Three Strikes: Week Nine

Strike One: How Texas Got Its Mojo Back

In just about every measurable way, Texas is better than it was last year. The Longhorns were an outstanding pitching team in 2013, ranking in the nation’s top 10 with a 2.53 ERA. They are even better on the mound in 2014, ranking fifth in the nation with a 2.12 ERA.

Their batting average is up from .260 to .268. Their on-base percentage is up from .341 to .361, and their slugging percentage from .346 to .356. Last year they fielded .974; this year they are fielding .979.

Mark Payton

Mark Payton (Photo by Andrew Woolley)

But all those little statistical improvements still don’t explain why Texas went from a 27-24 team that finished last in the Big 12 and lost every one of its conference series, to a 29-8 club that sits atop the conference standings and ranks No. 6 in the BA Top 25 after sweeping Oklahoma on the road this weekend.

“What you see that’s different, it’s about their spirit. Isn’t it cool?” Texas coach Augie Garrido said. “We have a different attitude about what we’re doing at the University of Texas. We have kicked the character ‘Entitlement’ out of our facility. He doesn’t get to play here; ‘Entitlement’ has been removed. So it’s the attitude change, that everyone is contributing to the team, and giving to the team. It’s an ongoing process of getting better each day. The team has not only bought into that, but has embraced it. And that’s the fun you see.”

Last year wasn’t any fun for Garrido, who became the winningest coach in college baseball history (at all classifications) earlier this season. Losing is not fun for anyone, and the Longhorns learned there is often a fine line between winning and losing, especially in the BBCOR era when most games are close, low-scoring affairs. Garrido’s Longhorns almost always have thrived in those kinds of games, which is one reason last year was so shocking.

“We mastered the art of losing one-run games—we had it down to a science,” Garrido said. “Losing is contagious, just like winning is. There’s one small difference: When you lose consistently by one run, you have to do the wrong thing at the wrong time, instead of the right thing at the right time. It’s almost the same thing otherwise.”

Veterans Nathan Thornhill and Mark Payton were drafted as juniors last year, but Garrido said a major reason both players elected to come back to school as seniors was because they felt a responsibility to help the program get turned back around before they left. They saw the need to change the environment around the program and provide more leadership in the clubhouse, and they had the personalities and confidence to take charge. It helps, too, that both players are capable of leading by example; Payton is hitting .350/.467/.504 with 26 RBIs (leading the team in each category), while Thornhill is 6-0, 0.78 as the Sunday starter. Thornhill threw a complete-game five-hitter in Sunday’s 8-1 win, despite waiting out a two-hour weather delay in the fifth inning.

But UT’s talented freshman class—which ranked as the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class last fall—also has played a large part in changing the culture around the program. Garrido said freshmen Zane Gurwitz, Tres Barrera and Kacy Clemens earned their way into starting jobs based on their solid defense at third base, catcher and first base, respectively. And then they started making valuable offensive contributions by focusing on execution, and Barrera and Gurwitz rank third and fourth on the team in hitting at .294 and .290. Another freshman, righthander Morgan Cooper (3-1, 1.65), has made a huge difference in the bullpen, alongside John Curtiss (0.92, 5 SV), who has embraced the closer role after returning from Tommy John surgery.

But for all the tangible contributions of the freshmen, Garrido insists their intangible impact is greater.

“It is a group that is all-in with the team concept and the role on the team,” he said. “The freshmen that are here, the recruiting class, they haven’t missed one study hall, one class. They do what’s right. They make good choices and good decisions. They’re responsible and they’re accountable. In this day and age, most of us would say that’s a trait we don’t see enough of. We have not had one off-field problem, not one. It is a refreshing change—we have had some the last couple years, yes. God, yes.”

But back to the numbers. There is one statistic that perfectly encapsulates UT’s turnaround. Last year, Texas ranked 79th in the nation with 51 sacrifice bunts. This year, the Longhorns lead the nation with 58 sac bunts in just 37 games. That is certainly due in part to the fact that Texas has had more baserunners this year to sacrifice over. But it’s also an indication that the ‘Horns are doing a better job executing the fundamentals, and that they have truly bought into Garrido’s team-first philosophy, which long has featured the sacrifice bunt as a crucial pillar.

“I think it’s more about the willingness of the players to keep that commitment to their teammates, do what is needed of themselves, even though they don’t like to do it,” Garrido said, describing the “spirit” of his team. “They’re mentally tough enough to do it. Get the bunt down. ‘Hey, I had 16 home runs in high school. What’s this guy doing asking me to bunt?’ Well, if you do it well enough, I’ll get you a bundt cake. Which I did! Gurwitz and (Ben) Johnson both had a great week of bunting, they had to do it a lot. So I got them the bundt cake. It’s spelled different, and it tastes a lot better.”

