Regular season champ Lehigh hosts Navy in Patriot League semifinal series
BETHLEHEM, PA. – For the first time since 2016 the Lehigh baseball team is playing in the Patriot League tournament, but for the first time since 2006 the Mountain Hawks are competing as regular season champions.
Lehigh with the highest seed will host the Navy with the fourth seed for two of the best 2-out-3-nine-inning competitions on Saturday lunchtime. Game 3 will be played on Sunday at 1pm in the event of a 1-1 draw.
The Mountain Hawks had a 3-1 weekend at Holy Cross after their first three competitions before losing the regular season finale in Worcester. Lehigh finished the 21-16 season overall with a 17-10 record in the Patriot League.
Lehigh and Navy meet for the first time since 2015 in the Patriot League tournament when the Mountain Hawks defeated the Midshipmen in three games for the championship title in Annapolis. Lehigh is 2-5 all-time against Navy in tournament games.
All-Patriot League teams and major awards were voted and decided on Wednesday when Lehigh, with eight players named All-League, won three major top division awards for the 2021 season. Junior Casey Rother was named Player of the Year, junior right-handed Mason Black was named Pitcher of the Year, while head coach Sean Leary was named Gene DePew Coach of the Year for the third and first time since 2010.
Rother comes into the semi-final series as the team’s best batsman and hits with 48 hits, six doubles, five homers and 29 RBIs .350 / .518 / .441. He’s also run 19 times and hit only 13 times in 36 games, playing a mix of first base and left field this year. Two more Mountain Hawks hit over 300 in the campaign, including Eric Cichocki (.323) and Joe Gorla (.302). Junior Gerard Sweeney was named Patriot League Player of the Week on the last weekend of the regular season after a stellar weekend against the Crusaders. Sweeney hits .375 and has run 10 runs over his last 10 appearances. Lehigh’s front runner in the line-up was consistently strong throughout the season as four starting line-up (Cichocki, Rother, Gorla and Adam Retzbach) took All-Patriot League laurels when all was said and done.
As an offensive team, the Mountain Hawks are third in the Patriot League this season with an average of 0.253. They occupy second place for hits (297), second place for doubles (59), second place for homers (20), third place for RBIs (167) and second place for walks (149).
Mason Black has certainly mastered the hype all season and continues to have one of the best seasons in the history of the Lehigh baseball program. The preseason pitcher of the year became the Patriot League pitcher of the year at the end of the season. He’s 7-2 with an ERA of 2.51 in 11 starts and knocks out 90 batters in 64.2 innings of work. Lehigh’s most recent Pitching Triple Crown (Siege, ERA, Strikeouts) winner was Dave Cerminaro in 2002, and Black is about to take that award home with him again this year. Cerminaro was also Lehigh’s last Pitcher of the Year winner in 2002. At 90 strokes, Black is also only five minutes away from breaking and setting the new season program record currently held by Famer Craig Anderson’s Lehigh Athletics Hall 1960 is held, a 61-year record. He has hit the 10 or more strikeout plateau in six games this year. A few solid post-season performances could help Black be named a semi-finalist for the prestigious Golden Spikes Award.
While Black made the most headlines this season, the Mountain Hawks have two other hurlers who have had a huge impact on starting rotation throughout the season. Matt Svanson (3-4. 2.73 ERA) and Luke Rettig (2-3, 3.86) appeared on All-Patriot League teams as members of the first and second teams respectively. With 57 spikes, Svanson is second in the league, while Rettig’s 50 is enough for third place.
For relief, no one was better than Sam Wurth in 2021, who finished 2-2 with a 2.08 ERA in 21.2 innings of work and finished with four saves. He was named a First Team All-Patriot League player that season. Wurth has not allowed a deserved run since April 14 at Lafayette, throwing nine scoreless innings in a row.
Lehigh’s pitching staff ranks first in the ERA (4.24), first in shutouts (3), first in earned runs (145), second in strikeouts (323) and second in batting average the opponent (0.252).
The Midshipmen (16-13, 11-12 PL) have won two games in a row and are looking to qualify for the Patriot League Championship series for the third season in a row. Navy has not won a championship title since 2016.
Navy is led by Nico Valdez, the All-Patriot League selection of the first team, who slashed .341 / .402 / .462 in 27 games with 19 runs. Four other Mids beat over .300 this season, including Logan Keller (.327), Christian Policelli (.325), Zach Stevens (.324) and Zane Raba (.300). Stevens starts at the weekend as the team’s leader with four home runs.
On the hill, Charlie Connolly was excellent, having a 4-1 record with a 3.62 ERA in 32.1 innings in seven starts. Jared Leins has returned from a major injury and is 1-0 in six games with 1.62 ERA, which means four starts. In 13 missions from the bullpen, Trey Braithwaite has been a consistent stopper for the midshipmen over the years and is 3-2 with 4.84 ERA in 13 missions with three saves.
Navy’s Batting is top of the league with an average of 0.286 and a slugging percentage of 0.398. However, the midshipmen have no power this season with only 10 home runs.
On the hill, Navy has the highest ERA in the league at 6.62 and is fifth with 218 strikers.
Lehigh is 4-2 against the Midshipmen this season in six games and has held Navy to a 2.81 ERA over 48 innings. In the all-time series, Navy has a 90-48 record against the Mountain Hawks since the series began in 1895.
The double header on Saturday starts at 12 noon and will be broadcast live on ESPN +. Should the series be postponed to a third crucial game on Sunday afternoon, this competition will begin at 1 p.m.
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