Three Strikes: March 9

Strike One: Brighter Days Ahead

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.–Clemson’s players had climbed the stairs and boarded the bus waiting outside Boshamer Stadium, but coach Jack Leggett remained alone in the visitor’s dugout, pacing back and forth, back and forth.

Shortly before, the Tigers had erased a 7-1 deficit over the final two innings against North Carolina’s quality bullpen. Clemson had taken an 8-7 lead on a mammoth Jeff Schaus three-run homer to right field in the top of the ninth, and it looked like the Tigers might sneak away from Chapel Hill with a series win against the nation’s No. 3 team.

But the Tigers threw it away in the bottom of the ninth. After UNC’s Kyle Seager singled to no-man’s land in shallow left-center to lead off the inning, Clemson lefthander Casey Harman threw errantly to first base on Mark Fleury’s bunt, putting runners on second and third with no outs. Ryan Graepel followed with a single through the drawn-in infield to tie it, and pinch-hitter Greg Holt gave the Tar Heels a 9-8 win with an RBI single up the middle.

The gut-wrenching finish and the intense pacing in the dugout seemed to suggest that Leggett was distraught afterward. In truth, he was disappointed but optimistic.

"I’m disappointed because we battled all day long against a good team, and we came back, we got five runs, did everything we had to do to put ourselves in position to win," Leggett said. "We’ve just got to get everything together: the pitching, defense and the timely hitting. We’ve seen flashes of it, we’ve just got to get it all together. We’ll do it in time, but we’ve got a long ways to go."

Clemson largely gave away Saturday’s game, too, issuing four bases-loaded walks in UNC’s four-run third inning. But there were other bright spots from the weekend: Schaus and senior third baseman Matt Sanders are swinging hot bats, and the deep bullpen looked very good on Friday, as Harman and righty Tomas Cruz combined to allow just one run on two hits over 7 1/3 innings of relief. The bullpen will be even stronger when senior righty Matt Vaughn returns from a shoulder issue, perhaps as soon as next week.

UNC’s bullpen has its own issues. Junior righty Colin Bates pitched in all three games and struggled Sunday, serving up Schaus’ homer on an inside fastball. Lefthander Brian Moran worked 3 1/3 innings Friday and another 2/3 Sunday, and the Tigers got to him both times.

"It’s all about confidence and making good pitches, and we didn’t make great ones, and they took advantage," UNC coach Mike Fox said. "We can’t just depend on a guy like Brian Moran to be our one guy in the bullpen. Some other guys have got to step up, and they know it. We need to find that guy to come in and replace Rob Wooten and be good against righties. We’ve got some good arms, but it’s a learning process. Sometimes your guys learn better from failure, and they’ll just have to be better next time."

In the end, though, the Tar Heels just found a way to win, with help from Clemson’s mistakes. The Tigers threw some impressive lefthanded pitchers at UNC’s lefty-heavy lineup—Harman, Ryan Hinson and Craig Gullickson came out of the bullpen, and freshman Chris Dwyer started Sunday, reaching 94 mph and showing a vicious 75-78 mph curveball—but the Tar Heel bats hung in there. Graepel continues to blossom into a reliable righthanded bat—he had three hits and three RBIs on Sunday—and Seager went 4-for-4 and scored four runs Sunday, picking up the slack while star first baseman Dustin Ackley struggled a bit.

"(The Tigers) present some problems for you, because they can run those lefties at you, and they’re all good," Fox said. "I thought Kyle looked as good in the box this weekend as I’ve seen him in a long time. He’s seeing the ball good, you can just tell. In scrimmages in early preseason, we try to get our lefties to face Moran and (lefty Logan) Munson a lot, because we know we’re going to see a lot of lefties in the league."

Not many teams have the kind of lefthanded pitching that Clemson has, so if the Tar Heels could pass this test, they have reason to feel good going forward, even if the end wasn’t pretty.

"If we had lost today after being ahead 7-1, it would have been real hard to recover," Fox said. "We were fortunate to win, with them throwing the bunt away. It was kind of give-and-take this weekend–I don’t think either team played their best baseball, so maybe that’s a good sign for both of us. Both of us will get better as we go."

Strike Two: Mountain West Rising

After Utah upset No. 4 Texas A&M 2-0 on Saturday night, Texas Christian coach Jim Schlossnagle was compelled to send a text message.

"Our league is much better," he texted. "It won’t be a cakewalk."

That’s saying something, considering 12th-ranked TCU has been perhaps the nation’s most impressive team through three weeks. The Horned Frogs improved to 9-2 with a sweep of Wichita State this weekend; they already own series wins at Cal State Fullerton (which went on the road this weekend and swept a quality Southern Mississippi team) and Mississippi (although, to be fair, bad weather limited that series to one game).

Those big early-season wins figured to be critical for TCU to have a chance to host a regional and maybe even earn a national seed, because typically the Mountain West schedule kills the Frogs in the Ratings Percentage Index, even though they usually dominate the league. But if TCU cruises through the conference slate again this year, the nonconference wins might prove to be just the frosting on the cake, because every team in the league looks considerably improved. Of course, the flip-side is that, as Schlossnagle pointed out, it likely won’t be easy to win the MWC.


