Three Strikes: March 22

Strike One: Tar Heels Feel Growing Pains Against Seasoned Seminoles

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Coming into the season, North Carolina faced questions about its offense, its bullpen and its overall experience level, particularly in the bullpen. The Tar Heels proved this weekend against Florida State that they can compete with any team in the nation, but their offense, bullpen and overall lack of experience were the decisive factors in their losses Friday and Sunday.

In both games, the Tar Heels built an early 3-0 lead, and in both cases their offense failed to extend the lead and their bullpen relinquished the lead in the final two innings. UNC ace Matt Harvey shut down Florida State's potent offense for seven shutout innings Friday, allowing just two hits and four walks while striking out 11, but the Seminoles were able to bide their time until Harvey left the mound, then won it with two runs in the eighth and two more in the ninth.

The Tar Heels were able to extend their lead early Saturday, and they cruised to a 10-4 lead. But Sunday, UNC took a 3-0 lead in the second on three Geoff Parker walks and a bases-clearing triple by Dillon Hazlett, but the UNC bats were silenced the rest of the way by FSU lefty Brian Busch (6 IP, 1 H, 0 R) and closer Mike McGee (who got the final two outs for the save). Florida State again kept its composure despite struggling against UNC starter Patrick Johnson, then scored two runs in each of the final two innings to win it.

"That was what was impressive about our guys today: We didn't get out of ourselves and try to hit six-run homers. We just stayed poised and got pitches to hit," Florida State coach Mike Martin said. "We've got a little experience, and I think experience can go a long way in the makeup of a club. You can't go try to do too much . . . North Carolina has a young club. They're going to be fine—they have excellent pitching, they're going to be fine. No question, it's growing pains. You go through that in this league."

The differences between these two clubs were apparent. The Seminoles have a very good offensive team with plenty of experienced hitters who stay within themselves. North Carolina does have good pitching—it's not easy to hold FSU to 13 runs in a three-game series—but its offense does not have as much firepower.

"It's Florida State—they keep playing 'til the very end," UNC coach Mike Fox said. "We know that, and they're a team that you have to try to put it away early, and we weren't able to do that. But I think the story was our inability to score for four or five innings and extend the lead."

Fox said he did not think his bullpen was the story of the weekend, and certainly it was not the only story. But since Florida State coughed up a five-run lead to Virginia in the ninth inning last Saturday, the Seminoles have found their identity in the bullpen. In Busch and McGee, they have two quality veterans they can count on in the 'pen. The Tar Heels have plenty of quality arms in their bullpen—Greg Holt, Jimmy Messer, Nate Striz, Michael Morin and Chris Munnelly all have quality arms and have shown promise. But for the first time in years, they don't have that one proven veteran they can count on in pressure situations, such as Brian Moran, Rob Wooten, Andrew Carignan and Jonathan Hovis from their Omaha teams over the last four years. It led to North Carolina dropping out of BA's rankings for the first time since the May 31, 2005 poll.

"Our pitching staff, and our young guys, they are still a work in progress," Fox said. "We're trying to figure out who can do what, and the only way I know to do that is to put them out there in a big game . . . Right now we're experimenting with them a little bit, as you can probably tell, but that's OK. That means they're all going to get out there. I don't hear any complaints about anybody not getting to pitch when I've run six of them out there the last two games.

"Honestly, at the start of the year, I wasn't quite sure exactly where we were, and now I think we can compete with anybody, and I like that."

In time, as the bullpen solidifies and the bats mature, maybe North Carolina will be able to nail down wins against anybody, too.

Strike Two: What We Learned In Week Five

Here are a few other impressions from the weekend:

• I caught the Saturday game in Miami's sweep of Duke in Durham. The Hurricanes are not as physical as they have been in recent years—two years ago, when Miami was starting sluggers like Yonder Alonso and Dennis Raben and Mark Sobolewski, scouts commented that they looked like a Double-A club—but they are athletic and fundamentally sound. Freshman Stephen Perez looks great at shortstop, and sophomore third baseman Harold Martinez teams with him to make a standout left side of the infield. They have quality college hitters like Scott Lawson and Chris Pelaez, and it's easy to see why they're excited about young athletes like Perez, Zeke DeVoss and Michael Broad. Speed is unquestionably an asset for Miami, which stole 17 bases in 20 attempts last week and is 37-for-46 on the season.

"I feel good about our club," Miami coach Jim Morris said. "We're young—we're starting four freshmen—but we're playing good defense and we're getting good pitching—particularly our bullpen has been really, really good the last few weeks. We're a long way from being where we need to be, but we've got a chance to be good if we work hard."

