Baseball drops two straight to Columbia to lose Ivy League Championship Series

by Gayne Kalustian | 5/10/15 6:43pm

05-11-2015-sports-mensbaseball5-gayne-kalustian
Columbia University claimed their third Ivy crown with a 10-7 victory in the third game of the series.
by Gayne Kalustian and Gayne Kalustian / The Dartmouth

NEW YORK, N.Y.— It happened again. Columbia University took the Ivy League Championship from Dartmouth baseball for the third consecutive year — but maybe “again” doesn’t quite fit here.

When the Lions took on the Big Green in 2013, Dartmouth was the team to beat, with cannons in its starting rotation like Michael Johnson ’13, Mitch Horacek ’14 and Kyle Hunter ’13, but the Big Green was swept in two games. Then co-captain Jeff Keller ’14 told The Dartmouth that the feeling was more of “anger” than “sadness and disappointment.”

Last season, the Big Green came in as the underdog with a young rotation, but ended by dropping the Ivy League Championship Series in two games after leading the conference in defense but lacking fire in the order. When the seniors left Robertson Field on May 10 of last year with baseball caps turned down to the floor, looks of defeat graced the faces of the seniors who had gone to the championships four times without once bringing home the trophy. In an interview with The Dartmouth last year, Louis Concato ’14 said that it had been tougher to get to the series, but that the team still “had the expectation of winning.”

As game three concluded yesterday, head coach Bob Whalen said he told his team that he was proud of them, let the seniors know that he loved them and thanked them for everything they’d done.

In February, BaseballAmerica.com did not mention Dartmouth in its preseason prediction, naming the University of Pennsylvania as the team to beat. Thomas Roulis ’15 was the only Big Green player on the prospect list, but Roulis did not suit up for a single game in the spring, falling victim to a season-ending hernia that required surgery — from which he now reports he is recovering well. Meanwhile, Collegebaseballdaily.com predicted Columbia to be the league victors and reported Yale University to be the program on the rise in the Red Rolfe Division while expressing concerns that the Big Green would struggle to replace 2014 co-captains Keller and Dustin Selzer ’14 in the line-up, suggesting a possible lack of chemistry in the Big Green order. Beau Sulser ’16 and Michael Danielak ’16 — two from the team’s 2014 rotation — both were scratched from the roster with season-enders. There was a hole in right field, on second base, at first base, in the starting rotation and the bullpen — the latter having been created by the designation of Duncan Robinson ’16 to the rotation — a designation well deserved for the now-junior who ended the regular season with the second lowest Ivy ERA and the third most strikeouts in the League. The team struggled out of the gates in the preseason, though there were whispers this time around, catcher Matt MacDowell ’15 said, that maybe something was different about this season.

Then the Big Green split with each team in the Lou Gehrig Division — including both teams slated as the conference leaders — before sweeping every opponent in the Red Rolfe Division, culminating in a 14-game win streak. It wasn’t perfect. The Big Green didn’t beat down its opponents with 220-pound hard-hitters or pitchers aching to abandon Hanover for the major leagues before graduation, but they pieced together wins — from games that sometimes looked like they were doomed to be losses, from games they came out and decisively snatched early on and from narrow-eyed, sweaty-palmed pitchers’ battles which occasionally pushed into extra frames. Over the course of the season, Dustin Shirley ’18 and Kyle Holbrook ’18 settled in on second base and right field, pushing their offensive numbers up. They weren’t ever Roulis or Keller, but they stepped into big shoes with their high school diplomas practically still in hand and made a noticeably bigger impact as the season dragged on — as much as a six-weekend season can drag.

It was then that Concato and MacDowell expressed confidence in the team’s abilities to take the Ivy crown from the two-time reigning champions. For clarity’s sake, players have expressed faith in the team all season long — that is, after all, what ballplayers do. But as the season pushed forward and the team’s record pushed higher, that faith began to mean something to those who were listening. It wasn’t something players were saying because that’s what ballplayers do. It was something they said because they meant it, and some people — not all, but some — believed it.

