Three Strikes: March 16

Strike One: Big Monday

Two "Big" conferences are living large a month into the season.

Despite all the success that Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State have had over the years, the Big West has long lived in the shadow of the Pacific-10 Conference, particularly around NCAA tournament selection time. Over the last two decades, the Big 10 has taken a similar backseat to the Missouri Valley Conference in the upper Midwest.

This year, the tables have turned–at least through four weeks. The Big West boasts four teams in the top 25, and a fifth (UC Riverside) knocking on the door of the rankings. The Pac-10, meanwhile, has one team ranked (Arizona State). The reason for the disparity? The Big West has an aggregate record of 80-58 (.580 winning percentage). The Pac-10 is just 75-76 (.497).

And it’s not like the Big West teams are just fattening their records against creampuffs. Boyd’s World ranks Fullerton’s strength of schedule the toughest in the nation so far, with Cal Poly (11), Riverside (13), Pacific (14), UC Santa Barbara (16), UC Irvine (17) and Long Beach State (29) all ranking in the top 30.

The Big West is simply stronger than the Pac-10 this year, and it seems likely that the Big West will earn more regional bids than its better-bankrolled brother. With the Pac-10 down, it’s a good time for the Big West to be up. The Big West coaches are already eyeing five regional bids.

"I talked about that with (UCSB) Coach (Bob) Brontsema (last week): maybe this is the year we get five teams in," Riverside coach Doug Smith said. "If those four or five teams keep playing that well, it would be a good year to have four or five teams in."

The Big 10, meanwhile, stands to benefit from the MVC’s struggles. Both were one-bid leagues a year ago, but the Missouri Valley Conference got two bids in each of the three previous years. With a 60-78 (.435) aggregate record, the Valley looks well on its way to a one-bid season, giving the Big 10 (72-67, .518) a chance to pick up a berth.

Though perennial Big 10 power Michigan stumbled this weekend, getting swept at Arizona, the Wolverines are still 10-5 and talented enough to win the conference title again. But they’ll have plenty of competition from Minnesota (10-3 after winning two games at Texas Christian), Illinois (11-2 and won a series at Louisiana State last weekend), Ohio State (13-2 against a softer schedule) and Indiana (the preseason favorite, which has started just 6-8). Still, getting more than two bids will be difficult with teams like Michigan State (2-13, Iowa (3-8) and Northwestern (4-10) putting a drain on the conference in the Ratings Percentage Index.

Strike Two: UCLA Shows Some Fight

GREENVILLE, N.C.–Each of the last three years, UCLA has struggled under the weight of preseason expectations and stumbled out of the gate. But with their backs to the wall, the Bruins have found ways to win weekend series. The last two years they recovered from sluggish starts to earn No. 2 seeds in regionals.

After starting the season ranked ninth in the country, the Bruins plummeted out of the rankings and carried a 3-11 record into a three-game series at East Carolina this weekend, which suddenly felt like a do-or-die proposition. On a raw, drizzly day with temperatures in the low 40s, the Bruins fell behind 9-4 in the first game of Friday’s doubleheader. But rather than sink deeper into their hole, the Bruins fought back with three runs in the fifth and three more in the sixth behind a pair of two-run homers by senior DH Cody Decker.

"He’s swung the bat pretty good," UCLA coach John Savage said of Decker. "He needs to be our DH, he’s got tremendous power, and he got paid (Friday)."

Winning that first game in Greenville seemed like a turning point for the Bruins, and their much-maligned veterans had a lot to do with the turnaround. After hitting .307/.376/.583 with 14 homers and 57 RBIs in 2007, Decker was a huge disappointment last year, batting .218/.340/.382. But he’s hitting everything hard so far in 2009–even his outs are blistered–and he already has a team-leading six homers and 17 RBIs through 62 at-bats.

Then there’s junior lefthander Gavin Brooks, who followed his strong 2007 freshman campaign with an underwhelming sophomore year and then fell out of the weekend rotation altogether in the first few weeks this spring. Brooks re-emerged in the bullpen last week at Oklahoma, throwing five hitless innings of relief in a losing effort, and he came up huge again Friday. Brooks entered with UCLA clinging to a 10-9 lead in the seventh, and he proceeded to throw 2 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing one hit and a walk while striking out four. His stuff wasn’t overpowering–his fastball sat at 86-88 and topped out at 90, he struggled to throw his 72-75 mph curve for strikes, and he overthrew his changeup on several occasions–but he spotted his fastball very well and showed poise in tight situations. Savage said Brooks was drifting off the rubber early in the season, and his arm was struggling to catch up. The Bruins tweaked his mechanics, and Savage said that has helped him gain confidence.

