James Badas

After playing the first 24 games of the year on the road, the Yale baseball team returns to the friendly confines of Yale Field, hosting Columbia and Penn in a four-game weekend.

The Elis (12–12, 3–1 Ivy) opened their Ivy League slate by taking three of four from Lou Gehrig Division foes Cornell and Princeton last weekend and will look to continue their success against two talented conference opponents.

“We can’t wait to get back on Yale Field again,” captain and third baseman Richard Slenker ’17 said. “We look forward to playing at home all year. We just have to play to what we are capable of and execute on the offensive and defensive side of the ball.”

Last season, the Bulldogs swept Columbia (6–15, 2–2) behind an offensive surge led by a newly healthy Nate Adams ’16, outscoring the Lions 23–12 across the two games. They enjoyed less success against the Quakers, dropping both matchups, including a 19–3 shellacking on April 3, 2016.

Still, Columbia has a more talented team than its 6–15 record indicates. The Lions dropped three games to No. 7 Florida to open the season, lost a pair to No. 17 Southern Mississippi and took one game out of three off perennial powerhouse Mississippi State. On Wednesday, Columbia finally secured a statement win, upsetting No. 14 St. John’s 7–4, on the strength of a six-run first inning.

The Columbia lineup has been inconsistent, with three regulars who hit over 0.300 and a fourth at 0.299, but six players who have started 10 or more games bat 0.204 or below. Second baseman Randell Kanemaru occupies the three-spot, batting at a 0.348 clip and tying the team lead in home runs with three. Columbia’s other run producer is designated hitter Chandler Bengtson, who has three home runs and 15 runs batted in, although he hits just 0.167. The Lions do not run well, stealing just 18 bases on 31 attempts and have made a whopping 33 errors so far this season.

Yale has hit its stride offensively, helped by two recent introductions to the lineup. Designated hitter Benny Wanger ’19 has had just 24 at-bats since his return from injury, but has made a decisive impact in the lineup, smoking five extra-base hits and driving home 12 runs. Shortstop Brian Ronai ’20 has nine hits in 23 at-bats, including three doubles and a homer, providing a similar boost to the offense.

Elsewhere, first baseman Griffin Dey ’19 leads the Ivy League with seven home runs, nicely complementing his 24 RBIs. The only Eli regular hitting over 0.300 is Slenker at 0.308. However, both center fielder Tim DeGraw ’19 and second baseman Simon Whiteman ’19 are hitting above 0.290, while also adding a dash of speed to the Bulldogs’ offensive arsenal, stealing a combined 18 bases while being erased only four times.

“Speed creates chaos on the bases,” Whiteman said. “[Tom] Ruddy ’18 and I bring this element when we get on base — it disrupts pitchers and creates holes for our hitters to fill.”

The Yale offense will cause trouble for the often inconsistent and occasionally terrible Columbia rotation. The Lions staff has a combined 6.00 earned run average and has walked 109 batters while fanning just 121. Sophomore southpaw Josh Simpson is the ace of the staff; his 2–0 record and 2.20 ERA includes a recent complete-game shutout of Harvard.

Beyond Simpson, however, the drop-off is steep. The other two consistent Lion starters are Ty Wiest, 0–2 with a 3.60 ERA, and Ethan Abrams, 1–3 with a 4.38 ERA, while the only other hurlers to start multiple games have ERAs over 9.00.

In the second slate of the weekend games, Penn (13–10, 3–1) poses an intriguing matchup for the Bulldogs. The Quakers enter the weekend atop the Lou Gehrig Division and on a scorching pace, having won nine of their last 10 games. The question remains, however, whether Penn’s record is truly indicative of its talent. Though its only recent loss came at the hands Dartmouth — arguably the Ancient Eight’s premier team — Penn’s 13-–10 record and 3–1 Ivy League mark could be a mirage.

In their 23 contests so far this season, the Quakers have not played a single top-70 opponent in the College Baseball Rating Percentage Index. Moreover, almost a third of their wins have come against teams outside the top-200 in RPI percentage, and two of their three interconference victories have come against an 0–4 Harvard squad. Schedule strength questions withstanding, the Penn roster does boast some of the best team statistics in the Ivy League and a number of talented individuals that may prove difficult for Yale on Sunday.

Through 23 games, the Quakers appear competent with the bat in hand. They currently hold a 0.273 team batting average, good for third among Ivy teams and just ahead of Yale’s 0.266 average, and have blasted a conference best 17 extra base hits in just four Ancient Eight games equating to a 0.467 team slugging percentage. Yale, meanwhile, sits at sixth in the conference with a 0.244 batting average against Ivy opponents.

“We limited free bases and forced the other teams to beat us instead of us giving away baserunners,” pitcher Eric Brodkowitz ’18 said. “That’s been a huge focus for us the whole year and we were very successful at it last weekend and hope to keep it going this weekend.”

Aided by catcher Tim Graul, whose 0.329 average and 0.600 slugging percentage are among the best in the Ivy League, and the Ivy League’s third highest fielding percentage, the Penn staff looks to be the strength of the team thus far. The Quaker hurlers have posted a conference-best 3.53 ERA and 178 strikeouts. They are anchored by ace Jake Cousins, who carries a 3–1 record and a stingy 1.42 ERA. Outside of Cousins, starter Adam Bleday is tied for second in the league in strikeouts and reliever Billy Lescher has been nearly untouchable in 10 appearances so far, allowing just one extra base hit and whiffing nearly a batter an inning.

Because Penn plays a comparatively weaker opponent than Yale on Saturday, it is likely the Bulldogs will see the Quakers’ best arms in the two-game set. The key to the doubleheader may rest in how successful the Elis’ big hitters, including Dey, Degraw and Slenker, are at the plate.

“Penn is a very solid team in all aspects who is tough to beat every year,” catcher Andrew Herrera ’17 said. “We aren’t going to change the way we play and we are going to continue to hopefully play to our strengths of swinging the bats and strong starting pitching.”

Yale battles Columbia in a doubleheader on Saturday at 12 and 3 p.m. and Penn on Sunday at 12 and 2:30 p.m. All four games will take place at Yale Field.