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Dartmouth Baseball Plays for Ivy Title Today

  • Dartmouth College baseball co-captain Jeff Keller, right, leads the team in batting average (.317) and doubles (15). He and the Big Green visit Columbia for the best-of-three Ivy League title series that begins with two games Saturday in New York City. Valley News - Tris Wykes

    Dartmouth College baseball co-captain Jeff Keller, right, leads the team in batting average (.317) and doubles (15). He and the Big Green visit Columbia for the best-of-three Ivy League title series that begins with two games Saturday in New York City. Valley News - Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dartmouth College sophomore Michael Danielak, shown delivering against Yale earlier this season, is part of a Big Green pitching staff that will try and hold Columbia in check this weekend during the best-of-three Ivy League title series in New York City. Valley News - Tris Wykes

    Dartmouth College sophomore Michael Danielak, shown delivering against Yale earlier this season, is part of a Big Green pitching staff that will try and hold Columbia in check this weekend during the best-of-three Ivy League title series in New York City. Valley News - Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dartmouth College baseball co-captain Jeff Keller, right, leads the team in batting average (.317) and doubles (15). He and the Big Green visit Columbia for the best-of-three Ivy League title series that begins with two games Saturday in New York City. Valley News - Tris Wykes
  • Dartmouth College sophomore Michael Danielak, shown delivering against Yale earlier this season, is part of a Big Green pitching staff that will try and hold Columbia in check this weekend during the best-of-three Ivy League title series in New York City. Valley News - Tris Wykes

Hanover — Spring is truly the season to be a Dartmouth College undergraduate. The green is filled day-after-day with students lounging on the grass, erecting volleyball nets, chasing a Frisbee. A few blocks down East Wheelock Street, however, the Big Green baseball players have been hard at work. For them, May is the time tension ratchets upward and the Ivy League title is on the line.

This year, however, the fact that Dartmouth is still playing is something of a surprise. The team enters this weekend’s best-of-three league title series at Columbia on an eight-game winning streak, but it needed almost every one of those triumphs just to force a playoff with visiting Yale for the North Division championship last Sunday. The Big Green has won seven consecutive division crowns and waltzed to several of them, but not this time around.

“In years past we coasted into the Ivy championship and suddenly faced a must-win game for the first time in a month,” said senior co-captain Jeff Keller, who leads the team in batting average (.317) and doubles (15). “This year more than any other. … We’ve been challenged and pressured, but we responded and we’re rolling.

“Hopefully it will be different than in years past, and we come out with energy and we’re the aggressor.”

Dartmouth (18-19) hasn’t won an Ivy League title and the automatic NCAA tournament berth that goes with it since it won the league championship series at Columbia in 2010. In subsequent years, it lost the title series at Princeton and Cornell, and at Columbia in two games last spring. The Big Green hasn’t hosted the league championship series since 2009, but that doesn’t faze Keller.

“A lot of us like playing at Columbia,” he said. “It’s very shallow in center field and it’s a quirky, hitter’s park. They had a lot of people there last year and their football team was right up there on us. But we’ve played on the road in the Ivy championship every year I’ve been here.”

How Dartmouth got to this point is unlikely, to say the least. The Big Green lost three of its first four Ivy League games and was swept in a home doubleheader by an Ivy foe (Pennsylvania) for the first time since Biondi Park at Red Rolfe Field opened in 2009. The hosts were 2-6 in Ancient Eight play at that point, but rallied to take three of four games against division-leading Yale, before suffering a stunning doubleheader sweep at lowly Brown.

The latter of those losses came in extra innings and left Dartmouth 5-9 in league play with six Ivy games remaining. Yale was 7-7 and had to be feeling good about its chances for a division title. The Big Green was on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum.

“After that first day at Brown, we might not have been quite at rock bottom, but we felt nothing was going right for us and we felt sorry for ourselves,” Keller said.

Said senior first baseman Dustin Selzer: “When we lost those two games, we wondered how it happened. But we reset and decided we had to finish the (regular) season the best we could, in case we got the help we needed.”

Dartmouth got that help, ironically enough, from those same Brown Bears. Yale lost twice in Providence, R.I., the next weekend, while the Big Green won its last two contests there, then swept four games from arch-rival Harvard. That set up a playoff contest with Yale last weekend in Hanover, which began in horrible fashion when the Bulldogs took a 2-0 lead and Dartmouth starting pitcher Beau Sulser tumbled off the mound clutching his throwing elbow after a pitch. He did not return.

“Even when we went down against Yale and Beau blew out his arm — which was pretty unsettling — we came back and got seven runs in the next inning,” said Keller, as the Big Green went on to win, 11-4.

Next up is Columbia, the clear favorite at 25-17 overall and which went 15-5 in regular-season Ivy play. Dartmouth not only enters with a poorer record, but must now wonder if its starting pitching can withstand the loss of Sulser, a sophomore who threw the crucial, opening game of every Ivy weekend this spring.

“I feel terribly for Beau,” said Dartmouth coach Bob Whalen, adding that an exact diagnosis of the injury has not been determined. “There’s a premium on guys who are willing to pitch that first game of the weekend, because there’s a real pressure to get deep into games, win or lose, to save the bullpen for the rest of the weekend. It’s a burden.”

Dartmouth’s remaining, front-line pitchers include starters Mike Concato (2-2, 3.40 ERA), Louis Concato (1-2, 3.50) and Michael Danielak (1-5, 5.35). Long reliever Duncan Robinson (7-2, 3.45) tied for the Ivy lead in victories. Offensively, infielder Thomas Roulis is batting .307 and Selzer is at .297.

Dartmouth and Columbia are meeting in the Ivy title series for the fourth time in seven years, with the Lions winning the matchup in 2008 and 2013. The Big Green is 8-3 at Robertson Field at Satow Stadium since 2008, but Columbia has won 17 of its last 18 games this spring.

The Lions are batting .270 as a team, compared with Dartmouth’s .278. Second baseman Will Savage leads the Ivies with a .354 average and batted .414 in league play. Columbia is dangerous on the base paths, stealing successfully 60 of 73 times, led by outfielder Jordan Serena, who is 21-for-25.

The Lions had the best team ERA in Ancient Eight play, with left-hander David Speer at 1.06 and with a 4-0 record. The only time he didn’t get a decision was in his team’s 3-2 loss at Dartmouth in April on a day when the teams split a doubleheader, their only previous meeting this season.

There’s a lot at stake this weekend, but Whalen said his team is battle-tested and resilient. A series victory might be the program’s most unlikely triumph in decades, but who’s to say it can’t happen?

“Pressure in my mind is a good thing,” the coach said. “It allows you to focus your energy and be at your best, but if you haven’t prepared well or don’t have confidence in your ability, then that pressure turns into stress.

“If we’re as prepared as we can be, then I’m good with however things come out.”

Notes: The series will be available to online viewers on the Ivy League Digital Network, which can be accessed through the Dartmouth Athletics website. … Dartmouth has had winning streaks of at least seven games in each of the last seven seasons. … Whalen is 37-21 against Columbia during his 25 seasons with the Big Green, which leads the teams’ series, 103-72 … The NCAA tournament field, its regional sites and team assignments to them will be announced May 26 at noon on ESPNU.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.