Three Strikes: Week 11

Strike One: Washington’s Dream Season Continues

SEATTLE—Everyone around the Pac-12 has a story about how bad Washington’s baseball facility used to be. Sports information directors from other schools talk about the “deer blind with a tarp” that used to serve as a press box. Scouts and fans recall their feelings of anxiety about traversing the rotting wooden bleachers, wondering if they were about to fall through. UW senior outfielder Brian Wolfe remembers the long walk to the baseball field from the team’s locker room up in the Hec Edmundson Pavillion, where the basketball teams play.

Husky Ballpark (Photo by Aaron Fitt).

Husky Ballpark (Photo by Aaron Fitt).

“All this was gravel,” he said, gesturing to the area around the field, “so we’d walk down. After (batting practice), we had a choice to either sit and watch them take BP, or walk about a half-mile or a quarter of a mile up to Hec Ed. It was brutal. But I think that’s why we play so hard is, we aren’t just given this. I feel like we’ve really earned it, and we’ve worked for it. You can tell by just the little things we do. That’s what we really pride ourselves on, the little things, never taking anything for granted. Just push, push, push. It makes a huge difference.”

With glimmering Lake Washington located just beyond the outfield wall and Mount Rainier visible beyond the right field fence on a clear day (and the Cascades beyond the left field wall), Washington has always owned one of college baseball’s most stunning settings. Now, UW has a jewel of a ballpark to go with its vistas.

And it’s no coincidence that UW has ushered in the Husky Ballpark era by putting together the best season in the program’s long history—just as Indiana did last year when it moved into its new ballpark.

“People make that comment like, it’s a miracle (that UW is good during the first year of the new park),” Washington coach Lindsay Meggs said. “We got these kids here because we told them, this junior class that we have, we told those guys this thing would be done when they got here, and that’s how we got those guys here. They bought in and took kind of a flying leap on us, and it’s paid off for them, and now it’s kind of a perfect storm.”

Through seven weeks of conference play, Washington still has yet to lose a Pac-12 series. The Huskies (29-10, 16-5 in the Pac-12) did drop Friday’s series opener in the Apple Cup rivalry series against Washington State, but they rebounded with two very crisp performances to sweep Sunday’s doubleheader, 2-1 and 2-0.

“We’ve been struggling a little bit with the bats, it’s one of those things that playing at that high level for so long, sometimes people get out of their plan,” said Wolfe, who has not dropped off at all, leading the team with a .409/.477/.591 slash line, four homers and 28 RBIs despite playing with a thumb injury that forces him to wear a rather bulky bandage. “But we’re growing and learning and getting better every day. We live by pitching and defense and timely hitting, we just happen to have a lot of hitters this year. So, when we’re struggling hitting, that’s our base philosophy: We’re going to pitch and we’re going to play defense, so let’s just grind until we get that hit. It came from (catcher Austin) Rei tonight.”

Rei drove in both Washington runs in the series finale on a two-run double down the left-field line in the fifth. That proved enough support for righthander Jeff Brigham (6 IP, 4 H, 0 R) and the UW bullpen, which has been a strength for the Huskies all season long. The anchor is closer Troy Rallings, a fiery, undersized righthander with an 88-92 fastball from a three-quarters slot, and a hard slider at 83-84. He nailed down saves in both games Sunday, striking out the side in the ninth in the first game, when he stranded runners at second and third, then erasing a leadoff single in the nightcap by inducing a double play.

Brian Wolfe (Photo by Andrew Woolley).

Brian Wolfe (Photo by Andrew Woolley).

That was Washington’s sixth double play of the day, as second baseman Andrew Ely and shortstop Erik Forgione demonstrated sure hands, good range and excellent awareness of each other in both games.

And it helped that Brigham is a groundball machine thanks to the incredible arm-side bore on his 90-94 mph fastball, which bumped 96 Sunday. He also showed a swing-and-miss slider at 81-82, but his sinker is his calling card, helping him rack up 10 ground balls that his slick infielders turned into outs.

“In my opinion, that’s what’s made the difference for us is we’ve been very consistent up the middle,” Meggs said. “Our middle guys, you saw them today, they can play defense. It’s important to them, they love to play it. They know that’s how they pay the bills, and if they hit, they hit.”

Wolfe also flashed some serious leather, robbing Ben Roberts of a two-run homer with a leaping catch in the first game.

“My glove was about over the top of the fence, it was about a glove over, it was a wall scraper,” Wolfe said. “We get excited about playing defense. That’s what we really pride ourselves in . . . We’re just a bunch of grinders. That’s my favorite part about us.”

Certainly, junior righthander Tyler Davis fits that description perfectly. Davis did what he seemingly always does in the first game Sunday, keeping the Cougars off balance for seven strong innings, during which he allowed just a run on five hits and one walk, striking out one to improve to 9-1, 1.52 on the year. Meggs described his 85-88 fastball as “just firm enough” that he can effectively sneak it in on hitters; it plays up because of his superb changeup, which he picked up from older brother Erik, a former star at Stanford who reached the big leagues with the Nationals last year before having Tommy John surgery.

“I would talk to him, and I kind of learned it from him,” Davis said. “Watching him at Stanford and at Mountain View (Calif., High), I learned that having a changeup is really an important thing, and something that not a lot of people have. Through high school I was able to develop it, but even in college, it’s something that really helps a lot because it looks so much like a fastball out of the hand, but then it’s just not there at the same time.”

Davis, Brigham and Friday starter Jared Fisher comprise a quality rotation, and UW’s bullpen has a quartet of trusted options in lefthander Will Ballowe plus righties Rallings, Trevor Dunlap and Brandon Choate. The defense is outstanding, and so is the clubhouse dynamic—which really matters in college baseball, as in most sports.

“We knew going into the season, it would be a great year, just because we had a bunch of great guys, and we were all really close, and we had great chemistry between us,” Davis said. “With the new stadium, we wanted to make sure we gave the fans a great show every single time they’re coming out here.

“We want to not only strengthen the tradition but even reach new feats that our program hasn’t gotten to. We’ve never gotten to a super regional before, we’ve never gotten to Omaha before. We want to be able to get those done this year, and we think they’re definite achievable goals that we have.”

Strike Two: Indiana Finds Its Stride

Remember when Indiana was 2-5, or 12-10? The Hoosiers never panicked; they knew how good they could be, and accepted that it might take some time to find their top form, as it did for another preseason top 10 team from the North in 2011. Connecticut began that season 8-9-1 but finished 45-20, winning a regional at Clemson before falling to eventual national champ South Carolina in super regionals.

Like UConn that year, Indiana fell out of the Top 25 for a few weeks after its slow start, and like UConn the Hoosiers have gotten very hot down the stretch. After winning a road series at second-place Illinois, Indiana is 28-12 overall and sits atop the Big Ten standings by three games at 13-2. And that preseason No. 3 ranking doesn’t look so bad now that Indiana is No. 2 in the Ratings Percentage Index, despite playing in the No. 10 RPI conference. The Hoosiers are going to host a regional again, and they stand a very solid change of earning a national seed. The angst of the first few weeks is a distant memory.

“I think it was a combination of things, really,” IU coach Tracy Smith said of the turnaround. “One, I think we were honestly trying to live up to everybody’s expectations, and I don’t think we were handling that well. But two, we were a mature team that was just not hitting. We were pitching well and playing good defense. We had no consistency being able to get outside. One of the strength of our team is our power. People said, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with you?’ Nothing’s wrong with us; the bats are going to come. Once we’ve gotten outside and the bats have started to heat up, we’ve been pretty consistent. So we were not really making a lot out of it, I think other people made a bigger deal about it than we were.”

The Hoosiers have had to overcome significant injury woes, too. Closer Ryan Halstead, the team’s career and single-season saves leader, was lost for the season to knee surgery after four games. Lefthander Kyle Hart (3-1, 2.29) had joined ace Joey DeNato (9-1, 2.26) to form a strong one-two punch in the rotation, but then Hart was lost to Tommy John surgery in mid-April. A third key arm, Will Coursen-Carr, has been unable to harness his control, posting more walks (22) than strikeouts (21) in 35 innings.

“So in effect we’ve lost three of our top five pitchers,” Smith said. “Will’s coming back on it, we’re going to work him back in there slowly. Brian Korte has really stepped up, and Christian Morris is throwing the heck out of it.”

Morris (2-3, 2.47) has moved from Sunday to Saturday, and Korte (1-0, 2.49) has made a smooth transition from the bullpen to the Sunday starter role. Smith said Morris has lost about 60 pounds since his freshman year, and his physical transformation has helped him take off as a sophomore. He can run his fastball up to 92-93 on occasion, pitching at 89-91 and mixing in an improved breaking ball and decent changeup.

Korte has high-80s to low-90s velocity from the left side, and his breaking ball has made huge strides. But he lacked feel for that pitch and his changeup Sunday against Illinois, so he was able to keep the Illini at bay primarily with his fastball, allowing just two hits over five innings.

“The biggest plus has been the emergence of Brian Korte,” Smith said. “He was a guy-guy out of high school, now getting his opportunity and doing something. It’s not a fluke; he’s got a good arm.”

