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Johns Hopkins baseball rallied to keep its NCAA tournament hopes alive. Will it be enough?

Pitcher Brian Linton helped Johns Hopkins win 10 straight games after a 1-3 start.
Pitcher Brian Linton helped Johns Hopkins win 10 straight games after a 1-3 start. (Johns Hopkins Athletics)

In his 42 years as head coach of the Johns Hopkins baseball team, Bob Babb has said time and time again how difficult it is for a team to sweep a doubleheader at any level.

A split is just far more common, he tells everybody.

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And then there were his Blue Jays this spring, time and time again proving that theory wrong.

For five straight Saturdays in their condensed 14-game Centennial Conference schedule due to COVID-19, they managed to bring home two wins under dire circumstances — closing with last weekend’s sweep at Muhlenberg to make it 10 straight victories.

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After a rocky 1-3 start, the Blue Jays reached the top of the conference standings with an 11-3 mark. Now, they must anxiously await their fate.

On Saturday, second-place Franklin & Marshall (9-3) closes at home against Dickinson (6-6 in the CC) with a chance to reclaim first place and earn the automatic bid in the NCAA Division III tournament.

Whatever the outcome — because of the pandemic, there is no conference tournament — Babb is already satisfied with the extended resiliency his Blue Jays displayed.

“The most impressive thing was their attitude,” said Babb, who has a 1,194-438-15 career mark. “After the 1-3 start, it would have been real easy to say ‘Oh, we’re just playing out the rest of the year.’ But we thought realistically, ‘Let’s try to win one at a time, and if we win them all, let’s see where that puts us.’”

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It gives the Blue Jays a chance.

Franklin & Marshall, which swept Hopkins in the season-opening twin bill March 21, owns the tiebreaker, so two wins against the Red Devils on Saturday would give the Diplomats the league crown.

After taking third place in their third College World Series appearance under Babb in 2019, the Blue Jays had their promising 2020 season halted with a 9-3 mark last March before resuming with this unconventional season. It has consisted of seven game days — all doubleheaders played on successive Saturdays. With practice returning March 1, Babb had five graduate student transfers he didn’t meet until late in February, and he hadn’t seen his incoming freshman class since they were recruited during their high school days.

Despite the obstacles, they came together to rally.

“It just speaks to how special this team is. We didn’t do ourselves any favors in the first couple of weekends, but then the next five doubleheaders you saw a baseball team having as much fun a baseball team could possibly have while having to win every game every time we stepped on the field,” said senior second baseman Matt Ritchie, a team leader who’s hitting .308 with 11 runs. “We understood the situation — there was no room for error or even the slightest slip up. But the way the guys approached every game was that we know what we can do every time we step on the field. Every time we step on the field, we can produce a win.”

Pitching has long been the Blue Jays’ strong suit, and that held to form with the staff boasting a 2.42 ERA. Sophomore starters Peter Schaefer (4-2, 1.93 ERA with 61 strikeouts in 42 innings) and Kieren Collins (4-0, 1.95 ERA in 32-plus innings) powered through pressure situations, while senior reliever Brian Linton didn’t allow an earned run in five appearances to anchor the bullpen.

The offense — led by junior first baseman Jared deFaria (.391 batting average, 14 RBIs, 12 runs) and junior catcher AJ King (.364, 13 RBIs, 13 runs) — picked up after a slow start and the Blue Jays soon found their exceptional form that has led to 15 conference championships since 1994.

For Linton, simply getting the chance to play in his final college season was at the forefront.

“It seemed to be an attitude that a lot of us felt in that we were grateful to have this season. And win or lose — conference title or whatever happens — I think that helped take some pressure off the guys,” he said. “We were able to take a step back at the beginning of the year and say, “if we play any games, we’re lucky. and any time we’re able to spend time together on the field together, we’re lucky.’ So keeping that in mind while also still having that strong desire to win each game knowing we had to win each one to have a chance at the conference, it really helped us put things in perspective.”

After the Blue Jays capped the regular season with 7-2 and 10-2 wins at Muhlenberg on Saturday, they collectively took a knee outside the dugout as Babb spoke.

“I told the team how proud I was of them, the way we just kept battling,” he said. “We did all we could do after the 1-3 start, we upheld our part of the deal and now we need help from Dickinson on Saturday.”

Should Franklin & Marshall sweep Dickinson on Saturday, there’s still a chance for the Blue Jays to find their way into the NCAA tournament by way of an at-large bid, but it might be tough.

Because of the pandemic, this year’s field is down to 45 from 58, with seven to 10 at-large invitations expected to be handed out instead of the usual 16.

The Blue Jays have a proven track record, including the impressive third-place showing in 2019, and they closed the season on the impressive roll, but most of the other teams in consideration have played more games this season.

“I’m hoping all those things — our reputation, how well we did in the last World Series, the fact we won our last 10 — help us,” Babb said. “But again, if you’re a committee member and you see a team that’s maybe 28-6 do you say, well this team is on a 10-game roll, but they only played 14 games and they’re all in-conference games and that other team played 34 or 35 games — which team do you reward? And that’s where I think we may come up short, unfortunately.”

With that in mind, come Saturday at Franklin & Marshall, the Blue Jays will be holding out hope that that typical doubleheader split takes shape.

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