Despite winning five of the last nine Patriot League Baseball Tournaments, Army Baseball just won their first outright regular season title since 2010. The Black Knights clinched the championship going into the final weekend. Even with the title in the bag, however, they still took three of the final four games — including a Senior Day sweep — to finish Patriot League play at 18-7 (.720).
But the Patriot League is a one-bid league to the NCAA’s College World Series, so the Black Knights must seal the deal in the conference tournament in order to get into the NCAA tourney. The format is simple: two best-of-three semifinal series consisting of a Saturday doubleheader and, if needed, a Sunday rubber-match. The two winners of those series move on to a Friday-Saturday-Sunday best-of-three final series hosted by the top remaining seed.
The top seed, Army, will host Holy Cross in their series, while the number two seed, Bucknell, will host Lehigh in the other half. Each team will have at least five off-days before the semifinal series and four off-days before the finals. That means that each lineup will see the top three starting pitchers from the opposing team.
Thus, in these short weekend series, it’s all about managing the bullpen.
Don’t expect Army Coach Jim Foster to trot out his starters in order: Ace, 2, 3. First, due to injuries, there’s no clear Army rotation. Second, Foster will often start a competitive pitcher in the first game, trying to steal a win against the other team’s ace. Then, depending on the result of that first game, he will decide whether to start his ace or save him for a potential Game 3.
Connelly Early is AFF’s best guess for Game 1 starter. He boasts a 3.18 ERA, and he’s only lost one decision in the Patriot League this year. Even then, the game was a flukey, 1 earned run outing.
After that, it’s anyone’s guess . If Army wins Game 1, Robbie Buecker might be a good option for Game 2. Despite posting a 6.71 ERA, Buecker has thrown a few gems including a five-inning scoreless start against Navy. Anthony LoRicco and Brian Dawson have also made quality starts for the Black Knights.
Notably, Army has perhaps the best bullpen in the Patriot League, contributing to a league best 4.67 ERA. They have four relievers that can manage high leverage situations: Tanner Gresham, Sean Dennehy, Teddy Lepcio, and Steven Graver. This is a substantial advantage in a win-or-go-home series.
Army at the Plate
Sam Ruta (INF) and Cam Cerruto (C) lead the team with a 1.081 and .965 OPS, respectively. They, along with Ross Friedrick, Nick Manesis, Kevin Dubrule, and Derek Berg, are a huge reason why Army is the top scoring team in the Patriot League this year. In addition to hitting well, the Black Knights have shown extraordinary plate discipline, averaging nearly 4.5 walks per game. Add in Hunter Meade and Carter Macias, two of the top five base-stealers in the conference, and we now have a high-powered offense ready to do damage when it counts.
The Crusaders find themselves as the four-seed despite being in last place entering the final weekend. Holy Cross Baseball is not a stranger to Patriot League success though, having won the tournament back in 2017.
The Crusaders have given up 192 more runs than they’ve scored this year — yeah, that’s a lot — thanks in large part to a .673 OPS, 7.03 ERA, and a league-high 85 errors. They do hit for power, however, blasting 52 home runs, which is more than any other Patriot League team. With that power, though, comes a strikeout on nearly one of every five plate appearances.
Holy Cross’s best starter is Nate Churdy (4.46 ERA), who gave up 5 runs (3 earned) against Army earlier this year. Next up is Jack DiLauro (5.73 ERA), who gave up 7 runs (6 earned) to the Black Knight lineup back in April. One might expect Army could make something with that again this time out.
On offense, Nick Wang (INF) is the biggest Crusader threat, hitting .376/.479/.571. Two-way player Sean Scanlon is the only other player with an OPS above .700.
Army is 5-0 against the Crusaders this year, outscoring them 54-13. No Holy Cross starting pitcher has found any success against the Army lineup, while the Army pitching staff has managed two shutouts. Army’s goal will be to have competitive at-bats and get to in their opponent’s bullpen, a strategy they’ve used all year.
Friends, Army should win this series. But baseball is a very fickle game and the best team on paper doesn’t always win. Coach Foster has perhaps the most dominant Army team he’s coached on the Banks of the Hudson, but that won’t mean much unless he can get it done in May.
Posteason baseball at West Point on tap this weekend with @ArmyWP_Baseball opening PL tournament play‼️ @ArmyWP_WRugby also makes the trip to Georgia for its Rugby 7s Championship tournament!#GoArmy— ArmyWestPoint Sports (@GoArmyWestPoint) May 9, 2022
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