Meanwhile, hard-throwing Scott Effross (3-1, 1.41, 5 saves) has had no trouble assuming the closer role, and he has a nice supporting cast in junior righthander Luke Harrison (4-0, 2.04) and draft-eligible redshirt freshman righty Jake Kelzer (0-2, 3.63, 29-6 K-BB in 17 IP). The IU coaches were buzzing in the fall about Kelzer, a 6-foot-7 former swimmer with limited pitching experience. He has blossomed this spring, giving Indiana a developmental success story reminiscent of another tall pitcher, 2013 Big Ten pitcher of the year Aaron Slegers.

“Kelzer’s got a major league out pitch right now in his breaking ball,” Smith said. “The other day he was throwing 87-88 mph breaking pitches. That’s why his strikeout numbers are so good. And he’ll get up to 92-93. I’ll be anxious to see how it all unfolds for him. Organizations are on to him because of his strikeout numbers. You just don’t see that type of breaking pitch every day.”

Another key injury came in the outfield, where Casey Smith (Tracy’s son) has been plagued by a condition called reactive arthritis, causing severe pain to flare up in various parts of his body. But Brad Hartong has replaced him in the lineup and provided a major spark. A versatile, physical, athletic 6-foot-5, 210-pounder, Hartong can play corner outfield, corner infield or catcher. He transferred from Cypress (Calif.) JC last year and had to sit out a season because of a math requirement at Indiana, and Smith said he was shocked Hartong was still willing to wait around for his opportunity to play. He has made the most of it lately, earning Big Ten player of the week honors after going 9-for-17 with 10 RBIs in four games last week.

“Once Hartong’s been put in the lineup consistently, that’s really, really helped us,” Smith said. “That’s really when things kind of turned around. We were battling in the 5 and 6 hole, behind (Kyle) Schwarber and (Sam) Travis we weren’t getting any production. Hartong’s really elevated our play.”

Dustin DeMuth

Dustin DeMuth (Photo by Andrew Woolley)

Indiana’s big three of Schwarber, Travis and Dustin DeMuth has hit for average and power, as expected. And Scott Donley is up to .295 with five homers after a brutal start to the season.

DeMuth and Schwarber are also two of Indiana’s most improved defensive players, a big reason for the team’s huge turnaround on defense. That area was IU’s Achilles’ heel last year, when the Hoosiers fielded .966 (after playing much better defense down the stretch). This year, they are fielding .974.

“I think that’s been a huge difference in our play,” Smith said. “Even early when we were losing those games, we were still pitching and playing good defense, just weren’t hitting. I’ve been very pleased. I’d still like to see us a little better at the shortstop position, but overall we’re greatly improved. There were times last year where I think there were only like 10 teams worse than us in the country. It was bad.”

Shortstop is only major question remaining, as Indiana has made too many errors there. Nick Ramos and Chad Clark have had chances at the position, and Smith said sophomore Brian Wilhite will get an opportunity going forward, as the Hoosiers sacrifice some offense for better defense.

With three weeks left in the regular season, Indiana is playing at a very high level, and the schedule looks very favorable down the stretch, with series against Purdue (No. 199 in the RPI), at Penn State (No. 215) and vs. Minnesota (No. 116). The Hoosiers figure to drop a bit in the RPI, but the RPI Needs Report says they can still finish inside the top eight with an 8-3 finish—and they look entirely capable of doing that.

“We’re going to remind our guys, Nebraska lost two out of three against Northwestern, so we’re taking nothing for granted,” Smith said. “We haven’t played Purdue in two years; the last time we played them was the fight game in the Big Ten championship. So our guys are going to be ready to play them, trust me.”

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Bradley Zimmer

PORTLAND, Ore.—Bradley Zimmer might have been college baseball’s best hitter in the first half of the season. Then, as his San Francisco team struggled, Zimmer started trying to do too much, as Dons coach Nino Giarratano put it. He went hitless last weekend against Pepperdine, and he went hitless in his first seven at-bats this weekend at Portland. Then, in the ninth inning of Game One of Saturday’s doubleheader, Zimmer suddenly took over, and delivered a loud reminder of why he will be a first-round pick this June.

Golden Spikes 2014With the score tied 1-1 and the bases empty in the top of the ninth, the junior center fielder took a pair of curveballs out of the zone, then pulled a fastball through the left side for a single. The next batter lined a hard single to left—but rather than advance 90 feet like almost any other player would have, the lanky, long-striding Zimmer turned on the afterburners and went first-to-third, sliding in just ahead of the throw. He then scored the go-ahead run on a sacrifice fly.

“He can change the game in a matter of seconds just like he did in the ninth inning,” Giarratano said. “A base hit to left field, and he runs in that guy’s face. You just don’t see that from anybody. He just accelerated, and he has a little extra gear when he got close to third base and the play was going to be close. He’s got this gear where he can go to a high gear, then a little extra whenever he needs to get to a ball or a base. It’s fun to see. It’s jaw-dropping every time I’ll see him do it.

