Strike One: Quack Attack
The biggest story in college baseball right now is the incredible rise of Oregon, which is on track to reach regionals in just the second season since the program was started from scratch after a 28-year hiatus. The Ducks made it clear from the outset that they intended to compete quickly—they spent loads of money to hire one of the nation's best coaches in George Horton and to build a sparkling new stadium—but year one was bitterly disappointing. Oregon went 14-42 in 2009 and just 4-23 in the Pacific-10 Conference, a performance that tempered expectations heading into this spring.
But after winning back-to-back road series against ranked conference foes Stanford and UCLA, the Ducks are sitting pretty at 23-12 (6-6 in the Pac-10). After knocking the Bruins out of the No. 1 spot in the rankings, Oregon finds itself ranked 18th in the nation.
"I think we're worthy of that, I honestly do," Horton said of being ranked. "I'm really proud of my guys. I think we are a Top 25 team. It's been a miraculous—growth spurt, I guess would be the best way to say it. We really closed the gap in a hurry. We've still got some holes, but I don't know if I've ever been around a group that has grown that much in a year. [...] Continue Reading »
Strike One: Stock Report
A lot can change in a weekend of college baseball. We rolled out our midseason Field of 64 projection last week, and already it is obsolete. Rather than redo the entire field today, let's take a look at some of the teams whose stock has risen or fallen since last week's projection.
• South Carolina was a No. 2 seed in the Clemson Regional in last week's projection, but South Carolina now looks like the more secure team in the Palmetto State when it comes to hosting ambitions. After winning a big road series at Vanderbilt, the Gamecocks have won their first four SEC series for the first time ever and are tied with Arkansas for the best record in the league (9-3).
• Oregon was omitted from last week's field after losing their first two conference series, with road series at Stanford and UCLA looming. Well, Oregon took care of business in the first of those two series, taking two of three at Stanford. The Ducks rank 28th in the the Ratings Percentage Index according to boydsworld.com, and if they finish in the middle of the Pacific-10 Conference somewhere, they should get an at-large bid in their second season since the program was reinstated. [...] Continue Reading »
Strike One: Packing A Punch
Week Seven was chock full of upsets across college baseball. We'll examine Virginia Tech later this week and Tennessee later in this post, but let's start with the biggest upset of the weekend: North Carolina State's series win against No. 1 Virginia.
The Wolfpack entered the weekend with a 3-6 conference mark, a record that included losing in a sweep at Clemson and dropping two of three at home against Miami last weekend. So winning the Virginia series was critical for N.C. State to avoid falling into a deep hole in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings. It was also a tangible reward for an N.C. State team that has played hard but had little to show for it prior to this weekend.
"We played well from the beginning of the season on," Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent said. "We played well at Clemson—we took two leads into the eighth and got swept that series. Then we played Miami, and we had a great chance to win Friday's game and we didn't win it, then we won Saturday's game in the most improbable fashion in my career, down 6-1 with two outs and nobody on in the ninth, then coming back to win. That was a tremendous comeback, then (Eric) Erickson on Sunday completely stifled us. You start out that way, and the next thing you know you look up and you're in the bottom half of the standings with other people, and you've got the No. 1 team in the country coming in, so you fight and claw and win two out of three. [...] Continue Reading »
Strike One: Tar Heels Feel Growing Pains Against Seasoned Seminoles
CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Coming into the season, North Carolina faced questions about its offense, its bullpen and its overall experience level, particularly in the bullpen. The Tar Heels proved this weekend against Florida State that they can compete with any team in the nation, but their offense, bullpen and overall lack of experience were the decisive factors in their losses Friday and Sunday.
In both games, the Tar Heels built an early 3-0 lead, and in both cases their offense failed to extend the lead and their bullpen relinquished the lead in the final two innings. UNC ace Matt Harvey shut down Florida State's potent offense for seven shutout innings Friday, allowing just two hits and four walks while striking out 11, but the Seminoles were able to bide their time until Harvey left the mound, then won it with two runs in the eighth and two more in the ninth.
