Drive for Nescac Championship Cut Short

By JENNY LANGERMAN

On Friday, May 4, Hamilton beat Amherst, handing the Mammoths their third loss in the Nescac and setting up the most important series of the Nescac West season. For Middlebury to make the Nescac baseball playoffs, they needed to win two out of three games on Saturday and Sunday, May 5 and 6. The Panthers came up just short, winning the first game but losing the last two, ending a comeback attempt that featured a 10-game winning streak to bring Middlebury within striking distance of first place.

But first the Panthers had to make up games against Union and Plattsburgh, which had to be rescheduled from earlier in the season due to inclement weather. In doing so, the Panthers extended their winning streak to eight and then nine games. 

Against Union the Panthers cruised to an easy 6–3 victory. Colin Waters ’19 earned the win on the mound, as he managed to strike out six opponents while allowing only three hits over the course of seven innings of work.

Although neither team scored in the first four innings, Sebastian Sanchez ’18 put the Panthers on the board with a run in the fifth, and five more followed it up in the seventh inning — topped off with a grand slam homer by Alan Guild ’20.

The Panthers’ busy week continued with another make-up game on the road against Plattsburgh, which also ended in Middlebury’s favor and added one more onto their winning streak.

Justin Han ’20, Hayden Smith ’20 and Ryan Hanrahan ’21 all had doubles, while Sam Graf ’19 put up both a double and a triple.

Young Panther pitchers fared well and got more innings on the mound. Will Oppenheim ’21 and Jack Miller ’21 combined for nine strikeouts. Miller closed out the game and struck out all four hitters he faced — a confidence-booster heading into the winner-take-all showdown over the weekend with Amherst. 

“When some of our key pitchers got injured, I felt the need to step up and fill that role in the bullpen,” Miller said.

“Pitching against Plattsburgh felt great,” Oppenheim said. “It proved that I could overcome a huge setback and get out of tough innings without the walks that plagued me earlier in the season. I had great control of my pitches and got a lot of swings and misses on my curveball. My confidence was completely brought back after pitching against Plattsburgh.”

Middlebury extended its winning streak even further on Saturday with a shutout victory in the first of their three-game set against the Mammoths, adding to the fanfare of a series already chock-full of storylines. That win was Middlebury’s 10th in a row, tying the program record for consecutive wins.

The first game of the Amherst series remained scoreless until the bottom of the third, when Brooks Carroll ’20 had a two-RBI single to get the Panthers on the board. A subsequent hit from Han drove home Henry Strmecki ’21 to increase the Panthers’ lead to two. 

Middlebury picked the scoring back up in the next inning, driving in three runs for the second time and bringing the score to 6–0. A sac fly from Jake Dianno ’21 in the sixth inning pushed Han across the plate for the last run of the game. 

Captain Colby Morris ’19 pitched a complete game for the Panthers, bringing his total career innings pitched to 183. For his efforts, he won Nescac Pitcher of the Week. With the regular season coming to a close, Morris finishes the season with the pitching triple crown for Nescac pitchers (including non-conference games). His overall ERA was 1.71, with 52 strikeouts and five victories. After his sensational junior season, Morris has big plans this offseason before his final round in the blue-and-white.

“I always have [wanted to play professionally], and now think I have a much more realistic shot at it after this season,” Morris said.

Luckily for the Panthers, working towards professional baseball won’t detract from Morris’ star contributions to the team.

“Fortunately, working towards this personal goal also will ultimately help the team,” Morris said. “I’m going to play this summer in the Northwoods League, one of the top summer ball leagues in the nation, and am going to be in Green Bay for that. After my contract is up with my team, I’m going to a training center in Seattle to work on velocity and then going home after before the fall to train and get stronger in preparation for the coming year. I’m hoping Coach can help me out a little bit with the end goal of playing after next year, but the better I do for Midd, the better shot I have, so it’s a win-win.”

With their win in the opener, the Panthers were only one win away from a playoff berth. The day ended with split results, however, as the Mammoths came back from their loss to pull off a 6–3 win over the Panthers in the second half of the twin bill.

Though Middlebury scored first in the second inning, Amherst answered with three runs in the third, putting them in the lead. The Mammoths went up by two more in the seventh inning and then by another in the top of the ninth. The Panthers tried to rally in the bottom of the ninth inning with a pair of runs fueled by a hit from Phil Bernstein ’19, but could not match their opponents.

And so the last game of the series, on Sunday, May 6, was for all the marbles.

Middlebury scored first when Carroll stole third and then scored when the ball got past the catcher and to the backstop. But Amherst quickly responded with three runs in the second, all with two outs, and then added two more in the third. The Panthers countered with another run from Carroll off a hit from Graf in their half of the inning to make it a 5–2 game after three.

Middlebury made another push in the seventh. Strmecki led off with a double down the left-field line, which Han followed up immediately with a single to score Strmecki. Han stole second and then induced a pickoff attempt that flew into centerfield, so he advanced to third. Then the Amherst pitcher hit Smith and threw a wild pitch, scoring Han and bringing the Panthers within one. On the wild pitch, Smith advanced to third, but injured his shoulder on the play and had to come out of the game. Carroll walked, then Graf flew out to shallow centerfield. Brendan Donahue ’18, Smith’s pinch-runner, tagged up but was tagged out at home, so Amherst’s one-run lead stayed intact heading into the eighth inning.

But let’s be clear. The game was decided in the bottom of the eighth, when the Panthers trailed by a run, 6–5, and had the bases loaded after Hennings reached on a double, Dianno singled and Sanchez moved them over to put runners on second and third. Strmecki lined out to third before Han was intentionally walked. Raj Palekar ’18 then had the biggest hit of the season for the Panthers, when he hit a single to drive in Hennings, but Dianno could not score from second, bringing up Carroll with the bases loaded and two outs. However, the ever-reliable Carroll could not capitalize this time, grounding out to the pitcher and being thrown out at first by a step.

Amherst added two insurance runs in the top of the ninth, and then brought in their closer, who struck out the side.

This loss was especially devastating for the Panthers, whose goal of winning a conference title was dashed a year after a resurgent season saw Middlebury make it all the way to the championship series before falling to Tufts. This season was supposed to be their redemption.

“Our reaction was just as you would expect — a crushing loss. Not only was it a physical defeat, but just is tough to swallow knowing we are the best team in the league,” said Morris.

Miller echoed Morris’ sentiment. It was Nescac champions or bust. 

“We’re heartbroken by the outcome,” Miller said.

In spite of the raw talent Middlebury held this season, the team encountered many uncontrollable obstacles. 

“We definitely had a tough-luck season, losing three guys to season-ending injuries, having others banged up all season, and needing to mature really quickly after the tough beginning of the season,” said Morris.

And, according to scouting reports from the director of baseball operations and statistics, Jack Langerman ’19, the team was not blind to how these challenges could impact the Amherst matchup. “It was going to be a close series and would come down to a few plays,” reported Langerman.

The team plans to pick up right where they left off next season, however, taking advantage of the young talent on this year’s roster. “We have a bright future together as a team, and I am ecstatic to start it back up,” says Morris.

This optimism is exemplified across the team. “I think that we have all the pieces to win the Nescac next year. We’ll be working hard in the offseason and getting some key players back from injury,” explained a hopeful Miller.

Oppenheim agreed. “The future is bright for Middlebury baseball.”

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Drive for Nescac Championship Cut Short