Three Strikes: Week Four

Strike One: Rebel Uprising

Two years ago, John Richy was an out-of-shape senior at Golden (Colo.) High School, with a brighter future as a golfer than as a baseball player. In June, UNLV coach Tim Chambers was working a camp in Colorado and he heard about Richy, so he went to see him pitch, even though the righthander had spent the season pitching in the 83-85 range.

“This kid was a golfer in high school, and he was heavy—he was 240, 250 pounds, 6-3 or 6-4ish,” Chambers said. “His high school coach said, ‘If you dedicate yourself to the gym a little bit, you might play college baseball and not golf.’ We happened to see him in June, and he was 88-89, so we signed him up—we needed arms and we had some money to spend . . . There’s a guy that had one Division I offer in June, and he just threw a two-hitter.”

It wasn’t just any two-hitter. Richy threw a complete-game gem on the road against a member of college baseball’s royal family—Stanford. He allowed just one unearned run in UNLV’s 5-1 win on Sunday, completing a stunning series sweep that knocked the Cardinal out of the Top 25, and vaulted the Rebels (13-3) into the rankings for the first time since 2003.

Richy has lost weight in his two years at UNLV (he’s now listed at 220 pounds), and pitching coach Stan Stolte has helped him unlock his potential by speeding up his delivery, from about 2.4 seconds to about 1.7 seconds, according to Chambers. Now his fastball is running all over, and he is mixing in a good breaking ball, changeup and cutter.

Richy is just one of many diamonds in the rough UNLV’s coaching staff has identified and developed in Chambers’ three years at the helm. Sophomore left fielder Joey Swanner, who sparked the offense repeatedly this weekend from atop the order, had one one or two Division I offers out of high school, according to Chambers. Mark Shannon started his career at Northern Colorado and then transferred to Central Arizona JC. The Rebels recruited him as a pitcher, but here he is playing center field and hitting in the No. 3 hole.

Then there’s Patrick Armstrong, a junior-college transfer who is hitting .500 in a part-time role (12-for-24). Chambers said the Rebels recruited Armstrong in order to land his brother Joey, another Sacramento CC transfer who is hitting .333/.471/.426 and playing every day at third base.

Five-foot-10 freshman Justin Jones was recruited to play second base, but he has found a home at first. The roster has five catchers, and all of them chip in at different positions on a roster that Chambers describes as “shorthanded.”

The Rebels have embraced the concept of team offense, and senior Brandon Bayardi has led the way. Bayardi has mashed 26 homers over the last three seasons, but he hasn’t hit one yet this year. In fact, no Rebel has.

“Brandon Bayardi has led UNLV in homers for three years, and he has none—but he loves to hit-and-run and drag bunt,” Chambers said. “He sees what we’re trying to do and understands it. We don’t have a home run, but we really run good all the way through the lineup, with the exception of the catchers. We like to bunt-and-run, hit-and-run, slash-and-run, fake bunt-and-run—just play the game as hard and fast as we can.”

The Rebels were opportunistic on offense against Stanford, but their pitching carried them to the sweep, holding the Cardinal to five runs in three games. UNLV got solid starts over the first two games from sophomore righthander Erick Fedde and junior righty Buddy Borden, who both have size and arm strength. Chambers said Fedde pitches at 91-93 and bumps 94, and he pounds the strike zone. Borden (2-1, 0.64) can reach 94-95 and has learned to throw strikes more consistently with all three of his pitches.

The bullpen will miss closer Zack Hartman, who will have Tommy John surgery this week, but senior Brady Zuniga sparkled in relief Friday, and freshman Kenny Oakley was excellent Saturday. The Rebels didn’t even wind up using three of their other quality arms: 6-foot-6 righty Andy Beresford, who touched 95 mph last week, and freshmen Brayden Torres and Bryan Bonell, who can both reach the low 90s.

“Our first two classes are on campus now, and we were super excited,” Chambers said. “Some of the kids didn’t really catch a lot of attention—maybe they didn’t come from a powerhouse high school, but we knew about them.

“We took this job because we felt like we could get this thing going. We felt like next year we’d really, really turn the corner. But these young guys have turned a little faster than we expected.”

Strike Two: Central Arkansas 

Since reclassifying as a Division I program for the 2007 season, Central Arkansas has been competitive, but it has yet to post a winning overall record in its first six D-I seasons. Now in their fourth year as a full Division I member and their third year under coach Allen Gum, the Bears are a shoo-in to finish above .500 this year, and a real threat to make a regional.

UCA announced its presence on the national stage with a series win on the road at No. 3 Mississippi State this weekend. The Bears are now 14-2, with other solid wins against Kansas and Wichita State. And they have compiled gaudy stats along with that gaudy record, outscoring opponents by a combined 145-48 margin through 16 games. As a team, UCA is hitting a respectable .285, fielding a solid .973 and has a 2.34 staff ERA. Those numbers attest to Central Arkansas’ balance and steadiness.

