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Baseball Season Preview

Courtesy: Dartmouth
Release: 02/27/2014
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The Dartmouth Big Green baseball team enters the 2014 season in search of its seventh straight Rolfe Division title in the Ivy League and third conference crown in the past six years. With a wealth of returning position players from the league’s best offense in 2013, head coach Bob Whalen — now in his 25th season at the helm — and his charges are well poised to make a return trip to the Ivy Championship Series for the opportunity to represent the Ancient Eight at an NCAA Regional.

While there are plenty of experienced veterans to fill out the lineup card, the pitching will have to rely on some relatively untested arms. Dartmouth had its entire four-man weekend rotation from last season sign with Major League Baseball organizations. Those four starters threw 85 percent of the innings in the 20 conference games, and overall combined for an ERA of 2.08 over 212 innings throughout the year.

“On paper, that was good a staff as I’ve ever had, and they lived up to that billing,” Whalen said. “They were rewarded for their strong seasons by getting the opportunity to play professional baseball, and we’re very proud, very happy for them. But last year’s team wasn’t just about the pitching. We were one of, if not the, top offensive team in the league, and on top of that, we took very good care of the baseball in the field. So when you can pitch, do a good job playing catch and score some runs, you have the chance to have a very, very good year.”

The burden of the success of the team is thankfully not strapped to any one player. The Big Green have potent bats up and down the lineup, and the pitching staff will be growing up together without a predetermined ace. But one player, senior co-captain Jeff Keller, is expected to provide plenty of production both in the middle of the order and from his position in the outfield.

A 2013 first-team Academic All-American, Keller (.369/.453/.702) received numerous accolades for his junior campaign, including All-Ivy, New England All-Star, ABCA All-Region and All-America honorable mention. He led the nation in doubles per game (0.53, 21 in 40 games) and ranked fifth in the country with a .702 slugging percentage. In the Ivy League, Keller was among the top three in batting, on-base percentage and slugging, plus led the loop with 39 runs, 41 RBIs, 21 doubles, four triples and 99 total bases. With numbers like those, it came as no surprise that Baseball America selected him as the Ivy League’s Preseason Player of the Year.

“Jeff is a terrific player, no matter how you cut it, and would be a tremendous player in any of the generations or teams that I have coached here,” stated Whalen. He has a lot of skill, but also has the intangibles to get the most out of his skill. Your best captains are going to be able to make his teammates better. Jeff is absolutely one of those guys, and all of his accolades are proof of that. He is a run producer and a key to our lineup.”

With Keller providing good range and a strong throwing arm in right, the other two outfield slots will likely have three players vying for the most time. Sophomore Nick Ruppert (.345/.439/.400) returns to the field after sitting out nearly the entire Ivy portion of the schedule last year with an injury. In his 16 starts in center field prior to getting hurt, he made an impact both on offense and defense (30 putouts without an error). Now back at full strength, Ruppert is ready to resume his role as the starting center fielder as an offensive spark with the speed to run down many a fly ball in the gaps.

Ruppert’s replacement, junior Bo Patterson (.255/.355/.277), will also push for time in center. A starting wide receiver on the football team, Patterson proved he could cover the expansive ground in the middle of the outfield last year, making 23 starts in center while saving a few runs with his glove. He also made good strides at the plate, taking advantage of his speed on the bases (6-of-8 stealing) and providing more scoring opportunities for the Big Green. Patterson may also shift over to left field and possibly share time with senior Ryan Toimil (.450/.556/.700).

Injuries have slowed Toimil’s development, but when given the opportunity a year ago, he took every advantage to showcase his talent, going 9-for-20 with six RBIs. Early in the season he belted his first collegiate home run over the baggie at the recently decommissioned Metrodome for the only run in a victory over Northern Illinois. Then in the Ivy Championship Series, he came through as a pinch hitter, delivering a two-out, game-tying single in the ninth to force extra innings in the first game. Provided the lefty-swinging Toimil can stay healthy, he could be part of a platoon with Patterson in left.

On the infield, Dartmouth has four potential All-Ivy players, three of whom have already been named to the first team in their careers. The other co-captain, senior Dustin Selzer (.283/.393/.420), has been the team’s starting first baseman over the past two seasons, earning All-Ivy honors in 2012 after leading the league in RBIs. Although a slow start last year deflated his overall numbers, he finished the year strong, hitting .348 over the final 14 contests. Selzer not only remains as one of the top power threats in the conference, he also has worked hard to make himself into a slick-fielding first baseman.

“Dustin plays hard and loves to come to the field every day, and his attitude is very contagious,” Whalen said. “We always projected him as a middle-of-the-order hitter, and he hasn’t disappointed. He is a guy that we will depend upon to drive in a lot of runs. People will notice his offensive contributions, but he has also made himself into a very good defensive first baseman.”

