Three Strikes: March 8

Strike One: Return Of The Pac

In Southern California, up is down, black is white, night is day. Maybe it's La Nina.

Perennial superpower Cal State Fullerton, ranked No. 4 in the preseason, has lost its first three weekends and tumbled all the way out of the Top 25. Fellow Big West heavyweight UC Irvine lost a series last week for the first time in 20 weeks and sits just 6-5. San Diego, with one of the most talented rosters on the West Coast, has lost six of its last seven to match Fullerton's 4-6 start. And Southern California, the most storied program in college baseball history, is just 5-6 after losing a home series to New Mexico.

But UCLA, a notorious slow starter and underachiever, has raced out to a 9-0 start for the first time on record (dating to 1955). The 15th-ranked Bruins swept Nebraska this weekend and have quality wins against Vanderbilt, Long Beach State and USC.

UCLA coach John Savage said the offense—run by assistant coach Rick Vanderhook, previously George Horton's assistant at Cal State Fullerton—has been the key to his team's perfect start, and an area scout in SoCal agrees.

“Right now it seems like the only team out here playing to their capabilities is UCLA," one area scout said. "You want to know why? Rick Vanderhook. He brings energy to the game, and he wants a tough player. Once they buy in, they will be successful, because John Savage is a really good pitching guy and a really good recruiting guy. They complement each other really well, they do. Hook is a no-BS, get-after-it kind of guy. Hook has always been a winner. I think the marriage of Hook and Savage—watch out. I really think there's a lot to be gained there."

In Vanderhook's second season on the staff, the Bruins have 11 players with at least 15 at-bats hitting .333 or better, led by sophomore junior-college transfer Dean Espy (.478/.458/.870), one of several newcomers making an immediate impact. Freshmen Cody Regis (.412) Beau Amaral (.357) and Cody Keefer (.355) have also provided a spark. As a team, the Bruins are hitting .379 with a Pacific-10 Conference-leading 16 home runs.

"Coach Vanderhook's done an outstanding job of incorporating his approach and his mentality, and the players have total respect and are just doing what he wants them to do," Savage said. "We're seeing pitches, we have a lot of different combinations right and lefthanded, we run better. Offensively we're just much more suited for his style than we were last year. We have a bunch of good freshmen with Amaral and Regis and Keefer, and the older guys have grown up—(Brett) Krill, and (Blair) Dunlap and (Justin) Uribe are back."

The Bruins hoped to have one of the nation's best weekend rotations, and righties Gerrit Cole (2-0, 2.50) and Trevor Bauer (2-0, 2.45) plus lefty Rob Rasmussen (0-0, 3.38) have been overpowering, combining for 72 strikeouts and 17 walks in 46 innings. But UCLA's bullpen has been just as good or better, and the Bruins have a 2.00 staff ERA with 119 strikeouts in 81 innings.

"Our bullpen has been outstanding as well—we love our bullpen," Savage said. "Between (Matt) Grace and (Erik) Goeddel and (Mitchell) Beacom and (Dan) Klein, we feel like our bullpen is as strong as our starting pitching to be quite honest with you. So far they've thrown strikes and been competitive pitch to ptich. We just have to make sure we keep getting better week to week. So we're excited about our start, but we know we have a long haul and a lot of challenges to go."

For starters, UCLA's conference schedule won't be a cake walk—far from it. After a horrible 2009 season for the Pac-10 (which sent just three teams to regionals last year), the conference appears to be on the rebound in a big way in 2010. Even without injured ace lefty Josh Spence, Arizona State is off to a characteristically robust start (11-0), and Oregon State has thus far tapped into its stellar mound potential in its 7-3 start.

But Washington State, which went to regionals last year, has shown no signs of falling off, jumping out to a 9-1 start. Evaluators who have seen the Cougars say they're for real, especially on the mound, where righthander Chad Arnold (2-0, 3.79) gives them a competitive Friday ace and lefthanded closer Adam Conley (0-0, 1.29, 2 saves) has seen his velocity jump from the mid-80s in the New England Collegiate League last summer into the low-to-mid-90s this spring. Arnold threw a complete-game gem against Utah on Friday, allowing one run on four hits and two walks while striking out six.

Building on the nation's No. 2-ranked recruiting class, Stanford made a loud statement that it is capable of beating anyone when it swept Rice over opening weekend. And Arizona and Washington made another statement this weekend—that anyone who said the Big West is stronger than the Pac-10 this year (I'm guilty) might be mistaken. The Wildcats took two of three from Cal State Fullerton at home, while Washington won two of three on the road at Long Beach State.

"I'm very impressed with the league," Savage said. "I think it's extremely competitive, and there's very good teams from top to bottom. Last year, the whole league just had a bunch of high-end juniors that left the year before. I think you're going to see that, not very often in our conference, but I just think a lot of those freshmen have grown up and now they're sophomores, and guys that are older. There's a real good group of freshmen in the league right now, and through the first three weeks it seems to be as good as it's been."

