Strike One: Mississippi State Announces Presence In Wild West
When Mississippi State faced Auburn a year ago, the Bulldogs jumped out to a 9-0 lead on Saturday, but could not hold it. The Tigers started to come back against freshman righthander Chris Stratton and finished the job against the MSU bullpen, winning 16-14 and going on to sweep the Bulldogs.
Contrast that Saturday with this past Saturday, when the Bulldogs again jumped out to a big lead against Auburn, scoring eight runs in the first. Stratton was on the mound again, and this time he held the Tigers at bay into the eighth inning, and MSU went on to sweep the series against 22nd-ranked Auburn.
The Bulldogs took their lumps on the mound over the last two years, but now all the work they have done to rebuild their pitching staff is paying off. Freshmen started 35 of Mississippi State's 56 games a year ago, when MSU finished 6-24 in the SEC, the second-worst record in the conference. But now those young arms have found their bearings, and they have led MSU to an 18-6 start, including a 4-2 mark in SEC play.
"We just really made our freshman guys into the leadership guys on the team last year, and for the most part, they got beat," Bulldogs coach John Cohen said. "But we were investing in all those freshmen—we just kept rolling them out there.
"Our mission No. 1 when we got here (in the summer of 2008): We feel like with our ballpark and the advent of the new bats in college baseball, we felt that pitching and defense was going to be the most important things we could do. So we have spent the majority of our scholarship aid and time and effort around defending the field and getting the very best arms we could get. I think we're starting to see the fruits of that labor."
Stratton (4-1, 2.61) has been the staff's most consistent arm, attacking the strike zone with an 88-92 mph fastball with good movement, a good curveball, and a cutter and changeup that are effective against lefties. Junior righty Devin Jones (2-3, 3.86), the Friday starter, flashes 94-95 mph heat but is still learning to get hitters out in college. But since the Bulldogs can count on Stratton to pitch deep into games Saturday, they can mix and match a bit with their bullpen on Friday and Sunday. This week, freshman two-way talent Daryl Norris turned in 5 1/3 shutout innings of relief Sunday to preserve MSU's 5-0 win. Norris pitches with an 88-91 mph heavy sinker and a really good slider. Fellow freshman two-way talents Hunter Renfroe (who pitches at 95-97 mph every time he gets on the mound, according to Cohen) and C.T. Bradford give the Bulldogs an exciting young core to build around, though Renfroe and Bradford have both been hittable in four appearances apiece.
"I think the real difference between our pitching staff now and when we got here is we just have a lot more flexibility," Cohen said. "If we feel like velocity is something that's going to help us, we can go to velocity. If we feel like movement is something we need, then we can go to movement. If we need somebody who can control the running game, we have all these options."
And the Bulldogs have premium athletes all over the diamond. Their outfield speed helped them track down several balls in the gap this weekend that Cohen said would have fallen in for hits against MSU in the past. Bradford, Jaron Shepherd, Nick Vickerson and Taylor Stark are all marquee athletes with excellent speed, and it plays.
The return of third baseman Jarrod Parks from back surgery gives the infield a good senior leader. Parks is a fine defender with a strong arm, and he also leads the team in hitting (.405).
Cohen said the Bulldogs are willing to sacrifice some offense in order to put their best defensive team on the field, but his hitters are doing a good job executing the team's plan at the plate.
"We're just a ground-ball, line-drive team, and if we hit ground balls right at people, we're going to struggle," Cohen said. "But of the 20 hits we had (Saturday), we had 11 groundball hits in the middle of the field, which is something we work so hard at. That's just something we've got to be able to do. But if we win, we're going to win close ballgames, and we're going to do it defensively and on the mound."
Cohen said he is not sure yet how good his team will be, but one thing is certain: It's much more competitive than it has been in the last three years, and it won't be a doormat in the suddenly wide-open SEC West.
Strike Two: Good Knights
Like Mississippi State, Central Florida brought in a new coaching staff in the summer of 2008. Like the Bulldogs, the Knights brought in back-to-back strong recruiting classes the next two years. And like MSU, UCF is now reaping the rewards of its hard work.
Central Florida got off to a 16-4 start against a rather soft nonconference schedule, but the Knights made a statement this weekend, going on the road and winning two of three against perennial CUSA superpower Rice. Suddenly UCF is sitting pretty at 18-6—and like Mississippi State, a deeper pitching staff has a lot to do with the team's improvement.
"We definitely have more depth on our staff, there's just no question about it," UCF coach Terry Rooney said. "Last year, we were one of the best offenses in the entire country, but we just needed to get better on the mound. Last year, our second year, was a great transition year—we went 33-22. We were arguably an arm or two short of winning enough games to get an at-large bid. Our hope is this year we won't come up short."
