Baseball takes on Big XII competition during spring trip

by Gayne Kalustian | 3/23/14 6:53pm

The baseball team challenged itself over spring interim when it traveled down south to two Big 12 diamonds in Forth Worth, Texas and Lawrence, Kan., to play Texas Christian University, the University of Nebraska-Omaha and the University of Kansas. According to Collegiate Baseball rankings, TCU and Kansas are ranked 27 and 18 in the nation, respectively.

The team tallied two wins in nine games, taking a win in the second game of the series against Nebraska-Omaha and the final game against Kansas in a dramatic extra-inning affair.

In Lawrence, the team met former captain and Kansas native Jack Monahan ’09, who led the team to an Ivy League Championship at the College. The speech he gave, co-captain Dustin Selzer ’14 said, provided the Big Green players with perspective, reminding them that many of their goals are still ahead of them.

“He stood up and spoke and said that we came to Dartmouth to play baseball and to get a great education,” Selzer said. Monahan encouraged the players to focus on the Ivy Championship and use the spring trip as an opportunity to improve for the team’s first Ivy games, Selzer said.

The season-opening stretch harkens back to the 2-10 record Dartmouth accumulated in the opening weeks of the 2012 season, co-captain Jeff Keller ’14 said. The team had started its preseason by getting shut out in a three-game series against then No. 13 Louisiana State University. That same year, the Big Green went 14-6 in the Ivy League, taking two of those losses in the championship series against Cornell University.

Facing tough early-season competition, Keller said, strengthens the team for the rest of the year.

“Obviously when northern teams go south, their record is always really bad, but I think this is the best way to get better,” he said. “There is no pitching like TCU and no offense like Kansas in the Ivy League. We’re working to iron out the kinks. I’m feeling just as optimistic as ever.”

The team opened this year’s spring training trip against TCU’s ace pitcher Brandon Finnegan, the NCAA’s strikeout leader, who struck out 10 Big Green batters. Finnegan allowed just two hits over seven innings. Dartmouth had three hits in the top of ninth, scoring one run on a single by Nick Lombardi ’15 that brought the game to its final score of 1-4.

Louis Concato ’14 opened the series on the mound for Dartmouth, allowing 10 hits across six innings.

“They had a lot of hits when I was pulled,” Concato said, “but a lot of them were round balls in the holes. They did have a couple of hard hit balls, but I was making the pitches that I wanted to.”

In similar fashion to the opener, Dartmouth then took 5-1 and 8-0 losses against the Horned Frogs, a team ranked ninth in the NCAA in strikeouts per nine. Finnegan and the rest of TCU’s rotation, Selzer said, had deep talent and good command of the ball.

Though the team did not enter the trip with specific expectations, the players were disappointed by the outcome, he said.

Dartmouth’s offense started to pick up momentum against Nebraska-Omaha, going 1-2 in the series with a 12-5 loss, 10-3 win and 10-4 loss. The team’s first loss was fueled by a devastating five-run first inning for the Mavericks with only two earned runs.

Mike Concato ’17 relieved Dartmouth starter Adam Frank ’15 after three runners scored, coming in with two outs and loaded bases. The team threw 22 balls that inning, wildness which contributed to strong offensive success from Dartmouth’s opponents, Keller said.

“I think the big innings that we’ve had have all been somehow fueled by walks,” he said. “They had a couple of hits obviously, but I think where we get behind in counts is in walks, and that usually comes back to bite you.”

Dartmouth went on to have a big inning of its own the next day, after coming into the seventh behind 2-1. Bo Patterson ’15 kicked off what would be the most electrifying inning of the trip with a bunt single, setting in motion an entire cycle of the lineup which ultimately yielded seven runs for the Big Green.

“When Bo Patterson got a bunt and slid headfirst into first base, the energy just started flowing,” Selzer said. “Everyone just got excited. Hitting is such a contagious thing.”

