Strike One: Road Warriors
It was a statement weekend for Kansas and Louisville. Both teams went on the road without two of their best players, and both teams won big series against Southeastern Conference powers. The Jayhawks took two out of three at Louisiana State, while the Cardinals took two of three at Mississippi.
Kansas outslugged LSU 11-9 on Friday and 8-4 on Sunday even without junior third baseman Tony Thompson, a second-team preseason All-American who won the Big 12 triple crown last year. Thompson sustained a hairline fracture of his left kneecap after fouling a pitch off his knee in practice in early February. Kansas coach Ritch Price said Thompson will remove his knee brace tomorrow and could return to the lineup a week from tomorrow.
"It's been a long six weeks without him. A long six weeks," Price said. "I told our club when this first happened that if we could fight through the adversity and find a way to stay in the hunt without him, we'd be better for it. Now we're even deeper than we would have been."
Thompson's absence has created playing time for senior Brett Lisher (.421/.465/.500 in 38 at-bats through Saturday) and freshmen James Stanfield (.353/.465/.441 in 34 at-bats) and Jake Marasco (.440/.440/.640 in 25 at-bats) at the corner infield spots, and all three have elevated their games. On Friday, the Jayhawks also lost No. 4 hitter Jimmy Waters (.357/.534/.667 with a team-leading three homers and 19 RBIs) to a separated shoulder that will sideline him at least a week. But Lisher came up big in Sunday's rubber game, going 2-for-3 with three RBIs, and the Jayhawks also got multi-hit performances from leadoff man Casey Lytle, No. 2 hitter Robby Price, DH Chris Manship and third baseman Jordan Dreiling. The latter two probably would not have been playing at all if not for injuries.
"I thought we had some really good at-bats this weekend," Price said. "I thought our plate discipline was outstanding, and I think a key to winning this series was we did a really good job with two outs."
Kansas showed toughness on the mound, too. The Jayhawks are still without sophomore righty Lee Ridenhour, their projected No. 2 starter, who had surgery to remove bone chips in his ankle in the fall. Because Ridenhour has a blood disorder, hemophilia, the surgery was tricky, and Price said he will have another surgery today to strengthen ligaments in his ankle. That will sideline him for another month, at least.
But Kansas held the high-powered LSU offense to four runs in a loss Saturday, then called upon senior righty Cameron Selik to pitch through a sore shoulder Sunday. Selik responded with six gritty innings, allowing just four runs on six hits to earn the victory.
"Cameron Selik was a little bit tender, and I didn't know if he'd be able to go this weekend or not," Price said. "But I was really pleased with the toughness he showed this weekend grinding out six innings to allow us to get to our bullpen."
That bullpen has been lights-out, led by redshirt junior righthander Brett Bochy, the son of San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy. Brett worked 1 1/3 scoreless innings Sunday to pick up the save and clinch the series, just two days after he worked 2 1/3 scoreless, hitless frames to get the save in the series opener. Bochy struck out five in that one and walked one. Price said Bochy has been working in the 91-93 mph range and mixing in a "really good slider," helping him post a 0.00 ERA with 19 strikeouts and four walks through 10 innings this year. "Bret Bochy was really special this weekend," Price said.
It took a number of special performances for a banged-up Kansas team to win a series at Alex Box Stadium. Now the Jayhawks hope to use this series as a springboard heading into conference play, just as they did last year around this time when they grabbed headlines by sweeping Texas in the first weekend of Big 12 play.
"We went on the road to face LSU because we knew they were the defending national champions and we knew it would help us prepare for conference play," Price said. "LSU is a great tradition. It was a fabulous weekend."
Strike Two: Road Warriors, Part II
Louisville made the trip to Ole Miss without two of its top veteran hitters. Leadoff man Josh Richmond (broken hand) and No. 3 hitter Andrew Clark (stress fracture in his rib cage) have been sidelined for the last two weekends, but the Cardinals have not missed a beat. That's the luxury of having one of the nation's deepest, most physical lineups.
"We tried to take it as a challenge and realize that, you know what? Injuries affect everybody. Nobody likes them," Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. "Last year we dealt with them on the mound, and they were season-ending injuries. This year, Clark and Richmond will be out a few weeks. (Freshman) Kyle Grieshaber has really taken advantage. We put him in the leadoff spot. We felt like everybody was pretty comfortable in their spots, so I felt like let's just put a brand new guy in the No. 1 spot, just bump everybody up one because of Clark being out. We felt our 4-5-6-7 guys were the best in the country, so if you bump them up, they're good enough to hit in those spots anyway."
