Courtesy of Yale Athletics

Following a win in a midweek nonconference tuneup on Wednesday, the Yale men’s baseball team will embark on its Ivy League schedule this weekend.

With high hopes of defending their 2016 Rolfe Division title and earning their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1994, this weekend’s games mark the advent of the Bulldogs’ journey back to the Ivy League Championship series. Yale (9–10, 0–0 Ivy) will take to the road to face Princeton (4–13, 0–0), last season’s conference champion, and Cornell (9–4, 0–0) in subsequent doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday.

Last season, the Bulldogs swept the Big Red in two regular season games and posted a 3–2 record against the Tigers, despite falling to the Lou Gehrig Division champion in the three-game championship series. For the Elis, this weekend includes an element of redemption, but more importantly an opportunity to begin Ancient Eight competition on the right foot.

“We are really excited for the weekend and the start of conference play,” catcher Andrew Herrera ’17 said. “Winning the Ivy League is our goal every year, and in order to get that done we need to be consistent in all phases of our game. It’s important to not get too excited with this Princeton series considering how last season ended. A lot of guys have had this weekend circled, but we need to just play our game.”

Yale’s two-game series with Princeton looks to be competitive. While the Tigers’ season-opening 4–13 nonconference record does not appear intimidating, many of their early games have been against quality competition, including Duke, Maryland and Old Dominion.

Princeton’s roster includes last season’s Ivy League Pitcher of the Year Chad Powers and one of the top hitters from last season’s conference play in outfielder Jesper Horstead. In addition to Princeton’s slate of tough opponents, much of the team’s lethargic start can be attributed to Horstead’s and the rest of the Tiger hitters’ inability to consistently produce runs. So far, Princeton’s bats have only manufactured a pedestrian three runs per game while hitting at a clip of 0.219.

A key to Yale’s success against the Tigers rests in the performance of the Bulldogs’ hurlers, particularly in pressure-filled situations. So far, the Elis shoulder a team earned-run average of 6.83, prompting a heavily reliance on its hitters. Yale has won just three games in which it scored five runs or fewer, so improvement on the pitching end will be paramount for sustained success.

“Our pitchers were more effective last weekend [against Holy Cross] due to our increased focus on first-pitch strikes and staying ahead in the count,” pitcher Scott Politz ’19 said. “All of these [nonconference] games are preparation for the most important 20-game Ivy season. Every Ivy game is incredibly important and requires a higher level of focus and effort.”

Cornell has started its season strongly, tallying a 9–4 mark through its first 13 games. Though the Big Red hasn’t played any nationally ranked teams in its 2017 campaign, it earned a 2–1 statement win on March 19 over Michigan State, which is currently ranked 33rd in the NCAA rankings-percentage index, behind a dominant pitching performance from ace righthander Paul Balestrieri.

Cornell has mashed its way through its schedule so far, hitting for a team average of 0.291. Senior first baseman Cole Rutherford anchors the Big Red lineup, having swatted a team-leading three home runs and driven in 15 runs, good for 21 percent of his team’s total.

In front of Rutherford in the cleanup slot, outfielder Dale Wickham has hit 0.418, while leading the team in runs and extra-base hits to start his junior season. Wickham has the most doubles per game in the NCAA — his total of nine ranks 70th in the country, but most other qualified players have played nearly twice as many games.

Further down the Big Red lineup, shortstop Ryan Krainz has also gotten off to a torrid start, leading Cornell with a 0.422 batting average. Catcher Ellis Bitar, on the watch list for the Johnny Bench Award for the nation’s best backstop, adds another dimension to the lineup, hitting 0.302 while also throwing out 33 percent of prospective base stealers.

However, the true key to Cornell’s early season success has been its pitching: Anchored by Balestrieri, the Big Red boasts a team ERA of 3.72. The senior lost last weekend at Bucknell to drop his record to 3–1, despite allowing just one run in seven innings. Opponents have hit just 0.168 against the West Windsor, New Jersey native, whose 1.03 ERA and 0.84 walks and hits per inning pitched both rank in the national top 25.

The No. 2 starter for the Big Red, Tim Willittes, has also gotten off to a strong start with a 3–0 record and 3.47 ERA. However, the third and fourth starting spots have proven problematic for Cornell. The starting pitchers in the team’s other five games all have ERAs above 5.00.

The Cornell staff has also been susceptible to the long ball — Yale’s main offensive weapon so far this season — having already allowed seven round-trippers in 13 games.

“For us, each Ivy League game is a playoff game,” starting pitcher Eric Brodkowitz ’18 said. “These 20 games are all massively important, and … we are in a position to get the results we want from both Princeton and the rest of our Ivy League schedule.”

The Bulldogs play Princeton twice on Saturday before traveling to Ithaca on Sunday. Both doubleheaders have 12 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. starts.