Three Strikes: Week 10 (VIDEO)

Strike One: First Knights

A week ago, Louisville went on the road and swept Houston, seemingly staking its claim as the class of the American Athletic Conference. But Central Florida quietly lurked near the top of the standings, and this week the Knights took control of the AAC race by taking two of three from the Cardinals in Orlando. UCF is now 12-3 in conference play, and up to No. 51 in the Ratings Percentage Index, putting the Knights in the thick of the at-large race.

Eric Skoglund

Eric Skoglund (Photo by Mike Janes)

It’s quite a turnaround for UCF, which started the season 7-11 but has gone 18-5 since. The Knights entered the season with modest expectations after turning over a substantial chunk of their roster, but they have steadily improved under the relentlessly optimistic leadership of head coach Terry Rooney.

“This is a good club, and it’s an exciting time right now,” Rooney said. “We had 24 new players this year. With 24 new players out of 35, it takes some time to figure out how to win. If you look at our schedule, we have a tremendous amount of extra-inning games, one-run losses. The kids just persevered through it early. We just kept pressing, keep working hard and stayed confident.”

UCF’s recruiting class featured 12 junior-college transfers and 12 freshmen, and the transfers have made an immediate impact. Second baseman Dylan Moore (.329/.407/.400) and center fielder Derrick Salberg (.314/.377/.358) make the offense go out of the first two spots in the lineup, ranking among UCF’s top three hitters and basestealers. They set the table in front of first baseman James Vasquez (.326/.438/.479, 4 HR, 31 RBI) and shortstop Tommy Williams (.255/.344/.484, 10 HR, 34 RBI), the team’s top power threats.

Another transfer, righthander Zach Rodgers (4-1, 1.55), has been a major key to the pitching staff, operating in a hybrid role that is reminiscent of the way Rooney deployed Jared Bradford during Rooney’s days as LSU’s pitching coach. Rodgers has six starts and four saves among his 18 appearances; Rooney won’t hesitate to use him early in a weekend if necessary to nail down a win, but otherwise he can start on Sunday. Rodgers is just 5-foot-11, but he has a quick arm that generates 89-93 heat, highlighting his three-pitch mix.

The staff leader, however, is a returnee who has made great strides as a junior: 6-foot-7 lefthander Eric Skoglund (6-1, 1.90, 63-17 SO-BB in 76 IP). Last year, Skoglund went 1-4, 5.08 with more walks (29) than strikeouts (26).

“He had a tremendous fall, and he’s made the jump,” Rooney said. “We thought for us to be the team we wanted to be, Skoglund had to be that legitimate Friday night guy to replace Ben Lively. Every week he’s been 88-91, touch some 92s. Just his command is different, the poise is great, and he’s legitimately become a pitcher that has risen to the occasion. Without question, he has been everything we thought. As far as the stuff goes, everything is better than it was last year. The breaking ball is hard to both sides of the plate and the changeup has always been good. The biggest thing is the ability to separate each pitch and rise to the occasion when he’s needed to.”

UCF as a whole has repeatedly risen to the occasion when it needed to, and now it has a chance to get back to regionals for the third time in four years.

Strike Two: Frogs Make Their Move

In many ways, Texas and Texas Christian are mirror images of each other. Both had elite pitching staffs last year, but both struggled mightily to score runs, and both missed regionals in 2013. They entered this spring ranked back-to-back in BA’s preseason Top 25 (No. 18 and No. 19, respectively), as we expected both pitching staffs to be among the nation’s best, and we anticipated at least modest improvement from each team’s lineup.

Kevin Cron

Kevin Cron (Photo by John Williamson)

We wrote about Texas’ improvement last week in this space, but this weekend the Horned Frogs took center stage, allowing just one run total in a three-game sweep of the Longhorns in Austin. All three games were low scoring, but TCU got the timely hits, and made the timely pitches when Texas threatened.

