Division II baseball: Franklin Pierce excelling despite loss of top two pitchers
When the baseball players arrived at Franklin Pierce (N.H.) for the 2015-16 school year, the Ravens had every right to believe they were in for another successful season.
After all, they returned probably the top two pitchers in the Northeast-10 Conference, said head coach Jayson King. In addition, junior third baseman Jay Jabs was coming off a player of the year season in the Northeast-10. Franklin Pierce finished 48-4 last season, which was the best winning percentage for King in his 17 seasons coaching the Ravens.
Year 18 had all the potential to be the best yet for King and the Ravens. But before the first pitch was thrown for the Ravens’ season opener on Feb. 26, they were without their top two starting pitchers for the entire season.
As important as pitching is for any baseball team at any level, this could have dealt a devastating blow for the Ravens. It didn’t.
“Everyone had to step up,” Jabs said. “The pitchers stepped up and the position players had to put that own our backs, too and fill those shoes.”
The Ravens are soaring. They head into this week’s Northeast-10 Conference Tournament on a 16-game winning streak to push their record to 44-4.
A collective effort has lifted Franklin Pierce to the top of its conference, No. 1 in the East Region and No. 5 in the NCBWA top 25.
“The biggest thing is we got this kid, Tanner Bird, who is a senior,” King said. “He has been pitching out of the bullpen, but he has eight wins and three saves. He has been incredible for us. He has been our best savior.”
A couple of other starting pitchers have also excelled on the mound. Senior Paul Covelle is 8-1 with a 2.27 ERA. He has allowed only 44 hits in 75.1 innings. And you could say sophomore Anthony Matarazzo is a perfect 10 so far. He is 10-0 with a 1.49 ERA.
The pitchers are getting plenty of support from the offense.
“We have a lineup that is pretty dynamic,” King said. “They can hit for power, hit for average and also steal some bases. The combination of those things plus playing good defense has put us in position to be right there in position to win any game.”
Jabs is one of the middle of the order hitters who has benefitted from the Ravens stealing 210 bases, led by 46 steals from senior shortstop Justin Brock, who bats in the two hole.
Brock’s ability to steal definitely helps Jabs, who is having another player of the year type of season. Jabs is hitting .380 with 12 home runs and 57 RBIs.
“I definitely see more fastballs because we have over 150 stolen bases this year,” Jabs said. “Pitchers are definitely worried and think about the runners and they don’t locate their pitches as well and they do throw more fastballs.”
Statistically, Franklin Pierce have dominated its opponents during the regular season. The Ravens are hitting .303 as a team compared to .202 for their opponents. The stolen base numbers are even more dramatic. Franklin Pierce have allowed just 32 steals against them. The Ravens have two players who each have more steals.
“We are definitely on top of our game now with a 16-game winning streak,” Jabs said. “Everyone has been doing what they have to do. That all it is. It is confidence, not cockiness.”
Now comes the fun time of year for Franklin Pierce and all the top Division II teams in the country. Most will play in double elimination conference tournaments this week, looking to improve their regional ranking. Regionals will run May 19 through May 23.
“This is the best time of the year,” King said. “It is what you work for and play all the other games for. It is always a different feeling. The weather starts to change a little bit and you know all the previous games are behind you.”
King and Jabs agreed the Ravens just need to continue to do what they have been doing.
“Play with confidence and be aggressive and lay it all on the line. That is how we play,” King said.
Added Jabs, “Our mindset is don’t take anything for granted and don’t take a day off.”
Another top baseball team to watch
In most cases, it is harder to repeat as national champion than to win one. The Tampa Spartans are doing a good job of going against that type of thinking.
A year ago, Tampa won the Division II title with a 3-1 win over Catawba in the championship game.
The Spartans are once again looking strong. They completed a three-game weekend sweep at Eckerd, scoring 43 runs in those games. Tampa has now won eight straight games as it heads into its final, three-game series at Rollins on Thursday and Friday.
Tampa is currently ranked first in the South region and No. 2 in the NCBWA top 25.
As a team, the Spartans are hitting .352, led by a .441 average from junior shortstop Kevin Santa and a .432 average from junior second baseman Laz Rivera. Junior J.D. Osborne has smashed 12 home runs and junior Vin Cosenzo has belted 10.
On the mound, junior Christopher Williams is 9-2 with two saves and 64 strikeouts in 62 innings.