Three Strikes: Week Three

Strike One: Tar Heels Stand Out In Lackluster Weekend In Houston

HOUSTON—As Rob Childress made his way to the mound to make Texas A&M's third pitching change of the first three innings Sunday, a disgusted Aggie fan hollered out into the bored silence of Minute Maid Park, "Mix in a strike!"

That pretty much summed up the weekend at the Astros Foundation College Classic, an event rife with walks, hit batsmen, wild pitches and all-around ugly play.

Texas A&M starter Rafael Pineda—usually a reliable strike-thrower—walked the first four batters of the game against top-ranked North Carolina on Sunday and was pulled before recording an out, as the Tar Heels scored three runs in the first. After UNC scored five more runs in the second on six hits, reliever Corey Ray issued three more walks and hit a batter in the third, leading to five more runs and drawing the ire of A&M fans.

The Aggies wound up walking 11 batters in the game and plunking two others. North Carolina was clearly the best team in Houston this weekend, and the Tar Heels largely impressed during their 3-0 showing, but even UNC was not immune to control problems Sunday, issuing 10 walks of its own. But the Tar Heels out-hit the Aggies 13-3 in a 14-2 blowout that was shortened to seven innings by the mercy rule.

"North Carolina has an outstanding team, and had they beat us, just taken it from us, that's one thing," coach Childress said. "But for us to give them 13 free opportunities, and you combine that with 13 hits, you usually get what you deserve. The recipe for that is a good old-fashioned butt-whupping, and that's what they gave us today."

A day earlier, Baylor pitchers issued 14 walks in a 15-4 loss to Houston. Cal pitchers walked seven batters Friday in a 9-0 loss to Baylor. Was there just something in the air?

"I don't know what it is," UNC coach Mike Fox said after Sunday's game. "Just one of those things, I don't know if kids are trying too hard, the wind, the shadows, the strike zone—it was small today for both sides, very consistent, but no pitches were given anywhere. But even some of the walks were pretty bad anyway, it wouldn't have mattered."

The walks were just part of the reason this was the most disappointing Astros Foundation College Classic in years. Poor pitching combined with sloppy baserunning and shaky defense caused seven of the weekend's nine games to be lopsided affairs decided by five runs or more, with the 10-run rule going into effect three times.

Scouts were left unfulfilled by the dearth of power arms on display at a tournament that is usually brimming with them. Maybe the stadium music operator spent much of the weekend blaring '80s hits in a subtle nod to the endless parade of mid-to-upper-80s arms on display throughout the tournament. Houston, Cal and Baylor, in particular, have serious shortages of power arms on their staff.

That made the depth of UNC's supply of quality arms really stand out. Even though starters Kent Emanuel, Benton Moss and Hobbs Johnson all worked mostly in the upper 80s, they have good secondary stuff and feel for pitching—though Johnson was not sharp Sunday. And the UNC bullpen is loaded with power pitchers, led by righties Luis Paula (who hit 93 and worked at 91-93 Friday) and Chris McCue (who sat at 91 mph).

But the Tar Heels might have made more of an impression with their bats, scoring 25 runs in their last two games against Cal and A&M.

"Carolina's got some physical bodies," one scout said, contrasting the Tar Heels with some of the event's less physical teams. "When you look at them around the field, you go, 'Whoa.' They've got men wearing those uniforms."

And of course, North Carolina isn't afraid to walk. The Tar Heels rank among the national leaders in walks annually (they ranked fourth last year with 304), and their patient approach can drive opposing pitchers mad.

"I think it just starts with the recruiting—they recruit guys who can do it," UNC third baseman Colin Moran said. "I think the coaches do a real good job of preaching on-base percentage, taking your walks, having more walks than strikeouts. Nobody ever gets upset about taking their walks."

That mindset was a major asset this weekend.

Strike Two: Rice Cold

HOUSTON—Wayne Graham ambled up the dugout steps and greeted reporters succinctly. "Well," he said, "We've got a lot of work to do."

Along with North Carolina's strong showing and the overall poor quality of play at Minute Maid Park, the other big storyline from Houston was Rice's 0-3 showing. The Owls hadn't gone winless at this event since its inaugural year in 2001. It was an unexpected turn for a Rice club that had gotten off to a strong start with a series win against a very good Stanford team followed by a four-game sweep at Hawaii.

So what went wrong this weekend?

"Just about everything," Graham said. "I think we have potentially a very good outfield and we played terrible in the outfield. We gave up at least five runs, I thought, on balls that should have been caught. That's really unusual because we have not only speed in the outfield but guys who can throw."

The Owls played a good game Friday against UNC but lost 2-1 when the Tar Heels got to closer Zech Lemond for a run in the ninth. Rice was thoroughly beaten the next two days, losing 8-3 against A&M and 9-2 against Baylor.

