Fresh starts and strong finishes. Such has been the story this season for Penn baseball, and no group embodies it more than the Quakers’ bullpen.
A diverse and colorful group featuring freshmen as well as seniors, and made up largely of hurlers transitioning from starting roles, the Red and Blue’s relievers have shown an exceptional ability to adjust and step up to new, demanding roles this year.
Penn’s coaches, who drastically reassembled the bullpen this offseason, have embraced the array of characters in the group and have also been impressed with their performance thus far.
“There are definitely a lot of new faces [in the bullpen],” coach John Yurkow said. “And they’re all so different. We’ve got some loud guys, some quiet guys, some fat guys and some skinny guys.”
Pitching coach John Schwartz expanded upon Yurkow’s thoughts, explaining: “There are a lot of personalities, which makes it nice because we can mix it up a little bit and have fun with the guys. More than that, we have some depth, and that’s different than prior years. We have a matchup for every situation right now.”
“They’re doing a really good job now of competing and throwing strikes,” Yurkow added. “There’s something to be said for that.”
Penn’s relief efforts, which have improved quickly as the season has progressed, have a lot to do with the pitching staff’s low 2.39 earned run average in Ivy play, as well as the squad’s 8-0 start in conference competition.
To the rotation and back
Senior reliever Pat Bet, who has gone through an unorthodox and at times frustrating career at Penn, has been tasked with the biggest adjustment of the group.
Coming out of high school in Whitehall, Pa., Bet was well on his way to earning innings before he started feeling elbow pain early in his first spring with the Quakers. He ended up needing Tommy John surgery, which kept him off the mound for the rest of his freshman and sophomore years.
But Bet made sure he would see a return to action his junior year.
“I came back last year and worked my way back into the starting rotation, which was really important to me,” he said. “I really enjoyed it.”
Bet started eight games as a junior — the fourth highest total on the staff — and held opposing batters to a .275 batting average, the second- lowest mark among Penn starters.
Earlier this year, with the season still months away, Bet was asked to take on the new role of a submarine reliever.
Instead of questioning the adjustment, he embraced it.
Bet recalled his thought process, which he vocalized to Yurkow when the first year head coach first proposed the move: “Whatever I’ve got to do for the team — this is my senior year. I really just want to win this year.”
Schwartz explained why he and Yurkow tasked Bet with the new role.
“[Throwing submarine] is a really effective tool to have out of the bullpen,” he said. “We came across Pat Bet’s name for two reasons: one, he’s selfless, and two, he’s really tough.”
Bet has done his best so far to settle into his role and help the Quakers win: the senior has yet to give up an earned run in his seven appearances.
“He’s been very effective down there getting ground balls,” Yurkow added.
Another senior who has seen a smooth transition to the bullpen is Cody Thomson, an imposing righty who hails from Thousand Oaks, Calif.
A starter the last two seasons, Thomson’s move to a relief role happens to be familiar.
As a freshman for the Red and Blue, Thomson was called upon to come out of the bullpen after exclusively starting in high school.
“In my high school career, I never came out of the ‘pen,’” he said. “It was definitely a transition.”
The senior went on to explain the demands of relief pitchers, which he was forced to get accustomed to.
“You’ve gotta get ready quicker,” Thomson said. “You could come in any given situation, and you have to throw strikes when you do.”
Thomson was able to respond to those demands quickly, as he served as the squad’s primary closer his first year, making 15 relief appearances and posting a 3.35 ERA.
And while Thomson is back in the bullpen this year, a freshman has once again assumed the closer role for the Quakers.
shutting it down
Rookie lefty Mike Reitcheck has come along quickly as a closer, delivering some of the gutsiest Penn pitching performances of the young season.
The Illinois native has earned an Ivy League-high five saves thus far — three of which came in important conference wins over Brown and Harvard.
A fellow freshman who also hails from Illinois, righty Jake Cousins has also stepped up in relief for the Quakers.
Cousins leads the Red and Blue bullpen with 19 innings pitched, and has given up just two earned runs in that span.
Cousins made a key relief appearance in Penn’s second game against Yale, in which he entered facing a 5-1 deficit. The rookie was able to stifle the Bulldogs’ bats in his four and one-third innings, giving up only one run to keep the Quakers in the game and secure a win.
The freshmen, Reitcheck and Cousins, are at the top of the bullpen in both walks and strikeouts, indicating that the ‘stuff’ is there, and it’s now just a matter of finding better command and locating more consistently in the big spots they face.
“[Reitcheck’s] made some big pitches when he’s needed to,” Yurkow said. “He’s got good stuff. It’s about him getting some more confidence with it.”
The veterans of the relief staff have embraced the promising young hurlers in addition to their adjusted roles.
“It’s been awesome,” Thomson said in reference to the performance of the freshmen.
“The young guys are really talented. It’s been a breath of fresh air to have a lot of guys we can go to.”
And while the seniors have led by example, they have also provided the younger arms with valuable advice.
“Us seniors really preach to the younger guys to be confident in everything you do,” Bet said. “Don’t be afraid. Just come in and challenge people.”
“Its really nice to have all the older guys,” Cousins added. “The wisdom is really what helps out.”
Reitcheck — who entered the season seeking a starting role — also showed appreciation for the veterans of the bullpen.
“The upperclassmen have really helped me out with getting in the mindset of coming in and closing games out,” he said. “The big thing is confidence.”
Standing undefeated atop the Ivy League, there is a clear air of confidence surrounding the entire Penn baseball team at the moment.
And having confidence in key groups on the team, such as the bullpen, makes the experience better for everyone.
“It’s nice to know, as a coach, what you’re gonna get when those guys go out on the mound,” Yurkow said. “It makes it fun to coach.”
As long as the Red and Blue’s relievers keep delivering, the fun times should continue to roll on for Penn baseball.