By Trey Rodriguez
The St. John’s baseball team that is currently defending its Big East title is drastically different from the team that took the crown last year.
St. John’s finished the 2015 season with a 35-20 record, 13-5 in Big East action, but the departure of six All-Big East players has led to a vastly different year. St. John’s wrapped up its 2016 regular season campaign with a 6-2 victory over Creighton Saturday and now the Red Storm are ready to defend their title, no matter who is on the roster.
“It’s a whole new team,” said junior Michael Donadio. “We had a lot of guys leave last year because of the draft or graduation. It’s hard to come together right away. We’re all starting to get used to each other and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Freshman Michael LoPresti got the start after Kevin Magee came down with an illness. LoPresti found out he was getting the ball just hours before he threw the first pitch.
“That’s one of the best pitching performances all year, not knowing you’re coming in and pitching a pretty big game,” said senior Alex Caruso. “He came in and did a hell of a job, getting ahead early in the count and pounding the strike zone.”
LoPresti pitched 5 1/3 innings, allowing just two hits and two runs. The freshman battled through some early miscues, giving up a two-run single to Creighton’s Reagan Fowler that got the Blue Jays on the board in the third inning.
“Just relax and throw strikes,” St. John’s coach Ed Blankmeyer told the freshman. “They think they have to change since runners are on base, but just throw the ball the same way and continue to pound the strike zone.”
Although LoPresti faced some up-and-down moments early, the Red Storm (27-24-1, 9-9) gave their pitcher a cushion thanks to a quick start at the plate, scoring two runs in the first. Donadio led the way, connecting on an RBI bunt to get St. John’s on the board.
“That’s the type of player [Donadio] is,” said Blankmeyer. “You get to learn your guys and we work a lot on multiple skills. We hadn’t been very successful with our hit-and-run this year, so why not move them over.”
Donadio finished 3-for-3 with a walk and two runs scored. Junior Robbie Knightes added a two-out, two run double in the eighth to provide some insurance runs.
“We know when we get the lead early, if we can just get it to the sixth or seventh inning, [Thomas Hackimer] in the back end of the bullpen is going to shut it down,” said Caruso. “He’s done a great job all year and I think that’s our goal every game; just score early and get the ball to [Hackimer].”
Earlier this season, Blankmeyer issued his players a challenge to stop thinking about themselves and start thinking about the team. He reminded them that it’s about winning, so just find a way to help the team. With the recent struggles, the win over Creighton was vital.
“I think it was very important for us because we were doubting and second guessing ourselves,” said Blankmeyer. “Everybody was feeling sorry for themselves. But they went out and played a dominating baseball game, because if [LoPresti] gets the strikeout on the passed ball, it could have been a no-hitter.”
The Red Storm enter the Big East tournament hoping to defend their title as the fourth seed. St. John’s will face No. 1 seed Xavier (27-28, 14-4) to start the tournament. The Johnnies lost their regular season series 1-2.