Three Strikes: March 5

Strike One: War Eagle Flying High

Trailing 8-0 in the fourth inning Saturday, it looked like Auburn was on its way to being swept at home against Arizona State. The Tigers had scored just two runs in the first 13 innings of the series against a team averaging nearly 11 runs per game. But the young Tigers didn’t lose faith, starting the comeback with seven runs in the fifth inning and going on to take the series. Auburn owes some credit to a dropped pop-up by Sun Devil right fielder Ike Davis that allowed the floodgates to open in the fateful fifth, but there’s a bigger reason for the comeback, and it’s not what you might expect. Credit the Auburn bullpen for making the hitters believe they can come back.

“We’re not a great offensive team by any stretch of the imagination,” Auburn coach Tom Slater said. “We feel like our strength is our pitching, not just our starting pitching but our bullpen. Because our players have a lot of confidence in our pitching, offensively we feel like we’re never out of games, because if we get behind, someone will come in behind them to shut them down.”

That’s exactly what happened Saturday, as relievers Brett Butts, Justin Bristow and Scott Shuman combined to shut out the Sun Devils over the final four innings, allowing just two hits and no walks. Then on Sunday, after ASU scored five runs over three innings on starter Evan Crawford, the Tigers turned to relievers Johnny Thompson, Chris Dennis and Bristow, who allowed just one run on four hits over the final six innings. The pen is so deep that Auburn didn’t even use two-way star Luke Greinke on the mound, though he led the team in saves as a freshman last year. In fact, Bristow is the only reliever who made two appearances on the weekend. With an 88-92 mph fastball with heavy life, Bristow seems a better fit in the bullpen than at shortstop, where started 52 games a year ago and batted just .255.

Of course, the Tigers don’t really need Bristow at short because of the emergence of freshmen Erik Skinner and Robert Brooks in the infield. Auburn might not be loaded with thumpers up and down the lineup the way Arizona State is, but the Tigers have a powerful core with junior catcher/third baseman Josh Donaldson and sophomore outfielder Mike Bianucci, and they surround that nucleus with quality athletes like Brooks, Greinke, freshman right fielder Ross Smith and senior center fielder Bruce Edwards, who went 5-for-9 out of the leadoff spot in Auburn’s two wins.

“With Donaldson and Bianucci in the middle of our lineup, they’re dangerous hitters,” Slater said. “People have to respect those guys, and typically that helps the other hitters in your lineup. In front of them and behind them, we’ve got some fairly athletic kids who can do some things other than just slug.

“We trust our guys. Our guys play hard. We got beat on Friday, but it wasn’t for lack of trying or lack of effort. They jumped us again Saturday, they put up some runs again. Our guys hadn’t faced a lot of adversity this year, we just said, ‘Let’s try to win some innings.'”

By doing that, they won two games against a Top 25 team and became one themselves.

Strike Two: Clemson, Rice At Crossroads

In the two most high-profile series of the weekend, two of the top preseason contenders for the national championship fell against other top-10 teams. Clemson dropped both games of its home-and-home series against South Carolina, and frankly it’s not too much of a surprise. The Tigers won’t find it easy to replace junior shortstop Stan Widmann if he should miss an extended period of time with his neck injury. Junior second baseman Taylor Harbin should be able to handle the switch to shortstop, but he won’t be as good defensively as Widmann, who has a stronger arm and better range. Plus there’s a drop-off at second base with freshman D.J. Burgess, who went 1-for-5 this weekend and actually raised his average to .143. Widmann was a classic “glue guy” whose value isn’t adequately appreciated until he’s no longer on the field. The Tigers have to answer some pitching questions, too, because presumed ace righty David Kopp surrendered seven runs in 5 1/3 innings in Saturday’s loss, and righty P.J. Zocchi has been just OK. It might soon be time to move sophomore lefty Ryan Hinson into the Friday starter spot. Hinson has the best stuff of the group and has been pitching the best, too. Clemson needs him to emerge as a legitimate Friday ace the way Harris Honeycutt has for South Carolina.

