Strike One: The Anteaters Are Back
IRVINE, Calif.—Matt Whitehouse went upstairs to do a radio interview, then back down to the field to speak with print reporters. His media duties completed, he strolled toward the backstop to greet some fans, and he was hailed by UC Irvine baseball super fan Keith Franklin, a long-haired, tie-dye-shirt-wearing, vociferous fixture at Anteater Ballpark.
"Whitehouse!" Franklin bellowed in his Macho Man Randy Savage growl. "Thank God you're back, man. Thank God!"
UC Irvine's 2012 season was derailed in part by injuries to Whitehouse, Kyle Hooper and Ronnie Shaeffer. Now, at long last, that trio is healthy again and providing invaluable veteran leadership—and production—for a reinvigorated Irvine club. The Anteaters made a loud statement during opening weekend by dismantling reigning Big 12 champion Baylor in a three-game sweep.
"To have Whitehouse and Hooper healthy—last year's bad news had this silver lining," Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said. "Same with Shaeffer. It's early, but so far he's been good for us, and he is good."
Shaeffer, a fifth-year senior, runs the show from behind the plate and is also Irvine's best run producer in the middle of the lineup thanks to his mature approach and line-drive stroke. He went 6-for-13 (.462) with three RBIs this weekend.
In Saturday's 5-0 win, fourth-year juniors Whitehouse and Hooper combined on a three-hit shutout. A 6-foot-1 lefthander, Whitehouse has battled injuries since 2010—first a pulled hamstring, then a knee strain, and finally a shoulder strain that sidelined him after just three outings last year. He spent the summer training with Dave Coggin at Performance Fitness for Athletes in Upland, Calif.—alongside UCLA's Adam Plutko and Pepperdine's Scott Frazier, among others—and said he added 7-10 pounds of muscle.
His hard work paid off in intrasquads. Two weeks ago, he threw six innings in an intrasquad, his longest outing in a year and a half. He threw 6 1/3 on Saturday, allowing just two hits and a walk while striking out six. He gave Baylor's lefthanded hitters fits with his 80-82 mph cutter, which Gillespie said is his best pitch. He also mixed his 84-86 fastball, 71-74 curve and 79 changeup effectively.
"(The cutter is) one of my out pitches, and it worked really well today," Whitehouse said. "It was a little flat early, but I made the adjustment, and I made the adjustment with the umpire—he was a little down, and I started a little up, so I made sure to make that adjustment from the get-go, just to make it easier for myself."
Having veterans capable of making adjustments on the fly is a nice luxury for the Anteaters, who also have a quality junior ace in righty Andrew Thurman. Hooper will compete with fellow junior righty Evan Brock for the Sunday starter job, although both figure to start in four-game series the next two weeks against California and Portland.
Hooper, a 6-foot-5 righty who missed most of last year with a stress fracture in his elbow, had worked in the mid-80s as a starter in intrasquads, but his velocity played up in a relief role Saturday, ranging from 87-91 in the first of his 2 2/3 innings of one-hit relief. He did not issue a walk and struck out four, using his sinking, fading 75-78 changeup as an out pitch. And his fastball has good downhill angle. Gillespie said he felt like Hooper had been afraid to really cut it loose during practice, so his performance Saturday was very encouraging.
The performance of Irvine's offense was also a very good sign. Sophomores Connor Spencer and Taylor Sparks look primed for breakout seasons, giving the Anteaters more physicality in the middle of the lineup, and junior-college transfer Dominique Taylor had a big weekend in the No. 3 and No. 2 spots, hitting .364 with seven RBIs. Not only do the Anteaters look more dangerous in the middle of the order than they have been in recent years, but they are deeper up and down the lineup, from leadoff man Jeff Stephens to pesky No. 9 hitter Scott Gottschling.
"We do think we've got tougher outs one through nine," Gillespie said. "Some of those guys that got to play last year—when Shaeffer got hurt last year, (catcher/shortstop Chris) Rabago and (catcher Jerry) McClanahan played more than they would have otherwise. It's not that they played great, but it served them well. They're tougher outs, Stephens is a tougher out. Spencer's good, and the fact is Sparks is a tougher out. He's hit into some rocket outs, but he's better."
There is reason to believe Irvine will return to regionals for the seventh time in the last eight years, and last season's disappointing 31-25 campaign already feels like a distant memory.
"I think we've got something to prove," Whitehouse said. "That's what UC Irvine's all about. It's all the little guys: We don't have any big guys. Our pitchers, we've got Thurman who throws the ball in the mid-90s, but besides that, you've got to work with what you have. Our hitters are not the biggest guys, but they get the job done. We come out to prove ourselves, because that's what Irvine's all about."
Strike Two: Aztecs Put Damper On USD's Celebration
SAN DIEGO—It was a celebration of San Diego Torero baseball all weekend at Fowler Park, the gorgeous new $13.8 million facility that was completed just in time for opening weekend. USD can now boast one of the marquee showcase ballparks on the West Coast—and one of the prettiest parks in all of college baseball.
But crosstown rival San Diego State played spoiler in the first weekend at Fowler Park, sweeping the Toreros right out of the Top 25. The young Aztecs played with abundant energy and confidence, handling the big moments much better than the more experienced Toreros.
"These guys played a lot as freshmen last year," San Diego State coach Tony Gwynn said, referring to current sophomores like Greg Allen, Ryan Muno, Matt Munoz and ace Michael Cederoth. "Coming out this year, they gained that experience, and I think it's showing early. There was a lot of pomp and circumstance the last two games—it would be easy to lose focus, but they really haven't. We're honored, obviously, to play the first games here. Really, we talked about for the last month about what was probably going to go on here. What I wanted them to focus on was just executing, and I think we've done that."
