Losing a four-time All-Ivy selection and 2015 co-Ivy League Player of the Year to graduation, Penn baseball had some hefty shoes to fill at the catcher position entering this season.
But if there were any questions about the Quakers’ production from behind the plate, consider junior catcher Tim Graul the answer.
With four-year starter and 2015 graduate Austin Bossart working his way through the Philadelphia Phillies’ organization, Graul has finally seized a starting role, and the junior has literally and figuratively knocked it out of the park. Leading the Ivy League with seven home runs, the 6-foot junior has stunned the conference with his ascent to stardom, helping a young Penn team remain in the mix for a division title despite its heavy graduation losses.
“I would definitely say I’m seeing the ball better — the fastballs I’ve been seeing pretty big, but I think the biggest difference would be seeing off-speed [pitches] coming out of the hand,” Graul said. “I don’t know; right now, it just seems like I can pick up any pitch — fastball, curveball or changeup.”
To call Graul a benchwarmer in his first two seasons would be a stretch — he did have 18 hits, three of them for home runs, in 21 career starts primarily as a designated hitter in 2014 and 2015.
But with Bossart heading to the pros after a legendary career in which he secured 163 hits — ninth-most in the 137-season history of Penn baseball — it was clear that Graul would have to step up like never before.
And step up he has. Starting every game of the season at either designated hitter or catcher — he and freshman Matt O’Neill routinely switch between the two positions to give each other rests — Graul has absolutely ravaged Ivy League pitching staffs, making an awfully compelling argument to follow up Bossart as the school’s second consecutive conference player of the year.
In 16 conference games so far, Graul ranks fourth among Ivy players with a .397 batting average, first with a .793 slugging percentage, third in on base percentage at .507, first in OPS at a barely legal 1.300, fourth with 15 runs scored, first with five home runs, first with 13 extra base hits, first with 46 total bases and third with 13 walks.
The secret to this unprecedented success? Nothing more than a blue-collar work ethic and the patience to wait for his turn atop the depth chart.
“I wouldn’t really say [I approached the 2016 offseason differently] to be honest; I kind of just stayed with what I was doing,” Graul said. “Just waited for a moment, waited for a situation where I’d get a lot of at-bats consistently, so I think I kind of just kept it simple.”
In turn, Graul has immediately become the mentor instead of the student, seizing a leadership role toward O’Neill parallel to the one Bossart held with him in the previous two years.
And with O’Neill off to his own impressive start, holding a .304 batting average — higher than either Graul or Bossart had in their respective freshman seasons — it’s clear that Graul’s impact exists outside of his own statistical contributions.
“I think we’re all pretty good players; me, Austin and Matt, we’ve all been some of the better catchers around the league,” Graul said. “We’re all very tight; we have a great coach, [Mike] Santello, who works with us every day, so that’s nice to have, and I think us being able to work together and get better throughout our time here has been big.”
As Penn has approached the homestretch of the season in an effort to secure its first conference title in 21 years, Graul has stepped up his game even further. With the Quakers needing a series win against Cornell to stay within striking distance of division-leading Princeton, Graul went an absurd 8-for-10 during Sunday’s doubleheader with five doubles — including a game-tying double in the bottom of the 10th inning of the first game — a home run, three RBI and five runs scored. As a result, the Red and Blue swept Cornell to get to within one game of the conference lead.
“That [game-tying hit] was pretty nice,” Graul said. “Coming in, I would say we’ve been waiting on a big hit as a team, and it was nice to come up with an opportunity to come back in this game and show a little fight, which is what this team has kind of been looking for.”
Now, with Penn entering a make-or-break season-ending series with Columbia for the third straight year, clutch performances from Graul will be as necessary as ever.
And needless to say, in the midst of one of the most dominant stretches in school history, the first-year starter is ready.
“I’ve always kind of thought I was a warm-weather hitter, so I’m pretty happy that this run is happening right now,” he said. “We all knew the Columbia series was going to be important, so let’s keep it going.”
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