When Boston College athletics moved to the ACC and began baseball play in 2006, many raised their eyebrows, skeptical BC could effectively compete in one of the nation's toughest conferences.
After all, the Eagles hadn't made a single post season appearance since Eddie Pellagrini took the 1967 squad all the way to the College World Series. Furthermore, the climate is cold and snowy over the season's first month or two, the Northeast offers a relatively light recruiting base and the baseball facility was easily the worst in the conference.
Last year the ACC was as strong as ever. Six teams won 40 or more games. Florida State and Louisville both advanced to Omaha. Six players were taken in the 1st round of the MLB draft, and 75 overall, by far the most in ACC history. Louisville's Brandon McKay won the Golden Spikes award, 10 players were All-American's. You get the picture. The ACC is no picnic
Head Coach Mike Gambino isn't one to shy away from challenges. As a player here between 1997-2000, the 5'9" Gambino was a scrappy second baseman who hit .366 as a senior, battled for an incredibly low 5.6% strikeout rate and was named an All-Big East performer. He also played in The Cape for Orleans, where he was a fan favorite for his hustle and will to win.
After graduation, Gambino signed with the Red Sox as an undrafted free agent, spending two years in their farm system before hanging up the cleats and returning to the Heights in 2003, as an assistant coach under Pete Hughes.
He then followed Hughes to Virginia Tech as an assistant from 2007-2010 before coming home to lead the Eagle program, being named head coach on July 19th, 2010.
Watching Gambino run practice and you clearly see his passion and determination to make BC a winner. He's constantly offering tips and instruction coupled with a heavy dose of positive reinforcement while fostering a supportive, tight-knit, us-again-them culture.
His approach paid off big in 2016 when the Eagles busted out nationally, sweeping the Oxford, MS regional before pushing Miami to the brink of elimination in a raucous three-game Super Regional. That season marked the deepest post-season run in 49 years and ended with a consensus top-25 ranking.
Last year the Eagles backslid after losing two cornerstone pitchers from that '16 team, Justin Dunn (1st round, Mets) and Mike King (12th round, Miami), finishing 25-28 overall and 11-19 in the ACC.
This year they lose three '17 regulars in two-way star Donovan Casey (20th round, Los Angeles Dodgers), four-year starting shortstop Johnny Adams (22nd round, Seattle) and veteran OF Micheal Strem.
The focus this fall is "to get really good at situational baseball, at game speed", says Gambino."When we're good here, we pitch, battle 1-9 in the order, hit situationally, run the bases well & play great defense".
Several key offensive weapons return, led by the versatile Jake Alu and catcher Gian Martellini.
The lefty swinging Alu hit .342 in conference play, striking out only 16 times in 114 at-bats while stealing 4 bags. He can also pick it defensively, flashing soft hands and plenty of arm this fall at both 3B and SS. He'll also see time in the outfield.
Expectations are high for talented junior catcher Martellini. The one-time Vanderbilt commit slashed .305/.383/.486 in the ACC while leading the team in doubles (14) , homers (5) & slugging (.474). Gambino believes the athletic 6'1" 208lb backstop has even more to offer with the bat and glove and could be one of the ACC's best catchers this season.
A key for Martellini will be reduce some swing and miss tendencies, as his strikeout rate was 30% in the spring (192 at bats) and 36% in 87 at-bats in The Cape with Cotuit. If he's able to put the ball in play with a bit more frequency, Martellini will be a feared hitter with game changing ability.
Speedy infielder Jake Palomaki returns for his senior season as a gritty veteran who regularly cranks out quality at-bats. In conference last season Palomaki posted a 1.23 walk-to-strikeout ratio and a .425 on base percentage and scored a team second-best 18 runs in just 70 at-bats.
Over the summer Palomaki played for Chatham in The Cape and while he hit only .195 in 133 AB's, he walked more than he struck out and led the Anglers in runs scored. He's an unquestioned locker room leader and a great role model for younger BC players.
Defense is the calling card of returning senior 1st baseman/LHP Mitch Bigras. "He's a game changer defensively" says Gambino. "If there's a better defensive 1B in the country, I want to see him".
The 6'6", 215lb Bigras made 52 starts last year, slashing .208/.270/.300 with 28 RBI. The ball jumps off his easy lefty swing with some natural lift. He seems capable of more than the two homers he hit last season.
The towering southpaw projects well on the mound and was effective in limited 2017 action, making 5 appearances giving up only one hit in 5.1IP, whiffing seven.Gambino believes he will ultimately get drafted as a pitcher.
Another slick infield defender is sophomore Brian Dempsey, who returns after hitting .253 in conference despite playing the second half with a torn thumb ligament that eventually required surgery. Dempsey showed no ill-effects in the field this fall, flashing advanced instincts, soft hands and a good arm. He's a smooth operator at either 3B, SS or 2B.
Senior 3B Anthony Maselli is one to watch. According to Gambino, he's been on the cusp of breaking through but for whatever reason has yet to fully emerge.This could be the year.