The Tar Heels were able to extend their lead early Saturday, and they cruised to a 10-4 lead. But Sunday, UNC took a 3-0 lead in the second on three Geoff Parker walks and a bases-clearing triple by Dillon Hazlett, but the UNC bats were silenced the rest of the way by FSU lefty Brian Busch (6 IP, 1 H, 0 R) and closer Mike McGee (who got the final two outs for the save). Florida State again kept its composure despite struggling against UNC starter Patrick Johnson, then scored two runs in each of the final two innings to win it.
"That was what was impressive about our guys today: We didn't get out of ourselves and try to hit six-run homers. We just stayed poised and got pitches to hit," Florida State coach Mike Martin said. "We've got a little experience, and I think experience can go a long way in the makeup of a club. You can't go try to do too much . . . North Carolina has a young club. They're going to be fine—they have excellent pitching, they're going to be fine. No question, it's growing pains. You go through that in this league." [...] Continue Reading »
Strike One: Road Warriors
It was a statement weekend for Kansas and Louisville. Both teams went on the road without two of their best players, and both teams won big series against Southeastern Conference powers. The Jayhawks took two out of three at Louisiana State, while the Cardinals took two of three at Mississippi.
Kansas outslugged LSU 11-9 on Friday and 8-4 on Sunday even without junior third baseman Tony Thompson, a second-team preseason All-American who won the Big 12 triple crown last year. Thompson sustained a hairline fracture of his left kneecap after fouling a pitch off his knee in practice in early February. Kansas coach Ritch Price said Thompson will remove his knee brace tomorrow and could return to the lineup a week from tomorrow.
"It's been a long six weeks without him. A long six weeks," Price said. "I told our club when this first happened that if we could fight through the adversity and find a way to stay in the hunt without him, we'd be better for it. Now we're even deeper than we would have been."
Thompson's absence has created playing time for senior Brett Lisher (.421/.465/.500 in 38 at-bats through Saturday) and freshmen James Stanfield (.353/.465/.441 in 34 at-bats) and Jake Marasco (.440/.440/.640 in 25 at-bats) at the corner infield spots, and all three have elevated their games. On Friday, the Jayhawks also lost No. 4 hitter Jimmy Waters (.357/.534/.667 with a team-leading three homers and 19 RBIs) to a separated shoulder that will sideline him at least a week. But Lisher came up big in Sunday's rubber game, going 2-for-3 with three RBIs, and the Jayhawks also got multi-hit performances from leadoff man Casey Lytle, No. 2 hitter Robby Price, DH Chris Manship and third baseman Jordan Dreiling. The latter two probably would not have been playing at all if not for injuries. [...] 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 »
Strike One: Maverick Magic
Texas-Arlington senior righthander Jason Mitchell was downright Strasburg-ian Friday against Missouri State.
Mitchell had a no-hitter through 8 2/3 innings before Missouri State's Travis McCormack singled up the middle on a 3-and-2 pitch with two outs in the ninth. Mitchell finished with a school-record 18 strikeouts while walking one and allowing just that one hit over nine shutout innings, but he didn't even get the win. The game remained scoreless until UTA's Steffan Guest delivered a walk-off single in the 14th inning.
"That was the best starting pitching job that I have seen since I have been at UTA," head coach Darin Thomas said of Mitchell's performance. "I have been here 10 years and have seen a lot of games. I don't know how you can do much better than taking a no-hitter into the ninth and striking out 18. He was outstanding." [...] Continue Reading »
Strike One: A Little Perspective
GREENVILLE, N.C.—After two crisp, well-played games to open the Virginia-East Carolina series, we were reminded Sunday that it is just February, and that even good teams can play ugly games on Sundays—especially in February.
Virginia coach Brian O'Connor seemed more frustrated than excited after his team slogged through a four-hour, 11-minute dog fight and held off East Carolina's furious rally to win 14-11. The victory secured a big early-season road series and propelled the Cavaliers to the top of the Baseball America Top 25 rankings for the first time ever—but it wasn't pretty.
"When you get a chance to put somebody away on the road, you have to put them away. You can't breathe new life into them," O'Connor said. "And we breathed life into them. Fortunately we were able to hold on." [...] Continue Reading »
Strike One: Who's Next?