And then there's Oregon. The Ducks ranked last in Division I baseball in scoring in their first season since reinstating the program last year, but they have been one of the nation's biggest surprises thus far in 2010. They opened eyes with wins against Fullerton and Long Beach in opening weekend, and this week they split two midweek games with Washington and then swept a four-game series at Fresno State to improve to 9-5.

"Oregon's going to be very interesting," the area scout said. "That team plays with some energy. They've got some young people. They've got former middle infielders and middle-of-the-field guys playing all over. The (Jack) Marder kid, a former shortstop, is playing the outfield. The (Ryan) Hambright kid is going to really have power; he's played third, short, and center field before, and they've got him at first. (Danny) Pulfer at second base used to be a shortstop.  I like Marder's and Hambright's swings a lot—those guys are really going to be good. They've got some team speed. They've done a nice job, and they've got some arms there.

"They've got a little more energy now, they've got some kids that are always trying to take the extra base. They're going to make mistakes, but they're going to hurt some people this year. It would not surprise me to see that team win 30 games. George (Horton) is doing a hell of a job, he really is."

Strike Two: A Classic In Houston

HOUSTON—Eight out of nine games at the Houston College Classic were interesting, competitive and generally well played. And the riveting finale between powerhouses Texas Christian and Rice was a worthy reward to those who sat through a brutal 14-walk, six-error nightmare between Texas Tech and Houston in the second game Sunday.

Rice took an early lead on Craig Manuel's sacrifice fly in the second, but that was all the scoring the game would see until the seventh inning, as Rice righthander Boogie Anagnostou and TCU righty Kyle Winkler traded zeroes.

The Horned Frogs tied the game in the top of the seventh when No. 9 hitter Jerome Pena hit a solo homer down the right-field line. But Rice answered right back with two in the bottom of the frame as its own No. 9 hitter, first baseman Jimmy Comerota, belted a two-run home run to left field—just the second career homer for the senior. The long ball came on a hit-and-run play.

"Coach (Wayne Graham) usually just tells me to put the ball in play and play situational baseball," Comerota said. "That's not quite the way you usually run the hit-and-run, but it worked out."

The Horned Frogs are a resilient bunch, though, and they tied the game back up with two runs in the eighth, then took a one-run lead in the ninth on an RBI single by tournament Most Outstanding Player Bryan Holaday.

But Comerota delivered more heroics in the bottom of the ninth, sparking a two-run rally with a one-out triple to center. He scored on Michael Ratterree's single to center. Two batters later, with runners on first and second, freshman Chase McDowell worked the count to 3-and-1. Graham gave him the green light, even with the fearsome Anthony Rendon on deck, and McDowell came through, lining a walk-off RBI single to center.

"It's fun to play those kind of games, but when you play three in three days, it's kind of tough. It's really nerve-wracking," Graham said. "But some of our guys are learning how to play, believe it or not, at this level. Like that kid (McDowell) who got that hit that last time up—he's pretty good. He's picked us up while Diego (Seastrunk) has been down, he's given us a lefthanded bat. And of course Jimmy Comerota had the best night he's had in a long time. People come through. You've got to do that to win those kind of games—somebody's got to come through. It was a great weekend for baseball, though."

It was a great weekend for TCU, too. The Horned Frogs, like Rice and Texas, finished the tournament with a 2-1 mark, and all three teams impressed with Omaha-caliber pitching and defense. Given Texas' offensive struggles, and Rice's slow start with the bats and still-unproven pitching, Texas Christian looks at this juncture like the most complete team of the trio (though Rice will be very dangerous once its loaded lineup finds its stride—and it will).

"I mean, I really like our team," Frogs coach Jim Schlossnagle said. "I like our team a lot. I think we're a pretty resilient group, which is good to see, and I think we have some marquee players. If we play that (Sunday) game most of the time, we're going to win a lot, because we had a lot of balls that didn't fall. So, we'll be there in the end if we stay healthy."

A few other observations from Houston:

• The most surprising team of the weekend was the only one that went 3-0: Houston. The Cougars rebounded from their 2-5 start by beating three Big 12 opponents, shutting out Missouri and Texas the first two games, then bludgeoning Texas Tech in the aforementioned ugly Sunday game. Houston has a pretty good one-two punch atop the rotation in Chase Dempsay and Michael Goodnight, both of whom turned in gems, and the bullpen has some quality arms in closer Matt Creel and lefthanders Ty Stuckey and William Kankel. Houston's pitching could get better when hard-throwing junior righty Jared Ray returns from offseason shoulder surgery, and the Cougars hope to get him back when Conference USA play begins.

And, of course, shortstop Blake Kelso is a dynamo atop the lineup as well as in the field. There was a lot of outstanding defense played at Minute Maid Park this weekend, and the Cougars made more than their share of standout plays, particularly in the infield.

• Speaking of strong defense, a pair of freshmen stood out for their strong arms in right field. Missouri's Dane Opel showed off his cannon on a couple of sacrifice flies, creating plays at the plate when it initially appeared there would be no chance to get the runner. But Texas Tech's Jamodrick McGruder out-did him, gunning down two runners at the plate Sunday. His perfect strike to hose Houston's Ryan Still following a single to right field in the sixth inning was a thing of beauty.

