Baseball opens conference play with back-to-back sweeps

By Patrick Murphy

Last spring the Macalester baseball team had a breakout season for the ages, capturing their first MIAC championship in 61 years. This year, the team has returned to the field and picked up where it left off. On Wednesday evening, the Scots finished off a sweep of a conference opponent with a comeback victory for the second time in as many series. Facing Gustavus Adolphus at home, the Scots cruised to a 6-0 victory in the opener behind a two-hit shutout pitching performance by CJ Smith ’14, but the home team ran into trouble late in the nightcap. The Scots jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the third inning on a Robert Williams ’12 two-out three-run home run, his third on the young season. The Scots held the lead until the top of the sixth when the Gusties strung together six hits in the inning and took the lead on a four-run effort. After dominating the visitors all afternoon, the Scots refused to let the sweep slip away. In the bottom half of the inning, third baseman Graham Brown ’12 came to the plate with two outs and runners on first and second. Waiting back on a breaking ball, the speedy Brown shot the ball to the opposite field for a two RBI triple to retake the lead. A pair of RBI singles later in the inning put the Scots ahead for a 7-4 finish. The sweep of Gustavus gave the boys in blue their third sweep in a row, and second in conference (The team swept St. Olaf 9-2, 7-6 on Saturday). At 14-9 overall and a perfect 4-0 in MIAC play, the team is currently tied with Bethel atop the conference standings. Asked before the Gustavus series what it would take to repeat last year’s success, shortstop Jimmy Belfont ’13, the hero in the comeback win against St. Olaf, said: “We are 30 some guys all with one goal in mind: doing whatever it takes to win the ball game. Our play on the field last year reflected this mentality, and I feel that is something that will carry over into conference play this season.” While conference play has only just started, Belfont’s words have rung true for the Scots thus far. The second game against St. Olaf on Saturday afternoon serves as a prime example of this win-at-all-costs mentality. Mac went down 0-6 after the first inning, but battled back throughout the game with timely hitting and stingy pitching, before Belfont hit an RBI single for the walk-off win. After being picked to finish eighth in the conference in the 2011 preseason coaches’ poll, the Scots surprised everyone by finishing regular season play tied for first in the MIAC and qualifying for the conference tournament last season. The team received a number of strong postseason performances, but eventually fell to rival St. Thomas in the semifinal game. Unsatisfied to simply take solace in qualifying for the playoffs after a lengthy hiatus, the returning players from last year’s team are on a mission. “Getting knocked out in the conference tournament lit a fire under all of us to play that much harder,” said starting pitcher Nick Meerson ’12. “We’re looking to build on our prior success, return to the conference tournament, and move beyond that.” Meerson has been a big reason for the team’s success thus far this season. The southpaw from Southern California has emerged this season as the ace at the top of the team’s pitching rotation. Coming into the season, there was little doubt that the veteran offense would provide the runs, but questions abounded surrounding the team’s pitching depth. After graduating a pair of eight-game winners last year, the team was in need of a dependable arm. Unassuming at 5’8” and 160 lb. soaking wet, Meerson has stood tall on the mound, mowing down opposing hitters and getting off to a 6-0 start, tied for most wins in the conference. Meerson credits his success to a return to a previous pitching motion that features more refined and repeatable mechanics, allowing for more consistency in his pitches. “I really try not to put pressure on myself, yet still remain intensely focused,” he said. “When I go to the mound to throw, I make sure to clear my head and take it one pitch at a time.” A trio of sophomore hurlers has complimented the strong play of Meerson. CJ Smith leads the team with a 1.54 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings pitched, Nathan Kelleher-Crew ’14 has thrown a team-high 34 innings despite a recently discovered stress fracture in his hip, and Chase Kahn ’14 has notched three wins. Offensively, the team has been led by a pair of seniors in the three and four spots. Infielder Mitch Glasser ’12, statistically the hardest player in the nation to strike out last year, has carried over his strong play. Despite already striking out once, Glasser has overcome his struggle to hit .387 on the year with 19 RBI, eight doubles, and nine stolen bases. “I have just been sticking to what I do best—hitting the ball where it’s pitched,” said Glasser. “I have also been trying to take more aggressive hacks at the plate.” Hitting cleanup, catcher Robert Williams ’12 has fulfilled a prophecy to become the most feared hitter in the MIAC. The catcher from West Covina, California, has been hitting the cover off the ball, leading the team in nearly every major offensive category—.449 batting average (second in conference), 35 hits (first in conference), 3 home runs (second in conference), 27 RBIs (tied for first in conference). Williams’ offensive tear in early conference play garnered him national recognition last week when he was named the Division III Catcher of the Week, in addition to the MIAC Player of the Week. “It was nice to receive the accolades; however, the most important stats are the ones in the win and loss column,” said Williams. The Scots travel to Parade Stadium in Minneapolis on Saturday afternoon to face off with Augsburg in continued conference action. The team will return home next Tuesday for a double-header with Bethel, beginning at 1:00. When asked what fans can expect at Mac baseball home games, Glasser answered: “They will for sure see some quality baseball. If you like the long ball, we have Robert Williams. If you need help with your math homework, we have Justin Sims ’14. If you need advice from a future doctor, we have Graham and Garrett (Salzman ’12).” Pitcher and resident thespian Roberto Capriotti ’13 added: “Fans can expect to see the Fighting Scots display an amalgamation of the mental and physical toughness it takes to win MIAC baseball games. This year’s team has the talent, confidence and virility to repeat last year’s conference championship with an insatiable craving to go further in the playoffs this year. Fans can expect to be a part of a competitively spirited environment filled with the finest things that compose baseball’s cultural landscape: unique terminology, banter and Macalester pride.” refresh –>