The Penn State baseball team looked for a moment like it might sneak a game by one of the best teams in the country on Sunday afternoon at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
No. 10 Texas Christian had made its fifth pitching change of the outing and looked a bit jittery in doing so. The Nittany Lions had tacked on the game-tying runs in the bottom of the seventh frame behind a Tyler Kendall RBI single and an RBI groundout from Willie Burger.
At 5-5, with two innings to play, closer Jack Anderson began warming up his shifty, submarine-style arm for his 94th career appearance. Just that morning, Anderson had walked across the stage for Penn State’s 2016 spring commencement.
Energy in the ballpark was palpable — all season, Anderson had yet to give up more than two runs and boasted a 2.62 ERA entering the weekend series. TCU head coach Jim Schlossnagle had commented on Anderson’s prowess after Saturday’s doubleheader, saying that “he did not want to play from behind against that guy,” and that going against submarine throwers is “a dogfight.”
But on Sunday, TCU smacked eight hits and four runs off Anderson in the final two innings of the game, to give the closer his second loss of the season and take the series sweep over Penn State with a 9-5 win.
Anderson was hard on himself after the game for ceding the loss, said head coach Rob Cooper.
“If you’re a closer in a tight game, when he has a bad outing everybody sees it,” he said.
Cooper pulled Anderson in front of his teammates in the locker room after the game and told him about watching one of his former Wright State players, Joe Smith, give up the Los Angeles Angels game the night prior.
“I said, ‘He’s in his 10th year pitching in the big leagues. You’re going to pitch in the big leagues too. And there’s nobody in this room who would rather have somebody else with the ball at the end of the game.’
“So Jack’s going to get the ball again when it matters, and he’s a part of the reason we’re in the position we’re in right now.”
That “position” is one that’s grooming a roster full of blooming young talent and a 25-23 record, the best 48-game start for the team since 2011. Rookies like freshman center fielder Jordan Bowersox and catcher Ryan Sloniger posted big plays against the Horned Frogs throughout the series, and have a combined 25 RBIs this season. Burger is hitting .283 and has a team-high 31 RBIs in 38 games played.
There is potential there, and Cooper knows it.
“I’m not into moral victories. I’m really not,” said Cooper. “I’m the first one to jump on our guys when they don’t give energy, play hard, compete or believe. Because those are all choices. Those are all controllables.
“And (Penn State) did that this weekend, all weekend, for 27 innings. And what I told them was, ‘If the season ended today, that’s the No. 10 team in the country. They’re going to host the regionals. So if you look at that and you say here they are, then (now) it’s razor-thin as to where we’re getting.’ That’s big. Because you look at a few years ago, even 2 1/2 months ago when we were in South Carolina, and the perception of what a program like (that) is at, and what a program like this is at …We’re down here (motions downward).
“But we’re trying to change that. And our guys are starting to believe that.”
Penn State heads to Pittsburgh on Wednesday for a 6 p.m. first pitch.
Notes: Many members of the team, including Cooper, got their heads shaved after the game for a charity called “vs. Cancer” that will benefit the Four Diamonds Foundation.