Strike One: Confident Tar Heels Make A Statement
CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Danny Hultzen dominated North Carolina for four perfect innings Friday night, striking out nine of the first 12 batters he faced.
Tar Heels coach Mike Fox said his team went in with a game plan to try to keep it close by swinging at strike one, being aggressive against Hultzen.
"He's just so good, he was pounding it and creating that angle and has that good breaking ball," Fox said. "We didn't want it to get to two strikes; we told our hitters to swing at strike one. But then (Chaz) Frank went deep in the count against him (to lead off the first), and we thought maybe that was the way to go. That didn't look so good after the first few innings, though."
Initially, it didn't work, but eventually it did. The Tar Heels got to a tiring Hultzen in the eighth inning, with the score just 1-0 Cavaliers. A Ben Bunting leadoff single, a sacrifice bunt, a wild pitch and a walk put runners at first and third for Levi Michael, and he tied the game with a line-drive single to center, scoring Bunting. With runners again at the corners, freshman Colin Moran—0-for-3 with a pair of strikeouts against the nation's top lefty—came to the plate.
Fox said Frank had informed Moran to look for sliders. Naturally, Moran went down 0-2 in the count on fastballs. But Moran's no ordinary freshman, and he adjusted in his fourth at-bat. He got a slider he could handle, and even though he was out front, he got enough to loft a sacrifice fly to right field to give the Tar Heels their first lead.
Michael Morin got three outs in the ninth—the last a hard smash that Moran knocked down, picked up and threw to first, getting a nice dig from first baseman Jesse Wierzbicki—as North Carolina clinched the series win. The next day, the Tar Heels went for and got the sweep, ending the Cavaliers' run atop the Baseball America Top 25 rankings.
The Tar Heels did it by shutting down Virginia's offense. In Thursday's opener, senior righthander Patrick Johnson tossed an on-the-edge four-hit shutout, needing 136 pitches but going the distance in a 6-0 victory. Friday, freshman lefty Kent Emanuel worked around six walks and three Tar Heel errors, and relievers Andrew Smith, R.C. Orlan and Morin tossed three scoreless innings. Saturday, the Tar Heels held Virginia to six hits again, as starter Chris Munnelly went six solid innings before four relievers made a 3-2 lead hold up.
"We’ve got a very, very good offensive club we just didn’t do what we needed to do this weekend," Virginia coach Brian O'Conner said Saturday. "That’s to North Carolina’s credit. They pitched very good all weekend long. We didn’t make the adjustments we needed to make."
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels have made adjustments all season, starting with making up for the loss of Brian Goodwin when he transferred at the semester to Miami-Dade JC. He's going to be drafted in the first two rounds; how many clubs can lose a top-two-rounds pick and have this kind of season? One outfield spot is still in flux for the Tar Heels, but it's hard to say they'd have a much better record with Goodwin, considering they're 44-12, 20-10 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
North Carolina has series losses to Wake Forest, North Carolina State (in a sweep) and Georgia Tech on the road, while losing a series at home to Miami. However, it lost just twice outside ACC play (Seton Hall, at Charlotte), and it passed Virginia for the No. 1 spot in the unofficial RPI this weekend on Boydsworld.com.
"Hopefully it validates a little bit that we’re a pretty decent team," Fox said of the sweep. "I’m not sure people gave us a whole lot of credit throughout the course of the season, and we believed we had a pretty decent team, and the pieces are starting to come together."
Moran (.355/.464/.596, team-best nine HR) and Michael (.311/.461/.464, 14 SB) are the biggest pieces offensively. Johnson has had a tremendous senior season as the No. 1 starter, improving to 10-1, 2.74 with 94 strikeouts in 85 innings, while Emanuel (6-1, 2.83) and Munnelly (6-4, 3.98) are solid rotation pieces. Morin (4-2, 5.14) has emerged as the closer with a team-high eight saves and 61 strikeouts in 56 innings.
It's not a vintage North Carolina team in that there's no pitcher like Hultzen, a likely first-rounder in the Matt Harvey-Andrew Miller-Alex White mold. But it's much closer to the program that made four straight trips to the College World Series than last year's club, which didn't even qualify for the ACC tournament.
"I think the biggest difference from last year is just confidence," Michael said. "We have a lot more confidence at this time now than we did at this time last year, because we've played well. I think the biggest difference is just confidence. What we've done so far is great, but we have to keep on doing it."
Strike Two: Cal Recharges Batteries For Stretch Run
LOS ANGELES—It's been an emotionally taxing year for the California Golden Bears. The school's administration announced its intention to eliminate the program in September, prompting two players to transfer at the semester break. Cal baseball supporters scrambled to raise funds all fall and winter, only to be told on Feb. 11 that three other programs would be reinstated—but not baseball.
The coaches had to shift attention from recruiting to finding new homes for their players after the season. The players had to find a way to focus on baseball, even while their baseball and educational futures hung in limbo. As it turned out, they rallied around the adversity.
"If anything, the guys are working harder," sophomore second baseman Tony Renda said back in December. "We have a lot of extra motivation on the team. Part if it is to go, 'Screw you, we deserve to be here, and even if you guys don't think we do, we're going to prove it to you.' "
Cal carried that edge into the season (just check out the reinstatement rap video they produced in February), getting off to a 19-8 start before baseball supporters raised enough money to satisfy the school's chancellor, who finally reinstated the program on April 8.
Since reinstatement, Cal is just 11-10. The Bears returned from their exam break with a pair of wins this week against UC Davis and UCLA, then dropped the final two games of the series in Westwood. Did reinstatement soften the Bears' edge?
