Strike One: For Sooners, Later Is Better Than Never
Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway said before the season began that his team had a chance to be very dangerous by the end of the spring. But the Sooners lost 10 drafted players off last year's team, and it figured to take some time for some of their newcomers to adjust to the Division I level.
Ultimately, OU's season hinged on whether flame-throwing junior-college transfers Jonathan Gray, Steven Okert and Damien Magnifico could thrive in prominent roles on the pitching staff. There were some growing pains in the first half of the season, but all three are pitching with confidence now, which makes Oklahoma very dangerous.
The Sooners showed just how dangerous they can be this weekend, sweeping a Baylor team that had carried an 18-0 conference record into the weekend.
"It's a huge statement, to defeat a national seed three straight times," Golloway said. "We've got some big wins in there, we weren't consistent early on . . . If we can get to the tournament, we're going to be dangerous."
The fact that the Sooners are on the bubble despite winning eight of their 12 weekend series is a sore spot for Golloway, but that is the reality. The Big 12 did a poor job adjusting when Nebraska left the league, forcing coaches to fill their scheduling holes with a host of series against teams from the Southwestern Athletic Conference that have dragged down the league's Ratings Percentage Index. The fact that the bottom four teams in the standings are a combined 11 games under .500 overall also hurts. So even after sweeping the Bears, Oklahoma is just No. 46 in the RPI—right on the bubble.
The Sooners also have themselves to blame for that. At 13-10 in the league, they remain in fifth place, a game behind the second-place cluster of Texas A&M, Texas and Oklahoma State. The Sooners have eight one-run losses, but this weekend they won a pair of low-scoring one-run games against a potent Baylor offense, 1-0 and 2-1. That is a sign that OU's bullpen has emerged as a strength.
Okert, a lefthander who can run his fastball up to 97 mph and has a swing-and-miss slider, has settled into the role of bullpen anchor after spending time earlier this season in the rotation. He threw a combined three innings of scoreless relief to earn a win and a save in Saturday's doubleheader sweep.
Magnifico has as much arm strength as anyone in college baseball, with a high-90s fastball that bumps triple digits. He gives up his share of hits because his heater is straight, but he's made strides with his command under first-year pitching coach Jack Giese and has become a trusted member of the bullpen. He delivered 5 1/3 innings of solid relief Sunday after starter Dillon Overton exited at the start of the third inning. He allowed three runs on 10 hits but did not issue any walks and kept the game close until the Sooners could win it in the middle and late innings.
"He pitched great. He was on, he popped a couple of triple digits in there and pitched well for us," Golloway said. "I was joking with (Baylor coach) Steve Smith earlier in the weekend, I said, 'You want to see Magnifico?' He said, 'I do, i want to see triple digits up there.' I think by the time he was getting beat, in about Magnifico's third inning, he didn't want to see him out there anymore, I'll bet."
The Sooners followed Magnifico with soft-tossing junior lefthander Jake Fisher, who had the Baylor hitters way out in front during his 1 2/3 hitless, scoreless innings. Fisher is a nice complement to the power arms on the staff.
Gray has been the one constant in a starting role this year, but walks have been a bugaboo for him at times this year (he has 35 of them in 76 innings, to go with 75 strikeouts). His arm is electric, though, and Golloway said he reached 96-97 mph during his strong outing Saturday, allowing just an unearned run over 7 1/3 innings. The game one starter Saturday, Jordan John, was even better, allowing just five hits over 8 2/3 scoreless innings. A classic pitchability lefty with good movement and command of a fastball with below-average velocity, John has thrived atop the rotation after moving from the bullpen, going 8-5, 2.23 with 86 strikeouts in 97 innings.
The lineup has settled in as well, both offensively and defensively. Junior Max White has been a physical presence in the lineup since his freshman year, and he has rebounded from a quiet sophomore year to hit .344/.400/.467 this spring, anchoring the middle of the lineup. He started the year at first base but has shifted to center field, where Golloway said his superb instincts make his speed play up.
