Three Strikes: April 21

Strike One: Power vs. Power

COLUMBIA, S.C.–What happens when one of the nation’s premier groups of power arms faces off against one of the nation’s most fearsome collections of power bats? It just depends on the day.

Friday at Sarge Frye Field, South Carolina’s heavy hitters got the better of Mississippi’s hulking ace, first-team preseason All-America righthander Lance Lynn. But on Saturday, Ole Miss freshman lefthander Drew Pomeranz and bullpen dynamo Scott Bittle put the clamps on the Gamecocks’ heavy hitters. On successive days, each team showcased the strengths that make each a bona fide College World Series contender. Then on Sunday, South Carolina sophomore righty Blake Cooper stole the show from his team’s big bats and the big right arm of Mississippi’s Cody Satterwhite, as the Gamecocks won the finale 4-1. Check back later this week for more on Lynn and Satterwhite.

The Gamecocks knew very well what they were up against Friday. Last year in Oxford, Miss., Lynn struck out 12 South Carolina batters in a complete-game, three-hit shutout. First baseman Justin Smoak saw even more of Lynn this summer when the two were teammates with Team USA, and his pregame message to the rest of the Gamecocks was simple.

"He just said, ‘He throws hard. Get ready,’" third baseman James Darnell said.

South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said his hitters weren’t necessarily sitting on Lynn’s fastball, but they knew they would have to hit it low in the zone or not at all.

"We talked about it before the game, we were trying to stay out of the up part of the strike zone," Tanner said. "If he gets his fastball up he’s going to get it past you. If you make contact, you’re going to pop it up. So we looked for some fastballs down, and we knew he was going to throw the breaking ball. He’s going to be a high draft pick, not only because he throws hard but because he can throw the breaking ball and he doesn’t walk people, so we knew that was a factor. But we went into the game trying to keep the fastball down in the zone."

That’s why it’s even more impressive that Darnell was able to turn around a high heater for a third-inning grand slam that propelled South Carolina to a 6-2 win. The Gamecocks had scratched across a run in the first on consecutive singles by Whit Merrifield (on a drag bunt), Smoak and Darnell, and they led 1-0 in the third, when Lynn walked No. 9 hitter Scott Wingo to lead off the inning. Singles by shortstop Reese Havens and Smoak loaded the bases with one out for Darnell, who took high fastballs for balls on the first two pitches. On 2-0, Lynn went back to the fastball, and Darnell tomahawked it over the left-center-field fence.

"I’ve got a lot of respect for that pitcher, he pitched against us really well last year," Darnell said. "We just wanted to go out tonight and have good at-bats against him, and try to hit balls hard. I got a fastball up and just hit it pretty good."

Lynn did not have his best stuff, working around 90 mph with his fastball and topping out at 91, not approaching the 93-94 he’s shown in the past. He leaned heavily on his heavy fastball, though he did not command the zone with it as well as he is capable of doing, and he mixed in an average 72-75 mph curveball, 77-81 slider and occasional changeup. He tried a little of everything against Smoak but couldn’t get him out: Smoak went 4-for-4 with two singles and two doubles. Smoak’s four hits came on two fastballs, a curveball and a slider, and his doubles went to both gaps.

"He throws a real hard and heavy fastball. He tried to come in tonight on me," Smoak said. "He’s got a fastball, slider, curveball and changeup, and he’s tough to hit. He’s a big guy, he throws hard, and it was tough for us, but we put six on the board, so that was enough."

As usual, the Gamecocks were aggressive early in the count, and the approach led to 10 hits over seven innings against Lynn.

"I tell our guys all the time, you’ve got two choices: aggressive or passive," Tanner said. "I’m all right aggressive–if it doesn’t work out, I can sleep at night. I don’t like guys tip-toeing around. You’ve got to take your hacks and be able to live with it."

But Saturday was a different story. Pomeranz showed why he might be the nation’s best freshman pitcher, sitting at 91-92 mph with his fastball and reaching 94, and throwing strikes with an excellent 78-81 mph spike curveball. He allowed just one run on four hits over six innings while striking out five.

