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MLB4 Tournament's Challenging Slate Will Pay Off Come June

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Tanner Bibee, Cal State Fullerton (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

There are no spring training games in college baseball. So understandably, many of the best teams in college baseball schedule their first weekend of the season like a swimmer cautiously dipping a toe into a chilly pool. They line up a team that won’t challenge them too much as players work out their first-week jitters.

But this year, the MLB4 Tournament at the beautiful Salt River Fields at Talking Stick complex in Scottsdale, Ariz. brought together four perennial powers. Instead of beginning the season with an easy opener, Vanderbilt, Cal State Fullerton, Texas Christian and Virginia began the season by playing some of the toughest teams they’ll see all year.

Combined, these schools share six national championships–four by Cal State Fullerton and one apiece by Vanderbilt and Virginia, as well as 30 College World Series appearances. TCU has gone to Omaha five times this decade (and four times in the last five seasons) while Virginia and Vanderbilt each have three CWS trips in the 2010s and Cal State Fullerton has two.

This slate of teams is likely stronger than any that will be in a four-team regional bracket in June, but here they were facing off on Opening Weekend in February.

It’s not easy for a coach to schedule a tournament like this to open the season. Every coach goes into the season facing questions and concerns about their team, with some having bigger concerns than others. The non-conference slate, especially early on, tends to magnify some of these issues for a coaching staff.

There are plenty of early-season jitters with junior college transfers moving up and freshman making their debuts. They all can find that the game moves a lot quicker than they expected. We saw that at the MLB4 tournament as there were too many base-running mistakes, too many walks and too many missed signs.

My guess would be that all four of these well-respected coaches and their staffs left Scottdale knowing much more about what their teams need to focus on to be an Omaha contender.

That’s important because teams don’t get all those answers in fall ball or the preseason. If you are swinging the bats well in fall ball, is that because your team can hit or because your pitching needs work?

Even a successful opening series doesn’t answer all those questions, but it does give every coaches plenty to work through. It really takes a few weeks of the season to learn these things, and a couple of tough losses can actually pay off by exposing issues that needs to be fixed.

Confidence is a great thing, and a dominating first couple of weeks against lesser opponent can develop that. But it can also develop false confidence, where pitchers and hitters learn they can get away with things that won’t work about tougher competition.

What was impressive from my viewpoint is that each one of these staffs didn’t shy away from taking on this challenge. Each opened their season with one of the toughest slate of weekend games they will face all year long. And it was the Opening Weekend when each coach knew his team may not be hitting on all cylinders.

But there are advantages to being bold. Challenging your team early allows coaches to find flaws and weaknesses quicker where some lopsided wins in the early going may hide deficiencies that need to be addressed before conference play begins.

I was allowed the privilege to view two of the games from inside the competing dugouts, Fullerton and TCU. Fullerton fell behind No. 1-ranked Vanderbilt 12-0 at one point, but it was notable to watch Rick Vanderhook’s team battle back to lose 14-9.

Vanderhook often got portions of his team up to talk through situations and he didn’t mind raising his voice to make a point. He covered a lot, from the importance of throwing more strikes, to communicating on the infield with bunts and putting together a solid approach at the plate. The coaching of the details never stopped. Since I have shared the Titan dugout of navy and orange before, both as a player, assistant and head coach, being back in the dugout with a program of such greatness, consistency, toughness and grit was an honor. The players change year to year, but I saw the same Titan mentality that has made that program what it is today.

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Later the same day I got the opportunity to sit in the Horned Frogs’ dugout for TCU’s 9-4 win over Virginia. That same attention to detail was evident. TCU has a lot of new faces this year. After missing the postseason in 2018 for only the second time in the past 14 seasons, TCU’s lineup had a number of junior college transfers making their debuts.

Whether it was making better decisions on the base paths or taking a better approach at the plate, the coaching was again constant. Associate head coach Bill Mosiello was continually seen walking up and down the dugout in between innings talking to his hitters about their approach and the at-bats they had just taken.

I saw pitching coach Kirk Saarloos talk with his pitching staff of the importance of knowing the system as well as the importance of slowing the game down.

When freshman righthander Spencer Arrighetti was taken out of the game after a brief and unsuccessful debut, Saarloos was right there standing over him. The first thing Saarloos did was to put his hand on Arrighetti’s chest to feel how much his heart was racing. When Saarloos asked the pitcher, “How did that go?” the young man was accountable and responded, “Not very well.” Saarloos proceeded to talk with him about the experience he just had and how he can get better.

As a pitcher, Saarloos had experienced the same situation in his struggles as a freshman as Fullerton. So he was well prepared to handle Arrighetti’s rough outing and he knew what to do.

If these are the types of conversations still going on in May in the dugout, it’s the signs of a rough season. But these are the talks that have to happen in February to set up deeper conversations that happen in April, May and June.

Even Virginia, which struggled with an 0-3 Opening Weekend, will win in the long run. They will be better by going through this opener than they would have going 3-0 against lesser competition.
For each coach, putting his team in this difficult an environment early on, against this kind of competition, will pay off in the long term.

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