The Big Green slammed 15 hits that game. Duncan Robinson ’16 also made magic happen on the mound, pitching seven innings and allowing just two runs on four hits.

“It was without a doubt his best performance since he’s been at Dartmouth,” Keller said.

The next day, Adam Charnin-Aker ’16 allowed just two runs on five hits in six innings in his collegiate debut, keeping Dartmouth within striking distance for at least the length of his time on the mound.

His performance, Selzer said, was especially “gutsy” considering Charnin-Aker’s long rehab from Tommy John surgery two years ago.

Robinson and Charnin-Aker’s strong performances boost the team as it pieces together a starting pitching rotation after losing four of its weekend starters last season to the Major League Baseball draft. There are currently four seniors on the team.

Matt MacDowell ’15, who has anchored the revolving pitching staff all season and was praised by Louis Concato for his solidarity and dependability behind the plate, said he recognizes the limitations of the pen as it stands but is not without confidence in his staff.

“A lot of the guys are young,” he said, “so I think we’re getting some jitters out. They’re just getting a feel here in the first couple outings.”

Dartmouth’s first game against TCU was the Big Green’s fourth of the season. By the time it opened the series against Kansas, it had nine games under its belt, but Kansas had 22.

Additionally, players said transitioning from the turf in Leverone to outdoor fields posed an additional challenge. Adjusting to the wind, temperature and the sometimes wild bounces challenged a team used to practicing indoors.

Dartmouth hung in through the first few innings of game one against the Jayhawks, even taking a 3-2 lead in the top of the third. Dartmouth lost control in the fourth when six runs on seven hits put Kansas ahead for good.

The outcome was similar the next day when Dartmouth took a 4-1 lead after a four-run second inning when all nine batters hit. Despite a solo home run by Joe Purritano ’16 in the fifth, the team gave up the lead with a grand slam by Kansas’s Dakota Smith.

Throwing strikes earlier in the count, Lombardi said, would help the team avoid crushing innings.

“We’re just kind of getting beat later in the game when we give up big innings,” he said. “When you throw two balls and try to come back with a fastball, he’s probably going to hit it hard, but we are getting better, so there’s hope for the future.”

Dartmouth’s Mike Concato answered Lombardi’s call when he opened for the Big Green in the final game of the tour against Kansas — his first-ever college start. He took the mound in 30-degree weather after a dusting of snow the night before.

Mike Concato pitched a hitless first inning before a narrowly fair ball was bunted down the third baseline by Kansas’s junior Connor McKay in the second.

In the third, Mike Concato, with mounting pressure of two runners in scoring position, took the team seamlessly out of the inning by striking out right-fielder McKay. He also helped bring the team out of a dangerous eighth inning by foiling a sacrifice bunt attempt and throwing out the go-ahead runner at third, taking the teams tied at two into the ninth. He was relieved by Robinson after an impressive 128 pitches.

Collectively, the team flew around the field throughout the final game of the trip — Keller slid into the wall trying to pluck a foul from the air before stealing second on an all-out sprint in the seventh, and shortstop Matt Parisi ’15 sacrificed his body on a reaching dive to try and stop a ball from reaching the outfield. Michael Ketchmark ’17 scored on a sacrifice fly deep to center by Selzer after banging out a triple of his own to help Dartmouth take the lead in the fourth, and second-baseman Thomas Roulis ’15 ran deep into center to snag a fly ball for a crucial out late in the game.

In the top of the 10th with two outs, Patterson walked, stole second and scored on a line drive by Adam Gauthier ’16 to right field, beating a wild throw to the plate. Robinson stymied the Jayhawks in the bottom of the 10th to give Dartmouth the win.

Despite its less than perfect record as it returns to Hanover, Lombardi said, the team will use the experience of the trip to bolster its upcoming Ivy League play.

“We may get beaten up a little bit, but it’s making us stronger,” he said. “We’re not a team that’s going to give in. We’re a team that’s going to take the hits and grow from them.”