Three Strikes: Week Seven

Strike One: Winning State Of Mind

RALEIGH, N.C.—North Carolina State's fourth-ranked freshman class is living up to its ballyhooed reputation. But the Wolfpack's veterans were the biggest reason the team won its series against visiting Virginia and moved up to No. 17 in this week's Top 25 rankings.

"Everyone talks about our freshmen, but I think our veterans have gotten our freshmen to this point," said N.C. State coach Elliott Avent, who picked up his 800th career victory Sunday against Virginia. That game was a back-and-forth 7-6 victory that ended a back-and-forth series, which his Wolfpack won two games to one.Their leadership and their play has led the way for our freshmen. There's no question about it.

There's no question N.C. State has a talented freshman class. Lefthander Carlos Rodon (more about him at the end of this week's podcast) is a 6-foot-3, 234-pound beast; he struck out 12 on Saturday but gave up a two-run homer to Virginia's top freshman, unsigned sixth-rounder Derek Fisher, that tied up a fabulous pitcher's duel with Cavaliers righthander Branden Kline. Rodon got no decision but remains in the mix for national Freshman of the Year at 4-0, 1.49 with 59 strikeouts and just 12 walks allowed in 48 innings.

The Wolfpack lineup starts with two freshmen with fleet third baseman Trea Tuner (.287/.405/.366, nation-best 27-for-27 on stolen bases) and unsigned supplemental first-round pick Brett Austin (.300/.370/.360). But Rodon is the team's best player already, and the Wolfpack has weathered an injury with a freshman Jake Fincher (.263/.333/.388, 12-15 SB) replacing senior Brett Williams in center field. And Logan Ratledge added four RBIs on the weekend, including the game-tying hit in the ninth Sunday and his first college home run earlier in that game.

But for N.C. State to break past regionals and reach its third super regional in Avent's tenure—or to get to Omaha for the second time in school history—the team's veterans will have to come through more consistently. This weekend, they did, starting with junior righthander Ethan Ogburn, who tossed a career-high eight innings in a 5-1 victory Friday night.

Catcher/DH Danny Canela had an RBI in each weekend game, including a solo homer Saturday; junior shortstop Chris Diaz (.368/.395/.500) hit safely in each game and started the game-winning rally Sunday with a leadoff single; junior Tarran Senay had a homer Saturday and two hits Sunday. Even struggling senior John Gianis made up for a failed bunt Saturday with a successful sacrifice in Sunday's ninth-inning rally.

"I came in today and he was the first one here, working on his bunting because he was so disappointed with himself for the night before," Avent said. "Sometimes when you work hard, the game rewards you, and that's what happened with Gianis."

Perhaps most importantly, the Wolfpack got senior first baseman Andrew Ciencin going. He started the year in the third spot in the lineup but has dropped to sixth as he struggled starting conference play. A patient hitter with power, he still leads the team in walks (20) and is tied in home runs (four). He had two hits Saturday before producing a sacrifice fly Sunday as well as a single and run in the eighth, then being intentionally walked in the ninth, setting up Ratledge's single.

"I know I've been struggling (.247/.375/.419), so I was just focused on trying to hit it hard, got a couple of pitches to hit and had good at-bats," Ciencin said. "I'm not trying to do it all; none of us is. I told Logan when I got walked, 'It's your turn.' That's our mentality, kind of that next-man-up attitude."

The likes of Ciencin, Canela and outfielder/DH Ryan Mathews (.333/.380/.597, four homers) will have to produce to compensate for the inevitable inconsistency that will happen with freshmen.  That is starting to happen for a team that hasn't been to the College World Series since 1968.

"We're not surprised at all by what our freshmen have done; I'd say we're more impressed," Ciencin said. "We knew in the fall how good they could be, and now we have guys like Fincher stepping up like he has—I can't say enough about him—and Logan today. They have adopted our mentality of being ready for that next play that the coaching staff set out for us."


