Jan. 22, 2003
In the 53 years prior to head coach Pete Hughes' hiring, the Boston College baseball team averaged 13 wins a year. In the four years since, the Eagles have won an average of 30 games per season.
Coincidence? Not a chance.
Hughes has ushered in the most successful era in the history of Boston College baseball, in large part to his implementation of "Birdball," a term he coined. It refers to the hard-nosed, blue-collar style of play he expects from his team each and every game.
"When we take an extra base on a ball in the dirt, that's Birdball. When we sprint out to our positions before the other team's made it off the field, that's Birdball. When we lift weights three times a week at 6 a.m. during the winter, that's Birdball," Hughes said. "Birdball is high-energy, resilient, unselfish, team-first baseball."
Birdball is a major reason for the showering of accolades upon Hughes, who has garnered two of the last three BIG EAST Coach of the Year awards, and his team, but they are far from satisfied with their past accomplishments. These are mere stepping stones to the larger goals they have set for themselves.
"The progression of a team growing is learning how to win, winning in your conference, qualifying for the conference tournament, being recognized at the top of your conference, and the final phase is being an NCAA Regional team. That's where we're at right now," Hughes said. "We'd be very disappointed if we weren't a regional team this year."
The Eagles appear to have the right parts in place so as to avoid any disappointment.
"This is as talented a team as we've had since I've been here," Hughes said. "We've got a lot of skillful kids with a lot of experience, and we've got senior leadership. Those are some of the key ingredients for a successful season."
Another ingredient is having several players battling for playing time, something Boston College has this year. That is an indication that the team's talent extends far beyond the starting nine.
"I think competition's great. It's an essential thing for every successful program to have," Hughes said. "The first couple years I was here there was little competition from within. It makes practice better and, more importantly, it makes the product you put out on the field better."
One area Hughes is really looking to improve is the Eagles' non-conference record. At times last year, he said, his team played inconsistently. If the Eagles want to accomplish their goals for 2003, they need to play just as well out of conference.
"We've got to play more consistently," Hughes said. "We have to play the same on Tuesday as we do on Saturday. Good programs and good players play the same way no matter the day or the conditions."
Some of that inconsistency stemmed from the team's youth. Three of its starting position players and several of its top pitchers were freshmen, all of whom had to make the adjustment from playing two games a week in high school to six games a week in college.
Hughes doesn't see that being an issue this year.
"With the strength of our schedule, and if we continue to play well in the BIG EAST, those two things should be enough to be recognized nationally."
Baseball America, for one, agrees with Hughes' assertion as it projected Boston College to be one of two BIG EAST teams to qualify for NCAA's.
Boston College suffered a huge blow when senior co-captain Ryan Leahy was sidelined all of last season because of a burst appendix. His injury forced Hughes to play other guys out of position.
Leahy, a slick fielding shortstop who was the Eagles' fourth-leading hitter two years ago, is back at full strength, so Hughes can now put people in their rightful places.
"We've moved people defensively to more comfortable positions," Hughes said. "We're putting them where they can have the most success."
That means sophomore Ryan Morgan moves from shortstop to third and sophomore Jason Delaney moves from third to first. The only infielder who remains in the same position as last year is junior second baseman Josh DiScipio.
Morgan hit .313 last year, seventh best on the club, and also tied for the team lead in sacrifice bunts, with three. Had he not been hindered by a high-ankle sprain suffered at the beginning of March, his production would have been significantly better.
The Eagles' third-leading hitter last year, Delaney struggled at the hot corner, but a move across the diamond should not only improve his own defense but that of the other infielders, as they now have a 6-3, 215-pound target to throw to.
A player who epitomizes the tenets of Birdball, DiScipio tied Morgan for the most sac bunts on the team, had the second-most sac flies (five), and was third in stolen bases (nine). His speed and experience are invaluable assets to the team.
