Strike One: Scrappy Mississippi State Finds A Way
STARKVILLE, Miss.—After losing its first three Southeastern Conference series, Mississippi State knew it wouldn't be easy to dig out of a 2-7 hole in the standings. Injuries to key players piled up in the middle part of the season (and the injury bug reared its head again this weekend), but the Bulldogs were confident their pitching and defense were strong enough to help them navigate through the rough patches.
MSU still isn't an offensive juggernaut and won't ever be this season, but the Dawgs are finding ways to win. MSU has won three home series over the last four weekends to climb to 10-11 in the SEC and strengthen their at-large regional bid position. This weekend's series against rival Mississippi was huge, and the Bulldogs rode their pitching-and-defense formula to wins Friday and Sunday.
"We'll take the series win and get out of here with two out of three for sure," closer Caleb Reed said.
Friday's story was a familiar one: ace Chris Stratton put the Bulldogs on his back and carried them to victory, throwing a five-hit complete-game shutout in a 4-0 win (more on Stratton in an upcoming feature story). Sunday's win was rather less emphatic, as Mississippi State capitalized on two walks and three hit batsmen to score four runs in the first inning, en route to a 4-2 win—despite mustering just two hits in the game. The hit-by-pitch is one of MSU's best offensive weapons; it recorded nine of them in four games last week.
"Our kids are good at it, thank goodness, because if we didn't have that club in our bag we wouldn't have been able to put four runs on the board, and thank goodness that was good enough to get it done today," MSU coach John Cohen said after Sunday's win.
"I think we're pitching it and we're defending it at a very high level. If you were to ask, 'Hey John, would you prefer to lose this game and get 15 hits or win this game and get two?' then I think we'll take what we got. It's no secret we are not a great offensive club right now including HBPs."
The Bulldogs really have one dynamic offensive player: shortstop and leadoff man Adam Frazier (.343/.462/.420), a quick-twitch athlete with outstanding speed who excels at working counts and getting on base. Frazier's 37-15 walk-strikeout mark illustrates his prowess as a table setter.
The player expected to be the primary catalyst heading into the season, sophomore outfielder C.T. Bradford, has been hampered by a shoulder injury, which he aggravated in an outfield collision Sunday. He had been playing with a small tear in his labrum even before the collision, and his status going forward is uncertain, but Cohen said it will probably depend upon Bradford's pain tolerance.
No. 3 hitter Trey Porter—the team's leading home run hitter with five—had to leave Sunday's game after getting hit by a pitch on his hand in the first inning. The second-leading home run hitter, Wes Rea (four), is banged up as well, though he was able to play Sunday.
So the Bulldogs—who hit just .155 in their 3-1 week—will have to continue to scrap and claw for every run, but their deep pitching staff doesn't need a lot of support in order to win. Stratton and Kendall Graveman have emerged as a stout one-two punch atop the rotation, and the Bulldogs got a strong start Sunday from undersized lefthander Luis Pollorena, who threw 5 1/3 shutout innings to earn the win. Pollorena ran his fastball up to 91—one of 14 pitchers on the staff to have hit 91, according to Cohen—early in the game before settling into the 84-87 range. He showed good feel for his changeup and breaking stuff as well as excellent athleticism and tenacity.
It was just the second start of the year for Pollorena, a junior who has been effective in relief (1.46 ERA) and has patiently waited his turn to start.
"When he got an opportunity today he made the most of it," Cohen said. "He's on the top step cheering for whoever's on that bump or whoever's in the batter's box for our team. I've never been more proud of a guy who's 5-foot-7-inches tall, maybe.
"He's an unbelievable competitor and he brings it every day. You've got to have those kind of guys. Those are the kind of guys who gut it out, and that's how you win 4-2 games with two hits in a ballgame."
Fortunately, Mississippi State is loaded with those kinds of guys.
Strike Two: Clemson Digs Deep On The Road
The season has not gone exactly according to plan for Clemson, a preseason Top 25 team that was swept in two of its first three Atlantic Coast Conference series by North Carolina and Virginia. The Tigers righted the ship with series wins against Miami and at Duke, then dropped a home series against North Carolina State. But the Tigers again showed resilience by winning back-to-back road series at Maryland and Georgia Tech over the last two weekends to climb to 14-10 in the ACC and solidify their at-large position.
"We've talked about being consistent—that's a big word around here we've been using—in every phase of the game," Clemson coach Jack Leggett said.
