When the Yale baseball team found out last month that ace pitcher Rob Cerfolio ’14 would be out indefinitely with an elbow injury, members of the Eli pitching staff knew that they would need to step up in the face of adversity.
In the first half of the Ivy League season, Yale’s pitchers have done that and more, combining for a 3.35 conference ERA and carrying the Bulldogs to a 5–3 Ivy record. Among the hurlers paving the way for the Elis, one leader in particular has emerged: right-hander Chris Lanham ’16.
The sophomore from Houston, Texas has been stellar in his first two conference starts of the year. Lanham earned Yale’s first Ivy win of 2014 at Columbia last week with a complete game shutout, and then followed up against Princeton five days later with six more shutout innings, allowing his first run in 13 innings in the seventh frame as the Bulldogs went on to win the contest 2–1.
“It’s been huge, especially in league play, to have a guy go out there and throw two complete games like he has,” Cerfolio said. “You need to have a shut-down guy like that in Ivy League play. It really gives your team momentum, and he’s been that guy for us.”
Lanham’s starts last week were good enough to give him a 0.68 conference ERA, the best figure in the league two weeks into the Ivy season. But his recent performance has not been the only highlight of his eight appearances and 4–1 record so far.
Last month, Lanham allowed one earned run through eight innings at Stetson and shut out UMass Lowell in five frames later that week. In perhaps the most notable of his appearances early in the season, Lanham pitched 2.2 shutout innings at then-No. 1 LSU and was credited with the win in a historic 8–7 victory over the Tigers.
Lanham said his success this season has hinged on his ability to throw all three of his pitches — a simple arsenal of a fastball, a changeup and a 12–6 curveball — for strikes. He added that pounding the strike zone consistently is the basis of his mentality on the mound.
“I try to throw strikes from the first pitch, going right after them,” Lanham said. “Don’t try to nibble around the strike zone. Let them put it in play and let our defense do the work behind me.”
The numbers show Lanham’s approach to be true. In his near-shutout on Sunday against Princeton, Lanham struck out just three batters of the 19 outs he recorded.
He ended the second inning in three pitches, allowing all three batters to hit into first pitchouts.
Last week at Columbia, Lanham did not give up a single walk en route to his three-hit shutout of the defending Ivy League champions.
“When he keeps his fastball down in the zone, with the other weapons he has, he will be successful,” head coach John Stuper said in an email.
Lanham said this approach has come from his second-year experience, which has helped him rise up as an ace this year after going 1–7 last season with a 5.74 ERA.
Stuper noted Lanham’s increased strength and velocity as improvements over the offseason, while Cerfolio added that his teammate’s 12–6 curveball is sharper than it was in 2013.
But Cerfolio, a senior, has been a significant source of assistance throughout this season himself, Lanham said.
Cerfolio, an expert at pitching in the Ivy League who was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers last year, has served as an assistant pitching coach during his recovery, tracking pitches and talking with pitchers on the bench during each game.
“I just try to give some of the experience that I’ve gotten over the last three years to some of the younger guys like Chris and Chasen [Ford ’17],” Cerfolio said. “In between innings, helping them with what they should be thinking about on the mound — slowing the game down, taking a deep breath, trusting your stuff.”
While Lanham’s outings this season have been exceptional, they have also been necessary for keeping Yale above .500 in the Ivy League. In Lanham’s three most recent wins, the Bulldogs have offered him an average of just two runs of support.
But Lanham said that he trusts his team to secure the win if he can do his job on the mound.
“The way I’ve had success so far is allowing my defense to play behind me, and they’ve done an awesome job,” Lanham said. “The offense comes up big in clutch situations and gets a couple of runs, and that’s worked so far.”
That strategy will be tested for a third time this weekend, when Lanham and the rest of the Bulldogs play at Dartmouth for a four-game series.