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Pitching In: Dartmouth Arms Maturing, Waiting for Bats to Catch Up

Dartmouth's Thomas Roulis of New Hyde Park, N.Y. takes a run to steal second during the Dartmouth College home opener against Qunnipiac Hanover Wednesday, April 2, 2014. 
Valley News - James M. Patterson
jpatterson@vnews.com
photo@vnews.com

Dartmouth's Thomas Roulis of New Hyde Park, N.Y. takes a run to steal second during the Dartmouth College home opener against Qunnipiac Hanover Wednesday, April 2, 2014. Valley News - James M. Patterson jpatterson@vnews.com photo@vnews.com

Hanover — Bob Whalen has reason to be proud. His Dartmouth College baseball team is coming off a 15-5 Ivy League season that netted a sixth straight Red Rolfe Division title. The team was one of the top-hitting groups in the league as well as one of the best defensive teams.

But sitting in his office high above Red Rolfe Field at Biondi Park, Whalen knows that when it comes to baseball, he cannot take anything for granted based on past performances.

“Every year is different,” says Whalen, now in his 25th year at Dartmouth. “Each team has its own personality. It doesn’t matter what you think you have coming back from last year. You can’t project future batting averages or ERAs.

“It doesn’t work like that. You just try to build a foundation every year.”

That foundation usually starts on the pitching mound.

Last year, Whalen handed the baseball to a talented rotation that ended the year with a combined earned run average of 2.08 over 212 innings. But those four starters — Cole Sulser, Mitch Horacek, Kyle Hunter and Michael Johnson — are gone, having signed to play professional baseball, something Whalen said he had never seen in all his years at Dartmouth.

That left the Big Green with a big hole, filled this season by a freshman, two sophomores and a senior — of which none had ever started an Ivy League game.

“This puts us in a position where we need to develop guys quickly,” Whalen said. “I’m pleased where they are, but we are inexperienced.”

Whalen did point out that in Dartmouth’s first weekend of league play, his young staff did its job — throwing strikes. Twice in the last 10 years, Dartmouth has led the nation in strike efficiency. So far in this year, in 32 innings against Cornell and Princeton, Big Green pitchers have stuck out 18 and walked just four.

Defensively, the Big Green has been strong in the field with a .979 fielding average on the spring trip, and a .992 average in the league. Those numbers translate to one error over four games.

But while the pitchers and defense are holding up their end, the starting batting order has had trouble at the plate. After last year’s .304 team average, the Big Green has struggled to a .234 mark this year, a big reason for the 2014 team’s 1-3 start in league play.

“My job is to make them confident and make them better,” Whalen said. “Their job is to do a better job recognizing pitches and have more discipline in the strike zone.

“Hitting is contagious, and we have been getting more guys on base lately. We just need to hit more balls hard.”

On its recently completed spring trip, Dartmouth played six of nine games against Big 12 schools — one of the nation’s top three conferences — while facing some of the best pitchers in the country. It was all aimed at getting the Big Green ready for the five-week mad dash of Ivy League play.

One thing that will help Dartmouth is getting back outside on its home field. Wednesday’s nonleague game with Quinnipiac was the first time Dartmouth was on its own diamond.

The Big Green opens its home league season this weekend, hosting Columbia on Saturday and Penn the next day.

“This weekend will be a good test for us,” Whalen said.

Last year, Penn handed Dartmouth two of its five losses. Columbia won the league title, beating the Big Green in the league championship series, and returns its starting rotation.

“We’re not as deep or as experienced as we’ve been, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how our young pitchers have kept us in games,” Whalen said.

“The difference between winning and losing is just this small,” he added, holding his fingers a millimeter apart. “We’ve been in every game so far. We just need to keep getting better.”

Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.