Three Strikes: April 30

Strike One: UCLA Keeps Rolling

LOS ANGELES–After taking two out of three from visiting Arizona, UCLA sits all alone atop the Pacific-10 conference standings. This is not the team that started the season 8-14; since third baseman Jermaine Curtis returned from his academic ineligibility, the Bruins are 14-4.

Because of their rough start, the Bruins needed to sparkle in conference play, and they have done exactly that. They entered this weekend in first place at 8-1, but Arizona State (10-2) and Arizona (9-3) were nipping at their heels. But the Sun Devils lost a series at California, and the Bruins were able to put some distance between themselves and Arizona by taking the first two games of that series. UCLA very nearly came up with a three-game sweep, but Arizona first baseman C.J. Ziegler launched a three-run homer with two outs in the eighth inning that turned a 3-2 deficit into a 5-3 Arizona victory on Sunday. Ziegler fouled off several three-and-two fastballs before crushing the eighth Gavin Brooks offering over the left-field fence.

“They’d been coming at me with fastballs all day,” Ziegler said. “He was throwing pretty good–a lefty throwing pretty hard, it gets on you pretty quick. They kept throwing fastballs, and they kept bringing it in because they don’t want me to get my hands extended. So I figured they were going to keep coming with it, and soon enough I got the one I liked.”

The big homer also provided Ziegler with a measure of redemption; UCLA had scored two runs in the fifth inning when Ziegler let a ground ball get through his legs. Prior to the fifth inning, the game was an excellent pitcher’s duel between Arizona sophomore righthander Mike Colla and UCLA freshman lefty Gavin Brooks. Colla, who hadn’t pitched since March 25 because of a mysterious illness, looked outstanding, with a lively 90-92 mph fastball, a swing-and-miss 78-81 slider and an 83 mph changeup. He worked a career-high 5 2/3 innings, striking out five and allowing three runs (one earned) on nine hits and three walks. The Wildcats have been searching all season for a reliable Sunday starter to follow rotation mainstays Preston Guilmet and Brad Mills, and it looks like Colla might be the answer. The Wildcats also got 3 1/3 scoreless innings from sophomore lefty Daniel Schlereth and freshman righty Jason Stoffel. Schlereth is mostly recovered from the torn rib cartilage that has sidelined him for the last few weeks, though he’s still not 100 percent. Stoffel was lights out, overpowering UCLA hitters with a 90-94 mph fastball and a curveball in the 74-78 range.

Brooks pitched well enough to win and nearly escaped the eighth inning unscathed; he started to walk off the mound after throwing a two-strike fastball past Ziegler on the inside corner, but the call didn’t go in his favor. Still, he struck out a career-high 11 and allowed five runs (just one earned) on six hits over eight innings. UCLA coach John Savage has wisely taken it slow with Brooks, who had surgery to repair a partially torn labrum prior to his senior year of high school. They started him off using him for four- or five-inning stints and gradually stretched him out, and they bulit his confidence by keeping him in the Sunday starter role even when he struggled early. Now the Bruins are starting to reap the payoff. Brooks showed plenty of life on his 88-91 mph fastball and touched 92, and he got a number of strikeouts with his 77-78 mph slider. He also has a changeup, but he didn’t need it Sunday.

“The guy has just been diligently working hard and working back to his old self, and I think we’re seeing glimpses of what he was and what he’s going to become, because it’s a 6-(foot)-3, 205-pound, squared-shoulder, good-looking lefthander who does have velocity and does have command and really does have three pitches,” Savage said. “It’s still in the early stages of his development, but I really believe he’s got the mentality and the makeup and the physical ability to be a special guy down the road.”

If Brooks continues to pitch well, and sophomore lefthander Tim Murphy can keep throwing like he did Saturday (6 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 9 K), the Bruins are capable of winning the Pac-10 even without freshman righty Charles Brewer, who has recovered from mono but is still trying to work through some elbow stiffness and could be back in the next two weeks. For UCLA to make a postseason run, Brewer figures to be a vital part, because pitching depth is so important in regionals. But the silver lining in Brewer’s absence has been that it has forced Murphy to emerge as a solid option on Saturdays.

UCLA still must travel to Arizona State, but the Bruins will play host to Oregon State and California, in addition to making a trip to Washington State. It’s a manageable schedule, but as confident as this young team has gotten, the schedule might not matter much.

“It’s still a young team. They’re all sophomores and freshmen–we’re still in the early stages of building this thing,” Savage said. “I think you’re seeing glimpses of where we thought we’d be at the beginning of the year. I think it’s a hot team now, I think it’s a team that is playing much better, and you know, this is the best time to play good.”

Strike Two: Change In The Air

The NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved the entire package of reforms presented by the Baseball Academic Enhancement Working Group as emergency legislation at meeting Thursday afternoon. As expected, the Board also approved a ban on text messaging by coaches to recruits.

As outlined in detail last month and after the American Baseball Coaches Association meeting in January, the legislation will have a sweeping impact on college baseball as we know it. The most significant changes are the elimination of the one-time transfer exemption, which will require all transfers to sit out a season before gaining eligibility to play, and a requirement that all players must meet academic certification at the start of the fall semester, which will eliminate mid-year transfers and prevent players from underloading in the spring and then getting academically healthy in the fall. Most coaches agree that those two components will be good for the game, but opinion is very divided on the third major prong of the legislation.

