So it all comes down to this.
Needing one win in two home games against second-place Columbia to clinch its first Ivy League Lou Gehrig Division title since 2007, Penn baseball failed to close out on Saturday afternoon, taking a pair of losses by scores of 14-4 and 7-5 to fall into a tie with the Lions. With both teams finishing the regular season atop the Gehrig Division at 12-8 in Ivy play, the two rivals will meet yet again on Saturday, going toe-to-toe in a one-game playoff for the third time in four years.
In both games, there were certainly times when it looked like the Quakers (22-20) would etch their mark in the history books. Though Game 1 starter Gabe Kleiman allowed a two-run home run in the top of the first, Penn responded with back-to-back bombs from Tim Graul and Sean Phelan, setting the tone for a back-and-forth contest far closer than its final score suggested.
Kleiman settled down after his rough start en route to a solid five-inning outing, and a string of four straight singles in the bottom of the fourth put the Red and Blue on top, 4-2. When center fielder Andrew Murnane completed a fantastic inning-ending double play by catching a fly ball and then gunning down tagging runner Julian Bury at the plate, Penn held a 4-3 lead after five innings, six outs shy of making history.
But then the Lions (18-22) finally got the offensive breakthrough they were looking for — and when it rained, it poured.
Though Kleiman only had 74 pitches through his five innings, Penn elected to send in reliever Billy Lescher to attempt the two-inning save. It would be a decision the team regretted immediately.
Though Lescher had been historically dominant all season with a 0.98 ERA entering the afternoon, the Lions figured out Penn’s junior superstar, racking up eight hits and nine runs in an explosive sixth inning, including a Ben Porter grand slam. Lescher — perhaps a bit fatigued after throwing a shutout inning on Friday — didn’t make it out of the sixth frame, as Columbia completely took the wind out from beneath the Quakers’ sails en route to its deceptively comfortable win.
As emotionally deflating as that defeat was, though, the Red and Blue came out firing in the series finale, jumping out to a 4-1 lead in the first two innings.
But Columbia came right back with its own string of hits to tie the score at 4-4 in the third, before Penn pitcher Mike Reitcheck — who bravely battled all day long, with the team facing a severe lack of bullpen options in its fourth game in two days — gave up a crucial two-run double on his 111th and final pitch of the night in the seventh.
Though Matt Tola provided brief hope for the Quakers with a home run, they never led again, allowing the Lions to take their third straight contest over Penn when a loss in any of them would’ve given the Red and Blue the solo division crown.
Of course, things only get more intense from here for both teams, as the two rivals will head back to Columbia for Saturday’s all-or-nothing showdown. The scenario certainly involves a bit of deja vu for Penn — in both 2014 and 2015, the teams tied atop the Gehrig Division, with Columbia winning the one-game playoffs in both instances and eventually qualifying for the NCAA Regionals.
So after coming up short in three straight chances to close out the Lions, the Red and Blue have one final shot with everything on the line. Penn will almost certainly throw senior ace Jake Cousins (6-1, 2.50 ERA), while the Lions are expected to pitch sophomore Josh Simpson (4-2, 3.63) in a rematch of Friday’s showdown, a 7-6 Penn win.
Win, and Penn remains alive for its first Ivy League championship since 1995. Lose, and the Red and Blue are forced to cope with another offseason of heartbreak after coming up agonizingly short yet again.
Let the games begin.