Under almost any other circumstances, taking three games of four from Cornell would be a cause for celebration for the baseball team. The Big Red came into the weekend with a 13-3 record in the Ivy League until the Tigers handed Cornell its first series loss of the season. But in the end, the one loss made all the difference.
After a disappointing weekend at Columbia, the Tigers (20-19 overall, 13-7 Ivy League) knew coming in that they would have to win all four games to win the Gehrig Division and play for the Ivy League championship. They got the first three, but Cornell (29-14-1, 14-6) took the fourth in a 12-inning, 4-3 thriller.
In a game that had become the Gehrig Division championship, Princeton wasted no time in getting on the board. In the bottom of the first inning, junior outfielder John Mishu knocked a solo home run. In a repeat of a play he made during the first Ivy League series of the season, the junior had a long at-bat and sent a towering foul ball toward Princeton Stadium in right field before hitting the next pitch into almost the same spot, but fair.
Neither team broke through again until the fifth inning, when a single, a fielder’s choice, a hit batsman and a line drive into right field off of junior Kevin Link tied the game up at 1-1. The Tigers pulled ahead again in the sixth when junior shortstop Matt Bowman showed off his wheels on a line drive, diving into third for a one-out triple. Sophomore first baseman Mike Ford hit a line drive that glanced off of Cornell starter Brian McAfee and continued into center field, scoring Bowman. In an unusual move, Cornell pulled McAfee during junior outfielder Steve Harrington’s subsequent at-bat and brought in Kellen Urbon, who ended the inning.
In the following frame, designated hitter Matt Hall stroked his first collegiate home run, giving the Big Red its first lead of the series, 3-2. Princeton fought hard to keep Cornell from pulling away, and good relief work from freshman Nick Donatiello helped keep it close.
“Our pitching was just unbelievable,” head coach Scott Bradley said. “We couldn’t manage to score runs as we needed it.”
The Tigers capitalized on a Cornell error to tie it up when they had to in the bottom of the ninth. After Ford singled and was replaced by freshman pinch-runner Peter Owens, Harrington bunted into a tricky spot, causing Cornell first baseman Frank Hager to overthrow the bag. As the ball rolled into the foul territory near Cornell’s bullpen, Owens motored around the bases and scored from first on a headfirst dive. The Tigers could not push the winning run across, stranding Harrington and sending the game into extra innings.
Donatiello, who made tremendous improvements over the course of the season, kept the Big Red at bay with defensive heroics on both sides. Cornell center fielder Brian Billigen made a diving catch that cut short a Princeton rally in the bottom of the 10th, but Owens once again showed his speed on an impressive diving catch in the following inning.
Donatiello allowed only one hit, but it was costly. After retiring the first two batters of the 12th, he served up a solo home run to Ben Swinford. As the ball fell between the left field fence and the scoreboard, the Tigers knew they would need a miracle. Though sophomore second baseman Alec Keller walked with two outs to give his teammates some hope, Bowman’s hard-hit line drive went straight into the glove of second baseman Brenton Peters, giving the division title to Cornell.
“It’s hard to beat a good team four times in a weekend,” Bradley said. "In my years here, probably half the Ivy League championships we had were won with 13 wins. You have to give credit to Cornell — they won a lot of games early. We put ourselves in this position.”
The series started at Cornell on Friday with the Tigers looking like champions. While Ford went a full seven innings and gave up only three runs while striking out six batters, Princeton’s bats looked as good as they had all season. Senior catcher Sam Mulroy got things started with a home run, moving into a tie for second on Princeton’s all-time career list with 25. An inning later, the Tigers again took the lead with an RBI double from senior center fielder Tom Boggiano, who was playing in his first Ivy League game after missing most of the season with an injury.
All nine Tigers had at least one hit, and with the visitors up 11-2 in the seventh, Keller — who went four for five on the day — added the finishing touches with a two-run double down the left-field line.
Ford let up just one run in the bottom of the frame, and Princeton won convincingly, 13-3.
The second game was utterly unlike the first in terms of scoring, but it was similar in that the Tigers' pitching kept them in the race for the Ivy League championship. Junior Zak Hermans was brilliant on the hill, throwing a complete-game shutout in which he fanned 14 Big Red hitters, a season high not just for himself but for the entire Ivy League.
“Probably the performance of my career so far,” he said of the outing. “I really felt like I was locked in, and no matter what number of pitches I was at, they weren’t going to take me out of the game because we weren’t going to lose it.”
The best performance of his career was well-timed, as Princeton could not afford any mistakes. Cornell’s Rick Marks was nearly perfect, striking out five through seven innings and, like Hermans, allowing only three hits.
Two of those hits came in the fourth, when Ford singled and Harrington doubled. A sacrifice fly from freshman catcher Tyler Servais brought Ford home, and Hermans’ lights-out performance made that run the difference, sending the teams back to Princeton with the season on the line.
“We thought all along, if we took two up there, no one beats us at Clarke [Field],” Ford said.
That confidence was evident in the third game of the series, which the Tigers played at home on Sunday. With starting pitcher Bowman on his game, the Tigers got comfortable with Cornell starter Brent Jones in the fourth inning. Ford singled through the left side with two outs, and Harrington worked a long at-bat into a walk. Servais singled into right field, and Ford scored to give the Tigers the lead.
Freshman shortstop Blake Thomsen then hit a pop-up that should have ended the inning, but the center fielder could not get to it in time, and Thomsen ended up on second with two RBIs. Boggiano singled his teammate home, chasing Jones with the Big Red down 4-0.
Bowman gave up his first hit in the next frame, but Cornell could not capitalize on the seeing-eye single. In the bottom of the fifth inning, the Tigers added two more runs. Mishu showed off his speed, beating out an infield single, stealing second and advancing to third when the throw to second went wild. Ford walked, and Harrington once again fueled Princeton’s rally, sending a double into the perfect spot in left-center field to score two runs.
Bowman never gave the Big Red a chance, allowing just two hits and racking up 11 strikeouts. Perhaps his only scary moment came when Cornell’s Brandon Lee sent a shot into deep left field, but Harrington tracked it down to end the game, another rousing victory for Princeton.
“Our backs were against the wall, and we came to play,” Mulroy said. “All four games, we battled, we scrapped. I think the last game was pretty indicative of the whole series.”
“We felt like we were a better team than Cornell, and I really feel that, the way that we played this weekend, we showed that,” Hermans said. “We were just one hit away in that last game from winning it. Probably one of the best ball games I’ve ever been involved with. We just came up on the wrong end of it.”
Cornell will now face Dartmouth in the Ivy League Championship Series. The Big Red will surely be favored, having come out on top of the Gehrig Division, which was far more competitive this season. Princeton’s season, which seemed to hold every chance for a second straight Ivy League championship, is over.
For the seniors, the extra-innings defeat on Sunday marked the end of their collegiate careers.
“It’s weird,” Mulroy said. “I’m proud of what we accomplished over my career, but it’s sad to see it end, especially like this.”
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/04/30/30811/