Three Strikes: Lefties Lift Kentucky To Series Win

Corey Littrell

Corey Littrell

Strike One: Lefties Lift Kentucky To Another Big Series Win

LEXINGTON, Ky.—Coaches often talk about how important it is for a Friday starter to set the tone for the weekend. But when you’ve got a rotation made up of three Friday starters who are all seasoned veterans, losing the series opener isn’t such a big deal.

Two weeks in a row, Kentucky has dropped Friday games, as shaky defense behind starter A.J. Reed led to three unearned runs in each game. But in both series—at Florida last week and home against Mississippi State this weekend—the Wildcats have bounced back to win the series, as veteran lefthanders Jerad Grundy and Corey Littrell have delivered strong starts.

“You always want to win every game, obviously, but when we lose a Friday game, it doesn’t really hurt us that much,” Kentucky center fielder Austin Cousino said. “We’re tough. We’re hard-nosed, and we’re really resilient. We shake things off really well.”

It’s like the old adage says: momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher. After Mississippi State won Friday’s opener 8-4, Grundy stifled the Bulldogs in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, allowing just two runs on six hits and no walks while striking out 10 over eight innings. And Littrell followed with seven gritty innings in the series finale, yielding three runs (one earned) on two hits over seven innings, persevering despite a career-high six walks.

Grundy started his career at Miami in 2010, then transferred back to Heartland (Ill.) Junior College for his sophomore year before landing at UK last year. He spent the entire season in the weekend rotation, going 6-3, 3.78, but he has become a much more consistent pitcher as a senior, going 5-1, 1.99 with 38 strikeouts and nine walks in 41 innings. Kentucky coach Gary Henderson said during the winter that it was very apparent to him that Grundy is “way better” than he was the previous spring.

“Yeah, I was right about that—it’s nice when you are,” Henderson said. “He was clearly better in the fall. He is an extremely steady kid—that’s just his personality. He’s grounded, knows who he is. I just felt that once I saw the skills and poise were indicative of growth, that he was going to be better, and he has been.”

The biggest difference for Grundy has been improved command of his fastball. In the past he could run his heater into the low 90s but didn’t locate it as well. Against MSU, he worked at 86-88 early and 83-85 late, but he hit his spots.

“I don’t have any doubt, that velocity is not done for life, but he’s dialed it back just a little bit, and It’s been a pretty positive thing for him, I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Henderson said. “He’s going to leave college baseball with three legit pitches and a chance to really do something in pro baseball.”

Grundy said he took advantage of Mississippi State’s aggressive approach by pitching backward, using his changeup and slider to get ahead early in counts, then going back to his fastball, but putting hitters away with his change. That 75-78 change was outstanding Saturday, showing serious tumble.

“Coming out of high school, I never threw a changeup, like most high schoolers,” Grundy said. “Last year and this year I’ve gotten better command of it and I’ve worked at throwing it to lefties, which I never did last year.”

Littrell said he developed feel for his changeup at an early age, partly because of his background. His grandfather, Jack Littrell, played shortstop in the big leagues for the Philadelphia Athletics and the Cubs, and his father (also Jack) pitched in the Dodgers and Expos organizations.

“That’s where I’ve kind of learned at an early age how to play baseball,” Littrell said. “My dad really ingrained that in me; I didn’t throw a curveball until I was 16. It was all fastball and changeup, so I think that’s why my changeup is a lot better now than it has been, just because I’ve always thrown it. So I’m comfortable with it.”

Littrell’s changeup flashed plus on Saturday, coming in at 80-83 with excellent deception and fading action. He developed an 82-84 cutter last year, and he said he often features that as his swing-and-miss pitch, but he struggled to find his feel for hit against the Bulldogs, so he leaned more on his changeup. He also was able to keep hitters off balance by dropping in a big-breaking 12-to-6 curveball in the mid-70s.

“He’s literally gone from a two-, to a three-, to a four-pitch guy since he got here, and he can repeat the delivery and the pitches,” Henderson said. “He’s like any four-pitch guy in college baseball, there are times you don’t have them all on, but if you have three, you’ll be fine.”

During MSU’s two-run third inning, the Wildcats made two errors behind Littrell, and he visibly began to overthrow, scattering his 88-91 mph fastball. But he limited the damage by stranding the bases loaded, then settled into a groove in the middle innings, retiring the final eight batters he faced from the fifth to the seventh.

