Why You Should Care about NESCAC Baseball in 2016

Peter Rantz '16 will try to fill the gaping whole left in the Wesleyan rotation. (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)
Peter Rantz ’16 will try to fill the gaping whole left in the Wesleyan rotation. (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)

Editor’s Note: Our baseball coverage this spring is not going to be as comprehensive as in the past two seasons. Blame senior spring and most of our writers also being baseball players.

Every year February sneaks up on me because I’m busy not freezing to death while being caught up in the excitement of NESCAC basketball. So every year Bates begins their season and I’m blindsided. Players have been hard at work getting in practices either late at night or early in the morning. The season really gets going this Saturday with five NESCAC teams playing games, but the NESCAC regular season doesn’t begin until April 1 so you (and us too) have plenty of time to get up to speed.

The 2015 baseball senior class was a loaded one, and the additional loss of the two most talented underclassmen (more on them later) to Major League Baseball makes the returning talent pool even smaller. A lot of new names are going to make a major impact on this season, and it is unlikely the predictability of last season holds again. Wesleyan has reigned supreme for the past two years. They dominated last season going undefeated in the regular season and winning the NESCAC tournament, and they won the NESCAC tournament in 2014 as heavy underdogs.

Brief aside: we began this site in the spring of 2014 with coverage of baseball. For some reason, I had illusions that when we started the blog that it would spread quickly and our readership would quickly develop. That didn’t quite happen, and it took us a LONG time just to get 100 Twitter followers. I was a little discouraged by the end of the spring, but then something happened after Wesleyan won the NESCAC championship. I had been writing all spring about how I didn’t think the Cardinals were that good and had picked them to lose early in the tournament. After they won, one of the Wesleyan players (I’m pretty sure they’ve deleted their Twitter since then) tweeted at the blog handle saying something to the effect of, “How you like us now?” A ton of other guys on the Wesleyan team retweeted and favorited it, and that was when I knew that things were going to be all right.

Back to this year. Wesleyan is going to look a lot different this season. They have already started their season in Arizona, and boy did things go badly in the first game Sunday. Wesleyan went down 24-0 after the third inning in a game that was an unmitigated disaster. You shouldn’t read too much into it, though. The first game of a baseball season, especially for a team that has barely been able to practice outdoors because of the New England weather, is notoriously fickle. Trips down south count on the official record, but they are still viewed as glorified spring training games by most. Anyways, Wesleyan swept a doubleheader the next day.

Wesleyan loses Donnie Cimino ’15 and Andrew Yin ’15, their two hitters at the top of the lineup, and three other positional starters. That doesn’t hurt as badly as the losses in the rotation where Sam Elias ’15, Nick Cooney ’15, and Gavin Pittore ’16 are all gone. That trio threw basically all of the high leverage innings a season ago, and the rotation is a mystery behind Peter Rantz ’16 who threw 60.2 innings with a 2.97 ERA in 2015. The good news is that slugging shortstop Guy Davidson ’16 is back and is mashing the ball so far. Guys like Robby Harbison ’17, who had a great freshman year but didn’t play much last year, and Marco Baratta ’16 need to have huge years offensively. Their best bet for winning a third consecutive NESCAC title is by mashing their way there, a very different story from their first two titles.

The two teams most likely to knock Wesleyan from their perch are Amherst and Tufts, traditional powers that also lost a good amount from last season. The loss of Mike Odenwaelder ’16 a year early is a major blow to Amherst, but they return a lot of other pieces in their lineup including Harry Roberson ’18 who is looking to build on a freshman year when he had an OBP of .429. The rotation was young a year ago, and guys like Sam Schneider ’18 have the chance to be cornerstone pieces now. Amherst pushed Wesleyan all the way to extra innings in a winner-take-all NESCAC championship game, and I think the presence of Odenwaelder overshadowed some of the other phenomenal players on the team.

The Jumbos meanwhile are in a similar spot with the loss of some big lineup pieces like Connor McDavitt ’15 and Bryan Egan ’15. That hurts, but the duo of Tim Superko ’17 and Andrew David ’16 gives them two legitimate frontline starters to trot out every weekend. In a wide open league, that is a luxury. The possibility of strikeout wizards Speros Varinos ’17 or Zach Brown ’18 replicating that ability over a larger amount of innings is intriguing. The other playoff team from the East, Bates, has a chance to be very good on the mound. Guys like Connor Colombo ’16 and Rob DiFranco ’16 have proven themselves to be above-average pitchers. I’m worried about the lineup because their three best hitters are all gone, but I had the same worry last year and guys stepped up then.

