Three Strikes: Week Five

Strike One: Deep Bullpen Makes Florida State Complete

The teams with the stronger bullpens won all three of the Top 25 showdown series this weekend. South Carolina’s bullpen, led by Joel Seddon and Cody Mincey, has not allowed a run in 61 1/3 consecutive innings, a streak that has gotten plenty of attention around Columbia. Vanderbilt’s bullpen has been nearly as good, and freshmen Hayden Stone (30-3 K-BB mark in 18 innings) and John Kilichowski (0.00 ERA in 9 innings) have emerged as new weapons in a bullpen that also includes electric-armed righties Carson Fulmer and Adam Ravenelle plus fearless sidearmer Brian Miller.

Florida State’s bullpen tends to get overshadowed by the big-name weekend rotation of Luke Weaver, Brandon Leibrandt and Mike Compton, but FSU’s pen is also very deep and varied, and it’s a huge reason for the team’s 17-2 start—and its sweep of N.C. State this weekend. While the Seminoles were able to get to the Wolfpack ‘pen in all three games, FSU’s relief corps was outstanding.

On Friday, Gage Smith and Kenny Burkhead combined to work 2.2 hitless, scoreless innings of relief. Smith worked another 2.1 scoreless innings in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, and another scoreless two-thirds in the nightcap. Bryant Holtmann worked 1.1 scoreless in the 13-inning finale, and Jameis Winston struck out seven over three scoreless. Then Burkhead worked two more innings, allowing one run, to get the win.

“We’ve got, obviously, an experienced rotation,” Florida State coach Mike Martin said. “They have not been dominant every time they’ve gone out there. They’ve pitched well and given us a chance to win for five innings, but the bullpen has really been good.”

Jameis Winston (photo by Cliff Welch)

Jameis Winston has 13 strikeouts in 11 innings. (photo by Cliff Welch)

Winston, a third-team preseason All-American as a two-way player, has already saved Florida State’s bacon repeatedly in tight spots over the first five weeks of the season, posting a 0.84 ERA with 13 strikeouts and one walk in 11 innings as the closer, with three saves. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner has justified his spot on the All-America team even though he has not shown his best velocity yet. Winston ran his heater up to 96 at times as a freshman last year, but he has worked mostly at 90-92 so far this year. Martin said he hopes Winston will pitch at 92-93 as the season progresses, but he can already dominate hitters thanks to his ability to locate his four-seamer, his two-seamer and a quality slider that he can throw in any count. And, of course, his athleticism and poise are special.

“He’s going to be our closer until he proves he can’t be,” Martin said. “He’s very, very much under control. When he pitched in a close ballgame against USF, on the road, there were probably 100 guys yelling, trying to rattle him. All I could do was sit over there, cross my legs and go, ‘You know, I wonder if this is anything like that 72-yard drive he took us on back in January, when there were 80,000 yelling at him.’”

Martin lauded the contributions of some of his younger bullpen arms, like freshman lefty Alec Byrd and freshman righty Taylor Blatch (an undersized bulldog with a quick arm who reminds Martin of former Seminoles great Richie Lewis). He raves about the development of Holtmann, a 6-5 lefty with a fastball that has jumped into the 90-91 range, an improved cutter, and a dramatically improved mound presence. Burkhead, a sophomore righthander, has seen his velocity jump from 86-87 last year to bumping 91, and Martin said as recently as three weeks ago he was not a big part of FSU’s plans. Now he’s yet another trusted option in a staff so deep, Martin had to go to his car for a roster to make sure he wasn’t forgetting to highlight someone.

“And you’ll never believe, I forgot the most important guy: Everyday Gage, he’s called around here now. And (Saturday) he was Twice-A-Day Gage, because he pitched in both games,” Martin said of Smith. “That guy is really, really having an excellent year. He loves to compete. It’s savvy. He’ll hold you, he’ll come set, he’ll hold, hold, hold, then you’ll step out. And he’ll just take the ball out of his glove, put it back in his glove, wait ’til you get back in, come set, hold, hold, hold, pitch. And as a hitter, you get your timing affected, and he’s just got ‘it’ on the mound. He’s not any fun to get in there against.”

Smith (2-0, 0.95 in 19 innings) is to Florida State what John Taylor was to South Carolina during its championship runs, or what David Berg is to UCLA. He’s a rubber-armed sidewinder who always seems to get big groundball outs to extract the Seminoles from tight spots.

Florida State has a reputation as an offensive program, but the Seminoles have had plenty of strong pitching staffs over the years, too. Martin stressed that it’s still early, and the Seminoles must be careful not to fall in love with themselves. But this pitching staff might wind up being the best of Martin’s long career, because the bullpen is so deep.

