Strike One: High-Flying Jayhawks Finish Strong
In 2011, when Kansas' current seniors were freshmen, they finished the season by getting swept in their final three Big 12 series, tumbling from 9-9 to 9-18 in the league and finishing in last place.
So it was particularly sweet for that group of seniors to conclude their Big 12 careers by sweeping their final three series—at Baylor, vs. Texas Tech and vs. West Virginia. That third sweep against the Mountaineers vaulted Kansas into the Baseball America Top 25 for the first time since May of 2009. They are finished with conference play, locked into third place at 15-9—and locked into an at-large regional bid.
"It's a great feeling," Kansas coach Ritch Price said. "It's like I told our guys when they pulled off the sweep, 'You played your way in, man. You're 15-9, nobody can catch us.' It's a great feeling to play your way in."
Last year, the Jayhawks nearly played their way in via an automatic bid. They were swept in three of their final four regular-season series (including a nonconference series at Utah), but they rallied to go 3-0 in pool play at the conference tournament before falling in the title game to Oklahoma.
"We were 12-12 in the conference last year, we made the conference tournament title game, then we were picked to finish last going into this year," Price said. "It upset the guys on our team. It's amazing what a difference that makes. And we're an older club. I'm so proud of how competitive our team has been, the way they grind, how they go about their business."
In their Hoglund Park swan song, KU's seniors went out with a bang Sunday. Senior Frank Duncan started and battled his way into the sixth inning, keeping the Jayhawks in the game. And senior captains Tucker Tharp and Ka'iana Eldredge combined for six two-out RBIs to power the offense to a 9-8 victory.
"The senior leadership on our team has been phenomenal," Price said. "We played game 54 Sunday, and the energy and enthusiasm in our dugout was off the chart. These guys are having fun, they love their teammates. To see Tucker Tharp and Eldredge, it was awesome on Senior Day to see those two guys plays so big time."
Center fielder Tharp and catcher Eldredge are pillars of a Kansas team that is rock-solid up the middle. Junior shortstop Justin Protacio is a 5-foot-5 gamer who plays solid defense and makes the offense go out of the leadoff spot, leading the team with 36 walks. And sophomore second baseman Colby Wright has emerged as another strong defender (.989 fielding percentage) who also provides offense out of the 2-hole (.331/.410/.444).
"Colby Wright started the year on the bench, and he's improved more in one year than anybody we've had," Price said. "He's having a phenomenal year; he's actually a physical guy, and he can really turn the double play. And Protacio, he's a really good college player. He's 5-foot-5, works counts, high OBP, solid defender. He's been really good for us at short, on both sides."
Tharp (six home runs), Connor McKay (nine homers) and Michael Suiter (.341/.433/.442, 3 HR, 10 RBI) provide punch in a lineup that relies heavily on small ball, giving the Jayhawks multiple ways to beat opponents.
On the mound, the Jayhawks had to overcome significant adversity when ace Wes Benjamin was lost to Tommy John surgery after seven starts. Kansas dealt with it by sliding closer Jordan Piche' into the Friday starter role, leaving Robert Kahana (4-5, 2.94) on Saturday and Duncan (6-2, 2.37) on Sunday.
"I think any time you have a devastating injury where you lose your Friday night starter, we all recognize in the game that it could derail you and you need other guys to step up," Price said. "It took us a few weeks to figure it out. When Wes was diagnosed with his ligament tear and had surgery, I felt the only way we could compete in our league was to put an experienced guy out there on Friday night. (Piche') was a starter in junior college, so it's not like he hasn't done it before. His first start was awful, but he's gotten better each and every week."
Piche' was primarily a fastball-slider guy in a relief role, but Price said he has developed a solid changeup to combat lefthanded hitters as a starter, and he's been able to maintain his 90-92 mph velocity throughout games. The other two starters also have quality arms; Price said Kahana works at 91-94 mph and flashes a very good slider at times, but his command isn't as consistent as the other two. Duncan holds 90-91 velocity deep into games and throws strikes with four solid pitches.
The emergence of freshman Stephen Villines (2-2, 1.59, 8 saves) at the back of the bullpen was crucial, enabling Piche' to move into a starting role.
