Three Strikes: March 26

Strike One: Here Come The Reinforcements

Tennessee and Arizona State both got major boosts this week as key players appeared in their first games of the season. Preseason All-American center fielder Julio Borbon returned from a fractured ankle to DH in Tennessee’s midweek win against Wright State and its weekend sweep of Georgia. He went 5-for-16 on the week, helping the Vols improve to 17-9 on the year. Tennessee ranked 11th in the preseason based largely on its star power, but they played most of the first two months of the season without All-Americans Borbon and J.P. Arencibia (strained muscle in his back), and with lefthander James Adkins struggling. Both Borbon and Arencibia are now back, and Adkins struck out 10 over eight innings on Friday, all of which gives Tennessee plenty of reason for optimism.

The Sun Devils, meanwhile, finally received word from the NCAA that freshman righthander Jason Jarvis was eligible. Jarvis had transferred to ASU from Chandler-Gilbert (Ariz.) Community College in December, but the NCAA took weeks to review his eligibility before finally clearing him in the nick of time. If word hadn’t come down this weekend, Jarvis was likely to drop out of school to become eligible for the draft in June. By rule, a player who drops out of school at least 75 days before the draft is eligible for that year’s draft; Saturday, March 24 was the cutoff.

Fortunately for Arizona State, it didn’t come to that, as Jarvis was cleared Friday, immediately becoming the best arm on ASU’s pitching staff. Sun Devils coach Pat Murphy threw him right into the fire in a big road series against Southern California, substituting him for Mike Leake in a one-run game Saturday with runners on first and second and one out in the eighth inning. Jarvis immediately induced a double-play ball to end the threat, then worked an easy ninth inning for the save. Murphy called on Jarvis again Sunday to close out ASU’s 13-12 lead, but after retiring the first two batters of the ninth he surrendered a single and then a walk-off two-run homer to Lucas Duda on a curveball. Welcome to the Pac-10.

Strike Two: Milestone Weekend

Coaching milestones fell fast and furious this weekend, starting on Friday when Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall picked up his 800th career win in the Yellow Jackets’ 3-2, come-from-behind victory at Duke. This has been a trying season for Hall and his staff, and this weekend was no different, as Tech needed two runs in the ninth to win Friday, then lost 3-0 on Saturday before cruising to a 5-1 win Sunday. The Jackets have been a little banged up lately, with senior outfielder Wally Crancer limited to DH duties by an elbow injury, freshmen Patrick Long and Curtis Dupart sidelined by knee injuries before returning this weekend, and sophomore righthander Chis Hicks out with triceps tendinitis that might help explain his 9.82 ERA through four starts. And All-American catcher/righthander Matt Wieters has struggled with his significant two-way responsibilities, causing Hall to move him out of the closer job and replacing him with junior center fielder/righthander Danny Payne, who made two scoreless appearances this weekend. That move makes a lot of sense; it should stabilize a bullpen that was supposed to be a strength for Georgia Tech.

Hall said he was encouraged by the recent improvement in his pitching staff, starting with sophomore lefty David Duncan, who struck out eight over seven innings Friday using an 87-89 mph fastball, a 69-71 mph curveball and a changeup in the 79-81 mph range. Tech also got another good start from junior righty John Goodman, who has taken hold of the Saturday starter job after missing most of the last two years with Tommy John surgery and most of fall practice with knee surgery. Goodman works with a sinking fastball in the 88-90 range, a slider and a changeup.

As for the other coaching milestones, Ohio State coach Bob Todd won his 900th career game in a 5-3 win against Harvard on Friday, the 12th straight win for OSU. Eastern Illinois coach Jim Schmitz won his 500th game Saturday in a 9-7 win against Tennessee Tech. Louisiana-Lafayette coach Tony Robichaux picked up win No. 700 against Florida Atlantic. Then on Sunday, Clemson coach Jack Leggett became the 29th Division I coach to reach the 1,000-win plateau in a 5-0 victory against Maryland. That win also prevented a Terrapin sweep. Check back later in the week for more on Maryland.

Strike Three: That’s Why They’re The Favorites

There were a number of interesting series this weekend between preseason conference favorites and streaking upstarts who sought to put themselves in conference driver’s seats, but most of the underdogs were rebuffed. In the Southern Conference, Western Carolina was coming off a midweek win against Clemson as it traveled to perennial league power College of Charleston, which was coming off consecutive series losses at Texas-San Antonio and UNC Charlotte. But order was restored this weekend, as the Cougars swept all three games, though not without some gnashing of teeth. The Catamounts scored three times in the top of the ninth Friday to tie the game, only to see CofC score the winning run on a wild pitch in the bottom half of the frame. Then on Sunday, the Cougars overcame a 7-5 deficit to tie the game with two runs in the seventh before Gabe Marchant singled home Michael Kohn in the bottom of the ninth.

In the other big SoCon showdown, The Citadel took a seven-game winning streak and a 15-5 record into a three-game set with preseason conference favorite Elon, which was just 12-11 and struggling to find its identity, especially on the mound. Sophomore righthander Steven Hensley proceeded to strike out eight and allow just one run in a complete-game victory Friday, helping the Phoenix take two out of three on the road.

In the Sun Belt Conference, preseason favorite Louisiana-Lafayette hosted a Florida Atlantic team that had started the season 17-4, before getting swept by Troy last weekend. The Owls miss ace righthander Mickey Storey, who has missed the last few weeks with a sprained elbow ligament but began a throwing program this weekend that could get him back in action by mid-April. Junior college transfer Mike Obradovich filled in admirably Friday, holding the Ragin’ Cajuns to just two runs over the first seven innings before Lafayette scored three in the eighth to win it. Buddy Glass struck out 10 for the Cajuns in that one, and they continued to get good pitching the rest of the weekend from Hunter Moody (7 IP, 2 ER) and Danny Farquhar (6 IP, 0 ER in relief) en route to a three-game sweep. Louisiana-Lafayette has regrouped nicely after dropping road series to Southern Mississippi and Middle Tennessee State, sitting at 20-5 overall.

Finally, in the Atlantic Sun, preseason favorite Stetson hosted an upstart Mercer team that put itself on the map with a season-opening series win at Miami en route to a 17-8 start. But the Hatters showed they’re still the class of the league, winning the first two games of the series behind 7.2 strong innings from ace righthander Corey Kluber and a complete-game effort from senior lefty Chris Ingoglia. Mercer scored four times in the seventh Sunday to salvage the series finale, but Stetson is 20-8 with quality wins over Louisiana State, South Florida, Notre Dame, Central Michigan, Florida and Mercer. That’s a nice resume.