Small steps for UMass baseball

Minutemen aiming for A-10 berth in first season under Matt Reynolds


(Collegian file photo)

By Thomas Haines, Assistant Sports Editor

After a 15-32 finish last year and five straight seasons below .500, the Massachusetts baseball team enters the 2018 season in rebuilding mode.

In the Atlantic 10 preseason rankings, UMass sat 12th of 13 schools, but the Minutemen have the pieces in place to improve.

The pitching rotation is headlined by right-handed junior Justin Lasko and lefty Brooks Knapek, and while the lineup lacks power, players such as Nolan Kessinger and Cooper Mrowka are coming off breakout seasons in 2017.

Still, Matt Reynolds, the incoming coach, is trying to stay realistic.

“It’s really easy for somebody to come in and say, ‘Yeah, our goal is to win the conference championship,’ or ‘Our goal is to go to Omaha [for the College World Series],’” Reynolds said. “Okay, yeah. That’s everybody’s wish.”

Reynolds replaces Mike Stone who retired at the end of last season after 30 years at the helm. Toward the end of Stone’s tenure, the Minutemen fell below .500 12 out of the past 14 years. In 2010, the program nearly lost its funding.

With an eye to recent history, Reynolds isn’t promising an instant turnaround, but he is hoping to see some early returns.

“If we can improve to be around a .500 ballclub or better and get ourselves into the Atlantic 10s, I think that would be something that I could look back on and say that’s a step in the right direction,” Reynolds said.

UMass has yet to play a game, but if last season is any indication, the Minutemen will not be a hitting-first team. In 2017, the Minutemen were outscored by over 100 runs and hit only 20 home runs as a team.

With an offense that lacks pop, Reynolds is preaching smart, aggressive baserunning as a way to put runners in scoring position. Mainly, though, the Minutemen will have to rely on strong pitching and solid defense to keep them in games.

“We’re not going to be the type of team that will just wait for somebody to hit a three-run home run in the seventh inning and score runs in big bunches,” Reynolds said. “We’re going to have to be a scrappy team that pitches, plays defense, makes all the routine plays and scrapes and scratches for a couple runs, and hopefully come out on top at the end.”

In order to realize that vision, UMass will need Lasko and Knapek to step up. Lasko was the Minutemen’s best starter last year as a sophomore and will lead the rotation going into this year. His arsenal includes a low-90s fastball and off-speed pitches with good movement.

Knapek, the likely number two, is more of a wild card. He posted an ERA below 4.00 in a strong freshman campaign, but only pitched 42 innings. Knapek’s ability to handle a full season and maintain his performance will be crucial in determining the Minutemen’s success.

“Knapek is kind of trending toward being our number two, and he’s kind of the opposite guy [from Lasko],” Reynolds said. “Left-handed guy, not going to overpower you, but just really, really good pitch ability that keeps you off balance. Changeup that never gets there…just frustrates guys.”

Several positions in the field are still up for grabs, most notably third base, where Marcus Fry is trying to unseat last year’s regular third baseman Alec Norton. In his freshman year, Fry saw only six at-bats and failed to record a single hit, but dramatic offseason improvement has him battling for a starting role. On the other side, Reynolds said that Norton is looking better as a hitter and has responded well to competition.

“I told these guys…that they’re in a dogfight right now and it has made both of them much, much better,” Reynolds said. “I wish we had that situation at every position on the field. We don’t right now, and that’s part of rebuilding a program that was 15-32.”

One other position that is unsettled is catcher, where senior Keith Linnane is the early favorite to get starts over Andrew Noonan, Thomas Pipolo and Connor Smith. Linnane played in 27 games last year, his first at UMass after transferring from Northern Essex Community College. His strength is defense, but his hitting could stand to improve, as he hit just .108 last year.

“What [Linnane has] contributed offensively…over the years has been a little bit of a bonus, but I think we need more out of him to have our offense function the way that we need it to,” Reynolds said. “I think he’s a guy that has benefited from a different voice, approach, however you want to term it, so I’m hoping that we see some gains from him.”

Across the board, Reynolds emphasized the need for coaching up his players, all of whom were recruited by Stone. With last year’s struggles on offense in mind, one focus is on freeing up some of the hitters in their approach.

“We have to develop our players,” Reynolds said. “We can’t just go to the open market and roll the next crop of talent in. It’s just not how we’re going to function.”

Recruiting premium talent has been difficult for UMass baseball, which has fewer scholarships to work with than other A-10 schools. Reynolds cited other aspects of UMass as incentives for potential recruits, such as in-state tuition and strong academic programs, and said that his plan coming in was to focus on recruiting outstanding student-athletes.

“I just had this conversation,” Reynolds said. “You can be in the number one sports management program in the world. You can do it for half of the price of the other schools you’re looking at. Who cares about a scholarship? You’re already 50 percent less than where you’re starting at — I won’t name names, but you guys can probably fill in the blanks — and, oh yeah, you can play Division I baseball in an incredibly competitive league in the Atlantic-10. It levels the playing field a little bit.”

Whether the playing field is level enough will be determined years down the road, when Reynolds’ recruits are ready to contribute. In the meantime, the Minutemen are ready to begin their rebuild right away, and the first step is to make the A-10 tournament.

“Let’s claw to get in there, and then become kind of the spoiler from there,” Reynolds said. “If we can get just through that door, anything’s possible.”

Thomas Haines can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @thainessports.