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Senior right-handed pitcher Cole Zaffiro pitches to a Columbia batter at Meiklejohn Stadium on May 22, 22. Credit: Samantha Turner

You may think it isn’t possible for a team to “play well,” yet suffer a three-game series sweep while doing so. Yet, Penn baseball proved otherwise.

Over the weekend, the Quakers (0-3) escaped the frigid Philadelphia weather and traveled to Columbia, S.C. to open its season against the South Carolina Gamecocks (9-0). During the weekend, the team was unable to snag a win from the SEC powerhouse currently ranked No. 23 in the nation, but still managed to showcase the offensive and defensive skills it tirelessly worked to improve over the offseason.

“Every series, we're going to expect to win it — we think we have a good team,” junior right-handed pitcher Cole Zaffiro said. “We always try to go into every series hoping to get the win; we just came up short this weekend.”

Previewing the series at South Carolina, senior left-handed pitcher David Shoemaker echoed Zaffiro’s sentiment, stating that the team looks to use difficult non-conference matchups as an opportunity to improve — or gain momentum — before Ivy League play begins. Shoemaker hoped the team would pull out surprise victories like it did in its season opener last year, but this past weekend failed to mirror what went down at Texas A&M.

You can blame the sweep on travel fatigue or rustiness, or you can even say that that South Carolina is simply a larger team, but it would be hard to find fault in the Quakers’ hitting and pitching efforts.

After the Gamecocks jumped out to a 5-0 lead by the second inning of game one, the Quakers refused to concede early.

Penn capitalized on a South Carolina throwing error in the fifth inning to get their first run on the board, later followed by an RBI groundout off the bat of junior third baseman Wyatt Henseler in the seventh inning. Senior utility player Ben Miller’s two-run home run to left field cut the Gamecock lead to two, at 6-4.

The Quakers stranded several runners in the eighth and ninth, ultimately losing game one 7-4, but not without holding South Carolina to under 10 runs for the first time all season. In fact, the team held the Gamecocks to only 14 runs throughout the entire weekend — representative of the team’s stellar pitching staff, which was more than dominant in game two. 

Saturday’s scorebook was far less busy thanks to a career outing by starter Zaffiro. Managing to set a personal best seven strikeouts through 4.2 innings, Zaffiro held the South Carolina offense to just one run — a solo shot in the bottom of the second, which was the only score by either team all game.

“I just made one bad pitch and he took advantage of it,” Zaffiro said. “I had two strikes on him; I shouldn’t have thrown him as good of a pitch as I did there.”

“Overall, I think that we pitched the ball very well,” he added. “We probably walked more people than we should have, but at the end of the day, we didn't actually let that many people score. I think we have very good situational pitching — which is good this early in the season. So if we can cut down the walks, I think we're gonna have good staff this year.”

The team’s struggles in keeping its pitch count low was evident in game three. Through six pitchers, Penn walked 11 batters, hit seven, and threw a combined 215 pitches to South Carolina’s 148, yet made the Gamecocks earn a gritty 6-5 win.

For the first time all weekend, though, Penn found itself in the lead — not once, but twice. Throughout all nine innings, Sunday’s game was a true display of the Quakers’ offensive depth. Younger talent, in particular, showed signs of becoming integral factors of the Red and Blue’s lineup this season.

Sophomore outfielder Cole McGonigal smashed his second career home run into the South Carolina bullpen in game three. Infielder Ryan Taylor was the only freshman — and one of only two players — to record a hit in all three games. On the mound, sophomore right-handed pitcher Ryan Dromboski threw three innings on Sunday for his first career start, recording a career-high six strikeouts.

“I think it gets us ready, it’s always nice to have your opening series against a good team because schools like that are going to expose our weaknesses and we’re going to have to grind out wins like we did last year at Texas A&M,” senior left-handed pitcher Owen Coady said before the series at South Carolina. “It’s definitely not going to be easy, but I’d rather be thrown into the fire with some good games than have an easy lead-up to our Ivy League play. Then, by the time we [play at home], the sun’s out, the field is beautiful, the crowds are full, and we get to play some Ivy League teams.”

The Quakers still have to wait a couple weeks before they get to play at Meiklejohn Stadium, but are back in action Friday for a three-game series against the Lamar Cardinals. Despite an 0-3 start, Penn baseball has promising stuff in store for the 2023 season.