After powering through the Ivy League’s four Red Rolfe Division squads, Penn baseball returns to Philadelphia for a slight changeup in its action.
Only two days after completing a four-game sweep against Yale and Brown by a combined 52-10, the Quakers return to the diamond on Tuesday in the semifinals of the Liberty Bell Classic against Big 5 rival, Villanova.
The midweek matinee marks the second time this season Penn (12-9) and the Wildcats (11-15) face off. The two squads did battle on March 18 at Meiklejohn Stadium, with Villanova teeing off for seven runs in the fifth inning en route to a 9-4 victory in the Quakers’ 2015 home opener.
This week’s matchup with the Wildcats carries much more significance. After both squads notched wins in the opening round of this year’s Liberty Bell Classic, the victor of Tuesday’s contest will advance to the event’s final at Citizens Bank Park later this month.
The Quakers’ mid-March defeat was the seventh consecutive loss for Penn. However, after starting the season 1-8, the Red and Blue have reeled off 11 wins in 12 games, including six consecutive wins against Ancient Eight competition.
Key to Penn’s turnaround has been an absolutely scalding offense, one that has scored 63 runs in its last five contests. The Quakers notched 54 hits last weekend, an absurd 29 of which were extra-base knocks — including 13 home runs.
“I’m surprised, but I’m not,” coach John Yurkow said of his team’s recent dominance at the plate. “Earlier in the year, our offense just needed to be more consistent. I thought we would hit more doubles and home runs [back then], but we weren’t doing that. We played a lot of one-run games against Dartmouth and Harvard.
“It’s good to see us start squaring some balls up, and the next thing you know, up and down the lineup every guy is contributing, which is great. I’m hoping now we’re just starting to hit our stride. I’m not expecting to score 57 runs this week, but I’ll take it if we do.”
To go along with the Quakers’ hot bats, Penn’s pitching has been stellar of late as well. Four of the squad’s pitchers rank in the top six in the Ivy League in earned run average, with seniors Connor Cuff and Ronnie Glenn and sophomores Jake Cousins and Mike Reitcheck all posting sub-2.54 ERAs.
“We’ve started throwing a lot more strikes on the mound,” Yurkow said. “I think when we played [Villanova] last time, we walked six or seven guys and hit another two or three. So we’ve definitely cut down on the hit by pitches and the walks, and our starting pitching has been pretty good.
“We’re making teams earn runs when earlier in the season, including in that game against Villanova, we gave a lot away.”
With the brief pause in between all-important Ivy weekends, Yurkow will give senior Dan Gautieri the ball while seeking to work in a variety of young pitchers out of the bullpen.
In addition to continuing their hot streak, Tuesday’s matchup offers Penn the opportunity to play relatively close to home — albeit away from Meiklejohn — in the midst of a nine-game road trip.
“We were on the road for three days and sometimes the travel can wear you down, so it’s nice to be home,” Yurkow said. “Villanova is a short trip, only 20 minutes away, and we’re familiar with [the] park, which is good. Hopefully we play a little better this time than we did last time around because we’re playing with a lot more confidence.”
While at Villanova, the Quakers will need to contain Wildcats’ junior first baseman Max Beerman, who has hit four homers and seven doubles in 18 games this season. He went 0-for-4 with a walk and run scored in the squads’ first matchup.
With a win, Penn would have the opportunity to play in only its second Liberty Bell Classic final in program history, after losing in the title game in 2012.
“I think it’d be awesome,” Yurkow said. “It’s a great experience for the kids to be able to play in a pro park, we get to bring a crowd and bring a lot of students over. Hopefully we can pull it off and get that game over at Citizens Bank.”
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