May 9, 2003

Wins keep baseball playoff hopes alive

By Ezra Teitelbaum

Maroon Sports Contributor

With their season nearing its end, the Maroons continued their steady play this week. Since Saturday, the team has posted a 5-2 mark against some tough competition, improving their overall record to 25-6. With only two games remaining in the regular season, Chicago is seeking to make the NCAA Division III playoffs, something no Maroon team has ever done.

The Maroons close out their season with a doubleheader this Saturday and then wait to hear their postseason fate when it is announced late Sunday night. The team finds itself in a similar position as it was two years ago, when Chicago finished 26-8 and was denied a playoff berth.

"We are remaining optimistic, but we know that there is not much else we can do," said fourth-year captain J.P. Bauman. "We could have a great year and still not be chosen for what is basically a popularity contest based on reputation and often politics that decides postseason play."

The Maroons have made a convincing case, playing well down the crucial stretch run.

The Maroons hosted Benedictine College in last Saturday's doubleheader. In the first game, Chicago was handed its worst loss of the season. After throwing a perfect first inning, fourth-year starter George Schade was pummeled for seven hits and seven runs in the second. The Maroons could not recover and went on to lose the game 14-5. Schade has struggled mightily during the second half of the season, and the loss dropped his record to 3-3 and bumped his ERA up to 5.36.

Although Maroon batters collected 12 hits, they were only able to turn them into 5 runs. Chicago hitters struck out 6 times and left 10 runners stranded over the 7 innings of action. The only bright spot was third-year third baseman Nick Kocinski's 3-for-4 effort. Kocinski leads the team with a .429 batting average and 33 RBIs.

With playoff implications on the line, the Maroons were desperate to turn the tide in the second ballgame. This intensity level showed as both teams treated fans to a defensive clinic. Benedictine turned double-plays to end the first and second innings, and second-year center fielder Steve Ruh made a spectacular running catch to end the Benedictine third, slamming into the centerfield fence as he snared the long drive. Second-year catcher T.J. Rajcevich threw out two runners at second, defusing potential Benedictine rallies.

Chicago got on the board first as fourth-year outfielder Sam Kass shot a laser over the right field fence for a three-run homer in the third inning. "Sam was a little tentative earlier in the year," said head coach Brian Baldea. "Recently he has become much more aggressive in going after his pitch."

After the U of C added another run in the fourth, third-year starter Andrew Hacker entered the seventh inning leading 4-0 and looking for his second shutout of the season. However, after an error, a hit, a walk, and a two-run single, Hacker was sent to the dugout before he could retire a single batter.

Nick Kocinski took the hill with runners at the corners and the potential go-ahead run stepping to the plate. Kocinski coaxed a fly ball out of the first Benedictine hitter but surrendered a one-run single to the next. After a four-pitch walk, the situation looked bleak, with the bases loaded and the Maroons clinging to a 4-3 lead.

Kocinski quickly fell behind 3-1 to the Benedictine cleanup hitter. After one foul ball, he threw possibly the most important pitch of the entire season. The fastball was grounded sharply back towards the mound, where Kocinski fielded it and threw it back to Rajcevich at the plate. Rajcevich quickly pivoted and had more than enough time to double-up the Benedictine batter, ending the game and averting what would have been a disastrous meltdown for the Maroons. Chicago's bench emptied onto the field in exuberance, and the offensive hero Kass charged in from right, shouting congratulations and pumping his fist. The victory improved Hacker's record to 6-1 and increased Kocinski's season tally to four.

In Sunday's action the U of C faced another tough opponent, the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. In the first contest, Chicago hitters got on base, but were again unable to score runs. The Maroons had 12 hits but left 9 runners on base and scored only 5 runs.

Third-year starter Adam Alson pitched solidly, and Chicago entered the sixth inning holding a slim 5-3 lead. Rose-Hulman mounted a two-out rally, and after hitting a batter and giving up a single, Alson was replaced by second-year Steve Ruh. Ruh was able to retire the side with the lead still intact. The Maroons trotted out for the seventh determined not to let a victory slip away. Fortunately, Ruh was up to the task and put the Rose-Hulman side down in order, thanks in part to an outfield assist by Kass, who gunned down a runner trying to stretch a single into a double. The Maroons are now 9-1 in games decided by two runs or less.

The back end of Sunday's doubleheader offered the Maroon squad a relief from the anxiety of close games. Second-year Matt Altomare took the hill and was dominant from the start. Throwing seven innings of four-hit ball, Altomare gave up only two runs, both unearned, en route to his first complete game of the season. Maroon hitters were able to provide enough of a spark to secure the victory by a 7-2 margin. Altomare has emerged in the second half of this season as one of Chicago's most effective starters, posting a record of 4-0 and a 4.50 ERA.

"Matt has been a promising young pitcher since he got on campus. I think he has found success as he has gained more confidence," Bauman said. "We are really impressed with Matt's performances this year, but are not surprised."

In Tuesday's game against Elmhurst College, the powerful Maroon bats once again came alive. Chicago exploded for 12 runs on 16 hits, easily winning the game 12-2. Bauman launched two homeruns, ending the day with five RBIs and three runs scored. Third-year shortstop Brent Consiglio also connected for a round-tripper, his fourth of the season. Kass added four hits and has been on a recent tear after a dismal first half; his average now stands at an impressive .359.

Second-year Dan Harrington was the pitcher of record, throwing seven innings of six-hit ball in only his second start of the season. Harrington's record is now 4-0 and his ERA 3.21.

In Wednesday's first game, the North Central pitching staff was able to silence Chicago's big bats. The Maroons' third through sixth batting positions failed to produce a single hit, and the team was limited to five overall. Maroon fielders made three errors, and U of C pitching was equally ineffective. Hacker got the start and was roughed up for nine runs over six innings, dropping his season mark to 6-2. The Maroons eventually lost 9-3.

The second game of the day seemed an almost perfect reversal of fortune. Chicago batters provided nine hits en route to seven runs. That was enough to win the game by a healthy 7-3 margin. Third-year second baseman Ben McCown was outstanding, connecting for three hits and scoring two runs.

One sore spot for the Maroons in game two was another lackluster outing from Schade. Schade got through only 2 2/3 innings, giving up six hits, three walks, and three runs. With the playoffs pending, coach Baldea is in the unenviable position of evaluating Schade's Jekyll and Hyde performance and determining his place in the starting rotation.

The Maroons finish out the regular season Saturday in a doubleheader again the Milwaukee School of Engineering. If they do make the postseason, the team will participate in a double-elimination, regional tournament round that will commence on May 15, with the location still to be determined.