Three Strikes: Week 11

Strike One: Bullish On South Florida

Expectations were modest for South Florida heading into 2013. Big East coaches voted USF to finish fifth in the preseason; after all, the Bulls haven’t been to regionals since 2002, and they were counting on a number of unseasoned underclassmen in the lineup this spring.

After South Florida dropped its second Big East series at Georgetown to fall to 14-14 overall at the end of March, a middle-of-the-pack finish in the Big East looked like USF’s destiny. But since then, the Bulls have been on fire, winning 14 of their last 15 games and sweeping three straight conference series (against Pittsburgh, at Connecticut and vs. St. John’s this weekend) to sit alone atop the Big East standings at 13-2.

“It’s finally starting to come,” South Florida coach Lelo Prado said. “I hope it continues, because I’ve seen it come little by little, and the guys are feeling good about themselves. Like I told them when we were 14-14, ‘Somebody that’s 14-14 is going to take off. It happens every year in college baseball. And it could be us. We still have not played close to where we are capable of playing.’ We had a huge meeting, and it took off. Guys are believing in each other.”

Strong pitching has fueled USF’s surge. The Bulls have allowed four runs or fewer in eight of their last nine conference games, and 12 of their last 15 games overall. Freshman righthander Jimmy Herget, who allowed three runs (one earned) in seven strong innings against St. John’s, has blossomed into a reliable Friday starter, going 5-1, 1.61 in 67 innings. Prado said he initially envisioned Herget working out of the bullpen, but when the Bulls struggled out of the gate, he realized that they wouldn’t have any leads to protect unless they could get better starting pitching. Herget is in the mold of former USF ace Randy Fontanez—a bulldog righty who throws from different arm slots to keep hitters off balance with a curveball and a slider, helping his pedestrian fastball play up.

Two other freshman righties—Derek Martin and Tommy Peterson—have missed the season after having Tommy John surgery, but the staff has proven deeper than anticipated. Junior lefthander Nick Gonzalez (3-3, 3.92) moved from a relief role last year into the Saturday starter role and has taken off, thanks largely to a much-improved changeup and an improved ability to hold runners. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Gonzalez is USF’s best prospect, with an 88-90 fastball that bumps 91-93 on occasion.

And senior righty Joey Lovecchio (5-2, 4.17) has been very steady on Sundays, attacking the zone with a fastball/slider/splitter mix. Senior righty Chad Taylor and junior lefthander Lawrence Pardo (a junior-college transfer) have emerged as the linchpins of the bullpen.

First-year pitching coach Lance Carter, who took over in January after the Marlins hired former USF assistant Chuck Hernandez to be their big league pitching coach, has done a good job with the staff. Carter and fellow assistant Chris Heintz both grinded their way to the big leagues during their playing careers, and Prado said they have helped instill toughness in the USF players. “They can tell kids what it takes to get there, the ups and downs of minor league baseball,” Prado said.

The Bulls don’t have a lot of pop in the lineup, although they got a couple of big home runs this weekend from Jimmy Falla and Kyle Copack. But they rely mostly on small ball to generate offense, and the formula has worked. The lineup has some key veteran anchors in Falla, Alex Mendez, James Ramsey and Chris Norton, and underclassmen like redshirt freshman Nik Alfonso (who leads the team with a .336 average) and sophomore Kyle Teaf (who has played solid defense at shortstop) have emerged as key contributors.

At No. 77 in the Ratings Percentage Index, the Bulls still have plenty of work to do to get an at-large bid, but their RPI is on the rise, and their remaining schedule features three solid RPI series against Notre Dame, Seton Hall and Rutgers. South Florida finished strong a year ago, tying for third with a 17-10 conference record and reaching the Big East tournament finals before losing to St. John’s. Getting over the hump into a regional for the first time in more than a decade would be a big boost to a USF program that has positive momentum, with a new stadium that opened up two years ago and a solid young core of talent.

“We’ve been close—we were close last year,” Prado said. “The year before that, when we didn’t make the conference tournament, I thought that was going to be my best team here. So you never know; we’ve had some injuries that have killed us, but we’ve got a new stadium, we’ve got good kids and good kids coming in here. It’s starting to turn. I thought it would turn a little faster than this, but it didn’t. I think if we continue to play the way we’re playing, I feel good.”

