Cornell baseball is well-versed in early-season challenges. Head coach Dan Pepicelli throws down the late-winter gauntlet year after year in hopes of taking a battle-hardened squad into conference play.
The Red’s first win of the season came against a familiar foe.
After suffering a sweep at the hands of No. 12 Duke last weekend, the Red took one of three games on neutral southern ground against regional opponent Niagara University.
“Really rough conditions this past weekend,” Pepicelli said. “The field was not in good shape at all. It was cold and windy down there [in Colonial Heights, Va.], small ballpark. It was rough. I thought we hung tough. We really did.”
After holding ACC powerhouse Duke to three or fewer runs twice last week, the Red’s pitching was dinged for eight in each of its first two clashes with Niagara.
“The first weekend we pitched the heck out of it. It was just tough to get outs on Saturday,” said Pepicelli. “We pitched okay.”
In game three, Cornell finally broke through. Senior John Natoli, who held the Blue Devils scoreless in five innings last week, grinded out another solid performance. He held Niagara to one run over six innings on his way to a win.
“Natoli came out on Sunday and the mound was in terrible shape,” said Pepicelli. “Where your front foot lands the hole went up to your ankle. That really changes things for a pitcher, but John responded. He’s such a competitor that before you know it he’s thrown six innings and only given up one earned.”
The Red offense was spurred on by veterans Nicholas Binnie and Ramon Garza, both juniors, who came through with big RBIs to give Cornell a lead in the middle innings. The Red then batted around in the sixth to extend its lead to 6-1. A late push by Niagara proved the insurance runs necessary.
Cornell’s offensive output in the win signals an improvement from a slow start. The Red took a major blow to its confidence at the start of its season, losing to Duke in a perfect game tossed by All-American pitcher Bryce Jarvis.
“I see their confidence improving,” said Pepicelli. “We started the first game of the year against Jarvis and he did what he did to us. There’s a bit of a battle getting your confidence worked back up.”
After a five-game losing streak, the Red’s game-three win against Niagara helped turn around the team’s spirits, as its failure to previously scratch together a win in tough conditions had dampened the start of the season.
“Sunday was a better result,” said Pepicelli. “I still think there’s better in us, but we’re heading in the right direction.”
Freshman pitcher Spencer Edwards, who gave up just one run in five innings in his collegiate debut against Duke, faced immediate trouble against Niagara, giving up five runs, and three unearned, in a sloppy second inning. But even in the losses, Pepicelli saw positive takeaways.
“[Edwards’ response] is what fired me up,” said Pepicelli. “I could tell in the first inning this wasn’t going to be as pristine as Duke. He was missing with his slider and that’s a good pitch for him … so they were sitting on his fastball and getting to him a bit. But throughout the course of the appearance, he got better and better. He didn’t go into a shell at all.”
The gauntlet continues this weekend when the Red will be on the road again to face another formidable adversary, the University of South Carolina.
“We’ve got a heck of a weekend ahead of us,” Pepicelli said. “Just when they start to get rolling a little bit they’re going to get some SEC pitching.”