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CHAMPIONSHIP BOUTWELL: Baseball Openers Spell Success

By Robert C. Boutwell, Crimson Staff Writer

The Harvard baseball team’s opening weekend in Lubbock, Texas ended much the way it began: with the Crimson’s record standing at .500—2-2 after defeating Air Force twice and falling twice to Texas Tech.

But reporting the outcome of the games doesn’t even begin to do justice to all that transpired for Harvard down in Bobby Knight country this weekend. During a Saturday tripleheader featuring a 25-20 win over Air Force and 30-8 and 18-6 losses at the hands of Texas Tech, Harvard set all-time records for runs scored and runs allowed before sophomore Frank Herrmann stabilized things for the pitching staff with a 5-1 complete game victory on Sunday.

There are two ways to look at what this weekend’s results can tell us about the Crimson’s prospects for the rest of the season. First of all, one can take the opinion that the Crimson could be primed for a historic offensive season and that the pitching will inevitably catch up to the hitting a little later on. On the other hand, one can take a somewhat pessimistic view and surmise that notwithstanding Herrmann, the Harvard pitching staff could be in serious trouble this season after being repeatedly drubbed by Texas Tech. In yesterday’s Crimson, my esteemed colleague Pablo S. Torre took this viewpoint to some extent in his column.

“After the Crimson’s sojourn into the Lone Star State, I’m worried,” Torre wrote. “Maybe, I fear, I have seen more than just some early-season rust, or a pure statistical anomaly. I can’t help but fear that at this rate, the season could still turn out to be downright offensive.”

To be fair, by column’s end Pablo asserts his trust in the coaching staff to eventually work out the kinks in the pitching. But perhaps he has a point—maybe Harvard’s pitching really is something to be nervous about. After all, the Crimson’s three starting pitchers on Saturday (and the three who are expected to lead the Crimson’s weekend starting rotation this spring)—sophomore Matt Brunnig, senior Trey Hendricks, and senior Mike Morgalis—were all touched up for at least seven earned runs and none of them even lasted long enough to finish the fourth inning. The statistics don’t lie—there’s no denying the fact that the pitching on Saturday for Walsh’s team was absolutely terrible.

But I don’t think this weekend’s miserable pitching performances are anything for Walsh to lose sleep over because of the three veteran starters’ solid track records. Rather, if I were in his position, I would be absolutely ecstatic with a lot of what I saw over the opening weekend of the season.

First of all, Morgalis, Hendricks, and Brunnig all took regular turns in the rotation last year, and all three clearly have shown an ability to get Ivy League hitters out in the past—they accounted for six of Harvard’s 11 victories in Ivy play last season. A second important factor to consider is just how much of an advantage Texas Tech and Air Force had over the Crimson going into this past weekend. While Harvard played in its season opening games, both Air Force and Texas Tech came in with extensive experience—Air Force had already played nine games and stood at 4-5 and Texas Tech stood at 8-4 after twelve games before the weekend’s round robin.

Thus far into the season, Air Force has not had a problem hitting the baseball—they have been held under seven runs just once in their previous nine games, in an 11-1 loss to Kentucky. Rather, it has been the Falcons’ inability to get anyone out that has hurt them so far this season. This fact led to the team’s downfall again this weekend when Air Force went 0-4 in round robin play. So Brunnig’s opening day loss does not seem as bad considering how good the Falcons’ offense has been this year.

This makes Herrmann’s performance on Sunday all the more impressive. The sophomore from New Jersey appeared in only three games for Walsh in 2003 and was wholly unimpressive, registering a 13.50 ERA. After reports that his velocity has greatly improved, however, Herrmann appears to have locked up the No. 4 spot in the rotation this season. His performance on Sunday against an excellent offensive team has to make Walsh all the more optimistic that Herrmann can slide into the spot vacated by the graduation of wily veteran Kenon Ronz ’03 and pitch effectively in Ivy League play.

In contrast to Air Force, the Red Raiders of Texas Tech have been a force in college baseball through this point in the season. Texas Tech, which plays in the powerhouse Big 12 conference, has rebounded from a disappointing 2003 so far with wins over traditional baseball schools such as Texas Christian and Houston. In addition, the Red Raiders were tied 6-6 in the ninth inning with defending national champion and current No. 4 Rice before the Owls pushed three runs across in the ninth inning to win.

Read that again. Texas Tech was tied in the ninth inning with maybe the best team in the country last month. Harvard wasn’t supposed to be able to play with this team, especially considering the rust factor and Texas Tech’s midseason form. The Rice pitching staff was touched up for six runs by Texas Tech and junior Michael Mask had a three-run home run against the Owls. Therefore, it should be no surprise that Mask—who is hitting an astounding .413 with seven home runs and 27 RBI in only 16 games after the weekend’s action—and friends were able to hit many of Walsh’s pitchers with ease in their first outings of the year.

In fact, Harvard’s solid offensive performances this weekend against Tech and Air Force, despite its opponents’ huge experience advantage, indicate much more than the starters’ ineffectiveness. Walsh really has a fantastic group of hitters returning this season, and the top five in the Crimson lineup will strike fear into every single opponent that Harvard plays this year. In the three-hole, Hendricks showed the form that made him arguably the best hitter in the Ivy League last year prior to his season-ending injury, when he posted .387 average and a sparkling 1.052 OPS (a combined measure of on-base percentage and slugging percentage), as he picked up right where he left off by going 10-20 on the weekend with a home run and 5 runs batted in.

Junior catcher and cleanup hitter Schuyler Mann belted three home runs on the weekend to go along with 8 RBI. As if that wasn’t enough, the sophomore trio of Lance Salsgiver, Zak Farkes and Josh Klimkiewicz each picked up eight hits on the weekend, showing the form that made them among the best rookies in the Ivy League a season ago.

Some might call me naïve, but after this past weekend’s action I still believe that Walsh’s pitching will settle down given time—after all, Morgalis, Hendricks and Brunnig have shown before that they know how to pitch for the Crimson.

I was excited by the weekend’s events, as the emergence of Herrmann, along with the continued growth of the powerful Crimson lineup, should have Ivy League opponents terrified as Walsh and company prepare to return to the NCAA tournament this spring.

—Staff writer Robert C. Boutwell can be reached at boutwel@fas.harvard.edu. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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