“We’re not going to beat anybody into the ground with our bats,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “We have to execute our offense and have some balls fall in. Really, I thought that was the story of the weekend: Both teams played great, had plenty of baserunning opportunities to score runs, and we had some balls fall in. We played well, but we also got a lot of breaks, too.”

The Frogs never seemed to catch any breaks during their trying 2013 campaign, when they ranked 270th in the nation in batting and 245th in scoring. Their average is up from .245 last year to .279 this year (93rd in the country), and their scoring rate is up to 4.6 runs per game (183rd), which is good enough to win plenty of games when coupled with a 2.51 ERA and a .975 fielding percentage. This is, as expected, an elite run prevention team, with a premium one-two pitching punch in Brandon Finnegan and Preston Morrison, and one of college baseball’s most electrifying arms anchoring the bullpen in Riley Ferrell (9 SV, 0.76, 39-7 SO-BB in 24 IP). Ferrell saved all three games this weekend and escaped a bases-loaded jam in the ninth in Saturday’s series finale by inducing a double play.

“Riley Ferrell has taken another step. I mean, it’s ridiculous the kind of power arm he has become, with command and aggression and presence,” Schlossnagle said. “It’s become consistent, 96-99. He throws his breaking ball 86-88 mph. But he’s throwing strikes, coming right at you. Usually a college kid throwing that hard, it’s all over the place, at the top of the strike zone. He’s at the bottom of the zone most of the time. Thursday and Friday, he was pitching with as much command as Preston Morrison does, with elite velocity, and the effort’s not any more.”

Ferrell isn’t the only Frog who has taken a big step forward. Juniors Derek Odell (.313/.397/.344) and Kevin Cron (.270/.381/.461, 4 HR, 11 2B, 26 RBI) have rebounded from miserable sophomore years to become productive offensive players. Improved patience has been key for both; Cron had an 11-44 walk-strikeout mark last year, but he already has 15 walks this year to 26 strikeouts. Odell went from 15-25 BB-SO last year to 19-14 this year. Odell has become an ideal No. 2 hitter behind speed merchant Cody Jones (who has 17 stolen bases in 20 tries).

“Odell’s probably our most competitive player in the batter’s box; he doesn’t give away any pitches, he can hit the ball the other way,” Schlossnagle said. “And he’s not afraid to take pitches. With Cody Jones on base, and Derek in the 2-hole, the other team’s thinking about Cody running, and Derek’s not afraid to take a couple pitches to steal a bag.

“Your marquee players need to have good seasons for you to have a good year. Kevin is driving in runs, getting timely hits and sac flies, and Derek’s playing really well. We’re becoming more of an offense. Are we an elite hitting team? We’re not. But I think we can play pretty good offense most days.”

Grinder Boomer White (.364/.419/.455, 2 HR, 27 RBI) continues to be TCU’s most consistent hitter, and Dylan Fitzgerald (.305/.389/.418) has taken a huge leap after hitting .221 as a part-time player last year. The recent returns of Jerrick Suiter and Garrett Crain from injuries have completed the lineup. Crain (.364 in 77 at-bats) is a switch-hitter who has provided a boost to the bottom third of the lineup and solidified TCU’s defense at second base. Catcher Kyle Bacak and shortstop Keaton Jones give the Frogs two more strong defenders up the middle, and all three have done a good-enough job getting on base to turn the lineup over.

As UCLA proved last year, top-shelf pitching and defense coupled with timely hitting is a winning postseason formula in the BBCOR era, and TCU suddenly looks very dangerous again. The Frogs have won three straight series to climb into second place in the Big 12, and their sweep of Texas vaulted them up to No. 21 in the RPI. The Horned Frogs looked like a bubble team a month ago, but now they look like a threat to host a regional.

“If we play well down the stretch and keep winning series, this league is the No. 2 RPI league in the country. I don’t think people write about that enough,” Schlossnagle said. “I think every team in the league is in the top 100 in the RPI. When Texas is good, that helps everybody. We’re all feeding off each other, which is what happens in the SEC or ACC.”

