Strike One: Give Me Liberty . . .
Jim Toman never thought his Liberty team would be sitting at 16-2 at this point in the season with a team that returned just three everyday regulars and just one pitcher who threw more than 30 innings a year ago. And after the Flames took three out of four from a talented (but struggling) St. John's team that went to a regional last year and entered this season just outside the Top 25, it's time to recalibrate expectations for Liberty.
The Flames, whose resume also includes an 8-0 midweek win at Virginia, have played well in all facets through the first month of the season, hitting .309 as a team, fielding .983 and posting a 2.37 ERA.
"We've got a pretty good squad," Toman said. "The guys are playing well, finding ways to win. It's a whole new team, and we've had just enough hitting, pitching and fielding to win."
Toman prefers to construct his teams with about two-thirds junior-college transfers and one-third freshmen, so that an inexperienced team isn't necessarily a young team. That is the case this year, as Liberty plays just one freshman regularly—talented slugging first baseman Alex Close, who hit two homers in a midweek game at Old Dominion last week.
Not only are the top four hitters in the lineup juco products, but they all came from the same school: Bellevue (Wash.) CC. Liberty has mined the Northwest since Scott Jackson (now at North Carolina) was its recruiting coordinator. The Flames have had particular success finding religious-minded players who share Liberty's values at Bellevue.
Cleanup man Tyler Cox and No. 3 hitter Andy Smith (.339/.448/.576 with a team-best three homers) both played for Bellevue's NWAACC title team in 2011. Smith, Liberty's starting center fielder, is flanked in the outfield by two seniors who transferred from Bellevue a year earlier: leadoff man Ian Parmley (.338/.435/.437) and No. 2 hitter Michael Robertson (.348/.425/.478). That trio of outfielders has also combined for 18 steals in 23 attempts.
Another juco transfer, second baseman Bryan Aanderud (.394/.455/.455 with a team-best 19 RBIs) from Cypress (Calif.) JC, has been a run-producing force in the No. 5 hole.
"He can really hit, and he's a solid second baseman," Toman said of Aanderud. "He won't wow you with tools or power, but he continues to get hits. He's a steady college hitter."
Aanderud's emergence has helped lessen the sting of losing original cleanup man and starting catcher Danny Grauer to a broken hand in the second game of the season. Grauer is scheduled to have his cast removed next week and figures to need another three weeks or so before he starts hitting or catching. But Liberty expects him to contribute out of the bullpen sooner than that, thanks to a fastball that ranges from 88-92.
The Flames have used 18 different pitchers in 18 games as they try to find the best mound mix. The staff anchor is senior righthander John Niggli (4-0, 0.94, 24-5 K-BB in 29 IP), a strike-thrower who can run his fastball up to 92 and has a good feel for pitching. So far, Liberty has had some success with a pair of seniors in the rotation behind Niggli—righthanders Patrick Eckelbarger (3-0, 1.29) and Jacob Kemmerer (2-1, 3.26).
The bullpen is still a work in progress, though Toman hopes this is the year junior righty Blake Forslund (1-0, 1.93) puts it all together. Still the team's best prospect, Forslund pitched in the 92-94 mph range and mixed in a "pretty good curveball" and an 89 mph cutter against St. John's. Arm strength has never been the issue for Forslund, a fourth-year junior and former transfer from Virginia; staying healthy and commanding the zone have been his bugaboos.
"He's still a work in progress, though he's been a lot better than last year for sure," Toman said. "We haven't really figured out all the pitching roles; we've still got some guys out. We've been kind of doing it with mirrors, just kind of mixing and matching. No one has any credentials—we're just throwing them out there and trying to figure out who's going to do it. So far, a lot of guys have stepped up."
Liberty has won 33 or more games in each of Toman's first four seasons at the helm, including a 42-win campaign in 2010, but they still have not broken through to regionals since 2000. The Flames carried lower expectations into 2012 than they have the last couple of years, but Toman said he doesn't mind being under the radar.
It's still too early to proclaim Liberty a regional team, but a 16-2 start certainly puts it on the right track.
