Three Strikes: Week Nine

Strike One: Cats' Meow

Wet weather forced Kentucky and Arkansas to wrap up their series with a doubleheader Saturday, so the Wildcats spent Sunday in Fayetteville before heading to the airport for a 5 p.m. flight. That flight was delayed, and Kentucky didn't wind up getting home to Lexington until the middle of the night. That could hardly dampen the Wildcats' spirit.

"Sitting in an airport after a couple wins is certainly better than the alternative," UK coach Gary Henderson said.

Kentucky was leaving Fayetteville with a couple of wins for the first time in a decade. It was just one more big weekend in a season filled with big weekends for the Wildcats.

SEC coaches always talk about the importance of winning series at home and managing not to get swept on the road. Kentucky has trumped that, winning all three of its conference road series (at Tennessee, at Georgia and now at Arkansas) plus taking down a pair of top-10 opponents at home (South Carolina and Mississippi).

Kentucky has gotten off to strong starts against soft nonconference schedules before, but its dominance of a loaded SEC is something else entirely. It's natural for people in college baseball to wonder if the Wildcats are for real, or if they have just played above their heads. By now, that question has been answered—UK is a very complete, very deep, very dangerous team, and it is a legitimate Omaha contender.

But Henderson isn't worried about trying to put his team's success into perspective in the middle of the conference schedule—not with Louisiana State coming to town this weekend, and four more series to go after that, including a showdown against Florida in early May.

"Not to give you too many cliches, but it's not time to do that. We're proud of what we're doing, but fully realize we've got five more conference weekends," Henderson said. "Every year this thing is a rollercoaster emotionally, ups and downs. And if you look at what's gone on, you look at a couple things that have gone on over the last couple weeks that you shake your head and go, 'Don't get too full of yourself.' "

When pressed, Henderson mentions his starting pitching as an area that needs some improvement. The Wildcats have not gotten deep starts of late from Taylor Rogers or Jerad Grundy, but their outstanding bullpen has picked up the slack. That's what it did in the first game of Saturday's doubleheader, when righthanders Chandler Shepherd and Tim Peterson combined to throw 5 2/3 innings of one-hit, shutout relief after Grundy exited in the fourth. Shepherd and Peterson are quality college righties, with 88-91 mph fastballs, solid curveballs and the ability to throw strikes. Alex Phillips and A.J. Reed give Henderson a pair of quality lefthanded options out of the bullpen. The depth of the unit has allowed Kentucky to use closer Trevor Gott almost exclusively for one-inning stints, where he can blow hitters away with his mid-90s fastball and improving breaking ball. He recorded his first four-out save of the season in the series finale against Arkansas.

"When you have more depth down there, they all get better, because you can shorten roles and match up at a more efficient rate, rather than have to roll a guy out there for nine outs," Henderson said.

Kentucky has been strong in all facets this year, but its bullpen probably deserves more credit for the team's success than it has gotten.

For Kentucky to maintain its incredibly high level of play, its freshmen need to withstand the rigors of the long season—that is Henderson's other main area of concern. Austin Cousino and A.J. Reed are critical parts of UK's success hitting in the leadoff and No. 3 holes in the lineup, respectively. On the whole, Henderson has been very pleased with the concentration his players have shown both at the plate and defensively over the course of the season, but he said Cousino and Reed haven't had the same kind of quality at-bats in the last week or so.

"Game 28 to game 35, the freshmen kind of hit the wall a little bit, because that's what they're used to playing," Henderson said. "Now they hopefully get that second wind. They're starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel with academics and finals. I think they'll get a second wind when they can see finals are almost over."

If the second wind is anything like the first wind, the Wildcats will find themselves in Omaha for the first time in program history.

Strike Two: Titans Deal Anteaters A Crippling Blow

After Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine split a doubleheader Saturday, Anteaters coach Mike Gillespie knew exactly how important Sunday's rubber game would be for his team's chances at making a seventh consecutive trip to regionals.

"Critical. Critical," Gillespie said. "There's no debate about it. It's critical. I mean, it's critical."

