Getting To Know BC Baseball

The BC baseball team is off to a surprisingly strong start this season. The Eagles are 17-and-9 overall and 5-and-5 in the ACC. They also have notched impressive wins over leagues powers FSU and Clemson. Coach Aoki sat down with Eagle Insider to talk about his team and their prospects for the season.

In one fell swoop, the men's hockey and basketball seasons came to an end two weeks ago. On Wednesday, the women's basketball team's season ended. What's a BC fan to do?

This year, the answer is easy. The Boston College baseball team is off to a strong start in their fourth season in the ACC, with a 17-9 record thus far – including a 5-5 mark in ACC play. The Eagles hope to finish in the top eight and qualify for the ACC tournament for the first time ever.

Weather permitting, the Eagles open up a 3-game series with North Carolina State on Friday afternoon at Shea Field. The Wolfpack are a perennial power, but have gotten off to a disappointing start this season with a 16-12 record (5-7 ACC).

The Eagles are coming off a pair of strong mid-week performance, defeating Northeastern 11-2 on Tuesday and rallying for two runs in the ninth inning to top UConn 5-4 on Wednesday.

BC head coach Mik Aoki chatted with to preview the NC State series and talk about the season so far.

What are some of your goals for the program, both this year and in the near future?

"Our goals for this year are the same as every year – to get into the ACC tournament, then hopefully win an ACC championship. From there, we can get into the NCAA tournament and compete for a national championship. I think a lot of people would say, "well, how could BC, in that weather and with that facility, possibly do any of that" – but I think it's something that we need to be able to talk about. With the league that we play in, and the competition we face on a regular basis, it's something that's within the realm of possibility."

Introduce us to your starting rotation.

"Our #1 starter is J.B. MacDonald. He's a senior from Danvers, Mass. He has been nothing short of excellent all year long for us. He's a kid who has given us an opportunity to win every single time he's gone out, which is really all you can ask. He's pitched deep into the ballgame. I don't think we can overestimate what he does, in terms of getting our bullpen set up for the rest of the weekend.

Our #2 pitcher is a sophomore righty from Hanover, MA, John Leonard. He's a very talented kid. He has good control, and some really good secondary stuff. One thing that's hurt him on occasion is wildness inside the strike zone. He's been hit around more than we'd like to see. But he is a valuable guy for us.

At #3 is Mike Denhart, another right-hander, from New Jersey. He's a freshman. He's been a little up and down, as some freshmen will do, but he's starting to make the adjustment to the college game. He pitched a really solid ballgame against Clemson this past weekend, and we hope that can be a good sign of things to come for him."

Everyone knows that your team can hit 1-9, but the weakness has been pitching both last year and this year. Do you feel like the staff is improving compared to last season? And in what ways?

"I think we're much better, and the numbers bear that out. I think we are a little bit thin in terms of having someone step up and be a solid mid-week starter for us, which would help our bullpen. But in terms of the back end of the bullpen, with Mike Belfiore, we're as good as anyone in the country, in that regard. [Belfiore, who is also the team's first baseman] is a really valuable player for us. As far as closers go, he's pretty darn good.

In terms of piecing together the 6th, 7th and 8th innings, we've got some decent guys in the bullpen. I think we're just a little thin in having one more midweek starter - that would help out the bullpen a lot."

You mentioned Mike Belfiore, who is the first baseman and the closer. For those who aren't familiar with college baseball, talk about how that works logistically.

"You've got to kind of see it coming. You obviously can't take him out of the game because once he's out he can't go back in. We need to look at when his at-bats are coming up – he hits 5th in the lineup – and juggle his schedule around that. So sometimes, we have him start to get loose in the 6th inning, because in the 7th he's going to have to hit. It's just something you have to see coming – we practice it in our scrimmages in the bubble.

It can be a little hectic for him, jogging back and forth, but it's worked out pretty well… opponents are hitting about .220 or .230 against him, and he's striking out more than one guy an inning…he's a very valuable part of our staff and our team in general."

Pat Dean, a sophomore, made a big mid-week start for BC against Northeastern on Tuesday [pitching 6 strong innings en route to a win]. Do you foresee him as a guy who can be that consistent mid-week starter?

"Right now, Pat Dean has settled in as a ‘swing guy'- we get him out there for 80 pitches on a Tuesday to start, then still have him available for an inning or two or three depending on whether we need him over the course of a weekend series. He's been really, really, really good from time to time this year, and he certainly was good against Northeastern the other day. Like all young guys, he has his ups and his downs, but we'd like to see more games [like the Northeastern game]."

Earlier this season, BC beat Florida State 2-of-3 in Tallahassee. How important was that series win for the program? How much more attention are you getting now because of it?

"That series made quite an impact. That, along with the fact that we started the season 6-0 made some people at BC who might be casual BC fans take notice – they'd think, ‘hey, the baseball team is looking pretty good this year.

The other big thing is the fact that we know we're able to go in and play at a high level, and take a series from a program with the kind of tradition that Florida State has… that definitely opened some eyes to our program.

It reinforced for our kids a lot of the hard work they'd been doing, and the things we've been working toward in the last couple of years. One of the big impacts is that now, our guys go into every series expecting that if they play at a really high level, they can win the series, no matter who they play against."

How difficult is it to juggle weekend games against powerhouse teams in the ACC, with mid-week games against local programs that really put a target on your back? It's obviously a huge deal for some of these teams to face BC. How do you deal with that?

"It's something we've had to learn how to deal with. We stubbed our toes a couple of times in those midweek games, and our guys are starting to realize that for some programs in the Northeast, having a chance to knock off Boston College is a big deal, and we do have a target on our backs.

We need to make sure that we're coming in and playing at a high level day in and day out. Baseball being what it is, we can play at a high level and still lose, depending on how the opposing pitcher does. It would be disrespectful of us not to think that every team in D1 has at least one or two pitchers who can really shut opponents down- and it will happen.

We face some good teams – look at the year Rhode Island has had, and Northeastern. UConn did a great job against us yesterday and we were lucky to come out of that game with a win."

What can fans expect from NC State this weekend? And how will your pitchers line up for this series?

"They'll line up 1-2-3 [as described earlier]. NC State is a program that has a very rich tradition in the ACC and they're traditionally a very, very good team. That's not any different this year. I think they're certainly disappointed in their results so far this year, but they still have a lot of talent on that team – in particular, on the mound. So we're really going to have to go out there and play at a high level to win the series."

Finally, who have been some pleasant surprises for you so far this season?

"It's hard to pick individual guys. I think the jump that MacDonald has made from last year to this year has been a pleasant surprise. I'm happy for him because he's a hard working kid and has been really loyal to the program.

Tony Sanchez – it's hard to say that anything he does is a surprise, since he's been one of our best players since he started playing regularly as a freshman – but his game has really risen even more this year, which has been great for our lineup.

I think Robbie Anston in centerfield has been excellent for us, along with Michael Sudol in left field… a lot of guys have really improved from last year to this year, which has obviously led to some of the success that we've had so far."

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