Defending Big East champion St. John’s leaning on veteran lineup

By Patrick McCormack

The St. John’s baseball team had a season for the ages last year and is trying to pick up right where it left off.

The Red Storm won the Big East regular-season and tournament titles. The Johnnies earned an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, reaching the regional final, in which they lost to Arkansas. St. John’s has been picked to finish first in the Big East in 2016. Despite the high preseason ranking, there are still some concerns as conference play begins in a week.

“We’re still trying to figure some things out,” coach Ed Blankmeyer said.

The Red Storm lost most of last year’s pitching staff to the MLB draft. They are trying to replace the veterans with younger pitchers, who need time to get used to playing at the Division I level.

“We have to find some time for the young pitchers to develop to help us get stronger,” Blankmeyer said.

St. John’s (11-9-1) returns reliever Thomas Hackimer, who was drafted in the 15th round by the Mets and was named the 2016 Preseason Big East Pitcher of the Year. Hackimer recorded a league-high 15 saves last season. He also entered the season with the school record in saves and appearances. Junior Ryan McAulliffe and red-shirt senior Joey Christopher have gotten the bulk of the starts in the preseason.

“We have a guy that is very good in the back,” Blankmeyer said of Hackimer. “I would like to be able to use him a little more.”

In the field, the Red Storm returns a veteran core, which includes Preseason All-Big-East selections Michael Donadio, Robbie Knightes, Troy Dixon and Big East Preseason Player of the Year Alex Caruso.

The play of the returnees is important to the team’s success.

“We have a bunch of guys back in the lineup and we have a bunch of new guys who are picking up the holes from last year,” Caruso said. “That will be a key.”

The return of the position players is also something the pitchers enjoy seeing.

“It’s great to have the entire lineup basically back from last year,” Hackimer said. “It’s reassuring we won’t have too much trouble putting up the runs we need to win games.”

St. John’s was tested early this season with 18 of its first 19 games on the road. But the tough schedule was made to prepare them for the league play.

“When I put the schedule together, I knew it would be tough because of the travel we had to do,” Blankmeyer said. “However, it makes you better down the stretch. Hopefully, we’ll start playing our better baseball.”

With the tough schedule almost over, the players are starting to feel equipped for Big East play.

“We played a really difficult preseason schedule, it’s very helpful getting everybody ready,” Hackimer said.

The Johnnies open Big East play April 8 at home against Georgetown. With non-conference play coming to a close, Blankmeyer sees his team coming together, but there are also still some questions.

“From the offensive standpoint, we show signs,” he said. “From the defensive standpoint, I think we are starting to solidify. But from the pitching standpoint, that is a concern still.”

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