April 5, 2012

BASEBALL | Red Off to Best Start Under Walkenbach

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Junior pinch runner Spencer Souza stood on third base in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game, 3-3. Timing the Longwood catcher’s lazy throw back to the pitcher, Souza took off for home, sliding in safely and giving the Red (16-5-1, 3-1 Ivy league) its 11th win of the season — one more than the team’s total from last year. Souza’s late inning heroics two weeks ago have become standard for the Red, as they are just one example of the small things the team has been doing to help put it on the road to its strongest season since head coach Bill Walkenbach took over three years ago.

“We really have no holes,” said junior infielder Brenton Peters.

According to Peters, the team has improved from top to bottom. Though the offense has been solid as of late, the Red’s defense has kept it in close games.

“We always try to make a team as strong as possible up the middle, because those are the guys that anchor us,” Walkenbach said. “And I think we have the best anchor in the Ivy League in [senior Marshall Yanzick] at shortstop.”

Yanzick is batting .303 with 16 RBI’s, and has been nearly flawless as the captain of the infield with a .924 fielding percentage. However, though his statistics speak for themselves, Walkenbach believes his shortstop is just as valuable off the field.

“His leadership has been crucial to our success,” he said.

Joining Yanzick in the middle infield is Peters, who has only made three errors on the season. The junior and senior together make up a solid double play combination.

“Marshall and myself have really meshed together up the middle,” Peters said.

In the outfield, senior centerfielder Brian Billigen has been putting up huge numbers. After winning Ivy League player of the week in the first week of the season for going 8-for-18 with a triple and homerun, Billigen is still batting .422.

“Brian covers amazing amounts of ground out there,” Walkenbach said, since the centerfielder also leads the team in stolen bases (8).

Billigen suffered an injury in this weekend’s Ivy opener, and was replaced by freshman J.D. Whetsel. According to Walkenbach, although Whetsel has big shoes to fill, the freshman has really come through for the Red.

“We’ve been able to replace Brian with [Whetsel], who is actually the fastest player on the team.”

The Red’s three main outfielders — sophomore Chris Cruz, Billigen and Whetsel — all run sub-7 60’s.

“Our outfield is making plays in the gaps that other outfielders don’t normally make because we have that kind of speed,” Peters said.

Anchoring the Red’s defense, the pitching staff has continued to turn away opponents game after game. Most recently, sophomore Connor Kaufmann, who is 4-1 in five starts, carried the Red to a 2-0 victory over Dartmouth with the team’s first no-hitter in 32 years. Kaufmann received Ivy League Pitcher of the Week honors for his standout performance on Saturday, March 31.

Freshman Brent Jones and senior Rick Marks, the leaders of the staff, are third and fifth in ERA in the Ivy League at 2.35 and 2.76, respectively. Freshman Brian McAfee rounds out the Top-10 at 3.86. Jones is also fourth in the league in strikeouts with 30. Freshman reliever Kellen Urbon has four saves and an ERA of .75 in 12 innings.

Of the 10 players Walkenbach recruited for this year’s team, seven are pitchers.

“We’ve been lucky enough to get guys innings early enough to get their feet wet in college baseball, and they’ve performed very well,” Walkenbach said.

Though the staff does look young and inexperienced to outsiders, Peters and Walkenbach see experience beyond their years in the young hurlers.

“Basically, [the freshmen] have had a lot of innings and they’ve emerged out of the freshman stereotype,” Peters said. “They’re no longer 18 or 19 year old wide, bright eyed kids coming out of high school — they’ve risen to the occasion.”

With seven starters hitting over .300 at this point in the season, the Red’s offense has made drastic strides since last season, when only two starters finished over .300.

“Experience is the biggest thing,” Walkenbach said. “The seniors have learned about their approach to the game and they’re having much better at-bats from day to day.”

Billigen is second in the league in batting average, first in runs scored and first in RBI’s. Cruz, the sophomore slugger, leads the conference in homeruns with seven. Senior Frank Hager is also batting .351 with two homers.

“It comes with confidence because we worked so hard throughout the fall,” Peters said. “Our senior leaders have some of the highest batting averages on the team because they put in the work, whether it’s Frank hitting homeruns or Marshall getting on base and moving runners over.”

With a team that has a serious chance at competing in the Ivy League, Walkenbach said he believes there is still room for improvement.

“We need to work on our consistency and staying healthy,” he said. “We’ve come up against some good pitching lately, so our offensive numbers are down a little, but I expect that to rise as we ease into Ivy play.”

Even in its losses, the Red has only lost by more than four runs one time, against Delaware State.

“With the guys we have on the mound, we’re going to be in every game we play, and with one or two exceptions, that has been the case so far,” Walkenbach said.

With the bulk of Ivy play still to come, the Red has its work cut out for it against perennial powerhouses like Princeton. However, according to Walkenbach, this team has the senior leadership that can help take the Red far.

“This is the strongest group of senior leaders I’ve ever had, and one of the best freshman classes we’ve ever had,” Walkenbach said. “And I think the numbers we are putting up are showing that.”

Original Author: Scott Chiusano