College baseball: Valente the force behind St. John's best start since '81
St. John’s is off to its best start since the 1981 season. That speaks volumes for the program that has more regular season and tournament titles than any other Big East foe. Coming off a somewhat down season by Red Storm standards, not many expected this fast start.
“2015, we had a very good year, losing in the regional finals to Arkansas,” head coach Ed Blankmeyer said. “Then we got decimated by the draft. This is a problem that we typically have. We reload pretty well, but to maintain a high level of play makes it difficult.
“Why this year the change? We recovered from last year, we were able to maintain two senior players and had a pretty good incoming pitching class. By maintaining some experience and some high-level players that had a chance to sign professionally, I think that’s why we’ve gotten off to the start we have.”
The Red Storm started the season strong by reeling off nine straight wins, including victories over nationally ranked North Carolina and Coastal Carolina. They now sit at 19-2 as they ready for Big East play.
“It was important right off the bat,” first baseman John Valente said. “Normally northeast teams start off a little slower. We have a little bit of a disadvantage due to the weather. But it all came down to the pitching. We had these young guys step up, and came in and did what they had to do. Luckily the offense stepped up, too.”
Blankmeyer has made it work early in the season, despite his rotation being a revolving door. Three of the four pitchers from opening weekend are on the shelf with injury, and one is out for the entire year. Now the St. John’s "Big Three" consists of two freshmen – Sean Mooney and Jeff Belge – and sophomore Michael LoPresti.
Mooney has led the way. He shifted from the bullpen into the rotation three starts ago and has been nothing short of dominant. He sits at 2-0 with 0.88 ERA, already adding a complete game shutout to his short resume.
“We’ve had some injuries,” Blankmeyer said. “We were going to use [Mooney] as a bridge guy, but now he’s been pressed into duty. He’s done a fabulous job. We’re lucky to have him."
“You never know when you’re going to be called on to get in the game,” Valente said. “One thing that has been defining us this season has come from the pitching. When you have pitchers out there throwing strikes and working quickly, it makes playing the game that much easier. It’s great to play behind.”
With the strides the young pitching staff has made, the offense has been equally potent. They find themselves in the top 10 in both team ERA and batting average.
Valente has been a big part of that.
"I think the best thing about this group is, when you all get off on a pretty good start offensively, a bad game here or there isn’t going to set you back," Blankmeyer said. "There’s a confidence level that’s already been generated. We’ve got six guys that are real good, a couple guys that are average. John Valente is the guy that’s been the most consistent of all.”
The first baseman began the season with an 18-game hitting streak out of the leadoff spot. Combined with the 12-game hitting streak he ended 2016 on, he set the St. John’s record by hitting safely in 30 straight games.
“I never felt the pressure, I just went with the process,” Valente said of the streak. “Fortunately I was able to get into plus-counts where I was getting fastball counts. Luckily I’ve been able to put the barrel on the ball and put some pressure on the defense and put the ball in play.”
Heading into this weekend’s play, Valente was eighth in the nation with a .460 batting average. He also leads the Big East in runs scored, batting in front of a much more experienced lineup than last season.
“One thing you notice from last year is most of our lineup is veterans,” Valente said. “It’s pretty relaxing when you know that there are eight other guys behind you that can get the job done. That’s one thing that separates this team from others in the past. We have people pulling the same rope. That can happen in many different ways, whether that’s hitting the home run ball or drawing the big walk.”
While their 19-2 start has caught the attention of the nation – they are a top 15 team in every poll – that isn’t enough for Valente and his teammates.
“Our biggest goal is to win our conference,” Valente said. “We haven’t reached conference play yet, so up until now, we haven’t really proven anything. I believe one of our biggest tests starts next weekend against Creighton. Hopefully we continue playing the way we are playing.”
“You become a product of your conference," Blankmeyer added. "The difficulty with the Big East is that you only have seven teams playing. We only play 18 conference games. God forbid you have a couple bad weekends you may not make the conference tournament. Although we got off to a good start, we have to take care of business in the conference, it’s crucial.”
St. John’s is a program with a long history of major-league caliber players. But that isn’t the concern of the current roster.
“One thing that everyone is focused on this year is that they’re not really worried about the draft, they’re worried about what’s going on right now,” Valente said. “What’s going on with this team, what’s going on into conference play, what’s going on going into the tournament. With everyone not thinking about the draft, everyone is on the same track and we’re succeeding and reaching goals beyond what we expected.”
For Valente, the hitting streak, the hot start, and the national rankings are all bonuses to his St. John’s career, one he has longed for since he was a young Red Storm fan.
“It is a dream come true,” Valente said. “I live 20 minutes away. Growing up, me and my father used to turn on the television and see a St. John’s regional game. Ever since then I said I wanted to come to St. John’s.”