After getting swept by Cal Poly a week earlier, the Anteaters desperately needed to win the Fullerton series to bolster their sagging at-large case and to remain in striking range of a run at the Big West title.

But the 'Eaters mustered just three hits in a 5-3 loss Sunday, dropping them to 4-5 in the Big West and No. 69 in the Ratings Percentage Index, per Boyd's World. UCI looked punchless offensively against a strike-throwing Fullerton staff that has only one true power arm—that of closer Michael Lorenzen. Sunday starter Grahamm Wiest kept the Anteaters off balance with a fastball in the 85-88 range, a decent breaking ball and changeup. Other than Lorenzen, nobody on the Fullerton staff is overpowering, but the staff throws strikes better than any other in the nation (it led the nation in fewest walks per nine innings heading into the week). And the Anteaters just don't have the kind of thump in the lineup to drive hittable pitches in the zone.

Reality hit UCI hard afterward.

"We are what we are. It's a little tough to sugarcoat what we are offensively," Gillespie said. "(We've played) a lot of one- and two-run games, a few of which we've won, and a lot of games we've gotten three, four, five, six or seven hits. And that's what we are. You can see what we are. Really, again, there's no sugarcoating. There's virtually no margin for error with us. We can't walk them, we can't throw it away, we can't kick it. Extra opportunities, turnovers, we can't fumble."

With only one series remaining against a team inside the top 100 in the RPI (next weekend at Long Beach State), Irvine's margin for error is razor-thin now. The Anteaters simply need to get very hot and stay very hot—and they don't look like the kind of team capable of that sort of run, given their offensive struggles and lack of standout arms.

The peculiar thing is, the quality of Fullerton's personnel doesn't differ much from the caliber of UCI's personnel. Sure, the Titans have a bit more talent—but Fullerton is really no more physical than Irvine, and in fact it has hit fewer home runs than Irvine this season, six to four. And Irvine has considerably more experience than Fullerton, which is making due with two freshmen in the weekend rotation and a bunch more in the lineup in any given game.

"They're old," Vanderhook said of the Anteaters. "They've got a senior, a senior, a senior, a senior, a senior. We don't have those and we never will, which is OK. But our guys are—I don't know. They're figuring out how to win. The freshmen, we're over halfway done now, and they're not freshmen anymore."

So while Irvine is watching its regional hopes fade before its eyes, Fullerton continues to pad one of the nation's most impressive resumes, given the caliber of its schedule. The Titans haven't lost a weekend series since the first weekend at Florida.

Vanderhook said in the fall that he was determined to find some consistency in his lineup—to keep some players on the field until they figure it out, or prove it is time to give other players a chance. But he hasn't had that luxury this spring—he has been forced to alter his lineup dramatically from game to game in search of a spark, and his moves have generally been masterstrokes. This weekend, the Titans got sparks from second baseman Derek Legg, starting for the first time since March 24; freshmen Clay Williamson (making his second career start in the second game Saturday), Austin Diemer (making his third career start Sunday) and J.D. Davis (who hit his second homer of the year Sunday). 

"It's crazy. I mean, we have probably played a million lineups," Vanderhook said. "(Legg) didn't play for 10 in a row or more, and he had no idea he was playing (Saturday) until right before he went and looked at the lineup. It makes you appreciate it. I don't want guys to think they're going to fail and not get to play, but we've got a bunch of guys that are pretty close to the same. Nobody's really above guys."

The one exception to that rule has been another freshman, Matt Chapman—who has switched back and forth between shortstop and third base, depending on who else is in the lineup. Chapman delivered a three-run double in Saturday's second game and a two-run double in the third inning Sunday to tie the game 2-2.

"Chapman can flat-out hit, dude," Vanderhook said. "He hits the ball harder than anybody on the field, either side, almost every week we play. The ball jumps off his bat—he hits the ball really hard."

So does Davis, when he connects. His two-run homer in the sixth inning Sunday put the Titans ahead for good—and it was hit extremely hard, as every ball must be to clear the tall fences at cavernous Anteater Ballpark.

