Three Strikes: Week Eight

Strike One: Senior Moments

LOS ANGELES—A major theme of last week's Midseason Report was the quality of this year's senior class across the country. This weekend I took in three big series here in Southern California, and senior pitchers came up big in all three. Time to empty out the notebook from the weekend:

• Gonzaga visited San Diego in perhaps the biggest series of the year in the West Coast Conference. The Bulldogs won the opener behind senior lefthander Tyler Olson (in the game I attended Thursday), but USD showed plenty of character by bouncing back to win the next two games. I'll write more about the Toreros after I see them again in a couple of weeks, but today I want to bear down a bit on the Zags, who remain in strong position to make a run at an at-large bid thanks to a 20-9 record and a No. 25 ranking in the NCAA's Ratings Percentage Index.

Gonzaga went toe-to-toe with the Toreros despite playing without sophomore Marco Gonzales, the team's best hitter and best pitcher. Gonzales was sidelined with a torn meniscus in his knee, and the team hopes to get him back next week against Santa Clara.

Olson isn't the prospect that Gonzales is, but he has been a rock atop the weekend rotation as a senior, going 4-0, 2.03 with 43 strikeouts and 11 walks in 58 innings. He turned in a gritty 138-pitch complete game on Thursday, allowing just two runs (one earned) on seven hits and two walks while striking out four in a 6-2 win. A low-three-quarters slinger, Olson throws an 85-88 mph fastball has serious life, and he get a number of swing-and-misses with his sharp 76 mph slider. He mixed in a slow curve at 71 as a get-me-over pitch, he said, and incorporated his quality changeup more in the later innings.

"He's been outstanding. He settled down after the first inning and was just awesome," Gonzaga coach Mark Machtolf said. "He pitched like the senior he is. He threw all his pitches for strikes, and I think he just competed his rear end off."

With the pitching staff a man down due to Gonzales' absence, Machtolf said the plan was to stick with Olson a little longer than usual and let him dictate how long he stayed in the game. Olson said there was no way he was exiting the game until it was over.

"I came out in the eighth and I said, 'It's mine, definitely,' " Olson said.

Gonzaga's lineup is loaded with upperclassmen, and they weren't going to let the injury to Gonzales derail them. The Zags should be pleased to have gone 3-3 against Pepperdine and San Diego without Gonzales, though they were in position to win the series at USD, with the score tied 2-2 in the eighth inning of Saturday's rubber game.

One of those Gonzaga seniors worth highlighting is center fielder Royce Bolinger, who hit his eighth homer of the year Friday, tying USD's Kris Bryant for the league lead. Bolinger, in addition to playing outstanding defense in center field, is hitting .379/.425/.637 with eight homers and 25 RBIs to lead the offense. he hit just .283/.307/.398 with three homers in 191 at-bats last year.

"He just keeps getting better," Machtolf said. "Every year he's gotten better. he's always been a great defender who could really throw, he's been a good hitter, and now he's slowly turning himself into a great hitter by being smarter, sitting on pitches, handling the breaking ball better and being better with two strikes. On occasion he has shown this kind of power, but not as consistently. That's basically what it is with young power hitters: it takes a while to develop that."

• Here's how you know Southern California senior righty Andrew Triggs is a baseball rat: He has been a Baseball America subscriber since his high school days.

Triggs has a quality sinker in the 87-90 mph range and has advanced feel for a three-quarters breaking ball in the 71-75 range, but his savvy is his greatest asset. Triggs has been a workhorse in the USC rotation for the last four years, but he really blossomed into an ace as a fourth-year junior last year, and he has become one of the most reliable starters in the Pac-12 as a senior this spring, going 3-3, 3.02 with 52 strikeouts and 12 walks in 60 innings.

Triggs threw his third complete game of the season in Friday's 2-1 win against California, allowing just a run on six hits and three walks while striking out eight. Still, Cal got a great start from its own senior righty—Matt Flemer—and Triggs trailed 1-0 heading into the ninth inning. But James Roberts delivered a walk-off two-run single in the ninth, and the Trojans earned another walk-off win the next day to take a series with major postseason implications.

"It was pretty spectacular to watch those guys make pitches," USC coach Frank Cruz said. "It was just really a great ballgame to watch. I think if a couple of scouts were here today, they'd sure want to get those guys as senior signs and get them into an organization, because they can pitch."

