Canisius College figured it would be hard to replace its ace pitcher when Rohn Pierce was selected in the major-league draft last year and left school a year early to start a pro career.
The Golden Griffins didn’t worry about replacing him with one arm. They relied on greater depth in the bullpen, and it helped produce another Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship last weekend.
Canisius made the 64-team NCAA Division I Baseball Tournament for the second time in three years and found out its opponent Monday. The Griffs (34-28) will travel to Springfield, Mo., to face Missouri State at 7 p.m. Friday.
Missouri State (45-10) is ranked eighth in the nation and earned the right to host one of 16 regionals in the first round of the event.
Canisius had to play six games over three days to win the MAAC title on Saturday. The Griffs used 11 pitchers in the process.
“Our strategy developed last summer,” said Griffs coach Mike McRae. “I said we’re going to do some things on the mound that are not normal because I believe it’s a way to make us more effective.”
“I thought we had the ability to piece a game together, whether it was three guys for three innings or four guys, it didn’t matter,” McRae said. “We felt we had enough different looks – rights and lefts, with different arm angles and different types of breaking balls - that it would be very tough to face that over nine innings. You’re always facing a different guy, with a different look. We could get more favorable matchups.”
The Griffs’ pitching staff was led by two high-quality starters. Senior Devon Stewart went 7-6 with a 3.65 earned-run average and had 72 strikeouts and 22 walks. Freshman J.P. Stevenson went 7-3 with a 4.20 ERA and had 66 strikeouts and 17 walks.
But Canisius had 11 guys with double-digit appearances.
“We lost our ace to the draft, and rather than try to find a third starter, I thought it was a way to use more of our staff,” McRae said. “It also was a way to keep them fresher for the year. They weren’t worn out. … You’re the reliever starting the game. I must have used that expression in the last month to five different guys.”
In the MAAC title game, sophomore middle reliever Zach Sloan made his first start of the season. He went five innings to get the win, 11-2, over Siena.
“I was very surprised I got the start, and I was a little nervous at first,” Sloan said. “But once I got into it, it was like any other game.”
“All of our guys got a little arm-side run,” said Stewart, referring to pitches that tend to tail in the same direction as the pitcher’s arm. “We try to rely on fastball movement and throw strikes. We’ve got lefties, righties, some guys who throw hard, a little slower. It’s a good mix.”
The Griffs have outstanding hitting, too. Canisius ranked first in the MAAC in batting average (.311), on-base percentage (.417) and slugging (.450).
Junior outfielder Brett Siddall was named MAAC Player of the Year. He’s batting .353 with a MAAC-best 12 homers and 63 RBIs. Senior infielder Connor Panas was named MVP of the MAAC Tourney. He’s batting .379 with 10 HRs and 67 RBIs.
McRae, a native of Niagara Falls, Ont., has led the Griffs to winning seasons in seven of their last eight years.
Throughout his tenure, McRae has been adept at identifying under-recruited Canadian talent. There are 13 Canadians on the Griffs’ 36-man roster, including the top three hitters (Panas, Siddall and Jake Lumley) and the top two pitchers (Stewart and Stevenson).
“I think people realize this is a great opportunity here,” McRae said. “We have a chance to go to a regional each and every year. We’ve got guys going onto pro baseball. And their parents get the chance to see them play, especially the Ontario kids. I think that has made it an attractive option.”
Missouri State is the champion of the Missouri Valley Conference. The Bears have won 16 straight games, and they have 22 come-from-behind wins this season.
The Bears led the MVC in batting average (.292 in conference), runs scored (6.36 a game) and earned-run average (2.75).
“We’re going to have to play our best baseball, and we are right now,” Stewart said. “I’m looking forward to putting our name out there a little bit more.”