Three Strikes: March 31

Strike One: Flack Is Back

CARY, N.C.–By the time Chad Flack leaves North Carolina, his name will be plastered all over the school record book. The senior third baseman is already tied for third place on the UNC career hits list and needs just eight more to break Chad Prosser’s record of 291. With one more extra-base hit, he’ll become the fourth Tar Heel with 100 of those in his career. He also has a shot at the school’s RBIs record; he currently has 188, just 27 shy of the record.

Flack has also delivered plenty of memorable moments for the Tar Heels, including his super-regional-clinching walk-off homer in 2006 and his game-winning homer against South Carolina in Game Three of the 2007 super-regional. But the latter long ball was the high point in an otherwise disappointing junior year for Flack, who batted just .247/.298/.375 with seven homers after hitting .384/.413/.613 with 13 bombs as a sophomore. By the 2006 College World Series, it seemed that opposing pitchers had figured Flack out: just give him a steady diet of breaking balls in the dirt, and he’ll get himself out. Those struggles carried over through 2007 and into 2008, but Flack has gotten hot recently, which is a very significant development for North Carolina.

Flack went 7-for-17 (.412) last week with five extra-base hits and eight RBIs. He has hit safely in his last nine games (going 18-for-36 in that span) to raise his average from .203 to .305 with four homers, 12 doubles and 25 RBIs. And Flack was up to his old tricks against rival North Carolina State on Friday, smacking a tie-breaking three-run homer in the fifth inning against Clayton Shunick to propel UNC to a 5-2 win. Shunick had struck out six through the first four shutout innings, but Flack turned on a 90 mph fastball to cap UNC’s five-run fifth.

"The first three or four innings, I thought, ‘We may not score tonight.’ I thought that’s how good (Shunick) looked, how dominating he was. We hadn’t put a good swing on him at all," UNC coach Mike Fox said. "We had the right guy up there, and Flack really seems to come through for us when we need it. He is locked in, he’s gotten some confidence, and he’s looking at the ball a lot better. I think the key for Chad is for him not to swing at balls. When he swings at balls, he just changes the whole count, then he chases a little bit with two strikes. He’s gotten a little calmer in the batter’s box, and he’s gotten confident because he had a real good week last week too. He’s a guy that we like to have up there no matter what he’s hitting, he just always seems to come through for us."

The homer to left-center was the big blow, but just as encouraging was Flack’s second-inning at-bat against Shunick, when he took a couple of fastballs and then yanked a 79 mph breaking ball through the left side of the infield for a single.

"I feel pretty good in there, feel like I’m swinging at the right pitches," Flack said. "I really worked hard at trying to get that stuff down pat. I swung at some bad pitches before, especially some pitcher’s pitches, and I came into the fall and worked on one certain thing. That was to stay short to the ball, and recognize pitches and swing at my pitch. I think it’s helped me out a lot and I’m looking to continue it."

Strike Two: That’s So Raben

Flack isn’t the only ACC bopper who has made a strong comeback lately. Miami junior outfielder Dennis Raben has returned from a back injury and is showing why he was a first-team preseason All-American.

Raben missed Miami’s first 13 games with a muscle strain in his back before making his season debut March 15 against North Carolina State. Through 34 at-bats, he’s hitting .324 with four homers and 16 RBIs, giving the nation’s most dangerous offense one of its key weapons back at full strength.

"My back’s feeling great," Raben said. "I wanted to give it time to make sure it was 100 percent before I got back. It was just a muscle strain, nothing serious, just tweaked a muscle a little bit. I tried coming back against Florida in the second weeekend of the season, but I felt it a little bit so I told them that I couldn’t go. I gave it another week or two, and it feels fine. It’s good to be back out there and not on the bench watching these guys. I’ve been swinging the bat pretty good so far."

He was a one-man wrecking crew in Miami’s win Friday at Duke, hitting a two-run double down the left-field line in Miami’s four-run first inning, then smoking a game-winning two-run double to the right-center-field gap in the 10th inning. He followed with two more hits in Saturday’s 8-1 win against the Blue Devils.

"We all know Raben can hit, and he can drive in runs and hit for power," Hurricanes coach Jim Morris said. "He’s got more power than anybody on our team, and he can hit in the clutch, so he’s a very good player for us."

Miami, which moved up to No. 2 in the rankings this week, should be firing on all cylinders soon. Raben’s return solidifies the offense, and sophomore lefty Eric Erickson, who missed his scheduled start this week with elbow soreness, is expected to return in time for next weekend’s series against Clemson, according to Morris. Then there’s the emergence of senior righthander Enrique Garcia, who might have the best stuff on the team but struggled out of the gate. He looked very strong Saturday, using a good fastball and solid breaking ball to strike out five while allowing just three hits and one run over eight innings of work.

"He won 10 games for us last year, but he started out slow," Morris said. "He’s been good the last two times out, so he’s started to come around, and that’s part of getting all of our guys going."

Strike Three: Wild West

After Arizona State, who is the best team on the West Coast? A week ago, the answer would have been easy: Long Beach State, which started 16-3 against perhaps the nation’s most arduous schedule. But the Dirtbags went 1-4 last week and were swept on the road by California, which climbed to No. 7 in the rankings, while LBSU dropped to No. 10. UC Irvine is ranked higher than either of them, at No. 5, and passed a test this weekend by winning its Big West-opening series against a quality Cal Poly club. We’ll know more about the Anteaters after their showdown with Cal State Fullerton next weekend.

Long Beach State might still have the best pitching of any of these teams, but Andrew Liebel was simply outpitched by Cal ace Tyson Ross on Friday, and Cal’s bullpen has been utterly dominant. Newcomers Kevin Miller (3-0, 0.00, 29-10 K-BB in 30 IP) and Daniel Wolford (2-0, 0.73, 33-7 K-BB in 25 IP) join closer Matt Gorgen in what might be the nation’s best bullpen. And while Long Beach’s pitching and defense style will always make the Dirtbags formidable at home, they simply lack Cal’s offensive firepower and could be vulnerable in more offensive parks, like they were this weekend. Cal has a .322 team batting average an 37 home runs; Long Beach is hitting just .271 with eight homers.

There’s a lot of baseball yet to be played this year, and you can expect the West Coast power dynamics to shift  over and over again before it’s all said and done. But right now, Cal looks like the most balanced club outside of Tempe, Ariz.