SPORTS

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May 2, 2003

Soaring Baseball squad fights for playoff berth

When asked last Monday how his team would respond to a tough loss against the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) on April 18, head coach Brian Baldea responded, ?We?ll see today.? The Maroons went on to trounce Trinity Christian College 20?10, showing that a minor setback in an otherwise pristine season had not affected the team?s play at all. An unrelenting display of powerful hitting fueled Chicago to six straight victories as of Tuesday, improving the team?s overall record to 20?4. The Maroons have placed themselves in excellent position to make the NCAA Division III playoffs, something no U of C baseball team has ever done.

As has been the case all season, last Monday?s win was brought home by a barrage of Chicago hitting. The Maroons rank fourth in the nation in runs scored, averaging over 10 per game. ?We have a lot of people that step up on a daily basis,? said third-year third baseman Nick Kocinski. ?We are really deep and that is going to be a huge advantage as we go along in this season.? Leading the offensive change against Trinity Christian was third-year second baseman Tracey Neubrand. Neubrand collected four extra-base hits and drove in four runs. Also impressive was third-year outfielder Jim Raptis, who went 4?6 with a home run and four RBIs. Raptis has been on a tear all season and currently leads the team in RBIs (31), home runs (6), and slugging percentage (.828).

The next day the Maroons showed off some more offensive fireworks, beating Concordia University 19?7. Raptis and Neubrand were again the catalysts, batting in seven and five runners respectively. Third-year Andrew Hacker was the pitcher of record, scattering seven hits over 5 2/3 innings while striking out six batters. Fourth-year captain George Schade closed out the game to record the save, pitching the final 3 1/3 while allowing no earned runs. The short work was important for Schade, who is working to regain his early season form after struggling recently in the Chicago cold.

Last Wednesday brought a third straight day of Chicago domination, as the Maroons made swift work of North Park University, beating them 12?1. Fourth-year outfielder Sam Kass went 2?2 with a walk, driving in and scoring two runs. Most outstanding in the game was the work of second-year pitcher Matt Altomare. Altomare pitched six impressive innings of three hit ball while striking out 10 batters, a season high for Maroon pitchers.

On Saturday the Maroons took on Aurora College in a doubleheader, facing a team with a winning record for the first time since their loss to IIT. In the day?s first game the Chicago hitters stayed true to form, collecting 16 hits and scoring 13 runs. Nick Kocinski dropped in a couple of timely singles, collecting four RBIs. Kocinski is currently second on the team with a .438 batting average and 29 RBIs. Hacker started the game and gave up 12 hits and six earned runs, an effort good enough to earn a 13?8 win. Although Hacker has been roughed up at times this season, it seems that Chicago hitters respond when he is on the mound. Hacker has won his last five decisions.

In the back end of Saturday?s twin bill, the Maroons were forced to come from behind, something they had not experienced in several games. Schade got the start, and although he gave up only four hits through five innings, he left the game with his team trailing 6?4 due to five stolen bases, a balk, and three Chicago errors. Third-year reliever Dan Harrington entered the game and after giving up a run in the sixth, the Maroons found themselves trailing 7?4 with only two frames with which to work.

But the Chicago offense yet again came alive in a clutch situation. Kass led off the sixth with a walk, and second-year T.J. Rajcevich followed with a single. After an Aurora pitching change, Neubrand singled to load the bases. Raptis grounded out to second to drive in the first run and then fourth-year catcher J.P. Bauman singled to score another. The tide could not be stopped and third-year shortstop Brent Consiglio added another single to score a third run and tie the game. After a groundout, Nick Kocinski provided a two-out single and the game-winning RBI. Harrington pitched a scoreless seventh, securing the 8?7 Chicago victory and improving his season record to 3?0.

On Tuesday another Chicago victory was taken by force. The victim this time was Rockford College. Maroon hitters went 18?44, scoring 16 runs to Rockford?s six. Bauman was 3?6 with three RBIs and Raptis added four hits and three runs scored. Altomare picked up the victory, improving his record to 3?0.

Winners of six in a row, the Maroons are flying high. Despite their stellar record, however, the U of C ranks only eighth in the central region (ABCA Poll) due in part to their weak schedule. This could prove costly as the league-less Maroons must contend for one of five national playoff spots that are reserved for independents. With only one week of baseball remaining, two double-headers this weekend could very well decide the team?s bid to make the post-season. Chicago takes on Benedictine University on Saturday and the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology on Sunday. Both opponents sport winning records.