Three Strikes: Week Three

Strike One: It's Always About Pitching For Texas

AUSTIN—Augie Garrido was positively beaming as he greeted a throng of reporters on the turf at UFCU Disch-Falk Field on Sunday. The Texas coach alternately cracked jokes, waxed philosophical and analyzed his team's big series win against Stanford.

Ace Taylor Jungmann did the heavy lifting on Friday, as usual, falling just an out shy of his third straight complete game in Texas' 4-3 win. But that's nothing new; the Longhorns must expect to win every Friday behind the overpowering Jungmann, one of college baseball's most accomplished and talented pitchers.

No, the story of the weekend for Texas was the way it bounced back Sunday from an ugly 9-2 loss Saturday, during which senior righty Cole Green struggled and the team committed five errors.

"It's a little bit different than it's been the last two years—we've got some young guys starting, which is different. But we have good character, and we're working well as a team," junior shortstop Brandon Loy said. "We've just got to cut out some of these bad losses we're having. It's one thing if you come out and don't play good, and the other team plays better than us and beats us. But to come out and don't play well and get beaten 9-1, 10-1, whatever it is—we can't have those games. But then again, we came out and bounced back and had a good win (Sunday)."

Sunday was a different story. The defense was crisper, the pitching was better, and the result was a 4-2 win.

"It's always important to turn a game like yesterday around and see how the team's going to respond, and I think we responded the way we would hope for it to," Garrido said. "We got quality pitching out of Sam Stafford, and then the relief was what we needed to keep their team under control."

Stafford has been a revelation on Sundays, finally harnessing his live stuff by making his delivery more compact and improving his command. He struck out seven and walked just two over 5 1/3 innings of three-hit, shutout ball Sunday, attacking hitters with an 87-91 mph fastball, an 83-85 changeup and a 73-77 curveball that showed excellent downer break as the game progressed.

"I just tried to get ahead with my fastball and breaking ball, and let my defense play behind me," Stafford said. "(The curveball) was definitely the best it's felt so far this season. I was able to get some guys out with it and get some ground balls, so that's always a good thing."

Most importantly, Stafford buckled down with runners in scoring position in the second, third and fifth innings, keeping the Cardinal off the scoreboard. Garrido said Stafford has shown the same approach and results during games that he showed during scrimmages, right down to the ruts where he'll throw four straight balls letter-high, then have to wriggle out of jams.

"He gets competitive in situations where they have chances to score," Garrido said. "In Hawaii (last week) he got out of a bases-loaded situation. He actually functions more competitively in that environment."

Freshman righthander Corey Knebel has demonstrated similar poise in tight spots, making him an out-of-nowhere force in late-game situations. On Friday, he inherited a two-on, two-out jam from Jungmann in the ninth and escaped by getting Brian Ragira to ground out, ending the game. Knebel picked up another save Sunday, striking out three over the final two innings. He extracted Texas from a bases-loaded, no-out jame in the eighth by inducing a huge 3-6-1 double play—on which Garrido credited Knebel for showing the presence and athleticism to get to the first base bag in time. He struck out the next batter with a 91 mph fastball to strand a runner on third.

Knebel has a big arm—Garrido said he touched 96 mph in Hawaii, and he was 90-93 Sunday. But in the ninth he struck out the top two hitters in Stanford's lineup by getting each to chase a curveball in the dirt. That's particularly noteworthy since Knebel just learned the curveball on Thursday, and threw it once on Friday. He said he'll scrap his slider and stick with the curve going forward.

Knebel's emergence makes Texas' deep pitching staff even stronger, which is important because the arms are going to have to carry the load this year. The 'Horns are not a powerful offensive unit—they have yet to hit a home run, and scoring runs can be a chore at times. But Garrido likes the progress his lineup is making.

"I think we're getting more and more consistent, is what you're seeing," Garrido said. "We're getting more baserunners, our bunting game is becoming more consistent, we're advancing more runners. We still need to recognize when we can steal a base; we don't have confidence in that yet. We also need to be able to use the hit and run, and run and hit, so we can get people moving. It really goes back to old-school baseball, because of the bat.

