CHICAGO – When the University of Chicago baseball team made its debut as an affiliate member of the Midwest Conference in 2019, it was a brand-new experience for the whole squad. After spending several decades as an independent, the Maroons now had the pressure and opportunity to play meaningful league contests where every game took on additional importance.
Now entering year two as a MWC member, UChicago knows what to expect, while also shouldering expectations. The Maroons were recently picked to repeat as North Division champions in the preseason coaches' poll.
"I believe that our returners are better prepared for the rigors of conference play and the 36-inning weekends," said Head Coach John Fitzgerald. "However, some of those assurances go out the door if weather becomes a factor and we begin to get back-logged with games down the stretch. I believe that our returners embraced the challenge of conference play and will hopefully convey to our new players just how critical every inning is for achieving our goals."
UChicago wrapped up the 2019 season with a 24-12 record (11-5 MWC North) and qualified for the MWC Tournament. Five players were selected All-Conference and Fitzgerald was voted the MWC North Division Coach of the Year.
The 2020 squad is tasked with replacing nine graduated seniors, with multiple four-year starters among them. That group helped the Maroons accumulate the most wins in program history over a four-year span (90-59).
"Most of the departed players were starters in our program from year one and made up our first recruiting class as a coaching staff," Fitzgerald said. "That class really helped establish a level of success and expectations for our program moving forward. They played a pivotal role, both on the field and off, for our culture and success. However, they also played a role within our collective growth, as does each and every class, regardless of where those players might fall within their careers at UChicago."
The current roster of 35 players is composed of six seniors, nine juniors, nine sophomores and 11 first-years. Nearly half of the roster will feature on the pitching staff.
Offensively, UChicago led the conference in team batting average (.307), on-base percentage (0.399) and stolen bases (61). The Maroons scored just under seven runs per game. Five regular starters return to the fold – outfielder Payton Jancsy, shortstop Brian Lyle, third baseman Carson Weekley, infielder Benjamin Rosengard and infielder James Kelly.
Jancsy was an All-Conference and Third Team All-Region honoree in 2019. The senior was one of the team's most consistent producers with a .361 batting average, 26 RBI, eight doubles, six triples and 13 steals. The left side of the infield also earned All-MWC accolades. Lyle led the team in batting average (.378) and steals (19), while Weekley provided power with three home runs, eight doubles and a .355 batting average.
Entering his sixth year at the helm of the Maroons, Fitzgerald believes his squad's consistency game-to-game and inning-to-inning will be key to a successful campaign.
"I think our success will be determined by our ability to execute at a high level for 27 outs on a daily basis," said the veteran coach. "Over 40 games, there will be slumps and we will run into very good lineups and opponents. However, if we are able to limit our mistakes defensively, limit our 'freebies' on the mound and continually have quality at-bats, I think that the final record will show the season was successful."
The pitching staff will look to continue its run of excellence with another deep stable of arms to rely on. Last year, the Maroons were elite at producing swings and misses – they ranked second in the nation with 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings (332 in 297 innings). UChicago also paced the MWC in earned run average (3.58), hits allowed per nine innings (8.15) and fielding percentage (0.966).
Sophomore Sam Bennett is the leading returner in terms of innings pitched last year with 40. He compiled a 3-2 record with one of the nation's best strikeout rates. He ranked seventh overall with 13.05 strikeouts per nine innings. Junior closer David Clarke was a shutdown presence at the back of the bullpen with a 1.29 ERA and five saves over 14 innings pitched. Juniors Chandler Yu and Zach Morochnik combined for 37 innings of work as well.
"Any success or growth we have shown in recent years is a direct result of the quality of our pitching and our ability to play defense behind those arms," said Fitzgerald. "The importance of the strikeout varies from game-to-game. Typically, strikeout pitchers will have elevated pitch counts which doesn't always allow a starter to go very deep in the game and then places a very heavy burden on your bullpen on those four-game, 36-inning weekends. We have been blessed with some really solid arms in the past and I think this year's staff collectively is the most talented and deepest that we have had since arriving at UChicago."
The 2020 season kicks off down in Missouri on Saturday, Feb. 29 with a neutral game versus Loras College, followed by a neutral doubleheader on Sunday, Mar. 1 against Illinois Wesleyan University.
With the integration of new faces into key roles early in the season, Fitzgerald hopes his team will round into peak form right when it counts during conference action.
"I think our strengths and weaknesses will remain a question for a number of weeks into the season," he said. "We will have a number of first-time starters, a number of whom will be rookies in college baseball. As a result, similar to years past, there could be some growing pains as we work our way through the non-conference portion of the season. Our hope is that the talent and execution will increase in consistency as we approach the conference campaign and hopefully into the conference tournament."