Web Exclusives: Baseball preview, 2004

March 8, 2003

Baseball preview: Princeton power
Big hitters could be the Tigers’ top attraction this year

By Brett Tomlinson

For Princeton baseball coach Scott Bradley, the formula has worked for eight years. Strong, veteran pitching and solid hitting put his Tigers on top of the Ivy League four times, including last season. But the balance of power has shifted. This year, the pitching is capable, but inexperienced, while at the plate, Princeton has one of the most explosive lineups this side of the Mason-Dixon Line. “We’re excited because we’ve never had the type of team that can consistently put up a lot of runs,” Bradley says.

In its opening victory over Old Dominion March 5, Princeton scored 14 runs – including 10 against preseason All-American pitcher Justin Verlander – and the show was just beginning. The Tigers continued their offensive outburst, beating the Monarchs 6-1 March 6 and 9-5 March 7. Every Tiger who came to the plate had at least one hit, with centerfielder B.J. Szymanski ’05’s eight hits leading the way (two home runs, two triples, a double, and three singles).

On the mound, Ross Ohlendorf ’05 continues the line of Princeton pro prospects that has included recent draftees Chris Young ’02, Scott Hindman ’03, and Thomas Pauly ’04. Pauly signed with the Cincinnati Reds last summer, giving up his last year of eligibility. His departure, coupled with the graduation of four seniors, leaves the Tigers with just two consistent starters returning. Bradley does not complain about being a victim of his own success. “You sort of know if you have a good program, you get some good players, and you develop their talent, some of them are going to leave after three years,” he says. A strong freshman class and a patient group of upperclassmen should fill in the open spots. Bradley plans to use the early games to figure out a four-man weekend rotation.

Like several other Princeton sports, baseball’s schedule is virtually split into two seasons: the pre-Ivy season and Ivy season. Early in the year, when the Tigers travel south to play where the grass is green, their opponents often have more than a month of extra practice. “We tell our players, ‘Don’t get discouraged if we lose a few. Don’t get discouraged if you get in a slump,’” Bradley says. The real tests against the top teams come in June, when the Ivy champion plays in the N.C.A.A. regionals.

To get to the N.C.A.A.s, Princeton will need to get past rivals Columbia, Cornell, and Penn in the Ivy’s Gehrig Division, all of which are rebuilding their pitching staffs this spring. Defending Rolfe Division champ Harvard looks like a formidable foe. In the last eight seasons, the Crimson matched the Tigers’ success with four league championships. Princeton begins its Ivy schedule April 3 with a doubleheader against Dartmouth.

The Lineup:
Princeton’s infield, anchored by catcher Tim Lahey ’04 and second baseman Steve Young ’04, will add a few newcomers to the starting nine. Lahey, at 6’ 4’’, 235 pounds, led Ivy hitters with 11 home runs last year, and his success throwing out base runners makes him a complete contributor. Young, just 5’ 9’’ and 165 pounds, is a graceful and sure-handed fielder who will help Matt Becker ’06 transition to the starting shortstop role. Freshman Sal Iacono will hold down the third base job, and first base is still up for grabs, with Ryan Reich ’04, Steve Wendell ’06, and Adam Balkan ’05 vying for playing time. Aaron Prince ’07 will play the middle infield spots as a backup.

The Tigers’ deepest talent is in the outfield, where Szymanski, Eric Fitzgerald ’04, Andrew Salini ’06, Will Venable ’05, and Balkan can each hit for power and run the bases. The outfielders on the bench will fill the designated hitter spot because, Bradley says, “Those are five guys you want in the lineup.” Szymanski is a potential draft pick, but he has another year remaining, as well as another football season left to play as one of Princeton’s best receivers. Venable, who displayed uncommon power last season, will join the team after the basketball team’s N.C.A.A. tournament run.
Ohlendorf, a tall and muscular power pitcher with a 98 miles-per-hour fastball, looks to improve his breaking ball and changeup as he works from the No. 1 starting role. Erik Stiller ’06 proved capable as a starter last year, despite a 1-4 record. Stiller pitched mostly in midweek games against talented Big East teams and had no-decisions in two Princeton wins.

Other potential starters include Gavin Fabian ’07, who pitched in the Little League World Series final as a 12-year-old; Eric Walz ’07, who won his first start against Old Dominion; and Aaron Herr ’05, a reliever for the last two years. Senior Brian Biegen will likely fill multiple roles as a middle reliever, closer, or spot starter. Brian Kappel ’05 and left-handed submarine-style hurler Worth Lumry ’05 will also be key players in the bullpen.

Brett Tomlinson is PAW's sports editor.