Strike One: Emotional Week For Alabama
Somehow, Alabama's players found a way to keep their minds on baseball and win a series at Mississippi State this weekend. It was an emotional end to an emotional week for the Crimson Tide, who saw their hometown of Tuscaloosa ravaged by a mile-wide tornado on Wednesday afternoon, leaving dozens dead or missing and many more homeless.
"For our players, to go through what they did over the last four or five days—it was definitely emotional," Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said. "One of our kids said he went into a home and actually pulled two bodies out. There's stories that are just unreal. We've got a heck of a group, I can tell you that. Some high-character kids."
The storm, which struck about 5 p.m., knocked out cell phone towers in the Tuscaloosa area, so the coaches weren't able to confirm that all of their team was safe until about 8:30 that night, after a number of them had combed the downtown area and student housing complexes looking for missing teammates.
"It was unlike anything I've ever been through," Gaspard said. "It's just one of those things you feel real fortunate that all the people in our team and families, everyone is safe, and that's the most important thing. But it's just major devastation in our city, and obviously there are going to be a lot of lives that are lost—they're still in search-and-rescue mode for another couple of days. It's just mass destruction. It was unreal—it really was."
Eight to 10 Alabama players were left without homes, cars and, in some cases even clothes. The most harrowing experience was that of Josh Rosecrans and Nathan Kennedy, whose home was located right in the eye of the storm, Gaspard said. The two hopped in a bathtub with a mattress on top, and when the storm had passed through, all that remained was the two walls in the bathroom and the tub they were in.
Brandt Hendricks was part of a group that went from home to home searching for survivors and helping the injured in the immediate aftermath. He's the player who helped pull some bodies out of homes.
"There's a picture of him in one of the papers loading up an injured person in the back of a truck," Gaspard said. "He experienced things that you wouldn't wish on anyone."
After walking around town letting the devastation hit home Thursday, Gaspard decided his team needed a day away before its doubleheader Saturday in Starkville, so the team loaded a bus and spent Friday night in New Albany, Miss., where they worked out at Itawamba High School.
"You could just see on everyone's face, guys were mentally and physically fatigued," Gaspard said. "Saturday morning, they just had something about them. They were a very tired group, but they played with some passion. I think it wasn't about a batting average or anything else on Saturday, it was just about playing the game."
In the first game of Saturday's twin bill, senior Brett Whitaker—who entered the game 0-for-9 on the season–delivered a game-winning, pinch-hit homer in the 10th inning, which gave the team an emotional lift. The Tide won the nightcap in come-from-behind fashion when Jared Reaves hit a game-winning RBI single in the eighth.
"The group was so emotional after that (first) game, then found a way to win the next game," Gaspard said. "Just as a coach, I could not be more proud of a group, with the way they handled themselves. Through everything, we still have a responsibility. The game of baseball is pretty small after this. I spoke to the kids and said, 'I know it's small, but we might be able to put a smile on somebody's face for a little while today.' You come back home last night, and today is our off day, and the majority of the guys are out there in the streets in the community helping out, doing what we can to help our community."
The rebuilding effort has just begun.
Strike Two: Believe In The Beavers
LOS ANGELES—A little thing like a four-run deficit against potentially the No. 1 overall pick in the draft was nothing for Oregon State. The Beavers are nothing if not resilient. So they wasted no time erasing a 5-1 hole against Gerrit Cole on Friday, answering UCLA's three-run fourth with six runs of their own in the fifth, highlighted by Carter Bell's three-run triple. The Beavers went on to a 7-5 win in that one, en route to a huge series win on the road to remain atop the Pac-10 standings.
"We knew we're never down and out in any game," Bell said. "We've been down before against real good guys in the Pac. We've got a lot of confidence in this dugout that we can come back from anything. We're not scared, we're never going to back down from any opportunity."
Viewing challenges as "opportunities" has worked wonders for the Beavers. Injuries have hit this team hard—it lost its best hitter (Andrew Susac) and its starting second baseman (Jake Rodriguez) to broken hamates, and still it kept winning. The Beavers lost center fielder Garrett Nash to a fractured arm earlier this spring, but they plugged other players into the lineup until Nash returned. They have been without two of their best arms all season, as Taylor Starr has been slow to recover from Tommy John surgery, and Adam Duke (whom OSU coach Pat Casey calls one of the best freshmen the Beavers have ever landed) has not been out of action since hurting his arm last summer, though he's getting close to being ready for game action.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of a group of guys that has rallied together," Casey said. "I said last week when we played Washington State, 'We've got to get these guys healthy.' And these guys just keep proving me wrong. But the toughness is way ahead of the talent right now. Obviously we feel like we've put ourselves in a situation where we've played well, we've played with that energy."
