Baseball aims to return to NCAA tournament
With nearly every top contributor from last year returning, the Bears are one of the most experienced teams in the region; here’s a breakdown of some key areas for Wash. U. in the coming season.
The Bears’ offensive efforts were marked by inconsistency in 2013: their 40 games included either barrages of runs or rows of zeroes on the scoreboard. They were undefeated in 12 games when scoring eight or more runs but countered that production with 15 instances of scoring three runs or fewer.
Wash. U. returns all the centerpieces of its lineup with the top five players in batting average, on-base percentage, hits, runs batted in and total bases from a year ago back in 2014.
“The name that everybody would be familiar with who’s familiar with our program is Kyle Billig,” head coach Steve Duncan said. “He’s had a great career, and we have high expectations for him to kind of anchor the offense.”
Senior outfielder Billig is a career .338 hitter and has a chance to end his career at the top of a number of offensive categories in the Red and Green record book. He is already the program’s all-time leader in stolen bases (89) and could finish first in hits (currently 52 away), runs scored (15 away) and triples (3 away).
Beyond Billig, junior Chris Lowery hit a scorching .396 a year ago and also led the team in slugging percentage, hits and total bases; junior Zack Kessinger hit .372 and knocked in 39 runs; and sophomore Max Golembo parlayed a strong batting eye (a team-high 29 walks) into a team-leading .437 on-base percentage.
“What will help us this year is I think it’s a more balanced lineup from 1-9. We don’t really have an offensive hole in that lineup. I think other pitching staffs are really going to have their work cut out for them to make it through our lineup three times in a game without giving up some runs,” Duncan said.
Losing only one starting pitcher from an experienced core has the Bears’ rotation in a strong position heading into the season. Graduate student Stephen Bonser led the Bears with a 2.49 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 79.2 innings pitched a year ago, and junior Dom Quaranta impressed after moving into the rotation, posting a 1.84 ERA as a starter and being named to the All-Central Region third team. Bonser and Quaranta each tallied seven wins in 2013, a combined 56 percent of the team’s total, and were the only qualifying pitchers with a sub-4 ERA.
“Our pitching staff is going to be anchored by Bonser and Dom Quaranta, both who had exceptional years last year,” Duncan said. “It gives us a little bit of peace of mind heading into the season with two guys who have had so much success anchoring our pitching rotation.”
The pitching staff will be aided by a strong defense—the team’s .958 fielding percentage a year ago was tied for its best ever.
After earning a bid each year from 2005-07, the Bears have played in the Division III tournament just twice in the last six seasons. Despite a winning percentage of .625 or greater in each of Duncan’s three seasons, Wash. U.’s status as a Pool B team—meaning that winning the conference does not automatically entail a spot in the tournament—gives it a more difficult path to postseason play.
“What that means is that every single game of the season matters,” Duncan said. “We’re not in the position that other schools are in where they can maybe start slow but as long as they get hot at the end of the season…we don’t have that opportunity. We have to build a resume from game 1 to game 48.”
The Bears’ lineup and rotation are heavily populated by upperclassmen, so the team hopes to avoid the early-season growing pains that have plagued it in recent years.
“It’s such an asset for us that we’ve got—the nucleus of our team is really juniors, most of the team is juniors and they’re not juniors who are just getting on the field for the first time—they’re guys that have started since their freshman year, who have been to an NCAA regional tournament, who have experienced the disappointment of not going last year,” Duncan said.
It’s clear which route they want to repeat this year, and combining their deep offense with strong pitching at the front of the rotation will set the Bears on the right path in the opening weekend.