Last year at this time, everyone was trying to predict who would be the next Fresno State; that is, the next mid-major team to come out of nowhere and win the College World Series. But normalcy was restored in the 2009 postseason when perennial powers and preseason favorites Louisiana State and Texas were the last teams standing. Another mid-major title run seems even less likely now that the NCAA has imposed a moratorium on composite-barreled bats, which are susceptible to tampering.
So let's readjust our goals. Instead of trying to find the next Fresno, let's try to find the next Southern Mississippi (consistent program from a solid conference poised to make the leap to Omaha); the next Virginia (annual major-conference contender that finally breaks through to the CWS); the next Texas Christian (strong mid-major team with a chance to win a regional); and the next Boston College (team on the verge of breaking a long postseason drought). [...] Continue Reading »
Maryland has hired Vanderbilt assistant coach Erik Bakich as its new head baseball coach, a source close to the situation confirmed Saturday. The hire will be announced officially on Monday. Bakich replaces Terry Rupp, who resigned in late May.
Bakich is a rising star in college coaching circles, known for his exceptional talent as a recruiter, his sharp baseball mind, his gregarious personality and his tireless work ethic. As Vandy’s recruiting coordinator, he brought in the nation’s top-ranked class in 2005 (highlighed by third baseman Pedro Alvarez) and the No. 2 class in 2008 (highlighed by righthander Sonny Gray). Each of Bakich’s last four recruiting classes have ranked among the top 25 in the nation, and his efforts are a significant reason the Commodores have become regular contenders in the Southeastern Conference.
Bakich is the latest member of the Jack Leggett/Keith LeClair coaching tree to get a head job (other former Leggett assistants currently serving as head coaches include Vandy’s Tim Corbin, Florida’s Kevin O’Sullivan, Tennessee’s Todd Raleigh and Auburn’s John Pawlowski). He played for LeClair at East Carolina, graduating in 2000, and he started his coaching career as a volunteer under Leggett at Clemson in 2002. Bakich has his work cut out for him at Maryland, which needs significant facility upgrades and lacks winning tradition. But Vanderbilt was in a similar position when Bakich and Corbin arrived there after the 2002 season, and Bakich’s experience as a part of that turnaround should help him at Maryland.
Other finalists for the Maryland job included assistant coach (and former William & Mary head coach) Jim Farr, Indiana coach Tracy Smith and Radford coach Joe Raccuia, according to one source. But Bakich was an inspired choice if Maryland is serious about building a winning baseball program. This is not the first time he has received a head coaching offer at a Division I school, but he was waiting for the right job to come along before leaving a very good situation at Vanderbilt. For him to take the Maryland job, it must mean he is confident he can win there, and it likely signals that the administration is ready to ramp up its commitment to the program.
Strike One: Stock Report
With one week to go before the NCAA Tournament bracket is announced, many questions have been answered, but others remain. Here’s a look at how the races for national seeds, host sites and the final at-large bids are shaping up.
SAFE BETS: Texas, UC Irvine, Louisiana State, Arizona State, North Carolina, Cal State Fullerton
STOCK RISING: Clemson, Mississippi, Florida, Florida State, Oklahoma
STOCK FALLING: Georgia Tech, Rice
• Rice and Georgia Tech could have all but wrapped up national seeds with series wins this weekend, but instead the Owls dropped two of three at Alabama-Birmingham, and the Yellow Jackets lost two of three at Duke. Rice dropped to second place in Conference USA but might still be able to salvage a national seed with a CUSA tournament title. Clemson surged past Tech for the No. 3 seed in the ACC tournament and has won the head-to-head series against the Jackets. The Tigers finished a game behind Florida State in the ACC and lost the head-to-head series against the Seminoles, but that’s probably not enough to make up for Clemson’s edge in the Ratings Percentage Index (the Tigers rank seventh, according to warrennolan.com, while the Seminoles rank 15th) and strength of schedule (the Tigers rank eighth according to warrennolan.com, while the Seminoles rank 39th). Whichever of those three teams fares best in the ACC tournament figures to have the inside track at a national seed. [...] Continue Reading »
Strike One: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Stephen Strasburg
If Stephen Strasburg made his last ever start at Tony Gwynn Stadium on Friday, he left one heck of a final impression on the school-record 3,337 fans on hand to wish him a fond farewell.
