Baseball | Baseball takes home rain-shortened tournament

From the moment the baseball team began conditioning in the fall through its practices during the winter and the 2011 regular season, Tufts’ goal was to repeat as NESCAC champions. The Jumbos returned from Amherst, Mass., on Sunday afternoon with that mission resoundingly accomplished.

Tufts (26-7-1 as of press time) entered the tournament facing considerable adversity, with its top two starting pitchers — graduating senior Derek Miller (shoulder) and rising senior Kevin Gilchrist (hand) — and rising senior catcher Matt Collins (wrist) shelved by injuries. But the team was confident that others would ably fill their shoes.

“One of our strengths as a team is preparing everyone to be ready to go in any situation,” rising senior co-captain third baseman Sam Sager said. “The injuries really weren’t a concern because of the depth we have and everyone knowing that guys were ready to step up.”

With the pitching staff exhausted from 21 innings of work over the first two days of the tournament, Mother Nature did her part in the championship game against Bowdoin. A steady rain delayed the game’s first pitch by three and a half hours, and just an inning into the contest, yet another downpour nixed it for good.

By the time the umpires called the game, the Jumbos had already mounted a five-run, first-inning rally, jumping ahead on a pair of doubles by graduating senior outfielder Chase Rose and rising junior first baseman Tom Howard. The 5-0 lead was washed away, but thanks to wins on Friday and Saturday, Tufts was awarded the NESCAC title, its second in as many years and third overall in program history.

Saturday’s contest against the Polar Bears — a 12-inning affair that had both teams on edge throughout — was the epitome of the toughness that has become synonymous with Tufts baseball.

The starting pitchers, Tufts graduating senior Pat O’Donnell and Polar Bears rising sophomore John Lefeber, dueled through four scoreless innings before Bowdoin drew first blood in the bottom of the fifth. Tufts quickly countered, and when O’Donnell left in the eighth inning, the game was tied 2-2.

Then came what Sager called “the defining moments of the team’s season.”    Graduating senior Ed Bernstein relieved O’Donnell with one out and stranded potential insurance runs at second and third. An inning later, with the winning run on second for Bowdoin, Lefeber drilled a single into right field that seemed certain to end the game. But rising junior right fielder Nate Izzo gunned down the runner, rising sophomore catcher Duncan Taylor, at the plate, denying the Polar Bears a walk-off victory.

Bernstein shut down the Polar Bears’ offense for the next three frames, giving the Jumbo offense an opportunity to finally break through.

The Jumbos did just that in the top of the 12th. Izzo got things started with a leadoff single, then scored on a triple by graduating senior centerfielder David Orlowitz. Sager drove home Orlowitz with another single, giving Bernstein a two-run lead to protect. The righty worked around a leadoff hit, punched out the final two batters of the game and sealed the win for Tufts.

“The way the team came together in extra innings, the way we were able to grind things out as the away team with the threat of a walkoff always there — that was the best game we’ve played this season,” Sager said.

As much as Saturday’s win over Bowdoin was a nailbiter, Friday’s rout of Middlebury was a laugher.

The Jumbos arrived at American International College in Springfield, Mass., ready to make a statement, after salvaging just seven runs across two games in a disappointing split against the Panthers in the final games of the regular season.

The Jumbo offense had no such problems on Friday, scoring five runs in the first inning. Tufts had built an 11-0 lead by the time Middlebury finally got on the board in the seventh and came away with a 14-2 drubbing that put the rest of the conference on notice.

“Our experience really helped us going into the Middlebury game,” Sager said. “We were confident and didn’t force things, knowing that we didn’t have to win the game individually because we were stronger as a team.”

Orlowitz led the way with a 5-for-5 effort, including a homer and a double, scoring four runs and driving in three. Sager also chipped in three RBIs and reached base four times, while Izzo and graduating senior second baseman Frank Petroskey added two knocks each to the 15-hit output.

On the mound, rising senior Dave Ryan avenged his only loss of the year by hurling seven innings and improving to 7-1. Ryan allowed six hits and five walks but posted six goose-eggs before Middlebury plated a pair in the seventh. Rising sophomore Christian Sbily mopped up the last six outs of the game, effectively pitching to contact with the huge lead.

“I was excited to get another shot at them,” Ryan said. “In terms of pitching, I wanted to throw my changeup for strikes because that wasn’t there in my last outing. I was able to focus more on that once we had the big lead.”

Although the Jumbos are thrilled to have achieved their preseason goal, they are eager to test their mettle against inter-conference opponents in the NCAA Regionals. Ranked No. 16 in the nation and top in New England, Tufts was awarded a No. 1 seed in the regional bracket and took on eighth-seeded Bridgewater St. in the first round. Results from the New England Regionals, held at Whitehouse Field in Harwich, Mass., from May 18-22, were not available at press time.

“There’s definitely a sense of accomplishment after NESCACs,” Ryan said. “But being in the regionals last year and getting as close as we did makes us realize that there’s still a lot of baseball to play.”

If the Jumbos capture the regional crown, which they were one win away from doing in 2010, they’ll move on to the national championships in Appleton, Wis., for the first time since 1950.