Strike One: Aggies Firing On All Cylinders
COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS—Pitching was Texas A&M's calling card during its run to the 2011 College World Series, as one of the nation's best weekend rotations carried a club with a fairly average offense, producing just 5.9 runs per game (107th in the nation). Righthanders Michael Wacha and Ross Stripling returned to give the Aggies a premier one-two pitching punch again this year, but it would be a mistake to call these Aggies one-dimensional.
Certainly, Wacha and Stripling have been every bit as good as expected, and they gave up two runs in 15 innings in this weekend's sweep of Michigan State. But three weeks into the year, A&M is 11-1 and has the look of a complete team, with an explosive offense, an athletic defense and a deep, dependable bullpen.
The offense made serious noise this week, bringing the Aggies back from a 10-1 deficit to win 14-10 Tuesday against Northwestern State, then ending the week with another come-from-behind win against the Spartans on Sunday.
"I'm real proud of our guys. It's tough to win five games in a row, and when you put them over the course of six days, it's pretty impressive," Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said. We got great starting pitching for the most part, and our bullpen did an amazing job. Offensively we just continued to roll. We had a great week starting last Sunday, and that just continued on the rest of this week."
Junior-college transfer Mikey Reynolds has been a major key for the Aggies, joining with preseason All-American Tyler Naquin to make the offense go in the top two spots in the lineup. Reynolds reached base in all five plate appearances Sunday, doubling and scoring in A&M's three-run seventh inning and delivering a two-run triple to center field in the four-run eighth, helping the Aggies storm back from an early 4-0 hole.
Reynolds (.409/.544/.545 with four doubles, seven RBIs and five steals) is the latest impact shortstop the Aggies have plucked from the juco ranks, following in the footsteps of big leaguer Brandon Hicks and former Big 12 Player of the Year Jose Duran. An athletic switch-hitter with good speed, Reynolds complements his dynamic offensive game with slick defense and an accurate arm at short.
"He's been a great player for us, a great addition," Childress said. "So many times there's somewhat of an adjustment for a junior-college player, but he's jumped right into the fray. He's been an amazing leadoff hitter for us, and his on-base percentage is just amazing. He and Naquin are always on the bases for us, giving (Matt) Juengel and (Jacob) House opportunities. Once he gets on the bases, he's not done. He's a threat to steal—he's got great instincts. From a defensive standpoint, he's a come-and-get it, hard-nosed shortstop that's been very consistent for us. He's got enough arm when he needs it. He's a good player; we're lucky to have him in our program."
The Aggies are very excited about their most recent recruiting class, and not just because of Reynolds. Freshman Blake Allemand (.500/.591/.556 in 18 at-bats) has been a very pleasant surprise, taking over the starting second base job before typically giving way to the slick-fielding Scott Arthur in the late innings. Another freshman, Chance Bolcerek (.375/.500/.563 in 16 at-bats), has provided good protection for the veterans in the middle of the lineup. Two freshman catchers, Cole Lankford and Mitchell Nau, have struggled offensively but have played good enough defense to allow the Aggies to let catcher/righthander Daniel Mengden focus on his duties at the back of the bullpen.
Mengden pitched in all three games this weekend, and he was still 89-91 and bumping 92-93 on Sunday, with a 79 mph slider. With the wind causing balls to carry and wreaking havoc for defenders, it was a tough day to pitch, but Mengden withstood Michigan State's ninth-inning rally, getting Jimmy Pickens to fly out to center field to end the game with the tying run on second base.
"Daniel just continues to grow as our closer," Childress said. "I thought he was real good. I wanted to make sure he felt good, and he did. His velocity was right on what it's always been . . . He's got a great arm, he's very confident, he doesn't think he's a freshman. He's a good player."
And the Aggies have two reliable veterans setting Mengden up, as well as a very promising freshman righthander in Gandy Stubblefield, who threw strikes with a fastball that sat in the low 90s during his scoreless inning of work Sunday. Lefthander Estevan Uriegas is off to a stellar start to his senior year, posting a 1.50 ERA in eight appearances already. He worked two scoreless, hitless innings Sunday against an MSU lineup that featured four lefties, working in the 85-88 range and mixing three quality offspeed pitches. And sidewinder Kyle Martin has power stuff from a tough angle; he worked at 87-88 with excellent arm-side run Sunday, when he allowed three runs in the eighth inning, but he is nonetheless dependable.
"We continue to grow up the young guys. Gandy went out tonight and threw strikes, he's got a plus arm, very good stuff," Childress said. "The three guys (Uriegas, Martin, Mengden) that you saw at the end are the guys that we lean on."
It all makes for a balanced club that looks like the prohibitive favorite to win the Big 12 Conference.
Strike Two: Shaking Out The Notebook
I got a chance to see eight teams and seven games in three days this weekend, spending the first two days at the Houston College Classic before heading to College Station for Sunday's game. Here are some things that jumped out at me in a great weekend of baseball:
• Childress called Michigan State a "mature, veteran club that was very physical with the bats" and gave his club all it could handle. He's right; even though the Spartans are just 4-5 on the season, they have a strong chance to repeat as Big Ten champions. Purdue is off to a blistering start with the bats, but Michigan State might be the more complete team because of its superior pitching staff. The problem for the Spartans has been that they have not played good defense behind their pitchers. They committed eight errors this weekend, and coach Jake Boss said he might have to make some changes at the infield corners, such as moving Torsten Boss from center field back to third base, where he spent the last two years. At the other corner, freshman Ryan Krill is a physical, exciting talent, and he hit an inside-the-park home run Sunday when Brandon Wood crashed into the left-field wall, but he has struggled to adapt to the speed of the game at first base, according coach Boss.
