Feb. 19, 2008
ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Looking at the steps forward the Navy baseball program has taken in the last-two years under head coach Paul Kostacopoulos, there's reason for excitement in Annapolis. The Midshipmen welcome back 17 letterwinners from a 2007 squad that won a school-record 35 games and advanced to the Patriot League Tournament for the first time since 2003.
As it has been the case for each of Kostacopoulos's years with the Mids, Navy is looking to make the next jump and play in the NCAA Tournament for the ninth time in program history and first time since 2002.
"We are close in being where we want to go from last year," stated Kostacopoulos. "There are some big variables that face us in 2008. This year's sophomore class received a lot of playing time as freshmen and it's time to see how much they improved. The improvement I'm looking for is not only physical , but the mental aspect of the game and being able to compete in a 50-plus game season.
"Our senior class this year has plenty of experience. Thomas Hamilton, Mitch Harris, Mark McCoy and Renaldo Hollins all have played significantly since their freshman year. What kind of seasons they put together will be the key for us in having a successful season."
Perhaps the strongest area in 2007 and expected to be again in 2008 for Navy is its starting rotation. The Midshipmen return all four weekend starters from a season ago and two others that developed as the year progressed and could see additional action this spring in a mid-week role.
"With all four weekend starters coming back from last year, there's no reason to make any changes with this group," stated Kostacopoulos. "These four guys have proved to be durable performers on the weekend. With that being said, Kyle Millerd and Alec Thomas have emerged and could give us what we need in a starting role if one of our four starters hit a rough stretch."
Anchoring the rotation as the staff ace for the third-straight year will be two-time All-American Mitch Harris
. Over his first-three seasons in Annapolis, the hard-throwing, 6'4" right-hander is 18-11 with a 2.32 ERA in 186.1 innings with 254 strikeouts. As a junior, the product of Mt. Holly, N.C., produced an 8-5 mark with a 2.14 ERA in 88.1 innings with 119 strikeouts to earn Second-Team All-Patriot League kudos. He was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 24th round of the 2007 MLB First-Year Player Draft and spent the summer playing for the Bourne Braves of the prestigious Cape Cod League.
A weekend starter in each of his first-three years with Navy, Mark McCoy has proven to be a clutch performer in the key situations. The right-hander from Parkland, Fla., delivered back-to-back nine-inning complete games against Army and Bucknell last season to help the Mids earn a spot in the Patriot League Tournament. Overall in 2007, he went 8-4 with a 4.35 ERA in 80.2 innings with 62 strikeouts.
As freshmen in 2007, Oliver Drake and Yale Eckert stepped up and immediately served as quality weekend starters. Drake, a 6'4" right-hander from Gardner, Mass., started 10 contests and finished the year with a 3-3 mark and 3.22 ERA in 67.0 innings. He allowed only 63 hits while striking out a Navy freshman record 52 batters. Eckert, a towering 6'7" left-hander from La Selva Beach, Calif., produced a 4-2 record and a 4.07 ERA in 42.0 innings with 25 strikeouts. He displayed excellent command all season, as he did not issue more than two walks in any appearance and walked only nine all year.
Despite combining for 17.2 innings of work last season, Alec Thomas and Kyle Millerd proved to considerable options heading into the spring. Thomas boasted a 2.57 ERA in 14.0 innings and allowed only 13 hits, while Millerd struck out 10 batters in just 3.2 innings and scattered three base knocks.
The Navy relief staff brings back many key elements from a group that won seven games, saved 11 more and logged 149.0 innings of work, in addition to the corps of newcomers that could compete right away for the Mids in 2008.
"We have a big role to fill, as we had a great commodity in James Lee last year. However, we have most of the nucleus of a bullpen that did its job most of the time in 2007 returning this season."
As was the case in 2007, the Mids will have no problem turning the ball over to JD Melton in the late innings of close contests. Melton, who transferred from Wofford College (S.C.) in the summer of 2006 after earning Freshman All-America honors, was recognized as a Second-Team All-Patriot League reliever in his first campaign with Navy last spring. The deceptive right-hander finished the year with a 3-2 record with nine saves and a 2.45 ERA in 19 relief appearances, logging 29.1 innings and striking out 17 batters.
