Three Strikes: March 30

Strike One: Triangle Roundup

Wet weather Friday shuffled the college baseball schedule here in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area this weekend and allowed me to catch significant chunks of four Atlantic Coast Conference games in two days. Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State all were home on the same weekend, which doesn’t happen often, and I took advantage. Here are some observations:

• I started the weekend at Jack Coombs Field for the opener of the Duke-Wake Forest series Saturday at 11 a.m. Duke junior lefthander Christopher Manno was on his game against the Demon Deacons, allowing just one run on two hits while striking out eight and walking two over 6 1/3 innings. Manno wasn’t doing it with huge velocity—he worked mostly in the mid-80s—but his deceptive delivery and quality mid-70s curveball kept the Demon Deacons off balance. He carried a no-hitter into the sixth before Tyler Smith lined a single to right field. Duke scratched out two runs in the fifth and held on for a 3-1 win.

Duke could have made more headway in its quest to end its 48-year NCAA tournament drought by winning this series, but Wake Forest stormed back to sweep Sunday’s doubleheader. No one I’ve spoken with who has seen the Demon Deacons is particularly impressed with their talent, and the Blue Devils really needed to win this series at home. But Wake does have a few promising young players, led by upstart freshman Carlos Lopez, whose eight home runs leads the team.

Duke is now 6-6 in ACC play with Miami and North Carolina in the rear-view mirror—still not a bad position to be in, but it could have been in much better position. The Blue Devils will kick themselves for missing out on a golden opportunity this weekend.

• I left Durham and caught most of Saturday’s second game between North Carolina and Virginia. UNC had won a fine pitcher’s duel Friday night on Mike Cavasinni’s two-run triple in the eighth inning, but a scout who was there told me he was very impressed with UVa. freshman lefthander Danny Hultzen (7 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 5 BB, 8 K). Hultzen worked in the 88-91 mph range from a low-three-quarters arm slot and showed very good feel for his quality slider and changeup.

Saturday’s game matched up two of the nation’s top senior pitchers in righties Andrew Carraway and Adam Warren, who have very similar styles. Both pitched well, but Carraway (7 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 3 K) was better and picked up the victory in UVa.’s 5-2 win. Carraway sat in the 85-89 range and touched 90-91, to go along with a good 80-82 mph changeup, a 75-77 slider and a low-70s curve. Virginia did much of its damage via the long ball, getting an opposite-field home run from Jarrett Parker for the second straight day, and a two-run shot from Steven Proscia. The Cavs hit five home runs on the weekend and now have 25 on the season in 26 games. Last season they hit 25 all year long, in 62 games.

"I think it’s the first club that we’ve had here that we can put pressure on teams by running and playing that style, but we can also drive the ball out of the ballpark when we need to," Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. "We’re not one of those teams that’s going to hit 70, 80 home runs, but we have significantly more power than we’ve had in the past. I think it’s more of a balanced offense than we’ve had before."

On Sunday, the Cavaliers used the long ball again to nearly earn a comeback victory. Sophomore outfielder Dan Grovatt’s two-run homer into a howling wind in right field tied the game at 5-5 in the ninth.

"Virginia’s got some guys that, if you make mistakes on them—this stuff about them being a team that just bunts and plays to their ballpark, you can throw that out the window," UNC coach Mike Fox said. "I can’t say enough about Virginia. I think they’ve got a really, really good ballclub."

I walked away with the same impression of the Cavaliers, but UNC is an even better ballclub. Virginia is still trying to get over the hump and win a regional; UNC has already cleared that hurdle, having made three straight trips to the College World Series. North Carolina has proven time and again over the last three eyars that it doesn’t fold when the going gets tough, and it didn’t fold after blowing the lead Sunday. Instead, the Tar Heels loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth, and Virginia bullpen ace Matt Packer hit Ryan Graepel to force in the winning run.

A key play in that inning happened two batters earlier. UNC junior third baseman Kyle Seager, a preseason All-American riding a 16-game hitting streak, had broken a 3-3 tie with a two-run homer in the fifth inning. He came up again in the ninth with runners at first and second and laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt.

