Three Strikes: April 28

Strike One: Just Another Big Weekend For UNC

CARY, N.C.–Sunday was Senior Day for North Carolina–the final home weekend game for seniors Chad Flack, Rob Wooten, Kyle Shelton, Mike Facchinei, Tyler Trice and Seth Williams. That group has won a lot of games in four years–190 of them, to be precise, including a national-best 149 over the last three years. And while those six seniors won’t be playing any more weekend games at UNC’s 2008 home, the USA Baseball National Training Complex, they still have three more midweek games in Cary, and they’re certain to play a home regional after that. If the Tar Heels can win that regional, the chances are very good that they’ll have a home super-regional the next week.

Winning two out of three games against then-No. 3 Florida State this weekend went a long way toward ensuring the Tar Heels will earn one of the eight national seeds, which would make their road to a third straight College World Series appearance considerably smoother. The Florida State series was critical, because the Tar Heels are on the road against Virginia and Miami the final two weekends of the season.

"I didn’t want to put a great deal of emphasis on this game today, but I think deep down I knew this was a huge game for us because of what we have to do the last two series at Virginia and at Miami," North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. "This was one we really needed. I didn’t tell the players that, it was kind of a regional, super-regional type atmosphere, where you get down to the last game and there’s a lot at stake. I didn’t want to put that much measure on it, but it was an important game for us."

The Tar Heels entered the weekend with a 0-0 record against top 25 teams, though they have won three games against St. John’s and North Carolina State, both of whom are now in the rankings. But even though UNC’s Atlantic Coast Conference schedule was back-loaded, it wouldn’t be fair to call the Tar Heels unproven. Quite the opposite is true. Those six seniors honored before Sunday’s game have been to the CWS finals in consecutive years. Even UNC’s ultra-talented sophomores, led by Dustin Ackley, Alex White and Kyle Seager, have played critical roles on an Omaha team. Last year’s run to the CWS was punctuated by comeback victories at every turn.

So when the Tar Heels run into a hot pitcher who silences their offense deep into a game–as they did on Friday and Sunday–they don’t panic. On Friday, Seminoles lefthander Matt Fairel held the Heels to four hits over 5 2/3 scoreless innings, and they trailed 3-0 heading into the bottom of the eighth. No problem: UNC just waited until Fairel was gone and put up 11 runs in the eighth inning against the FSU bullpen. On Sunday, the Tar Heels were held hitless by righthander Elih Villanueva into the seventh inning. Sure, that was frustrating, but they simply scratched across a run in the seventh and won it against the bullpen in the 10th.

"Maybe we tried a little bit too hard to want it to happen, but we’ve got some fight in the guys," Fox said of Sunday’s offensive performance. "Some of them I know have a little temper to them, and a little frustration comes out. But you just know we’re going to keep playing until it’s over. So I didn’t really learn anything there, I know this team pretty well."

The other thing we all know about North Carolina is that it can pitch very well: its 2.21 ERA is the best in the nation. Even though junior righthander Adam Warren allowed five runs in 2 1/3 innings Saturday and suffered his first career loss, the rest of the UNC staff was dynamite against one of the nation’s best offenses. White worked around four walks Friday and yielded just one hit while striking out six over 5 1/3 strong innings, and freshman righty Matt Harvey held the Seminoles to a run on one hit over 4 2/3 Sunday, despite walking six. Both of those games featured strong relief work from Wooten and sophomore lefty Brian Moran, who Fox said has been UNC’s best reliever this year. Moran allowed just four hits over 5 2/3 scoreless innings of relief on the weekend, improving to 3-1, 0.77 with 39 strikeouts and 14 walks in 35 innings. The Tar Heels have had a mid-innings stopper play a critical role on each of its CWS teams, as Jonathan Hovis filled that role two years ago and Wooten did it last year. Moran is that guy now, and his emergence makes the nation’s best pitching staff that much stronger.

"I think they had six games all year that double-digit hits were allowed. That’s pretty impressive," Florida State coach Mike Martin said. "They did a great job of changing speeds, pitching backwards, they just did a beautiful job of pitching."

Not only did North Carolina’s outstanding pitching shut down Florida State’s biggest strength (its offense) on Friday and Sunday, but FSU’s shortcomings were exposed in both games. If not for a two-out error by sophomore third baseman Stephen Cardullo on Friday night, UNC’s 11-run eighth inning would have been just a one-run inning. But that opened the floodgates, and Florida State’s bullpen was powerless to stop the onslaught, as 10 straight UNC batters reached base against five FSU pitchers before Tyler Everett came on to end the inning.