“As soon as I saw him take the second stride from first to second base, I was like, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ And boom, he’s safe.”

Of course, USF couldn’t hold the 2-1 lead in the bottom of the ninth—it’s been that kind of year for the Dons. But Zimmer did his part to prevent the Pilots from scoring the winning run. With men at second and third, a single up the middle scored the tying run, and the trail runner attempted to score from second. Zimmer fired a one-hopper to the plate, and the baserunner apparently slid around the catcher’s tag to give Portland the victory.

Bradley Zimmer (Photo by Larry Goren).

Bradley Zimmer (Photo by Larry Goren).

“I think his arm is very good,” Giarratano said. “I think he’s a little banged up with the season going on. He got stuck behind that ball a little bit today and made a really good throw. If he gets through that ball, he throws that guy out by a lot. I thought it was a pretty close play either way. But I think that arm plays very well. I think he plays well enough to be able to play right field with that arm, and obviously he can stay in center field.”

No college player in this draft class can match Zimmer’s overall combination of tools. He can run, and he likes to steal bases (he has already matched last season’s stolen base total of 19). As he has added strength to his wiry 6-foot-5 frame, his power has begun to emerge. After going homerless as a gangly freshman, Zimmer hit seven homers last year and has seven more this spring. If he continues to fill out and add strength, he could profile as a prototype right fielder, or a five-tool center fielder. He can hit for average: He is still batting .374/.458/.598 despite cooling down recently. He has developed steadily as a hitter from his freshman year (.243) to his sophomore year (.320), to last summer with Team USA to this spring.

“He’s come a long way from where he was as a freshman, with the long limbs and moving fast, to slowing down and getting on time, and handling different pitches,” Giarratano said. “Even this year, he’s not getting an opportunity, really, to see a whole lot of pitches. I think they’re just wildly trying to throw the ball down and away. If he had the patience at times that we saw (2013 Golden Spikes Award winner Kris) Bryant had last year, when he got one pitch—it’s not that he’s not patient, but it’s just different for him. He’s trying to do a little bit too much with this team. When the team was successful, you could tell he wasn’t trying to do too much.”

Zimmer has drawn 21 walks and struck out 30 times, and he has had to get accustomed to seeing a steady diet of breaking balls. In the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader, Zimmer stayed back and singled up the middle on a curveball in the third inning, then took advantage when he saw another fastball in the sixth, turning on it for another hard single. The Dons went on to win that game convincingly, and Zimmer finished the series with positive momentum.

“I’ve been up and down,” Zimmer said. “I think it’s one of those things where I kind of hit a rough patch, wasn’t seeing the ball well. I think I’ve obviously been pitched a little differently this year than in past years, I’ve been pitched backwards. I’ve definitely adjusted to that, done a good job of staying back on that pitch and driving it.”

Giarratano said Zimmer has also shown power to the opposite field, hitting home runs over the net in left field at USF. He’s still just tapping into his raw power potential, and there’s no doubt that his best days are ahead of him.

His days this spring have been pretty darn good, too. He has been one of the country’s best all-around players, a sure-fire All-American who has handled the pressure of the draft very well. Zimmer said watching older brother Kyle go through the draft process at USF two years ago helped prepare him for the experience. Kyle, a righthander, wound up being drafted fifth overall by the Royals and now rates as the system’s top prospect.

“Seeing him go through the process was obviously pretty exciting,” Bradley Zimmer said. “But I think it’s one of those things where I’ve prepared myself, and I just kind of go out and execute my role every day, and the rest will take care of itself.”

Kyle’s presence at USF was obviously a big reason Bradley left home in the San Diego area to become a Don, and playing alongside his brother as a freshman was a special experience.

“It was definitely a very, very exciting time,” Zimmer said. “Everyone wants to play with their sibling if they play the same sport as you, and I looked up to him my whole life. It was definitely very fun to play with him, and I hope I get to do it again in the near future.”

Not many schools have produced a pair of first-round brothers, and the Dons are about to do just that. Giarratano knows how fortunate he was to have the the Zimmer brothers for a combined six seasons. And both players made huge developmental strides under USF’s care.

“They’re both great kids,” Giarratano said. “They come from a wonderful family, but they’re completely opposites. Kyle was kind of gregarious and joined everybody in, and Kyle had this electric thing going with his personality. Bradley’s quiet. There’s times on the bus where he’ll get some music going with the guys and he’ll break out of that. But for the most part, he doesn’t say a whole lot unless he’s spoken to, and sometimes even when he’s spoken to he doesn’t say a whole lot. So there’s a real quiet strength about him that I think is going to be wonderful at the next level.

“He’s just a great player, you know? Emotionally, he’s calm and collected, and he just keeps playing. And when you talk about the tools, he’s got all those tools necessary.”