Croup’s Corner – Fun in the sun

Measuring a hot start

Written By Josh Croup, Sports Columnist

Starting a season 7-1 is impressive, no matter who the team is or who its opponents are throughout the opening stretch.

The Point Park baseball team opened its season in Florida during spring break and won seven in a row in the Sunshine State after dropping its season-opener 1-0.

Reuniting with sunshine was almost as sweet as reuniting with grass for the Pioneers, who didn’t get a chance to practice on their home field before taking off for Florida. They were confined to batting cages and the Student Center Gym.

Fielding a ground ball on a basketball court is a lot different from taking grounders on a baseball field. Long toss at Point State Park during the rare sunny day in February or throwing in the gym is way different than getting daily reps in the outfield and on a real pitching mound.

The logistical struggles are nothing new for the Point Park baseball program that has made a name for itself in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) over the last 50 years. The team makes due every year, even with rosters that have several players from year-round warm climates like Venezuela, Puerto Rico or Florida.

Early on, this team looks like the deepest Point Park has fielded since 2012. It’s an experienced group that won the regular season conference championship last year. 12 of the 14 position players are returners. Any of them could start.

Head coach Loren Torres said prior to the spring break trip that returning with negative record wouldn’t be a reason to panic. A 7-1 record is a solid start, but the season is long and only just began in Florida.

Point Park jumped right into conference play its first weekend back from the RussMatt Central Florida Invitational when it traveled to Indiana University (IU) Kokomo for the program’s debut series in the River States Conference (RSC).

The Pioneers swept the three-game series against IU Kokomo to open RSC play and improve to 9-1, their best start since 2012. Torres won his 400th career game as a college baseball coach in the process.

But there’s still a lot of baseball left.

Measuring a team after these annual spring breaks trips is difficult. Just as there would be no reason to panic with a rough record post-Florida, there’s no reason to raise a championship banner either. The real baseball began after Florida.

The Pioneers’ 1-0 loss to start the Florida trip came against a solid Warner University team that enters this week at 11-6 overall. Junior Nick Beardsley showed little signs of rust, allowing just three hits and one run while striking out five. The Point Park bats couldn’t get going against Warner’s starter who entered the game with only three earned runs in his previous 19 innings.

The first day of the trip ended with a tight 2-1 win over Edward Waters College, which finished February 7-8 overall.

Point Park then split six games between Michigan-Dearborn and Judson University, scoring a combined 67 runs and allowing just 15. Judson ended February 1-6 with its only win coming against Michigan-Dearborn, which is still winless this year, entering the week 0-13. Judson began the trip receiving votes in the NAIA Top 25 poll.

The games really gave the Pioneers a chance to experiment in Florida. They used eight different starting pitchers and rested their rotation to be fresh out of the gate against IU Kokomo.

They had a chance to see how their lineup will play out defensively and offensively, shuffling around various players in different positions. Andres Herrera and Billy Kidd split starts at second base during the trip, and Reynaldo Adames got five starts in left field as he competed for the starting job at that position with Cole Horew. Both have hit well to begin the year and the job is still up for grabs.

The Pioneers lineup was mixed throughout the duration of the spring break trip, with leadoff hitter and senior center fielder Stefan Mrkonja as the only player to occupy his lineup spot. Five different players were slid into the sixth and eighth spots in the lineup in Florida, while four players each saw time in the fifth and seventh spots.

Whatever Point Park’s record was after Florida was going to be relevant at the end of the season. The real record is the one Point Park started building against IU Kokomo.

Point Park had a chance to find consistency and reliability in Florida, whether it is in the lineup or the bullpen. That’s more valuable than any record that would have followed the spring break invitational.

Sunshine is valuable. Don’t take it for granted if/when we ever get it again in Pittsburgh.