Travel down South. Go out West. Hit all the college baseball hot spots, the locales frequent MLB scouts, and you won’t find the nation’s longest winning streak.
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Not in the SEC. Not in the ACC. Not in the Big 12. Not in the Pac-12.
You don’t need to fly to find that team. You can take the subway or bus to the Baker Athletics Complex, in Inwood. That northern Manhattan neighborhood is where the Columbia Lions, owners of a 19-game winning streak that ranks No. 1 in the nation, play.
“It’s pretty cool, huh?” outfielder Hayden Schott said with a smirk.
That’s an appropriate adjective to describe Columbia’s season. Satisfying, incredible, exciting and stunning would also suffice.
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The Lions didn’t play in either of the previous two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Only 19 players on the roster had Division I experience prior to this spring. They have come from behind to win six times in the seventh inning or later and they have already set a program record with 56 home runs. The bulk of their winning streak has come against other Ivy League teams, but earlier in the season, they defeated quality teams such as Baylor, Houston and Davidson. And Columbia has done it with a loose, carefree approach that includes a stuffed animal rat named Plushy as its good luck charm.
“Personally,” longtime coach Brett Boretti said, “it has been my most enjoyable season because of them.”
The winning streak has become a popular topic among the Lions, but Boretti hadn’t addressed it with the team until after the most recent win, at Cornell on May 1. With a two-week break for finals looming, he wanted to highlight the impressive accomplishment.
“That doesn’t happen in baseball, a team not losing in a month,” he said.
Columbia (26-13, 16-2) has come close. The Lions have pulled out comebacks four times during this run, scoring 10 times over the final three innings against Brown to overcome a five-run deficit on April 10 and rallying from three runs down in the final frame against Yale on April 23.
“We never feel like we’re out of a game ever,” said Schott, the team leader in home runs (11) and RBI (43).
The Lions enter a three-game series at third-place Dartmouth, which will close out their regular season, assured of a spot in the two-team Ivy League playoff. A showdown looms against Penn, the lone conference foe to beat the Lions in a series this year, with the winner headed to the NCAA Tournament.
Columbia, which has made the tournament five times since 2008 under Boretti, has already proven it can play with top competition. The Lions have an RPI of 53, and they are ranked 23rd in the nation in team batting average (.302) and 17th in slugging percentage (.510).
“That shows they can hit with anybody, which gives them a puncher’s chance,” said Eric Sorenson, who covers college baseball for D1Baseball.com. “If they can get by Penn and make the NCAA Tournament, they can be trouble for somebody. They could even possibly pull a No. 3 seed.”
This team is unique, for a variety of reasons. At the top of the list is what it went through the past two years. Columbia played eight games in 2020, before the season was canceled once the pandemic hit. There was optimization about playing a season the following spring, though the Ivy League did not play fall or winter sports in 2020-21. There was talk of a league-only schedule, as virtually the rest of the country was going ahead with a season. But in mid-February 2021, the spring season was canceled.
“We felt cheated because of it,” senior right-hander Sean Higgins said.
That frustration, though, provided fuel. That year’s seniors helped keep the team together though their Columbia careers were coming to an end. A team text-message chat and email chain enabled players to become familiar with one another without formally meeting until this fall. Most importantly, it created a different dynamic.
Typically, teams have four classes, with freshmen at the bottom. For Columbia, it was seniors and everyone else, three classes basically experiencing everything for the first time together. It forged a bond for this team, a togetherness Boretti and his players believe has resulted in their success.
“Sometimes you just have a good group of guys and you get along,” Schott said. “We have guys who love to be around each other.”
Boretti admitted he has managed differently this spring, coming off the two-year hiatus. He has loosened the reins to ensure his players enjoy themselves. Pre-COVID, he wouldn’t have allowed the rat thing. But his players work so hard and spend so much extra time on the field, he said he feels less of a need to be a drill sergeant. And so when he saw the rat in a cubby in the dugout, he laughed to himself and let it go.
The rat showed up early during the non-conference portion of the schedule when Boretti relayed a reporter describing the team as “scrappy” and “ratty.” The players took to that description and began using it whenever something positive happened. Then a rat was bought to take it to the next level. Players pet it for good luck. A home run hitter is brought the rat — a black stuffed animal that was purchased by senior outfielder Joshua Solomon — as part of the celebration while the team repeatedly screams “Yes!” in the dugout.
“We’re not too worried about what other people think,” senior infielder Jacob Phelps said. “We love it. We love Plushy.”
Columbia is winning a ton and having fun in the process, making the most of this season after being left on the outside last spring. The Lions have become one of the best programs in the Northeast, coming within one win of the NCAA Super Regionals in 2015. Still, there is a special quality with this team. It’s in part the winning streak, all the late rallies and the tight-knit nature of this group. They dealt with a lot of adversity the last few years, and used that as motivation.
“I think that’s part of where that joy comes from for a lot of these guys,” Boretti said. “They know they missed out on a lot and they’re doing everything that they can to enjoy the hell out of it for as long as they can.”