The stretch run has begun, and Penn baseball is ready for its biggest series so far this year.
The Quakers (19-11, 5-3 Ivy) play four crucial games this weekend, taking on Princeton in their first division games of the year.
In the Lou Gehrig division, all four teams — Penn, Princeton, Cornell and Columbia — are within one win of each other heading into the final 12 games, so these contests are of the utmost importance.
“We struggled last year down the stretch. We’ve got to do a better job in our division,” coach John Cole said. “It starts with pitching. You’ve got to get four quality starts and you have a chance to win every game.
But when it comes to starting pitching, Princeton (8-20, 5-3 Ivy) has a strong top of the rotation to counter the Quakers. The Tigers are led by senior Zak Hermans and junior Mike Ford, who both have sub-2.00 earned run averages.
Ford not only helps the Tigers in the rotation but also is a major cog in their lineup. He leads the team in batting average, while also leading the Ivy League with a 1.12 ERA.
“Ford is a guy we have to control,” Cole said. “We’ve got to do a good job with him at the plate and on the mound — he’s been tough on us.
“He and Hermans are a good one-two punch for them and we have to figure out a way to get runs across early against them.”
Despite the performances of Ford and Hermans, Princeton is still last in the Gehrig division with a 5.65 ERA, in large part due to struggles in the bullpen. This was accentuated by the team giving up 20 runs in a loss to Harvard last Sunday.
And that is where the Quakers have a clear advantage. Penn’s bullpen is led by freshman Mitch Holtz, sophomore Ronnie Glenn and senior John Beasley. Cole has relied on the trio to hold leads late in games, contributing to a 5-2 record in one-run games.
“He’s been giving me the ball a lot lately,” Beasley said. “He has always been a guy who is going to throw whoever is hot out of the bullpen.”
And while Penn’s bullpen has helped the team pick up close wins lately, Princeton’s bullpen has not had nearly the same success, as the team has gone 1-10 in one-run games.
“I like our bullpen and I don’t think that is their strong point,” Cole said. “I think they can give the lead up late, so if we can get a lead early, that will definitely be to our advantage.”
The Quakers have struggled to push across runs early in games recently, which is a big part of getting to the lesser-used pitchers in the opposing bullpen.
“The last few games, we’ve been playing from behind,” first baseman Spencer Branigan said. “If we can score some runs early and take some quality at-bats, we can drive the starters’ pitch counts up and get to their bullpen early.”
With the season rapidly heading towards its conclusion, the Quakers are looking to rely on the players that got the team to this point. To that end, Cole may shorten his bench with big games coming up.
“You want to know what you are going to get,” he said. “You are going to go with the guys who are your catalysts. There are no experiments this time of year.”
And with this series at Meiklejohn Stadium, Penn is hoping to pick up some important wins at home.
“This has always been a big, monumental series in the season,” Branigan said. “It is right in the middle of the league, so if we can have a big series here, it would set us up well for the rest of the year.”
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