Triggs is one of those cerebral veterans who is just fun to talk pitching with, much like San Diego's Brian Matusz or UCLA's Trevor Bauer were. Here is Triggs on his stuff Friday:

"I felt pretty good. I was locating my breaking ball, which was nice. Fastball command kind of wavered in the middle innings there, wasn't nearly as strong, and I wasn't able to get ahead of hitters quite as effectively. When I did get ahead I left it up. They're an aggressive team, and if you leave an 0-0 fastball up, they're going to put it in play firmly. So I felt pretty good for the most part. I was happy I was able to go to my breaking ball, and my changeup—if I threw 100 pitches in a start three weeks ago, I threw two changeups. Tonight I actually mixed in a handful to the lefties, got a fly ball by (Danny) Oh in the ninth inning and got a couple ground balls too. So the offspeed pitches were sort of a crutch tonight. Toward the end, I told Cruzer after the eighth, there's no chance I'm not going out there, because I knew my fastball had settled in, and I felt really good in the ninth."

It was Triggs's game. Sounds familiar.

• Oregon coach George Horton gave his team an earful after Saturday's 8-6 loss at UCLA. Sure, the Ducks still had a great weekend, taking two of three on the road against the No. 5 team in the country, but Horton thought his team looked flat and lacked energy in the finale.

"Most disappointed in their competitive personality," he said. "We had an opportunity to do something really special. I don't know, I guess my warriors faded a little bit, and that's why I was mad, really. Performance-based things I can handle if they gave it their best effort, but I saw a lot of what I call blanket-dragging, pouting, poor me, the presence on the mound—nothing was Duck baseball today. When you lose and don't play your game, that's a hard pill to swallow."

Horton expects a lot from his team, and that's one reason his Ducks have exceeded expectations so far this year, going 20-9 overall and 8-4 in the Pac-12. Oregon has now won back-to-back series against Pac-12 powers Arizona State and UCLA, and the Ducks must be taken very seriously as threats to win the conference. Bruins coach John Savage thinks so.

"I think they play defense, I think they give a lot of quality at-bats, and they're very well coached," Savage said. "They've got good coaches, a very good head coach, they've kind of found their balance. Last year they were expected to do a lot with their pitching. Obviously they lost a lot of pitching, like us. They're kind of like us. They were expected to be down, then all of a sudden, they're playing well and we're playing pretty well. I like their team. They're lefthanded enough, they've got enough power in the middle, they run the bases well. They're going to give a lot of people fits."

With ace Tyler Anderson as well as other key mound pieces like Madison Boer and Scott McGough gone, Oregon needed righthander Alex Keudell to emerge as a staff anchor as a senior, and that's just what he's done. Keudell went seven shutout innings to win Thursday's series opener, mixing his lively 85-88 fastball with a cutter, slider and changeup.

"We've been talking about Tyler for three years, being the momentum setter, the example for the youngsters," Horton said. "Now it's Alex's turn. He doesn't have Tyler's stuff, he doesn't throw 93 and have Mr. Nasty, and he's not Greg Maddux either, but in Greg Maddux fashion—leadership, consistency, poise. He's had some grinder-type efforts on Friday, but he really sets the tempo, then he passes the baton . . . Off the field, workout habits, he's one of the best kids I've ever been around."

Just another success story in the Year of the Senior.

Strike Two: A Perfect Hurricane

CORAL GABLES, Fla.—North Carolina stepped onto the Miami campus on Friday ranked third in the nation, having won all seven of its series and becoming the first UNC team since 1990 to win its first four ACC sets.

But the Tar Heels’ pitchers, who were No. 1 in the ACC and No. 6 in the country in ERA, were outperformed by Miami’s staff, as the Canes swept the three-game series. With the sweep, the ’Canes (24-8, 11-4) opened up a two-game lead over second-place North Carolina (23-9, 9-6) in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

“If you would have told me Friday morning that we’d take two out of three, I’d have probably taken that with the hype they had with their pitching staff,” Miami coach Jim Morris said. “But once you get the first two, you have to get greedy.”

The 'Canes were all of that, holding UNC to just three runs in 32 innings, and only two of those were earned. After winning 8-0 on Friday night, the Hurricanes needed 14 innings to beat UNC, 4-3, in a game that finished late Saturday night/early Sunday morning at 12:40 a.m. The teams were back at Alex Rodriguez Park just a few hours later for a 1 p.m. Sunday start, and the ’Canes sent UNC home with a 4-0 loss. 

So, what happened, exactly? The Tar Heels, starting six lefthanded hitters, were vulnerable to quality lefty pitchers. For years, the book on the Tar Heels has been that southpaws on the mound are the key to beating them. Sure enough, the Hurricanes’ two lefty starters—Eric Erickson and Steven Ewing—initiated shutouts Friday and Sunday.

Secondly, the Tar Heels are missing their best hitter, Colin Moran, who broke his right hand on March 25. Moran was hitting .398, third-best in the ACC, and was the nation’s Freshman of the Year last season. Without Moran, the Tar Heels experienced scoring droughts this weekend of nine, seven and 14 innings. The one righthanded starter the Tar Heels faced, Eric Whaley, held UNC to two runs in seven innings.  

