Three Strikes: Week Six

Strike One: Resurgent Grimes Delivers For New-Look Jackets

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Pitching seven innings doesn’t seem like the biggest of deals, even for Matt Grimes. The redshirt junior is supposed to be good—he was an unsigned fourth-round pick out of a Georgia high school in 2010 (by the White Sox), and he thrived as a freshman, going 7-4, 4.15 for Georgia Tech back in 2011.

But under the circumstances, seven innings was a very big deal. Georgia Tech and North Carolina had played 24 innings the first two games of the series, with both clubs exhausting their injury-depleted bullpens. Grimes was starting the rubber game, which was moved up a day to beat upcoming weather.

Matt Grimes

Matt Grimes

Most of all, Georgia Tech needed a win, and Grimes—with help from the Yellow Jackets’ lineup and infield defense—went and got it. Spotting his 91-93 mph fastball effectively, the redshirt junior scattered eight hits and two walks, getting four double plays turned behind him in a 9-1 series-clinching victory.

“I haven’t thrown seven innings in a couple years, really, which is really weird to say,” said Grimes, who had Tommy John surgery in October 2012. “It’s been a journey getting this far, and I’m thankful for how much I’ve grown.”

A spate of big league spring training injuries has pushed Tommy John surgery to the forefront in baseball industry discussions, and Grimes has heard the news. He put in plenty of rehab work to get back to a point where he can help his teammates on the field.

“Most of it is mental,” he said. “You see your teammates playing, and you’re thinking, ‘I want to be out there too.’ You’ve just got to be diligent with your work and take extra time in the training room and just grind it out. As I proved tonight, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Grimes threw 93 pitches to match his career high in innings, crucial considering the state of the Jackets’ staff. Senior righty Alex Cruz was dismissed from the team March 11, and righty DeAndre Smelter left the baseball team to focus on football. Injuries have sidelined sophomore lefty Jonathan King and junior righty Cole PItts.

Expectations for Grimes were high when he came to The Flats but the need for his performance was never greater. He delivered, and the Jackets will need him to keep delivering.

“He pitched outstanding and gave us a big lift. They got a run on him in the first, but he really settled in and threw the ball well,” head coach Danny Hall said. “He had a good fastball, had a pretty good breaking ball, had good command of  his breaking ball, and we made some pretty good plays behind him. The double plays were a big factor in the game.”

Georgia Tech now has won two straight series against Top 25 teams to enter the rankings itself. To stay there, it will need its revamped infield defense to continue shining. Freshmen third basemen Brandon Gold and Elliott Barzilli have pushed three-hole hitter Matt Gonzalez to left field, while freshman Connor Justus shined all weekend and was involved in all four double plays. Senior Mott Hyde has settled in at second after early-career struggles at short, and former middle-infielder Thomas Smith, a walk-on now batting cleanup, is a secure defender at first base who made his first error in 22 months during the weekend.

It’s a different Georgia Tech team, with fewer high draft prospects but steadier defense. If Grimes can keep giving the pitching staff a boost, the end result could be a familiar one—another trip to NCAA regionals.

—JOHN MANUEL

Strike Two: Notebook From The Road

NORMAN, Okla.—On Friday, I kicked off a 10-day road trip through the middle of America in the Metroplex. I’ll have posts throughout the week looking at some of the fascinating programs in the Heartland, but right now it’s time to shake out the notebook from the three games I caught this weekend in Fort Worth, Dallas and Norman.

Nate Griep

Nate Griep

• Kansas State won the Big 12 and went to super regionals last year despite rarely getting deep starts from its rotation. Starting pitching remained an issue for the Wildcats heading into this season, and neither Friday starter Levi MaVorhis nor Saturday starter Jared Moore made it through five innings in losses at Oklahoma this weekend, but redshirt freshman righthander Nate Griep gave KSU exactly what it needed on the mound Sunday.

Facing an Oklahoma offense that scored 22 runs over the previous two days, Griep threw a three-hit shutout in his Big 12 debut, allowing just one Sooner to reach second base. Like most Kansas State pitchers, Griep didn’t show overpowering stuff, but he spotted his 86-88 fastball very effectively, occasionally bumping 90-91. He got 15 flyball outs, succeeding by locating at the two upper corners of the zone.

