Putting aside a bizarre ninth inning play that spoiled what could have been a perfect weekend, Cornell baseball returned home satisfied after taking two of three from defending Patriot League champion Navy to open up the 2017 season.
The Red put on display its ability to not only compete with, but defeat high quality programs.
Cornell (2-1) could have walked away with a three-game sweep over the Midshipmen (3-7) if not for a unconventional turn of events in the final inning of game two on Saturday afternoon. A two-run RBI single by sophomore Trey Baur gave his team a one-run lead heading into the bottom of the ninth. It looked like the Red would win two on the day, after a 5-2 victory in game one.
It was second and third with two outs for the Red. The ball was hit to junior third baseman Tommy Wagner’s backhand side — a difficult ball. He snagged it and made the throw over to first, but it was a little bit up the first baseline. Baur went up to get the ball and tagged the Navy player as he came down.
But the collision sent the ball — and even the mitt — out of the first baseman’s possession. Instead of the final out, two men scored, and the game ended 8-7 Navy.
“We were in great shape to win it; it was just a freak thing,” said head coach Dan Pepicelli. “Outside of that I was happy with how we played.”
The players also did not beat themselves up too much over the loss.
“It was a hard fought game where we came from behind,” said senior pitcher Paul Balestrieri “I’m gonna chalk the ending up to just baseball. Sometimes crazy things happen. You [have to] be tough enough to come back the next day with a chip on your shoulder, which I thought we did.”
Cornell entered the third and final game Sunday with the series tied at one apiece. Even with that tough loss Saturday afternoon the team was able to leave Annapolis as winners, defeating Navy, 8-5.
“We just kind of jumped it early,” Pepicelli said. “Some upperclassmen really stepped up in starting roles.”
Balestrieri clearly had been waiting all winter for his first start. The veteran came out and pitched seven strong, allowing no runs, no walks and just three hits.
“I was able to get ahead of batters which put me in the driver seat,” Balestrieri said. “Pitching ahead is huge.”
And that was just half the story. In addition to quality pitching, offense — something the Red struggled with on the backend of last season — was plentiful over the weeknd. Cornell tallied 20 runs over the three games.
“Offensively, we kept the pressure on each inning, and on the other side of the ball our pitchers attacked hitters very well,” said junior outfielder Dale Wickham. “On top of that, we were able to battle and answer any time momentum seemed to be shifting.”
Wickham was at the forefront of pushing his team in the right direction. In 15 at-bats, the right fielder had nine hits, six runs scored and four RBIs. Wickham was named Ivy League Player of the Week for his performance at Navy.
“I just trusted the work I had already put in, and was able to go out, play aggressive and let the rest take care of itself,” Wickham added.
After a successful weekend, the team is feeling good but also knows it must keep going forward.
“[The players] were excited,” Pepicelli said. “But I think they have some pretty high expectations and that is good.”
Cornell’s 2017 campaign continues next weekend as the club heads to Virginia to take on George Mason (4-7) for some more out-of-conference road play.
The Patriots will have already played 13 games compared to the Red’s three.
“They are a tough opponent,” Pepicelli said. “They have played a lot so far which never hurts … they are farther down the learning curve than we are. But we … are going to come off the bus with high expectations.”
Pepicelli has impressed in his players to be confident against every opponent and after every game — win or loss.
“George Mason will be another good test, but every weekend we are going to bring the same approach, and that is to be on the attack from the first pitch of every game,” Wickham said. “If we can do that, we can be successful against any team.”
The pitching rotation for GMU will stay the same as it was for Navy. Friday senior Tim Willittes will be on the hill, followed by southpaw sophomore Justin Lewis on Saturday. Balestrieri will anchor the series on Sunday.