SPORTS

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April 28, 2006

Baseball eager to host old foes

Defensive lapses and big innings have kept baseball from converting their potential into wins all season long. With some once-familiar faces coming to town, the Maroons must keep on their toes if they want to stay on track toward a winning season.

With a chance to make progress on the road towards .500, Chicago (11–15) will play a pair of games apiece against 28th-ranked Wash U (32–5) and Case (10–18–1) at J. Kyle this weekend as part of the Chicago Invitational Tournament. They start things off against the Spartans Saturday morning before meeting the Bears at 4 p.m. Chicago will then take on Wash U again at 12:45 p.m. on Sunday, before wrapping up the afternoon with another matchup against Case.

The tourney is a momentous one for the Maroons. It will mark their first year of tournament play against UAA rivals since they left the league in 1996. They have not played Case since 2003, and haven’t faced the Bears in eight years.

Chicago’s departure from the UAA in 1996 was due to repeated time conflicts between winter finals and the league tournament.

“[The players are] excited about the opportunity to play against two quality opponents and two UAA schools,” head coach Brian Baldea said.

Third-year righty/first baseman Dan Cozzi (2–2, 4.76) is expected to toe the rubber in the first game against Case, while fourth-year ace right-hander Dan Yeksigian (6–2, 4.22) will have the task of taming the Bears’ big bats that afternoon. Second-year southpaw/center fielder Nate Ginsberg (2–3, 5.35) takes the mound for Sunday’s game against Wash U, with Chicago’s fourth starter to be determined.

“The main thing our pitchers will need to improve upon is getting the leadoff

batter out,” first-year catcher Scott Hofer said. “Walks and hit batters have killed us this season, and have often led to big innings for the opposing team.”

With 48 RBI on the season, Bears third-year center fielder/lefty pitcher Andy Shields (.411) is a potent threat at the plate. Those lucky enough to get past him will have to deal with fourth-year shortstop Ryan Corning, who leads the Bears with a .463 average, 37 runs batted in, and 4 home runs.

The home crew will likely face the multi-talented Shields (7–3, 3.28) and his classmate and fellow righty Brent Buffa (9–0, 2.39) at the plate across the two games. With these two stellar hurlers on the mound the Maroons will have to be on their toes, ready to capitalize on walks and errors in the field.

“I think our strategy this weekend will be to try to repeat what we’ve done in our good offensive games this season, to maintain good plate discipline while still being aggressive in the box,” Hofer said. “It will be important that we score runs early in the game, and send the message that we came ready to play.”

While they’ll likely struggle at the plate, any offensive production will probably come from the people who have been the Maroons batting leaders all year. Hofer (.456, 15 RBI) has established himself as the squad’s top dog in his rookie season, capping off a week of great hitting by drilling his first career home run in a 14–6 home loss to Elmhurst (13–18–1) Sunday. Ginsberg has batted .328 with 13 RBI and has a three-game hitting streak entering weekend action. Third-year second baseman Allen Cooper (.285) has consistently come through with runners on base, evidenced by his team-leading 20 RBI.

While Wash U will pose a challenge for these hitters, they’ll have an easier time against the Spartans. Case is likely to send third-year righties J.R. Doolos (4–3, 3.82) and John Thuermer (3–5, 6.80) to the hill against the Maroons. At the plate, center fielder Max Briggs (.300, 23 RBI) and first baseman Chris Sisson (.325, 14 RBI), both fourth-years lead the Spartan offense.

While Case’s lineup might not be that impressive, the Maroons will need more than just effective pitching to keep the Spartans at bay. Cooper’s solid glovework at second place has matched his offensive contribution, as he’s compiled 21 putouts and 57 assists on the season. The veteran teamed up with third-year shortstop Tony Zitek (.394, 15 RBI) to turn a key double play last week against North Park (12–21) in a 13–3 victory. With Vikings on first and third, Cooper and Zitek ended what could have been a destructive inning.

Unfortunately, moments like those have been few and far between for the Maroons, who have let poor defense decide too many games this year. In their front-end loss to the Blue Jays, they allowed eight unearned runs on a season-high eight errors.

“I would say that defense is the key to this weekend,” third-year third baseman Matt Assad (.283, 8 RBI) said. “Even [last weekend], we still hit the ball pretty well, and we know guys like Dan [Yeksigian], Cozzi, and Ginsberg will come out and throw the ball well every time they take the ball. The difference between wins and losses this year is how we play behind them in the field. If we make plays defensively, we will be in every game and have a chance to win every game.”

Heavy rain on Tuesday led to poor field conditions and the cancellation of the Maroons’ road matchup against Benedictine. The free week gave the players just a little more time to sharpen their glovework.

After a whirlwind of a weekend, the Maroons have just two days to rest up before taking on MSOE in a doubleheader Wednesday at J. Kyle. Chicago will continue its homestand through the weekend, hosting Benedictine (15–15–1) for a doubleheader Saturday and Concordia for another pair Sunday.

“I know I’ll be excited to get on the field and play after five days without games, especially since we’re hosting this weekend,” Ginsberg said. “I think it’s important that we play hard, and play with heart, and show that we can defend our home-turf against a couple of good teams.”