“He’s just a little deceptive, too; he’s got a really quick arm,” Kansas State coach Brad Hill said. “He was up to 91, he was 87-91, but I think it looks quicker than that. Then you mix a little breaking ball, changeup. I don’t think he used a lot of those (Sunday), but it was really fastball command. And again, he’s got that quick arm, he’s a little deceptive, the ball jumps on you a little quicker than you think it’s going to.”

Hill said the rotation is set now, as MaVorhis (3-2, 3.32) and Moore (4-1, 3.44) have generally been solid, and Griep (2-0, 1.42) proved he deserves a weekend spot. Early in the year, KSU alternated between Griep and lefthander Landon Busch on Sundays, but Hill decided to use Busch in the bullpen so he’d have a second lefthanded option.

“It kind of gave Nate the opportunity to start,” Hill said. “I’m glad we were smart enough, maybe, to make that decision.”

• Oklahoma’s 6-foot-7 freshman righthander, Jake Elliott, has a chance to be very good as he develops physically. Elliott took the loss Sunday after allowing four runs in the KSU third, but he works downhill with an 86-89 fastball that figures to add velocity in time, and he showed very good feel for his changeup. He’ll need to tighten up his breaking ball, however.

• Utah Valley earned its first series win of the year by taking the first two games at Dallas Baptist. The Wolverines are just 7-16 overall, but 20 of their 23 games have come on the road, and their tough schedule included trips to Loyola Marymount, Arizona, Pepperdine and Long Beach State.

In past years, UVU had to perform extremely well in nonconference play to have any chance to make a regional as an independent or a member of the Great West Conference (which had no automatic bid). In 2012, they went 28-0 in the Great West and 47-12 overall, and they still missed out on an at-large bid because their RPI wasn’t strong enough.

But this year, the Wolverines joined the Western Athletic Conference, which means they get a clean slate. They could take their lumps in nonconference action, but if they win their league they finally have a viable path to the postseason.

“It’s giant. Especially with the tradition of what’s happened in the past with our program, just having that opportunity to control our own destiny is just gigantic for us,” Utah Valley coach Eric Madsen said. “The way these guys are playing now, I think they’ve turned the corner. Knock on wood, that’s what we’re hoping for.”

The Wolverines didn’t look like a team with a .228 collective batting average on Saturday. They grinded out competitive at-bats against a very good pitcher, DBU’s Cy Sneed. And they took advantage when they had a big scoring opportunity in the ninth against two more power arms out of the DBU bullpen, coming from behind with five runs to win 6-3. Beau Kallas’ two-run double down the left-field line was the big blow.

“We felt like we’ve had a good hitting club all year, but we’ve just had so much try and not enough belief in what they’re capable of doing within our philosophy,” Madsen said. “This weekend, we’ve stressed it a lot, and they’ve done a great job responding to it.”

Then the Wolverines ran out their own power arm in the ninth to secure the victory. Junior righthander Chad Michaud, a junior-college transfer, is just 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, but he has a lightning-fast arm. He sits at 92-93 and bumps the mid-90s, and he has a second out pitch in his 85 mph changeup, which he used to record back-to-back strikeouts to end the game.

“(Pitching coach Dave Carter)’s done a great job with him because he’s got a good arm, but you saw how he pitched down in the zone and commanded the ball,” Madsen said. “He’s made big progress for sure. The changeup, I think some of those guys thought it was a slider, with the depth it had and the movement. But it’s by far a plus pitch, I guess if your fastball’s not a plus pitch at 96.”

Brandon Finnegan

Brandon Finnegan (Photo by John Williamson)

• I wrote about Brandon Finnegan’s dominance in the Friday roundup, but the TCU-Texas Tech series did a 180 after I left Fort Worth, with the Red Raiders dominating the next two games by a combined score of 22-4. One of the few bright spots for TCU was junior first baseman Kevin Cron, who had a pair of RBI doubles Friday and then went 3-for-3 Saturday. After hitting just .208 a year ago, the hulking Cron ranks second on the team in hitting (.313) and first in doubles (nine) and RBIs (16). They aren’t quite All-America numbers for the third-team preseason All-American, but he seems to be heating up. He turned on a fastball for a double off the left-field wall in the third inning Friday, then waited on a breaking ball for another double down the left-field line in the fourth. He also struck out three times, but he has just 14 strikeouts in 83 at-bats.

