By Dan Hiner
The Youngstown State University baseball team had high hopes heading into the season. After winning the 2014 Horizon League Championship, the Penguins believed their success in the tournament would transfer to the beginning of the 2015 season.
YSU is 5-15 this season and 1-8 in Horizon League competition. Head coach Steve Gillispie said the “inconsistency” with the schedule due to weather conditions translated to poor play on the field, but he doesn’t consider that as an excuse for the team’s performance.
“We’ve had a lot of irregularities with the weather and home series turn into road series, cancelations and single games become doubleheaders,” he said. “Along with that there have been some injuries that we’re dealing with — some changes in the starting rotation, some changes in the lineup and some movement of some guys defensively from where we thought originally they might be the biggest factor.”
Even though the team has gotten better over the last few seasons, Gillispie said he believes that there is still some room for improvement.
“All of that aside, we haven’t played consistently in the small things of the game — pitching, defense, offense kind of things,” Gillispie said. “We’ve had some really good moments and our numbers in some areas are even better than where they were last year, but bottom line is the record is still unacceptable. It isn’t where we want it, where we need to be or where we want it to be.”
The Penguins had to deal with injuries early in the season. Kevin Yarabinec was the team’s best pitcher heading into the season. Yarabinec was 0-2 with a 4.70 ERA in three starts before leaving YSU’s game against the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on March 15.
“We hope to get him back in the next couple of weeks. We had to back him out of anything after the Milwaukee weekend that we played on the road. He hasn’t pitched since then and we’re hoping to get him back real soon,” Gillispie said.
In Yarabinec’s absence, Gillispie needed pitchers like Josh Fitch to step up in the bullpen to take stress of the starting pitchers.
“We have several guys — if you look at the numbers, we have a 2.5 ERA out of the bullpen with a .091 opponents’ batting average with Josh Fitch. That’s very good,” Gillispie said. “We just have to have more opportunities to get to him late in the game. With some of the things, he’s also been playing third base and [playing designated hitter] for us some. So it takes away from us the opportunities for him to pitch.”
The pitching staff has been inconsistent this season. There have been several instances this season where the team has hit “rough spots” where the pitching staff was playing well, but one bad inning prevents the team from recuperating.
“There seems to be an inning or a four to five batter stretch that we’re either not clean defensively or we’ll walk a couple guys and we don’t command the strike zone to well,” Gillispie said. “Then it gets to the situation where a groundball could score a run or a sac fly or something like that — where we aren’t necessarily giving up hits, but we’re giving up runs because we haven’t played the rest of the game to the best of our ability in those situations. It’s just finding a way to eliminate those little bumps — those rough spots in the game. A six-run inning in the middle of the game could make it difficult to come back and win. We haven’t been able to avoid enough big innings to make it something we could overcome.”
One bright spot this season has been the play of center fielder Frank Califano. His .329 batting average and 10 RBI’s lead the team. Califano has had a great season defensively as well. He hasn’t committed an error in 20 games this season.
“He’s a very good runner, he handles the bat well, he’s able to get some base hit bunts and pressure the other team, steal some bases and he knows how to knock in runs when you get guys on third base,” Gillispie said. “At times he’s given away his at-bat to make sure he got the run in — he didn’t try to hit a double off the wall, he just tried to get a groundball to get the run in. He’s very productive that way and he knows how to play that way. He’s been a real force defensively, too — [Califano’s] made some really nice plays, ran some balls down. From an offensive side of things, the most positive thing we’ve had going from game one to game 20.”
By comparison, the baseball team was 3-17 after the first 20 games last season. Gillispie reminds the players about their success at the end of the season last year and uses the championship as a tool to maintain morale.
“We talk continually about how you get into competitive situations or you get into the major points of a game, the spots where the game could go one way or another and the at bats are really big or the pitches to be made are really big. We are continually telling the guys to remember your past successes rather than remember your past failures in those situations,” Gillispie said. “And with that, we hope to fall back on the positive things that have happened for us.”