Before there was talk about making it to the NCAA Division III College World Series, the Johns Hopkins baseball team had to reclaim its own conference.
Despite opening last year ranked No. 8 in the D3Baseball.com/National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association preseason poll, the Blue Jays’ season ended May 6, 2018, after the second of a pair of losses to Swarthmore in the Centennial Conference tournament. The premature conclusion stunned the players hoping to build on a 2017 season in which that team went 38-8, was ranked fourth in the country and was the top seed in the Mid-Atlantic Regional.
“We were incredibly excited,” junior shortstop Mike Eberle said this week. “We thought  was going to be a fantastic year. The conversation was immediately about, ‘What do we need to do to win the national championship?’ And I think we overlooked a lot of the little things. So last year was just a really tough year and disappointing. But it was an invaluable learning experience for us to understand that you can’t overlook some of these games that you know we should win, because that’s the difference between this year and last year.”
The sting of those setbacks remained with the returning players and set the foundation for the team’s run this spring. At 35-11, No. 22 Johns Hopkins will meet No. 7 Babson (38-8) on Friday at 5:30 p.m. in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
It will mark the program’s fourth appearance in the College World Series, but first since 2010, when that squad finished fifth. The 2008 team was the runner-up to champion Trinity (Conn.), while the 1989 team placed third. Senior right-handed pitcher Jack Bunting said the players are eager to take advantage of this opportunity.
“No one wants to stay complacent and go, ‘Oh, we made it to the College World Series. So that’s good enough,’ ” he said. “I don’t think anyone has that attitude. So we’re going to go out there and try to win it all.”
The Blue Jays have not lost in May, winning eight consecutive games, nine of their past 10 and 14 of their past 16. They are 5-3 in one-run games and 9-4 in two-run games, have yet to drop three games in a row and have not lost back-to-back games at Babb Field since April 2016.
But there were a few hiccups. The one that still resonates with the players was losing both ends of a doubleheader at conference rival Ursinus on April 6 by scores of 11-8 and 15-9, which led to an agonizingly long, quiet bus ride back to campus.
“There wasn’t much that needed to be said,” said 40-year coach Bob Babb, for whom the baseball field is named after. “They were all there, they saw how we played, they saw what we did. They’re bright kids, and they know. At that point, it would have been beating a dead horse. So it was a pretty somber bus ride home.”
Babb’s response to what could have been a tense situation has been a noteworthy development this season. Graduate student right fielder Chris DeGiacomo said he noticed a different coach after the team returned from March’s nine-game Gene Cusic Classic in Fort Myers, Fla., in which it went 5-4.
“In my past years, when we came back from Florida, he would go down the list with everybody’s names and say, ‘You’re doing this, this and this wrong,’ and it’s just a roast session,” DeGiacomo said. “That didn’t happen this year. So I think he had more confidence in us and just let us play our game, and I think that helped a lot.”
While Babb left the players to figure out what to do after the losses to Ursinus, assistant coach Andrew Furman called a meeting with the pitchers, Bunting remembered.
“He said, ‘Look, I’m not in panic mode yet, but I’ll let you know when I am. But you guys need to step it up or else this season is going to come to an end in late April,’ ” Bunting said.
Since Ursinus, Johns Hopkins has gone 18-4 with a few memorable results. There was the 5-3 win at Haverford in the second game of a doubleheader April 13 in which Bunting escaped a bases-loaded, no-outs jam in the bottom of the eighth inning and DeGiacomo led off the ninth with a solo home run. There was the 6-2 victory over Farmingdale State in which sophomore second baseman Mark Lopez (Boys’ Latin) broke a 2-2 tie with a three-run home run in the sixth.
The Blue Jays lead the nation in home runs with 80, which ties the school’s single-season record set in 2010. They also rank fourth in runs (422) and fifth in runs per game (9.2). Defensively, they rank fifth in walks allowed per nine innings (2.4) and ninth in both double plays (42) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.2).
Aside from the numbers, the players said their chemistry is the best in recent memory. All but one of the Blue Jays lives in off-campus housing within one block of each other. They have watched “Avengers: Endgame” and “Game of Thrones” together, played cornhole and basketball and played the “MLB The Show” video games with players customized with their facial features by sophomore infielder Matthew Ritchie.
“I think in years past, it would be the seniors together and the juniors together and the freshmen and sophomores would be kind of doing their own thing,” DeGiacomo said, noting he had lunch Monday with three freshmen. “But it’s not like that anymore. We’re all super close.”
Quipped Eberle: “The coaches often tell us that we’re too good as friends to be a good baseball team because guys are a little afraid to get on each other.”
As dominant as Johns Hopkins has been at home this season (25-3 record), the team is 10-8 away from Babb Field, including 5-4 at neutral sites. Getting to Iowa will entail leaving campus Wednesday at 4 a.m., flying to Atlanta and then Des Moines, before piling onto a bus for a three-hour drive to Cedar Rapids.
But the players are embracing the challenge, and Babb said he wants the players to concentrate on the present, not the past.
“You don’t get this opportunity too often,” he said. “I’ll tell them again, ‘Hey, look, you guys have a chance to win the World Series, and there aren’t many kids that will be able to say that when they grow up: they were at a World Series and had a chance to win.’ ”