The Biggest Storylines of 2015 and What to Expect in 2016

Guy Davidson '16 has some big shoes to fill as the incumbent star on the two-time reigning champs. (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)
Guy Davidson ’16 has some big shoes to fill as the incumbent star on the two-time reigning champs. (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)

The 2015 NESCAC baseball season was one for the history books: from a star-studded senior class to a handful of record-breaking underclassmen claiming the spotlight, the players made an impact not only on their own teams but in the entire NESCAC conference. With the season underway, it’s time to review last year’s hits and misses and predict what we can expect from this year’s competition.

But ICYMI, for any reason (like me—they don’t play baseball in London, where I was last spring!), here’s a rundown of the biggest storylines from the 2015 season:

  1. Wesleyan, Wesleyan, Wesleyan: the Continual Rise of the NESCAC Underdog

The Cardinals made history in 2014 when the underdogs grabbed the NESCAC Championship for the first time; they stunned us yet again in 2015 by holding on to the title in a nail-biting match-up against longtime rival Amherst in the final. It was wild. If you missed it (guilty), you really missed out.

Wesleyan just had everything in their arsenal and all the odds in their favor. The Cardinals didn’t graduate a single hitter after the 2014 campaign, and in 2015 the team ultimately produced the program’s record-breaking 31 wins. Offensively, Sam Goodwin-Boyd ’15, Andrew Yin ’15, current Cubs’ minor leaguer Donnie Cimino ’15 and Jonathan Dennett ’15 all produced in their final season. In the field Wesleyan was led by a trio of All-NESCAC performers: Cimino (CF), Goodwin-Boyd (1B) and Guy Davidson ’16 (SS), all of whom were eager to build off the momentum they developed during their summer with the Cape Cod League. Together, the trio helped produce the strongest defense in the NESCAC.

But the talent didn’t stop there: on the mound Wesleyan was a serious force to be reckoned with. Returning starters Nick Cooney ’15, a 2014 All-NESCAC selection, and Gavin Pittore ’16 both pitched in the Cape Cod League in preparation for their season. Sam Elias ’15, who competed in the esteemed New England Collegiate Baseball League the summer before last, was honored with the 2015 NESCAC Pitcher of the Year Award after accumulating a 7.78 K/9 ratio and 1.53 ERA over 76.1 IP. Elias turned into an ace, doing double duty as a starter (seven starts) and closer (four saves), and his 1.03 BB/9 rate was among the league’s best as well. Pete Rantz ’16 rounded out the Cardinals’ dominant rotation, and has big shoes to fill after the graduation of two rotation mates and Pittore’s early departure.

  1. The Man, The Myth, The Legend: the Unstoppable Odenwaelder

At 6’5″ and 225 lbs., Mike Odenwaelder ’16 is the type of baseball player you used to look at and wonder why he wasn’t playing Division-I ball, or even pro. After all, in his first two seasons alone, the player was crowned the 2013 NESCAC Rookie of the Year and 2014 NESCAC Player of the Year and selected for the NCAA Division III Gold Glove Team, the D3Baseball.com All-American team and First Team All-New England.

The real question going into the 2015 season was whether or not Odenwaelder could continue to surpass expectations. He returned to the Jeffs last year fresh off his most successful season. In 2014, he hit .400 with six HRs and 31 RBI, posting a jaw-dropping slugging percentage of .607. On the mound he had a 1.74 ERA over 20.2 IP. Though the Amherst star didn’t pitch for the majority of 2015 because of a shoulder injury, he continued to dominate the NESCAC with his powerful hitting. By the end of the 2015 season, Odenwaelder had racked up a total of 118 games, during which he developed a career batting avg. of .372 with 16 homers, 86 RBI, and 39 stolen bases.

  1. Tufts’ Secret Weapon: Tommy O’Hara ’18

O’Hara transitioned from “rookie” to “phenom” the moment he stepped onto the Jumbo diamond. The freshman third baseman was Tufts’ best hitter on their trip to Virginia and North Carolina. He had an incredible .564 OBP in 42 at-bats with six walks. But the question no one wanted to ask remained in the minds of Tufts’ NESCAC opponents: can a first-year really transform a team?

The answer was a thousand times, yes. Tufts’ offense was undoubtedly questionable at the beginning of the season and definitely needed bolstering if it was to make it to the NESCAC playoffs. O’Hara single-handedly delivered. The freshman infielder led the team with a .405 batting average, .518 on-base percentage and .603 slugging percentage. He also hit a team-high 14 doubles while registering four home runs, 42 runs scored and 42 RBIs.

Oh, and did I mention he was First Team All-NESCAC as well as NESCAC Rookie of the Year? I guess you could say he’s kind of a big deal.

  1. Hamilton’s Franchise: Joe Jensen ’15

The former three-season athlete (football, track, and baseball) gave the Continents serious bragging rights last year, breaking records both on the diamond and off.

In March of last year Jensen outplayed the lofty expectations set out for him after a successful junior year in which he hit .398/.495/.430 and a sophomore campaign during which he set school records with 137 at bats, 30 runs scored and 29 stolen bases. He was in the top three in the NESCAC in batting average (.525), on-base percentage (.587), and slugging percentage (.775) at the end of the month. His trip to Florida was probably his shining moment in the 2015 season, as he had multiple hits in all six games. While his numbers dropped off once the Continentals returned home, he remained one of the best hitters and defensive outfielders in the NESCAC.

Jensen received NESCAC All-Conference honors last spring for the second time, earning second-team recognition after leading the league with 24 stolen bases and a gaudy .450 on-base percentage. His .398 batting average ranked third in the NESCAC.

“His ability to affect the game both defensively and offensively with his speed is something that sets him apart from his peers, both on the field and as a professional prospect,” Hamilton coach Tim Byrnes said following Jensen’s senior season. “Joe is a true take-away center fielder with a plus arm for this level. He’s able to use his plus speed to beat out infield singles, stretch singles into doubles and steal bases at will.”

