by PETE JANNY, Asst. Sports Editor
With campus fully engrossed with basketball and lacrosse action, Manhattan baseball has started their non-conference slate of games in the comfortable temperatures of the south. The Jaspers entered the 2019 season looking to build off of a productive 2018 campaign that saw the team amass a 25-28 overall ledger and a 13-11 MAAC record.
Despite the many positive takeaways from a season ago, the team’s notable absence from the MAAC tournament has them motivated to re-establish themselves as a serious threat in the conference. In head coach Mike Cole’s second year at the helm, the program has brought in 16 new faces to help compensate for the departure of many valuable contributors, the most notable among them being MLB draft picks Fabian Pena and Joe Jacques.
Manhattan’s first order of business was a trip to DeLand, Florida to take part in the RyCass Classic. The team opened up against Southland Conference powerhouse Sam Houston State (5-3) on February 15th. Manhattan hung around with the Bearkats for a good chunk of the game before eventually losing by a score of 12-7. Despite conceding a grand slam and a three-run home run early on, Manhattan’s offense refused to go away quietly. After falling behind 9-2 after the Bearkats tacked on five in the top of the fourth, the Jaspers retaliated with five runs of their own.
In the end, Manhattan’s pitching futility proved too difficult to overcome.
While the Bearkats would go on to gradually extend their lead to 12-9, the Manhattan bats fell silent only mustering one hit over the final five frames. Manhattan’s top hitter from last season, senior Richie Barrella, picked up right where he left off going 2 for 4 with two RBIs in the loss. Replicating his .309 batting average from last season won’t be easy, however, but Cole expects big things from Barrella.
“We’re expecting Richie to have a good year,” said Cole. “He’s an all conference type player.”
The Jaspers returned to the diamond the next day for a clash with the Virginia Tech Hokies (7-1) of the reputed Atlantic Coast Conference. Unfortunately for Manhattan, Day 2 of the Rycass Classic proved to be a lot more burdensome.
Losing by a score of 15-3, the Jaspers had no answer for the 20-hit Virginia Tech attack that was led by Carson Taylor’s 5-for-6 day and Luke Horanski’s 3-for-5 showing. Both sluggers drove in a combined eight of the Virginia Tech’s 15 runs. On the other hand, Manhattan’s six-hit attack was led by freshman Nick Cimillo who went 2-for-4 with a run and an RBI. Inserted into the three hole in his first season with the club, Cimillo has the look of a future star.
“Nick has been our best hitter since day one this fall,” said Cole of his budding phenom. “You can tell by his numbers that he hasn’t been overmatched hitting in the three spot.”
Manhattan’s final day of play in DeLand was their most successful one. A date with the well-regarded Stetson Hatters (2-6) marked the team’s third straight tilt against programs with a decorated history.
Left-handed pitcher and graduate student John Cain had a Manhattan debut for the ages. Cain, a 6’10 mountain of man, collected eight strikeouts in seven innings of one run ball en route to a 5-2 Manhattan win. Sophomore Santiago Riera opened the scoring in the top of the second when he blasted his first career home run to put Manhattan up 1-0. Three innings later, Manhattan broke a 1-1 tie by bringing across three unearned runs.
The big blow came in the form of a two-run shot to left field off the bat of Barrella to give Manhattan a 4-1 advantage. Cain grew more invincible as the game went on as he retired the final eight batters he faced before he exited with a 5-1 lead at the conclusion of the seventh inning. Ace reliever T.J. Stuart then came on to close out the win for Manhattan by virtue of five strikeouts over the final two frames.
Manhattan returned to acton the following weekend for a three game set at Appalachian State University (2-6). With their first win in the books, the Jaspers arrived in Boone, North Carolina looking to do damage.
Game one on Saturday, February 23rd went to the Mountaineers by a score of 5-2. Appalachian State dampened Manhattan’s morale by bringing across five unanswered runs to open up with a 5-0 lead. The Manhattan bats were quiet as the team only managed to produced three base runners in the first six innings. Manhattan’s only real offensive activity came in the seventh inning when junior Alex Cerda ripped a two-run single that brought home Matt Padre and Dominic Palma. Manhattan was eventually closed out in the ninth when Appalachia State’s Kaleb Bowman threw a clean frame.
