Three Strikes: Week 13

Strike One: Sam Houston Takes Control Of Southland

A year ago, Sam Houston State convincingly won the Southland Conference regular-season title, which earned the Bearkats an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament even though they ranked No. 54 in the Ratings Percentage Index (a bit outside typical at-large range).

So using last year as a guide, Sam Houston State should feel good about its position through 13 weeks this year.

samhoustonstate“We’re almost identical to where we were last year,” SHSU coach David Pierce said. “I mean, almost identical—with record, RPI, number of wins against good teams. I know one thing the committee did last year was they gave some weight to winning your league, and I think they should. We can only play so many teams, and this year unfortunately some of the teams that we’ve beaten have been great RPI schools in the past, but now they’re 55 and beyond. We’re used to A&M being in the top 35, Texas being in the top 30, Rice being in the top 25, and still winning some of those games. We’ve won a lot of those games this year, and their RPI is down a little bit.”

Indeed, SHSU is 6-2 against Texas, Texas A&M, Rice, Houston and Baylor, but none of those teams ranks higher than No. 47 in the RPI. Still, the Bearkats are in solid RPI shape (No. 51), and they now lead the Southland by two games after winning a huge road series at Southeastern Louisiana, which entered the weekend in second place.

“That’s a tough place to travel to and a tough place to play,” Pierce said. “We dealt with rain delays, didn’t play Friday because of the rain. We ended up playing at 4 o’clock Saturday, Cody (Dickson) pitched really well in that game. Then we turned around Sunday and Caleb (Smith) was the best he’s been all year. (The Lions are) tough to strike out, he only struck out three, walked one, but boy he pitched well.”

When Dickson and Smith pitch like they did this weekend, Sam Houston State is very tough to beat in a weekend series, because not many teams have back-to-back power lefthanders of that caliber. The problem is both of them can struggle with control—Smith has 50 walks in 76 innings, while Dickson has 47 walks in 74 innings.

But Dickson allowed just two hits and four walks over seven shutout innings in the opener, striking out seven.

“He pitched well off of his fastball,” Pierce said. “He was 90-93, touched a 94. I think what I was most impressed with was when he needed a pitch, he went to the breaking ball and it was really good. He just commanded the ball so much better on both sides of the plate, really attacked the hitters. That’s what he’s got to do. He knows his stuff is good enough in the zone to win. He’s just got to stay on his back leg, attack the zone, work downhill—when he does that he’s tough to hit.”

Smith (7-4, 2.84) has had a solid year despite his high walk total, and he saved his best for Southeastern Louisiana, allowing just three hits and one walk in a complete-game shutout.

“He absolutely commanded the fastball, and he’s got a plus changeup, when he needs it,” Pierce said. “He probably threw less than 10 changeups (Sunday), but they were all plus, and at the right time. He was able to get ahead with the slider early. They didn’t have a chance against him—he was really that dominant today. The good thing is he threw a complete game, threw 95 pitches. He got some groundball outs, got a groundball double play when he needed it. I think he understands, ‘I love my strikeouts, but I love my innings.’ He looked like he was relaxed and had fun competing.”

Smith also has power stuff, with an 88-92 mph fastball, a slider that reaches 82, and a changeup with filthy sink when it’s on. Dickson has a good chance to be drafted in the top five rounds, and Smith could go between the fifth and 10th.

Sam Houston State gives hitters a much different look in the late innings, relying on a pair of low three-quarters sinker/slider guys—lefthander Alan Scott (1-0, 0.44) and righty Jason Simms (2-1, 3.16, eight saves). Both have funk and deception, and both work down in the zone and get plenty of ground balls. Pierce called them a “two-headed monster,” allowing the Bearkats to shorten games significantly.

