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Baseball Repeats as Ivy Champs, Upsets Tulane at Regionals

BASEBALL

By Daniel G. Habib, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

This was not how it was supposed to end.

One short season after crashing the party at the Midwest Regional in Stillwater, Okla.--knocking off Stetson and top-seeded UCLA--the Crimson was nine outs away from making an early, ugly exit from Baton Rouge, La., and the NCAA tournament.

Record: 36-12, 16-4 Ivy

Coach: Joe Walsh

Highlights: Wins second straight Ivy title; defeats No. 16 Tulane for third place at NCAA Regional

Seniors: David Forst, Aaron Kessler, Mike Marcucci, Brian Ralph, Brett Vankoski, John Wells

With his squad trailing the 16th-ranked Tulane Green Wave 11-7 in an elimination game, Harvard Coach Joe Walsh called his team together for an impromptu huddle in front of the home team dugout at Louisiana State's (LSU) Alex Box Stadium.

There, on the same patch of grass where two dozen big leaguers and four national championship nines have gathered in the last 10 years, Walsh delivered what must have been the seminal speech of his long, highly successful coaching career.

One can only speculate as to its contents. Perhaps Walsh was fiery, angrily reminding his ball club that their seasons, and for some their careers, were about to come to a screeching halt. A loss to Tulane would be a step backward, a regression on the path to national recognition.

Or perhaps he was cool and rational, carefully instructing his ballplayers to do the same things they had done all season--the situational hitting, smart baserunning and overall hardball sense that had gotten them a school-record 35 wins and made them the undisputed kings of New England.

Whatever the message, each member of the Crimson took something from it, something that galvanized his performance in the innings that followed.

Junior second baseman Peter Woodfork remembered the dictum that you take outside junk the other way and punched a line-drive single into right.

Junior rightfielder Andrew Huling recalled the first commandment of Harvard smallball--hit behind the runner--and pulled a 4-3 grounder that moved Woodfork over.

Senior designated hitter Brett Vankoski stepped in to pinch-hit, realized that he might be swinging in his last collegiate at-bat and ripped off one of his trademark Charley Lau singles up the middle to plate Woodfork and begin the comeback.

Fast on the way to replacing Pete Albers '97, what stuck in sophomore Erik Binkowski's mind may have been an absolute duty to keep the rally alive. Battling to a 1-2 count, Binkowski remembered that not every at-bat has to be a bomb and slapped a groundball that squirted between first and second.

And then came senior centerfielder Brian Ralph, the man Walsh has called the greatest defensive centerfielder in college baseball. The lefthander--who broke his hand in spring training and still managed to lead the squad in homers and slugging percentage--was the toast of the prestigious Cape Cod summer league.

One can only speculate on what thoughts coursed through Ralph's head as he took two pitches from Tulane reliever Scott Bell. His impending professional career? His shameful 2-for-11 no-show in the Regional up to that point? His near-grand slam that would have tied Game One against Cal State-Fullerton?

Whatever they were, they evanesced as Bell wound up from the stretch, and broke off a hanging breaking ball. Six thousand surrogate fans who had adopted Harvard in the absence of hometown LSU gasped in unison, and Ralph pounced, drilling his team-record 10th home run of the season over the right-centerfield wall while the stadium erupted into its Cajun chant of "Geaux Harvard Geaux!"

11-11 tie. New ballgame. New season. Same old Harvard.

The Laguna Niguel, California native trotted coolly around the basepaths, and even though the Crimson had more work to do, this one was in the bag.

Huling and Binkowski ripped run-scoring singles in the bottom of the eighth off the Green Wave's Craig Brown to stake a 14-11 lead. Junior righthander Donny Jamieson--pitching out of the bullpen after starting much of the season--nailed down his second straight win in relief with one and two-thirds scoreless innings, and the Green Wave was history.

As one of many LSU officials who stopped by to offer their congratulations put it, "Y'all got `bout the scrappiest little team I ever seen."

Let that stand as an epithet, then. Walsh's club stole, bunted, sacrifice flied, hit and ran and, it seemed, positively willed its way to a third-place finish in its second NCAA Regional in as many years.

The Crimson scrapped out a 36-12 record, a No. 24 ranking in the final Associated Press poll and school records in wins, home runs, hits and stolen bases. Not bad for a bunch of upstarts from Cambridge who refused to die.

And although the Crimson fell out of the field with its second loss to eighth-ranked Fullerton in three days, baseball in the Northeast is on the map, courtesy of a gritty, knowledgeable club that won the hearts of the toughest baseball audience in the country.