The Ivy League Championship Series opened with a faceoff between Robinson and Columbia’s George Thanopoulos — the reliever who came in at the tail end of the 2014 Championship Series to play the Big Green its swan song. Both Robinson and Thanopoulous threw hitless first innings.

A two-run homer by Matt Parisi ’15 in the third inning gave the Big Green an early lead.

Then in the fourth inning, the Dartmouth order went to work — or, at least, Thanopolous went to work on himself, throwing 46 pitches and working up to five full counts. With a runner on third, Thanopolous hurled a wild pitch past his catcher and ran to cover the plate as the Big Green player barreled home. Thanopolous got the ball in time, but touched down to home plate before lifting his glove as Purritano slid home, failing to tag the runner and allowing Dartmouth to collect a run. After Ruppert was walked and Holbrook was pushed to third, MacDowell exacted revenge on a defense that had caught him unprepared in the third inning. MacDowell crushed a line drive at the first baseman, who put out his glove but seemed unprepared for the force behind the ball, letting his glove falter as MacDowell narrowly reached first and pushed two more runs across the plate.

Columbia put up their first run in the bottom of the fifth before the Big Green could tally two more, batted in by Michael Ketchmark ’17 on a zooming line drive just inside the third baseline. The two runs would prove critical for keeping calm on the field in the bottom half of the inning when Columbia’s order got the best of several Dartmouth defenders, including Robinson, Lombardi and Ketchmark.

The Lions loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the sixth after notching a run on a solo blast to start the inning.

The end of the inning came on one of those “this-must-be-the-postseason” kind of plays.

Lombardi fielded a hard-hit ball to take a runner at third base and launched it across the diamond to Ketchmark, who stuck his glove out to tag the base runner. Columbia’s Nick Maguire ripped off Ketchmark’s glove with the force of his sprint, forcing the ball and glove loose toward second base. Shirley snatched the ball to tag the runner at second, and the base runner, Randell Kanemaru, went for third. The third baseman chased Kanemaru down to got the final out of the inning, ending a dramatic, nearly irreparably damaging bottom half of the sixth.

In the seventh, Robinson was left on the mound to go as far as his arm would take him — his velocity still good, but his control waning a bit. He was finally pulled after unleashing an incredible 132 pitches with just two earned runs against seven hits.

“You don’t know how many pitches you’ve thrown,” Robinson said. “You’re just focusing on getting out of the inning...I was definitely a little tired, but it wasn’t anything I was thinking about all the time. I knew I had to go as long as I can to give our team the best chance to win.”

Patrick Peterson ’18 finished the contest, throwing two strikes and a wild pitch that allowed a run to score before forcing a fly out to end the inning. The team save leader, Peterson said being put in tight situations all season long by Whalen prepared him for closing out the victory in game one.

Ahead 1-0 in the series, Mike Concato ’17 took the start on the mound for game two and surrendered a run in the first inning. Holbrook and center fielder Nick Ruppert ’16 put up two runs for Dartmouth to take the lead, but theirs would be the only runs the team scored in the game. Beginning in the fourth inning, Columbia started scoring again, putting up runs in the fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings off of Mike Concato, Chris Burkholder ’17 and Adam Frank ’15. The Lions held on for a 7-2 win to even the series at one game apiece. The game was pitched by Kevin Roy for the Lions, leaving questions surrounding who would take the mound on Sunday as both teams, across the two Saturday games, burned through substantial portions of their most viable pitchers. Working the Lions to their bullpen, Parisi said, was part of the team’s game plan and vital for the team to be competitive in game three.

Louis Concato was on the mound on Sunday. He struggled to find his footing in the first inning, hitting the first batter he faced and giving up a two-run homer to Falcone on just one out. In the top of the second, Dartmouth answered with its own run, batted in by Ketchmark and scored by Holbrook. Holbrook, throughout the course of the season, became a much bigger threat on offense, focusing, he said, on his timing, getting his foot down earlier and being more patient at the plate.

