Three Strikes: May 12

Strike One: Series Of The Year In Lincoln

College baseball has not seen a more intense, competitive series between two national championship contenders in 2008 than this weekend’s battle between No. 9 Texas A&M and No. 5 Nebraska. The tone was set Friday, in what must be the Game of the Year–a 16-inning epic that was finally decided when A&M’s Dane Carter delivered a three-run double with two outs after the Aggies had loaded the bases on three infield singles. That resolution came after the Cornhuskers pushed across a run in the bottom of the ninth to tie it, and A&M sophomore reliever Travis Starling delivered eight heroic innings of shutout relief.

“It was absolutely incredible,” A&M coach Rob Childress said after the five-hour, 20-minute marathon. “I’ve been around a lot of teams, and this is as tough a team I’ve been around in 19 years of coaching. We didn’t have many opportunities tonight, and we were just able to find a way.”

After Saturday’s action was washed out, the Huskers showed their own toughness in Sunday’s doubleheader, scoring a pair of improbable comeback victories. Senior catcher Mitch Abeita’s two-out RBI single capped Nebraska’s five-run ninth-inning outburst in the opener, as the Huskers overcame a late 8-4 deficit. Then, in the finale, Nebraska overcame a 9-4 hole over the final four innings to win 13-10. Typical of a Nebraska team that has gotten contributions from all over its roster all season, freshman DH David Stewart–an elite power-hitting recruit who had made just three starts all season heading into Sunday–started both games of the doubleheader and delivered seven RBIs.

Like the Aggies, the Cornhuskers are relentless and their belief in themselves never wavers. That, more than anything else, is what makes them so good.

"We had a tough game, but we never gave in," Abeita told the Lincoln Journal Star. "Not surprised. Not surprised at all."

At this point, no one should be surprised if both these teams wind up in Omaha.

Strike Two: Box Out

We’ve written plenty about Louisiana State in this space recently, but the fact is the Tigers are quickly becoming one of the top stories in college baseball this season. After sweeping another Southeastern Conference series–their third in a row–the Tigers have taken control of the SEC’s Western Division and put themselves in great position to host a regional.

That would give 70-year-old Alex Box Stadium one final hurrah before the LSU moves a few blocks down the street into sparkling new Alex Box Stadium next year. But the Tigers made sure the final regular-season series at the Box was a memorable one, sweeping Mississippi State to extend their winning streak to 13 games. LSU sold 8,701 tickets for the finale–the largest paid crowd in stadium history–and most fans stayed for more than an hour after the game ended for a celebration that included more than 100 former LSU players spanning seven decades. Among those on hand were relatives of the stadium’s namesake, Alex Box, a former LSU baseball and football player who died in World War II.

Then 6,556 stayed for more than an hour after the game for the celebration that included more than 100 former players spanning seven decades being honored and a video montage of LSU’s great Box moments as Frank Sinatra’s "There Used To Be a Ballpark" played over the loudspeakers.

"It’s a family honor," Bobby Box, the 55-year-old nephew of Alex Box, told the Shreveport (La.) Times. "But it’s the fans and Skip (Bertman) and the players that made Alex Box Stadium what it is. I’m proud to be one of those fans."

For more on the Box, don’t miss the Baton Rouge Advocate’s collection of memories from the old yard.

Strike Three: A New Front-Runner?

For the first time since Georgia Tech’s  Mark Teixeira in 2000, a sophomore is making a serious run at Baseball America’s Player of the Year award.

San Diego State sophomore righthander Stephen Strasburg is simply performing on another stratosphere from anyone else in the country. Pitching in the high altitude of Provo, Utah, Strasburg twirled his third straight complete-game victory Friday against Brigham Young. He allowed just one run on two hits and a walk while striking out 15–his sixth straight double-digit strikeout game.

"He’s a major league pitcher; he could pitch there right now," BYU coach (and ex-big leaguer) Vance Law told the (Provo) Daily Herald. "I have no doubt about that. I saw a lot worse guys in my playing days who were there for a number of years. This guy is something special."

How historic is Strasburg’s season? On Friday, he broke the Mountain West Conference’s single-season strikeout record–he has 92 in conference games, shattering the previous record of 78 by SDSU’s Marcos Mendoza in 2001. He also finished league play with a 0.63 ERA in conference games, breaking Texas Christian righty Jake Arrieta’s two-year-old MWC record of 1.12. Those numbers, in a hitter-friendly conference, are down right Gibsonian.

On top of that, Strasburg now has an eye-popping 125-11 strikeout-walk ratio in 84 innings. His 125 whiffs are a school record, breaking the previous mark of 122 set by Rob Brown in 1989. He’s 8-1, 1.28 overall heading into his final start of the regular season Thursday against Cal State Fullerton.

The junior lefthander across town–San Diego’s Brian Matusz–has had a wonderful year for a top 10-caliber team, going 10-2, 2.05 with 122 strikeouts and 20 walks in 88 innings. And of course Georgia’s Gordon Beckham and Florida State’s Buster Posey have continued their brilliant junior seasons right through this weekend. It’s a terrific field of candidates, but the sophomore from SDSU is making quite a case for himself.