After coming up short of a ninth consecutive Rolfe Division title by the slimmest of margins, the Dartmouth Big Green baseball team is anxious to reclaim what it owned for nearly a decade and push for its first Ivy League crown since 2010.
The 2016 version of the Big Green squad finished the season 18-25 overall and 11-9 in league play, tying Yale for the second time in three years atop the division standings. But the Bulldogs, who took three of four from Dartmouth in Hanover during the regular season, rallied with two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning in the playoff game to end the Big Green’s reign in a 5-4 final.
While Dartmouth returns all but six players from last year’s team, many of those who graduated were major contributors, particularly key players up the middle. But a deep pitching staff will mitigate the departure of right-handed ace Duncan Robinson, who was selected by the Chicago Cubs in the ninth round of the 2016 MLB Draft, and the maturation of the younger players will be instrumental in improving upon an offense that struggled to score runs at times last year.
Granted, the strong competition in non-conference play played a hand in the team averaging less than four runs a game for the first time in 24 years; against Ivy League teams, the production increased to 4.3 runs. The pitching staff also saw a marked improvement once the conference season began. Against teams outside the league, the staff ERA was nearly two full runs higher than against Ivy squads.
Serving as the captain this year is senior Michael Ketchmark (.255/.319/.414 in 2016), one of the big bats in the middle of the lineup. The first baseman led Dartmouth with five homers and 28 RBIs, and was one of the most reliable bats with runners in scoring position. Ketchmark, who started his career at third base, has a strong arm and is an aggressive defender. But his biggest contributions will come at the plate where he expects to improve his averages across the board.
“Michael is another in a long line of excellent captains that leads on the field at practice and games, in the locker room and on campus,” head coach Bob Whalen said. “He has the respect of his teammates and coaches. We are counting on him to be a run producer in the middle of our lineup and have his best year to date.”
To his right will be junior Dustin Shirley (.301/.314/.422) manning the keystone position. Last year the slender swinger hit .405 in Ivy League play, narrowly missing out on the Blair Bat Award for the conference’s top batting average. Shirley has a knack for putting the bat on the ball and has gap-to-gap power which, combined with his speed, helped him lead the Ancient Eight with five triples in 2016. In the field he has good range and an accurate arm with the ability to quickly turn the double play.
The graduation of Thomas Roulis leaves a bit of a hole at shortstop, but sophomore Nate Ostmo (.125/.276/.167) will have the first crack at filling the role. An athletic player with good size at 6-3 and 190 pounds, Ostmo had some growing pains in the field during his limited action last season. But he has smoothed out his rough edges and is ready to take on the position. With a good eye at the plate and untapped power potential, Ostmo could be a breakout player for the Big Green in 2017.
The hot corner will be a hot commodity with several players vying for time there. Incumbent Justin Fowler (.213/.267/.287) got the majority of the playing time at third base last year, surprising crowds with a number of acrobatic plays. The coaching staff is hoping to get more offensive production from the position, so the junior is going to have to provide a bit more thump at the plate.
Sophomore Steffen Torgersen (.111/.200/.167) could be part of a platoon at the position, complementing Fowler from the left side of the dish. He did not disappoint in the field, committing just one error in 32 chances (.969), but he struggled to make consistent contact in his rookie campaign. If he can barrel up a few more pitches, his stock will surely rise.
Coach Whalen also has a freshman contender at third base in Georgia native Blake Crossing (6-0, 175). The lone switch-hitter on the roster, Crossing has quickly progressed in the field and the plate from the fall to the preseason after earning all-region honors at shortstop for Newnan High School last spring. Crossing could also cross over to shortstop with his prior experience there.
In addition, Dartmouth has a utility infielder in sophomore Sean Sullivan (.091/.091/.091) who only got 11 at-bats last year, but got the job done in the field when called upon. His primary position is second base, but could fill in elsewhere in a pinch.
The veteran of the outfield is junior Kyle Holbrook (.279/.327/.404), who will be planted in right field for the Big Green. A slow start diminished his overall numbers, but he finished the season strong and is looking to build off those successes this season. Holbrook has a sweet stroke from the left side of the plate and can line pitches with authority to any part of the field, making him a perfect candidate to hit in the middle of the order.
