This week’s two most anticipated midweek games took place last night in the Lonestar State. No. 7 Rice cruised past No. 1 Texas 6-3 in front of a record-setting crowd of 6,193 at Reckling Park. The Owls pretty much dominated the game, cranking out 14 hits against a Texas pitching staff that had held opponents to a .169 average entering the game. Freshman righthander Matt Reckling held the Longhorns to one run on two hits over the first four innings, and sophomore shortstop Rick Hague’s two-run homer off Texas freshman Austin Dicharry highlighted Rice’s decisive four-run fifth inning. Hague jumped on a 2-2 curveball to put the Owls ahead for good.
"We’ve been working on two-strike hitting; coach (Wayne Graham) thinks that’s going to help us a lot," Hague told the Houston Chronicle. "We had a lot of two-strike hits that put a lot of runs on the board. Hopefully we continue to improve on that."
In Fort Worth, No. 13 Oklahoma came from behind with four in the ninth to beat No. 18 Texas Christian, 8-7. The two teams combined for 30 hits in that one, and the Sooners posted seven hits and three runs against hard-throwing TCU righthander Steven Maxwell over the first 3 1/3 innings. OU had five hits in the ninth and scored the winning run on Casey Johnon’s sacrifice fly.
"We hit more of a righthanded lineup last night, but we can put six lefthanders in our lineup at any time," Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway said this afternoon. "But their midweek guy, Maxwell, he’s more firm with his changeup and his breaking ball’s more of a show pitch, so we thought we could get some fastballs we could drive.
"The kids are excited about the way we fought back, and I can’t say enough about our young men the way they did that."
On to the mailbag:
I was wondering how you see UVa.’s pitching holding up this year with juniors Matt Packer, who led the nation in ERA last year, Neal Davis, Jeff Lorick; senior Andrew Carraway; and freshman Danny Hultzen? And how do you see the juniors and Carraway holding up in the draft? Thanks.
Virginia is the nation’s lone remaining unbeaten team. The Cavaliers rallied from a 4-1 deficit with four in the seventh inning yesterday against Marshall to improve to 16-0, but prior to that they really hadn’t been tested in a close game. UVa. feasted on the likes of Bucknell, Fordham and Delaware in the preconference season, and they cruised to four Atlantic Coast Conference wins against Wake Forest and Florida State over the last two weekends. In 16 games, they have outscored their opponents 182-39; their team batting average is .392, while opponents are hitting .190. Of course, most of those numbers were accrued against overmatched cold-weather teams in Charlottesville.
"We’ve done what we should have done," Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. "I’m not saying you should have blown out Florida State and scored as much as we did against Wake Forest. I thought we’d get off to a good start even though we’re young. We’ll learn a lot more about this club over the next couple of weeks, there’s no question. We haven’t really met adversity yet, within a game. I think it’ll just be a matter of how we handle the adversity in an ACC weekend, on the road against North Carolina or this weekend at home against Miami."
The Cavaliers have a spacious ballpark and always build around pitching, speed and defense. This year is no exception. Hultzen, the nation’s No. 7 freshman entering the year, has been the big story so far; if the season ended today, he’d likely be the national Freshman of the Year. Like Virginia’s former ACC player of the year Sean Doolittle, Hultzen is a first baseman and a lefthanded pitcher, but O’Connor said he’s better off the mound than Doolittle was. Hultzen has stepped immediately into the Friday starter spot and put up incredible numbers, going 4-0, 1.04 with 39 strikeouts and five walks in 26 innings.
"He’s got really great poise, especially for an 18-year-old," O’Connor said. "He’s a competitor and a really good athlete—the majority of the time when he’s not pitching he’s playing first base and hitting in the three-hole in at least half our games. He’s 88-93, with a really good changeup and a good breaking ball—just really good stuff. I like him pitching Friday night because you get to rest the day before on Thursday, then the rest of the weekend he can concentrate on being a position player. For a two-way player, I think it’s the best night for a guy to start."
Carraway, the nation’s No. 7 senior, has been nearly as good, going 3-0, 1.27. O’Connor said his velocity has been a little better than it was a year ago: the righthander is sitting at 88-91 and touching 92. Carraway also has a good curveball and changeup and a sturdy 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame. He stands a good chance to be drafted in the top five rounds in June.
Carraway and Packer, a junior lefthander, give the Cavaliers a pair of reliable veterans on a staff that otherwise relies on plenty of young arms. Freshman righty Will Roberts (2-0, 2.81) has shown excellent feel for pitching in the Sunday starter spot, but if he falters the Cavs have the option of moving Packer into the rotation. But the rest of the bullpen is sophomore-heavy, and O’Connor said he’d like to keep Packer in the closer spot if possible. O’Connor compares Packer (1-0, 1.69 with one save in one opportunity) to former UVa. closer Casey Lambert for his poise, command of three pitches and lack of overpowering velocity (85-90).
"Your traditional closer is a guy that really has a good arm, but I think those guys are easier to hit at the end of the game than a guy that can throw a 2-0 changeup for a strike," O’Connor said. "You’ve still got to have a good breaking pitch to hold a one-run lead in this league."
Louis asked about Virginia’s other prospects, and most of the top pro prospects in the lineup are underclassmen who are not draft-eligible. The junior who has taken the biggest step forward this year is shortstop Tyler Cannon, who has handled the move from third base to short and is hitting .421/.486/.579 in his first season as a switch-hitter at Virginia.
"He hit righthanded his first two springs, but had always hit lefthanded also in the falls," O’Connor said. "It’s made him a better hitter. He’s a really good hitter lefthanded, and i just think it’s also made his righthanded swing better. He’s been the guy the last two years that the scouts have said, ‘He just hasn’t made that jump offensively.’ I think he’s a different offensive player this year."
Meanwhile, outfielders Dan Grovatt (.469/.514/.734, pictured above) and Jarrett Parker (.438/.532/.844) have taken huge steps forward as sophomores, and third baseman Steven Proscia (.453/.507/.734) has added a physical presence in the middle of the lineup. That trio, plus catchers Franco Valdez and John Hicks (three homers apiece) are a big reason Virginia has 17 home runs through 16 games after hitting 25 long balls in 62 games last season.
"Grovatt and Parker really worked hard this summer in the weight room," O’Connor said. "Parker put on 20 pounds—you won’t even recognize him. Last year in batting practice, he couldn’t even hit it over the outfielders’ heads. Now he can drive it out of the ballpark. Danny’s always been a really good contact guy. He may look ugly on a swing here and there, but the next pitch he’s right on it. He’s still got that high level of contact, but he’s gotten a little bit stronger.
"We’ve got guys throughout the lineup that can hit the ball out of the ballpark, but we still have maintained that team speed, the ability to steal bases and manufacture runs when we need to. We have a lot of guys that can handle the bat, but also a number of guys that can step up and hit a three-run home run."
Pitching, speed, defense, and now some power, too. It could be the recipe to finally get Virginia over the regional hump.
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