Louis Concato started off the bottom half of the second strongly, throwing two strikes before Columbia’s Will Savage crushed a high liner deep into left center and gaining three bases. Lions catcher Logan Boyher singled into left to bring Savage home and Concato was done. Trailing 3-1 with a runner on first, England was called from the pen. Columbia’s designated hitter notched the final tallies of the second inning, hitting a three-run shot out of the park.

Down but not out, Dartmouth’s own designated hitter Purritano hit a homerun over the right field fence. Holbrook wore down Wiest with nine pitches before hitting a single, causing Columbia to start some activity in their own bullpen. Ketchmark, up to bat, pummeled a ball off the fence in right field, bringing home two Big Green players before the end of the third.

Columbia pulled Wiest after Ketchmark’s triple, putting sophomore Ryan Marks on the rubber.

Trailing 6-4, England finished his own tenure on the mound after giving up another two-run home run, relieved by Adam Frank ’15 who finished the inning with the help of his fielders.

Down 8-4 in the top of the fourth, the Big Green got to work early in the inning with a single through center by Patterson and a walk for Parisi. With no outs, Shirley moved Patterson to third on a sacrifice fly before Purritano brought him home on a sacrifice fly to center.

Ruppert led off the fifth with a single and moved across to second by a another Ketchmark clutch hit. MacDowell, a left-handed batter — perfect to elicit the play to first — sacrifice bunted to the pitcher to put both Ruppert and Ketchmark in scoring position.

Patterson went for the sacrifice bunt again but Columbia’s pitcher Marks faltered with the pick-up and allowed Patterson the single while giving Ruppert time to score. With runners on the corners, Columbia called out freshman Harrisen Egly, the Lions’ save leader going into the series, who ended the inning and would remain on the mound for the length of the game.

The fifth once again saw Peterson on the mound, giving up a run that Columbia pieced together with back-to-back doubles from the bottom of their order. A solo home run in the bottom of the sixth, also off of Peterson, helped the Lions leap out to a four-run lead.

Needing some life, Patterson led off the eighth inning, singling to center to bring Dartmouth back to the top of the order. Purritano sacrificed out to center field to bring Patterson home before the end of the inning. Burkholder trotted out from the bullpen for the second time on the weekend and gave up no runs on one hit, but the Big Green couldn’t make anything else happen on offense and the game was called after the top of the ninth, the home team winning 10-7 and three-peating the Ivy League Championship Series.

While some pegged Dartmouth to be swept by Columbia again, the Big Green held their own against the far and away best offense in the Ivy League as one of the least productive offenses league.

The illusion of a team that holds eight consecutive Red Rolfe titles but only two Ivy League Championship titles in that time is that divisional play comes easy, but the postseason either exposes weaker points in a team’s overall game, makes good players choke under the pressure or brings with it a curse. While a lot of sports nuts are big on superstitions, I don’t believe in curses, and a mixture of the first two sounds about right for Dartmouth baseball — and for a lot of baseball teams.

The series itself wasn’t as tight as it has been in the past — the three games totaled nine hours of play. Together, Dartmouth and Columbia scored 39 runs and committed seven errors. There was a lot going on, and at times, it seemed like neither team had control of the series. It was a workout for the team from the first time Parisi toed that batter’s box on Saturday’s overcast afternoon to the last time Jay Graham’s ’15 bat swung for the final strike of the season. It has been a workout for the team all season long, and while you hate to see the seniors walk away second-best for four straight years — five for Louis Concato — you can’t knock them until you digest all the highs and lows that contoured the season. MacDowell said that while the team definitely isn’t satisfied with the outcome, the team isn’t necessarily disappointed. He called the team “one of the toughest teams” he’s ever played on.

“There’s just a lot of resiliency,” he said. “Not saying that other teams don’t have that, but it’s tough to go down six or seven runs in an elimination game and slide all the way back within two runs. That’s a lot of what our team was built out of. We have a lot of tough kids that pushed through — today and for the whole season.”