Throughout Tuesday’s home opener against Brandeis, the dugout heard the same basic tenet from coach John Casey: Stay behind freshman Kyle Brenner’s fastball and drive it into the opposite field.
It took the Jumbos seven innings to comply but, once they did, they finally took off.
Senior co?captain shortstop Sam Sager hit a bases?loaded, walk?off double to left?center that scored freshman left fielder James Howard and sophomore pinch?runner Eric Robinson and sent Tufts to a wild 5?4 victory at Huskins Field yesterday afternoon.
Down 4?1 through seven innings, the Jumbos got a two?out, two?run homer from junior right fielder Eric Weikert, the reigning NESCAC Player of the Week, in the eighth that cut the Judges’ lead down to one. Weikert, hitless to that point in the game, blasted one into his power alley in left?center field to bring home senior co?captain Matt Collins, who had singled earlier in the inning.
Once freshman closer Willie Archibald got around a leadoff single by notching three straight strikeouts in the ninth, the stage was set for Sager’s heroics.
James Howard singled to lead off the ninth, then moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by junior first baseman Tom Howard. Pinch?hitter Max Freccia, who made the team as a sophomore after getting cut his first year, singled to right field. Freshman Connor McDavitt walked to load the bases, and after junior second baseman Scott Staniewicz flied out to center, Sager calmly stroked a first?pitch fastball into left?center, pumping his fist after touching first and entering a sea of brown jerseys.
“Going into the at?bat, I was looking to stay back and hit it hard somewhere,” said Sager, who went 2?for?5 with three RBIs, including a groundout that scored freshman catcher Nick Barker in the third to put Tufts on the board. “I got an outside fastball and got a good swing on it.”
The Judges gambled by keeping Brenner in against the NESCAC’s top offense, allowing the freshman to work into the ninth without even the slightest scurry in their bullpen. Heading into the eighth, Brenner had retired 13 of his previous 15 batters faced on the afternoon, a surprising accomplishment considering that he had struggled coming into the start, coughing up 11 runs in his past 13 1/3 innings pitched entering Tuesday, including six runs on 10 hits against Western New England on March 29.
But for the most part, Brenner threw strikes that resulted in weak ground ball outs and left Casey displeased with his team’s performance.
“We didn’t have good at?bats all game, and I thought we were flat coming out today,” said Casey, who added that the Jumbos were the “flattest” they have been all season. “Some guys, when they have success, they start assuming and that’s a very dangerous thing. Guys have bad games, but being part of a team means your teammate picks you up. For us, today, everyone was flat. That’s not us. And that’s on me. I obviously didn’t have them ready.”
Casey sent seven different pitchers to the mound in a midweek staff day. Freshman Dean Lambert started and went two innings, striking out the side in the first; senior Kevin Gilchrist worked a perfect third on his way back from what Casey called “tightness” and Archibald picked up the win, the first of his career for a unit that carried a no?hitter through 4 1/3 innings.
Brandeis plated three unearned runs off freshman Joe Harrington in the seventh, aided in large part by a wild pitch. Classmate Tom Ryan allowed a fourth in the eighth inning after senior Kenny Destremps doubled, advanced on a balk and scored on a sacrifice fly. The Judges fell to 5?20 with the loss.
Freshman third baseman Wade Hauser went 2?for?4, extending his team?best hitting streak to 13 games. Weikert finished 1?for?4 with two RBIs on the homer, atoning for weak grounders in his previous at?bats.
“I was struggling at the plate today, so I had to try to shake off every bad at?bat,” Weikert said. “Baseball’s a mental game. I was thinking stay back and swing hard. Coach always preaches going the other way. When I’m hitting really well I’m able to put the ball out there.”
Eighteen of the Jumbos’ 25 outs, however, were infield ground outs.
“We’ve been slowly getting ourselves out a lot,” Casey said. “We’re swinging with our body, not the bat. We’re taking good pitches then getting worked up and trying to go after others, which is a sign we’re not feeling good at the plate.”
Things have indeed tapered off for the Jumbos after a blistering spring trip, but they are still sporting an eight?game winning streak heading into a critical three?game series this weekend against the Trinity Bantams. Once the paragon of NESCAC greatness before Tufts won the past two conference championships, Trinity is 3?0 in conference play so far after sweeping Colby this past weekend.