Three Strikes: USF's Upset Blueprint, NC Central's Emotional Week
San Francisco Hopes Recipe for UCLA Series Win Becomes Blueprint
San Francisco winning a series at then-No. 2 UCLA last weekend was perhaps the most unexpected result in college baseball, but more surprising than that was how the Dons pulled off the upset.
It wasn’t that USF got a lucky bounce or two that made the difference in one-run games or that UCLA just gave games away. USF, in the games it won, simply outplayed the Bruins.
On Opening Day, in a 6-2 win, starter Landen Bourassa out-pitched UCLA’s Jared Karros, throwing five innings, giving up two hits and one run. In Sunday’s 8-3 victory, with the game tied 3-3 after six innings, the USF lineup got to the UCLA bullpen in a way that no one has since at least the 2019 season. The Dons even scored four runs off of the battle-tested Kyle Mora in that game, the most the righthander has given up in any appearance since March 17, 2017, the second of his career .
It was his team’s ability to stare down UCLA in a game like that and come out victorious that most impressed San Francisco coach Nino Giarratano over the weekend.
“Sunday, we come back, we get down 3-0, we battle back, we find a way to tie the game and then find a way to add to it late in the game,” he said. “I think the resiliency is probably the one thing that I look back on that I’m probably most proud of.”
It’s a tough ask for any team to play at a level that could beat the Pac-12 favorites week after week, so for San Francisco, it’s all about finding aspects of its performance in Los Angeles that can be a blueprint for success moving forward.
Playing good defense is one area that would seem to be sustainable for this team. With an athletic position player group, the Dons made just three errors over the weekend, and last season, they played defense at a .979 clip, suggesting one good series is likely not a flash in the pan.
“I really think if we defend like we did at times during the weekend, that’s something that we’re going to really build on,” Giarratano said.
And at the same time that USF was enjoying success against a UCLA bullpen that rarely falters, its own bullpen came up big in a few crucial moments.
In the game one win, fourth-year junior righthander Alex Pham, who came into this season with a 3.18 ERA in 127 innings, threw three scoreless innings to hold what was then a one-run lead in place while the USF lineup worked to extend the lead. It was the same story in the series finale, only this time it was freshman righthander Aidan Lee throwing 3.1 crucial scoreless frames.
As a pitcher who could hold any number of roles when it’s all said and done, Pham stands out as a particularly important piece, especially with the recent development that veteran starting pitcher Riley Ornido is lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery.
Not only is Pham proven and versatile, but he has plenty of stuff, including a fastball up to 96 mph with a slider and splitter.
“Alex Pham is a guy that is so talented because he can pitch in one-inning stints, he can start a game and go five or six for you, or he can come out of the bullpen and give you three or four innings, so his versatility is what makes us go,” Giarratano said. “If we ever get to a situation in a game where we have a lead on a Friday or Saturday and get a chance to put him in, we’re in a good spot.”
Offensively, USF hit just .245 over the weekend, but that was better than UCLA’s .218 mark, and furthermore, it got contributions up and down the lineup, including two home runs from outfielder Jordan Vujovich, a transfer from Oklahoma, and a pair of triples from outfielder Harris Williams, the team’s leading returning hitter.
That aspect of this team is more of a question mark moving forward, but if good pitching and defense and just enough offense was enough to get it done against UCLA, it will work against just about anyone else, too, and that should provide San Francisco confidence about what it can accomplish this season.
NC Central Caps Emotional Week with Sweep of Army
On Feb. 11, just eight days before North Carolina Central was set to begin its season with a three-game series against Army, the university administration announced that the 2021 season would be the baseball program’s last campaign. The program is set to be eliminated in a cost-cutting move in the wake of the financial crunch in college athletics caused by the pandemic.
From there, with such little time until Opening Day, things could have gone a couple of ways. Few would have blamed the Eagles for suffering from a bit of a hangover after getting that news. But instead, things went the other direction. The players, taken aback as they were, responded positively and had a good week of practice leading up to the Army series.
“They were ready to go,” said coach Jim Koerner. “RIght from (that) moment, we had a great team meeting after we got through the initial shock on that Thursday, which was really emotional for myself and a lot of the players. Friday, we got back out there, we had a team meeting before Friday’s intra-squad, and we talked about the situation, where we wanted to go from there as a group and everybody was on board. It was pretty exciting to see.”
And that work showed up in the results, with NC Central sweeping the Black Knights, the Patriot League favorites, by a combined 22-9 score. It was also the first time in program history that the Eagles had swept a traditional three-game series over the first weekend of the season.
A talented pitching staff led by two intriguing professional prospects in fourth-year junior righthander Austin Vernon and third-year sophomore righthander Ryan Miller was not only an important piece of the puzzle in sweeping Army, but it’s also a key to the team’s chances of competing at the top of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
Miller started in game two of the series and gave up three hits and one run in five innings with two walks and four strikeouts. Vernon, a Cape Cod League alum, got the start in the opener and shut out Army over four innings, allowing just one hit along the way and striking out three. But on the flip side, he also walked five. It wasn’t his best work, but when you have stuff like Vernon does, including a fastball that can reach the high 90s, you don’t always have to be your best to be effective.
