A lot has changed for the Harvard men’s baseball team in the nearly 10 months since the Crimson played its most recent game. The 2016 season was a rollercoaster of sorts for a program that finished 9-11 in the Ivy League.
Harvard showed flashes of promise during its spring break and early-season trips to the South. Ace Nick Gruener shone against A.J. Puk, the No. 6 overall pick in June’s MLB Draft, and his top-ranked Florida Gators team during the the Crimson’s most high-profile nonconference series of the year.
However, Harvard ended up going just 5-5 over its next 10 nonconference games, seven of which came against teams from the Northeast that finished the season with losing records. Harvard’s hopes of winning its first Ivy League championship since 2005 were essentially dashed in the conference’s opening weekend after the team dropped all four of its contests to Cornell and Princeton.
The Crimson did finish with some individual milestones and wins over top teams, splitting with Columbia and Penn while taking three of four from Yale, the eventual Red Rolfe Division champion. The conference record was the best in coach Bill Decker’s four seasons in Cambridge.
As unpredictable as the team was last spring, its offseason was arguably even more tumultuous. In addition to graduating nine seniors, the team lost Gruener, the top junior arm in the conference last season, when he was selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the 22nd round of the MLB Draft and opted to forgo his final year of eligibility and sign. Four other players from last year’s squad—Greg Coman, Dylan Combs, Conor Quinn, and Kevin Rex—also left the team.
Of the 28 players on this year’s Harvard roster, only nine are upperclassmen. Given the personnel changes, the biggest question mark for the Crimson this season is its pitching staff. Junior Ian Miller and sophomores Kevin Stone and Simon Rosenblum-Larson figure to be three of the team’s four weekend starters. The trio combined to start 21 games last season, with Stone leading the way with a 4.22 earned run average and four wins.
“We’re in an exciting spot,” Miller said. “The guys who have been here for a while were able to learn from some really great pitchers, but at the same time, we’re at a point where a lot of guys are going to have to step up and pitch well for us this year. Even though we have a void to fill, guys are really stepping up for us. I think we can be a very exciting and dangerous pitching staff.”
Harvard will largely rely on pitchers with little or no college experience to fill key roles this season. Junior Noah Zavolas will slide into the fourth rotation spot while classmate Garrett Rupp, who appeared in just one game last season, will shoulder a more prominent role out of the bullpen this year. The pair gave up 12 earned runs in seven-and-a-third innings last season.
Decker’s freshman recruiting class features four pitchers, each of whom will be tested early and often. Hunter Bigge and Kieran Shaw are righties who hail from the same Bay Area hometown, while 6’6” Grant Stone is the younger brother of Kevin Stone. With the departures of Coman, Combs, and Rex, JT Bernard is the only left-handed pitcher on the roster. Last season’s squad featured 16 pitchers while this year’s has only 10, including senior Matt Hink, who was recruited as a pitcher and first baseman but did not pitch during his first three seasons.
“What people see when they look at our roster is that we did lose a lot on the pitching side,” Hink said. “So far, the freshmen especially have stepped into the role pretty well. I think they’ll obviously have those goosebumps and nerves at the beginning, but I think they’ve now seen that they’re going to play a huge role.”
While uncertainty abounds on the mound, the infield will be Harvard’s greatest strength this season. John Fallon and Matt Rothberg both had breakout seasons as sophomores last year. Fallon, who is recovering from knee surgery but is expected to be ready for the start of the season, led the team in home runs and received both Juniors and All-Ivy Honorable Mentions. Rothenberg had the highest batting average among regulars and was first among Crimson players in walks and doubles.
Senior Drew Reid has been the team’s starting shortstop for each of the last two seasons but struggled to get on base last season. Sophomore Patrick McColl was a bright spot for Harvard last year while filling in for an injured Hink at first base. The Los Altos, Calif. native drove in 21 runs and was fourth on the team in hits. He figures to shoulder a bigger offensive load and bat in the middle of the Crimson lineup this season. Freshmen Quinn Hoffman and Chad Minato are both highly-touted middle infielders.
“The really cool part about practice at this point is getting to see the younger guys start to compete against the established teammates that we’ve had,” Miller said. “So far, the freshmen have been very successful. It’s been cool to see them grow as players.”
With Hink fully healthy, Decker will have to be creative when it comes to getting bats in the lineup. Fallon and Reid will make up the left side of the infield while Rothenberg has played all four infield positions and the outfield during his time in Cambridge. He was the team’s primary designated hitter last season when he was second in the Ivy League in batting average.