For Columbia baseball, the road to back-to-back Ivy titles begins under Friday night lights.
After an unexpected run to capture the league championship in 2008, the Lions kick off the 2009 season with a four-game series against the Lamar University Cardinals this weekend. It will not be an easy opener for the defending champions.
The Cardinals are undefeated after their first six games, and Lamar’s skipper, Jim Gilligan, boasts the best overall record in the Southland Conference over the last half decade at 190-104 (.646). But Columbia head coach Brett Boretti believes that aggressiveness, his team’s trademark last season, will be the winning asset against Lamar.
“We are going to try to stay aggressive on the bases and play more small ball than we have in the past, trying to take advantage of every opportunity we have,” Boretti said.
Lamar’s pitchers are not afraid to throw strikes and record-quick outs. Thus far, the Cardinals possess an exceptional 1.83 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 52 innings. Junior Guillermo Cienfuegos dominated in his first game of the season, throwing five innings of shutout ball with nine strikeouts and only two walks against Siena, while senior Ricky Testa added six one-hit innings of his own, fanning 10 batters.
Columbia will counter with a relatively young pitching staff headed by senior cocaptain Joe Scarlata. Sophomore Geoff Whitaker will also be featured in the rotation after a breakout rookie season in which he led the team in wins with six. Senior cocaptain Joey Mizzoni will lead the bullpen after collecting four saves last season with a 3.68 ERA, accompanied by junior Clay Bartlett, who also posted a 3.68 ERA in 29.1 innings last year.
“I think we really have a shot at getting some strong starting pitching,” Boretti said, “and we have some guys in the bullpen that know their roles and can get outs in key situations.”
Getting outs will be no easy task against the Cardinals, who currently hold an impressive .309 team batting average and finished last season hitting .303. Lamar’s roster currently features three starters batting over .400, including senior outfielder Tyler Link at .444. Link has also homered once, driven in six runs, and leads the team in both slugging percentage (.722) and on-base percentage (.615).
Nevertheless, the Lions too know how to put the bat on the ball, racking up a .283 team average last season. Many strong hitters have graduated, leaving holes in the lineup, so freshmen will receive playing time in order to fill the void. Boretti knows his hitters will need some time to adjust to seeing opposing pitchers, but he is not overly worried about them in the long run.
“Offensively, its tough to get it going early in the season,” Boretti said. “It’s our first time seeing some live pitching other than our own for the last three weeks, and it takes a little bit of time to get accustomed.”
When it comes down to it, Boretti is optimistic about the Lions’ chance of success in their opening series. “We are looking forward to going out there and being successful,” Boretti said. “I really think this weekend
can be a breakthrough for us.”
Following Columbia’s season opener on Friday, the teams will face off in a double-header on Saturday beginning at 12:30 p.m. and conclude the series on Sunday with a 1 p.m. game. All four games will take place at Vincent-Beck Stadium.