Newcomers Sabino, Washington Jr. lead Pitt baseball toward ACC milestones
When Liam Sabino was playing for the Team Citius youth travel baseball organization, he wasn't aware he had an admirer. Ron Washington Jr., three years younger, would visit the dugout to watch when his own Citius team wasn't playing.
Washington's eyes were glued to Sabino.
“He was really smooth back in the day,” Washington said.
Washington's revelation jogged Sabino's memory.
“Now that he says that, I kind of remember that now,” Sabino said. “It was hard to miss him. He was big even back then.”
Sabino and Washington have crossed paths again, and their reunion has proven to be fortuitous for Pitt. They have helped to put the Panthers (27-19, 11-13) on the brink of their most ACC wins — Pitt enters its weekend series with Louisville needing one win for a program-best 12th in conference — and their first ACC tournament berth.
Sabino, a junior, has emerged as one of the ACC's top offensive threats, hitting .287 with 13 homers and 39 RBIs. Washington — no relation to the major-leaguer — is hitting .286 with three homers and 25 RBIs.
With starters Nico Popa (Seton LaSalle) and Alex Amos likely out for the rest of the season because of injuries, Sabino and Washington will be even more important to the offense down the stretch.
“There's no doubt I knew both of them would be impact guys from Day 1,” coach Joe Jordano said. “We would not be the same offensively if they were not in our lineup.”
Jordano recruited Sabino heavily out of New Jersey's Blair Academy, but Sabino opted for Vanderbilt. The Commodores were coming off a national title in 2014, and one of his idols, former Pirate Pedro Alvarez, became a star there.
But after two seasons of limited duty — a combined 78 at-bats, one homer, eight RBIs — he decided to transfer to Pitt.
“I just thought it was time for a change,” Sabino said. “Sometimes you have to make decisions in your life. They aren't always easy, but sometimes they're necessary.”
During the year he had to sit out, Sabino worked on developing a blend of power and speed to mimic his favorite player, former Pirate Barry Bonds. His 13 homers are second most in the ACC, and he ranks fourth in total bases (104) and fifth in slugging (.584). He also has 17 stolen bases, tied for sixth in the conference.
Sabino's at-bats often are feast or famine. His style, which Jordano likened to former AL MVP Josh Donaldson, has led to an ACC-leading 67 strikeouts, but his production makes that figure more palatable.
“It produces a few more strikeouts than I like,” Jordano said, “but … he's had some major hits for us.”
Washington grew up in the Houston area as somewhat of a baseball prodigy.
In 2015, he tied for first in the junior home run derby during All-Star weekend in Cincinnati. He originally intended to combine his final two years of high school in anticipation of potentially being drafted.
But the 6-foot, 210-pound outfielder had a change of heart.
“We decided to come back for senior year,” he said. “Just some unfinished business in high school. Wanted to come back and help my team win some more games.”
He said he had other college baseball options once he graduated from Ridge Point High School but said, “Pitt believed in me, and I believed in the school.”
Washington has had typical freshman ups and downs. He started slowly, hitting just .208 through Pitt's first 13 games, then lifted his average above .300 by mid-April. He dipped below .270 again before raising his average.
“I'm trying to be a little more patient and going deeper in the counts, focusing on the pitches I want to hit,” Washington said. “I feel like I'm exactly where I need to be, and hopefully I will continue to get better.”
That's what Pitt is counting on in the future, both distant and immediate.
With an injury-depleted lineup, the Panthers will need everyone to pick up the slack in order to reach those program milestones. And they will need their two high-profile newcomers to continue their game-changing play.
“This team has worked very hard to achieve those goals we set out for in the beginning of the year,” Sabino said. “We wanted to do things this program never has done before.”