Three Strikes: Feb. 26

Strike One: Rock, Chalk, RedHawk?
A number of Midwestern teams went down South and won series this weekend, but none were more impressive than Miami (Ohio). The RedHawks were supposed to open their season last week at Western Kentucky, but the series was cancelled by snow and ice, so Miami was forced to open this weekend on the road against a ranked Winthrop team that had been playing games for three weeks. The RedHawks, on the other hand, have yet to practice outside even once. But somebody forgot to tell Miami it wasn’t supposed to win the series; junior righthanders John Ely and Connor Graham helped lead the RedHawks to big wins in the first two games, and Miami nearly completed the sweep in the nightcap of Saturday’s doubleheader before Winthrop scored the winning run on a 10th-inning wild pitch. The message was clear: Miami is going to be a force in the Mid-American conference this year and a handful for Evansville and Texas the next two weeks.

Ely and Graham give the RedHawks a chance to win any series. Both pitchers were on 90-95 pitch counts this weekend, but both were economical with their pitches and both completed six innings of work. Winthrop scored in each of the first two innings against both, but both settled down thereafter.

“John had a little bit of nerves or anxiety getting out there for the first time this year,” Miami coach Dan Simonds said. “He made some real good adjustments from the second inning on. He didn’t quite have his changeup, he didn’t have his ‘A’ stuff, but he was able to pitch around that.

“Connor seemed to really command his offspeed stuff better than his fastball. He had a stretch of two innings where he had very good command of his offspeed, but not as much with the fastball. With both of them, they were as strong with their last pitch as they were with their first, which was good to see.”

The play of redshirt sophomore catcher Josh Hula will be key for Miami’s pitching staff, which will also be counting on contributions from promising freshmen Jamaal Hollis and Reece Asbury. Hula, a transfer from Ohio State, has played just 25 games in his collegiate career, but Simonds says he has good catch-and-throw skills and does a good job controlling the running game. The RedHawks are also encouraged by Hula’s ability to handle the pitching staff. It will be interesting to see what he can do with Hollis, who can run his fastball up to 94 mph, and Asbury, who touches 91 and works with a good three-pitch mix.

Strike Two: More Midwestern Madness

Like Miami (Ohio), Michigan opened its season this weekend with a three-game series against a quality warm-weather team (Bethune-Cookman) that has been playing for weeks, but unlike the RedHawks, Michigan completed its sweep. The Wolverines got a strong start by ace righthander Zach Putnam in their opener in Port St. Lucie, Fla., on Friday. Then on Saturday, 6-foot-8 righty Chris Fetter and two-way player Adam Abraham combined to strike out nine as Michigan out-hit BCC 12-4. That’s the opposite of what you’d expect from a cold-weather team playing a good warm-weather team this time of year. Like the RedHawks, Michigan went to extra innings in the series finale, finally winning on a walk-off homer by center fielder Eric Rose. The Wolverines have plenty of pitching and plenty of hitting (Putnam also had six hits on the weekend, including a pair of triples), and they seem to be clicking much earlier than anticipated.

Meanwhile, Miami (Ohio) wasn’t the only MAC team to travel South and take a series from a talented team. Kent State took two out of three at Florida, clinching the series behind five shutout frames by super freshman righty Kyle Smith in a 1-0 win Sunday. Fellow freshman Billy Bullock pitched well for the Gators, allowing just the one run over seven innings, but the end result is that Florida has dropped home series to Virginia Military and Kent State, sandwiched around a series win against Miami. Florida also got some bad news, losing third baseman Brandon McArthur for the rest of the season with elbow sugery and then losing first baseman Matt LaPorta with an ankle injury that is likely to sideline him for the near future. That’s a tough team to get a read on because it relies upon so many freshmen, but don’t write it off for losing to Kent State. The Golden Flashes clearly have talent, and as this weekend proved, cold-weather teams from the Midwest are no pushovers, even in February.

One more example–Wright State, the defending Horizon League champion, which went to Mississippi and beat the Rebels twice in three games. Senior lefthander Kyle Kearcher picked up the victory for the Raiders with six solid innings Sunday, just nine months after having Tommy John surgery.

Strike Three: All-America Checkup

Scouts will be watching James Madison’s Kellen Kulbacki closely all season, and the junior outfielder has gotten off to one of the best starts of any hitter in the nation for the second straight year. Kulbacki’s Dukes went just 1-3 in a round-robin Buckeye Classic at the Yankees’ Legends Field in Tampa. Kulbacki homered twice Sunday in an 11-7 loss to Kansas State and went 10-for-16 on the weekend with three homers and seven RBIs in four games. While the scouting consensus is that Kulbacki’s ridiculous 2006 season (.464, 24 HRs to lead the nation) was attributable as much to metal bats as to his talent, he impressed one scout with his ability to use the whole field this weekend, stinging the ball from pole to pole. Scouts were out in force to see Kulbacki, with at least three scouting directors on hand.

Kulbacki’s fast start matches that of the nation’s top two starting pitchers. Vanderbilt’s David Price struck out 10 more in his third start over the weekend and has 28 K’s (with just five walks) in 18 innings while getting off to a 2-0, 3.57 start. But North Carolina’s State’s Andrew Brackman has been a bit better–against William & Mary, Gardner-Webb and Coastal Carolina, Brackman has allowed just two runs (one earned) in 17 innings, while fanning 18. Brackman retired seven of the last eight batters he faced Saturday against the Chanticleers and pitched into the eighth inning, continuing his strong start to the season. And UC Riverside righthander James Simmons, a preseason third-teamer, is off to perhaps the best start in the nation–4-0, 0.62, 34-4 strikeout-walk ratio in 29 innings.

At the other end of the spectrum, our first-team All-America shortstop, Mississippi junior Zack Cozart, had his first multi-hit game of the season but remained mired in a slump for the Rebels. Cozart is just 4-for-29, a .138 average.