Baseball begins regular-season practices as preparations for inaugural ECC season ramp up

Matt Bartnik (left), Christopher Miller and fellow pitchers do wind sprints on the first day of practice.
Matt Bartnik (left), Christopher Miller and fellow pitchers do wind sprints on the first day of practice.

OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. — The thermometer trickled upward at an opportune time for the NYIT baseball team.

The Bears opened regular-season practices on Saturday, and they were able to conduct the session outdoors at Angelo Lorenzo Memorial Field on campus rather than have to retreat to an indoor facility.

NYIT enters Division II and the East Coast Conference this season. The Bears immediately will be eligible for ECC and NCAA championships.

"This time of year, any chance you get an opportunity to go outside and get a workout in, it's the best thing to do to stretch out the arms and work on situations," coach Bob Malvagna said. "Guys tend to get cabin fever."

It soon will become apparent where ECC coaches believe NYIT fits into the league's hierarchy. The ECC is due to release its preseason coaches poll on Thursday.

NYIT opens its first season in Division II since 1980 on March 6 at home against Pace.

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The Bears' pitching staff will have a far different complexion than last season, with Frank Valentino (78.1 IP), Matt Diaz (52 IP) and Ben Wright (45.1 IP) — the top three innings loggers in 2017 — having completed their eligibility.

Malvagna noted, though, that Christopher Miller and Zach White are back healthy after dealing with arm injuries last season. They were limited to a combined 16 appearances (six starts) and 36 innings in 2017.

"They're going to be very big factors this year on the staff," Malvagna said. "We're looking forward to having those innings back. They really seem back to form."

Malvagna also expects contributions on the mound from newcomers Chris Nappi and Chris Mott.

Nappi, a freshman right-hander, posted a 2.61 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 56 1/3 innings as a senior at Pembroke Pines (Fla.) Charter High School last year. Mott arrives as a redshirt sophomore from Suffolk Community College, where he posted a 2.70 ERA and had a team-best .149 opponent batting average in 2017.

On the position-player side, several solid contributors from last season return. That includes shortstop Ben McNeill, who started 40 games as a freshman in 2017, as well as junior first baseman Jake Lebel.

"Jake improved tremendously from his freshman to his sophomore year," Malvagna said. "And I think he's going to continue on that track."

Malvagna is particularly high on freshman EJ Cumbo, whom he already has penciled into center field and the leadoff spot. Cumbo, a lefty hitter and thrower, was a two-time all-state selection and owns a school-record .537 career batting average at Clarke High School.

"I would keep my eye on him," Malvagna said. "He's going to be at the top of our lineup and he's going to be in the outfield almost every day. I think he's going to be a catalyst for our ballclub."

NYIT did graduate third baseman Louis Mele (.341/.422/.459 in 2017), who has signed to play professional baseball this season with the Washington (Pa.) Wild Things in the independent Frontier League. But sophomore Nick Tedesco will move across the infield from first to third base and compete with sophomore Brandon Fanizza in an attempt to fill that position.

Malvagna also sees position battles in left field (freshman Joseph Pesce vs. junior Nic Lombardi) and at catcher (sophomore Ryan Kuskowski vs. freshman Joseph Kelly).

A year ago, frigid weather kept the Bears indoors for most of the practice sessions leading into the season-opening series at Arkansas State. And that hampered NYIT's effectiveness in situations such as cutoffs, relays and bunt defense.

This time, with the temperature in the mid-40s on Saturday, the Bears got in a proper workout. At least on Day 1.

"The guys really don't see that much live pitching right out of the gym," Malvagna said. "When a guy is throwing 93, 94 mph, it's a really quick adjustment to make."