At the other corner is junior Nick Lombardi (.294/.314/.476), a veritable vacuum at third base.  A first-team All-Ivy selection last year, Lombardi got off to a hot start, earning tournament MVP honors at the Dairy Queen Classic hosted by the University of Minnesota, and finished the year second only to Keller with 39 RBIs. He also ranked among the league’s top 10 in doubles (12) and slugging, and even led the loop with six sacrifice flies for good measure. Perhaps his greatest contribution, however, came in the field where he committed just five errors at the hot corner, and at one point had a streak of 56 straight games without a miscue.

In the middle of the infield, Coach Whalen will turn to a pair of juniors in Matt Parisi (.329/.392/.431) and Thomas Roulis (.391/.391/.609). After serving in a utility role as a freshman, Parisi began the year at the top of the order and never left the slot as he developed into a terrific table-setter. He began the year at shortstop, but slid over to second when Roulis went down with an injury and didn’t miss a beat. In the 20 Ivy games, Parisi was flawless in 85 chances in the field and exactly matched his overall batting average. He tied for the league lead with 55 hits, and ranked among the top 10 in four other major offensive categories.

Now Parisi shifts back to shortstop while a healthy Roulis returns to the keystone position he manned as a freshman. A year ago, Roulis was a breakout candidate following a superb summer during which he was named the co-MVP of the Atlantic League. He then proceeded to earn all-tournament honors at the Dairy Queen Classic before suffering an injury in the first game on the spring trip that sidelined him for all but a few brief appearances for the rest of the year. A switch-hitter projected to bat second in the order, Roulis brings another potent bat to an already deep lineup that will be a headache for opposing pitchers.

Amplifying that headache will be sophomore Joe Purritano (.343/.425/.593), the 2013 Ivy League Rookie of the Year, and first-team All-Ivy and all-region designated hitter. It took a month or so for him to make the adjustment to college pitching, but once he did, he went on a tear and led the league in homers and slugging, plus ranked in the top five in batting, on-base percentage, triples, RBIs and total bases, in conference play. Although Purritano is acting as the DH while apprenticing to take Selzer’s spot at first base next year, he could even see some action in left field.

Junior Jay Graham (.261/.320/.304) is available to fill in at one of the infield corners if the need arises. In each of his first three starts a year ago, he came through with two hits and played admirably at third base. The Big Green also have a freshman in Michael Ketchmark (Dallas, Texas) as a reserve on the infield, and another in Ben Socher (Vienna, Va.) as a backup in the outfield.

Finally, a look behind the plate brings us to junior Matt MacDowell (.301/.350/.442), who was the starting catcher for nearly 80 percent of the games last year while earning first-team All-Ivy status. He deftly handled the veteran pitching staff that posted the best team ERA at Dartmouth in 42 years, plus helped the Green nab 42.5 percent of would-be base stealers throughout the season.

With back-to-back doubleheaders on conference weekends, the presence of a capable catcher in reserve is a necessity. Sophomore Adam Gauthier (.103/.212/.103) fits the bill with his solid defense and strong arm behind the dish, and he showed quite a bit of progress standing beside the plate as his rookie campaign progressed. And as a right-handed hitter, he complements the lefty-swinging MacDowell, making him a logical choice to fill in against tough southpaws. Waiting in the wings is freshman John Melody (Houston, Texas), who has impressed the coaching staff in the preseason workouts.

These catchers will have a bit of a different experience handling the pitching staff this year without the experience of the veteran-laden starters that signed pro contracts. Expecting the returning hurlers and newcomers to duplicate the success of last year’s staff would be unrealistic. But Coach Whalen does have some young, live arms at his disposal that could mature into a reliable force in the near future.

“We have taken the approach to let the pitchers emerge and grow into their roles,” Whalen stated. “All of the players realize they have to compete for a position and win a job every year. At the same time there are just more opportunities for guys to be able to demonstrate that they have earned the right to be a weekend starter. We are being very patient with it and not putting any labels on guys right now, just let the guys to emerge and let the questions answer themselves.”

A mid-week starter and swingman off and on during his first three years, senior right-hander Louis Concato (2-1, 4.88, 20 K) will get every opportunity to win a spot in the weekend rotation. The control specialist walked just two batters in 31.1 innings last year and bumped up his strikeouts to nearly six per nine innings. Concato will work on the edges of the plate and down in the zone, relying on his defense to continue its sparkling work in the field, as evidenced by inducing the most double plays (5) on the pitching staff.

