Strike One: Princeton Punches Its Ticket
Princeton became the first team to officially secure a spot in the 2011 NCAA tournament this weekend, winning the best-of-three Ivy League championship series against Dartmouth, which had won the Ivy's automatic bid each of the last two years.
It's quite a turnaround for the Tigers, who went 12-30 a year ago and finished last in the Ivy League at 6-14. But Princeton turned over much of its roster in the offseason, and its young talent matured as the 2011 season progressed. The young Tigers entered league play with a 5-13 mark after taking their lumps in a challenging nonconference schedule, but the early trials paid dividends later. Princeton opened its season with three games at Louisiana State, where it won the Sunday game and learned a little bit about itself.
"I think we kind of figured out at that point with the new bats, you could really attack people—it wasn't like going to play North Carolina and LSU with the old bats where you felt you could just get thumped out of the ballpark," Princeton coach Scott Bradley said. "I think our pitchers at that point just started to get confidence, especially with the top of the lineup and the bottom of the lineup, that you can attack hitters, and you can actually attack at the top of the strike zone. Because if you're working down, and you're trying to bust guys inside, the little guys can inside-out it and get the ball through the hole. So you want to throw the ball at the top of the zone and let guys take their best swing and get guys to hit long fly balls to the outfielders. So that helped us early on, and once we got into league play, a lot of our freshmen started to solidify themselves in the lineup."
Strike-throwers Mike Ford (5-3, 3.98), Zak Hermans (5-1, 2.85) and Matt Bowman (2-7, 5.05) executed Bradley's plan very well in Ivy League play, where the Tigers built plenty of confidence, finishing the regular season with the league's best overall record at 15-5. That earned them home-field advantage in the championship series against Dartmouth, which was particularly important because the Big Green owns the nation's longest home winning streak at 24 games.
"Dartmouth's got such a beautiful facility up there now, they're playing on the turf, everything is kind of slow," Bradley said. "A lot of their pitchers kind of keep the ball down. We really wanted to get them on our home field where we could keep the grass as short as we could, keep the dirt around the plate hard. So going into the last couple of weekends of the season, we had to win ballgames because we really wanted to play at home, and I think that was one of the deciding factors, because our clubs are so evenly matched."
Princeton's best players came up big this weekend. Ford, a freshman two-way talent, threw eight strong innings and delivered three hits in a 9-2 win in the first game of Saturday's doubleheader. Hermans (7.2 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 1 ER) pitched well in the second game, but Dartmouth rallied with five runs in the late innings to force a decisive third game.
Bowman, the team's best overall prospect, doubles as Princeton's starting shortstop, and Bradley thought his team's best chance was to leave him at short as much as possible, especially since Bowman was battling a stomach virus all weekend. Sophomore righty Kevin Link had pitched well earlier in the season at LSU and UNC before missing five weeks with an arm injury, but the Tigers have eased him back into action late, and he battled into the fifth inning in Sunday's third game. Then Princeton turned the ball over to freshman righty A.J. Goetz (3-1, 1.33 with three saves), thinking it could go to Bowman for an inning late in the game if necessary. It wasn't, as the fearless Goetz held Dartmouth to one run over 4 2/3 strong innings of relief.
Princeton's offensive leader, junior catcher Sam Mulroy (.322/.371/.544 with seven homers, 39 RBIs and 13 stolen bases), provided three hits and two RBIs to lead the Tigers to an 8-5 win, and its first trip to regionals since 2006. Mulroy was one of just two juniors on the field for Princeton—every other player was an underclassman. But Mulroy has set the tone all season.
"Sammy Mulroy's had a great year for us," Bradley said. "Sam is a quiet presence for us, and he's a phenomenal athlete. He was a high-level football player in high school, and our football people at Princeton wanted him badly. Even though he's behind the plate, he's a good enough athlete where I can put him in the outfield, and I don't have to catch him four games every weekend. For this series, I was able to run him into the outfield in the second game, and I think that kept him fresh. And he can really run. He got some huge hits for us (Sunday)."
Princeton (23-22) now gets two weeks off, during which the coaches are not allowed to run any official practices while the team focuses on exams and labs. They can do some individual work leading up to the last weekend in May, when exams are over and the Tigers hope to schedule a tune-up against the Patriot League champion. Bradley is not worried about the down time affecting his team's rhythm.
"It's different, but in some ways, we have enough time where we can really let the kid get refreshed," Bradley said. "A couple times a week they can go down and play long toss or whatever, but they don't have to really worry about gearing it up. Then they come back and classes are done, exams are over with. It's not long enough that they're going to lose arm strength or anything. Sometimes the best thing is to have a couple weeks away from it. We've played well in the regionals every year we gone, and I think one of the reasons is instead of trying to stay sharp and grind every day, we let them get away from it, and when they come back they're ready to go."
Strike Two: Spartans On The March
Most coaches in the Southern Conference and scouts who have seen the league believe that Elon, College of Charleston, Georgia Southern and Samford are the four most talented teams in the league. Those four teams are also among the five top teams in the SoCon standings.
But UNC Greensboro has quietly won weekend series against all of them. The red-hot Spartans have won three straight series—taking two of three at Samford, sweeping Georgia Southern at home, and winning two of three at College of Charleston this weekend. At 16-8 in SoCon play, Greensboro sits alone in second place, though it remains 3 1/2 games behind first-place Elon. UNCG is 27-18 overall and remains a long shot for an at-large spot with an RPI of 88th according to Boyd's World, but the Spartans have proven that they will be dangerous in the conference tournament.
