Penn State baseball coach Robbie Wine contemplated becoming an artist this spring.
The eighth-year coach is willing to try just about anything to get his team, which kicks off play Friday at East Tennessee State, out of the box quickly.
Historically, the Nittany Lions have started the season slowly which has cost them in the end. Last spring was a perfect example. The Nittany Lions stumbled out of the gate 4-14 to start, but rebounded with a late flourish make the Big Ten Tournament and finish 29-27.
Wine’s club has spend the cold, snowy days in Holuba Hall trying to get ready for the sunny spring climates in the south.
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The desperation to get off to a good start had Wine thinking of picking up a paint brush.
“I even went to the point of maybe thinking about painting palm trees on the walls in the batting cages just to make it look more ... like the feel of being outside,” he said. “There might be something to that if somebody wants to come up with that, just hanging nets to make it look like you’re down south and spring training.”
The thoughts of palm trees impress how important Wine is emphasizing the early part of the season. Wine knows that had the Nittany Lions got off to solid start last season, maybe they could have grabbed at at-large spot in the NCAA Tournament.
“That’s everything,” Wine said of getting out of the box early. “If you look over the years, we’ve finished strong the majority of the years. ... You feel like you have a team at the end that can go on and get into the NCAAs and regionals and make an impact, but you end up starting 4-14 like we did last year. That’s the challenge with every northern school, winning those games early, getting that RPI and win total up there to where you’re considered at the end.”
The team’s history of slow starts is not lost on the players.
“We get off to that shaky start and then we explode at the end,” said senior second baseman Elliott Searer, a former Lewistown High School standout. “We just need to figure out how to get it going at the beginning. I’m confident we’ve done that this year. We’ve really worked the hardest that I’ve ever seen a ballclub work here.”
Wine and his coaching staff believe the answer is in hard work and getting back to the basics.
“Every year when the season is over, we go to work on how we’re going to do it this year,” Wine said. “I know for a fact this year this team has worked the hardest ever conditioning, hitting, defense and teaching the game --- moving runners and playing fundamentally sound baseball --- because that’s what wins early.”
The Nittany Lions are looking to win without some big names who have moved on. Seniors Jordan Steranka, Joey DeBernardis and Sean Deegan combined for 31 of the team’s 38 home runs and 118 RBIs. Steranka was selected in the 21st round of the major league draft by Pittsburgh.
Penn State also lost ace and Friday starter Joe Kurrasch (4-2, 2..05 ERA), who drafted in the eighth round by San Francisco and Sunday starter John Walter, a 28th-round pick by Kansas City.
“We have a lot to prove,” Wine admits. “We lost a lot of guys who were impact guys that were impact guys for us last year, but that doesn’t hold us back. We feel like as a team we’re that much stronger this with the experience gained from the guys that were underneath them. With the new guys we have in there, we’re pretty solid.”
Offensively, Wine is looking for the Nittany Lions to scrap for runs, using speed and aggressive baserunning over power to push across runs. Catcher JC Coban (.311) and second baseman Luis Montesinos (.280) are the team’s leading returning hitters. Center fielder Steve Snyder (.258) swiped 10 bases.
Wine is also looking to sophomores JJ White (IF) and Aaron Novak (OF) and junior Alex Farkes (C) among others to make an impact.
On the mound, the ace of the staff is senior Steven Hill, a Saturday starter who was 5-4 with a 3.84 ERA last season. The right-hander tossed the school’s first no-hitter since 1995 last season.
“Steve Hill has done it for a few years now,” Wine said. “We’re happy with him on Saturdays. Win or lose on Friday, Saturday you go in feeling pretty good. You can win a series or get it back to even.”
Wine is going with Dave Walking, who closed last season, on Fridays and Patton Taylor, who had missed nearly all of last season with an arm injury, on Sundays. Walking was 1-1 with a 3.74 ERA and seven saves.
Sophomore Ryan Harper could close and freshman Nick Hedge has impressed in the fall and at practice.
“I feel pretty good about the pitching staff,” Wine said. “Now, it’s if we can just play defense and push those runs across when we get an opportunity.”
The Nittany Lions won’t open at home until March 20 against Akron and the Big Ten home opener is March 29 at Purdue.
Penn State will certainly look forward to playing at spacious Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, where the Nittany Lions posted a dominating 18-5 mark last season.
“I feel like once we get home, we play our game, the small-ball game,” Montesinos said. “When we go away, it feels a little bit smaller and I see guys trying to go for the fences. When we get back home with such a big yard, we get back to our game and stick to our game plan. Obviously, we do pretty well.”