Three Strikes: May 7

Strike One: No More Bedlam In Stillwater

Oklahoma State needed a big weekend in the worst way. After being swept at home by Big 12 favorite Texas, the Cowboys were in danger of sliding into the middle of the pack in the conference. With a less than stellar Ratings Percentage Index of 60, OSU needed to finish near the top of the league to have a chance to host a regional and earn a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.Things can turn fast in the Big 12. Just as quickly as Oklahoma State fell out of the race a week ago, they climbed back into the mix with a sweep of rival Oklahoma in the Bedlam Series.

“Playing such a short amount of games in our conference, when you play 27 games, a three-game swing in any direction can change things dramatically,” Cowboys coach Frank Anderson said. “It turns 180 degrees in one weekend, and it can continue to do that in either direction. Everybody tries to make more importance out of one series or another, but when you get to the last series, that’s the most important one you have.”

OSU has virtually no chance to win the league–it trails Texas by 3 1/2 games and the Longhorns have just three games remaining–but this weekend was huge as the Cowboys jockey for postseason position. The series could easily have swung the other way, as Oklahoma State had to come from behind to win one-run games on Friday and Sunday, and Anderson knows that his team was lucky to come up with the sweep. The Cowboys still have plenty of work to do in every facet before the postseason.

As good as their vaunted offense is, the Cowboys had not out-hit an opponent in any of their last 12 conference games before Friday. And the weekend rotation remains unstable. Converted reliever Jeff Breedlove has thrown fairly well on Fridays lately but is still just 0-3, 3.68. Senior righthander Oliver Odle has eaten up some innings, but OSU needs freshman lefty Andrew Oliver (5-1, 5.35) to revert to his early-season form and seize the Sunday starter spot, because he’s got the best arm on the staff. Sophomore lefty Joe Kent started yesterday.

“We need to pitch better than what we have,” Anderson said. “We’ve got some guys, but we don’t have anything finalized (in the rotation). We need somebody to step forward and extend the game for us. I’m not going to make any more out of (this weekend) than what it was, and yesterday we were very fortunate to win that thing, really.”

As for Oklahoma, this weekend was a major blow. The Sooners have now lost five straight games and five of their seven Big 12 series; at 8-13 in the conference and 28-20 overall, the Sooners really must win next weekend’s series at Missouri to keep alive any hopes for at-large bid. It helps that Oklahoma won a head-to-head series from Kansas State, but the Wildcats have a two-game lead over the Sooners in the loss column, they have a better overall record (31-17), and they have a solid RPI (25). After taking a series at Kansas, the Wildcats might be the fifth team in the Big 12, ahead of troubled Nebraska.

Strike Two: Chanticleers In The Clear

When Coastal Carolina scheduled this weekend’s series at Nebraska, the idea was to boost its RPI and help it qualify for the NCAA tournament. Instead, the Chanticleers might have sewn up a No. 1 seed and a shot to host a regional.

Coastal took the first two games from the Cornhuskers before Sunday’s finale was rained out; the Chanticleers had an RPI of 11 heading into the series against the No. 22 team in the RPI. Coastal coach Gary Gilmore confirmed that his team plans to submit a bid to host a regional at the home of the high Class A Myrtle Beach Pelicans, who will be on the road during regionals. Traveling to a regional environment like Nebraska and emerging with a pair of wins against a team from a power conference will go a long way toward convincing the selection committee that the Chanticleers are for real, and worthy of hosting.

“It was a very big weekend, to come out here and be fortunate enough for the ball to bounce our way and get a couple of wins against a great program like Nebraska,” Gilmore said. “The one thing, there are some venues in this country where you’re berated from the time you get off the bus until the time you leave town. Their guys, they’re cheering for their guys, but they’re very professional fans, not a lot of verbal abuse. They’re on you, but I think they have some of the greatest baseball fans of anywhere I’ve ever gone.”

Coastal has enough veterans on the mound and sprinkled around the diamond to weather that kind of atmosphere, and it showed. Even when senior lefthander Andy DeLaGarza was wild Friday, issuing six walks in three innings, the Chanticleers got six strong innings of relief from sophomore righthander/first baseman David Anderson. Coastal had been using Anderson in more of a closer’s role, but the emergence of freshman righty Nick McCully at the back of the bullpen has allowed Gilmore to slide Anderson back into a long relief/midweek starter role, where Gilmore believes he’s better suited. McCully brings stability to a bullpen picture that has been a question mark at times this year, thanks to a 90-93 mph fastball and slightly above-average slider. Sophomore righthanders Kent Altman and Pete Andrelczyk also factor into the bullpen mix, giving the Chanticleers decent depth.

The pen still isn’t as good as Coastal’s 2005 team, which earned a No. 1 seed and was sent to Arizona State, but this team has a more settled weekend rotation. In 2005, the Chanticleers struggled to get consistent starts behind ace Ricky Shefka in the rotation. This year, they’ve had the luxury of three guys–DeLaGarza, sophomore righty Bobby Gagg and senior righty John Mariotti–who have been very consistent and held down rotation spots all year. So while teams such as Oklahoma State struggle to solidify their starting pitching, Coastal can sit back and make minor tweaks to its lineup and bullpen, knowing its starters will be fine. There are still a few possible speed bumps along the way–midweek games against College of Charleston and Virginia and a series at Winthrop–but Coastal is in awfully good position to host.

Strike Three: What Can Brown Do For You?

The field of 64 has its first entry. As detailed in Friday’s weekend preview, Brown and Pennsylvania played a best-of-three Ivy League Championship series in Providence to determine who would advance to a regional. The favored Bears won their first-ever league title and secured their first NCAA tournament bid by sweeping Saturday’s doubleheader to avoid a rubber game Sunday.

The opener was a classic 1-0 pitcher’s duel, and experience won out. Brown junior righthander Jeff Dietz struck out 10 and walked just two in a complete-game, three-hit shutout. Penn freshman righty Todd Roth matched him zero for zero until the eighth, when Dietz drove home the winning run with a sacrifice fly. The unearned run was all the Bears could muster against Roth (8 IP, 6 H, 3 BB, 6 K), but it was all they needed.

Brown’s high-powered offense chased Quakers lefty Jim Birmingham in the second inning of the nightcap, after tagging him with nine runs. The Bears got grand slams from senior catcher Devin Thomas (4-for-6, 7 RBIs) and sophomore third baseman Robert Papenhause (3-for-5, 6 RBIs) in the blowout. Papenhause has played a big part in the second-half turnaround for Brown, which began the season 1-8. Papenhause started the year at shortstop, with sophomore Matt Nuzzo at third base. Seven games into the season, Brown coach Marek Drabinski decided to swap Papenhause to third, where his quick reaction time and arm strength was better suited, and Nuzzo to short, where his quickness was an asset.

“Since we made that change on the left side of the infield, we’ve been a totally different team,” Drabinski said. “After we made that change, we’re probably fielding around .975. It got Papenhause and Nuzzo comfortable offensively, and a lot more comfortable defensively.”

Brown probably doesn’t have the pitching depth to make a run in regionals, but with Dietz going in the first game and power-armed closer Rob Hallberg backing him up, they are more than capable of a Day One upset, like Manhattan pulled off a year ago with ace lefty Chris Cody leading the way against Nebraska. And the way Brown’s offense is capable of getting hot, you never know what could happen after that.