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May 18, 2011
ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Riding a nice wave of momentum after capturing four of the last five contests, the Penn State baseball team is looking to wrap up its regular season with another strong performance as the Nittany Lions head to Ann Arbor for a three-game series with Michigan beginning on Thursday at 6:05 p.m.
Opening the series with back-to-back night games at Ray Fisher Stadium, Penn State and Michigan will face-off again on Friday at 6:05 p.m. before wrapping up the three-game set on Saturday at 4 p.m.
Ultimately one of the most important series in recent memory, the three games against the Wolverines (16-35, 6-14) will make or break the Nittany Lions (30-19, 10-11) as the squad looks to punch a ticket to the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2008.
Nestled right in the middle of a crowded playoff picture, Penn State currently sits in sole possession of seventh-place with the top six teams advancing to the postseason. Within striking distance, PSU sits just one game behind fourth-place and two behind second in the battle for playoff seeding.
Denied the opportunity to compete in the Big Ten Tournament for just the third time over the last decade, Michigan will be playing the unfamiliar role of spoiler this week. After dropping their last eight Big Ten bouts this year, the Wolverines fell out of the playoff hunt over the weekend.
Interested in following along with all of the action this weekend, fans can catch a live webcast of the first two contests on BigTenNetwork.com. The series finale can also be viewed live after the Big Ten Network selected the contest as one of the Wild Card Games that will be televised on the station.
Not to be overlooked, all three games will also be available on PSU All-Access and ESPN Radio 1450 with Loren Crispell and Brian Tripp behind the mic. Furthermore, fans can follow along with GameTracker, which will be available for all three games on GoPSUSports.com.
Guided by a strong record in games played at Michigan, the Lions hold a 43-36 lead in the all-time series with the Wolverines. During contests held in Ann Arbor, Penn State has gone 23-14. In recent years, PSU has been even stronger at Michigan, winning six of the last seven games played at Ray Fisher Stadium.
This season, Penn State has continued its success away from Happy Valley as the Nittany Lions have posted a 14-11 record during road tilts. Currently, only 27 other teams in the nation have won as many road games as Penn State has. That total also ties the most by the Lions since they won 15 road bouts in 2004 and marks a drastic improvement over last year's squad that went 3-19 away from Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
Having a bit of a tough time at home this season, Michigan has gone 5-13 during contests at Ray Fisher Stadium. However, three of those victories have come in conference action after the Wolverines took a game against Indiana before taking 2-of-3 from Illinois.
In the midst of the playoff hunt, Penn State needs a strong performance against Michigan to lock up a postseason berth. Facing a similar situation last year, the Lions lost two-of-three against the Wolverines during the last week of the season to fall out of the race.
Realistically, Penn State needs at least two wins during the final series to make a case for the postseason. Currently one game behind a tie for fourth-place, the Lions sit in the middle of a muddy playoff picture. Only three games separate second and ninth. Incredibly, only two teams have locked up their fate as Michigan State has already earned a berth, while Michigan has been eliminated.
Despite dealing with some adversity during the season, including the loss of several key relievers as well as starting catcher Bobby Jacobs for two weeks, Penn State has continued to persevere. Utilizing a sensational pitching staff and a powerful lineup, the Lions have established themselves as one of the most well-rounded teams in the Big Ten.
Heading into the Michigan series, Penn State currently ranks first in the conference with a 3.31 ERA as well as a .256 batting-average-against. The Nittany Lions have also surrendered the second fewest hits of any team in the Big Ten, and Penn State pitchers have given up only seven home runs this season, which easily is the lowest total in the league.
Entrenched at the top of the rotation, Steven Hill has been an imposing force on the mound for the Nittany Lions. The sophomore sensation leads the Big Ten with a 2.36 ERA. His 91.1 innings of work are also the most in the conference.
Almost equally as successful on the mound this season, John Walter has given Penn State an incredible 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. During the season, he has held his opposition to a .231 batting average, which is the finest in the Big Ten. He also ranks third with a 2.65 ERA and sixth with 56 strikeouts.
Despite receiving a little less acclaim than the starting staff, the Penn State bullpen has been a bright spot this season as well. After leaving the rotation to take over the closer's role, Heath Johnson has been sensational in relief. In 11 appearances out of the bullpen, the senior standout has fired 13.0 innings and scattered just five hits and no earned runs while picking up three saves.
In addition to Johnson, Geoff Boylston and Greg Welsh have been equally as important out of the bullpen. Boylston leads all relievers with a 1.40 ERA in 13 appearances, while fellow southpaw Welsh has appeared in a team-high 22 games while earning a pair of wins.
Not to be overlooked, the Lion lineup has also been exceptionally productive this season. Centerfielder Sean Deegan has been the biggest key to the team's offensive attack as the junior leads the Big Ten with a .625 slugging percentage and 10 home runs, while ranking second with 17 doubles and third with 49 runs scored.
Going for the program's single-season triples record, Deegan also has legged out five three-base hits this year, which is just one shy of tying Kevin Billotte's record of six set in 1995. Of course, Deegan has company in his chase for the mark as Jordan Steranka has also tallied five triples this year.
Furthermore, Penn State's single-season doubles record is also in danger as Joey DeBernardis continues his assault on the record book. Leading the league with 22 doubles, he stands just two shy of tying Michael Campo's record set in 2000. Incidentally, DeBernardis has actually clubbed 23 this season, but he lost one after the Lions' game against Kent State on March 30 was cancelled after three innings and the stats were erased.
Offensively, Penn State has also been guided by Mario Eramo, who sits second in the conference with nine home runs. Blake Lynd has also swiped 13 bases this season, which ties him with Deegan for 10th in the Big Ten.
Ranking 10th in the conference in ERA and batting average, Michigan will look to find its rhythm against Penn State and wrap up the regular season on a high note this week. Despite struggling a bit on the mound and at the plate during parts of the season, the Wolverines have been adept defensively, posting a .968 fielding percentage, which ranks near the top in the Big Ten.
Having a strong year on the mound for Michigan, Brandon Sinnery leads the Wolverines with a 3.15 ERA and has tossed a pair of complete games, including a shutout. Kyle Clark has also started seven games for the squad with a 3.59 ERA, while Jake Engels leads the team with three saves.
Offensively, the Wolverines are led by Patrick Biondi and Michael O'Neill, who have identical .297 batting averages. O'Neill also leads the Big Ten with 28 stolen bases, while Biondi is second with 25.
Michigan has also received some excellent power production from Coley Crank, who has blasted seven home runs with 31 RBI. He has also clubbed 15 doubles and leads the team with a .464 slugging percentage.
Eventually, the Big Ten Tournament will kick off next week at Huntington Park in Columbus, Ohio. The postseason will begin on Wednesday, May 25 and continue through Sunday, May 29.
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