SMITHFIELD, R.I. – The Bryant University baseball team knows all too well the importance of playing good defense, and that's why as the 2018 season rolls around, the Bulldogs have put a premium on infield defense.
Bryant struggled through a 2017 season in which it committed 83 errors and posted a .959 fielding percentage. From the beginning of fall and all through winter workouts, head coach Steve Owens has made improving the teams defense the focal point.
"We've spent a lot of time on defense, it's the first thing we do every practice," Owens said. "We've made a strong commitment to improving our defensive abilities both as individuals and as a group in the infield."
The one positive for Owens and the Bulldogs is that the 2018 team will have several experienced returners in the infield. That group includes junior Tyler Panno (Rivervale, N.J.) and sophomores Jimmy Titus (Stafford, Conn.) and Chris Wright (Cumberland, R.I.).
Titus is the headliner of the group, after winning NEC Rookie of the Year honors last spring. He proved to be an elite hitter as a true freshman, posting a .296 average with 16 doubles, eight home runs, and 42 RBI. Titus finished tied for the team lead in total bases (108) and played some of his best baseball down the stretch, hitting .388 with 24 RBI over the final 27 games.
"He had a really good year and a good summer," Owens said. "He's at a different level right now, with his mechanics, his approach and the special things he can do with the bat."
But, coach Owens is quick to point out that the biggest improvements that Titus has made come at short rather than at the plate. Titus was the first true freshman to be the opening day starter at short in DI program history last spring. He went on to start 53 games and piled up 138 assists as part of a defense that turned 40 double plays.
"I think having a full year of playing DI shortstop under his belt he'll go into this year with a different level of confidence and maturity," Owens said. "We've made a big commitment to the daily process of skill development and timing and the overall commitment it takes to become a very good shortstop. He has taken steps forward in displaying the leadership and communication that is necessary to have a good infield."
Bryant's other staple in the infield last spring was Wright. A local product from Cumberland, Wright was the opening day starter at first base and went on to make 43 starts there during the year. He proved himself to be a very strong defender and a very patient hitter. Wright hit .273, drove in 31, scored 33 times and set a freshman DI program record with 30 walks. He was also hit by pitch a team-high 14 times, finishing the year with a .406 OBP.
This spring, Wright's role in the infield and at the plate will be even greater. He'll likely be hitting behind both senior Mickey Gasper (Merrimack, N.H.) and Titus, which will give him plenty of opportunities to drive in runs.
"We're looking at Chris to become a really important left-handed hitter in the middle of our lineup that has the extra-base pop to back up the hitters at the top," Owens said.
Defensively, Owens feels that Wright has also gotten much better after handling the ball well in 379 chances. Having familiar faces around the infield will help, as will the offseason training program that has Wright bigger and strong than he was this time last season.
There will also be another familiar face this spring as Panno returns to the infield in 2018. Last spring, Panno shifted to left field, a position he had never played before, because of injuries. He went on to start 37 games in left and had a breakout year offensively, hitting .265 with a program-record eight triples and 35 RBI. The one thing the Bulldogs hope to tap into this season will be his quickness on the bases. He was 3-for-3 last year and the Black and Gold feel he could be one of their best base stealers this spring.
At 6-3, 205, Panno offers the Bulldogs a big body that can cover a lot of ground and is very quick for his size. Becoming a better defender is something that Panno has worked hard on all year long and the results are showing.
"Tyler solidified himself as a player in our program that needs to play every day," Owens said. "He's been working consistently and really hard all year long, every single day and he's become a really good player."
Bryant's biggest question mark entering the season will be at second base. It's also been the biggest position battle since the beginning of the fall. The Bulldogs will have to replace Cole Fabio, a veteran of 214 games that made all but one start at second over the last three years.
Sophomore Bryan Hart (Franklin, Mass.), junior transfer Dante Ricciardi (West Boylston, Mass.) and freshmen Sam Owens (Scituate, R.I.) and Nick Viscariello (Plymouth, Mass.) are all vying for the spot. The only returner, Hart made starts at all three infield positions last spring and finished his season on a high note, hitting safely in each of his last four games. Now, the Bulldogs hope he can further utilize his dynamic speed to put pressure on defenses.
"We are looking for Bryan to become a consistent infielder as well as someone that can get on base at a higher level," Owens said.
Dante comes to Bryant with two seasons of eligibility remaining after spending one year Georgetown University and last year at St. Petersburg College in Florida. Over his career, he's proven to have the ability to get on base at a high rate.
"Dante is a lefty hitter so it gives us a different option from a lineup standpoint," Owens said. "We need him to be good at handling the bat, moving runners and battling to get on base. We need our second basemen to help turn our lineup over and play very solid defense every day."
Sam Owens and Viscariello will also battle for playing time and can play multiple infield positions. Owens is also in the mix at the catcher position, while Viscariello joined the team this fall as a walk-on. Fellow freshman Nick Mulligan (Bronxville, N.Y.) can also play both corner positions and will provide the Bulldogs depth throughout the year.
In addition, Gasper, sophomore Gaby Cruz (Miami, Fla.) and Panno all could play first base if Wright is pitching. Gasper started five games at first last spring, Panno made seven and Cruz has been working there in the winter.