"He's a really interesting guy, came from a really good program in SoCal, was overlooked out of high school," Price said of Villines. "He's a sidearm/submarine guy. After watching the CWD, watching the young man from UCLA (David Berg) who can change the menu, when I saw the video (of Villines) I was really intrigued. He's got Southern California swagger, he just goes out there and pounds the strike zone. He was a non-scholarship guy, and he's earned a scholarship."
Price pointed out that Piche' and Duncan were also recruited as non-scholarship players, and they went on to become key pieces of a team that will soon be on its way to regionals for the first time since '09. It's a testament to the value of hard work and perseverance—and these Jayhawks have no shortage of those qualities.
Strike Two: Red-Hot Miami Eyes National Seed
DURHAM, N.C.—There isn't much that can derail Miami these days. Certainly not going on the road—the Hurricanes have swept each of their last four Atlantic Coast Conference road series (at N.C. State, Virginia Tech, Clemson and this weekend at Duke) to improve to 16-5 on the road this spring. In order to complete the latest sweep, Miami had to face one of the best arms in college baseball Sunday at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park—but Michael Matuella couldn't stop the ‘Canes either.
Matuella, the Duke sophomore righty, carried a 3-1 lead into the sixth, holding the Hurricanes to two hits over the first five innings. His 92-96 mph fastball, 83-84 slider, 78-80 curveball and 83-85 changeup are all legitimate weapons, giving him a chance to be the top player drafted in 2015.
But Miami's confidence leaps off the field right now. Even down two runs against an arm as good as Matuella's, the Hurricanes stayed relaxed and then pounced. Senior outfielder Dale Carey led off the sixth with a double—his third hit of the game against Matuella. Tyler Palmer and Zack Collins followed with doubles of their own to tie the score, and the Hurricanes went on to win 4-3 with another run in the eighth.
"That's how we've been playing all year," Carey said. "Today, we got down two runs, and we just knew, 'All right, it's our time to respond,' and we responded. We knew he was a good pitcher. He was throwing his fastball mid-to-upper 90s I believe, and he had a good slider, and he was locating it all day. We just said, we've got to run up his pitch count, get pitches that we can hit, and get him out of the game.
"We're just hot right now, and we're just trying to keep it going through the ACC tournament and regionals and super regionals and Omaha."
Carey and Palmer have been in the middle of many of Miami's rallies, as they were Sunday. Palmer sparked the eighth-inning rally with a one-out single and came around to score the winning run on Brandon Lopez's RBI single. Carey and Palmer have put together their best seasons as seniors this spring, giving Miami a pair of speedy, disruptive forces in the top two spots in the lineup.
Freshmen Zack Collins and Willie Abreu have given Miami two physical run producers in the middle of the lineup, as hoped. Collins, who started his collegiate career in an 0-for-17 slump, has raised his average to .298 with a team-best eight homers and 44 RBIs. Abreu leads the team in hitting at .310. They have carried even more of the load with third baseman David Thompson sidelined since mid-March with thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition that caused a blood clot in his right arm. Thompson was leading the team with a .328 average before having surgery to remove a rib on March 25. The next day, Miami beat Florida Gulf Coast 4-0 in a game that coach Jim Morris called the turning point of the season. The Hurricanes have won 25 of 27 games since.
"When this really happened was at Florida Gulf Coast," Morris said. "That's when we really started this streak of really playing well, playing good defense, and finding a way to win games . . . They're playing with confidence, and they believe they're going to come back and win, or if they're playing with the lead, they believe they're going to keep the lead. It's something that's developed with time, and our guys are playing with a lot of confidence."
Miami has gotten rock-solid work all year from its trio of veteran lefthanders in the weekend rotation, Chris Diaz, Andrew Suarez and Bryan Radziewski. But Morris made a point of highlighting the emergence of three underclassmen in the bullpen: freshman closer Bryan Garcia, freshman sidewinder Cooper Hammond, and sophomore lefthander Thomas Woodrey. Between the three of them, they have 14 wins and 16 saves. Morris said Garcia reminds him of former Miami star and big leaguer Chris Perez for his ability to pitch out of trouble. He allowed the tying run to reach second base in each of the final two innings Sunday, but he escaped unscathed both times.
"If you put him in and you're up by one, the tying run's at second, so he makes it exciting, but he shows a lot of composure and gets out of it every time," Morris said.