Strike Two: Gauchos Making Move In Competitive Big West

Former UC Riverside pitching coach Andrew Checketts made his first trip back to his old stomping grounds as UC Santa Barbara’s head coach this weekend, and his homecoming was a success. The Gauchos won two out of three, giving them series wins against Cal Poly, Long Beach State and Riverside over the last four weekends, as well as a tight road series loss to Cal State Fullerton (where the Gauchos avoided a sweep with a Sunday win). The series win at Riverside makes UCSB 8-7 in the Big West, tied with Cal Poly for fifth place, and just two games behind third-place UC Irvine, with the Anteaters heading to Santa Barbara next weekend.

Checketts made a name for himself as one of college baseball’s best young pitching coaches during his time on Doug Smith’s staff at UCR.

“It felt a little bit like an intrasquad with Coach (Doug) Smith in the other dugout,” Checketts said after Friday’s 10-7 win. “It was fun. And actually, this used to be the home dugout, then the last year I was here they moved it across to the other side. So I felt at home here. From a sentimental standpoint, I met my wife here, had a reception, spent seven years here. It was fun coming back; I know where to eat.”

Checketts left Riverside to become George Horton’s pitching coach at Oregon, and in his second year at UCSB, he is building a strong foundation. His first recruiting class ranked as the No. 12 class in the nation after it showed up on campus last fall, and the centerpiece of that class—outfielder Andrew Calica—has yet to assume a prominent role because of injury. But other freshmen have emerged as key building blocks.

Robby Nesovic was recruited mostly as a pitcher, but he has found his way into the cleanup spot and leads the team with a .353 average.

“Robby’s just a hit-getter, he keeps getting hits,” Checketts said. “He’s tough to pitch to. I was joking with him that he looks like Vlad Guerrero—he looks really bad on a pitch, then hits one off his shoes and spanks it pretty good.”

Another freshman, righthander Dylan Hecht, has anchored the bullpen, posting a 2.13 ERA and racking up six saves. He showed power stuff on Friday, working in the 91-93 mph range with his fastball, and Checketts said he was up to 97 last week. He also flashed a good slider at 81-83, but other times he was too tentative with the pitch, and it came in softer at 75-77 (it wasn’t a curveball, but a “sloppy, scared slider,” as Checketts put it). Hecht was a catcher in high school who didn’t start pitching until his senior year, so he’s still a work in progress, but his talent is obvious.

The Gauchos also have a pair of talented draft-eligible players. Junior shortstop Brandon Trinkwon was a second-team preseason All-American after tearing up the Cape Cod League last summer, and he earned the title of best defensive infielder in college baseball in our Early Draft Preview back in February. He has lived up to the defensive praise, fielding at a .975 clip (just six errors). Scouts have called his arm below-average and projected him as a second baseman at the next level, and he lacked zip on throws from the hole Friday, although a little tendinitis played a role in that. But Trinkwon has good range and instincts, and his hands really work. He started a couple of double plays in slick fashion on Friday. “He can really defend,” Checketts said.

Trinkwon’s offensive production has been disappointing. He’s hitting just .262/.351/.372 with four homers and 25 RBIs.

“We’ve been trying to figure it out,” Checketts said. “I think he came back from the Cape, he hit five home runs, hit .300, and I think he was trying to hit for power. His stance had gotten a little narrow, and he had more drift, and his bat was wrapping a little more. When a kid’s hit—and he hit really well last year and hit in the Cape—so he came in in the fall, we said, ‘OK, you know what you’re doing, you’ve got hand-eye coordination,’ so we left him alone.

“In hindsight, we should have gone back and dug into it. He hit about .250 in the fall, he was letting pitches go. He used to just ram balls into the left-center gap, so if you threw him a pitch away, he’d just wear that thing out. Now he’s narrow and he’s taking that pitch, because he’s looking for something a little bit bigger he can hit over the fence, and he’s missing all those pitches he can hit. So in the last probably month, he’s started to widen his stance out a little bit more, to get closer to what he looks like with two strikes, because he can really hit with two strikes. He’s swung the bat a little bit better. He’s still not quite where any of us would like it; I think he’s a really good hitter, but he just hasn’t shown it yet consistently.”

Redshirt sophomore first baseman Tyler Kuresa was a Top 200 prospect out of high school who started his collegiate career with Checketts at Oregon, then transferred back to UCSB (where he had to sit out a year due to NCAA rules). Scouts call him a true above-average defender at first base, and he flashed some power on Friday, ripping a double deep into the right-center gap and launching a soaring ball over the fence down the right-field line, just foul. He’s hitting .309/.372/.461 on the season, with three homers and 33 RBIs. Lean and lanky at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Kuresa still hasn’t grown into his power potential, but it’s starting to come.

