As right-handed pitcher Matt Bowman ’13 dominated Harvard on Sunday afternoon, a half-dozen men with clipboards stood underneath the netting behind home plate. As the professional scouts flared their radar guns with every pitch, Bowman gave them a show, striking out nine batters and allowing only one meaningless run in a seven-inning complete game, the best Ivy League pitching performance of his career.
The poor weather and uncertain schedule likely prevented more scouts from visiting Clarke Field this weekend, but the Tigers should see their share of them this season. Bowman, who also has pro potential as a shortstop, was rated the Ivy League’s top prospect before the season by Baseball America; catcher Sam Mulroy ’12 ranked second and southpaw Michael Fagan ’14 was fourth.
Historically, it’s not unusual for Princeton’s program to draw scouting attention; two years ago, people routinely came to see Dan Barnes ’11, who was drafted and signed by the Toronto Blue Jays after the season. But the number of scouts watching the Tigers in this decade pales in comparison to the early 2000s, the golden era of Princeton baseball talent.
The Ivy League is not exactly a baseball hotbed; the Ancient Eight champion has drawn a four-seed in the NCAA Regionals every year since the four-team regional system was instituted in 1999.
But the Tigers of 2003-04 were not typical Ivy League teams. In 2004, Princeton traveled to Old Dominion for its very first game of the season; as usual, its opponent was already warm after starting a couple weeks earlier. The Monarchs’ Friday starter was a well-known right-hander with a blazing fastball who would be the second overall pick in that June’s draft – you might know him as the 2011 American League MVP, Justin Verlander. Princeton hammered Verlander for 10 runs and 11 hits in five innings, including two homers in the first frame.
At the NCAA Regionals in June, the Tigers stunned host and No. 1-seed Virginia in the first round, as Ross Ohlendorf ’05 recorded 26 outs while allowing only two runs in a 4-2 victory.
“We were a pro team at that point,” Bradley says. “Those teams, physically, were unbelievable with their speed and athleticism. We went to regionals, and we would have more pro prospects than whoever we were playing against.”
Ohlendorf and outfielder Will Venable ’05 have both spent the last four years in the major leagues, while catcher-turned-pitcher Tim Lahey ’04 made the Phillies’ roster but never appeared in a game – and they weren’t even the best pro prospects on those Princeton teams.
Thomas Pauly ’04 was selected in the second round of the 2003 MLB Draft after winning Ivy League Rookie of the Year. “We never had more of a sure thing on the mound than Pauly,” Bradley says, but his professional career was derailed by injuries. Center fielder B.J. Szymanski ’05 was named the “fastest riser” on draft charts by Baseball America for his vast array of talents; he was taken with the 48th overall selection in 2004, Princeton’s highest pick ever in the main amateur draft, but he also suffered injuries as a pro. All told, the Tigers had a remarkable six different players drafted in the top 20 rounds from 2003-05.
Princeton’s current group may not be as talented as last decade’s teams were, but a wave of athletic players helped the Tigers win the 2011 Ivy League title and makes them favorites again in 2012. Two-way standout Mike Ford ’14 – who grew up a short drive from campus and said he often saw those earlier Princeton teams play – opened the conference season with a seven-inning shutout on Saturday against Dartmouth, the Tigers’ opponent in last year’s championship series. In seven career Ivy League starts, Ford is 6-0 with a 1.24 ERA.
Princeton went 3-1 over the weekend, but plenty of work lies ahead in its quest for a second straight championship. And even with a strong young core, Bradley doesn’t expect to match the success his teams had from 2000-2006, when they won five of seven Ivy League championships.
“I’d like to hope that it happens that way, but the league has really transformed since that time,” he said. “You may see teams win a couple years in a row … but I think it’ll be hard to have that type of run again.”
Several times on Friday night, MEN’S VOLLEYBALL was one point away from an enormous upset of eighth-ranked Penn State at Dillon Gym. The Tigers had not won a single set in their last eight meetings with the Nittany Lions, but thanks to inspired team defense and a stellar performance from Cody Kessel ’15, Princeton took the first and third games and had eight match points in the fourth. But Penn State saved all of them – one on a razor-thin margin at 33-32 that could have easily gone the other way – and eventually won in five thrilling sets, extending its EIVA winning streak to 44 games. The Tigers then lost a letdown match to Sacred Heart on Saturday, severely jeopardizing their playoff hopes.
Despite two defeats to conference favorite Harvard, SOFTBALL is 2-2 in Ivy League play after sweeping Dartmouth in Friday’s doubleheader. Alex Peyton ’13 threw seven shutout innings in the conference opener, allowing only four hits, and drove in three runs with a homer and a double in the nightcap.
Harboring legitimate Ivy League title aspirations, both tennis teams opened conference play with a victory over Penn. WOMEN’S TENNIS made things easy, taking all three doubles matches and five of six singles competitions at home, but things were trickier for MEN’S TENNIS. After three singles matches had been completed, the Quakers led 3-1, but Dan Richardson ’14, Matt Spindler ’13 and Matt Siow ’13 all claimed victories, with the two juniors overcoming first-set losses. The nail-biting start echoes the men’s 2011 season, when Princeton won each of its first five Ivy League matches by 4-3 scores.
MEN’S LACROSSE easily improved to 3-0 in conference play, throttling Brown 13-2 in Providence. Tyler Fiorito ’12 saved 16 of the 18 shots he saw as Princeton held the Bears scoreless in the second half. WOMEN’S LACROSSE could not accomplish the same feat; after scoring two late goals to force overtime, the No. 19-ranked Tigers suffered their first league loss, 13-12 to No. 17 Cornell.
Kevin Whitaker ’13 is an economics major and Daily Princetonian sports editor.