  1. Bowdoin’s Starting Pitcher Henry Van Zant ’15 (the NESCAC’s Best Non-Cardinal Pitcher)

Van Zant closed out a fantastic career for the Polar Bears by recording one of the finest seasons in program history; he tied the program’s single-season record for wins by going 7-1, including a 5-0 mark in conference games, with a 1.95 earned run average. That some rainy weather allowed Van Zant to pitch and win five NESCAC games is a miracle. Nobody had started five conference games since two players did so during the 2013 season, and Van Zant’s five wins in conference games is a NESCAC record. His complete game shutout over Wesleyan, which ended in a 1-0 victory for the Polar Bears, made him 6-0 overall against NESCAC teams.

Van Zant’s career amounted to 17 win (tied for third in school history) and 168 career strikeouts (ranking him fifth all-time at Bowdoin). Van Zant was named a second-team selection for the All-NESCAC and D3baseball.com teams.

Though Van Zant ultimately lost the Pitcher of the Year nod to his top rival, his remarkable senior season no doubt gave the conference a difficult decision to make.

So with that in mind, here are some of the biggest questions you should have as the 2016 season unfolds:

  1. The Pitcher Problem: Who will take the mount in place of former starters?

Year after year, graduation and the pros inevitably lead to casualties on teams’ rosters, but the damage inflicted this year, especially on the mound, is shocking. Reigning champs Wesleyan lost three—Elias, Pittore, Cooney—of their four top pitchers, leaving Rantz, who threw 60.2 innings with a 2.97 ERA in 2015, to pick up the pieces. After losing Van Zant, Bowdoin has to redesign its pitching plan, and Trinity loses ace Sean Meekins ’15, (3-1, 2.01 ERA, 10.48 K/9, 44.2 IP). Tufts lost Tom Ryan ’15 and Willie Archibad ’15. Amherst lost John Cook ’15. Even Middlebury lost Eric Truss ’15, who finished 9th in the NESCAC.

The pitching lineups of Hamilton, Williams, Bates and Colby appear unscathed, but time has yet to tell how the returning starters will mesh with the young up-and-comers on the roster.

While the teams’ are grateful for the underclassmen they set as starters last season, they still need to figure out how inexperienced pitchers will contribute to NESCAC competition during spring training. The clock’s ticking.

  1. The Odenwaelder Inheritance: Who will fill the shoes left in centerfield?

As anticipated, Odenwaelder was picked by the Baltimore Orioles in the 16th Round (493 overall) of the 2015 Major League Draft. But anticipation didn’t seem to lead to effective planning: Odenwaelder’s incredible talent overshadowed several, if not most, of the other Jeffs, and has consequently left a gaping hole to be filled.

Thankfully, Amherst returns several promising team members, including Harry Roberson ’18, he finished his breakout freshman year with an OBP of .429. Yet, while Roberson is unquestionably a standout hitter, it’s unknown if he can carry the team like Odenwaelder. Yanni Thanopoulos ’17 and Connor Gunn’16 have promising stats, but it’s unlikely Amherst will be the same offensive dynamite as last spring.

Nevertheless, Amherst pushed Wesleyan all the way to extra innings in a winner-take-all NESCAC championship game, so all hope is not lost for the Jeffs.

  1. The End of an Era? How will reigning NESCAC champs Wesleyan compete against the competition after losing most of their starters?

Elias, Cooney, Goodwin-Boyd, Dennett and Yin are off the field and into the real world of post-college life. Pittore signed as an undrafted free agent with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cimino is with the Cubs organization. Guys essential to the Wesleyan machine, and part of the epic 2015 class of athletes at Wesleyan, are no longer a part of its construction, and for the two-time reigning NESCAC champions, that’s pretty frightening.

Shortstop Guy Davidson ’16 had a notable 2015 season and is back to up his game, but there are very few sure bets in the Cardinals’ lineup. On the flip side of that, though, the early returns on Wesleyan’s shiny, new lineup are darn right impressive. The Cardinals are hitting .386/.469/.600 as a squad through eight games down in Arizona. Gotta love that thin Tucson air.

Wesleyan has been so successful because it has been a complete, practiced team—the players worked for years to mesh together and become the reigning champions. There are a lot of gaping holes in the lineup now, and it’s unlikely the Cardinals will be able to fill them all this season. We’re looking at a dramatically different team than those we’ve grow accustomed to seeing come out of close games victorious again and again.

So, with Wesleyan in a sort of limbo, who will take up the mantle in the West? Amherst lost its beloved star to MLB, but still packs a ton of talent. Middlebury and Hamilton have promising players, but it’s unlikely that they are ready to step up to the plate. Williams has been in a sort of middle tier limbo for awhile now. I’d wager that Hamilton may have an inside track on a playoff spot; the team lost only one starting player going into this year, guaranteeing a solid lineup.

  1. The Spring of Tufts? Do the Jumbos have what it takes to win the NESCAC East this season?

The Jumbos aren’t without any losses: their lineup will have to make do without big contributors like Connor McDavitt ’15 and Bryan Egan ’15. However, Tufts’ fantastic pitchers Tim Superko ’17 and Andrew David ’16 give them a solid baseline on the field, and in a re-building season for many teams, that is a real boon. And then there’s O’Hara. Tommy O’Hara earned D3baseball.com Preseason All-America accolades following a tremendous freshman campaign last spring.

By putting faith in underclassmen—and phenomenal ones at that—early on, the Jumbos have outsmarted other NESCAC teams struggling to pull together competitive lineups.

  1. Chemistry on the Continentals: Is Hamilton the next NESCAC powerhouse?

Hamilton lost just one starter from the lineup, and the strength of the pitching rotation returns.

