Delaney and Quinnipiac eye first MAAC crown

Morey Hershgordon

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Photo courtesy Quinnipiac Athletics

By Morey Hershgordon

Fall of 2014. The Quinnipiac baseball team was just a few months removed from a fourth place finish in its inaugural year in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and its first post season win in seven years. But in John Delaney’s eyes, this was only the start. There was plenty of room for improvement.

He was the brand new face at the helm of his alma matter and was just the third different skipper since 1977. The former Quinnipiac standout who brought two regular season Northeast Conference championships to Hamden, as well the program’s first trip to the Division I NCAA Tournament in 2007, had a challenge awaiting. This time, Delaney couldn’t make the diving stops at third base himself. He couldn’t drive the runs in from the top of the lineup. He had to teach.

A tall task involved meshing a team consisting of a senior class that hadn’t seen more than 18 wins in a year, a very talented sophomore class and young freshmen blood, all while participating in just its second year in the competitive MAAC. How was it going to get done?

Small ball.

“We’ve been really pushing that since the fall.” Delaney said. “Being productive with the small parts of the game. I think it gets lost in the shuffle. Everyone wants to have a kid come up and hit a two-run double, but realistically it’s not going to happen every time.”

Delaney’s mentality on a day-to-day basis: minutia, detail, focus, and commitment. During the last nine months, he’s pushed his team to trust the process. And they have. Twenty-seven wins later, he leads his squad to Fishkill, New York, the site of the 2015 MAAC Baseball Tournament. The third seeded Bobcats, in his eyes, are primed to make a run.

“This year, it’s a complete unit,” Delaney said. “These guys are all pulling for each other. It doesn’t matter if it’s the kid playing center field or the twelfth kid that’s on the bench. Every kid is fully committed to just winning.”

And he says it all starts with the fundamentals.

“The biggest ‘difference-maker’ has been those small things. We face a lot of teams and when it comes down to the late innings and you try to [play] that type of baseball, you see teams that struggle. For us, we do it from inning one to inning nine. Guys are comfortable when they see the fastball and drive it in the gap. If you’re comfortable with bunting the ball and you practice it as much as we do, then it just becomes a natural part of the game.”

Capitalizing on a leadoff walk or a hit-by-pitch has become second nature. The next step is ingrained. Steal second base or lay down a sacrifice bunt. Or both. Not only does this ideology reduce pressure to deliver consecutive hits to drive the run home from first base, but it also diminishes the amount of double-play opportunities for the opposition.

“It doesn’t matter who’s up, guys are bunting,” Delaney said. “We’re probably one of the top teams in the country right now when it comes to [sacrifices]. And we’ve gotten the big hits when we’ve done those small things.”

Delaney’s proactive approach has helped his team scratch across an extra run here, an extra run there. It adds up over the course of the game and the season. The Bobcats are 8-4 in MAAC contests this year when games are decided by two runs or less.

“If we do the small things then you’re in better positions to drive in runs early in the game. If you put up a run every inning or a run every other inning and you put 5, 6, or 7 runs on the board and get pitching, you know you should win [a lot of] games. That’s been the preaching this year and it’s been productive so far.”

Quinnipiac leads the MAAC in sacrifice bunts and is second among playoff teams in stolen bases, which has led it to finishing second in the conference in total bases. The formula seems easy, but Delaney has talented players.

Mike Palladino, the leadoff hitter, enters the post season sporting a .321 batting average with 24 stolen bases, the most in a single season by a Quinnipiac player in its Division I program history. In the two hole, Scott Donahue is hitting .301 with a team high 14 sacrifice bunts. After that, the production only increases. Matt Batten and Vin Guglietti provide a rare duo of speed, bat control, power, and discipline.

“To have two players like that in the three and four sports in the order, it changes the approach of the game,” Delaney said.

Batten, the local product from Shelton, CT has started every game since arriving at Hamden in the Fall of 2013. Listed generously at 6-foot, he wasn’t even tabbed as a Division I prospect.

“Matt Batten was a kid in high school that was told, ‘You’re not good enough, you can’t play Division I ball,’” Delaney remembered. “And there were some coaches that told him, ‘Hey, you’re a Division III player.’ He’s used that to fuel his desire to be the player he is.”

Batten not only exceeded expectations in his freshman year, he also set records. His 52 hits is second all-time amongst first year players at Quinnipiac.

And this year, he was selected to the all-MAAC first team. While he may not be the prototypical three hitter, it’s Batten’s baseball IQ that has made him successful in that spot. He is riding a 22 game hitting streak, just one shy of Toby Peterson’s record in 2000. With the double-elimination tournament approaching, Batten has a chance to top another list.

