BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Coming off a tough loss to Delaware Tuesday, the Lehigh baseball team (6-17-1) will look to rebound as the Mountain Hawks kick off its Patriot League slate this weekend when Lehigh hosts rival Lafayette (6-15-1) for a four game-set with doubleheaders starting at noon on Saturday and Sunday. It marks the first time since 2003 that the rivals have faced each other to start league play.
“There is a little different energy with the league opener and add in Lafayette to that equation, the emotions and energy is a tick higher than a normal weekend,” said head coach Sean Leary. “The pre-Patriot League schedule was a chance to build and work on things and now you start over. You hit the reset button and go back to 0-0. Your whole season really begins on Saturday.”
Leary sits one win away from tying the all-time school wins mark of 326.
Lehigh, which played its first 14 games of 2012 on the road, enters this weekend playing nine of its last 10 games on Goodman Campus and will look to take advantage of one of its just two home league series. The other will be April 21-22 vs. Holy Cross.
“Patriot League home games are really important," Leary said. "You want to protect your home field so you set the goal of winning those series especially because we have a limited opportunity to play home league games this year. You have to take advantage of that and maximize those home games.”
On Tuesday, Lehigh loaded the bases twice, including once with nobody out in the eighth, but were unable to take advantage of a home game vs. Delaware, falling 5-0 in the opening game of the Liberty Bell Classic. Lehigh’s next game in the Classic will be Tuesday, April 3 3 p.m. at Temple with first pitch set for 3 p.m.
Lehigh didn’t help itself in the game, committing four errors while Lehigh pitchers walked eight batters. Senior Brendan McGaheran had one of Lehigh’s five hits on the day, extending his hitting streak to 12 games. McGaheran – batting .299 - has a team-leading 26 hits, 16 runs and 35 total bases. The Nazareth, Pa. native was named to the Honorable Mention list two weeks in a row in the Patriot League’s Weekly Awards release. He batted .400 (8-for-20) in five games last week, scoring six runs with a home run and two stolen bases.
Along with McGaheran, Lehigh has been paced offensively by sophomores Joe Abeln and Tyler Brong. Ablen is hitting a team-leading .300 and also leads the team with 13 RBIs. Brong is hitting .293 and is tied for second on the team with senior Ryan Gajdos with 10 RBIs. Freshman Conor Faust has come on as of late, hitting .300 (9-for-30) including a 10th-inning, game-winning RBI single against Binghamton Sunday.
Lehigh has been able to manufacture runs by being aggressive on the base paths. The Mountain Hawks have 34 stolen bases which are tied for No. 55 in the nation and their 1.48 steals per game ranks No. 60 in the nation. Lehigh is led by freshman Justin Pacchioli who has 10 stolen bases while he has only been caught twice.
“As you play these tight league games, the focus on our system of throwing strikes, making routine plays and manufacturing runs really becomes important,” Leary said. “That is our identity and we believe that is the system we need to play. These league games are one, two or three-run games and all of those little things will result in a team that executes better will win the series.”
On the mound, senior Cory Kent - who has two saves this season - has also emerged as the team’s ace. He’s had seven appearances, three of which were starts. In those three starts, he has pitched two seven-inning complete games but has run into a little bad luck, dropping both of those games. Kent (0-2) leads the team with a 2.84 ERA, 25.1 IP and 26 strikeouts.
While the Mountain Hawks have had success at the plate, hitting .266 as a team which ranks third in the Patriot League, Lehigh’s pitching has struggled with a team ERA of 6.25.
But Lehigh will be taking on a Lafayette team that has struggled on the mound as well as at-bat. The Leopards have a team ERA of 5.86 and a collective batting average of .238.
Lafayette is coming off a tough 12-inning 4-3 loss at Seton Hall Wednesday as the Leopards took a one-run lead after scoring three runs in the eighth, but allowed a run in the bottom of the frame and game-winning run in the 12th.
The Leopards are led by Andrew Ruck who is hitting .282 and bolsters a team-leading 22 hits. Brad Hopek is second on the team batting .269 and has a team-leading two home runs and 14 RBIs. Kevin Casey is hitting .375 in 48 at-bats.
Derek Gussaroff paces the Leopards on the mound with a 4-2 record and 1.93 ERA. In 23.1 IP, he has allowed five earned runs with 20 strikeouts. Sean McGrath leads the team with 29 strikeouts in 17.1 IP. Jeff Snell waits in the back of the bullpen with four saves.
Saturday’s game one will mark the 342nd meeting between the schools as Lehigh is 139-201-2 all-time while the Mountain Hawks hold the edge 47-39 since the two have met as Patriot League teams.
Lehigh-Lafayette split the four-game series last season in Easton, Pa. Lehigh won 8-6 and fell 7-4 on April 9 and then won 8-3 and fell 9-2 the following day.
Lafayette was picked to finish fifth (17 points) in the Patriot League preseason poll while Lehigh was picked sixth (16 points).
Live stats are not available for games this weekend. For game updates Saturday, follow www.twitter.com/lehighsports while there will be live audio for Sunday’s games on Lehighsports.com