Center field had been primarily the domain of Nick Ruppert the last three years. With his graduation, the Big Green are turning to a familiar surname in Trevor Johnson (6-1, 175), son of former Dartmouth star and major leaguer Mark Johnson. The 2016 MSG Varsity Connecticut Player of the Year hit .470 with four homers and 23 RBIs in 21 games as a senior at the Brunswick School and has continued to impress at Dartmouth during the preseason workouts, at the plate and in the field.
Over in left field, the situation gets a bit murkier. Sophomore Matt Feinstein (.306/.427/.341) has the inside track on the job due to his exceptional ability to get on base. Even in just part-time duty, he was second on the team with 16 walks and easily boasted the best on-base percentage.
Three others are also bidding to earn time patrolling the green expanses of the outfield: senior Ben Socher (.225/.330/.236), junior Hayden Rappoport (.125/.222/.125) and sophomore Mike Brown (.271/.375/.271). Socher, who has the most experience with over 250 plate appearances in his career and excellent bat control, would like to prove his junior campaign was an outlier after a solid sophomore season in which he hit .273 and scored 20 runs.
Rappoport has seen only occasional action in his first two years with the Big Green, coming to the plate just 24 times. But the California native has gradually developed his stroke and could get more time this spring.
Brown, meanwhile, took advantage of his chances last year, demonstrating the ability to get on base and utilize his speed. Although he did not collect an extra-base hit among his 13 safeties, he is more frequently showing the ability to drive the ball.
With Holbrook not just an outfielder, but also part of the Big Green’s catching corps, there will be opportunities for these three to break into the lineup from time to time. When Holbrook slips on the tools of ignorance, Feinstein would slide over to right field, leaving the other three to battle it out over left field.
Speaking of catching, fifth-year senior Adam Gauthier (.176/.337/.176) returns to take on the majority of the receiving duties. A crafty veteran with an extensive knowledge of the pitching staff, his most important contribution to the team will come on defense, blocking balls and continuing to keep opposing base stealers honest (threw out one-third of those who attempted to steal last year).
But he can be a valuable part of the offense. Two years ago he was hitting .364 in 14 games when a hand injury ended his season prematurely. He was still getting into the swing of things last year, but demonstrated a discerning eye, leading the team with 17 walks.
Dartmouth has another veteran to turn to behind the plate in senior John Melody (.100/.308/.200). Defense is his calling card, which is always at a premium for backstops and will dictate his time on the field.
There is one other position that could see a rotation of players, that being designated hitter. Freshman Michael Calamari (6-0, 210) has swung a potent left-handed bat in scrimmages prior to opening day after earning all-state honors at Myrtle Beach (S.C.) High School last year. He could very well end up in a platoon with one of the outfielders or one of the third base candidates.
The pitching staff was Dartmouth’s greatest strength in 2016, posting an ERA in Ivy League play that was nearly half a run better than any other team at 3.32. The Big Green also led the loop in strikeouts, setting a school record (297) in the process, plus ranked 11th in the nation in fewest walks issued per nine innings (2.66).
Even without Robinson in the rotation, the weekend starters will make a formidable front. Fifth-year senior right-hander Beau Sulser (4-1, 2.82 ERA) rebounded nicely from elbow surgery after missing the 2015 season. He surrendered more than one earned run in just two of his 10 appearances, then went on to tear up the Coastal Plain League this past summer with a 1.21 ERA over 44.2 innings with 51 strikeouts and just eight walks. With a fastball that touches the low-90s and two quality off-speed pitches, his presence will set the tone on Ivy weekends.
Another fifth-year senior in Michael Danielak (2-3, 2.95) will be a significant part of the rotation. A 28th-round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the MLB Draft last June, Danielak decided to come back for his final year of eligibility to not only improve his draft stock, but also help get the Big Green another Ivy League title. The right-hander throws from a three-quarter slot with a sinking fastball and tough slider. Opponents have hit just .269 against him in nearly 100 collegiate innings with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of over four.
Dartmouth has some younger blood in the rotation as well in sophomore Cole O'Connor (0-2, 3.12). The right-hander acquitted himself nicely as a rookie, tossing over 40.1 innings with the trademark control that has come to be expected of Big Green hurlers (28 strikeouts, eight walks). If he can come close to producing similar results during Ivy weekends — one run or less in five of his six starts — he will not suffer through six no-decisions again.
