Three Strikes: Week 10

Strike One: Gonzaga Strengthens Hold On WCC Lead

MALIBU, Calif.--The West Coast Conference is tightly bunched as usual, with four teams (San Diego, Pepperdine, San Francisco and Loyola Marymount) tied for second place, and another (Brigham Young) just a half game behind that group.

But there’s some separation at the very top, where Gonzaga has gotten off to a 13-5 start and climbed to No. 22 in the Baseball America Top 25 rankings. The Bulldogs reeled off an 11-game winning streak before dropping Sunday’s series finale at Pepperdine, but they still won that series on the road, solidifying their status as the WCC’s team to beat.

“We’re doing enough,” said a cautiously optimistic Gonzaga coach Mark Machtolf. “We’ve won, I think, three or four one-run games (actually five) during the winning streak, and we’ve been pretty fortunate. But the kids have battled and executed pretty well.”

And that’s one of the things that stands out about Gonzaga: the way it grinds out at-bats, executes small ball, and keeps pressure on opposing defenses. Friday was a good example.  Mitchell Gonsolus walked to lead off the game, moved to second on a single, moved to third on a sacrifice and scored on a sac fly. The next inning, Alex Bonczyk reached on an error, stole second and third and scored on a perfect suicide squeeze. In the sixth, the Zags sat back and took four walks and sprinkled in three RBI singles to score four runs.

Saturday was more of the same: Gonzaga manufactured runs in the fourth and fifth, and that was enough to win with Tyler Olson dealing. It wasn’t anything fancy on offense, but it was effective.

“We’re not right now overly offensive where we’re just going to come out and smash people,” Machtolf said. “But the young kids are battling, (Caleb) Wood has stepped up, Cabe Reiten does some things from an execution standpoint. Then the older guys have done a good job too.”

The blend of seasoned veterans such as Marco Gonzales, Steven Halcomb and Clayton Eslick with skilled newcomers like Cory Lebrun, Wood and Reiten has made for a better offensive team than the numbers indicate. Gonzaga has hit just four home runs this season and is hitting .272 as a team, but it isn’t a fun team to play against.

“I’ve always thought Gonzaga is one of the more underrated teams in the country,” San Diego coach Rich Hill said last month. “What’s overlooked is the job Coach Machtolf does with their hitters; they just grind you, wear you out. You can’t strike them out, they’re aggressive on the bases. Someday when I retire, I’m just going to go up there and break it down with Mach. They don’t chase, they just wear you down.”

Marco Gonzales

Marco Gonzales (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

Of course, the biggest strength of Gonzaga’s team is the one-two pitching punch of Gonzales and Olson. “You don’t get that very often in a career,” Hill said of that duo. Both came up big this weekend, as Gonzales threw seven strong innings to beat Scott Frazier on Friday, and Olson followed with a four-hit shutout on Saturday. Both lefthanders compete, throw strikes and know how to win. Olson is now 7-2, 2.41 on the season, while Gonzales is 5-2, 2.57.

The bullpen is built around a pair of quality junior righthanders, Arturo Reyes (5-1, 1.82) and Kenny Smith (3-0, 3.68). Reyes has power stuff, with a fastball that reaches 92 and a good slider, while Smith has some funk and deception in his three-quarters delivery and feel for three pitches.

The sum is greater than the parts with Gonzaga, which is getting closer to at-large range in the Ratings Percentage Index (up to No. 59). Gonzaga’s postseason resume also includes a win against Arkansas, a tie against Arizona State, a series win against San Diego and a 3-0 record in midweek games against Pac-12 neighbor Washington State. And, of course, that first-place status in the WCC.

So while Machtolf isn’t the type to get effusive in his praise for his team, he is pleased with his club, which is now 26-11-1 overall.

“The main thing I tell everybody is they like each other,” Machtolf said. “They enjoy going to battle with each other.”

Strike Two: Improved Pitching Propels Lobos

New Mexico coach Ray Birmingham says the best recruiting job he ever did was getting Dan Spencer to join his staff as pitching coach this year. Spencer, who won two national championships as Oregon State’s pitching coach before a four-year stint as head coach at Texas Tech, has helped settle down UNM’s arms, allowing the preseason Top 25 team to bounce back from a 6-9 start to rejoin the rankings this week.

newmexicoNew Mexico has gone 18-7 since that 6-9 start, including six straight series wins. After sweeping Nevada this weekend, the Lobos opened up a three-game lead in the Mountain West Conference over second-place Nevada-Las Vegas. Offense is New Mexico’s greatest strength, as expected. The Lobos ranked in the nation’s top 10 in batting, scoring, doubles, triples and slugging in the NCAA’s most recent stats report, heading into this weekend.

The hitting has been a constant all year, but the pitching has been the key to New Mexico’s hot streak, which includes a current seven-game winning streak. The staff ERA has dropped below 5.00--still not great, but good enough to win with this offense, and it is still improving.

“We knew coming into the year that our question mark would be starting pitching,” Birmingham said. “We felt that we could play good defense, and if we got average pitching we had a shot. I think I’ve got the best pitching coach in the country; Dan’s record speaks for itself. Dan is a very regimented, routine-oriented guy. If he was teaching math, he’d be outstanding. He’s just a teacher, a really good teacher mentally and physically. And we’re always going to hit, we’re always going to wear it out. He takes the pressure off me trying to score 10 all the time.”

