Time is ripe for Minutemen to make a run

By Daniel Malone

Collegian File Photo

Flash back to the early evening of April 17, not even a full week ago. Center fielder Kellen Pagel had just lined a clutch bases-loaded, game-winning single down the left field line against Hartford to give the Massachusetts baseball team its fourth win in a row and sixth win in eight games.

The winning streak presented a much-needed reprieve for the Minutemen, whose early-season hitting woes had left them wallowing at the bottom of the Atlantic 10 and looking for answers.

UMass coach Mike Stone said the victories would help in building his team’s confidence moving forward and that things were finally starting to come together.

That’s certainly not a ground-breaking assessment, but if the Minutemen were going to pick up steam going into the last third of their schedule, they needed to at least start somewhere.

Cut to today. A three-game sweep over the weekend at the hands (and bats; UMass allowed 32 runs over the series) of conference rival La Salle later, and Stone’s ball club is precisely where it was three weeks earlier — stuck looking for answers.

That confidence and momentum? The hard truth in baseball is that they’re only as good as your next day’s pitcher.

Andrew Grant, who had been something of a bright spot in the UMass rotation in recent weeks after stringing together 17 scoreless innings, learned that the hard way in Game 1 of the series against the Explorers, surrendering nine runs (seven earned) on 10 hits in 3.1 innings.

And so, the Minutemen sit 9-21 on the season overall and 13th in the conference with a 3-9 record against A-10 opponents. With 15 games left, the situation appears dire.

But that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.

The 2013 iteration of UMass baseball is many things, but let me say this about Stone and his players: they step up in their games at home.

Of their nine wins, seven have come within the comfy confines of the recently-renovated Earl Lorden Field in Amherst. Ask Stone and he’ll tell you they were only a couple of bad breaks in a pair of one-run losses away from being undefeated at home.

Home-road splits favoring the local team are far from a rarity in sports, but UMass has taken it to an extreme this season. Consider, for example, that the Minutemen have scored 59 runs in those nine home games, good for over 6.5 runs per game.

And in their other 21 games away from Amherst? Just 52 runs, or south of 2.5 per game.

A similar imbalance exists on the mound, where UMass has allowed 6.6 runs per game on the road as opposed to 4.1 at home.

Those are whopping differences; the kind of differences that take a hard toll on a pitching staff struggling to find its rhythm and pressure a skidding offense even further into a slump.

Stone has seen enough baseball in his 26 years with the Minutemen to recognize the imbalance.

So, at home, UMass morphs from an also-ran team into a squad that hits with confidence and gets people out.

That’s simple baseball. But the answer is never that easy.

And though nothing is a given with a team whose fortunes and results break a striking resemblance to a mathematical sine graph, it does provide for a ray of hope, especially considering that six of the Minutemen’s next nine games will be played at home.

 Throw in the emotion of an April 29 Beanpot title defense opportunity at Fenway Park smack dab in the middle of that upcoming stretch and the tables turn even more so.

Apart from the chance to repeat at the Fens, the opportunity to pad the win column a little bit during the home stretch is ready and waiting for UMass.

Again, it’s difficult to project with this team, but the Minutemen’s opponents over those games — Connecticut, Saint Joseph’s, Northeastern, Quinnipiac and Fordham — are a combined 87-101 on the year. That’s not an unreasonable feat for a team that’s proven to play its best ball at home.

I certainly can’t sit here and guarantee UMass will win all nine of those games, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the Minutemen walked away with another winning streak. And this is probably their last best chance to do so.

As it most always does, any successful outcome will be dependent on the pitching. The talent is there and the opportunity is there. Should Grant, Jordan Pace and the rest of Stone’s staff pitch like they’ve shown they’re capable of in spurts this season, the tick marks in the win column should be there, too.

Daniel Malone can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Daniel_Malone.