By Mandy Bell, GoPSUSports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK - Entering the 2017 season, Nick Riotto was the only Nittany Lion returning with multiple home runs hit in the season prior. If you ask him though, he's the farthest thing from a home run hitter.
"Growing up I was not a home run hitter," Riotto said. "Not at all. I don't think I hit very many and have only hit like four or five here, so I'm not really a home run hitter."
On the night, Riotto had a career-high four hits and two stolen bases along with a season-high three RBIs and two runs scored.
"It feels good to have a night like this. The road has been long, but it's been worth it to work it out and hopefully get some better at bats going," Riotto said. "But, I'd obviously trade a night like this for a win any day of the week. It's nice to see the work pay off, but when it comes down to the stat book or not, I know what my at bats are like so I stay pretty confident throughout the way."
The injury bug has been slightly contagious for Penn State all season starting with Riotto at the beginning of the year. In the first game against TCU, the left fielder was sidelined for nearly a month .
"I mean it's been a long road for sure," Riotto said. "It was tough to deal with for a little while. A lot of long nights staying up thinking about it, but coming back, there are a lot of adjustments that have been made."
Rejoining the team in the middle of March, he has found himself mostly at the top of the lineup, but Penn State head coach Rob Cooper penciled his left fielder in at the fifth spot against Northwestern Friday.
"You know, I hit him two-spot a lot last year just because I liked the way he was swinging the bat," Cooper said. "A lot of it has to do with who is swinging the bat well within the last five to 10 games and getting those guys who are feeling good up there as many times as possible."
In the bottom of the second, Riotto led off the inning with a single to center field. After stealing second, he advanced to third on a single by Ryan Sloniger to right. With Riotto on third, the designated hitter, Brett Davis, laid a bunt down the first baseline. Once Riotto saw that the bunt was down, he charged home and put a run on the board early for the Nittany Lions.
"Getting that first run in is big because we have been struggling early," Riotto said. "We haven't really bunted too much this year and we ask a guy like him, a freshman, to bunt and it's really big for him to get it down and get us going early."
In the bottom of the fourth, Riotto was due up to lead off the inning yet again. The natural lead-off hitter worked the count to 2-0. With the hitter's count, Riotto drove the ball deep to right-center field over the 375-foot mark.
"I mean it's fun to hit home runs," Riotto said. "I don't get to do it too often, so it's definitely fun, but it's just kind of a mistake. Not completely a mistake, but it's just a miss where I was trying to hit it hard up the middle and I pulled it a little bit and got it in the air."
With runners on first and second in the bottom of the fifth, the senior worked a seven-pitch at-bat and drove the final pitch he saw through the right side to bring home the fourth Penn State run of the game.
"I've been making a lot of adjustments with our hitting coach," Riotto said. "We've been working on a lot of balance stuff so that felt good. It was just trusting what I've been doing rather than pressing like I had been for a little while. I was trying to make the defense make a play and I just found holes and I am thankful for that."
After a nine-run sixth inning for the Wildcats, the Nittany Lions relied on the hot bat of Riotto to keep the team in the game. Down 11-4, Riotto walked up to the plate with two outs and a runner on second as the Penn State student section, Cooperstown, chanted "Rio, Rio, Rio, Rio," to the beat of the Spanish "Olé" chant.
"I like the chant," Riotto said. "It surprised me at first last year, but now I'm used to it. It's definitely cool to hear that and to be one of the guys that has a chant. It's cool that they are here all the time no matter what the score is, no matter what the weather is, so we are thankful for them."
With a 2-2 count, the senior turned on the pitch and lined the ball sharply into right field to drive home his third RBI of the game.
"I'm really proud of Nick," Cooper said. "This is a senior who's got a lot of pride and works really, really hard. He wanted to have a great senior season and gets hurt in the first game of the season and it really affected him and then he got off to a slow start. People don't realize how much pain he's been in at times and how hard he works, so I'm just really proud of him."
Despite Riotto's hot bat, the Nittany Lions fell to the Wildcats 12-5 and look to even out the series on Saturday.
"We got to do a better job," Cooper said. "We just have to get out of here, go to bed quickly and get ready to go tomorrow."
The Nittany Lions will
host the Wildcats Saturday at 6 p.m. at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.