Lineup intact, baseball shoots for tourney

Much of the starting pitching staff has returned. The lineup is largely intact. The coaches in the dugout are all the same. Even the trainers have been held over from last season.

Continuity is the theme for the latest version of the Yale baseball team, and many team members say that 2007 might be the best shot at a trip to the NCAA Tournament in years.

Last year’s campaign was better than the finish suggested. The Bulldogs ended the season with an 11-9 record in Ivy League play and won more non-conference games than any other team in the Ancient Eight. Yale was second in the league in overall batting with a .291 average, third in the league in pitching with a 5.28 ERA and first in the league for fielding percentage with a .954 average. But despite all this, at season’s end the Elis found themselves in the basement of the competitive Rolfe Division looking up at the likes of Harvard, Dartmouth and Brown.

“We had a lot of very good individuals,” Chris Wietlispach ’08 said. “We played better than 11-9. We just had trouble putting teams away.”

Yale’s peerless balance of offense and defense may solve that problem when the bulk of Ivy League play starts in April. Coach John Stuper’s team returns 21 players, including reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Marc Sawyer ’07 and two ace pitchers, Steve Gilman ’08 and Wietlispach, who are both Baseball America top prospects.

Captain Justin Ankney ’07 said he doesn’t expect anyone else in the league to come back stronger than the Elis in 2007. The team will get its first chance to size up an Ivy League opponent on March 31, when the Bulldogs face a Cornell squad that tied for the bottom spot in the Gehrig Division last year.

Last season, Wietlispach, who finished with 40.2 innings of work, combined with Gilman to go 6-2 overall. These two, along with similarly talented Brian Irving ’08, will be asked to pick up even more of the load on a pitching staff that lost several key middle relievers and starters. The Bulldogs will be without starter Alec Smith ’06, who led the team in innings pitched and went 4-4 with a 4.33 ERA. But Wietlispach said he believes guys like Brandon Josselyn ’09, who saw limited action in 2006, will be able to replace the pieces the team lost.

The bullpen will still be anchored by closer Brett Rosenthal ’07, one of the most dominant closers in Ivy League history. Rosenthal finished last year with a 1.17 ERA and a school-record 11 saves.

“We are deep in starting pitching and in our bullpen,” Ankney said after an away series with UMBC last weekend. “All three of our main starting pitchers are phenomenal, and they were as good as we thought.”

Wietlispach said he thinks all three of the team’s ace pitchers could be the No. 1 guy on any other Ancient Eight roster and will set the tone each Ivy League weekend.

Yale can also expect production from the offense, something that the Elis have not always been able to count on. The Bulldogs return their top four hitters from last season, including Sawyer, who led the Ancient Eight in hits (65) and was third in overall batting (.378).

The lineup looks solid in every spot. Speedy Josh Cox ’08 will hit first, as he did most of last season, when he had a .346 on base percentage and stole 14 bases. Ankney will follow and lead the way for a powerful core comprised of Sawyer and Ryan Lavarnway ’09, who led the team in home runs in 2006. Shortstop Dan Soltman ’08 has been batting near the bottom of the lineup and will provide consistency if he can duplicate his .323 average from last year.

“We have one of the best problems you can have,” Lavarnway said after playing UMBC. “We have too many good players, too much talent, and we need to find everyone places to play.”

With so much talent coming back, Yale will not have to depend on its freshmen to produce. But that doesn’t mean that the young guys won’t play. In fact, Stuper and staff often use the upcoming slate of spring break games to give their new players some time on the field. Lavarnway, who played as a freshman, said he expects the younger players to be in the lineup and help the team win.

“The freshmen are going to get to play during spring break,” Wietlispach said. “[The team] gets to see who can handle the pressure of college baseball.”

Wietlispach also said the trip is important for chemistry, since the team spends almost 24 hours together every day with no classes, no sections and no interruptions.

With so many impact players coming back, chemistry may be something the Bulldogs don’t need to improve. They do need to improve on their 11-9 league mark if they want the Ivy League crown, and their balanced attack should play a major role.

There is no reason the Elis shouldn’t be in contention come the end of April.

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