In 2007, the University of Pennsylvania baseball team returned to the level it had been at for many years in the mid-1990s. However, the Quakers success seemed unlikely, given a preseason projection of finishing last in the Gehrig Division by Baseball America and a large cast of inexperienced players who would see the majority of the playing time. However, when all was said and done, Penn clinched its first Gehrig Division title since 1995 and played for a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Much of that inexperience and youthfulness ended up carrying the team. On the mound, freshmen Todd Roth and Jim Birmingham led a pitching staff that decreased its team ERA by nearly three runs per game. They proved to be a solid one-two punch that solidified the rotation.
Roth was the ace of the staff, going6-2 with a 1.98 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 68 1/3 innings pitched. He led the Ivy League in ERA, opponents batting average and strikeouts, while tossing seven consecutive complete games. He was named Ivy League Rookie of the Year and First-Team All-Ivy.
Birmingham went 4-2 on the season in 64 1/3 innings pitched. The lefty finished second in the Ivy League, holding opponents to just a .232 batting average. Birmingham was a perfect 4-0 with a 3.15 ERA in six Ivy League starts and earned honorable mention All-Ivy.
Fellow freshmen Matt Toffaletti and William Gordon come on strong down the stretch after slow starts. Both batted around .300 the last few weeks of the season and played sound defense on the left side of the infield. Toffaletti hit safely in nine of his last 12 games, while Gordon carried a 13-game hitting streak in April.
There was no surprises as to what to expect from outfielders Joey Boaen and Alex Nwaka; both finished in the top-four on the team in hitting. Boaen hit safely in his final 14 games and led the Quakers with 49 hits. A second-team All-Ivy selection, he was also one of Penn’s most clutch hitters, batting .375 with runners in scoring position. Nwaka led the team in hitting for much of the season and finished with a .324 average. He scored 32 runs and tied with Boaen for the team lead with nine stolen bases.
The biggest surprise in the outfield was Jarron Smith. The junior heated up as Ivy League play started and batted .353 in League play. Smith was a formidable lead-off man, leading Penn with a .454 on-base percentage. His efforts earned him second-team All-Ivy honors.
Smith proved to be the sparkplug in the Quakers’ lineup, but the force in the middle came from junior Kyle Armeny who led Penn in batting average (.326), runs (35), doubles (14), home runs (8), total bases (84), slugging percentage (.596) and walks (29). The honorable mention All-Ivy selection put fear in opposing pitchers and became the one hitter other teams would not allow to beat them.
Penn went 3-5 in Florida with wins over Mount St. Mary’s, Boston College and St. Bonaventure. The Quakers showed flashes of what could be in their wins, scoring 17 runs against the Bonnies, Roth’s seven shutout innings against the Mount, and Armeny’s walk-off homer against BC. However, Penn showed inconsistencies in their losses, allowing opponents to reach double digits in all five losses and committing a number of errors.
The Quakers returned from Florida and started playing more consistent baseball. Penn went 2-2, but could have just as easily won all four with both losses coming in extra innings. Roth’s 8-0 complete-game shutout over Georgetown on March 18 became a recurring theme for the rookie, as he would go on to throw a complete game in his next six starts.
The Ivy Season
Despite losing three games to Columbia to open League play, Roth almost etched his name into the Penn record books, coming one out away from tossing a no-hitter. He was masterful on the mound, retiring the first thirteen batters he faced. Roth took his no-hitter into the seventh inning and was one out away from becoming the first Penn pitcher since Andrew McCreery in 2001 to accomplish the rare feat in the 12-0 victory.
Penn got back to 4-4 in the Ancient Eight the following weekend by splitting a doubleheader with Harvard and sweeping Dartmouth. Against the Crimson, Smith broke a 3-3 tie with a three-run homer in the seventh. On the mound, Birmingham threw seven solid innings for the Red and Blue. Despite six walks, he left the game without giving up a hit. After a shaky fifth inning, Birmingham settled down and retired six of the seven final batters he faced.
Hitting the road for the first time in Ivy League play, the Quakers swept Yale. In the first game, the Quakers put up six runs in the top of the eighth to win, keyed by Armeny’s single up the middle to score Gordon for the game-winning run. In the second game, Birmingham pitched a gem, allowing just one run and striking out seven for the first complete game of his collegiate career. Toffaletti went 2-for-5 with five RBI, including a three-run homer in the seventh.
After cold weather forced Penn’s game at Brown to be postponed on Easter Sunday, the Quakers responded the following day with a 5-3 victory in Game 1 behind the heroics of Roth, Toffaletti and Gordon. Roth held the Bears scoreless for the final four innings, while offensively Toffaletti hit a solo shot in the fourth that tied the score and Gordon knocked in the go ahead run in the seventh. Despite losing the second game, Penn sat at 7-5 and would head to first-place Cornell the following weekend.
Penn took care of business against the Big Red in an abbreviated sweep. In a 4-2 Game 1 victory, Roth retired 14 of the final 16 batters he faced, allowing just two baserunners over the final four innings. Once again, Gordon delivered a two-run single in the fifth that gave the Red and Blue the lead for good. In the nightcap, Birmingham gave up just two runs in seven innings. Andy Console pitched the final two innings for his second save of the season.
With Sunday’s doubleheader with Cornell postponed, the Quakers were forced to play six games in four days. Penn started its four-game set against Princeton with a doubleheader sweep. Penn received quality starts from both Roth and Birmingham, while the offense churned out 24 hits in two games in an 11-1 Game 1 win and a 6-4 nightcap victory.
With a chance to clinch the division the next day, the Red and Blue faltered, losing both ends of the twinbill to the Tigers. Penn headed back to Cornell two days later to finish its Ivy League slate. Penn took Game 1, 13-1, to clinch a share of the division. Boaen and Jeff Cellucci ignited the offense in Game 1. Boaen collected three hits, including a three-run homer in the seventh. Cellucci went 4-for-4 with four RBI. Game 2 was a 12-inning whirlwind affair that saw runs in all but three of the first nine innings. Every time Penn scored a run, the Big Red answered right back. Cornell had the last laugh, scoring in the bottom of the 12th to win the contest 11-10.
Since Penn’s regular season was over, they were forced to wait out the Cornell-Princeton series. Princeton had to sweep the Big Red to clinch a share of the division and came within one win of doing so, but lost in the final game of the series to give Penn the division title.
Ivy League Championship Series
With the division title all to themselves, the Quakers headed to Providence, R.I. to face Rolfe Division winner Brown in a best-of-three series for the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Game 1 was an old-fashioned pitchers duel between Roth and the Bears’ Jeff Dietz. Both pitchers went the distance and did not allow an earned run. Dietz gave up just three hits and struck out 10. Roth, meanwhile,pitched his seventh consecutive complete game this season and pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the sixth. Dietz had the upper hand in the game not only because he was the winning pitcher, but because he brought in the game’s only run with a sacrifice fly in the eighth to give Brown a 1-0 series lead.
Brown carried its momentum into Game 2, getting to Penn for 22 hits in a 20-6 drubbing.
Despite falling short of reaching the tournament, Penn surpassed expectations in 2007. The Quakers became a contender a year before they were expected to, and laid the foundation to restore prominence to the program again.