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College baseball preview: Pitching in question for LIU

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The Long Island University baseball team struggled in 2008, finishing with a 16-31 overall record and 7-15 mark in the Northeast Conference.

Blackbirds coach Don Maines offers a simple explanation.

“Last year we were first or second in every offensive category (in the NEC) and ninth in the nation in stolen bases,” Maines said. “We were last in pitching and next to last in defense. Unfortunately, this game is about pitching and defense. I think we’ve improved defensively, but we’re going to go as far as our pitching takes us.”

To this point, that’s not very far. Heading into NEC play this weekend, LIU is 3-11 and its pitching staff has a combined 11.54 earned run average.

Leading the staff is ace James Jones, an athletic junior who is projected to be a high MLB amateur draft pick come June. The Brooklyn native consistently hits the mid 90s with his fastball and had 50 scouts watch him pitch against Pittsburgh at the Palm Beach Challenge on March 14.

The raw left-hander out of Telecommunications led the team in wins (four) and strikeouts (61) last year, but this year he is 0-4 with an 11.07 ERA.

“Right now he’s struggling,” Maines said. “We’ve talked at length, we’ve made some mechanical adjustments in his delivery. I don’t know if he’s putting too much pressure on himself, worrying about what’s going to happen in June.”

Jones isn’t just a stud pitcher. He also bats leadoff and is a designated hitter, first baseman and leftfielder when not on the mound. He’s that important to the Blackbirds, who are picked to finish seventh in the NEC in a preseason poll of conference coaches.

“He’s tremendous, he can run, he can throw, he can hit for power, hit for average,” Maines said. “He’s the best defensive first baseman I’ve ever seen. At our level, he can do it all. He’s just a tremendous athlete and a great kid to boot.”

Jones might be one of the most highly touted pitchers in the area, but he’s not alone when it comes to struggling on the mound.

Couri Benz and Matt Owens were part of the NEC rotation last year, but Benz is 0-3 with a 9.00 ERA and Owens is 0-1 with a 21.32 ERA in three starts. Maines has replaced Owens, a junior transfer from St. John’s, in the rotation with freshman Blake Crouch, who was projected to be a reliever.

The Blackbirds’ most consistent pitcher has been right-hander Julian Diaz, who is 2-2 with a 6.38 ERA in four starts.

Diaz is part of a solid freshman class that gives much needed depth to an LIU team that fields just 23 players. It includes Tyler Jones (catcher) Julian Kenner (shortstop), Derek Stupski (third base) and walk-on Julian Castro (left field), who have all started this season.

“In one sense it’s good because everybody knows their role and everybody is going to play and have an opportunity to contribute to what we’re doing,” Maines said. “The flip side is you’re at the mercy of an injury. If we can stay healthy, we’ll be OK, but we have no wiggle room whatsoever.”

Offensively, the Blackbirds are solid again, led by Frank DiMasi, a senior outfielder who is batting .421 with five doubles and 17 RBIs and Chris Kievit, a junior catcher who is hitting .372 with six home runs and 13 RBIs.

“We’ve hit extremely well. I think we’re going to be alright offensively,” Maines said. “Defensively we’ve been OK, but the pitching has just been so inconsistent. Guys who we are counting on just haven’t found their groove yet.”

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