That wasn't the only move the Sooners made to shore up their up-the-middle defense. Senior Tanner Toal, a grinder with good catch-and-throw skills, has been a stabilizing force since taking over the starting catcher duties (moving leading home run hitter Hunter Lockwood into a first base/DH role). And veterans Caleb Bushyhead and Jack Mayfield have been very solid in the middle infield.
If the Sooners can carry over the momentum from this weekend into their final series against Samford, they should make a regional, probably as a No. 3 seed.
"We've done our fair share of hosting, and if I were hosting, I wouldn't want a team like ours coming in, not with the pitching we have," Golloway said. "We knew we were going to go through some growing pains. Hopefully we're catching our stride now—we'll see. We could be really dangerous, though."
Strike Two: Speaking Of Late Bloomers, Here Comes Vanderbilt
It's been a long, arduous journey for Vanderbilt, from a 1-7 start to finally climbing above .500 with a Sunday win at Louisiana State in Week 13. It's not how the Commodores drew it up in the preseason, when they garnered a No. 10 ranking, but their superb coaching staff deserves as much credit (or more) for this year's turnaround as for last year's run to the College World Series.
After taking two of three in Baton Rouge, the 'Dores have won four of their last five series, including a set against No. 4 Kentucky two weeks ago, to climb to 26-25 overall and 13-14 in the SEC. They clinched a spot in the 10-team conference tournament this weekend, and if they can take two of three at home against Mississippi this weekend, they'll need just one win in Hoover to finish with a winning record (and be eligible for an at-large bid). With an RPI of No. 38 and a merciless schedule that has included 17 games against the top 25 in the RPI, Vandy stands a solid chance at landing one of those at-large bids if it can finish above .500. And that's an incredible turnaround for a team that was still eight games below .500 (7-15) in Week Six.
"It's been a grind—that is the right word," said associate head coach Derek Johnson, who led the team in Tim Corbin's absence Sunday. Corbin headed back to Nashville to be with his 27-year-old daughter Molly, who has been dealing with complications from a surgery. "We've kind of seen everything happen to us that could possibly happen to us. As of late we've played a little bit better, gotten ourselves back in a decent position to maybe make a run at it at the end."
We pegged Vanderbilt a high-risk, high-reward team in ranking it 10th in the preseason. The Commodores had a chance to be very good if their talented but inexperienced arms emerged, but there was a lack of proven commodities on the mound, and a vacuum in the middle of the lineup thanks to the departures of Jason Esposito, Aaron Westlake and Curt Casali.
The offense is much less potent than it was a year ago, but regression was inevitable given the personnel losses. The 'Dores still have hard-nosed grinders who make things happen in Tony Kemp, Mike Yastrzemski and Anthony Gomez. Sophomore Spencer Navin has filled the hole left by Casali's departure behind the plate, providing better-than-expected offensive production (.300/.427/427) while handling the pitching staff well and controlling opposing running games.
And junior outfielder Connor Harrell has emerged from his deep first-half funk to provide some pop in the middle of the lineup, leading the team with six home runs (one more than Yastrzemski's five).
"He's got that kind of thunder in his bat, he just started so slow this season, I think he got in his own way a little bit," Johnson said. "It's a credit to coach Corbin, he hung with him and kept playing him. He felt at some point he would break free from this thing, and the last couple weeks he has. He's a good kid, he deserves that."
The pitching has been a work in progress, as Vandy's 4.20 staff ERA (10th in the SEC) attests. Still less than a year removed from Tommy John surgery, sophomore righty T.J. Pecoraro has taken hold of the Friday starter job, and he pitched well in Friday's opener at LSU, allowing just two runs in a complete game to conserve the bullpen in a loss. Johnson said Pecoraro hasn't shown the 92-94 mph velocity he flashed in a relief role last year, but he has sat at 89-91 and made more use of his improved changeup to go along with his quality breaking ball. His fastball command can still be sporadic, but he's getting closer to finding his rhythm with every passing week.
Junior lefthander Sam Selman (8-3, 4.03) has always flashed electric pure stuff, with a fastball that reaches the mid-90s, but it took him a couple of years to mature as a pitcher. Johnson said he looks more free and easy than he did early in the season, and he has thrived in a midweek role in recent weeks, earning a spot in the weekend rotation at LSU. He handled the environment well, allowing just one run over five innings to earn the win.
