On the verge of a new season, the baseball team is ready to shake off last year’s disappointing performance in the NESCAC tournament as it sits in a strong position to get back to the postseason and claim its first NESCAC title since 2011. The Jumbos are about to kick off the season in full swing with an 11-game, 10-day spring break road trip through the south, against almost exactly the same slew of teams across the Eastern seaboard that they face every spring break.
Tufts opens the season tomorrow afternoon facing off against its typical season-opening opponent Castleton in Newport News, VA, with a double-header on Saturday featuring a Castleton rematch in the noon game — followed by a game against MIT at 3 p.m. — both in Newport News. The Jumbos stay in Newport News with a game against St. Joseph on Sunday before heading further south to take on a series of North Carolina teams before coming back up to finish the trip with a game at Virginia Wesleyan on Sunday, March 27.
Tufts baseball has had six consecutive winning seasons, including a pair of back-to-back conference champion seasons in 2010 and 2011 and a close loss in the NESCAC championships game in 2014. The Jumbos finished the 2015 season with a 26-10 record overall, going 8-4 in the conference, en route to winning its seventh NESCAC East pennant. But the team went on to end last year’s run in the NESCAC tournament with losses to Amherst and Bates in a two-and-done disappointment.
“I think we did fine last year,” coach John Casey said. “I think we chose one weekend not to play well, which happened to be the playoffs. Outside of that, I thought we had a solid year. We lost an awful lot of leadership, and some guys who could do multiple things for us, so we’re heading down this week to find ourselves and figure out who can do what.”
Among last year’s leaders who graduated were former tri-captain pitchers Tom Ryan (LA ’15) and Kyle Slinger (LA ’15), both dependable starters on the mound for the Jumbos in their careers — and in Slinger’s case a former D3Baseball.com New England Pitcher of the Year in 2014 — as well as offensive forces like Bryan Egan (LA ’15), who was second on the roster in batting average and slugging percentage last year, and former tri-captain Connor McDavitt (LA ’15), the speedy leadoff man who led the team in runs.
“We lost a lot of senior leadership last year,” Casey said. “But we want our guys this year to be themselves. We don’t need them to try to be what last year’s guys were.”
The Jumbos relied heavily on their senior leadership last season, but they still maintain a wealth of young talent and a few key leaders who will undoubtedly be critical in guiding the squad back to the postseason. The team has opted to go with an unusual lone captain for the squad, which will be senior center fielder Cody McCallum, who has been a reliable hitter and defensive presence for the Jumbos.
“Honestly, every guy, we feel, can play,” Casey said. “The one thing we tell our guys is that they have to own their performances. We’re going to play, and guys are going to get opportunities, and based on their performances, they’ll either run right back out there or have to wait a little bit to get another chance. There is nothing in stone.”
One of the team’s strengths last year was pitching, which was bolstered by a deep bullpen with multiple pitchers throwing in excess of 20 or even 30 innings for the Jumbos. None pitched more innings than junior Tim Superko, who will no doubt be a constant in the Jumbos’ rotation.
“This is the best I’ve felt, the healthiest I’ve felt since I’ve been here,” Superko said. “I feel good [going into the season]. I’m going to take it one game at a time, but I think the team [and I] can do something really special this year. Pitching has always been a strength for us. I think our lineup is a little bit deeper this year, so we’re going to look for a few younger guys to step up.”
The southpaw was part of a lethal rotation his rookie season in 2014 when the pitching staff put up an impressive 2.53 ERA, and Superko himself was 4-2 with a 2.64 ERA in 58.0 innings pitched, the second most innings pitched on the team. Last year he struggled a bit more, along with the rest of the staff but still managed to go 5-4 with a 3.68 ERA in 58.2 innings as the team’s strikeout leader.
Superko will duke it out with senior Andrew David to be Tufts’ ace this season. David was deadly from the rubber for almost all of last season, going 6-0 with a 2.32 ERA heading into the team’s final game of the season — the elimination game of the NESCAC tournament against Bates, when he got lit up for seven runs in 1.2 innings to take his only loss and saw his ERA blow up to 3.46.
Especially early in the season, the team will look for the pitchers to make an impact on the game and throw as many innings as possible to give the team the best opportunities to collect early wins.
Sophomore infielder Tommy O’Hara, who led the team in batting average and slugging percentage last year in his rookie season, and senior shortstop Matt Moser, who led the team in home runs with five last season, will likely lead the Jumbos at the plate.
As Casey alluded to, one area of strength for the Jumbos is their depth. And with an incredibly packed early season schedule, the Jumbos will have to rely on every member of the lineup and the rotation to make a strong first impression.
“We have five or six outfielders, who can all play,” Casey said. “I feel great about our infield depth, especially defensively. I think no matter who backs up whom, they can play all three positions really well. That’ll help us this week because we’re playing so many games.”
Having now practiced for months leading up to the start of the season, the team is eager to get the season underway.
“I’m excited to compete against another team,” Superko said. “We’ve been going at it since the fall, just against ourselves. Everyone’s just excited to get down there and see what we can do. We have a lot of talent this year, so I think expectations are pretty high.”
Tufts will not play a NESCAC team until the team’s series against Bates on April 2-3 and a home game until a doubleheader against Brandeis on April 9. But with such an intense and demanding start to the season, the Jumbos will look to get in a rhythm early that can dictate the tone for the course of the season.