"I don't think so," Cal coach David Esquer said. "We kind of joked about that a little bit when that happened, but I think the grind of the game kind of smoothed out our edge a little bit. Things just became a little more difficult for us. At Arizona State, the 17-inning game on Friday kind of dulled our edge a little bit for the rest of the weekend. Then we've got to find ourselves again, but that's kind of what baseball's about: The game will find you, or pitchers will make adjustments, and you've got to make that second adjustment to be able to be successful, and that's what we had to do."
Esquer said he was pleased with the way his team responded after the exam break, playing more crisply in those first two games of the week. Ace Erik Johnson threw seven innings of shutout, two-hit ball Friday to out-duel UCLA flame-thrower Gerrit Cole (7 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 6 K), and freshman Andrew Knapp broke open a 1-0 game with a three-run double against the UCLA bullpen in the eighth. Johnson made big pitches in big spots and showed off a solid four-pitch repertoire: a 91-92 mph fastball that reached 93-94, and 85-88 slider and an occasional 76 mph curveball and 84 mph changeup.
"It was the most important game for us this year, no doubt about it, and we knew that. (Johnson) was ready for it," Esquer said. "I was kind of teasing for him that it was Buster Douglas going up against (Mike) Tyson, I kind of teased him with a little YouTube video on my phone of the last three rounds. He played with it a little bit. And that's who we are. We've got to play with a little chip. I use the old (John) Wooden quote a little bit: Hey, we're as good as anybody, but we're better than nobody. We've got to play, we've got to play well."
Of course, they say momentum is only as good as the next day's starting pitcher, and Cal's momentum was stopped dead Saturday by the possible national Player of the Year, Trevor Bauer—who threw his seventh consecutive complete game in UCLA's 2-1 win. Cal's offense sputtered again Sunday against Freshman of the Year candidate Adam Plutko, and just like that the Bears had lost their fourth series in six weekends since reinstatement.
"There was that motivation there," Johnson said Friday, acknowledging Cal's early-season edge. "But as a whole, it kind of brought our whole team together. A few guys left, and we're past that now. We aren't looking toward the past. We're looking toward a regional and a super regional and Omaha.
"I think the break for finals, taking those two weeks to rest, not really rest our bodies but rest our minds, take ourselves away from the game a little bit—I think that really refreshed us."
Cal has the talent, experience and balance to make a run at the program's first College World Series trip since 1992. The drama of the program's elimination and subsequent reinstatement are in the rear-view mirror, and so are exams. All the Bears have to do now is play baseball.
And that's a very good thing.
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Victor Roache
Coming into this weekend, Victor Roache had hit more home runs than 176 of the 299 Division I teams.
Georgia Southern's sophomore right fielder bashed two more long balls this weekend against Appalachian State, boosting his nation-leading total to 29 home runs. No other player in D-I has more than 22 homers. In fact, with the Southern Conference tournament still ahead, Roache has already surpassed last year's leading national home run total (Fresno State's Jordan Ribera hit 27 in 2010), even while the new bat standards have dramatically slashed home run production across the country.
Roache's power numbers have skyrocketed from his freshman year, when he hit just eight home runs and slugged .464. Through 55 games this year, he's hitting .335/.432/.813 with 78 RBIs.
"It's pretty amazing what he's done," Eagles coach Rodney Hennon said. "When we recruited him, we felt like he was going to be a great hitter, and we felt like he was going to hit for power. I don't know that we imagined him hitting 29 home runs in a season this year. We thought he'd be more mature, be a better player this year than he was last year."
After getting drafted in the 25th round by the Tigers out of high school, Roache arrived at Georgia Southern as a physically gifted but raw Michigan prep product, and he struggled with pitch selection for much of his freshman year, though he started to make some adjustments and gain some confidence in the second half of the season. But severe shin splints hampered him for much of the season and sidelined him in the summer. When he returned to campus last fall, he broke his ankle sliding into a base in the first week of fall practice.
"So he missed some at-bats as a freshman and in the summer that are huge for a guy early in his career," Hennon said. "The more at-bats he's gotten this spring, the better he's gotten. Last year he would get himself out at times, chasing balls out of the strike zone. When he got on this run, he's been more disciplined at the plate. He's more confident making adjustments, and he's got a better feel for how people try to pitch him."
Roache has cut down his strikeout rate considerably, from once every 3.6 at-bats last year to once every 5.5 at-bats this year. He also has taken what pitchers have given him, blasting home runs to all parts of the field on all sorts of pitches, not just fastballs.
"He's just got raw power, and it's not like he's a dead-pull guy," Hennon said. "He's just so strong that even with the new bat, he's strong enough to mis-hit a ball a little bit and still drive it out of the yard. There aren't many guys who can do that."
He also has made strides as a defender, getting better reads and jumps on fly balls, though he still has work to do. He's a decent runner with some arm strength in right field.
Roache has continued to work hard at his game all season, not taking his success for granted.
"He's probably as well-liked as anybody on our team," Hennon said. "He's not the most outspoken kid, necessarily, but very humble. You can imagine a guy having the year he's having, that could affect him. But he's the same guy now as he was last year. I think the biggest difference is he's a more confident player. I think that was something that he had to develop. You want a guy hitting in the middle of the order that's got that presence about him. We've been fortunate enough to have those guys over the years. Last year, he probably wasn't ready for that as a freshman. This year, with some confidence, he probably sees himself as that guy now. I know our team does."