Sophomore Marco Albano started 24 games at various positions for the Eagles last year and, as Hughes said, "is constantly pushing to get in the lineup." Sophomore Tom Mackor and junior Aaron Campini provide solid defense at third and second, respectively.
Coming into last season, senior Matt Lederhos was projected as the No. 1 starting pitcher and No. 3 hitter. While his offensive production through the first 25 games was outstanding (.330 BA, five HRs, 23 RBIs, 30 R, 10 S), he was struggling on the mound. The reason for that soon became evident, as it was discovered that he had a floating blood clot in his throwing arm, which forced him to miss the remainder of the season.
While Hughes is unsure of whether Lederhos will be able to contribute to the rotation, he is eager for his return to the lineup and to the field.
"Matt is back and healthy to play centerfield," Hughes said. "He gives us power and is a base-stealing threat."
With Lederhos back in the mix, sophomore Drew Locke, a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American, moves from center to right, where he can better utilize his strong throwing arm. His bat is what was most impressive last year as he ranked second in the BIG EAST in hitting (.404) and led the team in slugging percentage (.560). Locke, whom Hughes refers to as "one of the premier hitters in New England," also proved to be a threat on the basepaths, tying for the team lead in steals with 10.
Left field is still up for grabs. Junior Eric Wright is the frontrunner, mainly because he has an advantage in the experience department, appearing in 24 games last season.
"He's athletic, and is a solid left-handed hitter," Hughes said of Wright.
Other players who should see time in left are sophomores Joe Martinez and Mike Flynn.
"Even Albano, because he's so versatile, could end up in left. Basically, whoever hits will play left," Hughes said.
The loss of First Team All-BIG EAST catcher Jeff Mackor to graduation may be the most significant hole Boston College needs to fill, but the Eagles have a more-than-capable replacement in junior transfer Garrett Greer. Greer, a Peabody native, comes to the Heights via Georgia State University, where he was an honorable mention freshman all-America selection.
Freshman Shawn McGill, a 2002 draftee of the World Series champion Anaheim Angels, will back up Greer. Hughes sees Greer's presence as being helpful to easing McGill into the collegiate ranks.
Adding depth behind the plate is sophomore Andrew Grillo. Sophomore Philip D'Alonzo will miss the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
The re-positioning in the infield means that last year's first baseman, Vinny Scavone, will be the full-time designated hitter. The senior slugger leads all returning players in home runs (10), RBIs (42), runs scored (40) and total bases (100).
Junior Zach Keenan, who started seven games last year, and sophomore David Preziosi, who was impressive in the fall, will also be used in the DH role.
With two marquee pitchers in the rotation, Boston College will try to mimic the Arizona Diamondbacks' formula for success from two years ago. And with both of those pitchers being sophomores, the Eagles hope to have that formula in place for a long time.
There weren't many honors sophomore right-hander Chris Lambert didn't snag last year. BIG EAST Rookie and Pitcher of the Year, Freshman All-American, First Team All-Northeast Region - and all this from a kid who did not pitch coming out of high school.
"Chris has proven to be a very talented, productive pitcher in our program," Hughes said. "With him, we have a chance to beat anybody in the country."
Lambert, who sports a fastball in the low-to-mid 90s and a devastating curveball, went 9-3 last year with a conference-best 2.76 earned run average. He held batters to a .216 batting average and threw five complete games, both second best in the BIG EAST.
But it was more than just the numbers that most impressed Hughes.
"He has pitchability, meaning he has command of his pitches, can set hitters up, hold runners on, can field his position. Basically, he has all the intangibles," Hughes said. "The way his talent has translated has been an unbelievable surprise."
The other half of the dynamic duo is sophomore southpaw Kevin Shepard. A little more of a finesse pitcher than Lambert, though no less dominant, Shepard posted a 5-3 mark with a 3.72 ERA last season. Opposing batters hit just .218 off of him, fourth lowest in the conference.
