Three Strikes: Week Four

Strike One: High-Powered Toreros Win Series In Stillwater

The West Coast Conference looked wide open heading into the season, and four weeks of nonconference play has done little to clarify the WCC pecking order. Three WCC teams made pretty loud statements this weekend, so we are devoting this week’s Three Strikes to them.

Any discussion about the West Coast Conference must start with San Diego, which has earned three regional bids in the past four years and six since 2006. The Toreros had huge shoes to fill after losing national Player of the Year Kris Bryant plus Dillon Haupt and Austin Green, who combined to hit 47 of the team’s 64 home runs last year.

But juniors Andrew Daniel (.453/.500/.642, 2 HR, 12 RBI) and Connor Joe (.375/.464/.643, 3 HR, 18 RBI) plus senior Louie Lechich (.443/.493/.738, 3 HR, 18 RBI) have stepped forward to lead the offense, and a number of new faces in the starting lineup have made meaningful contributions. The Toreros are hitting .341 as a team and rank third in the nation in scoring (8.9 runs per game), and they scored 17 runs in a pair of wins at Oklahoma State this weekend, helping them win the big road series. Their 10-4 record also includes a series win against preseason Mountain West favorite New Mexico, one against CAA favorite UNC Wilmington, and one against Baylor.

Connor Joe

Connor Joe has stepped up to boost San Diego’s offense.

“We really don’t validate ourselves in the nonconference with our record,” USD coach Rich Hill said. “We’ve tried a lot of different things, tried to determine roles, give guys a lot of different opportunities. This year it’s kicked into gear earlier than usual. We have 20 new guys. You lose the Heisman Trophy winner of college baseball, a few guys to pro contracts; after that, you might think it’s time to rebuild.”

But Daniel, Lechich and Joe give the Toreros three impact bats to build the lineup around, and the weekend rotation has three polished lefthanders who really know how to pitch in P.J. Conlon, Troy Conyers and Lechich. Lechich’s improvement as a hitter and a pitcher has been a huge key, just as Aaron Brown’s emergence as a premier two-way talent has fueled Pepperdine’s strong start (more on that below).

Lechich, like Brown, is a standout defender in center field. Like Brown, he is also serving as the Sunday starter, and like Brown, he recorded three hits Sunday while also keeping his opponent scoreless. Lechich finished with nine strikeouts and just two walks in a complete-game shutout, allowing six hits as the Toreros won 7-0.

Lechich was a key recruit for California as a freshman but left for USD when the Golden Bears announced they were cutting their program in the fall of 2011. He hit .311 as an everyday player in 2012 and .265 in 2013, but he started to turn the corner on the mound, posting a 3.24 ERA in 50 innings. Still, he went undrafted last June.

“I think not getting drafted as a junior, that can spin guys one of two ways,” Hill said. “It’s like a guy getting sent down to Triple-A. You can pout, mope, or you can use it as a motivating factor, a wakeup call, say, ‘I need to get better in these areas.’ He’s very determined this year, a different guy. The mental thing has really taken hold—he’s really bought in to what we’re doing here, in terms of hammering process instead of results.”

Joe is San Diego’s best prospect, and the hitter with the best chance of replacing Bryant as a marquee run producer in the middle of the lineup. He hit seven home runs last year hitting behind Bryant in the order, but now he’s the guy getting pitched more carefully, and he has maintained a disciplined approach, drawing seven walks and striking out eight times through 56 at-bats. He is also making the transition from first base to catcher.

“When he goes behind the plate, the arm strength is real,” Hill said. “He’s just learning how to catch, receive, block, the subtle nuances of being a catcher, but he loves it. He was the starting catcher in the Cape League all-star game. The thing about Connor is the makeup thing. He wants to be a big leaguer, and he knew that catching was the way to the big leagues for him, so he’s totally embraced it.”

Just as Pepperdine has solidified its defense with new starters behind the plate (freshman Aaron Barnett) and at shortstop (freshman Manny Jefferson), the Toreros have as well. Joe and junior college transfer Jesse Jenner (whom Hill calls “the biggest surprise on the team”) have handled the catching duties, and sophomore Kyle Holder has taken hold of the shortstop job. That position has been a significant problem for USD in recent years, but Holder’s athleticism has been a major asset there. A former high school basketball standout who fielded D-I offers on the hardwood, Holder committed himself to baseball last year at Grossmont (Calif.) JC, and his upside is significant. He has not made an error in 14 games, and he’s also gotten off to a good start with the bat, hitting .321 with five walks and just two strikeouts in 53 at-bats.

“I’ve told our coaches, ‘We haven’t had a shortstop since I’ve been here that looks like that,”‘ Hill said.  “We’ve had some guys, pro guys, but they were more gritty grind-it-out guys. This guy looks the part. You just don’t see many shortstops like that in college. He’s 6-foot-2, he has speed, athleticism, a lefthanded hitter, smooth glove, plus arm . . . Kyle Holder has really cemented this thing.”

Strike Two: San Francisco’s Pitching Dominates Cal Baseball Classic

Two of the most notable events on the Week Four calendar were four-team tournaments in California. In Southern California, Pepperdine went 3-0 with quality wins against UCLA, USC and Houston. And in the Bay Area, San Francisco went 3-0, beating Arkansas, Cal and Tulane.

Last year was a breakthrough for the Dons, who finally earned an at-large regional bid even while finishing three games out of first in the WCC standings. They entered 2014 with plenty of confidence, but they lost road series at UC Riverside and Cal State Fullerton to open the year, and they headed into this weekend with a losing record (5-6). But after allowing just one run in three games against three good opponents, USF looks ready for conference play to begin next weekend.

