Strike One: Golden Griffins Spoil Rodon’s Season Debut
RALEIGH, N.C.—Carlos Rodon, the consensus No. 1 prospect for the 2014 draft, got ahead in the count 1-and-2 against his first batter of the season—Canisius leadoff man Mike Krische. In the moment of calm between pitches, a Wolfpack fan yelled out, “Just sit down!”
Instead, Krische turned on a 92-mph fastball for a double into the left-field corner. He scored when the next hitter, Jesse Kelso, flared another double into left field. The Golden Griffins never looked back, beating the fifth-ranked Wolfpack and Rodon 3-0.
Canisius was originally scheduled to open the season facing Albany, St. Joseph’s, Butler and Michigan State at the nearby USA Baseball complex in Cary, but winter weather nixed that tournament, so the Griffs wound up playing games against N.C. State on Sunday and Monday. Maybe some teams—Northern, Southern, Cuban or otherwise—would be intimidated finding themselves unexpectedly facing Carlos Rodon in their first live action of the year. Not the Golden Griffins, who won the MAAC last year and hung tough against No. 1 national seed North Carolina in the Chapel Hill Regional.
“Let’s be honest: I don’t think anybody wants to face him day one,” Canisius coach Mike McRae said. “But there wasn’t fear. Some guys were excited about it. They wanted to see what all the hype was about. He’s very good and very talented, and soon he’s going to be very rich. But we’ve got a lot of experience and some veterans on this club, and those guys aren’t afraid. The last time we were on the field was just up the road here in Chapel Hill, so I almost think that helped us, because it’s kind of like just a continuation, a carryover of that environment, and the high profile of who we faced.”
Rodon was certainly not at his sharpest, and the Griffins did not square him up—but they took advantage when Rodon and the Wolfpack made mistakes. Ronnie Bernick reached on an error in the third, and with two outs Rodon hit back-to-back batters to load the bases. Then Shane Zimmer worked the count full and drew a bases-loaded walk. The Griffs tacked on another run in the fifth when Kelso singled, stole second, took third on a wild pitch and scored on another error.
The dozens of scouts behind the plate were there to see Rodon and teammate Trea Turner, but Canisius righthander Rohn Pierce out-pitched the presumptive No. 1 pick. He carved up the Wolfpack for seven shutout innings, allowing just five hits and a walk while matching Rodon’s six strikeouts. A wiry low three-quarters righthander with good movement on an 86-90 fastball that bumped 91, Pierce mixed in his sweeping 76-80 slider and his solid 79-82 changeup effectively to keep the Wolfpack off balance.
“Our starter pitched his nuts off today and did a phenomenal job for us.” McRae said. “He’s pitched the last two conference championship games, he’s had to start. We all have confidence in him, we know he’s going to throw strikes. We made two tremendous plays behind him—our middle guys both made two tremendous plays.”
Canisius is loaded with hard-nosed Canadians and other cold-weather players brimming with toughness. Every player on the field for the Griffs was an upperclassman, and their experience makes them dangerous. Canisius played flawless defense Sunday and made two sensational plays. Second baseman Jose Torralba made a gorgeous play in the fourth inning, diving for a sharp grounder by Mike Cavanaugh and throwing from his knees for the out. In the seventh, Bernick made a play at shortstop that rivaled Turner’s brilliant play on a ball up the middle earlier in the game. Bernick fielded a grounder by Cavanaugh in the hole and made a perfect leaping throw across his body to get the out at first base.
“Ronnie Bernick is grit through and through,” McRae said. “That kid has come a long way since his freshman year. He’s been told all along he’s not good enough, he can’t do that. And the kid just says, ‘to heck with all of ya, I’ll show you.’ He does it with some quiet confidence and a little bit of a chip on his shoulder.”
That description could also apply to Canisius as a whole.
Strike Two: Happ-y Sunday
The winter weather disrupted many travel plans last week and shuffled plenty of schedules. It brought out some of the best aspects of college baseball’s coaching fraternity. With Vanderbilt on the road at Long Beach State, the Commodores allowed Wright State and Michigan State to play three games at Hawkins Field in Nashville, since the Raiders and Spartans had their tournament in Cary canceled.
When Western Carolina and Mississippi State each had series canceled (against Ohio and Hofstra, respectively), the Catamounts traveled seven hours on a charter bus provided by MSU to reach Starkville in time for a three-game series starting Friday night.
