UB baseball optimistic despite preseason rankings
Marred by injuries last year, Buffalo looks to rise to prominence
Mid-American Conference coaches aren’t thinking too highly of the Buffalo baseball team’s chances this season.
The preseason coaches’ poll predicted the Bulls to finish last in the MAC East and second last in the entire conference.
This isn’t discouraging for Bulls head coach Ron Torgalski. He hopes his team uses it as motivation.
“We have a bunch of coaches that are telling you, ‘I didn’t think your guys were that good,’” Torgalski said. “Hopefully, our guys take that personally and come out and say, ‘Hey, we can play at this level.’”
The Bulls are preparing to open the 2016 season with a three-game tournament this weekend in Davidson, North Carolina. And despite the pessimistic view outsiders may have about the team, which finished just 16-35 last season, the Bulls had a sense of optimism about them during a two-hour practice filled with live-batting, fielding drills and conditioning in the North Amherst Recreation Center on Wednesday afternoon.
“Last year was last year,” said junior and starting third baseman Chris Kwitzer. “No pressure. We should surprise some teams this year.”
The team was decimated by injuries last season. Nearly half of the projected everyday starters and pitchers were injured at some point of the season.
Even though the team is healthier than last season, Buffalo is still missing some key players to start the season. Last week, junior catcher Kyle Brennan injured his wrist attempting to take down a batting cage during practice and is expected to miss the first month of the season. Junior pitcher Brent Cleland – the projected ace of the rotation – is expected be out until April with a shoulder injury.
But the depth of the Bulls impresses the injured Brennan. He said the success of the team will start with the success of the pitching staff.
He had the opportunity to catch for many of the pitchers before his injury, and he said this year’s team has a much deeper bullpen and more complete starters.
Brennan is excited to see what sophomore pitcher Charlie Sobieraski can do. Sobieraski, a converted infielder, made four appearances on the mound last season. Brennan said he’s made tremendous strides from last season, has a “fluid” rotation and is currently developing his slider for this upcoming season.
Both Brennan and Torgalski are also excited to see what junior pitcher Mike Kaelin can do also.
Kaelin is one of the most touted pitchers on the team. He had the lowest ERA of any Bulls pitcher last season with a 3.32 ERA and held opposing batters to a .177 average. His velocity continues to climb and is expected to throw in the 91-93 range this season.
He will assume late relief and closer duties this season. Torgalski thinks Kaelin is most effective when he throws 2-3 innings at a time.
“He has the attitude, the demeanor, the temperament to be a back-end guy,” Torgalski said. “His velocity keeps climbing. I think he can be very effective for us.”
Torgalski also mentioned this may be Kaelin’s final year with the program. There’s a chance Kaelin will be drafted into the MLB during this summer’s Amateur Draft. He would be the fourth Buffalo player in five years to leave the program early to pursue a professional career.
The most recent was Nick Sinay. The former Bulls outfielder and UB all-time steals leader was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays during last year’s draft and opted to take the deal and leave UB early. The Minnesota Twins drafted former Bulls third baseman Tyler Maunter in 2014.
“If Sinay and Mautner stayed in school,” Torgalski said, “they’re hitting 1 and 4 in our lineup.”
But Torgalski thinks he has a replacement for the speedy Sinay: Alex Thrower, a junior outfielder and JUCO transfer from Toronto, who has many of the same tools that Sinay had. He’s a threat on the base path and plays a solid center field. He’s prone to getting on base in every way possible, including hit by pitches, walks and singles.
“I wouldn’t say replace. We play similar games,” Thrower said. “I’ve spoken to [Sinay] since he’s been back. I’ve picked his brain. Not nervous about stepping into that role, I just have to play my game and do what I can do.”
Thrower is the only everyday player who was not with the team last season. Everyone else has had at least one season of experience under them.
With everyone from the starting lineup returning, it gives Buffalo more depth than it has had in quite some time. Buffalo failed to make the MAC Torunament last season after making it the previous two seasons. Injuries and lack of depth have been the problem ever since.
The losing notion may very well change this season.
“We’re a very well-rounded team,” said sophomore infielder Ben Haefner. “We have talent everywhere – talented arms, talented bats, talented fielders. We won  games last year, but we have a lot of belief in ourselves.”
Buffalo’s first game of the season takes place on Friday afternoon at the Davidson Tournament in Davidson, North Carolina. The Bulls will take on Air Force in their first game, followed by Davidson and Marist in consecutive days.
Friday’s first pitch is for set 2 p.m.
Quentin Haynes and Michael Akelson contributed reporting
Jordan Grossman is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jordanmgrossman.