enthusiasm becomes contagious, and it is clear to see that everyone on the pitching staff is on the same page.
“With our staff that we have and our starters, it’s probably the top in the nation and we are going to go out there and give our team the best chance to win,” Oster said. “We’re looking to run through the CAC, going through the Regionals and hopefully winning some games in the World Series.”