Aces power WU baseball to sustained hot streak
The pitchers have bought in. Whether it be in their devotion to the daily workouts, their film work and scouting or their intense focus on the mound, the pitchers are throwing every ounce of their effort behind this season’s campaign. So far, things are working out.
After a four-game sweep of Brandeis University last weekend, the No. 10 Washington University baseball team now holds the best Earned Run Average (1.89) in all of Division III baseball. You read that right: not just the University Athletic Association, but the entire country. The Bears’ pitchers are better than those from 394 other baseball teams.
Senior John Howard is the staff elder. A strong righty with a fiery fastball and powerful slider, he is quick to emphasize that team goals come before individual ones. When he does talk about his own pitching, he is humble.
“For me personally, it’s been a really good year,” Howard said.
“Really good” is a phrase that does not do justice to just how good his pitching has been. With a 1.24 ERA, he has already been named the UAA Pitcher of the Week three times this spring. In just seven starts this season, Howard has fanned 54 batters while giving up only seven runs.
“That’s the mentality that I take, and that’s the mentality that a lot of our other pitchers take too: just going out there and knowing if we’re going to generate contact, it’s gonna be weak contact; otherwise we’re going to need to get the ball by somebody,” he said.
Admired by the team for keeping it loose with his music and dancing before games, Howard is a leader both on and off the field. Undergoing Tommy John surgery after his senior year of high school to repair a torn ligament in his arm, Howard overcame a tough freshman season to thrive as a Bear. After a solid sophomore year, he finished with a 1.01 ERA last spring and was named the DIII All-Central Region Pitcher of the Year.
“I’m just very proud of what [Howard] has been able to do and the impact he’s had—not just performance-wise but with the leadership and mentorship that he’s provided to his teammates,” head coach Pat Bloom said. “I feel fortunate to have coached him and I look forward to every opportunity that he has to go compete because it has been fun to see him—it has been fun just to be with him on game day and to watch him go out there and compete.”
Howard is just one of many aces on the roster, however. Few may have believed it possible for sophomore Ryan Loutos to improve upon his sensational rookie campaign. Last spring, he struck out a whopping 11.77 batters per 9 innings, finishing the year with a 2.83 ERA and achieving UAA Rookie of the Year honors. Still, he has been even better this spring, striking out 49 batters in under 33 innings and lowering his ERA to just 1.34.
“I think that having a year more of experience really helps,” Loutos said. “I had a good year last year but just going through a whole season put me in a good place starting off this year.”
As Wash U. has gotten hot this spring—the team has won its last 11 games and now has a 20-3-1 record—other teams have begun to take notice. This increased attention can make the pitchers’ task more difficult, the players said. A key to the team’s success has been the ability to adjust and power through. It has been important “not letting teams who have seen you before—who know you’re successful—not letting their change in game plans affect you,” Loutos said. He mentioned Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer as a source of inspiration in tough circumstances.
“I don’t show my emotions as much as he does on the mound but in terms of dominating hitters and that self-confidence that he’s better than the guy he’s facing—that’s something that I try to think about as I pitch,” he said.
When paired with the pitchers’ devotion to hard work and improvement, that competitive spirit defines the Bears.
“There’s extreme competition every day in practice to try to prove that you’ve earned the right to get the ball in big situations,” Bloom said, describing the friendly, yet intense way players will constantly push each other. “They’re a hardworking group of guys, and they’ve really bought into our philosophies on how we want to execute each pitch and the type of mental and physical processes that go into being successful in a competitive environment.”
Junior Matt Ashbaugh, the Bears’ third starting pitcher, joins Howard and Loutos with a sub-two ERA of his own. In his second year in the starting rotation, Ashbaugh has become more comfortable on the mound.
“The difference between this year and last year especially is that I’m attacking the zone a lot better and my off-speed pitches are a lot better this year,” Ashbaugh said.
Ashbaugh stressed the importance of having everyone on the team fully invested in the team’s success.
“We’ve definitely got the best team chemistry I’ve been a part of, in college or in general,” he said, citing the team members’ shared confidence and trust in one another. “We’ve had complete buy-in, which is incredible considering that our team is a lot bigger than in the past. Hopefully we can continue that and keep the momentum going, the streak going. It’s been a lot of fun.”
The pitchers are not the only ones having fun during this season’s success. “I’ve enjoyed working with them tremendously and am a baseball nerd at heart too, so I love talking the game and I love talking pitching,” Bloom said. “It’s just fun when you have other kids that share that same level of energy and enthusiasm for the game.”
The Bears face conference rival New York University at home this weekend in what is sure to be an exciting series. Howard, Loutos and Ashbaugh will all have their talents on display as the Red and Green look to solidify themselves as a force to be reckoned with as the playoffs come into view.