A little negative reinforcement turned into a huge positive for the UMBC pitching staff this year.
The team ERA in 1991 was 7.87, and control problems were a major contributor to that statistic. Whenever they issued a walk last fall, Retrievers pitchers got additional outfield sprints. Senior Craig Grasser remembers the pronouncement made by coach John Jancuska three months ago: "If you're not throwing strikes, you're not going to pitch."
Grasser and company listened, and pitching is the main reason UMBC finds itself in the NCAA Division I tournament for the first time. The Retrievers play host Miami tonight (7:30) in a first-round game in the Atlantic Regional, a six-team double-elimination tournament that will advance a survivor to the College World Series.
UMBC had the third-best batting average in the nation a year ago and is fifth in the NCAA this year with a .374 mark.
At home, the Retrievers (37-11) have cozy power alleys that are likely to inflate anyone's ERA, but that dropped more than three runs this year, to 4.61. The strikeout and walk statistics are telling. In 50 games last year, UMBC pitchers struck out 238 batters and walked 202. In 48 games this season, it's 271 strikeouts and 96 walks.
"If you ask me, 96 walks in 48 games is the whole season," Jancuska said. "We've never had pitching depth like this, and they're all receptive to what we're trying to get done. Jay Witasick is the closest thing we have to a power pitcher, but everyone else can't consistently throw the ball by people when we're playing good competition. We have to think."
Witasick's case best illustrates UMBC's sudden pitching riches, as some teammates matured and others came back from injury. A sophomore from C. Milton Wright High in Bel Air, he has one of the best arms to come out of Harford County since Cal Ripken was pitching for Aberdeen in 1978. But after a year at Brevard (Fla.) Community College, Witasick has gotten just four starts.
Grasser will probably get the assignment tonight against the nation's top-ranked team. A senior out of Archbishop Curley High who spent two years at Catonsville Community College, he wouldn't have been up to the task a year ago, when his record was 3-4. Now he's 8-2, with a team-high 59 strikeouts and only 18 walks.
Trevor Buckley, the No. 2 starter from North Carroll High, is 13-6 in two years with the Retrievers.
Kevin Alarie, a junior who led Annapolis High to a state 4A title and was the area Player of the Year in 1988, missed all of last season after sustaining cartilage damage in his right elbow in the fall of 1990. He has appeared in a team-high 18 games, and is 4-0 in seven starts.
Steve Koennel, who already had an injury redshirt season, was limited to nine innings in four 1991 appearances because of injury, but he's 4-1, mainly in relief this season.
"If either one of us were healthy, I think last year would have been different," Alarie said.
UMBC at a glance
What: NCAA Atlantic Regional
Where: Mark Light Stadium, Miami
Outlook: The Retrievers received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, and open against the nation's No. 1 team, Miami. UMBC (37-11) has the best record in the East and a .347 team batting average, fifth-best in the nation. Shawn Shugars, a sophomore 1B from Charlotte Hall, was the East Coast Conference co-Player of the Year and has a .425 average, 10 home runs and 62 RBI. Miami (49-7), whose retiring coach Ron Fraser will direct the U.S. Olympic team in Barcelona, is led by C Charlie Johnson, who hit .321 with 10 home runs and 60 RBI. P Jeff Alkire has an 11-2 record and a 2.61 ERA. The other first-round pairings in the six-team, double-elimination regional match second-seeded North Carolina State (45-16) vs. Delaware (38-12) and third-seeded South Carolina (40-20) against Notre Dame (45-13). The regional winner advances to the College World Series May 29-June 6 in Omaha, Neb.