Florida State’s bullpen was the culprit again Sunday. Villanueva was brilliant for nine innings, but Martin sent him back out to start the 10th, and he issued a leadoff walk to Flack. With the lefthanded-hitting Seager and Mark Fleury due up in two of the next three spots in UNC’s lineup, Martin called upon freshman lefthander John Gast, who just got back from Tommy John surgery within the last two weeks. Gast gave up a single to Seager and intentionally walked Federowicz to pitch to Fleury with the bases loaded. Fox opted not to pinch-hit for Fleury with a righthanded hitter, which would likely have caused Martin to go with righthander Jimmy Marshall. Instead, Gast walked Fleury on four-pitches, forcing the winning run in from third. Martin defended the decision to stick with his freshman.

"Johnny Gast needs to get his feet wet," he said. "That will do him good. Johnny Gast will get other opportunities. He’s a poised young man . . . We’ve got to get guys in the bullpen ready for situations like that. That’s the decision that was made; unfortunately it didn’t turn out."

But that’s the difference between North Carolina and Florida State right now: Fox doesn’t have to make those kinds of decisions. His team is postseason-tested and postseason-ready right now.

Strike Two: Cats Meow

Good luck figuring out the Southeastern Conference. The three highest-ranked SEC teams in the preseason–Vanderbilt, Mississippi and South Carolina–all lost series this weekend, as did current conference leader Georgia. But on the flip side, Kentucky and Louisiana State did a lot to strengthen their postseason resumes.

The knock on Kentucky was that the Wildcats couldn’t win a conference series on the road. After cruising to a 19-0 start at home against a soft early slate, Kentucky had lost road series at Auburn, South Carolina and Georgia. But the Wildcats showed a lot of toughness and versatility by going into Vanderbilt this weekend and winning a low-scoring series. Kentucky’s reputation is that of a high-scoring team that excels in slugfests in its hitter-friendly home park. But by handing Vanderbilt its first home series loss in two years–the 2006 Wildcats were the last team to win a series in Nashville, which obviously doesn’t count Michigan’s victory in the Nashville regional last June–Kentucky proved that it is one of the SEC’s elite. Even after ace Chris Rusin lost a tough pitcher’s duel on Friday, Kentucky held the Commodores to three runs over the final two games. Closer Andrew Albers came up huge, tossing a combined 4 1/3 innings of scoreless relief in the two wins.

We already knew Kentucky had a dynamic offense. Now we know it can also come up with big pitching when necessary and it can win in an unfriendly environment.

The Tigers, meanwhile, were desperate for a series win, having lost four of their six conference series heading into the weekend. Not only did they win the series against then-No. 12 South Carolina, but the Tigers earned a sweep, putting up 27 runs in three games against a Gamecock pitching staff that had been solid up until this point. LSU got major contributions from up and down its lineup: five different players posted three-hit games on the weekend. The Tigers are just a half-game behind Alabama in the race for the all-important eighth SEC tournament berth. If they can make it to Hoover, their NCAA tournament resume will benefit greatly from having a sweep against South Carolina on the ledger.

Strike Three: Time To Go Bonkers?

Don’t look now, but Oregon State is being Oregon State again. The Beavers have won the last two College World Series, and after something of a slow start, they’ve won back-to-back series to be over .500 in the Pacific-10 Conference—clearly the nation’s best league this year—to get back in position to not only earn a regional bid but possibly host a regional.

Two freshmen pitchers have been keys for the Beavers: lefty Tanner Robles, the Utah product who has stepped into the weekend rotation in recent weeks and who beat Arizona on Saturday, pitching into the eighth inning; and righty closer Kevin Rhoderick, the Arizona prep product who has nine saves. He closed out both one-run victories over the weekend, working in and out of jams with high-90s heat.

Oregon State’s pitching was expected to be strong this year and it’s just starting to come together, as sophomore righty Jorge Reyes, still with an ERA north of 6.00, came up with eight strong innings Sunday in the series finale to earn the victory. Senior righty Mike Stutes, outstanding the previous weekend against Arizona State, had iffy command in a loss Friday to Preson Guilmet and the Wildcats, but the Beavers have the defense and bullpen to be dangerous again in the postseason if their starting pitching gets straightened out.