The regular season is over and the playoffs are here, which we find to be a perfect time to reflect on what went down over the past two-plus months. The NESCAC will be saying goodbye to some great players, athletes and teammates, so we want to give a tip of the cap to a few of them here.
Adam Lamont: Alright, the NESCAC regular season has run its course. Hamilton topped off the season with a ceremonious, Monday evening, 19-9 beatdown over Utica. Good on ya, Conts for finishing strong. No matter who you are, as an athlete, your last game in that uniform is always memorable. So, today we are going to talk about those teams that have played their last game, and hold off on the playoff chatter right now. This was one of the more topsy-turvy NESCAC baseball seasons, but in the end things held to form in terms of who is making the playoffs. Kaitlin, what or who sticks out the most to you about this year?
Kaitlin McCabe: Considering the preseason expectations and last year’s performance, I don’t think we can ignore the tremendous growth Middlebury’s program showed this season. Once struggling underdogs, the Panthers actually were serious contenders for a playoff spot this year. If they could have held onto a 7-1 lead in the seven-inning game against Amherst, the Panthers would still be playing, and – this is incredible – if they had beaten Wesleyan a second time, Middlebury would have been the No. 1 in the West. Each weekend Middlebury surprised the competition with a more challenging series than they anticipated, and I think the talent and brilliant execution we saw this year will only grow stronger next season. Obviously, the 11-23 overall record and 0-6 slide in the last week go to show that the program has some things to work on, but when it really counted, on the weekends, Middlebury could compete with the best teams in the league.
At the other end of the spectrum, even Tufts’ growth this season is pretty astounding. They are the East’s top dog yet again, but they look stronger than last year. They were 26-8 (8-4) going into the NESCAC Tourney last year and swiftly dropped two straight. Right now they are 29-6 overall and a dominant 11-1 in the NESCAC. They’re not close to as good of a hitting team (about 30 points lower in average this season) as they were last year, but the one-two punch of Speros Varinos ’17 (1.86 ERA, 10.46 K/9) and Andrew David ’16 (2.54 ERA, 9.37 K/9) makes them almost impossible to beat twice.
What’s more, Tufts dropped three of their first seven games. They are 25-4 since March 25.
AL: Agreed, especially when you consider that Tufts lost three players from their lineup who played every day and had OBPs better than .400. Throw in they had to find a new weekend starter and a good part of their bullpen, and I didn’t see Tufts running through their schedule in the way they did.
Agreed on Middlebury, of course, but I also loved what I saw from another West Division team: Williams. The Ephs were 5-10 after their spring trip to Arizona. That two-week trip for Williams is tough. When all that’s on your mind is baseball, with no school to think about, and you’ve got a young team, it’s easy to spiral, so maybe they were just worn thin. However, they really did play much better after they came back up north. They went 3-3 against Amherst and Wesleyan, teams that have beaten up on them in recent years. Moreover, pretty much everyone outside of centerfielder David Rosas ’16 is back for next year. The pitching staff still lacks depth, but the duo of Luke Rodino ’17 and Tyler Duff ’17 were quality workhorses for them. Some of their hitters really struggled in conference, but I still like the talent in that lineup a lot going forward. The West is going to be fun next year too. Speaking of Duff, we can’t give enough credit to the kid for almost tossing the perfecto against Hamilton (one hit allowed).
KM: The stats don’t really tell how hard Williams competed this year. They even beat Wesleyan twice, yet overall they had a brutal 6.37 ERA and made 61 errors (tied for fifth most in the league). They really almost look like a carbon copy of Middlebury. Both teams need to take the next step and play every game like they do on the weekends.
But on the subject of Hamilton, I think it’s worth mentioning that the Continentals really didn’t play to their potential this year. They were darn good swinging the bat. They posted a .336/.427/.470 batting line, which numbers rank 1st/2nd/1st in the NESCAC. The weekend rotation was serviceable. Dan DePaoli ’18 had a 2.93 ERA and Cole Dreyfuss ’16 and Spencer Vogelbach ’16 were in the low 4.00’s. Unfortunately, defense and the bullpen really put the nail in the coffin for Hamilton. The team posted a miserable .925 fielding percentage, and the team ERA in conference, against better competition, was a bloated 5.42. The bats went quiet against top notch pitching, too, with a .280/.368/.432 line in conference, but it was the defense and bullpen that lead directly to too many losses.
AL: I think that all three West teams not making the postseason are going to be thinking about what could have been for a long time to come. On an individual level though, there were some great breakout stars this year.
For me, the guy as a hitter that was most impressive was outfielder Anthony Spina ’17 for Amherst. He wasn’t the best hitter in the league this year, but he was pretty close. And I pick him out because last year he hit below .250 as a part-time player. This year in conference games he had a 1.122 OPS (OBP+SLG%) and hit above .400. He ended up chasing down Andrew Haser ’16 for the league lead in home runs, both finishing the year with six. Every year guys like Spina emerge from seemingly nowhere and become All-League caliber players as upperclassmen. Other guys this year who fit that mold are Marco Baratta ’16, who paced the whole league with a .444 average and .539 OBP, and Zach Ellenthal ’16, who finished the year with an OBP of .500, albeit in somewhat limited at-bats.
KM: I don’t think you can talk about comeback players—especially hitters—without mentioning Middlebury’s John Luke ’16 and Hamilton’s Brett Mele ’17. Last year neither player was in the Top-50 in batting, with slash lines of 212/.288/.269 and .215/.393/.231. They both just clicked this year. Despite Middlebury’s ice cold finish as a team that affected everyone, Luke finished .363/.405/.513, and Mele was just above him with a .365/.456/.521 line.
What about guys on the mound that stood out for you?
AL: This was an interesting year for pitchers, I thought. The league really lost quality aces across the board from a year ago. Riley Streit ’16 and Luke Rodino ’16 were the only two pitchers to finish in the Top-10 in ERA both this year and last year. And in general we did not see the same pitching dominance: five qualified pitchers finished with an ERA below 3.00 compared to 15 such guys last year. A guy that really intrigues me both for the playoffs and beyond is Anthony Egeln Jr. ’18 for Trinity. He leads the league in ERA for conference games with a 0.65 ERA over 27.2 innings. However, those numbers look a little like a mirage when you consider he has a 4.47 ERA overall. Egeln does not strike a lot of guys out (5.68 K/9), and my gut tells me that the sophomore has benefitted from a stretch of good luck in a couple of games. He hasn’t pitched well recently with two subpar starts against Brandeis and Wesleyan.
Thinking about Egeln gets me to my overarching feelings about the NESCAC this year. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t followed the league nearly as closely as in years past; that has probably been obvious from the drop in quantity of writing. Yet, I still have some stylized facts about this year. I wrote before the season that we were going to see a lot of new faces and that the talent that had to be replaced was enormous. I think that a lot of what went on this year bore out that thinking. NESCAC teams didn’t do collectively worse this year than in years past, which is a credit to the league and coaches as a whole. However, individuals didn’t put up the typical ‘elite’ numbers that we see a lot of the time. I’m referencing the drop in ERAs below 3.00, the drop in steals I talked about last week, and a lack of transcendent players (think Mike Odenwaelder, Sam Elias, Gavin Pittore, Henry Van Zant and Donnie Cimino, or even Joe Jensen, who’s speed was All-American level). To be sure, there are still plenty of uber-talented players in the league. Still, the parity that we saw out West can be traced pretty directly to the top teams losing a lot of their best players.
The season was an enjoyable one to watch unfold, and I’m looking forward to the NESCAC Tournament to see ultimately who ends up on top.