Kevin Heasley has proven to be a dependable left-handed reliever in each of his first-three years in Annapolis. In 31 career outings, he is 2-1 with 44.2 innings pitched with only 13 walks and 28 strikeouts. Jonathan Berkowitz could get more action in 2008 after posting a 3.18 ERA in 11.1 innings with 11 strikeouts during his rookie season last spring. Left-handers Ridge Alkonis and Chris Murray were both summoned on a number of occasions as freshmen last year and will be expected to work several innings in 2008. Wes Olson, a freshman right-hander, worked his way into a middle relief role during the fall practices and could immediately produce for the Mids.
"I feel good about JD Melton's work last year," stated Kostacopoulos. "He did a nice job in several critical moments. Jonathan Berkowitz has good stuff and three pitches at his disposal if he can work ahead. Kevin Heasley is a reliable left-hander that you know exactly what you're going to get out of him. Wes Olson was very impressive this fall and we think he'll contribute right away for us. Chris Murray and Ridge Alkonis are two left-handed options that will get some outs for us this spring."
While the Navy pitching staff has flourished over the last-two years, the work that has been done by the catchers cannot be overlooked in establishing that success. In 2008, the Midshipmen bring back the services of Steven Soares and Joshua Martinez, who combined to start all 55 games last spring.
As a freshman in 2007, Soares earned the starting nod 44 times, gunned down 28.0 percent of all base stealers and picked off three runners, all while allowing only three passed balls. At the plate, Soares hit .240 (31-for-129) with six doubles and 16 RBIs. The product of Coral Springs, Fla., was very patient in the batter's box, as he walked 21 times and posted a .373 on-base percentage.
"Steven Soares did a solid job as a plebe and is a real competitor," said Kostacopoulos. "He did a real good hob blocking balls, controlling base runners and receiving. Pitchers like throwing to him. His arm strength is good and has a decent release that could be quicker. Offensively, he needs to get better and is certainly capable of doing so with his experience."
With Martinez starting behind the dish, the Midshipmen produced an 8-3 record. Martinez belted six doubles and drove in 10 runs while batting .244 (22-for-90) as a sophomore in 2007. The native of Denver, Colo., swung the bat well during the fall and could also see significant action as a designated hitter. Jeff Bland, a freshman from Basking Ridge, N.J., has also impressed the coaches and could see some playing time this spring.
"Joshua Martinez does a good job every time he comes in," stated Kostacopoulos. "We just need Joshua to get back to his freshman form in terms of offensive production. Jeff Bland is a freshman we think highly of. He needs to improve in order to be a solid Division I catcher."
One year after posting a .952 fielding percentage and more than 40 double plays turned, the Navy infield welcomes back two starters and several contributors, in addition to a solid incoming class that will get the chance to produce right away.
Team captain Thomas Hamilton produced an outstanding junior season in which he was named a First-Team All-Patriot League first baseman. In Patriot League play, he owned a .408 (29-for-71) batting average, the second-highest mark in the league, behind only teammate Michael Garcia. Hamilton, a native of Houston, Texas, completed the year with a .345 batting average with nine doubles, one triple, one home run and 31 RBIs. He also displayed great discipline at the plate, leading the team with a .442 on-base percentage.
"Thomas Hamilton truly got better as the season progressed last year," said Kostacopoulos. "He became a pretty good defensive first baseman and needs to continue what he's doing. He had a big role to fill, asking him to hold up the middle of the order."
At second base, Matthew Curley emerged as the starter during fall workouts after a developmental freshman campaign. He played in 21 games and hit .160 (4-for-25) with a .323 on-base percentage. The flashy middle infielder from Boston, Mass., could also see some action at shortstop in 2008. Mike Guadagnini, a freshman from Virginia Beach, Va., had a great fall by coaches accounts and could see time at second or third base.
"Matthew Curley is steadily getting better defensively," stated Kostacopoulos. "He can turn the double play and make some plus plays. He just needs to make more routine plays."
