It all comes down to this.
22 years ago, before most of the players on today's team were even born, Penn baseball won the Ivy League Championship. Since then, it has only returned to the championship series once, 10 years ago in 2007. Now, the Red and Blue are back and only Yale stands in the way.
Starting on Tuesday, Yale (28-16, 16-4 Ivy) will host Penn (23-20, 12-8) for a best-of-three series for the conference title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
The road has not been easy for the Quakers. After a rough Florida road trip to start the season, Penn struggled to string together victories and gain momentum. That all changed in late March against Lafayette. With the weather improving, the Quakers returned home for a four-game sweep against the Leopards that sparked an impressive 12-1 stretch that carried into Ivy League play.
Then came Yale. The Elis won both regular season games against the Quakers at Yale Field. In the top half of the double header, senior pitcher Mike Reitcheck was rocked to the tune of six runs in five innings. Reitcheck had been spectacular up to this point in the season and quickly returned to his stellar form after the rare disastrous outing.
The nightcap featured a massive blown lead. After the Red and Blue jumped out to a 4-0 lead after six, a catastrophic meltdown, including a costly blown save, allowed Yale to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Bulldogs then walked off in the tenth, dealing Penn closer Jake Nelson the loss.
The sweep in Connecticut was quickly forgotten with a bounce back four-game sweep of archrival Princeton. From there, Penn seemed destined to win the Gehrig Division and a trip to the ILCS. Instead, the Red and Blue squandered a three-game lead over division rivals Columbia, forcing a one-game playoff for the right to play for the title. In a year where Penn Athletics has witnessed all manners of blown leads and suffered so many heartbreaking losses, the pressure was on to buck the trend. Nine innings later, the Quakers had overcome the adversity yet again.
Come Tuesday, Penn will likely lead with senior ace Jake Cousins and follow with Adam Bleday in game two. Now, strong performances – unlike those over a month ago – are expected from the Quakers. Coach John Yurkow leads a veteran team that has fought through adversity all season long and is eager to cement its legacy with an Ivy championship.
For all the years the Red and Blue have come up short, Yale actually has the longest title drought of any Ivy squad, having taken its last title with a 1994 ILCS win over Penn. The Bulldogs will look to finally break their streak of futility, after losing to Princeton in the ILCS-deciding game three last year. Now, with home field advantage, this series marks the Elis’ best chance at a title in decades.
Yale’s biggest strength is its hitting. The Elis finished the regular season tops in the Ivy League in almost every offensive statistic: runs (304), hits (423), homers (34) and RBIs (267).
The Bulldogs' offensive attack is led by a have a trio of dangerous hitters poised to ruin any opposing pitcher’s day. Foremost among these is Ivy League RBI leader Benny Wagner (43), who also leads his team in batting average (.356), on base percentage (.446) and slugging percentage (.653). Then there is first baseman and pitcher Griffin Dey, who paced the conference in home runs with 10. Leading off for the Bulldogs is center fielder Tim DeGraw, who leads the team in hits and amassed 16 steals, good for second in the conference.
Yale's pitchers did not match the success of their batters, but they still have proven their talent over the course of the season. Their sharpest ace, sophomore Scott Politz, had the most wins of any Ivy League pitcher (8), and is tied for the second most strikeouts with Jake Cousins (57).
Penn’s success has been structured much differently. Fueled by Cousins and Reitcheck, the Quakers have arguably the conference’s best pitching staff. The Quakers put up the lowest ERA (3.96) and the highest strikeout rate (8.52 per nine innings). They are also deep and experienced as the team’s top three starters, Cousins, Reitcheck and Bleday, are all seniors. The bullpen, while not always dominant, excelled for much of the season too.
Penn’s bats, however, were far less consistent than its arms. That said, last year's Ivy League Player of the Year Tim Graul had another fantastic season at the plate (.373/.436/.596), and the key, all season long, has been timely hitting. Whether it's Sean Phelan, Andrew Murnane, Matt Tola, or Chris Adams, the Red and Blue have been clutch with runners on in high leverage situations.
Both of these teams have proven their worth as the best in the conference and the matchups are sure to be tense. As far as Penn and Yale have come though, only one will be able to bring home its first title of the 21st century.