"They’re all talented hitters, and it’s a smaller park, so I knew I had to keep the ball down," Pomeranz said. "I just went out there and tried to keep it down and keep it away from them and hit my spots. I was leaving my pitches just down enough early in the game where they were hitting them hard but they couldn’t really do much with it, because I was keeping it down below the knee. I knew if I got it up, they could get into it and get it out of this park."

He did issue five walks, but he showed impressive composure with runners on base. He set the tone right off the bat, as Havens led off the game with an infield single and reached third on a two-base throwing error by first baseman Matt Smith. But Pomeranz got the next three batters to fly out harmlessly, stranding Havens at third.

Pomeranz tired in the seventh, walking No. 8 hitter Justin Hopper and Wingo with nobody out. The Rebels led just 3-0 at that point, and coach Mike Bianco summoned Bittle to extinguish the threat. The junior righthander was a little under the weather and struggled with his command initially, walking Havens on four cutters in the dirt to load the bases with no outs. Merrifield followed with an RBI single through the right side of the infield, but that’s when Bittle buckled down. Using a vicious 84-86 mph cutter that Tanner likened to Mariano Rivera’s–and the comparison isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem–Bittle got Smoak to tap weakly back to the mound, then struck out Darnell and Disher to strike out swinging at pitches down out of the zone. He mixed in an occasional fastball in the 88-90 range, touching 92, and a quality changeup against lefthanded hitters, but mostly he pounded away with that nearly untouchable cutter.

"Bittle’s just very, very special," Bianco said. "We say all the time that he’s probably the most dominant pitcher we’ve ever had here."

That’s a strong statement, but the numbers bear it out. After striking out five over the final three innings Saturday to close out Mississippi’s 5-2 win, Bittle has 76 strikeouts in 42 innings, to go along with a 3-1, 1.91 line and four saves. You can make a strong case that he is the most valuable reliever in college baseball. Georgia’s Joshua Fields gives his team the confidence to know that most any lead is safe in the ninth inning, but he lacks Bittle’s ability to enter in a tight spot earlier in the game and pitch multiple dominating innings, as he did Saturday.

Of course, Mississippi has more than just power arms–third baseman Cody Overbeck overcame severe shin splints to homer and drive in three runs Saturday, leading a balanced 12-hit attack. And South Carolina has more than just thunderous bats–righthander Mike Cisco scattered eight hits and limited Ole Miss to just one run over 6 2/3 innings Friday. But the Rebels’ power arms and the Gamecocks’ power bats are what really set these teams apart, and what made this such an entertaining matchup. Who knows which power will prevail the next time they meet, whether it be in the Southeastern Conference tournament or in Omaha?

Strike Two: Stanford’s Mr. Consistent

Senior righthander Erik Davis was supposed to be an ace at Stanford. It just was supposed to have happened two years ago.

Davis was a hot-shot local recruit, weaned on Cardinal baseball and past heroes like Jeff Austin, Sam Fuld and Ryan Garko. He figured to join the ranks as a freshman back in 2005, hoping to help the Cardinal return to Omaha after the club had missed out in 2004, the first time since 1998 that the College World Series had been held without Stanford in the field.

Three years later, Davis and his classmates still haven’t been to Omaha, as the Cardinal endures its longest CWS drought of the last 25 years. But Davis is doing as much as anyone to return the team to college baseball’s biggest stage. He threw his fourth straight complete game—all in Pacific-10 Conference play—on Saturday, striking out a career-best 13 and walking only one in a 6-1 victory at UCLA.

Davis has gone 4-0, 2.50 with 35 strikeouts in 36 innings during the four complete games, improving to 6-1, 3.83 over eight starts in all. He has succeeded by pitching aggressively with a four-pitch mix that includes an improved changeup. He works off his fastball more than in the past as well and isn’t afraid to pitch inside, as evidenced by his 11 HBPs. On a Stanford staff missing presumptive ace lefthander Jeremy Bleich (elbow) and with sophomore righty Jeffrey Inman the other consistent starter, Davis’ consistency has been a major reason the Cardinal has jumped up to fifth in BA’s Top 25 rankings and hasn’t lost a weekend series all year.

