Three Strikes: Week 14

Strike One: Something Old, Something New . . . 

FULLERTON, Calif.—Carlos Lopez, a fifth-year senior who arrived at Cal State Fullerton in the fall of 2008, had never hit a walk-off home run heading into the final regular-season home series of his career this weekend against UC Irvine.

He hit two of them against the Anteaters, propelling the Titans to their fourth straight Big West Conference championship.

On Saturday, Irvine rallied from behind with two runs in the top of the ninth to tie the game, and the first two Fullerton hitters flew out in the bottom of the frame. That brought up Lopez, who had two home runs on the season and five homers over his last three seasons with BBCOR bats.

“I went up for my last at-bat, Hooky got pretty mad when the first two guys hit fly balls,” Lopez said, referencing Fullerton head coach Rick Vanderhook. “He told me, if I’m going to hit a fly ball, I might as well hit just it over the fence. He told me to hit it over the fence, and I tried. It doesn’t happen like that very often.”

Race Parmenter hung a changeup, and Lopez blasted a no-doubter solo home run high off the net above the right-field fence, lifting the Titans to a 3-2 win. “It felt amazing,” Lopez said.

The next night ended with another celebration around Lopez, after he smacked a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth, turning a 5-4 deficit into a 7-5 win. Those were clearly the two loudest swings of the weekend, but Lopez also provided the key at-bat in Friday’s win. With the score tied 2-2 in the seventh, Lopez fouled off pitch after pitch in an epic 14-pitch at-bat against Mitch Merten, eventually pulling a fastball through the right side of the infield for a go-ahead RBI single.

Fullerton is blessed to have an excellent senior core, led by Lopez and shortstop Richy Pedroza, but the two freshman pitchers at the front of the rotation have been the biggest story of the season for the Titans. And both Thomas Eshelman and Justin Garza pitched very well this weekend, as usual.

Has there ever been a pair of freshman weekend starters in one rotation who have been better than Eshelman and Garza? Eshelman’s numbers are simply mind-boggling. As the Friday starter all season, he is 10-2, 1.51 with 66 strikeouts and just two walks in 96 innings. He started his collegiate career with 63 1/3 consecutive innings without issuing a walk, falling just shy of former Titan Wes Roemer’s 65 1/3-inning streak to start the 2006 season.

“And it’s not like Roemer’s streak; I mean, he doesn’t get close to walks very often. He doesn’t get three-ball counts,” Vanderhook said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“They preached it to me all fall: They said, throw strikes, and guys will hit it, but they’ll hit it at our guys,” Eshelman said. “It’s kind of amazing to me, I guess, but I’m just going to keep on doing what I’m doing.”

Eshelman ranked among the top prospects in the West Coast League last summer, but no one could have expected him to have this kind of success right away. Not even Eshelman himself.

“Coming in here, I had no idea what my role was going to be,” Eshelman said. “I was just hoping to be on the travel squad. It’s been a little better than that.”

Thomas Eshelman (photo by Larry Goren)

Thomas Eshelman (photo by Larry Goren)

Eshelman’s fastball wasn’t overpowering Friday, ranging from 85-88 mph, but he spotted it very well to both sides of the plate, at the knees. He mixed his 73-75 curveball, 78-80 cutter and 77-78 changeup effectively, throwing any pitch in any count. He wound up allowing just two runs on six hits while striking out seven over seven innings of work against the ‘Eaters. And of course, he did not issue a walk.

No pitching staff pounds the strike zone more relentlessly than Cal State Fullerton’s. Garza has issued just 15 walks in 97 innings, while also striking out 74. He is 11-0, 1.96, and he left Saturday’s game with a 2-0 lead in the eighth inning, but he was denied a Fullerton freshman-record 12th win when the Anteaters rallied back against Michael Lorenzen in the ninth.

Garza is generously listed at 5-foot-11, 160 pounds, but he makes up for his small stature with a huge arm. He pumped 93-95 mph gas in the first inning Saturday, then settled in at 91-93, holding that velocity through the end of his outing.

“I don’t know how hard he was throwing tonight, but he started with a good fastball tonight,” Vanderhook said. “When he threw his first couple fastballs, I looked at him and said, ‘Holy . . . ‘ He got a little juiced tonight.”

Garza was more of a fastball-curveball pitcher in high school, but he has shelved the curveball in favor of a tight 81-83 cutter/slider this year, and he mixed that pitch in effectively Saturday. He also has developed a quality 79-82 mph changeup that he throws against righties and lefties.

“It’s definitely come a long way,” Garza said of his changeup. “In the fall I didn’t really know where it was going, but now it’s a good pitch for me.”

Garza said he knew the Anteaters were aggressive early in counts, so he focused on pitching to contact, keeping his pitch count down. He struck out four, and he wound up throwing just 86 pitches in 7 2/3 innings. Vanderhook said Garza has topped 100 pitches just twice this season, and Eshelman hasn’t topped 100 pitches all season.

