Tufts secures NESCAC East pennant with sweep of Colby

–Tufts men's baseball team played against Brandeis at Tufts on April 9. Ziqing Xiong / The Tufts Daily Archive

In a successful stretch of five wins in six games over five days this past week, Tufts baseball guaranteed its place on top of the NESCAC East Division with a three-game sweep of Colby over the weekend, staying undefeated in conference play. The team also split its Sunday doubleheader at Keene State and won Monday at home against Eastern Nazarene College.

Monday’s 8-1 win over Eastern Nazarene (15-20) was a fairly one-sided affair, with Tufts scoring two runs across the first and second innings and three more in the third and sixth innings. The game was a good demonstration of how explosive the Jumbos can be on offense, with doubles from junior Harry Brown, seniors Matt Moser and Kevin Godin and sophomores Mike McLaughlin and Nick Falkson.

Eastern Nazarene eventually scored a run in the seventh to break up junior starter Matt Rothstein’s shutout bid, but they never dug themselves out of the hole they fell into. The Jumbos cruised to the win to move to 23-5 overall with just seven games left in the regular season.

The team played its second of two doubleheaders this weekend at Keene State on Sunday. The Jumbos had an eight-game win streak snapped in the first game against the Owls, falling 3-2. Tufts would open the game with a pair of runs in the first inning thanks, in part, to a pair of wild pitches that advanced junior Oscar Kutch and Moser, with the second also scoring Kutch. Moser was driven in by a single from sophomore Dan Kelly.

The Jumbos failed to find any more offense in the game, which ended up tied 2-2 after five. But Keene State scored again in the bottom of the seventh with a walk-off single to take the win.

“I don’t think anything has changed,” coach John Casey said. “I think we’ve been competing hard all year. I don’t think we’ve clicked on all cylinders yet, and that’s what we’re trying to get to. I think our guys have been playing hard. That’s probably our greatest strength, that we compete, but we’re still not doing a good enough job of cleaning up the bases.”

The second game saw a lot more scoring than the first, though it started slower. Neither team got on the board in the first two innings. Tufts finally scored first, with two in the third off a home run from sophomore Tommy O’Hara. The Jumbos scored in every inning after the third, eventually notching nine runs. The Owls fought back and put up seven runs across the sixth and seventh innings combined, but it wasn’t enough to take down the Jumbos, who hung on to preserve the win for junior starter Rory Ziomek.

The team kicked off the weekend’s action with the Colby series at home on Friday and Saturday. Going into the series, expectations were high for Tufts, which was undefeated in NESCAC play at 5-0 having swept Trinity and taken the first two games of the Bates series earlier this season. With those expectations, however, came a lot of pressure, especially as the Mules have been the Jumbos’ main rival and strongest competitor in the division. The team had the opportunity to clench their spot on top of the NESCAC East, and while even with a loss the team would have been the favorites for the spot, the sweep guarantees Tufts the top seed from the East for the NESCAC tournament and gives the team a huge morale boost as they head into their final four conference games this weekend.

“I didn’t even know that we clenched [first in the East],” Brown said. “Our coaches have done a really good job of keeping our focus on the next game, focusing on the daily stuff. Going into the weekend I didn’t even know it was a possibility.”

Colby came into Friday’s contest with a record of 10-17 and 3-3 in conference play, looking to be the first NESCAC opponent to take a game off Tufts. The Jumbos looked lively in the first few innings, putting men on in the first, and eventually Brown scored the first run of the contest on a deep single from first-year catcher Eric Schnepf in the second.

The game would take a turn in the fourth, as junior pitcher Tim Superko suffered one of his tougher innings of the season. Superko opened the inning with a walk and couldn’t regain control of the plate. Colby senior outfielder Andrew Currier drove in the first of what would be four runs credited to Superko, who would be taken out of the game with two outs in the inning. Sophomore Ian Kinney stepped in and pitched 6.1 innings in relief while giving up just two runs to earn the win.

The Jumbos managed to claw their way back thanks to doubles from Kutch and O’Hara, and a homer from first-year Harrison Frickman. The game would go to extras after both teams notched runs in the ninth to keep it tied at 6-6. But in the bottom of the tenth, Brown, who has been the team’s hottest hitter as of late and who is leading the team with an impressive .413 batting average, managed to single to right-center to score Falkson and deliver the walk off.

Saturday’s games to close out the series were much more one-sided. The Jumbos jumped out to an early 5-0 lead in the first, taking the opportunity to demonstrate their explosiveness with a three-run homer from Kelly in the first inning to break the game wide open. The Jumbos maintained a five-run or more lead throughout the contest, which would eventually be extended by a massive grand slam from O’Hara in the fifth, scoring Moser, Kutch and Frickman. Colby got runs in the late innings to keep the score respectable, but Tufts held on for the 12-4 win.

Junior pitcher Speros Varinos pitched six of seven innings of the contest, allowing just three hits and two earned runs with 11 strikeouts to earn the W.

The second game of the day was only slightly more trying for the Jumbos, who fell behind in the first, 2-0. Those two runs would be the only ones Colby scored throughout the game, as senior starter and team ace Andrew David locked down to blank the visitors for the rest of the nine-inning game, striking while doing so.

Meanwhile, his offense battled back, scoring five runs over the middle innings to take the lead. Brown got two RBIs to go along with three unearned runs, largely as a result of wild throws from Colby. The 5-2 victory earned the Jumbos the NESCAC East pennant and eliminated Colby from tournament contention.

“It’s not often you get to clench a pennant with four NESCAC games left,” Kutch said. “It puts us in a really good position, especially if we play hard and grind out these next couple games, to get an at-large bid into [NCAA] Regionals.”

While the team is glad to secure their spot on top of the East, players maintain that it will not change their commitment or focus on future opponents.

“It’s a good feeling — the security of knowing you’re fine no matter what happens,” Brown said. “We’re in a pretty special situation here. I’m really focused on winning all the games we still have, so that we can be playing our best ball going into [the postseason]. It gives us some security, but it shouldn’t change the way we play.”

The Jumbos, who were recently ranked No. 29 in the nation, still have a handful of games left in the regular season, including four NESCAC East games, before they enter the conference tournament in just a few weeks. The team’s next games are at Bowdoin Friday and Saturday before they play their final NESCAC East game of the season Sunday at Bates.

“We played pretty solidly [in Monday’s game against Eastern Nazarene],” Casey said. “It was tough, we played six games in five days. I think our guys understand that [the season] isn’t over. Some of it is personal pride and some of it is just trying to stay in a place where we’re competing.”