By Jake Tiger
In search of back-to-back titles, defending-champion, fifth-seeded Rider baseball battled its way to the final round of the 2022 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Tournament, only to fall to third-seeded Canisius, just short of the finish line.
This season, with a league-best, 13-7 record going into conference play on March 24, Rider looks to run the table at the 2023 MAAC Tournament, having learned how it feels to walk away empty-handed.
“Last year’s loss showed that we‘ve got the talent, but we were a few pieces short,” said senior outfielder Brendan O’Donnell. “From what I’ve seen so far, I think we have those pieces.”
‘Limit the damage’
Behind the arms of freshman pitcher Christian Aiello, graduate student pitcher Danny Kirwin and more, the Broncs and their peculiar bullpen made an emphatic statement on Feb. 24, claiming a hard-fought, 6-3 win over Oklahoma, the 2022 Men’s College World Series runner-up.
To the delight of Head Coach Barry Davis, Rider’s 17-man staff has been elite despite being made up of 11 freshmen, as contributions from longtime Broncs and impressive new faces have melded into something uniquely special.
“There was a lot of talk and concern from the outside with having a ton of freshman pitchers, especially coming in relief. Internally, from what the older guys and coaches saw in the fall, we knew they would be fine,” said senior pitcher Dylan Heine in an email interview with The Rider News. “This bullpen and pitching staff as a whole can be one of the best we have had since I have been here.”
Through 20 non-conference games, the Broncs have the top pitching unit in the MAAC by far and 52nd-best in the nation, boasting an ERA of 4.33. Niagara sits closest to the Broncs in the conference at just 6.23.
“Our pitching has definitely been a strength to this team’s success so far,” said Heine. “Even though we have only had two shutouts on the year, I feel as if we are keeping every game close or manageable for the offense to do their work.”
Not only do the Broncs have the best pitching of any team in the MAAC, they have the sample size to back it up, having pitched more innings and played more games than any other team in the conference.
“Our pitching has been a huge key to our success this year, from the starters to the late-inning guys,” said O’Donnell. “They’ve definitely picked us up and snagged wins when we weren’t supposed to.”
Rider’s army of arms has been led by two veterans in graduate student pitcher Frank Doelling and Heine, who are individually having arguably their best seasons yet, and at 3.94, they combine for the best ERA of any duo in the MAAC with at least 24 innings pitched.
As for freshmen, Clayton Poliey is one new pitcher who, when called upon, has held down the mound. In 17 1/3 innings pitched, the Ringwood, New Jersey, native has amassed 15 strikeouts with a 3.63 ERA.
“[The freshmen] are pitching in some important roles right now,” said Davis. “They’re coming along, and I think that’s going to be a big key on how well we do when tournament time rolls around.”
With the tutelage and talent of Doelling and Heine leading the way, the Broncs’ hodge-podge bullpen might just be the perfect complement to their explosive, well-oiled offense.
“Everyone on our roster is going to have to contribute at some point during the season if we want to hoist the MAAC Championship trophy again in May,” said Doelling. “We know our offense can go off at any moment, so as a staff, if we can just limit the damage each inning and throw strikes, we know our offense will break out at some point.”
‘We’re tough to deal with’
Against Richmond on March 10, the Broncs found themselves down 7-3 in the top of the ninth after a slow day offensively. But seemingly on command, Rider ripped off a jaw-dropping, 15-run rally to squash the Spiders, 18-7.
Despite a tough non-conference schedule, the Broncs’ offense has shown up more often than not and found ways to win.
“I said our offense is going to be our strength, and it still is,” said Davis, who earned his 1,000th career victory against Richmond on March 11. “We’re tough to deal with, and that’s been proven. That’s exactly what happened at Richmond.”
O’Donnell was a driving force behind the comeback win over the Spiders, giving Rider the lead with a two-run blast to left field before bringing in three more runs with a well-placed single.
With a team-high 19 RBIs and six home runs in his last seven games, O’Donnell has been great for the Broncs, despite being incredibly volatile at the plate. Of Rider’s nine usual starters, O’Donnell has the second-worst batting average at .211, while leading the Broncs in strikeouts with 25.
But O’Donnell more than makes up for his shortcomings, because when he does make contact, he hits the ball really hard.
O’Donnell, who broke Rider’s single-season home run record last year with 20 in 54 games, has seven homers on the season, tying him for first in the MAAC and putting him on pace for another historic season.
“Last year was memorable and one that I’ll never forget, but right now it’s in the past,” said O’Donnell. “As great as it was, there was one goal that I fell short of and that was winning the title. That’s the focus this year.”
Beside O’Donnell, senior outfielder Scott Shaw and senior first baseman Luke Lesch have each chipped in three home runs and 30 combined RBIs, just one example of the depth and experience that the Broncs hope will carry them to MAAC-Championship redemption.
“To me the biggest strength of the offense is the depth we have,” said O’Donnell. “When we put all nine together, it’s difficult to stop us.”
Finishing the non-conference portion with a confident 13-7 record, the Broncs begin MAAC play on March 24-26 with three consecutive home games against Quinnipiac, the team’s first outings on campus this season.
The first game of the series begins on March 24 at 3 p.m. and will be streamed on ESPN+.