April 24, 2007

Baseball Battles Penn for Gehrig Division Supremacy

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The baseball team is at a crossroads. After dropping three straight contests last weekend to Columbia — accumulating its seventh consecutive Ivy League loss in the process —before salvaging its season with a win in Game 4 of the series, the Red dropped to the cellar of the Gehrig division. Now Cornell (13-19, 6-8 Ivy League) must sweep a doubleheader today with rival Penn (19-16, 11-7), who currently sits three games ahead of the squad in the conference standings, to have a chance at its second division title in three years.
“Last weekend we just got what we deserved,” said head coach Tom Ford. “We didn’t play well in the field and didn’t make it happen with the bats either. …There is no doubt that these are must-win games, we need to beat [Penn] twice to have a chance.”
If the Red manages to do this, it will also need to win at least three of four games against Princeton this weekend to stay in the race.
“If we take care of Penn, [the division title] is between us and them,” Ford said. “If we don’t, its between Penn and Princeton. … Either way, Penn is in the drivers seat.”
When the two teams last faced off 10 days ago, the Quakers swept the Red 4-2 and 5-4. Freshman pitchers Todd Roth and Jim Birmingham — both of whom surrendered only two runs in their respective starts — shut down the Red lineup in consecutive games to lead the way for the Quakers. After splitting a four-game series with Princeton this past weekend, however, Penn’s pitching staff is not at full strength. Both Roth and Birmingham started games on Saturday, meaning that it is highly unlikely the Red will see either pitcher today.
Unfortunately, Cornell is in exactly the same situation. Its top-4 starters — seniors Jim Hyland and Blake Hamilton, junior Walker Toma and freshman Tony Bertucci — all made starts against Columbia and will most likely not be available for today’s contests. As a result, the coaching staff is still unsure of who will start both games for Cornell.
“We are not going to throw Jimmy [Hyland] or any other starter on two days rest,” Ford said. “I still need to discuss who we’re going to throw out there with [assistant coach] Scott Marsh; it could be a game-time decision. I do know that we’re going to be using our whole staff, all of the guys need to be ready. … But they’re in the same boat with their top-4 guys gone too.”
Penn boasts a lethal offense, leading the Ivy League with 213 runs scored — compared to the Red’s 156 — and ranking second in team batting average (.292). Furthermore seven of the team’s nine starters currently sport an average of at least .298. Individually, the offense is led by juniors Alex Nwaka — who paces the team with a .336 average and 44 hits — and Kyle Armeny has a team-best eight home runs and 29 RBI.
Cornell will counter with the league’s best defense (.966 fielding percentage) and a number of offensive threats in the lineup.
“I’ve had a lot of confidence in this team the whole season defensively,” Ford said. “It really shocked me when we made so many errors last weekend.”
Sophomore Nathan Ford has a team-best .319 average among regular starters while junior second baseman Jimmy Heinz is the team’s main power threat, with four home runs and 22 RBI.
The hottest hitter in the lineup, however, may very well be freshman Justin Milo. Since taking over as the primary designated hitter for sophomore tri-captain Brant McKown midway through the season, Milo has proceeded to hit .450 to go along with seven doubles and two triples.
“Justin’s been doing a great job,” Ford said. “We just moved him to the No. 3 spot in the order, and he just puts the ball in play hard almost every time up; he’s our offensive spark.”
Although the pressure is on, Ford remains confident that his team will not go down without a fight.
“I’ve got a good feeling that this team will put forth a good effort [against Penn].”