Strike Two: Golden State Warriors
Some of the top teams from California and Texas have squared off repeatedly in weekend series this year, and the Golden State has continued to come out on top. No. 2 Stanford has a lot to do with that, winning series at home against Texas and Rice, but UCLA won a home series against Baylor two weeks ago, and No. 15 Cal State Fullerton followed its home series win against TCU two weeks ago with a big road series win at Texas A&M this weekend.
California teams, then, have won all five of those series against their Texas counterparts, posting an 11-4 record in those games. Stanford, UCLA and Fullerton also have a combined record of 7-2 against SEC East powers Florida, Georgia and Vanderbilt, with two of those series coming on the road.
The 5-10 Commodores have been college baseball's biggest disappointment through the season's first month, and they lost another home series this weekend—to another Golden State team, San Diego. But it should be noted that the Toreros are the rare California team that has lost a series against a Texas team this year, having dropped two of three at Sam Houston State in Week One. The Bearkats are carrying the Lone Star State flag; they also won two of three from UC Riverside two weeks later.
Other California teams have also fared well in notable inter-regional matchups. Pepperdine and Cal Poly won series in Week One against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, respectively. Loyola Marymount went to Texas and split two games against the Longhorns this weekend, with the third game washed out. San Francisco swept another Big 12 team (Missouri) in Week Two. About the only conference that has had success against the California powers so far is the ACC, as North Carolina and Maryland have won series against Southern California and UCLA, respectively.
Teams in the West are always complaining that they don't get a fair shake from the Division I Baseball Committee come Selection Monday, partly because there are so many good teams in the West that always beat up on each other. This year, the West looks as deep as ever, but teams in the region have had a chance to show the committee just how strong they are by racking up wins against teams in other parts of the country during preconference action.
That should pay off when the field of 64 is announced at the end of May.
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight On Kevin Gausman
Kevin Gausman has one of college baseball's best arms, and he is starting to put up numbers befitting of his stuff.
Gausman was a heralded but not entirely polished recruit out of high school in Colorado, and he went 5-6, 3.51 as a freshman at Louisiana State last year, pitching his best down the stretch. He built more confidence last summer with Team USA and in the Cape Cod League, and major league scouting directors voted him onto Baseball America's preseason All-America first team heading into his sophomore year this spring.
A month into the season, Gausman has more than lived up to expectations, going 4-0, 1.32 with 31 strikeouts and just two walks in 27 innings.
Gausman had to repeatedly pitch out of trouble last week against Dartmouth, which rapped out 10 hits against him, but he persevered into the seventh inning and picked up the win. This week against Michigan was a different story, as Gausman allowed just two hits and no walks while striking out 11 over eight shutout innings in No. 13 LSU's 6-0 win.
"Dartmouth battled him, and it was good for him that he was challenged and he had to raise his game against them," LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. "But you don't always go out there and completely dominate a game like he did Friday night (against Michigan). That was complete domination . . . When he is spotting his fastball and has his changeup and curveball working, he's quite a challenge for the other team."
The 6-foot-4, 185-pound Gausman can be simply overpowering when he is at his best, as he was Friday. Mainieri said his fastball velocity has mostly sat in the 93-95 mph range, peaking at 97. In the past, Gausman would try to blow hitters away by just throwing his four-seamer as hard as he could, but Mainieri said he has developed a two-seamer with good run, and his fastball command has made great progress. That is partly a result of his improved secondary stuff.
"He used to have to throw 90 percent fastballs, and now he doesn't have to throw quite as many, but his confidence in it is better," Mainieri said. "He knows hitters can't just sit on his fastball anymore. It seems like his command, his confidence, everything has improved as his offspeed pitches have improved."
Gausman's changeup really took a step forward in the second half last year, and Mainieri said he got most of his strikeouts last year on the fastball and change, using his curveball more to get strikes early in the count. But Gausman has worked hard with first-year pitching coach Alan Dunn to tighten up his curveball, and now he is able to use it as another putaway pitch. The entire package makes Gausman a potential top 10 overall pick as a draft-eligible sophomore this June.
"It's exciting to see," Mainieri said. "He just keeps improving. Each time he goes out, he does something a little better than the week before. Not to mention that he's a great athlete—he fields his position well. That's probably why he's improving so fast—he has such an athletic, wiry body.
"I just see the kid growing before my very eyes. He's becoming a complete package as a pitcher."