Strike One: Lying In The Weeds
MALIBU, Calif.—Pepperdine coach Steve Rodriguez admitted he was being a little cagey in the offseason. He did not spend any time lobbying for rankings or telling anyone how good his team was going to be. After last year's disappointing 22-34 campaign, expectations for the Waves were modest coming into the season (West Coast Conference coaches picked them to finish fifth in the league in the preseason poll), and Rodriguez liked it that way.
As he put it, he was "lying in the weeds" a bit with his team.
It's too early to anoint Pepperdine as a sure-fire postseason team, but the Waves made a statement during opening weekend, taking two out of three from then-No. 19 Oklahoma—whose coach, Sunny Golloway, spoke openly and confidently in the preseason about how good he expected his team to be. The Sooners should wind up being a solid club, but they were outplayed in Malibu, to the point that Golloway used the word "imposters" to describe the way his players performed in Saturday's ugly 10-0 loss.
Pepperdine squandered its share of opportunities on the weekend, but overall the Waves took what the Sooners gave them, did not beat themselves, and made enough winning plays to take the series. It helps that Pepperdine has a pair of very reliable, experienced middle infielders in shortstop Zach Vincej and second baseman Joe Sever, who anchor the team's defense and the top third of its lineup. That duo combined for five hits and four RBIs on Saturday, and the heady Sever gave Pepperdine a major jolt by scoring from second base on an infield single in the critical three-run fourth inning, which turned a 1-0 game into a 4-0 affair.
"I think when you have a middle infield like that, that has been here together for three years now, they form a bond," Rodriguez said. "Everybody sees it and everybody wants to be around them. I never have to tell them to do anything. I kind of just remind them about things, and they've got it. They're like extra coaches on the field; it makes my job a lot easier."
The Waves also have an emerging star in freshman right fielder/lefthander Aaron Brown, who starred in the California Collegiate League (subscribers only) against older competition last summer, then starred again in his first weekend of Division I play. Brown had five hits and four RBIs in the three games, using all fields at the plate. He dazzled defensively, especially in the sixth inning Saturday, when he made a spectacular catch crashing into the wall to rob Cody Reine of extra bases. And he earned the save with a scoreless eighth inning in Sunday's travel curfew-shortened contest.
I overheard one scout talking about Brown later in the weekend. "He's gotten big," the scout said. "He's a stud. Stud."
"He's fun to watch," Rodriguez said. "Everything he does is as hard as he possibly can. That's a good thing and a bad thing, but I'll tell you what, as a coach I'd rather have to turn a guy's aggressiveness down than turn it up. If you have nine of those kids, you're going to be successful. He does a good job defensively, offensively he competes. And he's going to be a force for us on the mound."
Perhaps most important this weekend for Pepperdine was the strong performance of sophomore righthander Scott Frazier on Saturday. The 6-foot-6 Frazier was one of the nation's best recruits a year ago—one scout predicted he would leave college as the No. 1 overall pick in 2013—but lingering discomfort in his forearm limited him to just 18 innings as a freshman (he went 2-1, 1.00).
"I was looking to make a big impact last year and I couldn't; it was very frustrating," Frazier said. "I've been full strength now for quite a while, so this year I'm looking to come out and make a big impact."
On Saturday, Frazier showed how good he can be at full strength, holding Oklahoma's physical lineup scoreless on five hits and a walk while striking out six over seven innings. He sat in the 91-94 mph range early in the game before settling into the 88-91 range in the middle innings, and he commanded the zone with his fastball. He also showed off improving secondary stuff, particularly his 79-83 mph slider, which he leaned on as an out pitch Saturday. He mixed in a slower curveball and a 79-80 changeup, which allowed him to give lefties another look.
"I thought one of the key things for him was the slider," Rodriguez said. "This was a great fastball-hitting team, so if he didn't have that he would have been in trouble today. I thought he worked the fastball in and out, and the slider added another plane. He gave us exactly what we were looking for."
Strike Two: Fear The Turtle (And The Trojan)
LOS ANGELES—Pepperdine wasn't the only team to open eyes in Southern California this weekend. Maryland pulled off the weekend's biggest upset, taking two out of three at UCLA, while Southern California swept visiting Jacksonville, a regional team a year ago and a strong contender for the Atlantic Sun Conference title.
How big was this weekend for Maryland? Forget about winning a series against a ranked team; the Terrapins hadn't even won a road series against any team since March of 2009 at North Carolina State.
Like Rodriguez, Maryland coach Erik Bakich was happy to fly under the radar in the preseason. He has told his players not to expect any attention from media or pollsters—they're just little old Maryland, and they hadn't done anything to deserve attention, until this weekend. Bakich wants his players to stay hungry, to learn to believe in themselves, and then maybe other people will start to believe in them.
"There's no postseason berth clinched on day one, obviously. But I think the belief system is the biggest difference with this team," Bakich said. "I think they truly do believe that they can be a special team. There's no reason they can't achieve the goals that we've set out as a program. That, to me, is the mentality, the leadership, the chemistry that these guys have. This group is a special group of kids. It's one of those teams that you like the makeup a lot."
Maryland hasn't made a regional since 1971, so Bakich is facing an uphill battle. But the Terps have recruited well the last two years, giving them a strong core to build around. The pillars of their 25th-ranked 2010 recruiting class, Northeast sluggers Tim Kiene and Mike Montville, give Maryland a physical presence in the middle of the lineup, and that presence loomed large this weekend, as Kiene homered on Saturday and Sunday. He also ripped a hard double and scored in the third inning Sunday.
Maryland also has a steady middle-infield tandem in shortstop Alfredo Rodriguez and second baseman Kyle Convissar. Rodriguez is a slick-fielding senior who made a couple of standout defensive plays this weekend. He also helps set the tone for the offense in the No. 2 hole.
And the Terps have a fairly deep pitching staff, with eight or nine arms they feel confident they can rely upon. The offense struggled to get anything going Friday against UCLA ace Adam Plutko, who struck out 10 over seven scoreless innings, but dogged righthander Brady Kirkpatrick kept Maryland in the game, allowing just one unearned run over 5 1/3 innings. Righty Michael Boyden followed with 2 2/3 hitless innings of relief, keeping the score 1-0 so Maryland could scratch out a couple of runs in the ninth against wild UCLA closer Scott Griggs. Lefty Jimmy Reed took over in the ninth, using his sharp 80-82 slider to strike out the side.
On Sunday, Maryland got five shutout innings from senior righthander Brett Harman, making his first start since 2010 because of Tommy John surgery. Harman is Maryland's most accomplished pitcher, and he showed why on Sunday, mixing four pitches effectively to limit UCLA to two hits and a walk while striking out eight. His fastball was just 85-87 mph, but it had arm-side run and sink, he kept it down, and his tumbling changeup was a major weapon. Reed came back to work two scoreless frames to secure the victory.
"UCLA's a tremendous program, obviously extremely well coached, so it was a great opportunity, a great challenge for us to dive right into the fire," Bakich said.
It must be acknowledged that UCLA played poorly this weekend. The Bruins imploded in the ninth inning Friday, and their defense was shaky all weekend. They committed three errors Sunday, leading to unearned runs in each of the first three innings. But Maryland took advantage of UCLA's sloppiness, playing more fundamentally sound baseball and getting better bullpen work, so give the Terps credit. They should be a factor in the ACC this year.
Jacksonville played even more poorly than UCLA this weekend. The Dolphins made six errors in Friday's 8-2 loss, issued eight walks in Saturday's 11-3 loss, and made three more errors in Sunday's 4-3 loss, including two errors on one play by shortstop Jake Loosen in the eighth inning that allowed Brandon Garcia to reach third base, then score the winning run.
But again, credit USC for playing better. The Trojans got three strong starts from righthanders Andrew Triggs and Ben Mount plus lefty Stephen Tarpley. They swung the bats well the first two days, got timely hits Sunday (including pinch-hitter Kevin Swick's RBI single off the right-field wall to score Garcia in the decisive eighth), and got strong work from their bullpen and defense.
"We played pretty good defense all weekend, and that's going to help us," USC coach Frank Cruz said. "Jacksonville didn't play great this weekend. I would say they would agree that they were below par, but we were able to take advantage of it and win those games . . . So they did what they had to do to win, and we'll take it. We're trying to learn how to win, and win more often."
Cruz is excited about his mix of steady veterans (Garcia, Matt Foat, Kevin Roundtree, Alex Sherrod and Adam Landecker) and talented younger players (versatile Garrett Stubbs, shortstop James Roberts and sweet-swinging second baseman Dante Flores, who was sidelined this weekend by a hamstring injury) in the lineup. The heart of the order has some physicality, and Garcia's second homer of the weekend tied Sunday's game at 3-3 in the seventh.
Triggs and Mount are competitive and polished weekend starters, and Tarpley has a chance to be dynamic. He struck out nine in his collegiate debut Sunday, allowing just two runs on five hits and two walks over 5 2/3 innings. He has an advanced ability to manipulate a 76-79 mph breaking ball, which he used as an out pitch on most of his strikeouts, and he has quickly picked up a 79-80 changeup, which he just learned about two weeks ago, Cruz said.
"If he gets that pitch, heads-up," Cruz said. "He's going to be really special. He has that competitive demeanor in him. He's really frustrating right now because he gets behind in the count a lot, but he finds a way to get out of it."
And fifth-year senior transfer Martin Viramontes is finally healthy and throwing well at the back of the bullpen (he sat 90-91 on Sunday, working in a decent changeup and slider), anchoring a young but exciting group of relievers that also includes talented freshman righty Wyatt Strahan.
In Cruz's first season as the full-time head coach, USC looks like a strong contender to make it back to regionals for the first time since 2005.
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight On Preston Tucker
Teams aren't supposed to get players like Preston Tucker back as seniors. One of the most accomplished hitters in college baseball, Tucker has been a force in the middle of Florida's lineup since hitting 15 home runs as a freshman. He has 41 career long balls in three seasons, but he elected not to sign with the Rockies as a 16th-round pick last year, instead choosing to return to Gainesville for one more shot at a national title.
"I think he really does like it here. I don't think he would have made that decision without really liking it here," Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "I think it all started with Matt den Dekker coming back (for his senior year). When guys are enjoying themselves, they feel like they're having a good experience, you might start getting them back. I think (Tucker) valued his degree, he knew we had a good team coming back, and he put a lot of value in his experience here."
Voted a second-team preseason All-America outfielder by major league scouting directors, Tucker showed why he is so valuable to the Gators this weekend, going 6-for-11 with two homers and four RBIs in a series win against Cal State Fullerton. The lefthanded-hitting Tucker has line-to-line power—O'Sullivan remembers being amazed at a bullet home run Tucker hit off the left-field foul pole at the Southeastern Conference tournament when he was a freshman—but his homers this weekend went to right field and right-center.
"Both of them were hit on a line—they didn't have a whole lot of loft," O'Sullivan said. "He got them good. They were balls that indicated to me that he's staying through the ball. He drove them pretty much on a line. When he does get in trouble, like most young hitters, he tends to use one side of the field. But when he's staying in the middle of the field, he's a really tough out. I think he got a little away from his approach on Saturday, but otherwise he did that."
One thing that sets Tucker apart is his patient approach. Heading into his senior year he had 92 walks and just 80 strikeouts in his three-year career.
"He's got presence in the box; you've got to make pitches," O'Sullivan said. "He doesn't strike out much, he's got an extremely good eye at the plate. For a guy who hits for power, he's not going to chase, so there's no sense in nibbling. So you've just got to make quality pitches to him and let the defense make plays behind you."
He's also a very cerebral hitter, always asking hitters ahead of him about a pitcher's breaking ball or how much sink he has on his fastball.
"I think he tries to help out the younger kids that way," O'Sullivan said. "He's always looking for info. He's become more vocal this year than maybe in years past. I think he's really enjoying himself. He's a humble kid; he's everything that anybody would want in their program, and more."