SPORTS

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March 31, 2006

Outlook bright for baseball behind strong defense

Offense wins games, defense wins championships. It’s a cliché that’s been abused over the years, but with a young club built around slick fielding and an ace at the front of the rotation, baseball hopes the old adage will hold true this season.

“Our defense has improved significantly,” head coach Brian Baldea said. “Our infield can be as good as we’ve seen in a long time. We’re not as good offensively so defense is important.”

Fortunately, Chicago has been exceptionally strong up the middle this season. On the left side of the infield, third-year shortstop Tony Zitek and third-year third baseman Allen Cooper have combined for only four errors in 10 games, while second-year Nathan Ginsberg has given the team a boost by playing flawlessly thus far in center field.

In addition to his outfield defense, Ginsberg has displayed his versatility on the mound by giving the squad much needed depth at the back-end of the starting rotation. As the squad’s number-three starter behind third-year Dan Cozzi and the team’s ace, fourth-year Dan Yeksigian, Ginsberg leads all starters with a 3.86 ERA in two appearances.

Yeksigian, coming off a breakout campaign last year, has clearly established himself as the staff’s leader. There are a few question marks the rest of the way through the rotation. While Ginsberg has excelled in his first two starts, first-year Alex Gallan has struggled at times in the early going. Cozzi pitched a gem in a losing effort against Buena Vista March 21, but he battled control problems in his next start. Likewise, the bullpen picture has been almost as shaky. While first-year Kyle Schmitt and third-year Robert Wilson are off to excellent starts, the team resorted to throwing Yeksigian into Sunday’s matchup against Thomas on one day’s rest.

“Contributions are going to be needed from the pitchers behind Danny,” Baldea said. “We need that all year. We need them to contribute like Danny does every time they get the ball.”

For the defensive improvements to reap the rewards, the offense must start producing with the game on the line. While the Maroons flashed the ability to put crooked numbers on the board against Dominican Wednesday, the club is not blessed with a bevy of power hitters. The team will need to take a multi-faceted approach to its at-bats, manufacturing runs with smart baserunning and winning grind-it-out affairs.

“Our focus is on winning, whatever it takes. I want to be the type of team that can do everything,” said Baldea, who is entering his 16th season at the helm in Hyde Park. “Our [offensive] strength is our ability to not strike out and put the ball in play consistently. That has not happened yet.”

In the early part of the season, the Maroons have succeeded in keeping the games close and giving themselves a chance to win. However, the clutch hits have been few and far between. Chicago has dropped six games by a total of nine runs.

“It’s been games where we’ve been on the brink but haven’t found a way to succeed,” Baldea said.

While the losses have been frustrating, the bright spots stand out. First-year catcher/designated hitter Scott Hofer has exceeded all expectations at the plate, leading the squad with a .469 average and a Bonds-esque .514 on-base percentage.

“Our youth brings optimism for the future,” Baldea said. “It gives opportunities to develop and play as a unit. Our number one goal is to have a winning year. We can use that as a foundation for the future.”

As a young team, the Maroons will have their growing pains. But with each test, the team gains much-needed experience. If the squad can figure out how to win the close games, it will be another successful season at Stagg Field.

Spotlight on: Dan Yeksigian

Last season, Dan Yeksigian’s no-hitter in the season finale clinched an above-.500 season for the Maroons. If Chicago intends to repeat that feat, Yeksigian may well have to again be the difference. This year, the fourth-year has picked up right where he left off, notching wins in two of his three appearances.

He relies on a fastball that has been clocked in the low 90s, a nasty curveball, and a split-fingered fastball, throwing in the occasional changeup as well. With such a repertoire, Yeksigian has to overpower hitters and keep them guessing. On a team full of underclassmen, Yeksigian’s experience will provide a steady anchor at the front of the rotation.