Injuries and youth damper UB Bulls baseball first half of season
In the preseason, the baseball team’s head coach Ron Torgalski expected the team would need time to grow. The Bulls were expecting an influx of starting underclassmen in the new lineup.
But 21 games and two Mid-American Conference series down, the Bulls are “a bit behind schedule,” according to Torgalski.
Entering the halfway point of the regular season, the Bulls stand with a record of 7-14 overall and 2-4 in the Mid-American Conference. Injuries to key position players throughout the season have plagued the team all year and are a factor in the Bulls’ slow start.
When asked about the combination of youth and injuries, Torgalski chuckled and mentioned the catcher position as one of his examples.
“At one point, we had to switch over two starting position players to play catcher and actually play them,” Torgalski said. “Against Bucknell, we had to switch over [sophomore first baseman Vinny Mallaro] and play him and in a mid-week game against Canisius, we had to play [freshman outfielder Mitchell Machi] because of our injuries.”
Entering the regular season, the Bulls were in a midst of a three-man competition for the starting catcher position. Junior Kyle Brennan won the job, but he and freshman Andrew Taft are both out for the season with injuries, leaving senior Justin Gonzalez as the primary catcher.
Gonzalez ranks second on the team in doubles (3), walks (11) and ranks fourth on the team in on-base percentage at .371. Torgalski said Gonzalez’s increased playing time has resulted in “better production at the plate” and while he isn’t “knocking them over the wall,” Gonzalez’s presence has been “a surprise.”
Torgalski said his young team has to enter practice and games to “play every pitch.”
“We’re still learning,” Torgalski said. “Earlier in the season, we didn’t come in ready everyday. We took pitches off. Now, the staff and I are starting to see the glimmers of hope. We’re coming in and making every pitch count now, and we see the growth of our position players.”
As of March 30, The Bulls rank 11th in the conference in batting average, with their .231 total outranking only Toledo’s .223 mark. The Bulls are last in the conference in home runs with four.
Despite the low offensive totals, Torgalski said his team has “no excuses” despite injuries.
One player that has produced on the position player side is junior outfielder Nick Sinay. The junior is currently first on the team in hits (25), walks (14), runs (18) batting average (.338) and on-base percentage (.500), playing in all 21 games this season.
Sinay is also leading the conference in stolen bases with 16.
Torgalski lauded Sinay’s play to start the season, calling him an “excellent” leadoff hitter for the team and a “threat to steal a base whenever he gets on.”
Mallaro, who was expected to assume first base responsibilities after playing right field last season, is now back in the outfield. Mallaro played just eight games this season due to injuries. The junior returned in last week’s road series against Ball State. In his absence, freshman infielder Ben Vey has played first base and ranks sixth on the team with a .357 on-base percentage.
In his return, Mallaro finished 2 for 11 with a grand slam in three games against Ball State. Torgalski said that he’s keeping Mallaro in right field to “improve the position offensively.”
At the start of the season, junior shortstop Bobby Sheppard was a player to watch. After an early 3-14 slump to start the season, Sheppard has recovered, leading the team in RBI with 14, as well as ranking second in runs (12) and hits (21) on the season.
Torgalski said he thinks Sheppard can take a step forward once he’s 100 percent healthy.
“Sheppard started out slow, but he’s playing well now,” Torgalski said. “He had surgery in January, so he’s still adjusting while not playing 100 percent. Defensively, he’s been great and he’s already starting to figure it out at the plate.”
While the Bulls offense has struggled, the pitching, statistically, has been worse. Buffalo currently sports the worst ERA in the conference at 5.38 and is tied for 10th with seven wins.
Torgalski said “changes were made” to the rotation and his bullpen has been solid.
“Our pitching has been solid the last couple of weeks,” Torgalski said. “We originally had [junior Ben Hartz] as a weekend starter, but we moved him back to the bullpen. He’s helped our bullpen, along with sophomore pitchers Mike Kaelin and Alec Tuohy.”
With Hartz out of the rotation, Torgalski has placed sophomore pitcher Brent Cleland into the weekend rotation, along with senior starting pitchers Mike McGee and Anthony Magovney. Torgalski said he wants them to “keep them in ball games.”
Heading into the second half of the season, Torgalski said the team will have to continue to play and practice hard and better health “wouldn’t hurt” either.
“Moving forward, I want us to play more consistent baseball,” Torgalski said. “The injuries have hurt, but all we can wish for is better health in the second half. We’ve made strides on both sides of the ball … once we get to get on our field and work on our defense, I hope to have a much better second half.
The Bulls will kick off the second half of the season with a three-game series against Ohio (14-12, 2-4 MAC). The three-game series will start Saturday and conclude Sunday.
First pitch is set for 4 p.m.