Sports

Panther nine welcomes new field

MIDDLEBURY JUNIOR STARTING pitcher Sawyer Duarte prepares to deliver an offering during the Panther baseball team’s Saturday home game vs. Castleton. Duarte threw six strong innings in the Panther win. Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY — It’s not unusual to see the Middlebury College baseball team enjoy a successful homestand such as the one that concluded on Tuesday with two wins in three outings.

After all, in the past two years Coach Mike Leonard’s Panthers have compiled records of 31-14 and 27-13, won a NESCAC championship and made two NCAA Division III tournament appearances. (They are 3-3 so far this season.)

But a Middlebury homestand in March is a brand new experience, one due to the program’s new field-turf stadium off South Street —  an amenity also enjoyed by the college’s softball program, which will open at home next door with games on March 30 and 31. 

The new baseball field offers a blue left-field fence that bears a passing resemblance to Fenway Park’s Green Monster, new fenced bullpens, stands and an enclosed press box right behind home plate, and, above all, an extended season thanks to its weather-proof surface.

The three recent games were played despite rain before Middlebury’s March 8 home opener vs. Keene State, and snow two days before Tuesday’s visit by Plattsburgh.

Coach Leonard said he and the Panthers are almost in disbelief about their new home. 

“It’s incredible. I think there’s a degree of, like ‘Is this real? Is this really our home field?’” Leonard said.

PANTHER RIGHT FIELDER Kyle McCausland makes a running catch during the Middlebury College baseball team’s Saturday home game vs. Castleton.
Independent photo/Steve James

The new facility arrives after many key players graduated, and Leonard said he and the coaches are still working out the current players’ roles.

“We’re still crafting an identity, and I think some of that comes from the new facility, right? I think we got used to the old home field advantage, which was maybe some bad hops by the third basemen. We knew how the field was going to play,” he said. “This is a game-changer for us. Every day we come out here to practice and play and look around, and wow.”

What hasn’t changed is the players’ attitudes, Leonard said. 

“They’re an awesome group. They’re super fun to coach. They’re a really nice mix of seniors and some new players, some speed and really good velocity on the mound, and some really good defense,” he said.

The two top members of the starting rotation will be Owen Tross and Sawyer Duarte, both of whom pitched well over the weekend. Leonard said the coaches have not settled on a third starter, while in the field there is quality competition and depth. 

“We’re trying to figure out roles. We have so many people in spots that were previously occupied by people who graduated last year. So there’s a lot of learning go on for the team and the coaches,” Leonard said, adding, “I feel really good. I think as we keep playing games we’ll learn more and more about our team.”

FRIDAY GAME

In Friday’s home opener, the Panthers took an early 4-1 lead over Keene State in a 4-3 victory. Tross went five innings for the win, allowing one earned run on two hits and four walks, striking out four. Andrew Gatland pitched a scoreless final two innings for a save, striking out four. 

Middlebury erupted for three runs in the second inning. Catcher Ben Slaughter doubled, moved to third on a wild pitch, and scored on Andrew Ashley’s ground out. Mitch Schroeder walked and scored on Lucas Flemming’s triple, and Chris Borter doubled Flemming home. 

The Owls scored their first run in the top of the third. Evan Cali dropped down a bunt single and stole second, moved to third on a Tommy Ahlers single through the left side, and scored on a groundout.

The Panthers got that run back when Slaughter belted a homer to left-center in the bottom of the inning.

MIDDLEBURY FIRST BASEMAN Will Ashley is forced at second base as Castleton tries, unsuccessfully, to turn a double play during the Middlebury College baseball team’s Saturday home game.
Independent photo/Steve James

The 4-1 lead held until the seventh, when the Owls struck for two runs off reliever Frederick Wessel. Ahlers walked, and Shea Zina followed with a homer to left field to cut the lead to 4-3. But Wessel limited the damage, and then Gatland shut the door, and the Panthers’ first appearance on the new field was a success. 

SATURDAY GAME

Saturday’s 8-7 win over visiting Castleton was more dramatic: The Panthers scored six runs in the bottom of the ninth to rally for the victory. All six runs, four earned, were charged to reliever Luke Russell

Charlie Kutz (1-1), who missed the 2023 season after elbow surgery, pitched the final two innings for the Panthers and earned the win, allowing one unearned run and striking out three. 

In the ninth Schroeder tied the game with a two-out, three-run homer He drilled a shot down the left-field line that the day’s strong wind tried to push foul (the Spartans thought it was foul), but the home plate umpire was well positioned to make the call. 

Slaughter then reached on an error, and freshman Gus Parker pinch-ran for him and stole second. Ashley then laced a liner to right-center field off reliever Owen Phelps, and Parker bolted home with the winning run.

Most of the game was a pitching duel between the starting pitchers, Castleton senior righty Sam Crawford  and Panther junior righty Duarte. 

