Three Strikes: April 16

Strike One: Something’s Bruin

It’s slightly jarring to look at the Pacific-10 Conference standings and see Stanford at the bottom with a 1-8 conference mark, and Southern California just above the Cardinal at 2-7. But in the topsy-turvy Pac-10, it’s starting to look like those two traditional powers could wind up on the outside looking in come NCAA tournament selection day.

Meanwhile, after sweeping the Trojans on the road this weekend, UCLA sits atop the conference standings alongside Arizona, both sporting 8-1 marks. It would have been easy to leave the Bruins for dead as recently as March 24, when they were just 8-14 overall. But everything turned around when sophomore third baseman Jermaine Curtis was cleared academically the day before UCLA’s conference opener at Stanford. Since then, the Bruins have won eight of 10 and gotten off to their best start ever in Pac-10 play.

“Ever since Jermaine came back, it’s just been a different team,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “To be honest, that’s the team we thought we were going to have. He brings presence, energy, defense–he’s just been the match that we needed, the ignition that we needed. He has so much passion for the game and so much pride for the Bruin uniform, it’s just contagious.”

Curtis immediately stepped into the leadoff spot, and though his numbers aren’t great (.256/.319/.326), he has been a major stabilizing force for the young Bruins. Players like sophomore catcher Ryan Babineau (.455/.486/.879 with four homers in conference play) and sophomore DH/outfielder Cody Decker (.421/.463/1.026 with seven homers and 24 RBIs in Pac-10 play) have taken off recently. For Decker, it’s a huge turnaround since he started the season 2-for-18.

“I think that when league play hit, with all the troubles we’d had, and the injuries and the ineligibility with Jermaine, it was a breath of fresh air to start 0-0,” Savage said. “The players have really responded. We’ve won two road series, and those are just invaluable when you talk about this conference. It’s tough enough to win two out of three on the road, let alone three. It was a fresh start. We just couldn’t get out of our own way for the first two months of the season.”

Now it’s USC and Stanford going through a difficult stretch. It’s a measure of how strange this season has been in the Pac-10 that UCLA swept USC for the first time since 1987, and the Bruins swept Stanford at Sunken Diamond Field for the first time since 1991. The last time the Bruins swept the Cardinal at all was 1997, when UCLA last went to the College World Series.

“They’re both just some of the very rich-tradition programs in the country,” Savage said. “People thought Stanford was out of it last year. We beat them two out of three here last year in the second to last weekend of the year, and people were wondering if they’d get in (to the NCAA tournament) and they did. They went to Texas and won the regional. You never can count out Mark Marquess’ team, and we certainly never would.

“(And USC is) a very dangerous team I think. You look at their schedule, they’ve already played Arizona State, Oregon State–they’re not out of it by any means. Every year it’s a very, very competitive league.”

The Bruins will take a break from conference play next week, facing Cal State Northridge, before hosting Arizona in a series with major Pac-10 implications. Savage said he hopes freshman righthander Charles Brewer, who has missed all season with mononucleosis, will be ready to throw a few innings against the Matadors and then start the Saturday game against the Wildcats. That would allow sophomore outfielder/lefthander Tim Murphy to move from the Saturday starter spot back to the bullpen and give Savage a full complement of weapons for the first time all season. For UCLA, which is now 18-16 overall, there is little margin for error in conference play, so getting Brewer back could provide a crucial boost for the stretch run.

Strike Two: Move Over, Jack

After sitting on the doorstep of the NCAA’s career saves record for more than a month, UC Irvine senior righthander Blair Erickson finally burst through this week. Erickson tied Southern California reliever Jack Krawczyk’s record with his 49th save earlier this week against UCLA, then broke it with a scoreless inning of work in Saturday’s win against Cal Poly. Erickson had picked up his 47th and 48th saves back on March 10-11, but it took him a month to tie the record. Anteaters coach Dave Serrano said the weight of the record was “definitely” a factor in Erickson’s rough month.

“And I know that because when he got the save against UCLA last Tuesday night, when I went up to congratulate him, I could see the relief in his face,” Serrano said. “His comment to me was, ‘That was the hardest save I ever had to make in my life.’ We’ve come to realize Blair won’t always make the save easily. He sometimes gets himself in jams and then finds his way out of it, but he was totally out of character the last month. There was no mentality, no confidence out there. The weight of the world was on his shoulders–he had to do this, he had to do this. I’m hoping this is behind him now.”

Give Erickson his due. It isn’t easy to get to 50 saves, whether you play four years of college baseball or not.

“In college baseball, that’s a pretty significant record to break, because of how much the college game has gone to the closers, and how many great closers have been in college baseball over the last 10, 12 years,” Serrano said. “I think longevity played a part in it, Blair is the first to say that, staying for his senior year was a pretty significant part in breaking it. I’m just proud I was fortunate enough to be around for three years. It’s great for Blair, and it’s great for our program.”

Strike Three: Here Come The Frogs

There’s quite a pack of worthy teams just outside the Top 25 rankings this week, as Long Beach State, Stetson, Louisiana-Lafayette, Charlotte, College of Charleston, Minnesota and Louisiana Tech all had strong cases for inclusion, and Central Michigan, Old Dominion and East Carolina were among those lurking behind that group. But the team outside the rankings with the most impressive combination of recent success and preseason pedigree might be Texas Christian.

The Horned Frogs entered the season ranked 24th, thanks largely to a loaded pitching staff, but injuries hit hard and forced seniors like Austin Adams (.343/.414/.593 with six homers) and Steven Trout (.355/.443/.489) to elevate their games. Now senior outfielder Keith Conlon (.391/.491/.641 with six homers) is likely to miss two or three weeks with arthroscopic knee surgery, joining an injury brigade that already includes sophomore infielder Corey Steglich (.361), junior catcher Teddy Kruder (.333) and junior third baseman Matt Carpenter. That’s just on the position-player side; TCU also lost junior righthander Seth Garrison to Tommy John surgery after he got off to a dominant 1-0, 1.96 start in 23 innings.

Preseason All-American righthander Jake Arrieta has also struggled at times this year, going 6-2, 3.81 overall.

“His greatest attribute is he is always looking to get better,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said of Arrieta. “His biggest weakness is sometimes he takes that to an extreme and tinkers with success. He had gotten away from who he is, but we made some adjustments in the bullpen, and now he’s on his way back.”

Schlossnagle said the Horned Frogs made a couple of small adjustments with Arrieta’s delivery and rhythm and got him to focus on throwing his hard slider for strikes. He still allowed six runs (five earned) over 6 2/3 innings on Friday at Nevada-Las Vegas, but Schlossnagle said he’s thrown better in his last couple of starts than he had been.

Of course, lights-out closer Sam Demel can bail the Frogs out of many tight spots. With a plus fastball in the 92-94 range, a plus changeup and a slider that can be a third plus offering at times, Demel has emerged as one of the top closer prospects in the 2007 draft. He’s 4-1, 2.51 with 46 strikeouts in 29 innings this season.

“Demel has been our saving grace,” Schlossnagle said. “Any time we’ve had a lead from the seventh inning on, he’s been there for us.”