10 Innings Extra: TCU Provides Blueprint for PSU

By Todd Lamb
10innings.com Contributor

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.

 

10 series that will shape the season

The 2017 season is littered with big series, week after week in the Big Ten. Here is a look at 10 series which will shape the season.

Penn State at TCU, Feb. 17-19

Penn State has improved upon the previous season in each of Rob Cooper’s first three seasons in State College. The Nittany Lions finished the 2016 season with a 28-27 record, above .500 for the first time since 2012, going 12-12 in Big Ten play. Penn State finished in a tie for eighth in the conference, with Illinois and Iowa, but due to tiebreakers was on the outside of the Big Ten Tournament field. Penn State will have an opportunity right out of the gate to put to rest any lingering wishes of last season, opening the 2017 season at consensus #1 TCU. Penn State returns its entire weekend rotation from 2016 and the talent base and depth continues to build for the Nittany Lions. There is no greater opportunity to see how far the program than facing a program which has appeared in three consecutive College World Series. Penn State played TCU tough in a three-game set last year in State College, ultimately being swept. If Penn State can leave Fort Worth with a win, Coop’s crew may be in line for a breakout year.

Maryland at LSU, Feb. 24-26

Maryland’s series at LSU has been circled from the day the respective schedules were put out. Tabbed the Big Ten’s favorite by national media, Maryland’s mettle will be tested early. There is no environment in college baseball like LSU’s Alex Box Stadium, but this is a Maryland team used to unwelcoming settings. It wasn’t long ago the Terrapins were coming off of back-to-back super regional appearances, in fact, that was just last year. With across the board preseason rankings, expectations are again high for Maryland. The meeting with the Tigers will not provide an opportunity to build a strong RPI, but if Maryland performs as many expect, they could be in line for a regional host at year’s end, and an early season win on the road against a top 10 team would be quite the bullet on a resume. The series will also likely have the best pitching matchup of any game involving a Big Ten team this season when Terrapin Brian Shaffer toes the mound opposite LSU’s Alex Lange, both strong draft prospects, to kick the weekend off.

Rutgers at Virginia, Feb. 24-26

Rutgers opens the season at Miami, and 2016 College World Series participant, providing a tough opponent from the start. But it is Rutgers’ second weekend, still against a very good opponent, at Virginia that figures to be a better gauge on what’s in front of the Scarlet Knights in 2017. Joe Litterio’s team now calls the glistening Fred Hill Training Complex home, a fully turfed indoor infield, which allows Rutgers to do everything on a diamond indoor it seeks to do outside. This is quite critical in the preparation for the New Jersey program. Expected to be as game-ready as ever to enter the season, it’s still hard to duplicate the outdoor nature of baseball. With a weekend under their belt, how Rutgers battles Virginia, the 2015 national champions, should show if the team is on an upward trend. Can Rutgers pull the upset and leave Charlottesville with a weekend win? Even grabbing one win will show Rutgers will have a say in how the Big Ten table shakes out.

Michigan at Lipscomb, March 10-12

Michigan’s depth on the mound paired with a few questions in the gives the Wolverines an opportunity to bring the Big Ten championship, and a NCAA regional, to Ann Arbor for the first time since 2008. The Wolverines open March in the four-team Dodgertown Classic field alongside San Diego and hosts UCLA and USC, putting Michigan against top competition early in the season. But the following weekend is one to keep an eye on. In Nashville, Michigan will meet Lipscomb for a three-game series, its first weekend set against a team expected to reach the NCAA Tournament. Not only is Lipscomb viewed by national media as regional-bound, in some corners they’re seen as a College World Series darkhorse. Led by preseason All-American outfielder Michael Gigliotti, Lipscomb swept preseason Atlantic Sun coaches honors. Tabbed as conference favorites, Gigliotti is the ASUN Preseason Player and Defensive Player of the Year, while Brady Puckett earned Preseason Pitcher of the Year.

Michigan State at South Carolina, March 10-12

Michigan State broke a 33-year NCAA Tournament drought in 2012, a year after being conference co-champions with Illinois. For six seasons now, Jake Boss’ team has been a club in the mix for conference championships and NCAA Tournament berths. Unfortunately, Michigan State has yet to duplicate either feat, painstakingly being the first team left out of the 2013 NCAA Tournament and one of the first four out in 2015. But every year, Michigan State attempts to put itself a position to be considered for a tournament berth, seeking out tough competition away from home. From Texas A&M to UCLA and Oregon, there is no place MSU won’t go. This year, they take on Southeastern Conference power South Carolina. Like their in-state rivals in Ann Arbor, the team in East Lansing has a roster strong enough to bring a NCAA Regional to town. Grabbing a road win in Columbia will give MSU the credibility it needs to show they are for real, to get over the hump and return to the NCAA Tournament.

