Baseball Brings Out the Brooms to Qualify for Playoffs

Colin+Waters+%E2%80%9919+earned+the+win+for+the+Panthers+allowing+one+unearned+on+three+hits+and+four+strikeouts.+Photo+Credit%3A+Matthew+Dickerson
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Baseball Brings Out the Brooms to Qualify for Playoffs

Colin Waters ’19 earned the win for the Panthers allowing one unearned on three hits and four strikeouts. Photo Credit: Matthew Dickerson

Colin Waters ’19 earned the win for the Panthers allowing one unearned on three hits and four strikeouts. Photo Credit: Matthew Dickerson

Colin Waters ’19 earned the win for the Panthers allowing one unearned on three hits and four strikeouts. Photo Credit: Matthew Dickerson

Colin Waters ’19 earned the win for the Panthers allowing one unearned on three hits and four strikeouts. Photo Credit: Matthew Dickerson

By Jordan Howell, Staff Writer

After taking a midday matchup from St. Michaels and sweeping Wesleyan this past weekend, the Middlebury baseball team has stretched its win streak to seven, dating back to their sweep of Hamilton on April 14 and 15. What’s more, this weekend’s wins over the Cardinals secured the Panthers their first playoff berth to the NESCAC tournament since 2011.

On Thursday, April 20, Middlebury beat St. Michaels 8-1 thanks to a combined effort by Dylan Takamori ’17, Tucker Meredith ’17, Grant Elgateran ’20, John Tipps ’19 and Robert Erickson ’18. The staff kept the Purple Knights to five hits and one run as the Panthers scored eight runs on eight hits, including a pair of home runs by Sam Graf ’19.

Looking to carry over their momentum from the Hamilton series the weekend prior, Middlebury hosted Wesleyan for their final NESCAC series of the regular season on April 22-23. On Saturday, Spencer Shores ’20 started on the mound for the Panthers after an impressive showing against Hamilton, in which he struck out 12 over eight innings.

The Cardinals, however, had other plans as they scored two runs in the top of third thanks to a walk, a double and a throwing error. But the Panthers answered with an offensive onslaught starting in the fourth when Ryan Rizzo ’17 singled through the left side. With a left-hand pitcher on the mound, Rizzo tried to steal second but got caught in a rundown. Wesleyan’s first baseman, however, sailed the ball into left field allowing Rizzo to hit second base in full stride and turn towards third; when Wesleyan’s left fielder overthrew the third baseman into Middlebury’s dugout, Rizzo safely trotted across home plate.

Though Wesleyan scored in the top of the fifth inning to extend their lead to 3-1, Middlebury answered again in the bottom after the Cardinals’ pitchers loaded the bases and Jason Lock ’17 walked to draw the first RBI of the inning, closing Wesleyan’s lead. Graf followed behind, working the count to 2-2 before belting a double into the left-center gap. All three runs scored to give Middlebury the 5-3 advantage, but they weren’t done. Justin Han ’20 hit a two run home run, the second of the season, to extend their lead to 7-3.

“I was really happy to keep the momentum going after Graf hit that bases clearing double,” Han said. “It gave our pitcher and the team confidence to close the game out in the last few innings.”

Jake Stalcup ’17 came in to toss the final two innings of the game, allowing one hit and no runs. Shores recorded the win as the Panthers moved one game closer to a playoff spot, extending their win streak to five games.

Colby Morris ’19 started the nine-inning nightcap — a much closer contest than the first game. Middlebury scored their only three runs of the game in the bottom of the fourth. Rizzo reached on an infield single and stole second; Lock followed by drawing a walk to give the Panthers a first and second advantage. Han singled into left field scoring Rizzo, and Alan Guild ’20 followed with a clutch double — blasting ­a screaming line drive that one-hopped the 390 center field wall, scoring Lock and Han.

Wesleyan scored once in the fifth and once in the sixth, cutting the Panther advantage by one. In the top of the seventh, however, Morris mowed down the Cardinals in order, paving the way for Conor Himstead ’19 to record the final six outs in the eighth and ninth. Himstead recorded his fourth save of the season, setting a new program record in the process. Morris finished the day with seven innings, allowing two runs on three hits, seven strikeouts and a pair of walks.

“It was awesome to be able to take a 3-0 lead as a team and go out and battle for the last three innings to hold Wesleyan down,” Morris said. “Throughout the entire game, I felt the playoff atmosphere, I felt the big stakes and I could not have been more stoked to have the chance to hold it down for the team.”

With a two game lead heading into the final contest, Middlebury was eager for the sweep and a chance to secure a NESCAC playoff berth.

On Sunday, April 23, Colin Waters ’19 started on the bump for the Panthers. He struggled in the first: after recording the first out, Waters misread a routine pop up allowing the batter to safely reach first and walked the next three to give Wesleyan a 1-0 lead. Waters, however, held the visitors for the next 5.1 innings, getting help along the way from Guild making a spectacular diving catch in right field.

“It felt great because I knew I was doing what I could to help the team — that dive in particular,” Guild said. “It was special because plays like that represent the epitome of our season and our motto — ‘why not?’ Why not dive onto the gravel to catch a fly ball that will help us make the playoffs? We’ve all bought into Coach Leonard’s philosophy and our team chemistry — it’s been nice to help Middlebury Baseball get back on the map.”

Using this momentum, Middlebury put up two runs in the top of the third after the Rizzo drew a walk, stole second and scored on single by Andrew Hennings ’20, who was returning to competition after a shoulder injury sustained against Amherst on April 8. Hennings scored on a double by Lock giving the hosts a 2-1 lead.

Waters held the Cardinals scoreless in the fourth, while the Panthers put up three in the bottom of the stanza. Guild drew a walk and advanced when Gray Goolsby ’20 also drew a walk; both runners moved up a base thanks to a passed ball and set the stage for Brooks Carroll ’20 to push a bunt past the pitcher to safely reach first and score Guild. Hennings followed with a base clearing double to give the hosts a 5-1 lead.

In the top of the eighth, Erickson — who had relieved Waters with one out in the top of the sixth — recorded an out before allowing the Cardinals to load the bases. Himstead came in again in relief, but unfortunately, the visitors scored three runs (two on an error). The Panthers, however, worked out of the jam when Wesleyan’s Matt Jeye smoked a ball back to Himstead who knocked it down and quickly recovered to throw the runner out at first. Lock then threw the ball to Carroll because the Wesleyan runner on second base, caught off guard, had tried to advance even though there was still a runner on third base. Carroll chased him toward third, coaxing the lead runner to head for home, where Carroll flipped the ball to Phil Bernstein ’19 to get the inning-ending out and secure the 5-4 Middlebury lead.

In the bottom of the eighth, the Panthers tacked on two insurance runs when Goolsby reached first on an error and was replaced by pinch runner John Tipps ’19. Tipps reached second on a passed ball and went to third on a sacrifice bunt by Carroll. With Wesleyan’s infielders playing on the grass, Rizzo chipped a single into right for a 6-4 lead. Rizzo, once again, stole second and scored on a base hit from Lock. Himstead, in the bottom of the ninth, retired the remaining Cardinals in order for his conference-leading fifth save.

Hennings finished with four hits and three RBI’s, both Guild and Carroll went 2-3 while captain Lock had two hits with two RBI’s.
“I am so proud of the way our team competed this weekend, “ Head Coach Mike Leonard reflected. “This team has the best chemistry of any team I have ever coached and that has been the key to our success. Every player on our team has played a role in helping us reach the NESCAC playoffs.”

The Panthers head to Waterville, Maine on May 12 to face the top East Conference teams.

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