Strike One: Fullerton Flailing
WICHITA—For 20 minutes after Cal State Fullerton dropped the rubber game of its series at Wichita State, Titans head coach Rick Vanderhook met with his team in left field. It was an animated meeting.
As he made his way back toward the dugout, he said, "Do you have a bottom 10? Because we should be in the bottom 10 . . . We're just no good. We're no good. We're no good. We have 30 errors. If we don't have a 2 ERA, we're 10 games below .500."
But the Titans have a 2.13 ERA, so they are 14-10 overall. They've lost just two of their seven weekend series—on the road at Baylor and Wichita. The last three weeks, they have been without All-American righthander Justin Garza, and they haven't missed a beat on the mound, sliding freshman blue-chip Phil Bickford into the weekend rotation alongside Thomas Eshelman (who continues to be the nation's best strike-thrower, with a 41-1 K-BB mark) and Grahamm Wiest.
But Fullerton's offensive ineptitude is driving Vanderhook batty. The Titans are hitting .244 as a team, and the quality of their at-bats this weekend was strikingly poor—there were too many pop-ups early in counts, not enough grinding, not enough situational hitting.
"They crap away at-bats after at-bats," Vanderhook said. "We have no quality at-bats. We give away three innings a game. The other team gets 27 outs, and we get 18. And it's hard to score when you only get 18 outs to hit. Against very average pitching."
The Shockers do have solid strike-throwers on the mound and a steady defense (we'll have much more on Wichita later this week), but they don't have overpowering stuff. It hurt Fullerton that preseason All-America third baseman Matt Chapman was sidelined all weekend with the flu. He wasn't even available to pinch-hit Friday because he was throwing up, and the next day he had a 103-degree fever and went to the emergency room.
Without Chapman and freshman infielder Taylor Bryant (out with a MRSA infection, the Titans learned Friday), Fullerton had just five infielders available, but they played solid defense this weekend, making just one error in three games. But Vanderhook is clearly not satisfied with their .968 fielding percentage on the year.
"I say, in our first test of the year, at midterm, we got an 'F,'" he said. "We have failed miserably on defense, we have failed miserably on offense. Pitchers get an 'A.'
"The best part is, we already lost preseason, so now we've got to start conference. We'll see what happens."
It may sound harsh, but expectations are always high in Fullerton, and they were particularly high for this group of Titans, which entered the season No. 4 in the BA rankings, coming off a 51-10 season. The Titans have responded well to Vanderhook's blunt motivational style over his first two years as head coach. Expect them to respond again. The question is, are they really good enough to make a run at Omaha, or do they "stink," as Vanderhook said Sunday?
Bet on the former.
Strike Two: Tumult In The ACC
Cal State Fullerton isn't the only national power that is struggling. Most notably, preseason No. 5 North Carolina State was swept in a conference series for the third straight week, this time at home against Miami, to fall out of the Top 25 altogether. The Wolfpack finds itself in 12th place in the 14-team Atlantic Coast Conference, with a road series at No. 16 Clemson coming up this weekend. The schedule is much more favorable after that, but the 'Pack has its work cut out for it just to make the 10-team ACC tournament—never mind getting back to Omaha.
"This happened last year," ace Carlos Rodon said of N.C. State's rough start to conference play, per the Technician Online. "It is definitely a learning experience. Baseball is a crazy game, a game of failure, so you have got to have a short memory."
Rodon and fellow All-American Trea Turner have earned the benefit of the doubt over the course of two brilliant seasons, during which they helped lead the Wolfpack to a super regional and the College World Series. Fellow juniors Jake Fincher, Brett Austin, Logan Ratledge and Logan Jernigan are also part of that veteran core, and the veterans must lead N.C. State out of the wilderness.
Moving Andrew Woeck (3-1, 1.67) from the bullpen into a starting role this weekend was the right move, because the 'Pack has struggled to get consistent starts out of Jernigan and Brad Stone. For that matter, the 'Pack has struggled to get consistency in any facet of the game. N.C. State is hitting .265 as a team, and its defense has regularly hurt it, especially with Rodon on the mound. Rodon has a 2.09 ERA—and has allowed 13 unearned runs, which helps explain why he is 2-4.
The Wolfpack can still make a second-half run, like Vanderbilt did in 2012, when it wound up in the Raleigh Regional. But if this team doesn't reverse its downward momentum very soon, it could find itself in too big a hole to climb out of.
"I have been concerned for a while," NCSU coach Elliott Avent told reporters. "It is a tough league. You can get into a little bit of a run. You lose a couple, then you start doubting yourself and then confidence becomes an issue."
