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Behind enemy lines: Youngstown State Penguins

In advance of Stanford baseball’s upcoming NCAA Regional in Bloomington, Indiana, The Daily’s Michael Peterson chatted with Steve Wilaj, a sports editor at The Jambar, to get perspective on the Youngstown State Penguins, one of the Cardinal’s three opponents this weekend.

Michael Peterson (MP): One of the most striking things when first examining this has to be Youngstown State (YSU) and its record so far this season. At 16-36, most people wouldn’t expect YSU to win its conference tournament and make the NCAA Tournament. How did it pull off the incredible feat of making the tournament despite a poor regular season? Is its record misleading?

Steve Wilaj (SW): It was completely stunning that YSU swept through the Horizon League tournament like it did, especially after the Penguins lost eight of 10 to close the regular season.

At 16-36, the record isn’t too misleading. Like most mid-majors, YSU’s record took a hit from a rough out-of-conference schedule, but the Penguins were still only 6-17 in the Horizon for the regular season. A hint that they had the ability to pull off this feat is that they beat fellow NCAA Tournament qualifiers Kent State twice.

The key in the Horizon League tourney was the starting pitching, which was YSU’s weak spot all season. The Penguins’ starting staff recorded four quality starts in a row before turning the games over to the team’s strong point, its bullpen. Most surprisingly, walk-on freshman Jeremy Quinlan threw a complete game while allowing just one run against top seed Wright State to pick up his first career win. Also, senior second baseman Phil Lipari got extremely hot, as he went 11-for-21 at the plate to earn tournament MVP.

MP: ESPN recently published an article about the tournament that examined each of the regionals. In its analysis, ESPN dubbed the Indiana-Youngstown State matchup in the Bloomington Regional as “a glorified scrimmage.” Given its recent success, how much of a chance do you think YSU has to knock off the tournament’s No. 4 overall seed in its first game?

SW: The glorified scrimmage tag is probably pretty accurate. Even though YSU got hot, you have to remember that the Penguins are 16-36 for a reason — and Indiana is really good. Plus, YSU is sending Jared Wight — who has an ERA around 7 — to the mound. So it may get ugly pretty quick. I’d give YSU a very slim chance.

MP: You mentioned earlier that YSU’s bullpen might be the strength of the team. Since a team could potentially play five games in four days, the bullpen will likely carry a heavy burden and have to pitch a lot of innings. Could the prowess of the bullpen be enough to get YSU a win this weekend?

SW:Possibly. If YSU can turn the game over to the bullpen with a lead at least after four or five innings — a formula that worked a couple times in the HL tournament — that may be its best shot. Head coach Steve Gillispie has three or four guys he really likes in the pen (particularly Alex Frey and closer Kevin Yarabinec) and isn’t afraid to use them early. Another key for the Penguins will be to score early and play with a lead — which they’ve been able to do recently — considering they don’t have a very dynamic offense.

MP:In spite of its poor record, do you think that the difficult non-conference schedule and the success in the Horizon League tournament, a format very similar to this weekend’s regional, has prepared the team for the difficulty of playing in an NCAA Regional? How much momentum do you expect to carry over from the outstanding performances in the HL tournament?

SW:The difficult matchups, like at North Carolina State and at Cincinnati early in the season, should help as far as experience and having played on the big stage already. Coach Gillispie is hoping it takes away some of the nerves.

While I’m sure YSU is aware of the stiff test it’s up against in Indiana, as well as the other two potential opponents, the Penguins can’t help but to be full of confidence right now. Not only did they sweep the Horizon League tourney, but they pretty much dominated it.

While it’s hard to say how much momentum — especially hot hitting — will carry over after a week’s break, the Penguins certainly aren’t hurting for confidence at this point. And a confident team is a dangerous team.

MP:What is your prediction for the Penguins this weekend throughout the Regional?

SW:It’s going to be tough for YSU to get a win in Bloomington this weekend. A lot would have to go right. I’ll say the Penguins will lose to Indiana handily and they’ll also fall in their second game. But that’s nothing to hang their heads about. It is still a remarkable accomplishment for YSU to reach the NCAA Tournament after such a dismal regular season, and it’s a great building block for the future.

Contact Michael Peterson at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Michael Peterson

Michael Peterson is the football editor at The Stanford Daily. He has served as a beat reporter for football, baseball and men’s soccer and also does play-by-play broadcasting of baseball and men’s soccer for KZSU. Michael is a sophomore from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. majoring in computer science. To contact him, please email him at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu.