By Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Former walk-on Jake Pilewicz had never started a game on the hill before Wednesday night's home outing against Bucknell.
He has pitched strictly out of the bullpen this season, logging 11 relief appearances and striking out eight in 13.2 innings. In Penn State's fifth game in a five-day stretch with many Nittany Lion arms running on empty, head coach Rob Cooper placed his confidence--and the ball--in Pilewicz's hand to end a recent skid.
"I knew we were a little short-staffed, but I was really excited," Pilewicz said. "I started in high school and I was just really excited to get the opportunity."
Pilewicz struggled a bit in the early innings, but his resilience and ability to get out of seemingly impossible jams kept the Bison off the scoreboard.
In the first inning, Pilewicz gave up two straight hits with one out then walked Keifer Rawlings to load the bases. Without panicking, Pilewicz went after the next two batters and forced two short pop outs to quell the scoring threat.
In the third inning, Pilewicz loaded the bases again but this time with no outs--the closest scenario to major trouble for pitchers. Similarly, Pilewicz calmly worked of out the jam, and he only needed two batters to do it.
He first forced Bucknell's Luke Johnson to line into a double play as Christian Helsel caught the screamer and quickly tossed to Conlin Hughes to double up Sam Clark at second. Pilewicz then got an easy fielder's choice ground out from Miles Moore to end the inning.
Through the first three innings, Pilewicz held Bucknell to seven runners left on base and five left in scoring position without scoring a run.
"He went after it instead of trying to nibble around guys," Cooper said. "I'm really proud of him and the way he competed. He just wants to do well and he competes."
Pilewicz said his approach was to attack hitters and not walk anyone in those situations.
"You got to let the ball be put in play and you got to trust your defense, and they came through for me huge today," Pilewicz said.
Pilewicz surrendered two runs in the fifth inning that gave the Bison a 2-0 lead, but his teammates picked him up in the bottom of the inning by scoring four runs. Thanks to Penn State's offensive surge in the fifth inning, Pilewicz recorded his first career win in his first career start.
Pilewicz finished his five-inning performance with two earned runs and seven hits allowed, lowering his season ERA.
Cooper didn't rule out the possibility that Pilewicz would be able to supply more starts, but he said he loves Pilewicz's versatility right now.
"The great thing about him is he's a flexible guy," said Cooper. "He's a guy that's going to work hard and probably be ready and available for Sunday at some point if we need him. It's nice to know that we have that in our back pocket if we need it."
Hughes and Helsel, who completed the crucial third inning double play to keep Bucknell off the scoreboard, supplied the four runs in the fifth inning to give Pilewicz his first win.
"It's definitely exciting and kind of relieving in the dugout to just get some energy," Hughes said. "It makes guys just want to perform well and keep it going throughout the rest of the game."
With two outs, Hughes cleared the bases with a triple to give Penn State a 3-2 lead. Helsel then singled him in a few pitches later to stretch the lead to two. The Lions held the lead for the remainder of the game and held on to win 5-3 to snap their streak of seven losses in eight games.
Cooper also commended both Pilewicz and Hughes after the game for their competitiveness in the last few weeks.
"Even though we've been struggling a little bit, their competitive spirit is why you can see our guys don't quit," said Cooper.
Hughes and Helsel led the charge offensively with two hits apiece. Austin Riggings recorded his second RBI of the season in just his second start with a single in the sixth inning that scored Brett Davis. Riggins reached base three times in the game.
"For [Riggins] to do that and battle in tough [at-bats] and stuff like
that and see him perform well it's really good for our team since we don't have
that much depth right now."