• San Diego State took three of four against then-No. 11 San Diego this weekend. The Aztecs are still just 7-6, but they’re capable of riding their stars to a series win any given weekend. Righthander Stephen Strasburg is quite obviously on a different level from every other pitcher in the nation (for the record, he’s 3-0, 1.77 with 45 strikeouts and five walks in 20.1 innings pitched), and the Aztecs have other solid arms in Jon Berger, Tyler Lavigne and Addison Reed. Outfielder Cory Vaughn is blossoming into a star as a sophomore, following his standout summer in the Northwoods League. Vaughn slugged a walk-off three-run homer in the 10th inning Friday.

• New Mexico finished second in the MWC behind TCU in coach Ray Birmingham’s first year last spring, and the Lobos are off to another hot start in 2009. New Mexico swept Binghamton this weekend to improve to 13-2, though UNM’s best win came in a midweek split at Texas Tech. Senior infielder Dane Hamilton had a game for the ages in Saturday’s 30-2 win over the Bearcats, recording six hits, six runs and six RBIs while hitting for the cycle. The Lobos are batting .394 as a team, and good luck finding a hotter hitter anywhere than sophomore outfielder Ryan Honeycutt (.595/.652/.964 through 37 at-bats over 15 games). New Mexico also has two of the MWC’s best players in outfielder Brian Cavazos-Galvez (.471) and catcher Rafael Neda (.429).

• Not only did Utah beat Texas A&M Saturday behind six shutout innings from talented junior righty Jordan Whatcott, but the Utes nearly stole the series on Sunday. They scored eight runs over the final two innings against A&M’s vaunted bullpen to take an 11-10 lead into the bottom of the ninth, but the Aggies rallied for two in the frame to escape. Schlossnagle says the 6-6 Utes are much improved, but they’ll need to get better pitching to make a serious run (their staff ERA is 5.81).

• Brigham Young won a trio of one-run games to sweep a solid St. John’s team this weekend. The Cougars held the Red Storm’s potent offense in check all three days, bookended by strong starts from junior righty Jeremy Toole (7 IP, 3 ER) and freshman righty Adam Miller (5 IP, 1 ER). The BYU bullpen is a concern, but the Cougars will score plenty of runs, and their improved starting pitching gives them a chance in most games.

• Nevada-Las Vegas has yet to record a win against a regional-caliber team, but the Rebels swept Butler in style this weekend to improve to 11-3. UNLV outscored Butler 66-19 in the four-game series and junior catcher Drew Beuerlein is nearly as hot as Honeycutt. Beuerlein is batting .541/.630/1.027 through 37 at-bats over 11 games.

• Even perennial punching bag Air Force is inching toward respectability. The Falcons are 4-6 and have recorded crisp 2-0 wins over Navy and Charleston Southern. Baby steps . . .

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Tony Sanchez

Florida State hadn’t lost a series in the opening weekend of ACC play since joining the conference in 1992. Heck, the Seminoles hadn’t even lost a game in an opening weekend since 2002, and they hadn’t lost a home game in the first weekend since 1997.

So it raised just a few eyebrows when unheralded Boston College marched into Dick Howser Stadium and won two out of three–in blowout fashion, no less. BC’s offense exploded for 14 runs Saturday and 12 more Sunday, led by the stellar performance of junior catcher Tony Sanchez.

Batting in the No. 3 hole, Sanchez went 4-for-6 with three runs, three RBIs, two doubles and a homer in Saturday’s win. Then, on Sunday, he went 3-for-3 with two runs, four RBIs and a double.

"I’ve maintained all along, for my money he’s the best catcher in the country, and he played like it this weekend," Eagles coach Mikio Aoki said. "He played great defense, he’s done an incredible job improving his body so he’s running quicker, and he’s swinging the bat really well right now. I’m sure there are other really good catchers out there, but for my money he’s the best guy in the country."

There certainly aren’t many catchers that can match Sanchez’s all-around game. Scouts have always praised his defense, but his offensive improvement could carry him into the top two rounds of the draft in June—and maybe the first, according to some scouts. He showed he could handle a wood bat in the Cape Cod League last summer, batting .326/.462/.489 with three homers and 18 RBIs, and he showed it again in an exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox in February. With Sox righthander Daniel Bard throwing 96-98 mph fastballs and filthy 87 mph sliders, Sanchez stood in and knocked a single on one of those sliders.

That’s a fun story, but Boston College is much more interested in what Sanchez is doing with a metal bat against other Division I teams. Through 13 games, the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder is hitting .455/.545/.782 with four homers and 19 RBIs—all team bests.

"I’ve always thought he’s a very good offensive player, but I would have said the strength of his game is receiving, blocking and throwing," Aoki said. "It’s not a surprise to see what he’s done offensively, because he’s always been one of our offensive leaders since his freshman year, but he’s always been exceptional behind the plate.

"I think he’s showing a little bit more discipline at the plate. Right now, he’s on a little bit of a hot streak, obviously, but that discipline at the plate is translating to him putting swings on better pitches. If there was one knock against him in the past, I would say it was he was a guy who would chase out of the strike zone and wasn’t disciplined enough at the plate. But he’s been able to really improve that, and right now, when he’s swinging at his pitch during an at-bat, he’s not missing."