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Pitt baseball team has a lot at stake

| Monday, May 20, 2013, 11:06 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Pitt baseball coach Joe Jordano watches his team against Akron on Wednesday, May 1, 2013, at Charles L. Cost Field in Oakland. The Panthers are the third seed for this week's Big East Tournament.

The NCAA invites 64 schools to its baseball tournament. In the most recent RPI rankings, Pitt was 64th — before it lost three in a row at Louisville over the weekend.

No margin for error remains, but coach Joe Jordano is not worried, even if Pitt's first NCAA berth in 18 years hinges on the Big East Tournament that begins at 10 a.m. Wednesday in Clearwater, Fla.

“I am not going to put any extra pressure on our guys to think these are must-win games,” he said Monday before joining his team on its flight to Florida. “Regardless of what happens in this (Big East) tournament or if we are selected or not selected to the NCAA Tournament, I am not going to spend much time on that at all. Right now, our focus is on playing a good baseball game.”

No. 3-seeded Pitt (40-15), however, will have something to prove when it steps onto Bright House Field — spring home of the Philadelphia Phillies — to play No. 6 St. John's (23-33). The tournament is the university's last Big East event before moving to the ACC next season.

“We definitely have a major chip on our shoulder, especially with the run we were on,” said sophomore closer Joe Harvey, who leads the team with five saves. “We definitely want to go down there and make a statement.”

The statement was muted at Louisville, with the Big East regular-season championship at stake. Pitt, which was 20-2 from April 9 to May 12, stranded a total of 27 runners in two of the three defeats and allowed 24 runs in three games.

Nonetheless, Jordano was encouraged.

“We played two very solid games,” he said of 5-2 and 7-4 losses Thursday and Saturday. “That's all I can ask of my team, to put ourselves in position (to win). We had opportunities, but that's baseball.”Jordano doesn't want to minimize what his players have done all season, including winning a school-record 40 games. Pitt leads the Big East in nine offensive categories, including home runs (49) and batting average (.305).

Not bad for a team that is 2-8 in its past four Big East Tournaments and has been to the NCAAs (1959, '65 and '95) only three times.

“If you look at the history of our program, this is something pretty special,” Jordano said. “If you look at where we were 15 years ago and where we're at today, it's a new chapter.”

A tougher one, too.

In the Baseball America Top 25 rankings released Monday, the ACC claimed four of the top nine spots: Virginia (No. 5), North Carolina (No. 6), Florida State (No. 7) and North Carolina State (No. 9). The Big East has No. 10 Louisville and No. 22 Seton Hall. Pitt, which has lost four in a row, fell out after it was ranked 21st last week.

Harvey said the losing streak surprises him, but the problems are not insurmountable.

“At times, our energy and focus were a little down, but it's something we can easily fix,” he said.

For Jordano, the truly tense moments will occur during the Major League Baseball Entry Draft from June 6-8. That's when two junior pitchers might be selected — Laurel Highlands graduate Ethan Mildren, who will start Wednesday, and Matt Wotherspoon, who may start Thursday against either Seton Hall or Notre Dame. Jordano also could lose .325-hitting sophomore catcher Elvin Soto and top recruit Mark Armstrong, a pitcher from Clarence (N.Y.) High School.

“One good draft for the players can be devastating for the program,” Jordano said.

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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