Three Strikes: April 13

Strike One: Not In Kansas Anymore . . .

Good luck figuring out the Big 12. Of the five teams from the conference that started the year in ranked in the top 16, three are now in the top 10 (Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma). The other two (Texas A&M and Missouri) are out of the top 25, as is Oklahoma State, which has been ranked for much of this season.

But just because those teams have struggled doesn’t mean the Big 12 as a whole is hurt. On the contrary, the league is deeper than ever. The departures of Texas A&M and OSU from the rankings this week simply allowed Kansas State and Kansas to join the top 25. Those two teams have never been ranked at the same time before, because Kansas State has never been ranked, period. We touched on K-State’s surge in Weekend Preview three weeks ago, but let’s now focus the magnifying glass on the Jayhawks.

Kansas first made a splash on the national scene after sweeping a three-game series against Texas from March 20-22. The Jayhawks followed that weekend with series losses to the Aggies and Bears, but rebounded with another sweep this weekend against Oklahoma State. Kansas has amassed a 9-8 record against teams ranked in the BA top 25, and early-season trips to Arkansas (where the Jayhawks split two games) and Arizona State (where they won one out of three) helped prepare this team for conference play.

As Texas and OSU have discovered, the Jayhawks play with great confidence at home, where they are 18-2 (compared with a 3-7 mark on the road and a 2-3 mark at neutral sites).

"I’ll tell you what I think it is: We built a brand new $2 million clubhouse that we moved into in January," Kansas coach Ritch Price said. "The sense of pride and swagger it has given us, I can’t even tell you. It’s carried over into our performance on the field. We’ve secured our short-game responsibilities, we’re doing all the little things to be good. Our first three hitters do a real nice job. They set the table for (catcher Buck) Afenir and (third baseman Tony) Thompson, who’ve been really good."

That duo provides much of the thunder in the Kansas lineup, combining for 13 of the team’s 21 home runs. Price said the key to beating OSU’s power arms was working the count to get their pitch counts up.

"I was fortunate enough to be an assistant with Team USA last summer, and we had (Tyler) Lyons and (Andrew) Oliver on that team—two projected first-round draft picks," Price said of OSU’s twin lefty aces. "If you’re going to beat those guys, you have to get pitching and defense. And we did."

Pitching is where Kansas has taken the biggest step forward this year. Junior lefty Shaeffer Hall (3-2, 2.52) does not have overpowering stuff but has used a quality four-pitch mix to give the Jayhawks a chance every Friday night. Sophomore righty T.J. Walz (4-0, 3.15) has added about 25 pounds from last year, causing his stamina to improve and his velocity to climb into the 91-94 range. He’s been a rock on Saturdays, and freshman Lee Ridenhour (3-2, 3.38) has taken a huge step forward since the fall to emerge as a strong Sunday starter. Ridenhour’s velocity has jumped into the 90-92 range to go along with a very good slider, though he’s still working on his changeup. Price said he’s the best freshman pitcher he’s had at Kansas.

The sum of all the parts is a hungry, hard-nosed team that is in good position to make its first regional since 2006, and second since 1994.

"Yeah, we are (in good postseason position)," Price said. "You can make an argument that we’ve played four of the best teams in our conference and in the country to open the season. We like the position we’ve put ourselves in. Now we’ve got to close the deal, because when you’re in one of the best conferences in America, things can go south in a hurry."

Strike Two: No-Hitter Night

There were plenty of sterling pitching performances across the nation Friday night, including two no-hitters. Kent State junior righthander Brad Stillings struck out nine without issuing a walk in a nine-inning no-hitter against Toledo. He allowed just two baserunners—on a second-inning error and a sixth-inning hit batsman—in Kent State’s 1-0 win.

"Brad Stillings was outstanding. There’s not a whole lot more to say about that. He threw lot of pitches for strikes and worked ahead in the count all game long," Golden Flashes coach Scott Stricklin said after the game. "Brad stayed in a groove and threw very few bad pitches. He was really good. He kept the Toledo hitters off-balance, moved his fastball in and out and put guys away with his slider and changeup."

The Golden Flashes needed Stillings to be at his best against Toledo junior righthander Justin Collop, who used a firm two-seam fastball to keep Kent State off balance all game. Collop allowed only one run on three hits and a walk while striking out seven over eight innings.

