Of the players who started at least 20 games for the baseball team last season, then-junior Sam Sager was an all-conference selection after hitting .333, classmate Matt Collins hit .343 and was the NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year and then-sophomore Eric Weikert ranked fourth on the team in RBIs.
Tom Howard, on the other hand, hit .273, scored only seven runs and recorded just 12 RBIs in 20 starts, not exactly a standout contribution to the two-time defending NESCAC champs.
Through the Jumbos’ first 14 games this season, however, the junior first baseman has already exceeded his 2011 offensive output. Howard stepped up in a big way this past weekend, going 4-for-8 with six RBIs in Saturday’s doubleheader, as Tufts swept Bates in its three-game, NESCAC-opening series.
Howard, who sat out Friday’s 8-2 win, slugged a two-run homer off sophomore Tom Baroni that plated freshman third baseman Wade Hauser in the sixth inning on Saturday and sent the Jumbos to a 3-2 victory in the seven-inning early game. Sophomore Christian Sbily picked up the win in the pitchers’ duel with six innings of four-hit ball, but it was Howard who gave Tufts the necessary cushion.
“Those seven-inning games go by so fast, we knew we had to have a sense of urgency,” Howard said. “When I got up I was looking for a pitch to drive. He gave me a fastball on the inner half that he left up, the spot I was looking for.”
Sbily allowed two runs in the bottom of the sixth, escaping a jam and giving way to senior Kevin Gilchrist, who shut the door with a perfect seventh.
Howard continued on his tear in the series’ final game, driving in four runs on singles in the sixth and seventh as Tufts broke open a previously tight contest and cruised to an 8-4 victory.
The Jumbos won seven games on their annual spring trip by an average of 10.6 runs, but coach John Casey told them that the close ones – like the losses to N.C. Wesleyan (1-0) and Averett (10-9) – would provide more of a barometer for NESCAC play.
“All the teams in the NESCAC are so competitive that getting off to a good start is important,” Sager said. “It’s good to have found a way to take all three, but we know we have a lot still to prove.”
Freshman lefty Kyle Slinger moved to 3-0 after pitching six innings of one-run ball and Gilchrist, a second-team All-NESCAC selection last season with a 1.99 ERA in eight starts, picked up his second save this season in as many games.
Howard, whose father works as the New York Mets’ Executive Vice President of Business Operations, is just the latest Tufts player to excel offensively this season after the Jumbos graduated five everyday starters. Sophomore Nate Izzo hit his third homer of the spring in Friday’s 8-2 win, Hauser leads the team with a .468 average and 20 RBIs, and Weikert went 5-for-10 over the weekend with four runs and three RBIs.
“I feel from weekend to weekend and from game to game, we’ve seen pretty much all of the players on the team step up,” Howard said. “The way our team’s set up, we need people to step up at different points.”
But Howard, whose slugging percentage is .200 higher than last year’s, can’t exactly pinpoint where this newfound power surge is coming from. Perhaps it just developed with another year of experience; perhaps it came during his time with the Waimea Waves this past summer in the Hawaiian College Baseball League; or, perhaps it came from his days spent around the Mets, watching the pros compete.
“Sometimes I was able to get a little insight into some players, how they’d handle some stuff, what they’re doing when they’re training, so I try to implement as much as I can,” Howard said. “Those guys are competing against some of the best in the world; they understand that they have to be working hard and getting as strong as they can all the time.”
Wherever it came from, Howard’s bat has the Jumbos off to a fast start. But it’s no anomaly on a roster that has 12 players hitting over .300.
“We don’t really have that one guy who’s carrying us the whole way,” Howard said. “This weekend just happened to be my weekend.”