Three Strikes: Week Seven

Strike One: Florida Atlantic Restores Sun Belt Order

South Alabama has put itself back on the national college baseball map this spring, getting off to a 22-4 start and heading into this past weekend ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in a decade.

But over the weekend, Florida Atlantic reminded everyone that it is still the team to beat in the rejuvenated Sun Belt Conference. The Owls swept the Jaguars in three games in Boca Raton, Fla., holding USA’s potent offense to three runs in the opener and no runs in the finale.

FAU has overcome a sluggish 5-5 start to surge to 19-9. The Owls have won six straight games and are tied with Western Kentucky atop the conference standings (7-2). FAU is the defending Sun Belt regular-season champion and was our preseason pick to win the conference. Now, they are living up to those preseason expectations, breaking into the BA Top 25 for the first time since 2004.

“Going into this year, I thought this was the best team we’ve had since I took over as head coach—the most complete team we’ve had,” said fifth-year head coach John McCormack. “Our starting pitching is very good. I thought we’d swing the bats better, although it’s been decent. We’ve changed the offense, tried to be more uptempo, and the guys have done it.”

Senior Nathan Pittman ignites Florida Atlantic's offense from the leadoff spot

Senior Nathan Pittman ignites Florida Atlantic’s offense from the leadoff spot

The insertion of freshman Brendon Sanger (.375/.510/.425) into the lineup has provided a spark. Sanger has a knack for working counts and getting on base. Fellow newcomer Tyler Rocklein (five home runs), a junior-college transfer, has teamed with Mark Nelson (six homers) to form a formidable power-hitting duo in the middle of the lineup. And slick-fielding sophomore shortstop Mitch Morales has been a pleasant surprise offensively, leading the team with a .351 average.

But center fielder Nathan Pittman, a 5-foot-9, 175-pound senior, is the engine that really drives the offense.

“The whole resurgence in our offense is based on Nathan Pittman,” McCormack said. “He has understood now that there’s other ways of getting on base besides getting hits. His pitches per at-bat are close to five per at-bat, which is good for a leadoff guy. You start a game, get that leadoff guy on, it gets you different options. He’s a real catalyst for us, and he’s a tremendous center fielder—I think the best in our league and our state.”

The rotation is fronted by a very intriguing 2014 draft prospect, sophomore Austin Gomber (3-1, 1.75). A 6-foot-5 lefthander, Gomber works at 91-93 mph according to McCormack, mixing in a good changeup and an adequate breaking ball. Most importantly, he is a fierce competitor. The same is true of gritty senior Saturday starter Jake Meiers and Sunday starter Jeremy Strawn, who threw a six-hit shutout against South Alabama’s potent offense. A fourth-year junior righty, Strawn works in the 86-89 range and has good feel for both a curveball and a slider, which are two very distinct pitches.

Fifth-year senior Hugh Adams has returned from a shoulder impingement that sidelined him last year to anchor the bullpen. He saved 10 games in 2011 and already has eight saves this year, to go along with a 2.63 ERA. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff like last year’s closer, R.J. Alvarez, but he has a lot of run on his 86-88 fastball, and he can throw his slider any time, in any location.

“He’s advanced in his pitching knowledge, which makes his stuff better,” McCormack said. “He does a nice job of dissecting hitters when he’s out there.”

McCormack is an ardent believer in building his staffs from the back forward, and the supporting cast in the bullpen is strong. Converted catcher Michael Silvestrie (3-0, 1.45) has been up to 95 mph with a good breaking ball, while Bo Logan (1-0, 2.25) is a quality option from the left side.

“The one thing we’ve done throughout the year is we’ve really pitched,” McCormack said. “My mindset was we need to get FAU onto the national scene. We have a good, core, senior group. They’ve been around, won two championships. I think we’re finding our stride.”

Strike Two: Jeff McKenzie Keeps Rolling For Roadrunners

Cal State Bakersfield senior lefthander Jeff McKenzie was the pitcher of the year in the Division I independent ranks in 2012, so he’s got a nice track record of success. But McKenzie has taken his game to a new level this spring, throwing three complete-game shutouts in his last four starts. On the season, he is 6-1, 1.17 with 45 strikeouts and 16 walks in 54 innings.

McKenzie’s latest gem was a four-hit shutout against New Mexico State this past week, during which he struck out nine and walked three. A week earlier, he threw eight strong innings in a 4-2 win against Sacramento State, in the Roadrunners’ first game in Western Athletic Conference action. In the two weeks before that, he shut out UC Davis and Northern Colorado.

“He has command of all three pitches,” CSU Bakersfield coach Bill Kernen said. “He’ll throw any pitch, any time, any count for strikes. He’s a good athlete, good defensively, just a major big-time competitor. When you do that and you’re lefthanded, it can be pretty good. He’s kind of been very consistent since he walked through the door.”

