Strike One: Aggies Firing On All Cylinders
It's not easy to find a better pitching staff than Texas A&M's. The Aggies rank second in the nation in ERA (2.15), and their dynamite weekend rotation of John Stilson, Michael Wacha and Ross Stripling gives them an advantage in nearly every weekend series.
The question facing the Aggies coming into the season was how their offense would perform. Lately, A&M's bats are more than holding their own, which makes the Aggies as dangerous as any team in college baseball. They showed it this weekend, sweeping a previously red-hot Oklahoma State team that had already won weekend series against Texas and Oklahoma. The Aggies simply dominated the series, outscoring the Cowboys 24-4 in the three-game set.
"We played good this weekend," Aggies coach Rob Childress said. "We pitched really well, we played good defense, and the three guys in the middle of our lineup had good weekends—Adam Smith, Kevin Gonzalez and Matt Juengel were productive for us, and they need to be for us to be really good."
The talented Smith is still hitting just .222 on the season, but that does not tell the whole story. Childress said he started driving in a lot of key runs since conference play began, and indeed, he leads the league with 11 two-out RBIs in conference play. Gonzalez and Juengel combined for eight RBIs in the final two games of the series, giving the Aggies reason to hope that they are heating up, as well.
"Juengel and Gonzalez are the guys we needed to get going for us to be consistent offensively," Childress said. "Those two guys have got to be able to get big hits and drive people in for us. When they do that, we have a chance to have a really good day."
But the catalysts for Texas A&M have been the athletic outfielders who occupy the first two slots in the lineup: sophomore Tyler Naquin and freshman Krey Bratsen, who combined for 13 hits in three games against Oklahoma State. Bratsen (.434) and Naquin (.423) rank first and second in batting in Big 12 Conference play, and both have disruptive speed on the basepaths—especially Bratsen, who has 19 steals in 23 attempts. Some scouts thought Bratsen was the fastest player available in the 2010 draft. And Naquin, who ranks second in the league in hitting overall at .396, was a key recruit a year ago who got off to a slow start as a freshman, but he started to come on down the stretch last year, and the Aggies are not surprised by his success.
"I think we all—coaches and Tyler included—expected him to have this kind of year," Childress said. "He was just as talented last year, it was just the confidence and the belief that he belonged here and could play at this level. The last 25 or 30 games of last year, he was a big part of what we did, and you knew that was going to carry over to this season. He had a great fall, and we felt strongly that was going to carry over to this season. He's done a lot of things offensively, but defensively as well."
Multiple scouts have said Naquin's arm rates as at least a 70 on the 20-80 scale, and it's a real weapon in right field. The secret is out now, and teams don't run on him nearly as often as they did a year ago, but he still has three outfield assists, including a big one in the first inning Sunday, when he gunned down a man at the plate to help prevent a big inning.
Texas A&M's defense is the other key piece of the pie: The Aggies are fielding at a .980 clip, which gives their pitchers the confidence to attack the strike zone knowing that balls in play will likely be converted into outs. The team's top two relievers—sinkerballer Nick Fleece and sidearmer Joaquin Hinojosa—excel at pounding the strike zone, and their success has given Childress the peace of mind to put Stripling back in the Sunday starter role, after using him in relief for a period this year.
"That's the one thing that tends not to get talked about: We've played defense at a very high level, maybe as good as we have since we've been here for five years," Childress said. "(Shortstop) Kenny Jackson has been the guy that played first base sparingly last base as a junior, this year as a senior moved to left side of the infield and has been a stabilizing force. Jacob House has been very good at first, and we're playing a freshman every day at second base now, Charlie Curl, and he has done a nice job. But Kenny deserves the most credit; he will make all the routine plays, and he's a calming force on our infield."
At 14-4 in the Big 12, the Aggies are all alone in first place, and they have only one series remaining on their schedule against a likely regional team: their regular-season finale against second-place Texas. The Aggies rank ninth in the RPI and stand a very good chance to snag a national seed. If Texas A&M does not have to leave College Station in the postseason until Omaha, this could finally be the year it finds itself in the College World Series for the first time since 1999.
Especially if the Aggies continue to play as well in all facets as they did this weekend.
Strike Two: Hurricanes Make A Statement
CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Expectations were high for Miami as the season opened: The Hurricanes ranked No. 24 in the nation and had designs on competing for the Atlantic Coast Conference title. But like many teams this year, Miami struggled at the plate at the beginning of the season. Adjusting to BBCOR bats was difficult, and a 4-3 record after two weeks dropped the Hurricanes out of the rankings.
For much of the ensuing two months, Miami has been out of sight, out of mind in the national scene. It was swept at Florida the next weekend and surfaced in late March to get swept by Georgia Tech at Alex Rodriguez Park. So Miami’s return to the Top 25 just in time for its ACC showdown at then-No. 14 North Carolina this weekend may have come as something of a surprise.
But after the Hurricanes took two games in Chapel Hill, they are very much back in the national spotlight. The series win provided Miami with two much-needed quality wins and kept its current hot streak going. The Hurricanes (27-13, 15-4) have won 13 of their last 15 games since being swept by the Yellow Jackets.
“Anytime you go on the road in this conference and win two out of three—I don’t care where it’s at—you feel good about yourself,” Miami coach Jim Morris said. “You’ve got to feel good about the way you’re team’s playing.”
Miami’s turnaround has been impressive. After falling out of the rankings, the Hurricanes hit the worst stretch of their season, opening March by losing five of six games to South Florida, Florida and Illinois State. Even worse, Morris missed two weeks following surgery to remove his gall bladder. He returned just in time for the start of ACC play, and the Hurricanes ran off a nine-game winning streak.
