Strike One: Tar Heels Stand Out In Lackluster Weekend In Houston
HOUSTON—As Rob Childress made his way to the mound to make Texas A&M's third pitching change of the first three innings Sunday, a disgusted Aggie fan hollered out into the bored silence of Minute Maid Park, "Mix in a strike!"
That pretty much summed up the weekend at the Astros Foundation College Classic, an event rife with walks, hit batsmen, wild pitches and all-around ugly play.
Texas A&M starter Rafael Pineda—usually a reliable strike-thrower—walked the first four batters of the game against top-ranked North Carolina on Sunday and was pulled before recording an out, as the Tar Heels scored three runs in the first. After UNC scored five more runs in the second on six hits, reliever Corey Ray issued three more walks and hit a batter in the third, leading to five more runs and drawing the ire of A&M fans.
The Aggies wound up walking 11 batters in the game and plunking two others. North Carolina was clearly the best team in Houston this weekend, and the Tar Heels largely impressed during their 3-0 showing, but even UNC was not immune to control problems Sunday, issuing 10 walks of its own. But the Tar Heels out-hit the Aggies 13-3 in a 14-2 blowout that was shortened to seven innings by the mercy rule.
"North Carolina has an outstanding team, and had they beat us, just taken it from us, that's one thing," coach Childress said. "But for us to give them 13 free opportunities, and you combine that with 13 hits, you usually get what you deserve. The recipe for that is a good old-fashioned butt-whupping, and that's what they gave us today." [...] Continue Reading »
HOUSTON—Texas A&M entered Saturday's game against Rice with a 7-4 record, and its four losses were by a combined six runs. The Aggies knew it would take some time for their young lineup to gel, but they were confident their speed and athleticism would eventually make their offense formidable, and they believed they had enough quality arms to keep them afloat in the meantime.
"We've played 12 games, we've been in every single one of them, and we're just a big hit away from being 12-0, but we're not," Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said after the Rice game. "We are what we are, and we own that, but we are improving, and that's the fun thing for this team. We're not a finished product, and I don't think we will be until the end of April."
On Saturday, Texas A&M fans got a glimpse of the dangerous team the Aggies are capable of being. The offense got going early in the game, scoring six runs over the first two innings against Rice's Jordan Stephens, and Daniel Mengden turned in eight strong innings to lead A&M to an 8-3 win.
"Coming in here and beating Rice is always great," Mengden said.
The top four hitters in A&M's lineup have been very productive so far this season, and they sparked A&M's pair of three-run rallies in the first two innings, combining to go 4-for-5 with three successful sacrifices in those two frames. Senior shortstop Mikey Reynolds is a stick of dynamite atop the order, leading the team with a .479 average and a .500 on-base percentage while tying for the team lead with six stolen bases. He went 3-for-4 with a pair of runs and an RBI Friday, while also making some outstanding plays at shortstop. [...] Continue Reading »
HOUSTON—There has been plenty of frightful play—courtesy of California and Baylor—through a day and a half at the Astros Foundation College Classic, but the play of the Houston Cougars has been a pleasant surprise.
While Baylor pitchers issued 14 walks and hit two batters, and Baylor position players made three errors through seven innings Saturday, Houston has been patient and focused while playing two quality games.
The 10-run rule went into effect after seven innings Saturday, giving the Cougars a 15-4 win—their second straight victory this weekend, coming on the heels of a 7-6 win against Texas A&M on Friday. Houston is now 8-2, with a nice road series win at Texas State and a midweek win at Sam Houston State.
"My guys, we've been like this all year—they just play hard," Houston coach Todd Whitting said after last night's win against the Aggies. "I don't know if it's because they're young and dumb and don't know better, but they just give great effort, they don't give in."
Freshman second baseman Josh Vidales epitomizes that no-surrender attitude, never giving opposing pitchers anything at the top of the lineup. Vidales went 2-for-4 with a walk against the Aggies, and he set a new tournament record with four walks Saturday, along with a sacrifice bunt.
"Vidales has got a mature approach beyond his years—he's tough to pitch to," Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said last night. [...] Continue Reading »
HOUSTON—After Landon Lassiter made two errors Friday against Rice, giving him six on the season, North Carolina coach Mike Fox admitted a little concern about his defense, but he stuck by his freshman shortstop.
"I'm trying to give Landon the opportunity. Really I don't want to take him off the field—it's a confidence thing," Fox said. "But at some point we've got to be a little bit better there in the middle, especially when we've got a guy out there (on the mound) making teams put the ball in play. We've got to figure that out."