In order to make the transfer restrictions more palatable to players, the proposal requires schools to make a more significant commitment to individual athletes. All scholarship players will have to receive at least a 33 percent aid package, and the number of players who can receive scholarships will be limited to 27. Also, squad sizes will be capped at 35. Traditional powers at warm-weather public schools are up in arms about the scholarship restrictions, while private schools and cold-weather schools tend to believe the changes will even the playing field by preventing the large public schools from over-recruiting. No longer will teams be able to lure players with a book scholarship or bring in hordes of walk-ons, which will make more talented players available to teams that have traditionally lost out on their top targets to more traditional powers offering significantly less scholarship money. Even underfunded teams that don’t have 11.7 scholarships to work with don’t seem upset with the lack of scholarship flexibility–they won’t be able to stretch out their budgets as much, but they seem OK with the trade-off.

The idea makes sense in theory, but I’m not so sure it will be effective in practice. The biggest problem is the lack of flexibility with regards to the draft. If teams have a star junior who they expect to get drafted and sign, they might plan to recruit another player to replace him. But if the junior gets hurt or has a bad season, schools will be put in the terrible position of having to tell either the veteran or the recruit to take a hike. Because of the unique nature of the baseball draft, room to maneuver is imperative, and I foresee this legislation creating a whole new set of problems.

I’m also not totally on board with the philosophy of punishing everyone for the crimes of a few. The NCAA has just recently begun to impose penalties for schools with low Academic Progress Rate scores, but the NCAA did not allow the penalties enough time to work. Schools with low APRs would have had no choice but to get their act together when faced with scholarship reductions and postseason bans. But patience is not one of the NCAA’s virtues, and this knee-jerk remedy is a result of pressure from university presidents who aren’t really interested in getting to the heart of the issue–they just want the APR numbers to improve. The Academic Enhancement Group did a commendable job given its charge to come up with changes immediately or else, but it’s a pity the Board of Directors put college baseball in that position in the first place. Some changes were clearly needed, and the new transfer rules and fall certification should be very good for the game. Even the roster-size limitations could have a positive impact, but the scholarship restrictions appear to be short-sighted.

Strike Three: Bubble Watch

It’s getting to be that time of year–schools are beginning final exams and so are college baseball teams. The NCAA tournament field is starting to take shape, and some bubbles are on the brink of bursting, while others are solidifying into bona fide regional resumes. We’ll unveil our updated projections for the field of 64 later this week, but here’s a snapshot of some of the teams on the periphery of the tournament in the muddled Southeastern Conference.

Florida entered the weekend squarely on the bubble, but in pretty good position thanks to a Ratings Percentage Index of 34 and series wins against Kentucky, Auburn, Georgia and Miami, in addition to a 2-1 record in midweek games against Florida State. But the Gators didn’t have too much wiggle room thanks to an unimpressive 23-20 record. That margin for error evaporated this weekend, as the Gators were swept by No. 1 Vanderbilt to fall to 23-23 overall and 10-11 in the SEC. The Gators are still tied for sixth in the conference with Alabama, and the SEC is likely to receive at least seven NCAA bids. Florida’s remaining schedule isn’t too bad, with home series against Alabama and Tennessee sandwiched around a trip to Louisiana State. Those three weekends are likely to determine who gets the sixth and seventh berths from the SEC behind Vandy, Arkansas, South Carolina, Mississippi and Mississippi State.

The Crimson Tide helped its cause in a huge way by taking two of three from South Carolina. Alabama has a tougher road to travel than Florida down the stretch, with a home series against Arkansas and a trip to Mississippi State remaining after the Florida series. But the Tide has some momentum now, and moving sophomore righty Tommy Hunter into the weekend rotation gives coach Jim Wells a formidable one-two punch atop the rotation along with sophomore Miers Quigley.

Kentucky put itself back in the picture by taking a series from Georgia, ending the Wildcats’ four-week losing streak in SEC series. UK has the best overall record of any bubble team at 30-13, but many of those wins came early in the season against a soft nonconference schedule, accounting for the Wildcats’ modest RPI of 58. Kentucky’s closing stretch is very difficult, with trips to South Carolina and Mississippi and a home series against Auburn.

Speaking of Auburn, the Tigers are in trouble despite a decent RPI of 42. Auburn is tied with Georgia for last place in the SEC at 7-14, and the remaining schedule contains trips to Starkville and Lexington and a home series against Vanderbilt. There looks to be too much ground for Auburn to make up, unless it gets hot and wins all three of those series. The other Tigers (of LSU) have a similar RPI (35) but are in slightly better position thanks to a 9-11 conference mark. Losing to Tennessee this weekend was a big blow, and LSU still must travel to Arkansas and Vandy–yikes. The Volunteers are making a late push to get back into the mix, and they’ll get to host series against South Carolina and Mississippi before traveling to Florida. An RPI of 85 hurts, but that will only rise if the Vols can take care of business against their final three quality opponents. With an 8-11 conference mark and two remaining home series, at least they have a fighting chance.

Verdict (subject to change at a moment’s notice in this wacky conference): Alabama and Tennessee will make strong pushes and claim the final two spots. The top-heavy SEC is not worthy of an eighth bid this year, but of course it could still get one.