Three Strikes: April 7

Strike One: Top Dawgs

Through four weeks of play in the Southeastern Conference, it is clear that the league lacks a single, dominant superpower. South Carolina and Vanderbilt, which entered the week ranked in the top 10, were both swept on the road this weekend. Mississippi, which swept Vandy, had lost three of its previous four series before this weekend. Kentucky has lost road series to South Carolina and Auburn. Florida had won its first three conference series before losing two out of three to Tennessee this weekend.

It’s a muddle, but after sweeping the Gamecocks, Georgia has emerged as the front-runner–for now, anyway. The Bulldogs appear to be the most balanced team in the league, with three reliable juniors in the weekend rotation, the nation’s best closer in senior righthander Joshua Fields (1-1, 0.00, 8 saves, 32-6 K-BB ratio in 15 innings), and a deep lineup built around one of the nation’s best hitters in shortstop Gordon Beckham (.419/.507/.871 with 15 homers and 36 RBIs). Beckham got little to hit last week, but slugging first baseman Rich Poythress (.383/.479/.643 with seven homers and 29 RBIs) has emerged as a legitimate source of protection behind him in the lineup, and seniors Ryan Peisel and Matt Olson came up with big hits against South Carolina.

“We’re definitely starting to play better in all phases of the game,” Georgia coach David Perno said. “We’ve solidified our roles on the pitching staff and Joshua is back doing his thing, closing out ballgames. There’s a lot of confidence in our dugout. USC’s starting pitchers did a nice job against us, and they’re the best defensive team we’ve played and certainly one with the most power. It was three well-played baseball games, and I’m glad we’re through with this series.”

The Bulldogs took their lumps early against a difficult nonconference schedule, losing series against Pac-10 contenders Arizona and Oregon State. But that experience toughened the Bulldogs for the conference slate, and they have won their first four SEC series: at Arkansas, against Tennessee, at Mississippi State and against the Gamecocks. If the Bulldogs can keep that momentum going against Kentucky this weekend–and that series is in Athens, so give Georgia a major edge–they will emerge as the clear class of the SEC.

Strike Two: Out With The Old . . .

It was a weekend of particular upheaval in a season of volatility for the top 25 rankings, as nine ranked teams lost series and three were swept. One of those swept teams, Virginia, fell out of the rankings altogether, but the Cavaliers weren’t alone. Preseason No. 1 UCLA and preseason No. 2 Arizona both tumbled out of the rankings for the first time this year after dropping Pacific-10 Conference series.

The good news for both the Bruins and Wildcats is that each got respectable pitching this weekend. UCLA’s Tim Murphy struck out 10 in a loss Friday and Gavin Brooks pitched into the ninth in Sunday’s win against Southern California. Ace Preston Guilmet continued to pitch well for Arizona, and senior lefty David Coulon threw a complete-game shutout on Saturday against Washington. If those clubs continue to pitch well, they’re still capable of making a run, but both clubs have been extremely disappointing offensively. UCLA is batting just .259 as a team, and Arizona has averaged just two runs per game over its last eight losses, which have come in its last 10 games. There’s no easy explanation for those struggles, as both teams have healthy and talented lineups–they’re just not producing.

All of a sudden, 14-12 UCLA and 15-11 Arizona are in jeopardy of missing out on regionals. The Wildcats are in the most trouble because they are just 3-6 in the league, and they still must travel to Oregon State and California and host Stanford and Arizona State. UCLA, at least, is just 3-3 in the Pac-10, though it also must travel to OSU and Cal and it also gets Stanford and ASU at home. If the Bruins and Wildcats are going to make a run, they’d better get to it.

Strike Three: Liberty Takes Time

ASHEVILLE, N.C.–Jim Toman didn’t expect to transform Liberty into a national power overnight. He left his secure job as South Carolina’s recruiting coordinator to take over the Flames because he saw an opportunity to build something special. But building a new foundation takes time.

Liberty has had its ups and down so far in Toman’s first year at the helm. After losing 9-0 Friday at UNC Asheville, the Flames scored 25 runs over the next two days to take the series and improve to 14-15 (3-3 Big South) on the year.

Last week, Liberty took one game against Big South juggernaut Coastal Carolina and lost two other close games, one in extra innings and one by a 2-1 score. That series was the first under the new lights at Worthington Stadium, and the opener drew a school-record 3,183 fans. The $350,000 lights and the new $52,000 sound system are indications of Liberty’s commitment to baseball, and the crowd is a sign that the commitment is gaining notice.

"I feel kind of guilty right now because we’re not winning enough games, but the administration is putting the money in our program," Toman said. "I don’t know whether we were playing up to Coastal’s ability last weekend or they were playing down to ours, but it was a pretty even series, so I felt good after that."

There are signs the Flames should be competitive in the second half of the season, though a regional run seems improbable. Senior outfielder Garrett Young, the most talented player on the roster, has been hampered offensively by a labrum tear that has limited him to DH duties, but he blasted a big grand slam in Saturday’s win and had two more hits Sunday. Fellow senior outfielder P.K. Keller missed some time with a knee injury but returned to go 4-for-6 with three RBIs Sunday, raising his team-best average to .387. On the mound, 6-foot-8 strike-thrower David Stokes (3-3, 3.11) has been up to 91 mph to go along with a decent slider and changeup, and senior righty Ryan Page (1-3, 4.13) has come on over the last week or two, working in the 86-89 range with a decent changeup and improved curve. Auburn transfer Clarence Nicely, who is coming off Tommy John surgery, has been inconsistent with his stuff but has flashed a 90 mph fastball, and swingman Dustin Umberger has struck out 44 while walking just 11 in 35 innings.

"These guys here work really hard, great kids, solid kids, we’ve just got to get the talent level up a tad," Toman said. "And when we do that we’ll be OK. It’s all going to boil down to whether we can find some players."

The Flames signed 12 recruits in the early period, and they’re leaving no stones unturned. Liberty’s signees come from Virginia, South Carolina, Florida, Arizona, Washington and Pennsylvania. Third baseman Tyler Bream, the son of former big leaguer Sid Bream, is the jewel of the class, a good hitter with solid actions and a strong arm at the hot corner.

Recruiting players to come to Liberty is much different than recruiting at South Carolina. Instead of a big, public university, Liberty is a small, private school that caters to players with a strong religious background.

"It helps and it hurts," Toman said. "It helps because if you get a kid who wants our type of environment, we have a good shot of getting him. But there’s also hundreds of good players out there who really wouldn’t fit in at Liberty, so it hurts you there. Obviously the pool of players we’re selecting from is smaller than it was at South Carolina, because we are a Christian school and we’re looking for kids open to that environment. That’s not for everyone, but I’ve got to think there’s 30 kids out there that want to play at Liberty, in the Big South, a good conference. If they’re out there, we’re going to find them, one way or another."