Strike One: Bulldogs Rally Around Taylor
LOS ANGELES—Tragedy has hit Georgia hard over the last two years. In the fall of 2009, freshman infielder Chance Veazey was paralyzed from the waist down in a motor scooter accident, and the loss took a major psychological toll on the Bulldogs. Then, last Sunday at Florida State, outfielder Johnathan Taylor suffered a major spinal cord injury in a collision with Zach Cone.
It was a gut-wrenching, terrifying loss for Georgia, but this time the Bulldogs have rallied around their injured comrade. With a picture of Taylor hanging in the dugout, Georgia has won five straight games since Taylor's injury, including a 3-0 weekend at the Dodgertown Classic to even its record at 8-8.
"Last year, when Chance Veazey—who was my roommate—got in that scooter accident, we didn't come back from it, we didn't respond the way we should have," sophomore shortstop Kyle Farmer said. "But this year, we wanted to change it around and respond the way we should, because J.T.'s a great player, a great life to this team. It's almost like he's with us now . . . We're real close, we're almost like a family."
Georgia played with energy and intensity Friday against UCLA and ace righthander Gerrit Cole, and the dugout erupted when Farmer connected on a high, 97 mph, 0-and-2 fastball for a three-run homer in the seventh inning. Cole had racked up 11 strikeouts through six perfect innings heading into the frame, but Georgia broke the game open in the seventh. After Levi Hyams broke up the no-hitter with a one-out double and Zach Cone's speed forced the Bruins into an error, Chase Davidson delivered a tie-breaking single through the right side, and Farmer followed with his blast to left field. That put the Bulldogs ahead 4-0 and propelled them to a 6-2 victory.
"We've got to do it together," Georgia coach David Perno said. "You can go 0-for-4, or 0-for-your-first-3, but if the guy in front of you gets his one hit, you've got to do it, and they did it. Levi comes up with his one hit, Cone's speed shows up, we've got runners at first and second. Davidson hits one ball in fair territory, but it was that inning, and then Farmer timed it up right."
When Georgia stumbled out of the gate with series losses to Stetson and Baylor, its weekend rotation was not intact. Lefthander Alex Wood missed Week Two with a minor injury, and projected Sunday starter Craig Gullickson, a transfer from Clemson, missed the first week with what Perno called a "technicality."
Now the rotation is whole again, and starting to pitch up to its potential. Gullickson went five shutout innings Sunday against St. Mary's, righty Michael Palazzone went seven strong frames Saturday against Southern California, and Wood was brilliant Friday against the Bruins.
Perno said he told Wood before the game that he had to match Cole, and that's just what he did. When Cole struck out the side in order in the fourth, Wood did likewise in the bottom of the frame. Like Cole, Wood racked up 11 strikeouts through six innings, relying mostly on his deceptive 89-91 mph fastball with very good sink and run.
"We like to try to get ahead, and they didn't really swing the bat a whole lot the first few innings, so we just tried to get ahead and spot up, and match what Gerrit was doing, because he threw pretty great all the way up to that big inning we had," Wood said. "He was awesome, and I was just trying to match him, and it turned out all right."
For his part, Cole was as good as he's ever been for six innings, setting hitters up with his 84-87 mph changeup and 86-87 slider, then putting them away with a 94-97 mph fastball that peaked at 98. Early in the game, he pitched more with a 92-93 mph two-seamer, then busted out his four-seamer in earnest around the third inning. He continued to show off his maturity, both with his ability to command his changeup (which UCLA coach John Savage said has made "major, major strides") and with his composure after Georgia's nine-batter seventh inning, which was prolonged by two UCLA errors.
"He was very, very professional," Savage said. "He was into every pitch in the eighth and ninth inning. Very impressive. The guy, leaps and bounds of maturity—I just can't say enough about the way he's responded."
But the big story this weekend was the way Georgia has responded from its rough first three weeks and the injury to Taylor.
"The most frustrating thing for us the first week and a half or two weeks of the season is we knew what we had and what we were capable of, and we just hadn't shown it yet," Wood said. "Since last Sunday, it will really make you think about your life when things like that happen. It's unfortunate we've had two incidents like that in the last year and a half. We've been meeting a lot, we just all got together and we're just playing our hearts out for J.T., and hoping we can make his life and all his hard work a little easier, put a smile on his face and go out and play."
