SMITHFIELD, R.I. – The Bryant University baseball team begins its Northeast Conference title defense this weekend as it travels to New Britain, Conn., to take on Central Connecticut at the CCSU Baseball Field.
The Bulldogs (8-13, 0-0), the three-time reigning NEC regular-season champion and back-to-back tournament champion, will look to get their season back on track with the beginning of league play. The Blue Devils (8-13, 2-2) split their opening conference series against Mount St. Mary's.
Bryant and Central Connecticut will be meeting for the sixth-straight season and the 21st time overall this weekend. The Bulldogs hold a commanding 16-5 edge after winning 13 of the last 14 meetings. These two teams met last in the 2014 NEC tournament winner's bracket final, a 3-0 Bulldog victory. Bryant also took three-of-four from the Blue Devils during the regular season.
The Black and Gold have enjoyed great success since it started playing NEC games during the 2010 season. They have won or split 35 of 38 NEC series over that span and are a combined 115-37 (.757) against NEC opponents. Bryant has won each of the last three regular season titles and four of the last five since 2010. Last season, they became the first team in league history to win 40 or more games in back-to-back seasons.
Bryant has scuffled the last two games, however, after posting six-straight wins. They will look to bounce back from an 11-6 setback to Rhode Island on Wednesday. Despite the loss, the Bulldogs continued to see some key contributions. One bright spot has been sophomore Joseph Paparelli (Preston, Conn.) who has filled in for classmate Matt Albanese (East Haddam, Conn.) the last week. He hit his first career triple and drove in two runs against the Rams and is hitting .294 (5-for-17) with a triple, home run, five RBI, four runs scored, five walks and a .435 OBP in five starts.
In fact, Bryant's offense as a whole seems to be coming together. The Bulldogs are hitting .320 over the last five games and have averaged over nine runs per game. Senior John Mullen (Walpole, Mass.), junior Robby Rinn (Warwick, R.I.), classmate AJ Zarozny (Shrewsbury, Mass.) and sophomore Cole Fabio (Mahwah, N.J.) have all started to heat up. Mullen is 8-for-19 with five runs and a .542 OBP, Rinn is 9-for-22 with two home runs, six RBI and eight runs scored, Zarozny has six RBI and five stolen bases and Fabio had five RBI, seven runs scored and a .481 OBP.
Junior Kyle Wilcox (Sandy Hook, Conn.) will get the ball in Friday's NEC opener in search of his third-straight win. He allowed two runs on five hits over 5.2 innings against St. Joe's but struck out just two in the game. Ranked No. 126 in Kendall Rogers's midseason top 150 prospects, Wilcox went 2-2 with a 2.76 ERA in 29.1 innings last season in the NEC. Senior Trevor Lacosse (Watervliet, N.Y.) will pitch game one of Saturday's doubleheader and is coming off the most dominant outing of his career. He allowed five hits, struck out four and didn't walk a batter over a career-high eight shutout innings against Villanova. Lacosse hasn't allowed a run in his last 11 innings and has lowered his ERA to 3.21. He will be making his first conference start after appearing in 33 games and posting a 1.64 ERA in 44 innings as a reliever the last three years.
The Bulldogs have tabbed freshman James Karinchak (Walden, N.Y.) to start the second game of Saturday's doubleheader. Karinchak has posted a 2-4 record and a 4.26 ERA in 31.2 innings this season. He has walked 13 and has posted an NEC-high 32 strikeouts.
Central Connecticut was one of the few Northeast teams that has been able to play at home consistently this season thanks to its all-turf surface. The Blue Devils actually opened their season with five-straight home games, the only team in the Northeast to do that this year. They enter the weekend with a .256 team average but have scored just four runs per game. Franklin Jennings (.326, 28H, 32B, 6RBI, 15R, 12SB), Dean Lockery (.325, 62B, 10RBI) and Dominic Severino (.324, 82B, 3HR, 18RBI) are the top three hitters for Central Connecticut.
On the mound, the Blue Devils will give the ball to sophomore lefty Austin Salnitis in Friday's opener. Salnitis is 1-1 with a 5.84 ERA in 12.1 innings and will be making just his second career start. He limited Brown to one run on five hits over five innings in his first career start earlier this year. Classmate Brett Susi will start game two of the series and is coming off a complete-game shutout of Mount St. Mary's last weekend. He allowed just four hits, struck out three and didn't walk a batter in seven innings. Another sophomore, Matt Blandino, will start Saturday's second game. Blandino became the first Blue Devil pitcher to beat the Bulldogs since 2011 when he allowed just one run in a complete-game victory last season. He is 1-3 with a 3.11 ERA, 30 strikeouts and just six walks in 37.2 innings this season.
The Bulldogs and Blue Devils open their four-game series on Friday at 3:00 p.m. They will play a doubleheader (two seven inning games) starting at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday and wrap up the series with a single game on Sunday at 1 p.m.