Strong Freshman Class Join Experienced Core With Hopes To Challenge For Ivy Crown
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The Yale University baseball team returns to the field today to log the first innings of the 2011 season, and when the Bulldogs take their first steps out of the dugout, they will take to the diamond with high hopes for success in the 147th season of the history of the program.
The Bulldogs will be anchored in 2011 by a veteran set of starting pitchers that includes three left-handed hurlers and a senior-laden infield that will shore up the team's defense.
Leading the infielders are senior captain Andy Megee, who will man third base for the fourth year in a row. Fellow seniors Gant Elmore and Trey Rallis will be stationed at second base and first base, respectively. They are joined by junior catcher Ryan Brenner and freshman newcomer Jacob Hunter at shortstop.
Rallis led the team in hitting last year with a .377 batting average, including 52 hits, 20 doubles and five home runs. Elmore was the team's co-MVP last season and was fourth on the team in hitting with a .339 average. He was one of three players, along with Megee, to start every game last year for the Bulldogs. Megee finished last year with a .310 average with eight homers and 43 RBIs, which was second on the team.
Megee and Hunter will also get some opportunities to show off their skills on the mound to give Mazzuto Family Head Coach John Stuper some added depth to his pitching staff.
"We are veteran team, Stuper said. "There is no question about it. I have a very veteran infield. I see it when we go over our defensive drills in practice. They have done it for so long together that it just comes natural. That's been great to see."
The starting rotation is led by senior left-hander Vinny Lally, who was 7-2 last year with a 4.71 earned run average and a team-leading 51 strikeouts. Second in line in the rotation is junior right-hander Pat Ludwig, followed by senior left-hander Brook Hart and sophomore left-hander Chris O'Hare. Ludwig was 3-6 with three complete games and Hart was 3-3 with two complete games. Ludwig and Hart each hurled one shutout apiece. O'Hare was 2-0 with nine starts in his freshman campaign.
"I believe all four are pro prospects," Stuper said. "I am looking for big things from them. If they pound the zone like we have been preaching, we could be very, very good."
Stuper has a lot to be excited about for 2011. With 17 pitchers, including seven left-handers, on the roster, there are a lot of arms at Stuper's disposal, and they are all showing early signs of being in mid-season dominant form.
"I'm excited about the depth that we have on our pitching staff," Stuper said. "I've never had that many pitchers. We have four two-way guys. (Freshman) Kevin Fortunate (the Bulldogs' designated hitter) touched 93 on the radar gun. Andy Megee, who has started for us at times, has been throwing really well. Jake Hunter is outstanding and he might be our closer at certain points. Cale Hanson, another freshman, is hitting 87-88 on the gun and Jake Hunter throws harder than that. These are a couple of two-way guys who are legit two-way guys, not just really good infielders who know where the mound is. They are legit. That kind of depth, along with some of the veteran guys, gives me some weapons, and I will use them. We have seven left-handed pitchers on this team and three are in the rotation. I love left-handed pitchers. And they are all pretty darn good."
After finishing 2010 at 21-22-1 and 8-12 overall in the Ivy League, there is a lot that Stuper would like to forget about last season, but there is a lot that he will miss from the players who graduated last year. Trygg Larsson-Danforth, shared the G.H. Walker, Jr. Award last year as the Bulldogs' most valuable player with Elmore. Larsson-Danforth started all 44 games last year and was second on the team in hitting (.373 batting average) and on-base percentage (.460). He also led the team in home runs (11), RBIs (44), slugging percentage (.689), and walks (26). He also had a .985 fielding percentage at first base with only six errors and a team-leading 12 stolen bases. That production defense will be hard to replace.
Stuper will also miss Rob Gruber's durability and the reliability that he provided from the bullpen. Gruber appeared in 21 of the Bulldogs' 44 games last season, coming out of the bullpen in all but one of those games. Gruber led all relievers with a 4.39 ERA and finished with a 3-1 record and one save.
Despite those losses, Stuper believes there are plenty of players on the roster who are capable of stepping in and picking up where Larsson-Danforth and Gruber left off when they graduated.
"Most of our hitters have gotten about 60 live at-bats in the preseason in our new batting cages, so that is awesome for us to see because they're not swinging at breaking pitches out of the zone. They're showing a smart eye at the plate and we haven't played our first game yet. They're veterans now," he said. "I'm really looking forward to watching them play and lead us to having a very good year. We are certainly capable of it."
The competition in the Ivy League will be a challenge for the Bulldogs, and Stuper expects nothing less. Dartmouth is once again the favorite to win the Ivy League title, but the Big Green is not the only team that will challenge the Bulldogs in their quest for their third Ivy League championship.
"Dartmouth is the returning champion two years in a row," Stuper said. "Our half of the conference is always tough. The four teams in our division are very good. Is someone going to go18-2 and run away with it? I doubt it. We were 8-12 last year, but we were in every game. We just didn't do enough of the right things at the right times to be 12-8. I look for it to be a dogfight like always in both divisions. I'm not saying we're the SEC, but there are just no easy wins in this conference. There just aren't any easy wins for any team."
The season kicks off today against Lehigh in the first game of the RussMatt Invitational in Orlando, Fla., at 4 p.m. The Bulldogs will also play Xavier, Miami (Ohio), Toledo, and a doubleheader against Bowling Green before finishing the Florida trip next weekend with games against Michigan State and Ohio State. Yale returns to Connecticut with a pair of games at Central Connecticut State on March 15 and 16.
"Our kids are going to be excited to be out on the diamond," Stuper said. "The Northeast has had the worst winter that I remember in my life, not just in my time in Connecticut, but in my life. I think the players will be excited to finally have some green grass under their feet when they step on the field today.
"It's exciting. I'm looking forward to a very exciting season."
Report filed by Jon Erickson Jr., Yale Sports Publicity