Three Strikes: Week Three

Strike One: Clemson Tries To Cope With Another Meltdown

CLEMSON, S.C.—Given all the buildup for a Clemson-South Carolina series, and the roaring sellout crowds that follow the rivalry from one site to another across the state, and the hordes of reporters that mob coaches and players after the games, and the history, and the bad blood, and the incredible intensity in both of the dugouts—given all that, the Tigers had to feel pretty darn crushed Sunday night.

And then they had to remind themselves that a nonconference series in early March is not, in fact, the College World Series. Clemson’s season is not over, even if it might have felt like it in the immediate aftermath of South Carolina’s stunning four-run ninth-inning rally Sunday, as the Gamecocks completed the sweep with a 5-3 victory.

“It’s pretty tough to swallow,” Clemson center fielder Tyler Slaton said. “I thought we played well all game. It just hurts.

“We could have very easily got two out of this weekend, and we didn’t. We’ve just got to move on. We can’t let this affect the rest of our year.”

Clemson coach Jack Leggett and his players are clearly tired of talking about South Carolina’s recent domination of the series, which includes 13 Gamecock victories in the last 16 meetings between the teams, dating back to South Carolina’s two memorable wins in the 2010 CWS. Leggett’s postgame remarks to media Saturday and Sunday were tinged with defiant optimism. He knows his team is good, he knows the games against South Carolina have almost all been competitive—and he knows he’s going to have to keep on hearing about Clemson’s bewildering inability to close out games against the Gamecocks everywhere he goes in the college baseball-crazed Palmetto State.

“We played a great eight innings,” Leggett said Sunday. “I was really proud of how we played. I see a lot of good things ahead of us. Unfortunately it was a nine-inning ballgame today, and they did a good job of piecing together the last part of the inning.

“We played well in spurts all weekend. We had them where we wanted on Friday night and let that one slip away, then we had them where we wanted tonight, and we let this one slip away. You’ve got to credit the fact that they came back and took advantage of those opportunities, but I’m not going to let it define this team or this season right now. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Grayson Greiner's grand slam turned around Friday's game. (Photo by Tom Priddy).

Grayson Greiner’s grand slam turned around Friday’s game. (Photo by Tom Priddy).

Friday’s South Carolina comeback was stunning enough on its own; Clemson led that one by five runs in the fifth inning, before Grayson Greiner hit a grand slam and the Gamecocks scored eight unanswered runs. Sunday’s dramatic ninth-inning reversal was magnified by the lingering aftertaste of Friday’s turnaround.

The Tigers succeeded in coming out crisp, focused and energetic Sunday after they committed eight errors in the first two games of the series. Fourth-year junior righthander Jake Long gave Clemson the start it needed on the mound, allowing just one run on five hits over 6 1/3 innings. And the Tigers built a 3-1 lead through seven against talented South Carolina freshman righty Wil Crowe, who looks like a legitimate future ace.

South Carolina mounted threats in the fifth and seventh, but Clemson showed poise to escape both without any damage. The Tigers called upon sophomore righty Clate Schmidt with men at the corners and one out in the seventh, and he extracted them from the jam by getting Marcus Mooney to ground into a double play.

Schmidt’s 90-92 fastball and sharp low-80s slider were electric in the eighth, when he struck out the side in order. He showed some bravado after the second and third strikeouts, bouncing around, gesturing and yelling. The Gamecocks responded in the following inning, just like they did Saturday, when Matthew Crownover’s exaggerated celebration of a second-inning strikeout was followed by a five-run third by the Gamecocks.

“We notice it, all right. We notice it,” South Carolina center fielder Tanner English said of the emotional displays by the Clemson pitchers. “But we’re not going to do anything out of our element and react to how other people react on the field.”

In the ninth Sunday, Schmidt recorded two outs sandwiched around a single by Kyle Martin. Then Greiner and pinch-hitter Brison Celek lined sharp singles to load the bases with two outs. That gave Mooney a shot at redemption, and he came through by lining a single to center field.

“Honestly, I mean, I had two scoring opportunities to put the ball in play somewhere,” Mooney said. “The first time I grounded out to the pitcher, couldn’t get him in. The next time, double-play ball. So honestly I was just like, ‘All right, enough of that, I need to get a hit.’ I was just looking for a first-pitch fastball, and he gave it to me.”

Martin scored easily, and Greiner tried to score from second. Center fielder Slaton put everything he had into the throw home, which arrived in catcher Chris Okey’s glove before Greiner got there. Greiner slid head-first around Okey, who applied the tag in time. But the ball squirted free.

“He’d have been out, I’m sure, if he’d have held onto the ball,” South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook said. “The ball popped out of his glove.”

Instead of celebrating a game-ending play at the plate to preserve an emotional win, the Tigers found themselves in a tie game. The next batter, English, delivered a two-run double down the left-field line, leaving the crowd of 6,016 shellshocked. Clemson was retired in order in its half of the ninth.

“This is amazing,” said Mooney, a junior-college transfer who got some first-hand experience in the rivalry for the first time, following in the footsteps of older brother Peter. “We never get down on ourselves, we never count ourselves out, and we always come up with big hits. It’s unbelievable.”

It almost does defy belief. When two teams are clearly so evenly matched, how can one team keep coming up with big hits and big defensive plays over and over again?

Before the game, South Carolina athletic director and former head coach Ray Tanner recalled being in the same position Leggett is in now, wondering what it would take to get back on the winning track against his rival. Tanner’s teams went just 6-8 against Clemson in the regular season during his first six years in Columbia, including an 0-3 showing in the 2002 regular season, before the Gamecocks beat the Tigers twice in the ’02 CWS. That feels like ancient history now—and Tanner’s Gamecocks never struggled against Clemson the way the Tigers are currently struggling against South Carolina—but Tanner’s point was that great rivalries shift back and forth, and the balance of power can change quickly.

Maybe next year—or even this June—Clemson will reverse its fortunes in the rivalry. But it will have to worry about that another time.

“You’ve got to swallow this one; it’s tough,” Slaton said. “We play Tuesday against Western Carolina, a good team. So we’ve got to flush this one and move on.”

Strike Two: Northern Upstarts Make Statements

Indiana was the cold-weather team getting all the headlines—and the Baseball America cover—entering this spring. The Hoosiers stumbled to a pair of losing weekends before getting back on track with a pair of wins Saturday. They are going to win a lot of games this spring and still figure to carry the banner for the North.

But a few less-heralded Northern teams have put themselves on the radar in the first few weeks of the season. Illinois figured to be a competitive team in the Big Ten this year, with a chance at making a regional, but the Illini got off to a 2-4 start over the first two weekends. So who could have expected Illinois to go 4-0 this weekend in Gainesville, beating Florida and Florida Gulf Coast twice apiece?

Kevin Duchene

Kevin Duchene

Illinois stands out for its strong pitching staff, and it got quality outings this weekend from Ryan Castellanos (7 IP, 4 H, 2 ER), Kevin Duchene (9 IP, 3 H, 0 R against Florida), John Kravetz (7 IP, 6 H, 1 ER) and Drasen Johnson (6.1 IP, 8 H, 0 R). The Illini also has a formidable duo in the middle of its lineup in athletic first baseman David Kerian and hard-nosed second baseman Reid Roper. Roper also pitches, and he and lefthander Tyler Jay bring power stuff to the back of the bullpen, with fastballs that can reach the mid-90s.

Less was expected heading into the year from Seton Hall, which went 37-19 last year but was robbed of an at-large bid. The Pirates were a senior-laden bunch last year, and they lost the core of that team, led by ace Jon Prosinski, closer Brian Gilbert, shortstop Guiseppe Papaccio and center fielder Zack Granite. But the Pirates are off to a 7-2 start against a challenging schedule, capped by a series sweep of Arizona in Tucson this weekend.

The Pirates scored nine runs Friday and 11 more Sunday, as their offense looks very formidable once again, led by slugging first baseman Sal Annunziata (.400/.436/.543 with five doubles and nine RBIs). The Pirates brought in a solid group of freshman position players, and veterans like Zack Weigel and D.J. Ruhlman have assumed more prominent roles, replacing Granite and Papaccio at key up-the-middle positions. Chris Seldon moved from third base to the outfield, allowing Seton Hall to get Kyle Grimm’s bat in the lineup at third. That has helped the offense, too.

“We graduated a lot of guys. The senior class that graduated last year, we established a strong culture for our guys to work and really compete,” Seton Hall coach Rob Sheppard said. “The players that were with us last year and are finally getting an opportunity to play really haven’t skipped a beat. The one thing we’ve done well the last few years is really lengthen our lineup. We kind of pride ourselves on hitting 1-9; our lineup works when everybody’s doing their job and passing the baton, not to sound cliche. We’ve had a lot of timely hitting, a lot of two-out RBIs in the first three weeks.”

And the pitching staff has a new ace in senior righty Josh Prevost, a 6-foot-8 behemoth who started to harness his potential last spring, occasionally running his fastball up to 94. He also has a slider and a changeup, and his command has continued to improve. Prevost is 3-0, 1.57 with 20 strikeouts and just three walks in 23 innings. Sheppard said Prevost rebuffed overtures from pro scouts last year partly because his father wanted him to return for his senior year. His father died of cancer in January, but Prevost has handled his emotions well to emerge as the staff leader.

“He did have an opportunity to go on to pro ball, but he decieded, ‘I want to be the Friday guy. I want to be the guy,'” Sheppard said. “He’s embraced it. He and Prosinski were also high school teammates—so Jon proceeded josh in high school too. Josh did the same thing, really stepped up. For us, Josh has really done a tremendous job as our Friday guy.”

Then there’s Iowa, which was an afterthought in the competitive Big Ten last year, going 22-27 overall and 10-14 in the league. The Hawkeyes hired Rick Heller away from Indiana State in the offseason, and they are off to a 9-1 start in his first season. Iowa opened the year by taking two of three against a talented Austin Peay State club, and this weekend it went 3-0 at the Stetson Invitational, beating the host Hatters as well as Maine and Furman. Iowa looks like an offensive team, with a .308 team batting average through 10 games, led by junior shortstop Jake Yacinich (.412/.522/.441, seven RBIs). He rates as Iowa’s best all-around player, a gap-to-gap hitter who plays a strong shortstop, anchoring a defense that the Hawkeyes expect to be sound.

There is a lot of season left, and all three teams have more to prove, but it isn’t easy for Northern teams to get off to strong starts, so keep an eye on this trio of teams.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on James Kaprielian

CARY, N.C.—After ranking No. 73 on the BA 500 coming out of high school and No. 3 on BA’s Top 30 Cape Cod League prospects list this past summer, UCLA sophomore righthander James Kaprielian carried big expectations into this spring.

Against Notre Dame on Friday at the Irish Classic, he delivered on that promise.

Kaprielian, who spent his freshman year in the bullpen and working through a back injury in the middle of the season, silenced the Irish at the USA Baseball Complex in Cary. He lasted eight innings, allowed just one hit and fanned 11.

The innings, hits allowed and strikeouts represented career bests.

"I was just establishing the fastball and using my defense really well," Kaprielian said. "The defense had my back the whole game. That's what it was about: just making pitches and letting them work."

Besides the fastball, which sat comfortably between 87-90 mph and touched 91 on occasion, Kaprielian mixed in a sharp-breaking slider in the low 80s, as well as a high-70s curve and the occasional changeup.

"I'm the same guy (as I was last year)," Kaprielian said. "I'm just to trying to take as much information as I can and learn every day. Every experience I get on the mound, I learn something new. I'm trying to get better every single game. I think that's what it's about."

Golden Spikes 2014

With Friday's performance, Kaprielian didn't leave himself much room for improvement. His gem, however, was just the beginning of UCLA's wonderful weekend. Overall, Bruins starters pitched 25 shutout innings, allowed six hits and three walks while striking out 27.

The Bruins started the season slowly and entered the weekend with a 4-4 record. Of their three starters—Kaprielian, Grant Watson and Cody Poteet—only Kaprielian had gotten off to a clean start.

"Hopefully these outings will help the progression of them getting into who we need them to be," Bruins coach John Savage said. "It's nice to see those guys competing with three, four pitches. I think we took a step in the right direction, but it's a long way to go.

"It takes time, but their ceilings are extremely high. (Kaprielian and Poteet) both have chances to have terrific years at UCLA over the next two years. They need to keep on building, and they need to learn from (their experiences)."