Three Strikes: Week Five

Strike One: Trading Places

LOS ANGELES—UCLA vs. Arizona State has been one of the marquee series on the Pacific-12 Conference calendar in recent years. Usually it comes later in the spring, but the two teams opened conference play against each other this weekend, and the series between a pair of teams ranked inside the top 11 was characteristically competitive.

But this UCLA-ASU showdown had a different feel to it than other recent meetings between these teams. In a reversal of the usual identities of these programs, UCLA entered the weekend as the better offensive team, while Arizona State boasted the more talented pitching staff.

"Arizona State, they do an unbelievable job of teaching hitting and getting players with (that) mentality," Bruins coach John Savage said. "It's been for 20 years, or at least as long as I've seen it, they've just been one of the best offensive programs in the country. They don't strike out. They've never struck out. They walk. They see pitches. They've always used the middle of the field."

UCLA's hitters have been similarly tough outs for the last four weeks—and the Bruins are 13-2 in that stretch, with series wins against three opponents who were ranked at the time of the meetings (Baylor, Georgia and ASU). But the Bruins got a little "out of character," as Savage termed it, in Sunday's doubleheader split with the Sun Devils, leaving 18 men on base.

That's partly a credit to Arizona State's pitching staff, which is filled with competitive gamers to match those in UCLA's lineup. It helps, too, that ASU's top two pitchers also have great stuff. Junior ace righthander Brady Rodgers has one of college baseball's best four-pitch mixes and perhaps the best control of any college pitcher. He attacked the zone with an 88-91 mph fastball, a quality slider at 82-85, a sharp downer curve at 73-75 and a solid 81-82 changeup in Friday's no-decision.

The Sun Devils followed Rodgers with physical junior righthander Jake Barrett on Friday, and Barrett's stuff was filthy: a 93-95 fastball, an 85-87 mph slider and even a swing-and-miss changeup at 80 mph, which he used to record two strikeouts in his two relief appearances this weekend. After giving up a walk-off homer to Kevin Williams on a 95 mph fastball Friday, Barrett struck Williams out with a changeup to end the first game of Sunday's doubleheader, preserving ASU's 4-3 win.

The Sun Devils started sophomore righthander Trevor Williams in that victory. Williams thrived as a flame-throwing closer last year, while Barrett struggled with consistency as a starter, but both have found success after switching roles. Williams' power stuff still plays as a starter—he worked at 90-94 mph on Sunday, still pitching at 90-92 at the end of his outing, and his 79-81 slider had good depth. He also mixed in a 73-74 curveball and a 79 mph changeup. Williams allowed 10 hits over seven innings, but he repeatedly buckled down with runners on base and allowed only one run.

"It's a new role for him, and he's still learning as he goes," Arizona State coach Tim Esmay said of Williams. "His last two outings were really good, just kind of efficient and making big pitches, and he did that again today. He's growing as we go, he's getting better and better as we go, so I'm happy with that."

The Sun Devils were short-handed on the mound, as talented freshman lefthander Brandon Bonilla did not make the trip after missing the team bus in Tempe, and fellow towering southpaw Adam McCreery was scratched from his scheduled start in the finale by shoulder stiffness, which flared up when he was playing catch on Thursday. Righthander Alex Blackford, who threw an inning of relief in the first game Sunday, got the start in the second game and struggled with his control, and the Bruins chased him in a three-run second inning. But righthander Darin Gillies (2 IP, 2 H, 0 R) and lefty Matthew Dunbar (3.2 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 K) were bright spots out of the bullpen, escaping repeated jams with minimal damage. Dunbar, a junior-college transfer, kept the lefty-laden Bruins off balance with an 83-84 mph fastball and a nice slurve at 77-79.

"We were short-handed, and I thought Dunbar picked us up," Esmay said. "Today I thought our pitching did fine. I was happy with them minimizing (damage). That's what we preach, and our guys were minimizing."

The top half of Arizona State's lineup is formidable, as Andrew Aplin and Deven Marrero are quality catalysts in the first two slots, Joey DeMichele remains a force of nature in the No. 3 hole, and Abe Ruiz has emerged as a dangerous cleanup man. The latest in ASU's long line of physical, powerful lefthanded sluggers, Ruiz hit a pair of home runs to right field in Sunday's first game—one that landed on the roof of the hitting structure, and one that landed in Beau Amaral's glove, before the glove and ball both fell over the fence. Ruiz also hit an RBI double to deep center in the second game.

The rest of the lineup is filled with new starters who are still finding their way, but Trever Allen, James McDonald and Rouric Bridgewater all showed flashes of promise this weekend.

"We're still a work in progress. This team's a work in progress," Esmay said. "We're trying to get some young guys some at-bats and figure some things out."

UCLA's pitching staff, meanwhile, has figured some things out. Freshman lefty Grant Watson threw six solid innings in the finale, stepping in for righthander Zack Weiss, who was sidelined with shoulder soreness. The Bruins, like the Sun Devils, pitched out of trouble in the bullpen, and closer Scott Griggs worked a 1-2-3 ninth for the save. Maybe offense is UCLA's strength, but the young bullpen has answered some of the questions surrounding it, giving the Bruins reason to believe they can compete for a second straight Pac-12 title.

