By Ben Elsner
University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) is home to a top D1 hockey team in the nation, some might even know it for its legend of partying (ZooMass), but UMass Amherst is home to one D1 sport that nobody talks about, baseball. UMass hasn’t really been known for their sports since Marcus Camby and John Calipari left the basketball team, and the campus. But with the revival of the basketball team within the past 7 years and with the hockey teams’ emergence as one of the best in the country, sports are back at UMass. Although the football team might not be so good, UMass students and fans are looking for more sports to watch and good teams to root for. Enter UMass baseball.
As for the baseball team, they haven’t been good in quite a long time. With their last College World Series appearance having been in 1969 and their last NCAA Tournament appearance in 1996, safe to say there’s some room for improvement. Last year, 2017, the Minutemen finished with an overall record of 15-29 in their first year with new head coach, Matt Reynolds. I can imagine this is not how coach Reynolds wanted to start his time as the UMass baseball coach, but after filling in for Mike Stone, who had previously coached at UMass for 30 years, Reynolds was in a tough spot, but it seems as though he has the full support of his team. Starting second baseman for the Minutemen, Eddy Hart said, “I believe in everything that Coach Reynolds has to do… he is obviously knowledgeable… and one of the main reasons why I improved on my game last year and a reason the program will move forward.”
As a team last season, UMass has a combined batting average of .245, which was higher than the previous year, according to UMassathletics.com. With a team that wasn’t able to get on base very often, the long ball can be a solution, but for UMass, finishing with a total of 12 HR’s for the entire team, this wasn’t the case. Hitting seemed to be a major issue for the Minutemen this past baseball season but it wasn’t because of lack of talent.
Eddy Hart, the junior starting second baseman for the UMass baseball team, is an extremely talented player. According to UMassathletics.com, Hart finished with a team best .298 average with 4 HR’s and 20 runs batted in. Hart started all 44 games at second and was the cornerstone of the offense last year. Hart grew up in Middleboro, Massachusetts, while at his local high school, he won many awards and showed a very promising future in baseball. “Middleboro is a baseball town… the guys that have come out of Middleboro… have been phenomenal… I think it helped me because of the culture they have of success on the diamond… there’s no place for losing back home.” Playing in the Patriot League at Middleboro High School, Hart won a League MVP award, got named the ESPN player of the week as well as appearing on the ESPN All-State Team. Eddy has been a bright spot for any team he has played for in the baseball world, and that hasn’t changed at UMass.
“I expect myself to improve on everything,” Hart said. “I want to be more consistent.” In his junior year now, this team must rally behind Hart and play as well as he has during his time at UMass in order to reach the goal of winning the Atlantic 10.
Hart won’t be alone in his quest to bring the A-10 title back to Amherst. Junior outfielder Nolan Kessinger, will be right there beside him in the effort. Kessinger, according UMassathletics.com, was second on the team with a .285 batting average while knocking in a team-high 27 RBI’s. Similarly to Hart, Kessinger has had great success in his baseball life, which included leading his high school, Algonquin high school, to a league title his senior year. Kessinger is the lead-off man for the Minutemen, with Hart following right behind.
What is important for this UMass squad if they want success this year is to get the middle half of the order cooking in order knock in Kessinger and Hart when they get on base.
As for the pitching staff, it also wasn’t great. In the 44 games played last season, the UMass pitching staff had a combined ERA of 5.46, which helps explain their record of 15-29. It would be wrong to say that the pitching staff is the sole reason why the Minutemen have had some tough years recently, but with an offensive that inconsistently scores and a pitching staff that inconsistently pitches well, you have an inconsistent team.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t have talent on the pitching staff, the 6’4”, 210 lb. right-hander, Justin Lasko, performed very well in his 82 innings pitched last year. Finishing with a record of 5-4 with a team-best 2.52 ERA, according to UMassathletics.com. Lasko is on pace to have another great year, if not better as his season year soon begins. Lasko was the Friday starter for all last year, meaning that he was considered their “ace”, which is very well deserved.
“Lasko will be good for us again this year… I’m really happy to have him back for another year.” Hart said. What seems most promising for the UMass pitching staff this upcoming season is sophomore right-hander Sean Harney. Harney worked his way into the rotation for UMass by the end of the season. The then freshman posted a 3.46 ERA in his 12 appearances during the year but displayed himself as a soon to be ace in the upcoming years with a conference best, 2.53 ERA in conferences games for freshman according to UMassathletics.com. When asked about Harney, Hart said “Harney is younger, and he will continue to grow into his potential and mature as a pitcher.” Likewise, Harney held opposing hitters to a .216 batting average and by the middle to end of the year, he was showing his ability to make opposing hitters swing and miss.
As for what the UMass faithful can see from the boys on the diamond this year, Hart said “Things are changing here for the program, from the top to the bottom… we are trying to create a different culture, and it feels different than what it has been before. We workout like dogs during the week… I don’t know if there’s any other teams out there doing what we do every day.”
As for Hart’s keys to UMass changing the culture, “Consistency, accountability and sacrifice and we’re moving towards getting good at those things.”
It might be another long year for the UMass fans and it could be a while until the Minutemen have another top tier sports team but don’t count out UMass baseball having a bounce back year. If the surrounding pieces can compliment the strong top of the order and if the rest of the pitching staff can back the top of the rotation, this UMass team could be a team that other A-10 schools don’t want to play. As for someone to watch out for this season, Hart said “I don’t think I’m really one to point out names… I’m a team guy.” But “If I had to say one, I would probably say be on the lookout for Anthony Videtto.” Videtto is redshirt freshman pitcher from Kingston, MA who was twice named Patriot League MVP in HS. The pieces might not all be there for the Minutemen to win the A-10 but with the pieces they have, this team could easily make some noise.