A year ago, the Yale baseball team trudged off Princeton’s Clarke Field, after the Tigers walked off in the bottom of the ninth inning on a wild pitch. That crushing 2–1 defeat in the third game of the Ivy League Championship Series extended the Elis’ conference championship drought to a 23rd fallow season.
On Tuesday, the opposition once again loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth inning, leaving the crowd at Yale Field — which had watched an early 11-run lead slip to eight, then six, then four — with a growing sense of apprehension. With the tying run at the plate, and the heart of the Penn lineup waiting for one more chance, reliever Griffin Dey ’19 whiffed Quaker leadoff hitter Mike Adams with a nasty 1–2 breaking pitch that spun out of the zone into the catcher’s mitt, leaving the bat flailing at thin air. The tension broken, the jubilant Bulldogs stormed the field to lift the program’s first league title since 1994.
“They worked hard in the weight room, worked hard in the fall, worked hard in the winter and it paid off,” head coach John Stuper said. “We have the best lineup in this league, if you make mistakes, most of the time we won’t foul it off. I’m really looking forward to playing some more baseball.”
Yale (30–16, 16–4) entered the game as the conference’s top seed by virtue of its sterling 16–4 regular season record. Penn (23–22, 12–9), on the other hand, needed a 6–3 victory in a one-game playoff with Columbia to punch its ticket to its first Championships series appearance since 2007. The two teams played twice during the regular season. Yale took both games, though the games arguably could have gone to Penn: The Quakers started their third and fourth starters in that series, and only an aberrant error from reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Tim Graul on a lazy fly ball allowed the Elis to come back and win the second half of that twinbill.
Both teams threw their aces in the opening game. The first two Penn hitters reached base against Eli starter Scott Politz ’19, but the righthander induced a double-play ball to escape the frame. Between the first and sixth innings, Politz retired 16 consecutive batters, and kept racking up the zeroes on the scoreboard.
Facing Penn righthander Jake Cousins, the Bulldogs took some time to find their stride. They scratched across a run in the fourth on a sacrifice fly from left fielder Alex Stiegler ’20, before extending their lead in the following frames. Captain and third baseman Richard Slenker ’17 singled home the second run with a line shot to left field. Right fielder Harrison White ’17 then blasted a missile to the gap in right center to score his captain, although designated hitter Benny Wanger ’19 was cut down at the plate by a textbook relay, breaking his thumb in the slide.
Yale pushed across two more runs in the sixth on a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly, chasing Cousins and tagging the Penn ace for five runs in the final start of his career. Politz only needed one of those five runs to win the game, scattering five hits and not allowing a runner to reach third base in his complete game effort.
“My goal was to get through seven, and then at that point I would just keep going as long as coach wanted me out there,” Politz said. “I was still feeling good, still hitting a lot of spots. They let me go, and it worked out.”
After taking the first game 5–0, the Bulldogs emerged from the dugout less than an hour later in an identical position to a year ago, needing one more win to clinch the elusive league championships and a spot in the NCAA tournament.
They wasted no time getting started and three runners crossed the plate before the fans had settled into their seats. Center fielder Tim DeGraw ’19 jumped on a fastball and sprayed a double into the gap to open the game, and after a groundout, Slenker singled him home. Then Wanger, broken thumb and all, turned on a breaking pitch and shot it on a line into the bullpen in right field for a two-run homer. Yale tacked on a fourth run in the opening frame to give starter Eric Brodkowitz ’18 a healthy advantage to work with. The righthander also allowed an opening single, before settling in to allow just two baserunners in the first four innings, as his offense worked to extend the advantage.
DeGraw came up to the plate with two on and two gone in the top of the third. Power is the only offensive attribute the leadoff hitter doesn’t possess in spades; he had played 93 career games in his college career without going deep. But the center fielder picked a perfect time to open his account, blasting a high fly ball to left field that sent Graul back to the warning track, where he could only watch as the ball sailed way over the fence to hand Yale a 7–0 lead. A single from leadoff hitter and second baseman Simon Whiteman ’19 chased Penn starter Adam Bleday, who entered the day leading the Ancient Eight in strikeouts by a wide margin. The Quaker bullpen could not stop the Yale deluge. Slenker walked, before Wanger continued his sublime offensive display by crushing a moonshot to dead center for his second longball of the day.
“They started me off with curveballs pretty much every at-bat today,” Wanger said. “It didn’t go great in the first game, but I adjusted to it and started sitting on a lot of curveballs. I ended up getting a couple ones to hit so I put a good swing on them.”
DeGraw singled home shortstop Dai Dai Otaka ’20 for Yale’s 11th run in the fifth, before the center fielder suffered a cramp in the same inning that forced him from the game.
Brodkowitz had cruised through the first four frames on the mound for Yale, but his defense let him down in the fifth. Otaka booted a ground ball to open the inning, before a tailor-made double play ball took a funny hop and ticked off Whiteman’s glove into the outfield. By the time Yale escaped the inning, three Quakers had crossed the plate to slash the deficit to eight.
Brodkowitz loaded the bases with two outs in the sixth, but Tyler Duncan ’18 came on in relief to catch Adams looking on a 3–2 pitch to leave the bases juiced and Penn empty-handed. Graul hit a two-run homer to open the seventh to make the score 11–5. When Duncan came out again for the eighth, Penn cut the deficit again. Rightfielder Daniel Halvey hit a shot down the left field line that clanked off the foul pole, and after a lengthy consultation, the umpires correctly awarded him a home run that made the score 11–6. A double chased Duncan, but the inherited runner came around to score off reliever Tyler Sapsford ’20.
Dey entered for the ninth, and retired the first batter before running into trouble of his own making. He walked the second Penn hitter of the inning, before making an errant throw to second on an off-target comebacker that had seemed to herald a game-ending double play when it left the bat. The sidewinder bore down, and induced a weak pop fly to center, before an infield single loaded the bases. Adams came up again with the bases loaded, and Dey quickly worked himself ahead 0–2 before slamming the door in style, preserving Yale’s 11–7 win.
The Elis hoisted their first championship since Stuper’s second year at the helm of the program. The Bulldogs discover their NCAA regional host and opponents on May 29; there are 16 regionals hosted by the highest-seeded team, with four teams in each regional. The most current projection from Baseball America has them traveling to Stanford.
“We finished the job this time,” Politz said. “Now, we want to win the regional. Why not? We have a hell of a team. There’s no reason not to shoot for the stars.”
Yale made the finals of each of the first two College World Series in 1947 and 1948, losing to University of California, Berkeley and the University of Southern California, respectively, but this year will mark only the Elis’ third tournament appearance since.