Three Strikes: Feb. 5

Strike One: Catch Those Pop-ups!

In a slightly wacky weekend of college baseball, two games turned when routine pop-ups were dropped. First on Friday, UCLA’s Tyson Brummett and Winthrop’s Alex Wilson engaged in a super pitching duel, where runs were hard to come by. With the score knotted at one with two outs in the UCLA eighth, Winthrop second baseman Phil Carey dropped a high pop-up and allowed Will Penniall to score from second. Penniall had started things with a pinch-hit double. Give Winthrop credit for coming back with a 6-4 win Saturday, but the Bruins answered with 19 runs on Sunday. The Eagles could have stolen another season-opening series on the road if Carey had squeezed a little tighter Friday night.

The team that Winthrop shocked in last year’s season-opening set–Miami–was stunned by Mercer on Friday, but the Hurricanes were even more stunned Saturday when reliever David Gutierrez dropped a pop-up in front of the plate, allowing the go-ahead run to score and breaking a 5-5 tie in the seventh inning. The Bears tacked on a couple of insurance runs later, but the defensive gaffe was the critical moment. Don’t expect too many more gifts like that from the Hurricanes; their defense should be very sound this year, anchored by premium defenders Jemile Weeks, Ryan Jackson and Blake Tekotte up the middle. That’s not to marginalize Mercer’s strong start. Senior righthander Brantley New gives them a chance to win every Friday, and his workmanline five innings against Miami kept them in the game. And closer Cory Gearrin, the top prospect in the Atlantic Sun Conference, was solid, striking out two in his save Friday and whiffing four more in a two-inning save Saturday.

Strike Two: Titanic Start

Cal State Fullerton entered its weekend series against Stanford with plenty of questions. How would ace Wes Roemer pitch with his broken pinky? (Answer: Eight strikeouts over six solid innings while allowing three earned runs on five hits.) Was infielder Joe Scott (pictured at right) completely recovered from the displaced knuckle that sidelined him in the fall, and would he be able to handle shortstop now that freshman Nate Bridges is ineligible? (Answer: Scott went 3-for-4 Friday and 3-for-4 Saturday while batting low in the order, so the Titans moved him to the leadoff spot Sunday. Scott proceeded to go 3-for-4 with three RBIs). Who was going to replace Vinnie Pestano and Ryan Paul in the back of the bullpen? (Answer: Freshman Michael Morrison gave the Titans three strong innings Friday, and junior Nolan Bruyninckx re-emerged from two years of obscurity to get three outs on 10 pitches Sunday, striking out one to pick up the save.) The lesson, as always: it’s unwise to doubt Fullerton coach George Horton.

Strike Three: Watch Out For The Wildcats

It was hard to get a read on Arizona entering 2007. The Wildcats have talent, for sure, but much of it is very young talent, and who knows how young players will perform? Well, if the opening weekend was any indication, Arizona could surprise some people in the Pacific-10 Conference. The Wildcats were dominant in a weekend sweep of Gonzaga, starting with Preston Guilmet’s near no-hitter on Friday night. Guilmet, a sophomore righthander, retired 17 in a row at one point and carried his no-no into the ninth inning, but Gonzaga’s Evan Wells singled to start the ninth. Guilmet led the Wildcats with 94 innings a year ago, and he looks ready to emerge as a legitimate Friday night starter in the Pac-10. First baseman/DH C.J. Ziegler also had an encouraging debut, going 4-for-5 with three doubles, which tied the school’s single-game record. Righthander Mike Colla, a highly touted recruit out of Fresno, Calif., last year, threw 4.2 shutout innings in relief of Daniel Schlereth on Saturday, which is another very positive sign for the Wildcats. Then senior lefty Brad Mills allowed just one run over 6.2 innings Sunday. If Colla can slide into the weekend rotation to complement Guilmet and Mills, Arizona’s staff will be formidable. That might allow the Wildcats to slide Schlereth to the closer role, where he could thrive thanks to his power arm.