“That’s my biggest thing is sometimes I try to overthrow it,” Littrell said. “When I try to overthrow, that’s when I leave balls up or throw a ball in the dirt. Once I take a deep breath, I’m able to figure it out. I realized, after about the second start this eyar against Akron, something clicked in my head and it was kind of like that ‘Aha!’ moment for me. I realized if I don’t try and overthrow it, everything’s better. My velocity’s harder, changeup has more movement, my cutter’s better, and my curveball’s always been like that too.”

As a true four-pitch lefty with a prototypical 6-foot-3, 195-pound build and a smooth arm action, it’s easy to see why Littrell is garnering top-two-rounds buzz from scouts this spring. Henderson said he has also made a dramatic improvement repeating his delivery last year and this year, and his command has gotten better. The results bear it out: After posting a 6.95 ERA as a freshman, Littrell went 9-2, 2.74 as a sophomore, and he’s off to a 3-0, 2.56 start this year, with 35 strikeouts and 14 walks in 39 innings.

Henderson said Littrell isn’t the Sunday starter by design, but that’s how the schedule shook out early in the season. The Wildcats like to use Reed on Friday because he is a two-way player, so they don’t want him getting hit by a pitch (for instance) in the first two games of the series, leaving the team in a lurch on the mound Sunday.

But Littrell has been a major asset in the No. 3 starter role, going 8-0 in rubber games over the past two seasons.

“You always think you want to pitch Fridays, but that’s not my role on this team; I’m the Sunday guy,” Littrell said. “I think it’s awesome for me, especially when the series is 1-1. My team has the most confidence in me, that’s what they always tell me: ‘Get it to 1-1 and Corey’s going to win.’ I think that’s fun for me because I love competing and I love playing this game. When all of it’s on me, I love that feeling. Sundays are just fun, and I’ve accepted that role.”

Strike Two: Houston, We Have Liftoff

When Houston went 2-1 at the Astros Foundation College Classic in early March, we wrote about the strides the Cougars are making under third-year head coach Todd Whitting, but we included the caveat that it was too early to anoint the Cougars a legitimate contender. After all, the Cougars were coming off an 18-35 season in 2012 (5-18 in Conference USA), and the pitching staff isn’t loaded with power arms.

But now that Houston is 21-4 overall—its best start since 1989—it is time to take the Cougars very seriously. Houston has won 10 straight games, a stretch that includes two wins over Baylor, one against Texas and a sweep of East Carolina this weekend. Those teams aren’t as good as they usually are, but they are still name-brand programs, and Whitting said he was very impressed with the quality of ECU’s pitching staff this weekend. Houston’s sterling start has landed the Cougars in Baseball America’s Top 25 for the first time since 2006. Even Whitting didn’t expect the turnaround to happen this fast.

“I’ll tell you what, it’s a little bit of a shock,” said Whitting, who played at Houston in the mid-90s and served as an assistant there from 1996-2003, before spending seven seasons on Texas Christian’s staff. “But just watching them do it, they’re doing it like they’re supposed to. The thing that’s a surprise to me is we lost four (key recruits) last summer to MLB. Then (seniors) Casey Grayson and Jake Lueneberg went down (with season-ending injuries). Then (junior third baseman) Jonathan Davis went down a few weeks ago, that’s our 3-4-5. We really don’t have any guys doing it by themselves; it literally is a team effort.”

The Cougars are relying upon six freshmen in the everyday lineup, including the top four hitters in the order—Josh Vidales, Kyle Kirk, Caleb Barker and Justin Montemayor. Sophomore outfielder Michael Pyeatt was buried on the depth chart the first few weeks of the season but has taken advantage of an opportunity created when Kyle Survance tweaked a hamstring. Now Pyeatt is a fixture in the No. 5 hole, and Whitting said “he’s one of our top hitters right now.”

The two most experienced players in the lineup, shortstop Frankie Ratcliff and center fielder Landon Appling, haven’t really gotten their bats going yet, but when they do, this lineup will be even more dangerous. And the dangerous Davis is ready to at least resume DH duties after working his way back from a separated shoulder.

Despite its draft losses, Houston’s freshman class is loaded with high achievers who are making a difference. The freshmen have been something of a surprise, but perhaps the biggest surprise has been the quality of the pitching staff.

Righthander Daniel Poncedeleon showed flashes of great promise at Cypress (Calif.) junior college but has turned a corner under the guidance of first-year pitching coach Frank Anderson at Houston. Poncedeleon (3-2, 3.28) has ascended to the Friday starter job and racked up eight strikeouts over eight strong innings against East Carolina. He has the best stuff on the staff, with a low-90s fastball and an 82-85 slider that is very effective when it’s on.

