Saturday, February 23, 2008

2008 BTH Preview: Penn State

Penn State
Head Coach: Robbie Wine
2007 record: 30-27 overall; 19-11 in Big Ten (lost in conference tournament)
2007 RPI: 66
2008 Projected Big Ten Finish:
Collegiate Baseball - 2nd
Rivals - 3rd

At The Plate: All of Penn State’s outfield returns in 2008. The group is led by Brian Ernst, a third team All-Big Ten selection. The senior hit .313 last year. Also coming back are juniors Rick Marlin (.306) and Scott Kelley. A newcomer should also see playing time with the veterans. Fleet-footed freshman Grant Youngblood may work his way into some CF action.

The infield is led by senior catcher Joe Blackburn. Like Ernst, Blackburn was named to the All-Big Ten third team in 2007. Blackburn led the Nittany Lions in average (.347), doubles (15), triples (5), RBI (35), total bases (101), slugging percentage (.461) and on base percentage (.400). Blackburn is the preseason favorite to claim first team all-conference recognition this year.

Junior Cory Wine holds down first base. Wine tied for the team lead in homers (5) and paced PSU with 29 walks. Mike Deese returns to third base. The senior hit .287 a year ago, his first season with the Nittany Lions after transferring. The middle infield is a battle between three players. Sophomore Lou Picconi, junior Landon Nakata and transfer Wes Borden are vying for the two spots.

Rob Yodice, who is Blackburn’s back-up at catcher, will get the majority of his at bats as the designated hitter.

On The Mound: Seth Whitehill appears to be Penn State’s Friday starter. Whitehill was 5-6 with a 5.65 ERA and claimed a second team All-Big Ten nod a season ago. A pair of JUCO transfers might emerge as the Saturday starters. Righthanders Mike Wanamaker and T.J. Macy are drawing rave reviews thus far. Some believe Wanamaker, in particular, could end the year as one of the best pitchers in the Big Ten.

The Sunday role will probably be sorted out during the non-conference schedule, but sophomore John Karr (1-0, 3.03) and junior Mike Lorenston (3-1, 4.24) both appear to be in the mix for the last weekend start.

Penn State has no question about their closer, however. First team All-Big Ten reliever Drew O’Neil returns for his junior campaign. O’Neil set the PSU record for saves -- 11 -- in his initial season at State College. O’Neil, who is garnering plenty of preseason accolades, was 4-2 with a 1.34 ERA last season. Senior Paul Hawkins (4-0, 3.32) should be O’Neil’s set-up man.

The Schedule: The non-conference game with the most buzz is probably versus Miami (FL). The Nittany Lions will travel to Coral Gables March 11. High Point (3 games), Georgetown, Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Troy are amongst those who dot the rest of the non-conference slate. In conference, PSU travels to Ohio State, Purdue, Illinois and Minnesota. At home, the Lions get Michigan, Indiana, Michigan State and Iowa.

Bottom Line: Returning an experienced, productive team in 2008, Penn State should finish close to the top of the Big Ten standings and keep people coming to their new ballpark. However, hopes are a bit higher around State College where fans are whispering about a NCAA Tournament berth.

A non-conference slate void of marquee match-ups might hurt their RPI, so Penn State may have to win early and often to be considered for a NCAA at-large berth. If they get off to an uneven start, the Nittany Lions’ NCAA dreams may come down to winning the Big Ten tournament.