When the Yale baseball team opens its season on Friday against No. 4 Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, former U.S. President and Yale baseball captain George H.W. Bush ’48 will be in attendance and may even throw out the first pitch.
The president will have the opportunity to watch the team attempt an upset against a top-ranked SEC team, a feat which the Elis are hoping to accomplish for the second time in three seasons.
Two seasons ago, the Bulldogs toppled the then-No. 2 Louisiana State Tigers by a final score of 8–7 in the team’s opening weekend. The victory jumpstarted a season that ultimately ended one game short of the Ivy League Championship Series, though the Bulldogs’ 15–23 (6–14 Ivy) record in 2015 season was good for just third in the Ivy League’s Red Rolfe Division.
“Last year was a pretty disappointing year for all of us,” third baseman Richard Slenker ’17 said. “It was clear what we needed to change, and we have all done our best to make those changes and hopefully they turn out well.”
Entering 2016, the Bulldogs feature a solid mix of experience and newcomers. The roster consists of five seniors, four of whom are starters split evenly between the field and the pitcher’s mound. Right-handed pitcher Chris Moates ’16, who was named captain during the offseason, and righty Chris Lanham ’16 will head the rotation while middle infielders Tom O’Neill ’16 and Nate Adams ’16 provide experienced bats for the Bulldog lineup.
Much of the offensive burden this season will fall on the shoulders of Harrison White ’17, who hit 0.302 last season with 12 RBI while primarily serving as a designated hitter, and Slenker. Slenker notched a 0.290 batting average and team-highs in home runs and doubles with two and 11 respectively last season, while also stealing a team-high 10 bases.
“I had a pretty strong freshman year but I got hurt, and I came back last season and had a good year. I had one bad weekend at Harvard that numbers-wise skewed the stats a little bit,” said Slenker, who competed in the Cape Cod Baseball League as well as the New England Baseball Collegiate League during the offseason. “I played 50–70 games this summer. I had a good summer and I am comfortable and healthy. I think I am going to be able to have a great year.”
Head coach John Stuper will have to replace graduated first baseman Eric Hsieh ’15, a First Team All-Ivy League player last season who led the conference with a 0.370 batting average. Among the candidates to fill that void are Griffen Dey ’19, Alec Hoeschel ’17 and Benny Wanger ’19. Whoever wins that job may be joined in the lineup by second baseman Simon Whiteman ’19 and centerfielder Tim DeGraw ’19, two freshmen who made an impact in the Eli lineup during the team’s fall slate of games.
The freshmen experienced their first taste of college baseball in October, as the Bulldogs hosted the annual City Series against Southern Connecticut State University and the University of New Haven. In the consolation game against UNH, Whiteman collected three hits and one stolen base, flashing the skill set that can help him make an immediate impact on the field.
“I play for more of a speed-oriented game, as does Tim DeGraw,” Whiteman said. “We’re hoping to get on the bases as much as possible so we can run around, turn up some chaos and give our bigger bats some good opportunities to knock us in. We’re both looking to be table-setters for the other guys in the lineup this year.”
After the team’s mediocre finish last season, the Bulldogs are poised to improve upon that record, due in part to a veteran pitching staff. Though the staff ranked last in the Ancient Eight in 2015 with a 7.53 staff ERA, the team’s top seven inning-eaters return to this year’s club.
In addition to Moates and Lanham, who combined for five wins and 100.2 innings pitched in 2015, righties Mason Kukowski ’18 and Drew Scott ’18 look to build upon their promising debut campaigns. Scott logged 49 innings and finished the year with a 4.04 ERA to go along with 24 strikeouts, while Kukowski had the lowest ERA on the team for any pitcher that threw more than one inning. Kukowski, an All-Ivy Honorable Mention recipient, also recorded four saves and a 3–2 record in 21 appearances, with 20 coming out of the bullpen.
The depth, which figures to play a prominent role during the conference double-headers, further includes Chasen Ford ’17, a righty who tossed the second-most innings on the club, striking out 39 batters in 49.2 innings en route to a 3–3 record.
Also coming off a 3–3 record is Eric Brodkowitz ’18, a right-hander who started six games last season and earned two complete-game victories over Princeton and Harvard. Brodkowitz was impressive in the fall: Against Wesleyan, in a celebration of the two teams’ 150-year history, Brodkowitz started and held the Cardinals scoreless through the first two innings. In that game, he tossed two no-hit innings and struck out three of the seven batters he faced.
While each returning pitcher from last season is right-handed, left-handed pitcher Kumar Nambiar ’19 may provide some versatility out of the bullpen. Another freshman, right-handed pitcher Scott Politz ’19, is set to compete for a spot in the rotation.
“It’s important for the pitching staff to get off to a good start and keep the teams in games, which we didn’t do last year,” Ford said. “We have a lot of guys who experienced that and need to use it as motivation to keep it from happening again.”
The first game of the Texas A&M three-game series will commence on Friday at 7:30 p.m.