Penn State Baseball Preview

Story posted March 20, 2012 in Sports, CommRadio by Dan Smith

The home opener for the Penn State baseball team is Wednesday, as the Nittany Lions prepare to take on Pittsburgh. The team has spent its first month of the season playing in the southern part of the country, posting a disappointing 3-14 record. However, its out-of-conference opponents this season have been much tougher than in years' past, and six of the team's losses came in games against nationally ranked opponents.

Still, as the team returns home and prepares for the quickly approaching Big Ten schedule, there are certainly some issues that need to be worked out. Head coach Robbie Wine has had a tough time figuring out his lineups this season, as the team has used 16 different combinations in 17 games. Finding a balance between good defense and strong hitting has been tough, especially with trying to establish hitters to back up the heart of the order.

Pitching has also been an issue, especially the bullpen. The team has blown late leads in a number of games due to having a tough time establishing a solid back end of the 'pen. Going forward, these issues need to be addressed.

With the team beginning home play on Wednesday, here is what to look for on the field.

PROJECTED LINEUP
1. Steve Snyder - CF
2. Sean Deegan - LF
3. Joey DeBernardis - 1B
4. Jordan Steranka - DH
5. Aaron Novak - RF
6. Luis Montesinos - 2B
7. JC Coban - C
8. Matt Paradise - 3B
9. Elliot Searer - SS

It is tough to predict the lineup, due to the previously mentioned inconsistencies. In fact, this particular projected order has not yet been used, but based on the way the lineup has shifted in recent weeks, this seems like a likely order going into this week's games.

At the beginning of the season, the team struggled to find consistency after its top hitters. But as of late, freshman right fielder Aaron Novak and freshman catcher JC Coban have filled serious holes in the team's batting order. Novak's success has been especially important, as it protects the team's best hitter, Steranka, in the fourth position in the order.

The catcher position was arguably the team's biggest question mark coming into 2012, and Coban's strong offensive display in the last two weeks has given him the job for the time being. Sophomore Alex Farkes, who backed up Bobby Jacobs last season, and junior Ryan Clark, who played outfield last season, were the early season competitors for the position. But concerns about Farkes' defense and poor hitting by both players led to Wine pushing the freshman into lineup, where he has hit very well.

In the infield, the team has four regular players: senior first baseman Jordan Steranka, senior third baseman Joey DeBernardis, junior shortstop Elliot Searer and junior second baseman Luis Montesinos. The only real variability here comes when Steranka is moved to designated hitter, which has been happening more frequently recently for two reasons. One is because the team has not found consistent play at DH from freshman JJ White, and the other is because of Steranka's defensive struggles at first base, where he has five errors so far. When Steranka is moved to DH, DeBernardis slides to first and a hole opens up at third. Recently, junior Matt Paradise, who transferred from Saddleback Community College after the 2011 season, has found most of the playing time at third with Steranka at DH.

In the outfield, there have been two consistent players: senior left fielder Sean Deegan and redshirt sophomore center fielder Steve Snyder. Deegan spent most of 2011 playing center in place of the injured Snyder, and with his return in 2012, the two seem more comfortable. While Snyder's recent struggles at the plate have taken him out of the lineup, he will still be the regular in center and the most common leadoff hitter. In right field, it appeared for most of the season that sophomore Zach Ell would be the regular. But after the recent success at the plate by Novak, Ell will for the time being rotate in as a fourth outfielder.

Defense has continued to be a problem in the infield. While 21 total errors in 17 games is not bad compared to other Big Ten teams, the resulting 16 unearned runs are. The team has a bad habit of allowing runners on based on error at inopportune times. Montesinos (6), Steranka (5) and Searer (3) have been the main offenders in the infield, but the pitchers have struggled to field their position as well.

