Bears Begin Ivy Title Defense This Weekend
Feb. 28, 2008
Providence, RI - After years of knocking on the door, Head Coach Marek Drabinski and the Brown baseball team finally took home the program's first-ever Ivy League Championship in 2007. But after last season's success, the Bears are looking to reload in 2008, not rebuild. Much of last year's lineup returns, and the additions of some talented freshmen and the return of some familiar faces should help the Bears overcome their key losses.
"Our offense and fielding will be our strengths," Drabinski said. "We have some questions, the conference rotation being one, but if we can answer those, we should contend for another Ivy title."
Much of the lineup that dominated the Ivy League offensively last season returns, including First Team All-Ivy players Ryan Murphy and Matt Nuzzo. Murphy hit .410 in a breakout junior year to lead the Bears and finish 16th in the country, bringing his career batting average to within one point of Brown's all-time career record. Named to the 2008 Wallace Watch, Murphy will be a fixture in left field again, with his combination of superb contact skills and good speed making him the prototype number two hitter for the Brown lineup. Murphy is one of the Bears' three captains for the 2008 season, along with senior closer Rob Hallberg and junior third baseman Robert Papenhause.
Nuzzo enjoyed a similarly strong breakout campaign as a sophomore last season, hitting .371 and finishing fourth in the Ivy League with a team-high .429 average in conference play. His switch from third base to shortstop seven games into the season in 2007 was one of the key moments in the Bears' season, as both he and Papenhause blossomed after switching back to their high school positions. A former quarterback for Brown's football team, Nuzzo participated in fall practice for the first time this fall after choosing to concentrate on baseball, setting himself up for even more improvement in 2008.
Papenhause returns at the hot corner for his junior season. He became one of the team's top clutch hitters in 2007, breaking out with three home runs in a key four-game series against Harvard. He hit .394 during Ivy League play, finishing ninth in the conference, also finishing third in home runs and RBIs, fourth in steals, and fifth in slugging percentage. With a full offseason to practice at third base, where he played in high school, Papenhause will combine with Nuzzo to form a formidable left side of the infield offensively and defensively.
Returning in center field and at the top of the order, where he played every inning of the 2007 season, is junior Steve Daniels, who joins Murphy on the 2008 Wallace Watch. Daniels is arguably the fastest player in the Ivy League, having led the conference with seven triples and 28 stolen bases and finishing 10th and 17th in the country in those categories. The 2006 Ivy League Co-Rookie of the Year, Daniels will get on base however he needs to, as he had two games in 2007 during which he went 0-for-3 but scored three runs.
In order to repeat as Ivy Champs, the Bears will need breakout campaigns similar to those of Murphy, Nuzzo, and Papenhause last season. Junior Dan Shapiro is one candidate to have such a season. In 2007, Shapiro was the starting right fielder against right-handers. After finishing third in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League with a .374 average and leading the league with 16 steals, Shapiro, who will move to first base, is expected to be a fixture in the middle of the order.
A pair of sophomores will compete for the starting spot in right field. Nick Puñal led the Bears in appearances as a substitute in 2007, entering as a defensive replacement 23 times and making no errors in 31 chances. He is expected to get the first crack at the starting spot, but he will be pushed by Chris Tanabe, who became Shapiro's platoon partner in right midway through last season. Tanabe hit .364 in 33 at-bats, and will likely see plenty of game action whether or not he starts.
Senior J.J. Eno also returns to the lineup after earning Second Team Academic All-American honors at designated hitter. A sophomore walk-on who was cut in his attempt to walk-on as a freshman, Eno was arguably the Bears' hottest hitter to start last season, hitting .367 through the team's first 12 games. He also finished the season well, hitting .324 in 14 Ivy League games, starting 10.
The feel-good story out of fall practice was the return of senior Conor Reardon to the team. After hitting .286 in 26 at-bats as a freshman, Reardon missed his entire sophomore and junior seasons due to injury. However, Reardon not only returned to the team this year, but has been impressive at the plate despite two years of rust, going 4-for-4 in his first fall game. He is penciled in as the starting designated hitter entering the season.
Rounding out the starting lineup will be two freshmen. Ryan Zrenda was the Shoreline Conference Player of the Year last season for Old Lyme (CT) High, and will step in and start at second base. Matthew Colantonio, a two-time All-League catcher at Chaminade (NY) High, will be the starter behind the plate. With the team's offensive firepower, the keys will be how he is able to replace Ivy League Player of the Year Devin Thomas behind the plate and how he is able to hold up to the rigors of the college season, as Thomas played all but 12 innings of Brown's season behind the dish in 2007.
