Three Strikes: March 23

Strike One: LSU Offense Starting To Click

COLUMBIA, S.C.—Paul Mainieri was visibly frustrated with his team’s offensive struggles Friday night after Louisiana State mustered just four hits in a 7-3 loss to South Carolina. Later that night and Saturday morning, Mainieri thought hard about how to get his big bats back on track.

"If you go back and look at our stats, we are drawing a lot more bases on balls this year than I can ever remember one of my teams drawing," LSU’s third-year coach said. "Well, the flip-side of that is we’re not being as aggressive at the plate. (Friday) we drew nine walks, and only one of them scored. We had a game earlier this year where we had 11 walks, and not one of them scored. I had never heard of anything like that before. I told the kids before the game that we don’t want to walk. Let’s not walk any—let’s just go up and really swing the bats and see what can happen."

Sure enough, LSU slugged three home runs each of the next two games, winning 10-3 on Saturday and 11-3 on Sunday. The Tigers still drew five walks Saturday, but Mainieri said the difference was they weren’t stepping into the box looking to walk.

"The guys started to loosen up a little bit," Mainieri said. "Boy, it was nice to see a few home runs. I told them, ‘(Friday) night, (the Gamecocks) made this park look small. We weren’t swinging hard enough to hit a ball out of the park.’"

Catcher Micah Gibbs and Ryan Schimpf had been showing signs of breaking out of their slumps, and both homered in LSU’s three-run fourth Saturday to kick the offense into gear. Mainieri gave Schimpf the green light on a 3-0 count, and the junior second baseman pounded a homer over the South Carolina bullpen in right-center. He added another home run Sunday—a two-run missile that bounced off the window of a bus parked behind the right-field concourse.

Sophomore Leon Landry also got himself going, driving in two runs Saturday and launching a three-run homer in LSU’s five-run eighth Sunday.

The Tigers also got three straight strong starts on the mound. Senior righthander Louis Coleman has dominated both as a starter and a reliever this season, and he held down South Carolina’s hot bats Saturday, allowing just three runs on seven hits and two walks while striking out eight over seven innings. Coleman’s sinking, running fastball sat at 86-89 mph and touched 91, and he mixed in his 75-78 mph slurve and 78-80 changeup effectively. Coleman is now 5-1, 1.21 with 40 strikeouts and six walks in 30 innings over nine appearances, six of them starts.

"Coleman is a really valuable guy," Mainieri said. "He’s doing things for us now that Jared Bradford did the last two years. I never thought I’d have anybody handle the dual role that way."

As tempting as it must be for Mainieri to leave Coleman in the Saturday starter role—especially with freshman righty Matty Ott (2-1, 1.02 with a 29-1 K-BB ratio in 18 innings) dominating in the bullpen and looking like a more-than-capable closer—Mainieri stopped short of committing to anything, at least until another arm steps up to fill the setup role for Ott. So if the Tigers need to use Coleman in relief Friday night and then bring him back to start Sunday, they will. That’s just fine with Coleman.

"I just want to do anything I can to win, whether it’s starting, whether it’s closing, whether it’s throwing middle relief—I don’t care," Coleman said. "Me and Coach have had that conversation, I’ve just told him, ‘Coach, I don’t care. I don’t care if I throw on two days’ rest or six days’. I’m just going to pitch, and when my arm gets tired, I’m going to tell you.’ It’s exciting, and it’s fun because I always get a chance to throw, and I get to throw in big games like this."

Strike Two: Kansas, Nebraska Act

The Big 12 placed four teams in BA’s preseason Top 10 and five in the Top 25, and the league already has placed two teams (Texas and Texas A&M) in the top spot in the rankings this season. Neither has been able to hold the spot, though, in part because of the depth of the league.

Far from being top-heavy, the Big 12 instead has shown it has several teams able to rise up and beat league and national title contenders. Kansas broke through in the biggest way this weekend, sweeping a home series against then-No. 1 Texas with three one-run victories. Freshman Lee Ridenhour improved to 3-1, 1.82 on Sunday, and senior Paul Smyth closed out all three games with saves as the Jayhawks improved to 13-7, 3-0 in the league.

“That’s all you hear is Texas baseball, and Texas this and Texas that,” junior shortstop David Narodowski told the University Daily Kansan regarding the sweep. “After two rough years, coming here I feel like I have new hope, new life, I love it.”

Nebraska also got into the act this weekend. The Cornhuskers have had considerably more baseball success than the Jayhawks this decade, with three trips to the College World Series and an active streak of four straight regional bids. Nebraska got off to a tough start in league play, losing a series to Texas Tech, but recovered to win two of three from Oklahoma State this weekend. Junior Adam Bailey, an outfielder who transferred in from South Mountain JC in Arizona, has emerged as a key offensive force, with a 13-game hitting streak that ended Sunday, and he leads the Big 12 in home runs (nine) and RBIs (33). The Huskers are one of five league teams with a 3-3 conference record, fully half the league.

Another sign of the league’s toughness this year—Oklahoma became the first Big 12 team this year to win a league series on the road, doing so at Kansas State. The Sooners only accomplished the feat after Wildcats ace A.J. Morris struck out 12 in eight scoreless innings in the opener Friday.

Nothing’s coming easy in the Big 12 in 2009.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Kyle Gibson

For the second straight week, Missouri junior righthander Kyle Gibson dazzled in a complete-game win against a top-five opponent. The first-team preseason All-American spun his first career shutout last week at Texas, then found a way to top himself this week, racking up a career-high 16 strikeouts in a 3-2 win against Texas A&M on Friday.

"He was phenomenal and took it to another level," Tigers coach Tim Jamieson said. "Each time out he just gets a little bit better. In the ninth inning, he came out and was just on a mission. He’s really, really good."

Gibson retired the first 10 batters he faced and 18 of the first 19. He allowed two runs on five hits and a walk and finished with 117 pitches. Gibson has struck out 40 over his last three starts and is now 4-1, 1.15 with a 54-9 strikeout-walk ratio in 39 innings on the season. His plus slider continues to be a strikeout pitch, but it’s not the only way he’s been able to miss bats this year.

"The biggest difference between him this year and last year is his fastball command, and his ability to use that as a strikeout pitch," Jamieson said. "Trevor Coleman said his fastball is almost uncatchable, it’s moving so much. The hitters’ timing is OK, but the ball moves away from their bats at the last second."

Gibson’s complete game allowed Missouri to employ a pitcher-by-committee approach Saturday. The Tigers used nine different pitchers for an inning apiece in a 6-2 win to clinch the series.

"We’ve been doing it in the middle of the week," Jamieson said. "We did it against Arizona State our fifth game of the year. We did it then because we had played four games that weekend and we didn’t really have a fifth starter. This was the fourth or fifth time we’ve done it. We just felt like the strength of the staff, we’ve got two really good starters in Gibson and (sophomore righty Nick) Tepesch, then a bunch of guys who can throw strikes and come after you for an inning. I don’t know if it will be a staple, but it will be for a while. As long as they’re throwing strikes, it’s a good formula.

"Another key to that is Gibson on Friday night. If he had only given us four or five innings, that would have changed our plan."