In years past, the NESCAC West Division has been lacking in any meaningful regular season drama outside of seeing whether Amherst or Wesleyan would finish first. The East has been the site of all the action with teams jumping in and out of the top two. Those roles were reversed this year with the East playing out their games without much consequence and the West up in the air until the bitter end.
In the end, though, Wesleyan and Amherst sit at the top yet again. However, they do so with identical 7-5 conference records. That’s a far cry from two teams that went a combined 58-14 over the past three years. The two played each other this weekend, and Wesleyan came into the weekend looking like they were the team in danger of missing the playoffs with a 5-4 record. Then, on Friday Wesleyan won over Amherst and beat Williams beat Hamilton. Entering Saturday the West standings looked like this:
- Wesleyan 6-4
- Amherst 6-4
- Middlebury 6-6
- Williams 5-5
- Hamilton 3-7
A Saturday sweep by Williams of Hamilton combined with either Amherst or Wesleyan sweeping the other doubleheader would have resulted in the Ephs making the playoffs. Heck, even if Williams split they could have snuck in with an Amherst sweep because the Ephs beat the Cardinals twice. A three-way tie scenario still would have favored the eventual playoff teams, but the point is that even though Wesleyan and Amherst made it back to the playoffs, things were close to going very differently.
Of course, they didn’t go differently. And I feel confident that the Cardinals and Amherst really are the two best teams in the West Division, though the gap has shrunk. They have much better overall records and are still more talented. But the divisional race was awesome to watch unfold in such a tight way. The playoffs don’t start for another 10 days, but we still have a lot of regular season baseball to enjoy before then.
Starting Pitcher Peter Rantz ’16 (Wesleyan)
Rantz clinched the Cardinals’ place in the playoffs by going all eight innings in the first game of the Saturday doubleheader. The ace had struggled his past two weekend starts, losing both games and throwing up a 6.35 ERA in them. Things looked bad as he allowed three runs in the bottom of the first. From there, he turned things on and scattered six hits over the next 7.0 innings without too many problem spots. Holding Amherst scoreless for seven innings is some pretty nifty stuff for the senior, and it is the type of resilient performance we have grown to expect from Wesleyan.
It’s a cliché at this point (see my last sentence about Rantz), but the Cardinals really do seem to have some sort of secret sauce or something for making things happen. They won the series opener for the first time this weekend by hitting four home runs. Then they rallied from that three run deficit to win in extra innings in the second game. That was their second extra inning win in a NESCAC game this year, and they have trailed late in a few of their wins. Marco Baratta ’16 has not slowed down from his scorching start, taking home NESCAC POTW honors and having a OBP of .538. Other big performances included that of first baseman Jordan Farber ’16, who hit four homers in conference and shortstop Guy Davidson ’16 who has been great at the plate again this year. The Cardinals ended up winning the West for the fourth straight year. Now that they are in, the two-time defending champions are the team that no one wants to play.
Centerfielder Cody McCallum ’16 (Tufts)
The senior has carried on the strong tradition of Tufts outfielders with a first name starting with C and a last name starting with Mc, which began with Connor McDavitt ’15. Seriously though, McCallum has been huge for the Jumbos this year, and he was great this weekend. He batted .400 in their four NESCAC games (the Jumbos had to makeup a game against Bates). He also had one RBI in each of them. He leads the league in walks with 25, making him the perfect leadoff hitter. That crazy walk rate is why he has a .455 OBP.
I think the stolen base is one of the most exciting plays in baseball, but this year the NESCAC basically has decided that stealing bases is stupid. The numbers for elite base stealers are way down. Trinity’s Nick Pezella ’16 leads the league with 15 stolen bases. Last year four players had more than that. Just four players are in double digits this year compared to 13 in 2015 (there are two guys at nine and a bunch at seven, though, so a few more should reach that plateau). However, it isn’t just the top guys stealing less. This is a league-wide change. Consider that Wesleyan has led the league with 46 steals this year, and yet five teams (half the league!) had more than that last year. Overall teams have stolen 27.8 percent less bases this year to date than a year ago. That is a huge drop, and while there’s still a lot of games to go, it would take Dee Gordon rediscovering his eligibility and playing the next few weeks for the Wesleyan Cardinals in order to get back to last year’s steal numbers (something that I bet Dee would be happy to do right now). I don’t know whether to give better catchers or slower runners the credit, but the evidence is there that managers had good reason to pull in the reins on their players this year. Teams got caught stealing 120 times last year; this season, already 118.
It’s unfortunate for this trio of schools that they are all in the same state, because when things go bad for all of them we almost have to write about it. Bowdoin, Colby and Bates all finished 4-8, far away from the playoffs. Is baseball harder in Maine? I kid, of course. What killed all of them was their inability to hit. The three teams finished last in the NESCAC in both OPB and SLG. We expected that it was going to be tough sledding for all these teams, and they showed a good amount of fight. The problem going forward is that all of them are graduating a lot of talent. Bates is probably the best positioned for next year in terms of making the playoffs, but in the longer term I like the youngsters on Bowdoin to return the Polar Bears to real prominence.