Strike One: Big Red Lasts A Little Longer
For the second Sunday in a row, Cornell's season came down to a battle of stamina, will and heart. Fortunately, the Big Red has a deep reservoir of intangibles to draw upon.
After splitting Saturday's doubleheader to start the best-of-three Ivy League championship series, Cornell and Dartmouth engaged in a taut pitcher's duel Sunday. Freshman Brian McAfee allowed just one run over six innings for Cornell, but the game headed to extra innings tied 1-1. Fellow freshman Kellen Urbon kept Dartmouth off the scoreboard for five innings, allowing just two hits, until Chris Cruz finally delivered a walk-off two-run homer in the 11th, sprinting around the bases to give Cornell a 3-1 win and send it to regionals for the first time since 1977.
"It's been 35 years," said Cornell coach Bill Walkenbach, who played for the Big Red in the 1990s and set the program's all-time home run record. "I'm really happy for the alumni, them getting to share this with us. There are some people who have supported this program for years and years and years, and to give them this gift is truly gratifying . . . I've been fishing for this Ivy League championship since I was a freshman in the 1995 season, the fall of '94. So a 17-and-a-half-year journey for me—that makes it even sweeter."
A week earlier, Cornell needed to beat Princeton on the final day of the regular season just to win the Lou Gehrig Division and advance to the championship series. That game played out very similarly: McAfee turned in 5 2/3 strong innings, Urbon followed with 6 1/3 innings (allowing just an unearned run), and the Big Red won on a home run in the 12th, by Ben Swinford.
"That's just kind of the personality of this team," Walkenbach said. "I think we're 5-0 in extra innings. They just don't like to do things easy. They like to grind out games, they like to grind me into the ground. Different guys like to step up and be the hero. Today it was Chris Cruz."
Cornell hoped Cruz would emerge as a force in the middle of their lineup as a sophomore after hitting three homers as a freshman, and he's done just that, slugging an Ivy-best 12 homers. He's still learning to cut down his strikeouts and use the whole field, but he is a real presence in the lineup, as is senior Brian Billigen (.362/.446/.570 with five homers, 38 RBIs and 13 steals), the best overall player on the team. Walkenbach says Billigen is the closest thing in the Ivy League to a five-tool player—he runs the 60-yard dash in 6.5 seconds, plays a standout center field, has a good arm and has 19 career home runs, just two shy of Walkebach's school record.
Billigen's fun-loving nature also embodies the makeup of a Cornell team that has a blast playing the game and constantly has a "loud, raucous" dugout, according to Walkenbach.
"He's got this nickname: Beans," Walkenbach said of Billigen. "He got it his freshman year. I think they started calling him Jelly Beans because he was always so happy and jovial and joking around, and it got shortened to Beans. He's kept that persona his entire career. It's cool seeing a kid who's such a jokester, so happy, seeing him in the middle of your lineup, in the three-spot, hitting the ball all over the diamond—what a great combination that is."
An exceptionally mild winter allowed Cornell to get outside much more than usual early this season—Walkenbach said the Big Red spent just six days inside the entire season, while it ordinarily would practice inside more than 30 days—which helped it get off to a strong start offensively. But the offense sputtered in the middle of the season, so Cornell had to shift its grip-it-and-rip-it style to more of a small ball game.
But pitching has been a driving force behind Cornell's school-record 31-win campaign. The Big Red went just 10-30 last year, but a banner freshman class has made a huge impact, especially on the mound. McAfee (6-0, 3.19), like senior sophomore ace Connor Kaufmann (7-2, 4.00), is a savvy righthander who mixes speeds and locations with four pitches to keep hitters off balance. Senior sinkerballer Rick Marks (4-4, 3.09) and freshman Brent Jones (4-2, 4.50) give Cornell two more quality starters, while Urbon (3-1, 0.51, nine saves) anchors the bullpen.
"Our freshmen arms are one of the main reasons we are where we are right now," Walkenbach said. "These are extremely mentally tough kids. They have the mental fortitude of somebody twice their age. It's just unbelievable what they've been able to accomplish.
"Hopefully we can use our experience to put up a good fight in regionals, put a scare into some people, maybe shock some people."
Strike Two: Bittersweet Symphony—That's UCLA-Purdue
LOS ANGELES—After a hard-fought doubleheader sweep of Purdue on Saturday, UCLA coach John Savage was pleased with his team's crispness and his bullpen's efficiency, while Boilermakers coach Doug Schreiber was left frustrated by the 10 bases his usually efficient pitchers gave away via walks and hit batsmen, and his offense's inability to generate timely hits.
"They were really some hard-fought games," Savage said. "The second game, they got 10 hits, we were fortunate. We pitched out of some problems, then we turned it over to our bullpen, and that's been our strength. We didn't have a very good offensive game, but it was enough, and we pitched and played defense. I don't think we walked a guy, I don't think we made an error. Good things happen when you play good baseball."
Sunday's story was dramatically different. After issuing no walks in the two games Saturday, UCLA pitchers issued eight on Sunday—including four by closer Scott Griggs to spark Purdue's stunning 10-run rally in the ninth. The Boilermakers walked just three in the game, and this time they got the timely hits in that ninth inning, when they sent 15 hitters to the plate to secure a 15-11 win.
The ninth inning changed the entire complexion of the series. Instead of the Bruins making an emphatic statement with a sweep, they had to walk away from what was still a quality series win with a horrible taste in their mouths. Purdue, meanwhile, leaves LA with some real momentum even after a series loss that likely thwarted its chances to earn a national seed.