So Fox had a little chat with Lassiter after Friday's game, and when the coach handed in his lineup card Saturday against California, Lassiter's name was there, batting second and playing shortstop. He responded with four hits, two runs—and no errors, as UNC cruised to an 11-5 win.
"Get him back on the field—it's really important to do that when they're young and confidence is shaken a little bit," Fox said. "He's a good offensive player is why we've got to have him in there, and he showed that today. We've just got to work through it, it's a confidence thing. I've tried to reward these kids by putting them back out there, then you hope a couple more balls get hit at them and they make plays.
"I said 'Hey, I'm putting you right back out there.' Sometimes you hear guys say, 'Well, how do you know that coach has confidence in me?' Well, your name's in the lineup, it's as simple as that." [...] Continue Reading »
HOUSTON—The feature attraction of the Astros Foundation College Classic lived up to its billing.
"I'd say so," said North Carolina ace Kent Emanuel. "2-1? Doesn't get much better. Exactly what we expected, this kind of game . . . It was awesome; it was a lot of fun."
Aces Emanuel and Austin Kubitza went head-to-head in a fine pitchers' duel, and the Tar Heels broke a 1-1 tie in the ninth inning to beat Rice, 2-1.
UNC sparkplug leadoff man Chaz Frank doubled to left field with a man on first in the ninth inning, but catcher Korey Dunbar was thrown out at the plate, preserving the tie momentarily. But the savvy Frank took third on the throw to the plate, and scored the winning run on a wild pitch soon thereafter. Zech Lemond's breaking ball squirted away from Rice catcher Geoff Perrott—not too far, but Frank broke immediately and slid in head-first just under the tag of Lemond, covering the plate.
"Chaz is one of the best baserunners I've coached," North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. "We talk about that a lot: being ready, you never know when the ball's going to get past the catcher. That was very heads-up on his part, he basically just kind of beat the pitcher to the plate. I thought we were fortunate to win, but it just comes down to a play like that or two in a 2-1 game." [...] Continue Reading »
HOUSTON—At least Dillon Newman brought his 'A' game Friday. The Baylor righthander turned in seven crisp innings of three-hit, shutout ball in a 9-0 win against California in Friday's Astros Foundation College Classic opener, salvaging a game that was darn near painful to watch at times.
In its first trip through the order, Baylor had four runners thrown out on the basepaths—three of them on decisions that coach Steve Smith referred to as "boneheaded." That prompted Smith to pull three of his starters in the third inning to send his team a wakeup call.
"At some point, I've got to live with the guys that are on the bench," Smith said. "I feel like if we see a trend, if we're trending in a certain direction, and we don't make changes, then that message to the bench is not a good one. I've never been a guy to just jerk a guy out of the game, particularly after a physical mistake."
Fortunately for Baylor, Cal was even sloppier, especially on the mound. Senior lefthander Justin Jones battled through four innings, allowing seven hits and three walks, and exiting after 90 pitches. Once upon a time, Jones worked in the 86-89 range with his fastball and bumped 90 mph, but he sat at 81-83 Friday. He had no ability to make hitters swing and miss, and his delivery looked out of sync—his hat flew off his head multiple times after he finished his delivery with a violent head jerk, owing in part to his shaggy hair. [...] Continue Reading »
HOUSTON—In Friday's loss to Texas, Rice's ballyhooed duo of sophomore righthanders—Austin Kubitza and John Simms—lacked their best stuff, and they struggled.
On Saturday, senior righty Matthew Reckling lacked his best stuff, too, but he was able to turn in a quality outing anyway, gutting his way through 6 2/3 innings and allowing just a pair of first-inning runs and four hits in a 6-2 win against Texas Tech.
"I really appreciate what he did. He started weak, but then he came on strong," Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "A creditable outing, when he didn't have his best stuff. He can throw a little harder than that, his curveball can be a little sharper than that, but he used his changeup some, and it was pretty good."
In his first two dominating outings this season, Reckling threw harder than he did Saturday night, when his fastball ranged from 86-91 mph. But of course, Reckling had struggled even when he had good velocity in years past because his command of his fastball was inconsistent. It was a more effective pitch Saturday, even without its best velocity.
"I think I have a lot more movement on my fastball this year," Reckling said. "Last year I threw a lot of four-seams, today I only threw two-seams. Sometimes I'll elevate a four-seam to get it by someone. On the (three) guys that I hit, those were four-seams. So I was like, I'm only throwing two-seams, which I've been doing all year. It's been running a lot, and just trying to keep guys off, move the fastball around." [...] Continue Reading »
HOUSTON—It's still early March, and Dave Serrano's rebuilding project at Tennessee is still in its infancy, but Serrano did not try to downplay the significance of his team's 5-4 win against Texas on Saturday.
