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.
"This is a team that is very resilient, very tough. They play very, very hard, they believe in themselves. Virginia gave us nothing—we earned everything we got."
The Wolfpack came from behind to win Friday and Sunday. Virginia ace lefty Danny Hultzen limited the 'Pack to a run on two hits over six innings Friday, and State had to fight back to tie the game twice in the eighth and ninth innings against UVa.'s dynamite one-two bullpen punch of Tyler Wilson and Kevin Arico. Senior Dallas Poulk's two-run homer off Arico in the ninth forced extra innings, and freshman Tarran Senay won it with a walk-off double in the 11th.
Then on Sunday, the Wolfpack got solid bullpen work from lefthander Grant Sasser and righty Anthony Tzamtzis to keep the game within reach, allowing sophomore third baseman Andrew Ciencin to put the 'Pack ahead for good with a seventh-inning grand slam against Wilson.
There were different heroes in both wins for the Wolfpack, which is characteristic of this bunch. Seniors Poulk, Drew Poulk and Kyle Wilson (.413/.522/.624 with five homers and 11 stolen bases) have played significant roles in N.C. State's 18-10 start, but freshmen like Senay and Danny Canela have also made meaningful contributions.
"We've got a lot of freshmen who have grown up fast, and we've got some seniors like Kyle Wilson and Dallas Poulk and Drew Poulk, along with a veteran in Chris Schaeffer—those guys have done a good job leading a lineup that's pretty good one through nine," Avent said.
The bullpen has had some trouble nailing down wins at times, particularly in that Clemson series, but Avent said he expects a boost when senior lefties Alex Sogard and John Lambert plus flame-throwing freshman righty Rey Cotilla finish working their way back from offseason injuries and return to full strength. Cotilla has been up to 95-96 mph in the past, and Avent said he's been up to 91 in his three outings so far this spring.
"As it gets warmer and they get stronger, those three guys will be a big part of our team," he said. "Our pitching staff, they've had their moments, especially early on in the year, where they scuffled a little bit and put us in some holes, but they seem to have ironed most of that out. It's not completely fool-proof, but it's definitely solidified from where it was early in the year."
The Wolfpack is still just 5-7 in ACC play, but that's one game better than rival North Carolina. When the two teams meet in Chapel Hill next weekend, positioning for an NCAA regional berth will be more important than the upper hand in a rivalry.
Strike Two: Tennessee Turnaround
Like N.C. State, Tennessee entered 2010 with NCAA tournament ambitions, and like the Wolfpack, the Volunteers got off to a rough start to conference play. But, like the Wolfpack, Tennessee responded with a huge series win with its back against the wall this weekend, taking two of three at Mississippi.
The Vols were swept in their first two conference series—at South Carolina and at home against Louisiana State. Injuries played a role in Tennessee's struggles: Weekend starters Steven Gruver and Stephen McCray, plus setup man Will Locante, all were limited by arm soreness; closer Matt Ramsey battled a hip flexor injury and missed more time after taking a line drive off his pitching arm against Kennesaw State in Week Three; slugging first baseman Cody Hawn separated his shoulder in the first game of the year and took several weeks to regain his bat speed; and catalyst Josh Liles missed time with a torn quadriceps muscle.
Even so, Tennessee was very competitive and had a chance to win in the late innings in all six games it played against South Carolina and LSU. Tennessee's conference losing streak stretched to seven games after Ole Miss ace Drew Pomeranz beat Vols lefty Bryan Morgado on Friday, but Tennessee fought back to win the next two games, 5-2 and 10-6.
"We needed it," Tennessee coach Todd Raleigh said. "In those first seven games, we just hadn't been able to get that hit or hold it down in the pen. This weekend was very similar type games, the difference is we were better in the bullpen and we had some timely hits."
The Vols are also healthy again, though Gruver has not regained the 89-92 mph velocity he was showing early in the year, working instead in the mid-80s on Sunday. Hawn, Liles, McCray, Ramsey and Locante are all back in action, and several of them played key roles in the series win at Ole Miss.
But Hawn (.299/.432/.474 with four homers) and junior catcher Blake Forsythe (.237/.410/.419 with four homers) have not been the lineup centerpieces that Raleigh expected them to be.
