Strike One: Tennessee's Turning Point
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—The sounds of Tennessee's locker room celebration were still ringing through the hallways underneath Lindsey Nelson Stadium a half hour after the final out was recorded Saturday. One particularly loud burst of shouting penetrated the walls into the media room just before Vols coach Dave Serrano addressed reporters.
"I think you could hear over my shoulder, 34 guys that I think just lifted a thousand pounds off their shoulders," Serrano said in the aftermath of Tennessee's 10-9 win Saturday night. "Young men that love each other, want to win for each other, want to win for all the alumni and this great university. We've hit a rut. And I think something like tonight, hopefully I'll look back years from now and say on April the 5th, 2014, an ugly but a great victory over Vanderbilt was the turning point. I know it was just one game, and I'm not trying to play it up bigger than it is. But we needed that at this time. We needed that as a team."
Tennessee had gotten off to an 18-2 start and climbed to No. 18 in the Baseball America rankings, but then the Vols lost seven of their next eight games. They dropped a pair of tight home games against Auburn, then lost two games on walk-off home runs in the same day at South Carolina. They lost a midweek game to East Tennessee State, and they lost Friday's opener at home against Vanderbilt. Another loss Saturday would have given them their third straight series loss, and might have landed them in a hole too deep to dig out of. And the Vols were down to their final out in the ninth inning, when freshman first baseman Nathaniel Maggio came up with the bases loaded against flame-thrower Carson Fulmer and worked the count full. He went the other way with a fastball down and away, scoring two runs and setting off a celebration around Maggio near second base.
"We were struggling offensively, and the pitchers were kind of picking us up," Maggio said. "But today, we picked the pitchers up. And this could be the changing point of our season, because we've been struggling. That little confidence we got tonight could help us move through SEC play. And hopefully we can keep it going."
The Vols did keep it going Sunday in a dominating 7-0 win to clinch the heated rivalry series. Vanderbilt's program was largely irrelevant before Tim Corbin arrived a decade ago, and Tennessee's program was largely irrelevant in the decade since, so this in-state feud never really registered nationally. Now that Vandy is an established national power and Tennessee is on the rise under Serrano, this rivalry is getting spicy.
"It's crazy, I never realized how much we hated Vanderbilt before I came here," said Maggio, a native of Alpharetta, Ga. "But after that atmosphere, there's nothing like it."
The first two games drew crowds of about 2,500, and the home fans were lively—and at times, a bit nasty. The two fan bases continued going at each other on Twitter, and the coaching staffs even exchanged heated words with one another near home plate after Saturday's game.
"There's a lot of respect," Serrano said. "I respect what they've done. I respect tremendously what that coaching staff, what Coach Corbin has done at Vanderbilt. We want to continue to gain ground. There was a situation earlier in the game, with their runner and Taylor Smart at third. One of their coaches had some comments for Taylor Smart. All I said was if there's something that needs to be said, it should be talked about amongst the coaches, and I'll handle it just like I know Tim would handle it. And I don't think a coach needs to say something to a player, nor should a player say something back to a coach. So I think both parties were wrong. I wanted to clear that up, we wanted to clear that up as a staff, and we move on."
It was a rivalry series, so tensions were understandably high—especially after a bizarre, emotionally draining game that featured dramatic momentum shifts, eight errors, and two balls called on Vandy pitchers for licking their fingers, including a ball four against Fulmer in the ninth inning that put the eventual tying run on base.
The game certainly wasn't a work of art—Serrano called it one of the wildest games he's ever been a part of—but Tennessee did plenty of good things, like executing its bunt game very effectively. With lefthander Jared Miller on the mound for Vandy, the Vols started righthanded hitters Parker Wormsley and Derek Lance, who had made one combined start between them heading into Saturday. They came through with three combined hits, four runs and four RBIs. Lance's three-run double highlighted Tennessee's six-run fourth-inning rally.
After Vandy answered with four runs of its own in the fifth, the Volunteers got strong pitching from Josh Peterson and Bret Marks the rest of the way to settle the game down. Serrano said the bullpen has done wonders for the Vols this year, and the unit showed a lot of different looks this weekend, from the right side and the left.
Tennessee has regional-caliber talent, and it needed to win its series this weekend to maintain a regional-caliber resume. It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't easy, but that made the reward that much sweeter.