San Diego State’s otherworldly junior righthander struck out 17 in a no-hitter against Air Force, allowing just two baserunners in a 5-0 win. Strasburg retired the first nine batters he faced (seven via strikeout) before issuing a leadoff walk in the fourth. The only other baserunner reached on another leadoff walk in the sixth. Aztecs pitching coach Rusty Filter told BA correspondent John Maffei that Strasburg ran his fastball up to 101 mph twice in the 117-pitch outing, and he reached 98 twice in the ninth.
"I was giving it everything I had left at the end," Strasburg said. [...] Continue Reading »
Strike One: Green Day
The first ticket to the 2009 NCAA Tournament was punched this weekend when Dartmouth topped Cornell in the best-of-three Ivy League Championship series. The Big Green won two out of three against the Big Red to reach regionals for the first time since 1987.
It was a measure of redemption for Dartmouth, which went 15-5 in the Ivy in 2008 and hosted the conference championship series, which it lost in wild fashion to Columbia. Big Green coach Bob Whalen said he could sense his team’s hunger down the stretch as it honed in on that elusive regional berth.
"If you’ve coached long enough like I have, every team is different, has a different personality," said Whalen, who’s in his 20th season. "There’s a certain maturity level about this group, not just because of last year. We’ve been to the Ivy championship five times since 2000. In the last 10 years, we’ve won more Ivy games than any school in either division. But at the same time, you’re in this to win championships, not just to collect wins." [...] Continue Reading »
Strike One: Cougars On The Prowl
Don’t try telling Donnie Marbut the Pacific-10 Conference is down in 2009.
Marbut’s Washington State Cougars have won back-to-back conference series against Arizona and at Southern California to move into second place in the Pac-10 at 10-5. Washington State is just 21-18 overall, but it ranks 43rd in the Ratings Percentage Index thanks to a schedule that ranks as the second-toughest in the nation, according to Boyd’s World. And Wazzu isn’t the only Pac-10 team with a highly rated schedule: Arizona State (No. 6), UCLA (No. 4), California (No. 5), Stanford (No. 11), Southern California (No. 18) and Arizona (No. 22) all have top-25 strength of schedule ratings.
"There’s a lot of work to be done, but any time you’re sitting second place in our conference five weeks in, you feel good," Marbut said. "I know the Pac-10 coaches think it’s a joke how everyone’s talking about how down the Pac-10 is. I see the Pac-10 as a strong league. Arizona State has been the best team, but everyone else has beat up on each other. I wish people would look at the strength of schedule—that’s why we don’t have these outlandish records. If our strength of schedule is 35 or 40 instead of sixth, maybe we’ve got five or six more wins and people are talking about how great of a team we are." [...] Continue Reading »
Strike One: ACC Impressions
I had a chance this weekend to get a look at the three remaining ACC contenders that I had yet to see this year. I decided to catch Florida State freshman lefthander Sean Gilmartin taking on North Carolina State on Friday, then Miami at North Carolina on Saturday, and Georgia Tech at Wake Forest on Sunday. Here are a few observations:
• Gilmartin was good, but he stood out more for his aggressiveness and toughness than his stuff. After allowing single runs in each of the first three innings, Gilmartin settled down, holding the Wolfpack scoreless over the next 3 2/3 frames. His fastball sat in the 85-87 range and topped out at 88, and his No. 2 pitch was a 70-73 curveball that got better as the game progressed. He also mixed in a few 74-76 mph changeups. He reminded me quite a bit of former FSU lefty Matt Fairel for his stuff and demeanor.
"We got good pitching from Sean—it wasn’t one of his best, but he made some quality pitches when he needed to," Florida State coach Mike Martin said. "He has shown good poise from Day One. He doesn’t get down on himself, he doesn’t fall in love with himself when things are going right. He’s got a good baseball mentality." [...] Continue Reading »
Strike One: Not In Kansas Anymore . . .
Good luck figuring out the Big 12. Of the five teams from the conference that started the year in ranked in the top 16, three are now in the top 10 (Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma). The other two (Texas A&M and Missouri) are out of the top 25, as is Oklahoma State, which has been ranked for much of this season.
