Three Strikes: Feb. 22

Strike One: A Little Perspective

GREENVILLE, N.C.—After two crisp, well-played games to open the Virginia-East Carolina series, we were reminded Sunday that it is just February, and that even good teams can play ugly games on Sundays—especially in February.

Virginia coach Brian O'Connor seemed more frustrated than excited after his team slogged through a four-hour, 11-minute dog fight and held off East Carolina's furious rally to win 14-11. The victory secured a big early-season road series and propelled the Cavaliers to the top of the Baseball America Top 25 rankings for the first time ever—but it wasn't pretty.

"When you get a chance to put somebody away on the road, you have to put them away. You can't breathe new life into them," O'Connor said. "And we breathed life into them. Fortunately we were able to hold on."

Virginia took control of the game with six runs in the second inning to chase ECU starter Brad Mincey, with Phil Gosselin (two-run homer) and Tyler Cannon (two-run double) providing the big blows. Meanwhile, junior righthander Cody Winiarski—a junior-college transfer making his first Division I start—was not overpowering but was pounding the strike zone for 3 2/3 innings, throwing 40 strikes in his first 56 pitches. But then, in the fourth, Winiarski's control disappeared. He threw 11 straight balls en route to walking the bases loaded, forcing O'Connor to dip into his bullpen earlier than planned. When both starters are out by the fourth inning on a Sunday—when pitching staffs have already been taxed the first two days—it often doesn't take long for games to degenerate into slug-fests.

"I thought Cody was in control in the early part in the first couple of innings, and I think he flat-out just lost it, and couldn't throw a strike," O'Connor said. "I think the stuff's there, I just think he lost it for an inning, and we couldn't afford to give him any more time to find it. He's going to be a guy we're going to count on."

Still, Virginia appeared to have the game well in hand after building a 13-4 lead with four runs in the sixth. Then the Pirates erupted for seven runs in the eighth, highlighted by John Wooten's two-run homer and Dustin Harrington's two-run double, as well as two hits by Kyle Roller. Corey Hunt was charged with four runs in the inning, but normally reliable reliever Tyler Wilson could not put out the fire. His velocity was down several mph from his three-inning outing Friday, and ECU squared up everything he threw. Finally, closer Kevin Arico entered and got Devin Harris to ground out to end the inning. Arico—who leans very heavily on his excellent 80-82 mph slider—recorded two strikeouts in a scoreless ninth.

"I think the big question mark about our club is who's going to do the job in the bullpen after Wilson, after Arico," O'Connor said. "Wilson was just out of gas. After throwing 50 pitches Friday, he just didn't have it today . . . We've got to find our way a little bit on the mound, but it's early. We've got to find the guys we're going to count on in the bullpen, and the only way you find that is by pitching them and seeing what you have."

As O'Connor said, it's early. It is therefore very important not to overreact to either the positives or the negatives of opening weekend. Virginia will get its pitching staff straightened out, and Mincey will bounce back for East Carolina. Texas and Rice and Cal State Fullerton will be fine, but don't expect to see Oregon facing New Mexico in the College World Series Finals. No matter that the Ducks and Lobos had much better weekends than the Longhorns, Owls and Titans.

But know this: Keith Werman's opening weekend was most assuredly no fluke. The diminutive Virginia second baseman was a sparkplug for the Cavaliers down the stretch last year, and he kept on hitting at the College World Series. But UVa. is so deep that O'Connor couldn't find a place in the lineup for Werman on Friday or Saturday. He got the start Sunday and went 3-for-4 with a perfect sacrifice bunt and a hit-by-pitch.

"He's a tough little player, isn't he? He just really knows how to play," O'Connor said. "It just creates great options for us. I didn't play him in the first two ballgames after he played the majority of our games in our stretch run last year, and he comes in today and gets three hits and plays great defense at second base. He's just a really, really good college baseball player."

Virginia, the No. 1 team in the nation, has a lot of those. Filling out that lineup card will not be easy for O'Connor this season.