"You have to know that we’re going to come through there—we’ve got a lot of guys who are good through our order," Seager said. "So putting a bunt down there wasn’t a problem at all. It was just up to me to get my bunt down, because I knew once it was down we were going to score. The guys behind me are two good not to come through there."

That confidence and poise in tight spots is what separates North Carolina from other top ACC contenders, even the very talented Cavaliers.

• UNC junior lefthander Brian Moran came up huge in relief Sunday, striking out a career-high eight over a career-high 6 1/3 innings of relief. He kept the Cavs off the scoreboard until surrendering Grovatt’s homer in the ninth (Fox later admitted he probably shouldn’t have stretched Moran quite so far). Moran has been a force in the UNC bullpen all season, going 2-1, 2.37 with a 42-2 strikeout-walk ratio in 30 innings over 16 appearances.

Moran’s heroics were necessary Sunday because sophomore righty Matt Harvey failed to get out of the third inning for the second straight week.

"Matt will be fine," Fox said. "It just happens. I’ve seen every pitcher go through it, from (Daniel) Bard to (Andrew) Miller to Alex White. It’s part of the game. We still have confidence in him, he just didn’t locate. The changuep, I thought it had good pace on it, it was just running out of the strike zone. He was slinging a couple fastballs across his body. We’ve just got to work with him and get him back out there, because he’s one of our best guys."

• Before catching Sunday’s finale in Chapel Hill, I caught the first half of the first game of North Carolina State’s doubleheader against Virginia Tech. I was eager to get a look at electric-armed Virginia Tech freshman righthander Matthew Price, but Sunday wasn’t Price’s day. As it turned out, it wasn’t any pitcher’s day, as the two teams combined to score 37 runs in the opener and 13 more in the nightcap.

Price showed plenty of arm strength, working in the 91-94 mph range with a fasball that showed good life, especially when he dropped his arm slot. He flashed a decent 78-79 breaking ball and an 81-82 mph change, but he struggled mightily with his control, issuing six walks over 2 1/3 innings. The Wolfpack chased him in the third inning on a series of flares and seeing-eye singles. His final line: 10 runs (nine earned) on six hits and six walks.

I left Raleigh with N.C. State holding a seemingly secure 12-4 lead. Virginia Tech battled back and tied it at 15-15 in the eighth, but the Wolfpack answered with four in the bottom of the frame, then held off Tech’s ninth-inning rally to win 19-18. I’ll say this for the Hokies: they can swing the bats. Steve Domecus (.423/.496/.598), Austin Wates (.386/.456/.535) and Anthony Sosnoskie (.333/.451/.621) comprise as good a heart of the order as any in the ACC, with the exception of North Carolina’s.

But Virginia Tech’s defense is porous—the Hokies made nine errors in Sunday’s twin bill and have a .948 fielding percentage on the year—and its pitching is underwhelming. This was a do-or-die series for N.C. State at home, as the ‘Pack’s conference schedule is backloaded, and it was just 3-7 in ACC play heading into Sunday. NCSU needed to sweep the doubleheader to have any shot at making a run at regionals, and it showed some resilience by hanging on in the wild opener, then erasing a 6-1 deficit to win Game Two, 7-6.

The must-win series continue over the next two weekends for the Wolfpack, who travel to fellow ACC bubble teams Boston College and Duke.

Strike Two: Toreros Back In Catbird Seat

Like the rest of the West, the West Coast Conference is still wide open, but we did learn a few things from Week Six.

San Diego proved it is still the team to beat in the WCC, even without injured ace Sammy Solis and table-setter Kevin Muno. The Toreros got stellar pitching performances from their two remaining aces—Kyle Blair and Matt Thomson—in a series sweep of rival Pepperdine. Furthermore, it looks like junior righthander A.J. Griffin is up to the task of closing on Fridays and starting on Sundays. He worked 2 2/3 scoreless innings in relief of Blair to pick up his third save Saturday, then allowed just three runs over five innings in a start Sunday. Hard-throwing sophomore righty Darrin Campbell finished that one off with four shutout, one-hit innings of relief.