BENCH
Zach Ell - OF
Alex Farkes - C
Ryan Clark - C/OF
JJ White - DH/1B
Sean Parvin - IF
Taylor Skerpon - SS

Ell will be the most frequently used, and will probably return to the starting lineup if the freshman Novak regresses. Farkes and Clark will still see time at catcher as well, with the freshman Coban just beginning to see regular time. White has gotten several looks at DH, but is just 1-for-27 at the plate this season. Parvin works his way in as a backup infielder, and Skerpon has been used as a pinch runner on multiple occasions.

STARTING ROTATION
Friday - Joe Kurrasch (LHP)
Saturday - John Walter (RHP)
Sunday - Steve Hill (RHP)
Wednesday - Greg Welsh (LHP), Mike Franklin (LHP), Dave Walkling (RHP)

Junior right hander Cody Lewis got the first four Friday starts, but after posting a 9.35 ERA so far this season, Wine decided to move left handed sophomore Joe Kurrasch from the bullpen to the rotation. Meanwhile, Walter and Hill have pitched solidly despite facing top offenses, and should do well once Big Ten play begins.

The weekday starter is tough to guess right now, but lefty sophomore Greg Welsh seems like the most viable option on a regular basis. It is clear that senior Mike Franklin will also be used, but he has struggled so far this season, and junior Dave Walkling is still working his way back from Tommy John surgery. Welsh has been solid so far this season, mostly in relief, with opponents hitting .245 against him.

BULLPEN
Greg Welsh (LHP)
Casey Kulina (LHP)
Cody Lewis (RHP)
Neal Herring (RHP)
Mike Franklin (LHP)
Tim Dunn (LHP)
Evan Dixon (RHP)
Dave Walkling (RHP)
Patton Taylor (RHP)

The bullpen has been arguably the biggest weak spot for the team in the first month of the 2012 season. Of this group, only Welsh and junior righty Neal Herring have posted ERAs below 5.00. While defense has at times hurt the pitching staff (the team has allowed 16 unearned runs in 17 games), problems with accuracy seem to be the bigger issue.

The team is still reeling from losing closer Ryan Ignas for the season. While Kurrasch was originally looked at as the closer, the team now has a hole there with him moving to the rotation. The only pitcher with a save this season is Casey Kulina, who has struggled in a number of his appearances.

Relief pitchers for Penn State have issued 36 walks in 58 innings. Mike Franklin, Cody Lewis and Kulina have combined to throw 9 wild pitches so far this season, and Kulina has allowed two home runs in just 7.1 innings pitched. Lewis, Patton Taylor and Dave Walkling are averaging over an earned run allowed per inning. The team's relievers have allowed 37 runs after the sixth inning in the team's 17 games.

Bullpen implosions have been the cause of some of the team's toughest losses on the season. The 10-6 loss to Mississippi State on March 7 included eight runs given up by the bullpen, seven of which came in the last two frames. This past weekend, two heartbreakers were also dropped by the 'pen. Saturday's 6-5 extra inning loss to East Carolina came after the bullpen blew a 5-1 lead in the 9th inning. Sunday's 7-4 loss included a 4-run 7th inning that erased a 4-2 lead.

OVERVIEW

Penn State has struggled mightily so far this season, and there is really no way to spin it as a positive. The only defense to be put up is the level of talent in the teams that the Nittany Lions have played and how many close games the team has played in.

Of the 11 teams in the Big Ten (Wisconsin does not have a varsity baseball team), Penn State ranks last in nearly all statistical categories. Offensively the team is dead last in batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, runs scored and stolen bases, while it sits second in the conference in strikeouts.

The pitching story is not much better: Penn State is last in earned run average, and has allowed the second most walks.

The Nittany Lions have to hope that after a month of finally playing outdoor baseball, the team is ready to gain some stability while playing its first home games. The team appears to be closer to a lineup that Robbie Wine is comfortable with, which can only help going forward. And Big Ten competition will not be as strong as the competition faced down south.

But sustained success in the next month and half will require some players to step up and make contributions. If and when that happens, there will be hope in Happy Valley.

Dan Smith is a junior majoring in Broadcast Journalism and is the Executive Editor of ComRadio. To contact him, email des5249@psu.edu.