College : : Story
Thursday, May 10, 2012

Finishing with a bang

Kendall Rogers        

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St. John’s head coach Ed Blankmeyer is convinced that his Johnnies can make some noise should they reach the NCAA postseason … should being the keyword there.

Entering the 2012 campaign, the Johnnies were expected to be one of the elite teams in the northern half of the country, on par with the Big Ten’s Purdue Boilermakers. But while Purdue has been the model of consistency this spring, the Johnnies have had a see-saw season that certainly has tested Blankmeyer’s patience at times.

Despite a rollercoaster ride this spring, the Johnnies are nearing yet another Big East regular season title, sitting two games ahead of Louisville in the league standings entering this weekend’s huge series down in Louisville, Ky.

The fact St. John’s is even at this point is telling.

“Things and situations tend to play out eventually. Sometimes people play themselves in to the postseason, or they play themselves out,” Blankmeyer said. “What we’ve done the past few weeks, I would say we’ve played our way into the NCAA field.”

St. John’s was included in the latest PG Field of 64, and could alleviate all doubts by simply winning the Big East tournament. But Blankmeyer’s club would like to do enough to earn an at-large bid if need be.

Though the talk around Queens, N.Y., is the Johnnies reaching the postseason, this mere thought seemed like a pipe dream a couple of months ago. The Johnnies entered the Big East/Big Ten Challenge with high hopes, but struggled mightily with closer Matt Carasiti and plenty of others having rather poor showings.

The struggles continued for the Johnnies. They had a 5-9 record after losing a series against Liberty, and even after a Big East series win over West Virginia at the beginning of April, they still had an unimpressive 15-12 overall record.

“I was surprised at how slow we started the season. I thought we had a lot of time to prepare for the spring with how mild our winter was,” he said. “I’m not sure whether it was the preseason hype or just some key individuals pressing. I wish I could put my finger on exactly what the issue was.”

Looking for some answers, Blankmeyer decided to shake things up from a pitching standpoint. Matt Carasiti, who was one of the nation’s best closers as a sophomore last season, was struggling in the closer role. He was moved to the No. 1 spot in the weekend rotation. Meanwhile, hard-throwing Kyle Hansen, previously serving as the staff ace, was moved to the No. 3 spot, allowing him to be a bit more relaxed.

Those two role changes are paying dividends for the Johnnies. Carasiti has been impressive as a starter, and is seeing his MLB draft stock increase. Meanwhile, Hansen is enjoying his role as the third weekend starter, recently tallying 16 strikeouts in a complete game shutout of Cincinnati a few weeks ago. 

Carasiti has shown some elite stuff this season, especially as the season has progressed. His fastball is sitting in the 91-93 range, while he has topped out at 95 mph at times. Additionally, the righty has improved with his hard slider and also is throwing a changeup and split-finger (more on those two pitches in the College Premium Blog). He has a 3.75 ERA in 57 2/3 innings this season, striking out 48 and walking 24, while teams are hitting him at a .259 clip.

“With the way we were using Matt as closer, he was the type of guy that would have to work himself into trouble to work out of trouble,” he said. “He’s very competitive and he’s a guy that has to develop into a groove. Him being the closer wasn’t allowing him to build momentum, he was just going out there trying to explode the glove. We figured it out by deciding to let this kid pitch a little bit.”

Hansen lately also has flashed some good stuff. He is consistently throwing his fastball 90-93, sometimes touching 94-95. He also continues to have success with his hard slider (more on Hansen here). Hansen only has a 3-5 record, but possesses a 3.57 ERA in 68 innings. He also has struck out 84 and walked 21, while teams are hitting .259.

“Kyle was a product of how we kind of came out of the gate. He looked good in his first outing with good velocity and good stuff. But then we had three games where we didn’t score runs, and that affected him,” he said. “He was thinking he had to shut everyone out, and as a result, was pitching too fine. We wanted him to relax a little, so we moved him to the No. 3 spot in the rotation. He’s pitching much better and much more economical here in his last few starts. 

Though Carasiti and Hansen are the top prospects and headliners on this pitching staff, the unit, which carries a respectable 3.97 ERA into the Louisville series, has several other premier arms.

Left-handed pitcher Sean Hagan has been very consistent this spring and has a 2.96 ERA in 70 innings. He has struck out 48 and walked 14, while teams are hitting him at a .236 clip. Meanwhile, the bullpen is doing a solid job with lefties Stephen Rivera and Kevin Kilpatrick and righty James Lomangino leading the way.

Rivera has made 19 appearances and has a 1.86 ERA in 38 2/3 innings, Kilpatrick has made 19 appearances and has a 4.46 ERA in 48 1/3 innings, and Lomangino, an always-improving arm, has a 4.09 ERA in 22 innings of work.

“The strength of this team down the stretch is starting pitching and the pitching staff in general,” he said. “Some of our guys don’t get the accolades, but we’ve got some pretty good arms, some guys who have pitched in the Big East since their freshman campaigns. Each one of our guys gives opposing teams a different look. They’re effective.”

A series win over the Cardinals this weekend would put the Johnnies in excellent shape to clinch the regular season title next weekend against Seton Hall. But far more important than any conference crown is reaching the NCAA postseason.

The Johnnies, with a stout pitching staff, still have work to do to feel safe for a potential at-large bid. They have an RPI of 61, are 0-1 vs. RPI Top 25, 0-4 vs. RPI Top 50 and just 9-14 vs. RPI Top 100. In other words, they really need a road series win over UL. 

There’s no question St. John’s, as of now, is a team capable of making some noise in the postseason. Whether they get there or not is another story in itself. 

“With the way we’re pitching and playing right now, we could do some damage,” he said. “But it’s important to go just go out there and try to focus on playing baseball. That needs to be good enough. It’s really that simple.”

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