With the 2018 baseball season just around the corner, the Dartmouth Big Green are still a work in progress. On the mound, replacing the Ivy League Pitcher of the Year as well as a second-team starter and a first-team reliever is not a simple task. And in the field, gone are the clean-up hitter and a slick-fielding catcher from the everyday lineup, not to mention battles at several positions for the honor to start on a regular basis.
With uncertainty in the air, leadership on the field will prove to be important for Dartmouth, with senior Dustin Shirley and junior Cole O’Connor taking charge as co-captains. Shirley is a three-year starter in the infield, while O’Connor has been in the weekend rotation during each of his first two seasons in Hanover. Both players are relatively soft-spoken, but their actions on the field and work ethic will be the example set for the rest of the squad.
“We might have more questions we are hoping to answer after playing some early games than we have had in some time,” said head coach Bob Whalen, beginning his 29th year at the helm of the Big Green program. “On the mound, O’Connor has demonstrated the ability to pitch deep into games but we are looking for some others to prove they can pitch quality innings as a starter. Bullpen roles are a work in process.
“In the field, we have a number of options at a variety of positions,” he continued, “and even some incumbents will have to battle to keep their jobs. We will constantly be evaluating everyone throughout the first month as the players establish themselves in the roles for which they are best suited as we head into conference play.”
Last year, the Big Green got off to a strong start, winning 13 of their first 19 games, including series wins at two nationally ranked teams in Miami and UCF, as well as victories in the first three Ivy matchups. Although Dartmouth only lost one of its league series (dropping three of four against eventual champion Yale), five doubleheader splits left the Green five games behind the Bulldogs.
The offense improved quite a bit from the previous year, scoring 5.55 runs per game after being held to a mere 3.67 the year prior, an increase of better than 50 percent. In league play, the difference was not as stark (only 10 more runs, an 11.6 percent increase) as the bats cooled off a bit, but the overall gains have Dartmouth optimistic for even more offense this season.
The Big Green will need to replace graduated captain Michael Ketchmark, who led the team in home runs and slugging. Stepping into this position at first base will be sophomore Michael Calamari (.325/.446/.398), who started just over half of the games as the designated hitter as a rookie. A line-drive, left-handed hitter with a terrific eye, “Squid” consistently has good at-bats against both lefties and righties, rarely striking out. He will provide a strong presence in the middle of the lineup, and hopefully a power source if he taps into his burgeoning power as the season progresses.
A pair of freshmen could also see time at first, but more likely will split time at DH in Oliver Campbell (6-0, 205, Wilmington, Del.) and Ubaldo Lopez (6-0, 200, Miramar, Fla.). Campbell has impressed in preseason action with his ability to barrel up pitches from the left side of the plate and drive the ball with authority. Lopez, a right-handed hitter, was pegged as the top incoming freshman by D1Baseball.com after playing on three straight Florida State Championship teams at Archbishop Molloy.
Second base has generally been covered by the co-captain Shirley (.281/.350/.379) the last three years as he has started 111 of the 126 games there in his career and 81 of the last 83. Always a bit of a free swinger, the Los Angeles native showed more patience at the plate over the final third of the season, posting a .435 on-base percentage while boosting his average 26 points in the process. With continued growth in selectivity, the athletic Shirley could very well have a greater impact on the offense and put himself in position to be chosen in the MLB Draft come June.
But Shirley’s athleticism may allow Coach Whalen some flexibility where he plays in the field, possibly pushing him to the outfield should the need arise. If that comes to fruition, either junior Sean Sullivan (.286/.444/.286) or sophomore Blake Crossing (.304/.448/.304) could man the keystone. Sullivan is a pesky hitter with a solid glove who has played his way into more time, and Crossing is a speedy, versatile defender and switch-hitter who displayed a knack for getting on base in limited action as a freshman last year.
Over on the left side of the infield, junior Nate Ostmo (.260/.367/.382) is ready to reprise his role as the Big Green shortstop. The Oregon native started all but one game there a year ago, playing the position with a growing confidence as he cut back on his errors as the season wore on. At the plate, Ostmo is driving the ball with more regularity to the gaps and has a discerning eye.
Senior Justin Fowler (.308/.374/.430) made great strides at the plate last year, raising his average nearly 100 points, to go with his reliable glove at the hot corner. After cementing his status as the full-time starter, he was even better against Ivy pitching, boasting a .358 average.
