ACC

Eagles Dominant In Season-Opening Sweep

Northern college baseball teams always face a geographical obstacle at the start of the season. The wintry blast of cold temperatures and potential snow immediately start conspiring against teams, and it presents challenges when preparing for the first practice, first trip, and first game. The inability to practice outside prevents players from working with a full range of motion, creating a biased perception for teams facing southern opponents without the same issues.

It’s an obstacle that drew the same discussion points at Boston College until this year. The Eagles’ preseason included the Harrington Athletics Village for the first time, which allowed them to utilize a turf field on unseasonably mild days. It helped create the good vibrations that helped BC sweep through its first road trip of the season with a three-win weekend at Jackson State.

“Northeast and northern teams know that opening weekend is the first time you might see a fly ball,” head coach Mike Gambino said. “There’s always a fly ball that someone doesn’t get to with a jump or read that (coaches) don’t quite like. The communication isn’t as clean as you’d like it to be. But we were able to get outside for four of our 17 preseason practices, which has never happened (before this year). That impact (became apparent) this weekend with guys getting to balls that they wouldn’t have been able to in years past. We had (only) one funky communication error on a pop-up. It’s a game-changer, especially early in the year.”

BC dominated the Tigers, outscoring its hosts with a 27-10 differential, in an undefeated weekend that included a doubleheader sweep on Saturday. Neither Dan Metzdorf nor Matt Gill allowed an earned run in the Eagles’ first two starts of the season, and the defense was on full display in essentially doubling up Jackson State’s offensive output.

“We saw a lot of quality at-bats through the weekend (on offense),” Gambino said. “Guys did a really good job on the basepaths. That’s the kind of ballclub we’re going to be. We situationally hit well, executed well defensively, caught the ball and threw the ball really well. We did it in big spots in games against a quality opponent in the first weekend.”

The offense poured itself on Tiger pitching, amassing a .306 batting average with a .789 OPS. The 33 hits produced five extra base hits, including one official home run. The team ran for 40 total bases, stealing 16 bases without being thrown out once and only grounding into a single double play. Freshman Sal Frelick hit .545, going 6-of-11 with four runs scored and the team’s dinger. 

It could have been more, had Sunday’s game not been rained out. Jack Cunningham tripled and went yard for his first homer of the year, but the delay and subsequent cancellation of a 6-0 lead in the third inning ultimately wiped it out of the record books.

Defensively, Metzdorf and Gill both threw seven innings of two-hit baseball, striking out a combined seven while picking up decisions in the first two games. Thomas Lane picked up the third win after relieving Zach Stromberg, throwing 2.1 innings of one-hit, shutout baseball on the weekend. John Witkwoski picked up a save in that first game, later joining Joey Walsh and Joe Mancini as pitchers recording a WHIP under 1.00 on the weekend.

“Having Walsh and Witkowski pitch well was awesome,” Gambino said. “(Witkowski) threw the ball well all weekend. He’s shown flashes of top-end stuff and the potential to be a quality reliever, and he’s finally settling into that. With Walsh, there’s a confidence in this club when he comes out of the pen. We’re able to give him the ball with seven outs left in the game and say, ‘Alright, you’ve got it.’

“We’ve gotten used to the success of (players like) Thomas Lane out of the bullpen,” he continued. “You’ll see other guys step into their roles. We didn’t get a chance to see others like Travis Lane because of the rainout. He was going to be one of the first guys out of the bullpen, but then the rains came.”

It was BC’s first sweep of an opponent to start a season since beating Northern Illinois in Arizona to start 2016, and it marked the first true road series sweep to open a season since a four-game erasure of Stetson in 2009. It also earned the Eagles’ three victories over a team that will likely challenge for a mid-major spot in the national tournament.

The Tigers finished last season with 34 victories and a 17-7 record in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. The second-place finish in the SWAC seeded them in a bracket with West Division champion Texas Southern, which ultimately won the conference. The Tigers lost to Texas Southern in the second round, 8-4, before advancing to the semifinals in the double-elimination format. But they lost, 10-9, in a rematch with TSU, which defeated Grambling State to clinch the conference crown.

BC now heads back south this weekend for a three-game series against Bethune-Cookman at Jackie Robinson Ballpark. The stadium, which opened in 1914, hosted an exhibition game in 1946 between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Montreal Royals, their Triple-A affiliate where Robinson was assigned. Recognized as the first integrated game in baseball history, it now plays host to both the Wildcats and the Class A Advanced Daytona Tortugas (affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds).

The Eagles memorably played Bethune-Cookman there two years ago, a series in which the Wildcats swept to victory with three one-run ballgames. It was the start of the most recent conference championship season for the team, which has 19 MEAC championships. In that 2017 season, Bethune lost its Gainesville Regional opener to South Florida but rallied to within a game of the Super Regionals, forcing an elimination game with a 6-2 win over Florida in the Regional Final.

It nearly became 20 last season when the Wildcats went on a Cinderella run in the conference tournament. They finished the season 20-32 but went 14-10 in league play, finishing third in the MEAC South Division. It sent them to the first round, where a loss to Norfolk State dropped them into the Loser’s Bracket, but four straight victories sent them to the conference championship against North Carolina A&T. The Aggies would win, 12-9, though, en route to elimination in the Chapel Hill Regional.

“Bethune-Cookman is a program that you might not know if you’re not familiar with college baseball,” Gambino said. “(But) Bethune is a really good program and has been for a really long time. They’ve had conference championships and been to regionals. I like going down there because you get a quality opponent with kids that are well-coached and play really hard. We played three really close games last time, but it’s good to play tough, tight games now. It’s going to be a good test, and we obviously hope the results are better this year.” 

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