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 We rolled out our midseason Field of 64 projection last week, and already it is obsolete.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.
• Kansas State rebounded from its series loss to Texas Tech by taking two of three against Nebraska. The Wildcats still have a lot to prove, but they are sitting in second place in the Big 12 at 6-3, so an updated Field of 64 would have to include them.
• Alabama, College of Charleston, The Citadel and Kansas are all teams that were projected as No. 2 seeds last week that are on shakier ground now. The Crimson Tide lost a series at Kentucky and has dropped 10 of its last 15 games. The Citadel and Charleston both tumbled in the RPI after losing series to Furman and Indiana State, respectively. Kansas lost one of its most important players, closer Brett Bochy, to Tommy John surgery on Friday, then was swept at Texas. The Jayhawks will have their work cut out for them just to get into the tournament without Bochy, and they must dig out of a 3-5 hole in the Big 12.
• Southern Mississippi was a No. 3 seed in Oxford, Miss., last week, but after being swept by Central Florida this weekend, the Golden Eagles are all alone in last place in Conference USA at 1-5, and they have tumbled to 90th in the RPI. They would certainly not be included in an updated regional projection.
• Stanford, a No. 3 seed last week, would also fall out of an updated Field of 64 projection. The Cardinal had a miserable week, losing games to California and St. Mary's and then dropping a home series to Oregon. Stanford has played a tough schedule but is just 14-13 overall, and there are too many other teams in the Pac-10 with positive momentum. The Cardinal must make a second-half run.
• Louisville, projected as the No. 8 national seed last week, had a rough 1-3 week, including a series loss to Pittsburgh. Louisville's national seed hopes took a big hit from that week, but the Cardinals are still in good shape to host a regional—they still rank sixth in the RPI.
• North Carolina State really needed that series at North Carolina this weekend, but the Wolfpack dropped two of three to fall to 6-9 in the league. A very weak nonconference schedule hurts N.C. State's RPI (71st), and a three-game series against Towson (175th) in May won't help. The Pack has very little margin for error down the stretch.
Strike Two: Big Week For Duke
So maybe Duke students werent dancing around bonfires on campus last night like they were earlier in the week when the Blue Devils' basketball team won the national championship, but the Duke baseball team's series win against Clemson was a nice capper to a fine sports week in Durham. And it breathed some life into Duke's previously dim ACC tournament and regional hopes.
After coming from behind with five runs in the eighth to win Friday's game, the Blue Devils were in position to win Saturday, too. But Clemson overcame a 4-3 deficit with two runs in the ninth, and Duke responded with a run in the bottom of the ninth to force extra innings. The Devils could have won it in the ninth, but they had two runners gunned down at the plate in the frame, and they had another runner thrown out at home in the 10th on a suspect call. The Tigers took advantage of their second and third life, scoring six in the 11th to win it.
"It was a great college baseball game, but somebody wins it, somebody loses it," Duke coach Sean McNally said Sunday. "I said to the team after, 'You can go one of two ways: You can let that affect you tomorrow and let it tear you apart, or you can say that we did so many great things, let's let it build some character, and let's be resilient and bounce back tomorrow. That's up to you guys.' And to their credit, that's what they did. Today we played our best game of the year, no question."
The Blue Devils controlled Sunday's game from start to finish, scoring two runs in the first and cruising to a 7-2 win behind freshman righthander Chase Bebout (7.1 IP, 6 H, 2 ER), who kept Clemson off balance in his first ACC start. Senior DH Will Currier's two-run homer over the Durham Bulls Athletic Park's Blue Monster on a 95 mph Will Lamb fastball in the first gave Duke instant momentum. Currier has now homered in four straight games with five home runs in his last six games and six in his last nine. He also has a seven-game hitting streak and a nine-game RBI streak.
"There's no better feeling than looking out there and seeing a big blue wall like 270 or 280 feet away," Currier said of the Blue Monster. "My mom's always talking about trying to get me to hit it off the bull (atop the left-field fence). I still haven't done it yet, but I'm looking forward to doing it. It's nice to play in a hitter-friendly ballpark for righties."
Duke has been a pitching-and-defense outfit in the past, and defense remains its calling card. In the NCAA's most recent statistics report, Duke's .981 fielding percentage was third-best in the nation. But playing in the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, righthanded power is critical, and McNally said righties Currier, Jeremy Gould, Will Piwnica-Worms and Jake Lemmerman are all threats to hit the ball out, which has given Duke a big lift.
