In Pittsburgh, the past week has been dominated by ice, wind and snow. And even though Punxsutawney Phil recently declared that winter will last through the end of the month, there are welcome signs of warmer weather coming to life all around.
One of those signs is the migration of northern-based baseball teams to Florida and the Carolinas, where they open their seasons under clearer skies and warmer temperatures.
The Pitt baseball has abandoned the frozen streets of the Steel City and departed for sunny Port Charlotte, Florida, where they can expect to open the 2021 season with a three-game series against Indiana State, beginning on Friday, under much more temperate conditions.
Panthers head coach Mike Bell just revealed the full non-conference schedule last week, but he has had this series with the Sycamores on his radar for a while. Bell knew by the first day of official practices on Jan. 29 that he would begin a late winter swing through the south with a three game set against the reigning Missouri Valley Conference champions and an NCAA Regional team from 2019.
Pitt will be challenged right from the jump by ISU’s strongest phase: pitching.
The front half of Indiana State’s rotation is stacked. Left-handed redshirt-junior Tristan Weaver led the Sycamores in ERA (1.85), innings pitched (24.1) and strikeouts (34) last season and returns as the presumptive Friday starter in 2021.
Weaver is backed by Cam Edmonson, a 5-foot-9 left hander who posted a sub-two ERA and struckout 25 batters while walking only five through limited action during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
And D1Baseball preseason third-team All-American pick, redshirt-senior Tyler Grauer will anchor the bullpen alongside classmate Zach Frey, who did not give up an earned run over 7 ⅔ innings of action a season ago.
The Panthers know Indiana State well after playing the Sycamores in last year’s season opener and will have plenty of bats to combat their experienced pitching staff.
On the offensive side, Indiana State does not return much production. The bulk of their lineup is young after having to replace 11 of the top 13 hitters from a squad that won 41 games and a conference title in 2019.
Pitt had little trouble tying down ISU’s offense in an 11-1 win last year and should have little trouble again. Sophomore Billy Corcoran, who is expected to be Pitt’s starting pitcher come Friday afternoon, did not allow a run and struck out eight over five innings the last time these two met.
But don’t expect any of this weekend’s starters — Corcoran or junior righties Mitch Meyers and Matt Gilbertson, most likely — to extend their starts long beyond 80 or so pitches. Bell emphasized repeatedly that he wants to make these early season games low impact and instead focus on keeping his players healthy as they push later into the season.
“I think some of the biggest things that we need to do a good job of as a team, like I said, not beat ourselves when it comes to pitching and defense, … making sure we’re able to pitch as a staff through the middle of the game, but also finish things off on the back end of the game,” Bell said “And if we can be deep as a staff that allows us the opportunity to make a deeper run through the season.”
Pitt will open their series vs. Indiana State on Friday. First pitch from Port Charlotte is scheduled for 2 p.m. with Myers on the mound. The Panthers and Sycamores will play again on Saturday at 2 p.m., with Gilbertson on the hill for Pitt. Corcoran will close out the weekend for Sunday’s noon first pitch. All three games will be broadcast on FloBaseball.