Three Strikes: April 20

Strike One: ACC Impressions

I had a chance this weekend to get a look at the three remaining ACC contenders that I had yet to see this year. I decided to catch Florida State freshman lefthander Sean Gilmartin taking on North Carolina State on Friday, then Miami at North Carolina on Saturday, and Georgia Tech at Wake Forest on Sunday. Here are a few observations:

• Gilmartin was good, but he stood out more for his aggressiveness and toughness than his stuff. After allowing single runs in each of the first three innings, Gilmartin settled down, holding the Wolfpack scoreless over the next 3 2/3 frames. His fastball sat in the 85-87 range and topped out at 88, and his No. 2 pitch was a 70-73 curveball that got better as the game progressed. He also mixed in a few 74-76 mph changeups. He reminded me quite a bit of former FSU lefty Matt Fairel for his stuff and demeanor.

"We got good pitching from Sean—it wasn’t one of his best, but he made some quality pitches when he needed to," Florida State coach Mike Martin said. "He has shown good poise from Day One. He doesn’t get down on himself, he doesn’t fall in love with himself when things are going right. He’s got a good baseball mentality."

• Florida State, now ranked 21st in BA’s Top 25 rankings, has a strong, balanced offense, even if it’s not as powerful as last year’s FSU lineup. But sophomore outfielder Tyler Holt really makes the Seminoles go out of the leadoff spot. He had four hits Friday (including a triple to lead off the game and an RPI double in the eighth) and two stolen bases. Check In The Dugout on Friday for more on Holt.

• We’ve been saying it all year: Miami is largely inexperienced and much less talented than it was a year ago. Jim Morris has turned in one of the finest coaching jobs of his career to get the Hurricanes to 26 wins at this point in the season, but this is not a team that is built to make a deep postseason run. Miami is solid enough on the mound—sophomore lefty Chris Hernandez turned in his best start of the season in Friday’s tough-luck loss to UNC ace Alex White, and junior righty David Gutierrez allowed just three runs over 5 1/3 innings Saturday, using his savvy to get outs with fringy stuff (87-89 mph fastball, 73-74 slurve and inconsistent low-80s changeup). Closer Kyle Bellamy works in the 85-87 range and mixes in a Frisbee slider at 70-72, but his deceptive submarine delivery and excellent command makes him dominant at the college level (though UNC tagged him with his first loss of the year Saturday).

No, pitching isn’t the problem for Miami. Offense is one problem—the Hurricanes mustered just five runs on 16 hits in three games against an elite UNC pitching staff—and inexperience is another. Miami largely beat itself Saturday, blowing an early 3-0 lead by misplaying two crucial balls in the outfield, having two runners picked off another caught stealing and bunting into a 2-6-3 double play after getting the leadoff man aboard in the eighth.

"We’re a very young team. We’ve got a lot of new players on our team, and we’re making too many mistakes, no question about it, in a lot of ways right now," Morris said. "We’ve been making a lot this year, but we’ve been finding a way to win, because we’ve found a way to come back late."

The Hurricanes have now lost back-to-back road series against Clemson and UNC, but they’ve still won six of nine series on the year and can hang their hats on quality series wins against Florida State, Virginia and Florida. Maybe this isn’t an Omaha team, but I still expect Miami to host a regional.

"We’re still having a good year for as young as we are, but we need to win some of these games like these right here," Morris said.

• Coming off three straight CWS appearances, North Carolina still must be regarded as the favorite in the ACC, particularly with its pitching staff coming up big this weekend against Miami. But Georgia Tech might be an even more complete team than the Tar Heels. The Yellow Jackets have a much more powerful offense—no team in the ACC (and few in the nation) has mashers like Luke Murton (11 homers, including a monstrous shot to dead center Sunday against Wake Forest), Tony Plagman (10), Matt Skole (10), Derek Dietrich (5) and Jason Haniger (5). Like Florida State, the Yellow Jackets also have a top-notch table setter in sophomore center fielder Jeff Rowland (.363/.419/.658 with five homers and 15 steals), who had three hits Sunday.

