Pitt counts on pitching
The last time Pitt won a Big East Conference tournament baseball game, it was in dramatic fashion. Jim Negrych blasted a 400-foot, walk-off home run in the 12th inning to beat Boston College and reach the 2005 final.
The same pitcher who got the victory in that game will be on the mound when the Panthers (27-25) play South Florida (32-24) at 5 p.m. Tuesday at KeySpan Park in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the Big East tourney's first round.
Paul Nardozzi, a senior right-hander who holds the school's career strikeouts record, tossed a five-hitter in a 5-2 victory over USF on March 17 in Tampa, Fla. He is one of only a handful of holdovers from that Big East finalist team.
"It's a big difference in atmosphere," Nardozzi said. "Once you play in it, you realize just how big of a difference."
That the Panthers even reached the Big East tourney makes this season a success story. They lost their first eight games of the season, including games to top-ranked Vanderbilt and top-20 Coastal Carolina, but recovered to win their next six before beginning conference play. Projected to finish ninth, Pitt went 15-11 and clinched the Big East's fourth seed, just ahead of USF (13-14).
"When we got to 0-8, we were all pretty down," Nardozzi said. "We knew we were playing good baseball, but we couldn't put it together for nine innings. We knew we had some talent on this team, so we weren't worried."
Perhaps the Panthers had motivation after being projected to finish second in the Big East last year, but placed ninth. Pitt missed the postseason despite having Major League Baseball draft picks such as second baseman Jim Negrych (sixth round, Pirates), pitcher Billy Muldowney (eighth, Cubs) and shortstop Jimmy Mayer (30th, Devil Rays).
"To not make it last year was disappointing," Nardozzi said, "because we had a lot of talent."
These Panthers have solid senior leadership on an otherwise young team that has seen as many as seven freshmen and sophomores in the lineup at one time:
= Nardozzi is 5-5 with a 3.93 earned run average and 84 strikeouts with 20 walks this season. He has 262 career strikeouts, breaking Dave Welty's 39-year-old record (238) on April 29 against New York Institute of Technology.
"It's a credit to Paul and his perseverance," Pitt coach Joe Jordano said. "It's a fruition of a promise I made to him when recruiting him: 'If you come to Pitt, you'll start from day one.' He's a had a lot of double-digit strikeout games.
"He's a pitcher. He doesn't have anything overpowering, but he knows how to pitch."
= Right fielder Paul Parise is tied for the school's career hits record, needing one to break Bryan Spamer's mark of 250.
= First baseman Seth Button leads the Panthers with eight home runs, 31 RBI and a .532 slugging percentage.
Pitt, however, has played its last 12 games without its leading hitter, redshirt freshman third baseman Gary Bucuren. A Kentucky transfer who was drafted in the 34th round by the Pirates out of Ambridge High School, Bucuren was batting .319 in 38 games before injuring his left (non-throwing) wrist. The injury exposed Pitt's scholarship limitations, as it isn't a fully funded program.
"We're the type of team that has to play clean baseball," Jordano said, stressing a simultaneous need for solid pitching and situational hitting. "When we don't do those things, we don't have the depth to make up for it."
The pitching staff, led by Nardozzi, junior left-hander Rob Brant (4-5) and freshman right-hander Nate Reed (4-5), is supported by a strong bullpen. Redshirt sophomore Kyle Landis (4-4), who has a 2.15 ERA in 19 appearances, allowing 25 hits while striking out 57 and walking 16 in 50 1⁄3 innings, is one of the top relievers in the NCAA.
Where Pitt's pitching was stretched thin two years ago, when the Panthers played four games in three days, it is a strong suit this time.
"We just couldn't recover from that," Jordano said. "If we get to that point this year, I'd feel pretty good about it."
If Pitt is going to make another run at the Big East Championship - which is the Panthers' only shot of qualifying for the NCAAs, given their record - it could begin and end with Nardozzi, who called the strikeout record "a pretty good accomplishment."
"Hopefully, we can end with a better one," Nardozzi said. "The Big East championship."
Big East tournamentPitt (27-25, 15-11) vs. South Florida (32-24, 13-14)
When, where: 5 p.m. Tuesday · KeySpan Park, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Notable: Pitt is the No. 4 seed and USF No. 5 in the Big East tournament, which has been expanded to eight teams. The Panthers reached the 2005 Big East final, losing to Notre Dame, 11-4, but didn't qualify for the postseason last year. The only time Pitt has qualified for the NCAAs was in 1995.