"That was a big win—there are no ifs, ands or buts about it," Serrano said. "We try to say it's another game—it isn't another game. We played the University of Texas, and we came out on top."
It was an important day for the Volunteers, just as it was for Houston, which improved to 2-0 at the Houston College Classic with a 4-1 win against No. 4 Arkansas earlier Saturday. Second-year Houston coach Todd Whitting is a little further along in his rebuilding effort, but both teams can use Saturday's victories to take stock of their progress and build some confidence.
"It doesn't matter who we're beating, we're winning, and that's the main thing," Whitting said. "That's what these guys need. I thought until today's game, even last night, we didn't play games to win. And today they absolutely went out there and they played to win, they didn't play to lose at all. Everybody was aggressive. We continued for two days in a row to be aggressive at home plate. If we can continue to do that, we'll beat some people." [...] Continue Reading »
HOUSTON—When Texas coach Augie Garrido turned to address the media Friday night, a reporter jokingly told him the Longhorns are an offensive juggernaut.
"You bet your sweet ass," Garrido responded without missing a beat.
A little levity was in order after the Longhorns scored 11 runs on 13 hits against a very talented Rice pitching staff, en route to an ugly 11-8 win. Texas had scored just 21 runs total in its previous eight games, scuffling to a 4-4 start.
Garrido said even before his team got annihilated in a three-game sweep at Stanford that his hitters had been out of sync, out of rhythm and out of character. Garrido's message never changed: His hitters needed to stop trying so hard ("They say there's no crying in baseball; well, there's no trying in baseball, or else you'll fail," he said two weeks ago) and focus more on the process than the results. [...] Continue Reading »
HOUSTON—Jared Ray hasn't had many days over the last two years when his arm felt as good as it did Friday, in Houston's 7-4 win against Tennessee in the Houston College Classic. So he wanted to take full advantage, as he said later, and that's just what he did.
A fifth-year senior righthander for Houston, Ray has had three shoulder surgeries in his career, causing him to miss all of 2010 and most of 2011. But he built confidence by returning from his rehab to make five starts down the stretch last year, and he entered this spring feeling stronger than ever.
On Friday, he looked better than ever, striking out a career-high 10 batters over seven innings, allowing just a run on five hits and no walks.
"I knew I felt good coming into the game," Ray said. "It feels good to be healthy again and not ahve to worry about, week-to-week, how I'm going to feel. Just being able to go out here every day and prepare, knowing that I'm going to have my stuff that week."
He certainly had his stuff Friday. Ray maintained 90-91 mph velocity throughout his start, pumping 92-93 mph heat in the second inning. He started the game by striking out the first six hitters he faced, three of them on fastballs and three on low-80s sliders down and away. He relied almost exclusively on his fastball and hard-breaking 78-83 slider, throwing only a couple of changeups (and not effectively). [...] Continue Reading »
HOUSTON—Rice held a press conference today for Wayne Graham, who is part of the 2012 College Baseball Hall of Fame induction class, announced today.
Listening to Graham reminisce about the baseball wisdom he learned from Bibb Faulk and Casey Stengel during his playing days made me realize once again how lucky Rice's players are to learn the game from Graham, one of the great teachers in baseball history. Graham is a direct link to some of baseball's richest history, and I feel like I learn something new about the game every time I speak with him.
The 75-year-old Graham reiterated today that he plans to keep on coaching until he feels like he's no longer an asset to the Owls. Lucky for college baseball.
The other members of a star-studded induction class: Nomar Garciaparra, a standout shortstop at Georgia Tech from 1992-94; Lou Brock, an outfielder at Southern from 1958-60; Brad Wilkerson, a two-way star at Florida from 1996-98; Ed Cheff, who coached Lewis-Clark (Idaho) State from 1977-2010 and won 16 NAIA national championships; Tim Jorgensen, star shortstop at Wisconsin-Oshkosh from 1992-95; and the late Frank Sancet, who coached Arizona from 1950-72.
“This class has plenty of star power,” said Mike Gustafson, executive director of the College Baseball Hall of Fame. “We have players who excelled both in college and the pros and a longtime coach who has been successful at both the junior college and Division I level. It is a truly impressive group.”
HOUSTON—Arkansas sophomore righthander Ryne Stanek has picked up this spring right where he left off at the end of last season. In Friday's 3-1 win against Texas Tech in the Houston College Classic, Stanek continued to demonstrate just how much he has matured since he first arrived in college.
