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A Strong Start on the Mound in 2018

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By Mandy Bell, student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK - After ending the season with an 18-37 record and a 5.96 combined ERA last year, the Nittany Lions knew they needed better pitching in order to find success in 2018. Last weekend, the pitching staff proved just how hard it worked in the offseason, posting a combined 3.00 ERA to lead the team to a series sweep. 

 "A lot of those guys have really matured and taken a lot of responsibility for their development as well," Penn State head coach Rob Cooper said. "I think [pitching coach Josh] Newman has done an unbelievable job in his first year getting them to really buy in and believe that he has their backs. And he does, so that's a huge thing and a huge difference for us." 

Last season, the Nittany Lions relied heavily on starting pitcher Sal Biasi, who went 5-5 with a 3.48 ERA. After Biasi was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 11th round of the 2017 MLB Draft, the Nittany Lions are looking to junior starter Justin Hagenman to lead the pitching staff.

"I've been through it a lot," Hagenman said. "I've started every game since I've been here, luckily. It helps that the routine is there. I know exactly what I'm going to do on home and away games, like what time I have to get ready. So, some of that stuff I can tell to the other guys."

Hagenman pitched a team-high 80 1/3 innings in 2017 recording 75 strikeouts, but his 1-11 record and 5.49 ERA did not reflect the hard work he put in on the mound. After being named the team's opening day starter against Elon last Friday, Hagenman recorded his first win of the season, allowing just four hits through five innings with seven strikeouts. 

"I felt good," Hagenman said. "It was the first start of the year so adrenaline is pretty high to start. You get a little tired quicker. It was definitely good to get back out there."

"[Getting Hagenman a win] was very nice," Penn State outfielder Braxton Giavedoni said. "I mean last year he worked very hard. His numbers just didn't really show for it, but we couldn't really put runs up when he was pitching. I'm glad he got the win."

Prior to the weekend series at Elon, Cooper named his opening weekend starters as Hagenman, Taylor Lehman and Dante Biasi. Lehman followed the tone Hagenman set the night before, allowing just one run on three hits through five innings.

That was before it was time to turn to Sal's younger brother, Dante, for his first career start Sunday.

Dante missed the entire 2017 season due to injury, but started the 2018 season hot, carrying a no hitter into the fifth inning of his collegiate debut. The sophomore ended his afternoon after allowing two runs through 4 1/3 innings. 

"You hope for the best with their first start back just because you never want them to baby anything but it's big to get the first one out of the way because your confidence is just boosted up from there," Hagenman said. "It didn't look like he missed a beat. It was definitely the preparation that he put in throughout the past couple months or year that helped him for sure. He was definitely prepared."

Although Hagenman was expected to return as the team's top pitcher, the rest of the starting positions were up for grabs. Redshirt sophomore Eric Mock was battling for a starting position, but about a week before the season started he was told he would be working out of the bullpen. Although it wasn't his first choice, he proved last weekend he has improved greatly since last year.

In 2017, Mock went 0-6 with a 7.75 ERA in eight starts and 15 total appearances. Mock worked hard over the offseason to not just improve physically, but mentally too, in order to find success in 2018. 

"First and foremost, I focused on the physical side," Mock said. "I wanted to get stronger, I wanted to put on some weight to have more fuel for the entire season. Mentally, last year I hit some mental blocks at times, whether it be you have a bad game and your confidence gets down a little bit or whatever it may be. It was my first year last year. There was a big learning curve. I knew different things mentally that I needed to work on to have more success this year and hopefully they're paying off." 

Mock made two appearances against Elon recording one-inning and three-inning saves. Although he already has two saves under his belt, Cooper said he does not want to use the term "closer" when referring to his reliever. 

"We brought him in the seventh inning because the question we had as a staff was, 'If this was the ninth inning right now, who would we use?' Eric Mock," Cooper said. "I don't want to save a guy like Eric Mock for the ninth inning and a lead if we don't ever get to the ninth inning with a lead. He and everybody else on the mound did a great job this weekend." 

Even with a great start to the 2018 season on the mound, Cooper thinks there's still much more in store for his pitching staff than what fans saw in the first three games.

"From a pitching standpoint we were great this weekend for sure, but there are some guys that didn't get in this weekend that are going to be impact guys for us whether it's Myles Gayman or Kyle Virbitsky or Bailey Dees and many others like Tucker Triebold. These are guys that I know can help us. It's nice to have some depth." 

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