“It felt like anything that could go wrong, did”: Breaking down baseball’s 12-24 season

| Managing Sports Editor

Tim Van Kirk surveys the outfield after sliding in to beat a Fontbonne throw. The senior, who is known for his speed and hitting strength at the top of the lineup, will be a key departure next year. (Photo by Clara Richards / Student Life)

On Sunday, the Washington University baseball team lost to Fontbonne University in an eight inning 12-2 game that was an unfortunately fitting end to an underwhelming season for the Bears. It was one thing to get narrowly beaten by Webster University on Wednesday in a competitive 10-8 loss, especially when the local top-ten team closed out their regular season three days later with an exquisitely executed perfect game. On the other hand, losing two out three games to Fontbonne, a team that travels to Clayton’s Shaw Park for their home games, was an example of the difficulties that the Bears have faced both offensively and defensively this season. 

“I hope it was a wakeup call,” said junior outfielder Broghan O’Connor. “I think a lot of guys just see it as a curse, or that it’s just been a bad year — we lost so many close games. That game shows that if we don’t change things in the summer and the winter, it’s gonna be the same thing.” 

They finished the 2022 season with a 12-24 record, and the team went 3-13 in conference play. For context, their .333 winning percentage is the worst since 1990, where they went 9-27 under Kevin Benzing. It’s head coach Pat Bloom’s first-ever losing season, and he’s been coaching in Division III for 19 years. 

“We didn’t meet our standards, and we’re far from where we want to be as a program, and far from where we’ve been,” Bloom said. “I think that it’s upon every player and […] our coaches to really take a hard look and examine what we need to do to get measurably, significantly and consistently better, mentally and physically.”

The Bears’ season overall was characterized by early leads and late losses; WashU lost ten close games in the seventh inning or later by less than two runs. Again and again, the Bears’ spectators watched as WashU’s closers took the mound only to let up one or two crucial runs.

The pitching staff was a major point of weakness for the Bears; they pitched an average ERA of 5.84, a departure from the 2.80 average over the previous six years of Bloom’s tenure at WashU. They lacked a workhorse to set the tone on the mound; last year, Ryan Loutos and Troy Bauer filled that role, but underclassman starters Sebastian Guzman and Clayton Miller struggled with command and lack of experience, pitching an 5.96 and 7.81 ERA respectively. Last year, the team also closed with unbeatable final innings on the back end of the game, with a bullpen that could help the team with decisive final outs. This season, though, they did not have the velocity or the command to compete with the strength of the opponents they faced, especially late in games.

The merry-go-round of an infield didn’t help either, with players rotating in and out of positions to fill in the roles of injured upperclassmen, which included at various points in the season top hitter Tim Van Kirk, first baseman Bo Anderson, and third baseman Andrew Huang. Sophomore Harry Mauterer was slotted into the crucial position of shortstop after Van Kirk was injured early on in the season, putting him in the tough spot of playing a new role under the stress of competitive matchups. “Our pitching might not have been as deep as it was last year, but on the defensive side, we also made it worse for them, so it got magnified,” O’Connor said.

Sophomore Zac Malis dives to retrieve a dropped ball at third base. (Photo by Clara Richards / Student Life)

With the final loss on May 1, this is the earliest that Bloom has ever finished a season. It gives him and Assistant Coach Tyler Schmitt a chance to do a deep dive into both recruitment and analyzing the season, and it gives the players four months to put in functionally effective work before they return to practice. For some players, like pitcher Hank Weiss, they will spend the summer in the wood-bat leagues, honing their skills among national competition. For others, they will work at home, trying to increase their velocity and strength before coming back to the WashU campus. Either way, Bloom sees the summer as a chance for his players to fill in the gaps that they were missing this year. 

“We have got to make sure that each person is willing to put the work in in the summertime to build velocity, improve their overall pitch repertoire and to really learn from what we did on the mound competitively,” Bloom said. “We need to come back, not just as better throwers of the baseball, but as better competitors on the mound.” 

Bloom has brought in eight incoming recruits, a group which includes four pitchers. He’ll be looking for the incoming freshman and sophomore classes to step up, especially given that the youngest players have never experienced the success that was a hallmark of WashU baseball in prior years. The expectations set for the younger players is something that the rising senior class, a smaller class of five players, is especially cognizant of. “Our class really needs to […] try to enforce the ways of the past and remind the freshmen of that, who haven’t really seen how the team operates when it’s good,” O’Connor said.

Coming into the season, Bloom knew he would have to compensate for the loss of the majority of his 2021 pitching roster. He knew the offense would have to be prolific to provide the firepower and support for the younger players on the mound, and he knew he’d have to rely heavily on the freshman and sophomore classes. “Whether they are immediately ready right now or not, they’re going to have to show some maturity and polish,” he said in February. Yet while the Bears threatened greatness, with close games against top-ten opponents like Webster and UT-Dallas, they committed fielding errors at critical moments and could not rely on their closers to stem the offensive push in late innings. 

 “It was one of those years that felt, at times, like anything that could go wrong, did,” Bloom said. “You had so many injuries and so many illnesses and so many tough moments. But I think we have really good kids here — high character individuals — and so whenever you have that, [there are] reasons to be hopeful and optimistic.” 

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