Strike One: FGCU's Sweep Rewards
Florida Gulf Coast has already spent some time in the national spotlight in its brief Division I history, thanks to the brilliance of Chris Sale, who went on to be a first-round pick and then a big league all-star in just his second full pro season.
But since beginning D-I play in 2008, the Eagles had yet to break into the Baseball America Top 25 rankings, though they knocked on the door a few times during the Sale era, winning 36 or more games for three straight years.
Everybody's talking about the Eagles now, after they went to Gainesville and swept Florida right out of the Top 25 this weekend. FGCU replaced the Gators in the rankings, making its debut at No. 23.
Even more remarkably, the Eagles did it without two of their key players: two-way talent Brady Anderson and weekend starter Richie Erath. Anderson, a plus-plus runner who would have played center field and served as the closer, tore the ACL and meniscus in his left knee knee jumping for a ball in the outfield before the season began. And Erath is out at least six to eight weeks with a stress fracture in his elbow.
"We thought we were going to be good from the start. We didn't know how much Brady Anderson's injury would hurt us, which was a real big blow in the first week of practice," FGCU coach Dave Tollett said. "So we had to move Harrison Cooney from No. 2 (starter) to the back end of the game."
That worked out very well for the Eagles this weekend, as Cooney threw five shutout innings of relief in Sunday's 7-4 win in 11 innings. Tollett said Cooney worked in the 94-96 mph range for the first two innings of his outing Sunday, then settled in at 92-94 with serious arm-side life. He complemented it with a nasty 82-83 mph slider, and his power stuff helped him escape a bases-loaded, no-outs jam in the 10th, setting the stage for Sean Dwyer's game-winning three run homer in the 11th.
"It was really electric in there when we got out of the bases-loaded, no-outs thing, and the same after the home run," Tollett said. "Electric. Unbelievable. I don't think I've been in a dugout like that."
Dwyer and Cooney are part of a very talented core of stars for the Eagles. Dwyer was a big-name recruit out of high school, ranking as the No. 9 prospect in the Northwoods League after his senior year, but he struggled as a freshman and hit a solid but not loud .297/.393/.434 last year. Tollett said he got pitched around often last year, but he has better protection this year in the form of fifth-year senior first baseman Brooks Beisner (who sat out last year after transferring from Auburn) and emerging sophomore center fielder Michael Suchy (the No. 4 prospect in the NWL last summer). With that physical duo behind him and producing—Beisner is on fire, hitting.520/.571/1.120 with four homers and 11 RBIs through six games—Dwyer looks poised for a big junior year.
"I think he's going to take the next step," Tollett said. "Now I think they're going to have to pitch to him, and he's developed real legit power. He was a great high school hitter when we signed him, but now he's developed the fourth tool, the power tool. He constantly hits them out in practice, and that one he got (Sunday) was one of the biggest hits we've had in this program in our early years."
The Eagles are also rock-solid defensively up the middle, because Alex Diaz is a rangy, rifle-armed wizard at short, and second baseman Brandon Bednar might be the team's best all-around player.
But no discussion of FGCU's star power would be complete without mentioning junior righty Ricky Knapp, a true front-line Friday starter. Knapp doesn't light up the radar gun, but has has the extreme feel for pitching and savvy you'd expect from the son of pitching guru Rick Knapp, who is now a minor league pitching coordinator for the Dodgers. Knapp carved up the Gators on Friday, allowing just two runs on six hits and no walks in a complete game, needing just 92 pitches.
"Ricky Knapp was just Ricky Knapp," Tollett said. "He's a pretty good guy on Friday night. He just gives us quality start after quality start. He's not an overpowering guy, but he's such a great pitcher. He can back up changeups, he can throw a changeup 2-0, a breaking ball 2-0, so you never really get a good pitch to hit. It's 88-91, and he never throws the same fastball twice. He'll throw one at 91, throw the next one at 86."
The staff seems like it will survive just fine even without Erath and Anderson, as Saturday starter Brandon Bixler is learning to harness his quality stuff (a 90-94 fastball, plus changeup and improving breaking ball), and freshman Michael Murray competed with three quality pitches Friday.
Maybe attrition will eventually take its toll—the Eagles have a four-game series against Manhattan this weekend, followed by two midweek games—but for now the Eagles can celebrate a signature series sweep. Should they fail to capture the Atlantic Sun Conference's automatic bid, this series will pay major dividends when at-large bids are being handed out—especially since the Ratings Percentage Index formula has been altered this year to weigh road victories more heavily than home wins.
"We talked to our kids about how big road games are now," Tollett said. "It's OK to go play on the road, but you've got to win on the road. This weekend was big for us for the RPI, and down the road to get an at-large."