“We really pitched well,” USF coach Nino Giarratano said. “That was something we needed to do in order to get it going in the right direction. I think it’s going to help our kids with the confidence. I think from a pitching standpoint, we had pitched well at times, and there were times throughout the year we didn’t pitch as well. We finally started to put it all together this weekend.”

Abe Bobb

Abe Bobb was strong against Arkansas.

The Dons have a pair of crafty veterans atop the rotation in senior righthander Abe Bobb and junior lefty Christian Cecilio, and both of them came up big this weekend. Bobb allowed just one run over seven innings in Friday’s 2-1 win against Arkansas, and Cecilio followed with 7 1/3 innings of shutout ball in a 1-0 win against Cal. Neither of them issued a walk. Both rely on command to succeed, because neither has overpowering stuff. Bobb works at 86-88 with some sink, occasionally bumping 90, while Cecilio’s 84-87 fastball plays up a bit because of his deceptive delivery.

“Abe has command of the slider and a pretty good changeup,” Giarratano said. “He fields his position, holds runners—he does a lot of really unique things. The sinker really helps him a lot. Neither guy has overwhelming stuff—they just kind of move it side to side, and when they’re able to command it, they’re good. That’s what you saw this week.”

The Dons had been struggling to find a reliable Sunday starter over the first few weeks, and this week they moved freshman righty Grant Goodman into the role. Goodman proved up to the task, holding Tulane to just two hits over eight shutout innings in a 9-0 win—and he gave the Dons a third straight start with no walks. Fellow freshman Jordan Haseltine, a 6-foot-6 lefthander with loads of upside, followed with a scoreless ninth. That duo features more arm strength than Bobb and Cecilio, as both work in the 89-92 range, Giarratano said.

But USF’s closer is in the Bobb mold. Like Bobb, Houston Hibberd is a fifth-year senior who commands an 87-88 fastball, but he also mixes in a slider, curveball and changeup. He is 2-0, 0.61 with two saves in 15 innings.

Now that its pitching has solidified, San Francisco looks good enough to make a run at the WCC title and get back to a regional, because its offense—led by preseason All-American Bradley Zimmer and veteran run producers Zack Turner and Derek Atkinson—is solid, and so is its defense. But after last year, USF knows it does not necessarily need to win the WCC title to make a regional, which is a nice feeling.

“Before, we always thought, ‘Oh boy, we have to win our conference,'” Giarratano said. “We needed to play great teams on the road and beat them, and sometimes we did and sometimes we didn’t. Last year we just kind of put the pieces together, beat TCU, beat Stanford, were able to beat Cal. It seems like early this year we’re putting ourselves in a good situation if we can play well in our conference.”

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Aaron Brown

Aaron Brown

Aaron Brown is making a case for one of college baseball’s most valuable players. (Photo by Larry Goren)

Coming out of Chatsworth (Calif.) High, Brown drew legitimate interest from scouts as an outfielder as well as a pitcher. He ranked as BA’s No. 149 prospect for the 2011 draft, when the Pirates drafted him in the 17th round and made a run at signing him. He elected to go to Pepperdine, where nagging injuries kept him from making the leap to stardom over his first two years.

As a freshman, he broke his thumb diving for a ball in the outfield. As a sophomore, he battled a hamate injury for most of the year, limiting him to 48 at-bats. He went 6-3, 4.95 off the mound, where he showed flashes of great promise, helping the draft-eligible sophomore rank as the No. 99 prospect in the predraft BA 500. The Indians took him in the 30th round, but he returned to school for his junior year—and so far, that looks like a wise decision.

Through the first four weeks of the season, Brown is making a case as one of college baseball’s most valuable players thanks to his two-way contributions. He has played strong defense in center field while hitting .361/.385/.541 with two homers and a team-leading 15 RBIs in 61 at-bats. He’s also 3-0, 2.93 with 30 strikeouts and five walks in 28 innings as the Sunday starter. He allowed just two hits in eight shutout innings in Sunday’s 3-0 win against Houston, while also going 3-for-4 at the plate, helping the upstart Waves improve to 12-3.

“I told him, this is the best I’ve seen him both on the mound and at the plate,” Pepperdine coach Steve Rodriguez said. “That’s a good sign for us. If he can continue to mature at that rate both at the plate and on the mound, shoot, he’s going to be a hell of a player by the end of the season.”

Golden Spikes 2014A lefthander with an athletic, physical 6-foot-1, 222-pound frame, Brown’s professional future now appears to be on the mound. He occasionally ran his fastball up to 94 last spring and flashed a good slider and changeup, but his command and mechanics were inconsistent. Scouts who saw him in the Cape Cod League last summer had good things to say about his competitiveness and his repertoire, which they agreed could include three solid-average pitches down the road. This spring, his command has taken a big step forward.

“As you see with a lot of kids, when they walk into a program, that’s one of the biggest things is being able to gain command,” Rodriguez said. “In high school, they can have some success getting guys to chase. But his command of his fastball and slider and changeup has become really good. Everything is there. I think he was up to 92 (Sunday) with a hard-breaking slider, so everything we’ve seen in the past is there, but the command has been a little bit better. Not to mention he’s just a competitor, too.”

Because of his aggressive demeanor and all-out style, Brown has been prone to some injuries along the way, but that makes him a good defender in center field, where Rodriguez said he makes it look easy. He’s also an aggressive hitter, and he has struck out 16 times while drawing just one walk through 15 games. But he has made repeated hard contact when he has put the ball in play, and it is clear that he is a more dangerous offensive threat than he was in the past.

“The biggest thing for him is he’s so strong, he can get jammed and still have success, hit the ball off the end of the bat and still have success,” Rodriguez said. “His physical strength has really helped him. He’s a strong physical kid, he’ll have a little swing and miss in there because of the kind of hitter he is. His approach the last few games is what has impressed me.”