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Omaha and College World Series the goal for Pitt baseball team

Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Pitt's J.R. Leonardi pitches against Akron during their game Wednesday, May 1, 2013, at Charles L. Cost Field in Oakland.

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Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Thursday, May 2, 2013, 11:36 p.m.
 

As the winningest baseball coach in Pitt history, Joe Jordano has seen it all — from early struggles on the job, to the program's revival and climb toward national prominence.

Later this month, Jordan will discover if arguably the best Pitt team he's coached will advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995 — two years before his arrival.

The Panthers (33-11) certainly have the look of a team deserving of a postseason bid. They are nationally ranked in several major categories, including scoring (third), slugging percentage (sixth) and home runs (tied for eighth).

Entering this weekend's three-game series at Georgetown, the Panthers lead the Big East in six major offensive categories: on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs, home runs, RBI and total bases, and they are second in batting average.

“To be on a regional and somewhat national level is exciting for the program,” said Jordano of Pitt's No. 17 ranking in the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper poll, its highest ranking in school history. “It's definitely a positive thing, and I like the feel of it, and our players like the feel of it.”

Pitt's only other national recognition in the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper poll occurred in 1967, 1995 and 2010.

“It's the best team since I've been here,” said junior outfielder Casey Roche, whose .354 batting average leads the Panthers. “My first year here we had six or seven (Major League Baseball) draft picks, but this team is more talented. There's no doubt in my mind when we're playing our game we can beat anybody.”

That talent was on display when Pitt swept three games at Wichita State to open the season. It marked the first time Wichita State had been swept at home in a three-game series in 43 years and also was the first time since 1994 — and only the second time since joining the Big East in 1982 — that Pitt won its first three nonconference games.

Other milestones this season include Pitt sweeping four Big East rivals (St. John's, Notre Dame, Rutgers and Cincinnati) for the first time in school history.

Jordano remembers posting losing records in two of his first four seasons at Pitt. He realizes that moving to Charles L. Cost Field in the Petersen Sports Complex in 2011 enhanced recruiting as the Panthers posted 30 or more wins two of the past three years.

“We tell our younger players during the recruiting process that there is an expectation level,” Jordano said. “As our program continues to evolve as we transition into the ACC, things are going to continue to improve.”

In their final season in the Big East, the Panthers swept a three-game series at St. John's. It was the first time the Panthers swept a three-game series against a defending Big East Tournament champion.

The Panthers believe it's their turn to win the Big East Tournament, scheduled May 22-26 in Clearwater, Fla. The tournament winner receives an automatic NCAA bid.

The College World Series is June 15-26 in Omaha, Neb.

Pitt is second in the Big East with a 12-3 record. Last year, the Panthers were the lowest seed in the Big East Tournament and were eliminated following losses to Louisville and South Florida.

“We set our goal for Omaha. That's where we want to go,” said junior pitcher Ethan Mildren (8-2 with a 2.26 ERA). “If we win the Big East Tournament, we get the automatic bid.”

Last year, Big East members St. John's and Louisville advanced to the NCAA Tournament. This year, Kendall Rogers of perfectgame.org projects that Pitt, Notre Dame and Louisville will advance to the NCAA Tournament.

“Everybody's got that mentality we're going to win — no matter what,” said sophomore outfielder Boo Vazquez, who is second overall in hitting (.341) and tops Pitt with a .385 average in Big East play. “It's been a real special season so far. We've done a lot of things that nobody's done at Pitt.”

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jharris@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JHarris_Trib.

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