But as this weekend showed, the gap between UCLA and ASU is narrow.

"It could have gone either way," Savage said. "All three games came down to the wire. So it was a pretty typical Pac-12 series—a dogfight third game, and fortunately we came out on top."

Strike Two: Sweep Rewards

The opening weekend of conference play in the SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 featured some illuminating series sweeps, which helped give us a better sense of what to expect as we head into the meat of conference schedules.

Three teams swept series in the SEC, none more notable than Kentucky's stunning sweep of two-time defending national champion South Carolina. Suddenly, Florida's status as the conference front-runner looks even more secure heading into next weekend's showdown series against the Gamecocks, as the Gators kept on rolling (sweeping struggling Vanderbilt), while the Gamecocks struggled to score runs as they have for most of the season. South Carolina scored just three runs in each of its three losses in Lexington, and the team is averaging just 4.9 runs per game through five weeks. Just as concerning, the Wildcats got to the South Carolina bullpen in all three games this weekend, which will surely cause fans and media in Columbia to start grumbling about the need to move Matt Price back into the closer role.

I'm not sure anything that drastic is required. South Carolina has pitched well all season, and a trio of close losses is no reason to sound the alarm. That's particularly true because Kentucky is legitimately talented in all facets of the game, and this weekend the Wildcats proved it. UK is 21-0, but the last three wins have caught the attention of the college baseball world. This team will be in regionals, and it will be a major factor in the SEC.

The Big 12 featured two sweeps, as Baylor won three against Texas Tech, and Texas swept a road series at Oklahoma. The Longhorns finally got their bats going in Norman, rapping out 45 hits in three games against an Oklahoma pitching staff that has been inconsistent through five weeks. The Sooners simply aren't good enough on the mound to be considered a Top 25 team. Texas, meanwhile, will need more weekends like this from its offense, because its pitching staff is solid but not special, like it has been in recent years. But this weekend was a positive sign that the Longhorns might be able to win games in new ways this year—by outslugging opponents.

Finally, Oregon State recorded a loud sweep in its Pac-12 opener at California, a team that returned quite a few veterans from last year's Omaha team. We wrote about the Beavers' talented young core in Thursday's Weekend Preview, and the youngsters continued to make noise this weekend, as Michal Conforto kept on driving in runs by the bushel in the middle of the lineup, and exciting power arms Ben Wetzler, Dan Child and Jace Fry turned in strong starts. This OSU team will experience growing pains in the Pac-12 as it runs up against other more experienced teams, but the Beavers showed this weekend that they will not wilt against older clubs, even on the road.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Andrew Heaney

Oklahoma State lefthander Andrew Heaney's arm action and feel for pitching has intrigued scouts since his days at Putnam City High in Oklahoma. But the knock on him since his prep days was that he needed to get more physical.

Cowboys coach Frank Anderson said Heaney showed up on campus as a 147-pound freshman, but he has added nearly 30 pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame since then, and it is making a huge difference for him on the mound.

"He's in the best shape he's ever been in physically, and he's just throwing the ball pretty well," Anderson said. "That gives you confidence when you're physically strong. And the work that you put in makes you that much tougher. It gives you the ability to control your body deeper into games, you don't get worn down, and it increases your chances of holding your velocity over the course of a game."

As a result, Heaney has thrown back-to-back complete-game shutouts, first against Alabama A&M and then against Houston. He struck out eight while allowing no walks and just three hits Friday against the Cougars, becoming the first Cowboy to record consecutive shutouts since Matt Smith in 1998.

In five starts, Heaney ranks among the nation's strikeout leaders with 52 in 39 innings. He has issued just eight walks and is holding opponents to a .167 average, helping him go 4-1, 0.92.

Heaney showed plenty of signs of his potential during his first two seasons, going 5-4, 5.16 as a freshman and 7-4, 4.03 as a sophomore. But he really came into his own last summer in the Cape Cod League, where he struck out 46 in 45 innings for Falmouth and ranked as the circuit's No. 17 prospect. His summer in the Cape League also helped him develop his slider, which has supplanted his changeup as his best secondary offering.

"Going up there (to the Cape) and having some success was big for him," Anderson said. "I told him that slider was going to be his breaking ball choice before it was all said and done, and that's kind of what he's done."

Heaney's changeup had been his best offspeed pitch, but as he has focused on his slider, he has begun throwing his changeup less frequently. Because the Cowboys built a big lead for him on Friday against Houston, Heaney was able to work on his changeup in the late innings of his outing.

Heaney has done a fine job commanding his fastball, which he can add to and subtract from as needed. Anderson said it ranges from 88-94 mph, and he can give hitters a different look by dropping his arm slot from three quarters to nearly sidearm about seven to 10 times per game.

"It's something he has a feel for and does on his own," Anderson said. "He'll pick a spot, which I like. It gives him some options."

It all adds up to make Heaney one of the top lefthanders in college baseball, and the anchor for Oklahoma State's inexperienced team.

"He's a good kid, he works hard and takes care of his business," Anderson said. "He wants to be a good player."