Strike Two: Shaking Out The Notebook
One of the great things about covering college baseball in Southern California is the opportunity to see quality teams from other parts of country early in the season, without having to drive more than 90 minutes in any direction. Here are some other impressions from the weekend:
• Arkansas did what it was supposed to do against an overmatched San Diego State club, taking three out of four games at Tony Gwynn Stadium. The Razorbacks still have not been tested against top-flight opposition, but they are 13-2 with one more game to play before Southeastern Conference play begins next weekend at Auburn. The Hogs looked athletic and exciting in Thursday's 12-4 win, and coach Dave Van Horn is very encouraged by the way his young talent has performed thus far.
"We have a solid lineup; we have a lot of good athletes," Van Horn said. "And I have a couple more that are just trying to get in there and play. There's some competition between players. We've had some pretty good teams the last couple of years, but we haven't had the competition to play—it keeps everybody hungry. We have a lot of young guys, and they're fun to watch."
Freshman corner infielder Dominic Ficociello was particularly fun to watch Thursday, going 4-for-5 with two doubles—one to each gap. He followed up that performance with two hits on Friday and three on Saturday, and he's batting .431/.439/.647 with nine doubles and 20 RBIs through 51 at-bats. Scouts and coaches raved about Ficociello's quick hands last fall during Baseball America's recruiting survey, and two more scouts lauded his bat speed Thursday. "The ball really comes off his bat easily," one said. "That kid can really, really hit."
Ficociello joins with infielder Matt Reynolds and versatile Kyle Robinson to form a dangerous heart of the order for Arkansas. Van Horn said Reynolds is the team's best hitter, a line-drive machine with a mature approach who has been slowed a bit in the past week after being hit on the finger with a pitch. A stress fracture in his back cost him most of last year, but with that injury behind him, Reynolds is poised for a huge season.
Robinson, who registered just 17 at-bats a year ago, has been a revelation in his second year since transferring from a junior college. Even after cooling off a bit this weekend, he's hitting .403/.435/.677 with a team-leading three homers and 21 RBIs. He also has four stolen bases in four tries, and his athleticism on the basepaths stood out Thursday.
The Hogs are loaded with unheralded players like Robinson who have made the most of their opportunities now that standouts Zack Cox, Brett Eibner and Andy Wilkins are gone.
"The three stars are gone, so we've got to have a team," Van Horn said. "I think the guys appreciate it. Nobody knows anything about us, so let's try to mix it up and play hard. So far it's been really good."
• On Friday afternoon, I caught Louisville's 4-2 win at Pepperdine. Like so many teams across the country, the Cardinals have struggled a bit offensively with the new bats, in part because they lost a host of key veterans from last year's club, just like Arkansas did. Louisville had its chances early against Waves lefty Aaron Gates on Friday, but they stranded runners in scoring position in three of the first four innings, so coach Dan McDonnell gathered the team in front of the dugout before the fifth and delivered a message.
"In this program, we enjoy the game of college baseball, we play with emotion, we play with passion," McDonnell said. "I thought we were a little mopey and down because we didn't execute, and I thought the frustration was mounting. I just wanted them to realize, hey, we've got Matt Koch on the mound, we're only down 1-0. Let's refocus and get some runs . . . That's just having a young lineup. We've just got to continue to coach them and get them to believe, one, that they are good, and two, we've just got to manufacture runs."
The pep talk worked, and the Cardinals scored three runs in the fifth on a two-run double by Ryan Seiz and an RBI double by J.J. Ethel. Then they scored 15 runs over the next two games to sweep the series in dominating fashion. Louisville has recovered from an early series loss to Toledo, climbing to 11-3 heading into a pair of midweek games at Southern California.
Louisville is still hitting just .241 as a team, but its young hitters are making progress, and its pitching is good enough to carry it. Koch, a sophomore righthander, has emerged as a reliable Friday ace, going 2-1, 2.00 through four starts. He attacked the Waves with a 90-92 mph fastball, a good slider at 79 mph and an occasional changeup and curveball on Friday.
"Matt had that big performance as a freshman in the regional, beating Vanderbilt," McDonnell said. "We kind of felt like that momentum coming into this year was only going to help him get better and better, and he's a competitive kid. He gives you a chance to win, he pumps the ball in the zone, I thought his breaking ball got better as the game went on. And he competes. The thing about Matt is he sets the tone on Fridays and competes—he's done that four Fridays in a row."
