Three Strikes: Feb. 25

Strike One: Raising Arizona

My ambitious travel plan for college baseball’s opening weekend was compromised by lousy weather across the Southeast on Friday and a good friend’s funeral Saturday in Greensboro, N.C., so I didn’t get a chance to see Arizona win an intense, competitive road series against a veteran Georgia club down in Athens. Even after ace righty Preston Guilmet was shelled on Opening Day, the Wildcats showed plenty of toughness by bouncing back to win the final two games of the series in a hostile environment. For that, Arizona ascended to No. 1 in the rankings for the first time since 1989.

The Wildcats got contributions from all over their roster, but outfielders Hunter Pace and Jon Gaston set the hard-nosed tone from the top two spots in the lineup. Gaston was ejected in the eighth inning Sunday after trying to collide with catcher Bryce Massanari, an apparent payback attempt for an earlier clean play when Georgia’s Lyle Allen leveled Wildcats catcher Dwight Childs, who was blocking the plate. Gaston might have crossed the line on that play, but he backed up his passion by going 5-for-12 with three RBIs on the weekend. With Pace and Gaston creating havoc atop the order and C.J. Ziegler, Dillon Baird, T.J. Steele and even Diallo Fon providing power in the heart of the lineup, Arizona boasts a very dangerous lineup to complement its loaded pitching staff.

But as impressive as Arizona’s weekend was, another team from the Grand Canyon State had the best weekend of any team in the nation. Arizona State had the benefit of playing at home in friendly Packard Stadium, and the Sun Devils took full advantage, obliterating preseason No. 3 Vanderbilt and two-time defending champion (and seventh-ranked) Oregon State by a combined score of 29-6. ASU appeared to get some good news Friday when sophomore closer Jason Jarvis was ruled academically eligible for the time being at least, and though he submitted a scoreless inning of relief Sunday against the Beavers, the Sun Devils hardly needed him on this weekend. Familiar faces like Mike Leake and Josh Satow gave Arizona State characteristically strong starts on the mound, while returning boppers like Brett Wallace, Ike Davis, Kiel Roling and Petey Paramore were back to their frightening pre-Omaha form offensively. Newcomers like Jason Kipnis and Matt Newman made solid contributions in their first weekend as Sun Devils, suggesting this lineup could wind up being nearly as deep as last year’s ASU edition. Arizona State will score a lot of runs again this season–no one ever doubted that–but keeping Jarvis eligible will be crucial for the inevitable close games.

Strike Two: Flashes Of Promise

GREENSBORO, N.C.–I took advantage of being in Greensboro on Saturday to get a look at potential first-round pick Chris Carpenter, a redshirt junior righthander who started the first game of Kent State’s Saturday doubleheader at UNC Greensboro. The Golden Flashes have three immensely talented arms in their rotation, and I went back on Sunday to see sophomore righty Brad Stillings, who upstaged Carpenter and No. 2 starter Kyle Smith, another touted sophomore righty.

The Spartans saddled Carpenter with a loss Saturday, putting up five runs on eight hits over 4 1/3 innings against him. Carpenter’s fastball velocity wasn’t bad for his first start outdoors–he sat in the 90-92 range and touched 96 early, then touched 94 in the fourth inning–but he struggled to command his curveball, which nonetheless showed good depth. UNCG is a talented, experienced offensive club, and the Spartans piled on against the Kent State bullpen, winning the opener 12-3.

Smith worked in the 89-93 range and flashed a good slider, but he fell behind in counts often and lasted just four innings in the second game, allowing four earned runs on five hits and five walks. The Flashes scored twice in the 10th to earn a 7-5 win. Stillings was exceptional Sunday, taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning before Florida transfer Matt Gaski, son of UNCG coach Mike Gaski, slapped a single through the left side of the infield. Stillings, the No. 1 prospect in last summer’s Great Lakes League, allowed just that one hit over six shutout innings, striking out five. He worked in the 91-93 range with a lively fastball in the early innings, then settled into the 88-92 range as the game progressed, and his low-80s breaking ball was devastating at times.

