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Harvard's Strategy Pays Off—For Rhode Island

It was 1998 and the Harvard baseball program, one year removed from its upset of top-seeded UCLA in the NCAA tournament, was at the pinnacle of its success. A Boston Globe reporter, intrigued by the little Ivy that could, came across the river to unearth the secret to Harvard’s budding dynasty.

Harvard coach Joe Walsh didn’t hesitate to divulge his coaching philosophy.

“I call it National League baseball,” he told the Globe. “Lots of intensity, lots of aggressiveness, lots of enthusiasm.”

“We’re not a station-to-station ball club,” he added. “We’re always looking to run. We’ll attempt seven or eight stolen bases a game.”

Imagine Walsh’s frustration, then, to get beaten at his own game yesterday.

On an afternoon when rain threatened to shorten the Crimson’s home opener, the Rhode Island Rams played every inning like it was their last. Rhode Island had only six baserunners yesterday—just one more than Harvard—but pushed three of them across for runs.

Not one of those runners who crossed the plate, mind you, advanced on a ball hit out of the infield. Instead, Rhode Island scored its runs by taking chances and giving its runners the green light.

When all was said and done, the Rams had successfully stolen eight bases and one brand of baseball.

“Rhode Island put a lot more pressure on the basepaths than we did,” Walsh said. “I’m a little envious.”

If it seems like Harvard should have known better, they did. Walsh certainly had his team prepped for the methods of Rhode Island coach Frank Leoni, whom he holds in high regard (probably because they’re so like-minded). It didn’t matter much.

“That was the most frustrating thing,” said freshman shortstop Zak Farkes. “We knew they were a well-coached, aggressive team who liked to use the hit-and-run, delayed steal, all that kind of stuff. We couldn’t stop it anyway.”

It wasn’t for lack of trying. In the fifth inning, when Rhode Island twice called for a delayed double steal with runners on the corners, Harvard responded just as brazenly, electing to throw down to second, only to cut off the throw and come back home. Both steal attempts were two-out tries when Harvard could’ve settled for the out at second and sacrificed the run or just given the Rams the free base and focused on the batter.

“Doesn’t matter,” Walsh said when reminded of those possibilities after the game. “We want to throw down to second on that play every time.”

“Maybe if it’s a sunny day, we give up the run,” Farkes added, “but not when we don’t know when the game’s going to be over.”

That sense of urgency didn’t quite carry over when the Crimson was on the basepaths, though. Harvard moved just one runner over to third base all afternoon. That can partly be explained by the fact that opportunities to steal or play hit-and-run “just didn’t come up,” as Farkes said.

On the other hand, consider that five years ago, Walsh readily admitted—bragged?—to the Globe how his team fielded few players who could “hit the ball where the grass doesn’t grow.” Now Harvard does. This spring has seen the return of Brian Lentz, Schuyler Mann, and a leaner, even more muscular Trey Hendricks as power threats, not to mention the smash debut of a crop of freshmen who can just plain mash. Entering yesterday, Harvard had half as many home runs as it had all of last year in a third of the games.

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