Three Strikes: Week Eight

Strike One: Believe In The Beavers

LOS ANGELES—In a top-10 showdown between Pacific-12 Conference heavyweights, visiting Oregon State reaffirmed its status as the team to beat in the league, taking two of three in Westwood.

Tyler Smith

Tyler Smith (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

When senior shortstop Tyler Smith is on the field—as he was in the late innings Saturday and Sunday—the Beavers are a dangerous, complete team. Smith had missed the last three weeks with a hairline fracture in his hand, and OSU’s defense suffered in his absence, leading to a series loss at San Diego last weekend. Smith entered as a defensive substitute Saturday and Sunday, sliding Andy Peterson from short to second, and the Beavers seemed to play with more confidence as soon as he stepped on the field.

“What’s really been difficult, and we never want to use an excuse, but we haven’t had Smitty for a couple of weeks,” OSU coach Pat Casey said. “Then you’re moving a second baseman to short, your third baseman to second, so you’re a little out of whack, and we haven’t defended the way we want to defend. The first 18, 19 games of the year, our defense was better than it’s ever been. All of a sudden you lose your heart and soul—Conforto’s our best hitter, but Smitty’s our best player. He runs, he hits, he defends, he drives in runs. He couldn’t swing the bat (this weekend), but I think he’ll get cleared next week and be ready to go. I thought our guys played extremely well against a very good club.”

Like UCLA, the Beavers are very deep on the mound, but what separated them this weekend was the experience and tenacity of their offense. While the young Bruins made repeated mistakes on the basepaths and struggled to produce quality at-bats in their losses Saturday and Sunday, Oregon State kept grinding out at-bats, hit situationally and kept the pressure on. Neither game was a blowout—OSU broke open a 2-0 game Saturday with three runs in the ninth, then took an early lead and never looked back in Sunday’s 5-2 lead.

“I think they outlasted us, really,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “Three pretty good ballgames, but I thought their experience and their toughness, they basically outlasted us. We showed our inexperience in some spots . . . You know, we’ve got to get better. It’s a measuring stick.

“I saw a good club in Oregon State. Nothing really surprised me about Oregon State—they were what I thought they were. I thought that we played with them, but they were better at the end of the day. But it’s April.”

Oregon State has more physicality in the middle of the lineup than UCLA, but even when 3-4-5 hitters Michael Conforto, Dylan Davis and Danny Hayes went a combined 0-for-13 on Saturday, the Beavers still rapped out 10 hits and scored five runs against a good pitching staff. Senior Ryan Barnes set the tone out of the leadoff spot, singling twice and drawing two walks Saturday, then adding two more singles and a sacrifice bunt that led to a run Sunday. Oregon State ace Matt Boyd, sitting in the stands charting pitches Sunday, described Barnes perfectly, calling him “one of those Coach Casey Oregon State guys—he just finds a way.” The Beavers are loaded with players like that, from Barnes and Peterson to Jake Rodriguez and Kavin Keyes.

“I think we always have guys like that,” Casey said. “And I think those guys are always there, going and going, don’t get a lot of the recognition. One thing we need to do is hit better in the middle of the order; we’ve scuffled there the last couple of weeks, but we’ve faced good arms.”

Conforto and Davis did get their bats going Sunday, as Conforto reached safely in all four trips (singling twice and scoring twice), and Davis also reached four times (singling twice). When that duo is locked in, Oregon State is one of the most fearsome offensive teams in the West. But even when they scuffle, the Beavers have the experience and depth in the lineup to wear down opponents.

And the pitching staff is elite. Freshman righthander Andrew Moore showed a quality four-pitch mix Saturday, locating his 88-91 mph fastball down and at the corners. His 80-82 slider is an out pitch. On Sunday, junior lefthander Ben Wetzler turned in his best outing of the year, allowing just one run on five hits and two walks while striking out five over seven innings to pick up his first win. The Beavers built Wetzler up slowly this year while he worked his way back from a pulled muscle in his back, but now the reins are off. He didn’t show the plus velocity he has flashed in the past, working mostly in the 85-88 range and bumping 90 early, but his fastball has good angle and he showed good feel for his 78-81 slider.