It's early, but there is no question that San Diego State is much better than it was a year ago, when it went 26-34 overall, 12-12 in the Mountain West Conference. The Aztecs will have their hands full beating out New Mexico and Fresno State in the MWC, but if Week One was any gauge, SDSU might well have a chance to make its second regional in the Gwynn era.
For starters, San Diego State is rock-solid up the middle, with standout defenders behind the plate (Jake Romanski) and in center field (Allen), and a very reliable double-play tandem (shortstop Evan Potter and second baseman Tim Zier). Allen has the look of a big-time breakout star in his sophomore year, a premium athlete with elite speed that translates to exceptional range in center field. He is a switch-hitter who uses all fields from both sides of the plate, and he sparked the SDSU lineup from the leadoff spot all weekend, going 7-for-13 (.538) with five runs. He went 3-for-5 with a double and two singles Saturday.
"This whole fall, I've been working with coach Gwynn to slow things down, the whole mental process at the plate," said Allen, who hit .312/.383/.403 as a freshman. "I think just being able to take that over into the season has been pretty helpful, just look for a good pitch to hit and put a good swing on it. Coach Gwynn is big on being versatile, hitting the ball where it's pitched."
Zier, Muno and redshirt sophomore Brad Haynal also got off to hot starts in the No. 2-4 slots, combining for 12 RBIs in the three games. Suddenly, this offense looks considerably more potent, especially in the top half of the lineup.
The Aztecs have been raving about their weekend rotation in the offseason, and they have a pair of front-line talents in righties Michael Cederoth and Philip Walby. Cederoth can reach the high 90s and has a vicious power slider, while Walby topped out at 94 Saturday and showed a decent 77-79 breaking ball. But the biggest difference for SDSU is the depth of the pitching staff, as Justin Hepner showed 89-92 mph heat and a very good curveball this weekend, Ethan Miller ate up the Toreros with a sharp power slurve on Saturday, and freshman closer Bubba Derby proved he can handle the most pressure-packed situations. Derby, a 5-foot-10 righty with a 91-92 fastball and a sharp 11-to-5 curve, pitched his way out of a second-and-third, no-outs jam to protect a two-run lead Saturday. Then, on Sunday, he inherited a bases-loaded, no-outs predicament with another two-run lead in the ninth. He proceeded to strike out the next three hitters in order—No. 2 hitter Lonnie Lechich, No. 3 hitter Kris Bryant and No. 4 hitter Connor Joe. He got ahead 0-and-2 on all three of them, then put them away to secure the thrilling sweep.
"We decided to make Derby the closer, so hey, let's put him in there and see how he does," Gwynn said after Saturday's white-knuckle save. "Right away you're ready to start pulling your hair out, but he really settled down and made some good pitches at the end."
So San Diego State is flying high at 3-0, with No. 6 Oregon State coming in for a four-game set next weekend. The Aztecs clearly believe they can win, and they just might give the Beavers all they can handle.
"We've tried to instill in these guys that, if we're going to win, we've got to really believe in each other," Gwynn said. "Even though it's early, I think that's what we're seeing. It got tight there at the end, and these guys were involved in every play, every pitch. There was not a lot of fanfare coming into the season, and I think that's good for us, because the teams we're going to play early on, we've really got to play our best baseball."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Buck Farmer
In a weekend loaded with stellar pitching performances across college baseball, the best might have belonged to Georgia Tech senior righthander Buck Farmer. In Tech's season opener on Friday, Farmer struck out 14 without issuing a walk over eight shutout innings, allowing just four hits. And he needed just 97 pitches to get through those eight innings, despite his high strikeout total. That's a sign that he was able to hammer the strike zone relentlessly.
"It's been something we've stressed with everybody, just pounding the strike zone, keeping hitters on the defensive," first-year Georgia Tech pitching coach Jason Howell said. "The thing about Buck is he's just so aggressive with all his pitches, so he'll get ahead and force them to swing."
Farmer threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 27 batters he faced Friday (74 percent). Of the seven times he fell behind 1-and-0 in the count, he threw a strike with his next pitch six times (86 percent). And he threw strikes on 1-and-1 77 percent of the time.
Not bad, considering the 6-foot-4, 223-pound Farmer was not satisfied with his fastball command Friday, according to Howell.
"He'll tell you his fastball command wasn't where he wanted, but his changeup and slider were really good," Howell said. "Both are swing-and-miss pitches. He just does a really good job mixing everything. He's a tough one because he's got the velocity and the hand speed of both of those pitches too—you just don't know what's coming. On a day like Friday when he's throwing everything for strikes, it just keeps guys really off balance."
With a fastball that touched 94 mph and still touched 91-92 in the later innings Friday, Farmer is one of the best prospects in college baseball's senior class. He has been successful throughout his career, going 11-3, 2.82 as a sophomore and 8-4, 3.54 as a junior last year, with 115 strikeouts in 107 innings. He ranked No. 117 on the predraft BA 500, but he slipped to the 15th round of the draft—No. 485 overall—and elected to return for his senior year. That was a huge break for Georgia Tech.
"I think him not going where he wanted to go, I think that kind of puts him back with a whole lot to prove," Howell said. "The little bit that I've known him, he's always pitched like he has a chip on his shoulder, every time he goes out there. He knows that everybody knows what he's got, and it's just more motivation for him to continue to go out there and prove himself.
"It's a world of difference (for us) having somebody back with experience, leadership atop the rotation. He sort of sets the tone, and guys really feed off of it."