"He was very good. He threw a lot of strikes, he mixed his pitches, he spotted his fastball, he used his breaking ball (and) he got a couple outs with his changeup," Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said. "He’s very good–he’s got a lot of pitchability to him and he’s got a lot of projection to him. It’s encouraging that right now he’s sitting in our three hole and he threw like that. I hope our one and two guys took note, because our one and two guys didn’t throw well this weekend."

Coach Gaski said his team’s approach was to bide its time and try to work the count against Kent State’s power arms, then try to do some damage against the bullpen. That’s exactly what happened Sunday, as the Spartans scored two in the eighth to tie the score against the Kent State bullpen, then won it with a run in the 10th.

"(Working the count and hanging around is) what you’ve got to do against a great guy, and hopefully you can put a pitcher out there who can keep it close so that they don’t separate themselves too much," Gaski said. "We’ve had our lumps for a couple of years, but (UNCG) is an experienced positional team. Our hitters have all had a lot of at-bats in their college careers, they’ve got a simple approach, and (Carpenter) was throwing 93-95 at times and our guys turned it around."

It was a big series win for the Spartans against a Kent State team that is the favorite to win the Mid-American Conference and an intriguing deep Omaha sleeper because of its power arms. But Stricklin was confident his team would rebound.

"It’s the first weekend, and that’s what I’m trying to stress right now," he said. "They’re a good hitting team, they’re a very good offensive team. I just think on the mound, this is the first time we’ve seen dirt and grass in really four months. This was our first chance to get outside. I thought we competed. I didn’t think we played particularly well, but I thought we competed. And I think brighter days are ahead for us."

Strike Three: Gamecocks Hold On

COLUMBIA, S.C.–After seeing Carpenter pitch Saturday, I buzzed down to Columbia to catch the second game of East Carolina’s doubleheader against South Carolina. The first game had been a laugher, as South Carolina had jumped on ECU ace T.J. Hose for 11 runs in 1 1/3 innings, then rolled to a 22-5 win. Hose is a quality senior righthander who seldom gets hit like that, and his stuff was fine–an 87-90 mph fastball and 78-80 slider, like usual. But afterward, a Gamecocks player admitted to East Carolina outfielder Jonathan Ratledge (who transferred from South Carolina after last season) that Hose was tipping his pitches. Hose said he found out that he was cocking his pitching wrist while it was in his glove when he was going to throw an offspeed pitch, and the Gamecocks took note.

Tipped pitches or no, South Carolina junior shortstop Reese Havens was locked in. Batting in the leadoff spot, Havens went 5-for-6 with a homer and five RBIs in the first game, then went deep again in the nightcap. If it wasn’t already clear by Havens’ strong performance in the Cape Cod League last summer, it now should be obvious that his mediocre sophomore campaign is behind him.

"I think he carried a little momentum from the Cape into the fall," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. "He’s much more confident with his offensive approach, and he had a nice day (Saturday). He was very disciplined; he hit some fastballs, he hit a couple changeups, a breaking ball. He had that kind of discipline in the Cape this summer. I think that leadoff spot suits him well–he works the count, he doesn’t run as good as a lot of leadoff guys, but I think he fits the mold to hit up there for us. Two games, but so far, so good."

Havens said a mechanical adjustment last summer has helped him considerably. He dropped his hands next to his chest and incorporated his legs into his swing more. One American League area scout observed that Havens’ setup is "very unorthodox, but he’s got bat speed."

"It helps me stay through the strike zone longer and kind of stay level, and I just felt comfortable with it, so I stuck with it," Havens said.

To the Pirates’ credit, they did not roll over after being blown out in the first game. Instead, they turned the tables on South Carolina, winning the second game 13-4 behind a solid debut from freshman Seth Maness and 4 1/3 strong innings of relief from junior Daniel Holder. Holder said the key against South Carolina was throwing first-pitch strikes, because falling behind in the count against that experienced, dangerous offense is deadly.

Holder’s performance gave the rest of the pitching staff a much-needed respite after the blowout in the first game, but the Pirates didn’t have quite enough left in the bullpen tank to prevent South Carolina from pushing across a run in the 11th inning Sunday to escape with a 7-6 win. Still, the Pirates showed they can respond to adversity and compete with one of the nation’s best offensive clubs in its own ballpark.

"Our guys responded," Pirates coach Billy Godwin said. "I think we’ve got a good offensive club too, and I was just really proud of the way our guys came out and responded in Game Two."