But just because those teams have struggled doesn’t mean the Big 12 as a whole is hurt. On the contrary, the league is deeper than ever. The departures of Texas A&M and OSU from the rankings this week simply allowed Kansas State and Kansas to join the top 25. Those two teams have never been ranked at the same time before, because Kansas State has never been ranked, period. We touched on K-State’s surge in Weekend Preview three weeks ago, but let’s now focus the magnifying glass on the Jayhawks.
Kansas first made a splash on the national scene after sweeping a three-game series against Texas from March 20-22. The Jayhawks followed that weekend with series losses to the Aggies and Bears, but rebounded with another sweep this weekend against Oklahoma State. Kansas has amassed a 9-8 record against teams ranked in the BA top 25, and early-season trips to Arkansas (where the Jayhawks split two games) and Arizona State (where they won one out of three) helped prepare this team for conference play. [...] Continue Reading »
Strike One: Patriots Act
There was a changing of the guard this weekend in the Colonial Athletic Association. Defending league champion UNC Wilmington, the preseason CAA favorite, was swept in a three-game series at George Mason, and the Patriots now look like the team to beat in the CAA. Mason sits atop the league standings at 7-2, and its overall record is 24-5. The Patriots also have the nation’s longest home winning streak at 20 games, including a 15-0 mark at home this year.
"They may win the conference," said an American League scout who has seen the Patriots. "It all comes down to the tournament, obviously, but they may win the conference. I would say this: they’re a solid college team. From the upper Northeast to the Carolina border, there are not many teams better than them. They’ll win 40 games." [...] Continue Reading »
Strike One: Triangle Roundup
Wet weather Friday shuffled the college baseball schedule here in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area this weekend and allowed me to catch significant chunks of four Atlantic Coast Conference games in two days. Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State all were home on the same weekend, which doesn’t happen often, and I took advantage. Here are some observations:
• I started the weekend at Jack Coombs Field for the opener of the Duke-Wake Forest series Saturday at 11 a.m. Duke junior lefthander Christopher Manno was on his game against the Demon Deacons, allowing just one run on two hits while striking out eight and walking two over 6 1/3 innings. Manno wasn’t doing it with huge velocity—he worked mostly in the mid-80s—but his deceptive delivery and quality mid-70s curveball kept the Demon Deacons off balance. He carried a no-hitter into the sixth before Tyler Smith lined a single to right field. Duke scratched out two runs in the fifth and held on for a 3-1 win. [...] Continue Reading »
Strike One: LSU Offense Starting To Click
COLUMBIA, S.C.—Paul Mainieri was visibly frustrated with his team’s offensive struggles Friday night after Louisiana State mustered just four hits in a 7-3 loss to South Carolina. Later that night and Saturday morning, Mainieri thought hard about how to get his big bats back on track.
"If you go back and look at our stats, we are drawing a lot more bases on balls this year than I can ever remember one of my teams drawing," LSU’s third-year coach said. "Well, the flip-side of that is we’re not being as aggressive at the plate. (Friday) we drew nine walks, and only one of them scored. We had a game earlier this year where we had 11 walks, and not one of them scored. I had never heard of anything like that before. I told the kids before the game that we don’t want to walk. Let’s not walk any—let’s just go up and really swing the bats and see what can happen."
Sure enough, LSU slugged three home runs each of the next two games, winning 10-3 on Saturday and 11-3 on Sunday. The Tigers still drew five walks Saturday, but Mainieri said the difference was they weren’t stepping into the box looking to walk. [...] Continue Reading »
Strike One: Big Monday
Two "Big" conferences are living large a month into the season.
Despite all the success that Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State have had over the years, the Big West has long lived in the shadow of the Pacific-10 Conference, particularly around NCAA tournament selection time. Over the last two decades, the Big 10 has taken a similar backseat to the Missouri Valley Conference in the upper Midwest.
This year, the tables have turned–at least through four weeks. The Big West boasts four teams in the top 25, and a fifth (UC Riverside) knocking on the door of the rankings. The Pac-10, meanwhile, has one team ranked (Arizona State). The reason for the disparity? The Big West has an aggregate record of 80-58 (.580 winning percentage). The Pac-10 is just 75-76 (.497). [...] Continue Reading »
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