Minnesota at Ohio State, March 24-26

The pre-conference slate is filled with big series from coast to coast, putting teams in position to have a big 2017. The Big Ten season kicks off pitting two teams against each other, looking to continue what was started in 2016. The reigning Big Ten Tournament champions welcome the reigning conference champions for a banner series out of the gate. Due to conference expansion and schedule quarks, Ohio State has not played host to Minnesota since 2012. Two tradition-ladened clubs, it’s mind-blogging five years could pass between the Gophers last trip to Columbus. On paper, both teams lost a lot from 2016 regional clubs, for Minnesota, the Big Ten Player of the Year Matt Fiedler is now in the pro ranks, the same for Ohio State’s Ronnie Dawson, the Big Ten Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. But enough parts return where a run at another conference crown should not be unexpected, nor a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. Which team can start conference play on the right note will get a shot in the arm in turning a one-year rise into sustain success.

Maryland at Nebraska, April 7-9

In each of the last three seasons, the Big Ten has yet to see the top two finishers square off in a weekend series. The 2016 season ended in high drama with Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska and Ohio State all with a shot at the conference title, with the four teams squaring off in two series, but the season ended with Minnesota at the top, Nebraska second, one half-game separating the two with a game played between them. Illinois’ historic 21-1 season came without playing second-place Iowa. The 2014 Big Ten Tournament championship game was a sensational spectacle, in part because Indiana and Nebraska, two ranked teams did not play in the regular season. Will this finally end? On the accord on national media, Nebraska is right there with Maryland as the team to beat in the Big Ten. An early April weekend sees the two square off, and it should be a dandy. Maryland’s dynamic pitching duo of Shaffer and Taylor Bloom will go against Nebraska’s big boopers in Scott Schreiber and Ben Miller. Both clubs have talent and experience, both are led by hard-nosed, no-nonsense coaches. With Hawks Field capable of filling up with thousands upon thousands, this will be a must-see series.

Xavier at Indiana, May 5-7

It’s a sneaky good non-conference series, quite the pickup for Indiana in its bye week. And the Hoosier didn’t have to look far for its opponent. While a mid-major, Xavier has a very capable team in 2017, should not be overlooked for a lack of power conference stature. The Musketeers, who may be home to the best pitching prospect in the Midwest in Zac Lowther, are the Big East preseason favorites return several capable players, from its Nashville Regional runners-up team. The Hoosiers will be the third Big Ten team Xavier faces in a weekend series, following Penn State and Ohio State, and, while the results do no count, have left Bloomington with an exhibition victory in each of the last two Autumns. Indiana returns its entire lineup and by May, the completely new rotation should have settled in. Looking to appear in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five years, May will be a big month for the Hoosiers hopes, starting with this series against the Queen City club.

Long Beach State at Minnesota, May 12-14

Minnesota will open the season at the Big West’s UC Irvine and will conclude it’s out-of-conference slate by welcoming the Big West’s Long Beach State to Minneapolis in May. Long Beach State enters the season with a national ranking, looking primed to build on its program’s storied history. Minnesota is absent a preseason ranking, but they’ll be looking to do the same, shooting for a Big Ten-best 31st NCAA Tournament appearance. By mid-May, RPI fluctuations will have calmed, teams will have a dozen weekends of showing who they are and what they’re capable of. For Minnesota to have a quality opponent come to town this late in the season is a boon. The Gophers will have the ability to make a final statement on the national landscape and potentially propel itself to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament, for the first time since 2004.

Michigan vs. Michigan State, May 18-20

Oh, what a dandy this could be. When Michigan and Michigan State meet, the two come together for a split-site series, alternating between two home games around one road contest, year after year. Last year, when the teams met in the final weekend of April, more than 7,000 fans came out to watch the rivals square off. That was with overcast skies twice in Ann Arbor and on a gray Saturday in East Lansing, the temperature resting in the upper 40s throughout the weekend. What could the turnout be if the two face off the final weekend of the season, with temperatures climbing into the 70s, as two teams stocked with pitchers and capable bats do battle? The imagination runs wild, what a way to end the season.

 

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