Steve Musco

For the first 18 games of the season, the Yale baseball team looked like a shadow of its former self. The 2017 Ivy League champions limped out of the gate with a 4–14 record in the first five weeks of the season, which included its first series loss in conference play since April 2016.

But since a 5–3 home loss to Hartford on March 28, the Bulldogs (12–14, 7–2 Ivy) have laid claim to an eight-game winning streak and defeated in-state opponent Sacred Heart (8–17, 4–5 Northeast) by three runs on Wednesday afternoon. Shortstop Simon Whiteman ’19 batted 2–4 with a pair of RBIs to pace the Elis on offense in the 5–2 victory while Yale utilized a combination of pitchers to limit the Pioneers to just five hits over nine innings. However, a short turnaround is in store for the Bulldogs who will play host to Harvard (13–14, 3–3 Ivy) in a three-game series this Friday and Saturday at Yale Field.

“We have been playing to our strengths, which are our pitching and defense,” utility player Alex Stiegler ’20 said. “Our hitting as a team has definitely been heating up, and when some guys have a tough series it seems like another guy picks him up and plays well. The biggest difference, however, is simply our desire to win. We keep our heads in the game even when we’re down and have played into some great comebacks.”

The Bulldogs jumped on top early in the midweek matinee, as center-fielder Tim DeGraw ’19 led off with a single to right field before stealing second base. He then advanced to third on a fielder’s choice and scored the opening run on a sacrifice fly from first baseman Griffin Dey ’19, giving the Elis a 1–0 lead after the first frame. In three innings of work, right-hander Mason Kukowski ’18 retired the first nine Sacred Heart hitters he faced, including four strikeouts, an effort that earned him the win in the eventual five-pitcher affair for the home squad.

Kukowski credited his performance on the hill to a team member who didn’t even suit up for the Bulldogs on Wednesday.

“Our success today started with our director of baseball operations, Mike Meisel, who has a close relationship with our pitching staff,” Kukowski said. “He gathered us before the game in the bullpen and gave us a speech about pitching with confidence and intensity. That really got our guys fired up to be aggressive and attack the strike zone. Our performance fell in place as our staff had their best stuff and was focused on dominating every hitter we faced.”

Yale extended its advantage in the bottom of the third inning after Dey was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded to bring in a run, and left fielder Brian Ronai ’20 singled with two outs to score another and give the Elis a 3–0 lead. The Pioneers overcame the early adversity after Kukowski was taken off the bump in the fourth, promptly getting hits in three of their next four at-bats, which featured an RBI single from Jake Frasca to pull within two before a sacrifice fly from PJ DeFilippo made it a one-run ball game.

Following three scoreless innings, the Bulldogs sealed the game in the bottom of the eighth as a two-out single from Whiteman with the bases juiced tallied two more RBIs to give Yale a 5–2 cushion. Three straight outs from Stiegler in his second inning of work closed the game in the ninth, as the Bulldogs improved to 2–1 this season against opponents from the Constitution State following their victory over Fairfield last week.

“I’ve been working on getting my barrel out to the ball and swinging hard,” Whiteman said. “Today we got some good pitches to hit, resulting from Sacred Heart getting behind in some counts or missing with their off-speed pitches.”

For fans of strong play on the mound, the upcoming Yale-Harvard matchup has the potential for some electric pitching. Bulldogs right-hander Eric Brodkowitz ’18 and Crimson right-hander Simon Rosenblum-Larson sit together atop the league, both with an ERA of 3.11. Rosenblum-Larson also leads the conference in total number of strikeouts thus far with 46, while left-hander Kumar Nambiar ’19 trails just behind the Crimson’s starting pitcher with 45 strikeouts of his own. Nambiar joins his teammates Brodkowitz and right-hander Scott Politz ’19 as three of five Ivy League pitchers to rack up at least a trio of wins on the season, with Politz atop the Ancient Eight with four wins. As a team, Yale has been dialed in on the hill and leads the Ivy League with a 4.74 ERA.

Although Harvard is in the middle of the pack when it comes to batting average, it leads the league with 150 total runs scored through 26 games and is also coming an 8–6 victory over a talented Northeastern that sits atop its conference on Wednesday in the Beanpot Championship.

Driving the Crimson offense has been first baseman Patrick McColl, who paces the conference with 28 RBI. Outfielder Ben Skinner has also been pivotal to Harvard’s success, leading the league with nine stolen bases and placing third with a .343 batting average. As a whole, the Crimson is certainly capable of putting runs on the board, as evidenced by their 14–5 thrashing of Penn this prior weekend. The 14 runs scored by Harvard is the most scored in Ivy play so far this season.

On the flipside, Yale continues to perform at the plate, with outfielder DeGraw and outfielder Harry Hegeman ’21 leading the charge. Hegeman leads the team with a .340 batting average while DeGraw follows with a .330 mark.

“This weekend is a big weekend for us coming off a hot streak to see if we can keep the ball rolling,” second baseman Dai Dai Otaka ’20 said. “First game is at home on Friday night under the lights and that should pump us up to add onto the wins column. I think we’re more than ready to face a talented Harvard team — we have tremendous depth in the bullpen and in the lineup and are very confident that we can keep playing well.”

The first pitch of the series opener against Harvard is set for 5 p.m. on Friday at Yale Field, with successive contests scheduled for 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday.

Jimmy Chen | jimmy.chen@yale.edu

Joey Kamm  | joseph.kamm@yale.edu