It took the Elon University baseball team five pitchers to get three outs, all in one inning that backfired but exposed a larger problem that’s persisted through much of this season.
The Phoenix pitching staff still isn’t at the caliber it was expected to reach.
About halfway through the season and three weekends into Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) play, Elon’s pitchers are still struggling to do the one thing they’re supposed to do — throw strikes.
Elon has walked more batters (147) than any other team in the CAA, and has the second most wild pitches (37) among CAA teams.
The best representative of this was the April 2 loss to College of Charleston, the league’s reigning champion that’s spent part of this season nationally ranked. Elon led 2-1 entering the seventh, when not even a revolving door of relievers could hold onto the lead.
Sophomore Sean Byrnes pitched to the first two batters, allowing a double and then a subsequent RBI single by CofC player Bradley Jones that tied the game.
He was pulled in favor of senior Tyler Manez, who walked the only batter he faced. Then came sophomore Robbie Welhaf, who induced a sacrifice bunt and then exited.
Freshman Kellan Elsbury and junior Danny Crowe finished the inning, each facing two batters. Among those four at-bats were two RBI singles, giving the Cougars a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“We haven’t been good enough to throw guys for a full inning, or an inning and two-thirds,” said Elon coach Mike Kennedy. “We just haven’t had that happen. We tried to get some guys in some match-up situations where they can have some success one or two batters at a time until they can get going. That was the goal.”
Elon walked 13 batters that game, a season high. In all, the Phoenix used 10 pitchers, eight of which lasted less than an inning.
Elon’s earned-run average is 6.20, eighth in the nine-team CAA. Opponents are batting .288 against the Phoenix.
While freshman Mason Daniels has stood out, not many other starting pitchers have.
Daniels has made seven starts, sporting a 2-2 record with a 4.91 ERA. He’s struck out a team-high 37 batters.
Freshman Jordan Barrett is 0-3 with a 7.84 ERA in 10 appearances, six being starts. Junior Nick Beaulac has made seven appearances, five starts, but is winless at 0-4 with an 8.53 ERA.
Those two have combined for 43 walks.
Junior Chris Hall has been solid in the closer role, and freshman Ryan Conroy has been impressive in 10 appearances, mostly out of the bullpen.
But senior Michael Elefante is still finding his footing after missing the first few games while recovering from an injury, Welhaf hasn’t been overly effective and junior Matt Harris is battling an injury.
That leaves Elon with a pitching staff that, for the most part, is working to regain its confidence and find the best ways to approach batters.
“We’re close,” Elefante said. “We’re not pitching to the ability we can. We competed in the zone all off-season, and some toward the beginning of the year … We need someone to take the lead, take ownership and throw a lot of strikes.”
It doesn’t get easier next weekend, as Elon travels out of North Carolina for the first time all season to face Northeastern University, who’s tied for third in the CAA.
Kennedy said with the troubles the starting rotation has presented, Elon’s had to move some guys to the bullpen to help them rejuvenate.
That’s worked to some extent with Barrett, he said, but acknowledged, “we didn’t bring him here to throw out of the pen.”
At the start of the year, Kennedy felt good about the pitching staff after the work it put in during the off-season. His main concern was injuries.
Now though, he said the staff is certainly behind where he thought they’d be at this point.
“No question, simply because of the amount of strikes we’re not throwing,” Kennedy said. “Do I think our guys are capable? Yeah, very much so. We have to get a couple of those other guys, Beaulac and Barrett, really going.
“We have a couple of those guys where we’re having to do something different. But that’s part of what you go through in a season. The great thing now is we’re throwing two freshmen on the weekends. Down the road, they’re going to be really good.”
That will be great, yes. But for success here and now, Elon’s pitchers need to find a way to stay ahead of batters.