"The fact that we were one of three teams left standing with LSU and Fullerton says a lot," Walsh said. "Those are programs that have owned the national championship in the last five years. We were fighting for national respect today, to show that we're not only a great school, but that we've got a great baseball team too."

Head of the Class

All season long, the Crimson thrived on the efforts of its seniors. Harvard baseball's class of 1998 was numerically small--four position players and two pitchers--but their playoff experience and their uniformly special years were the glue that kept the Crimson going.

Ralph, Vankoski, captain David Forst, leftfielder Aaron Kessler, relievers Mike Marcucci and John Wells. When these six joined the team in the spring of 1995, they inherited a program that, under part-time Coach Leigh Hogan, struggled through a 10-25 season and looked like the furthest thing imaginable from an NCAA tournament-caliber club.

Walsh's rapid turnaround of the club is a well-documented story, but the role his seniors have played somewhat less so. Of the six, Forst and Marcucci enjoyed career years, while Ralph, Kessler and Vankoski were all honored with All-Ivy distinction.

"I think it's clear from the statistics, and it's clear if you watched the team, that the seniors played a big part in what we accomplished," Forst said. "It's amazing what this class has accomplished. If you would have told me after our 10-25 season that we'd be back-to-back Ivy League champs and take two trips to the Regional, I would have thought you were talking about a different program."

Forst entered 1998 coming off a .286 pre-playoff campaign in which he played typically sparkling defense at shortstop, but consistently hit out of the nine-hole, managing just 30 hits. The captain worked with a wooden bat all summer, and shot to the five-slot in the order, leading the team in batting average at .406 while setting an all-time Harvard record for hits in a season with 67.

The shortstop--who had a career 26 RBI--added a team-best 39 and slugged .627, becoming the Ivy's most unlikely batting threat. As captain, Forst was plainly the emotional center of the team, and even when his uncharacteristic error totals plagued his glovework, he found a way to crank out a 4-for-4 or keep an inning rolling.

Marcucci settled into the middle relief role and side-armed and junkballed his way to the All-Ivy First Team, going 7-0 to equal a school mark for winning percentage, and in four years with the Crimson never managed to lose a game.

He worked the treacherous middle innings of a staff-high 21 games, and for an April stretch of the Ivy schedule, bagged what seemed like a win every other game, finishing with a very clean 3.29 ERA.

All-Ivy honorable mentions Kessler and Vankoski each enjoyed .300-plus seasons at the plate, Kessler drilling 56 hits and swiping 22 bases out of the leadoff slot, and Vankoski finishing .302 with two homers and 25 RBI.

Masters of their Domain

As it has since Walsh took the helm, the Crimson dominated Ivy League competition, posting a 16-4 regular season mark and sweeping Lou Gehrig division titlist Princeton in the Championship Series. In the last three seasons, Harvard has tallied a 52-15 record against the Ancient Eight.

And en route to its No. 1 ranking in New England, the Crimson dispensed with all of its area competition, bagging road wins at Rhode Island, Holy Cross and Providence, and three times topping last year's NCAA participant Northeastern. Only two rainouts conspired to prevent the Crimson from nabbing its first Beanpot title since 1991 and a win over in-state rival UMass.

Harvard began the Ivy campaign off a 7-6 Florida spring training trip, which included a near-miss 10-7 loss to Oklahoma State and closed rather unceremoniously with a three-game sweep at the hands of then top-ranked Miami.

This, after the talk of the 1997 spring training trip had been a 7-6 squeaker the Crimson stole from the Hurricanes.

Harvard's first stop was Princeton's Clarke Field, ever a site of bad memories--like a two-game sweep in the 1996 Championship Series.

True to form, the Crimson had some difficulty making the switch from sunny Dade county to southern New Jersey, and while junior righthander Andrew Duffell shook off offseason surgery to nail down a 6-3 win in the opener, classmate Garett Vail took it on the chin in a 10-2 loss in the nightcap.

While Princeton continued to plague the Crimson, history intimated that the two would meet again in the Ivy Championships, and Harvard kept its end of the bargain, blazing through its conference schedule to win 21 of its next 24.

The critical weekend of the season--a four game set at then-second place Yale--provided the barometer for the Crimson's progress. Although the Bulldogs got complete games from three starters, including Ivy Pitcher of the Year Eric Gutshall, Harvard worked out a split on the strength of a ninth-inning rally in Game Four keyed by Forst, Ralph and junior third baseman Hal Carey.