Bell epitomizes that toughness and energy. Bell had not played in two weeks before Friday while battling a pulled quadriceps muscle, and he has been playing through a broken index finger on his throwing hand for a few weeks. On Friday, he hurt a finger on his non-throwing hand while diving into first base.
"Yeah, I've got a couple fractured fingers, I'm a little beat up," Bell said. "But I'm Canadian, so that's how we roll . . . These guys have a lot of heart, a lot of courage, a lot of guts, and we're all brothers, so it's a lot of fun."
Oregon State is not a powerful team—it has just 13 homers on the year, and Susac has four of them. But the Beavers battle for every out, which makes them tough on opposing pitchers, even those as talented as Cole.
"Oregon State's a very good, frustrating team," UCLA coach John Savage said. "I mean, they frustrate pitchers, and they did that (Friday). They've done that since I've been in the league; nothing surprised me that I saw. They can come hitting .250, .260, whatever, and I know exactly who they're going to be, and that's who they were. So you've got to give them a lot of credit. They're a good club, and there's a reason why they're 31-8."
Casey said his club does a lot of little things right, and that's the biggest reason for its gaudy record (which is now 32-9). The little things win games, he said, not the big things like perfect games and three-run homers.
But the Beavers got a big thing on Saturday, when junior lefthander Josh Osich threw a no-hitter in a 2-0 win against UCLA. It was Oregon State's first no-hitter since 1947, and the Beavers needed that kind of heroic effort to beat Trevor Bauer, who struck out 15 in a complete game of his own.
"I just told myself I've got to go pitch for pitch with him, let my team scratch some runs for me, and we'll get a win," Osich said. "I didn't really think about the no-hitter until the last inning, when I got the last out. After I struck that last guy out, I was so excited I didn't know what to do . . . That's the best day of my life right there."
Osich said he was able to locate his mid-90s fastball to both sides of the plate, and his changeup was working, but he also worked in a curveball for the first time this year. He hadn't thrown it while working his way back from Tommy John surgery.
Osich's historic outing lifted the Beavers to a series win against the Pac-10's preseason favorites. Oregon State is 16-3 in the Pac-10 now, sitting alone in first place. It's time to stop wondering when injuries are going to catch up with this team, and just admire it for its amazing run.
"No negative thoughts are coming from our team," Osich said. "We battle through everything and prove to everybody that we're pretty good."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Matt Rice
Western Kentucky senior catcher Matt Rice is everything a coach could ask for in a college baseball player. On the field, he has been a productive player since he showed up at school; he hit .399 with 10 homers as a sophomore, .369 with 10 homers as a junior, and he is batting .368/.444/.573 with eight homers and 48 RBIs in 185 at-bats this year, matching or exceeding his production with the old, more potent bats.
"He's going to hit more home runs this year this year with the new bats than he did last year with the old ones," Hilltoppers coach Chris Finwood said. "The RBIs are up, the average is just as high, so the bat hasn't really affected him."
On April 19, he became WKU's career hits leader, earning a much-deserved curtain call from the 5,142 fans on hand for the Hilltoppers' game against in-state foe Kentucky. Those fans who have watched Rice play for four years surely had an added appreciation for his value.
"Western Kentucky obviously has prospects with Kes Carter, who does everything you want a college bat to do, and they have (Phil) Wetherell throwing 94, but Rice is who makes them go," another Sun Belt Conference coach said. "He's so solid, in every way. He's a real presence in their lineup, he knows how to hit and he's got the strength to hit some home runs. And he's such a leader on defense . . . He's just a key to everything they do."
Rice had five more hits to lead Western Kentucky to a series win at Louisiana-Monroe this weekend.
The hits keep on coming for Rice, but all his gaudy numbers cannot express his worth for the Hilltoppers.
"He's a wondeful, neat kid to have the priviledge to coach," Finwood said. "He's a 4.0 mechanical engineering student—a lot of leadership there. How many guys in college baseball have better value to help you win than Matt Rice? The position that he plays, catching every day, that's what really makes it remarkable. He's back there getting nicked up, calling pitches, doing all that every day—it's just really, really neat. And he finds time to be the No. 1 engineering student in the school. He's such an engaging kid, he's got a great personality. You get kids like that, you never forget. He's just something really special."