Penn baseball’s starting lineup is relatively wet behind the ears: seven regulars are either freshmen or sophomores.
That is not the case for the pitching rotation.
Led by established veterans Mike Reitcheck and Jake Cousins, Penn’s starting pitchers are among the most experienced in the Ivy League. Those two now-seniors have been mainstays in the rotation since their sophomore seasons — when they each finished in the conference’s top three in earned run average. And in their final Quaker campaigns, Cousins and Reitcheck have set their sights on something that has eluded them during their first three seasons: an Ivy championship.
“We’ve brought back basically everyone from last year, so we don’t have the ‘excuse’ that we’re a young team,” Reitcheck said. “Our senior leadership on the pitching staff... it’s gonna help lead us to the title.”
Both of the hurlers enjoyed stellar sophomore campaigns in 2015. Reitcheck led the league with a miniscule 1.71 ERA while Cousins — fresh off a 2014 rookie campaign that produced a 1.59 ERA and 4-0 record in somewhat limited action — spun a 2.32 mark. Both pitchers earned all-Ivy nods (Reitcheck to the 1st team, Cousins to the 2nd) and appeared poised to dominate over the latter half of their careers.
Unfortunately, 2016 represented something of a step back for both hurlers. Cousins’ ERA ballooned by nearly two runs, including to an unimpressive 4.60 mark in conference play. Reitcheck’s struggles were less dramatic, though his 3.96 ERA was a far cry from his sophomore campaign. Luckily for Penn, two then-sophomore hurlers — Gabe Kleiman and Billy Lescher — turned in breakout 2016 seasons and return this season as additional veteran weapons.
But both Reitcheck and Cousins have returned to stellar form so far in 2017. Cousins has excelled in three nonconference starts, giving up just four earned runs en route to a 1.93 ERA. Reitcheck has been even better, giving up zero runs across three appearances, culminating in a four-hit, complete-game shutout in his last appearance against Fairfield on March 12.
“My arm feels very good; I have great command on everything right now,” Reitcheck said. “I’m very optimistic on how this year’s gonna keep going.”
“As we get into conference play, we’re gonna really depend on those guys,” Penn coach John Yurkow said of his senior starters. “If they throw the ball like they have been, we’re going to be in really good shape going forward.”
And though , senior Tim Graul — the defending unanimous Ivy Player of the Year — will intermittently return from the outfield to his natural catching position to provide veteran leadership behind the plate.
“[Graul] is still going to play a big role in what we’re doing behind the plate,” Yurkow said. “I imagine that if we play three games in a weekend, [sophomore and defending Ivy League Rookie of the Year] Matt O’Neill will catch two games and Timmy will catch the other one.”
The lefty/righty combo provided by Reitcheck and Cousins calls to mind the Quakers’ most recent dynamic pitching duo — 2015 graduates Connor Cuff and Ronnie Glenn. Both enjoyed decorated careers in University City and Glenn is entering his third season of professional baseball in the Los Angeles Angels organization.
However, Reitcheck sees his leadership partnership with Cousins as superior even to that of Cuff and Glenn.
“Honestly, me and Cousins are closer off the field than [Cuff and Glenn] were,” Reitcheck said. “We’re best friends and all that. We spend a lot of time together. We work out four days a week together outside of team events... when you’re tired, that’s who you can lean on for the motivation.”
And god knows Penn baseball will do a whole lot of leaning on Reitcheck and Cousins if the Quakers are to break through in 2017 to the elusive Ivy championship.