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Pac-10 Finds Sudden Balance
by John Manuel
Since the Pacific-10 Conference abandoned its divisional format in favor of a nine-team round-robin in 1999, the former members of the Pac-10 South (a.k.a. the Six-Pac) have held sway in the league standings. Arizona State, Southern California and Stanford have won every league championship since the change.
It's been tougher for the Pac-10 North refugees. Washington has found some success, earning a pair of regional bids and finishing third twice. Oregon State and Washington State, however, have struggled, combining for a 73-167 record (.304 winning percentage) in league play. They tied for last place in 2003, the first time in the league's current format that the Cougars (29-91 since '99) didn't have last place to themselves.
Anything could happen in 2004, however, with every team having won between four and seven league games. Stanford, the league's constant with five straight trips to the College World Series, was in first place at 7-2, with six teams at either 5-4 or 4-5. Both the Beavers (24-11 overall) and Cougars (21-13) were at 4-5, with regional berths within reach.
Whether the league's jumbled standings can be attributed to parity or mediocrity is a question for another column. The point here is the Pac-10 won't have a 35- or 40-loss team dragging down its RPI come tournament time. And that means the Pac-10 could get five regional bids for the first time since 1997.
"I think the league is very strong, and the evidence for that is that anyone can beat anyone," said Beavers coach Pat Casey, whose club handed the Cardinal one of its two losses. "Another sign is how well the league is playing against the rest of the country. We beat Washington twice, and then Washington turns around and wins a series at Georgia Tech."
Pac-10 teams have a .689 winning percentage against Division I opponents this season and have dominated against other teams from power conferences. Against teams from the Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and Southeastern conferences, Pac-10 teams are 20-9. Throw in Conference USA, and the record jumps to 29-12.
The league's wide-open nature owes to its lack of dominant pitching. Stanford sophomore Mark Romanczuk was the only established ace to return to a league rotations. The league's best arms are fellow underclassmen, particularly a trio of freshman righthanders: Oregon State's Dallas Buck (2-3, 5.00, 5 SV, 37/16 SO-BB ratio); Southern California's Ian Kennedy (5-2, 2.45, 85 SO in 62 IP); and Washington's Tim Lincecum (4-1, 2.95, 96 SO in 64 IP).
"Those aren't just the three best arms or the three best freshmen. Those are the best three pitchers in the league and might be as good as any trio in the country at any age," Washington State coach Tim Mooney said. "Buck has great stuff. Kennedy is really, really good. And Lincecum, he's 5-foot-9, throwing 95 mph and he does it easy. They're impressive."
Washington State's turnaround stems in part from its airtight defense (.972 fielding percentage), as well as consistency on the mound and at the plate compared with Mooney's first two years at the helm. Oregon State has one of the nation's top leadoff hitters in sophomore center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (.391-3-14, 17-of-18 stolen bases), a senior ace in lefty Jake Postlewait (8-1, 3.21) and a trio of freshman arms in Buck, Kevin Gunderson (5-1, 2.67) and Jack McCormick (1.54 ERA in 23 relief innings).
"I can't comment on the rest of the country, but I know how good our league is," Mooney said. "I say this with a great deal of respect for the other leagues, but you see some conferences get seven or eight teams into regionals, and I wonder, can their eighth-place team really be better than our fifth-place team? It's hard to imagine."
That's a question for the Division I baseball committee to answer in May.
Cannon Blasts In Charleston
The Citadel's Chip Cannon hit .335-12-60 as a junior, sported a .459 on-base percentage thanks to 42 walks, and led the wood-bat Coastal Plain League with eight home runs last summer. So how come this guy wasn't drafted, or even signed as a free agent?
For one, Cannon wasn't going to be an easy sign. The dean's list student plans to enroll in dentistry school after graduating, and after giving pro baseball a try. But it also appears Cannon's feet were an issue.
Cannon was born with clubfeet, and though he's had the problem corrected and readily shows scouts his medical history, scouts tend to bring up this fact when asked about him. He doesn't run well, but then neither do most 6-foot-5, 223-pound college seniors.
"I just don't see how it affects how I play," Cannon said. "I've never had a problem with them, and I have played every game since my sophomore year. I've played third base and I've pitched, so I don't know that it's a big deal.
"I was recruited as a pitcher, so I'm just glad that coach (Fred) Jordan gave me the chance to turn that around and have the opportunity to hit. I always played shortstop and third base before, and I like being in the lineup every day."
His hitting--combined with his work on the mound for the Bulldogs, who recruited him as a pitcher--makes Jordan think of one of Cannon's former teammates, now in the Angels organization. Dallas McPherson came to Citadel as a two-way player and once was coveted more for his arm, but his bat and play at third base got him drafted in the second round in 2001.
"We've had scouts in here and crosscheckers, and they've been impressed with Chip's bat and his patience," Jordan said. "I think he has the hands and the first-step quickness for third base in pro ball, and he's a student of the game.
"He's producing like Dallas did and he has pretty good power like Dallas. The biggest difference between him and Dallas is foot speed."