Sunday starter Tyler Beede (1-4, 4.33) had found his stride in the middle of the season, but he has struggled over the last couple of weeks, and Johnson said he is still learning to be consistent from week to week. Johnson said his changeup has been a reliable go-to offspeed pitch for Beede, and his curveball has shown flashes of great promise. His velocity has climbed a bit since early in the year, bumping 92-93 at times, but he pitches mostly at 89-90, Johnson said.
Sophomore lefthander Kevin Ziomek (3-6, 5.02) was the presumed ace heading into the season, but Johnson suggested he has put too much pressure on himself, and he has found himself in the bullpen. Johnson said his offspeed stuff has been sporadic this spring, but his fastball can be really good when it's down in the zone. He provided solid relief Sunday, allowing just an unearned run over 3 2/3 innings.
The 'Dores have a quality bullpen anchor in senior righty Will Clinard (6-2, 4.40) and an emerging weapon in junior righty Drew VerHagen (4-2, 3.58), whose velocity has jumped into the 93-94 range with plenty of late movement. Funky sidewinder Brian Miller (0-2, 3.42) brings a much different look, leading a group of promising freshman arms that give this staff solid depth. It still isn't a premier pitching staff like the 2011 Commodores had, but it seems to be peaking at the right time.
"It's evolution of our guys maturing and growing up," Johnson said. "We didn't have one guy on the mound this weekend who's ever pitched at LSU before. Clinard's a senior but never pitched at LSU. When you look at some of the starts we got this weekend and some of the relief performances, I think it's great."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Ross Stripling
In 22 years of coaching, Texas A&M coach Rob Childress had never been part of a no-hitter before this weekend.
Senior righthander Ross Stripling delivered the Aggies' first no-hitter since 2004 in a 1-0 win against San Diego State on Saturday. Stripling was simply brilliant, allowing just one baserunner on a fifth-inning walk. He struck out seven during an economical 106-pitch outing.
"I was able to get a lot of early outs in the first couple innings," Stripling said afterward. "They were hitting some balls hard, they were just right at guys. It ended up being the best pitching game of my life."
Stripling, who teams with likely first-round pick Michael Wacha to form the nation's premier one-two pitching punch, improved to 9-2, 2.36 with 97 strikeouts and just 15 walks in 103 innings. Stripling has four complete games, and he is averaging nearly eight innings per start.
"He's an inning hog—he doesn't want to give the ball to anybody else," Childress said. "He just goes and gets outs; you look up and he's in the eighth inning every time and giving us a chance. You couldn't ask for more from a starter."
Stripling's emergence as an ultra-reliable workhorse for a top 10 team would have seemed very unlikely four years ago.
"It's a great story. He was non-recruited, and he sat in my office the summer after his senior year (of high school) and said he wanted to come to A&M and get his degree as a third-generation Aggie," Childress said. "All he wanted was an opportunity, and we gave him the opportunity. There's no doubt, he was green as a freshman, a two-pitch guy. The curveball was always good but the changeup was non-existent."
Stripling threw just 14 innings as a freshman, then spent the summer dominating for the San Luis Obispo Blues in the California Collegiate League. He worked hard on improving his changeup that summer and returned to campus brimming with confidence that fall.
He found a home in the weekend rotation as a sophomore, going 6-5, 4.50 in 88 innings, and he tied for the national lead in wins as a junior, going 14-2, 2.29 in 126 innings. Stripling split time as a starter and a bullpen anchor last year because of the team's needs, but as Childress put it, he's built to be a starter. The development of his 77-78 mph changeup to complement his 88-91 fastball and signature hammer curveball in the 75-78 range has made a big difference.
"That's the thing that's taken him from being a guy for us in the bullpen to being a starter: developing that changeup and having a three-pitch mix," Childress said.
"He commands his fastball to both sides of the plate, he throws his curveball or changeup any time in the count, and he has absolutely no fear. He's fun to call pitches for."
It was especially fun for Childress on Saturday.