Cornell Baseball: Season Preview
The crack of the bat, the gentle summer breeze, and the satisfying sound of the ball smacking into a catcher’s mitt all inform us about one thing — baseball is back. As the sport returns, so does a Cornell team hoping to improve and build on last year’s season. The Big Red struggled at times last year, finishing 7-13 in conference play, but as the squad begins 2017 against Navy this weekend, there is great cause for hope.
One of Cornell’s best players, junior Dale Wickham, developed immensely last year. He possessed a .290 average and finished second on the team with five home runs. On the defensive end, Wickham also led all outfielders in putouts and concluded the spring with no errors. An athlete with tremendous speed, he stole five bases and hit three triples, which represents more then any other Big Red player. With Wickham patrolling the outfield, Cornell will have a strong presence in the field.
Another key contributor the Big Red will rely on heavily to anchor its lineup is senior first baseman Cole Rutherford. He is a power hitter, leading the team last year with six home runs and 26 RBIs. Rutherford’s average was .276, only further demonstrating his ability as a hitter. He also had a .991 fielding percentage at possibly the most challenging positions defensively. With Wickham and Rutherford returning, there is good reason for Cornell to expect to have a strong year at the plate.
In the pitching department, there are more encouraging signs. Junior Justin Lewis, one of the Big Red’s 2016 closers, finished the year with impressive statistics. Posting a team-high three saves, he also recorded a 3.63 ERA, leading Cornell pitchers who played in at least 20 games. He also threw for 39.2 innings, showing that Lewis can be an innings eater for a group looking for consistent pitching. The southpaw from California is expected to return bigger and better in 2017 and will surely be a key part of this year’s success.
However, there is a slight cause for concern in other areas. Senior Paul Balestrieri, a right-handed starter, led the Big Red last season with an impressive 49 innings pitched and a team-high nine starts. But, Balestrieri posted a 2-6 record and a 5.51 era — not exactly dominant numbers. Cornell’s other primary starter, senior Tim Willittes, struggled as well. The 6-foot, 4-inch pitcher from Arizona went 2-5 in 2016 with a 7.46 era. Despite this trouble, each player had more then 35 strikeouts, with Willittes registering a team-leading 40 Ks. Both are very talented and have displayed promising signs for 2017.
These athletes are not the only guys Head Coach Dan Pepicelli will count on this year. The Big Red has players like senior Tommy Wagner, an infielder who led the team with a staggering .341 average. The squad can also count on the catching tandem of junior Ellis Bitar and senior C.J. Price, who both registered slugging percentages above .325 and combined for five home runs.
In the pitching department, there are some players Cornell will be relying on for key contributions. Senior reliever Jamie Flynn pitched 18 innings, but registered 23 strikeouts, indicating a fairly good repertoire of pitches. In addition, sophomore Austin Arnold only pitched four innings last year, yet earned a team-low 2.08 ERA in eight appearances, so he could breakout to make a huge impact this year.
With all these players returning and another year of experience under their belts, there is real reason for Cornell to expect a better 2017 season. As the Big Red return to the field on Saturday, the team will look for key contributions from these players in a tough three games in two days against Navy in Annapolis, MD. However, as the season unfolds, this team should improve from last year and make Cornell a serious contender in the Ivy League.