Three Strikes: Week Nine

Strike One: LSU Wins Bullpen Battle At Arkansas

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.—The top-10 showdown between SEC West rivals Louisiana State and Arkansas was all it was cracked up to be. Both teams have Omaha-caliber talent, and both played like CWS teams in Sunday’s rubber game, which the Tigers won 5-3 in 10 innings.

Neither team got a deep outing from its starter, as Arkansas pulled lefthander Randall Fant after Alex Bregman cranked a two-run homer in the third to put the Tigers up 3-1, and LSU yanked Cody Glenn in the fourth. The Hogs tied the game with a run in that frame, as freshman second baseman Jordan Farris followed his third-inning homer with a fourth-inning RBI single, but that was the end of the scoring until the 10th. In fact, LSU did not even record another hit after Christian Ibarra’s leadoff single in the fourth inning, until Ty Ross led off the 10th with a double into the right-center gap. Chris Sciambra followed and managed to get a good sacrifice bunt down with two strikes, and Sean McMullen followed with a go-ahead sacrifice fly to right.

“I think Ty Ross hit about 10 balls hard all weekend, and that one finally fell for him, so that was huge,” said Bregman, who went 3-for-4 Sunday after his 23-game hitting streak was snapped Saturday. “Then a really, really gutsy call with the bunt with two strikes, that was a huge play when he got that down.”

Alex Bregman

Alex Bregman (Photo by Andrew Woolley)

Bregman was eager to spread credit to all of his teammates, but he was a big part of LSU’s series win this weekend, as he has been all season. As a true freshman hitting .432/.472/.652 in the No. 3 hole, Bregman is obviously an offensive force, but he really stood out this weekend for his fantastic defense. He made plays on the run look easy, throwing from various arm slots with zip and accuracy. He made plays to his left and his right, charging forward and throwing off balance, even making a gorgeous barehanded play Friday. In short, he looked like a big league shortstop, which is particularly remarkable considering he spent the last two years—and even last summer—as a catcher.

“I’m telling you, the first day that he arrived at practice and I saw him taking ground balls, that was the thing that jumped out to me,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “He’s such a student of the game, this guy practices all day long, he can’t get enough of it. Sometimes those kids can become very mechanical, but the first day I saw Bregman take ground balls, he was the opposite of that. He was very athletic, he had very fluid movements and his hands were good, and his arm is accurate and strong. Honestly, I thought from the get-go he’d be able to play shortstop . . . He just oozed leadership and oozed confidence, and I knew the stakes would not be too big for him. He’s just been phenomenal.”

The same can be said of LSU closer Chris Cotton, who worked two scoreless innings Sunday to earn the win, retiring six of the seven batters he faced. Cotton is now 2-0, 1.17 with eight saves and a 28-1 strikeout-walk mark in 23 innings. He simply carved up the Hogs by mixing his 84-88 fastball, his 1-to-7 curveball and his excellent 75-77 changeup, which he considers his best pitch.

“I was just trying to throw strikes and get ahead—that’s key,” Cotton said. “I don’t throw the hardest, but I’m able to locate and switch speeds, and that’s what I did today. They were able to be off-balance, pop-up, ground out, and we got the job done today.”

Cotton’s style was a marked contrast from Arkansas’ closer, first-team preseason All-American righthander Colby Suggs, who worked at 94-98 and threw his slider (85-86) about as hard as Cotton threw his fastball. But Bregman and Raph Rhymes both squared up Suggs fastballs in the 10th, leading to an insurance run for the Tigers (a rally that began with what looked like a blown call that resulted in an infield single for Mark Laird and the ejection of Hogs coach Dave Van Horn).

Arkansas certainly impressed with the parade of quality arms it rolled out after Fant exited. Between sinkerballer Brandon Moore, quality lefties Trent Daniel and Jalen Beeks (who both own good sliders in the low 80s), and flame-throwers Suggs and Chris Oliver (who was 94-97 with a power slider at 85-86), the Razorbacks have an absurdly deep bullpen—and that’s not to mention Trey Killian or Tyler Wright, who both pitched well Friday. It’s no wonder they decided they could afford to move erstwhile closer Barrett Astin into the rotation.

“I’ve been in this game a long time, and I haven’t seen a crop of arms like Arkansas throws at you,” Mainieri said. “He’s mixing and matching and going situations starting from the third or fourth inning on, and every guy he brought in was outstanding. They do a great job developing their guys and then pitching them. So it was a challenge.”

But it was a challenge LSU was eager to tackle. The Tigers have proven that they have plenty of pitching depth, too. Nick Rumbelow showed good stuff Sunday for the second straight day, reaching 94 with his fastball, and LSU got a combined three innings of hitless relief from lefty Brent Bonvillain and righty Joey Bourgeois before Cotton took over. Bourgeois also has a good arm, with a fastball that reached 91 and a big, slow curveball that he uses to keep hitters off balance.