All of those pitchers have benefited from a defense that has solidified after some shuffling, with Ryan O’Hearn landing in right field, Jessie Plumlee landing at first, and Ryan Farney at second. The other key adjustment the Bearkats made was inserting Plumlee (.317/.437/.414) in the leadoff spot, where he has provided a real spark. That slid Colt Atwood (.301/.360/.320) down to the No. 2 hole, where his bat control makes him a perfect fit.

The Bearkats have some thump in the middle courtesy of Anthony Azar, Luke Plucheck and Hayden Simerly, who have combined to hit 21 home runs. Azar (.302/.376/.484, five homers, 40 RBIs) is the centerpiece of the lineup, and the team’s leading hitter—Kevin Miller (.347/.408/.400)—is a skilled but unorthodox cleanup man behind him.

“Anthony is just a very powerful hitter, he’s very strong,” Pierce said. “Sometimes he tries to do too much, but when he stays within himself, he’s very powerful. He had a three-run double (Sunday) and a solo home run, four of our five RBIs today. Kevin Miller’s a bat control guy in the four-hole; he doesn’t hit a lot of extra-base hits, but he’s got more power than you think.”

It took some time for all the pieces to fall into place, but now that they have, Sam Houston State is living up to its preseason billing as the best team in the Southland. And that should be enough to get the Bearkats into regionals for the fifth time in the last seven years.

Strike Two: Down Go The Champs 

Andy Lopez isn’t fooling himself. He knows his Arizona Wildcats are not going to get a chance to defend their national championship this postseason.

This weekend sealed Arizona’s fate. The defending champs were swept at UCLA, dropping them to 10-14 in the Pac-12 and No. 87 in the RPI. It was the third time Arizona has been swept in conference play this year. After getting swept by Oregon State and Oregon to start 0-6 in the Pac-12, Arizona won three straight series against teams that now have losing overall records (Utah, California and Washington State). But the Wildcats have dropped their last three conference series against Stanford, Washington and UCLA.

“We buried ourselves early in conference. We got off the mat, came back and won three weekends in a row, and have just sputtered ever since—really have sputtered,” Lopez said. “What did Bill Parcells say a long time ago? You are what your record is? That’s us. I’m not one to ever shy away from it—it is what it is. I never want to live in a bubble world. I just want to see us play a good game tomorrow, meaning pitch well, get some timely hitting, and be clean on defense.”

Lopez said that after his team was thoroughly dominated Saturday, and Sunday wasn’t much better, as UCLA cruised to a 12-5 win. In three games, the Bruins scored 29 runs, and while they are a better offensive team than they were in the first half, they still aren’t exactly a juggernaut. UCLA doesn’t have a single .300 hitter.

But Arizona just has not pitched very well, posting a 4.46 ERA. Two of last year’s College World Series heroes, Konner Wade and James Farris, were supposed to give the Wildcats a one-two punch to lean on in the rotation, but neither has been able to repeat his success. Farris is 4-5, 4.20, and Wade is 4-6, 4.38.

After Wade gave up nine runs (eight earned) on 11 hits in 3.1 innings last week against Washington, the Wildcats moved him back to Saturday this week. He gave up seven runs (five earned) on 12 hits in 7.1 innings at UCLA, and he did not look like the same pitcher who dominated in Omaha. Instead of coming in at 88-93, his trademark sinker was 85-88, and his changeup was flat, and everything was up in the zone.

“I mean, today was a good performance (for Wade),” Lopez said. “I mean really, today was a good performance for him over the last three or four weeks. He’s had no location—I mean, zero location. And the changeup that was so effective, had so much sink, it’s up in the zone.

“I thought our pitching would be a stronghold, and it hasn’t, it really hasn’t. I mean, you can’t change your Friday night starter with three weeks left and think, ‘Oh yeah, everything’s going great.’ We’ve just sputtered along. It’s kind of what I was hoping to avoid. It’s so tough, we get those Southern California kids who cost a lot of money, it doesn’t allow us to create a lot of depth. so once that junior class leaves—when that ’05 junior class leaves with (Trevor) Crowe and those guys, 06 is one of these (down years). Then when that 08 class leaves, 09 is one of these. I really was optimistic that we wouldn’t go through it this year, but we haven’t pitched well. And when we do pitch well, we haven’t swung it. So, you are what your record is.”

