Strike One: Cowboys Up
Oklahoma State won just eight conference games in all of 2010, sinking to last place in the Big 12. Pitching was a major culprit, as the Cowboys ranked eighth out of 10 teams in the league with a 5.56 ERA.
Through three weeks of conference play in 2011, OSU already has five conference wins, and its pitching is a big reason why. Through 28 games, Oklahoma State owns a 2.38 ERA, second in the Big 12 behind only Texas A&M (1.98). After winning back-to-back series against Texas and on the road against Nebraska, the Cowboys have climbed to 5-4 in conference play, and into the Baseball America Top 25.
"There's still a lot ahead of us, but we're getting better. We're a lot better than we were last year," Oklahoma State coach Frank Anderson said. "For the most part, we've done a pretty good job of pitching and playing defense. We play infield defense at a pretty high level, but we need to get better at our outfield defense. Like everybody, we're trying to figure out what you have to do with the bats."
The Cowboys have figured out that part of it better than most, in fact. Oklahoma State ranks second in the Big 12 in batting (.307) and third in home runs (19). The Cowboys rode a power surge to Friday's win at Nebraska, bashing five home runs in a 12-7 win, and they scored 10 runs again Saturday in a blowout victory. Mark Ginther, Davis Duren, Dane Phillips, Zach Johnson and Jared Womack give the lineup a solid core of physical veterans with some extra-base potential.
"I think we're still evolving offensively," Anderson said. "We don't execute as well as I'd like to at times, as far as the bunting game and stuff. But we've actually swung the bat pretty good as far as hits."
The pitching, though, has been the strength of the club. Senior righthander Brad Propst (5-1, 1.29) has emerged as a weekend rotation rock in his third season since transferring from a junior college, after spending most of the last two years in the bullpen. A converted shortstop, Propst is a finesse pitcher who relies on his defense to make plays behind him, and it largely has, fielding at a .975 clip.
Lefthanders Mike Strong (3-0, 2.64) and Andrew Heaney (3-1, 2.97) have generally pitched well this year in weekend starter roles, though neither was at his best this weekend. Strong ranked as the No. 12 prospect in the Northwoods League last summer thanks in large part to his sharp downer curveball, but Anderson said the pitch has not been as consistent yet this spring. Heaney, who can run his fastball up to 93 mph at times, thrived early in the year thanks to excellent fastball command but has scuffled a bit lately. He is a high-upside lefty with a changeup and curveball that have both made strides.
The Cowboys really haven't reached their ceiling yet as a pitching staff. Talented freshman righty Jason Hursh (1-0, 1.54) has the biggest upside on the staff, but he was slowed by illness for much of the first half. Redshirt sophomore righthander Randy McCurry (2-1, 1.27) has re-emerged as a force in the bullpen, but he's still just more than 13 months removed from Tommy John surgery, and he is still trying to find his feel for his secondary stuff, though he has also touched 93 mph. He and junior-college transfer Chris Marlowe (3.38 ERA, three saves) give the Cowyboys a pair of legitimate power arms at the back of the pen. Marlowe can run his heater into the mid-90s and has "one of the best breaking balls I've ever been around," according to Anderson.
Marlowe and Hursh were the anchors of Oklahoma State's 15th-ranked recruiting class, which has played a significant part on OSU's turnaround. The Cowboys have been hampered in recent years by scholarship reductions as punishment for Academic Progress Rate problems and a minor NCAA rules violation, but now they're back close to 11.7 scholarships.
"Our depth is much better than it was last year, and I think this class has had a lot to do with it," Anderson said. "We've got 17 new kids, and we've got some junior-college kids and some guys who've been around a little while, so we're not playing a lot of freshmen. That helps us somewhat."
Strike Two: Troy Forges New Identity
Bobby Pierce has had some good teams over the years at Troy, so it might be surprising that the Trojans had never been ranked in Baseball America's Top 25 until last week. This might or might not turn out to be the best team in Troy's history, but it certainly is a unique club for Pierce, the team's ninth-year coach.
"In our past, our history has been about offense," Pierce said. "Most of the time when you talk Troy baseball, you do have to mention offense, because we're normally in the top 10-15 in the country with our offensive numbers. This year, most of it has been timely hits, picking them up at the right time, and great pitching and defense. Ain't no doubt that the 2.71 team ERA and the .982 fielding percentage have been the driving force of our success this year."
This weekend's series sweep at Arkansas State was a good example of how Troy is winning games: 1-0, 2-1 and 5-3. The formula is working, as the 20th-ranked Trojans are 22-5 overall, 8-1 in the Sun Belt Conference and own a series win against No. 18 Southern Mississippi. Ace Tyler Ray beat Southern Miss ace Todd McInnis in the opener of that series, and Ray has continued to set the tone every Friday night, going 6-0 1.45 with 33 strikeouts and four walks in 50 innings.
