Strike One: Gael Force
SAN DIEGO—With an experienced team headlined by a pair of potential top-two-rounds picks in Patrick Wisdom and Martin Agosta, St. Mary's entered 2012 with high hopes. At 18-19 overall and 3-9 in the West Coast Conference, the Gaels haven't lived up to expectations, but Agosta sure has.
After allowing just an unearned run in seven strong innings to beat the WCC's best offense Friday at San Diego, Agosta improved to 6-2, 1.70 through 74 innings over 10 starts. The Toreros threatened early and often, but Agosta repeatedly made big pitches to escape jams unscathed, stranding runners at third base in the first, third and fifth innings. His composure in tight spots has been a trademark since his days at Jesuit High in the Sacramento area.
"He's an extremely mature pitcher," St. Mary's coach Jedd Soto said. "I watched him in high school in the state playoffs, everyone's going crazy and the world's falling, and he's just relaxed on the mound, telling the coach, 'Hey, I'm good.' You just don't see that from an 18-year-old kid. Even with the bases loaded, he's still attacking hitters the same way, not afraid to use his offspeed early in the count."
Agosta has a cerebral approach to his craft—that much comes across by talking with him. He knows how to work hitters and has an innate ability to manipulate the baseball in a variety of ways.
His feel for pitching stands out, but his stuff has started to catch up. Agosta said he worked in the 86-88 range as a freshman, when he pitched 70 innings and posted a 5.40 ERA. He barely touched a baseball that summer, focusing on adding strength to his slender frame, and his velocity bumped the low 90s when he returned for his sophomore year. He went 7-6, 2.81 with 76 strikeouts in 90 innings as a sophomore, but the best was yet to come.
Agosta started generating a real buzz amongst Northern California scouts during the fall of his junior year, when he ran his fastball into the mid-90s. He has continued to flash 95 mph heat at times this spring, though he worked more comfortably in the 89-91 range and peaked at 92 Friday at USD.
"When he's 94-96, the ball is elevated," Soto said. "He can usually reach back for it, but definitely he commands the ball better downstairs at 89-92."
Against the Toreros, Agosta moved his fastball in and out, pitching mostly at the knees. He commanded the inner half of the zone uncommonly well for a college pitcher. A rare midweek bullpen session helped with that.
"The last couple weeks I've been struggling with command of the fastball—I just hadn't felt comfortable out there," Agosta said. "I hadn't thrown a midweek pen for about two years—I just like to throw 40 feet, I don't like to feel my arm hanging the next day. But (Soto) convinced me to throw one, it was all fastballs, about 20-25 fastballs, and after that I just felt comfortable today."
Agosta throws both a slider and a cutter, but the cutter is his go-to pitch, and he said he only threw the slider three or four times against USD. The pitch peaked at 83-84 mph Friday, but Soto said it can be harder at times.
"That's my pitch, I love it," he said of the cutter. "It's almost like a slider; a lot of guys call it a slider and call my slider a curveball. If I have two strikes, I'm going to throw it more like a slider, and if I have it 2-0, 0-0, I'm going to throw it with that cut movement just to steal a strike."
Agosta said he struggled over the last two years to get comfortable with his changeup, going through countless different grips in search of the proper feel. He worked hard on it last summer in the Cal Ripken League, and the pitch really turned a corner in the fall. He uses it mostly against lefthanded hitters but also threw some against righthanded slugger Kris Bryant on Friday—though he used his cutter as a put-away pitch the one time he struck out Bryant. The changeup is not Agosta's primary weapon, but its improvement has helped make him a very complete pitcher.
"That's the pitch that's really changed him," Soto said. "He had it occasionally last year, but this year he loves it, he'll go to it. There's just not something that he doesn't do well, so he can attack the hitters in a lot of different ways."
Strike Two: Playing Leapfrog
SAN DIEGO—Texas Christian expected its offense to be its calling card in 2012. The Frogs lost a host of mound stalwarts (most notably Kyle Winkler, Matt Purke and Steven Maxwell) from last year's team, but the Frogs had a core of accomplished veteran bats surrounded by talented newcomers. The mix earned the TCU offense a 70 grade on our 20-80 scale in the preseason.
That grade looks absurd now, with the Horned Frogs hitting just .249 as a team, with 12 home runs. Certainly, TCU is not going to be an offensive juggernaut in 2012—but it can be a lot better down the stretch than it was in the season's first half. Injuries decimated TCU's lineup in the first half, but all the starters are finally back.
