Head coach Jim Sheppard believes that putting a group of talented players on a field can be easy. Making sure they fit and work together is the hard part.
After opening the OUA season with a 4-2 loss to the visiting McMaster Marauders at Dan Lang Field on Wednesday afternoon, his University of Toronto Varsity Blues might certainly agree.
Sporting 11 new players on their roster this season, including eight first year students, the Blues look quite different from the team that won the OUA championship 11 months ago.
“There’s a bit of a turnaround this year,” said Sheppard as his players cleaned up the field on which they had just lost. “We have a solid nine, but we brought in some new guys so it’s going to take a while to mesh.”
There didn’t seem to be a problem for the Blues early in the game, however. They took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning when four-year veteran Jonathan Isaac hit an RBI single to plate Steven Hersch from second base with two out.
But the lead was short-lived.
McMaster took control of the game in the fifth inning, sending seven men to the plate and scoring two runs on singles from Sean McConnell and Andrew Cochrane, making it a 2-1 game for the visitors.
Toronto native Drew Taylor, starting his fourth season with the Varsity Blues, pitched well up to that point, striking out five and holding the Marauders to two hits through four.
Despite one rough inning, Sheppard was pleased with his star pitcher’s play.
“Drew gave us a good solid four innings,” he said. “He’s an older player and he’s the type of guy who brings experience. We just didn’t hit for him, but he did his job.”
Though U. of T. tied the game in the bottom of the fifth, the Marauders battled back, scoring two unanswered runs in the top of the eighth off relief pitcher Peter Nash.
On McMaster’s end, Carlos Cabrero of Burlington pitched seven innings, giving up three hits and three walks while striking out five.
Hoping to put U. of T.’s first loss behind him, Sheppard spoke of the areas on which his team needs to improve before they head to Milton to play in an OUA tournament this weekend.
“We have to take what happened today, digest it, and as coaches, look at some of the things that didn’t happen and try to work on those things,” he said. “We have a lot to deal with.
“I don’t dwell on the loss. I want to get focused on Saturday, but that doesn’t mean I won’t correct some of the things that were done today, and fast.
“[We need to work on] execution with bunts, steals … McMaster got a couple of breaks and we didn’t get a lot of clutch hitting with two out, but that’s something you can’t always control as a coach.”
It was not all bad news for the defending OUA champs though. Before the game, the team unveiled a banner in centre field honouring last season’s impressive victory.
Though the Varsity Blues finished 2011 with a 12-9 record, they lost their last five games of the regular season, and had to come from behind to win the final against the Western Mustangs, 8-4 last October.
For Sheppard, who was named OUA Coach of the Year for 2011 in his first season in that role, revealing the championship banner on his home field invoked much pride.
“Coming through the whole season with adversity and finally winning it at the end was really sweet,” he said, while glancing at the new décor on the centre field fence. “Seeing it out there is meaningful especially since it’s right in the baseball diamond.
“It’s really nice to see it out there. It’s a good feeling.”