Baseball Regional: Youngstown State Preview

As the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Baseball Tournament, Texas has the luxury of facing in its opener what is essentially the No. 64 team in the field of 64. And looking at Youngstown State, it's pretty obvious why the Penguins earned that dubious distinction.

Youngstown State, making its first-ever NCAA Tourney appearance, comes to Austin with a 22-30 overall record, one of only three teams in the field with a losing mark (Pepperdine and Texas Southern are the others). After a season-opening win, the Penguins lost 13 of 14 contests, including 11 straight. In mid-May, YSU stood at 14-27 before closing with eight wins in its last 11 games, including four straight Ws at its home ballpark in the Horizon League Tournament to earn the conference's automatic bid. (Texas is 6-5 in its last 11, but with seven of those games against NCAA teams. The Penguins faced no NCAA teams down the stretch. Matter of fact, YSU hasn't faced a playoff team since a mid-March sweep by Western Kentucky, an NCAA No. 4 seed.) During the regular season, Youngstown State won just seven league games vs. 10 losses to finish at the bottom of the seven-team conference (behind Illinois-Chicago, Butler, Cleveland State, Wright State, UW-Milwaukee and Detroit). The Penguins own a 9-20 mark on the road.

The losing record is understandable after breaking down the Penguins' offensive, defensive and pitching numbers. The visitors from Youngstown, Ohio bring a team batting average of just .263 vs. opponents' average of .282. (FYI, Texas has a .282 team mark.) Among seven everyday players, senior CF Kendall Schlabach, a second-team all-Horizon League pick, has the highest average with a .312 mark while senior C Adam Cox comes in at just .225. Cox, though, is the team's leading slugger with seven round-trippers and he also leads the team in RBI with 34. Schlabach is the Penguins' biggest on-base threat. Along with his team-leading 59 hits, he reached base 38 more times by walk or hit by pitch for a .425 on-base percentage. He also swiped nine bags in 13 attempts. Sophomore 2B Justin Banks has six homers on the season. Senior 1B and clean-up hitter Jim Lipinski has 32 RBI.

Youngstown State's batting line-up is dominated by righties. Most games, the Penguins' line-up consists of just one lefty, lead-off man Schlabach, although southpaw Kyle Penrod (.208) splits time with rightie Brian Boone (.242) at DH and lefty Brent Parks (.149) plays occasionally along with righties Clint Ford (.313) and Jeff Solt (.190) at the left field spot. (Given that, Texas soph rightie Sam LeCure, 7-3 overall with a 2.25 ERA, could get the call to start Friday's opener.)

YSU fields at a .957 clip. By comparison, UT -- not an especially great fielding team -- is at .974. The Penguins committed 77 errors in 52 games, with almost half of those coming from the left side duo of sophomore SS Charles Schultz (24) and junior 3B Jim Phillips (12).

Youngstown State's staff ERA is 5.31. (The Longhorn staff ERA, at 2.65, is less than half that of its opening round opponent.) Sophomore lefty Justin Thomas, another second-team all-Horizon League pick, is No. 1 in the Penguins' rotation and is the probable starter Friday night at the Disch. Thomas (7-2, 4.64 ERA) gave up almost exactly a hit an inning, struck out 77 and walked 40 in 87-1/3 innings pitched, and served up eight homers (one every 42 at-bats) as opponents batted .255 against him in his 13 combined regular season and league tourney appearances. He did throw four complete games.

Junior lefty Chris Dennis (1-7, 3.61 ERA) has been the most effective Penguin pitcher of late with a 1-zip complete game shutout of Horizon League regular season champ Illinois-Chicago on May 15 and a two-run outing in the Penguins' 5-4 conference tournament win over the same club on May 29.

It's not often that a team's save leader also has the team's worst ERA among regulars, but that's the case with Youngstown State. Senior rightie Paul Yates (1-3) has a team-best five saves and a whoppin' 9.35 ERA in 18 appearances. Freshman rightie Andy Svitak (4-3) has four saves and a 4.54 ERA in 19 appearances.

UT and YSU faced one common opponent: the Penguins opened the season with a three-game series vs. Missouri and lost two of three to the Tigers, just as the Horns did two months later. Thomas picked up Youngstown State's lone win in the series.

"I knew we were going to play one of the better teams, but right now, our team has come together and is playing well," Youngstown State head coach Mike Florak said. "It still comes down to making pitches, putting the bat on the ball, catching the ball and running the bases."

All things that the Penguins did not do particularly well this year.

Texas takes on Youngstown State Friday at 7 p.m. at the Disch. The winner of that game will square off with the winner of Friday's 1 p.m. Oral Roberts-TCU game at 3 p.m. Saturday. The two Friday losers will play an elimination game at 11 a.m. Saturday morning.

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