Three Strikes: March 10

Strike One: Leader Of The ‘Pack

RALEIGH, N.C.–Conference play is underway in a number of leagues across the nation, most notably the Atlantic Coast Conference. For the most part, the first weekend of ACC play went according to script, with favorites Miami, Georgia Tech and Florida State sweeping home series against teams from the northern half of the conference and North Carolina winning its series at Duke. But there were two minor upsets, as Wake Forest and North Carolina State won home series against Clemson and Virginia, respectively. Neither of these results is a shocking upset, because Wake and N.C. State were both strong regional contenders heading into the season, but both teams gave their at-large hopes a major leg up this weekend.

Wake Forest is an offensive club (for more on the Deacons, check out the Scouting Report section of Friday’s weekend preview), but the Wolfpack will rely heavily upon its strong pitching staff. The series in Raleigh featured perhaps the two best pitching staffs in the ACC, and true to form, it was a low-scoring weekend. A cold, howling wind further stymied offense in Saturday’s doubleheader, which featured a premier pitching matchup between Virginia righthander Jacob Thompson and N.C. State lefty Eric Surkamp in the first game. The Wolfpack got to Thompson for two runs on three flares in the first inning, but he ended the threat by getting Tommy Foschi to fly out meekly to right with the bases loaded. After that, Thompson cruised, retiring the next 14 batters until issuing a one-out walk in the sixth. He worked in the 88-91 mph range with his fastball and used his excellent downer curve, quality changeup and slider to rack up seven strikeouts over the first three innings and eight overall in 6 1/3 innings.

Surkamp, meanwhile, worked in the 86-88 range but got six strikeouts of his own thanks to his exceptional changeup and solid breaking ball. N.C. State is being careful with him early in the season, so he left the game after six innings having thrown 83 pitches and allowed two runs. The Wolfpack trailed 3-2 heading into the ninth but got a run against UVa. closer Michael Schwimer to force extra innings. But the Cavaliers won it in the 10th on freshman Phil Gosselin’s two-run homer down the left-field line. N.C. State blew a chance to come back in the bottom of the frame, when Pat Ferguson followed Russell Wilson too closely to third base on Marcus Jones’ single, then had to retreat to second when Wilson held up at third. Ferguson was tagged out at second, and the game ended one batter later.

The Wolfpack had 40 minutes to regroup for the second game, and they rose to the occasion with a 2-0 win behind eight dynamite innings from junior righthander Clayton Shunick, whose quality four-pitch mix includes an 88-91 mph fastball that touches 92, a split-finger, changeup and slider.

"(The first game was) a great game the whole way between two All-American pitchers, and you battle back and tie it in the bottom of the ninth against their closer, then they hit a two-out, two-run homer in the 10th, and for all intents and purposes that probably seemed to everyone in the ballpark like that did it," N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. "But to bounce back–and without that baserunning mistake, we think we’re going to win that game–then to lose it, in what seemed like devastating fashion, and then . . . to bounce back and win that ballgame, I thought it spoke volumes about our ballclub."

N.C. State got another strong start Sunday from senior righthander Eryk McConnell, the former closer who has thrived back in the weekend rotation. Taking his place at the back of the pen is sophomore lefty Jimmy Gillheeney, whose poise and feel for pitching are calming influences in tight situations, despite stuff that is not overpowering. But Avent said the key for the Wolpack will be how well they defend in key situations. He said he wasn’t concerned about the six errors his team made that did not amount to much, but he’s been encouraged by the solid play of his deep group of outfielders, including Marcus Jones, Jeremy Synan, Devon Cartwright, Ryan Pond, Matt Payne and Wade Moore.

"We have more speed in the outfield than we’ve ever probably had here," Avent said. "We’ve had it in certain places before, but I don’t think we’ve ever had the ability to have three guys out there who can run the way our guys can. Sometimes you don’t notice it until you have guys in the outfield who start taking hits away. I’m sure its reassuring to our pitching staff, because it seems like when the ball’s hit, we’ve got a chance. I think they’ll start relying on that outfield pretty consistently. It will give us better confidence to be around the plate, throw strikes and conserve pitch counts."

