Three Strikes: Week 12

Strike One: Anteaters State Case As Big West’s Best

More than most college baseball coaches, UC Irvine’s Mike Gillespie looks at the big picture and isn’t afraid to comment about it. Every year, he has a good handle on the Ratings Percentage Index reality for his team; he always seems to know what the Anteaters need to do in order to make the postseason. So he didn’t get carried away by Irvine’s 11-1 start in Big West play, against the second-division teams of the conference. He knew the meat of the schedule was in the final four weeks, with series versus UC Santa Barbara, at Cal Poly, versus Cal State Fullerton and at Long Beach State.

The Anteaters aced that first test this weekend, allowing just four runs in a three-game sweep of the Gauchos to improve to 14-1 in the Big West and climb into the Baseball America rankings for the first time this season at No. 23.

“Hey, come on, I think that the smart people knew, clearly knew, who we had played in the first four weeks in the conference, and with what was coming in the last four weeks that our bubble would get burst in a sudden hurry,” Gillespie said. “So I’m sure that what happened this weekend probably comes as a surprise to most people. And we’re not delusional about what is left. We’re fully aware of what’s down the road and what’s left to do. We did have a couple of good wins early, but they get lost in the fact that we lost two out of three to Fresno State, two out of three at Nebraska, two out of three to San Diego State. There are also some good wins to hang your hat on a little bit, but if we were going to make a run and be a playoff team, we would have to do it in the conference.”

Andrew Morales

Andrew Morales (Photo courtesy UC Irvine)

There are plenty of potential pitfalls still ahead, but Irvine’s postseason outlook got a lot rosier this weekend. The Anteaters jumped from No. 54 to No. 35 in the RPI, and they maintain a three-game lead over Cal Poly in the loss column. The Big West has no conference tournament, of course, so if the ‘Eaters finish atop the standings their RPI is moot, because they’ll snag an automatic bid. And it’s time to take them seriously as a bona fide Big West championship-caliber club.

Pitching and defense are UCI’s strengths, as usual. The Anteaters never stockpile huge power arms, but they are usually well-supplied with strike-throwers who command multiple pitches, and this year is no exception. They also have a true ace in senior righthander Andrew Morales (8-0, 0.91 with 94 strikeouts and 21 walks in 89 innings), who is 18-0 in two seasons at Irvine after going 21-1 in two years at Rio Hondo (Calif.) CC. Gillespie said Morales was a “missed guy” all along because he stood less than 6 feet and weighed around 150 pounds. He was a winner in high school, but he was undersized, so he was overlooked by D-I schools. Even after helping lead Rio Hondo to the state junior-college final four as a sophomore, he was available. The ‘Eaters finally scooped him up late when they had some scholarship money open up, and they have been reaping the benefits ever since.

“This guy Morales has been money since he got here,” Gillespie said. “The truth of the matter is, the stuff is pretty legit right now. Now he’s 195 pounds, and he’s up to 94. I think to be truthful about it it’s 90-91, but it’s almost always above 90, it’s a slider, it’s a change, and intense competitor, a smart, smart guy—he will graduate on time easy, by the way, which doesn’t always happen with those junior college transfers. He is 39-1 as a college pitcher if you include the junior college stuff. So it is a hell of a story. I’ve done this now for 112 years, and this guy is one of the best stories I’ve ever dealt with.”

The Anteaters have another rather unlikely success story at the back of the staff. Junior righty Sam Moore leads Division I with 21 saves to go along with a 1.46 ERA and a 32-7 strikeout-walk mark. He threw only 15 innings over his first two seasons, but Gillespie said he has blossomed this spring after making a breakthrough with his split-finger. When expected closer Mitch Merten was injured a week before the season started, Moore found himself in the role, and he has been the linchpin of the bullpen.

Taylor Sparks

Taylor Sparks (Photo courtesy UC Irvine)

“He’s been the most valuable player,” Gillespie said. “He’s always thrown the split, but he hasn’t thrown it like this. He’s a short righthander, I think it would be begging to say he’s 6-foot. It’s always been 83-85; he could throw strikes, but there was no special pitch that you could say, ‘This guy’s going to be out there in the ninth inning.’ I think the thing about him is he’s not afraid. He has a psyche about him, a mentality about him, that he just doesn’t crack when somebody gets on and we’re ahead by one in the ninth. He sort of likes it. He’s one of those guys that just doesn’t know that he doesn’t throw 100.”