Strike Two: Out Like A Lion

We've written repeatedly this spring that the West Coast Conference looks poised for a big year. Maybe the only thing that can stop the WCC from sending multiple teams to regionals is the WCC itself. The league has a history of cannibalizing itself—the teams always seem to be tightly bunched, often preventing teams from racking up gaudy conference records that often help to earn at-large bids.

Preseason favorite San Diego does look like the clear WCC front-runner after two weeks of conference play, and its road series win against defending champion San Francisco this weekend solidifies that status. Gonzaga also had a strong weekend, taking two of three from suddenly scuffling Pepperdine.

Heading into the year, I thought St. Mary's had a chance to make some noise in the WCC, with a veteran group surrounding top-two-rounds prospects Patrick Wisdom and Martin Agosta. I headed up to Loyola Marymount on Friday to get a look at Wisdom, the powerful third baseman, but came away with the distinct impression that LMU is the better team, despite its sub-.500 overall record. Lo and behold, the Lions went on to a three-game sweep of the Gaels, reinforcing the notion that this conference is going to be a dog fight.

Loyola Marymount has a young team, but its 23rd-ranked recruiting class is already paying plenty of dividends. Freshman righthander Colin Welmon (4-1, 2.70 with 39 strikeouts and three walks in 47 innings) has taken hold of the Friday starter job. He entered Friday's game having allowed no runs in any of his previous three starts, spanning 21 innings against Texas, Indiana and Nevada. LMU coach Jason Gill speculated that the Gaels likely took note of Welmon's strikeout-walk numbers and planned to jump on strikes early in counts. The aggressive approach worked fairly well, as St. Mary's got to Welmon for four runs over eight innings. But the freshman kept his cool after surrendering a double and a triple in back-to-back at-bats in the sixth, following with a scoreless seventh and eighth.

"What he does well is when guys get into scoring position, he seems to keep his poise and really make quality pitches," Gill said. "He doesn't seem to get rattled . . . He's unbelievably mature for a freshman in terms of that. His command's good. He's got really good fastball command, really good breaking ball command, and it's coming along. This is the first game he's thrown a slider."

Welmon has the makings of a decent 79-80 mph slider, and his 72-75 curveball has sharp 11-to-5 break. he spots his 89-91 mph fastball well and mixes in a solid low-80s changeup against lefties.

Fellow freshman righty Trevor Megill, who threw seven scoreless innings to beat Agosta on Saturday, also has good stuff as well as tantalizing projection in his 6-foot-8 frame. Megill, who enrolled early at the semester break, works downhill with a lively 89-91 fastball and mixes in a sharp downer curve at 75-76. He and Welmon figure to give the Lions a stellar one-two punch atop the rotation for the next three years.

Another newcomer, junior-college transfer Cullen Mahoney, is LMU's leading hitter (.355/.473/.474). A solid athlete who plays a rock-solid second base, Mahoney is a tough out in the No. 3 hole.

"He's always hit," Gill said. "He hit in high school. His freshman year at Nevada he hit over .300, then he went to junior college and hit there, and hit in the summer. I don't think there's any magic in what we're teaching him. He's confident in the batter's box, and he's got a lot of weapons. He can bunt, he can hit the other way, he can pull it. He's a pretty sound hitter."

A pair of returning juniors has joined with the strong young core to give LMU's previously punchless offense a boost. Leadoff man Matt Lowenstein reached base four times Friday, excelling at working counts and hitting the ball the other way. Gill said he overcame a sluggish start by altering his stance, taking the bat off his shoulder to get himself into better hitting position. Lowenstein's approach makes him an ideal table-setter.

"He has a middle approach, and if they're working him away, he'll let it get deep like that," Gill said. "That's why you'll see the at-bats that he takes, because he'll just foul off balls, foul off balls, wait for a mistake. He's one of the best two-strike hitters I've ever seen. He's so patient for his pitch; he can really wait out a pitcher."

And catcher Colton Plaia (.304 with a team-best three homers and 14 RBIs) has worked to shorten up a swing that had some length in it, Gill said. Plaia led the LMU offense on Friday, hitting a two-run single in the first, a two-run homer in the fifth and an RBI single in the seventh.

