March 30, 2007

Baseball Hosts Yale, Brown

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After playing its first 16 games on the road in places as far away as Greensboro N.C., the baseball team will finally return home this weekend to kick off its Ivy League season against rivals Yale and Brown in consecutive doubleheaders tomorrow and Sunday. The games mark the grand opening of the Red’s newly renovated Hoy Field — which has been the home to Cornell baseball since 1922.

“We’re obviously very excited for this weekend,” said head coach Tom Ford. “It’s nice just to be home but to be able to get out on a new field and play makes it even better.”

The park renovations include a reorientation of the field, installation of FieldTurf, new dugouts, new bullpens, a new grandstand between the dugouts and a press box.

In order for Cornell (6-10) to properly christen the new facility, it will have to beat Yale (6-13) and Brown (5-10), who finished five and seven games ahead of the Red, respectively, in last year’s Ivy League standings. Senior Jim Hyland and freshman Tony Bertucci will start the first two games of the weekend for Cornell against Yale, while freshman David Rochefort and junior Walker Toma will get the nods against Brown.

“How you do in league play can make or break your season,” said assistant coach Scott Marsh. “So, we would really like to get off to a good start this weekend, unlike last year. Each weekend from here on out is critically important.”

The Bulldogs have struggled so far this year to a 6-13 record against tough non-conference foes, including losses in nine out of their last 10 contests. Yale’s Achilles heel — much like Cornell — has been the inability to get consistent outings from their pitching staff, which has been shelled this season to the tune of a team ERA of 8.70. Bulldog pitchers have given up 10 runs nine times so far this season, most recently in an 18-7 home-opener loss to Connecticut on Wednesday. Junior reliever John Davis leads the staff with a team-best 4.35 ERA in 10 appearances while sophomore Stefan Schropp is not far behind with a 4.50 ERA, two wins and 20 strikeouts.

Yale does pack some offensive firepower, however, as the squad sports a team batting average of .312. Sophomore Ryan Lavarnway leads the team in virtually every offensive category, including batting average (.462), hits (36), doubles (11) home runs (6) RBI (27), slugging percentage (.833) and on base percentage (.523).

Brown has recovered nicely from losing eight out of its first nine games in the 2007 season to winning four out of its last six. The Bears are much less of a threat offensively than Yale — with a .273 team batting average — but also have a stingier pitching staff, allowing 6.19 runs per game. Junior Jeff Dietz — who was first team All-Ivy last season and second team All-Ivy as a freshman — leads Brown in both aspects of the game. He paces the offense with a .345 average, three home runs and 32 RBI while also leading the pitching staff with a 4.50 ERA, 22 innings pitched and 12 strikeouts.

The Red will counter its Ivy League rivals with consistent defense and a deep lineup, but according to Marsh, the key to success this weekend is the performance of the team’s pitchers.

“Pitching is a big facet of what we need to do to be successful,” he said. “We need our guys to attack the strike zone and make opposing hitters earn their way on base. We have been giving team’s way too many easy base runners with walks and hit basemen.”

Hyland has been the only relatively consistent force on the pitching staff so far this year for the Red, with a team-leading 3.20 ERA and a 2-2 record in four starts.

Offensively, the top two hitters in the lineup — sophomore Domenic Di Ricco and junior tri-captain Brian Kaufman — have done most of the damage for the Red. Di Ricco leads the team with a .339 average and Kaufman has nine extra base hits, including three home runs to go along with 17 RBI. According to Marsh, a player that needs to get back on track is sophomore tri-captain and designated hitter Brant McKown, who is currently hitting .145 after establishing himself as a consistent power threat in the middle of the order last year as a freshman.

“Brant doesn’t have any mechanical flaws and really hasn’t made any changes from his swing last year,” Marsh said. “He’s also caught some bad breaks at the plate this year so it’s just a matter of gaining confidence with a couple of good at-bats. We want him to get back in track but he’s not a long ways away.”

Fortunately, Cornell will be facing almost exclusively right-handed pitchers this weekend, which the team has handled very well so far this season. Red batters have hit a combined .285 against righties while they have struggled to a .211 mark against southpaws.

“I expect our team to put its best effort forth this weekend and to stay focused on what we have to do,” Ford said.