In fact, as he climbs the ranks of Quinnipiac standouts, it’s his defense that opens even more eyes. His coach believes he is one of the best shortstops in the region.

“When you work with Matt on the field every day, the kid wants to field more ground balls than anyone else. He wants to spend more time fielding than hitting. That’s why he’s such a good defensive player.”

Delaney is no stranger to defense. The once heralded third baseman was one of the top prospects in the Milwaukee Brewers farm system a mere six years ago. An injury cut his playing days short and forced him to the sidelines. In his time as a player and coach, Delaney said Batten is one of the best shortstops he’s ever been around.

“He takes pride every day in getting better and better. It’s hard to find a player like that to play shortstop. He’s probably the best defender I’ve ever coached or played with on that side of the ball.”

According to Delaney, Batten’s impact most importantly aids the Bobcats pitching staff.

“Pitchers know they have someone like Matt at shortstop where the majority of the balls go to him. It gives [the pitchers] the mindset that ‘Hey, we don’t have to strike out every guy.’ They can pitch to contact early and trust the defense behind them.”

The teams pitching ace, Thomas Jankins, is a sophomore like Batten. Those two along with the rest of the class of 2017 were Delaney’s first.

“I told Matt Batten’s class, who was my first recruiting class, that this will be the class that starts the trend of moving the program up and it’s starting to come into fruition now,” Delaney said.

But there was a time when Quinnipiac baseball was aching for success. After Delaney’s departure in 2008, Quinnipiac could be found in the cellar of the NEC standings until, current senior, Vin Guglietti’s arrival in Hamden. Guglietti recalls a tough first couple of years.

“I think those first few years, for the seniors now, we weren’t just going to come in and wins were going to be handed to us. We had to work hard and put trust in our coaches, trust in our teammates, and had to trust ourselves that we’re going to do the right things to get wins.”

Guglietti, a left-handed power hitter who has hit in the cleanup spot since 2012, has seen his numbers rise each year. Specifically the last two years have been his best. His batting average and power numbers have soared while his strikeouts have decreased. His maturity and work ethic have paid major dividends.

“He went from being just strictly a swinger to being a hitter,” Delaney said. “He has the mechanics, changed a little bit of his swing, and is now starting to learn the mental part of the game where he can understand that he doesn’t have to swing at the 0-0 fastball.”

Guglietti’s discipline and approach is what separates him from the rest of the pack.

“Now he’s able to read certain pitches by the way they’re pitching him and be able to have the confidence, even with two strikes, to drive the ball in the gap,” Delaney said.

This past weekend, Guglietti notched the 49 double of his career. He sits first, in Quinnipiac baseball history, in that category.

Without his stud cleanup hitter, Delaney knows his team wouldn’t be in the same position.

“If it wasn’t for his attitude and his production, ‘Would we be as good as we are?’ No. Not a shot.”

The Bobcats are a stifling 25-13 since March 22. The warmer weather, Delaney admits, allowed his team to play more freely.

Now chasing 30 wins and a ring, No. 3 seed Quinnipiac faces No. 6 seed Marist in Wednesday’s opening game of the MAAC Tournament. It dropped two of three games from the Red Foxes, at home, down the stretch.

“If it wasn’t for that series, we probably would have won this league,” Delaney said. “These kids are going to play with a chip on their shoulder because even though we are having a great year, I still think people don’t believe that we’re one of the best teams in this league.”

Despite what people think, Quinnipiac feels it’s one of the best teams in the MAAC. Guglietti learned that keeping an even keel throughout the duration of the tournament is the biggest asset.

“This year, the difference is our mentality is not going to change no matter if we win by 15 runs or only by 2 runs. The next team sitting there waiting for us wants it just as bad as we do.”

When the recently named first team all-MAAC first basemen was asked if anything in particular needed to be said before the first pitch on Wednesday, the slugger was quick to respond.

“We don’t have to say anything to each other. We know what’s at stake and what we have to do to win.”

Guglietti continued, but touched on something different.

“I’ve said it a thousand times this year that I really wish I was coming back next year because I see what the coaching staff and the players coming in behind our class are going to do with this program. They’re going to be one of the best teams if not the best team in the MAAC. This program is doing nothing but going up from here.”

But for now, the goal is simple. A championship. A chance to make memories for a lifetime.

And what’s been the most rewarding part about this year for Delaney?

“To see this senior class go out on top,” he said. “I know there were a lot of struggles early on in their careers, and I told them to trust what we’re doing here and trust that the program is going in the right direction. And they have. They have done a great job of leading this ball club to get to the position we are.”