The Boilermakers remain No. 7 in the RPI (per Boyd's World's updated rankings), and this was their first series loss all season, but it was also the only series on their schedule against a team inside the top 40; the other national seed contenders will all play many more games against elite competition. Still, Purdue is a lock to host a regional, and Schreiber indicated the likeliest site would be Gary, Ind., home of the Railcats of the independent American Association. But he said he was still trying to get in touch with the Cubs about exploring the possibility of hosting at Wrigley Field—the Cubs are on the road that weekend.
It's almost impossible to overstate how difficult it is for a Northern team to build a top-10 RPI 12 weeks into the season. Purdue has still played just 11 home games (going 9-2), but has gone 19-6 on the road and 6-1 at neutral sites. The Boilermakers are 7-3 against the top 50 and 18-8 against the top 100. Their season has been a resounding success, and this weekend they proved they can hang with a Pac-12 power on the road.
Schreiber observed after Saturday's doubleheader that his team was built similarly to UCLA's, and he's right. Both teams have deep lineups filled with accomplished veterans. Both teams have star power in the top half of their lineups (Purdue's top four of Tyler Spillner, Eric Charles, Cameron Perkins and Kevin Plawecki compares well with UCLA's Beau Amaral, Tyler Heineman, Cody Keefer, Jeff Gelalich group). Both have competitive strike-throwers who aren't overpowering in the rotation, and both have reliable bullpens—Sunday's UCLA meltdown notwithstanding.
Don't read too much into that ninth inning, but it was a reminder that Griggs isn't exactly Huston Street. His control and command have come a long way since he arrived at UCLA as a thrower with arm strength, but he still walks too many batters (he has 27 of them in 26 innings, to go along with 44 strikeouts and just seven hits allowed). Griggs struck out the side around a single in Saturday's second game, when his 81-83 power curveball was a major weapon and he threw his 92-94 mph fastball for strikes. But Savage said his alignment sometimes gets out of whack, causing him to spray his fastball at times; he actually commands his curveball better more consistently.
"The last month, he has been very good," Savage said Saturday. "He struggled against Stanford, he struggled at Long Beach. And then today was really what he's been for the previous 10 outings. That was like the first hit he's given up in a along time. We all know that there's walks, but at times he looks like a major league closer."
The Bruins need Griggs to put Sunday behind him and get back to looking like a shutdown closer, because their bullpen must be a source of confidence in June for this team to make a deep postseason run.
Doubters will persist in the warm-weather part of the country about Purdue's legitimacy, but the Boilermakers will be just as dangerous in the postseason as the Bruins.
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Kris Bryant
Kris Bryant was a slam-dunk choice for freshman All-America honors after hitting .365/.482/.599 with nine homers and 36 RBIs last year at San Diego.
He put up those numbers in 53 games. Through just 47 games as a sophomore, Bryant is hitting .373/.489/.689 with 13 homers and 51 RBIs. Sophomore slump? Please. With Bryant, it's been a sophomore surge to superstardom.
"The thing that strikes me most about him is he just improves on a daily basis, so it's really scary how good he can be," Toreros coach Rich Hill said. "He struck out a lot last year and in the Cape (Cod League), but this year he has more walks than strikeouts. He doesn't chase, he's very selective."
After posting a 33-55 walk-strikeout mark as a freshman, Bryant as 32 walks and just 30 strikeouts this year. Hill said Bryant has really connected with hitting coach Jay Johnson, who has helped spread him out a bit more in the batter's box to improve his balance.
"Now he's getting on time and on plane," Hill said. "Over time he's just developed a great eye. You combine all those factors, that's what's made the difference with him."
Bryant put on a show in USD's sweep of Brigham Young this weekend, going 8-for-15 (.533) with three homers, seven RBIs and three straight multi-hit games. Hill said his first home run of the weekend illustrated just how much righthanded power the 6-foot-5, 215-pound third baseman possesses.
"He hit it out opposite-field on a line," Hill said. "It probably took a branch off one of those fir trees out there. They were going down and away, the pitcher put it exactly where he wanted to, and he just crushed it oppo. I was telling our assistants, 'I don't know if I've ever seen one hit that hard.' I thought it was a double and it just kept rising."
Bryant was known for putting on jaw-dropping power displays in high school, when he earned comparisons to a young Troy Glaus, but he has matured into a much more complete player at USD. He also runs better than Glaus, and his long strides carry him from first to third or second to home in a hurry. He stole 18 bases in 21 tries last year and has seven steals in 10 attempts so far this year.
Bryant's mobility and plus arm could make him a great fit in right field some day, Hill said, but he has played a solid third base for the Toreros, fielding at a .930 clip. His overall game garnered him an invitation to play for USA Baseball's College National Team this summer.
"He's got great actions, he is very athletic," Hill said. "There's just a lot of moving parts over there; he's 6-5. Sometimes the rangy type of plays, he may be a little bit limited, but his glove is outstanding; he really makes the play coming in on the ball extremely well."
Hill knows he has a special talent on his hands—a future first-rounder whose decision to attend USD instead of signing a pro contract out of high school changed the entire complexion of the Toreros' lineup.
"You just don't see a guy like Kris in college very often," Hill said. "I feel like (former Stanford football coach) Jim Harbaugh talking about Andrew Luck. He's a lot like Andrew Luck: great leadership skills, extremely humble young man. As great of a player as he is, he's a better person. He just grinds, he loves being in the cage.
"I played with Tony Gwynn, and Tony Gwynn was never satisfied. He was on the field all the time, in the cages all the time. That's Kris: he's never satisfied. And he's really coming of age."