After seeing all the success that pitching has brought to the Harvard baseball team in recent years, the rest of the Ivy League has likewise shifted its emphasis towards recruiting quality starters. As a result, more and more teams-including Yale, the Crimson's opponent this weekend-are boasting bona fide aces.
"Everybody's got a gunslinger this year," Harvard Coach Joe Walsh said earlier this year. "It's amazing."
Still, the rest of the league has not caught up to Harvard pitching-wise just yet. While every team may have a gunslinger or even two, this weekend proved that the Crimson is unique in having four of them.
Thus, while Yale (8-17, 3-9 Ivy) was able to seize the opener of this weekend's four-game series on the strength of a one-hitter by Elis' southpaw Craig Breslow, the rest of the Yale rotation proved no match for Harvard's pitchers.
In the next three games, the Crimson's starters limited the Elis to just five earned runs total, lifting Harvard (12-18, 7-5) to three wins over Yale at O'Donnell Field this weekend.
"We probably have the deepest pitching staff [in the league]," senior ace John Birtwell said. "As a staff, everyone is confident handing the ball over to the next guy. I'm not sure many other teams can say that."
In addition to the fine performance from its starters, Harvard capitalized on some breakout performances at the plate from a laundry list of hitters. In particular, juniors Mark Mager, Faiz Shakir and Brian Lentz each boasted at least two multi-hit games, and scored 10 of Harvard's 30 runs over the four games.
By winning three wins against Yale, Harvard took its first series of the season. More importantly, with Dartmouth taking three games from Brown this weekend, the Crimson moved within a half-game of the Bears for first place in the Red Rolfe Division.
Harvard 13, Yale 3
On most Ivy weekends, Walsh is inclined to save Birtwell for the series finale. By doing so, Walsh assures himself that whatever happens through the first three games of the weekend, the buck stops with Birtwell.
By the time the fourth game rolled around this weekend, the Crimson had already assured itself of no worse than a split with Yale.
But with a chance to gain ground in the standings on the line, the win was no less necessary. And, as the game played out, Birtwell was no less clutch.
The senior ace struck out 13 batters in eight innings and sophomore Barry Wahlberg worked a solid ninth inning in relief as Harvard bombed Yale 13-3. The win completed Harvard's first sweep of a doubleheader this season.
"Obviously, you want to win every time you go out there, but it was that much more important [Saturday]," Birtwell said. "You can only split so much. And now we stay in control of our own destiny [in the division]."
Yale starter Michael Boardman ran into trouble early, surrendering three runs in less than three innings, and was lifted quickly. The Elis proceeded to shuffle through its bullpen in an attempt to stop the bleeding, but none of Yale's five pitchers could keep Harvard from scoring. The Crimson crossed the plate in all but two innings.
Yale did keep the Crimson's hottest hitter, junior third baseman Nick Carter at bay throughout most of the game and the weekend. But the rest of the Harvard order more than picked up the slack. In the win Saturday, Shakir alone supplied five RBI out of the ninth hole.
In addition, senior outfielder Scott Carmack went 3-for-4 with three runs scored and Mager also added three hits along with three RBI.
With the win, Birtwell improved to his record to 4-2.
Harvard 7, Yale 0
As well as Harvard junior Justin Nyweide has pitched this season, it was just a matter of time before he won his first decision.
On Saturday, Nyweide's time finally came.
After dueling with Yale starter Matt McCarthy to a scoreless tie through five innings, Nyweide watched as the Crimson erupted for seven runs in the bottom of the sixth to pull out a 7-0 win and furnish him his first victory of the year.
The win was well-deserved. Nyweide pitched a complete-game shutout, holding Yale to a measly three hits without issuing a walk.
The ample run support was a welcome change for Nyweide, whose brilliant efforts on the mound had gone unrewarded before this weekend. He entered Saturday's game with a mark of 0-4 despite pitching effectively.
"Nyweide has pitched outstanding for us this year," Walsh said before Saturday's game. "Unfortunately, twenty years from now, his son will come to Harvard, look in the record books and see that his father started the season 0-4. I hope he calls me, because I'll tell him: 'Your dad was one heck of a pitcher. We just had nobody swinging the stick back then-I'm sorry'."
