Three Strikes: Feb. 19

Strike One: West Coast Showdown

At least 50 scouts were on hand for Friday’s showdown between San Francisco ace Aaron Poreda and UC Riverside ace James Simmons, and they did not leave disappointed. The Highlanders won 3-0 as Simmons struck out 15 in a four-hit, complete-game shutout. Riverside pushed across a pair of runs in the third inning, but Poreda was stingy on the whole, allowing just the two runs on eight hits while striking out seven over 5 2/3 innings. UCR coach Doug Smith said Poreda, a 6-foot-6 junior lefty, was “filthy,” running his fastball up to the 94-95 mph range.

“We were fortunate to scrape up our runs early against him,” Smith said. “Poreda’s arm is electric, the ball jumps out of his hand–boy, he was really good. We saw him last year at 89-90, and we had heard reports that he was firmer this year, and he was. He’s got a little slider/cutter that’s effective, and the changeup has a chance to be a plus pitch for him. And he commands it, he’s around the plate.”

Poreda looked good, but Simmons was the bigger story. The 6-foot-4 junior righthander did not pitch on Fridays to start the season as he recovered from a pulled glute muscle, going Saturdays instead. He’s mostly healthy now, and the Highlanders wanted to get him back on Friday in time to face Poreda.

“Simmons was as good as he can be (on Friday),” Smith said. “He pitched at 90-92 and had outstanding command, which is not atypical of him. He threw the ball wherever he was looking to, his changeup was good, slider was good. There was only one sharply hit ball against him all day.”

Simmons may be healthy, but senior lefthander Mark Rzepczynski missed his scheduled start Saturday with a strained elbow. Even so, the Highlanders earned a 9-2 win behind fill-in Pat Cassa, ensuring a big series win even though they went on to lose Sunday. It was a competitive series between two quality teams that should be significant factors in the wide-open West this year.

Strike Two: Rebels Pass First Big Test

Mississippi pushed its way back into the top 25 this weekend, taking two of three from then-No. 21 Evansville. The series did little to answer the questions about the Rebels’ offense, as they averaged fewer than four runs per game against the Aces, but part of that is a credit to the Evansville pitching staff. Seniors Ben Norton and Fred Jones both touched 93 this weekend, according to Ole Miss assistant coach Rob Reinstetle, and fellow senior Kai Tuomi pitched very well on Saturday. The Purple Aces also play solid defense and will not beat themselves. Mississippi All-American shortstop Zack Cozart found that out the hard way.

“Cozart has gotten off to a rough start average-wise, but he really swung the bat well,” Reinstetle said. “He was the tough-luck guy as Evansville made three diving plays in the outfield to rob him of some hits.”

Still, Ole Miss could have secured a sweep had it not stranded 11 baserunners Saturday. Cozart’s numbers will come around if he keeps on hitting the ball hard, and look for freshman first baseman Andrew Clark to emerge as a legitimate force in the middle of the lineup. The Rebels got an encouraging performance from another freshman, as well. With Cody Satterwhite sidelined with tendonitis and inflammation in his shoulder, three different relievers pitched well in his place. One of them was freshman lefty Nathan Baker, who worked in the 88-92 range, according to Reinstetle. Mississippi appears to have enough pitching depth to withstand injuries during the long season.

Strike Three: Burn, Baby, Burn

As terrific as Simmons was for Riverside on Friday, he was nearly matched by Louisiana Tech sophomore righthander Luke Burnett, who struck out 14 and gave up just two hits without issuing a walk over seven innings of work in an 8-2 win against McNeese State. Granted, McNeese State is no San Francisco, but that’s an awfully nice outing. For good measure, Burnett worked a perfect inning of relief earlier in the week against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, striking out a pair. With the 6-foot-8 Burnett, who throws his fastball in the 88-94 mph range, and fellow sophomore Jericho Jones leading the way, the Bulldogs look like serious contenders in the Western Athletic Conference. Outfielder/righthander Jones went 13-for-20 last week as Louisiana Tech scored 98 runs over six games–all wins. The Bulldogs trailed 10-1 in the seventh inning Saturday against McNeese State, but Jones hit a three-run homer (his second of the game) in the seventh and a two-run double in the eighth, and Tech stormed back for a wild 15-13 win. The Bulldogs already showed they could hang with top competition in a hard-fought season-opening series against Arkansas, though they ended up with just one win to show for it. Now they’ve shown the ability to come back from a huge deficit in the late innings–another sign of toughness.