“It wasn’t his best outing,” Koerner said. “I thought he was a little inconsistent with his overall command and if you look at the stat line, I think he walked five in four innings, but his stuff was really good, and he got away with just having good stuff.”
When you take that group on the mound, which also includes key relievers like fourth-year junior righthander Scott Meylan, who struck out eight of the nine batters he faced in collecting a three-inning save on Saturday, and fifth-year senior righthander Ryan Decker, who allowed no runs and one hit while appearing in all three games against Army, and combine it with a lineup led by fourth-year junior outfielder Luis DeLeon, who hit .400 over the weekend, the Eagles have the talent to compete for the postseason.
What it will take is keeping up the level of energy and attention to detail it showed last weekend throughout the rest of the season.
“It’s going to take us to continue to play with the same amount of passion and energy that we played with this weekend,” Koerner said. “We talked a little bit about it on Sunday, how every team in the country can get up for Opening Day, regardless of the circumstances. The good teams are able to carry that over from day one to day two to day three to March, April and May, and I think that’s really going to be the test.”
In truth, while getting to the postseason is very much the primary goal in front of the Eagles, there are other goals to keep in mind. This is a team full of players who don’t want their baseball careers to end just because NC Central cut the sport.
In the case of some players, Vernon and Miller especially, that means playing well enough to put themselves in position to be drafted in July. For most of the rest of them, it means putting your best foot forward to attract the attention of a different college baseball program that has room for you in 2022.
“These guys have futures beyond North Carolina Central that they need to be cognizant of as they move forward with this season,” Koerner said. “They want to continue playing baseball, so not only are they playing for this season and for themselves and their teammates, but they’re also playing for next season as well so they can get the opportunity to move on and continue their careers.”
The great news for NC Central is that those two goals are likely to go hand-in-hand. If the players produce and shine, the team wins and their own personal stock rises. And the hope is that everyone involved gets the storybook ending they’re looking for—NC Central goes out with a bang, and an entire team of players gets to continue doing what they love, even if it will no longer be in the uniform they expected.
Cast of Pitchers, Moore Lead Arkansas to Victory
Second baseman Robert Moore and a cast of pitchers pushed No. 1 Arkansas to a series-opening win over No. 9 South Carolina on Thursday.
Opening Weekend Felt Particularly High Scoring. Was It?
Just on its face, before looking up any of the data, the first weekend of college baseball felt like it was full of high scoring.
A couple of things could be driving that feeling. For one, there was the phenomenon of team defense understandably being a little bit sloppy after nearly a year off from competitive games, as Teddy Cahill noted in Off the Bat on Monday. Anecdotally, it also felt like there were a surplus of games that stretched on to above-average lengths.
In the State Farm College Baseball Classic in Arlington, for example, just one game, the 4-0 win for Arkansas over Texas on Saturday night, came in under three hours, and about half the games in that event were closer to four hours in length than three hours.
A quick scan of the scoreboard from this weekend will also show a decent number of games where at least one team, and in some cases both teams, scored 10 or more runs. But just how many were there? And on a percentage basis, was it more than in the first weekend of the season last year? Let’s take a look.
The below table shows the raw total of individual instances of a team scoring 10 or more runs on each day of the first weekend both last season and this season, and the percentage those totals represent of the total number of teams that competed during that weekend.
|Friday 2020||Saturday 2020||Sunday 2020||2020 Total||Friday 2021||Saturday 2021||Sunday 2021||2021 Total|
|Teams scoring 10+||45||47||54||146||13||33||33||79|
|% of teams competing||16.07%||13.51%||20.30%||16.33%||13.54%||16.50%||15.71%||15.61%|
As it turns out, the percentage of teams scoring 10 or more runs in games during the first weekend of the season has been strikingly similar the last two years.
You will note the much higher totals in 2020, but that’s just a factor of there being significantly fewer games last weekend than in a typical first weekend because of so many individual programs and entire conferences delaying the start of their seasons.
With the numbers being so close in the end, you can probably just chalk up the difference in percentage from 2020 to 2021 to the inherent randomness of results, but if you’re looking for reasons why the 2020 numbers might be slightly higher on the margins, consider which conferences either didn’t play at all or only had a few teams in action last weekend.
The America East and MAAC didn’t play at all. The NEC had only arguably its most talented team, Bryant, in action. The SWAC had huge swaths of games canceled, mostly due to weather.
Those are conferences with teams that typically spend the first weekend on the road being overmatched by high-level competition. Without as many of those types of games on offer, the number of high-scoring games is likely to be reduced. The Big Ten also didn’t play, and it’s plausible that some Big Ten teams could have added to the pile of teams to score 10 or more runs.
So while the first weekend of this season wasn’t as offensive as it might have seemed at first blush, it will be interesting to watch how things unfold as the season goes on. If teams continue to be conservative with pitcher usage and the defense is rusty well into the season, perhaps we will, in actuality, see an uptick in scoring in subsequent weeks versus what we should expect at a rather advanced juncture of the campaign.