Casting Call: Birdballers To Watch in 2015

The Doubles Machine: Michael Strem
“That’s what Strem does right: he’s a doubles machine.” On Sunday, Baseball head coach Mike Gambino reaffirmed the same statement he made before the start of the season: Michael Strem hits doubles.

At first glance, this may not be perfectly obvious—Strem hit 13 doubles last year, but that was only third most on the team, behind Chris Shaw and Joe Cronin. The difference? Shaw and Cronin started all season and topped 200 at-bats. Strem, on the other hand, finished with fewer than 100 at-bats.

Had he played the entire season at the same pace, Strem would have hit over 28 doubles—one more than last year’s national leader. As it stood, Strem missed finishing second in Division-I baseball in doubles per game last season (Strem finished with .48, just behind Temple’s Derek Peterson, who had .49) only because he failed to meet the minimum games requirement.
After two weekends of baseball, the first baseman is doing all he can to make sure no one touches his title. He has six doubles in just seven games, including two against LSU’s strong pitching staff. Gabriel Hernandez and Blake Butera are the only BC players to have more than one thus far.

Strem isn’t just legging out two-baggers. After hitting .239 last season, he burst out to a .379 average and a 1.024 OPS in the season’s first seven games, good enough for second and first on Boston College, respectively. This is great news for BC’s lineup, which is structured around the highly dangerous Shaw. After giving their cleanup man little protection last season, the Eagles have a five-hole hitter in Strem, one who will make pitchers think twice before issuing a free pass to Shaw.

For Gambino, Strem’s performance comes as no surprise. “He continues to do what we’re all used to seeing him do,” the coach said. “He continues to flat-out hit.”

The Man On Base: Blake Butera
For Shaw and Strem to do any real damage from the middle of the order, BC needs men on-base before them. So far this season, the 1-2-3 leadoff trio has answered the call. Hernandez, Butera, and Cronin have combined to hit .310 and have combined for an on-base percentage over .380.

Of the three, Butera has been best at getting himself in position to score. The senior has never had a season OBP below .360, and led the team in OBP last year at .399. Through seven games, he has been a nightmare for pitchers, hitting .393 and getting on-base exactly half the time.

More than anything else, the key to Butera’s success has been his eye at the plate. He entered the season ranked ninth in BC history in walks with 90, and the six he has drawn already place him in a tie for third. He needs just four more free passes to move past Jeff Waldron for the Eagles’ all-time lead.

“We all know what Blake’s going to do,” Gambino said. “It’s going to be a quality at-bat each time.”

Butera, who was selected as a captain for the Eagles this season, returned to his home state of Louisiana last weekend for Birdball’s series with LSU. He picked up four hits and two walks, getting on base when few others in the lineup could.
Overall, Butera has started for four years for Gambino and will continue to man second base this season. He is part of a very experienced infield for the Eagles, with Johnny Adams and Cronin also returning to the left side.

“They were raving about our infield defense,” Gambino said of the LSU coaching staff after the series. “They think that we could have a chance to have one of the top defensive infields in the country.”

The Rookie: Jake Palomaki
BC tried out a few different designated hitters on its opening weekend before settling on freshman Jake Palomaki for the series against LSU.

After looking slightly overwhelmed in the first at-bat of his Friday afternoon debut against LSU, Palomaki settled down. He picked up a five-pitch walk in his next at-bat before grounding and flying out. In the next two games, Palomaki went 3 for 7, accounting for almost a quarter of BC’s hits in those contests.

“I loved what I saw,” Gambino said. “He gave us quality at-bats all the way … It was a really good weekend for him.”
Palomaki attended Mount Paran Christian School in Kennesaw, Ga. In his senior season, he led his team to a 29-5 overall record while recording a .443 batting average and an OBP of .556, while also tacking on three home runs and 18 RBIs. He earned the MVP award for his team, which reached the state finals.

Palomaki pitched and played infield for Mount Paran Christian. This is something that Gambino, who doesn’t mind using players in both position and pitching roles, could utilize. With such a veteran core manning the infield and with the outfield core hitting well above .300 thus far, Palomaki will likely see most of his time this season at the designated hitter slot, barring an injury or an extended slump.

If Palomaki can go 3 for 10 on a weekend against a top-five team in the country, there is reason to get excited about his ability to swing the bat against the rest of the league.

The Field General: Nick Sciortino
With BC’s lineup looking more and more solid, the team must focus on developing its pitching to match. While having strong, accurate arms is a key aspect of getting outs, an equally, often overlooked factor in the game is the effort of those who work behind the plate: the catchers.

The Eagles enter this year with two catchers who saw significant playing time last seaason: sophomore Nick Sciortino and junior Stephen Sauter.

“They both have experience back there, they’re both doing a great job back there, and they’re both continuing to get better,” Gambino said. “We have two very solid ACC catchers in the mix.”

Sciortino caught the majority of the games for BC last year, making 32 starts, while Sauter started 21 games behind the plate.
The two finished with similar, albeit disappointing, batting averages—Sciortino hit .192 while Sauter batted .196. Sauter also had fewer errors behind the plate, finishing with fielding percentage of .988, well ahead of Sciortino’s .969.

With a year of college ball under his belt, Sciortino looks to reaffirm his role as the starter. So far this season both have been error-free, though Gambino did note that each has displayed lapses in focus on certain pitches. With a new pitching coach, former minor league catcher Jim Foster, Gambino believes his catchers will receive invaluable instruction.

“To have a resource like Jimmy Foster, and for those guys to be able to work with him and learn from him—how to manage a staff, how to work with pitchers, how to get them through trouble, how to keep them focused when they’re throwing the ball well—it’s awesome to watch,” Gambino said.

The King Of The Hill: Mike King
There are many question marks floating around BC’s pitching staff this season. With the loss of 2014 ace Andrew Chin (who was selected by the Yankees in the 2014 MLB Draft), will John Gorman step up on Friday nights? Will Jeff Burke manage to get an ERA under 5.00? Can anyone, in fact, give BC at least five or six quality innings? Will a closer come out of the woodwork?

Experiencing a 16-run disaster last weekend against LSU can’t ease the minds of BC’s coaching staff, either. Through all the uncertainty, one man has given the Eagles consistent outings of late: sophomore Mike King. In his first season of college ball last year, King tossed 43 frames (fourth on the team, behind the three main starters), while maintaining a 2.93 ERA (second) and a .239 opponent batting average (fourth).

So far this season, King has allowed just one earned run and three hits in 4 1/3 innings. He also had a multi-inning save against Xavier, though Gambino dismissed the idea of King becoming a closer for BC.

“If he’s at the back of the game, it’s not going to be in the closer role,” Gambino said. “Because he can stretch out [to] a starter length. You know, he could be an old-school closer, like when [Dennis] Eckersley started closing three-inning saves, that kind of thing.”

King may also make it into BC’s starting rotation. He started three games for the Eagles last year, and though he was stretching out the length of his outings this season, he will likely see at least a couple starts.

Regardless of when he comes in to pitch, his coach is happy to have him out there.

“Mike King is pretty good—we all know that,” Gambino said.

Featured Image by Connor Mellas / Heights Senior Staff

About Alec Greaney 98 Articles
Retired. But you can probably still follow him on Twitter @AlecGreaney.