“I think (the key was) finally just getting ahead of guys,” Wetzler said. “I’ve had a lot of short outings this year because I haven’t been around the zone very much, walking a lot of guys. I’ve still got to cut down on that today.”

Righthander Scott Schultz has emerged as a shut-down closer thanks to his competitiveness and the excellent sink on his 88-92 fastball. Taylor Starr worked in the 91-93 range Sunday, and the Beavers have reliable low-slot options from the left side (Max Engelbrecht) and the right (Brandon Jackson), giving hitters plenty of different looks. And lefthander Jace Fry, perhaps the best arm on the entire staff, is close to returning from Tommy John surgery.

“It’s exciting to see how far we can take this team with the group of guys we have,” Wetzler said. “Our bullpen’s real deep. We’ve got a lot of arms coming out.”

Strike Two: Campbell Scoop

Campbell has made steady strides since Greg Goff took over as head coach before the 2008 season. The Camels won a school-record 41 games last year, and they are on pace to cruise right past that win total this year, going 28-5 through eight weeks of play. They did not play the most rigorous nonconference schedule, but they have beaten East Carolina twice and Duke twice in midweek action. After sweeping Presbyterian this weekend, the Camels improved to 9-3 in the Big South and broke into the Baseball America Top 25 for the first time ever. The Camels have started to get used to winning—and it feels good.

“The food tastes a little better, the drinks taste a little better,” said the gregarious Goff. “We had so many guys returning from last year’s team. If you look at most of the clubs around the country that have had success, most of them are junior- and senior-laden teams, and we fall into that category. Especially now the way the bats are, if you have the experience, if you can play good defense and pitch, you’ve got a chance to win.”

That simple formula has worked well for Campbell, which got three quality starts this weekend from senior righthander Ryan Mattes, junior lefty Hector Cedano and sophomore righty Heath Bowers. None of the three has overpowering stuff, but Mattes works down in the zone with an 85-87 fastball that bumps 88-90 early in games, pitching to contact with his solid three-pitch mix. The Camels turned five double plays behind him Friday. Cedano works in the 84-87 range with a cutter and a split-finger, and Bowers had outstanding sink on his 86-88 fastball, prompting the Camels to move him from the midweek role into the weekend rotation this weekend.

Campbell is a conservative Baptist school in tiny Buies Creek, N.C., and until this year the school’s administration did not allow the Camels to play any games on Sundays. They still cannot play on Sundays at home, but this year they are able to play on Sundays on the road, which has helped Goff stretch his pitching staff. When they are at home, the Camels play three games in just over a 24-hour period, opening the series Friday and then playing a doubleheader Saturday. This week, they had to use sidearming closer Ryan Thompson for 4 2/3 innings in an 11-inning win Friday, but because they were on the road, he was able to come back to close the final game of the series Sunday.

“If we were at home with a doubleheader Saturday, he’s done for the weekend,” Goff said. “Now we’re able to play on Sunday on the road, you can spread out your midweeks a little more. This is the first year we can play on Sunday at all, and you can tell the difference in our program. It just helps us tremendously with our pitching. Plus it’s just a grind to play three nine-inning games in 24 hours.”

Offensively, the Camels are built around team speed. Senior outfielder Ben McQuown leads the nation with 35 stolen bases in 37 attempts, helping the Camels rank among the national leaders in steals. Seven Camels have at least five stolen bases, and Goff said almost every player in the lineup has a green light to run most of the time.

“I like for our guys to play loose,” Goff said. “We educate them which counts to run in. I want to play on a fearless field.

“I was a pitching coach for a number of years. When I became a head coach, I basically turned our offense into what I did not like as a pitching coach—guys who can run, push and drag. I feel like that levels the playing field as a mid-major team against those more talented teams. It gives you another opportunity to score instead of waiting for the three-run home run. So we recruit guys who are athletic.”