Waiting in the wings is not only Crossing, but junior Steffen Torgersen (.400/.500/.400) as well. A left-handed hitter that can provide a platoon advantage at third if need be, Torgersen performed well in his couple of starts both in the batter’s box and manning third base.
The entire starting outfield is back for the Big Green, though as mentioned, there could be some shuffling of pieces. Junior Matt Feinstein (.327/.380/.379) patrols left field and has gotten off to a fast start in each of his first two seasons, but cooled off as both campaigns wore on. His challenge is to maintain his ability to set the table throughout the year, especially during the all-important conference slate.
Like Feinstein, sophomore Trevor Johnson (.250/.387/.386) exploded out of the gate in center field before hitting a bit of a wall in the second half of the season. But he showed the tools that make him D1Baseball’s top draft prospect in the Class of 2019 with a mix of power (four homers) and speed (league-leading 17 stolen bases as a rookie) that will bring the scouts to Hanover. Johnson, the son of former Pittsburgh Pirate Mark Johnson, also has terrific range in center field with a strong arm, and is looking to put his stamp on the entire season.
The veteran of the trio is senior Kyle Holbrook (.329/.395/.461) who led the team in batting as well as RBIs (31) while earning a spot on the All-Ivy League Second Team. He handles the bat extremely well and is one of the most difficult players to strike out in the Ancient Eight, whiffing about once every 12 at-bats. Holbrook also showed his developing power on occasion, such as collecting three doubles and a pair of four-baggers in a five-game span. Look for the Colorado native to hit clean-up for the Big Green to start the year.
Coach Whalen has another veteran option to patrol the outfield grass in senior Hayden Rappoport (.353/.442/.382) who hit safely in seven of his eight starts in 2017. He is potentially in the mix for some at-bats as the DH as he did last year, and when he isn’t in the lineup will be a valuable bat off the bench.
For those games during which Shirley or Rappoport take to the outfield, it will likely be due to Holbrook putting on the tools of ignorance to catch the pitchers with Feinstein sliding over to right. Holbrook has started eight games behind the dish in his career, five last year, and with the graduation of fifth-year senior Adam Gauthier and the arrival of two rookie backstops, he may see more action in that role during the first month of the season than he otherwise would.
The early returns on the young catchers have Bennett McCaskill (6-0, 170, Cardiff, Calif.) at the forefront. With his MLB pedigree — dad Kirk pitched in the big leagues for 12 seasons, winning 106 games — comes a strong understanding of the game. His bat showed improvement throughout the fall practices and into the preseason, but handling a pitching staff is no easy task. As he gets acclimated to the hurlers and the Division I game, he could see more action as the season unfolds.
Logan Adams (5-11, 200, Knoxville, Tenn.) will also get a look behind the dish, along with sophomore walk-on Sean McGowan, who got a couple of cameos as a pinch-hitter a year ago. Adams caught for Knoxville Christian School, which advanced to the National Association of Christian Athletes World Series each of his four years there, earning all-tournament honors every year while winning the crown as a junior.
As noted by Coach Whalen, the pitching staff is truly a work in progress. Gone are MLB draft picks in Beau Sulser, the Ivy League Pitcher of the Year, and Michael Danielak, an all-conference second-team performer. Those two collected 13 of the team’s 22 victories last year, while reliever Chris Burkholder left Hanover with his eight saves and diploma at the end of last spring.
Taking up the mantle as the staff ace is the right-hander O’Connor (4-2, 4.27 ERA), a control specialist who is at his best when he is keeping hitters off-balance. When he takes the mound, he gives Dartmouth a chance to win, having surrendered more than three earned runs in just two of his 17 career starts. O’Connor pitches to contact and rarely walks a batter (1.77 per nine innings), making his defense an integral part of getting outs.
Five other pitchers have been identified as possible starters, with the most intriguing being fifth-year senior right-hander Mike Concato, who last pitched in 2015. Shoulder issues have kept him off the mound the last two years, but his velocity has returned and he is anxious to see if he can reproduce the form that brought him All-Ivy Second Team honors as a sophomore.
The other four starters are comprised of two seniors and two sophomores. Senior Jack Fossand (1-1, 6.07) was the Big Green’s fourth starter in 2017 with mixed success. The 6-5 right-hander can be devastating when he is on, as he demonstrated in a win over Brown that garnered him Ivy Pitcher of the Week honors. But he averaged less than four innings in his other five starts, sometimes due to lapses in control, which is anathema to a staff that regularly ranks among the best in college baseball in fewest walks per nine innings (ninth last year).