"It suits our personnel, and our ballpark. It's pitching, defense, you scratch out the runs. And it has been, because of this ballpark since they built it in 1975—it's always been about pitching. So we're a product of our environment."

Strike Two: Lingering Lonestar State Impressions

I spent Friday and Saturday at the Houston College Classic before catching Sunday's Stanford-Texas finale. Now it's time to empty the notebook:

• I'm not the type to form sweeping conclusions based on one look at a team, so I'll give Stanford a pass for a lackluster Sunday. The Cardinal is actually sitting pretty at 6-5 following the toughest first three weeks of the season any team has faced in recent college baseball history, with road series at Rice, Vanderbilt and Texas. Stanford won the first series, competed hard in the next two and did not get swept. That's a fine showing for a team that is still very young, if also extremely talented.

Stanford coach Mark Marquess said he was generally satisfied with where his team is at heading into a break for exams.

"Very difficult schedule, nine on the road, two at home," he said. "We know where we need to improve, and hopefully we can do that."

On Sunday, the Cardinal needed to improve at putting the ball in play. I was excited to get a look at toolsy outfielders Jake Stewart and Austin Wilson, but they combined for six strikeouts against the Longhorns, and Wilson was removed for a pinch-hitter in the seventh. Preseason All-America shortstop Kenny Diekroeger also had a quiet day, going 1-for-4 with a strikeout and a single, and one scout on hand said his range at short looked just average. I'm positive he's a much better player than he showed Sunday, however, and so are Stewart and Wilson.

"We didn't do much with the bat," Marquess said. "They did a good job—we didn't put a lot of balls in play, and we didn't get many hits. Neither team got a lot of hits, but there were a lot of bases on balls and free baseunners."

Another key member of Stanford's top-ranked recruiting class, righthander A.J. Vanegas, entered in the seventh and walked the first two batters of the inning, prompting Marquess to pull him. The one youngster who did show well for Stanford was freshman first baseman Brian Ragira, who went 3-for-4. He singled through the left side, then he singled to right twice, showing a good approach for a freshman.

On the mound, bulldog starter Jordan Pries showed a very effective breaking ball with late bite in the 76-78 range, and he attacked with his 86-87 fastball, but his command wasn't sharp Sunday. Lefties Scott Snodgress and Chris Reed pitched well in relief, but neither showed the kind of velocity I was expecting. Snodgress pitched at 90-91 and topped out at 93, while Reed pitched at 89-91. Still, Marquess liked what he saw from both, and after three weeks Stanford's pitching staff has largely solidified. Mark Appel, Dean McArdle and Pries are entrenched as the starters, and Marquess said Reed has done a good job as the closer.

Marquess has learned a lot about his team in this brutal three-week stretch, and on the whole, he likes what he sees.

• Utah arrived at the Houston College Classic with a winless record, but that did not tell the whole story. The Utes went 0-5 over the first two weeks in road series against California and Arkansas, and three of their losses were by one run. This weekend, they showed that they are considerably better than their record would indicate.

Utah upset two ranked teams over the first two games of the tournament, as its pitching staff shut down Texas A&M and Baylor. The Utes pitched well again Sunday, but the bats came up short in a 2-1 loss. Utah's offense has yet to really find its groove, but it helps to have one of the nation's very best hitters in the middle of the lineup. Junior C.J. Cron is a force of nature, with loads of power and a very patient approach. Houston coach Todd Whitting, a former Texas Christian assistant who saw plenty of Cron over the last two years in the Mountain West Conference, even said Saturday that Cron is the best college hitter he's ever seen, even better than Anthony Rendon and Kevin Youkilis.

But Utah's pitching is what surprised me most. Closer Tyler Wagner got the save in each of Utah's wins, and the converted shortstop has a live arm. So does Saturday starter Zach Adams, another sophomore righty, who showed a 91-93 mph fastball, a good 81 mph slider and a solid changeup in the 4-3 win against Baylor. He had a lot of success blowing his fastball by hitters up in the zone, helping him strike out six over six strong innings.

"He was really good," Utah coach Bill Kinneberg said. "His command is a question at times; he doesn't give you real good looks because the ball is up, the ball is down. He's got a real good breaking ball and occasionally a good changeup. He's still learning, still figuring it out, but he's got a great arm, and his deception is getting people out right now."

