Pitt’s game with West Virginia on Tuesday night had been all but officially decided by the eighth inning when catcher Cole MacLaren came to the plate.
The Panthers were on their way to a 9-4 loss to the Mountaineers in the baseball version of the Backyard Brawl, but the significance of what MacLaren did went far beyond the final score in a non-conference game.
He hit a three-run homer into PNC Park’s left-field bleachers that few will remember, but first-year Pitt coach Mike Bell won’t soon forget.
“It’s a growth process going on with this program,” said Bell, whose team left PNC Park with its 32nd loss in 52 games. “I’ve seen the growth the last two, three, four weeks. I’ve seen a difference from day 1.
“These guys are continuing to learn the game. They’re trusting each other. There’s a lot more sense of belief.
“Early in the season, Cole MacLaren wouldn’t have hit a three-run homer. A lot of guys would have folded the tent there because you’re down, 9-1. But, no, we’re going to fight you for 27 (outs).”
Pitt’s season likely will end in Atlanta later this week in a three-game series against Georgia Tech that begins Thursday. But Bell hopes MacLaren’s homer, taking two of three from North Carolina last weekend and an 8-4 record over the past 2 1/2 weeks will launch the program forward.
West Virginia starting pitcher Nick Snyder dominated Pitt’s bats for seven innings, striking out 11 batters among his 103 pitches and allowing only one run and three hits. “He was the ball game,” Bell said of Snyder, who will be WVU’s starting pitcher when it opens the Big 12 Tournament on May 22.
But one of hits was a home run by Pitt junior and Seton La Salle graduate Nico Popa. He gave Pitt a 1-0 lead in the second inning when he drove a Snyder pitch into PNC Park’s left-field bleachers where he used to sit with his family while rooting for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“I sat in left field when I was six,” Popa said. “I never thought I would be able to play here.”
Some in the crowd of 2,129 were there to support Popa, who drove in his team-leading 36th run with his seventh home run of the season. “It was pretty cool to make them proud,” he said.
Still, Popa tried to downplay the effort.
“I just saw a good pitch and put a good swing on it and, luckily, it went over the fence,” he said. “Nothing really different from any other game.”
Bell saw it differently.
“We’re judged by wins and losses,” he said, “but what we’re trying to do is create experiences and create memories for these guys. What better way for a young man growing up here in Pittsburgh to hit a home run in PNC Park against a rival?”
Bell hopes to arrange more such games with rivals in the future.
“We’d love to play (at PNC Park) every day, but I think they have something else that goes on here, too,” he said, smiling.
He said he saw Pirates chairman of the board Bob Nutting and president Frank Coonelly in the stands, an encouraging sign for future Pitt trips to PNC Park
“Obviously, we have a great relationship with Frank, Bob and (general manager) Neal (Huntington),” Bell said. “They’ve done a great job of communicating with us, open arms. But we also have to fit within their schedule.
“You don’t want to get greedy, but I’d love to play Penn State and West Virginia here every year. I really would, if the schedule works. That has to work with the Pirates. It has to work with Penn State. It has to work with West Virginia.”
Then, he started thinking about next March when Pitt is scheduled to play in Florida.
“We’re playing in Tampa on a Tuesday,” he said. “I’ve love to be in Pirate City (in Bradenton) on Monday, showing these guys what professional baseball players have to go through. So, they can learn by watching some of the best.”