Three Strikes: March 19

Strike One: Gut Check Weekend In SEC

Kentucky coach John Cohen has it right. Cohen, who guided the Wildcats to their first-ever Southeastern Conference championship a year ago, has said multiple times over the last two weeks that everyone in the SEC is going to get punched in the nose this year. They’re all going to get bloodied, and the key will be who punches back.

The SEC is loaded with heavyweights from top to bottom, and there will be no easy series. Louisiana State is down this year, particularly offensively, but the Tigers are capable of beating any team on any given day thanks to a decent pitching staff. We saw that this weekend, as LSU beat No. 3 South Carolina on Saturday behind Jared Bradford and competed on Friday thanks to a 10-strikeout performance by ace lefthander Charlie Furbush.

Georgia got off to a rough 5-11 start, including home sweeps at the hands of Oregon State and Southern California, but the Bulldogs showed some bite this weekend, sweeping No. 20 Auburn for the second straight season. Georgia’s young pitching staff is starting to stabilize, as sophomores Nathan Moreau and Trevor Holder and freshman Justin Earls pitched well in the weekend rotation against the Tigers. Junior closer Joshua Fields, switching back to a slider after experimenting with a curveball earlier this season, seems to be back to his All-America self in the bullpen, striking out six in three scoreless innings of work over two appearances. This season could have easily spiraled out of control for the Bulldogs, but they bounced back strong, and now Auburn will have to do the same against Florida.

As for Kentucky, the Wildcats did indeed get punched in the nose by Nick Schmidt and Arkansas on Friday, but they rebounded with a win Saturday. The Razorbacks won the series, though, as big righthander Duke Welker struck out nine over six strong innings on Sunday. This week was a gut check for the Razorbacks, who desperately needed Welker to emerge as a reliable weekend starter after losing Shaun Seibert for the season with Tommy John surgery. Welker responded with 12 strong innings and two wins on the week.

Then there’s Vanderbilt, which survived a terrific battle against Mississippi. Ace lefthander David Price continues to outdo himself, pitching 10 innings and striking out 14 on Friday for his third straight complete game. Rebels junior Will Kline might have been even better, but he left the game with one out and a runner on first in the ninth, and reliever Scott Bittle (who has been lights out for Ole Miss this year) couldn’t hold the lead. Give the Commodores credit for coming from behind Friday, then bouncing back on Sunday after their offense managed only one hit on Saturday. Even after Vandy blew a 5-4 lead in the ninth inning, it responded with two runs in the bottom of the ninth. That kind of resilience will be paramount in the ultra-competitive SEC, where any team can beat any other on any given day. Just ask Auburn or South Carolina.

Strike Two: Cavalier Attitude

Virginia stumbled in its first big test of the season last weekend at Wake Forest, but the Cavaliers proved up to the challenge of facing the nation’s No. 1 team on the road this weekend. Unlike North Carolina, the Cavs have been a little banged up of late, but that hasn’t slowed them down much. Sophomore third baseman Jeremy Farrell, one of UVa.’s best power threats, has missed the last three weekends with a forearm strain and is likely to miss a couple more, but sophomore second baseman David Adams has continued to hit (.438/.525/.650) in the heart of the order without him. Sophomore shortstop Greg Miclat has been limited to DH and first base duties by shoulder tendonitis, but he’s still producing out of the leadoff spot (.440/.505/.593 with 18 stolen bases). Meanwhile, junior Patrick Wingfield (.406) and freshman Tyler Cannon (.273) have filled in admirably on the left side of the infield. That’s a legitimately good, deep Virginia lineup, with or without Farrell, and they proved it against a quality North Carolina pitching staff this weekend.

The pitching staff is starting to solidify as well. Junior two-way star Sean Doolittle has relinquished his Friday starter spot to sophomore righty Jacob Thompson, who has true No. 1 stuff (88-92 mph fastball, power curve). Doolittle will take a page out of Joe Savery’s book and start at first base for the first two games of the weekend, then pitch on Sunday. Doolittle shoulders an enormous burden for the Cavaliers, both on the mound, in the lineup and in the infield, and UVa. coach Brian O’Connor is rightfully concerned about the impact of fatigue. Doolittle’s velocity was down in the mid-80s last week against Wake Forest, when he failed to register a single strikeout, though he sat in the 87-88 range and touched 89 on Sunday against UNC. His 72-75 mph curveball proved his best offering.

UVa. got a boost this week with the return of junior lefty Pat McAnaney from a broken finger suffered during a pickup basketball game. For now, Virginia will likely stick with freshman righty Matt Packer on Saturdays. Packer is a good competitor with a three-pitch mix but not overpowering stuff (he works in the 85-88 range with his fastball). That allows McAnaney to work his way into shape as the midweek starter. The bullpen is very solid with a senior closer in Casey Lambert from the left side and a pair of good setup men from the right side in junior Michael Schwimer and sophomore Jake Rule. If Doolittle takes to the Sunday starter role and McAnaney returns to form, the rotation should be a strength, as well.

Strike Three: Bonkers For Beavers

As anyone who listened to this morning’s podcast can attest, the Baseball America staff continues to be extremely impressed by the play of Oregon State, which swept a good San Francisco team in three games this weekend. As tough as the Beavers were in their season-opening 17-game road trip, which included wins against Arizona State, Texas A&M and Georgia, they’ve been unbeatable at their remodeled home park, going 6-0 against Evansville and San Francisco over the last two weekends. OSU’s all-junior weekend rotation of Mike Stutes, Joe Paterson and Daniel Turpen is very tough, and closer Eddie Kunz has done a terrific job replacing Kevin Gunderson as a late-innings force to be reckoned with. Kunz is 1-0, 2.19 with an impressive 16-2 strikeout-walk ratio in 12 innings of work.

For the second straight year, pitching is Oregon State’s strength, but the offense always finds ways to get the job done, and this year it starts with Mitch Canham. The junior catcher knew he was going to have to assume a huge role in the middle of the lineup with the departure of Pacific-10 Conference player of the year Cole Gillespie, and he has risen to the challenge, leading the Beavers in batting (.382), homers (four) and RBIs (25). Canham drove in four on Friday as OSU walloped San Francisco ace Aaron Poreda to the tune of nine runs on 11 hits. That was a statement game for the under-appreciated Oregon State offense, which is good enough to make the Beavers the clear favorites in the Pac-10. Again.