Pitt baseball writing new chapter with new coach
There were plenty of good feelings and raised hopes last season when Pitt’s baseball team reached the semifinals of the ACC Tournament for the first time.
But the program started down a different path when coach Joe Jordano was relieved of his duties at the end of the season after 21 years and a school-record 588 victories.
Enter new coach Mike Bell, a former assistant at Florida State, who said he has plans to “take (Pitt) to another level.”
Bell, who spent seven years as associate head coach and pitching coach for the ACC powerhouse Seminoles and 14 seasons coaching in Division I, doesn’t want to pour cold water on what Pitt accomplished last season. The Panthers’ 29-26 record (11-19 in the ACC) included a 5-4 upset of No. 1 seed North Carolina in the ACC Tournament.
Yet Bell has higher goals for the program.
“(A record of) 29-26 is not a high mark in my mind,” he said. “It was a little bit of excitement for some of the older guys, but expectations have to be raised — 29-26 is not what we’re looking for.”
The season starts at 3 p.m. Friday in Kissimmee, Fla., where Pitt meets Villanova in the start of the Diamond 9 Sunshine State Classic Series. The Panthers will play Iowa and Marshall on Saturday and Milwaukee on Sunday.
“It’s not about where we are starting,” Bell said. “It’s where can we be in May, where can we be in June and how we can get there.”
Junior pitcher Dan Hammer, who is scheduled to start against Villanova, doesn’t want to forget last season. He wants to use it as motivation.
“Those moments are extremely important to hold onto and remember what that feeling is like,” he said. “It’s going to inspire us to do more of that this season.”
Hammer said he’s seeking more consistency after making 12 starts last season and recording a 6.79 ERA.
“I think I’ve made up a lot of ground since then, just surrounding myself with a lot of great teammates, a lot of great coaches, especially this new staff this year,” he said. “It really helped me put things in perspective and really grow as a player.”
He said Bell’s changes have been “slight … just a lot of mindset stuff.”
Bell’s best move so far might have been retaining respected pitching coach Jerry Oakes.
“These coaches are very experienced,” Hammer said. “I’m just grateful to be a part of this new culture here at Pitt.
“The one biggest change, everything is a lot more organized in the sense that you are always getting things done in the amount of time you have. Things are very structured here. You always know what you’re doing that day.”
Junior shortstop David Yanni also likes how practices have been structured.
“We’re getting in more difficult situations in the practice setting,” he said, “which makes us more prepared for that high-pressure kind of stuff during the actual games. A lot of the guys are loving it.
“It’s exciting to see these guys come back with a little bit of swagger after the little bit of success we had last year.”
Among the good news is the return of second baseman Alex Amos and outfielder Nico Popa, who were limited by injuries last season, and versatile sophomore Ron Washington Jr., who was named to the ACC All-Freshman team and third-team all-conference after hitting .284. He can play right field and first base and fill the designated hitter’s role.
Also, workhorse catcher Cole MacLaren is back after setting up behind the plate for all 55 games. He was one of only two ACC catchers to play every game last season.
“That guy’s battled-tested,” Bell said.
Bell doesn’t abide by the college baseball cliché that northern teams can’t compete with southern teams.
“Oregon State won a national championship,” he said, pointing to the winner of the 2018 College World Series.
“Northern teams can have just as much success as southern teams. Everybody has obstacles.
“Other schools in the south might have sprinkler problems like coach (Mike) Martin (of Florida State) texted me. I kind of laughed, ‘You don’t know what problems are.’ ”
“It’s 17 and sunny (outside),” Bell said while players took batting practice inside Pitt’s indoor facility. “But we’re going to go inside where it’s 75 and we’re going to get our work done.”
Bell makes no promises about how his tenure will turn out at Pitt.
“Not saying it’s going to happen right off the bat, not making bold predictions in the first year,” he said. “But ultimately as a team, as a program, can we take this team and drive it in the right direction?
“I like some of the veteran savviness, the experience. You take a Hammer, a Yanni. Those guys have gone through some grinders.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .