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Baseball Continues Skid Over Spring Break, Now 2-11

The Harvard men's baseball team continued its slump over spring break.
The Harvard men's baseball team continued its slump over spring break. By Courtesy of Philip Tor/Harvard Athletics
By Jack Silvers, Crimson Staff Writer

There’s no place like home, and right now the Harvard baseball team (2-11, 0-0 Ivy) is painfully aware of it. With six losses in seven games over the spring recess, representing the end of the team’s 17-game, out-of-conference road schedule, the Crimson’s 2-11 record is tied for the second-worst start under Coach Bill Decker’s tenure, only beaten by last season’s 1-12 start. The team dropped its series to Penn State (11-7, 0-0 Big 10) and Western Carolina (10-9, 0-0 Southern), with a midweek loss to Eastern Tennessee State (14-6, 0-0 Southern) sandwiched in between.

“In terms of baseball, we definitely didn’t get the outcome we wanted,” said sophomore second baseman Jordan Kang. “But I think that at the end of the day we showcased parts of what we truly could be.”

While the Crimson offense seems to be finding traction at times, as Kang noted — including a 12-run outburst in one of the games against Western Carolina — putting together complete efforts has been a struggle. The team has lost all three games in which it has scored more than six runs (its average output last season). In two of these, the Crimson had a lead late in the final three innings, signaling its difficulty in closing out contests.

Harvard can still take away some strong individual performances from the trip, from players who will be essential if the team is going to make a run to the Ivy League tournament at the end of the season. Designated hitter senior Ben Rounds lost his nine-game hitting streak in the loss in Tennessee, but continued to rake otherwise. The senior sports a .388/.483/.592 slash line, pacing the team in all three major hitting categories. On the mound, junior pitcher Sean Matson hasn’t allowed more than four runs across any of his four starts, pitching to a 3.32 ERA and a K/9 of 9.3 batters. For a pitching staff that has allowed more than eight runs a game, the righty has been a steadying presence.

PENN STATE

The Crimson entered the road trip hoping that playing Penn State at a neutral site, the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, N.C., would help shake off its road struggles. Despite grabbing a come-from-behind victory in the rubber match to avoid a sweep, Harvard was still outpaced by the Nittany Lions throughout the series.

In game one, offense was scarce for most of the game on both sides of the field. With Matson and Penn State righty Travis Luensmann both dealing, striking out 13 between the two of them, hits were hard to come by in the first five innings.

The Crimson drew the first blood in the top of the sixth though, with Rounds working a 10-pitch walk to start the inning. Rounds’ patience paid off, as he and senior third baseman Jake Berger came around to score on a single by senior center fielder Peter Messervy, representing Messervy’s first two RBIs of the season.

The lead quickly evaporated though, as the Nittany Lions’ Adam Cecere struck a run-scoring double off Matson in the bottom of the inning. Decker pulled Matson with one out and two runners on, putting in freshman long reliever Andrew Abler, who promptly allowed Cecere to score on an RBI knock by catcher Matt Maloney.

Abler neutralized the rally, but one inning later he was tagged for three more runs by the Nittany Lions. Once again, Cecere was Penn State’s spark plug, creating havoc for the Crimson with his bat and his legs. After doubling in two runs to give his team the lead, the grad-transfer and former Wake Forest standout stole third and then came around to score on Abler’s wild pitch.

In the top of the ninth, Harvard had a chance to knot the score as a result of clutch hitting and Decker’s savvy lineup management. After junior catcher Sawyer Feller walked with one away, Decker opted to pinch-hit freshman Dominic Brancel, the third-string catcher, in place of Kang. In his first at-bat for the Crimson, Brancel rewarded his skipper’s confidence, roping a double down the left field line and scoring Feller.

Decker couldn’t strike gold twice, though. After junior left fielder and lead-off man George Cooper struck out and Rounds reached on a throwing error by the shortstop, the skipper elected to pitch-hit sophomore Callen Fang, a two-way player who also had yet to have an at-bat this season. Fang struck out swinging, clinching the victory for Penn State.

The second game of the series, played later that day, was a back-and-forth affair that just eluded the Crimson’s grasp. Sophomore southpaw Brian Dowling, making his first start of the season, allowed a steady onslaught of Nittany Lions’ hits early on, but had mostly contained the damage through four, scattering two runs. In the top of the fifth, Harvard took a 4-2 lead on an RBI single by freshman shortstop Tyler Shulman, his third of the season.

In the bottom of the inning, though, the wheels started to come off for the Crimson. The first three Penn State hitters reached against Dowling, cutting the lead to 4-3. After a sacrifice fly from Kevin Michaels, the major blow of the inning came from shortstop Grant Norris, who struck a home run to center field to give the Nittany Lions a 6-4 lead. Norris’s bomb signaled the end of the day for Dowling, who was replaced by first-year reliever Truman Pauley. Pauley allowed one more run to score, putting the Crimson at a three-run disadvantage.

But Harvard had fight in it, chipping away at the lead with a run in the sixth and a gritty rally in the top of the ninth. Aided by a critical throwing error by first baseman Joe Jaconski, the Crimson managed to bring in two runs on just one hit, with the tying RBI coming on a groundout from Berger.

Harvard had a chance to go ahead in the top of the 10th, when junior left fielder Matt Giberti — who was 3-5 on the day with two doubles — walked and swiped second. But Cooper struck out, representing another missed opportunity late in a game for the Crimson, the last one the team would have in that game. In the bottom of the frame, the Nittany Lions walked it off on a fielding error by Giberti, flipping the script on a game the junior had helped keep Harvard competitive in.

Facing a sweep, the Crimson sent Fang out to pitch in the rubber match, hoping that last year’s Ivy League Rookie of the Year could help stop the bleeding. Fang turned in a quality outing — six innings and four runs allowed, three earned — to keep the Crimson in it in what was another close contest.

Once again, Giberti and Berger were at the center of the action for Harvard, with the former making the most of his second consecutive start in the lead-off spot. Through five innings, the score was knotted at four apiece, with Giberti and Berger each scoring a run. Despite stringing together a number of hits early in the game, at that point Harvard had exclusively scored in other ways, using a fielder’s choice, a bases-loaded walk, and a sac fly.

In the seventh inning, with junior pitcher Tanner Smith in to relieve Fang, the Nittany Lions seized the lead, using some small-ball in the form of a sacrifice bunt to move the go-ahead run into scoring position. After pinch-hitter J.T. Marr singled the runner home, giving Penn State the 5-4 lead, it looked like the Crimson might drop a close contest and start the road trip 0-3.

Luckily, the top of the line-up came back around in the top of the ninth to challenge Penn State closer David Lee. Giberti doubled to start the inning, representing the tying run. After Cooper struck out, the heart of the Crimson’s lineup showed their veteran experience: Rounds singled, Berger singled — scoring Giberti — and senior first baseman Chris Snopek grounded a go-ahead RBI single to left, scoring Rounds.

Smith closed out the game with help from Feller, who threw out the tying run trying to steal second. With the win, the Crimson earned its first victory over a Power Five team this season, the third consecutive year it has beaten a major-conference team.

The squad posted mixed results again Penn State.
The squad posted mixed results again Penn State. By Dylan J. Goodman

EASTERN TENNESSEE STATE

The Crimson traveled about 250 miles due west for its next bout, a midweek contest against the Eastern Tennessee State Buccaneers in Johnson City, Tenn. Pauley took the mound for the Crimson, looking to build off his solid relief work and show his potential as a starter.

Unfortunately, the Buccaneers would be having none of that. The trouble started for the freshman and Pacific Palisades, Calif. native in the bottom of the second inning, when the Bucs’ outfielder Blake Jacklin jacked a three-run bomb to left, staking the Crimson to a 3-0 deficit. Unfortunately for Pauley, Jacklin would continue to get the best of him in the next inning.

The Buccaneers batted around in the third and added nine runs to their tally, taking advantage of an astounding seven Harvard walks in the inning — four from Pauley and three from sophomore righty Nate Baxter, who replaced Pauley after Jacklin hit a two-run double to increase the Bucs’ lead to 6-0. Baxter was ineffective, walking in two runs and allowing another via a hit-by-pitch, followed by another two-run double, this time from first baseman Cameron Sisneros. Sisneros, ranked as the 12th-best first baseman in the nation by D1 Baseball headed into the season, managed to collect two doubles in the same inning.

With the game all but out of reach, the Crimson managed to string together a two-out rally in the top of the seventh to avoid a shutout, with fresh faces like sophomore third baseman Justin King and junior first baseman Peter Levin hitting run-scoring base knocks. In general, the Harvard lineup was flummoxed by the Buccaneers’ pitching, striking out ten times and needing a throwing error by Bucs' shortstop Ashton King to even have a chance at its seventh-inning rally.

Down ten runs after eight, the NCAA mercy rule kicked in and the Crimson took the 14-4 loss, with Western Carolina in its sights.