Stanford also got swept this weekend—at home against Oregon State. Remarkably, the Pac-12 looks like it will be just a four-bid league this year, making this a down year for the West. Over the last four years, the Pacific time zone and Hawaii have sent between nine and 12 teams to regionals each season. This year, the West looks destined to send just seven or eight to regionals.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Jason Hursh

Oklahoma State righthander Jason Hursh has been a big-name prospect since his high school days in Texas, when he ranked as the No. 173 prospect for the 2010 draft. But for all his pedigree, he entered 2013 with 30 career collegiate innings, and just one career victory.

Hursh missed all of 2012 after having Tommy John surgery, but he returned in time to flash huge velocity in a relief role for the Santa Barbara Foresters last summer. As a redshirt sophomore this spring, he has begun to harness his prodigious potential, emerging as a reliable Friday ace for the Cowboys. Through 13 starts, Hursh is 5-4, 2.67 with 74 strikeouts and 23 walks in 91 innings.

Jason Hursh

Jason Hursh

“Jason’s really worked hard on cleaning up his delivery and really becoming a pitcher, and not a guy who just had a good arm,” Oklahoma State pitching coach Rob Walton said. “He didn’t pitch much as a freshman, didn’t pitch at all last year, that’s basically two years off—that’s a long time. You’ve got to go through some of those physical and mental things, learn to make pitch-to-pitch adjustments, how to handle the running game, the whole nine yards. He’s been able to go through a lot of those things. At times he’s been really, really special.”

This past Friday was one of those times. In front of 9,194 fans in Tulsa, Hursh turned in a gritty 134-pitch complete game to beat Oklahoma. He allowed three runs on seven hits and a walk while striking out nine, helping the Cowboys win the Bedlam rivalry series and break into the Baseball America Top 25 for the first time since 2011.

A midweek mechanical adjustment helped Hursh thrive against the Sooners. Walton said Hursh had a tendency to land on the outside of his front heel, causing his delivery to get rotational and his ball to elevate.

“When he lands more on the inside part of his foot, he gets more linear, and when he does that the ball explodes out of his hand and tracks toward the glove,” Walton said. “He made some nice adjustments in the middle of the week, looked at film, and was able to take them into the game. And he had good command of his slider—that was key—and good fastball command. He’s had a good curveball the last few weeks, which adds an extra change of speed and plan.”

Hursh is just 6-foot-1, but his lightning-quick arm generates premium velocity—he works at 94-98 with late movement. His 85-88 mph slider gives him a second power pitch, but his 76-78 curveball has become an important part of his repertoire because it changes hitters’ eye level and disrupts their timing.

“It gives him an extra rhythm adjustment for the hitter,” Walton said. “I think that helps him. We didn’t throw many curveballs, but if they know it’s something he has in his pocket, they’re more likely to be a little late or a little early.”

Most importantly, Hursh has learned how to command his fastball to both sides of the plate, making his breaking balls more effective and helping him become more efficient. He’s not yet a finished product, of course. Hursh’s changeup remains a work in progress, but he shows some feel for it in bullpen sessions. He has worked hard in between starts, and his diligence is paying off.

“To his credit, he’s taken the information, it makes sense to him. Looking at it on film, he’s really worked at it every day—he’s a tireless worker,” Walton said. “He’s starting to work on his side sessions like a professional pitcher. He’s starting to throw some professional bullpens—very precise, short and sweet, to the point, he can self-correct. When they do that, it’s fun to watch them grow up that way. That’s the fun part.

“He deserves a lot of credit—the kid’s worked hard at it, and he’s come a long way in a very short period of time. He was a well below-average strike-thrower, and he’s become an above-average strike-thrower. He’s taken ownership of his craft.”