Three Strikes: Week One

Strike One: Garvin 'Em Up

SAN DIEGO—Vanderbilt headed into 2011 as a leading contender for the national title, and after one weekend on the West Coast, it's easy to see why. The Commodores went 4-0, sweeping a series at San Diego and winning a Saturday game at San Diego State. Vandy impressed in all facets of the game, but its pitching is particularly special.

Junior righthander Jack Armstrong, working his way back from a back injury, did not even pitch, but the 'Dores didn't miss a beat. After a solid start from Sonny Gray on Friday, Vandy got three strong outings from freshman lefty Kevin Ziomek, senior righty Taylor Hill and junior lefty Grayson Garvin. Hill demonstrated outstanding feel for pitching in the first game Sunday, keeping San Diego off balance with a lively 88-91 fastball and a very good 79-81 slider.

The fourth starter, Garvin, was most impressive of all, taking a perfect game into the seventh inning in the finale against USD. Kevin Muno hit a chopper back to the mound that deflected off Garvin's glove for an infield single leading off the seventh to spoil the no-hitter, but Garvin bounced right back by striking out the next two hitters and getting a groundout. He finished with 10 strikeouts before exiting with the bases loaded in the ninth.

Garvin relied heavily on his fastball—which sat at 88-89 early and settled in around 84-87 in the middle innings—and his 77-80 changeup, and he said he did not even take his slider and curveball out of his pocket until the seventh. Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said Garvin reminded him a little of former Vandy ace Mike Minor, the way he spotted his fastball and used his changeup.

"I pitch a lot off my fastball, and being able to move it in and out is big for me," Garvin said. "The ability I have to locate that pitch is key to being successful . . . I definitely try to keep the ball down—I think that's what every pitcher tries to do. I think God has blessed me a lot being 6-foot-6 or whatever, so trying to utilize that is key to my success as well. So that helps me a lot."

Indeed, the angle Garvin creates with his size and delivery makes his fastball play up, as does his ability to spot it wherever he wants.

"He's lefthanded, he's tall, he's shooting down at the plate. For a hitter, that's not easy," Corbin said. "He hides the ball pretty well, and it's tough to see the ball. It's tough; he plays havoc with the rhythm of the hitter, and because of his angle, it's difficult to see. He works off of that, but the biggest thing is he throws strikes."

Garvin was limited to 36 innings last spring by a stress fracture in his elbow, but he made the most of those innings, going 1-1, 1.25. He followed that up with an outstanding summer in the Cape Cod League, which he said helped him gain confidence, and he carried his progress over to the fall. Now he has kept that momentum going into the spring.

Two other pitchers who have worked their way back from injuries in their careers also came up big for Vandy this weekend. Tommy John surgery survivors Navery Moore and Mark Lamm both pitched Saturday and Sunday—Lamm appeared in both games Sunday—and both showed very good stuff and outstanding command. Moore worked at 93-94 mph and unleashed a very sharp 81-82 slider in his scoreless ninth inning in Sunday's opener, prompting one scout to say he looks like a first-round pick this June. Lamm worked at 90-93 in both his appearances Sunday and incorporated a hard slider at 83-85 and a good changeup. That duo figures to anchor Vandy's incredibly deep bullpen all season.

"The fact that they're both healthy and strong and throwing the ball with command and confidence, we'll take that," Corbin said. "In order for the velocity to become usable, there has to be some command with it, otherwise they'd be what they were two years ago—guys who had some velo but it was not usable. Now they've taken the years of experience and made themselves usable pitchers. They're aggressive, and they want the ball. They're both pretty good guys."

Corbin also expressed satisfaction with his lineup, which he said is more balanced than it has been in years past. Freshman outfielder Tony Kemp was a dynamo atop the lineup, keeping the ball on the ground and working counts to find ways on base and use his plus-plus speed. He stole three bases on the weekend, and the Toreros had no chance to throw him out on any of them.

"Just knowing that I had those two, three, four, five guys behind me that really can just hit the ball and put it in certain spots to get me in, it's really a comfortable feeling to have that behind me," Kemp said. "I just know if I can get on, my team will get me in. Luckily I was able to get on a couple times this weekend, and they were able to get me in, and we were able to feed off that energy."

And Vanderbilt's defense was sound. Former third baseman Jason Esposito handled the move to shortstop ably, and he could form a fine double-play tandem with second baseman Anthony Gomez.

"If those guys can play together well, we may have something there," Corbin said. "We spend a great amount of time on defense, and I would hope that would be our strength. With the arms we have, the ability we have to pitch, if we can play any defense at all we don't have to be so fine at the plate."