Even though the Continentals will play without Alex Pachella ’15 or JJ Lane ’15, co-captain Cole Dreyfuss ’16 stood out as the real pitching MVP for the Continentals last spring. Dreyfuss assembled a 5-2 record in seven starts and struck out 41 batters. He ended up third in the conference with a 1.89 earned run average in 47.2 innings.

Overall, the rotation is promising: hard-throwing right-hander Spencer Vogelbach ’18 was the No. 4 starter in 2015 but should be in the weekend rotation this season. Vogelbach went 4-1 with one save and was sixth in the NESCAC with a 2.25 ERA, averaging 9.90 strikeouts per nine innings and fanning a total of 44 batters in 40 innings, but with the propensity to get wild at times. Last season, Finlay O’Hara ’17 also emerged as a versatile arm, earning a 2-2 record and two saves. F. O’Hara struck out 28 hitters and walked just five in 28.2 innings. Depth in the bullpen is added by Dan DePaoli ’18, who fanned 22 batters in 22.2 innings. Charlie Lynn ’18 and Mike Borek ’18 provide depth in the bullpen.

Offensively, Hamilton has fostered a dangerous core group of juniors in twins Kenny and Chris Collins ’17, designated hitter Andrew Haser ’17 and outfielder Ryan Wolfsberg ’17. Kenny Collins, one of this year’s captains, finished with 32 hits in 102 at-bats for a .314 average and scored 21 runs, while hitting six doubles and three triples. He was fourth in the NESCAC with 16 stolen bases and represented the Wellsville Nitros in the 2015 New York Collegiate Baseball League All-Star Game. Chris Collins, meanwhile, hit .309 (30-97), cracked six doubles and stole 14 bases. Haser showed great improvement last season after having an OBP below .300 in 2014. To finish off the group, Wolfsberg developed his skills in the California Collegiate League last summer after finishing in fourth in the NESCAC with a .396 batting average (36-for-91) in 2015, smacking nine doubles, three triples and four homers and driving in 25 runs. The outfielder posted a .692 slugging percentage and a .449 on-base percentage.

Second baseman Zack Becker ’16 also proved to be an incredible offensive player last season, rebounding after a disastrous sophomore campaign. He was eighth in the conference with a .365 batting average (27-for-74) and enjoyed his best season at Hamilton with five doubles and a pair of round-trippers to go with an on-base percentage of .447.

In just two weeks, the season will begin in full force. While you can never really be sure what’s going to happen in baseball, it’s certain that these questions will significantly linger throughout the spring.

The Champions Have Returned: Wesleyan Baseball Season Preview

2014 Record: 31-13 (10-2 NESCAC, First in NESCAC West, First in Little Three)

Postseason Outcomes: NESCAC Champions, Second at Moosic, Pa. Regional

Returning Starters: 11 (9 Position Players, 2 Starting Pitchers)

Projected Starting Lineup:

DH Robby Harbison ’17
2B Andrew Yin ’15
CF Donnie Cimino ’15
1B Sam Goodwin-Boyd ’15
RF Jonathan Dennett ’15
SS Guy Davidson ’16
3B Ellis Schaefer ’17
LF Ben Hoynes ’15
C Nick Miceli ’17

LHP Nick Cooney ’15
RHP Gavin Pittore ’16

Offensive Overview:

After powering through the NESCAC last year and earning a school-record 31 wins, Wesleyan will return all nine players in their starting lineup this year. Expected to continue his dominance at the plate is Sam Goodwin-Boyd. Last season he tormented opposing pitchers while hitting .327 with five home runs and 44 RBIs. Goodwin-Boyd also runs well for a big guy (6’5″ 235 lbs). But the Cardinals’ offense does not stop there. Also returning to the lineup with high expectations are 2B Andrew Yin ’15, two-sport star Donnie Cimino, Jonathan Dennett and Robby Harbison, who all batted above .320 last season. Junior transfer Marco Baratta ’16 also hopes to make an impact on the lineup in 2015 by getting some at bats in the outfield.

Wesleyan captured the program's first ever NESCAC title in 2014. (Courtesy of Tufts Sports Information/NESCAC.com)
Wesleyan captured the program’s first ever NESCAC title in 2014. (Courtesy of Tufts Sports Information/NESCAC.com)

Defensive Overview:

In the field Wesleyan returns all nine positions players and will be anchored by three All-NESCAC performers in Cimino (CF), Goodwin-Boyd (1B) and Guy Davidson (SS). Cimino, Goodwin-Boyd and Davidson all look to improve on last season’s success after playing summer ball in the prestigious Cape Cod League and Futures League. Pitcher/catcher Nick Miceli played some competitive summer ball as well, plying his trade in the New England College Baseball League, and hopes to build on a strong freshman campaign. Returning all nine field players will be key for the chemistry of a squad that has championship hopes again.

Pitching Overview:

Nick Cooney '15 (left) and Gavin PIttore '16 (right) got a taste of the Cape League this summer on the heels of their 2014 success. (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)
Nick Cooney ’15 (left) and Gavin PIttore ’16 (right) got a taste of the Cape League this summer on the heels of their 2014 success. (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)

On the mound Wesleyan will rely on returning starters Nick Cooney and Gavin Pittore ’16 to carry them through the campaign. Cooney was an All-NESCAC selection in 2014. Both Cooney and Pittore pitched in the Cape Cod League, bringing the total number of Wesleyan players in NCAA-sanctioned summer leagues to seven. The bullpen depth appears to be another strong point for he Cardinals in 2015 as well. Sam Elias ’15, another NECBL player, and Pete Rantz ’16 figure to make numerous relief appearances, though Rantz could compete for a starting job as he toed the rubber for seven starts last season. Elias and his devastating splitter accounted for a 9.27 K/9 ratio over 43.2 IP in which he earned four saves to lead the team. His 1.03 BB/9 rate was among the league’s best as well.

