PITTSBURGH — Hitting a home run in a major league stadium is a dream that a lot of baseball players have while growing up, but very few ever accomplish. Hitting a home run in your hometown major league stadium is a feat so rare that few players ever even get the opportunity to do so.
For Mt. Lebanon native Nico Popa, that dream became a reality when the Panthers and West Virginia Mountaineers brought the Backyard Brawl to PNC Park on May 14 — Pitt’s first game at PNC Park in a decade.
Popa, a junior right fielder, gave Pitt an early 1-0 lead, blasting a lead-off solo home run out to left field in the bottom of the second inning. Popa became the first Pitt player to hit a home run at PNC Park since Chris Sedon hit one as a senior in a 5-2 loss against Duquesne on May 6, 2009. Current senior Cole MacLaren joined Popa with a three-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Despite losing 9-4, Pitt head coach Mike Bell said that just being able to play in a major league stadium and create unforgettable memories is what he wants this program to be about.
“One of the things we talked about from the get-go with our program is creating memories. We’re judged by wins and losses, but what we’re trying to do is create experiences and create memories for these guys,” Bell said. “What a better way for a young man, growing up here in Pittsburgh, to hit a home run in PNC Park, against a rival.”
Popa played high school baseball at Seton La Salle High School in Mt. Lebanon where he was a three-year letter winner and a WPIAL Class-AA First Team selection as both a junior and a senior. He used to come to Pirates games at PNC Park as a kid but, he said that he would never have imagined being able to play here someday.
“I used to come with my mom and dad when I was six years old, we’d sit out in left field,” Popa said. “I never really thought about being able to play here, so getting the opportunity to do so tonight was pretty cool.”
Popa also said he had a good amount of family members in the stands and being able to just play in front of them at PNC Park was special.
“It’s cool being able to make them proud,” Popa said. “For them to be there was just awesome.”
Popa came to Pitt in 2017 and made an immediate impact as a freshman, serving as Pitt’s starting right fielder for the entire season. Popa started 50 of 53 games for the Panthers batting .247 with 38 hits and 18 RBIs. Popa lacked power, however, slugging .304 with only eight extra-base hits.n Popa finished eighth on the 2017 Panthers in hits and doubles (six) and seventh in RBIs.
The sophomore slump was real for Popa in 2018, who was limited to only 36 games in due to injury. When he was on the field Popa was ineffective at the plate, batting .181 with 19 hits, seven going for extra bases.
Now nearing the end of a breakout season, Popa has established himself as one of the top hitters in the ACC. He ranks seventh in the conference in batting average (.351) and hits (71) while also topping the charts in triples (5) and landing third in HPB (12).
A power surge this year also has Popa’s slugging percentage at .579 with seven homers, 15 doubles and five triples.
The last Pittsburgh native to hit a home run at PNC Park was Ian Happ of the Chicago Cubs. Happ, also a Mt. Lebanon native, has two career home runs at PNC Park, the latest August 16, 2018. “The Pittsburgh Kid” Neil Walker, a graduate of Pine-Richland Highschool has hit 44 home runs at PNC, 42 as a member of the Pirates. His Sept. 30, 2015 home run off of Micheal Wacha of the Cardinals is the last time a Pittsburgh native hit a home run at PNC Park as a member of the home team.