Last season — Mike Cole’s first as head coach of the Manhattan College baseball team — ended in bitter disappointment when the Jaspers lost out on the final spot in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference postseason tournament on a tiebreaker to Niagara.
So there was built-in motivation for the Jaspers as they opened their 2019 campaign with the sole goal of not only reaching the MAAC tournament, but doing some damage once they got there.
Then the Jaspers lost starting second baseman Will Trochiano to a season-ending injury. Not long after that, senior first baseman Richie Barrella joined Trochiano on the shelf, and suddenly that goal of reaching the conference tournament looked to be out of reach. The Jaspers were now forced to start six freshmen in their everyday lineup, so there was simply no way they could compete with the conference heavyweights for one of the six coveted tournament spots.
Or could they?
After they took two-of-three from Monmouth on the road last weekend, the surprising Jaspers now sit in fourth place in the MAAC with a 10-5 record and very much in the thick of the conference title race. The surprise team in the MAAC this season? Yeah, that would be a safe bet.
“I think we’re in a good position,” Cole said after the Monmouth series. “Obviously losing (Barrella and Trochiano) hurt us, but it’s given opportunities to some other guys. We’re playing five freshmen every day, six when (David) Moffett is our DH. So to be 10-5 is great.”
It’s one thing to start so many first-year players, but as Cole points out, they also are manning premium defensive positions as well as filling top slots in the batting order.
“All three outfielders and both our middle infielders are freshmen,” Cole said.
The one freshman who has really blossomed this season is right fielder Nick Cimillo. He currently leads the team in average (.365), home runs (6), runs scored (28), hits (61), slugging percentage (.521) and on-base percentage (.422), while placing second in RBIs (24). Cole expected a solid season from Cimillo, but nothing like this.
“We anticipated him having a good year. But the year that he’s having? Probably not,” the coach said.
“He’s been really good, and for him to do what he’s doing as a freshman is great. The biggest thing is he’s hitting in the three-hole. It’s not like he’s a freshman that we’re hiding at seventh or eighth in the order. He’s kind of been thrown right into the fire, and he’s been really good.”
Cole had similar praise for another freshman starter, center fielder Sam Franco.
“Sammy is just super athletic,” the coach said. “He is by far the most athletic kid on the team. The strides he’s has made from September to now are incredible. He’s worked his butt off and he’s a tough kid, and he expects to get things done. He’s worked as hard as anyone on the team to get to where he is.”
Franco is second on the team with a .296 batting average, is tied for third with 20 RBIs, has stolen a team-high seven bases, and has played a flawless center field with zero errors in 34 games.
There are other freshmen making their mark as well. Jake Knop, filling in for Trochiano at second base, is hitting .350 in conference play. Shortstop Jonathan Barditch is hitting a sizzling .383 in the MAAC with Moffett, the designated hitter, posting a .316 average.
“You’re obviously going to surprise teams when you’re playing younger guys,” Cole said. “Coaches don’t anticipate matching up against a team with six freshmen in the lineup and playing so well.”
The Jaspers have a golden opportunity over the next two weekends to add to their conference win totals with a three-game set at Rider followed by a three-game home series against St. Peter’s. Those two programs are struggling and own a combined 6-23 conference record.
“We have a huge opportunity here to get one of those top two seeds in the tournament,” Cole said. “That would be huge because one and two get a bye (in the first round). We have an opportunity here to win five or six games, but there are no guarantees. But we do have an opportunity here to win some games and put ourselves in a really good position heading into the tournament.”
Cole believes 13 to be the Jaspers’ lucky number.
“I think 13 wins will get you in the tournament,” he said. “And I think with three weekends left to go we should be able to get three wins with who we’re playing and how well we’re playing.”
And who would have thought that at the start of the season?