By Mandy Bell, GoPSUSports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK - Although Tuesday night did not end in the Nittany Lions' favor, Penn State head coach Rob Cooper saw promising outings at the plate from senior Christian Helsel and sophomore Ryan Sloniger.
In a game featuring 10 total hits for the Penn State offense, Helsel and Sloniger were responsible for six.
At the beginning of the game, Helsel was penciled in at the leadoff spot in the lineup and starting at second base. Of his 34 games this year, Helsel has played second base just five times entering Tuesday night, as opposed to his 21 starts at third base and eight at first base.
"The approach changes playing at second base," Helsel said. "You have to approach balls differently, but my whole life I've kind of moved around a lot. Playing up the middle isn't something really new for me. I feel comfortable at all infield positions."
On top of the little experience in the middle infield, Helsel has batted anywhere in the lineup from the second spot to the eight hole at least once this season, yet never in the leadoff role.
"I feel like he's been swinging the bat very well," Cooper said. "I just felt like with him swinging the bat well, getting him up more often might help, so that's why he went up in the leadoff spot."
"As far as my approach, nothing was different," Helsel said. "I just wanted to be aggressive at the plate and get on base for my teammates to be able to drive me in. In the leadoff spot, I really feel like I am the guy to get us going, so I just went up there to swing the bat and get on base."
Helsel started off the game driving the fourth pitch of his at bat into centerfield. After popping out to second base in the third inning, Helsel came back in the fifth to tack on a two-out single to right field. In the bottom of the seventh, Helsel stepped up in yet another two-out situation and drove the ball to deep center field for a stand-up double and the only extra-base hit for the Lions of the night.
"Christian [Helsel], I'm very happy for," Cooper said. "This is a kid out of high school who went to Ole Miss and got hurt and really had to overcome a lot. Then he got here and things didn't go as well as I know he wanted it to go right away. So, to see him really starting to put it together in his senior season, I'm very happy for him."
Helsel was not the only Penn State player playing out of his typical comfort zone Tuesday evening.
Sloniger is used to seeing the ball from behind the plate, but against Pittsburgh he made his sixth start at first base.
"I'm definitely starting to get a little more comfortable at first base," Sloniger said. "I really hadn't played over there at all before recently. The more reps I get, the more comfortable I'm going to get."
Just like Helsel, Sloniger found himself up to bat in two-out scenarios in both the fourth and the sixth innings. In the fourth, Sloniger singled to center while in the sixth the sophomore singled to right field. In the eighth, he picked up his third hit of the night with another single to right field.
After getting off to a slower start than he would have liked at the beginning of the season, Sloniger has hit .250 in his last ten games with two doubles, a triple and a home run.
"Obviously, recently, I've felt a little better at the plate," Sloniger said. "I'm just trying to stay with my same approach. I saw the ball well tonight again and I'm just trying to keep it simple."
Cooper has said many times this season that certain players are getting hot at the plate at different times, but his offense has yet to get hot at the same time. In these situations, players end up taking it upon themselves to make it their responsibility to get the offense going.
"It's hard not to feel that pressure," Helsel said. "But you really have to fight that because if you're pressing at the plate then you're going to make bad decisions at what pitches you're swinging at. I really just try to go up there and focus on one pitch at a time and try not to do too much."
With conference games coming up this weekend, the Nittany Lions look to put this loss behind them and focus on the defensive part of their game before Northwestern comes to town.
"We just need to play clean baseball," Helsel said. "The free bases that we are giving other teams is really what is doing us in. So if we can eliminate those free bases that we are giving these other teams, that's going to eliminate a lot of runs that they are scoring and keep us in ball games and give us a shot to win."Penn State will host a three-game series against Northwestern starting Friday at 6:30 p.m. at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.