When looking for a team that could jump into the playoffs, no single team jumps out, honestly. The East was so even last year with every team having at least four wins that you would expect one of those teams to jump out. The problem is Trinity loses their three top hitters and ace, Sean Meekins ’15, leaving some big gaps to replace. Then Bowdoin has to find a way to win games without Henry Van Zant ’15 pitching them to it. A strong senior class featuring Chad Martin ’16 and Harry Ridge ’16 gives the Polar Bears hope, but like so many others, freshmen and sophomores have to step way up. Colby has nobody primed to replace Greg Ladd ’15 or Scott Goldberg ’15 in the weekend rotation, but their lineup should be improved.

Williams has a chance to make a big jump behind their young bats, but getting over the two giants in the West is so hard to do. The pitching for the Ephs was better a year ago, but it coincided with a drop in offensive production. Hamilton and Middlebury both look to be deeper than they were last season, but I think it’s a long shot for one of them to make such a big jump.

Overall, the season has a lot of uncertainty. The junior class is a weak one overall (more 2018 grads than 2017 grads made All-NESCAC teams last season), and that is the primary reason why so many young players are going to see playing time. I expect the talent bases of the elite teams to be strong enough to keep the status quo in place. But again, it’s March 9, and not even coaches really know what they have.

I’m still a few weeks away from being able to watch NESCAC games in person, but I’m excited for when I do get to watch some baseball. A NESCAC doubleheader can be over in a brisk four hours, and the large college rosters makes for a lively atmosphere even if not many fans besides parents show. We will get there eventually folks, just hang in there.

Once Is Nice, but Twice … Wesleyan Repeats: Stock Report 5/12

What an incredible weekend of NESCAC baseball. From Friday afternoon until Sunday evening, the boys left it all out on the field. Every game offered drama and intrigue right up until the end. In six of the seven games played at last weekend’s NESCAC Championship, the tying run was at-bat or on-base when the final out was made. Stellar pitching performances were the norm, but there was plenty of going yard, too. At some point I lost track of how many diving catches had been made because it seemed like there was at least one every other inning. All in all, nobody left Nashua, NH without some moment where their team was firing on all cylinders.

In the end, the Wesleyan Cardinals were again the last team left standing as they captured their second consecutive NESCAC title. Though it ended just as most expected it to, the tournament was an absolute nail-biter. The final game between Amherst and Wesleyan was one of the wildest baseball games I have watched at any level. Consider that Wesleyan entered the ninth down one run with the bottom of their lineup coming up and Amherst ace John Cook ’15 on the mound. Consider that Ethan Rode ’17, the winning pitcher, had thrown two innings since Wesleyan’s spring break trip before he took the mound in the 11th. Consider that the Cardinals had to escape bases loaded jams in back-to-back innings just to get to the 12th inning.

The Cardinals came into Sunday feeling comfortable in their one game advantage over Amherst, but just as in 2014, Wesleyan lost the first game of the day to set up a deciding final game. Entering the Bottom of the seventh, Wesleyan looked like they were in control up 2-0 with Peter Rantz ’16 allowing only two hits through six innings. Then Mike Odenwaelder ’16 hit a solo homer to lead off the inning. Whatever, Wesleyan still had the lead. They just needed to get out of the inning…

That white speck right above Marco Baratta's glove is Sam Ellinwood's home run. (Courtesy of Northeast Sports Network)
That white speck right above Marco Baratta’s glove is Sam Ellinwood’s home run to put Amherst up 3-2 in the final game against Wesleyan. (Courtesy of Northeast Sports Network)

Then suddenly ecstasy for Amherst as the above Sam Ellinwood ’18 homer put the Jeffs up by one. Yet not one person in the Wesleyan dugout thought they were going to lose that game for a moment. According to captain Donnie Cimino ’15, ” There was no doubt in any of our minds. We are such a close team and have been through many victories and losses.” Pitcher Gavin Pittore ’16 echoed that sentiment citing the leadership of the seniors on this team. The Cardinals never stopped believing that they would find a way, any way. And in the ninth, when Amherst gave an inch, the Cardinals jumped. When Cook hit Ellis Schaefer ’17 with one out, Manager Mark Woodworth put on the hit and run for Andrew Yin ’15 and Schaefer. On an outside fastball, Yin just stuck his bat out and floated one down the right field line. Schaefer raced all the way around and the game was tied. Wesleyan would go on to win in 12 innings, and for a second consecutive year they piled out of the dugout for a victory dogpile.

