May 10, 2023

With Vinci Emerging as Record-Breaking Slugger, PU Baseball Headed to Ivy Postseason Tournament

POWER SURGE: Princeton University baseball player Kyle Vinci waits for a pitch in recent action. Last Saturday, junior star Vinci hit a homer in a 6-5 win over Brown. It was Vinci’s 20th home run of the spring, a new Ivy League single-season record. Vinci was later named the Ivy Player of the Week, going 6 for 15 with three homers, four runs, and eight RBIs as Princeton fell 8-7 to Rutgers last Wednesday and then went 1-2 in the weekend series against Brown. The Tigers, now 22-21 overall and 13-8 Ivy, are next in action when they compete in the league postseason tournament from May 19-22. (Photo by Shelley Szwast, provided courtesy of Princeton Athletics)

By Justin Feil

Princeton University baseball head coach Scott Bradley had a vision for Kyle Vinci four years ago.

Vinci then was a high school player putting up strong power numbers for nearby powerhouse Delbarton School.

“He told me he wanted me to be a middle of the lineup guy putting balls into the trees in center field,” said Vinci. “I definitely knew this is what I was capable of, and it’s just great to see it.”

Last Saturday, Vinci set the Ivy League single-season record for home runs with his 20th in a 6-5 win over Brown as the Tigers split a doubleheader with the Bears, having fallen 6-3 in the opener. Brown earned the series win when they beat Princeton, 11-4, a day later in the Tigers’ final game before the Ivy League postseason tournament begins on May 19. The Tigers are 21-21 overall, and 13-8 to end the Ivy regular season. They are off for exams until the tournament gets under way at the home of the Ivy’s top-seeded Ivy team, which will be determined this coming weekend. The four-team, double-elimination competition will decide the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tourney.

“We’ve had some really good games where we go out and play really solid defense and we pitch really well and we hit really well,” said first baseman Vinci, who was later named the Ivy Player of the Week after going 6 for 15 with three homers, four runs, and eight RBIs over four games, including the Brown series and an 8-7 loss to Rutgers on May 3.

“That leads to a great weekend overall. I think we’ve seen what we’re capable of and we know we can compete with any team in this league. So we’re just looking forward to putting our best foot forward and going out and competing.”

The 6’3, 230-pound junior slugger has been a big bat in the Tigers’ lineup all season, and the best power hitter the league has seen. He broke an Ivy record that had almost stood 40 years, dating back to Gene Larkin of Columbia, a future Major Leaguer, who set the mark of 19 in 1984.

“It’s awesome,” said Vinci. “We’ve worked super hard throughout the winter trying to get our swings down and see as much pitching as possible. It’s super fun to be able to go out and play and have some success.”

Vinci had already broke Princeton’s previous program record of 13 set by Michael E. Ciminiello in 1996 when he hit a grand slam for his 14th round-tripper in a 9-6 win over Rider. Vinci hadn’t even known that he was closing in on the record until a month ago.

“I was watching one of my home runs against Seton Hall and they mentioned it,” said Vinci. “I hadn’t even thought about it. So then I had to go and check.”

Vinci has posted video game-like power numbers with 20 home runs in just 41 games.

“We see it every day in batting practice,” said Bradley. “His freshman year during COVID, when we were just scrimmaging amongst ourselves, you could see it. He was a big-time recruit coming out of Delbarton, which is not only one of the best teams in the state but one of the best teams in the country. His whole team was stacked left and right and Kyle was a big part of that team. We were really excited to get him, and he showed flashes of big-time power during the training sessions we ran during COVID.”

Vinci had hoped to show off his power and help the Tigers a year ago. After missing out on the chance to play when the Ivy League canceled athletic contests for most of the 2021 season, Vinci got off to a slow start in 2022. He got only 23 at bats and had one hit. It was a home run. Vinci was battling bone chips in his elbow that limited him.

“With how hard we had worked all winter, it was more just disappointing than frustrating,” said Vinci. “Just not performing to my expectations and getting hurt after that and finding out I wouldn’t be able to play anymore. Then I took my time that I needed to recover from surgery and got back to work over the summer and the fall and the winter. It just feels great to see everything paying off now.”

Vinci missed the final six weeks of the season and had surgery to repair his elbow. He couldn’t throw until July.

“It had bothered me for years,” said Vinci. “I never really knew what it was. It started to get worse and worse over the course of last year. Until one day during batting practice, I took a swing and I couldn’t move my arm.”

