After his team’s surprise omission from the 2021 NCAA tournament, Pitt baseball head coach Mike Bell spoke of the disappointing end to a season that seemed so promising just weeks earlier. In the press conference, Bell looked back on a memorable campaign, but he also lamented that his team would not get a chance to prove their worth in the national tournament.
Bell alluded to the fact that the team, after dropping eight of their last nine games, hadn’t played well enough to comfortably make their way into the NCAA tournament. While many felt that Pitt should still have made it into the tournament, the team’s problems at the end of the season ultimately gave the committee a decision.
“If you look at our oeuvre, [our last 10-15 games] is the only thing you can really have against us,” Bell said. “You never know when you’re going to put it in someone else’s hands.”
Bell and the Panthers will now attempt to recalibrate as they head into the 2022 season — a season without a lack of questions to answer.
Several games from last year’s team have moved from collegiate ball to the next chapter of their lives. Former second baseman David Yanni left Pittsburgh after five seasons with the program and last year’s top pitcher, Mitch Myers, will go on to play professional baseball after the Oakland Athletics. selected him in the MLB Draft.
Pitt lost several players at the transfer portal, including catchers Riley Wash and Jackson Phinney, along with bullpen piece Chase Smith. Other notable draws from last year’s team include outfielder Nico Popa, a .313 batter to appear in all 43 games last season, and catcher Ramon Padilla, whose graduation makes a total of three leaving backstops for a team that saw little consistency in position a season ago.
One of the names expected to fill that gap is junior catcher Tatem Levins – a transfer from La Salle who is poised to play a pivotal role in the catch rotation. Levins, a career .318 batter during his collegiate career, his first season with Pitt begins with excitement about the season ahead.
Levins said he felt welcome from the moment he stepped onto campus. He said the move from La Salle to Pitt was a cultural adjustment, he has not regretted it for a second and is eager to get the season started.
“It has exceeded my expectations and I couldn’t be happier with the transition so far,” Levins said. “The camaraderie of all the players and everyone who participates – everyone is friends with everyone.”
As Levins and others begin their Pitt careers, much of Pitt’s core from last season is returning in hopes of making up for 2021’s shortcomings. One of these foundational players, junior infielder Sky Duff, returns after a season in which he finished fifth in the ACC in batting average. Duff said last year could be a reference point for what the program is trying to build towards 2022.
“It was pretty shocking at the time we didn’t get it” [into the NCAA Tournament]’ said Duff. “But at the same time, we’ve tried to look at the positives of the year and really build on it.”
And while the turnover may be a concern for some, Duff thinks the transition will be easy. He agreed with Levins’ assessment of how well the team has developed, even in just a few short months together.
“Last year we took a lot of guys out of the program, but that core group is still there,” Duff said. “And with the new editions we’ve had, it’s been very smooth.”
Coach Bell also noted that the new Panthers made a seamless transition from last year thanks to returning players, such as Duff, who made the newcomers feel right at home.
“I thought the core men who came back last year did a great job of welcoming [the incoming players]’ said Bell. “These guys really stood with open arms for each other within their position groups and as a team.”
During fall exhibitions and exercises, Bell said the presence of veterans has also been critical when it comes to success on the field. The core showed newcomers the tricks of the trade, and Bell suggested that this would help them develop quickly and find success.
“There’s no question if you’ve been there and done it before, the how-to allows you to relate that to others who haven’t,” Bell said. “When you have a group of guys who’ve been there and done it, and they’ve seen it, it’s easier to take those next steps forward.”
Bell echoed the same idea during the off-season that he did at his last press conference in 2021 – uncertainty arises when you leave the decision to a committee. Pitt will start his season this time with the goal of determining his own destiny and avoiding any drama the roster show may bring by winning.
“If you have the opportunity to take care of something yourself, take care of it yourself,” Bell said. “Don’t put this in a decision maker behind closed doors, let’s sort things out in the open — where there’s a scoreboard and where we compete every day.”
The Panthers will try to do just that as they do start their season in Port Charlotte, Florida, where they face Canisius in the Snowbird Classic on Feb. 19.