The defense has largely been reliable, Leggett said, as the Tigers are fielding .972 and have turned 45 double plays. The Tigers are very sound up the middle, with a quality catch-and-throw veteran behind the plate in Spencer Kieboom and a senior shortstop in Jason Stolz who has fielded .979 in his first year as the full-time starter at the position.
The starting pitching has been up and down, and that unit took a blow this weekend when ace Kevin Brady suffered a hamstring strain Friday that will sideline him for at least two to four weeks. Leggett said the Tigers are likely to move junior righty Dominic Leone (6-3, 5.85) into the Friday spot and Kevin Pohle (4-2, 3.31) up to Saturday, with either Daniel Gossett (4-2, 5.85) or Jonathan Meyer (2-3, 3.52) assuming the Sunday job.
Leone will be a major key down the stretch, after the Tigers return from their exams with a series against College of Charleston in two weeks.
"When he gets in trouble, he usually gets himself in trouble by walking or getting behind in the count," Leggett said. "He's a competitor for us, and we have a lot of confidence in him."
Leggett said Pohle has good movement and angle on his fastball and an improving breaking ball, but he'll need to start going deeper into games more regularly to take some pressure off the bullpen.
It was an offensive weekend at Georgia Tech, and the Tigers bounced back after blowing a ninth-inning lead Friday but slugging their way to wins the next two days, 13-7 and 11-8. Notably, Clemson got much better production out of the bottom half of its lineup than it has for much of the season. The Nos. 6-9 hitters—Jon McGibbon, Kieboom, Brad Felder and Stolz—each posted multiple hits Saturday, and Kieboom led the offense with five RBIs. No. 5 hitter Jay Baum plus McGibbon, Kieboom and Felder had multi-hit games Sunday. The Tigers had high hopes for Kieboom heading into the season after a strong summer in the Cape Cod League, and he is showing signs of finally emerging as a force in the lineup after a sluggish first half. He went 5-for-5 Sunday, improving to .277/.350/.355 overall.
"He's just got to relax and shorten up his swing and hit the ball to all fields, because that's when he's at his best," Leggett said. "His swing was a lot shorter, he had a lot of confidence up there, he was using his hands better—doing the things he kind of did last year. Hopefully he's relaxed and can keep it going from here on out."
Clemson had its hands full replacing five mainstays from last year's team—ACC Player of the Year Brad Miller plus John Hinson, Jeff Schaus, Chris Epps and Will Lamb. It's taken some time for the lineup to gel, but new starters like Baum and Felder seem to be emerging at the right time, while Steve Wilkerson and Thomas Brittle have been good spark plugs at the top of the lineup. Wilkerson started hot, then cooled off, but Leggett said he can feel Wilkerson heating up again.
The same can be said for many of the Tigers, who are feeling good about themselves despite the losses of Brady and reliever Matt Campbell, who is out indefinitely with a strained lat.
"I think our team's picking up some confidence, some momentum," Leggett said. "It's tough to win in this conference, and we're 14-10 in the conference. We're battle tested; we just need to keep our confidence rolling."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Raph Rhymes
BATON ROUGE, La.—"Raph" rhymes with "strafe," not with "laugh." That seems appropriate, since opposing pitchers are not laughing when Raph Rhymes strafes them with hard line drive after hard line drive.
And that's what he does just about every time he takes the field for Louisiana State.
LSU is 80 percent through its regular season, and Rhymes (who has played 41 games) is hitting an even .500. The redshirt junior outfielder has a chance to be the first Division I player in 21 years to hit .500 over a full season—and the last player to do it (Duquesne's Ron Dziezgowski) went 44-for-88 in just 33 games. And Dziezgowski didn't do it in the Southeastern Conference, with BBCOR bats.
"It really is unbelievable, especially in the SEC. It's not like he's doing it in some crappy league," said Rhymes' roommate, Tigers ace Kevin Gausman. "He's facing the best pitchers in the country.
"Every time he gets a hit I'm like, 'Yeah, that's my roommate. My roommate's hitting .503—no big deal.' "
Rhymes was hitting .503 after going 5-for-8 with a monstrous homer in the first two games of this weekend's series against Georgia, but his average dipped three points back to .500 after he went 2-for-5 Sunday. That reinforces just how hard it is to hit .500.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri insists that Rhymes wouldn't even know his batting average unless someone told him—which reporters and fans do every day. A .500 batting average has a way of creating a spectacle, especially in a baseball-crazed location like Baton Rouge. The local newspaper has created a separate box just to track Rhymes' performance after every game. He has been deluged with media requests and fawned over by LSU's giant fan base, but none of it fazes him.