Righthanders Justin Amlung (3-0, 0.63) and Mike Nastold (2-0, 0.53) have been similarly stellar behind Koch in the rotation, and first-team preseason All-American Tony Zych (five saves, 3.68 ERA) has overpowering stuff at the back of the bullpen, though he's still refining his command. Zych sat at 94-97 mph in a scoreless ninth Friday, but he couldn't get the Waves to chase his 83-85 slider out of the zone, resulting in some deep counts and leading to a pair of baserunners.
"I think Tony's a work in progress," McDonnell said. "I think he found his niche in the summer in the Cape, now he's just got to harness it."
• UCLA has posted three straight losing weekends despite the best efforts of its sterling pitching staff, which has a 1.80 team ERA. But the Bruins are simply struggling to score runs; they are hitting just .245 as a team, and they were shut out by Southern California on Sunday.
"I think we just have to trust what we have," Savage said. "I think the clubhouse has to trust each other, we've got to trust the process. We've got one of the best offensive guys in the country with (Rick Vanderhook). There are periods throughout the season you play real good defense, and you pitch, but you don't hit. Maybe later in the middle of the year we're swinging it well but not pitching as well. Right now we're pitching it really well. I think we've got to play better defense; we're not playing top-notch defense, that's for sure. And offensively, I think we just have to trust what we have. We've got to stay with each other. They've got to use the middle of the field, and hit fastballs, and swing at strikes and take balls. It's a a simple approach, and it's just frustrating."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight On Matt Barnes
SAN DIEGO—As a Connecticut high schooler, Matt Barnes wanted to play for a baseball power in a big warm-weather conference, the way fellow Nutmeg State products Matt Harvey (North Carolina), Chris Dwyer (Clemson) and Jesse Hahn (Virginia Tech) had before him. But he received only moderate interest from Southern programs as a high school junior, when he was still raw and projectable. He started to flash premium velocity as a senior, when he was committed to Connecticut, but he needed to get stronger and more consistent.
"I remember his first day in our weight room, he was outside in the hallway after repetitions, that was probably the first time he'd been in a weight room," UConn coach Jim Penders said. "He had his eyes closed, and he said, 'Coach, I can't even see.' I said, 'Matt, you've got to open your eyes to see.' He opened his eyes and said, 'OK, I guess I'm all right.' Now he's one of our better guys in the weight room."
Barnes has gotten stronger every year at UConn, and now that he's a junior he holds the velocity on his fastball deep into games. The righthander ran his heater up to 93-94 mph repeatedly against San Diego on Saturday, and he still sat at 90-92 in the ninth inning of an efficient two-hit shutout. He struck out just two batters in the game, but even that was a sign of his increasing maturity. Barnes knew he could win by pitching to contact.
"I try to attack hitters, get ahead with fastballs," Barnes said. "If they go to strikeout counts, I'll try to put them away. But they were swinging early, trying to put the ball in play, so why not pound the zone early and let them put the ball in play and limit pitches?
Barnes said he likes to use his high-70s slider as a putaway pitch later in the count, but he leaned more on his sharp 73-75 mph curveball on Saturday because he threw it earlier in counts, and San Diego put it in play. And UConn's defense made plays behind him, playing what Penders said was its best game of the season.
Barnes, a second-team preseason All-American and a potential top 10 overall pick, has pitched well in all four of his starts (the first two were tough-luck losses), and Saturday's win improved him to 2-2, 1.52 with 28 strikeouts and eight walks in 29 innings. Penders said last summer helped Barnes learn how to win. He matured on and off the field while traveling the world with Team USA. And he discovered his changeup in the Cape Cod League early in the summer, before leaving for the national team. The pitch showed good fade at 82-84 mph on Saturday.
"But his fastball's still his bread and butter," Penders said. "He's been able to spot that better, he's been able to stay in sync longer into games. As long as he's not walking people—and he hasn't given up many freebies this year—I think he's going to be very tough to beat. I don't see much rattling him, and I hope I'm right about that. I think he's the type of kid that can handle anything that's thrown at him. I couldn't say that two years ago, but I can honestly say that now."
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