Under The Radar: Greater Resiliancy Pushes Penn State To Better Start
At 10-3 and coming off a series win at Central Florida and a midweek victory over in-state rival Pittsburgh, Penn State has enjoyed a quick start to the 2019 season, which is not something the program has recently experienced.
In both 2017 and 2018, the Nittany Lions were 5-8 at this same point in the season and on their way to finishing 18-37 and 15-34, respectively.
The sheer volume of losses they’ve taken over the last two years can cause a team to lose belief, which can affect their ability to bounce back when inevitable adversity strikes.
Of course, that only happens if a team allows it to, and over these last two years, Penn State allowed that type of doubt to creep in. A misplay at an inopportune time threatened to become a sloppy inning. A particularly crushing loss might have turned into a bad week of games.
This season, the Nittany Lions have already gone a long way toward proving that it won’t be more of the same this time around.
In the opening game of its series against Duke two weekends ago, Penn State got no-hit in a 14-0 loss. Even in the toughest of recent seasons for the Lions that hadn’t happened to them, and for that matter, it had never happened to a Rob Cooper-coached team at any of his stops.
This was a scenario in which few would have blamed them for actually letting that one loss hang over them for the rest of the weekend.
Instead, it was a catalyst. Penn State overcame a three-run deficit in the middle innings to secure an 8-7 win in the second game of the series, and then took a 2-0 lead into the seventh inning of the finale before things got away from it and it lost the rubber game, 9-2.
The Nittany Lions may have lost the series, but they got back up off the mat after Game 1 and fought their way back. That bounce-back performance was followed up with a road series win against Central Florida, which was another impressive feat.
In either of the last two seasons, getting no-hit very well could have set off a losing streak. This year, it set off the program’s best stretch of baseball in a long time.
“The biggest thing we talked about after the game real quickly was, ‘Hey look, whether you get no-hit and get beat bad, which we did, or you get walked off in the 15th inning in an unbelievable game, it counts as one loss in the loss column,’” Cooper said. “What you have to do is choose, are we going to let this affect us and have it impact two, three, four more games and have it have a lasting affect or have it just be one game you look back on in ten years and go, ‘Yeah, we got no-hit Friday night against Duke, but here’s what we did after.’”
To take Penn State’s newfound ethos of not letting adversity derail them down to the individual level, look no further than senior outfielder Jordan Bowersox.
After a freshman season that saw Bowersox endure some typical freshman growing pains, he was hitting .333/.418/.480 in 33 games as a sophomore before missing the rest of the season after getting hit by a pitch on his wrist.
But between the pressure to do well in his draft year last season, and the pressure to help Penn State rebound from a tough 2017 campaign, he got off to a slow start as a junior. And even as he improved as the 2018 season went on, he wasn’t the same player.
“He tried to chase numbers,” Cooper said. “He got off to a slow start, and in his head it’s like, ‘OK, well I’ve got to do this in order to be drafted, or I’ve got to do this to help the team.’
“One of the things he and I talked a lot about after last year, through the summer and in the fall, was, ‘You just need to go out and be a baseball player,’ and that’s what he’s done.”
This season, Bowersox has developed into the centerpiece of the Penn State offense, hitting .353/.421/.510 with a pair of doubles and two home runs. He’s also 3-for-4 in stolen bases this season as part of a lineup that features six different players with two or more stolen bases.
Bowersox has helped form a nice nucleus on offense alongside outfielder Kris Kremer, first baseman Parker Hendershot and second baseman Gavin Homer.
Kremer is the second-leading hitter on the team, batting .313/431/.583, and in that turning point win against Duke, he slugged three home runs. Hendershot is hitting .278/.304/.333, about in line with his production from last season, and Homer has been the best power bat in the Nittany Lions’ order to this point, with five doubles and three home runs through 13 games.
Beyond that quartet, however, the offense has struggled. Those four are the only players with at least 20 at-bats who are hitting better than .200. Their 128 team strikeouts in 13 games has also been an issue.
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The pitching staff has done some heavy lifting thus far, and that’s helped the team overcome its offensive inconsistency.
Lefthander Dante Biasi, whose brother Sal was a Friday night starter for Penn State two seasons ago, leads the rotation. A 22nd-round pick out of high school, Biasi missed all of 2017 recovering from a Tommy John surgery he underwent as a high school senior before returning to pitch his first full season of action in 2018. He served as a solid complement to Justin Hagenman in the rotation last season, going 3-6, 5.20, but there was clearly more potential there.
Biasi is tapping into that potential this season. In his four starts, he has a 3.00 ERA, 26 strikeouts and a .162 opponent average in 21 innings. His best work yet came last weekend against UCF, when he threw six innings, giving up only two hits and two runs (one earned) with three walks and nine strikeouts.
“He’s ultra-competitive. It runs in the Biasi family,” Cooper said. “He loves to compete. That’s the one thing. I don’t think he even cares who he’s pitching against or where or what. He loves to play baseball, he loves to compete, and the hard work is starting to pay off."
Massive 6-foot-7 righthander Bailey Dees has been solid behind him. He has a 4.64 ERA in his four starts, but his peripheral numbers, such as an outstanding 23-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio, suggests that he’s probably been better than that.
Righthander Eric Mock has been the team’s most effective starter, with a 1.31 ERA and .101 opponent average against him in 20.2 innings. He missed his start last weekend against UCF because he's been dealing with a minor injury, but Cooper is confident that the injury isn’t serious and that if the Nittany Lions were in the thick of their Big Ten Conference slate, he wouldn’t have missed any time at all. At this stage of the season, Penn State has decided its better to be safe than sorry.
It’s possible that none of those three have been the most important pitcher on the staff, though, because righthanded reliever Mason Mellott has been everything Cooper could have asked for in a relief ace.
The stats pop out, including a 1.29 ERA, an .167 opponent average and just two walks in 21 innings.
But more than anything else, the versatility he provides is an asset. He’s gone at least two innings in each of his six appearances, and he’s played a key role in the team’s biggest wins. He threw 4.2 innings of four-hit, one-run baseball with five strikeouts in the win against Duke, and in the two wins over UCF, he combined to throw 5.2 innings, giving up just four hits and one run.
“Mason’s been like a Swiss army knife for us,” Cooper said. “He’s a guy that you can bring in really whenever, and that’s kind of how we use him. We use him when we feel like we really need to stabilize the game, or we’ve got a lead, or it’s close. (He’s) another guy that really, really loves to compete and will go after guys.”
The victory Tuesday against Pitt was the first midweek game of the season for the Nittany Lions, and as the weather warms up and they are able to play more games during the week, they’ll have a better opportunity to see what they have on the pitching staff.
So while there are still some questions to answer and still some roles to be filled, we’ve already learned a lot about this Penn State team. They’re more resilient, they’re going to fight, and that makes a big difference.