April 3, 2024

PU Baseball Hanging in Ivy League Playoff Race But Needs its Arms, Bats to Come Alive to Earn Spot

BOLD MOVE: Princeton University baseball player Jake Bold takes a big cut in a game earlier this season. Last Sunday, Bold went 1 for 3 with homer in a losing cause as Princeton fell 5-2 to Yale. The Tigers, now 7-15 overall and 3-3 Ivy League, play at Seton Hall on April 3 and then head to Brown next weekend for a doubleheader on April 6 and a single game on April 7. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

The Princeton University baseball team would like to again qualify for the Ivy League Baseball Tournament after making the inaugural four-team postseason competition last spring.

The Tigers aren’t in bad shape after splitting their first six Ivy games, but they must find a reliable combination of arms and pick up their hitting to improve their chances. Princeton was scheduled to play at Seton Hall on April 3, but inclement weather might cancel that outing. The Tigers will then go on the road to play three games this weekend at Brown, with a doubleheader on Saturday and a single game on Sunday. Princeton is 3-3 in Ivy play for fifth in the league, Brown sits in a three-way tie for sixth place at 2-4.

“With the new format, you have to try whatever you can to get into the playoffs,” said Princeton head coach Scott Bradley, whose squad is 7-15 overall. “Every game, every at bat counts. We played Brown at the end of the season last year. I think they got off to a slow start, but I thought they were one of the better teams. They compete, they have some good arms, they have some very good high leverage arms out of the bullpen. Then offensively, they just put the ball in play, poked it around, and didn’t strike out.”

Princeton won its opener last weekend against Yale, 4-3, last Saturday but scored just four total runs over the next two games as the Bulldogs won, 22-2, in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader and then 5-2 in the rubber game Sunday. The 1-2 weekend was the opposite of the opening weekend when the Tigers took two of three from Cornell.

“We’re probably fortunate we’re 3-3,” said Bradley. “We haven’t swung the bats at all in the Ivy League. In the six games we’ve played, I think we’ve only scored 18 runs. So we were fortunate to win three low-scoring games where we got some big hits and good pitching.”

Pitching became a concern even before the season began. An injury to top starting pitcher senior Tom Chmielewski, who was last seen throwing a gem in the Ivy tournament opener last year, came the day before the Tigers were to begin practicing. The first-team All-Ivy selection last year had an ERA of 3.40 and three of his six wins came with complete-game outings. Not being able to get him on the mound has hurt.

“That immediately puts a lot of pressure on everybody else,” said Bradley. “We didn’t have any real solidified starters other than that, so we were just trying to stretch some guys out. We took Justin Kim, who pitched terrific out of the bullpen last year for us, and moved him into a starting role. Then we have a freshman, Sean Episcope, who was supposed to be a freshman last year but had Tommy John surgery so he deferred. So he hasn’t pitched much in the past couple years of course, but he has some talent. When you lose somebody like Tommy, we’re not loaded with pitching depth — he threw a couple complete games for us, was able to pitch with a pitch count, had a Cape Cod experience, turned down an opportunity to sign in the draft to come back — it’s unfortunate for him and for us that he ended up getting hurt right before we started practicing.”

Chmielewski hasn’t been ruled out for the season, but his return is unlikely. The standout left-hander is already slated to play as a graduate student at North Carolina next year if he again passes on signing professionally.

“His goal should be to get back to the Cape this summer, pitch three or four times before the draft, and see what happens from the professional side of things,” said Bradley. “The last thing we’re going to do is take any chances and put his future years at stake. He and I will have that conversation when that time comes. He hasn’t started a throwing program yet.”

The loss of Chmielewski has direct effects, like Saturday’s second game when Princeton surrendered 22 runs, the third time this season that the Tigers have seen an opponent score that many.

“We had a couple games where we got knocked around a little bit as we tried to get creative,” said Bradley. “That’s where it hurts not having a legitimate third starter. We try to make them bullpen games, we try to mix and match, we try to do some different things and we haven’t had real good results trying to do that so far.”