Of course, even if the Frogs wind up on the road in regionals, they showed this weekend that they are good enough to beat good teams no matter where they play.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Casey Gillaspie

When Conor Gillaspie was a junior at Wichita State in 2008, no player in college baseball was more intense. That spring, former Shockers coach Gene Stephenson said Gillaspie was driven to achieve perfection every day, and it was a good sign that they finally got him to smile on occasion, so he didn’t let his fire consume him. Off the field, Gillaspie would talk your ear off, and he wasn’t shy about telling you he was just as good as the top players who grew up in warmer climates. He had a huge chip on his shoulder, and he embraced it.

Golden Spikes 2014His younger brother Casey is a junior at Wichita State now, and he is following in Conor’s footsteps by putting up All-America numbers on the heels of a standout summer in the Cape Cod League (where Conor was the 2007 MVP). He has a chance to be drafted even higher than Conor was (37th overall), and in a few years he could join Conor in the big leagues.

So the Gillaspie brothers have plenty in common. Just not their personalities.

“I think anybody that knows us both would tell you that we’re complete opposites,” said the mild-mannered Casey. “As far as competitiveness for baseball, I think we both have the same. We both want to be winners, we both want to be great, and we’re both going to work to be that good. He’ll take the game a little more seriously, and he’ll be the first one to tell you that. I like to kind of be more laid back when I play.”

Casey is perfectly willing to let his bat do most of his talking—and it makes plenty of noise. Through 39 games, the switch-hitting first baseman is hitting .401/.506/.694 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs. He ranks fifth in the nation in slugging percentage, fifth in OBP, seventh in homers and 14th in batting. He had a strong weekend in Wichita State’s sweep of Southern Illinois, driving in two runs Friday, collecting two hits including a homer Saturday, then going 3-for-4 with two more RBIs Sunday.

At 6-foot-4, 238 pounds, Gillaspie is bigger than his older brother (who now plays for the Chicago White Sox), and he is a fearsome presence in the heart of Wichita’s lineup.

“I’ve been coaching 24 years,” first-year Shockers coach Todd Butler said. “I’ve had big leaguers, All-Americans, I’ve been fortunate to coach in the SEC for 16 years. As far as a hitter, with discipline, power, a switch-hitter, with his size, I think he’s one of the elite hitters in college baseball. And also just the makeup, his character, the person that he is—he is such a good player.”

Casey Gillaspie

Casey Gillaspie

Strong character isn’t the only thing Gillaspie picked up from his parents, Mark and Diane. Mark was an All-American at Mississippi State who played professional ball. He was also a switch-hitter, and he taught Casey how to excel from both sides. “It changes day to day which side I feel most comfortable with,” Gillaspie said. “But in my opinion, I’m just as good from the left or right side.”

He also credits his father for teaching him a disciplined plate approach. After posting 62 walks and 35 strikeouts as a sophomore last year, Gillaspie has 31 walks and 18 strikeouts this year. As the focal point of the Wichita offense, he gets pitched carefully, but he has done a fine job staying within himself.

“It’s kind of stressful for a coach, because I can’t steal, I can’t bunt a guy to second in front of him, because they’ll walk him,” Butler said. “And he goes up there and every day he shows up. He gets pitched extremely tough. He sees changeups, curveballs, and they try to buzz him with a fastball in and he hits it. He does things that you talk about as a coach that you just can’t get other players to do. He’s that special.”

Like his older brother, Gillaspie’s defense is less advanced than his bat, but he has worked hard on that part of his game, like Conor did. He is fielding .994 this spring, and though he’ll never be a particularly rangy first baseman, scouts have remarked that he looks much better at the position than he did in the past.

“I think in time he’s going to be an outstanding first baseman,” Butler said. “I think he’s going to be very good. He’s taken a lot of pride in it. I’ve talked to him about how his defense needs to elevate. He’s really taken it seriously, he’s a tireless worker. I think that stamp on the defense, as time develops, I think they’ll take that stamp off of him. I think he’ll be a very good defender at the next level. He is a winner.”