What a difference a year can make.
At this time last year, Penn baseball was looking up at Princeton in the Ivy League standings after dropping three of four games away in New Jersey. Now, a year later, the Quakers celebrated enthusiastically in their dugout following a massive four-game home sweep of their bitterest rivals.
Princeton surprised many pundits by winning the Ancient Eight in 2016, but the Tigers (9-22, 5-7) had spent the 2017 Ivy season proving that it was no fluke. Heading into the weekend, they sat atop the Lou Gehrig Division with a 5-3 record, while Penn sat just behind them at 4-4.
In game one on Saturday, fans got to witness an instant classic. Princeton grabbed an early lead with a run in the first inning, only for Penn (18-14, 8-4 Ivy) to snatch the lead back in the fourth with three runs of their own on a triple from junior outfielder Andrew Murnane. The game continued to go back and forth, with Princeton tying the score, Penn retaking the lead, and Princeton tying the game again.
The game eventually eked towards extra innings knotted at four runs apiece, with the game just begging for a player to step up and be a hero.
Enter Tim Graul.
The Red and Blue senior slugger came to bat in the bottom of the ninth with the winning run on third base, 90 feet from victory. After falling behind two strikes, Graul grounded a base hit through a drawn-in Princeton infield to earn Penn a dramatic walk-off win.
“I love situations like that, I think every hitter does,” Graul said. “With the infield in, you know you just have to hit it hard and it’ll probably find a hole somewhere. Even down two strikes, my mindset was just to make hard contact.”
The game-winner was Graul’s second hit of the game and was an indication of spectacular things to come from Graul the remainder of the weekend. When the dust settled Sunday evening, Graul would be 10-17 on the weekend, raising his season batting average to .387, a number that surpasses even the tremendous clip he hit at last season.
“I still don’t think I’m seeing the ball as well as I did last year,” Graul said. “It’s hard to explain, but I definitely think I can be doing even better.”
If this is not Graul at his best, teams should be afraid of what that best can be.
In game two, a pitcher’s duel went the way of the Quakers. Starting pitcher Adam Bleday put in a masterful performance, pitching a complete game while allowing just five hits and one run. While by no means an offensive showcase from Penn, the hitting came through when they needed it, pushing across two runs in the eighth inning to break a tie and win the game, 3-1.
After Saturday’s pair of wins, coach John Yurkow knew there was no time to celebrate.
“It was great to get two wins on Saturday,” Yurkow said. “But we knew we had to fight just as much, if not more, to get two more on Sunday.”
If viewers expected more of the same pitching dominance on Sunday, they would be sorely mistaken. Well, at least on Princeton’s part.
Penn’s offense exploded on Sunday, scoring 27 runs over the two games and putting in an offensive display for the ages. Big days from sophomore Sean Phelan, junior Daniel Havely, and of course Graul (among others) led the way for the Red and Blue. All the while, Penn’s starters — junior Gabe Kleiman and senior Mike Reitcheck — tossed solid games. In the end, a pair of emphatic 17-5 and 10-2 wins capped a wildly successful weekend for the Quakers.
The weekend sweep puts the Quakers in prime position to challenge for the division title, although a tricky trip to Cornell this upcoming weekend may be even more telling.
Despite the tough tests ahead, Yurkow remains confident that his team is peaking at the right time.
“It’s always good to win four games, and it’s even nicer to be controlling your own destiny,” Yurkow said. “Cornell will be a tough test for us, but I think this weekend showed that we’re ready to compete with anybody.”