As usual, Tuesday’s action featured a handful of upsets, none more notable than Kansas State winning 6-2 at Arizona State. The 11-2 Wildcats are clearly a much-improved team from a year ago, but who would have thought they’d go to Tempe and beat first-team All-American Mike Leake? To be fair, Leake turned in another strong outing for ASU, allowing just two runs (one earned) on seven hits over seven innings, but the Wildcats broke it open with four in the eighth against reliever Mitchell Lambson. Meanwhile, Kansas State junior righthander A.J. Morris kept the Sun Devils at bay, allowing just two runs on five hits (and working around five walks) over 8 1/3 innings. Morris, who went 4-4, 6.04 as a sophomore last year, rebounded by leading the West Coast League in strikeouts (57 in 53 innings) and ranking as the league’s No. 4 prospect. Looks like that strong summer was no fluke.
One other significant upset: the Gentlemen have done it again. Centenary handed then-No. 1 Texas A&M its first loss of the season on Feb. 25, and yesterday the Gents upended their second ranked team of the season, beating Arkansas 8-3 behind a strong outing from Boone Whiting (7.1 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 9K). In case you’re wondering, Whiting is not the same Gentleman who beat the Aggies–that was Joe Hagan (though Whiting did strike out 10 over four scoreless, one-hit innings of relief in a loss the previous day against A&M). We’ll see how Centenary’s arms hold up in a four-game series against another powerhouse in April, when the Gents visit Oral Roberts.
And Cal State Fullerton won Tuesday’s big showdown in College Station, exploding for eight runs in the ninth inning to put away a 15-5 win at Texas A&M. "That’s the best offense I’ve seen in a long time, one through nine, in their commitment to their game plan and their two-strike approach," Aggies coach Rob Childress told the (Bryan-College Station, Texas) Eagle about the Titans.
On to this week’s mailbag, which deals with another Big West contender:
I know UC Riverside wasn’t going to do well last year because of what they lost from the team that won the Big West the previous season, especially James Simmons. Still, I didn’t think they would perform as poorly as they did. I know the Big West is always tough year in and year out, and this year is no exception. But I hope that Doug Smith shows that he can build off of that 2007 season this year. I don’t think it is unrealistic to, at minimum, expect UC Riverside to finish the season with a winning record. I know they have got a deeper pitching staff than last year. I would like to hear your thoughts on how good or, if it comes to that, bad they will be this year.
Brian’s question arrived in my inbox a day before the season started, and expectations for the Highlanders have increased quite a bit in the three weeks since. After edging Loyola Marymount 10-9 in 10 innings yesterday, UC Riverside sits at 11-3 and owns quality wins against California, UCLA, San Francisco, Texas Tech, Gonzaga, Oklahoma State and LMU. Picked to finish sixth in the loaded Big West in the preseason by Baseball America and the league’s coaches, Riverside looks like a legitimate contender for the conference title, or at least a regional bid.
It’s quite a turnaround from last year, when UCR’s 4-11 start doomed its regional chances. Despite finishing 14-10 in the Big West, the Highlanders were ineligible for the NCAA tournament because of their sub-.500 overall record (21-33). With Simmons, Mark Rzepczynski, Pat Cassa and Dan Runzler gone, and righthander Matt Montgomery lost for the year while recovering from Tommy John surgery, Riverside had to break in an entirely new weekend rotation in 2008. Lefthander Paul Applebee had thrown just 1 1/3 innings as a freshman the previous year; fellow southpaw Paul Bargas had gotten limited work in the Arizona bullpen before transferring to UCR; and righthander Matt Larkins was a true freshman. It took some time for that group to settle in.
"We have matured a little bit as a team," Highlanders coach Doug Smith said. "The struggles we had last year are paying off for us a little bit. We were so young, and those guys went through some tough times, but now we’re pitching well and playing very good defense. That’s the payoff: a year later, after getting our brains kicked in, you get the payoff."
Applebee (3-0, 1.80) has been sensational. He effectively mixed his 84-88 mph fastball, quality curveball and changeup to throw a complete-game, three-hit shutout against Oklahoma State this past weekend, striking out six while walking none. Bargas has shown even better stuff, reaching 90 mph and showing a good slider. Coaches around the league expected freshman righthander Matt Andriese to make an immediate impact, and he has done just that, going 1-0, 3.15 and showing an 88-91 mph fastball and a power curve. Montgomery (2-1, 1.64) is back, too, and he’s pounding the zone with a three-pitch mix that includes an 88-90 fastball.
"Getting him back has been a big plus," Smith said. "The key to our pitching staff is our guys have just thrown a ton of strikes. They’ve all pounded the strike zone with three pitches and done it on a pretty consistent basis. And getting (junior closer) Joe Kelly back rounded into form has been big, too. He’s been 94-96 or 97 every day, to go with an 80 mph slider and a plus changeup."
That kind of stuff is why Kelly earned third-team preseason All-America honors, and so far he’s proven worthy of the accolades, going 1-0, 1.93 with three saves, 10 strikeouts and one walk in nine innings. Kelly was never completely healthy last year, but now that he and Montgomery are back to form, the UCR pitching staff is firing on all cylinders.
The offense is not at that level yet, and junior outfielder Joey Gonzales is in an extended funk, batting just .226. But outfielder Tony Nix (.438) and shortstop Trevor Hairgrove (.340) have taken major steps forward as sophomores, and junior college transfer Michael Hur (.357) has made an immediate impact. Their emergence gives switch-hitting speedster Carl Uhl (.333) some help in the lineup. And even when the bats have been cold, the Highlanders have played strong defense, fielding at a .975 clip.
Smith said he knows very well how competitive the Big West will be in 2009, with four teams currently in the top 25 and Riverside knocking on the door. But his team is a year older, a year wiser, and unlikely to wilt during the rigors of conference play.
"They’re a very confident group," Smith said. "We had a very good fall. Our guys have done a really good job of buying into what we’re trying to do as a team. I don’t think they’re surprised at all by our start, they think we’ve got a good club. They’ve done a very good job showing up every day regardless of who our opponent is. Last year we couldn’t do that. Those freshmen didn’t know how to do that. They’d look on the other side of field and see Oklahoma State and say, ‘Oh my goodness gracious!’
"Having said that, we’ve got to continue to play well."
Comments will be monitored prior to being added to the site. Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be rejected. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed.
We have chosen to open up commenting to everyone, so comment away! We want to hear from each and every one of you! Leave a comment.
About This Blog
Syndicate This Blog
Search This Blog