"Hawn and Forsythe still haven't done anything—they had two hits between them this weekend, and we won two out of three, so that's a good sign for us," Raleigh said. "They're just pressing a lot at the plate. The reality is they both hit with two strikes all the time, because they swing too big early, and they miss their pitch. Mechanically they're fine, and they take good BP. They're just trying too hard . . . Coming into the year, I expected one of the unique things about our lineup this year was going to be our ability to score in different parts of the lineup, and we're doing that—we're just not hitting in the middle."
Assuming P.J. Polk (.369/.486/.586 with 14 steals) and Khayyan Norfork can continue to make things happen at the top of the lineup, Tennessee's offense will be very dangerous if Hawn and Forsythe can regain their stellar 2009 form. But that needs to happen soon. The Volunteers saved their season with the series win at Ole Miss, but they're still just 15-14 overall and 2-7 in the league, and the going does not get easier. This week they host No. 8 Florida.
"I think one of the things is we were pressing early," Raleigh said. "We had really high expectations, and we felt like we played well but hadn't gotten the results. This weekend we were a little more relaxed. Even though the urgency was there and we had to win, we worked on the process and not the result. I think we did a better job of that this weekend, and made some big plays defensively—we turned seven double plays, and a lot of them were crucial. We just battled. Hopefully we can build off this and go a little bit."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Chris Sale
Florida Gulf Coast junior lefthander Chris Sale can run his fastball into the mid-90s, baffle hitters with an excellent changeup and put away lefties with an improving slider. He ranked among the national leaders in ERA and strikeouts as a sophomore last spring, then earned pitcher of the year honors in the Cape Cod League last summer, ranking as the prestigious league's No. 1 prospect.
Imagine how good he can be when he fills out his 6-foot-6 frame.
"He's still skinny," Florida Gulf Coast coach Dave Tollett said. "He's 180 (pounds) now—what's he going to be when he's 205 or 210? He's that good now, but the projectability of him, I'm like, 'Holy smokes, this kid's off the chart.' "
Friday against Mercer, Sale did what he's done all season: He dominated. Sale tied his season and career highs with 14 strikeouts over eight innings, allowing one unearned run on four hits and a walk in FGCU's 9-1 win. He threw just 112 pitches—impressive efficiency considering he struck out 14 over eight innings.
"He had pretty good stuff (Friday)," Tollett said. "His changeup and breaking ball were real good. It seems that teams are looking to hit the fastballs, so he's having to pitch. Teams are gearing up to hit the fastballs. Without question, I think his slider has become a plus pitch also, along with the changeup. It's anywhere between 80-83, so I would call it a power slider. The changeup is still the putaway pitch, but the slider has become so effective against lefthanded hitters—it's been pretty good."
The development of Sale's slider is significant, as his lack of a standout breaking ball was the primary knock against him last summer. He generates excellent life on his low-90s fastball from a low arm slot, and Tollett said he was still touching 94 mph in the eighth inning Friday. But Tollett also said scouts have told him Sale's velocity has been higher on the road; the video board at Wichita State even said he touched 98-99.
On Friday, injuries forced the Eagles to start their third-string catcher, Tim Roberson. That was no problem for Sale. He simply pounds the strike zone no matter who's behind the plate. In 42 innings this year, Sale has 61 strikeouts and five walks. He is 4-0, 1.29 in seven starts.
"He's around the plate," Tollett said. "The great thing about it is we had an injury with two catchers, so he was throwing to a new catcher for the first time on Friday. I told the scouts, 'Hey, you might need to be a little patient because he's throwing to a catcher who's never caught him before.' One of them said, 'He's going to make that catcher look pretty good because he's going to be right around the plate.' "
A first-team preseason All-American and a potential top-five overall pick in the draft this June, Sale has pitched in front of swarms of scouts all season, but he is unfazed by all the attention.
"He is pretty special. He's handled it better than anyone I've been associated with that's had this kind of exposure, with scouts around constantly," Tollett said. "He's a unique kid, a great kid, plus what he does on the field is just outstanding. He's just been a great player for us, but he's been the face of the program, and he has done a wonderful, wonderful job of doing that and handling all the publicity, and still being the same guy he was in the locker room last year and the year before. It's amazing."