The Yale men’s baseball team has cruised through the first portion of its Ivy League schedule, racking up a 7–1 record against the four teams from the Lou Gehrig Division.
For the next three weeks, the Elis (16–13, 7–1 Ivy) will play four-game series against foes from their own Red Rolfe Division as they continue their quest to return to the Ivy League Championship Series, beginning with a trip to Cambridge to face Harvard (12–16, 1–7).
A season ago, the Crimson took three out of four games when the teams played at Yale Field, and only a complete-game effort from Bulldog ace Scott Politz ’19 in the opening game denied Harvard a sweep. Yale approaches this weekend in a similar position to last year — they entered divisional play with a 6–2 mark then — though the 2015–16 Bulldogs posted just a 5–7 record over their final 12 games. Currently sitting comfortably in first place in both the division and conference with a two-game lead over second-place Dartmouth, the Elis will look to continue their momentum and avoid a similar late-season swoon.
“We were the better team last year even though they won three of four,” designated hitter Benny Wanger ’19 said. “So we’re really going out there this year trying to prove a point and make a statement. I don’t think anyone is taking this series lightly.”
Harvard enters the game in dire straits, at the opposite end of the standings from Yale. The Crimson has just a solitary league win to its name so far, against Cornell, while its overall record is inflated by a weak nonconference schedule. Of the non-Ivy teams on the Crimson’s slate, only Boston College and South Florida can be considered tests, and Harvard lost those five games by a combined score of 42–16.
Still, Harvard’s roster has some notable threats. Outfielder Patrick Robinson has exploded onto the scene this season for the Crimson: After hitting 0.179 across 39 scattered at-bats last season, the sophomore has posted a 0.390/0.468/0.671 slash line this season, the best numbers on either Harvard or Yale, while leading his team with three home runs. The other main offensive threat facing the Eli hurlers is sophomore first baseman Patrick McColl, who has hit 0.333, driven in a team-high 21 runs and also posts a 0.468 on-base percentage.
However, as a team, the Crimson has the second lowest batting average and fewest extra-base hits in league play, as the rest of the lineup has done little to pick up the slack. Harvard has enjoyed equally little success on the mound, its 6.15 aggregate staff earned run average in the eight Ivy games is the worst in the Ancient Eight by almost a full run.
Workhorse righthander Ian Miller is the Harvard ace. Miller has tossed four complete games in his six starts on the year, resulting in a 2–3 record with a 3.56 ERA, although he has proven susceptible to allowing home runs. Fellow righthander Simon Rosenblum-Larson strikes out a lot of batters, although he also allows too many of them to reach base. His 4.98 ERA is the second-best among pitchers who have thrown more than 10 innings, a stat that speaks volumes to the struggles the Harvard hurlers have faced this season.
Yale’s prolific offense will give them little reprieve; the Elis have plated five or more runs in six of their Ivy games already this year. Captain and third baseman Richard Slenker ’17 anchors the lineup, hitting a team-best 0.326 while also chipping in two home runs and 18 RBIs. Wanger has torn the cover off the ball since his return from injury on April 3: The sophomore has 12 hits in his 44 at-bats, eight of them for extra bases, including two longballs. His 18 RBIs rank 11th in the Ivy League, despite having less than half as many at-bats as most of his competitors.
“Tim [DeGraw] ’19, Simon [Whiteman] ’19 and Rich do a great job of getting on base,” Wanger said. “The first batter of each inning is usually the most important. If they get on base, we score so much more often, and they’ve been doing a great job of starting rallies. They’re patient at the plate and it has been working out great for our lineup so far.”
First baseman Griffin Dey ’19 leads the league in RBIs driving home 24 runners on the year, while also leaving the yard seven times; no other Ivy batter has more than five. Dey’s at-bats do tend to have boom or bust potential, however, as he has struck out 38 times and is hitting just 0.216.
The Yale pitching staff has been equally excellent in Ivy League play, posting a 2.73 ERA. Politz leads the way with a 6–1 record, including four complete game victories. The righthander’s 3.83 ERA is misleading, as 10 of his 21 earned runs came as he tired in the seventh inning against Clemson and the eighth against Wofford, when the bullpen could have been utilized earlier.
Eric Brodkowitz ’18, meanwhile, has gone 2–1 with a 3.70 ERA on the season as the second starter, while Alex Stiegler ’20 has become a solid contributor to the rotation in his debut campaign. The freshman beat Columbia on Monday, allowing just two earned runs in 5.1 innings, after baffling Princeton the week before in a complete-game shutout. Stiegler also plays consistently in the field and has hit 0.291 in 55 at-bats. He and Dey, 4–0 in 10 appearances on the hill, provide Yale with a pair of double-edged swords in the lineup.
“The versatility of our roster had just created so many options on the mound and in the field for our coaches to take advantage of,” Stiegler said. “[It has] given us a serious depth that the other Ivy teams don’t have. We always have fresh guys when we need them.”
The Yale bullpen appeared to have turned a corner last weekend, allowing a single run in 11.2 innings of work and chalking up two wins and a save. However, it resorted to its prior form on Tuesday against Sacred Heart, coughing up 8 runs to blow a 6–1 lead and condemn the Bulldogs to a disappointing defeat. Politz, Brodkowitz and Stiegler have all proven capable of working deep into games, but having a solid bullpen remains an elusive piece of the puzzle for Yale.
Behind the pitching staff, the Yale defense has found its feet as well. The Elis have faced the most balls in play of any Ivy League team and produced an impressive defensive display in the sweep of Columbia. Shortstop Dai Dai Otaka ’20 has been particularly impressive stepping in to one of the most difficult defensive positions.
“[Otaka] has done a really great job coming in as a freshman and filling that spot,” Slenker said. “He put on a clinic this past weekend. We love having him out there and have all the confidence in the world in him to make the routine plays and also the web gems.”
The Bulldogs begin the series at 1 p.m. on Saturday.