"Kevin was unbelievable last year," Hughes said. "With him and Chris coming back, that's a heckuva 1-2 combination. Both of those guys are sophomores, so we feel pretty good about the state of the program."
Hughes has several options for the No. 3 spot in the rotation. One of them is senior Matt Elfeldt, who last year made a miraculous recovery from testicular cancer to re-assume his role as the team's closer.
"We're going to try to stretch Matt out, see if he's comfortable in a starting role," Hughes said. "If not, we'll move him back to closer, where he's been the last couple years."
Junior Mike Gauthier led the team in relief appearances last year and, after a very good fall, will get consideration as the No. 3 starter. Sophomore Jake Marsello assumed a larger role in the rotation as the year went on, and Hughes says he's talented enough to stay in that role. Sophomore Joe Martinez, who recorded a team-best 1.38 ERA in 26 innings of work in 2002, is also competing for the third spot. In each of his three starts last year, he went at least five innings and gave up one earned run.
The wild card in the bunch is Lederhos. He was the No. 1 starter two years ago, so he's no stranger to big games, and if his arm is up to the task, he'll get the ball quite a bit
"We'll keep bringing Matt along and picking out spots to see if he's ready," Hughes said.
Should Elfeldt stick in the rotation, the closer's job would be handed to two-way threat, sophomore Ryan Morgan.
As one of the goals of this year's Eagles is a stronger showing in non-conference games, there is added pressure on those starters outside of the top three. The main guys Hughes is looking to in that role are sophomores Jim Cox and Mike Wlodarczyk.
Sophomore David Preziosi is a situational left-hander who will be used out of the bullpen. Adding depth, leadership and experience to the relieving corps are senior tri-captain Matthew Duffey and junior James Dawson. Freshman Nate Jeanes is a talented newcomer whom Hughes sees contributing down the road.
Another addition to the team is expected to have a far greater immediate impact. Dave Turgeon was hired in August as the Eagles' first full-time assistant. He brings with him the expertise acquired from playing professionally for 13 years on three continents (North America, Europe, Asia). The last three years he managed in the minor leagues.
"With Dave's versatility, we've upgraded ourselves instructionally at every position on the field," Hughes said. "He's as good a pitching instructor at this level as there is."
The non-conference slate is littered with tough opponents. From a four-time national champion (Miami) to a team consistently ranked in the top 20 (Stetson) to schools from the SEC (Kentucky), ACC (NC State) and Big Ten (Purdue), this year's Eagles squad faces greater challenges than any before it.
Hughes sees this trend continuing in the years to come.
"We'll always make our non-conference schedule demanding, in order to get us ready for our conference schedule," Hughes said. "Next year we play (2002 College World Series qualifier) Nebraska and (2002 NCAA Regional qualifier) Auburn in three-game sets."
One scheduling advantage Boston College does have is in the number of home games it plays. Once the Eagles get back from Spring Training in mid-March, 25 of their final 43 games are at Shea Field.
Three new local opponents find their way onto the Eagles' schedule: Hartford, Central Connecticut and Quinnipiac. The 13th-annual Beanpot, held at Fenway Park, includes Bay State rivals Northeastern, Harvard and Massachusetts. Add those to old foes Holy Cross, Rhode Island and Dartmouth, and Boston College will have plenty of chances to prove it is the premier college team in the region.
For the 11th year in a row, the Eagles will have the opportunity to test their mettle against the Boston Red Sox. That game kicks off Boston College's Spring Training slate, Feb. 28 in Ft. Myers, Fla. Last year, the Eagles hung tough with the Sox, dropping a 2-1 decision.
The BIG EAST docket figures to be as difficult as ever, with Notre Dame and Virginia Tech ranked in national preseason polls. Those two finished 1-2 in the preseason conference poll, with Boston College third and Rutgers a close fourth.
Hughes cannot help but be proud of how far the program has come since his staff was hired.
"To be picked third is good for the program. It shows we're getting the respect of our peers. I feel good about where the program is at."