Three Strikes: Week 12

Strike One: Columbia Punches Its Ticket

In 2010, Columbia posted the Ivy League’s best overall record and hosted Dartmouth in the best-of-three championship series. The Lions won the opener, but the Big Green slugged its way to wins in the next two games, ending Columbia’s season.

The freshmen from that 2010 Columbia team are seniors now, and they had a chance at redemption this weekend. Once again, the Lions posted the Ivy’s best record (16-4) and hosted Dartmouth (15-5) in the Ivy League championship series. This time, the Lions swept Saturday’s doubleheader, winning 6-5 in 10 innings on Friday, then overcoming a 5-4 deficit with six runs in the seventh en route to a 12-5 win in Game Two. That victory sent Columbia to regionals for the first time since 2008, and just the third time ever (the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance came in 1976).

“I’m so happy for the guys, the senior class that was here in 2010 that lost to Dartmouth in the championship,” Columbia coach Brett Boretti said. “They got another opportunity and made the most of it.”

That senior core is the backbone of this Columbia team. The team’s best overall player is senior two-way star Alex Black, who is hitting .331/.458/.535 with seven homers and 28 RBIs—leading the Lions in all five categories—and also has a 3.14 ERA and four saves as the bullpen anchor.

“He’s a big, strong Texan, a hard thrower with a good breaking ball,” Boretti said. “He’s had a tremendous year. He’s one of our captains, a calm leader, really hit his stride once we got back from our spring break trip, as far as getting on base. His OBP in the league was over 50 percent. He’s taking his walks, not being too over-aggressive, staying within himself. He’s been great for us, he really has.”

Another senior, righthander Stefan Olson, spent the last three years in the rotation, but a hamstring injury sidelined him for most of this spring. He has returned down the stretch and made four relief appearances, highlighted by 3 2/3 scoreless innings to earn the win against Dartmouth in Saturday’s clincher. He allowed just one hit and a walk while striking out six.

Olson’s return has given a boost to a Columbia bullpen that has been a strength this season. Because Black plays first base, the Lions have to map out when they’re going to use him off the mound so they have time to warm him up, and Olson, Mike Wiesman, Thomas Crispi and Kevin Roy give Columbia other dependable bullpen options.

“Our starters have done a really good job all year long, but our bullpen is something that really came on,” Boretti said. “We’ve got a number of guys we’ve gone to in some different roles that have come in throwing strikes. They’ve really allowed us to make more moves than we’ve been able to in the past. In the past it might be one or two guys, but now we’ve got four or five guys we feel comfortable going to. The pitching and defense is what we try to build our clubs around.”

The defense is anchored by three more upperclassmen up the middle: junior catcher Mike Fischer does a great job controlling the running game, while junior shortstop Aaron Silbar and senior second baseman Nick Crucet form a nice double-play tandem. Crucet, who had three hits and three RBIs in the clincher, also provides a spark with his speed, stealing 19 bases in 23 tries. Sophomore center fielder Jordan Serena has stolen 26 bases in 27 tries, and as a team Columbia has an 86 percent stolen base success rate (74-for-86).

“We try to be aggressive, we try to recruit speed here,” Boretti said. “That’s an angle we try to work at. Jordan and Nick, they’re on their own on the bases most of the time—they don’t need a lot of nudging to go. We really try to take advantage of their speed and instincts.”

Columbia also has three seasoned, reliable upperclassmen in the weekend rotation in junior lefthander David Speer (6-2, 1.83), junior righty Joey Donino (6-0, 2.80) and senior righty Tim Giel (3-3, 2.65). Speer, who pounds the zone with a mid-80s fastball and three solid secondary pitches, struck out 12 in a no-decision in the first game against Dartmouth. Donino, who can reach 90 mph and has a swing-and-miss power breaking ball, threw five solid innings in the second game. And Giel, one of Columbia’s captains along with Black and outfielder Nick Ferraresi, is “built like a linebacker,” in Boretti’s words, and has a demeanor to match. He attacks the zone with his fastball and slider.

Boretti said he models his team’s style of play on West Coast-style small ball, and the Lions have benefited from early-season trips to the West in the past. This year, they opened up with four games at Lamar, three at Arizona, four at Central Florida and two at Miami, going 2-11 in those games. But Columbia got some confidence from that stretch, especially in the three-game series at defending national champion Arizona, where the Lions won the middle game and lost the other two games by a combined three runs.

