KINGSTON — The University of Rhode Island baseball team thinks it can be dangerous this season.
Following the first two losing seasons of coach Raphael Cerrato's tenure, the Rams' confidence in a rebound comes from a mix of their experienced talent and an infusion of local athletes who went overlooked on the recruiting trail.
The Rams had overall winning records in each of Cerrato's three seasons as head man on the bench. No easy feat, considering how arduous their schedules tend to be. After finishing second or first in the Atlantic 10 standings in his first three years, Cerrato and the Rams fell to seventh and sixth the past two go-rounds.
“We're in better shape than in past years in terms of being ready to win games,” he said at a preseason practice on Tuesday. “Instead of just trying to compete. I'm excited to see what happens.
“There's definitely a lot of experience. We didn't really lose a ton from last year. We lost Kevin Heiss, our shortstop, but we have a good freshman [to replace him]. [Tyler] Wilson and [Dom] Grillo, but they missed a lot of time last year. Wilson almost missed the entire season during conference [play].”
Wilson was an All-American left-handed pitcher who had a successful career slightly derailed by injuries. He missed the majority of two full seasons, but still left Kingston as the program's all-time leader in wins.
Even with the graduation of Wilson and Grillo, the Rams have three experienced weekend starters lined up for the 2020 season. They also return the bulk of their offensive lineup.
“Our three weekend starters are [Justin] Cherry, [Nick] Robinson and [Vitaly] Jangols to start,” Cerrato said. “Positionally, we have six or seven guys that have played a lot. And this is probably our best freshman class since I've been here.”
The pitching trio of Cherry, Robinson and Jangols ate up a total of 163.5 innings last season, making a combined 26 starts. Cherry, a redshirt sophomore, broke out in his debut collegiate season, leading the staff with an ERA of 2.93 to go with 56 strikeouts.
“It's almost like we made a mistake with him,” Cerrato said. “We shouldn't have redshirted him as a freshman. We didn't think he was going to get a ton of innings as a freshman. He looked good. We just didn't want to waste a year on a couple of innings. Looking back, we made a mistake. He should have pitched as a freshman.
“He's a super competitive kid. Complete clown off the field, but on the field you cannot ... you have to pry the ball out of his hand to get him out of the game. He's a really good competitor.”
“It should be really good,” Cherry said of the weekend staff. “We should be able to win with all three of them. There's not gonna be a question mark. Pretty solid guys.”
Tyler Brosius is back to handle the back-end duties in the bullpen. He had an ERA of 2.27 last season and held batters to a .195 average.
“He has the chance to be the best closer in the conference,” Cerrato said. “His stuff is filthy, almost unhittable at times. He is the kind of closer who can pitch an inning or three. I like having that kind of closer.”
Supporting Brosius in the bullpen will be a couple of local products. South Kingstown's Bo Brutti threw 24.2 innings last season as a true freshman, and will serve as a setup man this season.
Ashaway's Sean Sposato, a Chariho High graduate, will also see time out of the 'pen. Coach Cerrato is convinced the Rams have picked up a big steal in securing the talents of the former Charger.
“He has the opportunity to be a weekend starter for us. Probably won't happen this year. He's a kid that was barely recruited. We saw him super late. We told him, 'You gotta come; this is the place for you.' There were only D-III schools looking at him. He's [throwing] 87 to 90 [mph] plus the changeup and a pretty good breaking ball. He's got a chance to be very, very good, and he kind of came out of nowhere.”
Sposato is one of eight native Rhode Islanders on this year's roster. In addition to Brutti and Sposato, Josh Brodeur (Cumberland), Billy Butler (Ponaganset), Alex Ramirez (Warwick), and Addison Kopack (Cumberland) all figure to see the field this year.
“I love having the local kids,” Cerrato said. “It's important for us. [Sposato], Bo, we got Josh Brodeur, veteran second baseman. Addison Kopack from Cumberland, again, a kid barely recruited. He's got a chance to be a really good player for our program. Alex Ramirez is penciled in as our starting shortstop right now. He's legit. He could play anywhere in the country.”
Far off the normal recruiting trails that most Division I coaches follow, the state of Rhode Island is becoming a fertile recruiting ground for URI. With D-I talent supposedly populating seemingly every town and ballfield, why aren't the scouts and college coaches showing up?
“It's a good question,” Cerrato said. “You look at a kid like Addison Kopack (UTL/P). He's physical, really strong with good power. He's an above-average runner. Didn't really have a set position in high school, maybe that was a factor?
“Kids can get overlooked. There's some talent. It's a small state, but per capita, there's some good Division I players. We want kids growing up wanting to play here.”
Offensively, the Rams feel they're ready to hit the ground running. First baseman Xavier Vargas and outfielder Austin White led the team in most offensive categories last year. Vargas hit .300 with four home runs. White batted .298 and stole 13 bases. The pair of juniors will be the focal point of an offense that also features first baseman/outfielder Jackson Coutts (29 RBIs, 11 extra-base hits last year) and Brodeur (.273 batting average, nine steals).
“Couple guys who have made huge improvements,” in addition to the returners, Cerrato said. “Billy Butler (OF) has made big, big jumps. Mark Coley (OF/INF) had a huge summer in the Futures League. Got picked best pro prospect in that league. He's a different kid. I don't like to throw it around much, but he's a five-tool college player.”
With the touted local freshmen and oodles of experience, the Rams hope to compete at the top of the A-10, and perhaps even for an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. That would ease the pain of not even making the A-10 Tournament two seasons ago.
“To not make it two years ago, that's not a good year for our program,” Cerrato said. “Last year we were better but still not where we think we can be. We're a much better team this year than we've been.
“On paper, it's a team that can compete for a championship.”
The 2020 season for the Rams begins this weekend with a three-game slate at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.