• We continue to hear great things about the top three teams in the latest Baseball America Top 25. One reporter asked Martin on Sunday if Virginia is the real deal, and he responded: "They might be better than the real deal. They're the best club, I think overall, that I've seen this year. They're really, really good."

Martin and Morris have had similar praise for No. 2 Florida, whom their teams have faced a combined five times. And Cal State Fullerton coach Dave Serrano raved about No. 3 Arizona State, which swept two midweek games against the Titans last week and improved to 20-0 with a sweep of Houston this weekend.

"I thought they were really good, they were mentally tough, they played the game," Serrano said of the Sun Devils. "We put a four-spot up on them in the seventh inning to take a 5-3 lead (Wednesday), and it was like we were stealing something from them. The next inning it was whack, whack, whack, they came out and took the lead. They're a well-oiled machine right now that's playing with a swagger and a confidence. I can't remember the last time a team was 20-0. Arizona State was a machine, and we hope we can get to that level."

• Louisiana State is the team to beat in the Southeastern Conference's Western Division. The Tigers showed great toughness this weekend after losing the opener of their series against Arkansas. They fought back to win the next two games, coming from behind with seven runs in the seventh on Saturday. Like Florida State, LSU has a dangerous, balanced lineup that does not roll over when things are tough and can turn games around in a hurry. Still, LSU really needs Anthony Ranaudo to make a full recovery if it is to have a legitimate chance to repeat as national champion—that is obvious. Austin Ross is better than he was a year ago, but he's not a bona fide ace in the SEC.

• Alabama is a legitimate contender to host a regional. The Crimson Tide has plenty of offense and a strong defensive unit, especially in the infield. The question about 'Bama coming into the year was its pitching, and so far Adam Morgan and Jimmy Nelson have provided answers. Winning two out of three against Vanderbilt this weekend was a nice statement.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight On Christian Colon

Cal State Fullerton shortstop Christian Colon, a first-team preseason All-American and the top-rated four-year college position player for the 2010 draft, was not himself through the first month of the season. Heading into this weekend's series at Washington, Colon was hitting .234/.347/.328 with one home run and three RBIs in 16 games.

Colon found himself in a big way in Fullerton's three-game sweep of the Huskies. On Friday, he went 4-for-5 with three home runs and five RBIs, going deep to left field, center and right. His third homer, a two-run shot in the eighth, provided the eventual winning runs in Fullerton's 9-7 win.

Colon homered again Saturday—and drew three walks, two of them intentional—and finished the weekend 8-for-13 with seven RBIs, a double and two stolen bases. All of a sudden, his season line looks a whole lot better: .299/.413/.545 with five homers and 10 RBIs.

"This game is so much about confidence," Fullerton coach Dave Serrano said. "The first home run, I was surprised it went out. The second one was a no-doubter, and the third one was hit good. He squared some balls up, and you could see in every at-bat the confidence grew and grew. Then on Saturday they pitched around him twice to get to a guy hitting .460 in Gary Brown, so they showed him that respect."

Colon has earned plenty of respect from opponents over the last two years, earning freshman All-America honors in 2008 and second-team All-America honors in 2009, then winning Baseball America's Summer Player of the Year award after a standout campaign with Team USA last year. But he broke his fibula and tibia on a hard slide by a Team Canada player in the penultimate game of the summer, forcing him to miss all of fall practice.

Serrano insists Colon is 100 percent healthy and moving around well now, and that the injury is not the reason for his slow start. But the layoff might have affected him. Then, when the Titans struggled to a 7-9 start after ranking No. 4 in the preseason, the pressure mounted.

"You've got to take into account that, first off, he didn't have any fall," Serrano said. "I think that was in the back of his mind when he came back in January, and in the back of his mind he was wondering how his leg was going to respond, then he passed that test. He got off to a little slow start, so he started putting more pressure on himself, and the team was struggling. I think he started thinking that because he wasn't doing well, the team wasn't doing well. This weekend, his at-bats were much more productive, and hopefully he can continue it. I think it takes a lot of pressure off everybody. When your leader of your team is struggling like he was, I think it makes everyone else more tense."

Serrano said he was surprised to see Colon wearing his emotions on his sleeve during the shortstop's early slump, though he continued to play characteristically strong defense at a demanding position, fielding at a .964 clip. But he wasn't having quality at-bats, so Serrano weighed in on a conversation Colon was having with hitting coach Greg Bergeron last week.

"There's a lot of pressure on him, and a lot of people watching him," Serrano said. "But I chimed in and said, 'Stop worrying about what people are thinking about you. What they're watching now is how you handle adversity. Just go out there the same way whether you're having a 5-for-5 day or an 0-for-5 day.' Sometimes that's hard to do. I know now he feels a lot better after this weekend."