Three Strikes: March 24

Strike One: Nationals Holiday

WASHINGTON–In the first official game at Nationals Park, Ryan Zimmerman and John Smoltz had nothing to do with the proceedings. Instead, a pair of Atlantic-10 Conference teams christened the stadium on a windy Saturday afternoon.

Eight days before ESPN’s cameras were set to show the Nationals and Braves on “Sunday Night Baseball” in the season’s first regular-season game in North America, George Washington handled St. Joseph’s 9-4 in front of an invitation-only crowd estimated at 5,000.

“It was a thrill just to walk through that center-field gate, take a look around and say ‘Wow,’” George Washington coach Steve Mrowka said. “I mean a stadium built like this and opening for the first time. Thirty, 40, 50 years from now, this place is going to be here shining, and to think we were here for this.”

Colonials senior left fielder Charlie Kruer had the first hit and the first run in the ballpark, scoring on Andrew Abokhair’s first-inning single two batters after reaching on an infield hit. Hawks third baseman Mike Boyland dived to his right to make a nice stab, but he was unable to throw out No. 3 hitter Kruer. “I’ll be telling my kids and everyone I know (about playing in the game) for the rest of my life,” said Kruer, who went 3-for-5 with a triple and four RBIs.

Eric Cantrell, a freshman righthander from Oakton, Va., had a one-hitter through seven innings and got the win for the Colonials. “I’m just probably going to remember that first seven,” joked Cantrell, who allowed three runs in the eighth, including a two-run double to St. Joseph’s catcher Drew Smith.

Smith came the closest to hitting the first home run at the 41,000-seat, $611 million stadium on South Capitol Street. His double came about two feet from clearing the right-field wall and landing in George Washington’s bullpen. Once Smith sprinted out of a hopeful trot and reached second base, he took a look at the flag poles in left-center field and threw his head back, realizing the wind had knocked back a bit of history. Despite the near miss and the Hawks’ loss, he was thrilled to have played in the big league park. A sophomore from Malvern, Pa., he previously had played at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park in a Carpenter Cup semifinal loss.

“Our whole team was in awe of how nice the stadium was, trying to compare it to Citizens Bank,” Smith said. “It’s a beautiful park. I think Washington’s going to love this stadium.”

Nationals managing principal owner Ted Lerner and his son Mark Lerner, a principal owner, are both George Washington alums. Though the game was set up in part as a trial run for the following weekend’s exhibition game against the Orioles and the Sunday night opener, tickets were limited through a private distribution process. In any case, the atmosphere was far different from that of normal home games for the Colonials, who play at Barcroft Park in Arlington, Va. A good crowd showed up there to watch the same two teams split a doubleheader on Friday, but it was nothing like the series finale.

“It was the biggest crowd either of these teams have ever had for baseball, and we probably could’ve had five times as many if they had opened it up,” Mrowka said. “That’s how much people want to get in here and see this place.”


Strike Two: Bash It Like Beckham

We’re now more than a calendar month into the 2008 college baseball season, and the Player of the Year watch is heating up. If I had to cast my vote today, I would probably choose Missouri righthander Aaron Crow, who is 5-0, 1.03 with a 51-7 strikeout-walk ratio for the nation’s No. 2 team, but Georgia junior shortstop Gordon Beckham presents an awfully impressive alternative.

Beckham blasted two home runs in Georgia’s 6-2 win against Tennessee on Friday, then had three more hits and two more RBIs on Saturday. Through 20 games this season, he leads the Southeastern Conference in batting (.517), slugging (1.080), runs (32), homers (13, tied with Arkansas’ Aaron Murphree) and RBIs (33, tied with Murphree). He’s second in on-base percentage (.576). Beckham, a first-team preseason All-American, has even stolen five bases in six attempts.

Beckham has taken his game to an insane level, but his track record was already plenty impressive–he hit 12 homers in a Freshman All-America season in 2006, then swatted 13 more as a sophomore in 2007, though he carried just a .292 average into this year. Last summer, Beckham led the Cape Cod League with nine homers and tied for the RBI crown with 35.

"It’s always been in there, the talent level, the ability," Georgia coach David Perno said recently. "I just think this season he’s much more mature. He had a good summer in the Cape, and he’s just taken much more of a leadership role. There are higher expectations for him individually, and he’s responded extremely well. His approach is much better."

Strike Three: Thrice Is Nice

A couple of players posted three-homer games this weekend, but their teams dropped their series. Arizona sophomore DH Dillon Baird went deep three times against Southern California on Friday, and East Carolina senior catcher Corey Kemp pulled the hat trick Saturday against Houston.

BA Prospects Plus scout Dave Perkin was on hand to see Baird’s power display in Arizona’s 10-2 win, and he called in with an excited report shortly after the game. Baird appeared slightly out on his front foot when he hit is first homer, a towering two-run drive down the right-field line and into the trees behind Dedeaux Field in the first inning. Perkin said Baird was jammed somewhat on the second homer, another two-run shot in the sixth that cleared the fence in right-center near the scoreboard. The third homer, a two-run blast in the ninth, was gargantuan, clearing the "Dedeaux" sign atop the right-field scoreboard and appearing to land atop the fourth floor of the adjacent parking structure.

"It’s been a while since I’ve seen a home run that far in a college game," Perkin said. "It’s been a long, long time."

Of course, Baird struck out three times in the next game, which was more reflective of the way the weekend went for Arizona. The Wildcats were shut out in the final two games of the series, the first time they have been shut out in consecutive games since 1967. Southern California had lost four straight heading into the weekend and still sits just 11-9, but if there’s any doubt the Pacific-10 Conference schedule is going to be grueling, USC erased it. Next weekend, the Trojans travel to No. 1 Arizona State, and the Sun Devils better not take them lightly. After this weekend, USC won’t catch anybody by surprise.

Kemp, meanwhile, belted his three homers in ECU’s 15-4 win in the middle game of the series against Houston. All three of his were solo shots. The Cougars, though, were the bigger story; by taking two of three on the road against Conference USA contender ECU, they made a statement to the rest of the league that they will be a factor. Quietly, sophomore lefty Wes Musick has been one of the best pitchers in CUSA. After his win Friday, Musick improved to 5-0, 1.75 with 31 strikeouts and 10 walks in 36 innings.