It tastes a lot better than losing, too.

Strike Two: Louisville Rotation Shows Its Maturation

Even after losing seven drafted juniors from last year’s Omaha club, Louisville entered this spring ranked No. 20 in the nation, the team to beat in the newly formed American Athletic Conference. The Cardinals slowly climbed up the rankings over the first eight weeks of the season, winning every weekend, but they did not play a series against a likely regional team, and they lost their three midweek games against the best teams on their schedule, Indiana (twice) and Kentucky. So it was hard to know quite what to make of Louisville heading into an AAC showdown this weekend at Houston, which carried a No. 8 ranking into the series.

Kyle Funkhouser

Kyle Funkhouser (Photo by Andrew Woolley)

Facing a pitching staff that led the nation in ERA and WHIP, Louisville pitched better, allowing just seven runs in a three-game road sweep of the Cougars. It was a loud statement that Louisville is, in fact, as good as its record (27-8) suggests. And the sweep helped the Cardinals leap about 20 spots in the Ratings Percentage Index, inside the top 30—giving their regional hosting chances a major boost.

“We were up for the challenge of going on the road and playing a really good opponent in a really good environment and just wanting to play really good baseball,” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. “We’re not going down there to sweep, we’re going down there to play good baseball, and things worked out. We got three quality starts on the mound; you’ve got to get good starts, so we didn’t really have to dive into our bullpen like we did in the Memphis series, when we had to jump into the bullpen a lot.”

The weekend rotation got a makeover in the offseason, as veteran workhorses Chad Green and Jeff Thompson left for pro ball. In the McDonnell era, the Cardinals have almost always had an upperclassman anchoring the rotation on Fridays, whether it’s Green, Justin Amlung, Justin Marks, Zack Pitts or Thomas Royse. They tried to start this year with junior lefthander Joe Filomeno in the role, but that experiment did not work out, so sophomore righty Kyle Funkhouser slid into the Friday spot.

“It took a little bit of time for Funk to understand what is your role as the Friday guy,” McDonnell said. “It’s not just about winning your game, it’s more than that. It’s about setting the tone for the weekend; it’s the cow bell. Somebody has to wear the bell around their neck and say, ‘Follow me, this is how you do it.’ So Funk has grown in the last month or so when we moved him up to the Friday spot, and I thought that Houston outing was a real coming out party for Kyle Funkhouser.”

Friday started out rough, as the Cardinals misplayed three balls to start the game, as McDonnell tells it, and then Funkhouser took a comebacker off his pitching hand. He allowed two runs in the first but minimized the damage with a pair of strikeouts.

“He jogs off the field with two runs, and the trainer’s walking back to our end of the dugout saying his thumb is starting to swell up, and it doesn’t look good,” McDonnell said. “Then he went into attack mode—put up zero, zero, zero, allowed us to settle in and relax. Then even after we took the 3-2 lead in the fifth, he carried us all the way to the eighth inning, and he’s popping some 95s and 96s there in the seventh inning.”

The No. 10 prospect in the Cape Cod League last summer, Funkhouser has always offered premium arm strength. Now he also provides all the toughness and leadership the Cardinals ask from their No. 1 starter.

Jared Ruxer followed with a strong start in Saturday’s 3-2 win, allowing just two runs (one earned) in six innings to beat hard-throwing Houston righty Jake Lemoine. Ruxer has rediscovered his strong freshman year form (when he went 8-3, 3.38) after slumping as a sophomore (0-1, 5.63). Through nine weekend starts, he is 6-1, 2.58.

“When you struggle, you have to go back to the drawing board,” McDonnell said. “I think there was a lot of conviction in him. He goes up to the Cape, works his tail off; he’s been very consistent punching the clock. You’re happy to see him having success, because he’s such a good kid. He’s throwing three pitches. He’s throwing the good fastball to both sides of the plate, he’s throwing the slider, then that good changeup like he seemed to really have as a freshman, and I thought he lost it a little bit as a sophomore and just didn’t trust it. Ruxer comes in and you’re getting a three-pitch mix in the first inning, which as a hitter, you’re just not used to seeing that.”