“It’s one of the few years that I can remember in my 35 that I’ve been at Florida State in which there’s no hesitation in going to the bullpen at any time,” Martin said. “I think that does an awful lot of good for the starters, I think it does an awful lot of good for the guys that are in the bullpen. We’re not afraid to go down there and get somebody. Sometimes we do ignore the matching situation, depending on how we feel about this particular guy going in, and we’ll stay with the starter. But 90 percent of the time, if (lefthander) Billy Strode is throwing the ball well, we’re going to go get him to face a couple of lefties as early as the fifth, if we have to. We’ve got six lefties and eight righties, and they’ve all pitched, and I’ll be honest with you: I don’t hesitate to go get any of them. And I mean that.”

Strike Two: Rice Remains Class Of C-USA

When Rice ace righthander Jordan Stephens went down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery just three weeks into his season, the Owls didn’t panic. They made the logical move, sliding junior righty Zech Lemond from the back of the bullpen into the Friday starter role. And they trusted that sophomore righty Matt Ditman was up for the challenge of replacing Lemond as the bullpen anchor.

In the last two weeks, Lemond has looked ready for his new assignment, and Ditman has been equal to his own task. So rather than sink, the Owls have flourished, winning eight of their last nine games. That stretch started with a midweek road win against Sam Houston State, and was capped this weekend by a road series sweep of Florida International, which carried a 16-1 record into the series. Rice coach Wayne Graham has been pleased with his team’s toughness.

“Right now, we’ve got the best team makeup we’ve had in a long time, as far as spirit and things like that,” he said. “You know, we had that in 2003. These guys are very team-oriented.”

Zech Lemond

Zech Lemond has taken well to the Friday starter role.

Lemond struck out 10 over 6 2/3 innings in his first start against Old Dominion, allowing just one unearned run on two hits. He threw eight strong innings Friday against FIU, holding a very offensive team to just two runs. The Owls have extended Lemond for multiple innings plenty of times in the past, but starting still requires a mental adjustment.

“He’s looked good starting,” Graham said. “I think he’s still settling in. I think he doesn’t know yet how hard to throw early. One game I think he threw 95 every pitch in the first.”

Lefthander Blake Fox has been very reliable as the Saturday starter, going 4-0, 1.38 in 33 innings. Graham said he works at 85-87 mph, mixes in his slider and curveball and a good changeup, and moves his fastball around the zone to keep hitters off balance. Righty Kevin McCanna has struggled on Sundays, prompting Graham to make a switch for this coming weekend against Florida Atlantic. Senior two-way talent Chase McDowell (3-1, 1.05) has finally harnessed his potential as a hitter and a pitcher, and he earned the win with four strong innings of relief Sunday.  He’ll get the start this weekend.

“McDowell is the hold card—he came in and won it for us,” Graham said. “He went to a two-seam fastball, and it’s moving every time. He’s like 87-91, but his changeup is really good and his breaking stuff’s gotten better, and everything moves.”

Ditman, meanwhile, has a 1.04 ERA and a 27-5 K-BB mark in 26 innings. As Graham put it, he struck out 10 in four innings at Stanford during opening weekend, and he hasn’t ever let up. He worked five innings of two-hit, shutout ball in Friday’s 13-inning win against FIU, striking out eight. His fastball reaches 91 with plenty of movement, and his curveball is a true out pitch.

Rice’s offense has also come into its own during the last two weeks. Catcher John Clay Reeves is one of the hottest hitters in college baseball. He went 17-for-25 (.680) in five games last week, raising his season average to .416. Graham also lets him call all the pitches, so he deserves plenty of credit for the success of the pitching staff. No other junior-college transfer in the country has made more of an impact.

“Reeves is going crazy,” Graham said. “He’s been pretty special. I think he’s a very intelligent hitter, and he’s strong, and his approach is very sound. He can go the opposite way and he can turn on the ball. Early in the year he was hitting about .250, and I told people, ‘Just wait, he’s going to hit.’ He’s gotten into a groove—he hits the ball hard all the time and rarely strikes out.”

Another key to the offense has been the improved play of Ford Stainback and Leon Byrd, a pair of lefthanded hitters with good speed. Graham said hitting coach Clay Van Hook has spent a lot of time recently hammering them on spraying the ball to the opposite field to let their speed play.

“The results for Stainback and Byrd are dramatic,” Graham said. “Particularly they jumped out this weekend as guys that will take that opposite-field approach, bunt to the third baseman—they did all that. It really was tough on Florida International. It’s tough on the third baseman to have to deal with guys that can drag bunt in or slash the ball right by them.”