"Offensively, certainly they’ve got the talent," Wake Forest coach Rick Rembielak said. "They’ve got some firepower, they’ve got some strength. They’ve got muscle in the lineup, and there are guys that can put the bat on the ball and send it a long way. They’ve got a good leadoff guy who knows how to swing the bat versus a lefty or a righty, he gets on base, he’s very fast. Then you’ve got some boppers behind him there, and it’s relentless."

Tech also has a host of power arms, and all three of their weekend starters turned in strong performances this weekend. Deck McGuire is a true ace on Friday nights, and junior righty Zach Von Tersch worked around five walks Saturday to throw six shutout innings. I was extremely impressed Sunday with sophomore righty Brandon Cumpton, who had his second consecutive strong outing, allowing just four hits an no walks while striking out seven over seven scoreless. He sat in the 91-93 range for six innings and still got outs without his best stuff in his final frame. He also showed one of the best curveballs I’ve seen all year, a sharp 76-77 hammer with tight 11-to-5 break. Most importantly, he threw it and his fastball for strikes.

"He’s had two straight weekends where he’s really been in control of everything," Tech coach Danny Hall said. "When you’re throwing that hard and getting your breaking ball over, you’ve got a chance to get a lot of outs.

"It seems like we’ve had one or two good starts most weekends, but we can’t get that third one. This weekend I thought all three guys pitched extremely well."

If that trend continues, the Yellow Jackets will be in Omaha.
Strike Two: Sorting Out The West Mess

UC Riverside is a very well-coached team that made a great run earlier this season, but it probably overachieved in the first half. The Highlanders were swept at home by UC Irvine this weekend, falling to 2-7 in the Big West and to 71st in the Ratings Percentage Index, according to Boyd’s World. Riverside’s regional hopes are fading fast, which begs the question: Does anyone want to go to regionals out West? Are the vaunted West Coast regionals so miserable that every school in the Pacific time zone (outside Orange County) simply decided it would be better to just stay home in June?

It’s a rotten year for the Pacific-10 Conference, which is looking very much like a three-bid league (and let’s give Southern California credit for winning a huge series at Oregon State to put itself in position to snatch that third spot). Stanford’s slim regional hopes took a huge blow this weekend when it was swept at Arizona State, and no other Pac-10 team besides ASU and OSU has a strong enough overall record.

A month ago, it looked like the Pac-10’s loss would be the Big West’s gain, that the Big West could get as many as five teams into regionals. Today, just three Big West teams look like regional teams: UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton and Cal Poly. UC Santa Barbara suffered a major setback this weekend, dropping a home series to San Jose State. The Gauchos still have the meat of their conference schedule ahead of them, which means they could conceivably still play their way into regionals by pulling off some upsets, but it’s starting to seem like they’re just not good enough to make that kind of a run.

The West Coast Conference is in no position to take advantage of the vacuum, as its top contenders all keep knocking each other off. Preseason favorite San Diego is dealing with a cavalcade of injuries (Kevin Muno, Sammy Solis, Victor Sanchez, Matt Couch and now Kyle Blair, who missed this weekend’s series loss to Santa Clara with a biceps strain) and has lost back-to-back road series to Gonzaga and St. Mary’s. The Zags followed up their series wins against Pepperdine and USD by dropping two of three at Portland. Loyola Marymount missed a golden opportunity to race ahead of the pack by losing a series to Pepperdine this weekend. The Waves have recovered from a crippling seven-game losing streak with series wins against the Gaels and Lions. Bottom line: It’s all a jumble, and the WCC might wind up with just one regional bid to show for all its parity. Right now, San Diego is the only team that ranks high enough in the RPI (25) to feel good about its at-large chances, although Gonzaga (63) and LMU (70) are still at least in striking range.

