Strike One: Green Day
The first ticket to the 2009 NCAA Tournament was punched this weekend when Dartmouth topped Cornell in the best-of-three Ivy League Championship series. The Big Green won two out of three against the Big Red to reach regionals for the first time since 1987.
It was a measure of redemption for Dartmouth, which went 15-5 in the Ivy in 2008 and hosted the conference championship series, which it lost in wild fashion to Columbia. Big Green coach Bob Whalen said he could sense his team’s hunger down the stretch as it honed in on that elusive regional berth.
"If you’ve coached long enough like I have, every team is different, has a different personality," said Whalen, who’s in his 20th season. "There’s a certain maturity level about this group, not just because of last year. We’ve been to the Ivy championship five times since 2000. In the last 10 years, we’ve won more Ivy games than any school in either division. But at the same time, you’re in this to win championships, not just to collect wins."
In past years, the Big Green ran into buzz saws on the mound (Princeton twice beat Dartmouth in Ivy championships behind future major leaguers Chris Young and Ross Ohlendorf) or an upstart group that was hot at the right time (last year’s Columbia team). But this year, Dartmouth would not be denied.
The Big Green won the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, 8-6, behind three hits from its star player, junior outfielder Nick Santomauro (.378/.455/.636 with eight homers and 37 RBIs). Cornell rallied to win the nightcap 14-12, in shades of last year’s 16-15 loss to Columbia in the middle game of the series.
"Coming into Sunday’s game, I knew we would play well," Whalen said. "I wasn’t sure that we were going to win, but I knew we’d play well."
Dartmouth played one of its best games of the season in the decisive third game. Freshman righthander Kyle Hendricks (6-2, 3.86) held Cornell scoreless for 7 1/3 innings, striking out nine while walking three. Three times over the first few innings, while the outcome was still in question, Hendricks escaped jams by getting big strikeouts. Dartmouth went on to a 10-0 win.
"My immediate and overwhelming emotion is i’m just really proud of my players and my team," Whalen said. "It was a great year on many levels, but it’s also been a hard year."
Dartmouth installed a new FieldTurf playing surface and built a new ballpark in the fall thanks to a $5.2 million gift from alumnus Mike Biondi, who passed away unexpectedly at age 50 just days after conceptual plans for the new ballpark were finalized. The field wasn’t available for fall practice, so the Big Green bussed 45 minutes each way to practice at Division III Colby-Sawyer in the fall. After taking final exams, the team traveled to the Dominican Republic to take on Mets and Padres minor leaguers, giving the players a unique baseball experience as well as an opportunity to get a taste of a different culture.
In the spring, Dartmouth had to dig out of an early 1-9 hole after its spring trip, which included games against Duke, San Jose State, Santa Clara and Cal Poly. But that trip allowed the coaching staff to assess the team’s strengths and weaknesses and settle on its key pitchers and everyday regulars. Dartmouth is 24-6 since returning from that trip.
Now, the Big Green must keep itself busy for the next three weeks until regionals. Whalen hopes to schedule a tune-up series against the Patriot League champion to help keep his team fresh. The waiting is the hardest part, but the resilient, poised Big Green can handle a little waiting.
Strike Two: Stock Report
We’re updating our projected field of 64 every two weeks here at BaseballAmerica.com—so our next projection will come out next Tuesday, May 12—but a lot can change in just one week. With that in mind, here’s a look at some teams whose stock has either risen or fallen since last week’s regional projection:
• Florida. The Gators elbowed past Georgia into strong position to host a regional by sweeping the Bulldogs in Athens. Florida now ranks eighth in the Ratings Percentage Index (according to boydsworld.com) and leads the SEC East by two games over UGa. Even if Florida loses a road series to Louisiana State next weekend, the Gators should host a regional, provided they win their final series at home against Kentucky and avoid a weak showing in the SEC tournament.
• Texas A&M. The Aggies helped themselves not only by winning a solid series against Dallas Baptist, but perhaps even more by taking a midweek game against Texas Christian, which also is jockeying for hosting position. The Horned Frogs are now just 1-6 against Big 12 teams, which could prove to be its undoing when host sites are award, despite their strong RPI (11th) and bevy of quality weekend series wins. The Aggies stand to benefit, particularly if they can win this weekend’s series against Texas. If A&M beats the Longhorns, expect the Aggies, ‘Horns and Rice to host regionals in the Lone Star State, leaving TCU as a potential No. 1 seed in a regional somewhere else.
• Kansas State. The Wildcats just keep on winning, and they’ve put themselves in position to potentially usurp Oklahoma as a regional host out of the Big 12. With a strong finish against a very manageable schedule (home against Texas Tech, then a season-ending series against Kansas), the Wildcats will host.
• Illinois. The Fighting Illini now lead the Big Ten after sweeping Northwestern. Indiana stumbled, losing a series at Purdue, so let’s replace the Hoosiers with the Illini as the Big Ten’s third regional team.
• South Carolina. The Gamecocks viewed their series against Vanderbilt as just about must-win, and they swept it. That gives South Carolina some breathing room in the SEC. Now they’ll very likely make the SEC tournament, and their regional chances are very good. They might even be back in position to compete for a No. 2 seed. Their RPI (27th) is in that territory.
