Three Strikes: Feb. 23

Strike One: Mooney Over Gainesville

GAINESVILLE, Fla.–On the very first play of the 2009 season, Florida shortstop Mike Mooney booted a routine ground ball for an error. He ended his first Division I weekend in considerably different fashion, knocking a walk-off RBI single over the left fielder’s head to give Florida a dramatic 3-2 win Sunday and a series sweep against No. 23 Louisville. The two-out hit prevented the game from ending in a travel curfew-induced tie and caused the 5-foot-8 Mooney to be engulfed by a swarm of media on the field afterward. A moment earlier, Mooney’s teammates had picked up him and carried him halfway across the field, or so it seemed to Mooney.

"It was a good feeling getting that hit and getting swarmed at third base," said the junior transfer from Palm Beach (Fla.) CC. "I felt more calm than any other at-bat just because no bad could come out of it. No, we didn’t want to tie, but we weren’t going to lose. It wasn’t like I was going up there trying to tie the game, I was trying to win it. That took a little pressure off."

Mooney had already made an enormous impact on the game long before the ninth inning with a number of sparkling defensive plays at shortstop, the most spectacular being a backhand stop from deep, deep in the hole on a Josh Richmond chopper in the sixth inning, followed by an across-the-body, on-the-run strike to first base for the out.

Mooney anchors a defense that might well be the nation’s best. He and fellow newcomer Jerico Weitzel are as slick a double-play combination as you’ll find, and infield corners Josh Adams and Brandon McArthur are strong defenders also. The outfield has ridiculous speed with Avery Barnes in left, Matt den Dekker in center and Riley Cooper in right, and both den Dekker and Cooper have true plus arms.

The airtight defense fits right in with Florida’s apparent ambition to transform itself into a West Coast-style team. The Gators make up for their lack of power with incredibly aggressive baserunning (they stole three bases and were caught stealing twice Sunday alone) and a no-fear approach at the plate. Florida batters were hit by pitches 11 times this weekend; last year they didn’t reach that mark until the 13th game of the season. Incidentally, this was the first time this decade Florida went homerless in a season-opening series.

Pitching was a question facing the Gators heading into the year, especially after Tommy Toledo’s season-ending injury and Stephen Locke’s dismissal from the team following a drunken-driving arrest. But the Gators pounded the strike zone all weekend–only issuing three walks in three games–and got three strong starts from senior righty Patrick Keating and freshman lefties Alex Panteliodis and Nick Maronde.

"We haven’t been walking people, so if we can play good defense and make them earn their way on, I think we’ll be OK," Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. "Having Mooney and Adams on the left side of the infield, if they continue to play like that, we’ll be tough to beat."

I was excited to get a look at Maronde, the nation’s No. 3 freshman, and he did not disappoint. After giving up two unearned runs in the first inning, Maronde allowed only one more hit over the final 5 1/3 innings before reaching his 75-pitch limit. He retired the final 14 batters he faced, capped by a four-pitch strikeout against Phil Wunderlich in the seventh that really impressed an AL scout standing next to me. After getting two strikes, Maronde set up Wunderlich with a tight 78 mph slider off the plate for a ball, then came back the next pitch with a 73 mph breaking ball over the inside corner that froze Wunderlich. Maronde has the ability to add and subtract with his fastball and breaking ball, and his feel for pitching is advanced for a freshman. He spotted his 88-90 mph fastball well, and his 78-80 mph changeup was very effective against righthanded hitters. He has such a smooth, effortless arm action that it’s easy to see him reaching 92 mph (as he has in the past) and more.

"I thought he threw the ball really well," O’Sullivan said. "He doesn’t say a whole lot, but he has a competitive fire burning within him. He’s tough to hit. Our guys don’t see the ball too well off him–he really knows how to pitch."

The Gators limited Louisville All-American Chris Dominguez to just one hit (an RBI single in the first inning Sunday) on the weekend by giving him plenty of different looks and keeping him off balance. For instance, Maronde gave him five straight fastballs in the sixth, eventually sawing him off and getting him to pop up meekly to first. When Dominguez came up again with runners on first and second in the eighth, reliever Jeff Barfield gave him five straight breaking balls (though it resulted in a walk).

