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(Photo by Bill Allen/NJ SportAction)

FINAL CUT: Princeton University senior outfielder Adam Balkan awaits a pitch in action earlier this season. Last weekend, Balkan and the Tigers split two doubleheaders with Cornell to end up second in the Ivy League's Gehrig Division. It was the first time since 1995 that Princeton failed to win the Gehrig title. The Tigers, now 16-24 overall and 10-10 in Ivy play, close out their season by hosting Rider on May 4.
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Spotty Hitting, Defense Dooms Tiger Baseball As Gehrig Division Reign Ends with Cornell Split

By Bill Alden

After losing game one of its doubleheader with Cornell last Friday, the Princeton University baseball team found itself in a desperate situation.

The Tigers needed to win game two against the Big Red and then sweep a doubleheader at Cornell two days later in order to win their tenth straight title in the Ivy League's Gehrig Division.

With their backs to the wall, Princeton turned to freshman pitcher Christian Staehely, who brought a 0-4 record and a 5.87 ERA into the contest. The 6'3 native of Houston picked a good time to earn his first-ever college win as he recovered from surrendering three runs in the first innings to hold Cornell scoreless into the seventh as Princeton won 8-3.

"I knew I was definitely an underdog," said Staehely reflecting on his outing which saw him strike out four and give up five hits in 6 innings of work.

"I went out there and just tried to pitch my best. I was a little hesitant in the first inning. Once the game progressed, I got more confident. I just started tossing and trying to chuck it as hard as I could."

Staehely and the Tigers got dazzling offensive support from senior star outfielder Will Venable, who went 4-for-4 as he blasted two tape measure homers and knocked in five runs.

Unfortunately for Princeton, as hard as it tried, it couldn't build any momentum from its courageous effort in Friday's nightcap as Cornell won game one of Sunday's twinbill 4-3 to officially eliminate the Tigers from Gehrig Division contention.

The Tigers did win game two 7-6 in 10 innings on a Zach Wendkos homer but that provided little consolation on a day which saw Princeton get eliminated from the Gehrig Division title race for the first time since the 1995 season.

Princeton head coach Scott Bradley had hoped that his club could emulate the heroics shown by the Boston Red Sox last fall when they famously overcame a 3-0 deficit to topple the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series.

"I'm a Yankees fan but we had to keep relating it to the Red Sox," said Bradley, a former New York Yankees catcher whose team moved to 16-24 overall and 10-10 in Ivy play after the split last Sunday. "We're in that position, we had to come back. I wasn't quite sure if we felt desperate enough."

Bradley, who has guided the Tiger baseball program for the last eight seasons, acknowledged that this year's club lacked the magic of a team like the 2004 Red Sox.

"It's been one of those years," conceded Bradley, whose team struggled from the beginning of the season as it posted a 0-9 record in its season-opening southern swing.

"We lost a lot of leadership with the graduation of guys like Steve Young and Tim Lahey. We had a lot of dynamic personalities on the team last year. The team was never really able to regroup from that."

The Tigers' performance over the weekend of April 23-24 when it dropped three of four games to lowly Columbia epitomized Princeton's inconsistency this spring.

"I think we always felt like we could flip the switch on whenever we needed to," said Bradley, whose team will finish the season by hosting Rider on May 4. "We played against Columbia last weekend and they came in here with a 4-29 record. They played good baseball and we just didn't hit. In college baseball, if you don't hit, you're not going to win, it's that simple."

Another problem that plagued Princeton was its season-long inability to play sharp defense. "It's ridiculous," said Bradley, referring to his team's sloppiness in the field which saw it commit 87 errors and post a mediocre fielding percentage of .940 as compared to its opponents who committed 46 errors and had a fielding percentage of .967 in their games against Princeton. "I think we have given up something like 75 unearned runs this spring."

Staehely, for his part, acknowledged that Princeton's inconsistency resulted in a frustrating spring. "Losing is disheartening, no one likes losing," said Staehely.

"As coach said, we have the capability of beating any team as well as the capability of losing to any team. Our history this year kind of proves that sometimes we turn it on and other times we turn it off."

If Princeton is to get back atop the Gehrig Division next spring, it will need to emulate the focus that Staehely demonstrated last Friday as he battled to his first college win.

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