Apparently, the Yale baseball team likes to keep its fans in suspense.
On Tuesday, with the game tied 4-4 in the bottom of the last inning and two outs on the scoreboard, captain Justin Ankney ’07 hit a routine ground ball toward the Sacred Heart shortstop. The ball skipped through the legs of the fielder, and Dan Soltman ’08 promptly moved 90 feet home to give the Bulldogs (10-19, 3-5 Ivy) the win.
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“It’s just the nature of the game,” pitcher Stefan Schropp ’09 said. “You put pressure on people and things are going to go your way. We move guys around the bases, put the pressure on, and eventually people will crumble.”
This type of thing has been happening to the Elis quite a bit lately. On Monday against Columbia, Yale won in the last inning when a Lion pitcher delivered a wild pitch and allowed Ryan Lavarnway ’09 to score. Last week at Princeton, senior Sal Iacono hit a three-run walk off home run to give his Tigers a 7-4 victory. In fact, heading into this weekend’s four-game set at Harvard (10-12, 5-3 Ivy), four of the last 10 games for the Bulldogs have been decided by one run and two more of those games have been decided in the final at-bat or in extra innings.
“It’s all about winning the little battles throughout the games,” Lavarnway said. “It’s about playing every pitch hard and building momentum for the end. We’re finally starting to realize we can win these [close] games.”
Schropp said sometimes those little things happen in the fourth or fifth inning and no one notices; they just have a much greater impact at the end of the game.
The close wins against Columbia and Sacred Heart, along with a second, somewhat more convincing win against the Lions, put the Bulldogs’ record at 3-1 on the week.
The victories on Monday pulled the Elis’ record up to 3-5 in the Ivy League. The Bulldogs now trail both Harvard and Brown (10-14, 5-3) by two games in the Rolfe Division of the Ancient Eight. The team will have a chance to move up even further when they head to Boston for a pair of doubleheaders with the Cantabs starting tomorrow.
“It’s important to get in some wins before we go up to Harvard,” Ankney said, “[The wins] are important even if these weren’t division games.”
The next three weekends will be crucial for the Elis as they play four-game sets with opponents in their division — Harvard, Brown and Dartmouth. The Bulldogs have essentially 12 more games to earn a spot in the Ivy League Championship against the winner of the Gehrig Division.
“We could say these games are the same as any other games, but we know how much they count,” Lavarnway said. “We’ve got some momentum going in.”
The Bulldogs and the Crimson come into the weekend series looking like two very different teams. Though both are on mild win streaks in the League — Harvard has rolled off three in a row, the Bulldogs two — the comparisons stop there.
The Cantabs enter the weekend ranked dead last in Ancient Eight batting (.268), yet are first in team pitching with a 4.29 team ERA. Of those qualifying with enough innings, three Crimson pitchers have an ERA under 4.00, but only two batters have cleared the .300 mark .
Compare that to the Elis, who enter the weekend as the Ivy League’s best batting team (.296) and worst pitching team (7.96 team ERA). Of the starters, four Yale batters have a batting average of .300 or better, and Schropp’s 5.66 ERA leads the Bulldog staff.
“Statistics sometimes can’t tell you anything,” Lavarnway said. “They can tell you what happened in the past, but they can’t tell you how a player is feeling for that game or how he is going to play.”
Schropp said he expects four contested games and that the Bulldog pitching staff is improving. He said he has seen the same improvement in some of the Harvard batters over the past few weeks as well.
The deciding factor in all of this may be the power numbers for both teams. Despite the Cantab pitching prowess, the Harvard pitchers do not blow many guys away. Crimson pitchers have recorded only 127 strikeouts on the season, near the bottom in the Ivy League. Though the Crimson have given up only eight home runs on the season, they will face a Eli squad that has jacked 23 balls out of the park so far this year. That includes catcher Lavarnway, who leads the League with eight of his own.
A player to watch this weekend will be Harvard pitcher Brad Unger. Basketball fans will remember Unger from the 10 rebounds and 16 points he picked up against the Elis on Feb. 17 in Lee Amphitheater. His athletic success has continued through the spring. He leads his team in ERA (1.98), wins (2), and innings pitched (27.1). The 6’8” Unger will be called upon to tame the Eli batters in one of the games this weekend.
Ultimately, the Bulldogs know a series win is crucial if they hope to take the division at season’s end.
“We’re going to go in there and play like we need all four,” Schropp said.
The Bulldogs will take the wins, even if they’re only by a run.