Maselli is an athletic 6'1", 195lbs with easy actions in the field. Over 19 starts and 59 at-bats Maselli slashed .203/.237/.304 but seemed to come into his own this summer in the Coastal Plain League, hitting 7 homers while stealing 30 bags without getting caught once.
Another solid bat belongs to physical OF Jacob Yish, who hit .296 in conference play while driving in 11 runs in just 54 at bats.
A clear breakout candidate this spring is two-way player Jack Cunningham. The 6'2", 185LB Cunningham carries himself with confidence and possesses a silky smooth left handed stroke with power potential. He moves well in the outfield with plenty of arm strength. His ceiling appears high.
Last year's top recruit OF Dante Baldelli remains somewhat of a mystery after struggling mightily in his first season, hitting just .085 in 17 starts. There's no question the speedy, 6'4", 175 Baldelli has some raw tools. It's just about turning those tools into consistent productivity. He's being held out of fall workouts to nurse a hip ailment.
One freshman to watch is OF Chris Galland, who's "made more progress than anyone this fall" according to Gambino. He's a dynamic runner with legit 6.5 speed who can make things happen on the bases and track down balls in outfield gaps.
Another freshman is 6'2", 205lb 1B Reyce Curmane. There's power in his bat, evidenced by a long homer he blasted during the workout I witnessed.
On the mound, the Eagles return all 30 ACC starts from a year ago with a staff Gambino believes to be his deepest in years.
Two weekend slots seem nailed down in RHP Jacob Stevens and LHP Dan Metzdorf.
Stevens has a commanding presence on the hill, given his 6'3", 221lb frame. Nicknamed "Bear", Stevens will look to improve on a 6.34 ERA in the ACC over 55.1 innings of work. He made seven starts in The Cape with Chatham, tossing 25 innings, posting a 4.32 ERA and walking 15.
Metzdorf is a crafty, pitch-to-contact lefty who made ten ACC starts, posting a 5.74 ERA. He was a Cape League teammate of Stevens this past summer and was impressive, going 3-0 over 12 relief appearances with a 2.41 ERA.
Senior Brian Rapp returns after making 8 ACC starts, going 2-3 with a 5.27 ERA over 56.1 innings. He'll surely eat more innings in 2018, either as a starter or in relief.
RHP Jack Nelson flashed good stuff a year ago, making six starts, throwing 37.1 innings in notching a 2.41 ERA and .203 batting average against. He followed up that season with an successful summer in the NECBL.
Gambino is high on 6'5" junior RHP John Witkowski who gained valuable experience in '17, throwing 32.2IP but with a 19/15 walk-per-strikeout ratio. Witkowski then went to The Cape with Harwich and showed vastly improved command, walking only 6 over 27 innings while whiffing 24. Witkowski could jump into a starting role this spring and significantly bolster the staff.
Senior leader and lefthander Carmen Giampetruzzi had his moments a year ago, finishing with a 3.66 ERA over 19.2 innings, striking out 21.
Perhaps the plumb recruit this season is 6'2", 190lb RHP Jack Hodgson, who throws through a 3/4 slot with a drop-and-drive delivery. His arm is live, with significant arm-side run and a biting 12-6 curve ball. He'll likely be in the mix to start as the season progresses.
For years BC 's home has been Pellagrini Diamond at Shea Field, or the "Bird Cage" to those close to the program. And while the team embraced and defended their house with pride, it left much to be desired as a legitimate D1 facility. One glaring shortcoming was the inability to accommodate video broadcasts. While all other ACC team's games were streamed regularly on ESPN3, BC literally played in the dark. Not exactly a recruiting asset.
After more than a decade of talks and planning, BC has finally broken ground on a much needed new ballpark. As part of a $200M athletic facilities improvement plan, the new ballpark will offer 1000 chair back seats, berms for casual viewing from the right and left field corners and a press box with media suites and, yes, video capability.
Significantly, the park will sport an all-weather playing surface, meaning fewer cancelations or need to travel to other all-weather ballparks in the region to play "home" games, common practice in previous years
The plan is to complete the ball park in time for the 2018 season. You can keep abreast of construction developments by clicking this live video cam of the Brighton Fields Facility
2018 Outlook: The Eagles have an experienced roster hungry for another post-season appearance. The offense will feature speed and the ability to grind out runs. A surge in power from the likes of Bigras and Cunningham would be a welcome and needed compliment to Martellini.
Defensively, the Eagles should be solid with the luxury of several multi-positional fielders who can really pick it, like Alu, Dempsey and Palomaki.
The season rests on the further development of a deep but largely unproven pitching staff that yielded a .284 batting average against and 5.2 walks per 9 innings in ACC play. Gambino and pitching coach Alex Trezza have many good options to compliment the Stevens/Metzdorf/Rapp core and are looking for several to step up and deal effectively in conference play.
Finally, one can't underestimate the value and meaning of a new ballpark for Boston College. It gives the program a stamp of ACC legitimacy, will undoubtedly improve recruiting while welcoming even more fan support.
This program is headed in the right direction. If the '18 Eagles stay healthy, see the emergence of younger players and get improved pitching, they can jump up in the ACC and return to a regional for just the third time in 51 years.
2018 Boston College Schedule