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May 15, 2013

Still on the bubble, Pitt pushes for big goal

2013 has already been a historic year for the Pitt baseball team.

The Panthers have won 40 games, more than any other season in program history. They have qualified for the big East Championship for the fifth consecutive year, making them one of just four teams to make the tournament each of the last four seasons. And they are ranked in each of the five major collegiate baseball polls for the first time.

But there's one more goal, one more step to solidify the season as the most successful in program history: the NCAA Tournament. And despite all of the success since the season started in mid-February, Pitt hasn't quite locked itself into a berth just yet.

So while the Panthers (40-12, 18-3), are preparing for a three-game series in Louisville this week and the Big East Championship next week, there's no getting around that bigger question.

"Whoever tells you they don't pay attention to it is really just lying," sophomore catcher Elvin Soto said Wednesday while the team made its final preparations before leaving for Louisville. "You do pay attention to it when you're in the position we are, ranked in five polls and you have a chance to make history, not our history but also the university's.

"You definitely pay attention to it and you definitely want to go into the Big East Tournament having an idea of whether you're going to be in or out."

Pitt has only made the NCAA Tournament three times in school history, with the most recent coming in 1995 when the Panthers earned a berth after winning the Big East Tournament championship. As it stands, Pitt appears to be solidly on the bubble, if not leaning toward the "in" side. Most national college baseball websites see the Panthers as likely to be included with the 64 teams who make the cut. But a few factors are working against Pitt in its bid for the postseason, most notably an RPI ranking of 72 after Tuesday's 6-5 loss to Kent State, and schedule strength that ranks No. 238 nationally.

So while Pitt is rightfully celebrating the success of the season thus far, senior shortstop Evan Oswald knows from experience that nothing is guaranteed for the future.

"This happened in the past; I was part of the 2010 team, and that was probably one of the best teams I ever played on, talent-wise, and we still didn't really get that much recognition," Oswald said. "So it's not a big surprise for me. A lot of people talk about strength of schedule and how our strength of schedule isn't that good. But with how we're doing right now, it shouldn't matter. We have 40 wins, we're playing great baseball; I just feel like we should get a little bit more recognition."

The 2010 team Oswald referenced won 38 games and 18 in the Big East. Pitt was ranked No. 58 in the RPI that season and had a strength of schedule of 163; both are better ranks than the current team has heading into its final series of the 2013 regular season.

"I can't control those things," head coach Joe Jordano said. "Based on what we've done, the full body of work. It speaks for itself. I can't control what other people think. I know this team is a very good baseball team. Based on the schedule we've played we have some incredible wins and we've had some tough losses. Overall, we have 12 losses, seven are by one run. We don't have the reputation of being a national power. The Big East normally has two or a maximum of three bids. Some publications have it 3-4 this year. We have to control what we control. We'll do our best to do that.

"You have to look at the full body of work. If you look at any school, except for a small number, when you look at the schedules, everyone has had a tough loss or two. It depends how much on the other side can accommodate for those losses. If you look at the top 25 there are eight teams with 40 or more wins and we're one of them. We're ranked in all five major polls. That's never been done before. Those are things that I'm not going to spend a lot of time on. We'll let the chips fall where they may, but I'm confident this team deserves a Regional opportunity."

One thing Pitt can control is its series at No. 10 Louisville this week. The Panthers will play three games against the Cardinals at Jim Patterson Stadium starting Thursday in a series that will decide the Big East regular-season championship. Pitt enters the series 18-3 in the conference, while Louisville is 17-4; if the Panthers win one of the three games, they will clinch a share of the Big East title. With two wins, Pitt takes the conference crown outright.

The regular-season championship doesn't guarantee a berth in the NCAA Tournament, but a couple of wins over Louisville, with its No. 10 national ranking and No. 17 RPI rank, could go a long way in making a case for the Panthers.

"That'd be great," Oswald said. "Louisville has always been a good program, and to end our season with them and they're ranked [tenth] in the nation right now, to go down there and get a sweep or even a series win, that would be excellent for our program and excellent for our reputation."

"Winning the regular season would definitely give us more leverage going into the selection show," Soto said. "But we have to (focus on) one pitch at a time, one game at a time, and just go in Thursday night and take care of business. And hopefully we play good all the way up to the Big East Tournament here we won't have to really worry about it."

Of course, beating Louisville won't be easy. Jordano said Wednesday the Cardinals have "arguably the best pitching staff in the Big East Conference" and also pointed to Louisville's speed on the base paths as being a threat. And Soto expects the environment at Jim Patterson Stadium to be similar to that of an NCAA Regional, with upwards of 4,000 expected to be in attendance for the late-week series.

Pitt has a challenge waiting in Louisville, but the Panthers aren't shying away from a chance to win a Big East championship and further make their case for a national postseason bid.

"Comparing yourself to those teams is what you need to do to be a very successful baseball program," Oswald said. "We're going into the ACC next year, and playing against these good ball clubs, you can up your game and up your reputation as well.

"It's the last year in the Big East, so what better way to go out than winning it?"

Notes

- Pitt's games at Louisville on Thursday and Friday will start at 6 p.m., and first pitch on Saturday is scheduled for noon. Saturday's game will be broadcast by ESPU and will also be available through the WatchESPN app.

- Pitt has won 15 consecutive Big East games. The Panthers' only losses in conference play came during a three-game series sweep at South Florida in early April.

- The Panthers are ranked No. 16 by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, No. 21 by Baseball America, and No. 23 by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, the ESPN Coaches Poll, and Perfect Game.



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