“Going into this weekend, it seemed like all the media outlets wanted to do an analysis of Arkansas versus LSU, who had the advantage, whatever. I think everybody was excited about the storyline that the best pitching team was going to be facing the best hitting team in the league,” Mainieri said. “And I told our pitchers, ‘The thing that people aren’t talking about is our pitching staff.’ And I knew our pitching staff was good as well. So I honestly thought the game was going to not come down to how our hitters do against their pitchers; I thought we’d do about what we did. I thought we could score about five runs a game against good pitchers  . . . I thought the key to the game was going to be, how does our pitching do against their hitting? If we held them down to a run or two, I thought we could score four or five runs a game, and that would be enough because of the caliber of our pitchers.”

It turned out, Mainieri was right. Arkansas did look like an Omaha team this weekend, but LSU looked like a national championship team.

Strike Two: Young Wolverines Find Themselves In Thick Of Big Ten Race 

Indiana had established itself as the clear-cut team to beat in the Big Ten this year, but Michigan State upset the apple cart this weekend by sweeping the Hoosiers, winning all three games in walk-off fashion. But before you anoint the Spartans the new Big Ten favorite, remember last weekend, when Michigan State was swept by Michigan, with two of the games being played in East Lansing.

Now, after MSU’s sweep of Indiana, the Wolverines find themselves tied atop the Big Ten standings with Minnesota at 7-2. The Golden Gophers, of course, won a road series at Michigan three weeks ago, but since then Michigan hasn’t lost a game. The Wolverines are riding a nine-game winning streak, which includes a midweek win at Notre Dame last week followed by a sweep of last-place Penn State. Michigan has allowed more than two runs in a game just once during this stretch (they gave up three runs in the opener against Michigan State), yielding just 11 runs total in nine games.

“It’s taken us a while, but we’ve figured out the roles on our pitching staff, and we’ve got three lefties that start on weekends,” said first-year Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “We’ve figured out who goes where in relief to finish games. The good thing about our rotation is it’s three lefties and three plus-makeup kids. They’re all tough, they’re all very good competitors, and that’s been a big part of our success.”

Bakich inherited a team that went just 22-34 overall last year, and 8-16 in the Big Ten to finish 10th in the 11-team league. During his previous stint at Maryland, Bakich succeeded in getting the Terrapins to play with with a chip on their shoulders and with abundant energy. He has quickly instilled that same ethic in his young Wolverines.

“We’re a young team, a new team. Even a lot of the guys who are returners on the team, it’s their first year starting,” Bakich said. “I really like this club. They’ve bought in to everything our coaching staff has asked and the system that we wanted to implement. They play with a ton of energy and enthusiasm.”

The future looks bright for Michigan, which has a strong freshman core leading its resurgence this spring. Michigan’s best starter has been freshman lefthander Evan Hill (6-1, 1.89), whose projectable 6-foot-5 frame helped him rank No. 165 on the BA 500 heading into last year’s draft. Hill still is just scratching the surface of his potential, but he is maturing quickly and has settled nicely into the Saturday starter role.

“He still is a projection guy—his best years are ahead of him,” Bakich said. “But he’s very talented, he works extremely hard. The mental game has been critical for him, because he’s learned how to breathe and focus on executing the next pitch, that’s been a big part of his development mentally. But he’s still a long, lean, tall, thin guy who has a good fastball, and he’s got good offspeed pitches. He just doesn’t always have the command that he’s going to have in the future of his secondary stuff. But a lot of his success has come from pitching off his fastball. He throws a cutter and a curveball, and when those are on, he usually does pretty well.”

Two other freshmen have earned starting jobs on the left side of the infield and in the top half of the batting order. Travis Maezes (.308/.396/.421) has shown good athleticism, instincts and arm strength at shortstop while hitting in the No. 2 hole. And third baseman Jacob Cronenworth (.339/.397/.460 with two homers and a team-leading 26 RBIs) has been very steady in the cleanup spot. He has a balanced, line-drive approach from the left side of the plate to go along with good speed. Cronenworth also has a strong arm at the hot corner, and he can run his fastball up to 92 mph off the mound, where he has emerged as Michigan’s closer, posting a 1.06 ERA, six saves and a 16-3 strikeout-walk mark in 17 innings.

“He and Travis Maezes are baseball players, always in the cages on their own, always working on their games,” Bakich said. “They were both hockey players in high school. They just have an an element of toughness that you don’t always see.”

