Three Strikes: April 9

Strike One: Fitt-a Culpa
I usually don’t go out of my way to point it out when I’m terribly wrong, but I’ll admit it: I picked against Rice in the “Upset City” feature of Friday’s weekend preview. I have seen the folly of picking against the Owls in Conference USA play, and I won’t soon repeat the mistake.

The Owls established their CUSA hegemony in their first year in the league in 2006, going 26-2 en route to the conference title. It’s easy to forget that Rice actually lost its conference opener against East Carolina last year before ripping of 17 straight conference wins. So when the Owls lost their CUSA opener again this year at Southern Mississippi, it was really no cause for alarm. Rice proceeded to win its next eight conference games, culminating in a sweep at No. 22 East Carolina this past weekend.

Here’s where I made my fateful error. The Pirates are a quality team that plays very well at home; they’ve already beaten good opponents like Pepperdine, Cal State Fullerton and Michigan in the confines of Clark-LeClair Stadium. I looked at the pitching matchups and brazenly announced in last week’s chat that ECU has a starting pitching advantage against the Owls. To compound matters, I speculated in the weekend preview that Rice freshman righty Sean Berry’s inexperience might be a factor in the hostile Greenville atmosphere. Too bad Sean Berry was a big league infielder in the 1990s. Ryan Berry is the dynamite Rice ace. Whoops. (For all you journalism school students out there, getting a name wrong is an automatic 50-point deduction. Hopefully BA doesn’t dock my pay.)

Anyway, Berry put aside my fatigue-induced indignity and struck out 12 Pirate hitters over seven shutout innings in Friday’s 4-0 win.

“It was strange, I think the whole tone for the weekend was set by a kid that’s kind of off everybody’s radar,” Rice coach Wayne Graham said. “Ryan Berry–the USA team hasn’t even shown any interest in him. East Carolina is a disciplined team hitting-wise, they don’t strike out much, but he struck out 12 in seven innings. That’s pretty impressive.”

Berry has emerged as a bona fide ace atop the rotation, thanks to an 89-92 mph fastball, a solid slider and a knuckle curveball that can be devastating at times. He and junior All-American lefty Joe Savery make for outstanding weekend bookends, but the Saturday starter spot has been an issue for Rice this year. Junior college transfer Chris Kelley had a crack at the weekend rotation and struggled, winding up as the midweek starter. Fellow transfer Matt Langwell couldn’t get out of the second inning this Saturday, but lefty closer Bobby Bramhall bailed him out with four hitless, scoreless innings of relief.

But a solution appears to be on the horizon. Preseason All-American closer Cole St. Clair has finally returned from the deep shoulder strain that delayed his 2007 debut until last week’s midweek win against Prairie View A&M. St. Clair struggled Sunday against ECU, facing three batters and failing to get an out, but Graham said the lefthander threw well, touching 91 mph with his fastball and showing good bite on his curveball. The Owls are keeping their fingers crossed that St. Clair will be back to 100 percent in the next two weeks or so, which will allow senior righty Ryne Tacker to slide from the bullpen to the Saturday starter spot. With an 88-94 mph fastball, a good curveball and a filthy splitter, Tacker has the stuff to thrive in the rotation. A healthy St. Clair is the key; that changes the entire complexion of that team, and could very well transform the Owls back into the national title favorite they were in the preaseason.

One other thing to monitor: Rice won the final two games this weekend without shortstop Brian Friday, who sprained an ankle Friday, and with second baseman Aaron Luna limited to DH duties by a pulled lat muscle. Graham said he hopes Friday will be ready to go next weekend against Houston, and Luna will continue to DH until he’s back to full strength, perhaps as soon as this week. The Owls got solid fill-in performances from Jimmy Comerota at short and Jess Buenger at second, but there’s no question that Friday and Luna are key players for them. So is center fielder Tyler Henley, who collected a pair of hits Sunday and appears to be over an eye infection that has affected his offensive performance over the last couple of weeks.

Strike Two: Knights Moves

Rutgers shortstop Todd Frazier is making a strong push for the first round of the draft in June, but he’s also building quite the case for Big East player of the year honors. Frazier had a monster weekend in Rutgers’ three-game sweep of Connecticut this weekend, slugging grand slams in each of the first two games and then out-doing himself with a walk-off homer in Sunday’s finale.

Rutgers held a tight 5-4 lead heading into the eighth inning Thursday before Frazier put the game out of reach with his first grand slam. Then on Friday, the Scarlet Knights trailed 2-0 early before Frazier crushed another grand slam to left field to give Rutgers a lead it would not relinquish. The Scarlet Knights trailed 9-1 in the seventh inning Saturday but stormed back to tie the score at 10-10 in the bottom of the ninth. Frazier came to the plate and hit the first pitch he saw over the left-field wall for a walk-off two-run homer.

Frazier has now reached base safely in 23 straight games, raising his season line to .395/.514/.816. He has 13 homers, one shy of the Rutgers single-season record set last year by Frank Meade. He also has 33 career home runs, one away from tying the school record held by his older brother Jeff.

“Frazier has tools. His bat’s really gotten quick and that accounts for the power and more home runs (he hit 11 all of last year),” a major league scout said. “But there’s no question he’s a grinder, no question about the personality–he’s a no-nonsense guy who loves the game. I don’t think the draft class has settled yet, it’s like the stock market, we don’t know where it’s going, so I don’t know where he’ll go, but he’s doing his job.”

Many scouts project the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Frazier as a corner outfielder in professional ball, but he is showing the kind of power necessary to succeed should he have to make that switch. It’s not just his power and upside that make him appealing, however. It’s the way he truly makes his team better and does what it takes to win.

“He’s a ballplayer; they played in a snowstorm this week, it was snowing so hard you couldn’t see the outfielders, and he’s not even blowing on his hands,” the scout said. “This is going to be a personal preference draft, because there are a few elite players and then a lot of players in the same talent level, and I think that’s going to help guys who win and compete like Frazier.”

Strike Three: Wild, Wild Big West

Heading into 2007, it seemed like the Big West was wide open. Cal State Fullerton lost its top six hitters and four key pitchers from its 2006 College World Series team, and it seemed like the time was right for someone other than the Titans to make a run at the conference title. That someone figured to be pitching-rich UC Riverside, though the Highlanders had some questions on offense. But early in the year it was a young Long Beach State team that was the talk of the Big West, winning series against Southern California, Texas and Arizona State and climbing as high as No. 17 in the rankings. The rigors of the nation’s stoutest schedule (the Dirtbags have played six of the 16 teams we projected as No. 1 seeds in regionals at the midway point) finally hit LBSU in mid-March, as it dropped three straight series against Wichita State, Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine.

While all this way going on, the Anteaters lurked under the radar, running off eight straight weekend series victories after dropping their season-opening set at California. Now UCI has won back-to-back series against the two traditional powers in the Big West: Long Beach State and Fullerton. Going 4-2 over that stretch puts the Anteaters squarely in control of their own destiny in the conference; it’s hard not to consider them the favorites at this point. Irvine’s next opponent, Cal Poly, actually sits atop the conference standings at 5-1, but the Mustangs have played Pacific and Cal State Northridge, not Long Beach and Fullerton. At 2-1, UC Riverside is still very capable of making a run as well, but the Highlanders have a longer road to travel than the Anteaters, who have passed two of their biggest conference tests right out of the gate.