It had been six years since the Yale men’s baseball team won 20 games in a season. On Wednesday, with games nine regular-season games remaining, the 2016–17 squad notched its 20th win of the year with a four-run victory over nonconference opponent Iona.
A seven-run eighth inning rally transformed a three-run deficit into a 9–5 lead that Yale (20–14, 10–2 Ivy) preserved to vanquish Iona. The victory continues the Bulldogs’ momentum heading into a crucial four-game set with Dartmouth (19–12, 8–4) this weekend. The Elis lie two games ahead of the Big Green in the Red Rolfe division standings, meaning two or more wins this weekend will virtually cement Yale’s first outright division championship since 1995.
“One great weapon that our team has is the ability to have a big inning that starts at any point in the lineup,” designated hitter Benny Wanger ’19 said. “Today we were down three late in the game and put up a seven-spot in the eighth inning to win it. This win was a good step heading into the big weekend; we’re just going to look to keep executing at the plate and on the mound.”
Yale came into the matchup with the Gaels riding high after taking three out of four games from Harvard last weekend. The Bulldogs jumped out to an early lead at Yale Field, pestering inexperienced Iona starter Mario Ferraioli, who had thrown just 5.1 prior innings in his college career.
The Bulldogs’ first two runs came home on a blast off the bat of first baseman Griffin Dey ’19, snapping a long fallow stretch for Yale’s leading slugger. Dey had gone 13 games without a home run — a dry spell that including the four slugfests with Harvard that produced a combined 81 runs — before mashing his league-best eighth dinger of the season to right center.
After two scoreless innings from Yale starter Thomas Espig ’20, the Gaels jumped on the Eli bullpen to erase the deficit and take a lead of their own. Control issues proved the main problems for the Bulldog pitchers — Iona had just three hits on the day, but scored five runs. Reliever Drew Scott ’18 walked four batters in his 1.2 innings of work giving up three runs and the lead despite only allowing a hit, while fellow righthander Tyler Sapsford ’20 gave up the other two Iona hits on the day, before conceding runs on two wild pitches.
Though a victory did not appear to be in the cards for the Elis, who trailed 5–2 entering the final two frames, the home side exploded for seven runs in the last of the eighth inning. Five different Yale batters drove in runs as Dey got the party started with a run-scoring infield single, while second baseman Simon Whiteman ’19 delivered the decisive blow with a go-ahead single to left.
“Benny [Wanger] set the tone in the eighth inning when he hit the first pitch of the inning back up the middle,” Dey said. “After that, everyone continued to be aggressive and put good swings on pitches in the zone.”
Pitcher Mason Kukowski ’18 worked 1.2 innings in relief to earn the win and close out the game. The righthander’s solid performance out of the pen showcased his versatility and marked a significant improvement on his recent struggles as a starter, a role in which he last surrendering seven runs in 1.1 innings against the Crimson.
This weekend’s matchup with Dartmouth will provide Yale with a true test of its mettle, as the Bulldogs look to surpass 11 Ivy League wins for the first time since 1997. The Big Green dropped a one-game playoff to the Elis last year for the division crown, and will provide a stiff challenge for the Bulldogs as it seeks revenge with a roster boasting a number of Major League Baseball prospects.
“Dartmouth has some good arms,” catcher Andrew Herrera ’17 said. “We are going to really emphasize not chasing bad pitches early in the count and putting ourselves into a position where we can hit mistakes. We saw most of their starting pitchers last year so that will hopefully work to our advantage as well.”
Though the Bulldogs hold the best conference record of Ancient Eight teams through 12 conference games, the Big Green represent perhaps the biggest roadblock. Dartmouth boasts an elite pitching staff possessing an Ivy League-best earned-run average of 3.20. The Big Green’s three best relievers have an ERA under 3.00, so runs will be at a premium for the Bulldogs.
Moreover, the Big Green has been battle-tested outside of Ivy League play, having earned a series victory against perennial powerhouse University of Miami in the Sunshine State and two additional victories against South Florida, which now ranks No. 28 in the Rankings Percentage Index. In total, the Big Green’s record against top-50 RPI opponents is 2–1 while Yale is 0–2.
But Dartmouth currently lies in the bottom half of the conference standings with a pedestrian 0.284 team batting average. The Big Green lineup has also smacked the fewest home runs and the second-fewest extra-base hits in Ivy League play. This comes as a relief for a Yale pitching staff that has surrendered 12 long balls and has yet to prove whether it possesses the depth of a championship-caliber team.
The X-factor in deciding this weekend’s series — and possibly the Red Rolfe division champion — is the performance of Yale’s pitching staff. Aside from Scott Politz ’19, no other Eli has an ERA under 4.00, and the majority of Yale’s hurlers hover around 5.00 or 6.00. Pitchers Eric Brodkowitz ’18 and Alex Stiegler ’20 have both shown flashes of game-changing ability, but both failed to register quality starts in their last Ivy League outings.
Dartmouth alumnus Kyle Hendricks finished third in the MLB National League Cy Young voting last year as a starting pitcher for the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs.