Strike One: Zags Emerge As WCC Favorites
LOS ANGELES—Gonzaga already looked like the team to beat in the West Coast Conference after sweeping UC Irvine in late March. After two weeks of conference play, the Zags have made it clear that they are the favorites.
Gonzaga followed up its sweep of preseason WCC favorite San Diego by taking two of three on the road from Loyola Marymount, which figures to be Gonzaga's strongest competition in the league. Gonzaga finds itself 21-11 overall, 5-1 in the WCC and on track to make its second trip to regionals in three years, after going 28 years between postseason appearances before 2009.
Gonzaga set the tone for the weekend on Friday, when it erased a 3-2 deficit on Cameron Edman's three-run homer into the trees right of the left-field Blue Monster against LMU closer Ryan Hawthorne in the ninth inning. After the first batter of the inning reached on an error, Gonzaga coach Mark Machtolf elected to let cleaup man Royce Bollinger hit away rather than bunt the tying run into scoring position, and he rewarded his coach by singling up the middle, setting the stage for Edman's heroics.
"It's just that Royce is pretty good against lefthanded pitching, and the old adage is you play for the win on the road, and I don't like to bunt that much anyway, so it's easy for me to talk myself into letting him swing away," Machtolf said. "(Edman's homer) is a special hit, for him and for us."
Gonzaga's own closer, senior righthander Cody Martin, slammed the door in the bottom of the frame, recording two strikeouts in a perfect frame. Martin looked dominant, with a 92-93 mph fastball, a sharp 74-75 curveball and a good changeup at 86.
"He's been good pretty much every time out," Machtolf said of Martin. "There's been an outing here or there where he was a little amped up and didn't locate it quite as well, but for the most part he's been good every game . . . It changes the way you can play the game. Especially if you can get ahead, you can play short. It's like a drug, almost: when you've got a guy who can come in and close it like that, you feel really good about the end of the game."
Martin finished off Sunday's series-clinching win also, working 1 2/3 innings of hitless, scoreless relief, striking out three. BA's midseason All-American closer, Martin has been a sensation as a senior, going 2-0, 0.76 with seven saves and a 48-10 strikeout-walk mark in 35 innings. He's a big part of Gonzaga's success, but pitching in general is really the key for the Bulldogs.
Gonzaga has a 3.19 staff ERA, and its weekend rotation has been very steady: Ryan Carpenter (4-1, 3.18), Tyler Olson (5-2, 2.74) and Marco Gonzales (6-2, 2.43). Carpenter has a reputation as a power-armed lefthander and a premium prospect, but his fastball sat at 85-86 mph on Friday, and his curveball was a slow, loopy pitch that ranged from 67-73 mph. Still, he battled through six innings and gave Gonzaga a chance to win.
LMU's own big lefthander, Jason Wheeler, was more impressive, attacking the zone with an 88-91 mph fastball. He also mixed in a nice 76-78 changeup that one scout said was a good pitch, and he flashed a decent 80-81 slider occasionally, though it was inconsistent.
"He's gotten better every time out, he really has," LMU coach Jason Gill said. "His work ethic is off the charts, and that's the reason why. He's not afraid to make changes. He's probably changed his breaking ball from when he started throwing in November until now probably six different times, trying to find one that works. Week by week his breaking ball is different—it was different this week than it was last week. His changeup, too. The knock on him was he didn't have an offspeed, and today he showed that he's getting better. His offspeed was better than it's ever been today. He just found that (changeup) nine days ago. That's a credit to him and the work he's putting in with Coach (Ted) Silva."
One other note about the Lions: senior catcher Matt Koch is having a strong season, and he looks like an intriguing draft sleeper. He stood out on Friday, hitting an RBI double down the left-field line in the sixth, making a great sliding catch on a pop-up against the back-stop, and throwing out a basestealer at second. Koch has 16 doubles and three homers on the season, as well as 26 RBIs, and a scout commented that Koch has big-time power potential that he's just now starting to tap into.
"Power-wise, I think he's got as much power as any hitter I've ever seen," Gill said. "(Thursday) in BP, he was launching balls up over that monster way into the trees with the new bats, not even close. Sometimes in games he gets a little too excited, and at times it translates, at times it doesn't. He's just coming into his own in terms of learning about that power. I think it's going to be good in pro baseball, I'll tell you that. It's ridiculous power. And it's good catch and throw—he's a good player."
Strike Two: Ducks, Trojans Move In Opposite Directions
LOS ANGELES—Oregon lefthander Tyler Anderson showed why he's a likely first-round pick this June, striking out 10 and allowing just one walk over 8 1/3 innings against Southern California on Friday. Anderson allowed two unearned runs on five hits, but he settled into a groove in the middle innings, retiring 14 straight batters from the fourth to the eighth.
"I think early I was trying to nibble a little too much, trying to be perfect. Then after that I decided it would be better if I could get strike one, strike two," Anderson said. "I started feeling good after about the sixth inning. I feel like, quite honestly, that's when I start getting loose, and I feel like I start throwing harder in the seventh, eighth and ninth."
Indeed, Anderson sat at 90-91 mph in the first, sat mostly at 88-89 in the middle innings, but jumped back to 90-91 in the ninth. He had a lot of success painting the corners with his fastball, and he showed three quality secondary pitches: an 81-84 mph slider, a 77 curveball and an 81-82 changeup.
But Anderson's outing was about all the good news for the Ducks, who proceeded to lose the next two games of the weekend to fall to 2-7 in the Pac-10. Oregon is 17-16 overall, and after opening the season ranked 14th in the nation, it now looks like a long shot to get back to regionals for the second straight year.
"We created a problem for ourselves, and we feel like we've disrespected the people that backed us, including Baseball America and people who ranked us high," Oregon coach George Horton said after Friday's win, even before the Ducks went on to lose the series. "We don't play for those kinds of things, obviously, but we've disappointed ourselves. Certainly, the talent development part of it, we feel like we've underachieved, and we're all wearing it a little bit. I'm grumpy as heck and jumping on everything.
"It's not a lot of fun when you have high expectations and you feel like you're giving things away. Not taking anything away from the teams we've competed against, but I don't feel like we've really played well. It's my job, and I hold myself responsible and accountable for not getting this team operating at the best level. Our starting pitching's been spectacular, but we just feel like we've had lost opportunities.
"The good news is we're only in our 31st game, we're not dead yet. There's nails not in the coffin, and we've been here before with teams. It'll be up to our staff and our team to do something magical and have another one of the greatest turnarounds in history."
USC, meanwhile, has won back-to-back series against Stanford and Oregon after losing the Friday opener both weekends. The Trojans are not overly talented—they started two walk-ons Friday because of an injury to outfielder Alex Sherrod, who returned to the lineup Saturday and drove in three. But they play very hard for interim coach Frank Cruz, and they have gotten very consistent starting pitching in recent weeks. Friday starter Andrew Triggs struck out a career-high nine over 6 2/3 strong innings Friday. Whenever the Ducks threatened, Triggs made big pitches to escape jams, especially with his breaking ball.
Austin Wood (6.1 IP, 7 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 5 K) posted his second straight strong outing Saturday, and Logan Odom (7.2 IP, 7 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 5 K) was outstanding on Sunday as he has been most of the season. With that kind of starting pitching, USC should be competitive in most series in the Pac-10, where it is now 6-6. The Trojans are still 15-20 overall and probably won't wind up in a regional, but they are far more respectable than they were in 2010, when they won just just seven conference games all season.
USC's road back toward the top of the Pac-10 will have plenty of potholes over the next few years, but at least the Trojans are on their way.
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Trevor Bauer
LOS ANGELES—Trevor Bauer gathered up the long rubber bands and tubes he uses to stay loose in the bullpen during his starts and walked up the steps to the UCLA clubhouse. Behind him, an announcement came blaring over the public-address system.
A teammate called ahead, "Hey, Bauer, did you just hear it?"
"Yeah," Bauer answered. "He just said Trevor Bauer is UCLA's all-time winningest pitcher."
By the time his UCLA career ends this June—when he will be drafted in the top half of the first round, and quite possibly in the top five overall picks—Bauer's name will be all over UCLA's record books.
"That's the one record I'm most proud of here at UCLA; it's a sign of team success," Bauer said. "Even though I get the win in my column, it's really a tribute to the guys I've played with for three years, the guys who play defense behind me and score runs."
Bauer earned record-breaking career win No. 28 in impressive fashion, striking out 13 while issuing one walk in a complete-game, four-hit shutout of Arizona, leading the Bruins to a 4-0 win on Saturday and a big series victory. It was Bauer's eighth career complete game and third of the season, and it pushed his season strikeout total to 110, the most in the nation. The junior righthander has 367 strikeouts in his UCLA career, another school record.
Bauer improved to 7-1, 1.47 on the season with a 110-23 strikeout-walk mark in 74 innings. Opponents are hitting just .148 against him.
With as much as Bauer has accomplished, Saturday's gem almost seemed like just another game.
"That's kind of how it feels—the ho-hum part. It's like, 'Eh,' " Bauer said, shrugging. "There are a lot of things about the outing I wasn't happy with, that I do need to fix. But the team got a win and we really needed it—that's what it's all about—but as far as a personal performance, there are some things I need to work on."
Nit-picking has helped Bauer become one of the nation's very best pitchers, so forgive him for nit-picking what was a simply brilliant outing against a dangerous offensive team. Bauer said he felt like his mechanics were a little disconnected early in the game, and it took him four or five innings to find his groove. The culprit, he said, was spotty fastball command.
"He struggled early—his command wasn't great, but when the guy's off his game, he can still get people out," UCLA coach John Savage said. "That's the story of this game, I think. It all stems off fastball command, we all know that. People doubt his fastball command, but we don't at all. There's flashes where he falls into ruts where he's not throwing strikes with his fastball, but when he's at his best, he's throwing his fastball where he wants. When he's doing that, with his combination of secondary pitches, he's as good as there is out there.
"It has taken him some time to settle in his whole career. He's done a better job this year of coming out of the gate and putting up some zeroes, but for whatever reason it takes him some pitches to kind of get into that groove. (Saturday), from the fifth inning on he was spectacular."
Indeed, Bauer retired the final 11 batters he faced, and he held his 91-93 mph fastball velocity through the ninth inning. He also relied heavily on his outstanding 75-78 mph curveball as a putaway pitch, especially in the second half of the game. At one point, he threw seven curveballs in a row to escape a first-and-third jam with back-to-back strikeouts in the sixth.
"I felt like I had good feel for that pitch, and my putaway slider I thought I had really good feel for, too," Bauer said. "My curveball is my best out pitch, in my opinion—that's the one I'm most comfortable with. I want to have it later on in games when I need it, to get out of jams, stuff like that. So I don't want to show it to them too much early. The other stuff that I have is plenty capable of putting guys away. I try to use other stuff—sliders and splits—early, and then I have my curveball late. I feel comfortable with that."
Bauer has the deepest repertoire of any pitcher in college baseball. His 80-81 mph slider, 80-84 changeup and 84-86 split-finger are all quality offerings to go along with his fastball and curveball. He also throws a "reverse slider" around 88 mph that acts just like it sounds—it breaks in toward righthanded hitters. But scouts agree that the sharp downer curveball is his best secondary pitch, and it was devastating Saturday.
"The curveball is a special pitch—it always has been," Savage said. "He has such a feel for the baseball, and that curveball, he has as good a feel for it as I've seen a guy have.
"He's quite a special pitcher."