Third, the Tar Heels made seven errors in the series, leading to five unearned runs. In a series where their offense was shut down in 30 out of 32 innings, the Tar Heels could not afford to give away runs.

Finally, the Canes’ bullpen deserves a lot of credit. Closer E.J. Encinosa turned in one of the most brilliant performances you will ever see out of the pen, pitching six perfect innings to get the win on Saturday night.

And with Encinosa unavailable on Sunday due to that extra-long appearance, the Hurricanes still got three innings of shutout relief from Adam Sargent, Christian Diaz and Eric Nedeljkovic. In a trend that pre-dates the UNC series, the Miami bullpen has allowed just two earned runs in the past 22 2/3 innings.

Of course, Miami’s offense is still not producing a lot, which is why the ’Canes had lost three of four entering the UNC series. Catcher Peter O’Brien, who has been used at DH the past eight games due to a back injury, leads the ACC with 10 homers and tops the team in batting average (.357), on-base percentage (.454) and slugging (.696). The rest of the lineup has been less than imposing, but the ’Canes still emerged from the weekend with their first sweep of a top-three team since they took down Florida State in 2001.

“It’s awesome,” Ewing said. “We pitched our butts off this weekend. I knew we had a great team. It was just a matter of putting it together at the right time.


Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Cameron Perkins

Cameron Perkins has been a fixture in the No. 3 hole in Purdue's lineup since his freshman year. The junior third baseman established himself long ago as one of the top hitters in the Big Ten—but just because opponents are prepared for him doesn't mean they can get him out.

"Everyone's going to know who he is, and despite that he's still leading the team in hitting and home runs," Boilermakers coach Doug Schreiber said. "His numbers, at some point you'd think they'd plateau a little bit, but he keeps improving each year. He's going to hit for average, he's got power and speed as well, so he really brings a lot to the table offensively."

Through 28 games, Perkins is hitting .388/.429/.545 with four homers and 32 RBIs, helping to lead the Boilermakers to a 24-5 start and a No. 19 national ranking. Offense is Purdue's calling card, and Perkins and junior catcher Kevin Plawecki (.373/.470/.618 with three homers) are the anchors for the most fearsome lineup in the Big Ten.

Perkins has posted four consecutive multi-hit games, going 8-for-14 with a double and three stolen bases in a sweep at Northwestern this weekend. In a big spot in the seventh inning Sunday, the Boilermakers had runners at second and third, so they intentionally walked Eric Charles to set up a double play with Perkins coming to the plate.

"He went up there and hit a line drive base hit to left," Schreiber said. "He's ultra competitive—one of the best players I've had the opportunity to coach."

Hitting in front of Plawecki helps Perkins get more quality pitches to hit. But part of the challenge for pitchers facing Perkins is that even if they don't throw strikes, Perkins is liable to hurt them anyway. He has just 27 career walks in 141 games; Perkins goes up there to take his hacks. Considering he hit .338/.381/.543 as a freshman, .349/.419/.552 as a sophomore and is off to an even better first half as a junior, it's fair to say his approach works.

"He's really kind of a Vladimir Guerrero type—he's a bad-ball hitter," Schreiber said. "He occasionally gets himself out because he is pretty aggressive. It's hard to walk him. But he'll take his hit by pitch, he won't move his feet on a pitch inside. We've been working with him a little bit; you don't want to take that aggressiveness out of him, but he can change the count and get into a better hitting count at times, and i think he's starting to do that more. Early in the year he was a little pull-happy, but he's starting to hit the ball into the right-center gap. His power is really going to be from right-center to the left-field line. He can hit a ball that's mid-shin-high and hit a line drive as well as anybody I've ever seen. So he's kind of tough to pitch to."

At 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, Perkins projects to add more power as he learns to create more leverage, but he did hit eight homers in each of his first two seasons and is on a similar home run pace as a junior. He is a very good athlete for his size, capable of running the 60-yard dash in 6.8 seconds. His speed and good baseball IQ have helped him steal eight bases in nine tries this year, and 31 bases in 37 attempts in his career.

Perkins has also grown into a solid defensive third baseman. Schreiber said he has a "little bit of a funny throwing motion," but he has arm strength and is very accurate to first base. Whether he settles in as a third baseman, first baseman or corner outfielder at the next level has yet to be determined.

That is a question for down the road. Right now, Perkins is playing a good third base and racking up big hits for one of the best teams in Purdue history, and he's enjoying the ride. His personality makes him popular in the Boilermakers' clubhouse.

"He's a funny guy. He can kid and laugh and joke a little bit," Schreiber said. "He's very confident, and he wants to make a competition out of everything. He is a little bit hard on himself at times, but he's controlled that a lot better, and I think that's helped him. But he is one of the funnier guys on the team, and he handles himself well."