The junior righthander has been a weekend starter since he was a freshman; a former quarterback for Hoover (Ala.) High (which was made famous by the MTV show "Two-A-Days"), Ray arrived at Troy accustomed to the spotlight, so he did not get rattled by pressure situations. He arrived as a two-way player, and he tore his left labrum swinging the bat in the fall of his freshman year, which prevented him from concentrating on gaining strength. After his all-star summer in the Cape Cod League last year, Ray focused on strengthening his body in the fall, and Pierce said that work has paid dividends. He still does not have overpowering velocity, but he commands his 88-91 mph fastball well, and his slider has become a put-away pitch against righties, while his changeup has become effective against lefties. Ray was masterful Friday, allowing just six hits and no walks over 8 2/3 shutout innings in a 1-0 win.
The Trojans also have three quality starters behind Ray. Senior righty Drew Hull (4-0, 1.95) has a tick better stuff, with an 89-92 fastball that bumps 93 and a good slider, but he doesn't quite have Ray's command. Heralded freshman lefthander Jimmy Hodgskin (2-1, 3.00) was the biggest recruit in Troy history, a Top 200 prospect for last year's draft. Though he's still refining his command, he has done a good job commanding his 88-91 fastball, and he flashes a promising slider and changeup, though his fastball is his bread and butter. Then there's sophomore lefty Ryan Sorce (4-2, 3.47), the younger brother of former Troy closer Chris Sorce, now a Mariners prospect. Ryan pitched very well in the fall and spring, then was slowed by some elbow inflammation, but he came up big in relief of Hodgskin on a very windy Sunday, throwing 4 1/3 scoreless innings of relief to lead Troy to a 5-3 win.
Troy might have the best pitching staff in the Sun Belt, and it might have the conference's best defense, too. Senior shortstop Adam Bryant is more known for his bat after hitting 23 home runs last year, but he also posted the best fielding percentage (.990) of any Division I shortstop, and he's fielding .974 this year. He anchors a quality infield, which also includes shortstop-of-the-future Tyler Hannah at third base, and a slick-fielding second baseman in T.J. Rivera. Pierce's son Logan has solidified the defense at first base, and the head coach raves about catcher Todd McRae's ability to receive, block and throw accurately, though he lacks professional-caliber arm strength.
"We're not sitting here with a lot of top-10-round guys, but we have very good baseball players who play well together," Pierce said. "It's been a great team to be around—they come to the park every day ready to go, so it's not going to shock me that they just continue to play well. We've got that part of our schedule coming up where we play Florida International, Florida Atlantic, Western Kentucky, so I don't expect us to stay on the 8-1-in-league-play clip. But we'll win our share."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Nick Martini
The last time Nick Martini failed to get on base for Kansas State was March 31, 2009. The next day, he went 2-for-4 in a loss to Rice in the Houston Regional, starting a remarkable streak that is still going.
Martini, a junior outfielder, went 3-for-5 in Sunday's 9-4 win against Texas A&M, the 87th consecutive game he has reached base safely. That is believed to be an NCAA record, eclipsing former Elon outfielder Cory Harrilchak's 86-game streak in 2008-09.
"I really didn't know about the streak until a little bit into this year," Martini said. "I thought it was something cool, and I wanted to keep it going. Every time I go to the plate, I'm just looking to get on base, because I'm not a huge home run hitter. I try to stay more gap-to-gap, line drive, more of a doubles guy than anything. I just try and use my legs and help the guys behind me."
Martini's good speed has helped him keep the streak going, as he said there have been some games where a bunt single has been the only time he has reached base. But Martini is an outstanding line-drive hitter, and he has extended the streak with a hit 72 times.
"He's been on a roll—it's pretty incredible," Kansas State coach Brad Hill said about three weeks ago. "It's just an amazing streak, particularly if you look at the league we play in. To be able to go through that one time getting on base every game is incredible. He has great patience at the plate, he does not chase pitches very much at all, and he's willing to take a walk. That's something a lot of young guys don't like to do."
Martini said his biggest improvement as a hitter during his Kansas State career has been his pitch recognition and plate discipline. He struck out 41 times and drew 27 walks as a freshman, when he still had a solid year, hitting .336/.421/.478 as Kansas State's No. 3-hole hitter. As a sophomore, when he reached safely every game, that ratio was nearly reversed: He walked 41 times and struck out just 21 times. Martini hit .416/.509/.576 with 59 RBIs and 19 stolen bases that year to capture Big 12 Conference player of the year honors.
This spring, Martini has 21 walks and 11 strikeouts, and he is hitting .354/.480.479 with 18 RBIs and 10 steals in 13 attempts.
"He's not trying to do more or do too much," Hill said. "Talk about a sophomore being Big 12 player of the year last year, that's pretty incredible. Coming back this year, there might be some tendencies to try too hard, some pressure to live up to what he's done in the past, but he really has not tried to do too much, he's stayed within himself. He's got a middle-of-the-field approach. He's got lightning-fast hands, and he'll hit the ball where it's pitched."
A consummate team player, Martini said he tries to work counts to drive up pitch counts and help his teammates see what kind of stuff pitchers have. He said hitting with two strikes is "not a problem."
One thing that has been constant during Martini's streak—besides his approach—is his undershirt. Martini said he has worn the same undershirt every game since the streak started.
"It's a little loose and worn now," he said, "but it's worth it."