Rounding out the bench will be a solid mix of players. Senior Brian Kelaher could see time behind the plate against left-handers, but can and will play all over the diamond. He saw most of his time at second base last season. Sophomore Joe Mellano will compete with Colantonio at catcher, and could possibly see some time at first base against left-handed pitchers. Freshman Pete Greskoff will back up at the corner infield positions in his rookie season.
On the mound is where the Bears have their biggest question marks after losing their top two starters from 2007, Ivy League Pitcher of the Year Jeff Dietz and James Cramphin. Sophomore Will Weidig had a solid rookie season as the Bears' number three starter, going 4-2 with a 5.01 ERA. The right-hander is expected to be Brown's ace this season, after an All-Star summer in the Texas Collegiate League and offseason workouts that saw him pitch in the low 90's..
Senior Alex Silverman spent a good portion of 2007 as Brown's number four starter, and he will need to find consistency as Brown's number two in 2008. Silverman had a career low 4.32 ERA for the season, but the righty posted a 5.93 ERA in three conference starts compared to a 2.38 mark coming out of the bullpen.
The battle for the final two spots in the conference rotation will likely go right up until the Ivy season starts, with four young pitchers competing - sophomore Matt Boylan and freshmen Josh Feit, Mark Gormley, and Matthew Kimball. Boylan, a lefty, made three non-conference starts in nine appearances in his rookie season. He showed promise, particularly in a five-inning start against Sacred Heart on March 22, in which he gave up two runs, one earned, while striking out four.
The three freshmen are just part of a talented group of rookie pitchers joining the Bears. Gormley is one of two lefties on the staff, along with Boylan. He dominated in his senior season at Noble & Greenough School, being named ISL Pitcher of the Year with a 0.70 ERA and 6-1 record. Feit had a 1.10 ERA and 76 strikeouts as a senior at Pascack Hills (NJ) High. Kimball, a graduate of Montgomery Bell (TN) High, held opponents to a .137 average in three seasons in high school.
Closing games once again will be strikeout artist Hallberg, who enters his final season with a career mark of 11.39 strikeouts per nine innings, the best such mark in Brown history by more than two k's. Last season, Hallberg made 22 appearances to move into second on Brown's career list, needing 16 to set a new record. He had 30 strikeouts on the year in 22.1 innings, and he pitched in half of Brown's 20 Ivy contests, striking out 17 batters in 12.0 innings to earn Second Team All-Ivy honors.
Hallberg's primary setup men will be the trio of seniors Peter Moskal and Anthony Vita, and freshman Conor Burke. Moskal made 14 appearances last season, two more than he'd made in his first two seasons combined, posting a 5.40 ERA. Vita, who walked on to the team two years ago after leaving Brown's football team, is completely healthy for the first time in his Brown baseball career. He will be a bit of a wild card, having only 9.2 innings under his belt. Burke was named the MVP of the Catholic Conference for St. John's (MA) Prep, posting a 0.70 ERA.
Sophomore Rob Wilcox will work out of the pen and start midweek games. In his freshman season, Wilcox pitched in 11 games, starting four. Junior Joe Rued will look to return from an injury that cost him the 2007 season. Freshmen Greg Karwaski, Davis Wedgworth, and Andrew Bakowski will also compete for time on the mound.
The Bears' 2008 schedule features top teams from the south to start and the Northeast once the weather warms up. Brown will open the season with weekend series at UAB and Florida. Those seven games will serve as preparation for Brown's Spring Break trip, which this year will begin in North Carolina with games against Hartford, UNC Asheville, Campbell College and Duke, then go up to Virginia for games with Richmond and George Mason. After playing seven games in six days, the Bears will open the Ivy League season on their way back, playing Columbia and Penn.
The Bears play nine home dates, all during the month of April. The unofficial battle for the Rhode Island Championship will open Brown's home schedule, as the Bears take on URI on April 2. Brown will host Ivy foes Cornell, Princeton, Dartmouth, and half of a home-and-home with Yale, as well as single midweek games with Connecticut and Holy Cross. The Bears will hit the road in the Ivy League for two doubleheaders with Harvard and the second half of the Yale series, with midweek contests coming at Quinnipiac and Marist. The Bears have also recently added a home-and-home series with Bryant College.