Strike Two: Meet The Indians

What a week it’s been for Arkansas State. First the Indians went to No. 2 Mississippi and scored a 7-5 win, then they opened conference play on the road against preseason Sun Belt favorite Louisiana-Lafayette and came away with a sweep. Arkansas State is sitting pretty at 8-4, with a 3-0 mark in conference.

One key for the Indians this week was they did not sacrifice their conference-opening series just to make a big splash nationally. They saved ace righthander Chase Ware, a junior transfer from Northwest Mississippi Community College, for the Ragin’ Cajuns and used five relievers to beat the Rebels.

"We went down there (to Oxford), and I’ll be honest, we expected to win the game," said Arkansas State coach Keith Kessinger, who played for the Rebels and was an assistant coach for them for four seasons. "Our guys get on the bus and they expect to win. We were thrilled to win, but we went about it in a way that wasn’t going to hurt us for this weekend. We opened up conference play this weekend, and we opened up with the team everybody thought was going to walk away with the league.

"Sometimes, some of us mid-majors, we get labeled as saving our No. 1 guys, and you go at their No. 5, and we sneak a win. And sometimes that happens–we don’t get a lot of shots at the No. 2 team in the nation. But this time, they had their No. 4 or 5 guy, and we had bullpen guys, and we got the win."

So the Indians had plenty of confidence heading into the Lafayette series. Ware, a legitimate prospect who works in the 88-93 range and has a very good splitter, got things started with a complete-game, three-hit shutout on Friday, one week after he beat Kansas State 2-1 and two weeks after he pitched well in a no-decision against Ohio State.

"Chase Ware has just been fantastic all three times out for us. If you can match up against people Friday night, it gives you a real chance," Kessinger said. "That’s what we’ve lacked here over the last few years is not so much depth as those top-end guys."

The team’s overall talent level has improved dramatically thanks to a strong recruiting class. Freshmen Todd Baumgartner and Drew Benes and junior college transfer Derrick Coleman have been ASU’s best hitters in the early going. Baumgartner, a terrific athlete with power and speed, went 6-for-11 over the final two games of the series, and Benes, the son of former big leaguer Andy Benes, leads the team in homers (three) and RBIs (11), as well as strikeouts (16). He’s raw, but he’s also clearly talented. And another juco transfer, soft-tossing, tenacious righthander Chris Bullington, has been the glue in the bullpen.

All the pieces have come together out of the gate.

"I’m not surprised we’re playing this well," Kessinger said. "I’m a little surprised it’s happening as quickly as it has."

Strike Three: Treading Water

A look at Baseball America’s top 25 rankings this morning reveals three teams with .500 records clinging tentatively to spots the back of the rankings: San Diego, Oregon State and Michigan. All three opened the year ranked in the top 11, and all three have taken their lumps early on but showed enough promise to remain on notice in the rankings for another week. San Diego has played a difficult schedule and compiled a 5-2 mark against ranked teams; Oregon State has also challenged itself and fared not as well against the top 25, but the Beavers at least have a series win against Georgia under their belts. Michigan opened its season by sweeping a mediocre Villanova team, but since then the Wolverines have mustered just two wins in tournaments at warm-weather locations.

I had a look at the Wolverines in the Keith LeClair Classic this weekend in Greenville, N.C., and I remain convinced that they will be a very good offensive team as the season progresses. Jason Christian, Adam Abraham and Zach Putnam are front-line players on any college offense, and there’s plenty of depth as well. The key will be straightening out the rotation; lefthander Mike Wilson has struggled, and Zach Putnam finally made his first extended start this weekend. He looked good with a repertoire of pitches that goes five deep, including a 90-92 mph fastball that topped out at 93 and an outstanding low-80s splitter, but Michigan still took the loss. Still, his strong return is the most encouraging sign of the weekend, and Chris Fetter pitched very well for the third straight week on Sunday. If Wilson can start throwing from a more consistent release point and do a better job commanding his stuff, the Wolverines will be just fine.