There comes a point for every sports team when it faces a must-win game.
For the Penn baseball team, that game — or rather, that series — has arrived.
The Quakers will face their toughest test of the season against Princeton this weekend as they look to gain games on division-leading Cornell.
The Tigers (13-12, 6-2 Ivy) went 3-1 in Ivy play last weekend, sweeping Yale on Saturday and splitting with Brown on Sunday. Junior pitcher Matt Bowman earned Ivy League Pitcher of the Week honors for his complete game shutout in the first game against Brown, when he struck out 12 batters and allowed just six hits.
Penn sophomore pitcher Cody Thomson also made the weekly honor roll after his four-strikeout, five-hit outing against Harvard.
“Princeton has good pitching, so we’re going to need to really go to work up there,” coach John Cole said.
The Quakers (14-12, 5-3 Ivy) trail the Tigers by one game in standings, but on paper, they appear to have the advantage.
The Red and Blue lead Princeton in team pitching, posting a 5.06 earned run average to the Tigers’ 5.78. Penn holds the advantage in batting, with a team average of .283, third-best in the league. Princeton sits in fifth at .276.
But in baseball, the intangibles that contribute to whether a team wins or loses can’t be expressed on paper. Penn lost Wednesday against La Salle, a game that junior rightfielder Ryan Deitrich thought the Quakers “should have won.”
What the La Salle contest did provide, however, was an indication of what the Red and Blue needs to focus on before their weekend road trip.
“We need to throw strikes. Right now, we’re walking too many players, giving the other team too many freebies. We’re basically giving them runs,” Deitrich said. “At the plate, we need to stay aggressive and really see the ball.”
The Tigers, by contrast, are coming into the weekend having just won an extra-inning decision against in-state rival Seton Hall. But while Penn’s loss may not be a confidence-booster, Dietrich was still quick to point out some of the advantages the Quakers have over Princeton.
“They’re a really good team,” Dietrich said, “but we have some seniors who have been there before who know how to play their field. And we have some guys who are really stepping up right now and really starting to hit the ball well.”
For junior first baseman Spencer Branigan, the biggest challenge for the Quakers over the four-game series will be consistency on the mound and at the plate.
“We need to get the pitching and the hitting working together at the same time,” Branigan said. “Some days we’ll go out and score 15 runs and pitch [poorly], then the next day we’ll pitch a gem and not score any runs, so we need to put the two together.”
There is also an element of revenge that adds to the urgency of winning this weekend.
Last year, the Quakers went 1-3 in the four-game series at home, winning the first game with a decisive 12-4 score but dropping the next two games by one run apiece. In the final game of the series, Penn lost, 4-2, in extra innings.
“Last year we made some mistakes and they beat us pretty good,” Branigan said. “We want to go out and get some payback this time.”
Like his players, Cole ultimately sees this weekend as do-or-die.
“We have four games and it’s head-to-head now,” he said. “There’s no room for error.”