The Yale baseball team guaranteed itself at least a share of the Red Rolfe Division title last weekend, rocking Dartmouth with three wins in four home games. The series win over the Big Green, which has claimed the division championship in eight of the last nine seasons, signified a changing of the guard among the Ivy League elites.
This weekend, the Elis (24–15, 13–3 Ivy) take on a Brown (12–21, 5–11) team treading water in the lower reaches of the Ivy League, as they look to polish off their best season since 1997. Though this weekend also marks the last time the Yale seniors will take the field in a regular season game at home, two wins over the Bears would ensure a return to Yale Field for the conference championship series.
“Senior Day is an emotional day for everyone,” pitcher Kumar Nambiar ’19 said. “Especially this year, our team is like family. Our seniors this year have been unbelievable since day one, and, hopefully, this weekend we can ensure that they will get to play a few more times at Yale Field.”
Brown has most recently endured a massive skid, dropping 11 of its last 14 Ivy League games. However, the Bulldogs have to be careful not to take the Bears too lightly: A year ago, Brown entered the season’s final series with a 6–10 league mark, but took three out of four games from the division-leading Elis to drop Yale into a tie with Dartmouth. Though Bears’ last two wins of 2016 came on Yale Field, replicating that success may prove elusive for a 2017 Brown side which has posted a 4–13 road record.
Led by ace Scott Politz ’19, the Elis’ pitching staff has improved in recent weeks. The Texan righthander, who will again take the ball in the weekend opener, has won each of his four Ivy League starts this season with a complete game. Following Politz in the rotation, pitcher Eric Brodkowitz ’18 earned a win against Dartmouth last weekend, allowing three runs in five innings of work. The junior has had an inconsistent season in his return from injury, but has shown sustained runs of excellence.
A wildcard in the starting rotation is Nambiar , a lefty who pitched superbly in his first start of the year against Dartmouth on Monday. The only run Nambiar allowed against the Big Green came on a home run — the team-leading seventh long ball allowed this season — as the sophomore southpaw tossed seven innings with seven strikeouts in a spot start. Nambiar is slated to start the third game of this weekend’s series with Brown.
However, the key to the Elis’ seasonlong success has been its offense. Yale’s deep lineup has scored 116 runs in 16 Ancient Eight games, dwarfing the next-best sum of 103, and boasts a combined batting average of nearly 0.300. In just 56 conference at bats, designated hitter Benny Wanger ’19 leads the Ivy League with 30 RBIs — 12 more than the next-best total — while ranking seventh in batting average, eighth in on-base percentage and fourth in slugging percentage at the Bulldogs’ cleanup spot.
Complementing Wanger’s power, center fielder Tim DeGraw ’19 has provided speed for the Bulldogs on the basepaths, swiping six stolen bases while also hitting 0.368 and driving in 12 runs against Ivy League competition. Captain and third baseman Richard Slenker ’17 has also excelled in conference play, batting 0.389 with a home run and 11 RBIs.
“We have really hit the ball this year,” Slenker said. “It’s a confidence booster knowing, whoever is on the mound against us, that we can turn their fastball around and battle to get good pitches to hit.”
Brown has a few reliable pitchers to combat this offensive juggernaut over the four-game series. Two senior starters, Christian Taugner and Max Ritchie, will serve as the Bears’ first options on the weekend, having posted respective earned run averages of 2.89 and 3.08 while combining for a 4–10 record on the season. The pair’s less-than-impressive win-loss record is a testament more to Brown’s offensive futility than its pitching abilities; the Bear offense rarely provides significant run support for its starting pitchers and has been held to two or fewer runs 16 times.
Senior infielder Marc Sredojevic has been one of the few bright spots for the offense this year. The first baseman boasts a team-leading 0.330 batting average and has swatted a team-high three home runs, while also leading the team in walks. Sredojevic aside, there are a lot of holes in the lineup for the Yale pitching staff to exploit. Two Brown regulars are hitting below the 0.200 Mendoza line, and a third checks in at 0.204.
“This [Yale] team has had an extremely positive mindset all season,” right fielder Harrison White ’17 said. “The difference between this season and previous seasons is that we don’t really get down on ourselves if we fall behind in the score. … This year, if we fall behind, the team gets hungry to come back. It’s a huge reason we’ve had the success we’ve had this season.”
Last season, Princeton topped the Ivy League with 13 wins before vanquishing the Elis with a heartbreaking comeback in the ninth inning of the championship series’ deciding game. With four games still to play, Yale has already matched the Tigers’ win total from a season ago, and eyes an opportunity to match the 2000 Dartmouth squad for the second-best Ivy League win total in conference history.
The Bulldogs play at home for their Saturday doubleheader and away for two games on Sunday.