Three Strikes: April 23

Strike One: Big East Free-For-All

Noticeably absent from the top of the Big East heap is perennial league power Notre Dame, which sits in a tie for seventh place with a 6-8 league mark. Even after taking two of three from West Virginia this weekend, the Irish are 5 1/2 games behind first-place Rutgers. Plenty of other teams are taking advantage of Notre Dame’s down year to make a run in the Big East. Or maybe it’s the other way around–one possible reason for the Irish’s struggles is that there are more good teams in the league than ever before. St. John’s coach Ed Blankmeyer said he agrees with that notion.

“Teams just play well against certain teams, give them a lot of credit,” Blankmeyer said. “Connecticut plays well against us. Rutgers came to us and we beat them two out of three. They caught Connecticut at the right time and swept them, and now (Rutgers is) playing extremely well and hot. I just think it comes down to where you play and when you play them sometimes.”

That’s a change from past years, when Notre Dame, St. John’s and, at times, Rutgers dominated the league. South Florida was supposed to become the new Big East power when it became the lone Southern school in the Northern league, but the Bulls were swept at home this weekend by Rutgers and now sit just 9-9 in Big East play.

The Scarlet Knights now lead the conference with a 12-3 record, having won their last three series against USF, Seton Hall and Connecticut after dropping a set at St. John’s. The Red Storm is tied with Louisville for second place at 11-4. Both teams kept pace with Rutgers this weekend, as the Cardinals swept Seton Hall and St. John’s swept Georgetown. Any of those teams is capable of winning the conference, but St. John’s might have the X-factor in sophomore lefthander Scott Barnes, one of the league’s best pitching prospects.

Barnes, an athletic 6-foot-3, 185-pounder, is beginning to tap into his potential and looks like a major weapon on Friday nights. His outing against Georgetown on Friday might have been the best individual pitching performance of the year–he struck out 14 while recording the first no-hitter by a St. John’s pitcher since 1976. Barnes worked in the 87-91 range and touched some 93s, to go along with a changeup and a curveball that has good depth.

“He was lights out,” Blankmeyer said. “Let me tell you something: in all my years of coaching, he’s the most athletic kid I’ve ever had on the mound. Once he learns to repeat his delivery, keep himself in control a little bit, he’ll be a terrific prospect. Like any kid, he overthrows and tries to throw the ball through the bat instead of trying to get people out. But he’s a young kid, he’s just got to learn.”

If this is what Barnes can do before he learns to become more efficient, it’s scary what he’s capable of once he adds some polish. That gives St. John’s, which has won seven straight and 13 of 14, a leg up over the rest of the conference.

Strike Two: Houston, We Have Liftoff

Heading into the season, Houston’s projected weekend rotation was Luis Flores on Friday, Ricky Hargrove on Saturday and Dereck Cloeren on Sunday. To this point in the season, Hargrove hasn’t thrown a pitch and isn’t likely to because of a shoulder injury. Cloeren has thrown a total of 1 1/3 innings and is done for the year with a labrum injury. And Flores has thrown just 21 innings over six appearances, concentrating his energy on his catching and hitting (he leads the team with seven homers).

Yet the Cougars are in second place at 9-3 in Conference USA, two games better than East Carolina in the loss column. A tough nonconference schedule toughened Houston up, so there was no intimidation factor as the Cougars headed to Tulane for a three-game series this weekend. Houston emerged with a series sweep.

“We just caught Tulane at the right time, and we pitched well and played good defense,” Houston assistant coach Kirk Blount said. “We scored most of our runs this weekend with two outs–anytime we are getting two-out RBIs we are doing OK.”

Without the arms that were supposed to carry their weekend rotation, the Cougars have gotten outstanding production from a four-man pitching rotation that features two true freshmen and one redshirt freshman. Junior righty Aaron Brown anchors the staff; he threw seven shutout innings against Tulane on Friday and has the best stuff on the staff, with a fastball that can touch 93-94 at times. More often, he’s sitting 88-91 mph but throws downhill from a 6-foot-5 frame. Redshirt freshman righthander Wes Musick has been just as important; he struck out eight over seven innings of one-run ball in Saturday’s 2-1 win to improve to 5-3, 2.93 overall. Musick missed 2006 after having Tommy John surgery, but he has bounced back strong, with a quality three-pitch mix that includes a fastball in the 87-91 range.

Rice has clearly separated itself as Conference USA’s elite team, but Houston is in excellent position to finish second in the league and earn an NCAA tournament bid. The Cougars have four series remaining, including trips to Marshall and Memphis, and they get East Carolina and Southern Mississippi at home.

Strike Three: Gophers Are Golden

It’s hard not to lament the weather-induced cancellation of the Easter weekend series between Michigan and Minnesota. Those two teams have emerged as the clear front-runners in the Big Ten–the Wolverines sit atop the standings at 11-1, while Minnesota isn’t far behind at 9-2. Both teams are battle-tested, having faced quality opponents on the road early in the year, and both should be capable of making a run in regionals.

People are starting to find out about Michigan, but the Golden Gophers are still flying under the radar despite their 26-7 overall record. That mark didn’t come against patsies–it includes wins against The Citadel, Virginia Tech, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri State, UC Santa Barbara and Pepperdine. And the Gophers are taking care of business in conference play as well; they swept a four-game series against a decent Michigan State team this weekend.

There might not a more under-publicized star in the nation than Minnesota senior outfielder Mike Mee, who is batting .448/.496/.608 with a team-leading 28 RBIs through 125 at-bats. Minnesota is hitting .307 as a team, and its pitching staff has been just as good, even though ace righthander Gary Perinar has been inconsistent (2-3, 3.95). Junior righthanders Ethan Vogt (2-1, 1.91) and Dustin Brabender (4-1, 3.54) join Perinar in a strong rotation, and senior righthander Josh Oslin (0-0, 0.68 with nine saves in 15 appearances) has been as good a closer as any in the nation.

Minnesota’s remaining schedule is favorable; trips to Illinois and Indiana are winnable, and the Gophers will get the dangerous Ohio State at home. Losing the Michigan series hurts both teams in the Ratings Percentage Index, but Minnesota’s challenging nonconference slate leaves it in good shape for an NCAA tournament bid.