Strike One: Mashing In Memphis
At the end of a Conference USA weekend, Daron Schoenrock said he just wants to find an easychair and relax, because he's mentally drained. More than ever, C-USA is a grind this year, with no easy series. Southern Mississippi, Rice and East Carolina are strong, as expected, while Central Florida, Tulane, Alabama-Birmingham and Houston have taken steps forward. So has Schoenrock's Memphis team—another reason this is a banner year for Conference USA.
"This league, about all you can say is, 'Wow,' " Schoenrock said. "As far as a non-BCS league, it's got to be one of the best leagues in the country."
A week ago, it looked like Southern Miss might have been the team to beat in Conference USA, and it still might be. But Memphis won a huge series against the Golden Eagles this weekend, following a midweek win against Mississippi. The Tigers are 19-12 overall and 3-3 in conference play, and they have the offensive firepower to make some noise down the stretch.
"We looked at the strength of this year's team, it was basically experience in the lineup, and that experience is coming forth now," Schoenrock said. "We have been really close in our losses early—I could see some good things happening with the team. We were losing a lot of one-run games, we were one pitch away, one play away. We didn't get discouraged; I knew we had a tough stretch coming up, and our lineup started kicking on a few more cylinders this weekend, is the best way to say it."
First baseman T.J. Rich's hot streak has had a lot to do with Memphis' surge. Rich went 4-for-4 with two RBIs Friday, then 4-for-5 with two homers and six RBIs Saturday, leading the Tigers to wins in the first two games of the series. Schoenrock said Rich and fellow junior-college transfer Ely Hynes (who leads the team with seven home runs) have begun to adjust to the way Division I pitchers can throw quality offspeed stuff in hitters' counts. They are also embracing the line-drive approach preached by the coaching staff.
That approach has worked wonders for junior shortstop Chad Zurcher, who had another strong weekend to remain atop the national leaderboard in hitting (.519) and on-base percentage (.631). After redshirting with a torn labrum as a sophomore in 2009, Zurcher hit .400 a year ago, but he's taken his game to a new level in 2011.
"It's storybook stuff," Schoenrock said. "It's preparation and experience meeting opportunity. The first thing about Chad is he's a team leader off the field. He was voted co-captain this year for his second year. He's worked real hard to improve his strength and conditioning, because he's not a real big guy—170 pounds, and he walked in the door about 145. The thing he does as a hitter is he's a very middle-of-the-field oriented guy. He doesn't ever try to do too much, and he's not chasing pitches. He has tremendous strike zone discipline and just puts balls in play. It's not a lot of fly balls dropping in for him either; they're line drives, legitimate hits. The reason he's over .500 is because he stays in the middle of the field. He's a very disciplined hitter."
Zurcher, who hits in the leadoff spot, and leadoff man Drew Martinez (a Cape Cod League all-star last year) make the offense go, and the RBI guys in the middle of the lineup drive them in. That's how Memphis drew it up, and that's the way it's been going lately.
But the Tigers are also very strong defensively, especially up the middle, where Zurcher is a field general at shortstop, senior catcher Phillip Chapman is strong behind the plate, and Martinez covers a lot of ground in center. As a team, Memphis is fielding .978, which makes life easier for weekend starters Clayton Gant and Ryan Holland, who rely on savvy more than overpowering stuff. Sophomore righty Dan Langfield and closer Ben Paullus do have power stuff, and both are averaging more than a strikeout per inning.
Memphis will go as far as its bats carry it, but its pitching should at least keep it in games most weekends. It won't be easy to make a run at regionals in a loaded Conference USA, but the Tigers have a shot.
"The challenges continue—you truly have to take it one day at a time in this league," Schoenrock said. "Conference play is basically survival of the fittest. You savor the wins, and you've got to have short-term memory on the losses, because the battles continue."
