Army is now just two wins away from winning their fourth consecutive Patriot League Championship. It would also constitute the Black Knight’s sixth title in the last ten years. But the Bucknell Bison, who are seeking their first title since 2014, stand in the Cadets’ way.
Army needs to win two games of the three-game set in order to clinch a spot in the NCAA tournament. The championship series, originally set for last weekend, was delayed for the Class of 2022’s graduation weekend. So Doubleday Field will now host championship games starting on Tuesday. The second game will be Wednesday with a Thursday rubber-match, if needed.
Due to the delay in the final series, both teams have rested their starters and bullpens for a week. Army and Bucknell have two of the top three team ERAs in the Patriot League. So this series shouldn’t be a one-sided high scoring affair like the semifinals were. Interestingly, Bucknell scheduled a mid-week tune-up with Penn to keep their hitters warm, while Army elected to keep their arms rested.
This is the first time since 2018 that Championship baseball has been played on the banks of the Hudson. It’s also the first time since 2012 that Army hosted the series as the number one seed. Throw that in with the pressure of being the three-time defending champions and the emotion of graduation weekend and this series could be a bit tricky for the Black Knights.
In the semifinals, Army’s coach, Jim Foster, handed the ball to Connelly Early for game one. Expect him to do the same on Tuesday as Early is a competitive pitcher who should allow Army’s offense to decide the first game. The starter in Wednesday’s game two will likely depend on the result of game one. In the semifinal series, we even saw the likely game three starter make a relief appearance with a comfortable lead in game two. Coach Foster is definitely willing to gamble in these short series to give his team the best chance to win.
Since the tournament expanded to four teams in 2008, 41 three-game series have been played. Only eight times has a team come back to win after losing the first game. Needless to say, game one will be very important for Coach Foster’s squad.
Army has only lost one game in Patriot League play this year with Connelly Early at the bump. While it was to Bucknell, Early gave up only one earned run. And he left the game with a lead in the sixth. If it weren’t for an error, Early would have had two outs with a runner on first rather than the 5 run affair the inning became.
Patriot League pitcher of the year, Early redeemed himself later in the year when he allowed the Bison to score one run in the first before holding them scoreless over the next five in a game Army won, 3-1.
If Army wins game one, AFF’s guess for a game two starter will be Brian Dawson who started last weekend’s series-clinching matchup. Dawson has only seen the Bison lineup once this year. But that appearance was a one-run, 4.1 inning relief performance to help Army win 6-5. He’s not the second best starter on paper, but his previous performances indicate that he should give the Army offense a competitive chance. It’s a good gamble to take if you already have a game in the bag.
AFF’s best guess for game three is Anthony LoRicco. He pitched in relief last series, but only after game two was effectively over. He also got snagged by the unearned run monster in his game against Bucknell. But any starter that can hold a 4.26 ERA in Patriot League play this year has to be at least somewhat impressive.
Army’s bullpen continued its dominance last week against Holy Cross, allowing just one run over five innings of relief. In the regular season, Army’s bullpen posted a 3.50 ERA against the Bison.
Army at the Plate
Army averages just five runs per game against Bucknell this year. But the Black Knights are on a hot streak, plating 45 in their last four games. It’s hard to single out special performances from last weekend because practically everyone had a spectacular outing. Perhaps the best of them all was Nick Manesis who went 5/11 on the weekend with seven RBIs.
Army played small ball against Holy Cross and it paid off. Despite Ross Friedrick’s solo shot in game one being the only home run of the weekend, the Black Knights still scored 23 runs over both games. Seven doubles and eight stolen bases kept Army’s lineup turning against the Crusaders.
After Army’s ten and Navy’s seven, Bucknell’s six Patriot League championships lead the rest of the field. But the Bison haven’t figured out a way to put it all together since head coach Scott Heather’s second season, 2014.
Bucknell has scored 275 runs this year and they’ve given up 266. They boast a 5.94 ERA and have only committed 38 errors. On offense, they hit .282/.376/.392. Their downside on offense is their relatively high strikeout and low walk rates.
The Bison will likely go with a rotation of Will Greer (4.21), Tyler O’Neill (3.53), and Austin Odell (4.15). We could also see an appearance from Ben Magovern (5.86), but he started last Wednesday’s game against Penn. So more than likely, Bucknell will go with the more rested trio.
On offense, Chris Cannizzaro is Bucknell’s biggest threat, hitting .335/.403/.542. Jacob Corson, Brendan Lowery, Billy Kender, and Grant Voytovich also pose a threat at the plate.
Army is 2-3 against Bucknell this year, being outscored, 27-20. The first two games were Army’s first in league play. And they were the end of what was a 5-15 start to the season. In the next series, this time at West Point, Army found a way to win two of three, despite being outscored 15-14.
In almost every metric except head-to-head wins, Army is better than Bucknell. But thanks to eight unearned runs on ten errors given up to Bucknell in five games, the Bison were the only league team this year to beat the Black Knights thrice. But Bucknell has struggled this year on the road, going just 5-6 in Patriot League games.
If Army can limit mistakes, they can win this series. Perhaps even sweep it. But if the Black Knights can’t play clean, fundamental baseball, this series could quickly turn into a coin-toss. With a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line, let’s hope Coach Foster’s crew can execute when it matters.
All three games will start at 1:00 and can be streamed on ESPN+.
Go Army! Beat Bucknell!!!
*Cover image via @ArmyWP_Baseball