Morris said he didn’t watch any of the games from when he was sidelined, which coincided with the worst of Miami’s struggles, but noticed the Hurricanes were playing better when he returned from surgery than they had started the year.
“When I came back they started playing better,” Morris said. “Confidence is something that’s contagious.”
Getting swept by Georgia Tech could have destroyed the momentum Miami had been building during the winning streak. But the Hurricanes responded with another nine-game winning streak.
Morris said the biggest difference in the way his team is playing now from the beginning of the season is the way it is hitting. The Hurricanes' batting average is up to .273 after starting conference play at just .236. Preseason All-American Harold Martinez, who had started the season 6-for-40 (.150), is hitting .370/.459/.411 in conference games and is riding a 10-game hitting streak, while moving across the diamond from third to first base.
“He started to be more aggressive and looking for a pitch he can hit,” Morris said. “He’s got his confidence going.”
This weekend was a crucial series for both Miami and North Carolina. While Miami entered the weekend in fourth place in the ACC, it still hadn’t beaten a team ranked in the Top 25 and needed a quality win to bolster its chances at hosting a regional. North Carolina, meanwhile, was reeling after being swept at North Carolina State the weekend before.
Rain on Friday forced a Saturday doubleheader. In just eight hours at Boshamer Stadium, Miami went from being a borderline Top 25 team to a legitimate candidate to host a regional.
“Winning on the road should help us in the rankings and help our RPI,” Morris said. “I looked (Saturday) and we jumped from 23 to 13 after just two games.”
According to boydsworld.com, Miami’s RPI was 14th after the weekend. The Hurricanes made a similar jump in the Baseball America Top 25 on Monday, moving up to No. 16.
North Carolina’s weekend, however, wasn’t a total loss. Freshman lefthander Kent Emanuel threw the first complete game by a North Carolina freshman since 2005, keeping the Tar Heels from getting swept on consecutive weekends. Coach Mike Fox admitted winning Sunday’s game was “extremely important” for his team.
“I told our team they pretty much had to win (Sunday),” Fox said. “You have to be careful saying that, but I told them, ‘You have to do whatever you can to win and if that makes you tight, then maybe you’re not the team I thought you were.’ ”
Emanuel’s strong outing and the Tar Heels' ability to take advantage of some early Hurricane miscues allowed them to pull out an 8-1 victory. North Carolina will now get a breather as it will play just two games in 11 days because of finals. Miami, meanwhile, will host rival Florida State in another high-profile ACC matchup.
“It’s always interesting,” Morris said. “Florida State is having another really good year. I’m glad to have them at home.”
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on C.J. Cron
There's just no slowing down C.J. Cron.
It doesn't matter whom Utah plays—Cron hit in early-season series at California and Arkansas, he hit at the Houston College Classic, he hit in Mountain West Conference play and he hit this weekend at Tulane. He doubled twice Friday, had two more hits including another double Saturday, then hit a two-run homer Sunday to lead the Utes to a series win against the Green Wave.
"You keep wondering when he's going to come back to Earth, but he does it against everybody," Utah coach Bill Kinneberg said. "He's done it week in, week out, he's done it against great pitching, done it against average pitching, done it against bad pitching. The real interesting deal with him is he really hits good pitching better than he does bad pitching, if that makes sense. The scouting reports go around, and if you talk to other coaches, they just kind of shake their head, and every opportunity they get to walk him, they do it. He's the best hitter in the country—there's no doubt in my mind. And I don't think there's any doubt in minds of the people who've played him."
Indeed, Houston coach Todd Whitting said at the Houston College Classic that Cron is the best college hitter he's ever seen—even better than Rice's Anthony Rendon and former Cincinnati star Kevin Youkilis.
Cron's numbers back up all the high praise: He's hitting .469/.539/.813 with nine homers, 17 doubles and 42 RBIs in 128 at-bats. He leads the nation in batting and OPS (1.352). And he's doing it despite opponents' best efforts to avoid pitching to him; he has 19 walks on the season, and Kinneberg said all but two or three of the walks have been intentional.
"He has almost as many home runs as he has strikeouts (15), and he just doesn't walk very much, unless it's intentional, because if they throw a strikes, he hits it," Kinneberg said. "They are definitely trying to pitch around him, and you can just see it on the pitcher's face and on the pitching coaches' faces: 'Oh God, what are we going to do now?' So it's important for our guys in front of him to get on base, and not to hit doubles or steal a base, because if there's a base open, they just put him on."
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Cron was a catcher last year, but a shoulder injury has limited him to first base, where Kinneberg said he's a very good defender. The Utes have missed his leadership and catching ability, but fortunately they haven't had to make do without his bat.
Whether Cron is a catcher or a first baseman at the next level, his bat figures to carry him a long way. The son of former big leaguer and current Double-A Erie manager Chris Cron, C.J. was born to hit. A righthanded hitter, Cron has really good power to right-center field, but he can hit mammoth home runs to left, in Kinneberg's words.
"He's big and strong, his hand-eye coordination is really outstanding—he doesn't miss many pitches," Kinneberg said. "He'll put balls in play that are out of the zone because his hand are so good. That might be his only weakness: He puts the ball in play too much instead of taking a pitch. He knows going into the batter's box that he's going to hit the ball.
"He's an amazing force for us, so we just keep sitting back saying, 'Boys, enjoy it, because we probably won't have another one like this.' "