Strike One: Bringing The Flair
COMPTON, Calif.—The fourth annual Urban Youth Invitational took place this weekend in Irvine and Compton, where MLB Network televised a Saturday doubleheader at the five-year-old MLB Urban Youth Academy. UC Irvine was the big winner, winning three games against Southern, Bethune-Cookman and Grambling State by a combined score of 36-4, but the event was about much more than the final scores of the baseball games.
Saturday's festivities kicked off with a battle of local high school bands, followed by a college fair at the Urban Youth Academy. Irvine and B-CU played at 1 p.m. PT, and Southern's band battled Bethune-Cookman's on the field between games. Then the Jaguars faced Grambling in the nightcap. Former major league all-stars Dave Stewart, Maury Wills, Tommy Davis and Reggie Smith were also on hand.
Turnout was strong despite a chilly, windy day, and all of the participants came away with positive impressions of the event.
"This is the fourth one we've been in, and it's gotten bigger and better every year," Southern coach Roger Cador said. "I'm really excited about it. Major League Baseball got it right. Jimmie Lee Solomon and Darrell Miller put this together, and they got it right."
Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, has been a driving force behind the Urban Youth Academy and the Invitational.
"We have more notoriety now. The academy's now in our fifth year of operation, and this is the fourth edition of this game," Solomon said. "People are starting to know what we're trying to accomplish. Commissioner (Bud) Selig has always been very up-front with wanting baseball to give back to society in meaningful ways. One of the ways we do that is looking at the collegiate game, and Historically Black Colleges & Universities are a very important part of that. Unfortunately with budget cuts and with a lot of the African-American players no longer playing the game, these HBCUs are not on the forefront anymore. To provide this opportunity, this platform for them, to let them come to the West Coast and play where West Coast powerhouses reside, gives teams like Bethune-Cookman and Grambling and Southern an opportunity to show their wares against top, top talent."
Irvine certainly was the most talented team in the field, and the Anteaters jumped on Bethune-Cookman stalwart Ali Simpson for seven runs in the first inning Saturday, highlighted by Drew Hillman's grand slam. Bethune-Cookman coach Mervyl Melendez said Simpson was probably a little too amped up for the event, and also was feeling a bit under the weather.
"I think their starter is a real quality pitcher who was probably caught up in the nerves and the TV and everything," UCI coach Mike Gillespie said. "I like the day. I think this is really great what they've done. Not just the facility, but the event. This is a great deal, it's really neat. It's a great opportunity for us to meet people and play people we never get to see. So, I'm really happy they included us."
B-CU catcher Peter O'Brien, a first-team preseason All-American who went 0-for-4 against the Anteaters, said the even was a great chance for players to get exposure in front of a national audience.
"I love it," O'Brien said. "It's awesome coming out here, being on a national stage, playing UC Irvine—it really makes baseball a lot of fun."
Southern's "Human Jukebox" band put on a rollicking performance afterward, complete with band-wide dance moves, and Bethune-Cookman's Marching Wildcats followed with their own impressive set.
"I'm from Texas—I grew up about 35, 40 miles from Houston—so I used to see Texas Southern University's Ocean of Soul Band, and Prairie View and Southern all the time," Solomon said. "I always thought that was a tremendous vibe, a tremendous flavor added to the games that I saw. In baseball, we don't always have that flair. One of the things the Urban Invitational gave me the opportunity to do was bring HBCUs in, but also to bring the flair that the bands provide."
Solomon said MLB would like to expand the event to six teams next year and have it at the new Urban Youth Academy in Houston, a hotbed of HBCUs.
"We have an opportunity to do this again next year in Houston, I believe that's the plan, and we're looking forward to it already," Gillespie said.
Strike Two: Radar Watch
We're always on the lookout for sleepers to highlight in the Under The Radar section of Weekend Preview, and through two weeks the ranks of Radar candidates are swelling. Here's a quick look at some teams that have put themselves on the map in the early part of the season—teams that we might be breaking down in more detail in an upcoming Weekend Preview:
• Southeastern Louisiana might not be under the radar anymore. After jumping out to a 6-1 start, the Lions are very much on the radar. They started the season with a strong series win at preseason Sun Belt Conference favorite Florida International, then throttled preseason No. 25 Tulane 13-1 on Tuesday. Then Southeastern went to the Jaguar Classic in Mobile, Ala., and beat Alabama, Central Florida and South Alabama—all of whom had gotten off to strong starts in their own rights. The Lions have a quality college ace in senior righthander Brandon Efferson, who limited the Crimson Tide to just two runs over seven strong innings Friday, and their lineup has a pair of dangerous anchors in shortstop Justin Boudreaux and outfielder Jeff Harkensee. SELA gets another chance to make a statement tomorrow at Louisiana State.
• Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is 6-2, with a midweek win against Texas and a victory against Oregon State on the resume. The Islanders also dropped games to Indiana and Connecticut this weekend, but that program has clearly made major strides in coach Scott Malone's fourth season at the helm. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is a veteran team with the majority of its key players from a year ago back in the fold, led by run producers Trey Hernandez, Matt Holland and Jumpy Garcia.
• Troy is 6-1, and the Trojans won a quality series this weekend against Southern Mississippi. Troy's pitching staff looks like one of the best in the Sun Belt Conference, led by veteran righties Tyler Ray and Drew Hull, who registered wins Friday and Sunday against USM. Middle infielders Adam Bryant and T.J. Rivera must lead a somewhat inexperienced offense, and they've gotten off to decent starts. But junior Blake Martz has been the team's best run producer, hitting .440 with 10 RBIs so far.
• Michigan State got off to its best start since 1964 by winning its first five games before falling to Clemson on Sunday. The Spartans have gotten it done on the mound, with a 3.06 team ERA, and pesky Brandon Eckerle has been a menace atop the lineup, going 16-for-23 (.696) with four stolen bases in five tries.
• Stony Brook, the preseason favorite in the America East Conference, did not open its season until this weekend, but the Seawolves made a splash with a series win against Sun Belt Conference power Florida Atlantic. Pitching looks like a major strength for Stony Brook, which got six shutout innings Friday from ace Nick Tropeano, followed by six innings of one-run ball from Tyler Johnson on Saturday. America East teams aren't supposed to win early series in Florida against experienced Sun Belt teams. Next weekend Stony Brook travels to No. 23 North Carolina.
• A pair of unheralded independent teams had good weekends, as Cal State Bakersfield swept a three-game series against Washington and Seattle won a series against Notre Dame. Brandon Kizer pitched eight shutout innings in Seattle's 1-0 win on Saturday, while catcher Jeremy Rodriguez has had four straight multi-hit games to lead Bakersfield.
• Few people who follow college baseball would have bet that UCLA co-aces Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer would each lose in the same weekend all season. San Jose State beat both All-Americans at Jackie Robinson Stadium this weekend. Friday's game was suspended by rain after one inning, and the delay might have affected Cole, who took the mound when the game resumed Sunday and allowed five runs (three earned) on five hits over 5 1/3 innings. The Spartans batted around against him in a five-run sixth inning. Bauer (6.2 IP, 8 H, 5 R, 2 ER) took the loss Saturday; a scout on hand said he was working at 93-94 mph, but his fastball was elevated, and the Spartans made him pay. San Jose State also got a 128-pitch complete-game gem from lefthander Roberto Padilla, and the scout said he is the real deal, with a fastball that reaches 92 mph and a good breaking ball. The Spartans are 6-1, and they have forced themselves into the Top 25 discussion. The Western Athletic Conference should be very compelling this year, with No. 24 Fresno State and Hawaii also playing well early on.
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight On Andrew Gagnon
LONG BEACH, Calif.—Two years ago, the pressure might have gotten to Andrew Gagnon.
Five times Friday, Arizona had runners in scoring position with less than two outs against Gagnon, Long Beach State's ace junior righthander. Each time, Gagnon buckled down and kept the Wildcats off the board. He eventually exited after 7 2/3 shutout innings, allowing just four hits and no walks while striking out seven. The Dirtbags held on for a 2-1 win.
"We had our opportunities," Arizona coach Andy Lopez said. "You give credit where credit is due: Their guy made some really quality pitches when he had to in tough situations."
"I love it," Gagnon said of pitching with runners in scoring position. "It's fun for me. It gets the thrills going. Like I told the guys, my freshman year I wouldn't do that. All those runners would have scored—my thought process would have changed (with runners in scoring position). But now it doesn't faze me; everything's the same."
That's just one way Gagnon has matured in his Long Beach career. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound righthander has also made great strides with his secondary stuff. He's always had arm strength, and he sat in the 90-92 range for most of his 110-pitch outing Friday. But early in the game, he had success mixing in his 85-86 mph changeup, and later in the game he leaned more heavily on a 79-81 curveball and an 82-85 slider.
"I thought he was really good—one of the best outings I've seen him throw," LBSU coach Troy Buckley said. "I think he was able to get other pitches over for strikes. We've been able to simplify his weapons. I think he and I are starting to figure out what he is; it takes a while to figure out what he is. We know he can throw fastballs, we know that. But the command sometimes, guys can cheat or sit on it. So we had the changeup early, and they took some better at-bats on some of those the second time through, so we had other things to go to, which is extremely important."
In the fall, Buckley said Gagnon needed to do a better job refining his two breaking balls, which tended to blend together. On Friday, each pitch was clearly defined and separate, in shape and velocity.
"Everything was working for me," Gagnon said. "My fastball command wasn't really there at the beginning, but the ball was down for the first five innings, and then elevated. When I couldn't go to that, I had my offspeed stuff. My slider was working, the slider and curveball had different break—usually it's not like that. I felt confident throwing any pitch—just threw them up there and got guys out."