Steven Shelinsky Jr.'s college baseball career could have unfolded in a more inauspicious manner, but he isn't sure how. He had almost as many surgeries as base hits his first three seasons at Pitt, and it was difficult for him to ascertain what hurt more -- enduring his medical hardships (two wrist surgeries and an appendectomy that forced him to redshirt the 2011 season) or his on-field woes that produced a career .138 batting average entering this season.
"It's always tough when you lose your confidence," Shelinsky said. "The mental part of the game is a lot harder than the physical."
Armed with a new approach at the plate and a stout, powerful frame, Shelinsky has rediscovered his confidence in a breakthrough season that has him among the Division I leaders in home runs and the Panthers contending for a Big East Conference championship in their final season in the league.
A 6-foot, 220-pound right-handed hitter, Shelinsky's Big East-leading 11 home runs rank him among the top 20 in Division I. After bottoming out with a .059 average (1 for 17) last season, Shelinsky is hitting .315 this season and is second on the team with 38 RBIs.
"I came in with a more laid-back approach to the game this year," said Shelinsky, a left fielder from Yardley, Pa. "I wanted to swing out of my shoes more this year, stay focused on swinging hard at every pitch. Did I expect to do this? No. But I'm going to keep going with the approach I have and try to keep it going."
Shelinsky is the rare hitter in the middle of the order whose power is almost exclusively to the opposite field. Nine of his 11 home runs have been to right or right-center field, an indication of his strength and simple approach to hitting.
"He has an electric bat," coach Joe Jordano said. "He just has to have the confidence to believe in his swing and be able to identify the pitches he wants to swing at. He has a better understanding of his strike zone. He's not chasing pitches out of the zone. He has a fairly simple swing, just a firm set-up and his hands work.
"Steve has always been an incredibly hard worker. The biggest hurdle for him to overcome was confidence. This past fall, we said, 'Wow, he's really coming on.' We have some hitting contests over the offseason, and he won a couple of those. I couldn't be more pleased for Steve because he is such a great kid and such a diligent and hard-working kid for the program."
Shelinsky is part of a potent lineup attempting to bash its way to a conference championship and NCAA tournament berth. The Panthers (26-10, 6-3) are in third place in the Big East standings after a three-game sweep of No. 22 Notre Dame last week. They have won 17 of 22 entering a big weekend series against fourth-place Rutgers, which begins today at Charles Cost Field on the Pitt campus.
The Panthers are among the most productive offensive teams in the country. They are third in scoring (8.0), sixth in home runs (37), seventh in slugging percentage (.468), 11th in on-base percentage (.410) and 27th in batting average (.304).
Right fielder Casey Roche isn't far behind Shelinsky in power numbers. He has nine home runs and a team-leading 50 RBIs. He hit for the cycle and had 10 RBIs April 9 at Youngstown State. Seven players are hitting .300 or better and six have 20 or more RBIs.
"We felt like we were going to be able to swing the bats," Jordano said. "I am a little bit surprised at our power numbers because they're pretty impressive."
Pitt's powerful bats might have to carry the team down the home stretch. Jordano is strong at the top of his pitching rotation with Ethan Mildren (6-2, 2.48 ERA), Matt Wotherspoon (5-1, 2.98) and Rhys Aldenhoven (6-0, 2.23), but his bullpen and back of the rotation were decimated when two players gave up baseball and another transferred.
Jordano was already dealing with a thin roster. Pitt is one of three Big East teams to operate its program below the NCAA scholarship limit of 11.7. Jordano is playing with 9.3 scholarships and won't be fully funded until next season, Pitt's first in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
All of which makes the fact that the Panthers are contending for their first NCAA tournament berth in 18 years even more impressive. The Panthers have not made the tournament since 1995 when they won the conference tournament for the first and only time.
Pitt can qualify by winning the Big East tournament or receiving an at-large bid. Reaching 40 victories is usually enough to get into the NCAA playoffs. The Panthers have 19 regular-season games left.
Last year Kent State and Stony Brook, northern teams that previously never made a splash in the NCAA playoffs, surprised the college baseball world by reaching the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. The Panthers are using that as inspiration.
"This has been an evolution here," Jordano said. "Next year we'll be fully funded. We feel good about the recruiting class we have coming in. It's extremely talented. We're excited about it. We're equally excited about this team. We want our players to understand we're going to aim for the top. We're going to raise the bar in everything we do, in every aspect of the program.
"It's been 1-2-3 Omaha from the beginning of the season. Our friends at Kent State did it last year. Stony Brook did it. Why not Pitt?"
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published April 19, 2013 4:00 AM