There is still room for improvement for the 15-6 Owls, who climbed to No. 11 in the Baseball America rankings after their strong weekend. Last year’s top power threat, Michael Aquino, has not really gotten going yet, hitting just .239/.280/.364. McCanna and freshman Jon Duplantier must emerge as reliable pitching options for Rice to go where it wants to go.

But the Owls have proven they are not going to fade just because they lost their ace. Conference USA has a dramatically new complexion this year, but Rice made a convincing statement this weekend that it is still the top dog in its conference, as it has been every year for two solid decades.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Michael Conforto

Golden Spikes 2014Nearly all of the hitters who have won Baseball America’s College Player of the Year award and the Golden Spikes Award this century have one thing in common: They all walk a lot more than they strike out. Last year’s winner, Kris Bryant, led the nation in walks, while 2010 BA winner Anthony Rendon ranked second. Buster Posey, Alex Gordon, Rickie Weeks, Khalil Greene—they’re very different kinds of players, but they all walked a lot more than they struck out. The great ones know they are the focus of opposing game plans, they expect to be pitched carefully, and they stay within themselves. They take their walks, and they make the most of their run-producing opportunities.

In that respect, Oregon State junior outfielder Michael Conforto has followed Bryant’s developmental trajectory. Both had tendencies to chase pitches as freshmen, when both struck out considerably more than they walked—but both nonetheless earned freshman All-America honors. As sophomores, their walk-strikeout ratios evened out. As juniors, they truly embraced patient approaches and became elite on-base machines. All that’s left is for Conforto to tap into his big power potential, as Bryant did.

Through five weeks, Conforto is tied for the national lead with 26 walks, compared to just seven strikeouts. He ranks second in the nation in on-base percentage (.582). And though he has just one home run, he has a .400 batting average and a .600 slugging percentage, and he ranks third in the country with 30 RBIs. He hit his first long ball of the season this weekend in a sweep of Utah, going 5-for-10 with four runs and four RBIs in three games. And he drew three more walks, while striking out just once.

Michael Conforto

Michael Conforto ranks second in the nation in on-base percentage at .582. (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

“I think he’s focused on winning baseball games, and part of that is him getting on base,” Oregon State coach Pat Casey said. “He’s staying patient and looking for pitches he’s hunting for. I think he’s being plenty aggressive, doing everything he should be doing hitting in that hole. He’s not trying to put up big numbers, and that’s one of the reasons that he is.”

As one of the top bats in the 2014 draft class—a consensus projected first-round pick—and a first-team preseason All-American, Conforto has been under the microscope. Some players wilt under the burden of expectations, but Conforto has thrived. Some power hitters might press if they’d only hit one home run in five weeks, but Conforto has not deviated from his disciplined approach. Casey points out that he hit some balls hard in OSU’s early-season games in spacious big league spring training ballparks in Arizona but was not rewarded with home runs. Conforto his 13 home runs as a freshman and 11 as a sophomore, and his power numbers will come this spring, too.

“This guy’s going to be a big league hitter, there’s no question about it,” Casey said. “I don’t think that’s even a concern of his, so I think he’s enjoying playing the game of college baseball. He’s handling this thing terrifically. I don’t think it’s easy for high-profile players in today’s world of instant technology to stay focused on what they’re doing. I would think there’s just about an evaluation on every message board there could possibly be. They know what people are saying about them. So it’s impressive that he’s able to focus on the game of baseball and not let things distract him.”

Conforto’s lefthanded power potential and advanced feel for hitting will make him a first-round pick, but he has become a complete all-around player. Over the first two years of his career, older players such as Tyler Smith, Matt Boyd and Danny Hayes carried the leadership mantle in the Oregon State clubhouse. Those players are gone now, so Conforto has made a conscious effort to step into the leadership void, even though he is “not a big talker,” as Casey put it.

“I know he addressed the team prior to opening conference play,” Casey said. “And he does it the right way, too. He’s kind of like E.F. Hutton: When he speaks, people listen.”

Though he is not a great runner, Conforto’s baseball savvy makes him a good baserunner, and he has blossomed as a defender in left field.

“He is a very good outfielder,” Casey said. “He gets great jumps, he’s very accurate throwing the baseball. I think he had seven or eight assists last year, made some unbelievable catches in the College World Series last year. He doesn’t just catch the balls you should catch—he catches balls that most guys don’t catch. If you evaluate him on his 60 time, then you don’t come and watch the game. He’s not an average outfielder, he’s an above-average outfielder. He’s a good baseball player. Sometimes when you’re a guy who’s labeled as a big bat or a guy with big juice, they don’t spend as much time evaluating the other parts of the game. But almost everything he does is above-average.”