After enjoying a breakthrough 13-win season last spring, Weehawken veteran baseball coach Anthony Stratton knows that his team has to take the next step up this year.
“There’s an old cliché that says where we have some unfinished business,” said Stratton, who welcomes back an Indians’ roster filled with experience. “That’s the way we’re thinking this year. We have some unfinished business.”
The Indians lost to eventual sectional champion Roselle Park in the NJSIAA North 2, Group I semifinals and lost to Memorial in the Hudson County Tournament quarterfinals.
“We have some mature, senior leadership,” Stratton said. “It’s very hard to find these days. These kids are playing together. Everyone is responding. It’s been great. I think it’s going to be a special year. If we can’t see how special we’re going to be, then something’s wrong. I think we’re all on the same page.”
Leading the returnees is junior left-handed pitcher Sal Mendez, who is one of the best hurlers around. Mendez, a Hudson Reporter All-Area selection last spring, pitched to a 7-1 record with a 1.74 earned run average last year, striking out an astounding 95 batters in 61 innings.
“The expectations are high with Sal,” Stratton said. “When he steps on the mound, we should win. It’s as simple as that. We almost take it for granted that he’s going to get us a win. His baseball maturity is astounding. He knows how to pitch and knows the game.”
Mendez pitched the season opener for the Indians against Hasbrouck Heights, striking out 13 in a no-decision performance. He’s poised to have a great season. When he’s not pitching, Mendez plays a solid first base and batted .323 last year.
Junior right-hander David Strandberg also returns for the Indians. Strandberg posted a 4-1 record last year and is an absolute terror at the plate.
“He’s just as talented as Sal, only from the right side,” Stratton said. “He’s really improved with his mental maturity. He doesn’t get rattled and doesn’t get upset anymore. He throws very hard.”
When Strandberg is not pitching, he will play right field, where he batted .412 with four homers last year. Strandberg also possesses a cannon of a right arm in right field.
“He has a hose from the outfield,” Stratton said.
Stratton is also blessed to have solid pitching depth. Incredibly, most of his staff is left-handed and most are underclassmen, which gives the Indians a lot of hope for the future.
Junior Jimmy McCall is the Indians’ No. 3 pitcher.
“He’s a scrappy lefty who has the ability to work out of jams,” Stratton said.
Rafael Totesautt is another junior left-hander who has improved tremendously.
“He’s grown leaps and bounds,” Stratton said of Totesautt. “He just needs to be a little more consistent.”
Totesautt is the team’s left fielder when he’s not on the mound.
Luis Nunez is yet another junior left-handed pitcher. It’s like Weehawken has cornered the market on lefties.
“It is a God-send,” Stratton said of having such depth in left-handed pitching. “Luis is like our closer. He’s also matured nicely and had a nice preseason.”
Nunez plays right field when he’s not pitching.
The catcher is senior Jason “J.J.” Pineda, who was the quarterback for the Indians during the football season.
“He’s the heart and soul of the team,” Stratton said. “He provides great leadership.”
Roberto Moran is a big, strapping, slugging first baseman/designated hitter who plays first when Mendez is pitching. Moran can also pitch if called upon, but he’s a novelty on this team as a right-hander.
Senior Kenny Manier returns to his position at second base, where he earned Hudson Reporter All-Area honors last year, batting .472.
“Kenny is pretty consistent, but right now, he’s putting too much pressure on himself,” Stratton said. “I told him that it’s going to come. He just has to be patient. But as Kenny goes, we go.”
Junior Dante Cieri is the team’s shortstop. Cieri is a three-sport athlete who contributes in all three (football, basketball, baseball).
“I personally think baseball is his best sport,” Stratton said. “He’s a great defender who has power and speed offensively.”
The Indians use a host of players at third, namely seniors Miguel Montilla and Mike Manenta and junior Steve Rodriguez.
Manenta has been a pleasant surprise.
“He’s a first-year player, but he’s really impressed me,” Stratton said. “He’s a real hard worker and reminds me a lot of myself with his toughness.”
Totesautt and McCall share duties in left field, with junior Josh Saenz and junior Deveraux Blanco manning centerfield.
Strandberg and Nunez share right field, depending upon who is pitching. Nick Steen is the team’s utility player. Steen, a senior, hasn’t played baseball in two seasons after tearing his ACL in the same knee twice.
“But Nick understands the game and is going to get some playing time,” Stratton said.
The Indians will try to recover from the loss in the season opener. They have tough tests coming up against Saddle Brook and Hoboken.
Mark it down. The Indians will be a team to be reckoned with this season.
“We’re definitely going to have a better year,” Stratton said. “We all have the same goals in mind. It’s going to be a fun year.” – Jim Hague.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.