“He’s been a little two-faced at times, where he’ll show you that bat speed, then he’ll show you a slowed-down swing,” Checketts said. “But (Friday) he let his swing go, and it was better. He hit elevated breaking balls when they threw it to him. You saw him at the end chase down (for strike three), but if he can get that out of the equation, he’ll be pretty good. The bat speed, he’ll have to make another jump in the weight room for that to show up, in my opinion. He knows that. And his body will have to make one more transformation. Because it’s a pretty good approach, the balance is pretty good, rhythm is pretty good. I always joke that if he were righthanded he’d be a shortstop or a third baseman, because he’s a special defender—the best guy I’ve ever had over there at first.”

The Gauchos need to catch fire to boost their No. 88 RPI into at-large range, but they have the young talent and the older talent to be dangerous. After the Irvine series, they visit second-place Cal State Northridge, then finish with very winnable series against Pacific and at UC Davis.

“I think we’re playing for our lives,” Checketts said. “I think the math still works, if we can do something. There’s no easy ones, but we feel like if we can win series the rest of the way, you feel like the math might work out for you.”

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Ryon Healy

Oregon first baseman Ryon Healy has always been able to hit. His track record dates back to his prep days at Crespi Carmelite High in Encino, Calif., when he pitched and hit a home run in the Southern Section Division II championship game as a junior. After his senior year, he ranked as the top prospect in the California Collegiate League, hitting .360/.432/.522. His offensive ability drew comparisons to Evan Longoria and Scott Rolen that summer.

He continued to hit at Oregon, batting .320 with four homers as a freshman and .312 with four homers as a sophomore. But his power has blossomed as a junior this spring, helping him take his game to another level. Through 43 games, he is batting .347/.411/.588 with a Pacific-12 Conference-leading nine home runs and 42 RBIs (tied for second in the Pac-12). He homered twice Saturday against Stanford, then delivered the game-tying RBI double in the ninth inning Sunday, helping lead the Ducks to a big series sweep. When Healy came to the plate with men on first and second in the ninth, it almost seemed like a foregone conclusion that he would deliver—and he did.

Ryon Healy

Ryon Healy (photo by Bill Mitchell)

“Everybody’s on the edge of their seat—it’s like our whole offense has revolved around having guys on base when he’s coming up,” Oregon coach George Horton said. “I said before he hit that ball, ‘He’s going to crush this pitch somewhere—hopefully it’s not to somebody.’ And it turns out I was right. I think everybody in the dugout thought he was going to square that ball up, that’s just how good he’s been for us all year.”

Healy arrived at Oregon as a third baseman before making the move across the diamond. Horton said he has improved his defense at first, evolving from being “a little bit of a liability” at first to a player Horton describes as a “way above-average” college first baseman.

So he’s a more complete player as a junior than he was earlier in his career, but his biggest impact has been the power he provides in the middle of the lineup—he has hit nearly half of Oregon’s 20 home runs, and he also leads the team in doubles, RBIs, slugging percentage and on-base percentage. A 6-foot-5, 227-pound righthanded hitter, Healy went to the opposite field on both of his home runs Saturday, driving the ball over the right-field fence. That was a good indicator of his improved approach and his impressive strength.

“Really, Ryon’s worst at-bats come against the midweek kind of pitching, the guy that doesn’t have very good electric stuff,” Horton said. “He tends to get out of his hitting areas against that kind of guy. That doesn’t happen as frequently as it used to with him. He’s cut those giveaway at-bats, I would call it, way down. It was warm up here this weekend, and the ball was carrying more. So he does try to look for the extra-base hit, the home run or the double. I think his ability to drive those two pitches over the right-field fence was a huge step forward for him this weekend.”

Oregon’s PK Park is not friendly to power hitters, which makes Healy’s numbers stand out even more.

“There were some spots early this year when it was wet or damp, he crushed balls to right-center, and they’re outs,” Horton said. “He comes back and says, ‘That’s it, I’m transferring.’ I guess the best way to put it is it’s nice to see him get rewarded when he crushes a ball the other way.

“It’s a man’s park; it’s more of a pitching park. His ability to do what he’s doing for us, assuming that we stay in contention, or possibly even be conference champs, he’s a huge part of our offense, just like Michael Conforto was for Oregon State last year. He’s not going to have 25 home runs because he plays in the Pac and plays at our ballpark most of the time. But I’ve coached (Phil) Nevin and (Mark) Kotsay and (Kurt) Suzuki, guys who’ve gotten that kind of (national) recognition. And nobody’s hitting the ball as hard, or as consistently, or at more opportune times than Ryon has this year. He’s had a spectacular year, no question about it.”