Strike Two: Observations From SoCal
I drove up to Dedeaux Field on Friday night to see Stanford take on Southern California, and the Cardinal looked very impressive in an 8-1 win. Its three talented freshmen in the everyday lineup—Brian Ragira, Austin Wilson and Lonnie Kauppila—all hit the ball hard repeatedly, each recording multiple hits. Athletic sophomores Jake Stewart, Kenny Diekroeger and Tyler Gaffney combined for five hits, including a double and a triple. There was no let-up in the lineup, which rapped out 17 hits against Andrew Triggs and two relievers, and I expected Stanford to cruise to a road series victory.
Then the Cardinal mustered just three runs over the next two days, as USC won Saturday and Sunday. USC Flame-thrower Austin Wood (8 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 8 K) finally turned in an outing worthy of his talent Saturday, and senior righty Logan Odom pitched well on Sunday as he has for most of the season, including in a win against UCLA and tight losses to Rice and Cal State Fullerton.
Still, USC won't be in a regional this year, and Stanford will be. And the Cardinal must be pleased with sophomore righthander Mark Appel's continuing maturation into a legitimate Friday ace. He was outstanding Friday, allowing just one unearned run on four hits and no walks while striking out seven in his first career complete game. Appel carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning, and he had plenty left in the tank in the ninth, when he hit 94 mph. For the first six innings he hit 94-95 regularly, pitching comfortably in the 91-94 range, before dropping into the 89-90 range around the eighth. Like Vanderbilt ace Sonny Gray, Appel said he only throws two-seam fastballs, and they have good movement. More importantly, he located the pitch well Friday, and threw his 79-83 slider and 82-85 changeup for strikes, or for chase pitches.
"We've been working on height as the biggest part of our location," Appel said. "So fastball down was effective, and getting ahead with the changeup or the slider, it really gets them off guard and keeps them guessing late in the game. I feel like I am (becoming more polished). It's been a long road, because we had that tough schedule going to Rice, Vanderbilt and Texas, so I was kind of thrown right in the fire. But coming back to the Pac-10, I just said I was going to erase what happened before Pac-10. I'm a new pitcher, just going to do my best every time out."
Appel pitched in relief as a freshman, when he attacked hitters primarily with a fastball, because his secondary stuff was underdeveloped, according to pitching coach Rusty Filter. He was voted a second-team preseason All-American as a closer, but Stanford opted to start him on Fridays from the beginning of the season, and he is proving he can handle the role, going 2-3, 3.09 through seven starts.
"The last couple times out he's been good, and he hasn't had a bad start all year, they've all pretty much been quality," Filter said. "But when he gets all three pitches going and pitches inside—we're trying to teach him to pitch. He's got a big arm, but we him to be able to pitch, and it's nice to see him do that and give us a complete game on Friday."
Ultimately, Appel's emergence as a true ace should give Stanford plenty of reason for optimism, even after a disappointing weekend.
• Speaking of disappointing weekends, UC Irvine coach Mike Gillespie was extremely frustrated with his team after the Anteaters lost back-to-back games at Cal State Fullerton on Saturday and Sunday. The 'Eaters had blasted Fullerton 15-3 on Friday, but they made too many mistakes over the next two games—uncharacteristic for a veteran club like UCI.
"Really what I'm most disappointed in is our failure to execute things that I'd think that we could do," Gillespie said. "That was the biggest disappointment to me. It wasn't just (Sunday). We failed to get bunts down yesterday. We got thrown out at second base on a ball off the wall, for crying out loud. It had a lot to do with a great play by a pretty special physical player, but it was a horrible piece of baserunning. Various kinds of things we tried to do. You try to hit and run, try to squeeze, don't get them done. We pick off, not to try to get an out, we pick off to try to read some action, and we throw it away. We ask for a ball in the dirt, we get it in the dirt, we can't block it, that starts an inning.
"It's unexpected by me. Maybe we overrate what we do and what we teach and drill in practice, because if you're good, you don't do those things. We've just got to go back, and start up again."