If there is one characteristic to describe these Cardinals from the past two years, it is grittiness. After the Cards grabbed the 2014 NESCAC Championship, we wrote, “Wesleyan won games by never backing down in big spots.” The same is true for 2015, of course. The final game on Sunday was the perfect representation of a team that consistently finds a way to win close games. That it came against Amherst, their longtime rival and formerly a team that would regularly beat down on Wesleyan makes it all the sweeter for them. This team loves to show their confidence and celebrates with a swagger. At this point, they know they are special and want more. Pittore says a repeat NESCAC championship was just the beginning. In the 150th year of Wesleyan baseball, the Cards are hoping to add some more hardware to the University trophy case. Pittore says, “We’ve made it our mission not to settle. We know we have a special team and anything short of a World Series appearance is a disappointment. Our goal is to make Wesleyan University team 150 a team to remember.”

Now for a quick Stock Report.

 Stock Up

Shortstop Guy Davidson ’16 (Wesleyan)

This is a Stock Down and then back Up in one weekend for Davidson. Because when you go 2-17 through 99 percent of the weekend in the three hole, you definitely can’t say you had a great weekend overall. However, Davidson made all of that go away with one huge swing to hit the eventual game winning home run in the top of the 12th. With Odenwaelder on the mound for the first time all season for Amherst, Davidson led off the 12th thinking one thing only: fastball. That was what he got and boy did Davidson not miss. The home run was a no doubter as soon as it left the bat. Sitting fastball for the first pitch of the inning was the right move all the way, but it is also easy in a situation like that to get too excited when you get your pitch and swing out of your shoes. Davidson stayed calm and delivered a NESCAC title with it.

Amherst

Though the majority of this article is concentrating on Wesleyan and their victory, don’t forget how close Amherst came to the win. On Sunday they were eager to avenge their regular season sweep and loss in the second round of the tournament to the Cardinals. The knock on Amherst the last two years is that they haven’t been able to win the close games, but that was not the case this weekend, the final game notwithstanding. They got great pitching performances from guys up and down the roster from Sam Schneider ’18 to Keenan Szulik ’16. Their defense, long a problem, was good all weekend. They came as close as possible as you can to winning a league title, and they didn’t even have players like Odenwaelder and Andrew Vandini ’16 hit all that well. The Jeffs are heading to New York for their regional and should be able to make some noise.

Stock Down

Amherst Base Running

Of all the chances Amherst had to win (of which there were many) that final game, the bottom of the 10th was perhaps their best. Cooney was on the mound, but he was clearly struggling with his control and had barely gotten out of the ninth inning. After Yanni Thanopoulos ’17 singled and Anthony Spina ’17 got reached on a HBP, the Jeffs had runners on first and second with one out. Then Thanopoulos made the mistake of getting picked off second and getting caught in a rundown. Thanopoulos should have been more cautious in that situation, especially with Cooney so clearly struggling with his command. If Thanopoulos could have gotten a good read on a ball in the dirt and reached third with one out, Amherst almost certainly wins that game, but you don’t help out a pitcher who can’t get the ball over the plate consistently. As it was, Cooney walked the next two hitters to load the bases with two outs before getting a fly out to escape the inning. Thanopoulos had an excellent tournament batting .400 and stealing four bases, but that mistake was costly.

Tufts

Those in Medford are fuming about missing out on making the NCAA tournament. That came after they had a tough weekend dropping two close games. The Bates game, especially, they feel like they gave away since the Bobcats scored eight runs in the first two innings before the Jumbos almost came all the way back and ended up leading them loaded in the eighth inning down one run. We warned a couple of weeks ago about the danger of Tufts or Amherst missing the tournament. Then, Tufts was left out of the Top-10 of the NCAA Regional Rankings before last weekend. They likely needed a win against Amherst and possibly one other win in the tournament to have a shot at the tournament. Their weekend performance left them well short of that goal. In the end, D3Baseball.com and others didn’t even consider the Jumbos on the bubble for the tournament despite their great overall record. They got no help from their NESCAC East counterparts as three of those four teams finished with records below .500. That hurt Tufts’ overall Strength of Schedule. Disappointing ending for a team that looked great entering the year but never was at full strength because of injuries to Kyle Slinger ’15.

