Three Strikes: Week Five

Strike One: Rock-Solid Pitching Carries UCLA To Sweep

LOS ANGELES—Adam Plutko said he was just settling into a groove when heavy fog settled in at Jackie Robinson Stadium on Friday night, forcing play to be suspended in the fourth inning. That cut Plutko’s outing short, and UCLA wound up having to use seven relievers over 11 more innings when that series-opening game against Washington resumed Saturday.

So the Bruins needed Nick Vander Tuig to pitch deep into Saturday’s second game in order to give the bullpen a breather. Vander Tuig, a junior righthander, responded with the first complete game of his career, scattering seven hits without issuing a walk while striking out eight in a 5-0 shutout. That performance was a major key in helping the Bruins sweep their first Pacific-12-opening series.

“You talk about timing,” UCLA coach John Savage said of Vander Tuig’s start. “I don’t want to say it was the biggest performance of his career because he’s had bigger ones. But what we needed at this time was a nine-inning complete game.”

UCLA’s identity has shifted a couple of times over the last few years. In 2010 and 2011, the Bruins were built around overpowering pitching, led by Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer. Last year, the pitching was solid, but the strength of the team was the veteran lineup.

Now, the lineup is younger again and still trying to find its way, but the pitching staff is deep and accomplished. Plutko, Vander Tuig and Sunday starter Grant Watson are rock-solid, even if they lack the overpowering stuff of Cole and Bauer.

Like the other two, Vander Tuig is a model of consistency. He works in the 88-91 mph range every time out and excels by hitting his spots with his fastball and mixing in a good 80-82 changeup and an improving 83-85 slider.

“Me and Adam, we’re kind of similar pitchers,” Vander Tuig said. “We rely a lot on our fastball location, and we depend on our changeups, and sliders.”

Maybe they aren’t sexy prospects, but Plutko and Vander Tuig have both earned the respect of scouts for their feel for pitching and competitiveness. And they have proven up to the task of leading a UCLA team that is relying upon pitching once again. Plutko is 2-0, 2.73, while Vander Tuig is 3-2, 1.80 with 20 strikeouts and just three walks in 35 innings.

“Not a lot of guys are talking about him, but if you really watch him, he’s very similar every time out,” Savage said after Vander Tuig pitched well in defeat last week against Oklahoma. “He’s not getting the hype a lot of guys are, and that’s fine, but I think anybody would take that as a Saturday starter in the country. He’s a workmanlike guy. He’s pitched like that really for about a year and a half. And that’s what we’re made of. We’re made of three guys that start on the weekends that give you a chance, Plutko, Vander Tuig and Watson. And they compete.”

The Bruins are hitting just .259 as a team, and Savage said the coaches are “still trying to figure out what we’ve got” on the offensive side. Some less familiar faces made impacts this weekend. Vander Tuig made a point to commend redshirt freshman Justin Hazard for his solid work behind the plate Saturday, and he also chipped in with two hits in his first career start.

Another redshirt freshman, outfielder Christoph Bono, delivered the game-winning hit in the 15th inning of the first game, then cranked a two-run homer to right field on an elevated Austin Voth fastball in the second game. The son of former UCLA and NFL quarterback Steve Bono, Cristoph showed up at UCLA as a football quarterback before deciding to focus on baseball. His potential is intriguing.

“I think he’s got a chance, because he’s lefthanded, he runs, throws, and he’s got a little pop in that bat,” Savage said. “Those type of guys only get better. I think you’re kind of seeing that. We have options . . . (Saturday), I think Bono was the difference possibly in both games.”

Washington, meanwhile, fell to 4-14 after getting swept for the second straight weekend on the road against an elite pitching staff (the Huskies were at Louisiana State last week). Voth showed good stuff in defeat Saturday, working at 89-93 and flashing a quality 82-84 slider and 81 mph changeup, but he made a few mistakes, and the Huskies lack the offensive firepower to come from behind. Washington scored just two runs in the three-game sweep, and the Huskies are hitting just .237 as a team, averaging a paltry 3.1 runs per game.