For all the questions about San Diego’s offense, it’s Pepperdine that should be concerned about its bats. The Toreros are hitting .306 as a team and averaging 6.3 runs per game. The Waves are hitting .283 and averaging 6.1 runs per game. And San Diego’s arms are still the big separator: as many good arms as the Waves have, they don’t have anyone as good as USD’s top three of Blair, Thomson and Griffin.

It now looks like it will be Loyola Marymount and Gonzaga that challenge USD and Pepperdine in the WCC, and not Santa Clara as expected heading into the season. The Broncos are simply not the team they were expected to be heading into the year. Losing catcher Tommy Medica, their best player, to a separated shoulder was a massive blow, and Santa Clara could have really used touted freshmen Ryan Rieger and Jon Hughes, two of the top recruits in the WCC. Rieger has been ruled academically ineligible, and Hughes has been sidelined by a shoulder strain.

Without that key trio, Santa Clara has slumped to a 10-11 start, and six of their wins have come against Ivy League teams. The Broncos were swept at home this weekend by rejuvenated Loyola Marymount, which has rebounded from a 10-game losing streak with an eight-game winning streak, including sweeps of Fresno State and Santa Clara. By the end of the year, the Lions could have the WCC’s best offense (led by sluggers Angelo Songco and Ryan Wheeler), and their pitching has been much better of late. Senior righty Lee Roberts, who twirled a complete-game shutout Friday, has emerged as a viable Friday starter, though he’s not in the Newman/Blair class.

Gonzaga, meanwhile, is 17-7 after taking two of three at San Francisco in its WCC-opening series. Gonzaga might be the most balanced team in the league, with four solid starters (Matt Fields, Cody Martin, Ryan Carpenter and Steven Ames), a fairly deep bullpen and a solid, scrappy lineup led by veterans Drew Heid and Evan Wells. Gonzaga’s 2009 fate will likely be decided over the next two weekends, as they’ll visit Pepperdine and host San Diego. If the Bulldogs can weather that stretch, they can establish themselves as a bona fide WCC contender and potential regional team.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Rich Poythress

Rich Poythress had never hit more than one home run in a game for Georgia heading into last week. Now he’s done it twice.

The junior first baseman belted a pair of homers as well as a pair of doubles for a career-high 12 total bases Friday night against Tennessee. The next day, he smacked two more homers and tied his career high with five RBIs. In his first nine plate appearances of the weekend, Poythress was 6-for-6 with four homers, two doubles and three walks to help Georgia record its first series win at Tennessee since 2001. As much as his power, Poythress’ patient approach sets him apart from just about every other power hitter in the country. He has 22 walks in nine strikeouts in 25 games.

"Rich has really good plate discipline," Bulldogs coach David Perno said. "He goes up there looking to drive the ball to right-center and he never gets too pull-happy. He has a good, short stroke for a big guy and gets good leverage."

Poythress now leads the Southeastern Conference in batting (.447), on-base percentage (.556) and RBIs (47). He also ranks second in slugging (.936), runs (37), home runs (13) and total bases (88), and he ranks third in hits (42) and walks (22).

Poythress is climbing up draft charts—he’s making a strong push to go in the top half of the first round in June—and also climbing up Georgia’s career lists. His .357 career batting average ranks eighth all-time at the school; his 31 career homers are one shy of 10th on the school’s list; his 146 RBIs are four shy of 10th; and his 38 career doubles are nine shy of 10th.

"Rich has been good his whole career," Perno said. "Even going back to his freshman year, although that doesn’t show up so much in the stats because he missed five months with a torn ACL, but hit his way back into the middle of our lineup at the end of the year. He’s just a complete hitter. He’s got power, hits the ball the other way, he hits in the clutch—he’s just a great hitter for us and nothing he does ever surprises me."