On the surface, it may seem as if Penn baseball, with its 11-1 conference record, has waltzed through Ivy League play thus far.
But for a club that has been so successful as of late, the Quakers have displayed remarkable toughness and resiliency — qualities crucial to late season success.
Before kicking off Ivy play, the Quakers lost nine games by less than two runs. Those bitter defeats acted as necessary trials for a team adhering to a new system under a new coach, and dealing with changes in the lineup and on the mound.
And although things started to click on the doorstep of Ivy play, there was still a great deal of uncertainty of how the club would perform in conference competition, especially after struggling last season.
However, the Quakers threw all doubts and uncertainties aside, and came ready to battle in the opening weekend of Ivy play.
The result? A hard fought 4-0 start.
A commanding performance by junior pitcher Dan Gautieri gave Penn a comfortable first victory, but the Quakers needed a strong comeback along with gutsy relief pitching to topple Yale the second time out.
After putting up 17 runs against Yale on Saturday, the Red and Blue proved they could win low scoring affairs as well with a pair of 3-2 victories over Brown the next afternoon.
There was something about the club’s opening weekend performance, which featured key contributions from both veteran mainstays and emerging talent, that was assuring.
A thickening, almost palpable air of confidence had arisen around the club, and there was a sense that it wasn’t going anywhere.
The next weekend, the Quakers left the comfortable confines of Meiklejohn Stadium, and took their winning streak and attitude up north.
The Red and Blue started quietly in their first game against Harvard, falling behind 3-1 after five.
Undeterred, the Penn bats came back with three runs in each of the last two innings to top the Crimson, 7-3.
The “big hits,” which Yurkow didn’t see enough of early in the year, were coming – and in big games, too.
“They hopped on us early, but we were able to bounce back pretty quick,” Yurkow said after the game. “Those are signs of a good team.”
Those signs of resiliency continued to show for the remainder of the weekend: the Quakers were able to pull away late in another close contest against the Crimson, and put together another comeback effort on Sunday against Dartmouth to complete yet another sweep and remain undefeated in the Ancient Eight.
While the Quakers relied mostly on their deep and talented pitching staff to shut down opponents in their opening Ivy weekend, the offense, led by senior outfielder Rick Brebner and sophomore second baseman Mike Vilardo, was the driving force in the club’s wins over Harvard and Dartmouth.
After unleashing the top hitting attack in the conference, the Quakers’ performances in Boston and Hanover made it clear that the surprise squad was all in for the Ivy League championship race.
After repeatedly dodging bullets in conference play, the Red and Blue finally ran into a mismatch last Saturday in standout lefty Michael Byrne of Gehrig Division rival Cornell.
Penn was stifled by Byrne and the Big Red in the series’ first contest, 9-0, which marked its first Ivy League loss of the season.
It was an unusually poor performance for this Quakers’ team, and a rough start to a critical Ivy weekend.
An offense averaging a league-high six runs per game in conference play, and that just had scattered 14 hits against St. Peter’s days before, was completely shut down.
Gautieri, who had been dominant in his two previous conference starts, could not find a groove.
After dropping the series opener, the Red and Blue stood just two games ahead of the Big Red in the Gehrig division. For a midseason series, a lot hung in the balance in the next three games.
How the Quakers responded to a lopsided loss would be the truest test of their mettle yet.
Needing to turn the series around, Yurkow gave the ball to freshman Jake Cousins, and he delivered in his second conference start. The righty gave up just one earned run, while the bats came alive and put up 11 runs.
Confidence restored, the Quakers followed the blowout with two more wins on Sunday to take the series, and remain atop the Ivy League standings.
What everyone has witnessed thus far in Penn baseball this season is not just a surprising success story, but a tough, battle-tested club with scary confidence and a win-by-any-means attitude.
That such things can be said now about a club that started the season 0-6 is pretty remarkable — consider that Yurkow, as the new head of the program, merely “hop[ed]” his squad “underst[ood] what it takes to win” after Penn’s first victory over Deleware State in early March.
Now that Yurkow’s hope has materialized and then some, there’s only one thing to do, and that’s keep on winning — no matter what it takes.
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