By Todd Lamb
FORT WORTH, Texas – There aren’t many teams that genuinely relish the opportunity to face the No. 1 team in the country, let alone open the season against nation’s top team on the road.
When the 2017 baseball schedule was put together, Penn State coach Rob Cooper didn’t know TCU would be unanimously ranked as the country’s best team, but he knew the Horned Frogs would provide the stiffest of tests for his young team, and that was by design.
TCU has been to the College World Series each of the past three seasons, including last season after they swept a three-game series at Penn State in early May. No team in the country has won more games than TCU’s total of 148 the previous three years.
“We could have scheduled a lot of different teams for this weekend and maybe won a couple or had a better outcome winning wise,” said Cooper, who began his fourth season with the Nittany Lions on Friday. “But we have the chance to get a lot better as a program, a lot better as a team and be the type of program we want to be by playing a great team like this.”
Penn State came up short in all three games to open the 2017 campaign, falling by scores of 6-3, 12-1 and 9-3 Sunday in the series finale. TCU averaged 5,258 fans for the three-game set.
“Anytime you get swept, it’s never the start you want, that’s for sure,” Cooper said. “You’re playing a great team in TCU and there is a reason why they are ranked No. 1 in the country.”
Penn State, which returned all three of its weekend starters, did not have a single starter reach the fifth inning against TCU and only one made it into the fourth. The entire pitching staff struggled with command, issuing 17 walks to go with 22 strikeouts.
That was no more evident than in the season-opening 6-3 loss, when the Lions limited TCU’s offense to only two hits. PSU pitchers walked six, hit a batter and allowed an eighth batter to reach on a wild pitch strikeout. It’s hard to overcome all of that, but a crucial error and a passed ball led to two unearned runs. It proved to be Penn State’s best opportunity for a victory in this series.
Starter Sal Biasi struck out seven, but walked four, turning the ball over in the fourth inning in a 4-0 hole. TCU added two more in the sixth before Penn State struck back with a three-run seventh inning.
Saturday, Penn State struck first with a single run in the top of the first inning, but starter Taylor Lehman lasted only 1.1 innings after giving up three runs in the bottom of the second inning. TCU scored two more in the third, exploded for six more in the fourth and scored its final run in the fifth. PSU pitchers managed six strikeouts, but walked five and hit two more batters.
Armed with a two-run lead, Sunday starter Justin Hagenman kept TCU off the scoreboard in the first, but gave up five runs over the next two innings before giving way to Dakota Forsyth to start the fourth inning. Penn State used four pitchers in the series finale and they combined for six strikeouts and six walks.
Pitch counts escalated quickly for the three starters. Biasi threw 79 pitches in his 3.2 innings, Lehman threw 50 in his 1.1 innings, while Hagenman threw 69 pitches in three innings of work.
“I know we can pitch better,” Cooper said. “When your three starters – and they’re all three really competitive guys and they’re going to build and get better from this – but when they’re 70 pitches into the game in the third or fourth inning, you have to have longer starts and take it deeper into the game so your bullpen is fresher and stronger.”
Offensively, Penn State was outhit 25-13 despite the two-hitter by the TCU offense on Friday. Only two Nittany Lions had at least three hits in the series. That was second baseman Conlin Hughes, who was 2 for 4 on Saturday and 1 for 3 Sunday. He drove in a run on a fielder’s choice in the season opener. First baseman Willie Burger also went 3 for 10 in the series, including a pair of home runs in the finale, a two-run shot in the first and a solo shot in the eighth. He finished the weekend with four RBI with an RBI-double on Saturday.
“The thing I’m most proud of with Willie is that he’s starting to slow down his internal clock down a little bit and that is because he’s so competitive and wants to do well,” Cooper said. “Sometimes that gets him in trouble because sometimes he wants to hit like a ‘seven-run’ homer, but today he had some great at-bats and this weekend he had some great at -ats.”
Cooper said there were some things he liked from his team against TCU. There were guys who put together some good at-bats even when they weren’t productive. They had guys compete on the mound despite trailing for all but five innings and they got some young guys and true freshmen into the lineup.
Yet there remains plenty to work on, like having their pitchers work ahead in pitch counts as well as their defense taking care of the baseball. They also have to find a way to score against really good pitching.
“The thing I’m more excited about is the stuff we didn’t do well,” Cooper said. “Because that is the stuff we need to attack and move on with.”
“That’s the kind of program we want to be,” Cooper said about TCU. “So we’re going to look at the stuff that we need to do to compete at that level and get better at. Our goal is to try to be in a position at the end of the year to play in this type of environment again.
“We’ve got a lot of stuff that we can take (home) and work on and get better from and that’s what we’re going to have to do.”
Penn State returns to action Friday with four-game series against Xavier at the USA Baseball National Training Center in Cary, N.C.