With five games remaining in the regular season, the Washington & Jefferson College baseball team already has clinched its sixth consecutive Presidents’ Athletic Conference regular-season title.
The Presidents (18-2, 23-12) will also be hosting the conference’s tournament, May 8-10, at Ross Memorial Park. The winner will receive an automatic berth in the NCAA Division III tournament.
So with the Presidents locked into the top spot and their most-important games of the season to be played next week and possibly beyond, what does W&J have to play for this week in its five remaining regular-season games?
Plenty, says 11th-year head coach Jeff Mountain.
“There’s still much at stake,” Mountain said.
He’s right. The proof is in the rankings.
Despite participating in the Division III tournament in four of the last five years, dominating PAC rivals this season and winning nine of their last 10 games, the Presidents are not ranked in the Mideast Region. W&J, however, is expected to crack the top 8 when the updated rankings are released Thursday. Staying in the regional rankings is imperative. The higher its ranking, the better chance W&J has of receiving an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament, if the Presidents would have a hiccup in the PAC tourney.
The Presidents will try to continue their late-season momentum and enhance their postseason chances beginning today (4:30 p.m.), when they host Waynesburg in a nine-inning PAC game.
Following a non-conference game Friday at Frostburg State, W&J closes the regular-season with a doubleheader at home Saturday against Saint Vincent and a single game against the Bearcats in Latrobe Sunday.
The Presidents should get the best efforts from both Saint Vincent and Waynesburg. Saint Vincent (11-9, 17-18) is fourth in the PAC standings and Waynesburg (10-10, 14-22) is fifth. The top four finishers qualify for the PAC tournament.
Though Mountain did not mention it as a goal, four more PAC wins will give W&J the conference’s single-season record. The 2012 W&J team won 21 conference games.
The immediate goal, however, is to gain five more victories while setting up the pitching staff for next week’s conference tournament.
“We think we have an idea who our top three or four pitchers are,” Mountain said. “When you get into tournament play, if you fall into the losers’ bracket, then you have to use your entire pitching staff. We want to give guys opportunities this week. Plus, we potentially could play four days in a row this week, if the weather doesn’t cooperate.”
There’s no debate about who is the ace of the pitching staff. Senior right-hander Eddie Nogay has a 27-2 career record and has never lost to a PAC opponent as a starter. This year, Nogay is 5-1 with a 2.06 ERA in eight starts. He holds the W&J career record for wins.
Junior lefty Jared Baird has a 4-0 record and Kyle McLain, who doubles as a starting infielder and the closer, is 1-1 with a 1.54 ERA and nine saves.
“There’s no doubt that we’ve pitched better in the second half of the season,” Mountain said. “We’ve thrown more strikes. You can win a lot of games at this level by throwing the ball across the plate and making the routine plays in the field, which we’ve done.”
The Presidents have made those plays with a patchwork defense. Starting shortstop Michael Ruffing suffered a broken bone in his wrist during the first game of W&J’s Florida trip in March. He could be back to full-time duty for the conference tournament.
Ruffing’s injury forced McLain to move from third base to first base, and he’s committed only eight errors.
“Kyle McLain is an elite Division III third baseman, but he’s not at that level as a shortstop,” Mountain said. “He’s being looked at by some professional teams as a pitcher, and we were hoping to DH him more this year to showcase him on the mound. We couldn’t do that after the injury to Ruffing.”
The W&J offense is led by senior outfielder Josh Staniscia, who is having a stellar season. The school’s all-time hits leader, Staniscia is batting .415 with 11 doubles, five triples and 34 RBI, each a team-high. Staniscia has committed only one error in 333 chances during his career.
“He’s a five-tool guy,” Mountain said. “We were lucky to get him. Pitt and Georgetown were on him late. He’s talented guy. He’s been consistent throughout his game.”
Freshman designated hitter Nick Vento has been a pleasant surprise for W&J, batting .392.
“He’s had a great freshman year,” Mountain said. “He’s a football player playing baseball. He has that kind of mentality. He’s been providing extra-base hits and a high batting average. He does a little of everything for us.”
First baseman D.J. Michaelski (Canon-McMillan) has been one of the Presidents battling injuries, but he’s hitting .389. Senior outfielder Derek McIlvaine (Chartiers-Houston) leads the team with 33 runs and 14 stolen bases.
Having an experienced team with 11 seniors, Mountain put together a challenging non-conference schedule that includes games against No. 15-ranked Wisconsin-Stevens Point and No. 23 Marietta. The Presidents won at Marietta for the first time, but half of their 12 losses came against teams currently in their region’s rankings.
“We’re playing better,” Mountain said. “We challenged ourselves with the non-conference schedule and didn’t do as well as we had hoped. But those games hardened us up. We benefitted from those games.”