“Really, we just played good baseball,” Gum said of the series win in Starkville. “We didn’t walk too many people, we played good defense, drew some walks, and the last game we got some timely double plays. Definitely the backbone of our team this year is our defense. If our pitchers pitch to our defense, they’re pretty solid. We’ve just got guys that—there’s nothing fancy about it, they just catch the ball and throw it.”

Coaches always stress how much experience matters in college baseball, and the Bears are well stocked with savvy veterans. The top five hitters in the lineup—Forrestt Allday, Ethan Harris, Jonathan Davis, Michael Marietta and Scott Zimmerle—are upperclassmen, and that group led the offense against Mississippi State. Allday, a senior right fielder and leadoff man, is the team’s best prospect and best hitter, leading the club in hitting (.470/.544/.621 with 20 RBIs and seven stolen bases).

“He does set the tone on the offensive side,” Gum said of Allday. “He doesn’t let at-bats go. He’s off to a good start, he gets us going—he’s our leadoff hitter. He can make a lot of things happen.”

Two other upperclassmen came up big on the mount this weekend for UCA. Senior lefthander Jeffery Enloe threw 5 2/3 solid innings in Saturday’s extra-innings victory, and junior righty Bryce Biggerstaff threw a complete game in Sunday’s win, allowing three runs. Biggerstaff (2-0, 2.25) also threw a no-hitter on Feb. 24 against Jackson State. Gum said his weekend starters all pitch in the mid- to upper 80s and thrive by pitching to contact, trusting the defense to make plays behind them.

Maybe they’re not flashy, but the Bears clearly have a winning recipe.

“A great way to define us is we have a lot of good college baseball players,” Gum said. “There’s a lot of excitement, and I’m proud of our guys. I think the coaching staff and the players, we’re all pretty level headed. We have an understanding that when we do things right, we can compete with anybody in the country.”

They proved that much this weekend.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Kevin Ziomek

For all his talent, Kevin Ziomek did not have the sophomore year he would have liked in 2012, going 5-6, 5.22 in 79 innings. He followed that up with a dominant summer in the Cape Cod League and carried his progress over to the fall, which he spent working to refine his routine, learning to trust his ability and fine-tuning his repertoire.

“The one thing that we’ve talked about with Kevin is trust,” said first-year Vanderbilt pitching coach Scott Brown. “Just trusting everything: your stuff, your mentality, your preparation, that you can pitch out of jams. All you can control is your response. I have to give Kevin a lot of credit because he’s taken ownership of his craft.”

Ziomek has become a pitcher whose results match his talent. Through four weeks, few if any college pitchers have been better than Ziomek, who is 4-0, 0.87 with 46 strikeouts, seven walks and a .118 opponents’ average in 31 innings. He followed up a 15-strikeout, one-hit shutout against Illinois-Chicago last week with a 13-strikeout, two-hit complete game this Friday at Oregon, leading the Commodores to a big road series win against a ranked foe. He made just one mistake, allowing a fourth-inning solo home run to Ryon Healy—the only one of Oregon’s first 17 hitters to reach base.

As part of his maturation process, Ziomek has shown the ability to win in a variety of ways. Some days, his slider is his go-to pitch. Against UIC, Brown said, he relied more on a three-pitch mix. And against Oregon, he was more fastball-dominant.

That fastball has sat consistently in the 88-92 mph range, and he holds his velocity, still working at 90-91 in the ninth inning Friday. He keeps hitters off balance by mixing his secondary stuff effectively.

“The slider’s his out pitch for me,” Brown said. “It has very good depth, and it has a serious angle to it as well. The thing with Kevin that I think caused his slider and his changeup—and his fastball—to be inconsistent is he’s got a little bit of a deceptive delivery that you probably wouldn’t teach, but it works for him. We did some things in preseason to free up his hips a little more, but we didn’t make wholesale changes.”

The ‘Dores also worked with Ziomek on maintaining his high three-quarters arm slot, because he had a tendency to drop his slot in the past. Brown said the Commodores inserted a curveball back into Ziomek’s repertoire this year, in large part because that pitch helps him maintain consistency in his release point. He doesn’t throw it often in games, only mixing it in as a show pitch, but it has helped him become a more complete pitcher.

The other key adjustment Ziomek has made is mental.

“I walked in with him from the bullpen that opening night against Long Beach State,” Brown said, “and I walked away from there and said, ‘One thing has to change. That walk from the bullpen, when you walk through that gate, it’s go time. It’s a boxing fight, you’re in the alley. Those guys from the opposing team are coming at you swinging, and you have to be ready to punch. Once you start punching, your stuff will take over.’

“He agreed 100 percent, and that’s what I’ve seen from him. I’m really pleased with his work ethic and his commitment, taking ownership for what he’s doing.”