Penn State lefthander Nick Hedge hesitated briefly, but then obliged.
Was Tuesday night his best performance of the year?
“Uh, yeah,” Hedge said. “I think so.”
Both by the eye test and in the scorebook, it was, without a doubt.
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Hedge — a high-socked, deliberate-windup southpaw — mixed his pitches, changed hitters’ eye levels, and, most importantly, was hitting his marks all night.
In short, he was rolling.
Hedge, backed by an early three-run lead and a couple runs here and there throughout, propelled the Nittany Lions (16-12) to a 7-0 win over Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, extending Penn State’s current winning streak to seven games.
The senior starter earned the win, throwing six scoreless innings, surrendering only two hits and striking out five Panthers.
“He just went right after guys, and was able to work both sides of the plate. He went in with his fastball...and went off the plate, settled in there, throwing his changeup and breaking ball for strikes,” Penn State coach Rob Cooper said. “But really his mound presence dictated the entire thing.”
Hedge faced 23 hitters, only five more than the minimum, and induced three 1-2-3 innings.
The senior didn’t really run up the pitch count, either. He needed only 82 pitches — 55 of which were strikes — to make it through six frames.
“Having that command today was big for me,” Hedge said. “I kept them off balance, was able to get ahead, and threw a lot of off-speed pitches for strikes.”
However, through little-to-no fault of his own, Hedge was tasked with a few precarious innings.
The trickiest spot was in the second inning.
After a 1-2-3 first frame, Hedge caved to Pitt’s Ron Sherman in the second, as the Panther smoked a leadoff triple. But the hurler battled, striking out three consecutive hitters to retire the side.
After the final strikeout, catcher Alex Malinsky popped out of his stance and pointed to Hedge, the pitcher skipped off the bump, and everyone in the Penn State dugout came out to greet him.
That sequence ignited the Nittany Lions.
“It was definitely awesome,” Hedge said. “You give up a leadoff triple like that, you can’t really think about striking out the side. You just have to take it one pitch at a time, and I strung a couple of them together.”
Just before Hedge’s display of poise, Penn State’s hitters demonstrated the same.
Conlin Hughes led off with a line-drive single into left field, Nick Riotto chopped a grounder by the Pitt second baseman, and Jim Haley fought off an inside pitch, placing it in shallow left.
With the bases loaded, designated hitter Greg Guers shot a low liner through the right side for a two-run double, opening the scoring.
Cooper was thrilled with Guers’ approach at the plate, a moment that set the tone offensively.
“It was huge,” Cooper said. “Early in the year, we would have a leverage count there, a 3-1 count, and we’d try to do too much with it, and he didn’t. He looked for a pitch in that spot, and he put a good swing on it...And he hit the way you should.”
Penn State’s bats generated four more runs in the fifth inning as Hughes scored on a wild pitch, Tyler Kendall slapped a two-run single, and he later scored on another wild pitch.
With a wave of runs behind him, Hedge continued to deal.
Though, he didn’t go further than the sixth inning given the large lead and impending weekend.
“We kind of got to that point where it was like, he either keeps going and then is probably a scratch for the weekend,” Cooper said, “but we figured where he was, he’s going to get Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and if need be, Saturday off, and we can have him for Sunday if we need him for an inning or two or whatever the situation.”
As for defeating an in-state rival, it was just another game for the Penn State coach.
“I just want to win. I don’t care if we’re playing in Hawaii or against teams in Pennsylvania,” Cooper admitted. “To me, it’s just another game.”
The Nittany Lions take on another in-state rival on Wednesday, as they travel to Lafayette.