The Hurricanes swept a good Duke team despite playing without Ricky Eusebio, who had emerged as their starting center fielder and No. 5 hitter in recent weeks. He ran into a wall in practice last week and suffered a deep bone bruise in his shoulder—but freshman Jacob Heyward took advantage of his opportunity to play, delivering three RBIs Saturday and a couple of productive at-bats Sunday.
Eusebio will be back, and Morris said there is a chance Thompson could return in the next week or so as well. So Miami could be even more dangerous in a month.
But the Hurricanes are on a serious roll as presently constructed. They remain in first place in the ACC at 22-5, a game ahead of Virginia with one weekend to go. No team has ever won 25 ACC games in a season, but Miami has a chance to do it with a sweep of North Carolina. At No. 10 in the Ratings Percentage Index, Miami is still looking up at Virginia (No. 1) and Florida State (No. 2) in the RPI, but those teams are looking up at the 'Canes in the standings. So Miami is right in the thick of the national seed race.
"I think we've got a chance, we've just got to continue to win," Morris said. "We've got Carolina next weekend, and if we play good against them and in the tournament, no question I think we deserve a look at the national seed, because we've played so good the last six, seven weeks, that we've got a chance. We've got great pitching, it starts there."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Caleb Adams
When Texarkana (Texas) JC discontinued its baseball program after the 2012 season, freshmen such as Caleb Adams had to find new homes. It couldn't have worked out any better for Adams, or for Louisiana-Lafayette.
Adams quickly made a name for himself last year, smacking 16 home runs and helping lead the Ragin' Cajuns back to regionals for the first time in three years.
"So you've got a guy who went from his program getting dropped, not knowing where he'll go, he ends up at our place, and last year played in the home run-hitting contest in Omaha," ULL coach Tony Robichaux said. "So that's a good story of perseverance. He's sitting there, the doors are closing, no more baseball here—what am I going to do? He's been a big part of our success, because he brought a lot of strength, work ethic, mental toughness and physical toughness."
The third-ranked Cajuns improved to 46-7 overall and 23-4 in the Sun Belt Conference with a road sweep of South Alabama this weekend, clinching the SBC's regular-season crown. Adams, as usual, was heavily involved in the offense for a team that leads the nation in slugging, ranks second in batting and fourth in scoring. He went 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles Friday, then walked twice and scored two runs Saturday, and finished by going 4-for-4 with two more runs and another double Sunday.
Adams, a junior outfielder, leads ULL's explosive offense in home runs (10), doubles (16), triples (6), walks (36), on-base percentage (.507) and slugging (.717). His .382 batting average ranks second on the team, a point behind Jace Conrad. So as good as Adams was last year, he has been even better in his second year in Lafayette. Robichaux said Adams and fellow outfielder Seth Harrison, who also transferred in as a sophomore last year, have both benefitted from getting two years to develop in ULL's program.
"Anytime you're in a good system and you're in it for more than one year, you start to internalize the system more," Robichaux said. "Last year, he was just getting the system in. We wanted him to be aggressive, cover up the plate. His second year in the system, he's learning to have controlled aggression. You need that, because sometimes guys will throw slow to us or try to trick us, throw us a lot of offspeed. We've got to recognize that and combat that. We have worked real hard to not let somebody use our aggression against us."
To wit, Adams has increased his walk rate while decreasing his strikeout rate, and his OPS has jumped from 1.086 to a staggering 1.224, which ranks second in the nation behind Kentucky's A.J. Reed.
But like just about all of the Cajuns, Adams is more than just a grip-it-and-rip-it slugger.
"I think he's so well-rounded," Robichaux said. "He can run, he's strong, he's really improved as a defender in the outfield. He's a guy that will run through the wall. And he's a good team player, he's a good guy in the clubhouse. Caleb's a total player. He can push bunt if you need him to push bunt. He's not just a guy that has power; he's very well-rounded. As a lot of these guys are—they are all so well-rounded. You don't do what we're doing if you're not well-rounded."
After his success a year ago, Adams entered his junior year with elevated expectations. The Cajuns expected to be very good in the preseason, but their primary concern was how all their draft-eligible players would handle the spotlight. Adams, like the team as a whole, has flourished under pressure.
"Another thing this team has done a good job of is being able to handle the success, the peripherals that come with this," Robichaux said. "He goes to the home run-hitting contest in Omaha, he's supposed to be this, our team's supposed to be this—I think the guys have done a good job of really keeping their heads down and climbing this mountain, and not looking up."