Timely hitting and solid pitching carried the Cornell baseball team to a series win over the defending Ivy League champions and interstate rival Columbia this past weekend. Cornell (12-14, 5-5 Ivy) split Saturday’s doubleheader before sweeping the twin bill on Sunday over the Lions (10-21, 4-8), improving to .500 in league play.
Head coach Dan Pepicelli said he was pleased with his team’s performance.
“I’m definitely proud of the guys — I thought they did a really great job of competing,” he said.
Although Columbia has had its fair share of struggles in the 2016 campaign, beating the defending champions is always an accomplishment.
“I’m excited about the weekend overall,” Pepicelli said. “Columbia is a fantastic program — a proud program — so it’s good to get in here and play up to our standards to take the series.”
After beating Binghamton on Wednesday, Cornell sent junior right-hander Paul Balestrieri to the mound for game one on Saturday. Balestrieri went six strong innings, holding the Lions’ offense to just two earned runs on five hits.
The Red trailed twice early on but a two-run triple from sophomore Dale Wickham in the third gave Cornell its first lead of the game. Junior first baseman Cole Rutherford added a two-run homerun in the fifth and an RBI single in the sixth to widen his team’s lead. Junior Rob Pannullo closed it out on the mound for Cornell. The Red won 9-3.
Pepicelli gave the nod to junior right-hander Tim Willittes to start game two, but Willittes could not solve Columbia’s offense on Saturday.
After Rutherford’s RBI single in the first gave the Red an early lead, the Lions roared back in the top half of the second with six runs on six hits to chase Willittes after just an inning and two-thirds.
Columbia would tack on four more in the third and held on to the comfortable lead for a 14-4 win over Cornell. The Red managed 12 hits in the loss but could not piece together the rally it needed.
On the following day, a sunny 70 degree afternoon on Ithaca’s Hoy Field, the Cornell bats once again came alive and powered the Red to the series win. The trio of sophomore starter Justin Lewis and relievers Michael Byrne and Pannullo pieced together a solid pitching performance for Cornell whose offense put up seven runs on eight hits.
After falling behind 1-0, junior shortstop Frankie Padulo launched a three-run homer down the left field line to give Cornell a 4-1 lead. The Lions got three back in the fifth to regain the lead, but the Red offense was not nearly finished. Rutherford ripped an RBI double to score sophomore catcher Ellis Bitar, and freshmen Mark Fraser knocked Rutherford in to give Cornell a 5-4 lead. The Red added two more before closing out Columbia for the 7-4 win.
Hours later, looking to avoid another double-header split, junior Peter Lannoo gave Cornell just what was needed, pitching into the eighth and allowing just three runs, all of which came in the first. Pepicelli commended his starter on making a key adjustment after a rough opening frame.
“They were on his fastball in the first inning,” Pepicelli said. “But he just changed gears a little bit and started going off speed some more with his changeup … Pete gave us a really quality start after that.”
For much of the game, Columbia’s pitching stymied the Red offense, and Cornell managed just one run through the first six innings. But the middle of the order woke up with two outs in the seventh, and tied the game at three. With Rutherford on second, Wickham singled to center, and Rutherford narrowly beat a strong relay throw home to give the Red its first lead of the game.
“Up to that point, we didn’t have anything going offensively, but the seventh was huge for us,” Pepicelli said.
Righty Austin Wahl closed the game out in the ninth, and Cornell held on to win 4-3 to take the series.
Pepicelli said he was proud of the way his team stayed in it the whole way, despite being down. “This game speaks to the toughness of the group that they’ve been tough all year… I’m proud of that.”
Rutherford finished the day going a perfect seven-for-seven with three RBI. He totaled 11 hits in the four games. Though he struggled at the plate before this weekend , he said he now feels dialed in.
“I felt good up there,” Rutherford said. “It’s kind of been a struggle the last few weeks so it was nice to help the team win.”
Rutherford said he was happy with the series win, but did not expect any less.
“[Winning 3 of 4] is huge. That was what we came in this weekend hoping to do,” he said. “We expect to win every game so this isn’t surprising. We’ve proven that when we play at our standard, we can be a very competitive ball club day in and day out”
Cornell is now 5-5 in the Ivy League and sits in second place in the Lou Gehrig division behind Princeton. Next up, Dartmouth comes to town for a pair of games starting Wednesday at noon.
The quick turnaround is not ideal, but Pepicelli said he knows it will not be an issue.
“It’s tough but they’re in the same boat too,” Pepicelli said. “It won’t be easy but we’ll be ready come Wednesday.”