Three Strikes: April 13-16

STRIKE ONE: Playing Catch

South Carolina freshman second baseman James Darnell misplayed a grounder in the third inning of Sunday’s loss to Mississippi. The Gamecocks had gone 14 games and 507 defensive chances since their last error and still lead the nation with a .988 fielding percentage. Fielding is the oft-forgotten third phase of the game that tends to get marginalized after hitting and pitching. But teams that catch the ball well often end up playing longer than those that give opponents extra outs and extra bases. It’s no coincidence that three of the last four College World Series champions have ranked among the nation’s top 10 in fielding percentage. Cal State Fullerton, Nebraska, Oklahoma and San Diego are the other teams ranked in the Baseball America Top 25 that are among the top 10 fielding teams in the nation.

STRIKE TWO: Vote For Pedro (And The ‘Dores)

Vanderbilt freshman Pedro Alvarez hit six homers and drove in 17 runs in five games last week. He also walked six times and scored seven runs as the Commodores went 4-1 and won an SEC series against Georgia. Alvarez improved his season totals to .357/.500/.746 with 13 homers and 41 RBIs in 126 at-bats. Alvarez has thrust himself into top consideration for freshman of the year honors, and his explosive bat has Vanderbilt competing for first place in the SEC a year earlier than was expected of a team dominated by freshmen and sophomores. The junior and senior classes at Vanderbilt account for just two of the team’s top eight position players and three of its top 11 pitchers. So as good as the Commodores finish 2006, they’ll be even better in 2007.

STRIKE THREE: Changing Places

It’s a weird draft class when the top-rated position player isn’t playing in the spot to which scouts project him. But there’s Evan Longoria, manning third base dutifully for Long Beach State as scouts think about how he’ll look in the middle infield. They’ve had the same thoughts about Wake Forest third baseman Matt Antonelli. He’s as athletic as Longoria, and his .335/.455/.652 numbers with 11 homers and 13 steals impress as well. He played third base for all 145 games of his Wake Forest career before the scouts got a treat in seeing him at second base over the weekend at Duke. That’s a position to which many project Antonelli. He ended the third game of the sweep back at third.

UC Irvine righthander Blair Erickson made his first start in 76 career appearances Friday night, a day after Irvine lost the series opener to Cal Poly. He lasted four innings, struck out five batters and allowed two runs on four hits. The Anteaters had been searching for a third starter to pair with Justin Cassel and Scott Gorgen all season and gave Erickson a shot. Irvine won Erickson’s start and Gorgen’s the next day as Kyle Necke and Gary Nakashima earned saves. The move gave scouts a better look at Erickson’s three-pitch repertoire.