The win was what Walsh called a "gut check" and proved that the Crimson was committed to repeating in the Rolfe division. It also showed Harvard's come-from-behind capability, one which would serve it well late in the year.

The Crimson moved uneventfully through the remainder of its regular season slate, whitewashing Northeastern 11-0 in the Beanpot semis behind gems from Wells and junior lefthander Quinn Schafer and taking a doubleheader sweep from Boston College in a pair of riveting games that included Woodfork's game-winning two-run double.

And finally, Harvard breezed through its postseason, sweeping Princeton in its championship rematch behind 13-run efforts in both games, including a grand slam from junior catcher Jason Keck, then bounced MAAC-champ LeMoyne in a doubleheader sweep at O'Donnell Field, beating the Dolphins' ace Scott Cassidy to earn a return ticket to the NCAAs.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The Next Generation

The Crimson got break-out years from several of its underclassmen, most notably All-Ivy honorees Keck, Vail and Carey, each of whom improved markedly on his 1997 campaign.

Keck, whose status as the Ivy's best pitch-calling catcher is beyond debate, upped his average from .275 to .386, belting three homers with 37 RBI and hit out of the cleanup slot all season.

Keck was named First-Team All-Ivy and finished second in the race for the Blair Bat (highest average in Ivy games) to Yale's Tony Coyne at .446.

Vail added a changeup to his repertoire and trained hard in the offseason, picking up the slack in the starting rotation left by the loss of Frank Hogan to graduation and Duffell and classmate James Kalyvas's constant battles with elbow troubles.

Vail finished Second-Team All-Ivy behind Gutshall, tallying a 5-3 record with a 2.94 ERA, and also managed to avenge his Game One loss to Fullerton with six and two-thirds innings of four-hit ball against the Titans to keep Harvard involved in Game Four.

Carey, who swapped infield positions with Woodfork midway through the season, demonstrated flexibility while handling the hot corner and solidified the Crimson's left-side defense.

With the stick, Carey, the 1996 Ivy Rookie of the Year, batted a hefty .376 with 65 hits and swiped a team-high 25 bases.

The Needham, Mass., native also carried the Crimson for much of the Regional, going 9-for-17 with five runs scored and six RBI.

Walsh's other juniors--Woodfork and Huling--enjoyed productive campaigns, Huling batting .335 with 57 hits and 21 stolen bases, while Woodfork made the switch to second base and turned the double play with remarkable facility, also hitting .289 and swiping 17 of 20 bags.

"I think the team is in good hands with its juniors," Forst said. "Guys like Keck, Hal Carey, Woodfork are capable of taking over and stepping into a leadership role."

Youth Movement

Walsh also got terrific rookie campaigns from three key contributors in Binkowski, sophomore reliever Derek Lennon and freshman starter John Birtwell.

Binkowski, who saw highly limited action last season as Pete Albers's backup, won control of the starting job and performed admirably, hitting .291 and fielding .995, knocking down more than his fair share of smoking grounders.

Most significant about Binkowski's achievement is the fact that he wasn't supposed to play this season, but rehabbed hard from an anterior cruciate ligament injury and impressed with his more-than-adequate mobility around the bag.

Binkowski also got hot when it counted, homering in the LeMoyne play-in and against Tulane in the Regional.

Lennon, who made the leap from the junior varsity program, became the designated long relief man, finishing 3-1 with a 4.03 ERA in 29 innings of work, allowing the opposition to bat only .223.

And then there was Birtwell, the babyfaced freshman who dazzled all season long, going his first 20 innings without allowing an earned run before succumbing to a virus and missing a month and a half.

The Walpole, Mass., product returned in time to record a win over LeMoyne and seven and one-third five-hit innings in the Crimson's 6-5 win over Nicholls State in an elimination game. Birtwell's impressive array of pitches suggest that he may anchor the staff well into the next millennium.

Wait'll Next Year

And so the 1998 season ended where the last one did, on a Saturday night at a Regional which found the Crimson at the end of its rope and one day shy of the likes of UCLA or LSU.

But if Walsh's club has achieved anything in the past two seasons, it has cleared a space in the inner circle of college baseball for a team from the northeast, one that relies on scrapping runs and playing defense, one that won't go yard as often as its colleagues will, but that will manage to look every bit as professional.

And maybe next time around, with one more quality inning in one more pitcher's arm, or one more base knock in somebody's bat, the Crimson will last to Sunday, as Walsh put it, "where the big boys play."

Twenty-fourth in the nation and indisputably tops in the Northeast? Sounds like where the big boys play to me.

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