Strike Two: The Comeback Of Notre Dame
Like Florida Gulf Coast, Notre Dame broke into the Top 25 this week with an emphatic road sweep of a good team. We wrote in Thursday's Weekend Preview that scouts were buzzing about the quality of Tulane's arms after Week One, but the Irish out-pitched the Green Wave in New Orleans, allowing just five runs in three games.
Aside from junior righty Dan Slania, Notre Dame's pitching staff relies more on strike-throwing than overpowering stuff, but Sean Fitzgerald and Adam Norton form a reliable, wily duo atop the rotation, giving Aoki the confidence to keep Slania in the bullpen. He had entertained the notion of using Slania as a starter heading into this season, but he likes the safety net of having a rock at the back of the bullpen, as he did with Mike Belfiore on his best team at Boston College.
"I think our guys really believe in what it is Chuck Ristano, our pitching guy, is teaching them, about throwing strikes, pitching to contact, making our pitches," Aoki said. "I think Chuck is as good a pitching guy as there is in the country. He does a phenomenal job with our staff. The one thing we've consistently done since we've been here is pitch. So far out of the gate we've pitched it really well."
Aoki said he was impressed with Tulane's arms this weekend, but his team won a pair of tight duels on Friday and Saturday, 2-1 and 3-1. Third baseman Eric Jagielo made the difference Friday, taking Tony Rizzotti deep for a two-run homer in the sixth inning to break a scoreless tie. Jagielo and sophomore outfielder Ryan Bull each drove in a run Saturday, and that duo plus first baseman Trey Mancini combined for nine hits in Sunday's 8-3 win.
Aoki is pleased with the depth of his lineup—from senior captain Frank Desico setting the tone atop the order to catcher Forrest Johnson delivering competitive at-bats from the No. 9 hole. But the physicality that Jagielo, Mancini and Bull provide in the middle really makes this offense stand out.
"To me the big equalizer for us is Jagielo and Mancini; both of those guys can change the game with one swing of the bat," Aoki said. "They've done it time and again, really since they were freshmen. I know that I wouldn't want to be calling pitches against that three-four combination, I'll tell you that. The thing that I've always been impressed with Mancini is I feel like, when he's on his game, not only does he provide a power threat, but he's a tough out. He forces pitchers to find different ways to get him out.
"I think Eric now has come into his own with that. He's a guy that, as a freshman, maybe even last year as good a year as he had, you could probably get away with the same pattern two or three times to get him out, and I think that's completely changed. So when those two guys are on their game, their pitch recognition is really, really good. Those are two pretty special guys to have in the middle of the lineup."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Mark Appel
Stanford righthander Mark Appel lost only once in the regular season as a junior last year: in Week Three at Fresno State. Talented outfielder Aaron Judge homered twice against him in that game, as the Bulldogs put up seven runs against Appel over eight innings.
Of course, Appel avenged that loss with a complete-game victory against Fresno in regionals, striking out 11 and allowing just one run. He faced the Bulldogs for a third time in just over a calendar year Friday at Sunken Diamond, and once again Appel dominated, allowing just a run on three hits and a walk while striking out 11 in a complete-game victory. And just as he did in regionals, Appel held Judge hitless (0-for-4) and struck him out twice.
"Aaron Judge and Mark Appel is a great matchup—it's fun to watch any time," Stanford pitching coach Rusty Filter said. "When you've got two premium talents like that, usually something's going to happen, usually in a grand fashion. Aaron Judge is a great player—he had a great game against us (Sunday, going 5-for-5). Mark was able to get him out Friday."
By now, everyone knows the story of Appel's 2012 draft saga. He entered the draft as the top prospect on the board, slipped to the No. 8 pick, and turned down a $3.8 million offer from the Pirates. That's old news; but since the dramatic summer of 2012, Appel has worked hard to make himself better.
"Mark's come out really rejuvenated to become a better baseball player," Filter said. "He's a leader on our team, a captain on our team, he's really trying to help us get to Omaha and win a championship. He added 10 pounds in the offseason, he's in great shape. One thing about Mark: He's an intense competitor, he's trying to get better every day."
So when Appel struggled in his first start last week against Rice—Filter said he was "a little amped up" pitching in his hometown of Houston, resulting in good stuff but poor location—he did an extra day of flat-ground work in between starts, and emphasized his changeup. Appel is capable of racking up strikeouts with a fastball that reaches 98 and a filthy power slider, but it is important for him to be more efficient, as he was Friday, when he needed just 105 pitches to get through nine innings. The changeup had something to do with that.
"Most power pitchers are usually fastball-slider, and he's created a lot of swing-throughs on sliders—it was kind of the out pitch," Filter said. "But high-strikeout guys usually run pitch counts. We've really emphasized the changeup after his freshman year, really developed that. It's a pitch that can help him get out of innings quick but forcing contact a little bit, and usually the ball gets on the ground. He had his changeup (Friday); that was the difference maker for him."