Fueled by improved pitching and steady defense, baseball’s 2020 season is off to a winning start.
Despite enduring a sweep by No. 20 Tennessee last week, the Colonials (7-5) boast a 6-1 home record and improved performances from the mound. Pitchers said strong defense allows them to be aggressive and confident on the mound because they can trust their teammates will get outs in the field.
“Having a defense that you can trust is huge,” redshirt sophomore right-hander Harrison Cohen said. “It’s just that mentality of, ‘They can hit this ball and I trust that my defense is going to have my back and make every play behind me on the mound.’”
Through the first dozen games of the 2019 season, GW recorded a 6.45 earned run average and five walks per game. In 12 games this season, the Colonials have thrown a 3.86 overall ERA and 3.83 walks per game.
The Colonials have cracked down on extra-base hits this season too, allowing 17 doubles, zero triples and nine home runs. At this point last season, pitchers gave up 31 doubles, four triples and 10 home runs.
Before the season began, head coach Gregg Ritchie said minimizing injuries and maximizing the contributions of new pitching additions would be key for the success of the team. Arms have remained healthy through the first portion of GW’s schedule, and the Colonials have seen production from new pitchers.
The series against Tennessee, one of the four undefeated teams in the country, marked the first time GW had squared off against a ranked opponent since 2015. Junior right-handed pitcher Justin Solt, a two-year product of junior college Lower Columbia, and redshirt sophomore right-hander Harison Cohen notched starts in the three-game series.
After a debut season working out of the bullpen in 2018, Cohen redshirted after not appearing in any games during the 2019 season. This season, his 3.06 ERA puts him at No. 15 in the Atlantic 10.
In the opening game, Cohen blanked the Volunteers for six straight innings to preserve GW’s 1–0 lead, retiring 10 straight batters after the third inning. A leadoff homer and single in the seventh inning marred his shut-out attempt, but Cohen’s final line boasted two earned runs off six hits and no walks allowed.
Cohen said he tried to mix up his pitches, alternating between a fastball, slider and changeup to keep the Volunteer hitters off balance. He added that he wanted to limit walks and allow any pitches that did touch Tennessee’s bats to be hit toward Colonial defenders.
“Anytime you go up against a team like that, like a power five schools one of the top 25 teams, they can swing it,” Cohen said. “Everyone in their lineup, one to nine is a danger, they’re a threat. So you have to know how to attack them.”
Solt battled through four innings, and the right-hander gave up one run in his start against Tennessee. He also successfully navigated a bases-loaded situation in the fourth. Solt said the scouting report on the Volunteers identified a weakness against fastballs in the outside corners and added that the GW pitching staff tried to exploit that throughout the series.
With games on the line, the pitching staff has been able to stay composed during high-pressure scenarios. In the six matches this season decided by two runs or less, GW claimed victory in five.
“Something that I’ve learned in junior college is you can’t let the offense dictate how you pitch because then you start putting too much pressure on yourself,” Solt said. “You need to go out there and execute your own plan whether you’re up 10 or whether you’re up one.”
The Colonials have made similar strides defensively. Even after being swept by Tennessee, GW boasts the best fielding percentage (.977) in the conference. GW ranks ninth in the league with just nine errors.
Solt said having confidence in the defense allows pitchers to be more aggressive and in control.
“When you know you have a good defense behind you, you’re not afraid to attack early and when you can get one or two pitch outs helps you go deep into games,” Solt said. “Being able to attack fastball, first two pitches, you can get them to ground out, pop out and know that your defense is going to make the play.”
During fall practice, the Colonials spent time working on defensive drills and creating a solid fielding foundation. Ritchie said that work has paid dividends during the start of the season.
“What you make important, they will make important,” Ritchie said. “So fielding fundamentals, playing at the pace of the game in practice as you would in a game gives you better reps, and routine becomes lethal.”
GW returned to form and broke the losing streak with a 4–2 win over William and Mary Tuesday. The Colonials will look to build off that momentum with a series against Monmouth Friday, Saturday and Sunday. First pitch Friday is slated for 2:30 p.m.
Roman Bobek and Alec Rich contributed reporting.