“The guys know going into it that no matter what our record is when we’re done our spring break trip, we’re going to still remain mentally tough with it,” Boretti said. “Our goal is to continue to get better in those early games, face that competition that we’re going to face in the regional. That’ll give us that experience, find out more about ourselves.

“The guys are confident, and that goes a long, long way. It’s one thing for a coaching staff to be confident and feel like we can do something. It’s another when you’ve got 28 guys in the room who say, ‘Hey, let’s make some waves here and do what we can.’ The Stony Brooks and Kents of the world, that’s going to come along once in a while. But I think the game’s leveled out, and that’s a positive. The guy on the hill is the great equalizer. We’ll try our best and see where the chips fall (in regionals). But it’ll be fun.”

Strike Two: Kansas State Sitting Pretty

The Big 12 is a free-for-all. After West Virginia took two of three from Oklahoma this weekend, the Mountaineers put themselves in a three-way tie for first place with the Sooners and Kansas State.

The Wildcats have flown under the radar a bit in 2013, but they have quietly positioned themselves as the Big 12’s safest at-large team, with the conference’s best Ratings Percentage Index ranking (No. 24), a solid 6-5 record against the top 50 and a 34-15 overall record. The Wildcats have won four of their last five series, including a road series win at last-place Texas this weekend.

“We just keep plugging along,” Kansas State coach Brad Hill said. “We’re pretty scrappy and, I think, pretty good. We’ve had a lot of different people be solid for us. It’s a pretty versatile offense—obviously there’s some speed combined with the ability to drive balls into the gaps, get some extra-base hits. (Sunday) we got down a couple bunts when we had to execute. It’s a multi-faceted offense.”

That offense is Kansas State’s strength. The Wildcats lead the Big 12 in batting (.323) and scoring (6.3 runs per game) by healthy margins, and the same is true in conference-only games (where they are hitting .313 and averaging 5.4 runs per game).

Preseason All-America outfielder Jared King (.335/.417/.541 with six homers, 42 RBIs and 12 steals) is Kansas State’s best player, and he has played through some hamstring issues and other bumps and bruises to put together a solid season, albeit a quieter season than his 2012 tour de force performance.

Jared King

Jared King (Photo by John Williamson)

“He’s been a little streaky, to be honest with you,” Hill said. “He got off to a rough start, was nicked up with injuries early. A young guy trying to live up to some of the hype, Big 12 player of the year. He never was really right until about a month in. He kind of hit his stride four or five weeks ago, started to get comfortable, settle in. In terms of leadership-type things for us, we really appreciate that. He’s played great defense in center field—his defense has improved considerably. He’s really improved going back on the baseball, going over his head, getting better angles and drop steps.”

King has plenty of help in Kansas State’s deep lineup. Redshirt sophomore Shane Conlon (.341/.434/.535, seven homers, 27 RBIs) has emerged as another power threat in the middle of the order. Conlon was primarily a pitcher in 2011 at K-State, then missed last season after having Tommy John surgery and has re-established himself as a first baseman. Hill said Conlon and shortstop Austin Fisher (.356/.429/.500) have been the two most consistent hitters in the lineup, and second baseman Ross Kivett (.354/.436/.467, 20 steals) has been the catalyst atop the order. Fisher and Kivett also form a reliable double-play combination, helping K-State field at a solid .973 clip

That solid defense has been key, because Kansas State’s pitching has struggled. The Wildcats have a 4.16 ERA in conference play (eighth in the nine-team Big 12), and they have not gotten consistent quality starts in the rotation. Kansas State shook things up last weekend, moving freshmen Levi MaVorhis and Blake McFadden into the rotation, and KSU’s quality bullpen continued to shoulder a heavy burden, carrying the Wildcats to a pair of wins. But ultimately, K-State needs sophomore righty Matt Wivinis and senior lefty Joe Flattery to start and pitch deeper into games in order for this team to be dangerous in the postseason.

“We haven’t really established guys who would go six or seven innings. We’re kind of piecing it together, trying to get through the Big 12 here,” Hill said. “We’ll get to the Big 12 tournament, and Flattery and Wivinis will have to pitch. We’ll have to put them out there, hope they can go five or six. There’s no question, they have good stuff. They just need to do a better job of getting ahead of hitters; they haven’t done that consistently.”

In the meantime, the Wildcats will just keep plugging along, grinding out wins.

Golden Spikes Spotlight on Braden Shipley

In three decades as Nevada’s head coach, Gary Powers has coached 24 future big leaguers, including six pitchers. He’s coached four second-round picks, but never a first-rounder—until now. Because Nevada junior righthander Braden Shipley is a first-round lock, with a real chance to be drafted inside the top 10 overall picks.

