PHILADELPHIA - The first time Penn defeated Villanova this season, they did it largely with pitching. On Tuesday afternoon at Meiklejohn Stadium, the bats joined the party. Sparked by a career-high seven RBI from junior Greg Zebrack, who finished just a single shy of a cycle, the Quakers bombed the Villanova pitching staff and sent the Wildcats to their fifth loss in six games. Penn improved to 8-9 with the win in the opening game of the Liberty Bell Classic and will now face La Salle -an 11-2 winner over Lafayette- next week with a berth in the championship game at Citizens Bank Park on the line.
Facing the potent Wildcats attack for the second time in a week, head coach John Cole decided to put a large group of his freshmen arms into a trial by fire situation. Beginning with starter Sam Horn, each of the five who entered the game rose to the occasion, as Villanova could muster only six hits as Horn picked up his first win on the year.
But the pitching staff had plenty of help on this day. Zebrack got it started early on with a shot down the left field line after Brandon Engelhardt and Spencer Branigan reached to stake the Quakers to the early 3-0 lead. Not to rest on that advantage, Penn added two more in the bottom of the second as Zebrack tripled home James Mraz and Branigan to make it a 5-0 edge.
The Red and Blue continued to force the action in the fourth inning. Mraz reached with one away when he hit a sinking liner that the Villanova shortstop claimed to have caught in the air. The momentary delay caused by his looking to the umpire for a call allowed Mraz to reach and the senior stole second base soon after. Rather than face red-hot Zebrack again, the Wildcats elected to intentionally walk the center fielder but Rick Brebner made them pay with a single between first and second to make it 6-0. One batter later, Derek Vigoa singled in Zebrack with a ball past the third baseman to give Penn the 7-0 advantage headed into the fifth inning.
Villanova recovered with two runs of its own in the top half of the fifth, but that dent in Penn's lead was short-lived as the Quakers nearly batted around in the bottom of the inning, taking advantage of wildness from Wildcats reliever Matt Lengel to load the bases and scoring their first run of the frame after Branigan was hit with a pitch, forcing a run in. The next batter was Zebrack, exactly who Villanova didn't want to see when there were no bases open to allow him a free pass. He proved why when he crushed a ball high off the wall in center field, scoring two more runs to send Penn into the sixth inning with a comfortable 10-2 lead.
The Wildcats brought runs home in the sixth and seventh innings to close to within 10-4, but Ronnie Glenn put 'Nova's best chance to get back into the game to bed when he clawed his way out of a bases loaded, no out scenario in the seventh, giving up just the single run. Mraz tacked on an insurance run with a sacrifice fly to center in the bottom of the eighth, giving Penn its winning margin of 11-4.
The Red and Blue will now face the La Salle Explorers in one semifinal of the Liberty Bell Classic, happening next Tuesday. Delaware and St. Joseph's were the other winners today and will square off in another semi. Before that, Penn opens its Ivy League campaign with a pair of home doubleheaders this weekend against cross-divisional opponents Brown and Yale. The Quakers and Bears will do battle on Saturday with the Bulldogs coming to Philadelphia on Sunday. Each set of games begins at 12 p.m.