So the two freshmen remain in peak form heading into the postseason. And now that Fullerton has wrapped up its conference title—and presumably a national seed—they might have earned themselves a weekend off next week at Cal State Northridge.

“It’s not over, because we want to keep winning, but it gives us a chance to rest those guys a little next week,” Vanderhook said.

Many high-profile freshmen have run out of gas in Omaha over the years, but Eshelman and Garza seem like they are built for the long haul, thanks to their uncanny efficiency.

Strike Two: Punch Those Tickets

Cal State Fullerton wasn’t the only team to clinch a spot in the field of 64 this weekend. Savannah State, Jackson State and Army won their respective conference tournaments to join Fullerton and Columbia as the NCAA tournament’s first five automatic qualifiers.

Of the three teams that won conference tournaments this weekend, Army was the only team we projected to win its conference in the preseason. The Black Knights won the Patriot League championship for the third time in the past five years by beating Holy Cross in the best-of-three championship series for the second year in a row.

The Crusaders earned the top seed in the four-team Patriot tournament by going 15-5 in the regular season, while Army went 11-9 to grab the No. 3 seed. But the Black Knights swept a doubleheader against second-seeded Navy last weekend, then swept Sunday’s doubleheader at Holy Cross, winning 9-4 and 5-4. Army ace Chris Rowley, who is 21-4 over the last two years, threw a complete game in the opener, and Army broke open a 3-2 affair with five runs in the seventh. Rowley allowed four runs on 11 hits and went the distance for the second straight week.

“I thought Chris was outstanding today,” Army coach Joe Sottolano said afterward. “He kept his composure the entire game and really battled for us out there. Chris set the tone in the first game, and was in control throughout.”

In the back-and-forth second game, the two teams entered the ninth tied 4-4, but Harold Earls (4-for-5, 4 R, 2B, 3B) sparked Army with a one-out bunt single in the ninth, then stole second and third, and scored on a walk-off RBI single by Mark McCants (3-for-5, 3 RBI, 3B).

“Harold set the tone in the second game with that triple in the first inning, and then he doubled his next time up,” Sottolano said. “Mark was obviously very clutch today as well; he came through with big hits in both games.

“I think today’s performance is a testament to how much this young team has developed this season. It’s a testament to their toughness and their belief . . . everyone bought in, and we have a championship to show for it.”

Jackson State established itself as the team to beat in the Southwestern Athletic Conference early on and finished with the best league record by four and a half games (19-5). The top-seeded Tigers went 4-0 to sweep through the SWAC tournament this weekend, beating Texas Southern twice, Alcorn State once, then taking down Prairie View A&M in Sunday’s title game, 6-2. Alexander Juday (9 IP, 9 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 9 K) went the distance in the clincher; he has been Jackson State’s workhorse on the mound, going 7-4, 3.14 in a team-high 112 innings. He also threw eight innings in Jackson State’s tournament opener against Texas Southern, allowing just an unearned run on four hits.

“Juday started the season as our setup man,” JSU coach Omar Johnson said afterward. “But when we got some players hurt he stepped up as a No. 1 pitcher.”

Speed is Jackson State’s calling card—the Tigers rank 10th in the nation with 120 stolen bases. They stole 12 bases in four games this weekend, including five in Sunday’s title game. Aneko Knowles stole his team-leading 26th on Sunday, and center fielder Charles Tillery stole his 25th, while Bryce Taylor stole his 12th and 13th. Six different Tigers have recorded double-digit steals this year, and the team’s speed could give opponents headaches in regionals.

Jackson State heads to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000. It went 21-3 in the SWAC last year but was upset in the conference tournament. This year, the Tigers took care of their unfinished business.

“It feels good to win this championship,” Johnson said. “We thought we had good enough teams in years past, but have not been able to get it done. You have to have some good breaks and I guess you have to be patient.”

Kyle McGowin

Kyle McGowin

Savannah State is one of college baseball’s best turnaround stories this year. The Tigers went 19-34 overall last year and 11-13 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, in its first year in the conference. But Savannah State went 33-21 overall this year and 17-7 in the MEAC to tie Bethune-Cookman for the Southern Division title. Savannah State did not face tournament favorite Delaware State (21-3 in the MEAC) in the conference tournament after the Hornets went 0-2, losing to North Carolina A&T and Bethune-Cookman.

B-CU, which had won eight straight MEAC titles, rallied through the loser’s bracket to face Savannah State in the finals, where the Wildcats ran into a buzzsaw—junior righthander Kyle McGowin, the league’s best prospect and pitcher. McGowin, who was profiled by Conor Glassey back in March, allowed just one run in a complete game in Savannah State’s tournament opener Wednesday against Maryland-Eastern Shore, then bounced back with a masterpiece in Sunday’s title game. McGowin threw 144 pitches over 10 shutout innings, scattering seven hits and two walks while striking out 11. The Tigers won 1-0 on a sacrifice fly in the 10th.

