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Freshman catcher Matt O'Neill was a rare bright spot for the Quakers this weekend, hitting a home run in a Saturday loss.

Credit: Jashley Bido

When it comes to Ivy League baseball’s Lou Gehrig division, there’s a new sheriff in town.

Princeton, after finishing just 4-16 in conference play a season ago, extended its division lead this weekend, taking down Penn baseball in three out of four games. With the losses, the Quakers (14-18, 6-6 Ivy) drop to .500 in conference play — three games behind the Tigers (17-14, 9-3) — with eight Ivy contests remaining.

“We just have to play one game at a time. We don’t have much room for error,” Penn coach John Yurkow said. “They’ve got a bit of a lead on us now, unfortunately.”

Princeton swept Saturday’s doubleheader by scores of 7-2 and 3-1. The Tigers struck with two runs in the first inning of each contest, bringing Penn’s total of first-inning runs surrendered this season to 24, their most of any frame.

The Red and Blue largely struggled on offense in both games, especially in the second contest, as Princeton starter Chad Powers allowed just one unearned run over eight innings. Penn hurler Billy Lescher was uncharacteristically ineffective in the first game, allowing seven runs — all earned — on seven hits over five innings.

Princeton continued its winning ways in Sunday’s first game, using a Joseph Flynn two-run double and a pair of sacrifice flies to fuel a 5-1 victory in the seven-inning game. The Quakers’ offensive woes continued, as they were only able to scratch across the one run via a Gary Tesch RBI double.

One offensive bright spot for the Red and Blue was the play of freshman catcher Matt O’Neill. The New Jersey native hit a home run in Saturday’s first game and scored Penn’s lone run in the nightcap; he concluded Saturday’s play hitting .330 with three home runs on the season.

“I don’t even think of [the freshmen] as young guys anymore; they’ve been playing for us all year,” Yurkow said. “Matt has done a great job for us behind the plate.”

The Quakers finally got into the win column in the series’ final game, riding seven innings of two-run ball from junior right-hander Jake Cousins to pick up a 5-2 victory. Freshman closer Jake Nelson shut the Tigers down in the ninth, putting the side down in order, notching his fifth save of the season.

“We really needed to have that game; their effort today was really big,” Yurkow said of his pitching staff.

Tim Graul sparked the offense in the victory, nailing a two-run homer in the third to put Penn up 2-1, their first lead of the entire series. After senior shortstop Ryan Mincher added a two-run bomb of his own to break a 2-2 tie in the eighth, Graul added his third RBI of the day with a single in the ninth.

With perennial powerhouse Columbia suffering a down year, Princeton has capitalized on the lack of a clear No. 1 team in the division, winning on the arm of Powers and the bat of junior infielder Zack Belski.

“[Princeton] had some kids hurt last year and their senior class has done really well,” Yurkow said. “They do a good job on the mound. They mix it up a lot; they don’t have a ton of overpowering arms, but they really know how to pitch.”

So, with the halfway point of Ivy play having passed, the Red and Blue are going to need to be nearly perfect if they are to catch their neighbors to the north. After a midweek showdown with La Salle on Tuesday, they will get back to conference play when they host Cornell for four games over the weekend.

A division title — so elusive in recent years — is not yet out of the question for Penn.

But they made things a whole lot more difficult this weekend.

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