“Right now everybody needs to do more,” Washington coach Lindsay Meggs said. “The coaches need to do more, the players need to do more. “We talked in the beginning of the year, we lost two pitchers early, we lost our four-hole guy to injury in the fall. We knew we were going to be thin, we knew we were going to struggle without Branden Berry in the middle of the batting order. But that’s an opportunity for somebody else, and we just haven’t stepped up offensively and done what we need to do. We were at LSU last weekend, very good pitching; we come here, very good pitching, and we’ve just got to be better.

“There’s an attitude adjustment that needs to be made, regardless of who we put out there. We need to be tougher, fight for every pitch, fight for every inch, and we just haven’t done that.”

Strike Two: Dirtbags Bounce Back With Sweep Of Shockers

LONG BEACH, Calif.—Few teams schedule more aggressively than Long Beach State, which opened the year at No. 2 Vanderbilt, then played two midweek home games against Arizona, then played four games against UCLA and at Arizona State. No wonder the Dirtbags entered this weekend with a 6-11 mark.

But LBSU also dropped a home series against Seattle (which is 8-12), so it’s fair to say the Dirtbags were underachieving through the first four weeks of the season. Heading into the season, Long Beach was expected to compete for a regional behind a solid pitching staff and an improved lineup. In order to preserve any hope for an at-large bid, the Dirtbags needed to have a good weekend against Wichita State, and they did just that, allowing just six runs in a three-game sweep.

Starting pitching came up big for Long Beach, which got strong outings from Shane Carle (7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K) and Jake Stassi (7 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 6 K) in the first two games of the series. Carle, a loose-levered 6-foot-4 junior righty, didn’t show the 92-93 mph heat and power slider that intrigued scouts in the fall, but he competed with an 87-89 fastball that bumped 90-91 early, and he showed good feel for a 76-78 slurve against both lefties and righties. LBSU coach Troy Buckley said Carle did a better job expanding the zone with his breaking ball in advantage counts, whereas last week he left the pitch up a few times when he needed a strikeout against Arizona State. His 79-81 changeup was also effective.

Carle has given Long Beach a reliable Friday starter since transferring in from junior-college ball, going 1-2, 1.42 with 24 strikeouts and seven walks in 32 innings. And he’s done it without his best stuff.

“I think Shane has pitched extremely well,” Buckley said. “Numbers-wise he has been very good. We’ve been trying to get him to stay on the rubber, stay behind the ball, throw against the front side, to try to get him to show the stuff he showed more in the fall—he was arguably 90-93 and aggressive, with a little bit more action to the breaking ball. It’s been a process—more people in the stands, new opponents. He has kind of lost that mojo or that feel of getting back, and being aggressive to get over the ball. He doesn’t even have his best stuff, in my opinion, but he’s still pitching for us, so I’ve got to give him a lot of credit for that. I think his stuff will play up at some point, but right now, he’s really doing a good job of mixing, pitching down when he has to, being aggressive.”

Like UCLA, the Dirtbags are still finding their way offensively, but there were encouraging signs this weekend. Michael Hill earned the starting shortstop job this spring thanks to his quality defensive skills, but he has been Long Beach’s best hitter through 20 games, batting .356/.400/.593 with four triples and one of the team’s three home runs. Hill ripped a two-run double into right field to cap Long Beach State’s decisive three-run eighth inning Friday, as the Dirtbags broke a 1-1 tie. One batter earlier, junior second baseman Jeff McNeil hit a go-ahead RBI single through the right side—his fourth single and second RBI of the game. McNeil is a spark plug atop the lineup, with good speed and bat-handling skills, and he is starting to get rewarded for his quality at-bats, as his average climbed to .300 this weekend.

“He took some quality at-bats. He spoils some pitches,” Buckley said. “He had four quality at-bats (last Tuesday) against Loyola and had nothing to show for it. So it was good to see him not press and panic and just go about the at-bat. He’s a tough little out, you’ve got to make pitches and do some things to get him out. He’s a good little player; he’s turned himself into a good player for never playing much high school baseball.”

Buckley said the Dirtbags need veterans Juan Avila, Ino Patron, Josh Guerra and Richard Prigatano to get their bats going in order for Long Beach’s offense to thrive. On Sunday, the talented Prigatano had two hits and an RBI, Guerra added two hits and a run, and Patron went 1-for-3 with a run. So there is plenty of reason for optimism heading into next week’s nonconference showdown against rival Cal State Fullerton.

