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."
The scout pointed out that Mason’s home field is far from a launching pad, which makes the team’s powerful middle of the lineup even more impressive. Senior outfielder Scott Krieger (.336/.444/.682 with 10 homers and 37 RBIs) and junior first baseman Justin Bour (.330/.419/.615 with nine homers and 26 RBIs) have legitimate power, and catcher Chris Henderson (.445/.514/.739 with six homers and 27 RBIs) has been a revelation. Krieger is the nation’s active career leader in home runs (59) and total bases (499).
"Krieger has got raw power, and he’ll get drafted," the scout said. "Krieger has hit 10 home runs, but I think he’s a mistake fastball hitter. The general opinion of Bour is he’ll hit. He’s lost weight, he’s just a really big young man. You get effort out of him every single at-bat, every single game. But some (scouts) just don’t like his defensive ability, and some guys don’t like his bat."
Mason’s starting pitching is still a bit of a concern, but its bullpen has proven a strength, anchored by fourth-year junior righthander Jordan Flasher (five saves, 1.74 ERA), who has returned from Tommy John surgery to show a quality fastball-curveball repertoire. As a unit, the bullpen is 11-1, 2.60 with 12 saves.
With that kind of offense and bullpen, George Mason will make a serious run at its second regional bid since 1993 and first since 2004.
Strike Two: Spartans Open Stadium In Style
Michigan State opened its brand-new McLane Baseball Stadium with a bang on Saturday. Senior righthander Nolan Moody needed just 100 pitches to throw a nine-inning no-hitter in a 2-0 win against Northwestern. Moody carried a perfect game into the eighth before issuing a walk, and he walked another in the ninth before ending the game on a double play. He finished with five strikeouts.
"It was a special thing for a kid who grew up in East Lansing and has been a Michigan State fan his whole life," Spartans coach Jake Boss said this morning. "His stuff is good—he doesn’t throw 95 mph, but he pitches and locates and he flat-out competes. He threw three pitches for strikes, got ahead in the count, and located his fastball, breaking ball and changeup."
The Spartans made two dazzling defensive plays to preserve the no-hitter, most notably a diving stop by second baseman Chris Roberts in the seventh inning. Roberts dove to his glove side and got up with his glove and the ball both on the ground. He picks up the ball and fired it to first in time for the out.
"We made a couple plays for him defensively, at least two diving catches that were big-time plays, and when the second happened you could feel something special was happening," Boss said.
It was a perfect way to open the new stadium, which was made possible by a major donation from Astros owner Drayton McLane, a Michigan State alumnus. The facility features 2,500 seats, including 400 chairbacks.
"The architecture really ties into the rest of campus—there’s a lot of brick, it really looks first class," Boss said. "It’s a far cry from the old park that really hadn’t seen any changes in close to 100 years. Our kids are really honored and thrilled to play in the new park.
"We’ll use what happened over the weekend and build, because it really was a positive for our entire program."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Daniel Bibona
Cal State Fullerton coach Dave Serrano knew just what he was up against Friday night. After all, he recruited Daniel Bibona to UC Irvine and coached him for a year before taking over the head job at Fullerton. So even through the top-ranked Titans were off to the best start of any team in the nation against a grueling schedule, Serrano was braced for a test.
"Bibona’s one of the better lefthanded pitchers in the country that not too many people talk about," Serrano said heading into Friday’s series opener at Goodwin Field. "We’re up for a challenge."
He was right. Bibona, UC Irvine’s junior lefthander, limited the potent Fullerton offense to four hits and a walk over eight shutout innings while striking out five. The Anteaters won 2-1, and then took the huge series with another win Saturday.
Bibona held the Titans hitless until the fifth inning, when Nick Ramirez led off with a single and Khris Davis doubled down the left-field line to put runners on second and third with no outs. But Bibona wriggled out of the jam unscathed, striking out Dustin Garneau and getting Joe Scott to pop up a bunt to first baseman Jeff Cusick on a suicide squeeze, resulting in an inning-ending double play.
"We knew they were going to squeeze," Bibona told the Orange County Register. "Cusick turned into a ballerina and made that diving catch. If they executed, they scored. It was a lot of fun out there. It’s always intense playing them."
Bibona doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but he does a good job keeping his 85-87 mph fastball down in the zone, and his sinking 73-74 changeup is a plus offering. He also mixes in a 73-75 curveball to keep hitters off balance.
Bibona might not dazzle with his stuff, but his numbers are downright dominant. In seven starts, Bibona is 5-1, 2.30 with 52 strikeouts and 12 walks in 47 innings. Opponents are hitting .211 against him.
"Bibona’s been real consistent," UC Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said. "He’s real competitive. He doesn’t get rattled, and he typically has good command with his fastball. It’s not a power arm, but it’s firm enough that, when he throws that changeup and cutter, the fastball can sneak up on you. He typically is hard to have a big inning against."