This weekend’s series with the #6 Clemson Tigers will feature the 19th, 20th, and 21st games of the season for Boston College, and will effectively mark the close of the first third of the 2017 baseball season. With that backdrop, I think it is the perfect time to step back and assess how the season has gone so far, and try to put into context the 6-11 record the Eagles currently sport as they return to the state of Massachusetts from weeks on the road.
The year to date has been a rollercoaster ride for the Eagles. A season opening three-game sweep at the hands of Bethune-Cookman followed by a great showing at the 19 Ways Invitational, an up-and-down performance at the Snowbird Classic, an impressive win at #2 Florida State, and most recently a five-game ACC losing streak to the aforementioned Seminoles and top-ranked Louisville Cardinals have made it difficult for BC to find a rhythm in their first 17 games. To the casual fan who first took notice of the BC baseball team last summer when they made their incredible run to the Super Regionals, the 2017 season may already seem like a disappointment and seem too far gone. But, let’s really examine what has been going on with the Eagles this season and some of the challenges they have faced in the early going, to put these games into perspective.
As noted repeatedly in other posts, every game BC has played so far this season has been located more than 900 miles away from Chestnut Hill. Florida, Oklahoma, and Kentucky are long flights and bus rides away from the friendly confines of Shea Field, and, even though this is a yearly routine because of the weather in the northeast during this time of year, it doesn’t negate the fact that that amount of travel is taxing not only on the players’ bodies, but also their minds. I believe the wear and tear of constant travel is partly responsible for the couple of games this spring in which the Eagles have committed three and four errors. Would they be 17-0 right now if every game had been played on campus? Probably not, but you cannot convince me that their record would not be any different if all, or a majority of, their early season games were at home. Not having to travel is a huge advantage in a sport like baseball that is comprised of nearly 60 games per season, becoming a grind after about a month.
Besides the constant travel, the competition BC has faced in the early going has been staggering. Bethune-Cookman, Ball State, Oklahoma, Florida State, and Louisville all have a shot to win their respective conferences, with the latter two being heavy favorites to make it to Omaha. I know they say, “To be the best, you have to beat the best,” but, when you face that lineup of competition before April 1st, I don’t think any rational person could expect a team to come out completely unscathed. Were there losses in the early going against these teams that could have, and should have, been wins? Absolutely. All three losses to Bethune-Cookman came by a single run, they were leading Oklahoma until the eighth inning in Norman, and they went toe-to-toe with #1 Louisville this past Sunday, falling by a pair of runs on a four-error day. Do you think if those five games went the other way anyone would be talking about Boston College underachieving? Me neither.
Finally, the biggest piece of adversity the Eagles have faced this season is the issue that no one is talking about: injuries. At any given point in the season, up to 13 players on the Eagles’ roster of 35 have been sidelined due to injury or illness. Sean Hughes, John Witkowski, Dominic Hardaway, Thomas Lane, Michael Marzonie, Joey Walsh, Zach Stromberg, Aaron Soucy, Gian Martellini, Carmen Giampetruzzi, Jake Palomaki, Michael Strem and Scott Braren have all missed at least a game apiece with various injuries and illnesses, with the majority missing multiple games at a time. Some of those guys are back, or are almost back, from their ailments. Some are done for the season. Some are day-to-day. But, no matter the different diagnoses, the issue is the same: guys who would usually be in the lineup, or on the mound, are being forced out of it, or off it, and are being replaced by guys who, while capable, may have been slated for a smaller role, or needed a season to develop. And, beyond the actual plugging-and-playing of players who may not be ready, the larger problem is that no rhythm can be found when a team has to trot out three separate lineups on a given weekend based on who is healthy and who is not. Granted, injuries are a part of all athletics and every team has them, and, if they want to win, they have to find a way to deal with them. However, I think you would be hard-pressed to find a team that has been bitten by the injury bug quite as much as the Eagles have been in their first 17 games of the season.
So, do I think constant travel, stiff competition, and injuries are the only reasons BC isn’t 17-0 and number one in the nation? Of course not, and I don’t think Mike Gambino, or any coach for that matter, would make that claim, either. Unlike a sport such as college football, where undefeated regular seasons are somewhat attainable for the best teams, college baseball is a sport where even the very best will lose nearly 20 games throughout the course of the year. It just happens that way. You get beat every now and then. However, I do think those three factors have played a role in some of the early season struggles for BC, which is why I’m not panicking at this point. The heaviest travel of the year is over, the two toughest ACC weekends of the season are in the rearview mirror, and a good number of guys on that injury list are going to be coming back in the next few weeks. If you ask me, things are looking up and a nice stretch of wins could be right around the corner, starting with today’s game at Northeastern and this weekend’s “home” series versus Clemson.