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Penn baseball upset Columbia in the first round of the Ivy League Baseball Tournament on May 17. Credit: Jesse Zhang

NEW YORK — The fourth time was the charm.

After suffering a three-game sweep to Columbia earlier this season, the Quakers turned the tables. With all the eyes on the Ancient Eight, the Red and Blue upset the first-seeded Lions 8-4 in the opening round of the Ivy League Baseball Tournament.

“I don’t think a lot of teams can beat us, and I think a lot of teams are pretty frustrated that we snuck in [to the tournament] in the end,” senior third baseman Wyatt Henseler said. “I think the last week and a half we’ve been playing our best baseball, so [we’re] hoping to keep trending up.”

Penn (21-22, 11-10 Ivy) got off to a hot start, with sloppy defensive play from Columbia (26-17, 17-4) allowing senior infielder/pitcher Carson Ozmer to score the opening run in the second inning. In the fourth inning, a double to deep left field by freshman first baseman Nick Spaventa was followed by a walk and a single to give the Quakers a 2-0 lead.

The Quakers’ inability to generate more offense, however, came back to bite them. Ace senior starting pitcher Cole Zaffiro began to crack in the fifth inning, as Columbia piled on four runs in an inning featuring doubles from Columbia shortstop Sam Miller and Columbia second baseman Griffin Palfrey. While Zaffiro recovered to pitch a scoreless sixth inning, the Quakers’ lead had already flipped into a two-run deficit.

In the top of the seventh, Henseler — who was recently unanimously voted as the Ivy League Player of the Year — hit a home run to narrow the deficit to one run. Henseler’s home run was his 20th of the season and, two batters later, the game was tied at four runs apiece.

Penn’s survival in the game appeared at risk in the bottom of the seventh inning, when Ozmer — Zaffiro’s replacement on the mound — loaded the bases with two outs. Ozmer got into a 3-0 hole to Columbia infielder Jack Cooper, but he responded with three consecutive strikes; Cooper ultimately struck out swinging on an Ozmer fastball.

One inning later, it was again Henseler’s time to shine. With two runners on base, Henseler lined a single to center-left field to return the Quakers’ lead — one they would not surrender for the rest of the game.

After Henseler’s RBI single, a double by sophomore infielder Davis Baker cracked the game open to give the Quakers a 7-4 lead. Junior catcher Asa Wilson expanded the lead to 8-4 in the top of the ninth before Ozmer, who began pitching in the seventh inning, closed the book on the affair with a 1-2-3 ninth inning.

Penn baseball entered the weekend with a 20-22 record — a disappointment after opening the season as the Ivy League’s unanimous favorite to repeat as champions. While the Quakers snuck into this weekend’s Ivy League Tournament as the fourth seed, they faced off against a top-seeded Lions team, who had a 26-16 record this season.

Zaffiro, who has served as Penn’s ace throughout the season with a 4.98 ERA and a team-high 59.2 innings, took the mound to lead the Quakers into today’s game.

Penn appeared largely uncompetitive in their three-game set against the Lions earlier this season. In the late March series, the Quakers were outscored by a combined 34-14 — with Zaffiro getting shelled by Columbia’s offense in one matchup while Columbia starting pitcher Derek Yoo coasted through five one-run innings. 

“I thought when we came up here earlier in the year, Columbia wanted that series a lot more than we did,” coach John Yurkow said. “I thought we learned a pretty valuable lesson that you can’t just come in here and expect just because you had some success last year that you’re going to come in here and beat somebody, especially these guys.”

The Quakers, however, appeared to heat up in recent weeks with series victories against Harvard and Dartmouth. This hot streak and extra preperation seemed to lend to Zaffiro's improvement on the mound.

“We did a lot of scouting this time, just trying to have it go a little different than last time,” Zaffiro said after the game. “Try not to give up some home runs like I did last time.”

After today’s victory, the Quakers will face off against Cornell at 3 p.m. tomorrow to continue their campaign in the double-elimination tournament. Earlier today, the Big Red defeated Princeton 9-7.

“It was really important to win game one, and I think Cornell would probably tell you the same thing,” coach John Yurkow said. “We talked earlier about how difficult it is in a tournament like this if we lose on the first day … so it obviously puts us in a good spot going into tomorrow, and it’s going to take another strong effort.”