"Colton is a good catcher, a really good catch-and-throw guy," Gill said. "He's one of the guys that struggled early offensively, and really has been putting in the time in to get that swing right, shorten it up . . . We moved him up in the batting order and he's been a bright spot in our hitting. It seems to me that he rises to the occasion, getting those two-out knocks, things like that. He really competes up there well."

In that respect, he's like LMU as a whole. Despite an 11-12 overall record, the young Lions look like they'll be dangerous in the ever-wild West Coast Conference.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight On D.J. Hicks

D.J. Hicks was a run-producing force for Central Florida as a redshirt sophomore in 2011, hitting .351/.428/.583 with 14 homers and 66 RBIs. He teamed with Jonathan Griffin (who slugged 19 homers) to form an imposing duo in the heart of the lineup.

Griffin is gone this year, leaving Hicks as the Knights' primary power threat. Though Chris Taladay and Alex Friedrich have put together strong first halves to give Hicks some lineup protection, there is no doubt that Hicks is the centerpiece of the lineup. Hicks has handled the added responsibility with aplomb, even managing to increase his RBI rate. Through seven weeks, Hicks is tied for the national lead with 42 RBIs, while hitting .343/.478/.608 with eight home runs.

A 6-foot-5, 250-pound first baseman, Hicks stands out for his physicality as well as his production.

"The word 'presence' certainly best describes it," UCF coach Terry Rooney said. "Especially without Griffin, everybody knows he's the guy, the biggest power threat in our lineup, but he's still producing. Going into the year, he's the preseason all-American, the Conference (USA) preseason player of the year. So he's been doing it as kind of the marked man, so to speak. He's not just a power hitter, this guy's a true hitter. He uses the whole field."

Hicks' strength has never been in doubt, but scouts have long questioned whether the long-levered Hicks would be able to compensate for holes in his swing. Over the course of his career, he has become a more disciplined hitter, and he has more walks (30) than strikeouts (24) through 29 games this spring. Hicks had just 35 walks in 61 games a year ago while striking out 49 times.

"Simply by looking at his stature and his presence, you might think he's more of a free-swinging guy, but he's not," Rooney said. "He's got balance in the box, and the pitch recognition is the biggest thing. A good analogy is Matt Clark at LSU. When you sit back and look at their swings and break them down from a scouting standpoint, at times there might be some length in them, but they recognize the pitches they can hit and rise to the occasion."

Clark hit 28 home runs for Louisiana State in 2008, Rooney's last year as an assistant under Paul Mainieri. His hot streak in the second half helped spark LSU's long winning streak en route to the College World Series.

Hicks is having a similar impact for a UCF team that has gotten off to a 23-6 start, ranking No. 15 in the nation. Hicks, like Clark, has matured into a physically strong upperclassman.

He arrived at UCF out of nearby Lake Brantley High as a two-way player, and he threw 52 innings as a freshman in 2009 (while also hitting eight home runs). But Hicks suffered a collapsed lung that summer in the Valley League, eventually having major surgery that caused him to redshirt in 2010. Rooney said Hicks lost a lot of weight that year.

He threw just 12 innings in 2011, and the Knights told him to focus on lifting weights solely with the position players starting last summer in the Cape Cod League. The new workout regimen has paid dividends for his offensive game.

"He is clearly, clearly a stronger, more physical specimen," Rooney said. "His core strength is tremendous."

Hicks was draft-eligible in 2011, but he made it clear to scouts that the cost of signing him away from UCF would be high, so he went undrafted. Hicks valued the UCF experience. And the Knights value the D.J. Hicks experience.

"He's a tremendous leader, he's great for the young guys, the epitome of somebody that leads by example," Rooney said. "He's taken a lot of the younger guys under his wing. He loves UCF. He's a local guy, and he did not get drafted last year because he wanted a lot of money to pass up the opportunity for what he thought could be one of the greatest seasons in the history of our baseball program.

"Now we're having the best season UCF has had in long time, and he's right in the middle of it."