The University of Chicago baseball team returned from a spring break trip to Florida this week, jumping right into the meat of the schedule with a game against an improved Dominican University team.
After coming back twice to tie the game in the first six innings, the Maroons (10-6) jumped ahead in the top of the eighth by capitalizing on Dominican's (5-8) mistakes. Up to the eighth, they had made no errors, but two consecutive bobbled balls with two outs by the infield led to an unearned run to make the score 5-4. Second-year first baseman Chris Kocinski followed with a bases-loaded double down the right-field line to clear the bases and put Chicago up by four runs.
While the Maroon pitching and defense made it interesting by giving up three runs due to a number of mistakes, fourth-year closer Nick Kocinski ended the game with two consecutive strikeouts, throwing only fastballs.
The team played solid baseball in Florida, going 6-4 against tough competition. Among the team's solid victories were double-header sweeps of Colby College and Middlebury College.
While the Maroons now have a season record of 10-6, over 20 games remain on the schedule. There are many ways in which the team is looking to improve in order to ensure a spot in the Division III postseason.
The team's key victories during the Florida road swing consisted of wins against a number of teams that have well respected programs. The most probable reason that last year's 25-6 Maroons missed postseason play was its weak opponents.
This year, head coach Brian Baldea made an extra effort to schedule tougher opponents. One change was the site of their spring trip, which had previously been a program in Fort Meyers, Florida.
"Those are good schools [athletically and academically] who we should be playing. We were pleased to get the chance to meet them in Florida, and we were happy that we could score more runs than them," Baldea said.
Though the team had several other notable wins, perhaps more glaring were two of the losses that the team sufferedone to the University of Southern Maine, and one to Salisbury State University. Though Baldea admitted that both of the games were against "high-quality opponents," third-year starting pitcher Matt Altomare said that the team "would really like to get those games back."
The key issue in both games was leads lost in the late innings of the game. "Those were situations where we gave up one really big inning and ended up losing close games," Altomare said. "We need to step up defensively. Towards the end of the trip we kind of fell apart."
There were, however, plenty of bright moments for the team overall. The outstanding play of fourth-year outfielder Jim Raptis carried over from last year. With a .443 average for the season, Raptis has contributed with a number of quality plate appearances. As Altomare noted, Raptis seemed to "hit doubles at will."
In addition, the team felt the added presence of fourth-year second baseman Ben McCown, a team co-captain, who returned from a bone bruise injury and provided an offensive sparkplug. He hit a three-run homerun to snap a two-game losing streak in Florida. McCown currently leads the team with a .676 slugging percentage.
The team's impressive offense features "six guys who are legitimate three-hitters," first-year pitcher Dan Cozzi said, who won his only start of the trip. Altomare echoed the comments, suggesting that the team "would win its games at the plate."
Baldea, however, was quick to praise other aspects of the team, notably the depth of his pitching staff. "Although we may not have the number-one starter that most teams feature, we have better third, fourth, fifth, and sixth pitchers than most other schools," Baldea said. Altomare (3-1, 6.32 ERA) earned three wins in Florida starting and in relief. Fourth-year staff ace Andrew Hacker (2-1, 4.74) didn't pick up a win on the trip but gave an impressive effort in a 3-0 loss to Millikin. The team hopes to draw on these strengths to carry them through the rest of the regular season.
As an independent program unaffiliated with a conference, scheduling is different for baseball compared to other UAA sports at Chicago. This creates a tough schedule that features games against perennial powers like Benedictine University.
Baldea's philosophy, however, does not single out any one game as more important than the rest. When asked what games on the schedule he considered critical, he emphatically answered, "The games on Saturday. Since we're not in a conference, we can't look back and say which game counted more than any other." Instead, the team believes that every game remaining on the schedule is important.
Among the many strengths of the team is its upperclassmen leadership. Many of the fourth-years stand to compile notable school records during the season. With Tuesday's win, Hacker moved into sole possession of second place on the school's all-time wins list. Nick Kocinski only needs five more saves to break the school record. He could also move up on the career RBI list from the fourth position, with 12 more RBI.
Because many have been "three- or four-year starters," in the words of Altomare, the leadership of the fourth-years highlights the team's experience. As the season moves forward, the Maroons hope to draw on these players to make valuable contributions on and off the field in the hope of producing an outstanding season.
The Maroons schedule keeps them at home for the next two Saturdays. The team will have three home games in the five days from April 16 to 20. The Maroons will then take on several of the teams that have historically proved difficult, especially Aurora University on April 24, in Aurora, Illinois.