May 1, 2009

Chicago wins eight of nine, keeping postseason hopes alive

With the coming of May, it’s playoff time.

A few weeks ago, baseball found itself 6–9, on the outside looking in. Since April 8, however, they’ve turned the tide, and their playoff hopes remain alive. The Maroons boast an 8–1 record since then, their only loss coming in a doubleheader against a 23–10 Wash U squad.

Their most recent wins came on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, when Chicago (14–10) beat Elmhurst (13–20) by an 8–2 margin and Wheaton (29–11) by a score of 9–6. These last two victories have vaulted the Maroons into possible playoff contention, although the South Siders will need to continue their hot streak through the end of next week.

“We really need to get rolling,” head coach Brian Baldea said. “Or, I should say, keep rolling.”

Baldea has attributed the team’s recent success to strong pitching and defense, both of which needed attention earlier in the season. It looks like they gave those areas that attention, and the resulting improvements have been substantial. Chicago committed 26 errors over their 10-game spring break trip, while the last 10 games have seen just 15 Maroon errors.

Pitching in particular has transformed the Maroons from a mediocre .500 team to an overwhelming force. Third-year Joe Pankow and second-year Dan McConologue have been reliable pitchers from the start, but the emergence of a deeper core of secondary pitchers has helped the South Siders round out a strong rotation.

For example, fourth-year Payton Leonhardt performed excellently against Elmhurst this past Tuesday. He pitched for seven innings, only allowing five hits and one earned run.

“He located his fastball well and kept their hitters off balance with his curve. I think his pitching performance gave us confidence that the game was in our control,” fourth-year first baseman Scott Hofer said.

Wednesday’s game against Wheaton featured much of the same. Pankow and McConologue were complemented by second-year John Kozlar and first-year Rodney Nelson. Together they combined for 13 strikeouts.

When the pitching has failed, the defense has been there with support. This week Chicago committed only one error; opponents had eight.

But for all the focus on pitching and defense, the offense has been equally remarkable. In the past two games, Chicago’s 19 hits have translated into a staggering 17 runs.

Such efficiency may be the result of Baldea’s new statistics: Quality at Bat (QAB) and Quality of Pitch (QOP). The QAB in particular has helped the Maroons to focus on team rather than individual play.

“What it takes to make a quality at bat for the team, not what it takes to make another statistic for you individually,” is how Baldea defines the QAB stat. “Sometimes it means moving a guy over from second to third.”

QAB’s influence has helped the Maroons convert hits into runs very effectively. The QOP has also encouraged clutch pitching.

Playoff hopes linger, but every remaining game counts. This weekend, regional opponents Depaw and Rockford will test Chicago’s streak.

“Our playoff chances are still strong. We need to win the rest of our games…which is going to be a challenge, but it is not impossible,” second-year Marshall Oium said.

Clicking on all three cylinders, the Maroons will be confident in the team and in each other down the stretch.

“I don’t think we could go into this weekend any more prepared,” Hofer said. “I know that Joe [Pankow], Dan [McConologue], and Preston [Atteberry] will do awesome and put us in a position to win.”