• UCLA. I wouldn’t put the Bruins into an updated field of 64, but they’re at least back into the discussion. At 22-22, UCLA is finally back to .500 for the first time since Feb. 24 (when it was 2-2). The Bruins are also in second place in the Pac-10 at 13-8, three games behind first-place Arizona State. With two weeks to play, that means the Bruins still have a chance to make a run at the Pac-10’s automatic bid, and they control their own destiny since they finish the season at ASU. I still think UCLA will have its work cut out for it over the final two weekends against Cal State Fullerton and the Sun Devils, but we must at least resurrect its at-large chances (which we buried after the Bruins dropped their second straight conference series on April 12).
• Southern California. The Trojans were swept at Washington, their second straight Pac-10 series loss, dropping them to 22-19 overall and 10-11 in conference play. USC’s path to regionals looked favorable, but the Trojans have failed to take advantage. They’re out.
• Washington State. Right now, the Cougars still have the inside track at a regional bid, with looming home series against Oregon and Washington. But losing a home series to Stanford this weekend pushed them from the good side of the bubble to a far more precarious position.
• San Diego. The Toreros have done a great job holding this season together with duct tape and baling wire in the face of a plethora of key injuries, but their regional chances took a huge blow this weekend, as USD was swept at Loyola Marymount. The Lions are now tied with Gonzaga for first in the West Coast Conference, leaving the Toreros two games back with one conference weekend to play. If San Diego fails to make the best-of-three WCC championship series, its at-large hopes are extremely slim. LMU, meanwhile, has at least put itself in position to play for the league’s automatic bid, but it probably isn’t strong enough in the RPI (72nd) to garner an at-large bid. Gonzaga (50th in the RPI) is the lone WCC team in real strong position right now.
• Boston College. I thought the Eagles needed to win one of their final two series, both at home against Miami and North Carolina, to get an at-large bid. I figured Miami was their best shot, and they lost two of three to the Hurricanes this weekend. I don’t expect BC to beat the Tar Heels that final weekend. BC has now lost three straight ACC series; if that slump reaches four against UNC, the Eagles are done.
• Baylor. The Bears are in free fall, having been swept in back-to-back series by Oklahoma and Texas. They’re off next weekend for exams before finishing with three games at Nebraska. That’s a sweepable series, and Baylor probably needs to sweep it to preserve its at-large hopes. Right now, the Bears are 10-13 in the league and just 26-20 overall. They do have a strong enough RPI (20th) to get a bid with a solid finish, but their hosting chances are kaput, and they would fall from a solid No. 2 seed to a shaky No. 3 if we were to update last week’s projection today.
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Alex Wimmers
Ohio State pitching coach Eric Parker said last week that Buckeyes sophomore righthander Alex Wimmers can be dominant when he commands all three of his pitches.
Wimmers made Parker look like a wise man Friday. Effectively mixing his 88-91 mph fastball, quality curveball and changeup, Wimmers fired the first nine-inning no-hitter in Ohio State history in a 6-0 win against rival Michigan.
“Wimmers had command of all three of his pitches,” Ohio State coach Bob Todd said afterward. “He did not give in to their hitters. There’s a method to his madness and he simply was not going to give in to the hitters.”
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Wimmers ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the Valley League last summer, when his fastball velocity often sat in the 91-93 range. He worked exclusively in relief as a freshman last spring, but Parker said the key to his emergence as OSU’s ace has been the development of his changeup as a viable third pitch. He also has learned how to win even when he does not have all three pitches going, thanks to his aggressiveness and savvy.
“I go out with an attitude of how I want to pitch and then I’ll throw any pitch in any count,” Wimmers said after the game. “Emotions took over right after the game. It still hasn’t hit me yet, but some day it will.”
Shortstop Tyler Engle preserved the no-hitter with a brilliant defensive play in the eighth inning. Engle ranged deep to his left to make a diving stop on Kenny Fellows’ grounder up the middle. Engle then shoveled the ball to a waiting second baseman Cory Kovanda to get the force out.
“I knew the no-hitter was at stake,” Engle said. “I gave the play all I had. All I was thinking about was to get one out to avoid the play going for a hit. I was hoping Kovanda would be in the area and he was standing on the bag when I looked up.”
The win against Wolverines ace righty Chris Fetter propelled the Buckeyes to a doubleheader sweep against their rivals Friday. They won two of three in the series and are now trail first-place Illinois by a game in the Big Ten heading into next weekend’s showdown between the two teams.
Wimmers, who also has recorded dominating wins this season against Miami, Notre Dame and Indiana, finished with 14 strikeouts and four walks in his 133-pitch outing. It was his sixth double-digit strikeout game this season, giving him a conference-leading 103 whiffs on the season. He also struck out 14 in a complete-game shutout against Indiana on March 20. Wimmers improved to 8-1, 2.79 with 40 walks and 55 hits allowed in 81 innings. He now has four complete games—none more memorable than his masterpiece in Friday’s marquee mound matchup.