SPORTS

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April 18, 2006

Fireworks launch baseball past Titans

It was a simple gesture. But for the Maroons, it may have been the key to winning back the favor of the baseball gods.

“During the Wheaton game last year, Dan was pitching in relief, and managed to pitch his way out of a jam,” head coach Brian Baldea recalled, regarding fourth-year righty Dan Yeksigian. Center fielder Frank Brown (A.B. ’05) “came over and gave him a hug to congratulate him for getting out of it. I needed to talk to Dan, so I gestured for him to come over. I asked him, ‘How come you never hug me like that?’ and he gave me a hug. We were remembering it after the Wheaton game this year, and Danny did it again.”

“I think that was really the turning point,” second-year left fielder Mike Serio said.

Last year’s touching moment between coach and ace came near the end of an 11–6 blowout that proved the beginning of an eight-game winning streak. So far, history seems to be repeating itself as Chicago (9–13) followed up Tuesday’s devastation of the Thunder with a Friday afternoon doubleheader sweep at Robert Morris (16–12) 15–2, 11–0. The bullpen was able to take it easy against the NAIA squad, with Yeksigian (5–1, 3.89) and third-year righty/first baseman Dan Cozzi (2–2, 4.05) each going the distance.

The past three victories have been characterized by more than just coach-player bonding. For the first time this season the Maroons are looking truly dominant at the plate, averaging over 14 runs per game during the last week. No one has needed to carry the team on his back, either. Everyone from the veteran fourth-year third baseman Matt Assad (three RBI in the first game) to young gun first-year catcher Scott Hofer (bases-clearing, two-out double in the second) has gotten into the action to contribute to a team OBP of .555 over this stretch.

“It’s not a mechanical thing, it’s not like we have 17 hitters who are doing things mechanically better,” Baldea said. “It’s more of a confidence thing. We have players going to home plate confident and ready to hit. I don’t know that that was true before.”

Nobody had to wait long for their chance at the dish in the front end of the twinbill. Everything went right for the Maroons from the outset as Serio, third-year second baseman Tony Zitek, and Hofer reached to start the game, with Hofer’s two-bagger driving in the first run. After second-year center fielder/southpaw starter Nate Ginsberg grounded out to bring Zitek home, the Maroons got an RBI apiece from third-year shortstop Allen Cooper and first-year left fielder/righty Kyle Schmitt and a bases-loaded single from Serio to go up 6–0.

The visitors didn’t stop there, piling on four more on a pair of two-run triples off the bats of Assad and Cozzi in the second to continue the victimization of Eagles third-year lefty Dan Zeigler. The Robert Morris starter gave up 10 runs, all earned on nine hits and four walks over three innings for the loss. After a scoreless fourth, Chicago tore up first-year lefty Jon Arguelles for five runs on five hits and three walks in the fifth. Assad grabbed another RBI with a single to drive home Zitek, with fourth-year designated hitter Ryan Denton getting in on the action with a double that brought in Ginsberg and third-year pinch runner John Thomas. Cooper singled to round out the score by helping Denton and Assad return to the dugout in style.

“It’s just one of those things where once one person hits, the next person has a little pressure taken off,” Serio said. “It feels like this is something that’s more permanent than temporary.”

Faced with an early deficit, the Eagles could not spark a rally. While their first three men singled in the first to record a run, the Maroons shut them dwon with an out at home on an attempted double steal. Fourth-year second baseman Tony Lorenzo grabbed another run on a second inning dinger, but Yeksigian seemed to have things well in hand from that point on. Inducing ground ball after ground ball, the ace gave up only two runs, two earned on the game in his fourth complete game effort of the year. The win was the 17th of his career, tying him with Andrew Hacker (A.B. ’04) for second on the modern-era career list.

“He’s probably pitched better to this point this year than he did to this point last year,” Baldea said. “He typically throws better in the sixth, seventh, eighth innings, and he’s like that for seasons, too.”

Toeing the rubber in the second game of the doubleheader, Robert Morris second-year righty Gary Bjorklund (record not available) could only dream of an outing to match Yeksigian’s. Serio notched a single to get things started, while Zitek and Hofer worked the pitcher for free passes to load the bases. Bjorklund got an out on an RBI sacrifice fly from Ginsberg but then promptly walked Assad, allowed Zitek to come home on a passed ball, and let the pinch-running Thomas score on his own error.

There would be one more run in the first, along with three in third and another trifecta in the fifth on Hofer’s big double, to round out the scoring for Chicago. Bjorklund pitched 4.2 innings, giving up all 11 runs, eight of them earned, on six hits and eight walks while striking out three.

“We had just the top of our order getting on a lot more, and that momentum has carried through,” Cozzi said. “Any returning player can’t help but remember our poor start last year, followed by the winning streak and eventually finishing with a winning record. Whether or not we win eight games in a row, I think a lot of guys would just like to finish above .500.”

There was more than enough run support for Cozzi, who did his rotation mate one better in surrendering five hits and four walks while striking out one for the shutout. While he dug himself into a number of holes, he was able to work his way out time and time again, leaving three men on in the first and stranding a pair in the second, third, and fourth frames.

It was the second win for the third-year in as many starts, and it was the first whitewash of his career.

“Pitching is like hitting in that it feeds off of momentum. [Yeksigian] pitched a great first game against Robert Morris and I think our team just felt very confident heading into the second game,” Cozzi said. “My strategy is more about getting ahead of as many guys as I can, inducing a lot of ground balls to the left side and letting our infield defense make the plays for me, which they’ve done very well the last couple of my starts.”

Cozzi’s showing is an ominous sign for Chicago’s upcoming opponents. The Maroons had been relying on Yeksigian in the early going as the ace got the decision in four of their first five wins. Over their last seven games, the veteran has recorded just one of the team’s four Ws.

“I think everyone on the team has been getting more confident in our other pitchers. Even when we had some good pitching performances, we weren’t winning unless Dan was on the mound. We got great pitching from Cozzi, Ginsberg, and a great one from Schmitt. I think there’s now great confidence on the team that whoever we put on the mound, we have a chance to win,” Baldea said.

Fans will get a chance to see the Maroons try to stay hot this afternoon at 3:00 PM, as North Park (10–17) comes to pay their respects at J. Kyle. Ginsberg (1–2, 6.04) will get the start for Chicago.