Story Lines to Watch

1. Can Wesleyan avoid the Championship hangover?

After last year’s historic season, the Cardinals will look to be even more dominant. The 2014 NESCAC title was the first in school history and the birth into the NCAA tournament the first since 1994. If Wesleyan hopes to continue this excellence they will need their established stars to step up again this year. After dropping the first game in the 2014 NESCAC championship 10-0 against Tufts, they showed incredible resilience to take the next two games. Coach Mark Woodworth has developed a formula for success that is not always pretty, but certainty is effective.

2. Can Wesleyan return to the World Series for the first time in over 20 years?

Last year’s NESCAC Championship certainty makes the Cards a contender to return to the playoffs again. With a cadre of returning starters the team appears to be in prime position to make a deeper run into the playoffs. If the Cards make the tournament again how far can they go? Can they reach the bar set by the 1994 Division-III runners-up? Can they win it all? Either way there is definitely something special brewing in Middletown.

3. How will Wesleyan’s 150th season celebration affect their performance?

This year will mark the 150th season of Wesleyan baseball. To celebrate the historic occasion the Cardinals will play Yale, their first ever opponent, in a regular season match up in April. They will also honor the tradition with a historic anniversary game on September 26, 2015. Will Wesleyan be able to create even more history with an incredible run into the NCAA tournament? Whatever the outcome, the 2015 season will prove to be a historic campaign.

4. How will Wesleyan stack up against top-flight competition?

In the D3baseball.com/National College Baseball Writers’ Association Preseason Poll the Tufts Jumbos were the only NESCAC team to make it into the rankings, but Wesleyan received a good chunk of votes. Now after two weeks of inactivity some of those Cardinals votes have shifted elsewhere, but still Wesleyan is right on the cusp of breaking into the top 25. The Cards’ spring break schedule includes games against No. 5 Cal Lutheran (8-1) and No. 14 Linfield (9-5) as well as two games in Pomona against Pomona-Pitzer (11-3) who is unranked but is receiving votes. If Wesleyan returns from its westward sojourn with a couple of victories against these teams then the NESCAC better get ready.

Biggest Series: Home-and-home against Amherst April 24 and 25.

Most NESCAC weekend series are played at a single site, but Amherst and Wesleyan have turned this into a home-and-home affair. Last year the Cards beat the Jeffs in Amherst and then split the pair in Middletown. Both teams expect to be competing for the NESCAC West title this season, so for Wesleyan it will be important to win the Friday bout in Connecticut before driving up to Amherst for the Saturday doubleheader.

The Case for the ‘Cac: Students-and-Athletes

A few weeks ago, the NESCAC released its list of 2014 Spring All-Academic selections. Not surprising a whole bunch of people made it (999 to be exact), and not just the guys who sit on the end of the bench. While in Division 1 having a star that is also a stellar student is unusual, in the NESCAC it is almost the norm. Of course, this is exactly how it should be, given the ethos and goals of all the NESCAC schools in placing more emphasis on academics than athletics. To show just how outstanding the caliber of talent is that made the All-Academic team, we compiled two “All-Star” teams, if you will, one with the academic qualifications to make the All-Academic squad and the other chosen from everyone else remaining. Freshmen are not eligible because they have not completed a whole academic year so players like Tim Superko ’17 are not included in this exercise.

All-Academic Lineup The Rest Lineup
1. Andrew Yin (Second Base) 1. Donnie Cimino (Center Field)
2. Taiki Kasuga (Shortstop) 2. Aaron Rosen (Second Base)
3. Alex Hero (Center Field) 3. Mike Odenwaelder (Right Field)
4. Chad Martin (Designated Hitter) 4. Jason Buco (Left Field)
5. Kevin Galvin (Third Base) 5. Griff Tewksbury (Designated Hitter)
6. Bryan Wolfe (First Base) 6. Sam Goodwin-Boyd (First Base)
7. Nick Cutsumpas (Catcher) 7. Guy Davidson (Shortstop)
8. Matt Moser (Right Field) 8. Kevin Davis (Third Base)
9. Luke Pierce (Left Field) 9. Mekae Hyde (Catcher)
All-Academic Rotation The Rest Rotation
John Cook Kyle Slinger
Brad Reynolds Nick Cooney
Dylan Driscoll Christian Sbily
Scott Goldberg Gavin Pittore

Both teams are obviously stacked, but have different strengths. The All-Academic team lacks the mashers in the middle of the lineup that The Rest has in Jason Buco ’15 and Mike Odenwaelder ’16. The pitching staff for the All-Academic team is stronger, however. The difference is minimal especially given the presence of Kyle Slinger ’15 on The Rest. Though I don’t go in depth with the pitchers, it should be noted that other very good pitchers like Tom Ryan ’15 made the All-Academic team as well. Another roster note is that Matt Moser ’16 plays shortstop and not right field, but there was a significant logjam in the middle infield and nobody in the outfield for the All-Academic team so I made the executive decision to keep him on the field in that way.

If these two teams were to meet I would have to give a slight edge to The Rest team, but my guess is that if the teams played ten times, the All-Academic team wins four games. Their pitching is good enough and the talent level throughout the lineup is only a smidgeon worse than the Rest. The purpose of this exercise is of course simply to show the amount of talent that made the All-Academic team and not to really compare the teams.

One last note is that many of the athletes who did not make the All-Academic team still work incredibly hard in the classroom. Keep in mind that the difficulty of achieving the requisite 3.35 GPA fluctuates between departments, majors and professors. This isn’t to disparage anyone who did make the All-Academic team because a 3.35 isn’t easy no matter what classes you take. I want to make clear that I’m not putting down The Rest roster for their performance in the classroom. A lot of factors besides a student’s intelligence and work ethic go into what a final GPA looks like. With that being said, a huge congratulations to all of the students for their great work both on the diamond and in the classroom this spring..

Saturday Recap

Saturday brought more excitement and intrigue with two teams going home in the NESCAC tournament’s version of moving day.

