ECC Baseball Insider Blog: Championship Preview

ECC Baseball Insider Blog: Championship Preview

The 2014 ECC Baseball Championship has a familiar feel with the same four teams comprising the tournament field as a season ago. There is a stark contrast between the teams regular season resumes this year though. The top two seeds, Dowling and St. Thomas Aquinas, are both nearly 20 games over .500 while the three and four seeds, Molloy and Bridgeport, enter the weekend with records under .500. Historically, being a top seed hasn't necessarily been a recipe for success in this tournament  though(the top seed has won the tournament only four out of the past eight seasons), so don't count any of the four teams out.

Let's take a look at how they stack up as we head into the championship weekend.

No. 1 Dowling (31-13 overall, 19-5 ECC)
The Skinny: The Golden Lions got off to a hot start this season, winning seven of their first nine, and then showed how good they could be by defeating nationally ranked Southern New Hampshire and East Region power, Franklin Pierce, in the non-conference portion of their schedule. Dowling carried the momentum over to conference play, starting the ECC portion of their schedule with a 13-1record. A little lull with a 6-4 record down the stretch was still good enough to win the conference's Regular Season Championship for the first time since 2008 by three games. With that comes championship hosting duties and home-field advantage throughout the tournament.
Strengths: While Dowling's hitters improved their team batting average from .235 in 2013 to .300 in 2014, the Golden Lions still win behind the strength of their pitching. Led by ECC Pitcher of the Year, Tyler Badamo (7-3, 0.89 ERA, 111 K's), Dowling's staff leads the conference with a 2.50 earned run average, four shutouts, and 362 strikeouts. Along with Badamo, Dowling also boasts fellow All-Conference First Teamer, Tom Bammann, in their rotation. All he did was lead the conference with a 9-1 record along with a 2.26 ERA. Add in their third starter, JJ Bessell, who could probably be the ace of most staffs after posting a 4-2 record with a 1.96 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 64.1 innings, and the Golden Lions' rotation is going to be tough to beat.
Weaknesses: When combing through the conference stats, it's tough to find a weakness as the Golden Lions rank first or second in almost every hitting and pitching category. However, when taking a closer look, two things stick out. The first is do they feel comfortable handing the ball over to a fourth starter if they need to come through the loser's bracket to win the tournament? Kyle DeMeo and Cody McPartland have pitched well in spurts, but have each thrown less than 30 innings on the season. The second is their relief corps seems to lack a shut-down closer with only two team saves on the year. Badamo, Bammann, and Bessell have thrown 10 complete games between them but if any of the trio gets in a late-inning jam, who comes in to save the day for the Golden Lions?

No. 2 St. Thomas Aquinas (30-14 overall, 16-8 ECC)
The Skinny: St. Thomas Aquinas is coming off their first ever conference championship in 2013 and posted another strong season in 2014. The Spartans have now won 30 games in three straight seasons and were in the running to win the conference's Regular Season Championship until the final weekend of the season. While they failed to climb to the top of the standings in the last weekend, they still proved their mettle with a split of a four game set with Dowling.
Strengths: Offense has been down in the conference since the league went to using wood bats, but one team that has not had a drop off recently is the Spartans. There were 17 players in the ECC who qualified for the conference leader board that hit over .300 on the season. Six of them are in the St. Thomas Aquinas lineup including First Team All-Conference members Rich Baerga (conference leading .362), Derek Hirsch (.356), Nick D'Angelo (.352), and Stanley Susana (.301). Kenny Kirshner narrowly missed out on making it seven regulars with a .300 batting average, finishing with a .299 mark. The Spartans must have read  the bestseller Moneyball because they excel in working the count and getting on base, as they currently lead the ECC with 152 walks and 50 hit-by-pitches. All this adds up to lots of runs coming across the plate when St. Thomas Aquinas is up to bat.
Weaknesses: One aspect of the game the Spartans struggle with is shutting down the opposition's running game. St. Thomas Aquinas ranked next to last in the conference by throwing out only 21 percent of attempted base-stealers on the season. Dowling and Bridgeport were the top two teams in the conference in stolen bases (Molloy was no slouch in this category either) and being able to take an extra base can be a major factor in tight playoff games. If the Spartans' catchers can gun down opposing runners, it could go a long way towards a repeat for the squad from Sparkill.

No. 3 Molloy (19-22 overall, 12-12 ECC)
The Skinny: Molloy's 12-6 win over Mercy on the final day of the regular season clinched both a .500 ECC record and the No. 3 spot in the championship for the Lions. Despite the so-so record, the Lions have shown they can hang with the top teams in the conference. Molloy won their series with their first round opponent, St. Thomas Aquinas, split with Bridgeport, and took one game from Dowling during the regular season.
Strengths: As with many teams in the conference, starting pitching is one of the Lions' strengths. Senior Max Schonfeld and sophomore Shea Spitzbarth have been among the top starters in the conference. Schonfeld was an All-Conference Second Team pick after compiling a 5-3 record and a 1.81 ERA over 74.2 innings, while Spitzbarth finished in the top-five in the ECC in strikeouts. Save for two bad outings, Alex Miden (5-2 record) was a solid third starter as well.
Weaknesses: The Lions' offense has struggled some this season, as they currently hold a .259 team batting average. ECC Rookie of the Year, Kevin Podell, and classmate Ronald Bauer, Jr., were the only lineup regulars to have batting averages over .300. Although the classic saying is that pitching and defense win championships, Molloy will need to string together some hits and score some runs against some of the conference's top pitchers to have a chance to win the title.

No. 4 Bridgeport (17-26-1 overall, 11-13 ECC)
The Skinny: Bridgeport had to sweat out the final weekend of the season to see if they would earn a spot in the tournament as the one team in the conference with a bye. A loss by LIU Post on the final day meant the Purple Knights would head to the championship weekend for the fourth straight season. While most teams might want to have a higher seed in the tournament, if history is any indication, the Purple Knights might be right where they want to be. Bridgeport has advanced to the championship round of the tournament in the past three seasons, with the last two years coming as the No. 4 seed. As runner-up the past three seasons, the squad from Connecticut is hoping that this is the year they get over the hump.
Strengths: As previously mentioned, the Purple Knights were among the conference leaders in stolen bases. Senior outfielder Jesse Solar swiped 25 bags to lead the league and Dylan Steigerwald added 13 as well. In what seems to be a trend for the teams in the championship, Bridgeport boasts three solid starting pitchers. Dakota Edwards (2.50), Mike Nowak (2.64), and ECC All-Conference First Teamer, Brian O'Keefe (2.10), all have ERA's under 3.00.
Weaknesses: The Purple Knights lineup is very strikeout prone, finishing by far with the most in the conference with 335. With the amount of standout pitchers littered across the other three rosters, avoiding the strikeout and being able to make contact and move runners could be a huge difference maker for Bridgeport.