Soft-tossing lefty Elliot Surrey (6-2, 2.09) and veteran righthander Evan Brock (8-3, 2.85) have been very steady behind Morales in the rotation. Neither has standout stuff, but both compete and throw enough strikes to let their defense do the heavy lifting. Irvine is fielding a sound .975 and has seasoned veterans behind the plate (Jerry McClanahan), at shortstop (Chris Rabago) and at third base (Taylor Sparks). Gillespie thinks Sparks has the athleticism and instincts to be a future big league Gold Glover at the hot corner, and he has enough raw power for the position, though he has been up and down at the plate this year, hitting .310/.393/.511 with four of the team’s 10 homers and 27 RBIs.

At the other corner, junior Connor Spencer has continued to hit for average, just has he has throughout his UCI career. He leads the team in all three triple slash categories at .376/.463/.514. A DH early in his career, he has also been “surprisingly good” at first base, where Gillespie said he has been something of a savior for the team’s infield defense.

Throw in gritty role players like Jonathan Munoz and Grant Palmer, a pair of singles hitters with a knack for making contact and grinding out at-bats, and Irvine has a solid offensive core. It’s not a flashy team, but it has a few stars in Sparks (a likely top-three-rounds pick), Spencer, Morales and Moore, and the supporting cast has provided ample contributions. By now, the 32-14 Anteaters have become a confident, dangerous lot.

“I think most importantly,” Gillespie said, “a big part of it is that they’ve come to kind of believe that, ‘Wait a minute, maybe we are pretty good.’”

Strike Two: Bullpen Lifts Cowboys Up

It took a little while for the Big 12 to sort itself out. Back in early March, coaches around the league felt like any of the league’s nine teams could finish in first place or in last place. Now, there is some clarity. The top six teams in the standings have strong RPIs and look headed to regionals. Kansas swept Texas Tech this weekend to solidify its position. The bottom three teams (Baylor, Oklahoma and Kansas State) will be at home for the postseason, unless one of them can make a run to the Big 12 tournament title.

And the two teams at the top are clear: Oklahoma State and Texas Christian. Both teams are red-hot, and they head into the final two weeks of the regular season tied atop the standings at 13-5. As we wrote in this space two weeks ago, TCU has one of the nation’s very best pitching staffs, and its offense has heated up in the second half as well.

Oklahoma State doesn’t look quite as formidable on paper. The Cowboys don’t have a pair of aces like TCU does in Brandon Finnegan and Preston Morrison. But the Cowboys do have a deep, dependable bullpen, giving them the ability to win games even when their starters fail to work deep into games—it’s a formula similar to what has worked for Southeastern Conference leader Florida this year. None of OSU’s three starters made it through five innings this weekend, but the Cowboys still found a way to sweep Arizona State, helping them vault 13 spots to No. 27 in the RPI and giving their hosting hopes a major boost. Since losing series to San Diego and Baylor in march, Oklahoma State has won six straight series—all of them against likely regional teams (TCU, Texas Tech, West Virginia, Kansas, Texas and ASU).

Brendan McCurry (Photo by Andrew Woolley).

Brendan McCurry (Photo by Andrew Woolley).

“We’re a better team now than we were eight weeks ago,” Oklahoma State coach Josh Holliday said. “We’re playing better baseball, we’re a more consistent team. That’s kind of how we’ve gotten to that position. We’ve got finals right now. My goal is to keep our rhythm through exams, make sure the kids don’t get totally away from the game. I really feel like if we keep getting better, our kids think they can play with anybody.”

Certainly, the OSU bullpen inspires confidence. The Cowboys have a potential All-American in senior closer Brendan McCurry (5-0, 0.49 with 14 saves and a 41-7 strikeout-walk mark in 37 innings). A 5-foot-10 bulldog with a three-quarters slot, McCurry attacks hitters with an 87-90 fastball, a sharp 72-73 curveball and a deceptive high-70s changeup. He worked a scoreless inning Friday and two more scoreless frames Sunday to nail down 8-5 and 14-12 victories.

Another smallish senior, righty Vince Wheeland (6-0, 1.32), threw a combined six scoreless innings over the first two games of the series, allowing just three hits. Holliday said Wheeland’s velocity has ticked up this year—he has bumped 91-92, though he pitches at 88-89.