But how are they doing it? UNC Greensboro ranks 10th in the 11-team SoCon in batting (.256), eighth in homers (19) and eighth in ERA (4.71).
"We bunt. We have good bunters," UNCG coach Mike Gaski said, half-jokingly, as an explanation for his team's success. "We sacrifice bunt. I think that's the only stat or one of the few stats where we're ahead of our opposition. We generally have good at-bats. We don't get a lot of hits sometimes, but they work the count a little bit, they put the ball in play when they can, they move some runners up when they're supposed to move them up, and a handful of times we can get them to score without getting a hit . . . We're not sexy by any stretch of the imagination. We're pretty fundamentally mundane."
Oh, but the Spartans can bunt. They have 71 sacrifice bunts this season, tied for third-most in the nation. They're also the most fundamentally sound defensive team in the SoCon, with a .973 fielding percentage. Executing the little things on offense and defense is a formula for success in the era of BBCOR bats.
"We're fairly efficient, we catch the ball most of the time, we run the bases pretty well, and most of the pitchers throw strikes," Gaski said. "As big as our park is, if you do those things, catch it and throw it over the plate, it gives us a chance to stay in a lot of games. The kids have become comfortable in one-run ballgames. It's not uncommon to look up and see 2-2 in the eighth inning, and our kids have done well in those situations."
Greensboro's bullpen is anchored by the team's best prospect, junior righthander Jarrett Miller (4-2, 4.50), who pitches in the low 90s and flashes a good curveball with late break and depth. But Miller was hittable this weekend at College of Charleston, giving up four runs in an inning Sunday and two runs in two innings Friday. Still, the Spartans were able to win both games, pulling out a 5-4 win in 11 innings Friday and storming back from behind with seven runs in the ninth Sunday.
The offense isn't usually that explosive, of course. Redshirt sophomore first baseman/catcher Trevor Edwards (.313/.431/.551 with six homers and 38 RBIs) is the biggest threat in the lineup, but the Spartans are slugging just .361 as a team. Edwards has done a nice job anchoring the heart of the order after the Spartans lost two of their top projected hitters very early in the season, as junior catcher Matt Crump broke his leg in a freak baserunning play, and junior first baseman Lloy Enzor suffered a season-ending back injury. Redshirt freshman Cole Harrison (.348) had gotten off to a nice start with the bat, then a broken hamate derailed him after 13 games.
"All that sort of happened at the same time, and we scuffled a bit with some other guys growing into some at-bats, learning how to be a team player," Gaski said. "It took us a while to get our feet back under us, but we're playing a little bit better now."
That's putting it mildly. The Spartans might not be the sexy pick to win the SoCon tournament, but it would be a mistake to look past them.
"I like that we've played well against the top tier of the conference," Gaski said, "and hopefully we can sustain that going into the conference tournament."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Jake Lowery
The advent of new bat standards have caused power numbers across college baseball to plummet. James Madison junior catcher Jake Lowery is one of the few hitters to actually improve his numbers dramatically in 2011.
After hitting nine home runs in 301 at-bats over his first two college seasons, Lowery has slugged 21 long balls in 195 at-bats as a junior. He hit his 21st homer Sunday at Virginia Tech, part of a two-hit, three-RBI day, and ranks second in the country behind Georgia Southern's Victor Roache.
"He's really not doing anything different," James Madison coach Spanky McFarland said. "He's just gotten stronger. He's got a very balanced swing, a little bit of an uppercut. He's just barreling balls up. To be honest, if you hit it on the barrel, I don't think it's that much of a difference, the barrel is just smaller. He does a good job of knowing what he wants to hit, fouling balls off that he doesn't want to hit. And when he gets his pitch, he doesn't miss it.
"He's a flyball hitter, and the wind has blown a little bit this year, everywhere up and down the east coast—I don't think you can overlook that. But I'd say most of his 20 (homers) are legitimate, and he might have one or two that aren't. He's also got lots of doubles and triples."
Lowery's name is plastered all over the national leaderboards. He ranks second in Division I in home runs, slugging (.851) and OPS (1.298), and he ranks first in runs (65), RBIs (73) and total bases (166). He even has seven triples, just two behind the national leader, and nine stolen bases in 12 tries.
"He's pretty athletic," McFarland said. "He's got good baseball sense too—his dad's a high school coach, so he's got a very good baseball IQ. He's played a little bit of third and first for us at times too, when we were trying to get our backup some work."
Mostly, though, the 6-foot, 200-pound Lowery has caught, and it's even more impressive that he's been able to produce such gargantuan numbers while withstanding the day-to-day rigors that come with the position. And he's no slouch behind the plate; in fact, he has thrown out 29 basestealers in 65 tries (45 percent).
"He can catch and throw with the best of them," McFarland said. "In my opinion, his receiving his is worst tool. He's a little bit stiff with the glove, but he blocks pretty good. We catch him almost every day, so he gets tired, but he still moves his feet well and blocks. I've seen better catchers, better framers, but he's 1.8 (seconds) to second every time he throws it. He's throwing out about half his runners, a lot from his knees."
But Lowery's calling card is his lefthanded bat. And his bat is for real.
"I'm a believer now," McFarland said. "For a long time I thought he was just hot and people would figure out how to pitch him, but he just keeps producing."