There is plenty of excitement around Buies Creek about Campbell baseball, which just moved into new Jim Perry Ballpark this year. Goff said when the team bus arrived home from Presbyterian at 10 o’clock last night, there was a group of people waiting to welcome the team home from a winning weekend.

“I’m very thankful for the environment they’ve created here in Buies Creek—who’d have ever thought it?” Goff said. “I’m thankful to our administration for allowing us to build this facility, and to Jim Perry for stepping up and doing the naming rights. For us, it’s perfect. It’s nothing huge, it’s just really nice—it’s got some nice picnic areas between the seating and the dugouts where families can come and have a nice picnic. We’re in Buies Creek, so we felt like that was important for us to get a fan base, to get families here, have an environment that’s friendly for the kids to watch us play.

“Hopefully our guys will continue to make the alumni and the fans proud.”

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Trea Turner

Trea Turner

Trea Turner (Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode)

Trea Turner established himself as one of college baseball’s most dynamic players as a freshman last year, hitting .336 and leading the nation with 57 stolen bases in 61 tries. There might not be a better catalyst in college baseball, but as a sophomore Turner has proven that he can also handle hitting in the No. 3 spot in North Carolina State’s order. In just 24 games, he has already matched last season’s home run total (five) and has boosted his slugging percentage from .459 to .723. He’s hitting .436/.509/.723 with 28 RBIs, showing that there is much more to his game than speed.

So when Turner injured his ankle during N.C. State’s first conference game against Clemson, the Wolfpack was losing its best run producer, not just its fastest player and its starting shortstop. A piece of bone chipped off Turner’s ankle, producing a lot of swelling and sidelining him for most of the first three weekends of conference play. Without him, the ‘Pack lost the Clemson series and was swept at Virginia.

Since Turner has returned to shortstop, the Wolfpack has gotten hot—and that’s not a coincidence. N.C. State has won eight of its last nine games, including a series win against Maryland last weekend and a sweep of Virginia Tech this weekend. Turner had three hits and two RBIs out of the leadoff spot in Saturday’s 13-4 win, then went 2-for-4 in the No. 3 hole Sunday, sparking a critical four-run eighth-inning rally with a leadoff single.

“There’s no question, before he went out, he was involved in almost every part of our offense—he either began a rally, was in the middle of it or finished it,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. “He came back a lot quicker than we anticipated. It was a great job by the sports medicine program and Trea Turner, the toughness. It’s made a big difference for our team. He’s still not the basestealer he was, still not 100 percent, but having him back in the lineup is a big, big difference.”

Speed was Turner’s defining skill as a freshman, but he has just 11 stolen bases in 13 tries this year, and his ankle injury has limited his basestealing since he has returned to action. But he has emerged as a more dangerous hitter this year, filling a new role for the Wolfpack.

“Obviously he’s got tremendous hand-eye coordination,” Elliott Avent said. “He’s got great balance at the plate, he’s a great athlete. And he’s got tremendous bat speed. Because of the bat speed and his balance, he doesn’t chase a lot of pitches out of the zone.”

Turner played third base as a freshman and then played second base last summer for Team USA, so he is playing shortstop this year for the first time since high school. He has handled the position well, and his ankle injury is affecting him less and less.

“When you go through what he went through, the big thing is, ‘Am I 100 percent, can I make that quick step?’ I think he’s starting to trust that thing now,” Avent said. “It’s a whole different position as far as going to get the ball, he was getting so good right before the injury. My question was when he came back, would he pick up where he left off, and he pretty much has. He made a couple big time plays this weekend; he’s playing pretty good defense for us right now.”

Turner also has had a major impact on N.C. State’s clubhouse. Avent said Turner’s calming presence reminds him of the way Troy Tulowitzki affected the clubhouse on the 2004 USA Baseball collegiate national team, for whom Avent served as an assistant.

“The guy’s a winner,” Avent said. “He’s a winner in everything he does. He’s a good teammate, keeps the clubhouse loose. He’s not just a good baseball player—he’s a great clubhouse guy.”