By Lee Walter / Sports Information Assistant
WILLIMANTIC, Conn. -- The 2017 baseball season was certainly a rollercoaster ride. Head Coach Matt LaBranche entered his fourth season at Eastern with a ton of possibilities on his mind. For the first time in his coaching career, he did not have what he would consider a fully set lineup, with players in and out of starting positions based on health and productivity, as much as match-ups for each game. The Warriors finished 21-16 overall and in fourth place in the Little East Conference.
Heading into 2018, with key losses in the outfield and middle infield, LaBranche sees the potential for more of a set lineup, though admittedly, health could play a role again. The coaching staff is enthused with the team thus far, feeling that there are many juniors and seniors who are now battle-tested and will help lead the Warriors through tough stretches instead of shying away when it counts.a
Losing two-time All-America centerfield Alex Zachary, rightfielder Pat Sirois, and shortstop Christian Budzik to graduation and leftfielder/DH John Mesagno (a freshman last year who was third on the team in hitting) to a season-ending injury has created the need for the Warriors to look for creative ways to score runs and get production from the entire lineup instead of relying solely on the bigger bats in the middle to get the job done.
LaBranche is also cautiously optimistic that the pitching staff will be able to remain consistent from start to finish this season, overcoming the losses of two key pitchers who combined for 17 starts and nearly 90 innings. The pitching staff looks to be deeper in both starters and relievers this year, though the coaches will be anxious to see if it really plays out that way.
Here is a look at how the Warriors stack up by position heading into the 2018 season:
As usual in the game of baseball, everything starts on the mound. This year, Eastern looks to get consistent efforts from the starting pitchers and have many contenders for spots. The Warriors will trot out 6-2, 220 junior righty Jordan Muchin (West Hartford) for the No. 1 assignments for Little East Conference weekend doubleheaders. Muchin did pitch a seven-inning no hitter against Plymouth State University on April 2, but battled inconsistency, finishing with a 4-5 record and 5.05 ERA in a staff-high 62 innings. Muchin looks to be the table setter for the remainder of the rotation this season.
At left: Jordan Muchin
Beyond Muchin are some question marks looking to establish their exact roles in the starting rotation. Senior righty Sam Kosterich (Stamford) is moving from part-time closer into the starting rotation this season (he has one career start), hoping to remain healthy and provide the Warriors a solid No. 2 for conference doubleheaders. Junior righty Brian Hnatuk (Trumbull) gained a measure of experience and competing for mid-week starts and could become a bigger factor as he gains more consistency. Others competing for mid-week starts are freshmen righties Matt Curtis (Tolland) and Nicholas Kraszewski (East Haven). Should any of the above falter, junior righties Cole Ogorzalek (Portland) and Jason Staub (Portland) will be at the ready to step in for starts.
With Kosterich moving to the rotation, LaBranche is excited to have junior lefty Nick Rascati (Wallingford) to lean on as the closer this season. Rascati provided the Warriors some key innings in 2017, winning three of four decisions and leading the staff in appearances (22), ERA (3.69) and saves (5).
More of that production will make the coaching staff very happy.
Beyond Rascati, LaBranche has moved sophomore righty Drew Alexopoulos (Hanson, MA), from a part-time role at third base to the mound. Alexopoulos has impressed the coaches to the point where they will look to him as a set-up guy who can help take some of the load off Rascati at the back end of games. Ogorzalek will pitch many middle innings if not starting, and he will receive assistance from a few guys making big strides so far in practice in sophomore righties Sam Gagnon (Andover), Jared Buckley (Oxford, MA), and Jack Risley (Willimantic), and freshman John Ferrara (Northampton, MA), a lefty who may be asked to come in to get some outs at key moments. Others who hope to play a role this season include senior righty Ben Ruddock (Deerfield, MA), currently battling injuries, along with freshman righties Bryan Albee (Killingly), Bryan Guetens (Montville), Tom Myjak (North Haven), and Ryan Sheehan (Southington).
Behind the dish and working hard for the pitcher's will be senior Merlyn Herrera (La Yaquiza, DR), who returns off a solid second half last season in his first year in a fulltime role. LaBranche mentioned that Herrera made tremendous strides during last season – a .990 fielding percentage on nearly 200 chances) and is confident he will continue to do so this year. Sophomore Jake LeFevre (Mansfield) saw a great deal of time behind the plate early last season, and though he may spend some time there this season, LaBranche wants to utilize his athleticism all over the field this year. That leaves the backup catcher position to freshman Kevin Murphy (Springfield, MA). LaBranche sees Murphy as a solid catch-and-throw guy who he would not be afraid to play right away.