It’s an impressive season for a senior who was just 7-4, 4.88 in his career over 124 innings, with no complete games. That’s not even factoring in that Davis nearly lost his right eye when he was hit in the face by a comeback line-drive playing in the Cape Cod League in 2006.

"I didn’t think he’d pitch again to be honest with you," said coach Mark Marquess last week. "I’m real, real proud of him, because he came back sooner than anyone thought from that injury, and then he had a chance to sign last year after being drafted, and instead he’s come back and been lights out for us. He’s learned because he’s gone through some rough patches. He learned perspective for sure, learned baseball is important, but it’s not everything."

Davis credited Austin, in his first year as Stanford’s pitching coach, but also talked about the leadership of other Stanford seniors such as senior first baseman Randy Molina (.380/.431/.543), the team’s leading hitter, and reliever David Stringer.

"When I was a freshman, we had upperclassmen on the team who taught us what Stanford baseball was about, guys like Jed Lowrie and John Mayberry and Mark Romanczuk, who showed me what it meant to play at Stanford," Davis said last week. "The older guys set an example for us, and I think that’s what we didn’t quite have last year; we had a lot of young guys and the older guys didn’t quite set the example.

"I truly do love this program, it’s the biggest reason I came back to school, and I want to do everything I can to get Stanford back to where it should be."

Hard to do more than win four straight complete games in conference play.


Strike Three: Here We Go Again

As reliable as flowers blooming, birds chirping and pollen blanketing cars and balconies, April brings the Owls and Wolverines out of hibernation.

We’ve come to expect Rice to dominate its conference every year–no matter which conference it’s in–but the last two years the Owls have gotten off to slow starts in the first few weeks of the season. In 2007, Rice started the season 3-4 before blowing away Conference USA and finishing 56-14, just one win away from the College World Series finals. This year the Owls seemed to take a little longer to spread their wings–they were 8-6 on March 11 and even did the unthinkable in the final weekend of March, dropping a home conference series to Southern Mississippi. But anyone who thought CUSA was up for grabs has now been properly subdued, as Rice has ripped off an 11-game winning streak and a 3 1/2 game lead over second-place Houston in CUSA. After sweeping then-No. 24 East Carolina, Rice all but put the stamp on another conference title. The Owls are playing well in all phases of late, batting .340 and fielding .972 during their 11-game winning streak, while getting strong pitching from righthanders Ryan Berry and Matt Langwell. And lo and behold, Rice finds itself one game ahead of its 2007 pace, with a 31-10 record through 41 games.

Michigan, meanwhile, is cruising toward its third straight Big Ten regular-season title. Since the cold-weather Wolverines started 4-5 on the road in warm locations, they have gone 24-3, including a trio of four-game sweeps in conference series. They’re 15-1 in the Big Ten, three games ahead of second-place Purdue, and their talented offense has exploded of late, scoring 52 runs in four games this weekend against Michigan State–the most runs Michigan has scored since the Big Ten went to four-game series in 1981.

A couple of other preseason conference favorites that got off to slow starts are red-hot right now. Like Michigan, Kent State struggled early thanks in part to brutal weather in the upper Midwest, and the Golden Flashes were just 10-15 on April 5, and 0-5 in the Mid-American Conference. Since then, Kent State has reeled off an 11-game winning streak and taken over first place in the MAC’s Eastern Division. This is not a new storyline for the Flashes, who were 17-23 on April 24 last year before winning 15 of their next 16 to make regionals.

Then there’s Fresno State, which has gone 16-4 since starting 8-12. The Bulldogs have a 13-3 mark in the Western Athletic Conference and a 2 1/2 game lead over second-place Sacramento State. It was the same thing a year ago, when Fresno started 14-17 before going 22-13 down the stretch to win the WAC.