And Michigan has two front-line college players in veteran outfielders Michael O’Neill (.368/.409/.479 with 15 steals in 18 tries) and Patrick Biondi (.329/.434/.366, eight steals in nine attempts). Biondi missed three weekends with a sprained thumb suffered while diving for a ball in Week Four in San Diego, and the Wolverines scuffled without him. He returned to full duty for the Michigan State series, and it’s no coincidence that the Wolverines have caught fire since then.

“(With Biondi out), Michael O’Neill got pitched completely different than when Pat’s hitting in front of him—it changed our whole dynamic,” Bakich said. “Pat’s our captain, Mike’s on the leadership council with Pat. Pat has game-changing ability both defensively and offensively. Pat’s made some catches that I haven’t seen since (former Florida star) Matt den Dekker—he’s catching the ball over his head, on the run, just completely changing the complexion of the game with his defense alone. He has a unique ability to take extra bases out of the gaps and turn them into outs.

“At the plate, Pat has as good or better strike zone discipline as any hitter I’ve coached. He’s as good a leadoff hitter as I think there is in college baseball right now. I know he was the Cape Cod League batting champion last year. He’s a premium runner, a premium defender with an average arm, and his hit ability is really good. So I think he’s a great player. He’s special.”

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Colin Moran

Colin Moran entered his junior season saddled with the weight of a skyscraper of expectations resting on his broad shoulders. The 2011 national Freshman of the Year ranked as the top college hitting prospect for the 2013 draft, and he was expected to anchor the offense for preseason No. 1 North Carolina.

Not only have the Tar Heels handled the burden of lofty expectations with incredible aplomb—going 34-2 through nine weeks of play—but Moran has lived up to his billing as one of the nation’s premier players. In just 35 games, he has already matched his 2011 home run total (nine, in 67 games), and he is hitting .406/.522/.659 with 55 RBIs. In short, Moran is having his best season to date, even when the attention of the college baseball world is focused on him.

Colin Moran (photo by Andrew Woolley)

Colin Moran (photo by Andrew Woolley)

“All these kids that are hyped so much, everybody wants to talk to them and talk about the draft, all these (pro) teams are in to see them,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “Not just Colin but some of these other college players, it puts a lot of pressure on them. I’m proud of the way Colin’s handled it. He really just wants to win. We’ve always thought that about Colin—he wants to win. He gets upset when we don’t, more than he does when he doesn’t perform to his level. I think that says more about him than anything.”

Moran has always been a patient hitter (he drew 47 walks and struck out just 33 times as a freshman), but he is getting pitched more carefully than ever as the focal point of UNC’s offense this spring, and he has remained disciplined. He has an incredible 34-8 walk-strikeout mark.

“I think that’s been the most important thing he’s done so far this season,” Fox said. “He got into a situation there for a while, not very long because he coaches himself so well, but he was a little antsy I think, jumping at some pitches. He hasn’t done that the last couple weeks, he’s just taking his walks, working the count. He doesn’t swing at a lot of first-pitch strikes. Occasionally he will. He’s uniquely comfortable with two strikes.”

Fox said Moran really started getting locked in about seven or eight games ago, and since then he has been on a tear. In five games last week, he went 12-for-24 with 11 runs and 16 RBIs. He was a wrecking ball in North Carolina’s road sweep at Virginia Tech this weekend, going 3-for-5, with three runs and four RBIs in Friday’s blowout, then going 3-for-4 with five runs, four RBIs and a homer Saturday. His drew a leadoff walk in the 10th inning and wound up scoring the winning run on a wild pitch. On Sunday, he added extended a 2-0 lead with an RBI single in the seventh. In the final two games of the series, he continued to lead the offense even without cleanup man Skye Bolt (who broke a bone in his foot Friday) hitting behind him.

“If he gets a pitch he likes, he’s just been squaring it up, hitting it hard to all fields, which he can do,” Fox said. “He can hit a home run down the left-field line then turn around and hit one down the right-field line. He’s just that kind of hitter. He’s hit the ball for some power recently; he’s bigger and stronger than he’s ever been.”

Scouts were hoping Moran’s power numbers would spike this year, and he has delivered. They also wanted to see him continue to progress as a defender at third base, and he has done that as well. After Moran shined defensively in last weekend’s sweep of Maryland, Terrapins coach John Szefc said, “That’s how third basemen look in the big leagues. He makes every play and has easy arm strength.” Moran has committed just four errors on the season and is fielding .953.

“I think he’s a terrific defender at third—he’s made some sensational plays for us,” Fox said. “I think he’s a lot better than people give him credit for. And he’s getting better and better there too. To me, his arm has always been good. He throws the ball across the field with ease, and is very, very accurate . . . The thing about Colin is if he gets his glove on the ball, the guy’s usually out. He usually makes the play. I just think his instincts are a little better. I think Colin’s a confident defender, he wants the ball hit to him, he wants to make plays for us. He’s saved us more than a couple times this season.”