Spring is right around the corner, which can only mean one thing: Yale’s baseball season is about to begin.
After an underwhelming 2019 season in which Yale failed to meet lofty expectations of winning three Ivy League titles in a row with an 11–8 conference record, the Bulldogs look to bounce back and reclaim their place at the top. This won’t be an easy task for an Eli team that lost a class of seniors that included four MLB draftees and is currently predicted to finish fourth in the division, according to the Ivy League 2020 Preseason Poll. The Blue and White’s quest for redemption begins this weekend in Charleston with a matchup against The Citadel in Charleston, SC.
“This is the earliest opener we’ve had in my 28 seasons, so we will have to be ready sooner than ever,” head coach John Stuper said. “Being able to get outside, as most of you know, is huge for us at this time of year. The guys have been getting after it and my optimism runs high. We just lost an incredibly talented class that led us to the best record in the league over the past four years, but the current group is ready to ‘write their own story.’”
One of the principal authors of this year’s season will be captain and two-way player Alex Stiegler ’20, who will lead Yale’s rotation this season. Stiegler aims to reproduce his success last season, when he pitched an elite 3.52 ERA, seventh best in the Ancient Eight, which propelled the senior to first team All-Ivy honors. Another exciting part of the rotation will be new addition and potential pro Michael Walsh ’23, whose fastball is in the low 90’s.
Returning to the bullpen are pitchers Jackson Bandow ’21, Cole Shelton ’21 and Quinn Cleary ’22. The three saw a combined 33 appearances last season and look poised to anchor a rotation that struggled in 2019, to the tune of a 5.86 ERA. While both heavily rely on their dependable off-speed breaking pitches, Bandow is not afraid to attack the top of the zone with heat. Cleary, who utilizes a submarine style of pitching, releases the ball just above the ground with his torso bent at a right angle to come at hitters from a low angle to the ground, offering a nice parallel to that of Bandow.
The Blue and White will also have three rookies join the bullpen. Carter Kessinger ’23, a strike thrower at his core who, in high school, displayed no fear of attacking early in the count, is joined by southpaw Alex Frey ’23, who possesses good off-speed movement on his breaking balls and is capable of throwing fastballs in the high 80s. Josh Richardson ’23 rounds off the first year additions and is a pitcher who throws a nasty slider-sinker combo, with his sidearm motion similar to that of Cleary’s.
“This off-season hasn’t been too different from others pitching-wise,” Cleary said. “We’ve really been focusing on strike-throwing over everything else, as with every other team coached by Stuper. We know that we have the talent to where, if we command the ball, we’ll have considerable success.”
Backing up the pitchers, the infield will also see some fresh faces. Sophomore sensation Mason LaPlante ’22 will move from the hot corner to the more defensively demanding shortstop position, leaving room for rookie Carson Swank ’23 to fight for an opening day spot in the lineup. LaPlante has big shoes to fill, as he will be the successor to former captain Simon Whiteman ’19, who was one of the Bulldogs’ best all-around players last season. Whiteman was selected in the ninth round of the MLB draft back in June and now plays for the Class A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, the Augusta GreenJackets.
The backstop position is another place on the diamond that has a strong returning sophomore. Catcher Jake Gehri ’22 might not be putting on the facemask every game — that honor will most probably fall to Cal Christofori ’21 — but he is a dangerous player at the plate. In his rookie campaign with the Bulldogs, Gehri slashed for an impressive .309/.382/.530. Stuper will most likely use the Washington state native as a designated hitter, taking advantage of Gehri’s ability to steal strikes with his elite framing.
“I spent my whole summer in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada playing in the Western Canadian Baseball League,” Gehri said. “I played upwards of 60 games and got the chance to travel across all of western Canada. It was a long grindy summer but I got better in the long run. The biggest change coming into my second year is being able to take all the knowledge and skill I’ve acquired from last year and use it again this year.”
Yale finished last season ranked 152 according to the NCAA’s Division I Rating Percentage Index, which standardizes a team’s record based on their strength of schedule. The best Ivy League team by RPI was 2019 Ancient Eight champion Harvard, who placed 100 on the list.
Yale’s first series pits Bulldogs against Bulldogs as it travels to Charleston, South Carolina to faceoff against The Citadel in a three-game set beginning Friday afternoon.
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