For Wichita State, though, this weekend was discouraging. Shockers coach Gene Stephenson said he thought his offense had been doing some good things before the weekend, but he was very unhappy after his team’s four-hit performance Friday, and it didn’t get much better over the next two days.

“We did nothing offensively through the whole game,” Stephenson said Friday. “I was very disappointed in that aspect. Because all of their pitchers are about the same—they throw fastball, slider. They’re good, they’re OK, but the whole thing is we didn’t compete very well.

“I thought we’d been swinging the bat better, and I think we’ve got a better team than we’ve had offensively in the last few years, more options. But we had some bad jumps on the bases. I can’t explain it, other than just being too tight. We just clammed up all over the place tonight. I can’t explain it, but it is frustrating, because I know we’re better than that, I know we can play better than that.”

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Kris Bryant

San Diego coach Rich Hill remembers that when Troy Glaus played at UCLA, then-Southern California coach Mike Gillespie would sometimes use four outfielders and three infielders during his at-bats. Anything to get an edge against the fearsome slugger.

Don’t be surprised if desperate opponents start thinking way outside the box to scheme against USD junior Kris Bryant.

“Every once in a while you have a player like this in college baseball—just a guy who can dominate the college game,” Hill said. “The only time I can remember seeing anything like this is Troy Glaus.”

Incidentally, Bryant has garnered comparisons to Glaus—who went on to be a four-time all-star and hit 320 home runs in the big leagues—since his high school days in Las Vegas. Hill said he tries to avoid comparisons—but Bryant has certainly justified the lofty projections.

“It’s Troy Glaus, Jayson Werth, Pat Burrell,” Hill said. “It’s a combination of those three guys all wrapped into one.”

In light of the last two weeks, nobody would blame you for comparing Bryant to Roy Hobbs, either. There was his mammoth home run deep into the night against Saint Louis last week—a shot that either soared halfway up the light standard or cleared it altogether, depending on who you ask. “It grows by the week—it was 500 feet, then the next week it was 550 feet, then it was 600,” Hill said.

Then there was his three-homer game this past Thursday in USD’s West Coast Conference opener against Brigham Young. He went to the opposite field on sliders for his first two long balls, then pulled a walk-off, three-run homer to left field in the ninth, turning a 5-4 deficit into a 7-5 victory.

In Saturday’s series finale, a wild back-and-forth, 14-inning affair, Bryant delivered yet another walk-off shot—a two-run blast to right field, giving the Toreros a 10-9 victory and a series sweep. That set off a jubilant celebration. Later that day, San Diego catcher Dillon Haupt—himself the national leader in doubles and USD’s leader in batting (.392)—tweeted of Bryant, “He’s not human.”

“That’s the most excited I’ve seen one of our teams get in a few years,” Hill said of the scene after Bryant’s Saturday walk-off. “It almost looked like they were trying to pitch around him a little bit, but the guy just left it up and he just smoked it. It was just complete elation.”

In his last 13 games, Bryant is hitting .465 with 11 home runs. He is hitting .386/.561/.986 with 24 RBIs and 12 long balls on the year, leading the nation in homers even though teams are pitching him very cautiously—he also leads Division I with 26 walks.

“He has really matured into a complete hitter,” Hill said. “He and (hitting coach) Jay (Johnson) have just spent a ton of time together. Kris is just way more balanced right now. His dad was a hitting coach, is a hitting coach, so he came in with a good approach, a good understanding of things. The power’s always been there, but now, there really are no holes. He just makes the ballpark look small, one of those guys.”

At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, Bryant has serious leverage in his righthanded swing, and he has become better at handling fastballs in on his hands. But he also runs very well for his size, and he has showcased his defensive versatility by playing first base, center field and right field along with his usual third base.

“For me, that’s my favorite thing about Kris is just the athleticism,” Hill said. “This is a 6-5, wiry, athletic guy that someday, he has Gold Glove right fielder defensively written on him. And I think he could do the same thing at first base. He could play third base in a pinch in the big leagues, and center field at the college level very well. He can throw somebody out at the plate, he can steal a base. All these things are just emerging—the athleticism, arm strength, power. Now you put the hitting ability, not just power but using all fields, power to all fields, not striking out.

“The scary thing is he just keeps getting better and better every day, and he’s never satisfied, which is awesome.”