Adams said he thought the Utes made a statement with their performance in Houston. Kinneberg just said he hoped the challenging early-season schedule will pay dividends later.

"This is a long season," he said. "I tailored this schedule, we were lucky to get in to this tournament because Oklahoma State dropped out—but it was kind of by design, by playing Cal, by playing Arkansas. With this group, I think we have a chance to be pretty good, but we had to get our guys toughened up a little bit. I think the first few weekends have shown that we've learned some things, and we're starting to get into our groove a little bit."

• A couple of sophomores I was expecting breakout years from look like they've made the leap this spring. Rice sophomore two-way talent J.T. Chargois did not pitch well in relief in Sunday's loss to Baylor, but he was very good Friday against Kentucky, running his fastball up to 93 and showing good secondary stuff. He also rebounded from a slow start with the bat, showing the line-drive stroke from both side of the plate that Rice coaches raved about all offseason.

I'm also excited about Texas A&M sophomore outfielder Tyler Naquin, who hit for the cycle Sunday against Houston. Naquin is a classic grinder who runs very well, has a bit of pop and a rifle arm in right field. He's really a key for the Aggies, and his big Sunday was just a sign of things to come.

• Whitting is under no delusions that his team is blessed with extraordinary talent, but the Cougars fought hard all weekend and did earn a win Saturday against Kentucky and flame-thrower Alex Meyer. Houston's lineup lacks punch, but senior outfielder Caleb Ramsey is a very good player who can really hit, too. He had three hits and three RBIs Saturday, singling up the middle and through the right side, and blasting a triple to right-center. One scout I chatted with was impressed with his bat and thinks he'll be a very nice senior sign.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight On Garrett Buechele

Don't try telling Garrett Buechele that the new bats are depressing power numbers. Through three weeks, Oklahoma's junior third baseman has more home runs than No. 2 Vanderbilt, No. 5 Texas, No. 6 Cal State Fullerton, No. 11 Virginia and No. 13 UCLA combined. He has as many homers—five—as No. 9 Arizona State and No. 10 Clemson have each hit as a team.

Buechele earned second-team All-America honors as a sophomore, but he's an even better hitter this spring, and it shows in his numbers. Through 14 games, Buechele is hitting .492/.559/.763 with 23 RBIs. He leads all Big 12 hitters in batting, homers, hits and RBIs. He has nine multi-RBI games and nine multi-hit games. Some of those numbers are a bit inflated by Oklahoma's soft schedule over the first two weeks, but Buechele kept it going against very good pitching this weekend at the University of San Diego tournament, ending the weekend with three straight multi-RBI games.

"It's crazy—even if he has a game or two where he has an 0-for-2 with a walk or a hit by pitch, he comes back and puts up a 3-for-4 performance the next day," OU coach Sunny Golloway said. "(Sunday), he wasn't getting anything to drive to turn on and hit for power, so he just hits the ball the other way. He was joking today, 'What's the deal with me and doubles? I hit bombs or I hit singles—where's my doubles?' The next time up, he doubles. We just laughed—it's amazing."

Golloway said the biggest sign that Buechele has gotten better is his approach.

"He's matured a lot more. One game he was 4-for-5, all singles the other way," Golloway said. "Last year he got a little frustrated, saw some good pitching in the regional and the super regional at Virginia—they pitched him away, away, away, and he tried to pull it. Now he's staying within himself, going away, not trying to do too much. If you hit your spots, it's got to be away, he'll hit a single or double away. If you miss your spot, he'll hurt you."

Buechele is also a fine defender at third base, but his greatest impact might actually be in the clubhouse. Golloway said Buechele is quick to make a joke to keep everyone loose, but he also can help get the younger players focused. Everyone loves to be around Buechele, and that's a testament to his character and personality.

Not surprisingly, Buechele doesn't let his success go to his head, as Golloway illustrated with an anecdote from the airport Sunday.

"He's handling the attention really well," Golloway said. "We're trying to board a plane, and someone for Southwest Airlines said, 'Can we get your third baseman's autograph?' He takes it all in stride."