“He has a bulldog mentality, he will go both sides, he’s got a slider and a changeup, and he works fast,” Holliday said. “He does all the things a defense loves to see out of a pitcher. He throws it out there about every 15 seconds, pitches to contact, so guys know the ball is coming back at them in the first two or three pitches. He’s what every college coach wants in that bullpen, a three-pitch strike thrower with confidence.”

Freshman righty Blake Battenfield (2-0, 1.24 in 44 innings) is the third key bullpen piece. Holliday calls him a “strike-throwing machine” with a fastball, slider and curveball and plenty projection left in his 6-foot-3 frame, giving him a chance to add to his 87-91 fastball in time. His slider a true out pitch.

The Cowboys have gotten plenty of good starts from Jon Perrin (5-3, 1.98) and Tyler Buffett (2-1, 2.25), but pitching coach Rob Walton has made the bullpen the backbone of the staff, and the driving force behind Oklahoma State’s surge—along with the team’s overall toughness and resilience.

“When Rob put our pitching staff together and started to define roles dating back to last year, he wanted to build from the back forward,” Holliday said. “He felt like that’s the way you build a championship team, build from the back end and shorten games. We’ve got some guys in that bullpen that we can use multiple times in a week. Vince Wheeland is the long reliever/stopper, McCurry is the closer, and Blake Battenfield is stopper No. 2. We’ve used those three guys in three-game series to shorten things up.”

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Michael Katz

By his standards, Michael Katz didn’t do anything out of the ordinary this weekend. He was 2-for-3 with three runs and an RBI on Friday. He had three more hits and two more runs Saturday. He went 3-for-4 with a run and two RBIs Sunday. He doubled twice on the weekend, helping William & Mary remain in first place in the Colonial Athletic Association with a sweep Towson.

Golden Spikes 2014“Sometimes you look up at the end of the day and say, ‘Eh, Mike wasn’t awesome today,’ but he was 3-for-4 with three singles and three RBIs,” Tribe coach Brian Murphy said. “So we’re taking it a little bit for granted, I think.”

After three years of putting up monstrous numbers, Katz has conditioned the Tribe to expect greatness. He was a key piece of last year’s regional team, which won a school-record 39 games and earned the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament victories, by batting .358/.446/.547 with 23 doubles. He’s having his best season as a junior this spring, leading the nation in doubles (23), RBIs (71) and total bases (142) while ranking second in slugging (.786) and OPS (1.230) and fourth in home runs (14). He’s also 11th in batting (.403).

“Obviously there are parts of it that come a little bit naturally, some stuff you can’t teach,” Murphy said. “As a hitter, he uses the whole field. He has a good feel for the strike zone. He doesn’t need to hit it to the pull side to put up doubles and home runs. He’s been a fairly complete hitter for us. We’ve seen him get to some good velocity (and) we’ve seen him put some good swings on some breaking balls. I don’t know how I would pitch him, to be honest with you. I think just stay on the edges, but if you make a mistake, he’s done a good job of hitting.”

Murphy said a major key for Katz has been cutting down his strikeouts. He fanned 52 times in 212 at-bats as a freshman (when he still hit .316 with 10 homers), but he has just 29 strikeouts and 29 walks through 191 at-bats this spring.

“He needed to get more balls in play,” Murphy said. “He’s done a better job with two strikes, and he’s able to choose what he wants early in counts, stuff like that.”

Michael Katz

Michael Katz (Photo courtesy William & Mary)

It helps that Katz is not under pressure to carry the whole offense himself. William & Mary (30-15 overall, 14-3 in the CAA) leads the nation in scoring at nine runs per game, so he has plenty of help in the lineup. Kevin Nutter and Nick Thompson are quality table setters in front of him, and he has gotten protection behind him from Ryan Hissey, Ryan Lindemuth and Kevin Casey. So Katz has been able to stay within himself and take what pitchers give him.

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Katz, who bats and throws righthanded, will go as far as hit bat takes him in pro ball, but Murphy says he is far from a liability on defense. He was a first baseman when he arrived at William & Mary, and he started out last year at third base. This year he has been primarily a left fielder but has also played first when the Tribe shuffles the lineup around.

“He’s been pretty good out there in left; he moves around pretty well, and he’s an accurate thrower,” Murphy said. “He can come in and play first base when we’ve made some changes, so he’s got a little position versatility. He’s a really good athlete; some people tend to look at his size and think he’s just a masher, but he can do a lot of good things.”