NEW YORK (AP) — Ed Blankmeyer expected his St. John's baseball team to have a solid start this season. But not even the veteran coach could have predicted the Red Storm to roll like this.
They're 19-2, the program's best opening to a season since the 1981 squad that featured future major leaguers Frank Viola and John Franco won 26 of its first 27 games.
Baseball America has St. John's ranked No. 14 in the country, tying its highest spot in that poll since that squad 36 years ago.
"For us to get off to this type of start, you have to be running on all cylinders," Blankmeyer said. "And at this point, we're lucky to be running on all cylinders."
St. John's, which beat Wagner 6-2 on Wednesday, was tied for second in the country with a .334 team batting average. The Red Storm's 2.61 ERA ranked eighth, making them the only Division I team to place in the top 10 in both categories.
"It's unusual to have everybody getting off to such a good start, really unusual," Blankmeyer said. "That's something that was nice to see because what that's done is we've gained momentum."
The Red Storm are also at No. 5 in the Collegiate Baseball poll, their best ranking since the school's last College World Series team in 1980 — also with Viola and Franco. St. John's is ranked No. 13 in both the USA Today Coaches' and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association polls, and No. 15 by D1Baseball.com.
"It's been a blast," said redshirt-junior first baseman John Valente, who had a school-record 30-game hitting streak snapped last week. "I think it all comes down to everyone on the team having fun this year. We have a different chemistry than past years, I believe. Everyone's pulling the same rope and we're excited, especially with all these wins."
Among those victories, St. John's has beaten defending national champion Coastal Carolina and nationally ranked North Carolina — both on the road. The only losses for the Red Storm, whose RPI ranks 12th in the country, have come at East Carolina and Liberty.
"When you look at our team, you don't see a bunch of power guys or like the Vanderbilts or LSUs, where they have the potential No. 1 draft pick or something like that," senior right-hander Ryan McAuliffe said. "We kind of just have a group of 30 guys who play together and have fun."
People have noticed, too, with those lofty spots in the polls serving as a sure sign of respect.
"Obviously, it's cool to look at, but I think it's more for our friends and family back home," said McAuliffe, from North Reading, Massachusetts. "For us, we know how good we're playing and know that we're very talented. I think the rankings just add to it."
It's a terrific start for a team based in the Northeast, where programs are traditionally stuck working indoors all winter before heading outside in mid-February — usually warming up in better temperatures on the road to open their season.
"I told the guys that I like to look at the season in thirds," said Blankmeyer, in his 22nd season at St. John's and the program's career victories leader. "We're basically past the first third of the season and you guys have an 'A,' but now you've got to play the next two-thirds of the season, which includes your conference, and guys are getting better, so we've got to get better."
Valente, from New Rochelle, New York, has played a big part in the early season success. He ranked among the Division I leaders with a .440 batting average, boosted by that impressive hitting streak.
"Coach Blankmeyer's pretty much like, well, we haven't really even started the season yet," Valente said. "We haven't accomplished anything, and I like it like that. You can't have your ego keep you from playing the game the way you know you can."
The Red Storm have six regular starters hitting .300 or better, including Valente, designated hitter Gui Gingras (.462), shortstop Jesse Berardi (.395), center fielder Jamie Galazin (.403), left fielder Michael Donadio (.359) and catcher Troy Dixon (.339).
Every starter but second baseman Josh Shaw (.293), who's a sophomore, is either a junior or senior, including third baseman Robbie Knightes (.286) and Anthony Brocato (.267).
"This is a mature group," Blankmeyer said. "They know what needs to be done."
The pitching staff has also gotten contributions from several players, with freshman right-hander Sean Mooney leading the way with a 2-0 record and 0.88 ERA. McAuliffe is 3-0 with a 1.08 ERA, but is dealing with a minor arm ailment that will sideline him a few weeks. Same with junior lefty Kevin Magee, who's 3-0 with a 2.50 ERA.
That leaves young arms such as sophomore righty Michael LoPresti (4-0, 3.70) and freshman lefty Jeff Belge (3-0, 3.92) to help solidify the rotation.
"Right now, we're going to be challenged a little bit because as we start entering five-game weeks, we're very thin," Blankmeyer said. "So, some of these relievers who haven't had extended stints are going to have to take the ball, so that's going to challenge us a little bit, but it also gives them an opportunity to contribute."
So far, so good for St. John's. Big East Conference play doesn't begin until next weekend, and the Red Storm know they've got a long way to go before they can consider this a special season.
"This team, talent-wise, without a doubt has the chance," Blankmeyer said. "But it's consistent play and performing. Time will only tell."