Strike Two: Other Observations From A Soggy SoCal Weekend

I managed to dodge the raindrops enough to catch parts of five games this weekend in Southern California. Now it's time to shake out the notebook with some observations, and some other notes from around the country:

• San Diego's offense is a work in progress, but freshman third baseman Kris Bryant gives the Toreros a major power threat in the middle of the lineup, though he had a quiet opening weekend. One scout said he saw Bryant launch a mammoth home run over the light standard in left field during batting practice, and he envisions Bryant developing into a first-round pick in three years at USD. But San Diego's stable of power arms will carry it in 2011. The Friday starter, junior righty Chris Jensen, showed good stuff as usual, working at 92-94 mph and flashing a nice 76-79 breaking ball, though the pitch flattened out at times. He needs to be more efficient and fine-tune his command to go deeper into games, but he has a chance to be very good.

"Chris has a great arm," Torerors coach Rich Hill said. "Since he's been here, we've been trying to get to the point where he's a great pitcher, as well as having a great arm. It's a process; I thought he really made some great pitches (Friday), but he threw too many pitches. He's got a great future ahead of him, and hopefully he's going to really learn from this outing against a very good Vanderbilt team, and actually gain some confidence from it, because when he throws strikes, he's got very good stuff."

Freshman righty Dylan Covey went seven strong innings in his highly anticipated debut Saturday against Winthrop, striking out seven. Reports from that game say his stuff was very good, and it might not be long before he entrenches himself as the No. 1 starter.

And redshirt sophomore Calvin Drummond, who sat out a year ago after transferring from Orange Coast (Calif.) CC, turned in a very encouraging outing in the first game of Sunday's doubleheader, allowing just one run on four hits over six innings. Drummond also has a legit power arm, and he worked at 91-93 mph early, then settled in at 89-91 later. His quality four-pitch mix also includes an effective cutter/slider at 84-87, an 83-84 changeup and a 78-79 curveball.

• I caught the first inning of Winthrop's opener against San Diego State on Friday, and Eagles ace Tyler Mizenko—a former closer—was knocked around in his third career start, allowing five runs (three earned) on seven hits in four innings. Three of those runs came in the first inning, when he worked at 86-91 mph and mixed in a 76-79 slurve. Aztecs ace Bryan Crabb (3 IP, 9 H, 8 ER) was hit even harder, as his 88-90 fastball and changeup did not fool the Eagles.

Aztecs pitching coach Eric Valenzuela said before Friday's game that he was very excited about freshman righty T.J. Kendzora, and it looks like his excitement was well placed. Kendzora carried a perfect game into the sixth inning Sunday against Winthrop, and exited after giving up a run on three walks and a hit in the sixth because he reached his 80-pitch limit. Valenzuela hopes to use Kendzora against Covey next weekend in a fine freshman pitching matchup.

• I wrote about North Carolina's pitching after Saturday's win against Cal State Fullerton, but the offense was the story for UNC on Sunday, as the Tar Heels exploded for 22 runs in wins against Missouri and Southern California. A key for that offense is junior catcher Jacob Stallings, who had three hits and four RBIs Sunday after homering Saturday against Fullerton starter Tyler Pill. Stallings said he added 15-20 pounds in the offseason, and he has noticed a difference with his strength and his performance.

His savvy is what jumped out to me. Not only is Stallings a very good defensive catcher, but his intelligence makes him a better hitter. On Saturday, he came to the plate with one out in the sixth after Seth Baldwin grounded out to first base on the first pitch of the inning.

"It's kind of funny: Seth grounded out on the first pitch, so as a catcher you're thinking, 'OK, this guy's going to take, because you don't want to have two pitches, two outs,' " Stallings said. "So honestly I walked up there and said, 'If he throws me a fastball right down the middle, I'm going to hit it out of the park.' And he threw me a fastball, and I put a good swing on it."

Still, the Tar Heels have less firepower than they've had in the past, and they'll need to execute better than they did this weekend—especially in the first two games—in order to remain a Top 25 team all season.

"We're going to have to get better at that, as every team is," UNC coach Mike Fox said Saturday. "The last two days we had a runner at third base with less than two out and didn't get him in. We didn't execute the bunt, we stopped going from first to second base. So we didn't play the kind of offensive baseball that we're going to have to continually to be a good team. We're not as fast as we've been; everybody's going to have to give us some good at-bats. We're going to be a work in progress in that regard, but we're going to have to play a little different brand of baseball than we've played in the past."

• Cal State Fullerton coach Dave Serrano always expects a lot from his team, and he said he was "mystified" but how flat the Titans played in their opener. Fullerton failed to execute with runners on base in both of their losses this weekend, stranding 12 runners against UNC on Saturday and 14 more in a loss Sunday against Long Beach State.

"I thought only two guys in our lineup were in character: Anthony Hutting and Nick Ramirez," Serrano said after the UNC game, before the Titans faced LBSU in the nightcap, which they won 2-1. "I thought the other guys in our lineup were not in character, and it was confusing to all of us as a coaching staff. We didn't anticipate us having, if you call it nerves, whatever it was. I walk away disappointed. I said to the team, I've really never gotten negative after a loss in a first game, but I was really disappointed with the way we anticipated coming out of the gate, because we felt like we were prepared.

