Hopes that the Yale baseball team’s momentum from last year would carry over to the opening weekend of the 2018 season were quickly dashed last Friday, as the Elis fell to Campbell in their season opener and proceeded to drop their remaining three games in North Carolina. But with another week of practice under its belt and the season still young, Yale heads south again to try and recapture the form that fueled its Ivy League championship in 2017.
Looking to shake off early struggles, the Bulldogs (0–4, 0–0 Ivy) will travel to Charlottesville this weekend to take on national powerhouse No. 19 Virginia (6–3, 0–0 ACC) in a three-game series.
“This weekend is extremely important for us,” pitcher Kumar Nambiar ’19 said. “Obviously, it is always significant to play a nationally ranked team, but more importantly, this is a huge weekend for us to start playing our best baseball. These games at the beginning of the year are preparation for league play. Each game and practice, we try to get better in order to give us the best chance to compete for an Ivy League title. This weekend will be a great opportunity for us to compete and make strides towards our goal.”
The Cavaliers come into the matchup with their offense firing on all cylinders, although their defense looked vulnerable in two straight defeats to VMI and Eastern Kentucky. In its past four games, Virginia has scored 10 or more runs three times and pitched a combined no-hitter in its most recent outing against William and Mary.
The Elis, meanwhile, have yet to secure a win after their first weekend of action. Their four losses include a heartbreaking 16-inning defeat versus Miami University in Ohio, in which the Redhawks stole two bases with the Bulldogs needing one out to escape the inning, to set up the game-winning run.
Last season, the Cavaliers’ quest for their third College World Series appearance since 2014 came up short when Virginia was eliminated from the Fort Worth regional after a loss to Dallas Baptist. Before their postseason dismissal, the Cavaliers finished second behind North Carolina in the ACC Coastal Division and will once again look to make a return to the NCAA Tournament, a feat they have accomplished every season since 2004. This weekend’s series will be Yale’s first against an ACC opponent since the Bulldogs suffered a pair of 10–6 and 10–8 defeats at Clemson in March 2017.
Despite its national ranking, Virginia has already appeared susceptible to mid-major competition in defeats to UCF, VMI and Eastern Kentucky. In that trio of losses, the Hoos surrendered a combined 22 runs. However, the Cavaliers still lay claim to a team ERA of 3.33 in their six victories thus far.
This weekend, the Hoos will likely roll out their dynamic right-handed pitching duo of Evan Sperling and Derek Casey, who own a combined record of 4–0 in their first four starts including 34 strikeouts in 23 innings of work.
Fortunately for Yale, Virginia returns none of its six All-ACC selections from a season ago after five departures and a season-ending surgery for starting outfielder Cameron Simmons, who batted 0.352 and earned second-team All-Conference honors in 2017. However, the Cavaliers lineup has benefited from the addition of freshman infielder Tanner Morris, who leads all hitters with a 0.391 average, complemented by the emergence of senior catcher Caleb Knight, who leads his team with 10 RBIs and two home runs.
Although they have lost all their games so far, the Bulldogs have benefited from solid individual performances that could bolster the team’s chances against Virginia. Outfielder Tim DeGraw ’19 has been reliable at the plate, leading the team with a batting average of 0.389 and on-base percentage of 0.438, the former of which is good for fifth in the conference.
As a whole, Yale’s pitching staff has looked sharp. The Elis currently lead the Ivies with the lowest ERA of 3.86 through four games. Although there have been lapses, the strong pitching was epitomized in the agonizing 16-inning defeat against the Redhawks, a game that saw the Bulldogs’ bullpen give up zero runs for 10 consecutive innings.
With its entire rotation returning from last year, the Bulldogs must be sharp on the mound against their ACC opponent.
“This weekend will likely come down to which pitching staff can be most effective keeping guys off-balance at the plate and controlling the running game,” pitcher Scott Politz ’19 said.
In order to be successful on the road at Davenport Field, the Bulldogs will need to avoid the disastrous starts that have plagued Yale in its recent outings against Power Five competition. Last season in Corvallis, the Elis surrendered a combined 10 runs in the first three innings of their two games against Oregon State and also conceded four runs in the first trio of innings in their latest game against Clemson.
Even in its most recent outing, a 6–0 loss to Western Michigan, Yale found itself in a 3–0 hole before the fourth inning arrived. In the season opener against Campbell, the team also dug itself an early deficit, conceding a 4–0 lead in the first inning that ultimately proved too deep for the Elis to recover from.
“We’re just looking to put great swings on the ball, barrel some up, and keep on pitching and playing defense like we’ve been doing,” infielder Simon Whiteman ’19 said.
The opening pitch of the three-game series’ first contest is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Friday. The Cavaliers and the Bulldogs will play again on Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m.
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