It was a big-time stage for a big-time game — but by the slimmest of possible margins, Penn baseball couldn’t get the big-time win it’d been seeking for decades.
Despite leading almost wire-to-wire in the championship game of the Liberty Bell Classic, one timely swing of the bat from La Salle’s Ben Faso proved to be the difference, as his eighth-inning dinger accounted for both the Explorers’ runs in a 2-1 victory that prevented the Quakers from winning their first championship in the local tournament’s 26-year history.
As such, the Red and Blue remain the only Division I program to have ever competed in the Liberty Bell Classic not to have won it yet, forcing the Quakers to wait until next year once again.
“Absolutely, it’s a tough loss,” freshman pitcher Mitchell Holcomb said. “But you come back, and you go for a good win on the weekend, and you hope that the guys turn it around quick.”
The loss was certainly no fault of Holcomb, who stepped in as the starting pitcher after each of Penn’s four regular starters were burned in last weekend’s sweep of Princeton and performed even better than he could’ve imagined.
After a career-best effort in the tournament’s semifinal against Villanova — an 11-2 Penn win in which the rookie threw a career-high seven innings with only six hits and one run allowed — Holcomb was even more dominant under the bright lights of Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday night.
Though he did get into a bit of trouble in the second inning, getting into a bases-loaded, one-out jam before retiring the next two batters, the freshman’s overall line for the night included four hits allowed, two walks and nine strikeouts in seven innings of shutout ball in what was unquestionably the finest effort of his young career.
“I got a great group of guys around me, they support me really well,” Holcomb said. “You know, my faith is a big one, and you just have to make sure to keep your head in the game the whole time you’re in there, fighting for every out.”
The Red and Blue (18-15, 8-4 Ivy) came out firing in the top of the first on Tuesday, with Tim Graul doubling and being knocked in by a Matt O’Neill sacrifice fly.
It was only one run — but for nearly the entire night, it looked like all the Quakers would need.
With just about every type of pitch working, Holcomb ran through the Explorers’ lineup inning after inning, keeping the Red and Blue afloat as La Salle (7-27, 1-8 Atlantic 10) ace and fellow freshman Matt Holt had his very own impressive effort in a thrilling pitchers’ duel of rookies.
“You know I really wanted to help the team; they put up one in the first and I really wanted to do it for the ballclub,” Holcomb said. “Championship games, you do the best you can to give your team a chance to win. We put the ball in play a lot and nothing fell for us today; that’s baseball.”
Holcomb seemed to be only getting stronger as the game went on, striking out a combined five batters in the sixth and seventh innings without allowing a hit in either frame.
But with the rookie never having exceeded seven innings in his college career, coach John Yurkow made the call to the bullpen to bring in middle reliever and fellow freshman Christian Scafidi to start the eighth.
The decision, though justifiable at the time, would come to bite the Red and Blue.
Facing the heart of the La Salle order, Scafidi walked Kevin MacGowan, putting the tying run on. Immediately after, Faso provided his late-game heroics with a huge drive over the left-center field fence, emotionally crushing the Red and Blue as one-run lead turned into a one-run deficit in the blink of an eye.
“You know, if they asked me to do another one, I would’ve gone,” Holcomb said. “But I was glad to give somebody else a chance.”
Though Tommy Pellis reached with an infield single in the top of the ninth, that would be all Penn could muster, as La Salle closer Austin Constantini sent the Quakers home empty-handed to give the Explorers their first Liberty Bell Classic title since 2006.
As frustrating as the loss is for the Red and Blue, it goes without saying that there’s a different championship out for the taking that serves as a bigger concern for them. And after sweeping Princeton to move to first place in the Ivy League Lou Gehrig Division, the team still is in fantastic shape to win the Ancient Eight title for the first time since 1995.
Next up in that quest, Penn will travel to Cornell in a four-game set that should prove pivotal for both team’s title hopes. After finishing in last place in the Gehrig Division in 2016 and being almost universally predicted to do the same this season, the second-place Big Red (17-12, 6-6) have served as a solid surprise story, led by power-hitting first baseman Cole Rutherford and his league-leading seven home runs.
So while Penn is understandably disappointed at Tuesday’s loss, there’s solace in this — another championship is ripe for the taking, and the Red and Blue will get a second chance to make history.
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