History will now remember Nyweide a little more kindly thanks to the Crimson's seven-run uprising. Harvard captain Scot Hopps opened the innning with a pinch-hit double. He later came around on an RBI-single by Mager. Lentz then added a two-run single, and freshmen Trey Hendricks, Marc Hordon and Bryan Hale each added run-scoring singles to cap the inning.
McCarthy, who gave up six runs on six hits in five innings, took the loss for Yale. He falls to 2-6 on the year.
Harvard 10, Yale 1
Friday's doubleheader was billed as a showcase of two of the country's top pitching prospects, with Harvard junior Ben Crockett working in the first game and Yale junior Jon Steitz pitching the second.
As it turned out, though, two crafty lefties stole the show.
In the second game of Friday's twin-bill, Harvard sophomore Kenon Ronz made quick work of Yale, throwing a complete nine-inning game while surrendering just one run on three hits.
Meanwhile, for all the hubbub surrounding him entering the day, Steitz got hammered.
The Harvard bats-which mustered just one hit against Breslow in Friday's first game-roared back to life and had no trouble catching up to Steitz' renowned fastball. The Crimson pounded out thirteen hits in the game. That total was second only to the team's season-best 14 hit performance against Holy Cross last Wednesday.
Steitz was mercifully lifted in the seventh in favor of reliever Eric Naison-Phillips. The Crimson's biggest outburst came well before that point, though.
In the bottom of the second, singles by Lentz, Mager, Shakir, Carmack, and Carter highlighted a wild five-run inning. Two Yale errors did little to help Steitz' cause as the Crimson circled the basepaths like a merry-go-round.
Harvard plated two more runs in both the fifth and seventh innings before Mager singled home the Crimson's final run in the bottom of the eighth.
Yale 7, Harvard 0
In the first game of the weekend series, the pressure was on Crockett from the outset.
In fact, the junior righthander was staring down the barrel of a gun all day long. A projected first round draft pick in this June's amateur draft, Crockett attracted a throng of scouts who stood in the bleachers Friday-radar guns in hand-charting his every pitch.
If that was not enough cause for jitters, Crockett also fell behind the eight-ball early when the Elis manufactured a run on a double-steal play in the top of first. His teammates, it turned out, were helpless to bail him out.
Indeed, with all the attention focused on Crockett, Breslow pitched with nothing to lose and ended up outdueling his Harvard counterpart. Breslow, in fact, took a no-hitter into the last of the seventh before a single by Carter finally erased the goose egg in Harvard's hit column.
Other than Carter, though, the only other Crimson batter to reach base on Breslow was Carmack, who drew a pair of walks.
"We were very tentative and didn't come out aggressive," Walsh said. "I was shocked. [Breslow] pitched well-no doubt about it-but we weren't getting the bat on the ball. We were just sitting there watching his fastball go by us."
After spotting Yale the 1-0 run in the first, Crockett settled into a groove and mowed through the Yale lineup over the next four innings. At times, he was every bit as unhittable as Breslow, finishing the afternoon with ten strikeouts. But as the game progressed and Harvard failed to even mount a threat on offense, the prevailing sense was that Crockett's fine effort would be in vain.
And then, in the top of the sixth, the roof caved in.
Yale touched Crockett for five more runs that expanded the Elis' lead to 5-0. Crockett would be lifted one inning later after loading up the bases with no outs. Two of those runners eventually came in to score before the book finally closed on Crockett. His final line-seven earned runs, 10 hits, and the loss-hardly reflected his strong outing.
Breslow, meanwhile, went the distance for his first win of the season. As well as he pitched, though, the Crimson batters did a lot to accommodate him by falling behind in the count for most of the day.
"I think it was more a case of us overthinking, taking too many pitches, and questioning our ability," Birtwell said. "We have the tendency to beat ourselves sometimes."
Maybe so on Friday. But if the rest of this past weekend provided any indication, the pressure to beat Harvard will be on the opposition from now on.