IN THE SWING: Princeton University baseball star Alec Keller prepares to swing in a game earlier this season. Sophomore Keller has emerged as a star for the Tigers this spring, currently hitting a team-high .425. Last weekend, Princeton got its Ivy League title defense off to a strong start, going 3-1 as it split a doubleheader against Dartmouth on Saturday and then swept Harvard in a twinbill on Sunday. The Tigers, who improved to 9-10 overall and 3-1 Ivy, play doubleheaders at Yale on April 7 and at Brown on April 8. (Photo by Stephen Goldsmith)
As a freshman last spring, Alec Keller was part of the supporting cast for a Princeton University baseball team that came through with the Ivy League title.
Adjusting to college baseball and dealing with some nagging injury issues, infielder/outfielder Keller produced a solid debut season, hitting .297 with 27 hits, 13 runs, and three doubles.
Looking forward to his sophomore campaign, Keller had the feeling that he could assume a leading role for the Tigers.
“Coming into this year, I knew the ropes a little bit more,” said Keller. “I was more prepared and more confident that I could do certain stuff. I feel a lot healthier so that’s definitely been big. I had some back problems last year.”
A month into the 2012 season, Keller has been doing some big things for the Tigers, batting a team-high .425 and piling up 31 hits.
Last Sunday, Keller’s hot bat helped Princeton sweep a doubleheader from visiting Harvard. In a 4-1 win in Game 1, Keller went 1-for-4 with an RBI. In the nightcap, Keller had three hits with a run and an RBI to help Princeton to a 12-6 win as it improved to 9-10 overall and 3-1 in Ivy League play.
In assessing the wins over Harvard, Keller noted that it took a while for the the Princeton bats to get rolling.
“We kind of fell into a lull in the first game today but Matty [Bowman] picked us up on the mound and we scraped it across,” said the 6’1, 185-pound Keller, a native of Richmond, Va.
“We have got to win those games when they come; that [good pitching] won’t always be there. In the second game, they were kind of down the line on pitching and we took advantage of that.”
While the Tigers started the weekend and the Ivy season by splitting with Dartmouth, Keller was satisfied seeing the Tigers scrape out a 3-1 weekend.
“We wanted to start 4-0 but Dartmouth is probably the best team we are going to face at this point,” said Keller, who went 2-of-7 in the twinbill against the Big Green as Princeton won 8-0 and then lost 8-2 in a rematch of the 2011 Ivy League Championship Series.
“Last year we dropped two to them in the regular season so we split this year. We have just got to come out next weekend and take advantage and hopefully take four.”
In Keller’s view, the Tigers are poised to build on last year’s reversal of fortune which saw Princeton win the Ivy title after having posted the worst record in the league in 2010.
“We had so many unproven guys; even though we knew we were talented, we didn’t how we would piece it together,” said Keller. “Now, we have more expectations than we did before because we know guys can do certain things so that helps.”
Princeton head coach Scott Bradley got the effort he expected from his players as they started their Ivy title defense.
“Every day you come out and every game is critical,” said Bradley, who is in his 15th season at the helm of the Tigers.
“We have had years where you lose by a game so every game that you play is important. We have always stressed to our teams the importance of being able to forget what happened the game before and we are at that point now.”
Putting the split to Dartmouth in the rear view mirror, Princeton took care of business on Sunday against the Crimson.
In Game 1, Princeton got enough out of the three hits and seven walks it generated to get the win as Matt Bowman was sparking on the mound, giving up six hits with nine strikeouts.
The Tiger bats exploded in the nightcap as Princeton pounded out 16 hits with senior star Sam Mulroy going 3-for-3, junior Steve Harrington getting three hits and three RBIs, freshman catcher Tyler Servais going 2-for-5 with a homer and two RBIs, and former Hun School star Mike Ford contributing two hits and two RBIs.
Bradley liked the way his team scratched out the win in the opener. “We took advantage, for some of our guys drawing walks is a good thing,” noted Bradley.
“We have had some stretches where we have been overly aggressive. We did what we needed to do to get on base and Matty Bowman was terrific on the mound.”
Noting that Keller, Mulroy, and Bowman have been carrying the Princeton offense this spring, Bradley was happy to see others get into the act in the second game.
“It was not just good for the team; it was good for those guys,” said Bradley.
“We had some guys who need to get going. It was good for Mike Ford. Tyler Servais is really showing us something; it is so nice having a switch hitter you can put in the middle of the lineup.”
It has been nice for Princeton to have Keller doing so well this spring in the lead-off spot.
“I think he has been healthy this year; he just had some minor little nagging injuries last season where he would play for a couple of days in a row and then we would have to sit him out,” said Bradley.
“He did a great job on his conditioning and working with our trainers and everything else where he has stayed healthy all year.”
With Princeton currently locked in a four-way tie with Columbia, Cornell, and Penn for first place in the Ivy League’s Gehrig Division, Bradley knows his squad faces a healthy challenge in its bid to repeat as league champions.
“I think the Ivy League is going to be very, very competitive like it always is,” asserted Bradley, whose club has doubleheaders this weekend at Rolfe Division foes Yale (6-17-1 overall, 0-4 Ivy) and Brown (4-16 overall, 2-2 Ivy).
“We have brought some really terrific new young coaches into the league and they are on our half. Brett Boretti (Columbia), John Cole (Penn), and Bill Walkenbach (Cornell) have really breathed a lot of energy into those programs and you can just see the starts that they have all gotten off to. It’s going to go down to the last Sunday. There is no doubt that it is going to be very competitive for everybody.”
Keller, for his part, believes Princeton can come out on top against its Ivy competition notwithstanding the pressure of being the defending champion.
“We know that teams are gunning for us,” said Keller. “We feel that if we bring our best and they bring their best, we are going to win. I don’t think the bull’s eye is going to affect us.”