Eager to turn things around after a turbulent start to its season, Cornell made headway when it exploded at the plate for a combined 21 runs in its doubleheader home opener on Sunday.
Facing nearby rival Niagara (5-11), the Red (2-9) split the doubleheader: Cornell won the first, a 17-5 blowout, while Niagara claimed the second game in a 7-4 nailbiter.
After a slew of relatively low-scoring games, the Red’s offense came out strong and early in game one. The team put up three runs in the first on a bases loaded double by senior outfielder Dale Wickham, followed by another three in the second and four more in the third — amounting to a healthy 10 run lead from which Cornell never looked back.
“It’ll never disappoint you, that many runs,” said head coach Dan Pepicelli. “I thought that even in game two I saw a lot of quality swings. I think we’re really starting to come out of it.”
Continuing its onslaught, senior outfielder Kyle Gallagher — who currently leads the team in batting average — led the inning with a double and later, a two run single when the Red batted around. He finished game one four for four with four RBIs.
On defense, the Red also looked comfortable on their home turf. Cornell made just two errors on the day, a welcome improvement from last weekend’s Fordham series when the Red amassed a total of nine errors.
Senior starting pitcher Tim Willittes cruised to his first win of the season. Tossing elusive stuff, he lasted seven innings, let up only seven hits, struck out five and gave up just one earned run. Niagara struggled to string together hits against the crafty starter.
However, game two did not get off to an auspicious start for the Red. Niagara quickly put up three runs in the first on a leadoff walk, a single, a triple, and a squeeze bunt. Things were quiet until Cornell clawed back two runs in the fourth off a triple from Wickham, followed by a sacrifice fly.
The outfielder’s performance in the doubleheader was a consistent bright spot for the Red. Having collected only three hits prior to Sunday, his six RBIs marked a welcome return to form for a player who batted just over .400 last season.
“I was just trying to relax out there and trust myself, and eventually this was bound to happen. It was a good day,” said Wickham. “See the baseball, try not to do too much with it, adjust to off-speed. It’s been the same approach all season.”
Cornell gave up a home-run that had some help from a lucky gust in the sixth, but got the run back in the bottom of the inning. In the seventh, the Red blanked the Purple Eagles and put up a run to tie the game on a wacky infield single from Gallagher — a squibber that bounced from foul to fair.
Niagara pulled away in the eighth by stringing together a couple doubles and singles for three runs. However, Cornell brought the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the eighth and loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth, but was not able to convert this last-ditch effort into runs.
Despite the loss, coach Pepicelli considered the series a success and remains optimistic looking forward.
“If we play up to our standard I think the scoreboard will take care of itself at the end of the weekend, but we’ve got to be sharp … and be a little bit better than we were this weekend. I’m really hoping it all comes together next weekend,” Pepicelli said.
The Red will travel to Penn State on Wednesday night, followed by a weekend series at Princeton, Cornell’s first chance at league play.