"You know, I wouldn't say I'm sick of it," the soft-spoken, mellow Rhymes said of all the attention. "It's great that people are coming at you about it, it's a great accomplishment, but I'm not a guy that looks at stats. All throughout my career, I've never been a big stats guy. I just go out and try to compete and win."
Mainieri relates an anecdote that captures Rhymes' mentality perfectly. Two and a half hours before a midweek game against Southeastern Louisiana last week, Rhymes was fielding balls in the outfield during batting practice.
"One of our batters hits a high fly ball, here he is, full sprint, full-out, head-first dive onto the warning track to try to make this catch, two and a half hours before game time in practice," Mainieri said. "And people ask me, they wonder, 'Do you think he's going to be able to handle the pressure?' That's Raph Rhymes: He just wants to win. He doesn't care what he's hitting for a batting average, he doesn't care about the draft. He doesn't care about anything except helping LSU win. It's so refreshing to see a kid like this. He literally all his life has wanted to go to LSU, play baseball here. He's having the time of his life. And all he cares about is trying to help us get to Omaha. You feel for fortunate as a coach to have a kid like that."
Mainieri feels especially fortunate because Rhymes was cut from the team as a true walk-on during the fall of his freshman year (when LSU was loaded with talented veterans and would go on to win the national championship). Rhymes decided to transfer to a junior college after the following spring, dismaying Mainieri, who said he had "big plans" for Rhymes.
Rhymes said his experience in the fall as a freshman made him realize that he needed to mature physically and advance his game in junior college before he would be ready to compete in the SEC. He advanced tremendously in 2010 at LSU-Eunice, hitting .483 with 12 homers and 98 RBIs to capture NJCAA Division II national player of the year honors and lead his team to a national title.
That summer, Mainieri said he got an inkling that prized recruit Garin Cecchini was leaning toward signing with the Red Sox, so he called Rhymes to recruit him—for the first time—to come back to LSU. He knew Rhymes might have some reservations after getting cut once before, so he offered Rhymes a scholarship to prove how much the Tigers wanted him. It wasn't a hard sell; Rhymes grew up in nearby Monroe dreaming of playing baseball for LSU.
He was primarily limited to DH duties as a redshirt sophomore last year because of an elbow injury that required surgery after the season. He still hit .360. After having surgery last summer, Rhymes couldn't throw for six months, but he could start hitting after three months.
"So for three months, I did nothing but hitting," he said. "I give credit to, you know, maybe the surgery helped me."
Rhymes had arrived at LSU as a dead-pull hitter, but he said he learned the importance of going the other way against quality SEC pitchers who can locate well on the outside corner. He put that ability to work against LSU's pitchers in fall ball last year.
"Even in the fall, he was tough to get out," Gausman said. "He's not going to hit a lot of home runs, but really he just hits the ball where it's pitched. He goes with every pitch you give him. One thing I've noticed is he never gets fooled. He'll get fooled once a game maybe, but never a strikeout, and he never chokes in a big situation."
A 6-foot, 180-pound left fielder, Rhymes lacks the power scouts typically look for in a corner outfielder, but his bomb over the left-field bleachers Friday against Georgia did demonstrate his sneaky pop. He has three homers on the season, but he also has more doubles (11) than strikeouts (eight), illustrating his natural gift for making contact.
"To hit .500—well I'm guessing this is what it takes, because I've never seen anybody hit .500 so I'm no expert on hitting .500; I don't know who is—but I can tell you this: You obviously have to have the talent," Mainieri said. "The one thing about Raph is he's got a very flat swing, so his bat stays in the hitting zone a long time. So even if he gets fooled on a pitch, he somehow gets the barrel on the ball. He might just slap it over the first baseman's head or dink it through the four-hole, and something might happen that way. So even if he gets jammed, he just inside-outs a pitch."
Rhymes said he tries to keep his approach as simple as possible.
"I've seen in the past, where I get in trouble is when I go up thinking too much—what's he going to throw here, how'd he pitch me last time?" Rhymes said. "When I go up there and keep it simple, try to hit the ball up the middle, that's usually when I succeed."
And he is succeeding at a rate that is nothing short of historic.