The playoffs have come early for Penn baseball.
The Quakers, currently tied atop the Lou Gehrig division with Columbia, will face the defending Ivy League champion Lions this weekend in a home-and-home series to decide which club will advance to the Ivy Championship series.
The first pair of contests will be played at Meiklejohn Stadium on Friday before the series wraps up on Saturday in New York.
Penn (22-14, 13-3 Ivy) and Columbia (22-15, 13-3) have clearly been the Ancient Eight’s two most dominant clubs in 2014, and the division rivals bear considerable resemblance on the stat sheets — indicators that an intense, thrilling series will likely ensue.
“You look at a lot of the stats, and it’s pretty even [between the two teams],” coach John Yurkow said. “I’m expecting a tough series.”
Both squads have potent offenses — they sit atop the conference by a comfortable margin averaging an identical 5.5 runs per game in Ivy play — and they are the only two teams featuring earned run averages below three.
Penn and the Lions each have shown the ability to catch fire as well this season.
It was the Quakers who stole headlines earlier this month with their 8-0 start in conference play and 11-game win streak.
But Columbia, known for its strong late-season play under coach Brett Boretti, has one-upped the upstart Red and Blue and enters the series on a 14-game win streak.
“In years past, they’ve played good baseball down the stretch,” Yurkow noted. “A lot of that has to do with their coach and how they do things there. I have a lot of respect for coach Boretti.”
Columbia’s offensive success has been driven largely by speedsters Jordan Serena and Will Savage.
Savage has done his name justice at the plate in his breakout freshman campaign, leading the Lions with a .360 batting average while swiping 13 bases. Serena has added 20 steals of his own to lead the Ivy League in his junior season.
And while senior Joey Donino has been inconsistent on the mound, sophomore George Thanopoulos and returning first-team All-Ivy pitcher David Speer have proven to be reliable starters.
While Thanopoulous, who has transitioned well from a relief role, is a perfect 5-0, Speer leads the staff with four complete games.
If there’s one area in which the Lions’ pitching has struggled recently, it’s been keeping the ball in the park. Columbia’s staff has given up an Ivy League-high 10 home runs in conference play, something the Quakers’ offense is likely aware of, given that it leads the Ancient Eight in homers.
After last weekend’s inconsistent performance at the plate against Princeton, Penn will be wary of being overly aggressive. After tearing through most of Ivy play, the Red and Blue are looking to correct some of the mistakes at the plate that led to a split with the Tigers.
“We talked about learning from our mistakes and sometimes just seeing how your emotions get the best of you,” Yurkow said.
And Penn has brought a good focus to practice this week, as Yurkow noted that “[the team has] been swinging the bats pretty good the last couple of days. I like where we’re at right now as an offense.”
Yurkow should also like where his team stands overall in his first year at the helm — one series away from a potential playoff berth.
Though the Quakers may not have the championship pedigree that Columbia has earned over the last decade, they are not a squad to shy away in the least from the opportunity in front of them.
“They’re a good club,” Yurkow said. “But we’ve got a good club too. The only thing that’s different is that we haven’t been there.
“But I expect our guys to come out and play the same way they have all year.”
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