"I really give them a lot of credit for the way they pitched him," Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. "They pitched him really well–in and out, breaking balls, they did a phenomenal job. But Chris had some nice at-bats today. Chris is a superstar, and he’s going to be fine."

So will Louisville, which showcased a pair of power-armed relievers Sunday. Heralded freshman Tony Zych and sophomore righty Thomas Royse both topped out at 92 and showed the ability to locate their breaking balls.

"Tony Zych was phenomenal out of the bullpen," McDonnell said. "Thomas did a nice job, they just had a two-out rally in the ninth. We have some talent, we had some some bright spots, and we got to see some things."

Strike Two: Young Arms Step Forward For Wolverines

CLEARWATER, Fla.–Michigan was the best team at the inaugural Big East/Big Ten Challenge, capping a 4-0 weekend with a brisk 4-2 win over St. John’s on Sunday. The Johnnies had scored 33 runs over the previous two games, but Michigan got seven strong innings from lefty Eric Katzman and two quality innings of relief from righty Mike Dufek, who topped out at 92 mph according to Wolverines pitching coach Bob Keller.

"Katzman looked like he can be a No. 1 for many teams right now," Keller said. "He was 85-87 on the gun, like we expected, with a get-me-over curveball, a drop-down slider and a changeup. He got his fastball in to righthanded hitters. Katzman made some good plays off the mound and got some double plays when he needed. That was our fourth game and St. John’s third game, so it shows you the depth of pitching we have."

Keller said the Wolverines have four pitchers who own power sliders in the low-80s. They have huge arms in the bullpen in Tyler Burgoon (who was up to 92 with an 81 mph slider), Matt Miller (a nasty slider against righties and a vicious splitter to lefties) and Dufek.

The rotation has four able starters, led by senior righty Chris Fetter, the best pitcher in the Big Ten. But the the key development of the weekend was the maturation of sophomores Travis Smith (88-91 with a hard-breaking 81-83 slider) and Kolby Wood (87-89 with a good cutter), as well as Katzman. Overall, Michigan’s staff posted a 1.95 ERA and a 38-10 strikeout-walk ratio in 37 innings.

The Wolverines’ offense is talented in its own right, but the power arms really stood out compared with every other team at the Challenge.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Jason Kipnis

Jason Kipnis arrived at Arizona State in the fall of 2007 as a talented X-factor who had worn out his welcome at Kentucky for off-the-field issues. As a sophomore in 2008, Kipnis put up big numbers as a complementary player in a star-studded Arizona State offense centered around All-Americans Brett Wallace and Ike Davis. Kipnis slugged his way to third-team All-America honors last spring, batting .371/.485/.667 with 14 homers and 73 RBIs, and was drafted in the fourth round by the Padres. However, he didn’t sign, and scouts weren’t particularly impressed with him that summer in the Cape Cod League and questioned how he would perform as the focal point of ASU’s offense this spring.

The 6-foot, 180-pound center fielder got off to a good start in putting those questions to bed in Arizona State’s season-opening four-game sweep of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, going 12-for-17 with 11 runs, eight RBIs, four doubles, a triple, three home runs and an eye-popping 2.294 OPS.

"He had a pretty unbelievable four games," Arizona State assistant coach Josh Holliday said. "He hit the ball to all parts of the field: He homered to left, homered to right, doubled the other way–he really played a complete offensive weekend and made a couple of great plays in center field. That’s a part of his game that is not as talked about, but he can really track it down and he showed an improved throwing arm.

"I think he’s gotten better. He understands he’s in a little different setting than last year when he was kind of an unknown complementary player. He’s certainly not going to sneak up on anybody this year the way he did last year. He came back this fall a more complete player, a more mature player, a smarter player. Coach (Pat) Murphy’s really working on him to understand the game at a higher level."

Arizona State is breaking in a lot of new faces this year, with 12 newcomers appearing in at least three games this weekend. That’s why it was so important for Kipnis to be a steadying force in the lineup. He was that and quite a bit more.

"For our young ballclub to have him step up like that and get us going, it created a deep breath for the rest of the guys to play a more relaxed brand of baseball," Holliday said. "That’s what you want your older guys to do."