Coming into his first-collegiate season, Nick Driscoll will be counted on to shoulder much of the load at shortstop. The product of Riverview, Fla., has impressed the coaching staff with his ability to move well at the position despite spending his high school career primarily as an outfielder.
"Nick Driscoll is an exceptional athlete," Kostacopoulos said. "We're not quite sure what we're going to get out of him. He has converted from playing outfield in high school, so we're pushing the envelope. However, he has handled the adjustment to Division I baseball and the Naval Academy very well."
At the hot corner, Kendall Bolt will get the bulk of the action after spending his freshman campaign starting at third base and shortstop. The native of Stockton, Calif., started in 40 games and hit .213 (30-for-141) with five doubles, one home run, 16 RBIs and four stolen bases last year.
"Some of Kendall Bolt's skills came out during the spring last year," Kostacopoulos stated. "He charges the ball well, has a good first step and a strong arm. Offensively, he needs to use all the experience from last year to improve."
The play of Navy's outfielders last season was stellar, committing only four errors all year and making several key plays. Fortunately for the Mids in 2008, Navy brings back nearly the exact same group from a year ago and welcomes several talented freshmen that could contribute in many ways.
The linchpin of Navy's outfield cast for the fourth-consecutive season will be centerfielder Renaldo Hollins. A dependable defensive player that has great range, Hollins did not commit an error in 118 chances during 54 games last season, several of which were catches on the run to prevent runs from scoring. On the offensive side, the native of Virginia Beach, Va., batted .277 (59-for-213) with seven doubles, two triples, 16 RBIs and 20 stolen bases.
Two Navy freshmen could also come in and receive some action in center, as Jonathan Wright and Casey Talbot both impressed the coaches in the fall. Wright was a two-time All-Western North Carolina selection in high school, while Talbot was named a 2006 PUMA High School All-American.
"Renaldo Hollins is an outstanding defensive player," said Kostacopoulos. "He's one of the best running catch guys I've ever coached. He can really play gap-to-gap, gets great jumps and has great instincts to the ball. We need him to become more of an offensive threat. He's got to make some contact and put the ball in play, move runners and use his speed.
"I'm also very comfortable with Jonathan Wright and Casey Talbot playing centerfield. Jonathan is rock solid -- he runs and throws well, makes contact, has a short swing and gets to the ball. Casey just needs a little more playing experience to make the adjustment to college baseball. It's huge to have depth at center, so we can spell Renaldo for a game or two."
At the corner outfield positions, Navy will interchange several players. The most powerful bat to return to the mix in 2008 is Mitch Harris, who belted 10 doubles, four triples and eight home runs with 47 RBIs and a .293 batting average (51-for-174) last spring. The product of Mt. Holly, N.C., became just the second player in school history to register a home run in back-to-back-to-back games. In addition to playing in the outfield, Harris could serve as a first baseman or designated hitter in games where he does not start on the mound.
"Mitch Harris will play in the outfield when necessary," stated Kostacopoulos. "He needs to be used appropriately with the younger guys to develop the consistency we need. He has to make some adjustments to get the ball in play. With his strength, he could really help us in the middle of the order."
Michael Speciale and Mike Hoosier were both thrust into a starting role as freshmen one season ago and made the most of their opportunities. Speciale, who played in both left and right field, batted .274 (37-for-135) with five doubles and 16 RBIs in 40 contests. Hoosier, who primarily covered the territory in left field, belted six doubles and drove in 20 runs while hitting .220 (24-for-109) in 37 games.
Also figuring into the mix in left field and possibly designated hitter is newcomer Eddie Diaz. A native of North Myrtle Beach, S.C., Diaz batted .439 and struck out only three times in 83 at bats during his senior year to earn all-state accolades.
"Michael Speciale and Mike Hoosier could be good offensive weapons for us," Kostacopoulos said. "Both played a lot as freshman and produced some respectable numbers. But they must get better and that's what we expect from them.
"Eddie Diaz could see some time to develop at the collegiate baseball level. He's a left-handed bat that could potentially become our designated hitter."