The baseball team swept the defending champion Tufts last weekend to clinch a spot in this year's NESCAC tournament. After previously dropping games to other NESCAC East opponents, the Polar Bears entered last weekend in a must-win scenario with a postseason tournament berth on the line.
"We just played in the playoffs," Coach Mike Connolly said. "It was the definition of playoff baseball. It was like playing in a mini-tournament against a two-time defending league champion."
On Friday, Oliver Van Zant '13 pitched the first eight innings, striking out a record 13 batters, allowing just four hits and walking a single batter. His 13 strikeouts pushed him past the 62-year-old Bowdoin record for most strikeouts in a career, 187, set by Bernard Johnson '50.
"If Ollie stays healthy...he's going to push that number to a point where you're going to look at it and say, 'How in the world did anyone strike out that amount over a four-year career?'" said Connolly.
In spite of Van Zant's pitching performance, Bowdoin was behind 3-1 in the fifth inning. Then, Tufts' walked three batters, the Jumbo defense had its first error in three games, and Bowdoin scored four runs. The Polar Bears committed three errors of their own, becoming only the second team this year to beat Tufts while posting more than two errors in a game.
Van Zant's pitching was crucial to make a comeback possible for Bowdoin, but according to Connolly, his outstanding performance wasn't anything new for the pitcher with 82 strikeouts this year.
"He's had one bad inning the entire year," said Connolly, "What he did on Friday is no different than what he's done in all eight of his starts. He's locating his fastball and he's throwing his breaking ball for strikes. He's been the definition this year of competitive greatness."
After winning the first game, the Jumbos had to sweep Saturday's doubleheader to earn a playoff bid. By the penultimate inning, the Polar Bears faced a six-run deficit, threatening to send the weekend's outcome to the third and final game. Getting two unearned runs from John Lefeber '14 and Jordan Edgett '12 on Tufts errors, the team brought the score to 7-3. Jay Loughlin '14 then forced all three batters in the top of the seventh to ground out, and the team went up to bat with four runs needed to force extra innings.
Van Zant, playing second base in the game, hit a double to start the inning out competitively. Andrew Belmonte '12 fought for a walk to join Van Zant on the bases.
"The biggest at-bat of the whole inning was Belmonte's walk," Connolly said. "Once we went to first and second with nobody out and the top of the order coming out, I felt like momentum started to go in our direction."
While batting efforts by juniors Luke Regan, Dan Findley and Tim McGarry brought Bowdoin its first four runs, Sam Canales '15 hit a single to left field to bring Aaron Rosen '15 home, dramatically ending arguably the most important game for Bowdoin this year.
To Connolly, the unfathomable finish was "as good as it gets. To watch the kids have a moving, 35-man pig pile as they move from first base to second into the outfield, it's the best feeling in the world. It's why you get into sports in the first place—for weekends like that and for moments like that. It was perfect."
The weekend's prize already taken, Bowdoin went on to win the final game of the doubleheader 4-2. Solid pitching from Tim Welch '12 held Tufts to only two hits and one run until Welch was relieved by Henry Van Zant '15 and Lefeber.
Yesterday, Bowdoin lost a 22-run, 36-hit, 11-error slugfest to the University of Southern Maine. Oliver Van Zant started for the Polar Bears, giving up four earned runs on eight strikeouts, two walks, and 13 hits in six innings.
After winning the NESCAC championship in each of the last two years— a rain delay technicality crowned the Jumbos champions over the Polar Bears without playing the final game last year—Tufts will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Bowdoin will play Amherst next Friday in the first round after the team's final regular season series this weekend against Middlebury.