April 29, 2005

Between the Lines: Upset was lesson in good baseball

Wednesday's baseball upset over eighth-ranked Carthage was big. It was a season-defining moment, perhaps a career-defining one for some of the team's seniors, and it showed just how far baseball has come as a team over half a season. Most importantly, the victory wasn't a fluke product of a lucky bounce; it was the result of a true sum-is-greater-than-the-parts effort.

Most people that haven't played the sport don't really understand the team nature of baseball. In a sport where hitters bat one at a time with a pitcher on an island throwing a pitch every half minute, phrases like "team effort" and "momentum" seem almost oxymoronic.

Yet team play is as fundamental to baseball as it is to any other sport, and it's much more difficult to pull off. No team can consistently win with only one or two players teeing off at the plate, nor will great pitching get a ball club anywhere without solid defense and some run support.

This year, we've seen Maroons baseball try and fail to win without solid, all-around team play. Third-year righty Dan Yeksigian, who has emerged as the team's ace, dominated with a lights-out performance against Dominican in the rain-shortened home opener March 30. He struck out eight hitters over eight innings and allowed only two runs on two walks and nine hits. Still, he took the loss, because the hitters in the lineup laid an egg that afternoon. Hitters have felt the pain too, getting on base only to have their support strand them in scoring position.

Those frustrations have been brought to a sudden halt by some great situational play from the offense, the defense, and the pitching staff alike. After second-year starter Dan Cozzi retired six of the first seven batters he faced against Carthage, the lineup went to work, battling for runs off of singles, extra-base hits, walks, and fielder's choice groundballs.

Early in the year, pitching and defensive miscues put the team behind early, and the offense would wait until the late innings before putting up their meek response. On Wednesday, the hitters built on the pitcher's strong start. Even when the defense made two key errors—booting a double-play grounder with bases loaded in the sixth and failing to cover second on a stolen base attempt—the team dug itself out with big plays. After the groundball error, for example, first-year right fielder Mike Serio made a big diving catch in foul territory to end the threat and keep his team within one. During their turn at bat, the offense responded with two runs, fighting to shut the door.

Many who statistically study the game will tell you that there's no such thing as situational hitting and that every at bat is an independent occurrence. That's true to a certain extent, but it discounts the critical concept of building off of each other, which helps produce upsets as complete as Wednesday's. Early this season, Chicago hitters were going to the plate not looking to build on the two-men-on situation but instead trying to make up for an 0-for-10 slump with one swing. When the defense made an error, the team would fall back on its heels.

That didn't happen Wednesday, and this team is poised to really break out against some tough competition because of it. Sometimes teams will be overmatched no matter how well they work together, but good teams overachieve and become great teams because they maximize their production with what they have. That's the spark that will define this team.