No. 1 Johns Hopkins at top of its game

Blessed with solid depth, 22-0 Blue Jays taking aim at Division III national title

April 10, 2004|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

Bob Babb has a welcome problem.

The latest edition of his Johns Hopkins University baseball team is so deep, so experienced and so talented that he must constantly juggle personnel to keep everyone sharp.

It is a problem any of his fellow coaches would love to confront.

"The challenge I've faced is getting everybody enough playing time," said Babb, whose undefeated Blue Jays are 22-0 after yesterday's win over Washington College and are ranked No. 1 in Division III, the first team in school history other than men's lacrosse to be so designated.

"This team does everything well, and nothing poorly," said Babb. "They're confident and extremely hard-working. They expect to win."

So impressive is the squad's "deep depth," as Orioles manager Earl Weaver used to call it, Babb started two entirely different lineups in an early season doubleheader and easily won both games.

Both the regular third baseman, Paul Long (hamstring) and shortstop Carl Ippolito (shin splints) have been sidelined at times and "we haven't missed a beat," according to Babb.

On a trip to Florida in March, rainouts forced the Blue Jays to play "seven games in about 70 hours," said outfielder Brian Morley. They won them all. The hitting went sour against Edgewood, but sophomore Jason Thayer (Westminster), the fifth starter, came through with a six-hit shutout in a 2-0 win.

The topper came in a doubleheader against Centennial Conference rival Ursinus. In the first of two, Ippolito hit a walk-off home run to settle it. In the nightcap, a once-in-a-lifetime event preserved the unblemished record on March 27.

Rob Morrison, who represented the tying run in the second 4-3 squeaker of the day, scored when Craig Cetta struck out but reached base in the bottom of the final inning because the Ursinus first baseman couldn't handle a throw from his catcher, whom the third strike had eluded.

Mike Durgala followed with a game-winning single.

"Anytime you're undefeated, you're not only good, but lucky," said Babb. "We've been lucky a couple times. I've never seen a game end like that, but that's the beauty of baseball."

To the players, the allure of Hopkins' program is Babb's operation (670 wins in his 25th season, never a losing record), the university's worldwide academic reputation and an overseas trip every three years - the team has played in Cuba, the Soviet Union twice, the Czech Republic, Australia and Italy and will go to Germany this summer. Plus, the possibility of a national championship.

With only two players graduated from last spring's 34-7 team and 22 juniors and seniors on the roster, this might be the season the Blue Jays surmount the regional tournament hurdle that has haunted them.

Most of the top players were recruited by Ivy League schools and some lesser-known Division I programs, but opted for Hopkins.

"The academics are top-notch, Coach Babb is here and you have a chance to compete for a national title. Not many teams can do that," said Paul Winterling (McDonogh), the reigning Centennial Conference Player of the Year.

"This year is pretty much why I'm here. We're ranked first and I thought in four years we'd have a shot to win it all," added No. 2 starter Russ Berger (Owings Mills). "Before I even started, I thought we could go for a national title."

They are pleased to be at the top of the rankings, but they qualify their glee.

"Right now it's not that important to be No. 1," said Morley. "You don't get anywhere by being there now. But it means a lot of hard work has paid off."

"The ranking is cool to look at, but everybody wants to go to the World Series," said infielder Mike Spiciarch, another All-Centennial choice.

"It's definitely exciting," said Berger. "We want to go undefeated and keep No. 1, but the odds of us going 50-0 aren't very good."

Jeremy Brown (McDonogh) is the staff ace with his current 5-0 and career 20-5 record. The Centennial Pitcher of the Year is followed in the rotation by Berger; Matt Righter, who is being tracked by major league scouts because of his velocity; Ryan McConnell; and Thayer. Sven Stafford is the closer. Fifteen Blue Jays entered yesterday's game hitting at least .294. As a team, Hopkins had a .344 batting average and 2.37 ERA.

Much of the success can be attributed to team chemistry, which is excellent. The players do everything together.

"We're united in everything we do," said Morley.

And a sizable group of alumni, former players and residents of the Hopkins community follow the program, some even joining the team on its jaunts overseas.

The Blue Jays are always harmed by a lull of more than two weeks between their final regular-season game and the regional tournament, but that will change this year because of rainouts to be made up in that period. This should be the team's best opportunity at national glory since the 1989 Blue Jays reached the World Series and finished third.

"This team is similar [to '89]," said Babb. "But it's deeper with better pitching and more pop. We probably have 10 kids who can play Division I baseball."

Now, if he can only keep them all active enough. In this case, there is not too much of a good thing.

Hopkins under Babb

Record: 670-247-8

30-plus win seasons: 9

MAC Southeast titles: 10

UAA titles: 7

Centennial Conference titles: 6

NCAA Division III tournament appearances: 11

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