Whereas last year’s Big Green squad sent three left-handers to the mound every weekend, this team has just two southpaws on the staff. One of those is junior Adam Frank (3-0, 4.22, 15 K), who started six games last year, five of which Dartmouth eventually won. Frank has always been difficult to hit against as opponents have a paltry .248 career batting average against him. At times he can be his own worst enemy, delivering nearly one base on balls per inning last year. But by limiting the extra-base hits (just three in 21.1 frames) and punching out 6.3 batters per nine innings, Frank was able to limit the damage as well. If he can keep his pitch count down and harness his control as he did as a freshman when he was a weekend starter, Coach Whalen may just have his ace on the mound.

If that duo can hold down two of the starting slots, that leaves just two more needed for the conference weekends. A trio of sophomores and at least one freshman are competing for those assignments, and all will be tested early in the season to give them the opportunity to win the job.

Among the three sophomores, 6-4, 215-pound right-hander Michael Danielak (1-1, 4.42, 18 K) saw the most action last year, making 11 appearances while tossing 18.1 innings. Opponents hit just .221 against him, and his 18 punchouts nearly put him at one per inning. Used exclusively out of the bullpen last year, Danielak is out to prove he deserves a spot in the rotation.

If you thought Danielak made for an imposing figure on the mound at 6-4 and 215 pounds, Duncan Robinson (0-0, 4.32, 9 K) just might have him beat, filling out his 6-6 frame at the same weight. The right-hander throws a heavy ball, as he demonstrated as a freshman by recording the best groundball-to-flyball ratio on the team. As his body has filled out, he has also gained some velocity, which will make Robinson even tougher to square up at the plate.

The third sophomore certainly has the lineage to develop into a successful moundsman for the Big Green. Beau Sulser (0-1, 5.40, 8 K) will try to emulate his older brother, Cole Sulser, who graduated last spring and was drafted and signed by the Cleveland Indians organizations. The younger Sulser threw just 10 innings as a rookie, but aside from one rough outing against Boston College, did not allow an earned run in five of his other six appearances.

Speaking of brothers, Dartmouth may very well turn to Concato’s younger brother, Mike Concato (Woodbridge, Conn.), to join him in the rotation. The right-hander has shown the most poise and command out of the talented pitching recruits, and should see time on the mound as early as the first weekend of play.

In the bullpen, the Big Green have two veteran right-handers to get the team through the tense late innings of ball games in junior closer Thomas Olson (2-0, 1.15, 6 saves) and senior Mike Dodakian (2-0, 2.11, 2 saves). The duo were not utilized as much last year as they had been previously, primarily due to the success of the starting staff. But when they did toe the slab, they both were terrific at shutting down the opposition.

Olson did not even allow a run in his first 13 appearances, surrendering just 10 hits and two walks over 15 innings while fanning eleven. He ended up throwing about 60 percent fewer frames than his freshman season, but after two years closing out games, he sports a 1.53 ERA and is the active career leader in the Ivy League with 12 saves.

Dodakian is actually second on the active roster in career innings thrown with 74.1, all in relief. He isn’t one to back down from a hitter, and last year set a career high in strikeouts despite throwing less innings than either of his previous two years. And should Olson not be available to pitch, Dodakian has experience serving as the closer with six saves in his career.

That still leaves some relief roles to be filled. Junior right-hander Chris England is returning to the mound after missing his entire sophomore campaign with an injury; sophomore righty Adam Charnin-Aker (Scottsdale, Ariz.), whose father pitched for 10 years in the big leagues, joins the Big Green in 2014 after rehabbing an injury; freshmen right-hander Chris Burkholder (Monrovia, Calif.) and southpaw Zach Sorenson (Bellaire, Texas) may thrust themselves into the fray as they prove their worth; and freshmen righties Jackson Bubala (Chicago, Ill.) and Travis Lambert (Lawrenceville, Ga.) are looking to make an impact on the mound as well.

Settling on a rotation and defining some roles for the pitchers in the games prior to the beginning of Ivy play on March 29 at Cornell will be a key factor in its chances of repeating as division champions. Dartmouth will certainly be tested in the early going, playing six games against two nationally ranked opponents in Florida International and Texas Christian.

The Big Green have scheduled their first 17 games to be played outside of Hanover, including the opening conference weekend at Cornell and Penn. The games against the other divisional teams will be crucial, for the team with the best overall conference record earns the right to host the best-of-three Ivy Championship Series. And since Dartmouth is 67-10 over the past five seasons at Red Rolfe Field at Biondi Park, hosting the event would give the Green a huge advantage. That advantage may very well help send them back to an NCAA Regional for the first time since 2010, when they picked up a victory in an elimination game before being ousted in a one-run game.

The team Dartmouth beat? This year’s opponent for the season-opening weekend, FIU.

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