“Kyle took the ball on three days’ rest and showed what a champion is all about,” Savannah State coach Carlton Hardy said afterward. “In 10 innings of work, he showed big-time production from a big-time player.”

McGowin improved to 12-1, 1.22 on the year, and whichever team gets Savannah State as the No. 4 seed in its regional (Florida State?) will not be happy to see McGowin in the opener. Like Jackson State, the Tigers of Savannah State can wreak havoc with their speed, ranking fourth in the nation with 127 stolen bases. Savannah State also has six players with double-digit steals, led by Darien Campbell (24-for-25) and Antonio Scott (23-for-26). Campbell scored the winning run in the 10th Sunday, doubling with one out, advancing to third on a single, and coming home on Peter Poole’s sacrifice fly. That propelled Savannah State to its first Division I regional.

“It was a well-played game against the defending champions,” Hardy said. “We knew coming into the tournament that in order for us to win this championship, we would have to play Cookman. Our kids played hard, pitch to pitch and inning by inning. It took a total team effort for us to win this game.”

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Jeff Thompson

It took a little time for Jeff Thompson to learn how to get the most out of his huge frame, but it was worth the wait for Louisville. The 6-foot-6, 248-pound righthander has blossomed into one of the top pitchers in the Big East as a junior, going 10-1, 2.09 with 97 strikeouts and 29 walks in 90 innings. He threw seven strong innings Friday to help lead the Cardinals to a sweep of Pittsburgh, earning them the Big East regular-season championship.

Jeff Thompson

Jeff Thompson

Thompson starred as a defensive end in football and a forward in basketball during his high school days in Indiana, and he caught scouts’ attention with the Indiana Bulls in summer ball, but he was raw on the mound. Thompson ranked as the No. 4 prospect in the New England Collegiate League in 2011 and established himself as a weekend starter the following spring, going 9-4, 4.09. He has improved every year under the tutelage of Louisville pitching coach Roger Williams, who has also had success with tall pitchers like Daniel Bard and Andrew Miller during his days at North Carolina, and Trystan Magnuson at Louisville.

“What Roger’s always been able to do is develop the tall pitcher,” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. “That’s straight fundamentals, straight mechanics. It’s fun to watch a kid like Jeffrey develop. To Jeffrey’s credit, he’s an extremely hard worker. There’s always been self-discipline—he seemed very mature when he got here. He’s always been one to set goals. He’s pitched on Saturday games, and on the road, that Sunday morning is an early morning, he’s always in the weight room in the hotel. It’s like 7 a.m., he’s in there with the strength coach, getting his work in. He’s one of the most consistent kids we’ve ever coached.”

Heading into the season, the Cardinals had players fill out ballots to vote for who they think deserved to be in the starting lineup and rotation. Thompson voted for junior righty Chad Green to be the Friday starter, and Green voted for Thompson. The two juniors are best friends, and they give the Cardinals an excellent one-two punch atop the rotation, helping lead Louisville to 16 straight wins to end the regular season.

“It’s been very healthy watching these two compete, and just kind of push each other the last three years,” McDonnell said. “I think we just call our two 1a and 1b. They’ve both been great.”

The primary reason for Thompson’s jump forward as a junior has been improved fastball command, McDonnell said. He has learned to command the zone with a low-90s mph fastball that bumps 92-93 on occasion. Hitters do not pick up the pitch well, and it has some late life that helps it play up. Thompson’s low-to-mid-80s slider is a swing-and-miss pitch, helping him rack up more than a strikeout per inning, keeping pressure off the defense.

“The sldier looks so much like the fastball coming out of his hand, and it’s very, very hard to pick up,” McDonnell said. “That’s where you get the strikeouts. It’s hard to not swing at it. Sometimes I’ll sit there in the dugout if a kid lays off a low one, I’m like, ‘How did you not swing at that?’ I’ve seen so many guys swing at that pitch.”

Thompson’s changeup is still a work in progress, but he is starting to use it a little more often when lefthanded hitters try to cheat to his fastball. Refining that pitch will be part of Thompson’s next developmental phase in pro ball.

The Cardinals have also emphasized improving their bunt defense this year, which means the hulking Thompson has had to work hard on becoming a better defender off the mound.

“It’s been fun to see Jeffrey grow in that area, as well as all of our pitchers—just how aggressive they are, how confident they are, jumping on balls,” McDonnell said. “We challenged him on that, because he knew it—last year he really struggled, and scouting reports are going to flow. I said, ‘Let’s face it, you’re big.’ That’s his nickname—Big. How do you not bunt on a guy that big who’s that intimidating on the mound. You’ve got to field bunts. You’ve got to cover first, got to field your position.

“This year, he’s put it all together and just been very consistent, week in and week out. You might get to him for an inning, you might back him into a corner, but man, he fights. It’s been fun.”