"That was crazy, because we've lost a lot of close games," Maggio said. "Last weekend, South Carolina, that was rough. It was good to see that on our side tonight, that excitement."
Strike Two: Liberty And Shutouts For All
Liberty spent a few years knocking on the door to regionals before breaking the door down last year by winning the Big South tournament. The Flames had won 42 games in 2010, 35 in 2011 and 41 in 2012, but they fell short of capturing an at-large bid, and couldn't get past Big South goliath Coastal Carolina in the conference tournament.
So it was a big deal for the program to beat the Chanticleers twice in the conference tournament last year, then to topple regular-season champion Campbell in the title game, sending the Flames to their first regional since 2000. Now, Liberty finds itself as the team to beat in the Big South, rather than a hopeful challenger.
Liberty is off to an 11-1 start in conference play and owns a 25-8 record overall. The Flames have the Big South's best record by three games over North Division foe Campbell and South Division-leading Winthrop (both 8-4). And Liberty isn't just winning Big South games; it is dominating them.
The Flames have thrown six consecutive shutouts in conference games, sweeping a road series at Presbyterian and a home set against Virginia Military Institute. Liberty is riding a 60-inning scoreless streak in conference action.
"We've gotten out of a lot of jams, we've made some really good plays and turned a lot of double plays, but the pitching has been good," Liberty coach Jim Toman said of the streak. "You're just getting the bounces when that happens. It's hard to do that, there's no doubt."
Toman said his pitching staff features eight or nine arms he feels very good about, a nice blend of veterans and freshmen. Senior righthander Trey Lambert (7-1, 1.92 with 32 strikeouts and seven walks in 56 innings) sets the tone on Friday nights. He threw a six-hit shutout Friday against VMI, allowing one walk while striking out five. He shut out Presbyterian on one hit a week earlier. Lambert has plenty of confidence and poise regardless of his opponent.
"Trey Lambert beat South Carolina last year, beat Clemson last year, beat Georgia last year," Toman said. "He's pretty much the same guy every time out: 88-91, on a good day bumps 92, has a curveball, cutter and changeup. He's one of those senior sign veteran guys, works downhill, solid guy. Mature."
Physical righthander Carson Herndon (5-1, 2.82) has been the Saturday starter, but Toman said he had a doctor's appointment Monday, trying to determine if he's dealing with a muscle strain or "something more serious." He has a quality arm, with a fastball that touches 93 and a good 82-83 mph slider.
The Sunday starter is 6-foot-5 freshman righthander Parker Bean (5-1, 2.91), who carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning this week, finishing with 16 strikeouts over 8 1/3. Toman said his fastball still touched 90 mph in the eighth inning Sunday, and he is capable of reaching 92.
"He has a great body, it's easy, he has a good slider and he knows how to pitch," Toman said.
Crafty lefthanders Jared Lyons (2-1, 1.56) and Blake Fulghum (2-2, 2.08) are also key pieces, and one of them could be a candidates to move into the weekend rotation if Herndon misses time. Lyons is currently the midweek starter, while Fulghum is a versatile part of the bullpen, where he joins righty Matt Marsh (0.98 ERA) and two-way talent Ashton Perritt (1.93 ERA, 7 SV, 21-2 K-BB mark in 19 IP) in a solid trio. Marsh can reach 92 and has a good palmball, Toman said. Perritt has been a bit banged up from his center field duties so he hasn't shown the 95 mph heat he flashed last year, but he has worked at 89-92, and he has pounded the strike zone.
Liberty also has some dangerous pieces in the lineup—most notably sluggers Ryan Seiz (.411, 7 HR, 31 RBI), Alex Close (.352, 5 HR, 29 RBI) and Danny Grauer (.278, 4 HR, 25 RBI). Freshman Will Shepherd (.358) has brought more physicality and looks like Liberty's next star.
It's a balanced roster, but the pitching really makes Liberty the Big South front-runner. And Toman knows his team needs to continue playing at a very high level to avoid getting snubbed for an at-large bid as it has been in past years, and as Campbell was last year.
"If we mess up, our RPI goes down," Toman said. "So we tell our guys, 'Every game is the most important game of the year.' That's how we're taking it, one game at a time. We sense some energy and excitement, pretty good chemistry. It's been fun so far."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Nathan Kirby
Heading into the season, Virginia led all teams in college baseball with four members of Baseball America's preseason All-America team. They were all position players, as the top-ranked Cavs were expected to be an offense-first operation.