The fourth spot in the weekend rotation has not been settled as the team enters the season, a pair of big right-handers — senior Jackson Bubala (0-3, 12.27) and Jack Fossand (0-1, 6.75) — are the favorites for the role.
Bubala, at 6-5 and 235 pounds, emerged as a weekend starter two years ago, putting up a 3.90 ERA in five outings spanning 27 innings. But after struggling mightily early in 2016, he was shifted to the bullpen where he found himself, tossing 6.1 no-hit innings over three appearances. Now he is getting another shot to start for Dartmouth.
Fossand also has a classic pitcher’s build at 6-5 and 220 pounds. After a poor season debut last spring, the Minnesota native was an asset with a 3.95 ERA over six more relief outings and one start.
Two more junior right-handers in Clay Chatham (0-5, 7.96) and Sam Fichthorn (1-1, 9.64) are lined up as possible week-day starters or long men out of relief. When Fichthorn is locating his pitches, as he has during the preseason, he is generally quite effective. Chatham worked as the fourth starter last year but will have to work to earn that spot this year.
Dartmouth had hoped that senior Mike Concato (All-Ivy League Second Team in 2015) would be ready to return to the mound this fall after missing out on last season due to an injury, but his status is still uncertain.
In the bullpen, the Big Green have one of the best one-two punches to close out victories. Junior Patrick Peterson (3-0, 1.65, 4 saves) is ready to reprise his role as the premier closer in the conference having earned All-Ivy League First Team honors in each of his first two campaigns. The right-hander was the only Ivy Leaguer to be named to the watch list for the Stopper of the Year Award, and with the combination of his deceptive delivery, devastating slider and unflappable demeanor, Dartmouth has plenty of confidence when he climbs the hill.
Senior Chris Burkholder (2-1, 2.97, 2 saves) isn’t merely a set-up man, but can also finish off close games if needed. Last year he led the team with 19 appearances and was fourth in innings pitched (39.1), quieting the opposing bats to the tune of a .210 average with 37 strikeouts. No situation is too hairy or too early for the righty to be called upon to snuff out a potential rally as his six outings of at least three innings attest.
To this point, we haven’t mentioned a single southpaw. That changes with junior Marc Bachman (2-1, 4.86) and freshman Michael Parsons (6-1, 180), both of whom will see action as situational left-handers out of the bullpen at the very least. Bachman finished the 2016 season strong with a 2.40 ERA in his last 10 appearances, and hopes that success carries over to this spring.
Parsons, a first-team all-state pitcher in Virginia at Norfolk Academy last year, has shown the quality and command of his pitches expected to work his way into a possibly prominent role out of the bullpen.
Coach Whalen has a few other recruits that could see some action on the mound — right-handers Tyler Fagler (6-4, 195) and Austen Michel (6-1, 205), as well as lefty Eric Stolt (6-5, 185). All three need to harness their stuff further, but could get a few opportunities as the season progresses. And, in a rarity for Dartmouth, Johnson could be summoned from his spot in center field to throw an inning or two along the way.
The Big Green travel south to Florida on three separate trips (with a stop in Charleston, South Carolina) to open the season with 16 games below the Mason-Dixon line, four coming against 2016 regional squads. The opening jaunt will take place in Port Charlotte in the Snowbird Classic against Eastern Michigan and St. Bonvaenture on Feb. 25-26, followed by three games the following weekend at nationally ranked Miami.
After winter finals are completed, Dartmouth will play 10 games over spring break, the first four at The Citadel, and the last three at UCF.
Upon returning to the Northeast, the Green will play six more games on the road, including the first four conference contests, before finally opening at home on April 8 against the reigning Ivy League champion, Princeton. The doubleheader begins a 10-game homestand that culminates with Boston College.
Should Dartmouth finish atop the Rolfe Division once again (as predicted by D1Baseball.com), it will advance to the Ivy League Championship Series, to be hosted by the team with the best record in the Ancient Eight. The best-of-three series will take place on May 6-7, unless a tie in either division race occurs, which will then push back the series one week to accommodate any necessary playoff games.