We’ve got a good deal of ground to cover before getting to today’s mailbag. As usual, Tuesday was eventful in college baseball, with plenty of upsets and clashes between top national contenders. In Athens, Jason Haniger had four hits in Georgia Tech’s 11-6 victory over rival Georgia. In Houston, Brooks Raley had three hits and Barret Loux struck out nine over five innings of one-run ball in Texas A&M’s 7-3 win against Rice. That’s a pretty huge win for the Aggies, who have lost their last two weekend series and needed to generate some momentum heading into this weekend’s series against Nebraska. It’s also encouraging to see Loux get back on track after being slowed recently by elbow inflammation.
Another flame-throwing sophomore righthander who has lost his weekend rotation job continued to struggle in Chapel Hill. North Carolina’s Matt Harvey allowed five runs on seven hits over 3 1/3 innings of relief in an 11-9 loss to High Point, the most notable upset of the day. No. 3 UC Irvine also lost, falling 7-4 to San Diego. Seventh-ranked Baylor dropped a 5-4 decision to Texas-Arlington, although the Bears got an encouraging start from sophomore righty Shawn Tolleson (5 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 6 K), who has been limited this year by arm soreness.
And No. 11 Arkansas dropped its third straight game since sweeping last week’s midweek series against Arizona State. The Hogs fell 3-2 at home against Louisiana-Monroe.
Two injury notes:
First, Southern Mississippi senior shortstop Brian Dozier will miss the remainder of the season after diving for a ball and breaking his collar bone Tuesday against Jackson State. Dozier has started 221 of USM’s 223 games since arriving in 2006 and entered the season as the NCAA’s active career hits leader. He was hitting .394/.491/.591 in 137 at-bats this year.
“This is a tough loss for our team but I really feel bad for Brian on a personal level," Golden Eagles coach Corky Palmer said in a statement. "He has given everything he has to this program over the last four years and I hate to see his career at Southern Miss come to an end like this. He will go down as one of the top players to ever play at Southern Miss and the best defensive player I have coached in 32 years.”
Also, Wichita State announced reliever Grant Muncrief will have season-ending Tommy John surgery next week. Muncrief, who was 2-0, 2.40 with two saves, has not pitched since March 20. He’s the third reliever the Shockers have lost for the season, joining seniors Logan Hoch and Tyler Fleming, who both had offseason shoulder surgery.
"We have been dealing with this possibility for several weeks," Wichita coach Gene Stephenson said. "It’s another devastating blow because he had emerged at the time of his injury as our top relief pitcher. We all hope and pray for his successful return as soon as possible."
On to the mailbag, which deals with another Missouri Valley Conference contender.
Creighton’s 15-0 win over Nebraska in Lincoln put an exclamation point on the divergent directions of those two programs, Creighton rallying after a tough start this year with Nebraska currently floundering. Can you comment on those two programs?
The Bluejays followed up the drubbing of Nebraska by winning two of three against Northern Iowa, boosting their conference record to 9-3 and giving them a one-game lead over second-place Indiana State and Missouri State in the MVC. After starting the season 1-8, Creighton has rallied to level its record at 17-17, even after dropping a 10-inning game yesterday against Kansas.
Nebraska, meanwhile, got off to a 10-3-1 start and then won their second Big 12 series against Oklahoma State, but since then the Cornhuskers have gone into a tailspin. The Creighton game came in the midst of a nine-game losing streak that was snapped yesterday against Iowa, but the Huskers are just 17-18 overall and 4-11 in conference play.
"I never thought we’d beat Nebraska 15-0 ever, in the history of my coaching days," Bluejays coach Ed Servais said.
On the surface, pitching has been the biggest reason for Nebraska’s struggles. The Cornhuskers have allowed nine or more runs in 11 of their last 14 games. But the mound woes might also have a little to do with Nebraska’s catching. Freshman Cory Burleson has done much of Nebraska’s catching this year, splitting time with senior Cody Neer, who split time last year between first base, DH and backup catcher.
Servais said a big part of his team’s turnaround has been the emergence of junior college transfer Carson Vitale behind the plate. Early in the year, freshman Scott Thornburg was doing more of the catching, and Servais—who may be biased, as his nephew Scott was a big league catcher—said not having a veteran behind the plate affected his pitchers’ confidence.
"I think that’s happening down the road at Nebraska," Servais said. "I think Coach (Mike) Anderson would agree their catching situation is not as strong as it was, and it’s affecting their pitching. They’re having trouble throwing strikes right now—it seemed like one after the other against us, they had an awful time throwing strikes. Those are things they haven’t in the past had to deal with. I think it’s a little bit contagious right now in a negative way for their pitchers.
"With our pitchers, it’s positive right now. Our starting pitching has really figured it out over the last several weeks. We couldn’t get into the third and fourth inning the first third of the season, and our bullpen was overused. Now they’re going six or seven innings every time."
Creighton doesn’t have many power arms, but lefthanders Greg Hellhake (3-1, 4.09) and Jeremy Hauer (0-5, 4.82) both have a good feel for three- or four-pitch mixes. Physical righthander Jonas Dufek (2-5, 3.92) is a little firmer, reaching the upper 80s with his fastball and showing a good slider. And righty Mike Nihsen, who led the MVC in ERA last year as Creighton’s Saturday starter, has recovered from his slow start and is now 3-1, 4.28.
Creighton succeeds without dominating arms partly because their defense is always so strong, and this year is no exception. The Bluejays have one of the nation’s slickest double-play tandems in shortstop Elliot Soto and second baseman Vicente Cafaro, helping explain their 43 double plays through Sunday, third-most in the nation. Senior first baseman Darin Ruf is a stellar defender as well who saves the infielders plenty of errors, helping explain their .980 fielding percentage (fourth in the nation).
Servais said defense is the foundation of his program, and his players know it.
"One of our goals in practice every day is the ball never touches the ground," he said. "We demand the ball does not touch the ground. We put a heavy emphasis on throwing and catching at the front end of practice, and I oversee that stuff because I think it’s important. They understand early in their careers that in order for them to be successful players at Creighton, they have to take this defensive stuff and it’s got to be important to them. We make our practices very accountable. Mistakes in practice aren’t going to go unnoticed."
Offensively, the Bluejays play a West Coast style, relying on sacrifice bunts (they have 34 this season, ranking 18th in the nation) and hit-and-runs to manufacture runs. This year’s team also has some pop, led by Ruf (seven homers) and T.J. Roemmich (six).
But the Bluejays aren’t built to win slugfests, and they’re not trying to bludgeon opponents.
"In the 5 1/2 years I’ve been the head coach, when we score five runs, we win 82 percent of those games," Servais said. "That’s our goal: We’ll try to score five runs, and let our pitching and defense keep the score down. Our offense is geared to finding a way to get to five runs. We’re not afraid to bunt early and often in a game, we’re not afraid to bunt with our three- and four-hole hitters if we have a chance to move runners up. I like the odds of 82 percent."
That formula works wonders, and Creighton has turned its season around by sticking to its philosophy. The Huskers won 41 games last year using a very similar philosophy, but it’s not working this year because, as Anderson admits, their pitching is too thin, and almost everyone else in the league is deeper on the mound than usual.
But Anderson insists his team has not waived the white flag.
"We’ve had some struggles, but I still feel like our team is intact emotionally, believe it or not," he said. "We just need to get ourselves going. Our kids had a feeling early in the year that we were growing and moving forward, but we don’t feel at this point like we’re growing and moving forward. So that’s where we’re at.
"Right now we’ve got to pitch better. When we pitch better, we’ll probably win some baseball games. It’s pretty simple."
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