Midway through the spring, the Cavs are 27-5 even though their bats haven't really gotten going yet. It turns out, UVa. has an elite pitching staff, and the team's leading contender for the Golden Spikes Award isn't one of its four preseason All-Americans—it's ace lefthander Nathan Kirby, who had a 6.06 ERA as a freshman last year, when he worked mostly in middle relief.
Kirby was a highly regarded prospect coming out of high school, but he removed his name from the draft by declining to participate in MLB's medical and drug program for top 200 prospects, because he was dead-set on becoming a Cavalier. As a sophomore, he has learned to harness his impressive talent, and he has established himself as the front-runner for Atlantic Coast Conference pitcher of the year honors by going 6-1, 1.03 with 55 strikeouts and 10 walks in 53 innings.
"I'd have to say that from one year to the next, in a matter of 12 months, this is absolutely the most improved pitcher we've had in a 12-month period here," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said. "Last year, he had a good arm, but his pitchability wasn't there. He was so fast in everything he was trying to do; he just didn't have a presence about him. He went from a guy throwing some innings out of the bullpen, obviously a great arm out of high school, but didn't understand what you needed to do at this level of college baseball to truly be great."
On Friday at Pittsburgh, Kirby was truly great. He turned in the best individual performance of the 2014 college season to date, striking out 18 and walking just one in a no-hitter. (Using Bill James' Game Score, Kirby scored a 104; for comparison, Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout game in 1998, often cited as the most dominating game in major league history, is a 105.)
During one stretch in the early innings, Kirby struck out 10 straight batters. And he did it without running deep counts.
"Oh, my gosh—it was the most dominating performance that I've seen in our 11 years here," O'Connor said. "It was really efficient, too. The pitch count was right around 120. To have 18 strikeouts—usually when you have that many strikeouts, the pitch count is so high. But there were a lot of three-pitch strikeouts. He had a great fastball going, really good velocity with command, a really good breaking ball and changeup. He just had it going. It was just one of those nights the kid was on, and he was not going to be denied."
Kirby attacks hitters with a fastball that sits around 90-91 and touches 92-93. He can add and subtract from his tight, power curveball, throwing it around 77-78 when he needs a called strike, or in the low 80s when he's going for a swing-and-miss. He has also developed a solid 81-82 mph changeup, which he didn't have last year, when he was mostly a two-pitch guy out of the bullpen, O'Connor said.
"He had the velocity and he showed the good breaking ball out of high school," O'Connor said. "Last year when I watched him pitch, it just seemed like he would throw. Now he's pitching with the same velocity but he's commanding the fastball, and the breaking ball is sharper and more consistent. And the poise and the presence that he's shown on the mound has improved leaps and bounds from last year. Sometimes these guys come in as freshmen, and it takes guys a year to figure that part out. Kirby needed to learn that."
A nagging injury to his non-throwing shoulder also hindered Kirby as a freshman, preventing him from lifting weights the way Virginia would have liked. He went to the New England Collegiate Baseball League last summer and proved he could handle a starting role, and he ranked as the circuit's No. 1 prospect. He still needed minor surgery on his right shoulder when he returned to campus that fall. First, he went through fall ball.
"We wanted him to pitch the majority of the fall to prove to his teammates he was better and could really be counted on," O'Connor said. "And he did, he had a terrific fall."
He had surgery toward the end of the fall, preventing him from throwing or lifting weights until the middle of January. The Cavs hoped the surgery would pay off by allowing him to add strength to his upper body in the weight room, improving his durability this spring. But they built him up slowly, keeping him mostly below 90 pitches until this weekend.
So maybe Friday was Kirby at his very best, but there is plenty of reason to believe there are many good days still ahead of him this spring.
"I'll be really excited to see the back half of the season, because he had the shoulder surgery pretty late in the fall," O'Connor said. "We said, if we can't get him in the weight room and get him stronger, he's not going to last. So even early in the season we didn't feel like physically he was that strong because he'd only been back lifting weights for a very short period of time. While a lot of guys' stuff might go downhill in the last third of the season, I'm hoping his stuff goes uphill.
"So here's this guy that everybody thought out of high school, 'This guy's a dude.' It took him a year, and here he is."