Wesleyan jumped into the driver’s seat with a scintillating 3-2 victory over Tufts. Both starters shut down the offenses early with the game scoreless through four innings. Tufts struck first in the top of the fifth on a Max Freccia ’14 double to score Wade Hauser ’15. Wesleyan battled back when they played some small ball. Andrew Yin ’15 plated Nick Miceli ’17 on a bunt single. After a Donnie Cimino ’15 single, both runners moved up on a double steal, and scored on a Sam Goodwin-Boyd ’15 single. Gavin Pittore ’16 made sure the lead held up with 4.2 innings of one run ball in relief. He jumped all over Tufts’ hitters with nine strikeouts and moves to 6-1 on the season. A more complete recap can be found here. Also a thanks to Wescores for providing pictures of the game here.

Now the Cardinals head into tomorrow in complete control. Manager Mark Woodworth made clear how much he wanted to win when he brought in Pittore so quickly in relief. The move made perfect sense since a loss would have made Wesleyan need three more wins to take the championship. It is unclear who will get the start tomorrow for the Cardinals, but Woodworth will probably be ready to use any of his pitchers including Pittore and Nick Cooney ’15.

In the loser’s bracket Bates beat Amherst in what was the most surprising result of the day. Bates rallied from down 2-1 to score three runs in the eighth to win 4-2 and bounce Amherst from the tournament. No doubt a disappointing finish for Amherst, but all the credit should be given to a Bates team that proved they are right there with the best teams in the NESCAC this weekend. Dean Bonneau ’14 was spectacular in relief allowing only one hit in 3.2 scoreless innnings. A complete recap can be found here.

The last game of the day was another elimination game between East Division foes Tufts and Bates. Tufts used a five run third inning to take much of the suspense out of the game. Christian Sbily ’14 and Tom Ryan ’15 made sure the lead had no problem holding up for Tufts as they cruised to a 7-1 victory. Recap is here. Bates finishes the season at 20-21, but that record vastly undersells the quality of team they were. Tufts moves onto the championship where they will have to win two games tomorrow against Wesleyan.

It will be a tall task for Tufts to beat Wesleyan twice especially given that their three top pitchers have already started this weekend. The potential ability for pitchers to quickly turn around and pitch even one or two innings will be a huge difference maker. Right now a Wesleyan team that started only 5-4 looks primed to finish off a dominant run through the NESCAC regular season and playoffs.

Power Rankings Part 3- The West Playoff Teams

We wrap up the Power Ranks with the two West playoff teams. Same format as the East, and the numbers coincide to their overall ranking this week. We will have our predictions for the weekend up tomorrow morning so make sure to check back in.

3. Amherst (28-7, 9-3)

Why They’ll Win: Amherst might be the only team who could give Tufts a running in the “most sheer talent” category. Their lineup is filled with dangerous hitters, most notably ace leadoff hitter and shortstop Taiki Kasuga ‘14, who comes into the playoffs batting .366, and Mike Odenwaelder ‘16, the Miguel Cabrera of this NESCAC season. Odenwaelder comes into the playoffs at least in the top three of every major offensive category known to man, and leading in batting average and slugging percentage, at .417 and .658 respectively. As if that wasn’t enough, Odenwaelder also sports a 1.74 ERA out of the bullpen. When you combine these offensive threats with the three-headed beast in the rotation of Dylan Driscoll ‘14, John Cook ‘15 and Quinn Saunders-Kolburg ‘14, Amherst looks as deep as any team except maybe Tufts.

Why They’ll Lose: The blueprint for beating Amherst was shown two weekends back when Wesleyan took two out of three from the Jeffs. In that series, Wesleyan was able to get to Driscoll early in game one, making the other matchups more even. Each game in the series was close, decided by 2 runs or less, and Wesleyan’s propensity for clutch hitting helped them in the first two games, one of which went 9 innings. The final game of the series was a classic, going 11 innings, with Odenwaelder hitting a two run homer to end it. If teams follow this formula, and scrape out a win against Driscoll, than either of the other matchups in the double-elimination weekend could come out against Amherst’s favor. By the way, Driscoll has been another pitcher in NESCAC play, with a below average 4.10 ERA.

Sleeper-Catcher Connor Gunn ‘16: As his last name implies, Gunn is a superb defensive catcher, who certainly deserves some credit for the success of Amherst’s pitching this season. While his overall offensive statistics are not eye-popping, he has shifted into another gear in NESCAC play, batting at .349 with a .899 OPS. This success has firmly planted him in the fifth spot in the lineup, behind season-long sluggers Odenwaelder and outfielder Alex Hero ’14. This middle of the order probably constitutes the best in NESCAC, and if Gunn can continue to constitute the back end of that threat, Amherst is probably pretty well set to repeat their tournament success from last year.

2. Wesleyan (24-10, 10-2)

Why They’ll Win: Wesleyan’s confidence is at an all-time high right now after posting a league best 10-2 record in NESCAC play, including taking two out of three from Amherst on the weekend of April 25. While Wesleyan certainly has the all around balance of any great NESCAC team, it’s their offense that carries them. Sam Goodwin-Boyd ‘15 has been solid all season, but in league play he has been unbelievable, batting .422 with a ridiculous .711 slugging percentage. Jonathon Dennett ‘15 and Guy Davidson ‘15, both of whom also rank in the top ten in NESCAC for RBI, flank him in the lineup. When you pair these sluggers with table setters like Andrew Yin ’15 and Donnie Cimino ’15, it makes for a potent lineup that any pitching staff would struggle to contain.

Why They’ll Lose: Wesleyan certainly has chinks in their armor that could cost them in this weekend. Although their pitching has stepped up to the plate (pardon the pun) in NESCAC play, posting a 2.10 ERA, for the season they come in with a mediocre 3.72, pointing to early inconsistencies in the rotation. Their main starting pitchers, Nick Cooney ‘15, Jeff Blout ’14 and Gavin Pittore ‘16, have all been solid, but can struggle with their control at times, leading to extra base runners. And against a well-oiled machine like Amherst or Tufts this weekend, mistakes like that are not often forgiven.

