As sophomores two years ago, four of the five seniors on the 2016 Yale baseball team saw action against Dartmouth in a one-game playoff at Biondi Park to decide the Ivy League’s Red Rolfe Division winner.
The Elis lost that game 11–4, but the experience of that win-or-go-home contest has stuck with the seniors and is paying dividends in their final campaign, as the Bulldogs again find themselves on the hunt for their first divisional championship since 1995 and a chance to claim their first Ivy League title since 1994.
With a 7–5 Ivy League record, Yale currently sits in first place in the division — one game ahead of Dartmouth — with just two weekends left to play.
“It’s been a lot of fun for us to be all together and be playing well for the most part,” right fielder Nate Adams ’16 said of his senior season. “We are in a position where we’re competitive at this point in the season. It has definitely been successful up to this point but we really have our eyes on the prize.”
Adams, right-handed pitcher Chris Lanham ’16, left fielder Brent Lawson ’16, righty Chris Moates ’16 and shortstop Tom O’Neill ’16 have all played a part in the team’s success this spring.
Adams, despite having missed 10 games earlier this season due to a hamstring injury, has the second-highest batting average on the team at 0.308, frequently hitting from the leadoff or second spot in the lineup.
Lawson ranks just behind Adams with a 0.293 average. He has nine RBI this season, and both of his home runs have come against Ivy League opponents, including a walk-off blast to lift the Elis to victory over Cornell on April 10.
Joining Adams and Lawson in the lineup, O’Neill has started all but one game for the Bulldogs this season while providing a steady glove at shortstop. Although he is hitting just 0.178 overall, O’Neill is batting 0.275 in Ivy play and has upped his slugging percentage 166 points during conference play, highlighted by a two-run homer last Saturday against Harvard.
The trio of position players has been regular presences in head coach John Stuper’s lineup throughout their careers. Entering the season, Adams had made 84 starts, followed by 65 and 64 started games for O’Neill and Lawson, respectively, over the course of Yale’s 117 games the past three years.
Meanwhile, the two seniors who played the most significant roles on that 2014 baseball squad, Lanham and Moates, have adjusted their roles this season. Both were All-Ivy recipients in 2014, with Lanham receiving Second Team honors and Moates earning an honorable mention.
In fact, the duo combined to pitch nearly seven innings of that sudden-death game versus the Big Green two seasons ago. During that spring, Lanham compiled an exceptional 7–2 record and Moates tossed 38.1 innings to the tune of a team-best 2.11 ERA.
“Playoff baseball is always fun, and it was nice to make it to the division championship after having a stretch of consecutive bad years,” Moates said. “But this year we won’t be satisfied with anything less than the Ivy League championship.”
This year, however, shoulder problems for Moates and a decision to rest Lanham’s arm at points throughout the season have affected their respective impact. Lanham has made just four starts, and owns a 9.00 ERA though he delivered a valuable performance out of the pen in a 9–8 win over Cornell, when he tossed 5.2 effective innings to help the Elis overcome an early 4–0 deficit. That contest also represented Moates’ most recent appearance on the mound, as Lanham took over for the senior captain after just 1.1 innings pitched.
Moates has thrown only 5.1 innings this season, 11th-most on the team, as he continues to recover from a torn labrum suffered last season, though he has still been able to offer value at the plate. Although the Smithville, Georgia native had not had a plate appearance in either of the past two seasons, Moates has stepped up for 30 at bats this spring, delivering eight hits and four RBI.
“Right now I am continuing on with my rehab and trying to make it back on the mound as soon as possible,” Moates said. “But [I am] contributing as much as I can with the bat in the meantime.”
Perhaps more critical than the statistics for Lanham and Moates has been the value they have provided as senior leaders, who have had experience thriving in the Ivy League.
This has been a critical component to Yale’s success, especially on a team that has seen contributions throughout the lineup and pitching rotation from each of the younger classes.
“The younger talent has done an outstanding job for the team this year,” O’Neill said. “They have been instrumental in our success this season, and the seniors definitely recognize that.”
Moates noted that one way the class of 2016’s experience has mattered is after weekends such as this past one, in which Yale dropped three out of four games to Harvard. He shared that the seniors must “show that it is not the end of the world” and that the team “stick with the process just like we would have if we had swept.”
After facing Wesleyan on Wednesday, the Bulldogs will return to league play over the weekend with a critical pair of doubleheaders at second-place Dartmouth.
The season will then wrap up with two more doubleheaders, with one away at Brown before hosting the Bears for the final two games of the season.
With a divisional crown on the line, the five Bulldogs are intent on extending their respective collegiate careers as a unit.
“We’re a really tight group … We have done everything together,” Adams said. “We are all best buddies, and we give each other a hard time and joke around but we all love each other like a family.”
Over the past four seasons, Yale has compiled a 34–38 conference record.