Pitt took on Penn State in the Keystone Classic rivalry Tuesday night at PNC Park in a big mid-week matchup to bolster their NCAA Tournament chances. It looked to be a great finish for Pitt, making a big comeback in the eighth, before an implosion in the ninth inning gave Penn State a blowout, 19-6 victory.
The Panthers (27-23) allowed 14 runs in the ninth inning, after making an impressive five-run comeback in the eighth inning to take the lead. Those 14 runs are the most the Panthers have allowed this season in one inning. The loss to the Nittany Lions (25-24) for the Panthers gives them a 5-4 record for the regular season for mid-week games.
“Great ball game, all the way until the end there,” Pitt head coach Mike Bell said. “Great comeback by our guys. I thought our guys showed a lot of fight. We know where our Achilles heel is and some of our weaknesses, but I thought our guys showed a lot of fight getting to the lead there heading into the ninth. Obviously the free passes and the ball leaving the yard a little bit at the end there hurt us.”
Pitt struggled to capitalize with runners in scoring position early on, leaving eight players on base throughout the first three innings.
Pitt junior catcher Tatem Levins reached second base on a fly ball that Penn State junior outfielder Tayven Kelley dropped in sunny left field to kick start the first inning. Junior infielder Sky Duff walked and then senior outfielder Ron Washington Jr. loaded the bases on a hit by pitch, giving the Panthers a great chance to score early with just one out. They missed that chance as senior infielder Bryce Hulett struck out and then junior designated hitter Jack Anderson grounded out to third base.
Junior infielder Brock Franks almost hit a home run for Pitt in the second inning as he hit a ball that hit off the top left portion of the Roberto Clemente wall, only giving him a double. Franks made it to third base on a pop out by sophomore outfielder Dom Popa and senior infielder Jeffrey Wehler walked to put runners at the corners, but Levins flied out to right field to end the inning.
Pitt started out the third inning with Duff and Washington striking out. Despite having two outs to begin the inning, Pitt roared back with Hulett singling, junior designated hitter Jack Anderson reaching base on a hit by pitch and sophomore outfielder CJ Funk walking to load the bases. Franks flied out to right field to end any potential change for Pitt to take the lead.
Penn State took advantage of those missed opportunities in the fourth inning. Junior catcher Matt Wood doubled down the left field line to start off and then made it to third base on a balk by Pitt starting pitcher, first-year Johnathan Bautista.
Bautista struck out the next Nittany Lions batter, but then for the next batter, his pitch got away from Levins and Wood leapt at his chance to score. Levins got the ball and threw it to Bautista covering the plate, but Wood plowed into Bautista and caused him to drop the ball. This allowed Wood to touch home plate and score to give the Nittany Lions a 1-0 lead.
Neither team could get anything to go over the next two innings, until Funk walked in the bottom of the sixth for the Panthers. Funk then made it to second base on a bunt by Franks and then advanced to third base on a wild pitch. Wehler hit right up the middle to centerfield, just out of reach of Penn State shortstop sophomore Jay Harry’s glove that scored Funk, tying the game at one.
Levins singled, moving Wehler to third base to put runners at the corner, but Duff grounded out to end the sixth inning.
The Nittany Lions responded in the seventh inning, with sophomore infielder Kyle Hannon walking with one out. Hannon then made it to second base and third base on two steals, getting himself in good scoring position. A ground out by Kelley right to Duff kept Hannon at third base with two outs. First-year infielder David Cease made sure the Nittany Lions didn’t waste the inning as he hit a blooper to left field, that scored Hannon to take a 2-1 lead.
Penn State opened the game up in the eighth inning, as they finally pieced together some offense and took advantage of poor Pitt relief pitching.
Wood walked to start the inning and then the Panthers made a move to bring in senior pitcher Baron Stuart to clean up. Stuart made the situation worse as Nittany Lions batters easily took care of him.
Redshirt junior catcher Josh Spiegel singled to move Wood to second base. Sophomore outfielder Billy Gerlott hit a big double over sophomore outfielder Dom Popa in centerfield to score Wood and move Spiegel to third base. Hannon then hit another big fly ball to second field, which ended up a sacrifice fly, scoring Spiegel. Cease singled to right field to score Gerlott and helped give Penn State a 5-1 lead to finish the top of the eighth inning.
Despite being down four runs, the Panthers started off the bottom of the eighth quickly, as Funk walked and Franks singled. First-year catcher Luke Lambert came on as a pinch-hitter for Popa and hit a big double over the Nittany Lions centerfielder, junior Johnny Piacentino, scoring Franks and moving Funk to third base.
Wehler added on for Pitt, as he doubled to center scoring Franks and first-year outfielder Nick Giamarusti, who came on as a pinch-runner for Lambert, making it a 5-4 ballgame.
The Panthers loaded the bases shortly after, as Levins moved to first base on a hit by pitch and Duff walked. Washington hit a sacrifice fly to right field for the first out of the inning, tying the game at five as Wehler scored from third base. Hulett then singled to left field to score Levins and gave the Panthers their first lead of the game at 6-5.
Anderson struck out and Funk flew out to end the inning for Pitt, but they still had a 6-5 lead and a chance to finish off the game in the ninth inning.
Harry and Wood walked to start the ninth inning for the Nittany Lions, prompting Pitt to bring in redshirt junior left-handed pitcher Ben Dragani to shut the game down.
Dragani instead gave up a three-run home run to Spiegel that went into the bullpen, giving Penn State an 8-6 lead. Dragani continued to fail to stop Penn State batters, as Piacentino and Gerlott hit back-to-back singles and then Hannon hit another three-run home run that landed on the Pirates grass sign in centerfield, making it an 11-6 ball game.
The Panthers relief pitching continued to falter throughout the ninth inning. Pitt used three more pitchers in junior Ryan Miller and first-years, Tyler Kennedy and Will Droll, who combined to give up three hits, eight earned runs, four walks, three wild pitches and two batters hit by pitches.
“I kinda felt like in the eighth inning, one run wasn’t going to do it,” Bell said after his team got the lead at the bottom of the eighth. “I was kind of hoping, we would put that eight, nine, 10 run inning together because it just felt like it was going to be one of the those days. Even though it was a close 2-1 ball game throughout, it just felt like finishing things off is tough because your bullpens are not intact based off what you did the previous weekend.”
Pitt takes on Georgia Tech this weekend at home in a crucial ACC series, starting on Thursday, May 19 at 6 p.m. to finish off the regular season before the ACC Tournament next week.