The Yale baseball team advanced to the Ivy League championship series for the first time since 1995 last year, but ended its season in heartbreaking fashion after a ninth-inning walk-off run denied the Elis their first conference title since 1994. But with 18 lettermen returning, including five All-Ivy honorees, the Bulldogs look to complete their quest to the top of the Ivy League, this time possessing the requisite firepower to transform their dream into reality.
Yale finished 19–28–1 a year ago, with its 11–9 I conference record tying Dartmouth at the top of the Red Rolfe Division. A late rally carried the Elis past the Big Green in the ensuing playoff game before the crushing defeat against Princeton in the championship series extended their Ivy League drought to 22 years.
“We’re excited to finally get the season going and get back to postseason play,” pitcher Scott Politz ’19 said. “Our goal is to win the Ivy League championship and go on to a [NCAA] regional.”
The Bulldogs will again compete with Dartmouth atop the Rolfe division, one of the two four-team divisions in the Ivy League. Columbia, this year’s favorite to win the Lou Gehrig Division, saw its streak of three consecutive titles come to an end last year, but return a powerful lineup and add a promising freshman southpaw to boost what was an inconsistent pitching staff. Defending champion Princeton and talented dark horse Penn will also battle for the division title and an appearance in the Ancient Eight title series.
The 2017 Elis boost a strong and deep pitching staff, highlighted by Politz, the only Bulldog to garner first-team All-Ivy honors last year. The right-hander posted a 6–3 record as a freshman, and his 3.62 earned-run average lay more than two full runs below the staff mean. Pitcher Eric Brodkowitz ’18, who blanked the Tigers for 6.2 innings in the championship decider last season, returns to the rotation as well after a posterior labral tear sidelined him for all but one game.
Pitcher Benny Wanger ’19, who recorded 38.1 innings and eight starts last year, will also see significant time on the mound in addition to his role in the field. On the back end, pitcher Mason Kukowski ’18 returns to the bullpen, a role in which he had tremendous success his freshman year.
“The pitching staff has become much more deep since the end of last season,” Wanger said. “We have 13 healthy pitchers, which is more than we had last year. [Head coach John] Stuper has been working with us all offseason on becoming more consistent around the strike zone and hopefully it will show this year.”
In the field, the Bulldogs return the majority of a nine-man crew that posted a 0.976 fielding percentage last season, the best in team history and first among Ancient Eight schools. The Elis’ 42 errors, to their opponents’ 56 misplays was key to the Bulldogs’ return to the Ivy League championship series.
Seniors and underclassmen alike comprise Yale’s defense. Catcher Andrew Herrera ’17 will again provide leadership and solidity to the most important defensive position, in addition to his great chemistry with the pitching staff, according to Stuper. Additional infield incumbents include captain and 2016 second-team All-Ivy third baseman Richard Slenker ’17, second baseman Simon Whiteman ’19 and first baseman Alec Hoeschel ’17.
The lone continuity in the outfield from last year is center fielder Tim Degraw ’19. Degraw, an All-Ivy honorable mention as a freshman, brings additional speed and a sure glove to Yale Field, as he contributed two outfield assists and no errors last season.
Yale has three holes to fill in the lineup: the shortstop and the corner outfielder positions. Though middle infielder Dai Dai Otaka ’20 could be the long-term solution at short, according to Herrera, replacing the corner outfielders looks to be more of an uncertainty.
“Dai Dai will be the guy opening night [at shortstop],” Herrera said. “He’s a very slick fielder — possibly one of the best fielders in the Ivy League already.”
Outfielder Thomas Ruddy ’18 figures to be in the mix after appearing in 25 games last season, as does last year’s primary designated hitter Harrison White ’17, who has converted from first base to outfield, Stuper said.
Offensively, Yale will look to emulate its team batting average of 0.262 from a year ago, which ranked third among Ivy League teams. The Bulldogs blasted 178 hits to trail only Penn and Princeton in the Ancient Eight. Though the Elis will miss outfielders Nate Adams ’16 and Brent Lawson ’16, two of Yale’s top-five hitters in terms of batting average last season, this year’s lineup figures to be even better.
At the top of the order, Yale features both Degraw and Whiteman, both of whom dazzled in their first year of collegiate baseball. Whiteman’s 47 hits were good for second on the team, and both he and Degraw created havoc on the base paths with a combined 28 stolen bases. Slenker returns coming off of a season in which he ranked fourth in the Ivy League with a team-high 0.342 batting average and fifth with 28 runs batted in. White, meanwhile, clobbered a team-best four home runs last season, providing some pop in the heart of the lineup.
Yale’s batting order will finish with several more tough outs, including players like Ruddy, utility player Derek Brown ’17 and Herrera, all of whom have the experience to contribute competent at-bats and timely hits.
As a whole, the Bulldogs lineup is characterized by consistency; no everyday returner hit below the Mendoza line last season.
“We are going to really hit the baseball,” Slenker said. “This [is] the best lineup that I have been a part of in my time at Yale.”
Summed together, Yale’s parts resemble a squad that can realistically achieve an Ivy League championship. Though the Bulldogs enter the season with a title-or-bust mindset, they also recognize the need to stay focused on each individual game.
“Our first goal is to go out and win the series in New Mexico,” Slenker said. “The baseball season is a long one with a lot of ups and downs. Our team likes to look ahead one game at a time.”
The Elis open up the 2017 season with a road trip to New Mexico State this weekend in which they will play four games. The Bulldogs’ first home game is March 21 against Connecticut.