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."
The Cougars opened the season with a tight three-game series at Arkansas, losing three games by a combined five runs, then bounced back by splitting a four-game series at home against Oklahoma. Their schedule has also included three games against Long Beach State, two against Pepperdine, four against Gonzaga, two against Brigham Young and single games against Rice, Oral Roberts and Notre Dame. Marbut said he hopes the tough nonconference slate prepared his team for the rigors of the Pac-10.
"We played the softer (nonconference schedules) in the past, and come league play, we weren’t really ready to go," he said. "So we hoped this was the recipe that got us ready."
Indeed, Washington State has lost only one conference series—dropping two of three at ASU—and has won sets against UCLA and Cal, in addition to those against Arizona and USC.
The Cougars showed plenty of resilience this weekend, winning the final two games after ace lefthander Matt Way (5-4, 2.14 with 81 strikeouts and 25 walks in 71 innings) was outdueled by Trojans ace Brad Boxberger in the opener. Catcher Greg Lagreid (.376), a four-year starter, was relegated to DH duties after injuring his shoulder last week, and backup backstop Alex Burg was banged up as well on Friday, leaving third-stringer Jay Ponciano to catch the final two games. Ponciano delivered a three-run homer in Saturday’s 13-3 win, and Washington State got strong outings from its pair of young Tommy John surgery survivors: redshirt sophomore righty Chad Arnold (5.2 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 1 ER) on Saturday and redshirt freshman lefty David Stilley (5.1 IP, 6 H, 1 ER) on Sunday.
Now, Washington State has leapt past USC as the Pac-10′s top candidate for a third regional berth. It’s unlikely the league will get four bids, however; tough schedule or not, the Pac-10′s aggregate record is just 203-188 (.519). In WSU’s favor, the remaining schedule is doable: The Cougars have three home series against Stanford, Oregon and Washington, with a trip to Oregon State mixed in.
"It’s nice to have three out of four left at home—we don’t have to catch a plane again this year, which is nice," Marbut said. "But there’s a lot of work left to do."
Strike Two: Streaking To Nowhere
Kennesaw State would rank as one of the mid-major teams no one would want to face in the postseason, what with power righthanders Kyle Heckathorn and Chad Jenkins at the top of the rotation.
Good thing for the likes of Clemson, Georgia and Georgia Tech that the Owls aren’t even eligible for the postseason.
As Kennesaw State and Florida Gulf Coast continue to transition from smaller classifications to Division I, they have taken up residence atop the Atlantic Sun Conference. FGCU leads the league at 25-16, 16-5, while Kennesaw is next at 23-16, 15-5.
The Owls have two premium draft prospects, however, who would make them a tough regional foe for any team. Heckathorn is one of the nation’s hardest throwers, and while he has erratic command, he can be effectively wild. hHe’s still 4-1, 3.55 with 68 strikeouts in 63 innings.
Jenkins, however, has emerged as a true ace and is as hot as any pitcher in the country. He didn’t give up a run in April (he won’t pitch again until this weekend), ending his month with an eight-inning, 12-strikeout performance against Belmont. Jenkins leads the A-Sun with a 2.32 ERA, and the only reason he didn’t get his third straight complete-game shutout was the Owls’ 26-0 lead, leading him to be removed to save his arm. Jenkins has given up just 16 hits in his last four starts and has 18 1/3 straight innings without a walk. He’s now 6-1 and has improved his draft stock, moving into first two rounds consideration.
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Cory Harrilchak
With six players in the lineup who have hit double-digit home runs, there might not be more explosive lineup in the nation than Elon’s. But the player that makes the Phoenix go is Harrilchak, a senior center fielder/lefthander. Elon can count on Harrilchak being on base and making things happen every game; after all, he’s now reached base safely in 74 consecutive games. Harrilchak had three hits, including a homer and three RBIs, in Friday’s 11-8 win against Samford, then kept the streak going with one hit in each of the next two games.
"The streak that he’s put together is phenomenal," Elon coach Mike Kennedy said. "He just sets the table. He’s in the two-hole for us right now—he was leading off most of the year, but now he’s in the two-hole. Pat Irvine and those guys (behind Harrilchak in the lineup) have seen their RBI numbers jump since we did that. Then when we get guys at the bottom going, Cory’s driving in some runs—look at his RBI totals. He just does it all—he goes the other way, moves the runners, he’ll hit a two-run homer for us. There’s no doubt he’s a sparkplug."
Through 41 games, Harrilchak is batting .360/.464/.669 with 13 homers, 48 RBIs and six stolen bases. Those numbers are actually down a bit from a year ago, when Harrilchak hit .410 and stole 24 bases, but Kennedy said Harrilchak has shown plenty of toughness by playing through back tightness for much of the year. That’s why the Phoenix has not called upon him to steal as many bases, in order to reduce the wear on his body.
Harrilchak is also Elon’s best midweek starter—he had his best outing of the year last week against Duke, allowing four earned runs over seven innings. Pitching has been Elon’s weakness this year, but Kennedy has resisted moving Harrilchak to a weekend starter spot.
"He’s so good defensively in center field, and where we are in the league, fighting to win a SoCon regular season title, he’s so important out there," Kennedy said. "Early in the year we contemplated throwing him on weekends—he’s definitely talented enough to do it—but he means so much to us in center field and offensively, we try to keep him out there on the weekends."
As for the streak, there is no official record available for most consecutive games reaching base, but Harrilchak still trails South Florida outfielder Ryan Lockwood, who has reached safely in 84 straight games and counting. South Florida sports information director Amy Woodruff said the only other long streak that came up in a recent nationwide poll of SIDs was Wichita State outfielder Andy Dirks’ 74-game streak in 2007.