Pitt baseball readies for 1st game at PNC Park in 10 years | TribLIVE.com

Pitt baseball readies for 1st game at PNC Park in 10 years

Jerry DiPaola
Pitt Athletics
Pitt pitcher Dan Hammer has 75 strikeouts in 60 innings pitched this season.
Pitt Athletics
Pitt’s Nico Popa, a Seton LaSalle graduate, leads the Panthers with a .352 batting average. He has six homers and 35 RBIs.
Pitt Athletics
Pitt pitcher Chase Smith has a team-best five saves and a 1.25 ERA.

Mike Bell, Pitt’s first-year baseball coach, was pleased to see his team rise up and win a weekend series against then-No. 14 North Carolina.

But he wasn’t surprised. That emotion would go against everything he has preached since the first day he met with his team a year ago.

“It was probably more of a rewarding weekend for the four seniors who put a lot of hard work and time in here,” Bell said. “What you’re starting to see is the growth. A lot of teaching, a lot of developing.

“(Winning) is more of an expectation. That’s what expected. I don’t think it was a surprise.”

It had been a rocky rookie season for Bell, who replaced long-time coach Joe Jordano after last season. Pitt lost 27 of its first 39 games before finding its footing with a new coach and posting an 8-4 record over the past two weeks. Their victories were decisive, too, including 26-2 against Maryland Eastern Shore, 14-3 over Western Michigan and three big ACC triumphs — 10-0 (Florida State) and 7-1 and 7-3 (North Carolina) last weekend.

Pitt’s hopes of landing a berth in the ACC Tournament are slim, however. The Panthers need to win all three games Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Georgia Tech, the No. 8 team in the nation, according to Baseball America, and the leader of the ACC Coastal Division.

Even that may not be enough. Boston College must lose all three games to Notre Dame and Virginia Tech can’t win more than one in its three-game weekend series with Virginia.

But there was no shortage of optimism Monday at Charles L. Cost Field where the Panthers were preparing to renew the baseball version of the Backyard Brawl. Pitt will play No. 19 West Virginia (31-18, 13-11 Big 12) at 6 p.m. Tuesday at PNC Park.

“It’s one of my favorite parks,” Pitt junior pitcher Dan Hammer said. “Honestly, I think PNC has got (Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park) beat with that view (of Downtown Pittsburgh).”

Hammer, a Philadelphia native, admitted, “I might get in trouble for saying that.”

Hammer said the game will be about more than trying to pay back the Mountaineers for a 5-4 defeat in Granville, W.Va., on April 3.

“To be able to play with my team in that kind of setting is going to motivate a lot of us,” said Hammer, a candidate to be chosen in the MLB Draft next month after he struck out 75 in 60 innings this season. “Especially guys who have aspirations to play at the next level.”

Bell recognizes the enormity of playing in a big-league venue, but he’s hoping for normalcy in his dugout.

“It is only different if you want to make it different,” he said. “As a coaching staff, we will try to prepare one pitch at a time, one inning at a time. In baseball, it’s 60 feet, 6 inches. They are 90-foot bases (everywhere). Let’s go play baseball and enjoy it.”

Pitt playing at PNC Park for the first time in 10 years — the Panthers beat Duquesne there in 2009 — is also a recruiting tool for Bell.

“I want our recruits to know they are going to play in the best ballparks in the country, and this is one of the finest ones in the country,” he said.

The novelty will wear off quickly, however, against a good team such as WVU. Pitt’s main goal is continuing to improve through the end of the season, even if there’s no ACC Tournament berth as a prize.

Hammer said the North Carolina series was “huge for us, not only this season, but for the future for this program.”

Seton LaSalle graduate Nico Popa, who’s hitting .352 in his junior season, was happy for senior Cole McLaren, who homered in his final at-bat at Cost Field.

“We’re just trusting in the coaches, what they’re teling us to do, trusting in each other,” Popa said.

Said Hammer: “It was cool to see some guys step up and do exactly what they’re capable of against a great team.”

Bell said the team has improved as he learned about his players on and off the field.

“I feel like we played our best baseball the past two weeks,” he said, “and we haven’t had (sophomore) Ron Washington (hand injury) in the lineup, who’s arguably our best hitter. That’s what team baseball is all about.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

Categories: Sports | Pitt
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