Crawford kept the Panthers off balance by changing speeds and mixing in a sweeping curveball. solid contact. He allowed two runs, one earned, in six innings, while striking out four. Duarte threw harder, allowing two hits and two earned runs, walking two batters, hitting three and striking out eight, also in six innings. 

Middlebury drew first blood with two runs in the third. First baseman Will Ashley walked and was erased on second basemen Zip Malley’s fielder’s choice. Leadoff hitter Beau Root followed with a bunt single, and outfielder Kyle McCausland singled in Malley. Schroeder walked to load the bases. Slaughter then hit a grounder that forced Root at home, but McCausland scored when the catcher threw wildly to first base. 

PANTHER SENIOR OUTFIELDER Beau Root slides safely into third base during the Middlebury College baseball team’s Saturday home game vs. Castleton.
Independent photo/Steve James

Castleton got the two runs back in the fourth. Duarte walked a batter and hit another before Turner Clews and Kannon Dush hit RBI singles. 

In the seventh, the first four Spartan batters reached and scored off freshman reliever Anthony Pellagrini as Castleton took a 6-2 lead. Dush doubled, and a Hunter Perkins single and a walk loaded the bases. A throwing error allowed the first run to score, and a groundout scored the second. Mikey Raby’s two-run single made it 6-2. Chris Borter then relieved and retired the final two batters. 

Reliever Nick Lescarbeau set the Panthers down quietly in their seventh. In the eighth Borter walked the first Spartan batter and hit the second. That brought Kutz to the mound and brought the Panthers on the bench to life in support of their teammate after all he had been through. 

Kutz, a six-three lefty, walked the first batter, but worked out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam with a pop-up and two strikeouts.

Leonard said Kutz gave the Panthers a spark. 

“His teammates love him. They know how hard he worked last year when he was recovering from Tommy John (surgery),” Leonard said. “When the guy comes into the game it brings some energy because of what he’s capable of doing. He’s got unbelievable stuff. So it was great to see us get a little lift from him.”

Middlebury loaded the bases in the eighth, but did not break through vs. Lescarbeau. And the Spartans added an unearned run in the eighth off Kutz to make it 7-2. 

In the ninth Nathan Samii led off by reaching on an error, and Flemming’s doubled to make it 7-3. With two outs, Root singled in Flemming. McCausland singled to bring up Schroeder, and his homer tied the game.

Slaughter then reached on another Spartan miscue, Parker came in and stole second, Ashley greeted Phelps with the line single, and the Panthers ran onto the field and mobbed Ashley.

TUESDAY GAME

On Tuesday, visiting Plattsburgh (3-2) outlasted the Panthers in a slugfest, 14-11. The Panthers scored five runs in the final two innings, but could not overcome an eight-run deficit. Emmet George started and took the loss, allowing five earned runs on nine hits in three innings. Three Panther relievers tossed scoreless innings, Gavin Gattuso, Justin Lessing and Gatland. 

The Cardinals scored four times in the first on five hits and a leadoff walk. Kyle Cremin hit an RBI double, Justice Suafoa singled home a pair, and Alex Wein had an RBI hit. 

Middlebury made it 4-3 after two innings. Doubles by Root, Schroeder and Flemming plated two runs in the first, and a Baker Angstman single, Joe Basso double and Parker RBI grounder scored a run in the second. 

Plattsburgh made it 6-3 in the third on an error, an Aidan Diltz double and Adam Wein single. The Cardinals broke the game open in the fourth with five runs as Panther reliever Kunal Handa had a tough inning. After an error, Alex Kornblau homered, and then a hit batsman and three walks forced in a run before Dylan Knightley came on in relief. Jack Defayette’s RBI hit and a sacrifice fly pushed the lead to 11-3. 

Singles by Flemming and Borter and an Angstman sac fly made it 11-4 after four innings, but two hit batsman and a Suafoa single pushed the Cardinal lead to 12-4 after five.

PANTHER SOPHOMORE INFIELDER Brayden Mathews takes a rip at the plate during the Middlebury College baseball team’s Saturday home game vs. Castleton.
Independent photo/Steve James

Middlebury scored twice in the sixth to set the score at 12-6. Sam Smith singled, Flemming tripled him home, and a Borter groundout scored Flemming. Plattsburgh got its final two runs in the seventh off Stefano Yozzo on three walks, a hit batter, and a double play on which another run scored. 

The Panthers rallied for three in the eighth off reliever Logan Avin. Borter drilled a two-run homer after Flemming walked, and then Angstman singled, stole second and scored on consecutive groundouts. 

Middlebury rallied again in the ninth. McCausland, Schroeder and Sam Smith opened the inning with singles, scoring two runs when the Cardinals misplayed Smith’s RBI hit. With runners on second and third and none out, it looked promising. But Cardinal closer Dylan Bass, who allowed Smith’s hit, induced a pop-up and struck out two hitters for the save.

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