Sleeper- Relief pitcher Peter Rantz ‘16: If Wesleyan does have shaky performances from any of those three key starters, Rantz will be crucial in righting the ship, and giving the offense a chance to slug their way back into the game. Rantz was putting together a nice year out of the pen, with a 3.06 ERA, but has struggled mightily in NESCAC play. At his best, he is a guy who can relieve a struggling starter in the third inning and keep them in the game. It is likely this weekend Wesleyan will need to have that option.

The Turning Points

My favorite analogy to how a baseball season plays out is a long Dickensian novel with a constantly rotating cast of characters. Some players are critical to the development of the story while others stay hidden in the background most of the time. The NESCAC season is more like a novella when compared to the monstrosity that is the 162 MLB game season, but the idea still holds. Crunched into just more than two months (besides Bates who played a very early spring trip), the season is so compact with most teams playing about four games a week for most of March and April. As the season goes on themes begin to emerge. A team’s strengths and weaknesses become apparent, but certain things also change. A few games and moments stick out when thinking about how we got from the cold depths of winter to where we are now, the playoffs. Below are five that we think were formative moments in the season.

 

 

But first, a disclaimer. While the games listed below coincided with a change in fortunes for these teams, they are in no way evidence of the hot-hand myth. These are moments that we believe one could point to and say either that they had a major impact on the postseason or that a team played much better after this game, but the result of one game is not the cause of an extended run of success.

March 21 in Tucson, Arizona: Gustavus Adolphus 24 – Wesleyan 0

The 24-run defeat was the worst margin suffered by any NESCAC team this season, and knowing what we do now the result is even more shocking. Wesleyan is arguably the best team in the NESCAC while Gustavus Adolphus, from Minnesota, has gone 4-18 since that game. After the result Wesleyan stood at 8-5 and looked to be a team that was going to struggle in NESCAC play because their pitching was so bad. The best pitcher to that date had been Peter Rantz ’16 who started this very game and got tagged for five runs in 2.1 innings.  That helped prompt a change in the rotation with Gavin Pittore ’16 becoming the number three in stead of Rantz. Since that game the Wesleyan pitching has improved leaps and bounds to the point where the staff out-dueled Amherst this weekend. This is also a case of the final scoring making things look even worse. Nobody who pitched in that game should see meaningful innings in the playoffs. Regardless, Wesleyan clearly turned it around after this game when they promptly went on a 12-game winning streak.

2. March 29 in Medford, Massachusetts: Tufts 2 – Bates 0

Way back on March 29, Tufts and Bates opened up conference play in a game moved to Massachusetts because of the weather. This game is not significant for Tufts, though we did see Kyle Slinger ’15 show off how dominant he would be in conference when he struck out 11 in seven scoreless innings. Instead, the real meaning came in the pitching performance of Bates’ Brad Reynolds ’14. The big lefty had struggled mightily to begin the season in part because of a shaky defense. Yes, he took the loss by allowing two earned runs, but both of those runs came in the first inning. He shut down Tufts for the next six innings and then carried that into next week when he struck out 10 Bowdoin hitters in a Bates rout. Reynolds has turned into a bona fide ace winning his two other conference starts as well. His magnum opus came last Friday when he went all nine innings without allowing one run and striking out 12. Without Reynolds, Bates’ pitching would not have sniffed the playoffs, but he wasn’t that guy until that start against Tufts.

3. April 11 Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan 4 – Williams 1

Williams came into the weekend at 4-2 in the NESCAC after losing their previous series to Amherst, and Wesleyan was 3-0. This was the first game of the weekend, and Williams entered the bottom of the seventh with a 1-0 lead. Nobody had expected these two teams to be locked in a low-scoring battle, but the pitching by both teams was excellent. Williams’ Steve Marino ’14 allowed hits to Donnie Cimino ’15 and Sam Goodwin-Boyd ’15 before a sacrifice bunt moved both into scoring position. After an error allowed the tying run to score and runners to be on the corners, Robby Harbison ’17 delivered a huge double to right field to score both runners and break the 1-1 tie. Williams couldn’t get anything going in the eighth or ninth and just like that they faced must win games the next two games. The next two games weren’t nearly as close, and so by the end of April 12 it was already apparent that Amherst and Wesleyan would be the two teams coming out of the West.

4. April 12 Brunswick, Maine: Colby 4 – Bowdoin 2

The teams split the first two games of the series so that entering the second game of the doubleheader Colby was 3-2 and Bowdoin was 4-4 in the NESCAC. The game was scoreless going into the top of the six because of great pitching by Greg Ladd ’15 for Colby and Jay Loughlin ’14 for Bowdoin. With the heart of Colby’s order coming up in the sixth, Bowdoin Manager Mike Connolly decided to turn to his left-hander Christian Martin ’14. After a fantastic 2013, Martin had pitched sparingly so far because of injury. The inning got off to a terrible start for him when he hit Jason Buco ’14. Three batters later the bases were loaded with one out and Daniel Csaplar ’16 at the plate. Csaplar didn’t shrink from the pressure, hitting a two-run double. The next batter, Jack Galvin ’14, hit a two-run single to chase Martin and put the game out of reach. The loss basically knocked Bowdoin out of the East race and momentarily elevated Colby to tied for first in the East at 4-2.

5. April 27 Waterville, Maine: Bates 6 – Colby 2

One of the final games in the NESCAC season decided the final playoff spot. This was a must win for Colby (started the game at 5-6) while conceivably Bates (started the game at 5-4) could have lost and then won their final two games against Tufts. The Bobcats clearly did not want to be in that situation, and they made sure it didn’t happen, led by clutch pitching from Chris Fusco ’14. Colby stranding 11 runners over the course of the game ultimately doomed them. The Bates offense came from a lot of different spots in the lineup with Sam Warren ’16 leading the way with three hits. A lot of players have stepped up to take the load off of the senior duo of Kevin Davis ’14 and Griffin Tewksbury ’14. Those two carried the team for much of the season, but near the end other Bates players came through to make the difference.

