Last week the baseball team headed west to Southern California for their annual spring break trip, and finished 5–4, the first time since 2012 the Panthers finished over .500 on the trip.
Middlebury also started its Nescac schedule with a bang, taking the first two games of its series with Williams, including a 20–1 shellacking in the first game, before falling in the final game. The Panthers return to Vermont with a 2–1 record in the conference.
The Panthers kicked it off with a matchup against Chapman University of Orange, California on Saturday, March 24. Though it ended with a tough 5–3 loss, Middlebury showed great resilience in the fourth inning after a difficult start left them facing a five run deficit.
Junior captain Colby Morris ’19 pitched the whole game and, while he struggled at times and let up five runs overall, he managed to rally and strike out five. Getting back on track to finish strong was easy for the Panthers’ ace.
“Physically it was a small adjustment, I just had to throw my changeup down in the zone and not leave it up,” explains Morris, who found that the bigger challenge was the mental side. “Mentally it was more challenging. I’m from San Diego so I had a lot of family at the game rooting for me and in past years I might’ve folded but I’ve been playing for them recently and more for my teammates. They definitely helped me flush that bad pitch and move on to the next few innings and give us a chance to win even though we couldn’t pull it out.”
Hayden Smith ’20, Justin Han ’20 and Sam Graf ’19 each crossed the plate for the Panthers, pushed across by RBIs off the bats of Kevin Woodring ’20, Alan Guild ’20 and Han.
Next up, Middlebury faced both the Claremont McKenna Stags and the Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens on Sunday, March 25. The Panthers started the day with a 10–8 win against the Stags, getting an early lead with a sacrifice fly out from Han to bring Brooks Carroll ’20 home in the first inning, followed by a run from Jack Miller ’21 off a hit from Han in the third.
Middlebury continued to get runs across to rack up their run total in the fourth inning with a critical home run from Phil Bernstein ’19, driving in Grant Elgarten ’20 and Graf to make it 5–0. This was Bernstein’s first home run at the college level, a feat made all-the-more special by hitting it in his hometown.
“It was awesome,” said an excited Bernstein. “My parents were there and it made it that much more special. I knew I hit it well but didn’t realize how far I hit it. I remember seeing the umpire giving the ‘homerun’ sign rounding first base and just having an insane rush of adrenaline. My teammates showed me lots of love coming back into the dugout. It felt great.”
Following Bernstein’s hit, the game took an interesting turn in the eighth inning when the Stags made a comeback to tie it up at six, but ultimately the Panthers pulled through to put four more on the board with scores from Han, Woodring, Smith and Henry Strmecki ’21.
Will Oppenheim ’21 proved his skills on the mound, pitching for five innings for the Panthers, only giving up three hits while striking out six. Also notable was the performance of Han, who went 3-for-4 in the game with three RBIs.
Sunday ended in a tough loss against the Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens. Neither team scored until the eighth when Pomona got four runs on four hits.
Middlebury stayed in the game, scoring two runs in the ninth, but it wasn’t enough and the game ended in a 4–2 loss.
However, Middlebury was not without success against the Sagehens. Colin Waters ’19 threw seven scoreless innings in which he gave up only three hits and two walks, striking out four.. Additionally, Han and Strmecki each finished with a 2-for-3 performance at the plate.
Furthermore, Middlebury proved not to be held down by these losses and went on to win their next two games against Whittier College and Caltech.
The Panthers needed 10 innings to dispatch the Whittier Poets on Monday, March 26. After three scoreless innings, Middlebury managed to get a run on the board in the fourth. After Han reached on a fielder’s choice which moved Smith to third, the Panthers executed perfectly a first-and-third situation, confusing the Poets’ defense as Han stole second and Smith scored on a double steal.
In the following inning, the Panthers scored three runs on four hits for a 4–0 advantage. Whittier answered in the fifth, however, with two-run homer to make it a 4–2 game and ultimately tying it up 4–4 in the eighth. Staying at 4–4 throughout the ninth, the teams were pushed into an exciting extra inning.
Carroll started the tenth inning off with a bang, hitting a solo homer — his first of the season, but likely not his last, considering he hit three home runs last season and has already tallied five RBIs and thirteen hits to account for a .277 batting average and .379 on-base percentage so far this year. Throughout the obvious early success, he has remained humble. “My personal goal is to continue contributing to the team’s success both on and off the field,” says Carroll.
Han went on to seal the deal, taking advantage of a fielding error to get home. The Poets failed to answer, resulting in a 6-4 victory for the Panthers.
Smith’s batting skills were highlighted as he went 3-for-5 at the plate with two RBI and two runs score. Middlebury’s depth was on display against Whittier, as six other players had hits as well.
Middlebury went on to beat the Caltech Beavers 8–5 on Tuesday, March 27th in a back-and-forth game. Caltech scored four runs in the first two innings to Middlebury’s zero, but the Panthers answered with three runs on three hits in the third, making it a 4–3 game. Han had a single to bring home Senior Captain Sebastian Sanchez ‘18 and Carroll, while Graf singled to drive in Han. Hamilton Evans ‘20 belted a two-out homer — also his first home run at the collegiate level — to left center in the fourth to tie the game at 4–4. Caltech managed to get another run in in the bottom of the inning on an RBI single, but Middlebury regained the lead with a run from Smith. The Panthers scored three more with runs from Carroll, Han and Elgarten in the seventh inning to give them an 8–5 lead. Caltech was contained offensively for the last two innings, resulting in a strong win for the Panthers.