In the other marquee matchup of the weekend, preseason No. 1 Rice traveled to Cal State Fullerton and dropped two out of three. While it might be asking a lot to expect the Owls to go into Fullerton and win the series, that’s the kind of thing a prohibitive national title hopeful should do. Then again, it’s clear the Owls are not the same team that entered the year as the No. 1 team. Without All-American closer Cole St. Clair anchoring the bullpen, Rice lacks a shutdown relief ace who can enter the game in the moment of truth and curtail opponents’ big innings. Lefthander Bobby Bramhall pitched well this weekend, but he lacks power stuff and is not the long-term answer at closer if St. Clair does not return anytime soon. Senior righty Ryne Tacker is the best bet to fill that role; he’s gone 1-0, 1.57 with 24 strikeouts and eight walks in 23 innings this year. Tacker is completely over the stress fracture in his knee that kept him out of the 2006 season, and his arm is one of the best on the staff. He just needs to throw strikes.
Strike Three: See The Forest For The Trees

Stanford needed to sweep rival California to join Fordham, Texas, Southern California and Michigan in the 2,500-win club this weekend, and the Cardinal did just that. That’s a testament to the long-term excellence that coach Mark Marquess has sustained for three decades, but a much smaller number has considerably more significance for the 2007 Cardinal: eight. As in, Stanford has now stretched its winning streak to eight games since starting the season 2-5.

The most impressive thing about that streak is the Cardinal is doing it despite the struggles of the three players who were expected to carry the team. Junior outfielder Michael Taylor, a third-team preseason All-American, is hitting just .246 with 14 strikeouts and three walks in 61 at-bats. Junior righthander Nolan Gallagher has not been the Friday ace the Cardinal expected, going 1-2, 7.36 and being demoted to the Sunday starter role. And sophomore lefty Jeremy Bleich has been inconsistent as the Saturday starter, going 1-1, 5.79 through his first five starts. Throw in injuries to freshman outfielder Toby Gerhart (broken bone in his right forearm that will keep him out another three to four weeks), second baseman Adam Sorgi (just returning from labrum surgery) and first baseman Jason Castro (coming off a broken hamate bone), and the end result is a team that does not impress statistically, with a 4.98 team ERA and a .275 team batting average. Yet the Cardinal sits at 10-5.

“We haven’t really hit that well, but we’ve gotten our hits with people on base,” Marquess said. “Our ERA isn’t very good, but we’ve left a lot of our opponents’ runners on base, so we’ve won some big spots even though we’ve given up some runs.”

Indeed, Stanford’s opponents have stranded 139 runners to the Cardinal’s 100. Closer David Stringer deserves a good deal of the credit for Stanford’s success in tight spots; the junior righthander has converted his first five save opportunities thanks to his ability to throw his 86-88 mph fastball, curveball, slider and changeup in any count.

Stringer’s most recent save came Friday, when the Cardinal beat Cal ace Tyson Ross 1-0 in a superb pitcher’s duel. Stanford has been searching for a reliable Friday starter with Gallagher struggling in the role, and freshman righthander Jeff Inman might be the answer. With a low-90s fastball and the ability to throw a curveball and changeup for strikes, Inman (an unsigned 19th-round pick of the Royals) might have the best stuff on Stanford’s staff. He struck out nine over 7 2/3 scoreless innings Friday, allowing just three hits.

Bleich followed with his best performance of the season Saturday, though he still yielded four earned runs over 6 1/3 innings. Marquess said Bleich demonstrated good fastball command in the win, something that has plagued Gallagher this year. Gallagher lasted just 3 2/3 innings Sunday, allowing four runs on six hits, but Marquess said his curveball had better bite than it’s had all year. The key for him will be to get his fastball back; as he has struggled to command the pitch, its velocity has dipped as well.

“His arm is fine, it’s obviously not overuse, (his velocity) has just been inconsistent. But that’s what happens when you’re struggling a little bit,” Marquess said. “He’s a little tentative with the fastball, and a lot of times when your command isn’t good, you take a little bit off of it. He’s just not really throwing well. He’ll do it in spurts, but when you’re starting, you can’t have just one or two good innings. We think he’ll get it back; he’s a real hard worker, real dedicated.”

Stanford should be encouraged to be 10-5 knowing that it can play much better if Gallagher, Taylor and company start to live up to their considerable talent. But it seems unlikely the Cardinal can keep the hot streak going indefinitely without production from those players. Of course, if there’s anybody who knows how to sustain success, it’s Marquess.