Baseball Swept By Elon In Three-Game Opening Series
Believe it or not, it’s baseball season already. Sure, as of this writing it may be five below zero outside in State College, but the NCAA season is ramping up. Though it won’t play a game at home until March 18, Nittany Lion baseball will be touring the warmer portion of the country to begin the season, kicking off with a series against the Elon Phoenix in North Carolina. The Lions got off to a bad start, getting swept in the season-opening series.
How It Happened
Major League Baseball is currently in a new golden age of pitching; scoring is down and xFIPs are plummeting, but anyone who has played at the lower levels, all the way down to Little League, knows that there is never enough good pitching to go around outside of the bigs. This issue has plagued Penn State in the past, and the old problems persisted for Rob Cooper’s boys during the series against Elon. The Nittany Lion pitching staff surrendered 34 runs over three games, an inauspicious start considering last year’s 4.77 team ERA. Penn State’s offense will have to do some heavy lifting if they’re to surprise the world this year, and they showed plenty of firepower against the Phoenix.
The season opener was a 16-15 barnburner, with the Lions rallying in the last two innings before ultimately falling short. Big days at the plate by the double-play combo of shortstop Jim Haley and second baseman Taylor Skerpon (combined 8-12, 5 runs, and 6 RBIs) as well as major contributions from DH Nick Riotto showed that this team will score runs at a decent clip this year. Unfortunately, a mediocre Nick Hedges showing on the bump (3 IP, 4ER, 7H, 2 Ks, 1BB) to start off along with a brutal bullpen showing from Dakota Forsyth (3.1 IP, 6ER, 9H, 3Ks, 1BB) and especially Ryan Harper (1/3rd IP, 5 ER, 7H, 1K, 0BB) squandered the opportunity to start the year on a high note.
The second game was a more benign 7-2 affair, with Elon’s Jake Stalzer and Robbie Welhaf stymying the Lions’ bats. Penn State was held to just two hits (both from centerfielder Ryan Richter) and one earned run in a losing effort. Game three saw another strong performance at the bat from Haley (2-5, 2 RBI, 2 runs) and a showing from Tyler Kendall, who pinch-hit for first baseman J.J. White in the sixth and proceeded to go 3-3. The pitching once again sunk PSU, however, after Taylor Lehman was rocked for 6 runs across 3.2 innings, surrendering 9 hits and 4 walks while striking out just one in the process.
Walking out of your first series against a solid Elon team with a .283 team average and .372 on-base percentage is nothing to sneer at, and Jim Haley looks like a legitimate middle-of-the-order bat in the early going, but James Coates reaching base just twice in 11 plate appearances at the top of the order is not helping matters. The pitching needs to stabilize soon, because while it obviously won’t stay that high and it’s an incredibly small sample size, an 11.33 ERA through three games from your pitching staff is incredibly worrisome, especially with Penn State’s early-season schedule.
The Nittany Lions travel to College Station to take on Texas A&M, an easy top-25 team. That series could get very ugly if the pitching staff doesn’t write the ship, and an 0-6 start heading into the USA Baseball/Notre Dame Classic down in North Carolina (where the Lions will play NC State, Cincinnati and, of course, Notre Dame) would not be ideal. In fact, with this schedule, the Lions troubles could have them at double digit losses before they face more winnable games. An improving Charleston Southern program may be the first real shot at victory for PSU, and the schedule gets softer once they leave the Carolinas and play against teams like Liberty and Pitt.