Led by a strong pitching staff and deep bench, the University of Richmond baseball team holds a record of 16-13-1 and can continue its strong season heading into a long stretch of Atlantic 10 Conference play.
The Spiders failed to make the A-10 tournament in 2016 and 2017, but they rebounded in 2018 and finished with the fourth best record in the conference.
But they lost in the first round of the tournament to Davidson College, and this year look to return and make a bigger impact, said head coach Tracy Woodson.
“We want to win the [A-10] championship,” said Woodson, who is in his sixth season with the Spiders. “If that's not your goal, then I think you are probably not in the right profession.”
The team started the season hot with a record of 8-1 by March 2. This included an impressive three-game sweep in its opening weekend in Atlanta against three Atlanta-area teams. UR defeated Georgia Tech, the 17th-ranked team in the nation at the time, by a score of 7-1.
“We out-slugged Georgia State and Kennesaw State in high-scoring games,” Woodson said. “Against Georgia Tech, I thought we played a complete game.
“We basically gave them the one run. We pitched well and hit the ball well. If we can do that, we can beat anybody. But we just have to do that day in and day out.”
So far this season, the team’s strong pitching has been the biggest contributor to its success, Woodson said. The Spiders currently rank fourth in the conference in earned run average (ERA) and fifth in strikeouts, according to A10stats.com.
Woodson highlighted sophomore pitcher Kent Morrison, who is in his first season with UR after transferring from Santa Clara University, as one of the team’s biggest surprises. Morrison has a 2.25 ERA in 24 innings pitched, with 16 strikeouts and two saves.
“Kent has been the biggest surprise, being a transfer,” Woodson said. “In the past he has really struggled throwing strikes. But that has not been an issue at all this year, and that's why he's in the rotation.”
Woodson said the team had prioritized improving its pitching after previous disappointing seasons.
“This year and even last year, we have really tried to concentrate on making our pitching staff better,” Woodson said. “We just weren't really good the two years prior to that.”
Woodson and multiple players also said the depth in the team lineup had propelled them through some injuries.
“Honestly, this is my fifth year, and this is the deepest team we've had,” said Brendan McGuigan, team captain and redshirt senior pitcher. “All around this field, on the mound, infield, outfield, everywhere, we have tons of depth and tons of guys we can plug in. If anyone is banged up or needs the day off we have the next guy ready.”
The team’s depth has in part come from its underclassmen, as injuries have given some of the first-years playing time to prove themselves, Woodson said.
“We have had some injuries, and we have had to go to some freshmen,” Woodson said. “A couple of them struggled, but we gave them the opportunity to play. In the back of our mind those guys are going to be very key for us down the road.”
First-year infielder Brian Schaub has batted .269 and is tied for the team lead in home runs with six. Another first-year, infielder Justin Meyer, has batted .245 with a .369 on-base percentage.
Offensively, senior utility man Sage Bruhl and sophomore infielder Jordan Schulefand have surprised the team the most, Woodson said.
Bruhl has a .330 batting average and .459 on-base percentage, which leads the team for players with over 60 at bats. Schulefand, who batted only .214 in 2018, has improved his average this year to .298, to go along with four home runs and 13 runs batted in, each a career high.
“Jordan Schulefand and Sage Bruhl have been our catalysts,” Woodson said. “I moved Sage up from fifth or sixth in the lineup to second.
"And we didn't know who our leadoff hitter was going to be. We've put Jordan in there from game one, and he's been really good. When those two guys are going, it makes it easier for everybody else.”
Other offensive highlights have included redshirt junior outfielder Anthony Forte, who leads the team with 27 RBIs and is tied with Schaub for the home-run lead with six. Graduate student infielder and captain Tyler Plantier has hit well for both contact and power, with a .324 batting average and providing five home runs and 23 RBIs.
“I've really been trying to set myself up to do well in conference play,” Plantier said. “I have just been trying to be more consistent at the plate and become a run producer towards the end.”
As a whole, UR leads the A-10 in home runs with 30, and is third overall in batting average at .276, according to A10stats.com.
Currently, the team stands at the beginning of a long stretch of conference play. It swept A-10 rival George Mason University in a three-game series at home the weekend of March 29-31, in its first conference games of the year.
The Spiders face conference opponents in 9 of their 11 games through the remainder of April, including a home series against Virginia Commonwealth University on April 19-21.
“We have a lot of confidence going into conference,” Plantier said. “We have a group of guys that can be dog-piling at the end of the year.”
All other statistics are courtesy of Richmondspiders.com.
Contact sports writer Andrew Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org