Senior righty Austin Pruitt struck out 13 in Saturday’s win, improving him to 5-1, 2.36 with 46 strikeouts and 10 walks in 46 innings this season. Pruitt, who led the NJCAA in ERA in 2011 while at Navarro (Texas) JC, doesn’t have overpowering fastball velocity, but he has significantly improved his ability to locate an 87-89 heater that bumps 90 at times, and his 12-to-6 curveball is an out pitch.

Freshman righthander Jake Lemoine pitched into the seventh in a strong outing Sunday. An unsigned 21st-round pick, Lemoine was one of Houston’s top recruits thanks to his upside, but his stuff has already improved since his high school days.

“His best pitch is his fastball—he’ll stay 90-92, touch 93-94 every now and then. And that fastball has power sink,” Whitting said. “Coach Anderson’s done a really good job getting him to a little bit lower arm slot, allowing it to move. The thing he showed (Sunday) was a pretty good slider. Once he settled in, he found his slider, that was his best outing I’ve seen from him. He’s gotten so much better since day one. He was already a big, strong kid, had a lot of ability; he just needed somebody to help him manage it.”

Whitting has raved about the job Anderson—the former Oklahoma State head coach and father of big leaguer Brett Anderson—has done with the pitching staff all season long, and the results speak for themselves. Another Cougar arm that has taken a major step forward under Anderson’s tutelage is junior righthander Chase Wellbrock, a 5-foot-10 bulldog who has become the anchor of the bullpen. He isn’t a prototypical flame-throwing closer—he’ll pitch in the mid-80s and mix in a solid 78-79 slider—but his competitiveness and command make him very valuable.

Whitting knows expectations for his club were low heading into this season, but he said that has played to Houston’s advantage, helping the team play loose and respond to adversity.

“We’re not expected to be any good—we’re starting six freshmen every day,” Whitting said. “So just go play. It’s very encouraging right now. These kids pay the right way; they play hard.”

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Andrew Pierce

Southern Mississippi is off to a disappointing start to the season. After the Golden Eagles' first 23 games, the team is 9-14. It's disappointing because this is a team predicted to finish second in Conference USA in 2013; a team that went 32-24 last season and entered the year ranked as the No. 23 team in the country.

Righthander Andrew Pierce gives the Golden Eagles their best chance to win, and that's exactly what they did on Friday night against Rice. With Pierce on the mound, giving the team seven innings while holding Rice to one run on seven hits, Southern Miss won 10-1. Pierce walked one and struck out four.

Through his first six starts of the season, the lanky senior is now 5-1, 1.81 with 47 strikeouts and five walks over 45 innings.

Putting up good numbers is nothing new for Pierce, who at 6-foot-4 is listed at just 160 pounds. Last season, he went 7-4, 1.99 with 96 strikeouts and 16 walks over 99 innings and was named the Conference USA newcomer of the year. Yet he went undrafted.

"He's a skinny kid and that's the only thing I can say—some of the pro guys, maybe they just felt like his body type wasn't conducive to pro ball," Southern Mississippi pitching coach Mike Federico said. "With his numbers and some of the opponents he pitched against, I really don't know why he wasn't drafted. I think a lot of those guys now that have seen him the first couple starts of the year, they're probably wondering the same thing. But we're excited that he was able to come back. He's a good one."

Pierce throws three pitches for strikes. His fastball sits in the 87-90 mph range and gets as high as 93 mph. He gets a lot of late sinking action on the pitch, thanks to his low three-quarters arm slot. His changeup is his best secondary pitch and his slider has big, sweeping horizontal break. He has the feel and awareness to add and subtract from his pitches, when necessary.

Even with his gangly build, Pierce has deception in his delivery.

"Everything is just loose and wiry," Federico said. "He has so much deception. He kind of coils his body a little bit and then just explodes forward, but he consistently hides the ball. It's funky, but it's very loose and very easy at the same time."

Pierce also shows a lot of poise on the mound.

"Because of his size, he's always had to be the fighter," Federico said. "He's always had to prove himself and he kind of walks around with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder (and thinks), 'I've got to do more than the other person just because of the way I look, or because I'm a little old school,' or whatever. But he's ultra, ultra competitive with his teammates, with himself and, of course, with the opponents as well."