Elsewhere, four Texas Christian pitchers combined to throw a nine-inning no-hitter against Texas-Pan American. Lefthander Walker Kelly got the start and went four innings before handing off to Taylor Cragin (two innings), Tyler Lockwood (two) and Eric Marshall (one).

If that wasn’t enough, TCU took another combined no-hitter into the ninth inning Saturday before losing it on a single to lead off the final frame. Greg Holle (three innings), Sean Hoelscher (three) and Kaleb Merck (two) kept UTPA out of the hit column in that one, before handing off to Derek VerHagen to start the ninth.

"I think (our guys) were more fired up about the prospects of almost throwing another one (Saturday)," TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. "The guy hit a sinking liner in front of the left fielder to lead off the ninth inning. It was not a great atmosphere, so you generate your own excitement. They’re excited about the way we’ve played the last week or two."

The Horned Frogs used the series as a way to give many of the arms on their deep pitching staff some innings. They’ve got a pair of games against Big 12 opponents this week, and they’ll have electric freshman Kyle Winkler ready to go against Texas Tech today, followed by righty Stephen Maxwell at Oklahoma tomorrow.

In the meantime, there were a few big developments this weekend, aside from the no-hitter. The middle infield defense has stabilized with Ben Carruthers sliding to short in place of freshman Taylor Featherston, who had made 17 errors at short before sliding to second base. The defensive improvement really helps ground ball pitchers such as Lockwood, who seems to have found a home in the bullpen. And Hoelscher’s re-emergence was encouraging. Hoelscher has the best arm on the staff, according to Schlossnagle, and has had to work through some mechanical and confidence issues. He reached 95 mph in his three hitless innings this weekend.

"That was a key, getting Hoelscher back on track," Schlossnagle said. "We pitched really well, and caught the ball. Pan Am’s kind of struggling right now. It was good to get a lot of guys worked."

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Mike Minor

This spring hasn’t gone exactly according to script for Vanderbilt lefthander Mike Minor. The 2008 Summer Player of the Year was expected to use his standout campaign for Team USA’s College National Team as a springboard to a dominant junior season. But heading into this weekend’s series at red-hot Arkansas, Minor had been just good—not overpowering.

He sure dominated the Razorbacks, who entered the weekend unbeaten in SEC series this year and coming off a pair of midweek wins against No. 1 Arizona State. Minor stymied the potent Arkansas offense, allowing just four hits (all singles) and three walks over eight shutout innings, trying his season high with 11 strikeouts. Vandy won 9-0 and went on to take the series with another win Saturday, before Sunday’s finale was rained out.

One of the keys for Minor was having catcher Andrew Giobbi back behind the plate. Giobbi suffered a boxer’s fracture of his pinkie after taking a pitch off his hand against Vermont in February and had not been able to catch. Sophomore catcher Curt Casali has been limited to first base by a torn ulnar collateral ligament, forcing third-stringer Aaron Westlake to fill in behind the plate. Westlake is inexperienced behind the plate and racked up 12 passed balls. Getting Giobbi back gave Minor a confidence boost.

"If the pitcher feels he can throw a breaking ball in the dirt at 58 feet, if he’s got a guy that’s been back there for two years, that has a lot to do with a pitcher’s psyche," Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. "I just think (Minor) commanded all his pitches. I really thought he pitched very well the last four times. His box score maybe hasn’t been what you’d think of as a dominating performer, but that really has a lot to do with what was behind the plate. The fact it was more like him this weekend had a lot to do with the kid behind the plate and also that he was able to command all his pitches very, very well. He was in the zone—I don’t know if he missed a spot. He was just on the whole time."

Minor has always had an excellent changeup and a solid-average fastball that he commands down in the zone. He developed a curveball last summer but has leaned more heavily on his slider this spring. The slider was a big key for him against Arkansas, Corbin said.

On the season, Minor is now 3-3, 3.02 with 54 strikeouts and 15 walks in 54 innings. All of a sudden the Commodores have won back-to-back quality conference series (against Florida and Arkansas), and at 7-7 in SEC play they are in position to make another run at regionals. Like David Price and Pedro Alvarez before him, Minor is showing his teammates the way.

"When he’s on the mound, he just wants to take over," Corbin said. "He has no expectations of anyone else trying to help him out. He wants to take over a game. He’s kind of like guys who have been here in the past—they want to put the team on their back their junior years, and that’s what he’s done the past four weeks here.

"He looked like a major leaguer the other night."