The team will look to best league rival Columbia at O'Donnell Field this weekend.
The team will look to best league rival Columbia at O'Donnell Field this weekend. By Dylan J. Goodman

WESTERN CAROLINA

For its last series of the road trip, the Crimson headed back to North Carolina to square off against Western Carolina, which was coming off a dominant 18-6 win over Western Michigan the weekend prior. The Catamounts, like the Crimson, can score in bunches when their bats get hot, having put up eight runs or more four times on the season coming into the series.

Despite the potential for fireworks, the opening game was a low-scoring affair, with Harvard scoring all of its runs in the top of the first and Western Carolina doing its damage in the bottom of the third. Three batters into the game, Rounds blasted his second homer of the year off Catamounts’ starter Gavin Mortenson, driving in Shulman and giving the Crimson an early lead.

The long ball would come back to bite the Crimson in the third, Matson’s lone blemish amid an otherwise strong start. After a double and a walk to start the inning, outfielder Kyle Riesselman laid down a sac bunt, moving both runners into scoring position. Shortstop Trent Turner hit an RBI infield single to Snopek, narrowing the Crimson’s lead and setting up left fielder Nate Stocum to deliver the crushing blow for the Crimson, a three-run home run to right field. Stocum’s big fly was an omen of things to come — bad for Harvard and good for the senior from Raleigh, N.C. — during the rest of the series.

Matson bore down after the third, going nine up nine down for the last three innings of his start, but the Crimson couldn’t generate anything on offense to support their ace. After Mortenson was pulled before the top of the fifth, two Catamounts relievers, Dusty Revis and Jonathan Todd, combined to allow just one hit and one walk over the last five innings, fanning seven Crimson batters and crystallizing the 4-2 lead into the final score.

Although the next game of the series may have been played on the same day, it might as well have been played on a different planet, as the two teams — which had a collective seven hits in the first leg of the doubleheader — put on an absolute shootout. By the time the final pitch was thrown, the Crimson and the Catamounts had 33 hits, 10 walks, 19 strikeouts, and 31 runs between them.

Stocum was once again a thorn in the side of the Crimson, hitting another home run to open the scoring for Western Carolina in the first and scoring four runs in total, pacing the team. For the Crimson, six players garnered multi-hit games: Shulman, Rounds, Berger, back-up catcher William Lybrook, Cooper, and Snopek. Lybrook’s three-run home run in the sixth inning, which put the Crimson up 10-5, looked like it might signal Harvard pulling away from the Catamounts.

In a flashback to the nine-run inning it allowed to the Buccaneers, the Crimson allowed the Catamounts to score ten runs in the bottom of the eighth inning, turning a three-run lead into a seven-run deficit. With freshman pitcher Will Burns on the mound, and later senior lefty Uday Narottam, the Catamounts assembled six hits, three walks, and two hit-by-pitches. Turner had two singles, Stocum scored twice, and senior James Hinson walked twice on full counts in an inning that will go down as one of the worst in recent Harvard baseball history. The Crimson went down in order in the ninth, clinching the series for the Catamounts.

The rubber match solidified the “Stocum Series,” as the senior led the Catamounts to victory and a sweep with two more home runs. Across the three games, the Crimson’s pitching staff allowed Stocum to go five-for-nine with four home runs and nine RBIs. This time, he struck first in the bottom of the second inning, breaking a 3-3 tie with a three-run home run off Dowling. For the second consecutive start, the southpaw struggled with the long ball, as Stocum’s homer was one of two he allowed on the day. The second, from Drew Needham, gave Western Carolina a 7-3 lead.

First-year Jack Rickheim, who got the start at second base, gave the Crimson a jolt of energy in the top of the sixth with a two-run homer to left, cutting the lead to 7-5. But the Harvard bats went quiet after that point, while Stocum rounded the bases one more time: his home run in the eighth off Pauley, who replaced Dowling after five innings of work, left the Crimson in a three-run hole. Rounds, Berger, and Snopek went down in order in the ninth, unable to resurrect their team one more time.

While the scoreboard results were disillusioning, Kang noted that the time the team spent together on the road-trip will be key as the Ivy League season gets underway.

“It was great for chemistry,” the sophomore said. “There’s not really much to do in Sylva, North Carolina, so it’s great being able to spend time with friends, teammates, and even family.”

The Crimson will kick off Ivy League play this Friday in New York against Columbia. The Lions, who sit at 4-11 on the season, are undefeated at home and winless on the road, giving the Crimson a chance to flip the script. First pitch will be at 11:30 a.m., and the game will be streamed on ESPN+.
—Staff writer Jack Silvers can be reached at jack.silvers@thecrimson.com.

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