February 19, 2008

2008 Season Preview

Feb. 19, 2008

The Yale baseball team had an up-and-down season in 2007. At times the Bulldogs looked unbeatable, but there were other times when the team struggled to hit. The one constant was Ryan Lavarnway, whose breakout campaign included a school-record 23-game hitting streak and a Third Team All-America selection by Baseball America. The Bulldogs return 19 letterwinners and eight starters from that team, including their catcher.

Lavarnway had arguably the best statistical season offensively in school history in 2007. He led the nation in both batting (.467) and slugging (.873), while also setting school records for home runs (14), hits (70), doubles (17), total bases (131) and RBIs (55). Lavarnway was unanimously named First Team All-Ivy and was a semifinalist for the Brooks Wallace National Player of the Year award.

"Ryan is the kind of guy you build a lineup around," Mazzuto Family Head Coach John Stuper said. "He had the greatest offensive year in Yale history, but he's not affected by it. He works hard and is really trying to get better behind the plate. Ryan is the best position-player prospect I've had in 16 years at Yale."

Backing up Lavarnway will be Davis Stanley, a very good defensive catcher who has been slowed by injuries in each of his first two seasons. Now healthy, Stuper expects to use Stanley a lot behind the plate. Harry Koulos made the team as a walk-on and will serve as a third catcher while also seeing some time in the outfield.

"Davis is a very good player who hasn't been able to show what he can do," Stuper said. "He will be vital in any success we have. And Harry is a very good defensive outfielder who we've converted to a catcher and is getting better every day."

The one position that's a question mark entering the 2008 season is first base, where it's a three-man race to succeed three-time First Team All-Ivy selection Marc Sawyer, who is currently playing professionally in the Chicago Cubs organization. The three contenders are Stefan Schropp, Trygg Larsson-Danforth and Chris Sweeney. Schropp, who is also a pitcher, emerged as a regular in the everyday lineup late last season and is one of the best athletes on the team. Larsson-Danforth and Sweeney are both lefty-swingers who got a fair number of at-bats as freshmen.

"They've all looked good," Stuper said. "Those are big shoes to fill because Marc was so good defensively, as well. Whoever hits is going to play."

Second baseman P.J. Gorynski is back 100 percent from a shoulder injury that limited him to 18 games last year. Gorynski hit .317 as a sophomore two seasons ago and has looked good in preseason workouts. Dan Soltman gives Stuper some maneuverability at both second base and shortstop. Soltman was a Second Team All-Ivy selection as a shortstop two years ago, then moved to second base towards the end of last season.

A pair of freshmen will make up the left side of the infield. Gant Elmore brings energy and passion for the game to the shortstop position, while Andy Megee improves daily at third base. Elmore has the versatility to play all around the infield, while Megee will also help the team on the mound. Schropp is also an option at third.

"Gant plays hard all the time," Stuper said. "He dives for balls and runs well. He won't leadoff, but that's his future here. Andy Megee is another guy who just loves to play."

Josh Cox

The deep Yale outfield boasts two All-Ivy centerfielders, two talented freshmen and the incumbent starter in left field. Centerfielder Josh Cox, the Bulldogs' leadoff hitter, had his breakout campaign a year ago, earning honorable mention All-Ivy honors after hitting .324 and stealing 24 bases. Jake Doyle, an honorable mention All-Ivy choice in 2006, returns to the team for his senior season after missing the 2007 campaign with a shoulder injury. He led the team with 37 RBIs two years ago and will make the move to right field this season.

"Josh really came into his own last season," Stuper said. "He has become a very good defensive outfielder and has what scouts call `plus-speed,' which means he's very fast. And I'm thrilled to have Jake back. He's great defensively and always has a great work ethic."

The three players in the left field mix are Andrew Kolmar, Andrew Moore and Stephen Miehls. You can also throw Lavarnway into that mix. He'll likely play the outfield when not catching. Kolmar and Moore have both looked good in preseason workouts, while Miehls has worked his way back from injury and is swinging the bat well. One of the three will likely DH.

"Depth is never a bad thing," Stuper said. "Just like at first base, whoever hits will start."

The one constant in the Yale rotation this season will be Brandon Josselyn. Josselyn emerged as the Bulldogs' ace last season, leading the squad with three wins, 54 innings and a 4.83 ERA. He tossed four complete games and took some tough-luck losses, including two 2-0 decisions.

"Brandon really came into his own last season," Stuper said. "His fastball has some good movement, and his breaking ball and changeup have improved."

Joining him in the preseason rotation are Chris Finneran and Brian Irving. Finneran made seven appearances, including one start, as a freshman and had several solid outings. Irving started last season in the rotation before emerging as the Bulldogs' closer. He tied for the team lead with 14 appearances and led the Ivy League with four saves in 2007.

"Chris has made a big jump from his freshman year to now," Stuper said. "He's throwing three pitches for strikes, and Brian is one of the most competitive guys I've ever coached."

The leading candidate to claim the final spot in the weekend rotation is freshman lefty Vinny Lally. Lally struggled early, but has really come into his own to give Stuper a left-handed arm that he lacked last year.

Steve Gilman

Team captain Steve Gilman starts the year as Yale's closer. Gilman was a member of the rotation last season, making nine starts and tying for the team lead with three wins. He's a good athlete and a competitor who brings good stuff to the table.

Bridging the gap between the starters and Gilman will be Chris Walsh and John Henry Davis. Walsh has the versatility to start or get the big outs out of the bullpen and will have a significant role. Davis gives the team senior leadership and was the squad's best setup man last season, striking out 19 in 19 innings.

Stuper has a lot of other options in the bullpen. Joe Castaldi and Robert Gruber have looked good in preseason workouts and Matthew Smith has demonstrated great command. Will Stratton has a nice selection of pitches and should see some innings right away. Schropp and Megee will also be called upon out of the bullpen. The one wild card on the staff is Alex Christ. Christ missed all of last season with a shoulder injury, but returns this season with increased velocity on his fastball. A lefty, he's versatile enough to start or come out of the bullpen to face a tough left-handed hitter.

"There's a lot of depth and talent on this staff, but they've got to do it in games," Stuper said. "The arms are there, and they'll all get the opportunity to pitch since we play so many games early in the season."

The season gets underway on March 1-2 when the Bulldogs take on George Washington in a three-game set before heading south for their annual Spring Break trip. For the first time in a number of years, the Spring Break trip doesn't include a stop in Florida. Instead, the Bulldogs will play exclusively in the Carolinas and Virginia, taking on the likes of Appalachian State, Davidson and Radford, as well as a South Carolina team that is ranked No. 2 in some preseason polls.

"It's nice to get a chance to go down and play GW before the trip," Stuper said. "I think that will help us. We're going to enjoy playing at South Carolina. It will give this team a chance to experience what big-time college baseball is all about. It's always a challenge to play on other teams' home fields, but we're ready for it."

Yale finished third in the Red Rolfe Division last season with an 8-12 Ivy League mark, placing behind Brown and Harvard. The defending champion Bears look strong again this season. Penn won the Lou Gehrig Division last season and boasts one of the top starting staffs in the conference.

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