Torsten Boss and second baseman Ryan Jones form an impressive duo in the heart of the order, and each recorded two hits Sunday, smacking line drives all around the field.
"They really understand the game, I think," Coach Boss said. "They don't try to do too much. Torsten's obviously got a little bit more power than Ryan. Those two guys in the middle of the order, we feel pretty good about the opportunity to have some success with those guys. Torsten's starting to prove he can hit the ball all over the park, where last year he was more of a dead-pull guy. He's going to the opposite field with some power now. And Jones is just so fundamentally sound, it's tough for him not to hit, just because his mechanics are so good, and he understands what type of hitter he is. He understands that he's not a power guy, he needs to stay in the middle of the field, and he's had a lot of success."
• Arkansas, like Texas A&M, looks like a very complete team with no glaring weaknesses. The Razorbacks also have enviable depth in their pitching staff, which features a pair of front-line righthanders (D.J. Baxendale and Ryne Stanek) just as A&M's staff does. And Arkansas also has a slick-fielding shortstop who has emerged as a dynamic offensive player in Tim Carver. Considering Carver hit .238 as a freshman, .267 as a sophomore and .232 as a junior, his development into a viable catalyst as a senior is very noteworthy. Through 13 games, he's hitting .444/.500/.500 with four walks and one strikeout, illustrating his disciplined approach and ability to grind out at-bats.
"It's been a combination of a couple things. First off, it's experience," Hogs coach Dave Van Horn said. "Secondly, he's changed a little bit the way he's approached hitting. His hands are higher, he really tries to stay through the ball, he's a little stronger. Just the approach and mentality is a lot better than it's ever been."
• Another shortstop who jumped out this weekend was Texas Tech freshman Tim Proudfoot, who showed range, athleticism, body control, instincts and an accurate arm in Houston. The Red Raiders, of course, also featured two of the most dynamic players at the Houston College Classic in second baseman/outfielder Jamodrick McGruder and center fielder Barrett Barnes. McGruder's speed is a serious weapon, and Barnes has one of college baseball's best blends of speed and power. They showed how disruptive they can be in the first inning Saturday against Rice, when McGruder walked and stole second, then scored on Barnes' rocket single to left field. Barnes then proceeded to steal second and third, scoring on a sac fly. I'll have more on Barnes in an upcoming feature.
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Marcus Stroman
Duke righthander Marcus Stroman spent most of his first two years (21 of his 34 appearances) pitching out of the bullpen while also playing the infield. He also shined in a relief role with Team USA last summer, with four saves, 17 strikeouts and only one walk over eight scoreless innings. With his premium stuff—including a fastball he can get up to 97 mph in short stints and a nasty slider—and his 5-foot-9, 185-pound frame, it's easy for scouts to pigeonhole him into a bullpen role.
While he could thrive in that role and it would likely shorten his path to the big leagues, Stroman is making scouts reconsider their stance this year as the Blue Devils' Friday night starter.
Through his first three starts of the year, Stroman is 1-1, 2.37 with 30 strikeouts and eight walks over 19 innings. Those numbers include the career-high 17 strikeouts he recorded Friday against George Washington. Duke officials believed it to be a school single-game strikeouts record, and it fell two short of the Atlantic Coast Conference mark, even though Stroman pitched just seven innings.
"That was definitely the highest amount of K's I've had in my career," Stroman said after his outing. "I just felt really well. That's the best I've felt in a while as far as having all my pitches working. It just felt really good to get that 'W' and kind of just to get it going into this week and into ACC play next week."
Stroman struck out the side in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings during his impressive outing. His fastball sat in the 92-94 mph range, topping out at 95, and he held his velocity into the seventh inning. His slider was hellacious, as usual, and he also mixed in a quality changeup and a cutter, throwing all four pitches for strikes.
Even though he gets plenty of swings and misses or weak contact on his powerful fastball and slider, it's the changeup that has been the key this year as he transitions into the starting rotation full-time.
"My changeup was a big pitch today," Stroman said. "Once I saw that they were kind of out on their front foot when I threw it, I knew I could definitely throw that pitch early in counts. I even used it for a putaway sometimes. It's just a huge pitch because then they can't sit on my fastball, and if they can't sit on my fastball, I can kind of mix it up and just toy with hitters at that point."
Like many high school pitchers, Stroman didn't have much of a need for a changeup a few years ago, and it's been a pitch he worked hard to improve leading into this season.
"That was my biggest point of emphasis this whole fall," Stroman said. "I get out at 120 (feet) and just throw those things every day. I knew stepping into the starting role, I would need that pitch. When I come in and close, I would just be predominantly fastball-slider. But when you're starting, you need another pitch to rely on and that's definitely a huge pitch for me, and it's good because most people don't even know I throw it."