Sunday starter Anthony Kidston also has the ability to throw any pitch in any count, and he took another step forward in his development Sunday. Kidston missed all of the summer and fall after having shoulder surgery, and the Cardinals eased him along slowly this spring. He arrived at Louisville as a two-way player, but the coaches thought he needed to concentrate on his rehab rather than worrying about playing a position as well, so now he’s exclusively a pitcher. And he can be a good one—McDonnell recently compared him to former South Carolina ace Kip Bouknight in an interview with a reporter. When the story was posted, he texted Kidston and asked him if he knew who Bouknight was. Kidston did not, so McDonnell told him to research Bouknight.

“At our meal, I said, ‘Do you know who Kip Bouknight is now?’ He smiled and said, ‘Yeah Coach, he’s pretty impressive,’” McDonnell said. “I don’t say that to put pressure on him, but that’s who (pitching coach) Roger (Williams) and I see in him.”

Like Bouknight—the 2000 Golden Spikes Award winner—Kidston pitches in the upper 80s, mixes in a big-breaking downer curveball and has a serious competitive streak. McDonnell overheard Kidston saying he threw his best curveball of the season Sunday against Houston, when he froze Justin Montemayor for a called third strike to strand runners at second and third in the fifth.

So Louisville’s weekend rotation is stable, and it proved this weekend it can stand toe-to-toe with one of the best rotations in college baseball and come out ahead. And the bullpen is rock-solid thanks to flame-throwing righty Nick Burdi (0.00), indispensable two-way talent Cole Sturgeon (1.29) and fellow lefthander Kyle McGrath (0.94). The lineup is still packed with veterans and offers a nice combination of speed (courtesy of Grant Kay, Sutton Whiting and Sturgeon) and occasional power (Jeff Gardner, Kay and Zach Lucas).

All the ingredients are in place for the Cards to make another postseason run.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Clinton Freeman

By now, Clinton Freeman has the routine down: come up with the big hit for East Tennessee State, then get ready to take the mound.

Clinton Freeman

Clinton Freeman

“A lot of times he’ll be hitting in the seventh or eighth inning, he’ll come across the plate and score a run, and immediately he’ll grab his glove and hat and hustle down to the bullpen and get ready,” ETSU coach Tony Skole said. “We don’t even have to say anything to him.”

Freeman has been a fixture in the middle of East Tennessee State’s lineup for three years, hitting .365 with seven homers as a sophomore, .335 with 10 homers as a junior, and .366/.396/.642 with eight homers and 40 RBIs through just 34 games as a senior this spring. But he has also pulled double duty as the team’s closer for the past two years, saving eight games in 2013 and eight more this year.

Few players in college baseball are as valuable to their teams as Freeman is to the Buccaneers, as he demonstrated this weekend in a sweep of North Florida. He recorded three straight two-hit games, homering Friday, then driving in two runs Saturday, then hitting a double and a triple Sunday. He worked a scoreless inning of relief to earn the win Friday, then worked another scoreless inning for the save Saturday.

“He’s sort of a throwback, I guess,” Skole said. “He’s just a baseball player. It’s what he’s done all his life. We’re sort of on his shoulders right now. He just does so much for us, obviously hits in the three-hole for us. We were probably a little unfair to him because we started him as our Friday night guy, because he really was our best arm. He made three starts for us, we didn’t hit at all for him, and he was 0-3 as a starter. Since then he’s moved back to the bullpen and he has been outstanding.”

Golden Spikes 2014

Freeman is perfectly suited for the back of the bullpen because he relishes being on the mound with the game on the line, Skole said. He pumps strikes with a high-80s fastball from the left side and two solid offspeed pitches. “At the end of the game, you don’t have to worry about him walking anybody,” Skole said.

Skole said some professional scouts like him as a pitcher, and others prefer him as a hitter. A 6-foot-2, 195-pound lefthanded hitter, Freeman has proven he can handle a wood bat, excelling in the Alaska League after his sophomore year and then earning Cape Cod League all-star honors last summer, when he hit .322 with nine doubles for Bourne.

“He’s a pretty accomplished hitter,” Skole said. “His biggest thing is his ability to recognize pitches. He’s not scared to hit with two strikes, and he’s got great power, but he uses the whole field as well. He’s a tough out, and he likes to be up in big situations.”

He’s also a good defender at first base, where he has just one error this year (.996 fielding percentage). And Freeman is a positive force in the ETSU clubhouse, a true senior leader.

“As good as a player as he is, he’s a better young man,” Skole said. “He’s just a good person and a great teammate, one of those guys you’re glad to have in a clubhouse. That’s something you don’t find all the time. He’s the first one in the cage, and (Monday) is our off day, but I drive by the field and he’s out there in the cage working by himself. He’s that kind of worker. Most of those guys that hit at an elite level are like that.

“He’s just a baseball player’s baseball player.”