Ten Thoughts: Friday, Feb. 20
1. IT’S TIME TO GET SERIOUS ABOUT MOVING THE SEASON BACK
Before you Texans and Arizonans start rolling your eyes, just hear me out. Baseball is a warm-weather sport (if you’ve ever been to a baseball game, you’ve heard Don Henley singing about the “Boys of Summer.” Not the “Boys of Freakin’ February.”). It’s also the National Pastime, not the California-Arizona-Texas-Louisiana-Florida Pastime. People in the North love baseball—they cram Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field and even Northwoods League venues when the weather is actually tolerable.
It’s not even close to tolerable in most of the country in February or most of March. On Friday, it wasn’t even tolerable in Athens, Ga., where the Florida State-Georgia game was played amidst snowflakes. It was in the 30s in Gainesville, Fla., for the Miami-Florida showdown. North Carolina’s Boshamer Stadium was covered with snow, forcing the UNC-UCLA marquee series to move to Orlando, costing the two programs tens of thousands of dollars. Vanderbilt had to scrap its home series against Illinois-Chicago and wound up playing Indiana State in Florida. Virginia had to move its series against Marist to Charleston, where its first game was played at a high school field. The Cavs had already sold thousands of tickets for that series in Charlottesville, and they lost the revenue from ticket sales and concessions on top of the high last-minute travel expenses. The stories of weather-induced headaches go on and on.
Friday was unseasonably cold in the Southeast, but every year college baseball has to deal with this nonsense, and Northern teams have it far worse.
West Virginia coach Randy Mazey has been working hard for years to increase support for a fairly radical proposal to shift the season back, with a start date in late March (or even April), and the College World Series in July or even August. His efforts are actually starting to gain some traction. On Friday, he sent out an email to every head coach in the power conferences to make his pitch once again.
In his email, Mazey said he has spoken with executives from ESPN and Fox Sports to see if they would support shifting the season back, assuming all of myriad logistical issues could be resolved with the NCAA and the draft. “They both basically told me that they would be very interested in college baseball in the summertime but ultimately they would have to react to whatever the NCAA decides to do,” Mazey wrote. “The best part of that is they did not show any opposition to the idea (as long as we don’t interfere with the Little League World Series, which we wouldn’t.”
He also said he has a letter from renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews supporting the proposal in order to reduce the risk to athletes playing in cold weather. And he said he informally sent a poll to the 60 coaches in the five power conferences to see if they were receptive; he got 37 responses, and 31 were supportive, while only six were opposed.
In order for college baseball to reach its full potential as a national game, bold steps must be taken. The timing of the draft is an issue, but ultimately Major League Baseball will have to react to what the NCAA does. That will need to be worked out. A stronger college baseball is good for MLB, because it lures more premium athletes to the sport at a younger age, so MLB should be willing to work with the NCAA to do help college baseball flourish.
A proposal like this could spell the end for summer leagues, but college baseball programs need to be concerned with what is in their own best interests, and not what is in the best interests of the Northwoods League, which makes a lot of money using players developed by college coaches. The college teams themselves could be generating that revenue.
Keeping players on campus in the summer would also help them academically, and it would give students in summer school a quality entertainment option. Some student sections would undoubtedly suffer, but the big brand-name schools in the South have enough clout to draw big crowds and create great atmospheres even with reduced student attendance later in the season.
There are drawbacks, but ultimately the pros would outweigh the cons. It won’t be easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. Isn’t that what college coaches often say? They should heed their own advice.
2. MISSOURI’S REGGIE McCLAIN OWNS FEBRUARY
No pitcher in college baseball is hotter than Missouri junior righthander Reggie McClain, who has opened the season with 17 consecutive scoreless innings. The first eight were against overmatched Iona on Opening Day, but he followed up that three-hit performance with a shutout against a quality Sam Houston State club on Friday. McClain allowed just four hits without issuing a walk and struck out four, and SHSU’s Andrew Godail matched him zero for zero into the bottom of the ninth, when Brett Bond belted a walk-off two-run homer.
The Tigers expected McClain, a transfer from Manatee (Fla.) CC, to make a big difference in their rotation right away, and he has been even better than they could have hoped. Missouri coach Tim Jamieson said that McClain worked at 87-89 mph with good sink on his fastball Friday, mixing in his changeup and curveball in any count. “Just really pitching,” Jamieson said.
Through his 17 innings, he has allowed just seven hits and has yet to issue a walk. Sounds a little bit like another strike-thrower extraordinaire—which leads us to …
3. THE ESHELMAN-QUANTRILL SHOWDOWN LIVED UP TO THE HYPE
The matchup between first-team preseason All-American Thomas Eshelman of Cal State Fullerton and second-teamer Cal Quantrill of Stanford was as good as advertised Friday at Goodwin Field. The two teams were locked in a scoreless tie through six innings—and Eshelman had a perfect game going after those six innings. According to sources on hand, he dominated largely by spotting his 89-91 fastball wherever he wanted, reaching back for 92-93 a couple of times. He threw just two changeups and 12 breaking balls in the game. It’s a testament to his uncanny command that he can be so dominant by relying on a fastball that lacks premium velocity.
But Quantrill was outstanding too, yielding just three hits over his six scoreless frames. He bumped 95 with his fastball, sitting at 91-93 according to SoCal blogger Les Lukach, who said his short slider was very effective at 81-83. I heard another report that he had particularly good feel for his changeup, which he used more as the game progressed.
