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.
"The culture had to change, and it has changed. The work ethic and the belief in yourselves, all those little things mattered, but the biggest thing was just the culture. The coaches had to trust in the players and believe in the players like you do in a traditional program. It's really been fun—it's like a family maturing."
Horton emphasizes that it wasn't just a matter of the players maturing. Horton and assistants Andrew Checketts, Mike Kirby and Jay Uhlman have all grown more comfortable with each other, and that has made a difference. Horton, like many other coaches and scouts on the West Coast, heaps praise upon Checketts, a rising star in the coaching world.
Checketts oversees an Oregon pitching staff that ranks third nationally with a 3.00 ERA, and few staffs can rival it for depth. Sophomore lefty Tyler Anderson (5-3, 2.16 with 50 strikeouts and 15 walks) has developed into a bona fide ace, but the Bruins drove his pitch count up and got him out of the game in the fifth inning Friday, so Oregon had the luxury of calling upon sophomore righty Scott McGough out of the bullpen. McGough, a premium athlete who can run his fastball up to 95 mph at times, shut out UCLA on three hits over 4 1/3 innings.
Senior righty Justin LaTempa has battled back from two injury-plagued seasons to emerge as a strong Saturday starter. He pounds the bottom of the zone with a fastball that sits at 94-95, a good mid-80s slider and a developing changeup, and he out-pitched UCLA's Trevor Bauer in Saturday's win.
It's not easy to beat Bauer and co-ace Gerrit Cole, but the Ducks did it by being patient and driving up their pitch counts, and countering with strong pitching of their own. Cole threw 111 pitches in five innings, allowing five runs on eight hits and four walks in his first loss of the season.
"It was a championship effort on our part to break those guys down," Horton said. "Cole was throwing the kitchen sink at us, and we made him throw a lot of pitches, grinded it a little, got him out of his confidence level. Then he got out of character a bit, tried to throw harder, snap his curveball a little more. On paper, you look at Anderson vs. Cole, you think it's going to be 2-1, but both were over 100 pitches in five innings, so you turn it over to the relief. They've got (Dan) Klein, who's having a tremendous year, but I'll take our end-of-game pitching over anybody in the country with McGough, (Drew) Gagnier and (Joey) Housey."
Of course, Oregon had good pitching last year, too, but the nation's lowest-scoring offense proved too much of a drain. Oregon's offense still isn't great, but it is much more respectable. After averaging just 2.8 runs per game in 2009, the Ducks are scoring 5.7 runs per game this year. Oregon's biggest weapon offensively? The Ducks ranked seventh in the nation with 38 sacrifice bunts in the NCAA's most recent statistics report last week.
"They bought into Duck ball, I guess you'd call it now, or coach Horton ball," Horton said. "Coach Kirby's our bunting coach, we invest a lot of time and energy into that. I heard some chirping from the stands this weekend, 'Why are you giving signs, coach, all you're going to do is bunt?' I tell my team when I hear that, we say thank you very much, because we work hard at that and we believe in it. My philosophy is if you get good enough at it, it actually helps you become a better hitter. You don't always have to hit a double or single to help the team, if you can get a bunt down, that's a big weapon. Now every guy on the roster is a way above-average bunter. It's simplified our offense, made the hitting better, the bat control is better.
"We're tougher outs. We don't have the big bopper in the middle or anything, but we are going to score some runs. Last year the pitchers were trying too hard, because we were futile offensively. Now they trust us, and the pitchers aren't trying to do too much. We're still young like other teams, and we could still hit the wall, but I don't think we will. I think our minds are stronger, and our bodies are stronger."
If Horton doesn't think his team will hit the wall, who's going to bet against him at this point? Oregon has very winnable home series the next two weeks against Southern California and Washington State, and a road series the following weekend against rival Oregon State seems winnable, too, for a team that just won two of three at the No. 1 team in the nation. It's becoming more and more apparent that the Ducks are very likely to wind up in regionals, and that is nothing short of remarkable.
Strike Two: Florida Atlantic Makes Its Move
Good luck figuring out the Sun Belt Conference. You thought Western Kentucky was the team to beat? The Hilltoppers went on the road and were swept by Florida Atlantic this weekend. Two weeks ago, WKU dropped a series to Arkansas State, which surged to the top of the Sun Belt standings—and then got swept at Evansville this weekend. Preseason favorites Middle Tennessee State and Florida International have been up and down. South Alabama leads the league currently, but the Jaguars dropped a series just last weekend to Western Kentucky.
