Baseball: Panthers flex muscles with win at home

By Nate Barnes / Sports Editor

The Pitt baseball team has finally come home.

The Panthers officially opened their season Feb. 15 and has played 18 games since. But the Panthers were on the road for 17 of those, and they finally played their first home game Tuesday against Youngstown State. 

Playing on Charles L. Cost Field for the first time this season, the Panthers scored 12 runs on 12 hits to notch their largest victory of the young season by a 12-1 margin against the Penguins. The first home game was appreciated by left fielder Boo Vazquez, who said it was nice to play in front of his mother and see family members. 

And in his first game at the Petersen Sports Complex, Junior College transfer second baseman Matt Johnson went 3-for-4 and drove in three runs with two doubles, scoring another two himself. 

“You can get a little bit more of a routine in,” Johnson said. “You’re not hopping on a bus, rushing to the field, you don’t have the other team telling you, ‘You’ve gotta be done at this time.’ You come out, you can show up to your cages early, get loose kind of on your own watch.”

Not only was it nice for the players to return to Pittsburgh, but it was also nice for the team to get back to winning. The Panthers endured what head coach Joe Jordano called a “very frustrating weekend” in Blacksburg, Va., against Virginia Tech, where they led in each game played but were swept in the three-game set with the Hokies. 

Postgame, Jordano stated “we needed that” multiple times in reference to his team’s big win and said he was pleased with the team’s energy, among other things. 

“We played clean defensively, got some timely hits. Our pitchers did a really solid job today, and we needed that,” Jordano said. “That was just what the doctor ordered.”

Pitt received a timely hit in its first at-bat when Steven Shelinsky stepped to the plate with two men on and one out. The first baseman then cranked a 1-2 offering from Youngstown State starter Nic Manuppelli over the left-center field wall to put his team up 3-0. 

Manuppelli didn’t make it out of the inning, as he recorded just one more out. He exited the game responsible for four runs on two hits and walked five of the nine batters he faced. 

Johnson said Pitt’s hitters did a great job of following the scouting report on Manuppelli by laying off his off-speed offerings and then honing in on the fastball. 

“Once you start locating in on that fastball, once he figured out he couldn’t go to his breaking stuff necessarily — he’s a good pitcher — but once he wasn’t throwing his breaking stuff for a strike, it was easy to lock in and really bear down on 3-1 counts, 2-0 counts, hitter’s counts,” Johnson said. “And if not, be patient and take your bases when he tries to throw the breaking pitch or the changeup.”

After the Panthers took a lead in their first at-bat, Jordano saw his team enter a situation similar to their winless weekend against the Hokies. Outfielder and right-handed pitcher Casey Roche, starting on the mound rather than his usual slot in right field, loaded the bases by allowing a hit and two walks. 

But Roche struck out Youngstown State shortstop Shane Willoughby on three pitches to escape a jam, a moment Jordano said was “huge” in Tuesday’s game. 

“Because, you know, we were in that scenario three consecutive games against Virginia Tech and there was that sense of ‘Oh no, here go again,’” Jordano said. “And [Roche] came up with a couple of big pitches and got us out of that. We definitely needed that.”

The Panthers’ ability to escape the dangerous situation came as a result of what Jordano and his coaching staff made a point of addressing after Pitt allowed the Hokies to come back and win in each of the teams’ three games last weekend.

“We wanted to emphasize that we had to keep grinding, keep doing our thing until the end of the game,” Jordano said. 

YSU scratched out a run in the third when Phil Lipari led off with a double then scored on a basehit by catcher Josh White, which drew the Penguins’ deficit to 4-1. Casey Roche’s outing was finished after that, having allowed a run on four hits in his first appearance on the mound this year. 

Pitt then sent 10 batters to the plate in the bottom of the third and added five runs to its lead in the third inning. Johnson and catcher Manny Pazos knocked back-to-back run-scoring doubles off the left-field wall, Shelinsky singled in two more, and designated hitter Nick Yarnall brought left-fielder Boo Vazquez home with another basehit. 

With a 9-1 lead in hand, Jordano’s bullpen shut the Penguins out the rest of the way. Sam Mersing (1-0) earned the win after tossing three scoreless frames, then T.J. Zeuch and Adam Dian combined to allow just two hits while striking out four batters in the game’s final three innings. 

The effort on the mound was so good that Jordano believes his pitchers’ efforts are “good enough to pitch on the weekends” against ACC competition.

“They had good velocity, command in their off-speed pitchers and [were] really doing a solid job, so we needed that today,” he said. 

Pitt tacked on three runs in the sixth and coasted to the final result. Pitt’s execution in all aspects is something Vazquez said he is pleased about, given the way his team’s season has gone so far.

“Kind of the story so far has been when the hitting’s there, the pitching hasn’t been, and when the pitching’s there, the hitting hasn’t been,” he said. “Today we just put it all together, so that’s a good sign.”