After nearly a year of waiting, Penn State earned a pair of victories in its first series of the year due to a handful of expected — and some surprise — contributions.
The Nittany Lions returned to the diamond last weekend, opening their 44-game, Big Ten-only schedule against Northwestern.
The series was played at the neutral site of U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, and the blue and white split the four-game series against the Wildcats.
In the series opener last Friday, Penn State and Northwestern traded runs until the fourth inning when a Josh Spiegel home run gave the Nittany Lions their first lead of the season.
In his Penn State debut, Spiegel finished the game with two home runs and a double.
Dominant pitching from Bailey Dees — five innings pitched, five strikeouts and two earned runs — and an impressive four-inning save from reliever Tyler Shingledecker led Penn State to a 6-3 victory.
The following day, the Nittany Lions’ first doubleheader of the season would not be as kind.
Penn State was held to six hits and zero runs in the first of two games Saturday, subsequently being shut out 2-0 for its first defeat of the season.
Coach Rob Cooper’s batters were not getting shut down by strikeouts, however, as they only struck out four times. The Nittany Lions just could not get their bats going on contact.
Later in the afternoon, Penn State struggled again to string runs together. Although they scored two in the bottom of the first to jump out to an early lead, the Nittany Lions were shutout for the next eight innings.
The blue and white held its lead from the first all the way to the seventh inning, when reliever Jared Freilich came in, surrendering four runs (three earned) in two innings of relief.
Penn State dropped the contest 5-2.
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On the verge of losing their first series of the season, the Nittany Lions came to play on Sunday.
Northwestern and Penn State went back and forth, slugging home run after home run. It wasn’t until the bottom of the sixth that the blue and white built up a solid lead.
Piacentino hit his third home run of the game, and a pair of RBI doubles gave the Nittany Lions a three-run lead they would ride out to a 13-10 win, splitting the series at two wins apiece.
Sitting at 2-2 after its first series is not the worst place for Penn State to be, especially after a grueling two-loss Saturday.
Before the blue and white battles Indiana in another four-game set this weekend, here are some notable moments and statistics from its first series.
Penn State… a power team?
The Nittany Lions, over the last few seasons, have not been the most effective home-run hitting team. With totals of 21 in 2017, 18 in 2018, and 24 in 2019, they ranked at or near the bottom of the Big Ten each of the last three full seasons.
Even last year, their seven home runs in 15 games were fairly average for the conference in the shortened season.
Perhaps that has changed now.
Penn State slugged eight home runs last weekend, already surpassing its 2020 season total in just four games.
Both Spiegel and Piacentino have hammed three long balls, with Spiegel going deep twice on Friday and once Sunda, and Piacentino hitting three in a row on Sunday.
Additionally, Parker Hendershot and Matt Wood both went deep as well.
Not exactly known for extra-base hits either, Penn State rocked 14 doubles over the weekend, too. Jay Harry hit for four of them, while Spiegel added three, and Gavin Homer and Curtis Robinson had two apiece.
If the blue and white can keep up this power display, fellow Big Ten pitching staffs will have to take note of the damage the Nittany Lions can do.
Starters got strikeouts, but struggled to gain control
After dominating on the mound last year, the Nittany Lions’ pitching staff struggled against the Big Ten’s worst offensive team of the 2020 campaign in Northwestern.
In 16⅓ innings pitched, Penn State starters gave up 12 runs, averaging out to an earned run average of 6.71.
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The starters did, however, manage 24 strikeouts, which equates to 13.4 strikeouts per nine innings — indicating that the staff has done a great job making batters swing and miss.
Dees only allowed two hits and two runs on the mound in five innings, as well as Henline posting a 2.25 earned run average after his first start.
Larkin pitched hard but was not helped by Penn State’s quiet bats, as he gave up two runs after four innings. Kyle Virbitsky struggled the most, allowing seven runs and eight hits after just 3⅓ innings of play.
It was just one series, but against a team like Northwestern that is hardly an offensive juggernaut, better results should be expected from the blue and white’s pitching staff.
Stolen bases harder to come by
In just 15 games last year, Penn State managed to go 33-for-34 on stolen bases, equating to a 97% success rate.
As mind boggling as that statistic is, from the almost perfect percentage to the sheer number of stolen-base attempts in such limited time, it was clear last season the Nittany Lions were no joke on the basepaths.
After a series with Northwestern, Penn State went 2-for-6 on stolen base attempts. It appeared on some attempts the blue and white had some late jumps, not darting as soon as the opposing pitcher delivered to the plate.
Gavin Homer stole both of the Nittany Lions’ bases last weekend.
While not detrimental, it remains to be seen if Penn State can be a power-hitting team. The Nittany Lions likely won’t hit like this every series. If that’s the case, the blue and white will rely on small ball, and doing a better job stealing bases will certainly help.