BASEBALL: Bulldogs determined to shine in highly-anticipated return to the diamond
The Yale baseball team, ranked first in this year's Ivy League preseason poll, looks to surpass high expectations as they return to the field. The Bulldogs will open their season with a road series against Auburn.
Courtesy of Yale Athletics
After two canceled seasons, the Yale baseball team aims to return to the field at full throttle, more eager than ever to start its journey to the top of the conference standings.
The Elis, who were ranked first in the annual Ivy League preseason poll last week, look to clinch their third conference title in the past five years. The Bulldogs were the undisputed Ivy League champions in 2017 and shared the crown with Columbia in 2018. Yale will kickstart its 40-game season with a three-game series against Auburn this weekend. After three weeks of battling on the road, the Bulldogs will return to the newly renovated Bush Field for the first home game of the season against Quinnipiac. On Saturday, March 26, the Blue and White will begin their quest for the Ivy title with a two-game series against Princeton.
“The primary goal is and always will be to finish the year in a dogpile, to win an Ivy League Championship,” captain and shortstop Mason LaPlante ’22 said. “In doing so, the main sort of vision we have this year is to do right by the [classes of] 2020 and 2021 that were unable to compete for that opportunity … So that when we hopefully hold [it close], the championship banner at the end of the year is [also] going to be for them.”
The Bulldogs’ 31-man roster features significant depth, with six first-years, 10 sophomores, nine juniors, five seniors and a graduate student. Sixteen members who played during the shortened 2020 season will return to add veteran power to a dynamic, tight-knit group. Two years ago, before the season was abruptly cut short, the team showed promise on both sides of the field. In those 10 games, the Elis led the conference in fielding percentage, runs batted in, or RBIs, and home runs.
After two years off the field, a fair amount of unpredictability remains, given that the composition of Ivy rosters has changed significantly since the hiatus. Most classes of players lack experience at the collegiate level and have yet to play a full season. This is also reflected in the preseason poll, in which four teams received first-place votes. Despite the favorable projection from the Ivy League, members of the Blue and White emphasized how important it was for the team to walk the talk.
“It was nice to know that people expect highly from us because I think we [also] expect a lot from ourselves,” pitcher Quinn Cleary ’23 said. “But at the end of the day, the preseason rankings don’t mean a lot, especially since there’s just so much uncertainty within the Ivy League. We really still need to go out there and prove that we deserve to be at the top of the league at the end of the year.”
The Bulldogs’ upperclassman core makes up the foundation of the team’s pitching staff. Cleary, the only sidearm pitcher in the bullpen, provides depth with his unorthodox delivery, command of the zone and good movement in his breaking balls.
Cleary will be accompanied by right-handers Grant Kipp ’22 and Michael Walsh ’23, both of whom have extensive pitching arsenals. Kipp, the ace of the team, was ranked eighth in the league in earned run average, or ERA, and recorded 13 strikeouts in 2020. That same season, Walsh appeared in four games and recorded six strikeouts.
Other prominent figures are Ben Gibbs ’22, who had a 2.70 ERA in 2020, and southpaw Clark Klitenic ’24, who transferred from Duke two years ago. In the series against Auburn, Kipp will be pitching in the first game on Friday, Walsh on Saturday and Gibbs on Sunday. There are also new arms in the pitching staff in first-years Mick Kelley ’25, Mark Capell ’25 and Colton Shaw ’25.
On the offensive side, LaPlante, who was chosen as captain last October, will be an integral part of a formidable Yale line-up. An explosive contact hitter, the 5’10” infielder will look to be a regular on the bases. Infielder Carson Swank ’23 and catcher Jake Gehri ’22 also add pop to the line-up and are attackers to watch out for. The team as a whole also aims to build upon its defensive prowess.
The Elis, wearing new pinstripe uniforms that combine both tradition and modernity, will open the season with a slate of strong non-conference teams. The Bulldogs have never faced off against their first opponent Auburn (2–1, 0–0 SEC), who already started their season last Friday and have a few games under their belt.
The Tigers are currently ranked sixth in the Southeastern Conference West, a stacked division which also features No. 2 Arkansas, No. 3 Ole Miss and No. 7 Mississippi. Though not nationally-ranked themselves, the Tigers are no pushovers, recently toppling then-No. 12 — now No. 20 — Texas Tech for a 2–1 upset win.
LaPlante told the News that “it doesn’t get much better than [the SEC environment]” in collegiate baseball and that the team looks to perform well but that Yale’s non-conference matches mainly serve the purpose of allowing the team to get “better for Ivy League play.”
Amidst a lockout and a lack of spring training at the Major League Baseball level, college baseball is receiving higher-than-usual levels of attention. However, the Bulldogs are eager to embrace the spotlight and prove themselves on the field.
“We’re looking to really mesh as a squad on the field,” Klitenic said about the team’s mentality going into the season. “We’re about as close-knit of a locker room as you can come across in the game; it’s just going to be a matter of growing into our potential as a squad … The talent is there, but there can be no substitute for getting out there and playing meaningful games as a club, which we’ll have no shortage of these coming weeks.”
The first pitch of the Bulldogs’ opening game against Auburn will be thrown on Friday, Feb. 25 at 6:00 p.m. in the Tigers’ Plainsman Park.