Baseball | First to bat, first to score

In its first 10 games, the baseball team has scored more first?inning runs than it did all last season. If this seems like a surprise to some of the Jumbos, you’ll have to forgive them. They’ve been too busy opening 2012 on a blistering pace.

Tufts’ annual spring break trip to Virginia and North Carolina, a 10?day, 10?game gauntlet that would have been even more grueling had a nightcap not been rained out, was by and large an offensive clinic delivered by the visitors. The Jumbos scored 27 times in the opening frame throughout the trip, admittedly aided by an 11?run outburst in a 24?6 drubbing of Guilford. For reference, Tufts plated just 22 combined first?inning runs in 2011.

“Wow, I didn’t even know that,” senior co?captain Sam Sager said. “Having success in the first innings is really important for setting the tone of the game, so it’s great to see that we’ve been able to do that. But I don’t think that we’ve done anything different than we have in the past.”

If the only differences are in the box score, then Tufts has to be happy. It went 7?3 over the trip, with the losses coming in a 1?0 pitchers’ duel against N.C. Wesleyan, a 9?4 decision at national No. 3 Christopher Newport and a one?run loss to Averett on a walk?off double in the ninth. On the flip side, the Jumbos are leading the NESCAC in runs per game. And it’s not even close.

Not bad for a team that last year graduated five regular starters, a .400 hitter and nearly 50 percent of its RBI total.

Granted, the sample size of games played is small relative to the season’s length, but it’s large enough that a conclusion can be made: The inexperienced players the Jumbos needed to step up have done so immediately.

Freshman Wade Hauser, who has started eight games at third base after Sager moved to shortstop, is batting .459 with a team?high 16 RBIs. Even more impressively, Hauser is 7?for?8 in the first inning with nine RBIs. He popped out to short to lead off the Jumbos’ 9?4 season?opening win against Lynchburg and hasn’t failed to get a hit in the first since.

Junior Scott Staniewicz entered this season with only four career at?bats in two appearances but has settled nicely into the leadoff spot, starting five games there over the trip. Three separate times, Staniewicz opened the game with a hit?by?pitch and later scored in the frame, a talent that fits nicely in a lineup that ranked first in the NESCAC with 56 HBPs last season.

Coach John Casey pointed out the preseason dichotomy between veteran performers and inexperienced ones. Entering last year, most if not all of the Jumbos’ lineup was already filled out well before the season opener, simply because of how many starters were returning. Before this season, all Casey knew was that Sager and junior Eric Weikert would be in the middle.

According to Sager, this created internal competition and catalyzed Tufts’ offensive success over the trip. More open spots mean more positional battles and more opportunities for playing time.

“I think that’s one of the strengths of our team,” Sager said. “Everyone goes out there and puts it all out there because there are other guys competing. I think there were guys on the team pushing each other every day to be the best they could be. There was so much uncertainty about who would play and who would get what time, it helped them continue to grind it out every day.”

A deep pitching staff is also reaping the benefits of early leads. Tufts is 7?1 when leading after six innings, a category in which it was 23?0 last season.

“It’s great scoring runs; there’s really no downside,” senior pitcher Dave Ryan, who went 2?0 in three starts over the trip with 17 strikeouts, said. “Looking back, it’s a ridiculous amount [of runs scored], but while we were playing it didn’t seem like we were doing anything that crazy, which I guess is a good sign.”

That ridiculous amount included a 24?hour period in which the Jumbos poured 18 runs on Washington and Lee followed by 24 against Guilford. Nine runs against Averett and then 14 versus Methodist followed in the next two days before N.C. Wesleyan starter Jackson Pleasant quieted their bats with eight innings of shutout work.

After sticking around down South an extra day to get in a team lift on Monday, the Jumbos flew back to campus for practice yesterday. Today, they travel to 6?4 Mass. Maritime for a non?conference matchup before heading to Bates for their NESCAC?opening three?game series this weekend. According to Sager, focusing on the imminent task will be key to both recovering from the spring trip’s grind and continuing the offensive onslaught.

“It’s just important for everyone to understand that how you do early in the season doesn’t really matter, just trying to get better every day,” he said, downplaying the notion that Tufts has even started thinking about the Bates series. “We really don’t focus on the results so much as how we play, just making sure we continue to get better as a team. With that as a goal, our team just likes to stay focused on that, and not get caught up on the results.”

Even though the results, so far, are pretty impressive.