Of note is Han, who went 2-for-4 with two runs scored and two RBI against Caltech, and again the team’s depth was easily displayed, as seven other Panthers had one or more hits.
Though pulling off wins against Whittier and Caltech, the Panthers suffered a loss against the then 10th NCAA ranked Redlands bulldogs on Wednesday, Mar. 28. Middlebury had the first run of the game in the third inning when Andrew Hennings ‘20 scored on a sacrifice fly to left field from Carroll. The Bulldogs responded strongly with two runs in the bottom of the inning and then two more in the fifth, leaving the final score at 4-1.
Pitcher Justin Legowski ‘19 took a tough loss on the mound, allowing four runs and five hits over five innings of work. Legowski acknowledged this, saying “We made a few mistakes which good teams like Redlands will make you pay for. If you leave the ball up in the zone to good hitters, they will will hit it.” Yet, he knew what changes needed to be made and saw the Redlands matchup as an opportunity to grow and come back stronger. “Moving forward, and in order to bounce back, we have to keep the ball down in the zone from a pitching standpoint,” says Legowski. “We use this to motivate us, and we enjoy the challenge of competing with these more experienced teams to begin our season. We gain confidence as we work through the early-season rust to compete with, and beat, some very strong teams,” an experience he feels will be invaluable looking ahead to more division matchups.
Like Legowski, the team is overall proud of their performance against these tough out-of-conference competitors, despite the mixed bag of results.
“The California teams are obviously going to be more polished than teams like us because they start playing the first week of February. That being said, they’re very good teams, and opening our season with stiff competition challenged us from the get-go. It was a great way to see who on our team is a true competitor,” Smith commented.
After a well-deserved day off, the rejuvenated Panthers came back from their loss on Wednesday ready to take on their first Nescac opponents of the season: Williams.
Middlebury pulled off a season-high of 20 runs in the first game of three against the Ephs. They also limited their opponents to just one score. The last time the Panthers pulled of 20 runs was in their victory against Hamilton, which ended 20-8 in 2010. Furthermore, the Panthers scored in seven different innings and collected a season-best 19 hits.
Their success started early, scoring six runs in the bottom of the first inning with the help of key plays from Woodring, Carroll, Bernstein and Elgarten. Williams’ only run came during the top of the second inning. Many of the Panthers had the chance to show their stuff, as Hennings, Graf, Smith, Han, Andrew Corcoran ’18, and Strmecki, among others, all played vital roles in Middlebury’s offensive success.
On the mound, Morris improved to 2–2 on the season, giving up only one run on four hits in seven innings. Andrew Martinson ‘20 and Evan Stewart ‘21 stepped up to the plate as well as relief pitchers, both throwing scoreless innings.
Saturday, March 31, took a different turn for the team in their double-header against Williams, ending the day with a split.
The Panthers began the day with a 6–1 win over the Ephs. Williams quickly scored the first run of the game in the top of the first inning until Middlebury was able to hold them and take the lead in the fourth inning with a pair of runs by Smith and Guild with two outs. The Panthers tacked on four more runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to put their total for the game at six. Graf went 2-for-2 with two RBIs and Han had two hits with a run scored.
Defensively, Will Oppenheim ‘21 picked up his first collegiate victoring, throwing 5.1 innings during which he allowed only one run on five hits with four strikeouts. Additionally, George Goldstein ‘21 retired all five batters he faced for his second showing on the mound.
Legowski praises the performance of the team’s first-years.
“Our first-year guys did an awesome job all week,” Legowski said. “Coming in as first-year guy, and trying to understand your role and where you fit into the puzzle can be challenging. However, they were more than prepared and were a big reason as to why we won the series.”
Game two of the double header, however, ended on a different note as the Panthers suffered an unexpected loss against Williams. Though Middlebury first took the lead, scoring three runs in the first two innings, Williams answered with three runs in the third inning to tie the game. The score remained 3–3 until the seventh inning, when the Ephs added on two more, bringing the game to its final score of 5–3.
The dramatic shift in the final scores from the first game to the last was certainly on the Panthers’ minds coming out of the series. “I think that we got a bit complacent after winning the first two games,” says Carroll. “We came out flat which allowed them to stay in the game and come out on top.”
Despite this, Carroll remains optimistic.
“We won the series against Williams two games to one and that puts us in a great position as we head into our second series of conference games against Wesleyan this weekend. We showed in California that we are ready to compete for a playoff spot and I really like where we stand in relation to other Nescac teams.”
This positivity is certainly echoed by fellow teammates. “We feel very confident going into our conference matchups,” says Smith. “We have some freshmen stepping into key roles, and our bats our hot. I’m very excited about our potential in these upcoming conference games.”
The Panthers will next face Wesleyan in a three game conference series tomorrow and Saturday, April 6 and 7, followed by a game this Sunday, April 8, against Trinity.