Junior All-New England Region and first-team All-Little East Conference pick Alex Parkos (Meriden) will move to third base full time in 2018 after splitting time between that position and DH last year. Parkos started every game in the cleanup spot as a sophomore but is the only returning player who batted fulltime in the top half of the order. LaBranche has continued to see hard work and improvement from Parkos (.372 average, 4 HR, 40 RBI) at the hot corner, and is confident his bat will continue to power the Warriors. A three-year starter, senior left-handed hitter D.J. Scavone (Auburn, MA) returns to first base and brings a solid .290 career average and .990 field percentage into his final season. Scavone has started every game the last two years but may need to fill a vacancy in the top-part of the order after batting primarily in the No. 7 slot a year ago. Collin Russell (Sandwich, MA) – one of six seniors on the squad (three of them being position players) -- will spell Parkos as a late-inning defensive replacement at times, as well as get spot-starts at third that will allow LaBranche to once again move Parkos to first base or DH on occasion.
Pictured below: All-Region Third Baseman Alex Parkos
Junior Dale Keller (Oxford) is having a solid preseason and LaBranche expects that he will step in to the starting shortstop role after making seven starts at that position as a sophomore. Senior Mike Funaro (Northford) will likely start at second base and serve as the backup to Keller at shortstop. Funaro started 20 games at second base as a sophomore but was the odd-man out last year, getting only seven at-bats in 15 games off the bench. In addition to third base, Russell will also see some time at second base. As he did last year, junior William Coleman (Northford) will get spot-starts at second base (and possibly DH) and serve as LaBranche's first right handed pinch hitting option.
At right: Mike Funaro (far right)
LaBranche expects the DH role to be shared this season, though LeFevre (.270 average, .404 on-base percentage) will probably get the majority of at-bats from this spot. With his athleticism, LeFevre will be expected to be a table-setter at the top of the lineup, a rare DH who will bat leadoff. When LeFevre is playing a defensive position or given a day off, LaBranche sees Parkos and Coleman getting some of the at-bats at this spot. Parkos and the injured John Mesagno combined for 26 starts at the position last year.
With the graduation of Zachary, junior Alexander White (West Hartford) moves to his more natural position of center field after serving as the starting leftfielder the last two years. LaBranche noted that White (.317 average, 4 HR, 22 RBI, 9-9 SB) is thrilled to be moving back to the position, being able to see the whole field better from that vantage point. After a two-year wait, junior left-swinging Devin Belenski (Woodbridge) was expected to contend as the starting rightfielder following the graduation of Sirois -- who collected over 100 hits and batted .296 in a productive three-year Eastern career – but sustained a season-ending injury a week before the season-opener. In left field, junior Ryan Hood (Arlington, MA) is making the transition from the middle infield, with LaBranche hoping he can be a second leadoff batter hitting in the No. 9 hole. Hood started 21 games at second base as a freshman but was used sparingly last year. Backing up the starting outfielders and/or contending for the vacant right field spot are athletic freshmen Jordan Botte (Branford) and lefty-hitting Anthony Stigler (Mansfield). Freshman utility players Jack Rich (Meriden), also a left hitter, and Bryan Caisse (Norwich) will vie for playing time at multiple positions in the outfield and infield. LaBranche sees Rich as a guy who can hit and will find a position over time, while Caisse has been a catcher most of his life but his athleticism will play better around the field.
At left: Alexander White
Schedule and Notes
The Warriors open the season with eight games in central Florida March 11-18. A total of 30 games await them upon their return north, with 18 of them (12 in a row) at the Eastern Baseball Stadium. LaBranche would prefer a more balanced home-and-away schedule on a yearly basis, however, this is one of those years with new opponents where the Warriors will benefit from less driving to games. The home opener is scheduled for March 24 against Brandeis University in a noon doubleheader.
Eastern had reached the Little East Conference tournament championship round in each of LaBranche's first three years – winning twice – before being eliminated in the third round a year ago after an uncharacteristic 7-7 finish in the LEC regular season which left it as the No. 4 tournament seed.
The Little East Conference schedule in 2018 will once again feature Saturday doubleheaders against six opponents, with UMass-Boston, Keene State and Rhode Island College coming to Mansfield, while Eastern will travel to Plymouth State, UMass-Dartmouth and Southern Maine.
In addition to six LEC doubleheaders, the Warriors round out conference play with their traditional home-and-home set Western Connecticut State University which provides Eastern with a balance of seven home and seven away LEC games.
LaBranche expects the conference to be competitive, with defending LEC tournament champion UMass Boston and Southern Maine – ranked No. 1 and No. 10 nationally in early March -- to be the favorites. The Warriors shared third place in the LEC pre-season coaches' poll with UMass Dartmouth. He feels that his team can compete with every team and will be fighting for a high seed in the conference tournament.
The first win of the season will give LaBranche 100 at Eastern -- passing program founder Francis Geissler -- to become the second winningest coach in program history. In 18 years as a college head coach – the first 14 at Western New England University -- LaBranche is 528-248 overall.