"J.D. was hitting like .180 coming into this and he DHed twice this weekend," Vanderhook said. "If you watched him (Saturday), he got no swings off—check swings on 1-0, 2-1. I said, 'You're the designated hitter. You go up there and you get your swings. I don't care if you hit it, but if you get enough good swings off, you're going to run into balls.' "

Vanderhook has had to work hard to get this kind of an outstanding season out of this group of Titans. He has pushed the right buttons all year, and that's just what he did against the Anteaters. In the Big West, there is a fine line between sitting pretty and sitting in serious trouble—and the Titans have proven they clearly belong on one side of that line, while the Anteaters are on the other side.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Michael Morin

Entering the season, North Carolina's roster featured a strong contender for the Golden Spikes Spotlight in third baseman Colin Moran, the reigning Baseball America Freshman of the Year. Moran hit .389 through 22 games, then broke his hand—but the Tar Heels have won three of four series without their best player, culminating with a sweep at Virginia this weekend for the first time since 1994.

A number of players have played major roles in keeping UNC afloat without Moran—catcher Jacob Stallings, ace Kent Emanuel and lefthanded reliever R.C. Orlan, to name three—but perhaps the team's most valuable player has been Morin, a junior righthander.

The closer on BA's midseason All-America team, Morin has made his mark on 22 of UNC's 38 games, going 4-2, 0.75 with 10 saves, 32 strikeouts and 12 walks in 36 innings. He is tied for second in the nation in saves (though he is eight behind San Diego's Michael Wagner), but no reliever has logged as many innings in high-leverage situations against quality opponents as Morin.

Consider last weekend against Miami, when Morin allowed just three hits over seven scoreless innings in a 14-inning marathon against Miami, before the 'Canes finally got to him for a run in the 14th—just the fourth run he has given up all season. Then against the Cavs this weekend, Morin appeared in all three games, allowing just one hit over 3 2/3 scoreless innings on the weekend.

"We wouldn't be where we are without Michael Morin, there's absolutely no question about that," UNC coach Mike Fox said. "Michael's just been in there to give us that confidence at the end of the game."

Led by Morin and Orlan, UNC's bullpen is its greatest strength, giving it an edge in tight games. UNC is 9-3 in one-run games and 20-0 when leading after eight innings. Fox said Morin gives his team its first true shut-down closer since Andrew Carignan, who was a linch-pin of its 2006 and '07 Omaha teams.

Morin doesn't throw in the mid-90s like Carignan did, but his fastball is plenty firm at 89-91, and he has a wipeout pitch in his changeup.

"If you talk to the hitters on our team that face him in the scrimmages, they just can't see it," Fox said of Morin's changeup. "It's the same arm speed, the same slot, the ball comes out of the same place as his fastball, and it's got just enough of that pace to it to throw the hitters' timing off. He's got the ability to keep it down and get a little late run to it occasionally. We've seen him freeze some hitters with it on the inside—he can throw it to both sides of the plate. It's a pitch he's just perfected."

He has also developed his slider into a solid third offering, giving him another weapon against righthanded hitters.

The Tar Heels originally envisioned Morin as a starter. A Kansas native, Morin made a name for himself in the MINK League during the summer after his senior year of high school, and UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes jumped on a plane after returning from the 2009 College World Series to see Morin five weeks before school started.

"We didn't really know what we were getting in Michael Morin," Fox said. "Coach Forbes saw him that one outing, but we didn't really have the chance to have the whole recruiting process with him and try to figure out his attributes. But we liked him on his visit. And it didn't take him long in the fall for us to realize, 'Man, this kid's a competitor.' He's a big-time competitor. He wasn't cocky by any means, but he felt like he could pitch. He's a very, very hard worker, and he listens and he's just sort of evolved."

He evolved into a closer down the stretch of his sophomore year, recording all 10 of his saves after April 1 to fortify UNC's bullpen for another CWS run.

Now he is established as perhaps the nation's best closer.

"Somebody asked me recently, 'Is it good to have Michael Morin as your closer?' " Fox said. "I said, 'Oh yeah, it's real good.' "