Despite early season struggles and inconsistency from three of its most reliable pitchers from a year ago, the Yale baseball team has received a pleasantly surprising boost to its pitching staff from a trio of newcomers.
Of the six Elis who have recorded at least 15 innings of action on the mound, three are freshmen. Two of those rookies also boast the lowest earned-run averages of all 13 Bulldogs who have pitched this season, regardless of innings thrown.
“These freshmen have been vital to the staff so far this year,” starter Chris Lanham ’16 said. “They have a lot of talent and have transitioned nicely from high school to college ball. We’ve relied on them in key situations and they have come through for us.”
Freshman hurlers Mason Kukowski ’18, Drew Scott ’18 and Eric Brodkowitz ’18 have each carved out their own roles with more than half the regular season already in the books.
Kukowski, a 6’2” power righty from Katy, Texas, has established himself as head coach John Stuper’s closer. Given that Yale has not found itself in many save situations — Kukowski is credited with the only two saves on the season for the Bulldogs — his role has included being Stuper’s go-to late-inning arm capable of shutting down the opposing offense, often an inning at a time, as he has made the second-most appearances of any pitcher in the Ivy League.
Kukowski has smoothly stepped into a vacancy made by another Katy, Texas native — last year’s captain and shortstop Cale Hanson ’14. When Hanson was not fielding grounders at short, the first team All-Ivy selection compiled five of the team’s eight saves while recording a 3.60 ERA in 15 innings of work.
“I remember my first few pitching appearances as a freshman being some of the most stressful times of my career,” Hanson said. “I cannot even imagine if those appearances had been in a save situation … For a young freshman to have poise and command of his pitches in that environment really is special.”
Kukowski has improved upon Hanson’s time and effectiveness on the mound, recording a 3.38 ERA of his own through 16 innings of work.
Kukowski’s velocity, a hallmark of his repertoire, has shone through as he has recorded at least one strikeout in all but one of his outings, averaging nine per nine innings. That rate is the most of any Yale pitcher with more than three innings of work and the best of any conference pitcher with at least one save.
“Any pitcher will tell you that when you are on the mound, you can feel the weight of the game on your shoulders,” Hanson said. “That stress is amplified when you are the closer because you know there is no one coming out of the bullpen to save you if you get into trouble. It’s just you until you win or lose.”
Whereas Kukowski has settled in as a one-inning flamethrower, Scott has been one of the most versatile arms at Stuper’s disposal. The Virginia native has made eight appearances, including two starts, and has been able to serve as a long-man in the pen on more than one occasion.
But the lack of a clearly defined role has not bothered Scott, who said he is willing to perform in whatever capacity helps out the Bulldogs.
“To be honest, I wasn’t really sure how much of an impact I’d have my freshman year,” Scott said. “I’m willing to accept whatever role I’m given. It’s really not that different coming out of the pen versus starting for me as long as I prepare myself. … I’ve been really happy to have as much of an impact as I’ve had thus far.”
After a couple of shaky outings to begin his collegiate career, Scott has settled down, posting a 3.05 ERA over his last six appearances, to lower his season ERA to 3.80, second on the team behind only Kukowski.
Since the start of Ivy play, Scott has been especially impressive, posting a 1.50 ERA and allowing just a 0.190 batting average against over his last three appearances.
Beginning with a scoreless inning in a tight contest against Cornell on March 29, Scott followed up with what may be considered his two strongest performances of the season. His next appearance was a two-run, seven-inning start against Hartford before throwing four shutout innings against a talented Columbia offense this past Sunday.
“I’ve never been as nervous as the first time I went into a college game [March 7 versus Richmond] but after that, I have to say that the adrenaline rush of pitching in an Ivy League game is way higher than any other game I’ve pitched in,” Scott said. “When I came into the Columbia game, I felt my heart racing … You just know that Ivy games matter way more and your body adjusts and it just makes you want to perform better.”
Rounding out the trio is Brodkowitz, who has provided his value to the team as a member of the starting rotation. Brodkowitz has the fourth-most starts for the Bulldogs and picked up the first win of his career in a stellar outing against Princeton.
Hailing from Potomac, Maryland, the righty went the distance — the sole complete game on the season for Yale — against the Tigers, allowing just three runs, with one of those being unearned. The six-strikeout performance saw Brodkowitz pound the strike zone in an efficient manner for nine innings, needing only 98 pitches to pick up the win.
While a triceps injury postponed his slated debut against Duke back on March 10, Brodkowitz has been the No. 4 starter for the Elis in each of the two Ivy League weekend doubleheaders. Nevertheless, Brodkowitz is by no means content or prepared to rest on his laurels.
“I’m not really looking at [the No. 4 spot in the rotation] as mine,” Brodkowitz said. “I’m looking at it as something I still need to keep earning and I need to keep performing and hopefully, I can keep it just by helping my team in the best way I possibly can.”
The Bulldogs are hoping that this mindset will begin to turn around the fortunes of the club’s rotation, as conference action has seen Yale allow 67 earned runs in 62 innings of play. That 9.73 ERA is slightly more than double the league average of 4.78.
A fourth freshman, Tyler Duncan ’18, has also provided some necessary depth out of the bullpen, having entered 11 games, tied for second-most on the team. Though Duncan has not had as much success as his frosh counterparts, he has displayed resilience in a couple of crucial moments, including a one-two-three seventh inning in a one-run win over UMass-Lowell.
“These guys were all recruited for a reason and they have a lot of talent, so as long as they believe in themselves they all have bright futures,” Lanham said.
The Elis travel to Fairfield this afternoon in preparation for a pivotal four-game series against Dartmouth this weekend.