 

 

Stock Report April 29

We recapped the action of what went down this weekend last night in our roundup. Now it is time to look at the people who were the biggest movers this weekend. For the playoffs, it’s often better to be hot than good, so take that to heart as teams gear up for the playoffs which are still two weekends away.

Stock Up:

1. Sam Goodwin-Boyd ’15 – First Baseman (Wesleyan) – Goodwin-Boyd has been absolutely mashing since conference play got started. He didn’t let up this weekend hitting a huge home run in the first game against Amherst before topping that by hitting another one in the next game that was the only damage Wesleyan could do against Amherst’s John Cook ’15. That was enough, though, as great pitching on both teams led to a 1-1 tie entering the bottom of the ninth. Wesleyan pushed across a run to walk-off with the win, they’re second in conference play, and the West division title. Goodwin-Boyd owns a tidy .566 slugging percentage which goes a long way towards explaining how he has a league-leading 32 RBIs. Wesleyan was the first team that really got to Amherst’s pitching even though Amherst still pitched very well overall. Winning the division is huge for the Cardinals because Wesleyan should get to avoid Tufts and instead get a much weaker (though hot) Bates.

2. Christian Sbily ’14 – Starting Pitcher (Tufts) – We have dedicated most of our virtual ink to talking about Tufts’ top two of Kyle Slinger ’15 and Tim Superko ’17, but the number three has been so good that he merits equal credit for Tufts’ success. Like so many others, Sbily has been at his best in recent weeks. He shut out Colby for seven innings last week and yesterday he scattered five hits for the complete game shutout. Sbily isn’t the same type of power pitcher the other two are, but he goes deep into games because he is able to have consistently low pitch counts. He is a huge advantage for Tufts because while many NESCAC teams have aces comparable to Slinger and Superko, Sbily is almost unmatched as a third starter. Sbily could be the difference-maker for Tufts in the NESCAC Championship.

3. Thomas Murphy ’15 and Steve Marino ’14 – Starting Pitchers (Williams) – This has not been a banner season for the Williams pitching staff, but this duo really came through yesterday as Williams swept Hamilton. Murphy went all seven innings to win a duel between him and Jjay Lane ’15.  Williams pushed across the winning run in the bottom of the seventh to come away with the victory. Marino was just as good going all nine innings, striking out nine, and limiting Hamilton to three earned runs. For Marino, it was an especially high note in his final conference game. Williams wasn’t good enough to hang with the big boys, but if they pitch this well consistently they will have more than a fighter’s chance next year.

4. Chris Fusco ’14 – Starting Pitcher (Bates) – We saw a lot of great pitching performances this weekend, and the love we’ve been doling out in this section is well-deserved. Fusco didn’t have a great day, but he came through to toss 5.2 innings of two-run ball in the deciding game of the Bates-Colby series. Fusco has a tendency to give up homers (five on the season), and Jason Buco ’15 hit another one against him yesterday, but Fusco was very good besides that. Bates had already gotten a PHENOMENAL start by Brad Reynolds ’14, but that alone wasn’t going to be enough. Bates didn’t look like a playoff team way back in February when they were making errors all over the place, but their best players have carried them this far. In a short series they are dangerous.

Stock Down:

1. Ryder Arsenault ’17 – Center Fielder (Colby) – Arsenault has been a enormous part of Colby’s surprise run in the East, but he, like the team, ran out of steam at the end. In the first game Arsenault struck out three times, contributing to the 12 Colby strikouts on the day. Yesterday he saw only one plate appearance, pinch hitting at the end of the third game. We don’t know if his benching was purely performance-related or if he has some type of injury that hindered his play, but the Colby offense really sputtered this weekend. Getting shut down by Bates’ ace Reynolds wasn’t a huge surprise, but they barely got anything going the other two games as well. Arsenault is one of many talented players coming back next year for Colby.

2. Erik Jacobsen ’15 Starting Pitcher/Infielder (Bowdoin) – Bowdoin knew going into the weekend that they needed to sweep Tufts to have a chance at the postseason. The Polar Bears were the first team to give Kyle Slinger ’15 issues as they won the first game of the series. Jacobsen has been solid all season, but Tufts jumped on him early and he didn’t make it out of the third inning in Game Two. The Bowdoin bullpen limited the damage, but the Tufts pitching is too good to make up an early deficit. An offense that has seen some players step up, but other more established ones struggle, couldn’t muster much of a comeback in the eventual 5-1 loss. Understandably after that disappointment, Bowdoin didn’t muster much of a challenge in the third game, losing 14-0.

Weekend Roundup

The final full weekend of NESCAC play was disrupted by the weather, but ultimately it was able to answer all of the questions that we had entering Friday. Wesleyan showed they are the best in the West while Bates continued their strong play to clinch the final playoff spot. The stock report will be up tomorrow morning, but for now here is a quick look around the league.

After a win in the first game of the series behind another great start by Brad Reynolds ’14, Bates dropped the middle game to Colby before Chris Fusco ’14 came up huge on the mound. His start and Sam Warren’s ’16 home run were the difference in the 6-2 victory that clinched a playoff berth for Bates. It is the first ever berth for the Bobcats.

In the other East Division series, Tufts dropped the first game before sweeping the Sunday doubleheader against Bowdoin. As usual, great pitching performances by Christian Sbily ’15 and Tim Superko ’17 were the difference along with the offense going off in the second game.  With the losses, Bowdoin drops out of the playoff race.

Out west Williams and Hamilton played an enjoyable weekend series without any playoff implications. Williams swept the doubleheader today as their pitching looked as good as it has all season. Williams now sits at 6-5 and will look to finish above .500 in conference when the teams meet a final time on May 9.