“He’s the key guy,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “He’s the guy who has to anchor our lineup. He’s still not where he can be. Of course the expectations are so high when you’re a high pick like that out of high school (third round), but he’s light years ahead of where he was this time last year. We just like to think with him, like the team, our best baseball is ahead of us.”

For TCU, it better be. The Frogs are just 13-10 overall, and they’ve posted three losing weekends in the last four weeks (with a sweep of Dartmouth being the lone exception).

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Keegan Thompson

Sunny Golloway knew he was inheriting a special player when he left Oklahoma to take over as Auburn’s head coach. Even before freshman Keegan Thompson played a college game, he was drawing high praise from his new coach.

“He’s got a chance to be the best overall player I’ve ever had because he can do so many things,” Golloway said of Thompson last October.

Keegan Thompson

Keegan Thompson

Golloway’s expectation was that Thompson would hit in the middle of Auburn’s lineup and step immediately into a weekend rotation role on the mound. He’s gotten off to a slow start with the bat, but he’s more than made up for it with his arm. Through six weeks, the righthander is 5-0, 0.78 with 33 strikeouts and eight walks in 46 innings, making him an early front-runner for national Freshman of the Year honors.

“Pretty staggering numbers for a freshman, huh?” Golloway said. “He’s as good as I’ve ever seen as far as a freshman. Everybody wants to make a comparison between (last year’s No. 3 overall pick and former Sooner) Jonathan Gray and Keegan. What I tell them is at the same time, he’s further along than Jonathan Gray because he has tremendous fastball command. Gray had a lightning arm but didn’t have as good fastball command. Then Keegan’s got a good slow breaking ball and an outstanding slider, so we can go backdoor slider when we want to, then we can come with that looper. He’s got two different breaking balls, then he’s got a really good changeup. With all that working for him, he’s just a pretty special guy.”

At 6-foot-1, 208 pounds, Thompson is physically mature and less projectable than Gray was, and he doesn’t have as electric an arm. But his fastball is plenty firm at 90-93 and he holds his velocity deep into games. “And it’s that looping curveball that makes that 93 look like a 95, 96 Jonathan Gray pitch,” Golloway said.

Golden Spikes 2014Thompson threw 7 1/3 strong innings Saturday, allowing just a run on five hits, to earn the win against Tennessee and clinch a big road series for the resurgent Tigers, who broke into Baseball America Top 25 this week for the first time in two years. (That’s another thing Golloway predicted back in October, by the way. “We won’t be a Top 25 team right away, but I think we will be down the stretch,” he said then.)

Thompson’s contributions this weekend weren’t limited to the mound, either. On Friday he started at first base and struggled in his first couple of at-bats. Golloway said he started to get frustrated, but when he came up in a key spot in the sixth inning, he delivered a crucial RBI single to provide what eventually proved to be the winning run. And in the ninth inning, Thompson helped save the game with his defense. Tennessee loaded the bases for Will Maddox, who hit a dribbler between the mound and first base.

“The pitcher’s going for it, and Keegan screams for it, picks it up and makes the throw home to get the out,” Golloway said. “On top of pitching, what he’s doing for us defensively and offensively, playing first base midweek then turning around and playing it on Friday is pretty amazing too. But when he’s pitching, it’s like Playstation when he’s hitting his spots, hitting his spots with his fastball, moving it around.”

Thompson’s savvy and poise in tight spots is nothing new. He was a key part of two gold-medal teams with USA Baseball’s 16-and-under and 18U national teams, so his track record of elite performance on the big stage is long.

“He’s mature beyond his years,” Golloway said. “He got to do the USA thing, he’s been part of his championships, and he’s a special kid. He’s a fun guy to coach, too. He’s always picking my brain, and he keeps it in perspective pretty well. He’s very unassuming and humble.”