On Saturday, Penn State got by with a little help from the wind.
A routine fly ball to left field in the ninth inning suddenly became anything but ordinary thanks to the stiff 20 mph breeze. What would have ended the frame instead became a walk-off victory for the Nittany Lions, who squeaked by UMass Lowell 7-6 on a game-winning error.
It was the third walk-off victory for Penn State this season, and its first at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. The Nittany Lions are now 5-0 in one-run contests this year after going 5-13 in such games in 2018.
“I’m proud of our kids for finding a way to win,” coach Rob Cooper said. “Our kids showed some mental toughness to find a way to win.”
In the ninth, with right fielder Kris Kremer at third base and two outs, left fielder Mason Nadeau lifted the ball into the jet stream. It was driven off course by the wind, causing River Hawks left fielder Cam Climo to miss the catch and allow Kremer to score.
The play served as an omen for what was a bizarre finish on both sides. Four runs were scored in the final inning, all of which were unearned.
UMass Lowell entered its final at-bats down 6-3, but quickly capitalized on Penn State’s mistakes. The River Hawks loaded the bases on a throwing error, a double and a walk with only one out, and had the winning run in the batter’s box.
A ground out allowed them to scratch across a run before the bases were loaded again after an intentional walk. Another throwing error then blew the matchup wide open, allowing a pair of UMass Lowell baserunners to scoot home and tie the score.
Nittany Lions relief pitcher Kyle Virbitsky was able to get Penn State out of the frame with a strikeout. The right-hander found himself in a total of four bases-loaded jams in the final three innings, but never relinquished the lead.
“I still felt like the game was in my control,” Virbitsky said. “I felt like I was in a situation I could handle and I was in a good spot to get out of it.”
The sophomore entered the game in the seventh, which is when the contest was first turned on its head. Starter Bailey Dees began the frame, getting the first two outs while only allowing hit.
Dees then walked two consecutive batters to load the bases before being pulled from the contest. Left-hander Tyler Shingledecker entered in relief and walked home a run before his day was done as well.
Virbitsky came in and smothered the flames, getting a ground out to end the inning. He did the same in the eighth, striking out a batter with two outs after UMass Lowell loaded the bases on an error.
“To be honest with you, I felt really comfortable,” Virbitsky said. “There wasn’t any time when I felt like it was out of hand.”
In the end, Virbitsky tossed 2.1 innings allowing just two hits and no earned runs. However, Penn State allowed three unearned runs on three errors while he pitched, complicating the end result.
“He really believes in his ability, he’s very confident, he wants to have the ball,” Cooper said. “[I’m] really proud of Kyle Virbitsky and what he’s been doing for us out of the bullpen.”
On the offensive side, Nadeau’s game-winning drive to the outfield was just one display of the big swings the Nittany Lions took in the matchup. Penn State had seven extra base hits in the contest, none more important than Kremer’s triple to lead-off the bottom of the ninth.
Over half of the Nittany Lions’ 12 hits were greater than singles, as they recorded three doubles, three triples and a home run. The extra base hits accounted for three RBIs and six of Penn State’s seven runs.
It is the first time this season the Nittany Lions have recorded multiple triples in a contest. The seven extra base hits are also a single-game high for the 2019 campaign.
“We’re on the right track,” third baseman Justin Williams said on the offense. “That’s a great benchmark to hit this early in the season.”
Williams opened the scoring in the third with a two-run moonshot to right center field. The freshman hit the ball into the breeze, and strong winds blowing towards the fence took care of the rest for his first collegiate home run.
“It felt great,” Williams said on his first home run. “It’s something to be very happy about.”
Penn State followed up in the sixth with a three-run rally. The Nittany Lions used small ball to extend their lead, as they battled through the order and recorded five hits.
“We put some hits together,” Cooper said. “I know that we’re a better hitting team than what we’ve shown, so to see today those guys do that was good.”
Bailey Dees got the starting nod on the mound for Penn State, following up fellow starting pitcher Dante Biasi’s record performance on Saturday with one of his own.
Dees set career records for strikeouts and innings pitched in an appearance. The sophomore fanned 10 batters in 6.2 innings of work, exceeding his previous bests of nine strikeouts and six innings pitched.
“Bailey [Dees] has been really good for us,” Cooper said. “He gave us a great start.”
Dees started the first three frames scorching hot, recording five strikeouts. The North Carolina native ran into trouble in the seventh, loading the bases before exiting the contest.
“I thought he started overthinking some of the pitch calls,” Cooper said. “Instead of just really trusting what was put down and attacking with that, I thought he was trying to out-think himself a little bit.”