UCF's most important new arm is freshman righthander Ben Lively, the centerpiece of the Knights' most recent recruiting class. Lively has been fearless as the Friday starter, going 5-0, 1.38, and working around 19 walks in 33 innings. He walked eight Friday against Rice, but still allowed just two runs in 5 2/3 innings. Rooney compares his mound presence and savvy to that of Cubs righthander Jeff Samardzija, whom Rooney worked with as Notre Dame's pitching coach.
"When Samardzija was in college, early in his career he had lots of walks, but the guy just knew how to get out of jams," Rooney said. "Ben Lively does the same thing. Although his command is continuing to come, he has a knack for getting out of those situations. Winning those games is not by luck. He's a three-pitch guy with a breaking ball and a changeup, and he'll pitch at 88-92. He's a very special pitcher—he's the guy you hope to build your staff around."
In the bullpen, sophomore lefthanders Joe Rogers and Brian Adkins each came up big for the Knights this weekend, working a combined 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball in Sunday's win. Adkins, who works mostly as the midweek starter, is a strike-throwing pitchability lefty, while Rogers has a better fastball at 87-90. Both pitchers benefited from the opportunity to log plenty of innings as freshmen.
But offense is still Central Florida's strength. The Knights have a couple of nice power threats in Jonathan Griffin (four homers) and D.J. Hicks (five), who has bounced back nicely after redshirting last year with a collapsed lung. The Knights are very athletic and have excellent speed and defensive ability up the middle. Ronnie Richardson is a standout in center, Darnell Sweeney is a slick shortstop, Beau Taylor is one of the better defensive catchers around, and second baseman Travis Shreve has fielded at .971 while stealing 18 bases, bringing energy to the top of the lineup. It's a balanced, dangerous club.
Rooney points out that UCF has never finished higher than seventh place in Conference USA, but this year the Knights have their sights set quite a bit higher than that.
"Our kids believe we are one of the 25 best teams in the country, and we are out there playing with something to prove," Rooney said. "The conference looks incredible this year. Every single weekend, who knows what can happen? We've got to sustain it, but our guys are out there believing."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Andrew Chafin
It had been about 22 months since Andrew Chafin had made an appearance at Kent State's Schoonover Stadium. The Golden Flashes fans that braved the 34-degree weather to catch Kent State's home opener against Toledo on Friday were rewarded with a masterpiece from Chafin.
The redshirt sophomore lefthander, who missed last year after having Tommy John surgery, racked up 15 strikeouts without issuing a walk in a four-hit, complete-game shutout, leading Kent State to a 1-0 win.
"He was outstanding," Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said. "I've seen him very good, but I've never seen him that good. He sat 91-94, and he located his fastball. He's got a major league breaking ball, and he can get outs with his changeup. He's got tremendous feel on the mound, overpowering stuff, and a mound presence like I've never seen. Nothing rattles him. The worse the situation, the better he gets."
Chafin relentlessly attacked the strike zone Friday, throwing first-pitch strikes to 22 batters. He needed just 113 pitches in his complete game, and 88 of them were strikes.
"He's got plus command—that's the one thing that gets overlooked with him," Stricklin said. "When he was a freshman, his command wasn't outstanding. It was good, but it was more effectively wild. His command is now as good as I've seen from anybody. He locates to both sides of the plate with a plus fastball, he hides the ball well, he has plus life, and he locates the breaking ball that hitters can't see. It's a pretty deadly combination."
Chafin was awfully good as a freshman closer in 2009, going 4-1, 1.26 with eight saves and 55 strikeouts in 36 innings. But he's even better now as Kent State's Friday ace, and it's not just because his command has improved. During his rehab from Tommy John sugery, Chafin was not allowed to throw breaking balls for nine to 12 months, so he had to develop his changeup out of necessity. Now it's a quality third offering, although Stricklin said his out-pitch remains his swing-and-miss slider, a power pitch in the 81-83 mph range that hitters struggle mightily to pick up—before the bottom drops out of it.
The Golden Flashes eased Chafin into the spring, holding him out of his first start for precautionary reasons and gradually increasing his pitch count each week. He has responded by going 3-1, 0.53 with 42 strikeouts and eight walks through 34 innings. He has started pitching deeper into games than the Flashes expected from their former closer.
"We thought bringing him into the starting role that he'd be a five- or six-inning guy, because if he pitched like he did as a freshman he'd have a high pitch count," Stricklin said. "But his command has been so good. Early in the year we protected him, took him out of some games where he could have kept going, just building him up. It's fun to watch."