Penn traveled down to College Station, Texas to face the undefeated Texas A&M Aggies for a difficult test to open the season last weekend, and pulled off a series win in a massive upset.
The three-game series opened on Friday with a tight win, as the Quakers pulled off the 2-1 victory by plating the game-deciding run in the eighth inning. On Sunday, Penn dropped the first game, but won the series finale by a score of 8-5 in a dramatic ninth inning comeback.
“Just nervous anticipation,” junior pitcher Owen Coady said about the feeling going into the series. “We were ready to get out and play some baseball, especially against an opponent like Texas A&M from a well-known conference. We were excited to be out there.”
Despite the hope that scheduling late-winter games in the south would lead to warmer temperatures, the first game on Friday afternoon played out in 40-degree weather.
“I actually think [the weather] might’ve helped us, to be honest,” head coach John Yurkow said. “I think we’re used to practicing in it and they’re not, so. At least that’s what I told the team.”
Both offenses ran similarly cold — possibly due to the unseasonably cold Texas weather — to start the series. When Coady took over for senior pitcher Kevin Eaise in the bottom of the fifth inning, the game was tied at 1-1. Penn’s one run came courtesy of sophomore Wyatt Henseler’s RBI double in the third inning.
After inducing a double-play with runners at the corners, Coady closed out the second half of the game, racking up eight strikeouts in 4.2 innings pitched. Thanks to strong defensive efforts and an RBI single by junior Cole Palis in the top of the eighth — making the Aggies pay for intentionally walking Henseler before him — the Quakers came out with a tone-setting win.
“[Coady’s] not your typical reliever,” Yurkow said. “He can throw four or five innings if need be, so it’s a nice luxury to have them down there.”
The double-header on Sunday proved more eventful offensively.
Penn started the afternoon on the wrong foot as they were unable to touch Aggies pitcher Micah Dallas. Dallas struck out 10 players through eight innings, allowing only one hit and one walk. Penn quickly fell into a three-run hole in the first inning and could never require. Ultimately, the Quakers lost 5-0 as the Aggies threw a combined one-hitter.
With the series split heading into the second game of the double-header, Penn seemed equally dead in the water. Going into the top of the seventh inning, the Aggies led by a score 5-1. Penn had used four pitchers already, had little to show offensively except for two hits from Henseler, including a home run, and struggled to find its defensive footing.
“It was such a long game. A lot of unforced mistakes,” Yurkow said. “We walked a lot of guys, and we made some errors.”
But after a double from Henseler to lead off the seventh inning, Penn was able to slowly chip away at the Aggies' lead. The team scored one run in the seventh, another in the eighth, and, entering the top of the ninth inning, the team had narrowed the Aggies’ lead to two runs.
A single by senior catcher Andrew Hernandez and an RBI single from junior Seth Werchan at the bottom of the order allowed the top of the order to go to work. Two more singles from Courtney and junior Jackson Appel loaded the bases for senior Craig Larsen.
When Larsen went up to bat, he was 0-for-4 on the night with two strikeouts. But when he hit a bases-clearing double down the right-field line to give Penn the lead, none of that mattered anymore.
After Larsen, Henseler came up to bat a triple shy of the cycle. After hitting a rocket past the Aggies' center fielder, Henseler rounded second base as if he were going for three before he was held up by the third base coach.
Was he going for the cycle at the end?
“That’s a great question. We were all yelling that,” Coady said. “That late in the game and for the comeback like we did, it was probably the safe option to stay at second, but it definitely would’ve been fun to see him hit for the cycle.”
So Henseler didn’t quite finish the cycle, but he did finish the night 4-for-4, going 6-for-10 throughout the entire series with two walks for an OBP of .667 and an OPS of 1.867.
On their return to Philadelphia, Henseler was named Ivy League Player of the Week and Coady Pitcher of the Week, sweeping two of the three Ivy League honors.
“There’s definitely a lot of things we need to work on so we’re not going to be put in that position again. But that was a testament to the grit that a lot of these kids have and that the team has as a whole. It felt like we were down by a lot more runs than we were,” Coady said. “And we exploded for a lot of runs, and it was so exciting being down there and seeing everybody fired up and runs come across the board.”
While the team’s showing this weekend was far from perfect, the opening series win on the road against a strong Texas A&M team feels like an auspicious start for Penn's first full season in two years.
Over spring break, the Red and Blue will embark on a nine-game road trip through South Carolina as they face Wofford four times, College of Charleston twice, and Winthrop three times. The road trip marks a return to normalcy for the team as well.
“Overall, [I’m] just [looking forward to] having a full season. Having home series with the team here in Philly and being able to travel on the road and play away,” Coady said. “And just having baseball every weekend and once a week during the week, too. It's going to be a better spring than I've had here at Penn so far.”