The Mercyhurst Lakers had a fine season in 2016. They finished 43-14 making it all the way to the Regionals before being eliminated by the national runner-up Millersville Marauders.
Mercyhurst had a talented offense, setting a school record in home runs and hitting an impressive .331 as a team. Behind seven returning starters, the Lakers haven’t missed a beat in 2017, leading the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference in batting at a .372 mark over their first nine games.
That team was also anchored by a veteran pitching staff. Colin McKee — who was drafted in the 18th round of the MLB draft by the Houston Astros — was the ace. Cam Knott and Joe Gnacinski chipped in with eight wins a piece. Twenty-seven of their 43 victories were lost to graduation or the draft.
Someone had to step up.
That someone is Matthew Minnick.
"Colin McKee was great to learn from the two years we played together," Minnick said. "It's always great to have someone who has gone through the same situations that I go through now. He has mentored me along the way."
Minnick is no stranger to the rotation. He went 7-1 last season behind a 3.48 ERA, making 10 starts in 15 appearances. He struggled a bit with command — posting a 5.48 walks-per-nine rate — but made up for it in the strikeout department, sitting down 61 batters via strikeout in his 54.1 innings of work.
This season, the junior left-hander was called upon to be the ace. Head coach Joe Spano had all the faith in the world he would succeed. So did Baseball America, which named Minnick the 2017 preseason pitcher of the year.
"When I found out I was named preseason pitcher of the year, it was really exciting and motivated me for the upcoming season," Minnick said. "I found out a couple weeks before we started the season, and I didn’t feel pressured by it. I was just really excited to put all of the offseason work together with the team and go out and compete."
Minnick is off to a hot start for the No. 6-ranked Lakers. The junior southpaw is 3-0 behind a dazzling 1.89 ERA. He has seen his walks per nine (2.36) improve by more than half and is striking out nearly a batter per inning.
"This year, I’ve really focused on throwing more quality pitches, especially when ahead in the count," Minnick said. "Looking back on last season, there were many games that I could have pitched further in if I had kept my pitch count down. I have a great defense behind me, and I know if I throw more quality pitches, they will make the plays.
"I have four pitches, which are a 4-seam fastball, a changeup, curveball, and slider. I'm definitely most comfortable with my changeup and fastball, and I’m working to incorporate my slider much more often."
He is not only enjoying his new role as ace, he's thriving in it.
Minnick Named Preseason Pitcher of the Year; Lakers Ranked #7 in Baseball America Poll https://t.co/OjbDtfSSYk— Mercyhurst Lakers (@HurstAthletics) February 6, 2017
"It's great," Minnick said. "I've been able to have a more consistent routine, which is always nice. I love being able to go out and set the tone for the weekend."
The PSAC has two of the best teams in the nation in Millersville (now ranked No. 14 in the NCBWA poll) and Mercyhurst. Last year, the Marauders were the biggest thorn in the Lakers side, knocking them out of both the PSAC and Atlantic Regional tournaments. The two don’t match up in the regular season as out-of-division foes, but you can be sure they are hoping to see each other again in the PSAC tournament.
"I definitely hope to meet up with Millersville again,"Minnick said. "The previous two years, it has been down to us two in the regional finals. After last year's loss to them, I know the team here is ready to take on that challenge again. For now, we just have to keep working to get better and better every week."
Minnick has experienced quite a bit in his two full years in Erie, Pennsylvania. Mercyhurst won its first-ever Atlantic Regional title in his freshman campaign, while it bested the win total of that magical season in his sophomore season. Now, as the ace of a young and inexperienced staff with a potent offense behind him, Minnick and the Lakers have just one goal.
"I feel as if nothing has changed from previous years for myself and the rest of the rotation as for what our team goal is," Minnick said. "It's such a competitive atmosphere playing for Mercyhurst. I feel that we are all prepared for whatever comes our way."