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March 31, 2011
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Penn State baseball team will open up Big Ten action this weekend when the Nittany Lions host Illinois in a three-game series beginning on Friday at 3:35 p.m. at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
With the weather possibly playing a factor in this weekend's series, Friday's contest has been moved up three hours from its original start time of 6:35 p.m. Any additional adjustments to the schedule will be made immediately available on GoPSUSports.com.
Off to an outstanding start this year, Penn State (15-7) hopes to carry its early-season momentum into Big Ten action. Having won five of their last six contests, the Lions look to continue their strong play against Illinois (8-10) this weekend.
Those fans that can make it out to the park will be greeted by several exciting promotions. During each of the first two games, cowbells will be given away at the gate. In addition to that, fans can purchase hot dogs for just $1 on Friday. Additionally, the 4 for $24 promotion, which allows fans to purchase four tickets, four hot dogs, and four sodas for just $24, will be available on Sunday.
However, for fans unable to make it to Happy Valley this weekend, there are several ways to follow the action from the comfort of your home. GameTracker will be run through GoPSUSports.com and a live radio broadcast featuring Loren Crispell and Brian Tripp will be available on Penn State All-Access and ESPN Radio 1450 AM.
Ultimately, the Nittany Lions are looking to buck their recent trend of starting off slow in Big Ten play this weekend. PSU has not won its first conference series of the year since 2003. Overall, Penn State has captured its first Big Ten series only four times since joining the league in 1992.
Making the three games even more exciting is the competitive nature of the series. Since first battling in 1992, the Illini hold a slim 24-23 advantage in the all-time series. In Happy Valley, the two teams have split 20 contests overall.
Battling three times last year, Penn State won the first bout, 16-9, on April 2 before dropping the next two. Like this year, those games opened Big Ten play for both squads.
Setting up to be another competitive series, both teams come in riding hot streaks. In addition to Penn State's roll through its recent non-conference slate, Illinois also comes into play on a four-game winning streak, highlighted by a dominating performance during the team's 14-2 victory over Illinois State on Wednesday.
Undeniably one of the most well-rounded teams in the Big Ten this season, Penn State comes into the weekend with high marks on the mound, at the plate, and in the field. Currently, the Nittany Lions rank second in the Big Ten with a 3.05 ERA, third in the conference with a .296 batting average, and ninth nationally with 29 double plays.
PSU has been led this season by a deep and talented pitching staff. Through 22 games, the group has held the opposition to a .234 batting average while posting 139 strikeouts. Greatly improved from last year, the 2010 staff had a 6.48 ERA, .315 opponent-batting-average, and just 104 strikeouts at the same point last year.
Flame-throwing sophomores Steven Hill and John Walter have been outstanding so far this season. Both men come into play ranked in the top-10 in the league in ERA and opponent batting average, while Hill leads the way with 42.0 innings pitched and stands second with 34 strikeouts. Reliever Ryan Ignas has also excelled, posting a 2.75 ERA with three saves.
Offensively, the Lion lineup has also made great strides since 2010. Penn State has improved its team batting average by 15 points since this same point last season. The squad is also slugging at a .436 clip, which is 34 points higher than last year.
Right in the heart of the order, sluggers Jordan Steranka and Joey DeBernardis have anchored the lineup. Polished contributors at the plate, the two juniors are both hitting over .340 while adding a powerful pop to the batting order. Steranka currently leads the Big Ten with five home runs, while DeBernardis sits at the top of the conference with 13 doubles.
Reliable top-of-the-order stalwarts Sean Deegan and Luis Montesinos have also gotten off to excellent starts in 2011. Deegan, who leads Penn State with a .362 average, also has a team-high 34 hits, eight stolen bases, and four triples. Montesinos also comes into the weekend with a .322 batting average while leading the way with a .434 on-base-percentage.
Overall, Penn State has blasted 13 home runs this year, which is the second-highest total in the Big Ten. Fittingly, that sets up an exciting match-up against the Illinois pitching staff, which has allowed just three long balls this year.
Guided by Kevin Johnson, the Illini pitching staff has had some bright spots in the early part of the season. Illinois' ace and Friday starter, Johnson has a team-best 2.73 ERA and 28 strikeouts. His ERA, strikeout total, and .241 opponent batting average all rank in the top-10 in the Big Ten.
Entering the series as the No. 2 and No. 3 starters, John Anderson and Corey Kimes will also take the hill against Penn State. Anderson comes in with a 3-1 record and 3.76 ERA, while Kimes has gone just 1-2 but ranks second on the team with 19 strikeouts.
Reliever Wes Braun has anchored the bullpen, posting two saves with a pristine 0.00 ERA. Will Strack, Bill Barrett, Ronnie Muck, and Luke Joyce have also looked strong coming out of the pen during the first 18 games of the year.
Everyday rightfielder Davis Hendrickson has anchored the offensive attack for Illinois, posting a team-high .339 batting average with 13 runs scored and four stolen bases. Fellow outfielder Willie Argo is the lone member of the team with multiple home runs after clubbing two in the early going.
Brandon Hohl, Adam Davis, and Josh Parr have also been staples in the lineup. Hohl leads the squad with 16 RBI, while Parr has been a menace on the base paths with nine stolen bases. Davis, the team's starting catcher, ranks second on the team with a .329 average and has thrown out seven of 21 base stealers.
Entering this weekend, the Illini and Lions have only faced one common opponent as the two programs both squared off against West Virginia in the BIG EAST/Big Ten Challenge. During the competition, PSU topped the Mountaineers, 3-2, before Illinois lost to WVU, 5-4.
Reeling off a 3-1 record during last weekend's home stand, the Nittany Lions will remain in Happy Valley for a midweek battle against Kent State on Tuesday. The game is scheduled to start at 6:05 p.m.
Then, next weekend, Penn State will continue Big Ten action when the squad travels to Evanston, Ill. for a three-game series with Northwestern. The first game is slated to begin at 4 p.m. on Friday.