The "pretty special physical player" that Gillespie alluded to was freshman right fielder Michael Lorenzen, who was a dyamo on Sunday. After letting a ball get by him for an ugly two-base error in Irvine's four-run fifth inning, Lorenzen bounced back with a go-ahead three-run triple to left-center in the bottom of the frame, propeling Fullerton to a series-clinching 10-4 win.
"I usually don't single out a single player after a game, but he was spectacular—not just today, but last night with the throw that he made from the right-field wall," Fullerton coach Dave Serrano said, referring to Lorenzen's outfield assist Saturday to gun down Jonathan Hurst at second base. "I think people are starting to see why he was so highly touted out of high school, and he had a big part to do with the success of this team."
Lorenzen also made an amazing catch in the sixth inning to rob Jordan Leyland. On a ball slicing toward the right-field line, Lorenzen got a great jump and showed terrific speed, then laid out to make the catch on the warning track, diving at full speed.
"He hit it, and I knew the wind was blowing out, so I just got a good jump on it," Lorenzen said. "I said, 'If I'm going to get this ball, I've got to put my head down and just go.' So I was just running, put my head down, then I look up and said, 'Man, I've got a chance at this ball.' So I'm getting there, and I just fully laid out, and in the air I saw it in my glove and I thought, 'No way! It's in here!' Then I landed thinking that hopefully my head doesn't nail the fence right here, but I landed on the track, just perfect."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Noe Ramirez
FULLERTON, Calif.—When you hear Noe Ramirez say, "I feel like the changeup is the best pitch in baseball," it becomes clear that he is a perfect fit for Cal State Fullerton. Not five minutes earlier, Titans coach Dave Serrano said the exact same thing—and it's something he says often.
Ramirez, a junior righthander, said he never had a changeup before he arrived at Fullerton, but now he is the proud owner of one of the best changeups in college baseball. Serrano is a master of teaching the changeup, but Ramirez also credits former Fullerton ace Ricky Romero, now a Toronto Blue Jay, for showing him the pitch.
"I'm just blessed to be able to throw a great changeup," Ramirez said. "I had a little talk with Romero, I just asked him how he has so much control of it. I asked him how he does it, and he told me. I just started throwing the hell out of it from 90 feet in warmups, and it went from there. I know a lot of guys, when they throw the changuep, they try not to choke it, but that's how i throw mine: I choke the hell out of it."
Ramirez throws his changeup with the same arm speed as his fastball, but it comes in at 83-84 mph with excellent fade, sink and deception. It plays well off his 89-91 mph fastball.
"I think it's huge," Serrano said of Ramirez's changeup. "I think that's why the people at the next level like him, because he has a miss-the-bat pitch. You see a lot of swings and misses, a lot of not quality contact, and that's hard to find sometimes. It has extremely good wiggle to it. It can be elevated at times and guys are still not getting good passes at it."
The changeup is a big reason Ramirez is 26-5 in his college career. He's having his best season this spring, going 5-2, 1.98 with 64 strikeouts and 10 walks through 55 innings. Ramirez said he felt some elbow tenderness over the past few weeks—he blamed himself for overthrowing during his midweek side work—and the Titans were cautious with him, moving him to the Saturday starter spot to give him some extra rest, and limiting him to 70 pitches a week ago. He threw 105 pitches over 7 2/3 innings this Saturday in a 2-1 win against UC Irvine, allowing just one run on seven hits and a walk while striking out nine.
"He's starting to get in a groove now, and that's good for us," Serrano said. "He'll go back in that Friday slot next week, because he's a tone-setter for us."
Ramirez said he felt like his fastball command improved as his outing progressed Saturday, and he recorded two strikeouts with perfectly placed 88 mph fastballs over the outside corner in the seventh inning. He also was able to throw his 78-80 mph slider for strikes or use it to extend the zone.
"I felt like I had pinpoint control of everything (Saturday)—it felt real good," Ramirez said. "My slider's been a lot better than it has been last year and the year before. Everything's been going great for me right now."