Both of those two Big 12 teams went winless at Minute Maid, but Texas Tech looks like a solid club that will make a run at a regional thanks to a solid lineup and good front-line pitching in the rotation and the bullpen, though the staff lacks depth. But Missouri's streak of seven straight regionals looks to be in serious jeopardy. The Tigers play hard and are well coached, and they have some talented young players (especially Opel, center fielder Blake Brown and righthander Eric Anderson), but they simply lost too much from last year's team. They're very young, and they lack special arms aside from junior righty Nick Tepesch.

• There was plenty of debate in the press box and amongst the assembled scouts about whether or not Texas will hit in 2010. The offense looks downright anemic at times, but I agree with Augie Garrido's assessment today that the Longhorns will hit eventually. Cameron Rupp and Kevin Keyes (who looked great Sunday, smashing lasers in his first three at-bats) give the lineup a formidable core, and slumping mainstays Brandon Loy, Connor Rowe and Russell Moldenhauer will get themselves in gear eventually. Nobody will mistake the Longhorns for the 1927 Yankees—or even the 2010 Florida State Seminoles or Arizona State Sun Devils, certainly—but no team will be better at run prevention than Texas, whose pitching and defense are both top notch. The 'Horns don't have to score bushels of runs to win, but they'll score more than you expect.

• The marquee arms in this tournament—Texas righties Taylor Jungmann and Brandon Workman, TCU lefty Matt Purke and Texas Tech righty Chad Bettis—did not disappoint, though Bettis needs to do a better job throwing quality strikes. He did strike out nine in his loss Friday, showing the power stuff that could make him a first-round pick, but the consensus is that he profiles best as a flame-throwing reliever.

• The Astros do a phenomenal job hosting this event. Everything is first-class and professional, from the food to the media relations staff (led by Stephen Grande) to the PA announcer (Bob Ford, owner of one of baseball's great voices). They don't treat it like they regard it as some second-rate amateur tournament; they treat it like they would treat a major league game. They'll certainly keep me coming back—especially since this field is always chock full of quality teams and blue-chip prospects. Next year's strong field was announced Monday: Rice, Houston, Baylor, Texas A&M, Kentucky and Oklahoma State.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Matt Harvey

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Matt Harvey had the best seat in the house for the play of the game in North Carolina's 4-2 win Friday against Michigan.

With runners at second and third and one out in the fourth inning, he got Michigan catcher Chris Berset to loft a fly ball to medium-deep right field. He ran to back up home plate and thought that just maybe, freshman right fielder Brian Goodwin had a play at the plate. As Goodwin let fly a strike, he saw his catcher, Jacob Stallings, deke baserunner Mike Dufek just enough to slow him down, followed by Stallings making the catch, applying the tag and finishing an inning-ending double play.

"I was hoping back there when he let it go that it had a chance," Harvey said. "Jacob did a good job, that's just two guys making a great play."

That turned out to be all the help that the junior righthander needed to produce a performance worthy of the ace he's expected to be. Harvey wound up throwing eight scoreless innings and 120 pitches, striking out 11 while allowing just three hits and three walks to earn the victory. North Carolina swept the series to get out to a 10-1 start, with Harvey doing his part at 2-0, 1.80. He has 23 strikeouts through 20 innings and has given up 11 hits, with just two going for extra bases.

Harvey said he has worked with pitching coach Scott Forbes on commanding the outside corner with his fastball, and he did that well Friday, dominating the Wolverines throughout by relying heavily on a 92-95 mph fastball. His curveball remains a putaway pitch for him when it's on, and he mixed in some changeups effectively.

"He had great stuff today," Tar Heels coach Mike Fox said. "He threw a lot of fastballs early and was able to pitch off that. I'm not sure if it was his best start for us; he was very good at Boston College last year in a start that clinched the Coastal Division for us. But he was very good."

During its run of four straight trips to the College World Series, North Carolina has paraded ace after ace to the mound, from highly touted recruits such as Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard and last year's Friday guy, Alex White, to less-heralded players who developed into college studs, such as Robert Woodard (34-5, 3.05 career) and Adam Warren (32-4, 3.42).

Harvey belongs to the first group, having entered his senior season in high school in Groton, Conn., as the nation's top-ranked prep prospect, edging out fellow North Carolina recruit Rick Porcello. Their careers have gone in opposite directions since then, but Harvey has shown signs in 2010 that he's closer to fulfilling expectations than he was in his first two seasons, when he was 14-4 but walked 89 in 143 innings and posted a cumulative 4.16 ERA.

"Matt's really matured," Fox said. "We try to talk to guys about their draft years, and we don't know who's in their ears, but we tell them to let the majority of it go and try to focus. He's done that. He's really grown up a lot since he's been here."

Friday, he showed that he's growing into the role of being an ace, just in time for the Tar Heels.

—JOHN MANUEL

College | #Three Strikes

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