Currier arrived at Duke as a two-way player but spent most of the first three years of his career as a pitcher, until McNally unexpectedly asked him to take batting practice one day last year. Currier put on a show in BP, and he has concentrated on offense ever since.
"I've done pretty much everything from a pitching aspect you can do," he said. "I've started on the weekends, I've started on Tuesdays, I've been a long relief guy, I've been a guy who comes into games in blowouts, I've closed one game. Hitting is way more fun than pitching for me, because I didn't have overpowering stuff by any means—I actually didn't have very good stuff at all. It's been a lot of fun making this transition and having some success doing it."
Duke now has two quality series wins at home, against North Carolina and Clemson, but the Devils are still just 5-10 in the conference and 84th in the RPI, so they've got plenty of work ahead of them. But McNally said he hopes his team will use this weekend as a springboard heading into next weekend's series against Florida State at the USA Baseball complex in nearby Cary.
"Our pitchers have to keep us in the game," he said. "I think our signature is to play really good defense, and we have to continue to do that. And we have to get timely hits. The two-out RBIs, the timely hitting, that's something that really hasn't been a strength of our lineup this year. Going forward, if we bunch some hits together and have our pitchers pound the strike zone, we'll have a chance."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight On Bryce Harper
Unsurprisingly, College of Southern Nevada coach Tim Chambers has fielded plenty of phone calls from reporters about Bryce Harper this year. He's given up trying to temper expectations for Harper, the phenom who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a sophomore and then earned his GED so he could skip the final two years of his high school career and enroll at the Las Vegas area junior college.
"Sometimes I don't know how to answer it," Chambers said. "I think he's the best player ever to play the game. I swear to God, I've never seen anything like it in my life. I've been coaching 21 years. If you factor age and the league he's playing in, he's the best player ever to play the game—it's amazing. I am dumbfounded. I knew he would do well, but I didn't expect this, I really didn't."
No one has ever doubted Harper's talent. Capable of hitting 500-foot home runs, throwing 96 mph off the mound and doing just about everything in between, it's no wonder Harper was dubbed "Baseball's Chosen One" and "the most exciting prodigy since Lebron (James)" by Sports Illustrated.
But there was some sentiment among baseball people heading into 2010 that Harper might not live up to the gargantuan expectations facing him this spring, as a 17-year-old against much older competition in a wood-bat league.
But after going 5-for-13 with three home runs in Southern Nevada's four-game sweep of JC of Southern Idaho this weekend, Harper is hitting .422/.516/.891 with 15 home runs and 42 RBIs in 128 at-bats. He has already breezed past the single-season school record for home runs (12, by Joe Wagner, with metal bats in 2001). He has 54 hits—29 of them for extra bases.
"He's destroying our league, and we're in a good league," Chambers said. "It's wood bat, we have really good pitching in our league, and he's just freaking destroying our league. He should be a junior in high school right now. It's sick, it really is—it's just disgusting. It's unbelievable what he's doing."
Shockingly, just two of Harper's 25 walks have been intentional, a benefit of playing for a very good team that is 34-6. The Coyotes seemingly always have runners on base when Harper comes to the plate, forcing opponents to pitch to him.
After Harper hit his third home run this weekend, Chambers stood in the third-base coaching box and had a conversation with Southern Idaho's third baseman.
"The third baseman looks at me and says, 'Shoot, if you throw him a strike, he hits a home run. What do you do?' " Chambers said. "You walk him, I guess. He's special."
Chambers said the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Harper has also done a fine job behind the plate handling CSN's power arms, and one American League scout last week told BA that he also thought Harper's receiving and throwing were both showing progress, projecting Harper as an average big league defender eventually. He also praised Harper for his play at other positions.
Because the Scenic West Athletic Conference schedule includes doubleheaders on Fridays and Saturdays, Harper has split time between catching and playing right field, center field and even some third base. He'll usually catch one game in each doubleheader, and Chambers said Harper will likely catch more often in the postseason. He said he believes Harper could be in the big leagues as a catcher within three years, but his bat could carry him to the majors in two years if he moved to an outfield spot full-time. And the AL scout said that while Harper wasn't ideal in center field, he's also good there defensively due to his athleticism.
That's high praise for a 17-year-old, but high praise is nothing new for Harper. When a player generates as much hype as Harper has, there inevitably will be skeptics, but Harper is gradually making believers out of all of them.
"The rest of the world, the critics, all the smack-talking everybody does—come watch him, and you'll go, 'Whoa,' " Chambers said. "Bottom line, he's the best amateur baseball player in America. Bottom line."