Three Strikes: Feb. 12

Strike One: That’s Why They Call ‘Em Dirtbags

Long Beach State coach Mike Weathers tempered his expectations a bit heading into the season, and with good reason. Of the 35 players on the Dirtbags roster, 21 are freshmen or sophomores.

“It’s the youngest team I’ve had,” said Weathers, who took over as LBSU head coach in 2001. “This is the first time I haven’t had a starting pitcher back on the weekend–we had Jered Weaver, Abe Alvarez and then last year we had Jared Hughes. This year we don’t have one guy, so it’s going to be different for us.”

That inexperience was supposed to translate into a down year for the Beach, but somebody forgot to give the Dirtbags the memo. LBSU followed up its surprising series win against Southern California last weekend by taking two of three this weekend against then-No. 7 Texas.

The Dirtbags came from behind to win the first two games, scoring three runs in the ninth to win 7-6 Friday. Sophomore shortstop Danny Espinosa drove in the winning run with a single to right-center. Then on Saturday, Long Beach erased a 7-0 deficit through 2 1/2 frames to win 9-8 in 10 innnings.

“They just never quit, just so scrappy,” said a baseball talent evaluator who was on hand. “They did a great job, just hangin’ around, hangin’ around. It was exciting baseball, real exciting.”

Espinosa, who went 2-for-4 Saturday, has been very impressive. He hit three-run homers in back-to-back games during the week, and he just missed another homer Saturday; his double off the center-field wall would have been long gone in most parks.

There’s no question Long Beach is scrappy, but how their pitching holds up after ace Vance Worley is a critical question. Saturday starter Manny McElroy was bombed for six runs in 1 2/3 innings against Texas, but Omar Arif lasted into the sixth Sunday. Worley didn’t have a great outing Friday, allowing five runs on four hits over six innings, but he kept the Dirtbags in the game and showed plenty of promise.

“Worley hung around on Friday–I wouldn’t say he was spectacular,” the talent evaluator said. “(His stuff is) power coming right at you, hard.

“I think they play with anybody, but they’ve got to solidify what they’re going to do on Saturday or Sunday on the mound. They’re going to be with anybody Friday, they’ve got to keep proving it. They’ve got some big series ahead of them.”

Strike Two: Giant-Killer Killed

Mercer coach Craig Gibson said last week, after his Bears beat Miami twice, that he knew the schedule didn’t include any let-downs, that his team was going to have to be as ready for Bethune-Cookman and South Alabama as it was for Miami.

The Bears may have been ready, but they still couldn’t replicate their success of their opening weekend, and were swept by Bethune-Cookman in a three-game set this weekend. A duel in the first game of the series between Mercer ace Brantley New and B-CC senior lefty Francisco Rodriguez turned on an error by New that led to an unearned run in the fifth. Rodriguez, pitching with a lead, didn’t need anything else as he struck out nine en route to a five-hit complete-game shutout in a 5-0 victory.

The Wildcats went on to sweep the series by scores of 9-2 (in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader) and 5-3. Junior 6-foot-6 righthander Dustin Blackwell threw eight two-hit innings in the 9-2 victory after throwing seven no-hit innings against Jacksonville last weekend, giving B-CC a solid one-two punch atop the rotation.

Coach Mervyl Melendez, now in his eighth season, has taken B-CC to six regional trips, and was excited that his team responded to the challenge of playing a Mercer team that swept his club in 2006. Bethune-Cookman lost two out of three last weekend at Jacksonville, but showed it could get better in a hurry, with an offense keyed by center fielder Jose Ortiz-Rivera and featuring impact junior-college transfers Angel Mercado in right field and Angel Negron at first base.

It will have to keep getting better–the Wildcats’ non-conference schedule doesn’t get any easier. Next up are trips to Tennessee to play the Volunteers, to Port St. Lucie, Fla., to play Michigan, and to tournaments in Jacksonville and at Coastal Carolina.

“We’re trying to build something here,” Melendez said. “Mercer is a good team, and I told my players that you have to be a good team to go and beat Miami, so we needed to be ready. I think we proved we have some legit guys who have some tools. I like our talent, and I like our intensity.”

Next week it will be Bethune-Cookman’s turn to prove itself again, against the Vols.


Strike Three: Miles Away

In what had become one of the biggest underground college baseball developments so far this season, Texas Tech righthander Miles Morgan rose from nowhere to become one of the top “sleeper” pitching prospects for the 2007 draft only to turn into a very unfortunate tale virtually overnight. Morgan will miss the rest of this season with a torn rotator cuff.

The 6-foot-4, 205-pound righthander was forced to take a redshirt in his first season with Red Raiders after complications with his SAT arose. But he made up for lost time by striking out 103 batters in 107 innings last season–including a 15-strikeout performance against Texas.

Morgan then went on to the Cape Cod League, where he made the decision to withdraw after only a few weeks due to illness.

“My arm was fine, I was just really worn out and tired,” Morgan said. “I got real sick . . . I had a viral infection. We didn’t know if I had mono. I came home, got tested and I didn’t have mono. Just probably worn out. I played a whole lot of baseball from that summer after my freshman year until then, because I pitched all through the summer, fall, and then spring, so I kind of tallied up there some innings.”

Texas Tech coach Larry Hays said he was hoping that Morgan could lead his pitching staff this season. But he did say last week that he had concerns about Morgan and his health.

“I don’t know if it’s health or mechanical, but he kind of developed something over the summer–changing his delivery a bit–and we’re just getting him back to that,” Hays said. “I hope it’s not health. I think it’s just mechanics. He’s looking better. He’s getting back looking more like he did last year.”

Texas Tech sent out a press release Saturday to announce Morgan’s injury. This is a sad turn for a humble kid who looked as though he was on the verge of becoming a special pitcher.

“We are disappointed for Miles and for what we know is ahead of him,” Hays said in the release. “The good news is we know Miles and how hard of a worker he is and so we will expect to see him back and ready to go this time next season.”