PARK - With the majority of the team's pitchers returning for the 2017 season,
the Nittany Lions look to improve on last year's 28-17 record and 3.71 combined
Last season, Penn State relied heavily on its bullpen to come in early in games and pitch a lot of innings. This past weekend, the Nittany Lions kicked off the 2017 season against the No. 1 team in the country making it challenging for the starters to last deeper into games than what they did last season. However, as the team gets later into its season, the Nittany Lions hope to have their starters pitch more innings.
"They need to be more consistent," Penn State head coach Rob Cooper said. "This is something we have talked about. We have to be more consistent. We've got to win early counts. We've got to get ahead and get outs and be more efficient with it. The longer our guys can pitch into the game efficiently, the stronger our bullpen. That is something we really do need. If we can take that jump, then I think you will see us really have success on the mound."
Having a strong bullpen is something the Nittany Lions were used to last season with senior closer Jack Anderson's 55 innings pitched, 43 strikeouts, 13 saves and a 2.14 ERA. Although the team lost its go-to reliever, Cooper thinks the different options of relief pitchers this year will be able to fill Anderson's role.
"I don't know if we have a guy that we can rely on as heavily as we did Jack," Cooper said. "Part of the reason we could do that with Jack was because he was a sidearm pitcher and he was able to bounce back quickly. We have Dakota Forsyth, Nick Distasio or Tommy Mullin, you know I like the different options we have. Yeah, we are sad to lose Jack, but it's an opportunity for someone else to go in there and get that role."
As far as the starting rotation, the Nittany Lions have all of their main starter pitchers returning from last season. Entering the series against TCU last weekend, Cooper named Sal Biasi, Taylor Lehman and Justin Hagenman the top three starters. Cooper said the pitching rotation could change at any point in the year. He just wants who is pitching best at the time to be on the mound.
Biasi, who pitched Friday evening, is coming off of a 66 strike out season in just 67 innings pitched. Although he only pitched three and two-thirds innings on Friday, Biasi struck out seven batters in his first outing of the 2017 season.
Hagenman, who pitched on Sunday, is coming off of his 6-3 freshman season pitching 82 innings which was the most on the team. Hagenman struck out four batters through three innings on Sunday.
"I expect to build on what I did last year," Hagenman said. "I went out there and started every game and that was good, but this year I want to be more consistent and get stronger throughout the year. I hope to be one of the go-to starting pitchers. We have a lot of guys we can go to, but I think getting the balls on Sundays is a good spot. It's a good place for me to be able to make some noise."
Now a sophomore, Hagenman is able to approach this season with a lot more comfort and confidence than a year ago as a freshman.
"It's a lot different as a sophomore," Hagenman said. "You know what you're expecting from day one, from the fall until now. You can kind of lead more. You can help the guys that need it like I needed last year. It's a little different with having experience."
In the past few seasons, the Nittany Lions have put a lot of freshmen on the mound to help make a difference for their team. Biasi, Lehman and Hagenman all pitched as true freshmen. After looking at this year's freshmen, Cooper is open to pitching anyone who is willing to make an impact for his team.
"One thing that we try to do is open up every job every year," Cooper said. "I don't care if you are a freshman or a senior or a walk on or on high scholarship, if you are going to help us win, we are going to put you out there. If you look at last year, we had a lot of freshmen pitch. We have freshmen that will pitch this year and get some time."
This weekend redshirt freshmen Blake Hodgens and Eric Mock, along with true freshmen Cole Bartels and Myles Gayman all got time on the mound against the top team in the country.
Cooper is also really focused on keeping his team healthy. The head coach said that everyone always feels great to start the season, but around two weeks in the players start feeling some aches and pains. To keep his pitchers healthy, Cooper will be monitoring their pitch count carefully to make sure their arms will last the entire season.
"Their arms are ready to go for this point of the season," Cooper said. "Their pitch count today is going to be different than what it will be later on in the year. For some guys, it may even be lower as the year goes on just depending on how we use them. Right now they are at about 75-80 pitches. We are going to make sure we take care of our guys. When you are able to use more than one guy, you give more guys opportunities and more experience."
Although the team has the majority of its pitchers returning, this year's mindset is slightly different. The team wants to keep the pitcher's pitch counts low and allow the starters to run deep into games. In order to do this, the pitchers must attack.