Editors note: We have, admittedly, done a poor job covering the baseball team this year, despite its relatively successful season. We promise that ends now.
After roaring to its best start of the last 20 years, Penn State baseball entered the weekend series against Illinois unbeaten at the friendly confines of Medlar Field at Lubrano Park and looking to climb to the top of the Big Ten standings.
Boasting a perfect 8-0 home record, Penn State looked poised to continue their winning ways. After stumbling out of the block against non-conference foes to begin the season, the Lions rebounded in Big Ten play, posting six wins in their first nine games. Sitting near the top of the conference standings, a good showing against Illinois could mean the unthinkable — a Penn State baseball team with a chance to compete for a Big Ten crown.
Against Illinois, it all fell apart. The Fighting Illini swept the weekend series, knocking Penn State under .500 and into fourth place in the Big Ten — not to mention, erasing the team’s perfect home record. Here’s how it all played out.
Game 1 – Illinois 6, Penn State 3
Behind the arm of senior left-hander Tim Dunn, who allowed five hits, one walk, no earned runs, and five strikeouts over a personal-best 6.2 innings pitched, the Nittany Lions held a slim 3-2 lead entering the top of the eighth.
Freshman infielder Jim Haley put the Lions on top with an RBI single in the bottom of the first. After the Illini scored two runs on two hits and two costly errors, sophomore outfielder Greg Guers hit a single up the middle and later scored on an error by the Illini in the bottom of the sixth to tie the score at 2-2.
White added another RBI on a groundout in the bottom of the seventh to give the Lions the lead, 3-2.
Penn State couldn’t hold the lead, however, as the bullpen surrendered four runs in the top of the eighth off three hits, two walks, a hit by pitch, and two stolen bases.
Determined not to go down without a fight, the Lions loaded the bases in the final frame, bringing the winning run to the plate. White and Haley both reached base after being hit by pitches, followed by a single by senior outfielder Steve Snyder. However, the final batter struck out to end the game, handing Illinois the victory.
Game 2 – Illinois 8, Penn State 3
In the second game, the Lions jumped out to another 3-2 lead, and yet again found themselves on the losing end of the scoreboard.
Penn State scored its first three runs off nine hits, behind the bat of junior Taylor Skerpon. In the bottom of the fourth, J.J. White and Greg Guers reached base with a walk and single, respectively, and advanced to second and third after a successful sacrifice bunt by junior infielder Jim Haley. Skerpon singled to right field to plate both runners, knotting the score at 2-2. Sophomore Ryan Richter later scored Skerpon on a sacrifice bunt to take a 3-2 lead.
Again, the bullpen faltered for Penn State. Starter T.J. Jann put the Lions in position to win, allowing four runs on five hits and two walks over six plus innings, and at one point retired 11-straight hitters. Unfortunately, the Illini once again took advantage of the Lions relievers, loading the bases in the top of the seventh. With back-to-back two-run singles, Illinois took a 6-3 lead, and never looked back.
The Fighting Illini pushed the score to 8-3 in the top of the eighth, courtesy of a two-outs, bases loaded single.
Game 3 – Illinois 7, Penn State 6
In the final game on Easter Sunday, Penn State found themselves in an unfamiliar, yet uncomfortable position – trailing in the final innings.
Down 7-3 heading into the bottom of the eighth, senior catcher Alex Farkes reached base on a single and later scored on an RBI double by James Coates to pull the Lions within three.
In the bottom of the ninth, Penn State looked to be in great position to end the series victorious, loading the bases with no outs. Senior outfielder Zach Ell knocked in a run on a fielder’s choice, putting runners on the corners with one out. Ryan Richter plated another runner with a single to left, bringing the score to within one, 7-6, and putting the winning runner in scoring position.
Sophomore infielder Tyler Kendall hit a hard ground ball up the middle, but the quick-fielding Illinois infield turned a double play, ending the game and the series.
Starting pitcher Ian Parvin lasted three innings, surrendering five earned runs on eight hits and three walks. Freshman right-hander Dakota Forsyth pitched five solid innings of relief, allowing just two runs on two hits.
Penn State baseball will take the field on Tuesday, as the squad travels to Kent State to play a non-conference game with the Golden Flashes at 6 p.m.