"The trust kind of went out the window in game one. We talk about that a lot, the trust in one another, and it's not going to be about one guy, it's going to be about all of us, and I saw a lot of guys trying to be a Superman for our team, when we just need them to contribute."

Doubtless Serrano was even more disappointed after the Titans squandered an 18-hit performance Sunday, but Fullerton will be just fine. Richy Pedroza and Hutting look like a dynamic duo atop the lineup—they reminded me quite a bit of the Tony Kemp/Mike Yastrzemski duo atop Vanderbilt's lineup against righties—and Ramirez and Carlos Lopez look primed for big years in the middle. Fullerton's pitching will be truly elite, and the offense should be more than good enough to make the Titans one of the nation's best teams, their rough first weekend notwithstanding.

• Virginia coach Brian O'Connor was pleased with the way his team played in all facets in a 3-0 weekend at the Auburn Tournament. The Cavs got three strong starts on the mound—including six shutout innings Saturday from reliever-turned-starter Tyler Wilson, who has added an effective changeup to his fastball-breaking ball attack. Their bullpen was very good, anchored by closer Branden Kline, who picked up the save Friday. And the revamped lineup produced offensively and played stellar defense.

"To play three college baseball games the first weekend of the season and only make one error, you feel pretty darn good about that," O'Connor said. "That was great to see, and I thought we swung the bats real well. We didn't hit any home runs, but we put a bunch of hits together and executed situationally. We had a pretty good weekend."

One key for Virginia is how sophomore Stephen Bruno handles replacing stalwart Tyler Cannon at shortstop. The early returns are very promising.

"Bruno made some really good plays," O'Connor said. "He had one error on Friday, but he made every other play cleanly. I think he's going to be a tremendous shortstop. He's got really good arm strength, he's got tremendous range. I think he's the right guy for that job."

• Sticking in Virginia, James Madison made all kinds of noise this weekend with its bats. The Dukes outscored Bucknell 91-36 in a four-game sweep, averaging an absurd 27.3 runs per nine innings. JMU hit 23 home runs—one-third as many long balls as it hit all of last season. The Dukes also scored 20 percent as many runs as they did all of 2010 in just four games. Leading the onslaught were David Herbek (five homers), Jake Lowery (four), Trevor Knight (three) and Matt Tenaglia (four). One scout on hand for Saturday's doubleheader reported very favorable hitting conditions—including 30-40 mph winds gusting straight out—but still, the numbers are simply mind-boggling, especially with the new less potent BBCOR bats.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Danny Hultzen

By now, Danny Hultzen is a known commodity on Friday nights. For two years, the lefthander has anchored Virginia's weekend rotation, going a combined 20-1, 2.51 as a freshman and sophomore. He's a fierce competitor with excellent command and very good stuff, so it was hardly surprising that his 2011 season got off to a sterling start Friday against Alabama-Birmingham. In 6 2/3 innings, Hultzen struck out 10 while allowing just one run on three hits and a walk.

"(His stuff) was really good," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said. "I had no idea what his velocity was—I think there are some scouts who said he was up to 94 or so, but his command was really good. He was pretty efficient with his pitches in seven innings, and I thought his stuff looked really good. He had a good changeup going and a good breaking ball, and that's the best fastball I've seen him have in a while."

O'Connor said Hultzen is considerably stronger than he was as a freshman, and he now holds his fastball velocity deeper into games. But that added strength has also helped Hultzen re-emerge as one of the nation's top two-way players.

Hultzen hit .327/.410/.422 in 199 at-bats as a first baseman/DH as a freshman, but he wore down late in the season, so the Cavaliers had him focus primarily on pitching in 2010, when he accrued just 57 at-bats. But after the departure of numerous mainstays in the lineup from last year's team, the Cavs planned for Hultzen to have a greater role in the offense this spring, and he garnered first-team preseason All-America honors as a two-way player.

He got off to a fine start with the bat at the Auburn Tournament this weekend, going 2-for-4 with three RBIs Friday, then hitting three doubles and driving in three more Saturday. He added a sacrifice fly Sunday, giving him seven RBIs on the weekend. He started at DH all three games, hitting cleanup for the first two and fifth Sunday.

"He's 20 pounds stronger than he was his freshman year, and he's a way better hitter this year than he was as a freshman," O'Connor said. "A lefthanded hitter like that, the guy's got to be in the lineup. He DHed all three games this weekend—I didn't play him in the field, but there will be games I will play him at first base, and possibly both corner spots in the outfield also.

"I think he's got the ability to hit a few balls out of the ballpark, but he's a very tough out, a good two-strike hitter. He just seems to barrel the ball up quite a bit, and he plays hard. He can run a little bit, he gets down the line good, he understands the game, situationally what to do at the plate. So not only does he do it on the mound for us, but I think he's a pretty special player for us offensively too."