Penn-Princeton hits a new level

With both teams tied for first at top of division, winner takes all

· April 14, 2011, 10:11 pm   ·  Updated April 15, 2011, 12:00 am

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Uncharted waters.

This is how senior catcher Mike Mariano described this weekend’s series, as Penn and Princeton battle for sole possession of first place atop the Lou Gehrig Division.

Though the Tigers (12-15, 6-2 Ivy) and the Quakers (15-12, 6-2) may have equivalent Ivy records, the Red and Blue have one thing Princeton doesn’t: senior ace Paul Cusick.

The right-handed pitcher leads the Quakers with a 2.36 earned run average in eight appearances and has not given up a home run all season.

“Paul used to be the kind of guy who just threw the crap out of the ball and said, ‘Here’s what I’ve got, can you hit it?’” Mariano said. “But this year he’s really become a pitcher. He’s working counts, he’s hitting spots, he’s throwing more than one pitch, and it’s pretty impressive.”

Cusick’s stamina has been one of the hallmarks of his pitching this year. In his last outing, he earned a shutout against Yale, only giving up five hits in an eight-inning stretch. The weekend before, Cusick notched a win in a complete game against Harvard, only allowing one run.

Key to the senior’s success has been his assertiveness in the strike zone, leading the team with 55 strikeouts, which already surpasses the 42 he earned last year.

“I’m not thinking about mechanics when I go out there,” Cusick said. “I’m just going out there and throwing because I know I’ve got my mechanics locked down. The approach is just different.”

Cusick should have the upper hand against a struggling Princeton offense, which has been outscored by its opponents, 171-142, and leads the league in strikeouts.

“He always had the ability,” coach John Cole said. “He really knows that he needs to be very, very aggressive, and when he is usually good things happen.”

Good things from Cusick may continue, as the Tigers are coming off a mixed weekend. After sweeping Harvard Saturday, Princeton lost two to Dartmouth ­— who Penn had swept the weekend before.

However, home-field advantage should give the Quakers extra momentum going into this high-stakes matchup. The Red and Blue are 7-2 at Meiklejohn, while the Tigers are 8-13 away.

“When you play at home you’ve got to set a precedent that the other team coming in has to be down two runs before they get off the bus,” Cole said.

In the seven games Penn has won at home, it posts a 3.51 team ERA and a .318 batting average.

Being at home should put Cusick at ease as well, as he has yet to lose a game at Meiklejohn Stadium this season.

Going into this weekend Cusick plans on continuing to work on the diversity of his pitches and getting the ball exactly where he wants it to go.

“[I’m] locking down all my pitches, making sure my motion is where it needs to be at,” Cusick said.

This series could break the division wide open, giving either team a chance to establish itself as the team to beat in the league.

“In our four years we’ve never really had a series like this where we were on top and we’re going to face another team right there with us,” Mariano said. “It feels good to control your own destiny, and we’re pretty confident.”

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