USF baseball: How the Bulls will line up
USF baseball opens its 2011 season Friday with a three-game series at top-ranked Florida, and there's much excitement around Lelo Prado's program because of the long-awaited opening of a brand-new baseball park on Feb. 25. Prado's challenge is to generate the same buzz with the product on the field as the Bulls hope will come from its new stadium.
Coming off a disappointing 26-31 season, much of the Bulls' confidence is built around returning senior aces Randy Fontanez and Andrew Barbosa, which give the Bulls a strong 1-2 punch to open any weekend series. Fontanez led the Big East with 105 strikeouts last season in a tough-luck 5-7 campaign, and Barbosa was a breakout star, going 8-2 with a 2.40 ERA and 95 strikeouts. Both were drafted and strongly considered signing pro contracts, but much to Prado's delight, returned for the final college season.
While those two are the backbone of USF's staff, Prado said the season will be won or lost on Sundays and Tuesdays, in finding a solid No. 3 starter and enough capable arms to win midweek games throughout the year. Freshman Nick Gonzalez is the early favorite for the Sunday job, though senior righthanderss Kyle Eastham and Zach Pietrzyk and junior lefty Matt Reed will also compete for starts. The bullpen will be anchored by Jimmy Moran and Kevin Quackenbush -- the latter led the team with just four saves last season.
Offensively, the Bulls lost two of their top bats in Stephen Hunt and Ryan Lockwood, but return the rest of the lineup, save catcher Eric Sim, another draft pick. The infield has tons of experience in shortstop Sam Mende, third baseman Jonathan Koscso and first baseman Todd Brazeal, with Luis Llerena and Peter Brotons competing and perhaps platooning at second. Llerena's .328 average last year was the team's best, and Brotons is back after missing the 2010 season due to injury. Sophomore Jimmy Falla could see time at first base or as the Bulls' designated hitter. Daniel Rockhold, who tied for the team lead with seven home runs, will go back to catcher after working at third base last season. The outfield has three players back in Junior Carlin, Chad Taylor and Alex Mendez but will also find room for freshman James Ramsay, another draft pick who opted to play for the Bulls rather than sign a pro deal.
The Bulls' goals start with a return to the NCAA regionals, something Prado hasn't been able to do in his first four seasons, and there's hope of contending for a Big East crown, espeically with the league's postseason tournament in Clearwater again in May. Connecticut has a pair of likely first-rounders in pitcher Matt Barnes and slugger George Springer, but the league should be able to put three teams in the NCAA field by preseason expectations.
The excitement of a new stadium should give the Bulls and their fans a lift all by itself, but Prado wants to pair that with a resurgence on the field -- in Fontanez and Barbosa, he has the foundation for a strong staff, and with a new pitching coach in former Rays assistant Chuck Hernandez and a new hitting coach in Bulls great Chris Heintz, there's a fresh approach to go with an experienced returning lineup. We'll have a correspondent at Friday's opener in Gainesville and will be on campus next week for the much-anticipated home opener -- the Bulls hope the ending of their season can be as exciting as their opener.