Strike Two: Bumps And Bruises

Texas (which lost two of three to New Mexico), Fullerton (which dropped its first two games against Oregon and Pepperdine) and Rice (which was swept at Stanford) had their egos bruised this weekend, but we wrote plenty about the Lobos, Ducks and Cardinal in Friday's Weekend Preview, and we blogged about Pepperdine after Friday's loss and after Saturday's win.

So let's turn our attention to some non-metaphorical bumps and bruises. There were several notable injuries this weekend:

• Tennessee first baseman Cody Hawn, a third-team preseason All-American, dislocated his left shoulder in a rundown collision Friday. Volunteers coach Todd Raleigh said Hawn is day-to-day.

• Arkansas lost athletic second baseman Bo Bigham for at least a month with a shoulder injury Friday. Shortstop Tim Carver shifted to second Saturday, and third baseman Zack Cox filled in there Sunday.

• As expected, South Carolina center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. did not start this weekend due to a broken hand, but he did appear as a defensive replacement in the outfield Friday and Sunday.

• Arizona State ace senior lefthander Josh Spence did not pitch this weekend because of arm soreness.

• Michigan preseason All-America outfielder Ryan LaMarre left Saturday's 4-2 loss to Texas Tech after one at-bat with an undisclosed injury, and he sat out Sunday "as a precaution," according to a Michigan spokesman. No further details were available, but he was scheduled to be re-evaluated early this week.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight On Daniel Bibona

It's almost getting old hat for Daniel Bibona. Seven shutout innings, 10 strikeouts, no walks. Ho hum.

As stellar as that outing was, it's pretty much the norm for UC Irvine's senior lefthander, who earned his eighth consecutive win Friday against Loyola Marymount. Lions redshirt sophomore Martin Viramontes, a potential top-two-rounds draft pick who showed a 90-94 mph fastball and a good breaking ball Friday, traded zeroes with Bibona for five innings, before the Anteaters erupted for five runs in the sixth. But Bibona, a second-team All-American last year after going 12-1, 2.63, was steady as it gets for seven innings.

He retired the first six batters he faced—the first four via strikeouts—and did not allow a runner to reach second base until giving up a fourth-inning double. The Lions threatened in the seventh, putting runners on the corners with no outs, but Bibona coolly induced a fly-ball out and struck out two of the next three batters to escape the inning unscathed.

"I think it's about command, I really do," Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said, explaining why Bibona is so tough. "He's one of those guys you can ask for the fastball in and you have a really good chance to get it in, against both right- and lefthanded hitters. If he were in the middle of the plate, like anybody else, he'd get hit. And he won't give in. it's not just that he'll throw the breaking ball on 3-2 counts or anything. If you're asking for the fastball to a spot on 3-2 counts, you have to be able to throw it there. He has the confidence that he can do that and the confidence to pitch out of trouble."

Bibona doesn't have overpowering fastball velocity, working mostly in the 86-87 range and touching 88, but the pitch plays up because of his command and aggressiveness. Gillespie said he normally throws his outstanding changeup about 30 times per game, but even when it's not as effective, Bibona has other weapons.

"Bibona's legitimate. He started off where he left off last year," LMU coach Jason Gill said. "His breaking ball has improved, and he's got a cutter now that helps him out against lefties and righties—he's back-footing it against righties. I don't even think he had his best changeup working on Friday, but he's just so good locating his fastball. Even if it is 86, 87, it looks about 90 because his arm's so quick and he has such good command, he pitches off those other pitches. That was the first time I'd ever really competed against him, and I can see why he's so good."

Listed at 6-foot, 170 pounds, Bibona's lack of physicality and below-average fastball velocity caused him to slip to the 16th round of the draft as a junior last year, but Gillespie said he thinks Bibona could add a bit of velocity and settle in at 88-89 as he matures physically. He reminds Gillespie of big leaguer Randy Flores.

"I'm a huge fan of (Bibona's)," Gillespie said. "Anybody that's around him or really watches him, it's impossible to not like him. There's nothing not to like. Everybody understands the deal from a pro perspective—it's not a power arm. But he can really pitch. I think only an injury keeps him from being a really good pro . . . He's special."