The pitching hasn’t gotten the run support it needs either. Princeton is hitting .244 as a team. Of their seven regular starters, Jake Bold is the only one hitting better than .288 as he is currently at .315 with three homers and 10 RBIs. Matt Scannell drove in the winning run in the first game Saturday, one of his two hits, and Nick DiPietrantonio homered in the win. Princeton only scored two runs apiece in the two games that followed.

“It’s the whole lineup,” said Bradley. “We’ve had a hard time bunching hits together. Too many strikeouts. I think some of our older guys are putting a little too much pressure on themselves. I think the Scannells and the DiPietrantonios and the [Kyle] Vincis are just trying a little too hard. And not having a left-handed [Scott] Bandura who can hit between those guys, it makes it a little more difficult. We’re hoping that Kyle will get hot. He has the ability to wreck ballgames with his power. And DiP has a chance to hit the ball out of the ballpark, and Matty Scannell is finding ways to get on base but he’s not quite swinging the bat like he did last year.”

Princeton’s offense is missing Bandura, who was drafted in the seventh round last year and signed with the San Francisco Giants to forego the remainder of his college eligibility. Noah Granet graduated as well after being named honorable mention All-Ivy as did Eric Marasheski, who posted career high offensive numbers.

“We knew we were going to be young in spots,” said Bradley. “We try to get some guys experience and then coming into the first league weekend, we weren’t exactly sure how we were going to be, how we were going to swing the bats.”

The Tigers won four games in the Ivy preseason as they worked to put together their best lineup. Princeton defeated VCU, Old Dominion, Navy, and UNC Wilmington in non-conference play. The chance to get actual games was the biggest thing before hitting conference play.

“The early season games, we practice indoors so much we’re just trying to get guys used to being outside,” said Bradley. “We mix and match lineups, we try to see who can do what, we try to get the young guys some experience, and the big thing is we try to build up our pitchers.”

One pitcher who has shined is Jacob Faulkner. The junior right-hander is 3-1 with a 3.60 ERA after picking up the win in Game 1 against Yale. He allowed only one run over his three innings, then returned to pitch again Sunday.

“Faulkner is probably our most valuable player,” said Bradley. “He probably was last year as well. He’s a submarining right-hander, so he can pitch quite often. He holds runners on, he fields his position, he throws strikes. It’s unusual, his delivery, and he can throw multiple pitches from down there so it’s not like you see some of the submarine pitchers in pro ball, they throw one maybe two innings at a time. We can use Jacob for multiple innings. We’ve had him throw four, as many as five innings for us. He can pitch back-to-back days. I really don’t know where we would be without him.”

The pitching will get a boost when the offense kicks into gear. Talking hitting is a tightrope act between finding a groove and not overthinking it.

“It’s process,” said Bradley. “You take your batting practice, you do your work, and you go into games and try to compete at that point. You never know when a hot streak is going to start. So you have to go through the process and then go into each game. It’s not like we’re going to do swing changes with any of them. This isn’t the time to make swing changes. It’s focus, concentration, maybe not trying to do too much. It’s hard to tell people that. Effort doesn’t help you hit a baseball. Sometimes it’s just a matter of taking what the pitcher gives you, maybe using all fields, maybe looking to go the opposite way a little more. With a Kyle Vinci, power hitters historically are very streaky, as he gets on one of his hot streaks here, he’s got the ability 10-12 home runs in a 10-game stretch. When he gets going, the ball leaves the ballpark on a pretty regular basis.”

Vinci, who played at Delbarton School, set the Ivy League and Princeton record with 21 home runs last year. He is committed to play as a graduate student at Tulane next year, but would love to add to his power numbers for the Tigers this spring. When he and the Tigers swing the bats well, they can pick up runs and wins quickly. Princeton last year started the Ivy season 4-5 before reeling off eight straight wins. The Tigers have plenty of opportunity ahead if they can find some reliable pitching and elevate their hitting to return to the Ivy League Baseball Tournament.

“I think there’s real balance in the Ivy League this year,” said Bradley. “Penn has probably continued to stay on the ride they’ve been on. They might be the best of the teams. I think all the other teams, I thought Cornell and Yale both played terrific defense — their pitchers threw strikes, they were pesky offensively. I think there’s real balance and you have to avoid having really bad weekends. You have to try to get a game or two each weekend and you hope when you get into the last couple series, that 11-12 wins can get you into a playoff spot.”