PAC Baseball Championship Preview: Host W&J is the Favorite, But ‘Anything Can Happen’

By Justin Zackal

Nick Vento and the W&J Presidents matched a PAC record with 21 regular season wins.

Reaching exactly 21 may get you blackjack in a casino, but it won’t win a championship in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference. Washington & Jefferson set the PAC record of 21 conference wins in 2012 and matched it in 2014, but the Presidents didn’t win as hosts of the PAC Baseball Championship Tournament.

After tying the record again this year, W&J (30-9, 21-3 PAC) is hosting the tournament at Ross Memorial Park, May 11-13, for the first time since 2014. But 15th-year head coach Jeff Mountain isn’t cashing in his chips.

“I just think in a conference tournament, especially with these four teams, anything can happen,” Mountain said. “It wouldn’t be an upset for any of these four teams to win.”

The other three teams are second-seeded and defending champion Thomas More (26-10, 15-7 PAC), third-seeded Grove City (17-17, 14-10 PAC) and fourth-seeded Thiel (21-17, 13-11 PAC).

W&J and Thomas More have alternated winning PAC titles since 2013, so it’s the Presidents’ turn this year to win, which would be their 11th PAC title. Thomas More, meanwhile, seeks its fifth crown. Grove City hasn’t won the PAC since 2008 and Thiel, 2003.

The Presidents will play Thiel in the first game of the double-elimination tournament, Thursday at noon, as the two teams will play for the fourth time in six days. They split a doubleheader Saturday at W&J and the Presidents won the rubber match Sunday at Thiel.

Mountain doesn’t think the recent familiarity will matter.

“They’ll be a little more fresh in our mind, but we’ll be fresh in their mind,” Mountain said. “It just comes down to the execution of the teams and how the pitchers throw.”

He paused and added, “I don’t want to see Thiel’s pitcher.”

That pitcher is sophomore right-hander Nick Bucci, who led the PAC in wins (9-2) and strikeouts (54) while posting a 2.85 ERA. Bucci pitched a complete-game seven innings with six strikeouts, no walks, nine hits, five runs (2 earned) in a 6-5 win over W&J on Saturday. Either Bucci or Kevin Forrester, who also struck out 54 this year, will oppose W&J ace Riley Groves (7-2) and his league-leading 1.61 ERA in the first game.

According to Mountain, the margin for error in the early games of the tournament will be small; therefore, pitching and defense will be key.

“Everybody has a good arm or two that can limit the other team,” Mountain said. “You’ve got to take advantage of the limited scoring opportunities you have in those early days because the more the tournament goes on the style of the game changes.”

As teams use up their pitchers, the games gives way to higher scoring. But that doesn’t mean W&J won’t be able to outhit opponents. The Presidents lead the league in batting average (.356), on-base percentage (.437) and slugging percentage (.551). Their 41 homers tied Thomas More for the most in the PAC.

In addition to its offense and playing at home, other advantages for W&J include its experience playing a nonconference schedule against teams that finished .500 or above, and the composition of its lineup: W&J’s top eight position players and top three pitchers, according to games started, are either juniors or seniors.

Bailey Abbatiello and the Thomas More Saints hope to defend their PAC title.

“We haven’t had too many peaks and valleys, which is what you expect out of a veteran team,” Mountain said. “But all bets are off in the postseason. Sometimes the younger team is the looser team when they get things going early and they just relax. You just never know how guys are going to respond, but I think experience pays off this time of year.”

Grove City is “quietly” playing its best ball of the year, according to Mountain. The Wolverines have won six out their last seven games, including one at Thomas More, a place where W&J lost twice this year.

“Thomas More is just really good,” Mountain added. “It wasn’t an upset or they played out of their minds (when Thomas More shut out W&J twice in a doubleheader April 14); they are just a really good team and a really good program … and so is ours.”

The PAC Sports Network (PACSN) will deliver live broadcasts of all of this year’s championship tournament games at pacstream.net. After Thursday’s W&J-Thiel game at noon, Grove City and Thomas More will play at 3 p.m. Friday’s game times are noon, 3 p.m., and 6 p.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. (if necessary).

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share