For baseball, today’s home opener comes at a pivotal time in the squad’s spring campaign. After struggling out of the gate in Arizona, the Maroons have found success by returning to the basics. Their recent improvements will be put to the test against a pair of tough regional opponents.
After finishing a rocky spring break with a 3–7 mark, conceding double-digit run totals four times, the squad has used its early-season struggles as a constant reminder of what it needs to do to succeed in DIII. The pitching during that span was inconsistent and the batting was below average. The defense, meanwhile, yielded numerous errors that allowed huge innings for the opponents. Rather than wallowing in defeat, the Maroons (5–8) used their losses as a wake-up call to return to the basics.
“We all knew we didn’t hit so well in Arizona,” third-year outfielder Mike Serio said. “Sometimes, that is something that just happens. On top of that, we simply did not play the great defense that we know we are capable of. At times, we just could not throw strikes. For us, oftentimes, the difference between winning and losing is our ability to play defense and strike batters out.”
Head coach Brian Baldea shifted the focus of last week’s practice to the nuts and bolts, as the players went back to the drawing board to practice the basics. Both the coaching staff and the pitchers realized that the walks they gave out crippled the offense, while the batters were having trouble hitting balls across the entire field. Team practices focused on mechanics both on the offensive and defensive ends. Pitchers kept fresh by throwing in the bullpen and the batters hit against live pitchers to get the most out of practice.
“We had a whole week to practice fundamentals. Those practices really helped in bringing us back to the point where we need to be,” Serio said.
This competitive drive rewarded the Maroons with two wins in the last three games since their return to the Midwest. Since recovering from their rough spring break tour, the players feel more prepared and more confident. The numbers show the change as the pitching staff kept opponents at bay, allowing at most two runs in each of the two wins. The hitters came in for the double punch, scoring at least seven runs in both games.
“I think the pitching and defense have really turned around,” third-year pitcher Dominik Meyer said. “There’s always room for improvement, and we worked and are still working on eliminating the big innings that come from errors and walks.”
Over the last couple of wins, the South Siders combined shutout pitching, continuous run support, and their trademark defense to topple their opponents.
“We went through a stretch where we would have pitching but no hitting, or hitting but no pitching, but we seem to be putting together a little bit of everything now,” Meyer said.
Most important, however, is the leadership displayed by the captains of the squad. After losing two of its top players from last season, pitcher Dan Yeksigian and designated hitter Ryan Denton (A.B. ’06), to graduation and second-year catcher/designated hitter Scott Hofer to a torn labrum injury, this spring’s squad was forced to make some adjustments. Yeksigian finished last season 7–3 as Chicago’s second all-time winningest pitcher (19) and third in strikeouts (191), while Denton batted .265 with 28 runs and 17 RBIs. Hofer contributed enormously last season as well, batting .448 with a .520 OBP. Taking some time to adjust to a new lineup and with the schedule nearing the halfway point, the Maroons are just now hitting their groove.
“Some of those players were a luxury to have. They were great leaders,” said Serio, “but our captains and our seniors have done really well so far...and many players are stepping up as leaders. In the absence of Dan and Ryan, we ‘ve had multiple people step up and we have some young pitchers we’re all excited about.”
Chicago will host Illinois Tech (1–9–2) and Aurora (9–9) at home. The Scarlet Hawks and the Spartans have consistently been tough competitors against the Maroons. Last season, Aurora edged out Chicago in a doubleheader and the Maroons managed only a split in a pair of games with ITT.
“Both IIT and Aurora represent big challenges, but with the weather being what it is, I think it will definitely play into our strengths of pitching, defense, and a small ball attitude,” said Meyer, who currently is 1–2 with a 1.02 ERA and is slated to start this weekend. Backing him up and the rest of the pitching staff will be two of the team’s hottests hitters, Serio and fourth-year second baseman Tony Zitek, recently named UAA Player of the Week.