Three Strikes: March 12

Strike One: Tar Heels Ace First Test

Make no mistake, Miami is scuffling. As one National League scouting director put it Sunday, “They’re just not a very good club right now.” But even though the Hurricanes tumbled out of the rankings from their precarious perch at No. 11, give North Carolina credit for an impressive weekend sweep. Miami still has enormous talent on offense and one of the best infields in the nation with big-time power bats on the corners (Yonder Alonso and Mark Sobolewski), a premium defender at shortstop in freshman Ryan Jackson and one of the best all-around players in college baseball in second baseman Jemile Weeks. Weeks dazzled Sunday, crushing a home run to right field, doubling and making a sparkling defensive play where he ranged far to his left, spun around and made an accurate, quick throw to first base. Right fielder Dennis Raben has emerged from his early season funk with a pair of two-homer games over the last two weekends, giving Alonso some much-needed protection in the heart of the order. After blowing an early 4-0 lead Sunday, Miami battled back and even loaded the bases in the ninth inning before UNC closer Andrew Carignan got Jackson (the potential tying run) to ground out to second base. Miami might be struggling mightily on the mound, but it can still hit with the best of them.

“It’s a great feat for our guys. Miami’s a great team, a great program, well coached,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “You have to play well against them, and in our league those last three outs are always tough to get. I’m just happy for our guys–we got started off (in Atlantic Coast Conference play) on a good note. You have to take care of business at home, and sweeps are so hard to do in this league, so I’m a little surprised, actually.”

There were plenty of scouts and no fewer than three major league scouting directors on hand to see the Sunday game, which featured subpar performances from UNC junior righthander Luke Putkonen and Miami junior lefty Manny Miguelez. Putkonen, who has run his fastball up to 94 mph at times, worked in the 90-91 range and consistently left fastballs and curveballs up. One scout said he wasn’t getting his front side around. Miguelez looked good in the first inning, showing a 90-92 mph fastball, but his stuff dropped off quickly in the second inning, when the Tar Heels hung five runs on him.

Pitching continues to be Miami’s Achilles’ heel. Ace lefthander Scott Maine has been sick, and he appears to be suffering some lingering effects, allowing six runs (three earned) over three innings Friday. Freshman Eric Erickson has been Miami’s most reliable arm, but the Enrique Garcia experiment didn’t work out in the bullpen. Garcia was a starter for two years at Potomac (W.Va.) State CC, and the Hurricanes tried to convert him to a closer, but he didn’t take to the role. He’s now back in a midweek starter spot, and senior righty Danny Gil has taken his 88-89 mph fastball and quality split-finger to the closer role. One encouraging sign: redshirt freshman righty David Gutierrez showed very good stuff in two scoreless innings of relief Sunday, yielding just two hits. He, Raben and freshman righty Alex Koronis have the potential to form a very strong bullpen around Gil, but they need experience. One thing to keep in mind: this Miami team is still very young, and chances are it will get better as the year progresses. Hurricanes coach Jim Morris said he thought the preseason No. 2 ranking was actually too high for this team, because the ‘Canes are counting on key contributions from freshmen at catcher, shortstop, third base, in the rotation and in the bullpen. As they mature, Miami could still make a late run, much like it did last year.

Strike Two: Titanic Trouble

Right before East Carolina opened its series against Cal State Fullerton on Friday, Pirates coach Billy Godwin lounged comfortably in the dugout, his team around him looking similarly at ease. I asked him if his guys were excited to play Fullerton, a pretty darn good team.

“Yeah,” he said, “but I think we’re a pretty darn good team, too.”

Meanwhile, Fullerton coach George Horton told his players on the bus before Friday’s game that they wouldn’t have any excuses to fall back on. Sure, they had taken a red-eye flight early Thursday morning, but they’d had all day Thursday to sleep. They needed to be ready to play. The Titans sure looked flat all weekend, but it might not be because of the rigors of travel. For one thing, East Carolina is a very solid club that plays very well at home. But for another, Fullerton just doesn’t have the talent it has grown accustomed to in recent years. Ace Wes Roemer hasn’t been dominating on Friday nights, and the rotation behind him is very inexperienced, though Jeff Kaplan pitched well again in a loss Saturday. The bullpen remains unsettled–senior Nolan Bruyninckx, one potential solution at closer, gave up three runs in the eighth inning Sunday, allowing the Pirates to put the game away. The Titans’ most talented player on offense, freshman Khris Davis, is still very raw, particularly in the outfield. And the infield sorely misses third baseman Evan McArthur, who has gotten the cast removed from his broken hamate bone and has been taking grounders for a couple of weeks, even with the cast. McArthur hopes to be back in for Fullerton’s series with Long Beach State in two weeks, but that might be too optimistic. In the meantime, the Titans will have their hands full next weekend when No. 11 Pepperdine comes to town. With experienced, quality arms and a well-rounded offense, the Waves are the best team in California right now. Of course, The Pirates beat Pepperdine last Friday.

Strike Three: Knocking On The Door

There was plenty of competition for spots at the back of the Top 25 this week, as UC Irvine, Mississippi State, Arizona, Nebraska all made strong cases for their inclusion. The Anteaters added a sweep of Nevada to a resume that already includes sweeps of Houston (on the road) and Utah. The emergence of junior righthander Wes Etheridge (eight scoreless innings) as Saturday starter gives Irvine an enviable one-two punch atop the rotation, and senior righthander Dylan Axelrod has taken to a switch from the rotation to the bullpen, striking out nine over five solid innings of relief Sunday. And oh, by the way, senior righty Blair Erickson picked up his 47th and 48th saves of his career on Saturday and Sunday, giving him the new Big West Conference record and leaving him one shy of tying Jack Krawczyk’s record.

Arizona, meanwhile, pulled out a tough weekend series at Hawaii, one of the more difficult road trips to make. The Wildcats got strong starts from Preston Guilmet, Brad Mills and David Coulon, who has taken to the Sunday starter spot. Nebraska also won two out of three in a tough road trip, winning the final two games at Alabama even after ace lefty Tony Watson got shelled on Friday. And Mississippi State improved to 10-2 after a nice 2-1 weekend at the Quala-T Imprints Baylor Classic. The Bulldogs put up five runs against Winthrop ace Alex Wilson on Friday before losing in extra innings, but they bounced back with quality wins against Baylor and San Francisco the next two days. Mississippi State showed it can hit without a dominant performance from its starting pitching in Saturday’s 8-6 win against highly touted Baylor freshman Kendall Volz. Then on Sunday, the Bulldogs showed they can win a pitching duel, as Josh Johnson struck out 11 and allowed just one run over eight innings in a 2-1 win.