The 2017 season will not have the storybook ending that Cornell baseball’s 12 seniors were hoping for, but Sunday’s doubleheader sweep over defending Ivy League champion Princeton should at least leave them with a good taste in their mouths.
“It’s good to end it on a high note,” said head coach Dan Pepicelli. “It’s nice to be able to do that in front of your home fans.”
After losing three out of four to Penn last weekend, Cornell (21-17, 9-11 Ivy) was eliminated from postseason contention. The team still had five games remaining, however, and was determined to go out with a bang. Another win over Binghamton in the middle of the week and two of four against Princeton — both wins coming on Senior Day — gave the Red a winning record and some momentum going into the offseason.
The home and away series featured two games at Princeton on Friday and two more Sunday on Hoy Field. Princeton (12-28-1, 7-13) scored 18 runs on Friday and took the first two games.
Senior Tim Willittes took the mound in game one but was not his usual self. The righthander gave up five runs and five hits in five innings pitched. The Red did manage to stay close for most of the game, thanks in large part to three hits and three RBIs from junior right fielder Dale Wickham in his return from injury. The Cornell bullpen yielded four more in the sixth, however, and the Tigers took game one, 9-7.
In game two, junior Justin Lewis gave Cornell a solid start over 5.1 innings, but the Red’s bullpen once again failed to get keys outs late in the ballgame. Lewis left the game with a 4-2 lead, but freshman Colby Wyatt surrendered a three run homer to the first batter he faced in the bottom half of the sixth to give Princeton the lead. The Tigers scored four in the seventh off senior Matt Horton and took game two, 9-5. Sophomore Will Simoneit had his third double of the day in the defeat.
Coming back to Ithaca, the Red needed to win both games to avoid finishing in last place in the Gehrig Division for the second consecutive season. That, coupled with the added pressure of playing on Senior Day, brought out the team’s best, as Cornell earned two lopsided victories to close out its season.
Junior righthander Tommy Morris took the ball in game three and battled his way through five innings. Giving up just one run on eight hits, Morris worked himself out of jams inning after inning. Down 1-0 in the bottom of the sixth, the Red loaded the bases for the hot-hitting Simoneit, who launched a grand slam over the fence in left center field. Cornell held onto the lead and won 5-1.
In the Red’s final game of the season, Pepicelli turned to none other than senior Paul Balestrieri for his last ever start. Reminiscent of several of his prior outings this season, Balestrieri was dominant. He yielded just one unearned run on one hit over 7.2 innings.
“Today was really special,” Balestrieri said after the game. “I couldn’t have asked for a better way to go out besides winning a championship.”
Unlike Princeton, the Red had itself a day at the plate. Six multi-hit performances and 18 overall hits powered Cornell to a 13-1 victory. Senior second baseman Frankie Padulo went 4-4 in his final game in a Cornell uniform, Wickham had three more hits and so did fellow juniors Ryan Krainz and Pierre Le Dorze. Sophomore catcher Ellis Bitar was 2-2 with three RBIs on the day.
Though many valuable seniors will depart, Wickham, Krainz and Le Dorze are part of a core group of hitters returning to the team next year.
“We bring a lot of good hitters back,” Pepicelli said. “I think it’ll be a really talented team on the field next spring.”
Senior closer Pete Lannoo recorded the final two outs in the ninth to seal the deal on the 2017 campaign.
After the conclusion of the game, the 12 Cornell seniors took one final victory lap around the bases as friends and family joined them on the field. Although the seniors — along with the entire team — had certainly hoped to continue playing into May, the dominant pair of wins in front of its home crowd left the tightly-knit group with something to be proud of.
“I’ve been getting choked up all day since I’m going to miss these guys a lot,” Balestrieri said as he fought back tears. “This is a great group, a fantastic coaching staff, and I’m really blessed to have had four years here.”
When all was said and done, Pepicelli took a moment to reflect on the soon-to-be graduates.
“It hasn’t been just one senior, it’s been the entire group that really decided to elevate the program,” he said. “They did a phenomenal job of taking us to a higher level. Paul [Balestrieri] is right at the head of that, but they’ve all played an important role in helping us to get where we need to be.”