This team is not the greatest. There are no superstars. On paper, this is not a team that is going to have teams running for the hills. But this team is scrappy. This 2016 Cornell baseball team is not going to go out and dominate every team it plays. But this squad has the ability and attitude to make every game a close one, according to head coach Dan Pepicelli.
The leader of the Red, Pepicelli, is well aware of how his team thrives.
“We really are scrappy,” Pepicelli said. “That is our biggest asset. We don’t mind getting in a fight; we are pretty good at it. We are not going to line up and just be more talented than anybody, [but] we are pretty competitive.”
Cornell (13-21, 6-10 Ivy) opened its season in Florida against the Huskies of Northeastern (19-19, 7-7 CAA), who had beaten No. 30 Oklahoma a couple weeks earlier. The Red were shutout by Northeastern in the first game of the season, 6-0.
It is easy to come away from a game like that and accept that the opponent is simply better. It would have been easy to carry that attitude to the next game. But not this team. This team’s scrappiness was evident right from the start.
In the second game of the doubleheader, Cornell entered the sixth inning in the second game against the Huskies with a 5-1 lead.
“The very first weekend … we beat a really good pitcher for Northeastern,” Pepicelli said. “We had a lead and they came back and tied it. I actually said it on the mound … ‘we’re going to find out what kind of team we are right now.’ ”
The Red let Northeastern tie up the game at five runs apiece in the eighth inning. Another team would have seen the momentum shift and ceded the game to the higher-ranked Huskies.
But not Cornell. The Red took a two-run lead in the final inning when junior first baseman Cole Rutherford hit a two-run homer.
“We have always kind of had this way about us where we are scrappy,” Pepicelli said. “We don’t really care about the score.”
This was not the only example of the Red’s scrappiness, but it was the first and clearly set a tone that the team tried to continue in every game and in every practice.
“I don’t think it was defining,” Pepicelli said. “I think it just kind of said ‘all right, this is who we are going to be.’ And we have been like that a few times.”
From the very start it was clear the season would be a fight, and not an easy one. Cornell currently sits below .500 on the season overall and in the conference.
“At this point in the season, we expected that we would have ups and downs,” said junior right-handed pitcher Tim Willittes.
Willittes’ first few outings was emblematic of the team’s perseverance, not only in a single game, but from day-to-day.
In his first game of the season, Willittes surrendered five earned runs in 4.1 innings as Cornell would go on to be mercied by Northeastern. But the junior pitcher would not let the one outing drag him down.
The next start by Willittes saw two earned runs and a win against a good Wofford (25-18, 8-7 SOCON) team. By his third start, Willittes recorded 13 strikeouts and no earned runs in eight innings against Bucknell. And just like that, Willittes had two big wins under his belt.
“Our most important realization thus far is that we have shown ourselves we can compete and win against any team if we play up to our standard,” Willittes said. “Our outlook going forward is to continue to play at the level we are capable of.”
In the series against Columbia (13-23, 7-9 Ivy) on April 16 and 17, the Lions scored one or more run in the first inning of three of the four games. Despite the early deficits, the Red won all three of those games to win the series against the Ivy foe.
Evident by the resilience shown by the team in coming back from early holes, Pepicelli believes his team’s tenaciousness is composed of many things.
“Hanging in there, being clutch with a clutch at bat, clutch baserunning, making a clutch pitch when we needed to,” Pepicelli said. “It’s been different aspects of [the scrappiness] throughout the course of the whole year.”
In the third series of the season, Cornell squared off against Bucknell (16-29, 7-9 Patriot) in a four-games series, in which the Red won three. The last game in the series came down to Bucknell having the tying run on third base and the winning run on second with less than two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
Junior right-handed pitcher Jamie Flynn was on the mound and had pitched 1.1 innings at this point in relief. With the game on the line, Flynn tossed a “huge pitch,” as Pepicelli referred to it to get the Red out of a jam.
Yet Bucknell wasn’t finished and put together another comeback attempt. For the final out, sophomore left-handed pitcher Justin Lewis came in and threw another “huge pitch” for his second save of the season and the victory.
“Between Cole’s home run [against Northeastern] and that moment at Bucknell, we just seem to be having these moments where, when it’s on the line, we have been doing a pretty good job with it,” Pepicelli said.
This is a Cornell team that has never backed down from a challenge, and has never taken its foot off the gas.
“Something that we’re really proud of so far that we are improving every game and continuing to stay committed to our approach,” said junior infielder Frankie Padulo. “A big difference between this year’s team and last year’s is our culture. We’ve been staying locked in and competitive with every pitch regardless of the situation. That’s a huge key to our success as a team.”
Look for this Cornell baseball team to be making noise until the final pitch of the season.