“He’s as good as any I’ve had here,” Powers said. “He’s at the top of the list, that’s for sure.”

Braden Shipley

Braden Shipley

Shipley threw just 10 innings as a freshman in 2011, posting an 8.71 ERA. Even though Nevada’s coaches expected his future to be on the mound when they recruited him, the team had a hole to fill at shortstop in 2011, and the ultra-athletic Shipley wound up being their best option at that position. He started 44 games that year, hitting .287/.370/.375 to earn second team all-Western Athletic Conference honors as a shortstop.

“But we knew that’s not where we wanted to play him,” Powers said. “We wanted to use him as a pitcher, because that’s what we got him for.”

As a sophomore, Shipley established himself as one of the WAC’s best pitchers, going 9-4, 2.20 with 88 strikeouts and 40 walks in 98 innings. He followed out that breakout spring with a strong summer as a closer in the Alaska League, where he ranked as the circuit’s No. 1 prospect after showing mid-90s heat and topping out at 97. That summer was a turning point in his development.

“Coming into college, I was about 89-92, and my sophomore year, I was 89-94,” Shipley said. “I really saw my velocity jump when I went up to Alaska and closed over the summer. I put on about 20 pounds—I think that really helped. I just got a lot stronger. Being able to kind of let your fastball go in that closer role helps your arm build some strength. That’s when I really saw it jump.”

Shipley entered this season with plenty of buzz, and he has handled it with aplomb, going 7-2, 2.49 with 78 strikeouts and 27 walks through 87 innings. He threw 6 2/3 shutout innings in a win against San Diego State this weekend.

“I’ve got to tip my hat to him—he hasn’t let all this attention he’s getting distract him from what he’s trying to do for our team. He’s very good that way,” Powers said. “He’s accepted a leadership role; he leads by example. He’s an emotional guy, and he’s a good clubhouse guy, too.”

And his stuff is electrifying, of course. Scouts have seen his fastball up to 98 mph, and he sits consistently at 93-96 even in a starting role, with minimal effort. He also owns a true out pitch in his changeup, which he throws with the same arm speed and arm action as his fastball. He’ll throw it any time against any hitter, righthanded or lefthanded.

“He’s got arguably one of the best righthanded changeups in the country—and that’s including the major leagues,” a National League area scout said. “It’s a devastating pitch, a separator. And I think his breaking ball could be a plus pitch in the future. It’s a true curveball, late and hard, and I’ve seen it up to 79-80 (mph), but there are also times you see it floating in at 74-75.”

Powers said Shipley has always been able to spin a promising curveball, but he has improved his command of it this year.

“It’s still kind of a work in progress, but these last four weeks or so it’s really been sharp for me,” Shipley said. “I felt like I’m starting to throw it more for strikes—it’s really starting to get the bite it had when I was throwing it in high school. Coming out of high school and into college, that was my strikeout pitch for me; it was a really big, 12-6 break, and I could throw it for strikes. I think taking that year off my freshman year, not pitching, really hurt me as far as my brekaing ball goes. Now I’m starting to get that feel back for it, and I feel really confident with it.”

Shipley has also improved his fastball command this spring. He still overthrows at times, but he is learning to step back and get back into rhythm when that happens. The scout described Shipley as “an adrenaline junkie” who thrived in late-inning situations in Alaska, and Shipley said that was an apt description. So learning to harness that adrenaline early in his starts has been important for his development.

Scouts love Shipley’s athleticism, easy arm action and prototypical 6-foot-3, 190-pound frame. Shipley said his grandfather told him in the last few years that he is related to Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Jordan Shipley—but Braden might be the family’s best athlete. He also played basketball and football his first two years at North Medford High in Oregon, and his grandfather made sure he started swinging a golf club as soon as he could walk. He said he shot a 77 the last time he played.

Shipley’s athletic ability and instincts also make him an outstanding defensive pitcher.

“He makes everybody else better around him—he can field his position as well as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Powers said. “He comes off the mound and makes plays on drag bunts that most people can’t even think about. He’s pretty special when it comes to that.”

In short, Shipley is the whole package, especially if his breaking ball continues to become more consistent. Powers said his emergence as an elite prospect is a testament to his work ethic. He has added muscle to his lean frame and learned how to refine his repertoire.

“It’s fun to see because we had a skinny, lanky shortstop who dabbled in pitching, and he’s gotten bigger and stronger—all of a sudden he’s a dude,” the scout said. “It’s so fun to see that happen. It’s fun to watch guys mature.”