The point is, the league is wide open. This week, Florida Atlantic stepped into that vacuum with a huge sweep of the Hilltoppers. The Owls have been pretty consistent this year, winning seven of their eight weekend series, and five of their six conference series, but their sweep of WKU this weekend was the statement they have been waiting for. Now they're 12-6 in the league, just a game out of first place.
"We've been playing well all year, we just haven't been able to kind of get a signature win or put together a sweep," said FAU's second-year head coach John McCormack. "We just hadn't been able to get over the proverbial hump."
FAU owes much of its success to a strong group of junior-college transfers who have made big impacts. First baseman Dan Scheffler (.415/.541/.837 with a team-leading 11 homers and 45 RBIs) has been a revelation, and outfielder/closer Andy Mee (.391/.417/.609 with six homers and 31 RBIs; 1-1, 1.88 with seven saves) has anchored the bullpen after incumbent closer Glen Troyanowski went down with labrum surgery. Mee is a competitor with an 87-90 fastball and an excellent slider.
"He's a guy that continually flies under the radar," McCormack said of Mee. "He just is a really, really good baseball player that, once the game starts, he understands how to win. You look down at the box score and say, 'Gee, Andy Mee helped us win again.' "
The Owls also have a couple of veteran holdovers providing stability in key spots. Junior shortstop Nick DelGuidice has always had strong defensive tools, but he has become a much more consistent defender this spring, fielding at a .966 clip and emerging as the "glue in the infield," as McCormack put it. And junior righty Ryan Gipson (6-1, 2.91) has anchored the rotation in the Saturday starter role, taking some pressure off newcomers like R.J. Alvarez, a future ace who can reach 95 mph with a good breaking ball.
The Owls are also playing free and loose, as evidenced by their entertaining shenanigans during Friday's rain delay (don't miss this video).
"Western kind of got it started and our guys kind of jumped in," McCormack said of the rain-delay theater. "The one thing about the team we presently have, this is the type of team you really enjoy being around. They care about each other, they have fun, everybody kind of gets it."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Zack Cox
Cox, a sophomore third baseman for Arkansas, has gotten red-hot during the Razorbacks' 11-game winning streak. Cox has a 12-game hitting streak, and he has registered multiple hits in nine straight games to raise his overall line to .444/.538/.616 with six home runs and 42 RBIs.
Cox was a high-profile freshman a year ago, and he played a huge part in Arkansas' run to the College World Series, but he was hampered by a back injury at the start of the season, and it took him a while to dig out of his early hole. He finished with a .271 batting average and 58 strikeouts in 181 at-bats, and he was determined to improve his approach as a sophomore. He's done exactly that; this year he has 28 walks in just 17 strikeouts in 151 at-bats. He hasn't put up huge power numbers, but he has become a much better all-around hitter, and his raw power is tremendous.
"If people want to see his power, all they have to do is watch him take batting practice," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "We control our hitters when they do their rounds—they take some to the opposite field and some up the middle, then the third round is a free round, and it's made us a better team. People are pitching him away. I can't tell you how many hits he's got to the opposite field. He's just got a great approach at the plate right now."
Cox, a lefthanded hitter, is destroying lefthanded pitching to the tune of .467/.554/.622, and Van Horn said many of his hits against lefties have gone to the opposite field, demonstrating his maturity. And he's not just padding his numbers against soft pitching; on the contrary, Cox is hitting .531/.600/.844 with two homers and 16 RBIs on Fridays, according to collegesplits.com.
Van Horn said Cox has also made huge strides defensively at third base. One of the reasons Cox decided to come to Arkansas was to improve his defense, Van Horn said, and he has gotten much better by improving his agility. Now, he's a likely top-half of the first-round pick as a draft-eligible sophomore this June.
"People don't notice, but one of the things he's done is gotten a lot better defensively," Van Horn said. "He can make the routine play, he can make the off-balance throw on the slow roller. When he came in he was a little stiff and tight, and we had to get everything lined up right. He's lighter now, he's a lot more limber and flexible, and he's just quicker in the field.
"When we got him to commit to us, we told him, 'Obviously if you get the money you want, we understand, but if you don't you'll be eligible again in two years.' He's gotten so much better. I would put him in Double-A right out of the chute, because the kid's a Double-A hitter. He knows the strike zone. It was a plus move for him to come here for two years. He wanted to work on his defense, and he has. Zack is an extremely hard worker, and he knows what he wants. This guy is going to play in the big leagues. That's his mission. He loves being at Arkansas, he's an incredible leader, but you just can't out-work him."