 

How the West Was Won: Stock Report 4/14

Brendan Pierce '18 has helped Trinity immensely. Note that this photo was taken in Florida if you were wondering about the man in the tanktop. (Courtesy of Trinity Athletics)
Brendan Pierce ’18 has helped Trinity immensely. Note that this photo was taken in Florida if you were wondering about the man in the tank top. (Courtesy of Trinity Athletics)

Well folks, Wesleyan and Amherst are going to the playoffs. That is what we confirmed this weekend. The Jeffs dispatched Williams in a comfortable three game sweep to move to 6-0 and drop Williams to 3-6. Add in Hamilton winning two out of three against Middlebury while not even looking great in their two victories and the race in the West is over. We don’t say this to disparage Williams, Middlebury and Hamilton, but they are all a step below where the Cardinals and Jeffs are. Unless Hamilton figures out how to play much better than they showed – not likely – the only drama left in the West is the order of finish between Wesleyan and Amherst.

Of course, the East is the opposite of the settled West. All five teams are separated by only two games. Tufts retains their spot at the top by a hair, and Bates has momentarily climbed into that second spot. That second spot could continue to be a revolving door.

Stock Up

Relief Pitcher Riley Streit ’16 (Amherst)

The unlikely hero that made Amherst’s sweep possible was Streit, who came on in relief in the final game and tossed six scoreless innings to finish the contest. The Amherst starter, Sam Schneider ’16, got knocked out of the game after allowing four runs in the fourth inning. With many of the other pitchers tired, Streit entered the game with the bases loaded and nobody out. After allowing one runner inherited from Schneider to score on a balk, he managed to get Williams 1-2-3 hitters out in order without allowing another run. Streit struggled earlier in the year, even letting up four homers in one game against Endicott, but he allowed only one runner to reach base on Sunday.

Third Baseman Sam Berry ’15 (Bates)

Though it has been an uneven year overall for Berry, he came up big this weekend for Bobcats along with other hitters like Rockwell Jackson ’15. He went 6-12 and scored five runs including four in the rubber game which Bates won in blowout fashion, 17-0, over Colby. On the year, Berry is hitting only .286, but don’t sleep on him building off of this weekend and finishing strong. That win Sunday was a huge one for Bates to get to 3-2 in conference and still having the chance to win the head-to-head series against Bowdoin. If they win that game, then they will need to go .500 in their other two series to likely secure a berth. Yes, 7-5 is probably going to be enough to make the playoffs once again in the East.

Utility Brendan Pierce ’18 (Trinity)

For an offense without a clear star entering the year, Pierce has been exactly the type of impact freshmen that Trinity needed. He leads the NESCAC with a .548 OBP, and he almost never strikes out as he has only four on the year. On Saturday he hit his first home run of the year as the Bantams got the split in the doubleheader against Tufts. Unfortunately, on Sunday the Bantams ended up losing 16-5 against Tufts. Now, the Bantams are 2-4 and still looking for a conference breakthrough. The Bantams had a very similar series to their one against Tufts last season. Both series had one game where Trinity was routed, one that was a close Bantam loss, and one that was a Bantam win because of a big hit late.

Stock Down

Williams Defense

By far the biggest reason why Williams was swept this weekend was their failures as a team defensively. In the series opener, starter Luke Rodino ’17 pitched well but was let down by a defense that had seven errors in the game. Rodino allowed eight runs but only one earned run. In the final game on Sunday, Williams was up 4-3 entering the sixth inning, but after the Jeffs tied up the game, Williams errors in the seventh and eighth inning allowed the Jeffs to score two runs and win 6-4. The Ephs ended up committing 14 errors over the three game series. Over the past two years against Wesleyan and Amherst the Ephs have committed 35 errors in 12 games and are 1-11 in those games.

Colby

The confluence of events that led to the Mules getting smashed 17-0 in the final game was mostly random, but it hurts nevertheless. Colby appeared to be in a good spot after winning game one of the Sunday doubleheader and having Greg Ladd ’15 ready for the final game.  Then Ladd got knocked around and the bullpen was not able to keep things close. The good news is that all loses count the same. The Mules are still very much in the thick of things at 3-3 now, but they still have to play Tufts and Bowdoin and give up the playoff tiebreaker to Bates. Even though overall the Mules have only six losses, only one less than Tufts and Wesleyan, they are clearly not as complete of a team overall.