In the Mountain West, San Diego State had a chance to firm up its regional resume, but instead it lost two of three at New Mexico. The Lobos desperately needed that series to keep their regional hopes alive, but they’ve got plenty of work to do to recover from sweeps at Texas Christian and Arizona (in two midweek games this week) and bolster their RPI (67). The Aztecs are still in pretty good shape (29 in the RPI, 26-14 overall record, 9-6 in the MWC), but their history of May meltdowns means they are far from a sure thing. Brigham Young (52) looks like a fourth Mountain West contender, and a series sweep of Utah helps, but losing two at Oregon State earlier in the week does not.

Then there’s the WAC, where Hawaii took three of four from Sacramento State to cement its regional credentials, barring a complete collapse down the stretch. The Rainbows are 15th in the RPI and have won four-game series over Mississippi State, Loyola Marymount, Coastal Carolina and San Jose State. It’s much harder to win three out of four or four of four than it is to win two out of three, so it’s particularly impressive that Hawaii has won that many four-game sets against quality opponents. Meanwhile, three-time defending WAC champion Fresno State was swept in a four-game series at Louisiana Tech, allowing 56 runs in four games. The Bulldogs just aren’t good enough on the mound to get back into the NCAA tournament and have a chance to defend their national title. Nonetheless, the WAC has a chance to get two regional bids. San Jose State won a crucial series at fellow bubble dweller UC Santa Barbara. The Spartans rank 57th in the RPI, making them the only WAC team outside Hawaii with a shot for an at-large bid.

An updated field of 64 projection today would include 11 teams from those five Western Conferences (three apiece from the Pac-10 and Big West, two apiece from the WCC and MWC, and one from the WAC). Considering those five conferences combined to earn 13 bids a year ago, it stands to reason that mid-major leagues from other regions like the Sun Belt, Southern and Big Ten conferences stand to benefit from the down year in the West.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Alex White

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—An area scout who has watched Alex White’s fine career at North Carolina up close for three years put White’s performance Friday against Miami into perspective.

"That was the best he’s ever been," the scout said.

Facing No. 13 Miami in a pivotal ACC showdown, White recorded UNC’s first one-hitter since 1994 in UNC’s 3-0 win. White faced just 28 batters (one more than the minimum) and struck out a season-best 10 while walking just one in his first career complete-game shutout. He allowed just a third-inning single and a walk in the eighth inning, and in between he retired 14 straight Hurricanes.

"He was as good anybody we’ve seen this year," Miami coach Jim Morris said. "He’s arguably the best pitcher in the conference, and maybe the country, I don’t know."

UNC coach Mike Fox agreed that it was the best performance he’s ever seen from White, particularly because of how he finished. White used his devastating split-finger to rack up strikeouts against lefthanded hitters in the early to middle innings, then leaned heavily on his overpowering fastball over the final four innings or so. He reached 95 mph a number of times and still sat at 93-94 in the ninth, when he threw exclusively fastballs and struck out the side. He only threw a few sliders, and Miami’s hitters tended to square them up, so he used his lively two-seam fastball more often as his second pitch against righthanded hitters.

"That was probably one of the best pitching performances I’ve seen here, certainly, at this level against a good team," Fox said. "He was pretty much dominating from the first hitter to the last."

White improved to 6-1, 3.14 with 72 strikeouts and 23 walks in 63 innings this season. Walks hurt him earlier this season, but a mechanical adjustment has helped his command improve lately. Early this season, White said, he was dropping his arm slot and struggling to command his pitches, particularly to his glove side. Pitching coach Scott Forbes worked with him on maintaining a higher slot, and the adjustment has benefited the quality of his stuff and his command. Now the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder is back in position to be a top-five overall pick in June, and he might have made himself the favorite to go No. 2 overall with Friday’s fine performance in front of a number of scouting directors.

"It was a lot of fun," White said. "I had my good stuff, and it helped to get ahead in a lot of counts. Starting from the first pitch, I think I was pitching ahead for most of the night. And that’s the key; not walking a lot of guys allowed me to keep my pitch count down and allowed me to go the whole way."