Stanek, an unsigned third-round pick out of high school in Kansas, struggled with his mechanics—and consequently his command and efficiency—throughout much of his freshman year in 2011. In his final regular-season outing, he recorded just one out before getting pulled in the first inning. But the following week in the Southeastern Conference tournament, Stanek suddenly began to harness his electric stuff, going 7 2/3 strong innings. He followed that up with a complete-game gem in regionals against Charlotte.
After a strong summer with Team USA and in the Cape Cod League, Stanek returned to campus with loads of confidence. He stepped onto the mound at a major league park on Friday and said he did not feel nervous—and he did not look nervous, either.
"I thought he did a great job in a big league ballpark, great atmosphere, he came out and was calm and under control," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "We did a good job spotting him a couple of runs, and he did the rest from there." [...] Continue Reading »
HOUSTON—Saturday's final game at the Houston College Classic lasted just one hour, 45 minutes, making it the shortest game in the tournament's history by 25 minutes. Texas A&M sophomore righthander Michael Wacha and Rice freshman righty Austin Kubitza simply pounded the strike zone, and Kubitza was spectacularly efficient in the Owls' 1-0 win.
Kubitza needed just 88 pitches to throw a complete-game shutout of the Aggies, and 66 of those pitches were strikes. He struck out seven and scattered six hits. Not only did he issue zero walks, but he did not even go to a single 2-and-0 count all night.
"I'd look up there, and I don't think I ever remember him throwing a ball, it seemed like," Wacha said of Kubitza. "He was just pumping the strike zone, and that's how you have to do it."
In front of a large crowd in a major league stadium, the freshman Kubitza was not intimidated. Quite the opposite, in fact.
"After our (pregame) prayer huddle, everyone was like, 'Oh, he's scared,' " Kubitza said. "I was like, 'Hey, I'm pitching a shutout, y'all just need to get me a run.' Everything was just there for me, and they scored the run for me I needed." [...] Continue Reading »
HOUSTON—It was a good day to be a top prospect at the Houston College Classic. Logan Verrett and Brooks pinckard shined for Baylor in Friday's first game. John Stilson pitched very well in a no-decision for Texas A&M, and C.J. Cron reached base five times for Utah in the second game. And the best prospect in college baseball—Anthony Rendon—had three hits, two runs and an RBI to lead Rice to an 8-7 win against Kentucky in the third game.
Both of Rendon's first two hits were lasers to left field—a double down the line on a 1-and-2 pitch from lefthander Taylor Rogers in the first, and a single to left on a 2-2 offering in the third. He battled back from an 0-2 hole in that at-bat, then hit a couple of hard foul balls before whipping his bat through the zone for a line-drive single.
"I guess the first couple pitches in the count, I'm just trying to swing as hard as I can, put the barrel on the ball," Rendon said. "Good things will happen when you swing hard, you have good bat speed and you put the barrel on it, obviously. Then with two strikes, I like to open up a little bit, keep my weight back a lot more so I'll see the ball longer, then I'll try to spray wherever the pitch is going." [...] Continue Reading »
HOUSTON—Preseason All-Americans John Stilson and C.J. Cron were the main prospect attractions in the day's second game here at Minute Maid Park. Stilson pitched well for Texas A&M, and Cron hit well for Utah, but both were upstaged by Utes pitchers Rick Anton and Tyler Wagner, who carried Utah to a 2-1 win, its first of the season.
Anton, a senior lefthander, allowed just one run on five hits and a walk while striking out eight over seven strong innings. Wagner, a sophomore righty, followed with two scoreless innings to pick up the save.
The Aggies threatened repeatedly, but Anton and Wagner made big pitches in big spots. Six times A&M put its leadoff man aboard but failed to score. A&M stranded three runners at third base and two more at second. All told, the Aggies were 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position and 1-for-18 with runners on base. [...] Continue Reading »
HOUSTON—As usual, the Houston College Classic is a feast for scouts, with six teams stocked with plenty of quality prospects. No fewer than eight major league scouting directors numbered among the dozens of scouts in attendance Friday at Minute Maid Park, and the first game of the day gave them a look at a pair of potential top-three-rounds picks in Baylor junior righties Logan Verrett and Brooks Pinckard. Both pitched well in Baylor's 5-2 win against Houston.
Verrett admitted he was feeling some jitters taking the mound in a big league park, and he worked at 87-90 mph in the first inning. Soon he settled into the 89-91 range and topped out at 92. He located his fastball well and mixed in an 82-85 mph slider, and a few changeups later.