Following his surgery, he began working himself back into shape. He was ready to go when he returned to campus for his third year at Princeton, the first one of a full baseball season. A promising fall and winter led him into what’s been a record-setting spring.

“I definitely knew that I was able to compete in this way,” said Vinci. “After everything we had done over the winter and fall — hitting off our pitchers, hitting off the machine, competing against our guys — I knew I definitely had the ability. It was just whether or not I’d actually put that into games. It’s been great seeing how it’s been going.”

Getting going was vital to Vinci’s success. Though he’s gone on to blast epic home runs like one over Princeton’s scoreboard, it is the first one this season that stands out as most important to him.

“My favorite this year was my first one at Georgia,” said Vinci. “It felt great to get on the board and it gave me a bunch of confidence just going through the rest of the year.”

After his struggles the year before, he signaled that he was back to 100 percent with two home runs in the season opener at Georgia. That set this season’s power surge in motion.

“He had very limited playing opportunities last year,” said Bradley. “I think for Kyle’s confidence it helped that he hit a few down in Georgia to start. We hit him fifth in the lineup and tell him, ‘just make sure you get off good swings and don’t worry about strikeouts, just try to get off good swings every at bat.’ He’s capable of really a lot of damage.”

His 57 runs batted in this spring is also a program record. The old mark of 53 stood since 1985 off the bat of Drew Stratton. Vinci is just one part of an offense that can score runs in bunches. He certainly does his part.

“When you have power like this, you live with stretches where you’re going to strike out but you know he’s going to do some damage,” said Bradley, who is also getting a great year from junior Scott Bandura (.365, 9 homers, 41 RBIs). “It’s just a matter of time.”

Vinci would have loved to have had the chance to show off earlier, but the pandemic and his injury prevented that. This season has shown just how well he has been able to translate high school success into college ability.

“I guess it’s trying to make practice harder than the games,” said Vinci. “Our coaches do a really great job at challenging us at practice. We’ll dial up the machine to speeds we won’t actually see on weekends, but it gets our eyes trained and ready to see some higher velocity and some higher spin breaking balls. So just seeing that over and over and over again has really allowed us to be more prepared for everything we’ve seen.”

When Vinci is locked in, opposing pitchers have a hard time keeping the ball in the park. Vinci tries to keep an even keel on his approach.

“There are definitely times when I’m feeling good and sometimes when I’m not feeling great,” said Vinci. “Every time, no matter how you’re feeling, I try and go and compete in the box and try to put a good swing on the ball.”

It’s hard to believe at a time when the game is analyzed so minutely that teams are still willing to pitch to him. Princeton has other big bats, but nobody with Vinci’s consistency of power.

“I think everybody is confident in their pitching,” said Vinci, who is hitting .252 and has scored 37 runs to go with his power numbers.

“You think you can get everybody out. That happens sometimes. And sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s going my way and sometimes it’s not. It’s just our lineup is so strong. If you pitch around somebody you run into somebody else who’s just as dangerous. We can produce runs everywhere in the lineup.”

The Tigers are looking to continue their strong hitting in the Ivy tournament. They hope also to get good fielding and pitching. Princeton showed its capabilities in a sweep of Yale in a doubleheader April 28. Tom Chmielewski fired a complete-game shutout and Jackson Emus, Jacob Faulkner, and Justin Kim combined for a no-hitter, Princeton’s first since 2008.

“When Tom and Jackson throw great games like they have, it takes some of the pressure off and we can play a little more relaxed and then we can play our game and we can hit and we can run,” said Vinci. “The energy in the dugout is as high as it will ever be and everyone feeds off that and we can go out and have fun.”

Princeton is hoping not to be thrown off by the final exam schedule. It will force them to prepare for the Ivy tournament less than ideally.

“We’re going to get through exams and go against our pitchers next weekend and see some live pitching and compete and try to get better,” said Vinci. “Then we’ll keep practicing like we have been and we should be ready to go.”

A little wait isn’t such a big deal to Vinci. He had been waiting two seasons for the chance to showcase his talents and help the Tigers in the way they anticipated when he committed.

“We were hoping it was just a matter of time,” said Bradley. “He got off to a good start and we were able to run him in the lineup on a regular basis. Clearly the year that he and Scott Bandura are having are just unbelievable years. If just one of them was having a year like this it would get attention. But for both of them to be having this type of season is really incredible.”