With the Ivy Championship on the line, closer Griffin Dey ’19 struck out Penn’s game-tying run to strand three runners on base, ending a 23-year conference title drought and sending the Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament.
This year, with the team returning six All-Ivy selections, including two first-team honorees, the Bulldogs are primed with championship experience and ready to win back-to-back titles. The Elis graduated six seniors, including a pair of Major League draftees in Richard Slenker ’17 and outfielder Harrison White ’17, while Coach Craig Driver took a job with the Philadelphia Phillies.
“Expectations are really high going into the season,” pitcher Eric Brodkowitz ’18 said. “We had a really productive off season and are returning a lot of guys who’ve made a big impact in the past. It was tough losing Craig Driver, but by replacing him with Casey Frawley we should definitely be more than alright.”
With a talented lineup laden with sophomore starters in 2017, Yale atoned for its loss to Princeton in the 2016 Ivy League Championship by compiling a 34–18 overall record and sweeping Penn in the conference title series. The Elis’ standout 16–4 regular season record, tied for the best record by an Ivy League team since 2000, earned them first place in the Red Rolfe division and a trip to the conference championship. The Quakers were no match for the Blue in the first game of the series as Yale earned a convincing 5–0 shutout. Game Two was a much more tumultuous win for the Bulldogs as they built an early 11-run lead, powered by a pair of home runs by designated hitter Benny Wanger ’19, only to have it slip to four runs before Dey sealed the momentous victory.
That title earned the Bulldogs an automatic bid to the 2017 NCAA Division I Men’s Baseball Tournament, their first since 1994. After handily defeating Nebraska — the 2017 Big Ten regular season champions — in their opening game of the Corvallis regional, the Elis eventually advanced to the regional final. But 11–0 and 8–1 defeats to Oregon State, the No. 1 overall national seed, ended Yale’s run.
“It will be interesting coming off a championship to see how other teams approach each series against you,” Wanger said. “We’re expecting to see every opponent’s best effort as they try and beat the defending champions.”
Now, the Bulldogs are looking to repeat as Ivy champions, led by the return of right-handed ace Scott Politz, who earned First Team All-Ivy honors a season ago after posting a 11–2 record to go along with 69 strikeouts in conference play. Politz will lead a rotation that returns all nine of the pitchers who threw for the Elis in their four most recent games at the Corvallis regional.
Couple that potpourri of pitching with an offensive lineup that returns six of its top seven leaders in batting average from 2017 and the Bulldogs seem the obvious frontrunners for the Ancient Eight crown. Outfielder Tim DeGraw will set the table for the heart of the Bulldog lineup; he led the team with a .343 average to go along with a .428 on-base-percentage last season. Meanwhile, Dey and unanimous First Team All-Ivy honoree Wanger will once again be Yale’s top long-ball threats after the pair of sluggers combined for 18 home runs last season.
“As a team, we have our goals set high,” shortstop Dai Dai Otaka ’20 said. “We have the best players in the Ivy League and are capable for an even better season than last year. We are looking forward to winning the Ivy League Championship, make regionals, and win that as well. With that being said, we are definitely looking to play one game at a time.”
This season, the Ivy League is also eliminating the format of conference play that had been in place since 1993. Instead of a two-division conference consisting of four teams each in the Red Rolfe division and the Lou Gehrig division, each team in the Ancient Eight will now play every other team in a single three-game series. The two teams playing in the Ivy League Championship Series will be those with the two best records at the end of the schedule, with the team atop the standings earning home-field advantage.
In the 2018 preseason conference media poll, the Bulldogs are the favorites to repeat as Ivy League champions, garnering 15 of 16 first-place votes. The team expected to challenge the Elis for the top spot is Columbia, which is projected to take the second seed, according to the poll.
But before Yale opens Ivy play against Columbia in late March, the Bulldogs embark on a challenging non-conference schedule headlined by the fact that all of their first 22 games will all be either on the road or at neutral sites. After playing at Texas A&M and Clemson the past two seasons, the Elis will once again take on a national power when they head to No. 17 Virginia for a three-game series in early March. Following their date with the 2014 national champions, Yale will play four straight games on the road at Davidson, a team that advanced to the super regionals of last season’s NCAA Tournament.
“The nonleague games at the beginning of the season like UVA give us a good preview of the types of teams we will see in the postseason and get us prepared for the most important 21 league games,” Politz said.
The Bulldogs will open the season at Campbell in North Carolina on Friday at 5 p.m.
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