"I was pleased with the start after the first two innings—I kind of settled down, got in my groove, and just played catch with Joey (Hainsfurther)," Verrett said. "The first time through the lineup, we started everyone off with fastballs, trying to get ahead. They caught onto that, and started putting balls in play, so we started mixing it up, just to keep them off balance." [...] Continue Reading »
Strike One: Return Of The Pac
In Southern California, up is down, black is white, night is day. Maybe it's La Nina.
Perennial superpower Cal State Fullerton, ranked No. 4 in the preseason, has lost its first three weekends and tumbled all the way out of the Top 25. Fellow Big West heavyweight UC Irvine lost a series last week for the first time in 20 weeks and sits just 6-5. San Diego, with one of the most talented rosters on the West Coast, has lost six of its last seven to match Fullerton's 4-6 start. And Southern California, the most storied program in college baseball history, is just 5-6 after losing a home series to New Mexico.
But UCLA, a notorious slow starter and underachiever, has raced out to a 9-0 start for the first time on record (dating to 1955). The 15th-ranked Bruins swept Nebraska this weekend and have quality wins against Vanderbilt, Long Beach State and USC.
UCLA coach John Savage said the offense—run by assistant coach Rick Vanderhook, previously George Horton's assistant at Cal State Fullerton—has been the key to his team's perfect start, and an area scout in SoCal agrees.
“Right now it seems like the only team out here playing to their capabilities is UCLA," one area scout said. "You want to know why? Rick Vanderhook. He brings energy to the game, and he wants a tough player. Once they buy in, they will be successful, because John Savage is a really good pitching guy and a really good recruiting guy. They complement each other really well, they do. Hook is a no-BS, get-after-it kind of guy. Hook has always been a winner. I think the marriage of Hook and Savage—watch out. I really think there's a lot to be gained there." [...] Continue Reading »
HOUSTON—After mustering just five runs on 13 hits in their previous three games heading into Sunday, Texas' hitters decided something had to be done.
"We kind of struggled in the first two games (at the Houston College Classic this weekend)—we faced good pitching—so today we wanted to come out and prove ourselves to the people here," junior outfielder Kevin Keyes said. "We'd been struggling, so we had a little team talk last night, the hitters, and I think it really worked well. We found our confidence today, and hopefully it'll carry over to the rest of the year."
But it took until the sixth inning for the Longhorns to find their confidence against Missouri on Sunday. Trailing by two runs, Texas finally put together a big inning, erupting for six runs in the fifth en route to an 8-5 win. The big blows were Jordan Etier's two-run single and Tant Shepherd's two-run double off the left-field wall. [...] Continue Reading »
HOUSTON—Immediately after the final out was recorded and the postgame handshakes were completed, all of Rice's players and coaches disappeared into the tunnel behind the third-base dugout at Minute Maid Park.
More than 20 minutes later, the players filed back out to collect their equipment. From the solemn expressions on their faces, you'd never guess the Owls had just beaten Texas Tech 3-2.
Finally, Rice coach Wayne Graham ambled out of the tunnel.
"I'm sorry guys," Graham said to the group of reporters waiting outside the dugout, "but I had to—what do you call it?—vent my wrath.
"I was stretching the bounds of my vocabulary."
So, what made Graham so upset after a 3-2 victory against a quality opponent?
"The baserunning," he said. "It was unbelievable. It isn't that we gave up three outs on the bases, it's that we gave up three baserunners. That's much worse than just giving up three outs. We can't do that. You just can't run yourself out of innings, in a situation where it isn't even that tough of a baserunning situation." [...] Continue Reading »
HOUSTON—The first two pitches of the game made all the difference.
Houston shortstop Blake Kelso jumped on Texas righthander Brandon Workman's first pitch of the game for a triple to right-center field.
Workman's next pitch, a curveball, bounced in the dirt and scooted away from catcher Cameron Rupp, allowing Kelso to race home for the game's first run.
It would also be the game's last run. Workman settled down in a hurry, retiring the next 14 batters he faced en route to a sparkling eight-inning outing, but Houston starter Michael Goodnight was even better. The sophomore righthander allowed just two hits and four walks while striking out nine over seven shutout innings, and Houston stunned the No. 3 Longhorns, 1-0.
Goodnight found his groove in the middle innings, retiring 13 straight Longhorns to end his outing, before handing off to relievers Ty Stuckey and Matt Creel. One area scout on hand said Goodnight held the velocity on his 89-92 mph fastball better than he has in the past, and his 81-83 slider looked better than ever. He also mixed in a slow 70-71 curve and four changeups. [...] Continue Reading »
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