Games two and three were played as part of a double header on Sunday, February 24th.
Looking to avenge their game one loss, Manhattan laid an egg in game two with Appalachian State cruising to a 14-5 win. The fourth inning was where things went terribly awry for Manhattan. The Mountaineers teed off for nine runs in the bottom half of the fourth to bury the Jaspers into a 9-1 hole. Cerda and Cimillo were the lone bright spots for Manhattan as they went 2-for-4 with three RBIs and 3-for-5 with a run scored, respectively.
Owners of a 1-4 record, Manhattan needed a pick-me-up. Luckily for Manhattan, Cain was slated to make his second appearance on the young season for the series finale.
Once again, the lanky lefty delivered a big performance for his team.
The imposing hurler surrendered just one run and amassed eight strikeouts over 6.2 innings of work to lead his team past the Mountaineers by a score of 5-4. The Jaspers offense got off to a quick start in the first frame when graduate student Shawn Blake doubled with one out before Cimillo drove him home with an RBI single. Manhattan’s lead swelled to 2-0 when Barrella’s sacrifice fly plated sophomore Jake Knop.
The Jaspers tacked on two more in the third with the main highlight being a Cimillo solo shot that represented his first collegiate home run. Reminiscent of his first start, Cain seemed to get tougher to hit as the game progressed. He managed to shut down the Appalachian State attack in order in the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings.
Cain did end up running into trouble in the seventh though.
Upon loading up the bases in the seventh, Cole took the ball from Cain to let Stuart try to navigate out of danger. After getting out of the seventh inning unscathed, Stuart ran into trouble in the ninth. Fortunately for Manhattan, Stuart’s three runs allowed in the ninth were immaterial as he managed to close out the win anyways. The treasured reliever retired four via strikeout while capturing the save over 2.1 innings of work.
Manhattan was fueled by the efforts of Cimillo and Blake in the doubleheader. Cimillo went 5-for-9 with a home run, two runs and two RBIs in both games while Blake went 4-for-8 with a double, three runs and two walks.
Cain’s spectacular performances versus Stetson and Appalachian State earned him back-to-back MAAC pitcher of the week honors. After four seasons at Lafayette, Cain’s acclimation to Riverdale has gone as smoothly as possible. Cole spoke glowingly about the impact his left-handed pitcher has had thus far.
“His fastball is anywhere from 90 to 93 miles per hour,” said Cole of Cain. “And through his first two starts he has commanded the strike zone well for us.”
Cole values the breadth of experience possessed by graduate students which is why he jumped on the opportunity to bring Cain and Blake to Riverdale.
“The reason we try to get fifth year guys is because they understand what playing at this level is all about,” said Cole.
Cole has been pleasantly surprised by the supplemental leadership skills that Blake has brought with him. Cole knew what Blake was capable of doing on the field, but is just as fond of his willingness to help the younger players.
“Shawn has been great for us,” said Cole of Blake, a graduate student from Elon. “The biggest thing about Shawn has been his leadership coming in and he has taken the younger guys under his wings.”
Cole’s freshmen class consists of 13 individuals who have all hit the ground running fresh off of playing high school ball.
“The freshman have acclimated well,” said Cole. “I think the recruiting class we brought in was ready to pay at this level.”
Cole makes it a priority each year to schedule as many formidable opponents as possible to enhance the program’s status both internally and externally. His scheduling decisions for the 2019 season seemingly reflects the high level of confidence that he has in his players. Outside of Sam Houston State, Virginia Tech, and Stetson, Manhattan’s non-conference schedule includes road games against George Washington, Stony Brook, Fordham, George Mason and Army, with a four-game road trip to the University of Michigan looking like the best test of them all.
“Our goal each year is to schedule tough teams because it helps from a recruiting standpoint and it gets us prepared for conference play,” said Cole.
Until spring weather arrives in New York City, Manhattan will patiently maneuver their non-conference schedule despite the nuisance of having to travel so frequently.
“Being a division one school in the Northeast our guys know what they are in for,” said Cole regarding the inconvenience of their schedule. “We’re not the only team in the Northeast playing on the road every weekend.”
The Jaspers will play their first home game on March 12th at 3 PM when they host New Jersey Institute of Technology at Dutchess Stadium in Wappinger Falls, New York.