Three Strikes: Week 14

Strike One: Flashes Of Greatness

It's natural to look forward in anticipation of the next big thing. That's why we grade recruiting classes when players show up as freshmen, in an effort to forecast the future. That's a worthwhile pursuit, but sometimes we forget to look back four years later to see how those recruiting classes panned out.

The freshmen who showed up on campus in the fall of 2008 are now seniors, so we can look back at the '08 recruiting classes with the wisdom of hindsight. Arizona State's top-ranked class that year (anchored by Zack MacPhee, Riccio Torrez, Jordan Swagerty, Josh Spence, Kole Calhoun, Johnny Ruettiger and Zach Wilson) won a lot of games, and Vanderbilt's No. 2 ranking feels justified (Sonny Gray, Grayson Garvin, Jason Esposito, etc). The same goes for Florida (led by Preston Tucker and bullpen stalwarts Nick Maronde, Anthony DeSclafani and Greg Larson) at No. 5, and you can make a strong case that UCLA (Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer) was underrated at No. 7.

The biggest whiff in that Top 25 was the omission of South Carolina's class, which included the nucleus of back-to-back national title teams (especially Michael Roth, Matt Price and Jackie Bradley Jr.). If you are ranking the impact of those recruiting classes in retrospect, the Gamecocks must be No. 1.

And Kent State's 2008 class stacks up among the nation's best too, in hindsight. That class featured a trio of players drafted inside the top 10 rounds as juniors last year (supplemental first-rounder Andrew Chafin, fourth-rounder Kyle McMillen and ninth-rounder Travis Shaw), and a group of stellar seniors who are gunning for their fourth straight Mid-American Conference title this week. The Golden Flashes have caught fire down the stretch, ending the regular season with a 13-game winning streak to finish 24-3 in conference play, winning the East Division by eight games.

"We're playing our best baseball right now," Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said. "I think we're balanced at everything. We've made our championship runs primarily based on pitching over the years, and this year is no different. This is the deepest pitching staff we've had—we go about 11 deep and feel good about all those guys. Offensively, one through nine we've been very good."

The seniors have led the way for the Golden Flashes, of course. Lefthander David Starn (8-3, 1.99 with 105 strikeouts and 30 walks in 91 innings) arrived at Kent State as a true walk-on but earned his scholarship in a hurry; he broke Dirk Hayhurst's school record for career strikeouts this month and is closing in on the MAC's all-time record. He's also just two wins shy of the Kent State career wins record.

"He has unbelievable feel on the mound; the comparison you make is Jamie Moyer," Stricklin said. "His fastball is good enough—he will get up to 86—and he has pinpoint control with the fastball. If you start sitting changeup or slider, he'll throw it in on your hands and beat your bat. He throws all three of them for strikes in any count—full count, doesn't matter."

Senior catcher David Lyon (.306/.421/.575 with 10 homers and 38 RBIs) is the team's biggest power threat in addition to handling the pitching staff very well and throwing out 39 percent of basestealers. He also carved out a special place in Kent State's history by hitting a grand slam against Texas ace Taylor Jungmann to propel the Flashes to a 7-5 upset in regionals last year.

And senior shortstop Jimmy Rider (.365/.442/.536 with five homers and 43 RBIs) recently became Kent State's all-time hits leader. He also anchors the defense, fielding at a .981 clip.

"Jimmy Rider is 5-foot-9, 165 pounds and doesn't look like an athlete," Stricklin said. "He doesn't pass the eye test, but when he gets on the field, he's the best player on the field. He's (Florida shortstop) Nolan Fontana. He's not as physical as Nolan, and he's a righthanded hitter, not an off-the-charts runner or thrower. But he's made five errors all year, he's played every day at shortstop; he's as sure-handed as anyone I've seen."

An impact shortstop, a power-hitting catcher with good defensive and leadership skills, and one of the most accomplished pitchers in MAC history—and that's just in the senior class. It's fair to say that 2008 recruiting class was a success.

"This is the best class we've ever had," Stricklin said. "It's unbelievable what this class has been able to accomplish. If you could go back and retroactively rate that recruiting class, that's a top-10 recruiting class in the country."

Strike Two: Punch Those Tickets

Four members of the field of 64 are now set, as three more teams clinched automatic bids by winning their conference tournaments this weekend, joining Ivy League champion Cornell. A fifth team will punch its ticket today, as Holy Cross and Army meet in a decisive third game of the Patriot League championship series.

In Saturday's blog, we wrote about Sacred Heart winning its second straight Northeast Conference tournament championship. On Sunday, Prairie View A&M won the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament for the third time (its previous two trips to regionals came in 2006 and '07). And Bethune-Cookman won its seventh consecutive Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament. But the path was different for the Wildcats this year than it has been recently.

B-CU hasn't dominated the MEAC the way it usually does in 2012, going 18-5 and finishing in second place behind Delaware State during the regular season. Over the previous six years, the Wildcats went a combined 99-5 (.952) in conference play en route to five straight regular-season titles.