Freshman Drew Bridges showed up on campus last fall as a power-hitting shortstop with a long swing, but after seeing him rifle balls to first base from deep in the hole, the Lobos decided to convert him to the mound. Now he’s the Friday starter, and he just threw five innings of one-hit ball in UNM’s win against likely first-round pick Braden Shipley. Bridges (2-1, 3.86) isn’t a strikeout pitcher, but he throws strikes with an 88-89 fastball, a curveball and a changeup, and he has good downward plane and movement on his heater.

Senior righthander Sam Wolff (3-3, 4.25) is learning how to harness his electric stuff under Spencer’s tutelage, and he delivered 6 1/3 innings of four-hit, shutout ball in Saturday’s win.

“The best thing that happened to Sam Wolff is he ran into Dan Spencer,” Birmingham said. “Dan’s turned him into a big-time prospect. His pitchability now is really good . . . (Spencer) toned him down to the low 90s, gave him a fastball with late movement, locating really well down in the zone. He’s given him a confidence, a purpose, a direction. It’s nice and easy too--you’ll go, ‘Wow, that was 97?’ He’ll still touch those numbers in a game; when he’s got to go get it, he’ll go get it. Before he was a max-effort guy, thought he had to throw 98 every pitch. He has a tight breaking ball for strikes--a tight breaking ball--and the changeup is plus.”

The Lobos are still trying to figure out the No. 3 starter role, but junior righty Josh Walker (4-0, 3.92, seven saves) has provided stability at the back of the bullpen. He pitched in two games this weekend, picking up a save and a win.

The pitching staff has also benefited from better defense behind it. When the Lobos were 6-9 heading into a big road series at UNLV, they had a .953 fielding percentage. They have boosted that mark to .965, thanks in part to some shuffling in the infield.

Preseason All-American D.J. Peterson slid across the infield to first base, while Alex Allbritton moved from shortstop to third, making room for 5-foot-6 freshman Jared Holley at short. Allbritton is a good shortstop, but Holley can’t play third, so this alignment works best for the Lobos. And Allbritton has made some standout plays at the hot corner, Birmingham said.

It also probably helps that New Mexico has moved to a new turf playing surface at Lobo Field, which is still going through the construction process. The Lobos practiced on the field heading into the season, but then they had scheduled to play their games at Triple-A Isotopes Park because the the stands and bathrooms weren’t yet ready at Lobo Field.

But they moved into Lobo Field on March 24, and New Mexico is 14-5 since. A turf surface leads to more generous hops and generally helps a defense develop confidence.

“Our pitching’s not dominant enough to overcome mistakes,” Birmingham. “But now they’re playing catch.”

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Austin Kubitza

For Rice junior righthander Austin Kubitza, the key has always been harnessing the extreme movement on his fastball well enough to throw strikes. There are times when his ball moves too much and his walks pile up--he has 37 walks in 67 innings this year, about as many as he threw in 80 innings last season.

Austin Kubitza

Austin Kubitza (Photo by Andrew Woolley)

But extreme movement is a double-edged sword, and it also allows him to escape jams with strikeouts and weak contact. He ranks fourth in the nation with 90 strikeouts (just five behind leader Carlos Rodon of North Carolina State), and his 12.15 strikeouts per nine innings are second-most of any pitcher with at least 70 strikeouts (behind only Rodon’s 14.9).

It helps, of course, that Kubitza can complement his running, sinking two-seamer with a devastating swing-and-miss slider.

“It has a lot to do with that slider,” Rice coach Wayne Graham said of Kubitza’s strikeout rate. “He throws his slider up to 87, and he keeps it in the 80s, and it’s usually got good tilt. When you can throw that pitch from his angles, it’s nasty. Plus his fastball is never straight. So basically every pitch is like a breaking ball. It makes it real rough on the hitter.”

Kubitza did not have good control two weekends ago against Central Florida, when he walked five in four innings and took his second loss of the year. So the Owls used him for 50 pitches or so Tuesday against Texas Tech, and he responded with four hitless innings, walking just one. Because of the midweek appearance, Rice gave Kubitza an extra day of rest, starting him Saturday against Houston ace Austin Pruitt. Kubitza responded with seven innings of two-hit, shutout ball, walking three and striking out 10 in a 4-0 victory to improve to 6-2, 1.22 on the season.

“We were thinking he just needs to get out there so he has better command,” Graham said, explaining the midweek start. “He’s doing a lot of things better. If he can throw strikes with (his fastball), usually it just makes a terrible time for the hitters because of the movement, and a lot of it is sinking movement. I’ve seen righthanded hitters time and again swing over his fastball, and lefthanded hitters, it moves away from them so they chase it. He’s an unusual pitcher because he has all that crazy movement.”

Kubitza flashed plus fastball velocity as a lanky freshman, leading scouts to believe he would grow into a hard thrower. But he pitches more in the high 80s as a junior, reaching 91 and every once in a while 93. Still, there aren’t many fastballs in the nation that are more effective, because of its life. And the deception in his delivery helps, too.

“He covers the ball pretty well because he throws a little across his body, and he’s over 6-foot-6,” Graham said. “So when you’re having a little trouble picking up the ball, and it’s coming in at that angle, it creates a real problem. If he throws a good (slider), it doesn’t get hit. They’ve got to hope he hangs it, and occasionally he does and it gets hit, but when it’s down, it’s deadly.”