This weekend at San Diego State, the Frogs finally had Jantzen Witte at third base, Kevin Cron at first, and Brance Rivera and Jason Coats in the outfield. The Frogs have quietly gotten hot anyway, thanks largely to their pitching, which allowed just 10 runs total during a nine-game winning streak that ended Sunday. That streak has vaulted the Frogs (11-4) past New Mexico for first place in the Mountain West Conference, and there is reason to believe the best is still to come for the offense.
"I really like where we're headed, because this is the first game that I've had everybody in the lineup—not completely healthy, because Witte's only about 60 percent of who he is, but you saw what kind of defender he can be," TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said on Friday.
Witte, a junior third baseman who is still working his way back from a slightly torn hip labrum, has a skill set that Schlossnagle says makes him a perfect fit in the No. 2 hole. He also made several tough plays look easy at the hot corner on Friday. He does that on a regular basis.
"He's a difference maker," Schlossnagle said. "Normally your shortstop and every now and then you'll have a second baseman that brings a presence on your infield. He's the first third baseman I've ever had who does that. He settles us down there."
Power righty Andrew Mitchell (who struggled with his fastball command Friday but is a generally reliable, often-overpowering ace), groundball artist Preston Morrison and consistent righty Stefan Crichton make for a sound weekend rotation. The bullpen has been TCU's greatest strength, Schlossnagle said, and it figures to remain a major asset going forward.
But this TCU pitching staff lacks the firepower of the 2010 Frogs that made it to the College World Series, so the offense needs to coalesce into a much more dangerous unit.
"I don't know if it can be great, but I think it can be well above-average," Schlossnagle said of his offense's ceiling. "We're still dominant righthanded, so it's not like we can roll a bunch of lefties out there like Baylor and (Arizona State), some of those teams. But I think we have experienced offensive players, and given the right situation I think we can be somewhat dangerous. The last couple weeks I think our at-bats have been a lot better, so I think that will come."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Matthew Reckling
In a week that featured four no-hitters in Division I baseball, Matthew Reckling's one-hit shutout Friday against East Carolina almost gets lost in the shuffle. But it shouldn't.
Reckling shut down a quality ECU offense, striking out 10 and allowing just a fifth-inning single to Jay Cannon and a pair of walks in a 2-0 win. Reckling set the tone for another Rice weekend series victory, just as he has all season.
His second shutout of the season improved Reckling to 7-0, 1.44 with 80 strikeouts and 25 walks in 69 innings. The reduced walk rate really tells the story of Reckling's superb senior year: He walked 6.1 batters per nine innings over his first three collegiate seasons but has issued just 3.27 walks per nine as a senior, helping him mature into a true staff ace.
"His whole problem was throwing strikes before," Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "He altered a couple of things, we got his delivery straightened out to where it's repetitive, and that's the key to everything. He's always had a great curveball, but he had control problems with it. He went to the two-seam fastball exclusively, and that has really changed his game because he's able to throw it for strikes."
Reckling could dial his four-seam fastball up to the 94-95 range, but he has had much greater success this year pitching in the 88-92 range with good movement on his two-seamer. He also has improved his changeup, which has good arm action, but he seldom uses it because, as Graham said, "It's hard to go away from that unhittable pitch"—the curveball. It is so difficult to hit, in fact, that Reckling leads all qualifying Division I pitchers in opponents' batting average (.151).
Reckling's curve is a true power pitch in the 78-84 range with downward break that Graham calls "severe at times." He could always get hitters to chase it out of the zone, but he has learned to throw it for a strike as well as a chase pitch, and Graham said he threw it behind in the count repeatedly against the Pirates. That demonstrated his increased command of the pitch.
"I would defy anybody in college baseball to show a better curveball than that," Graham said.
Reckling—the grandson of former Owls letterman T.R. Reckling (1952-54), the namesake of Rice's Reckling Park—arrived at Rice as an unpolished product of a small local private high school. He has turned himself into an ace through hard work—on his mechanics and command, but also through his strength and conditioning work. Graham calls Reckling the second-hardest worker he's ever coached, behind only Roger Clemens (whom he coached at San Jacinto, Texas, JC).
"With the running, in the weight room, all the new stuff they do with rubber balls, core work—it's constant," Graham said of Reckling's workout regimen. "He's never let up—sort of like Clemens in that respect. This guy doesn't take any time off either. He's really been a pleasure to work with."
Graham paused a beat, then added, "Since he's started throwing strikes."