On the other side of the Triangle, North Carolina was swept by Duke for the first time since 1994, leaving no teams from the Old North State in the Top 25. The Tar Heels have lost six straight and seven of their last eight, leaving them 15-12 overall, 5-7 in the league.
Expectations were considerably lower for UNC heading into this season than for N.C. State, because the Tar Heels lost a host of stars from last year's No. 1 national seed club. The two returning stars who were supposed to lead the offense—Skye Bolt (.200/.327/.233) and Landon Lassiter (.215/.381/.215)—have struggled mightily. UNC won't be a good offensive team unless that duo gets it turned around. But the new reality for North Carolina is that it is just not as talented or experienced as it has been, and losing closer Chris McCue to a blood clot was a big blow to a shaky bullpen, giving further cause to downgrade expectations.
This was supposed to be a banner year in the state of North Carolina, but with the Tar Heels, Wolfpack and UNC Wilmington struggling, the only bright spots have been in the Southern Conference, where Davidson, Western Carolina and Elon are the top three teams in the standings.
It was supposed to be a strong year for the ACC too, at least at the top. Florida State and Virginia look just as elite as they were supposed to be. Clemson (8-3 in the league) and Miami (8-4) are back on track. The rest of the league is muddled. Wake Forest (8-4) and Maryland (5-6 but No. 22 in the RPI) have been pleasant surprises. Duke and Pittsburgh are 7-5, making them factors in the race going forward. And mainstays N.C. State, UNC and Georgia Tech could be in trouble.
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Erick Fedde
LINCOLN, Neb.—Erick Fedde admitted he was tempted to step off the mound, turn around, look at the sky and stick out his tongue. Las Vegas natives don't get many opportunities to pitch in the snow, after all.
"That was my first time ever," Fedde said. "Vegas kid my whole life—I've never been in this before."
He handled it like an old pro. UNLV's ace junior righthander sported short sleeves on a frigid Friday night at Nebraska, with the wind howling and the snow falling intermittently toward the end of Fedde's seven strong innings of work. He stayed in attack mode, working so quickly that one UNLV fan described him on Twitter as "pitching like he was double-parked in front of the Bellagio." Defenders always like playing behind a pitcher who works quickly, but they must have been even more grateful for Fedde's relentless pace on such a cold night.
"I made the comment before the season that fans are going to like the way we play fast," UNLV coach Tim Chambers said. "I didn't mean we're a super fast team, I mean we like to play the game fast. Fedde's tempo has rubbed off on the rest of the pitchers. They try to do the same thing: get it, let's go. You're uncomfortable as a hitter. The umpire's sitting there trying to hold you up, and as soon as he points, man, they're gone. He's fun to watch."
A second-team preseason All-American, Fedde has generated some top-half-of-the-first-round buzz this spring, when he has run his fastball up to 96 at times. He did not have his best velocity in the Nebraska cold, put his heavy 90-92 mph fastball had serious sink, helping him induce 15 groundball outs over seven innings. He gave up two runs on four hits, and when he found himself in a bases-loaded, no-outs jam in the fifth, he minimized the damage by getting a double-play ball.
"That's my bread and butter, I guess you could say," Fedde said of his ability to get groundball outs. "If I give up a lot of fly balls, it's probably not a good day for me."
He said he had some trouble commanding his fastball early in the game, as it sank too much and wound up in the dirt a few times. So he relied more on his 82-84 changeup in the early innings. Last year, when Fedde went 7-3, 3.92, he did not have the luxury of relying on his changeup when he needed a third weapon to go along with his fastball and solid-avergae 80-83 slider.
"Erick said to (pitching coach) Stan Stolte when he came out, 'That's the best I've ever thrown my changeup, ever.'" Chambers said. "We forced him to do it last year in the fall—we wouldn't let him throw that slider. Now he's starting to believe in it and throw it. You have to be (a three-pitch guy), or you're not going to be a starter at the next level. You've got to have three pitches. If you want to be in the bullpen, keep working on the slider. He laughs; he's starting to throw it more. But he's pretty good."
Fedde proved he belonged in the conversation with the nation's premier starters last summer with Team USA, but as a junior this spring he has put it all together and become a complete pitcher, and his numbers back it up. Through seven starts for the No. 25 Rebels, Fedde is 5-1, 1.98 with 50 strikeouts and 15 walks in 50 innings.
And he's a very positive clubhouse force for a UNLV team that has excellent chemistry.
"This is a fun team. They're really close, they hang out together," Chambers said. "They huddle in, Fedde comes out of the game and he's throwing hand grenades when we get a full count, everybody ducks down. I'm like, 'It's too cold to throw hand grenades now!'
"But he's a treat. When he's on the mound, I feel like we've got a chance to win."