McKenzie was primarily an outfielder at San Joaquin Delta JC and pitched very sparingly in two seasons there. Kernen said he didn’t think anyone else was even talking to him as a recruit, particularly on the mound. But Kernen saw him pitch the state championship game at Bakserfield JC after Delta ran out of pitchers, and he threw a complete game.

“I said, ‘Man, this guy just competes,’ ” Kernen said. “He’s mid-80s—he’ll get it it 86-87 once in a while, but he’s all about mixing speeds and command. His changeup is outstanding, he has a true curveball, and his fastball moves. You can’t guess with him by count. He’ll throw a 3-0 curveball if he feels like somebody might have a green light. If you can do that and get the ball over the plate, it’s pretty hard to deal with.”

Pitching has been the Roadrunners’ strength this season, helping them get out to a 19-9 start, including a 4-2 mark in WAC play. Saturday starter Scott Brattvet (5-1, 1.95) offers a significantly different look, working in the 90-94 mph range and showing a good slider. A high school shortstop who worked out of the bullpen at Santa Ana (Calif.) JC, Brattvet has found developed into a fine starter at CSUB.

The staff has solid depth of experienced arms and a variety of options from the left and right sides. As a team, the Roadrunners have a 2.49 ERA.

Now that the Roadrunners have an automatic bid to play for, their path to regionals is more navigable.

“We’re exactly halfway through the season, so we think we’ve identified some things about ourselves that are our identity,” Kernen said. “It will be interesting to see what happens to the conference, because according to the RPI, there aren’t a lot of highly ranked teams in the RPI. So whoever wins the league may not even have a top 50 RPI. I would say you’d probably have to take care of business by winning the league tournament. And we like our chances to compete for that with our pitching.”

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Mason Katz

Louisiana State first baseman Mason Katz has posted staggering numbers as a senior this spring. He ranks second in the nation with 13 home runs, and he leads the country in RBIs (49) by a wide margin. He’s batting .419/504/.886 with more walks (16) than strikeouts (15). But the numbers alone don’t do his season justice.

“It’s just a phenomenal season—he’s as hot as any hitter I’ve ever seen,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “It’s not just home runs and batting average, but it’s reminiscent of the season Blake Dean had for us back when we had that 23-game winning streak in ’08—clutch home run after clutch home run. The amazing thing about his home runs, I can’t think of one he’s hit that wasn’t at a critical juncture of the game. He doesn’t hit any when it’s 10-1. It’s always when it’s close, or tying the game or giving us the lead.”

Katz homered in all three games of LSU’s sweep at Missouri this weekend. His home run to left field on Friday on a Rob Zastryzny curveball broke a scoreless tie, helping LSU go on to a 2-0 win. On Saturday, Katz went 3-for-5 with three RBIs, homering in the fourth inning to put LSU ahead 3-0. On Sunday, he hit a three-run shot to the opposite field to key LSU’s critical five-run third inning.

Earlier this year, one scout called Katz the best fastball hitter in the country, saying pitchers can’t throw it hard enough to sneak it by him. But he’s become a very complete hitter.

“I’ve seen him hit home runs on changeups, and he hit a curveball for a home run against Zastryzny,” Mainieri said. “I think it’s a compliment for a scout to say he can really turn around a fastball, but he’s become much more than just a fastball hitter. When he was a freshman here, he was a dead pull hitter, he cheated early in the count. Because of that he wasn’t playing that often. He’s probably as good an opposite field hitter as we have now. His three-run homer was to right-center—he just crushed it. And he’ll take a single when a single is most appropriate, he’s not just wailing away. And he might be the best bunter on our team. He’s a good athlete, not real tall but plays an excellent first base. He’s probably the most underrated athlete on our team.”

Katz played right field last year, and the Tigers worked him out at third base during fall practice, but he is a real asset at first, where he excels at making diving stops in the hole and turns the 3-6-3 double play as well as any righthanded first baseman Mainieri has coached.

Katz had an excellent junior year last year, hitting .320/.414/.552 with 13 homers and 52 RBIs. But remarkably, he had already equaled that home run total and nearly matched last year’s RBI total through just seven weeks this season. And his leadership presence is invaluable. Mainieri said that when former LSU All-American Mikie Mahtook moved on to pro ball, he passed his No. 8 jersey on to Katz—who figures to pass the torch to Alex Bregman when he departs.

“Mason is a great example of what can happen for a kid that comes back for his senior year,” Mainieri said. “You’ve seen him progress each year, and now by the time he’s a senior, he’s seen it all. He has a wealth of knowledge based on his experience, and he’s applying it.

“The evolution of him as a hitter has been quite a sight to see.”