With Elon unable to host its series against Cincinnati due to field conditions, North Carolina State allowed the two teams to play games at Doak Field on Sunday and Monday, after the Wolfpack played its games against Canisius. The ‘Pack could have easily played a doubleheader against Canisius on Sunday (and the Griffs surely would have preferred to play three games in Raleigh, rather than having to scramble to get a third game Monday night at North Carolina Central), but they graciously accommodated two other teams who were in danger of not playing at all.
The Cincinnati-Elon game allowed me to get a look at first-team preseason All-American Ian Happ, a dynamic sophomore for the Bearcats. Happ played second base a year ago and was voted onto our preseason All-American team as a second baseman, but the Bearcats are giving him a chance to play shortstop this spring. He showed the range and arm strength for the position Sunday, but last summer in the Cape Cod League, scouts wondered whether he has the hands and actions for the infield. He boxed a few balls Sunday, but he demonstrated a good internal clock by sticking with the plays and making strong, accurate throws to first for the outs.
The switch-hitting Happ also reached base safely in all five of his plate appearances, drawing two walks, getting hit by a pitch, and recording two hits from the left side. He lined a 1-2 fastball to the opposite field for a single in the seventh, then stole second base. With two outs and Elon leading 5-2 in the ninth, Happ launched a soaring two-run double high off the left-field wall, just missing a game-tying three-run homer. He scored the tying run anyway on Colin Hawk’s RBI single, but Elon won the game in 10 innings.
Happ is far from a finished product—he was picked off in the first inning and caught stealing in the eighth when the pitcher threw over to first after he had broken for second. But those mistakes were indicative of a very aggressive, high-energy player who likes to push the action, making him fun to watch. And first-year Cincinnati head coach Ty Neal has a great track record of developing position players; he’ll get the most out of his ultra-talented sophomore.
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Brandon Finnegan
Brandon Finnegan’s Texas Christian teammates teasingly made a pretty big deal about the second-team preseason All-American’s first win of the season Friday against Jacksonville. After all, Finnegan made 15 starts last year and finished the season 0-8, despite a perfectly respectable 3.18 ERA.
The junior lefthander went 3-1, 1.14 last summer for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, and TCU/Team USA head coach Jim Schlossnagle said, “it was a big sigh of relief when he got the first win of the summer.” Schlossnagle said he expects Finnegan will gain confidence from Friday’s outing—because of the way he pitched, not just because he recorded the win. Finnegan allowed just three hits and three walks over seven shutout innings, striking out 13.
“That’s as well as he’s pitched in a TCU uniform, I think,” Schlossnagle said. “He had some moments last year—he took a no-hitter into the eighth and ninth against Oklahoma. But he was just in complete command. He threw almost 80 percent strikes with his fastball, 74 or 75 percent first-pitch strikes. He was just pounding the bottom of the strike zone, one after the other after the other.”
Finnegan was confident and aggressive out of the gate, running his fastball up to 96 mph in the first inning and striking out eight of the first nine batters he faced, including seven in a row. Then he settled into the 92-93 range in the middle innings, conserving his strength so he could reach back for his best velocity in the biggest spots—like when the Dolphins had two on with one out in the fifth, but Finnegan escaped with a strikeout and a flyout.
Finnegan did not throw his changeup Friday, but Schlossnagle said it is a quality pitch that he will throw plenty as the season progresses. His slider—which suddenly became a serious weapon for him last summer after he asked Rodon for advice with the pitch—was very effective Friday. It is not as hard as Rodon’s, coming in at 83-84 and bumping 85, but it has good depth, and he was able to throw it to righties and lefties, in the zone and out of the zone.
“The key for Finnegan, he’s an emotional guy, he’s got a big arm, and he really relishes being a power pitcher and a Friday night guy,” Schlossnagle said. “His challenge, like most guys like that, he’s got to be in control of his emotions so he can be in control of his body, and therefore he can control his pitches. He did that at a really high level. A lot of that comes with maturity, and he’s really matured a lot in three years. I’m hoping that he took another step. We’ll see if he can put consistent outings like that together.”
The Horned Frogs have a more proven Friday ace on staff in submariner Preston Morrison, who went 16-5, 1.80 in his first two collegiate seasons. But Schlossnagle figured Finnegan’s power stuff would be even tougher for hitters to pick up on Friday nights, while Morrison’s groundball-oriented approach would play well during day games on Saturdays. Finnegan gave TCU the best of both worlds Friday.
“He combined the power stuff of Brandon Finnegan with the strike zone ability of Preston Morrison,” Schlossnagle said. “You do that, that’s pretty wicked.”