Screen Shot 2014-04-27 at 9.08.28 PM

(Courtesy of Williams Sports Information)

And then in the most anticipated matchup, Wesleyan jumped all over Amherst winning the first two games of the series to clinch the West title.   Sam Goodwin-Boyd ’15 was the star for the offense while the Wesleyan pitching completed their turnaround by shutting down the vaunted Jeffs offense. The teams could meet again next weekend as both teams had already sewn up playoff spots.

With the playoffs set you can read up on the Championship weekend schedule here. Congrats to Tufts, Bates, Wesleyan, and Amherst for making the playoffs, and keep coming back this week for the best preview of the upcoming action.

The Weekend Preview April 25

The Overview:

This weekend is shaping up to be the best kind of weekend New England can offer. There’s some beautiful spring weather on the horizon, I might not have a massive paper to write, and of course, there’s a full slate of NESCAC baseball games to enjoy. Every NESCAC team is in action this weekend, and every in-conference series has implications for playoff seeding. So, without further ado, let’s dig into these match-ups.

The Marquee Matchup: Wesleyan at Amherst

There is a clear series that stands out as the pivotal battle of the weekend, and that would be Amherst versus Wesleyan. The Jeffs and the Cardinals have been locked in a season-long battle for supremacy in the West, and they come into this series tied at 8-1 in the league, with Amherst holding a better record overall by one game (22-5 vs. 21-6). The winner of this series is assured of a number one seed from the West, and has a very good shot of reaching the NESCAC final.

Wesleyan can attribute much of their success to a wonderfully efficient offense, which has posted a league leading batting average (.321) and one base percentage (.416). Their pitching staff has come into its own during NESCAC play, posting a 1.70 ERA since league play began, making this team truly complete. The offense is spearheaded by freshman phenom Robby Harbison ’17 (league leader in hitting at .427), and Sam Goodwin-Boyd ’15, who paces the NESCAC with 29 RBI. The table is set for the solid hitters up and down the lineup by Andrew Yin ’14 and Donnie Cimino ’15, who get on base at .476 and .443 clips, and lead the league in runs with 31 and 32, respectively. The pitching staff is led by flame-throwing ace Nick Cooney ’15, who comes in at 5-1 and leads the league in strikeouts with 50 in 46 innings. Gavin Pittore ’16 and Jeff Blount ’14 round out the weekend starters.

Amherst comes in with an equally dangerous lineup. They are led by MVP-candidate Mike Odenwaelder ’16, who’s hitting .419 with a 1.057 OPS. He is flanked by shortstop Taiki Kasuga ’14, who’s hitting .392, and centerfielder Alex Hero ’14, who’s hitting .337 and is second in the league in steals. Like Wesleyan, Amherst’s table-setters, Kasuga and second baseman Andrew Vandini ’16 (.427 OBP) do a fantastic job getting on base in front of the sluggers in the middle of the order, making for a potent lineup. In the rotation, Dylan Driscoll ’16 continues to set the standard for NESCAC pitchers this season, with a 1.26 ERA and 6 wins. Fellow starter Jeff Cook ’15 has been great this season with 43 strikeouts and just 3 walks in 35 innings and earned NESCAC Pitcher of the Week honors last week. The big question for Amherst is whether SP Fred Shephard ’14, who tossed a no-hitter earlier this season, will be able to go. Shephard missed last week’s start against Middlebury with elbow pain. Keenan Szulik ’16 started in Shephard’s place against Middlebury and did an admirable job, but Wesleyan’s hitters should be licking their chops if they get a chance to face Szulik instead of Shephard.

Despite the offensive firepower that both teams possess, this series will be determined by the pitching. The two southpaws, Cook and Cooney, will likely meet up this afternoon. Driscoll and Blout are usually the seven-inning game starters for both squads, so look for them to pitch game one on Saturday, while the series finale should pit Pittore against Shephard or his replacement.

The race for best pitcher in the West:

While the East’s pitching is indisputably deeper than that in the West, Amherst and Wesleyan’s starting rotations can match up with anyone. That will be on display this weekend in Amherst, as Cooney, Driscoll and Cook battle for the ERA crown. All three pitchers have excellent stuff, and can strike out anyone in a big spot. The one wart on Cooney’s resume is his control issues (3.39 BB/9), which can sometimes get him into trouble. Driscoll very rarely hurts himself (5.57 K/BB), and that is the main explanation for his miniscule 1.26 ERA. However, Cook might have the best stuff of the group. He matches Cooney’s velocity with Driscoll’s accuracy. Cook has 43 K’s in 35 innings and just three walks (14.33 K/BB). He gets hit only because he is consistently in the strike zone. Right now, Driscoll leads the way in ERA, but Cooney (2.70) and Cook (2.83) are not far behind.

Around the League:

Bates, Bowdoin and Colby are all pretty close in the race for the second seed in the East, so this weekend will decide the race. Barring a major upset this weekend when Tufts travels to Brunswick to play Bowdoin, the winner of the Colby at Bates series will make the playoffs as the second seed in the East. Bates currently sits at 4-3, and has two games remaining with the Jumbos after this weekend. Colby and Bowdoin, meanwhile, are 4-5. With just two wins, Bates will secure their playoff spot because they hold the tiebreaker over Bowdoin (unless Bowdoin can sweep Tufts).

The series between Hamilton and Williams has no implications for the postseason, but the two squads are fighting for the third seed in the West.

Trinity and Middlebury have no more playoff hopes going into this East vs. West matchup, but pride is still a motivating factor in these games, which is part of what makes sports so great. Both teams have been disappointing to this point, and want to prove that they won’t roll over. I fully expect the games between Middlebury and Trinity to be hard fought, competitive and fun to watch, just like those between Amherst and Wesleyan.

Here’s a look at Friday’s schedule:
Tufts at Bowdoin 3 PM
Colby at Bates 3 PM
Wesleyan at Amherst 3 PM

Enjoy the final weekend of a full NESCAC slate.