Precision, precision, precision.
That, and a two-run eighth inning, helped Penn State (13-12) squeak by Purdue in the teams’ series opener 3-1 on Friday night.
Both teams started pitchers with 5.00-plus ERAs, but a slew of big hits didn’t exactly follow on the opposite end.
Instead, Penn State’s defense relied heavily on the offspeed specialty pitches of sophomore lefty Taylor Lehman, who entered the game 1-5 with a 5.03 ERA.
Lehman used both a tricky slider that broke low and away and a changeup to hold Purdue to seven hits and one run in 6 1/3 innings, with four strikeouts and two walks for a 4.46 ERA.
“Once I get hit with my fastball, it’s hard for them to pick up on my slider,” he said after the game. “It feels good to turn the tables a little bit. … Once I saw them swinging at pitches close to the dirt, I was gonna keep throwin’ ‘em.”
On the other side of the ball, Purdue slingers Mike Lutz and Gavin Downs pitched 3 1/3 and four innings, respectively, and showed a tendancy to throw above the batters’ hands, which forced four consecutive shallow popouts to open the game.
“They do try to come in, and they try to elevate the ball up,” said head coach Rob Cooper. “One of the things they try to do is really get you off balance with a lot of soft stuff away. And we, early, didn’t do a very good job of holding our ground.”
To counter, Penn State leaned on the precision game and began to show bunt, one of which was executed slickly by Conlin Hughes to put runners in the corners in the third inning. Right fielder Nick Riotto plated Christian Helsel with a low fly ball to center to start the scoring.
From there, the Nittany Lions’ short game began to struggle. Haley advanced the runners with a sacrifice bunt and set up Greg Guers, who bunted poorly right back to Lutz and was thrown out while the runners stayed frozen. Lutz struck out senior first baseman Tyler Kendall to close the third inning and stranded the runners. Purdue tacked on its first run in the fourth, and the teams stayed scoreless through the next three frames.
“You know, again, I was not pleased with our bunting,” said Cooper. “I thought we kind of got a chance to put them away and we didn’t.
“But, you know, one of the things that we talk about is that I don’t care what happens in the past here. Just because something bad happens in the game and the game is tight, doesn’t mean that it has to go bad. The thing is, it doesn’t always have to get worse.
“A month ago, we still were in that mindset. Now, we’re like ‘Hey, let’s just play.’ And that’s why you’re seeing our guys have a chance to win, because they’re not letting the bad stuff get to them.”
That chance came in the eighth, when Kendall knocked a triple deep into center field to send in Jim Haley for the go-ahead run. Jordan Bowersox added an RBI single to push Penn State’s lead to 3-1.
Kendall, who finished with three hits, told Penn State baseball sports information director Mark Brumbaugh before the game that he was going to give the media a reason to speak with him after.
“Hit it hard, run it hard, that’s what we’ve been trying to do all year,” he grinned. “I mean I’ve been working little stuff with my swing, and I felt really good before the game today. … I always give Mark a hard time because he never calls my name, but I told him I was gonna make sure you guys called my name after.”
Dakota Forsyth took the mound for Penn State after Lehman started losing a bit of his command in the seventh. Forsyth held the Boilermakers scoreless with just two walks, but hit a batter and was pulled for Jack Anderson, who made his 84th career appearance, one shy of the Penn State record.
The closer’s signature submarine delivery forced a groundout double-play in the eighth, and he struck out Alec Olund, Ted Snidanko and Harry Shipley in the ninth to earn the win.
More important for the series, however, might have been Lehman’s resiliance. The Nittany Lions have a doubleheader scheduled with Purdue on Saturday to close the series (due to inclement weather expected Sunday) and Cooper doesn’t have to mess with his pitching rotation thanks to the sophomore’s long outing.
“He competed and gave us a great start,” said Cooper. “Our bullpen is intact for tomorrow. Dakota can come back, Jack obviously can come back and you need that. You need that kind of start by a Friday night guy. And he gave it to us.”
Saturday’s first game will start at noon.