Then there is senior Clay Chatham (0-0, 8.10), who has pitched as well as anyone during the preseason. A Type-1 diabetic with a sturdy 6-6, 235-pound frame, the right-hander looks to have harnessed his ability to where he is locating his low-90s fastball while mixing speeds effectively. If he can continue this trend through March, he could regain his spot in the weekend rotation that he held two years ago as a sophomore.
Speaking of sophomores, righty Austen Michel (0-2, 4.70) pounds the strike zone and features a tight 12-to-6 curveball as a strikeout pitch, as he showed last year when he fanned 25 in just 23 innings while issuing a mere two walks. This past summer, he put everyone on notice by being named the Futures League Pitcher of the Year.
No left-handed pitcher has started any of the last 113 games, dating back to the spring trip of the 2015 season, but that will change the first time that sophomore Michael Parsons (0-0, 4.30) does so. He led the Big Green rookies last year with 29.1 innings and 26 strikeouts, walking just five with the opposition batting just .241 against him. Parsons has the stuff to nail down a spot in the rotation with a three-quarters arm slot and a bulldog mentality on the mound.
With 18 pitchers on the roster, others could emerge to earn a start later in the year. But they will have to prove themselves out of the bullpen at the outset of the season. One pitcher not expected to start, however, is senior Patrick Peterson (2-3, 4.97), a two-time All-Ivy First Team reliever that had mixed results last season. The right-hander saved 10 games in his first two years with a 2.59 ERA over 59 innings, but control troubles pushed him into set-up duties. A return to form would be a tremendous boost to the bullpen.
Another senior, Marc Bachman (0-0, 1.88) went unscored upon in 15 of his 18 appearances last year, and never allowed more than one of his runners to cross the plate. A lefty specialist predominantly, Bachman has also held his own against right-handed hitters, which hit just .250 against him last year.
A pair of freshman right-handers from California have pushed their way into the bullpen conversation, though are quite different stylistically. Carson Seymour (6-4, 235, Temecula) throws a power sinker, while Sai Davuluri (5-8, 165, Merced) is more of the mold of a crafty lefty, yet throws from the right side. He won’t light up a radar gun, but he will go after hitters with a tenacity that belies his youthful status and smaller stature.
There are several other right-handed options out of the pen, starting with senior Sam Fichthorn (1-1, 4.91), who has been dogged by injuries off and on during his time with the program, as has junior Zac Bygum (0-0, 13.50). Sophomores Tyler Fagler (0-0, 3.86) and Alec Vaules (0-0, 16.20) had a few opportunities last year, and freshman Jonah Jenkins (6-1, 190, Parker, Colo.) will look to get into the mix.
Dartmouth also brought in two more southpaws in Jack Schmidt (6-7, 205, Cooper City, Fla.) and Max Hunter (5-11, 190, St. Louis, Mo.). Schmidt has the size and loose arm to project as a contributor down the road, while Hunter has shown pitchability and could find himself in the middle of the action sooner rather than later.
The season brings about great change, not just for the Dartmouth Big Green, but for the Ivy League as a whole. Gone are the Rolfe and Gehrig Divisions, as are the four-game weekend series. Instead, the Ancient Eight will feature a round-robin schedule of seven three-game series with two nine-inning games on Saturday and a single nine-inning contest on Sunday. Should any of those games not be played due to inclement weather, makeups will not be scheduled beyond that Sunday, with the standings determined by winning percentage and the top two teams facing off in a best-of-three Ivy League Championship Series.
The season opens up with a three-game series at Georgia Tech, the first games between the two schools on the diamond in 93 years. Following three games in Florida against other Northern teams as part of the Snowbird Classic, Dartmouth will take a break for winter exams before heading west to California for 10 games in 11 days, starting with a single game at UC Santa Barbara.
The spring trip will also include a four-game series with Cal State Bakersfield and a three-game set at Cal Poly before the home opener takes place on March 28 when Quinnipiac comes to town.
The new-look Ivy season begins with a twinbill at Penn on March 31, and three of the first four weekend series will take place on the road, including the games on April 21-22 at last year’s Ivy champ, Yale. Dartmouth only gets three home series in league play this year — Columbia (April 7-8), Brown (April 28-29) and Princeton (May 5-6), with the final games at Harvard on May 13-14.
If Dartmouth can crack the top two teams following the 21-game league slate, it will advance to the Ivy League Championship Series for the ninth time in the past 11 seasons. The team with the best record will host the series on May 19-20.