But Bethune-Cookman's pitching has been very solid all season, and it came through again in the conference tournament. Righthander Rayan Gonzalez (9-1, 1.96) has developed into an ace as a senior thanks to a deceptive fastball with natural cut and a sharp breaking ball. He delivered eight shutout innings against Maryland-Eastern Shore to get the Wildcats to the championship round against Delaware State.

The Hornets beat B-CU, 3-2, on Sunday to force a decisive final game of the double-elimination tournament, but the Wildcats showed resilience, winning the final game 8-3.

"It would have been easy to get down on ourselves (after the first game)," said first-year head coach Jason Beverlin after the game, as quoted in a release. "We played a good game, and played hard in the first game. They beat us 3-2; it happens. The thing I'm most proud of is the way we reacted to that."

Veteran Ali Simpson exited in the third inning, as the Hornets scored three runs in that frame to take a 3-1 lead. But sophomore lefthander Bryan Rivera provided stellar relief, going 5 2/3 hitless, scoreless innings while striking out nine and walking just one. He retired 16 consecutive batters and allowed B-CU to take control of the game in the middle innings.

"I've never had a game like that in my college career," Rivera said afterward. "I just came in and tried to make my pitches, combining my changeup and curveball. I finished strong, but I didn't realize I was doing that kind of job."

A big key to Bethune-Cookman's season has been junior David Lee's emergence as a run producer in the middle of the lineup, helping to ease the loss of sluggers Peter O'Brien, Ryan Durrence and D.J. Leonard from last year's team. Lee, who hit .163/.333/.204 in 49 at-bats last year, leads the team with 42 RBIs this year while hitting .311/.428/.437.

Lee powered the offense in the final game, going 3-for-5 with four RBIs. He went 9-for-23 with 11 RBIs in the tournament to capture Most Outstanding Player honors.

"He was incredible, much like he was all tournament," Beverlin said. "He came up with big hits all day long, and drove in the runs that he needed."

Maybe it wasn't quite as smooth sailing as Bethune-Cookman is used to, but Beverlin's tenure has begun the same way former coach Mervyl Melendez's ended: with a MEAC tournament dogpile.

"It's an unbelievable feeling," Beverlin said. "With all the hard work these guys put in, and with all the hard work the assistant coaches have put in, it's great to see it pay off with a championship at the conference tournament."

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on D.J. Peterson

D.J. Peterson is a natural born hitter. It's no wonder he has found himself anchoring one of the nation's best offenses this spring.

The New Mexico third baseman had a solid freshman year in 2011, but he has taken a leap forward as a sophomore, batting .422/.490/.726 with 14 homers and 68 RBIs. And that's even after he cooled down a bit in the second half. Peterson went 7-for-15 with five runs and four RBIs in four games last week, helping to lead the Lobos to their first Mountain West Conference title since 2000.

"He's had a great year, and he's only going to get better," New Mexico coach Ray Birmingham said. "That's a guy that can go 5-for-5 with five home runs in any given day. He's got incredibly fast hands with unbelievable juice in them. I don't know if I've had anybody with the hand speed that he has."

A year ago, Peterson hit six homers but set an NCAA record for a freshman by hitting 32 doubles. He also struck out 52 times while drawing just 15 walks in 61 games.

His approach has matured this year, and it is paying dividends. He has 30 walks and just 25 strikeouts in 55 games, and his average has climbed more than 100 points from .317 to .422. And many of his doubles have turned into home runs—though he still has 20 doubles in addition to his 14 long balls.

"A guy that can turn on a ball and hit it out of the yard, it's hard to sell him on going the other way, but he has bought into that," Birmingham said. "That's why his average has climbed and his strikeouts have diminished, because he's letting the ball travel. It takes time for a kid to get the mental side right. But when his batting average was over .500, he was going dead-center field off the top of the wall, going to the opposite-field gap, even down the right-field line he was hitting balls off the wall."

Birmingham said Peterson started putting too much pressure on himself and reverted to more of a pull-happy approach once he started garnering some national attention, but his teammates have helped keep him grounded. He's in a tight competition with UNM catcher Mitchell Garver (.394/.455/.647 with 10 homers) for player of the year honors in the MWC, and the competition has helped drive both players, Birmingham said. But both players are more concerned about the team than about themselves

"His character's impeccable, he's unselfish as heck," Birmingham said of Peterson. "That's what's cool about this club—they're all pushing the rock in the same direction. Those guys have truly bought into it and are the consummate teammates. Peterson's always bragging about Garver in interviews, and Garver's always bragging about Peterson. And they'll brag about somebody else who's doing well."

Peterson isn't a finished product, of course. Birmingham said he needs to work on his baserunning and defense, but he does have a strong arm at the hot corner.

"But he's a guy that possibly could be the best hitter in the United States—he's going to focus on his swing pretty much," Birmingham said.

Some guys are just born to hit.