"He is coming around," Savage said. "He threw five shutout against Oklahoma, and he just decided, ‘You know what? I’m going to grab the ball, and I want to be a closer.’ He stepped up against Oklahoma, and then he stepped up again (Friday). He’s very capable, he’s healthy, it’s just a matter of confidence and some mechanics stuff. His season’s far from over, and we’re excited about him getting a big win on the road."

The Bruins followed that win up with another victory in the nightcap to clinch the road series win. Freshman righty Gerrit Cole rebounded from a rough outing at Oklahoma with a career-high 12 strikeouts and one walk over five innings. He gave up three runs on a pair of home runs, but other than that the Pirates couldn’t touch him. Even in miserable weather, Cole’s fastball sat in the 92-95 range and touched 97. He used his 81-84 mph slider to get several strikeouts, and he mixed in an 83-84 mph changeup, though Kyle Roller jumped on one of them for a two-run homer to left-center.

"That kid’s got a big-time arm," ECU coach Billy Godwin said. "That’s pretty impressive. That’s as good an arm as I’ve probably seen in this game, and we’ve seen (former North Carolina State righty Andrew) Brackman. I thought we hung in there and took some good swings at times, but that guy, he’s overpowering. That’s impressive in college baseball with the aluminum bats for a guy to come out and just beat you with his fastball."

Cole’s day was ended after 89 pitches when the bad footing caused the game to be suspended until Saturday morning (check In The Dugout in Weekend Preview later this week for more on Cole). When play resumed, the Pirates scored three runs in the bottom of the sixth to take a 6-5 lead, but the Bruins again responded, scoring single runs in each of the last three innings to win. Freshman righty Trevor Bauer struck out five over 3 2/3 scoreless frames of relief to pick up his first career win.

The Bruins dropped the finale later Saturday, but they might have saved their season with the first two wins. Give UCLA credit: Rather than sit back in sunny Southern California and load up on nonconference home series, the Bruins have made three challenging long-distance trips in three weeks, going to the Houston College Classic, then to Oklahoma, then to ECU. Finally, they have something to show for it.

"It’s crazy weather, very cold, rainy. It could have gone either way—East Carolina’s very good," Savage said. "It was good to get the first win on the road. That’s what we need. We’ve been on the road, it seems like forever, and that’s OK. That’s how we’re going to grow this team and build this team, and we’re happy to be back out on the road."

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight On Ryan Berry

With apologies to Stephen Strasburg, there has not been a better pitcher in the nation—or any other nation, it’s safe to bet—over the last three weeks than Rice junior righthander Ryan Berry.

Three starts, three complete games, three wins. In 27 innings, Berry has allowed just one unearned run, five hits and a hit batsman. His strikeout-walk ratio in that span is 28-0.

We wrote in detail about his two-hit shutout against then-No. 1 Texas A&M at the Houston College Classic. He followed it up last weekend with a two-hit shutout against a solid Notre Dame club, striking out eight.

Berry might have been best of all this past Friday against then-No. 20 San Diego. He carried a perfect game into the seventh inning before hitting Kevin Muno with a pitch to lead off the frame. Muno later scored USD’s only run on two ground outs and an error by Jeremy Rathjen. Berry’s no-hitter remained intact until Bryan Haar doubled with two outs in the eighth for San Diego’s only hit of the game. Berry finished with eight strikeouts.

"He was filthy again," said an American League area scout who was on hand Friday. "He used mostly the breaking ball and the fastball. As soon as they got a hit off him, that’s when he broke out the changeup, and then it was all over."

The scout said that Berry pitched with an 89-92 mph fastball, but that his well-above-average command of the pitch and its above-average life make it rate as a plus pitch despite average major league velocity. His 78-83 mph curveball had sharp downward break, and his 79-83 change rates as a third plus offering going forward. Not surprisingly, Berry’s draft stock is soaring along with his win total: He’s now 3-0, 1.42 with a 31-5 K-BB ratio in 32 innings, which includes his rough season debut at Cal Poly.

"He doesn’t make it to the second round—no way," the scout said. "I don’t care if you’re facing Division III guys, to do what he’s doing right now is phenomenal. He’s fun to watch. If there’s a better pitcher with better command out there, please let me know. Right now, he’s in a great streak."