The day "Rhody Ball" was born. Nationally.
June 3, 2016.
Picture a packed Founders Park on a warm 2016 June night, with 7000+ rabid South Carolina Gamecock fans primed for their team's opening game in the Columbia Regional.
It's the #1 seed from mighty SEC vs the #4 seed from #24 ranked RPI conference Atlantic 10, a program without a single post-season win the programs 118-year history. The University of Rhode Island.
In the bottom of the 1st, the Gamecocks rocked Ram All-American lefty Tyler Wilson, belting two homers for a 3-0 lead, electrifying the Founders Faithful who could sense an early knockout.
Then, down 4-0 in the top of the 4th and seemingly out of nowhere, Rams Ryan Olmo and Brett McManus torched stud right-hander Clarke Schmidt for back-to-back homers on consecutive pitches, quieting the crowd.
Wilson immediately whiffed three 'Cock batters on nine pitches in the next frame, returning the now warming Ram bats back to face a shaken Schmidt. Promptly, they added three more runs for a 5-4 lead, sent Schmidt to the showers and held on for the landmark victory.
Just like that, Rhode Island shocked the college baseball world, notching their first ever post season win and putting "Rhody Ball" on the national map.
I recently visited the Kingston, RI campus twice to catch up with Coach Cerrato and watch Fall workouts, including Scout Day on October 2nd.
Head Coach Rapheal Cerrato, known simply as "Raph" in the baseball world, enters his fourth year at the helm. He took over first as interim head coach in July, 2014 after the stunning resignation and departure of Jim Foster to become a top assistant at Boston College. The interim tag was lifted a year later.
The affable Cerrato brings palpable positivity and enthusiasm to Rhody Ball every day, creating an environment for everyone, and I mean everyone, associated with the program to "have fun, compete hard and get after it. That's just how I am. I want positive people everywhere". Having played here from 1989-93, including serving as captain, there's no question Raph loves this place.
Following that landmark 2016 Regional game win, and with virtually everyone returning from the Columbia experience, 2017 looked to be an even bigger year for the Rams. Expectations were high.
It just wasn't to be.
In early March, Wilson was shelved with a labrum injury and never returned. Injuries decimated the catching position, forcing five different players to spend time behind the plate. There was also significant personal hardship in the Ram family off the field.
Remarkably, Cerrato still coaxed a 17-6 Atlantic-10 record out of the squad.
Looking toward 2018, there's no doubt Cerrato is excited about his team. In fact, he had to consciously tamp down his enthusiasm a bit while we talked. As a savvy baseball man, Raph knows you don't win games in October.
Leading the way, at least early, will be a deep, experienced and talented pitching staff that returns 52/53 starts and posted an A-10 second best 2.54 ERA.
Most newsworthy is the return of the 6'4", 225lb Wilson, who's labrum SLAP injury was allowed to heal without surgery. Remarkably, according to Cerrato, Wilson has claimed his shoulder hasn't felt quite right for the last three years, including his insane 2016 season when he went 13-1 with a 2.29 ERA, 0.84 WHIP .
With seven full months of rest, it's possible Wilson will be healthier than ever come opening day of 2018. That's a scary proposition for the Atlantic 10 conference.
Wilson has looked comfortable in his early work this fall, sitting high 80's with his fastball dotting both sides. His breaking stuff looked a bit rusty, but that's not surprising at this juncture.
Click here to see Wilson's delivery at Fall Ball Scout Day, 2017
Looking at the rest of the staff, an intriguing arm is that of physical 6'3", 205 pounder Nick Johnson, who split time between starting (10) and the bullpen last year. He fires straight over-the-top gas with some arm-side run and seems well suited for shorter bursts of firepower, like he flashed for Bourne on The Cape this past summer. In 10 relief appearances over 19.1 innings, Johnson blew away 23 CCBL batters.
Also impressive on Scout Day were fellow seniors LHP Dom Grillo (27 IP, 7BB/27K, .183 BAA) a zone pounder with a sneaky heater and RHP Taso Stathopoulus (24.1 IP, 12BB/19K, .165 BAA) who sports sharp breaking stuff in need of a bit more command.
Shut down for the Fall but primed for a stellar '18 campaigns are four key arms. 2017 weekend starter and Freshman All-American LHP Vitaly Jangols (7-1, 2.23 ERA , .232 BAA) has added strength and likely a few ticks on his fastball. RHP Matt Murphy went 5-4 with a 3.96 ERA and is just getting the hang of this pitching thing. He first toed the rubber just three years ago. Gamer Tyler Barss is the career URI leader in saves while LHP Cam LeFleur flashed advanced secondary stuff over 36.1 relief innings.
The offense is of some concern following the losses of Mike Corin, Matt O'Neil and Chris Hess, who combined for 40 homers, and the leadership of spark plug Martin Figueroa.
Despite this gaping hole in the order, Cerrato really likes his depth and sees 13-14 players, including some key freshmen, getting early playing time in hopes a solid core of regulars emerges before conference play.
Toolsy 6' 0", 215lb CF Jordan Powell seems primed for a breakout year. While he's hit .300 in each of his three prior years, including .349 in '16 and .352 last year, Powell has generated only 32 extra base hits and 3 homers in 601 career at-bats.
Unleashing his power potential and fully tapping into his impressive athleticism is a high priority for the coaching staff. Toward that goal, Powell looks to be in the best physical condition of his life.
Senior OF Matt Foley, an impressive athlete in his own right, hit .243 with four homers while stealing 9 bases last year. He flashed plus defensive skills during Scout Day.
Junior INF Brett McManus has 259 career AB's and seems capable of more than the .238 average and 8 RBI he contributed in '17.
Sophomore catcher Sonny Ulliana made 27 starts, hit .250 in 100 AB's and gained valuable experience in managing the pitching staff
What really stood out on Scout Day was the unveiling of what could be a special recruiting class. Cerrato expects four freshmen to contribute immediately and each have bodies beyond their years.
SS Matt Daller is a legit 6'3", 190 pounder from Malvern Prep in Exeter, PA with good hands and knee bend for someone that size. He also showed a strong, accurate arm, even on the run.
OF Austin White from Portland, Connecticut looks like a prototypical leadoff hitter and plus flycatcher in the outfield. The loose and athletic lefty ran a 6.68 sixty and hit most balls sharply to the pull side.
1B Xavier Vargas from Woodhaven, NY is a 6' 3" and 195lb man child who can really pick it in the field , showed good bat speed and impressive power potential.
3B Joe Fortin from Loyola High School in Los Angeles is a sturdy 5'11" 190lb with good hands and a solid arm. The lefty hitting Fortin stands tall in the box with high hands and flashed good bat speed with natural lift. The ball jumps and carries. Cerrato seems particularly impressed with him and thinks he's a "real smart" player.
Coach Cerrato has posted a 88-73-1 and impressive 53-21 in the A-10 over his three years here, including A-10 Coach of the Year honors in both '15 and '16. Honestly, he probably did an even better job last year under trying circumstances.
The Rams will be tested early as they open with a 3-game series at Texas A&M. A little later they travel to defending National Champion Florida for a series. Other non-conference series include tough cross country trip to Seattle University and down south to face Stetson.
There's no question the young freshmen will be baptized by fire and the Ram record may be ugly going into conference play. However, such a tough slate, all on the road will harden and bond the team for what likely will be a strong conference run.
If Wilson returns to form and a few freshman step up big during conference play, expect to see the Rams in the post season again with a chance to win another Regional game, or more.
2018 Rhode Island schedule