In both of those losses, the Owls did not get very good starting pitching. Jordan Stephens surrendered seven runs (five earned) over 5 2/3 in the loss to Texas A&M, showing a pair of solid breaking balls but a pedestrian fastball in the 86-89 range. Scouts were disappointed with junior righty John Simms' stuff on Sunday, calling it below-average across the board. His fastball was mostly 87-88, his 74-75 curveball had loopy 10-4 break rather than the sharp 11-5 action it had shown in the past, and he lost arm speed on his 76-78 changeup, which one scout described as a "floater." Still, Simms breezed through four scoreless innings before Baylor got to him for three runs in the fifth and three more in the sixth, building an insurmountable cushion—especially with Rice's offense struggling mightily.

"He was off a little bit with his control," Graham said of Simms. "He walked one hitter on four pitches, and he was struggling to hit spots. He's a guy that has to hit spots to win, and he didn't have his good control tonight. Every hitter was up there battling with two strikes.

"But I thought Baylor did a good job of hitting tonight. We're obviously doing a very poor job of hitting. Hopefully we can improve—we better. Hitting does come and go, but I'm ready for it to come a little bit. I'm ready to get some dadgum hits."

It didn't help that Rice was playing Sunday without starting second baseman Christian Stringer (its best hitter) and third baseman Shane Hoelscher, because both players let their frustration get the better of them. Stringer was ejected for arguing a call Saturday and had to serve an automatic one-game suspension Sunday. Hoelscher broke his hand punching the ground in anger Saturday; he is slated to see a hand specialist today but is expected to miss six to eight weeks.

Even with that pair, Rice mustered just four runs over the first two games of the series, and two more on Sunday without them, when the game was already out of reach. Michael Aquino hit the ball hard in the first two games of the weekend, and Leon Byrd showed enough patience, speed and bat-handling to support the notion that he can be an excellent leadoff man, but he's hitting .194 (with a .370 on-base percentage) through 11 games. Otherwise, the Rice lineup looked underwhelming.

"There's no 'Wow!' guys, like (Anthony) Rendon when he played," a scout said. "It's just average athleticism, for the most part."

And the Owls showed a poor approach against Baylor's Max Garner on Sunday, chasing too many sliders. Garner mixed speeds and locations with three pitches, including an 86-89 fastball that bumped 90 a few times, but his stuff wasn't overpowering. Yet he shut out the Owls into the ninth and racked up eight strikeouts.

"I don't care how good the slider is, you've got to be able to foul it off with two strikes, and we weren't even fouling it off," Graham said. "Obviously that's a flaw in your hitting approach. You're not thinking in terms of the middle of the field, you're not sitting back and seeing the ball. You're just flailing. We've got to try to correct that."

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight On Trey Mancini

CARY, N.C.—It's not easy to hit home runs at USA Baseball's National Training Complex, but Notre Dame first baseman Trey Mancini did it twice this weekend, even with temperatures around 40 degrees and swirling winds.

Mancini was in Cary for USA Baseball's inaugural Irish Classic and helped Notre Dame go 3-1 on the weekend by going 5-for-13 with two home runs. His three-run home run against Virginia Tech was the difference in the battle of ranked opponents, as Notre Dame edged the Hokies 3-0.

Mancini's home run against Virginia Tech came against righthander Brad Markey, who showcased good stuff in the start.

"He started me off with a fastball, I believe, on the outside corner that I took for a strike," Mancini said. "He had a pretty good curveball and I had a feeling he was going to come with that, and he threw a pretty good pitch on the outside corner and I just tried to take it the other way. I wasn't trying to do much and then it snuck over the wall. I was actually kind of surprised it went out."

Mancini's weekend was nearly derailed in the team's first game.

"I think the first game I might have been trying to do a little bit too much," Mancini said. "My last at-bat, I swung at a low pitch really awkwardly, hurt my shoulder and I didn't play the second game that day. And I came back, I felt pretty good (Saturday). I felt good enough to play. It was bothering me a little bit, but it actually kind of helped me stay kind of within myself and think opposite field. That's when I hit best, I think. It actually might have been a good thing that it happened."

On the season, Mancini is now hitting .359/.381/.692 with two triples and three home runs. He's drawn just two walks over nine games, but has the fewest strikeouts—three—of any regular offensive player on the team, as well.

Hitting in the cleanup spot in the lineup, Mancini provides good protection for the team's top prospect, third baseman Eric Jagielo, and gives the Fighting Irish a formidable middle-of-the-order threat.

"It's pretty awesome to have them," Notre Dame head coach Mik Aoki said. "They've been a dynamic combination since their freshman year. I think they're two of truly the more elite hitters in the country. More importantly, they've phenomenal kids, really team-oriented kids. They're not out there trying to promote themselves or worrying about their numbers. I think they're more worried about wins and losses and the well-being of Notre Dame baseball rather than what they're going to do in terms of the draft or any sort of postseason accolades."

The 6-foot-5, 205-pound righthanded hitter came to South Bend from Winter Haven (Fla.) High. He went undrafted out of high school but is now getting some looks from scouts and has been locked in at the plate early in the season, helping Notre Dame enter Baseball America's Top 25 rankings for the first time since 2006.

"That shoulder tweak kind of kept him within himself," Aoki said. "I think that's the one thing you look at hitter that have the ability, like Trey, every now and then they try to come outside themselves, maybe just try to do a little bit too much . . . If we can keep those two guys coming, I think we'll probably end up in pretty good shape at the end of the year."