Grieshaber, who replaced Richmond in left field and atop the lineup, had eight hits in three games against the Rebels. Behind him, the mainstays kept on mashing, as the Cardinals got big games from infielders Adam Duvall, Ryan Wright and Phil Wunderlich plus outfielder Stewart Ijames in their wins Friday and Sunday.
But Louisville's stellar bullpen deserves just as much credit—or more—for the team's 14-1 start as its lineup. Louisville ran into a buzzsaw on Friday night in lefthander Drew Pomeranz, who struck out 12 over 6 1/3 innings. McDonnell said Pomeranz was the best pitcher his team has faced in his four years at Louisville, but the Cardinals hung around thanks to 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball from ace Thomas Royse. Then their bullpen held the Rebels scoreless on one hit over 5 2/3 innings until the Louisville offense could break it open with five runs in the 12th. Derek Self delivered 3 1/3 scoreless, and the untouchable Neil Holland followed with 2 1/3. Holland bounced back with 1 2/3 innings in Sunday's slugfest to earn his third save of the year and clinch the series. Holland's numbers for the year are amazing: 16.2 IP, 2 H, 3 BB, 22 SO, and he's 2-0, 0.54 with three saves in eight appearances.
"We're excited about our starters, but also we're extremely excited about our bullpen, with Self, Holland and also (Gabriel) Shaw and (Bob) Revesz," McDonnell said. "You've got four guys that you know can get outs and compete."
For Louisville, this series win could loom large in May when national seeds are awarded. If the Cardinals dominate the Big East Conference as they are capable of doing and post a winning record in five midweek games against Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Ohio State, they will put themselves in line for a national seed. Having won a series at Ole Miss could put them over the top.
The series meant even a little more for McDonnell, who spent six seasons as an assistant coach at Ole Miss under Mike Bianco.
"As a coach, you realize you're there to coach your team and to win, and when it was all said and done, I knew that's how we'd be judged," McDonnell said. "But I'm human and I've got my family with me, so there is an emotional, personal side to it. The reception was warm welcoming us back, and coach Bianco and his family were gracious hosts. It was a special weekend because you see how far that program has come. I gave it all I had for six years, and those guys have done nothing but get better and go forward, and the facilities are just unbelieveable. I told Mike that I'm forever grateful for the opportunity he gave me. He gave me the opportunity to get to Louisville and have a really good blueprint about how to get a program where you wanted to get it. So it was a special weekend all the way around."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight On Asher Wojciechowski
After sweeping Western Carolina in its Southern Conference-opening series this weekend, The Citadel is off to an 11-3 start, its best since it started 27-1 in 1990 on the way to the College World Series. Wojciechowski, the Bulldogs' junior ace, has played no small part in this year's hot start, going 4-0, 2.88 with 37 strikeouts and 12 walks in 25 innings.
Wojciechowski, a physical 6-foot-4, 235-pound righthander, dominated Friday against the Catamounts, striking out 14 without issuing a walk over eight scoreless innings. He scattered six hits and took over in the middle innings, recording six straight outs via strikeouts in the sixth and seventh innings.
"Asher has pitched some outstanding games for us, but that was one of the best if not the best he has had," Citadel coach Fred Jordan said. "He was effortless, and he threw four pitches for strikes. From the third inning on until the eighth he really just dominated the game."
Jordan said Wojciechowski has gotten stronger each week. He worked at 88-91 mph in his first start against East Tennessee State, when he struck out nine over seven strong innings. This week, his velocity was up into the 90-96 range, sitting in the low 90s. He complements his fastball with a 79-82 slider that he can throw for strikes in any count, a 74-76 curveball that he typically uses as a chase pitch with two strikes, and an improving changeup. That fourth pitch has been a key part of his development.
"He worked extremely hard this past fall with his changeup," Jordan said. "He did not throw many breaking balls all fall, just went fastball-changeup all fall, and it's really become a good pitch for him."
Wojciechowski made a name for himself last summer, going 2-1, 2.18 with 29 strikeouts and just four walks in 21 innings for Team USA. His physicality and tenacity earned him comparisons to Curt Schilling last summer, and like Schilling he is a hard worker with a commanding mound presence. Jordan said Wojciechowski's even keel and maturity stems in part from his upbringing. As the son of a pastor, Wojciechowski traveled the world and learned to adapt to diverse settings, both on and off the field.
It's no wonder he fit right in with Team USA. That experience last summer had a discernible positive impact on Wojciechowski.
"It made him feel a little special, and it gave him tremendous confidence, because he went into the Team USA trials and won that job," Jordan said. "He was not a lock, he was an invitee, and he won that job by the way he performed in trials, and then he pitched well during the tour. So his confidence returning from that was at an all-time high, and he's still very confident."