Stanford’s Tommy Edman eventually broke up Eshelman’s perfect game bid with a leadoff single in the seventh, then reached second on an error and eventually came around to score an unearned run on a wild pitch. Freshman Matt Winaker added an insurance run on a solo homer in the eighth, Stanford relievers Logan James and Colton Hock made the 2-0 lead stand up, working a combined three innings of one-hit ball. Fullerton fell to 1-4; suddenly the stakes seem just a bit higher in the final two games of this rivalry series, because the Titans could find themselves in a tough hole to dig out of given their absurdly rigorous schedule.
4. THE SUAREZ-SHORE SHOWDOWN NEVER HAD A CHANCE
Maybe it was the cold weather. Maybe it was a coincidence. But Miami ace Andrew Suarez was scratched from his start at Florida with an apparent oblique strain suffered during his pregame bullpen. And Gators ace Logan Shore had to exit his start after just nine pitches with what Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan described as a hip flexor that tightened up on him. Both bullpens pitched well, and the Gators in particular got great work out of Bobby Poyner, who had to warm up unexpectedly and quickly after Shore’s exit. He threw 5 1/3 strong innings, exiting with a 1-0 lead before his successors allowed two inherited runners to score. Poyner showed that the best way to attack Miami’s lefty-heavy lineup is with a quality lefthander on the mound, and the Gators have more southpaws than they know what to do with. One of them, A.J. Puk, will start in this series, but you can expect to see plenty of Kirby Snead, Tyler Deel, Danny Young and maybe freshman Logan Browning out of the bullpen. Advantage: Gators. They own a 1-0 series advantage after winning Friday in walk-off fashion.
5. THERE WAS MAGIC IN THE AIR IN RENO
In an early Mountain West Conference series between upstarts Fresno State and Nevada, the Wolf Pack showed off a flair for the dramatic. Trailing 8-5 in the eighth inning, Nevada got a game-tying three-run homer from power plant Trenton Brooks. Then Nevada’s other big bopper, first-team preseason All-American Austin Byler, launched a walk-off homer in the 10th to give Nevada a 9-8 win in its home opener.
Second-year Nevada head coach Jay Johnson proved his mettle as a tireless recruiter and a very good hitting coach during his days as an assistant at San Diego, and it was only a matter of time before he turned the Wolf Pack into a factor in the MWC. It looks like that bright future is now. Johnson’s team is off to a 5-0 start for the first time since 1994, and it already has 10 home runs. This is an offense to be feared.
6. HOUSTON’S JUCO SLUGGERS ARE DIFFERENCE MAKERS
No. 7 Houston has gotten the most attention for its stellar weekend rotation, but the addition of junior-college transfers Ian Rice and Chris Iriart have changed the complexion of the Cougars’ lineup in a meaningful way, making them one of college baseball’s most complete teams. Houston once again got a quality outing from one of its rotation stalwarts, as Andrew Lantrip allowed just a run over seven innings, and Iriart erased a 1-0 deficit with a three-run homer in the sixth inning to lift UH to a 3-1 win against No. 20 Alabama. Iriart leads the team in hitting (.389), home runs (three) and RBIs (seven).
7. WINS ARE NOT COMING EASY FOR VANDY—BUT THEY ARE COMING NONETHELESS
Top-ranked Vanderbilt got all it could handle last weekend from Santa Clara, losing the middle game of the series and getting pushed to extra innings in the finale. But the Commodores won the series. On Friday, they got all they could handle from Indiana State in Port Charlotte, Fla. But they won the game in walk-off fashion again, as Rhett Wiseman delivered a tie-breaking RBI single in the bottom of the ninth to lift the ’Dores to a 3-2 win.
First-team preseason All-American Carson Fulmer (5 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 6 SO) wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t dominant, either. The Vanderbilt bullpen was dominant, as Philip Pfeifer, Jordan Sheffield and Ben Bowden combined to allow just two hits over four scoreless frames.
One silver lining of playing in Florida is that former Commodore David Price could watch the game from the stands.
“Good to see #vandybaseball play tonight!!,” Price tweeted after the game. “Walk off win in the 9th…a win is a win!! #battlers”
Price is right. Vanderbilt is not in peak form yet, but it will get there. In the meantime, it’s encouraging that the Commodores are finding ways to win tough games.
8. KYLE FUNKHOUSER IS HUMAN
Louisville ace Kyle Funkhouser, a second-team preseason All-American, was utterly dominant in his season debut last week against Alabama State, retiring the final 20 hitters he faced. After watching that performance in Clearwater, I walked away thinking he might be the front-runner for national pitcher of the year honors, and for the No. 1 overall pick.
I certainly did not expect him to get roughed up in his second start against Arkansas State on Friday. On a brutally cold day (imagine that—a cold day in February!), Funkhouser allowed seven runs (four earned) on seven hits and three walks while fanning seven in 4 2/3 innings, as the Red Wolves pulled off the 8-2 upset. I wouldn’t read too much into Funkhouser’s hiccup, considering the game-time temperature was 33 degrees in Emerson, Ga., where the impromptu series was played after the Cardinals canceled their home set against Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
9. STREAKIN’ IN SANTA BARBARA
The nation’s longest active winning streak belongs to No. 23 UC Santa Barbara, which has won eight straight dating back to last season, when it just missed the NCAA tournament. At 5-0, the Gauchos are off to their best start since 1991, and they have allowed just nine runs in those five games.
UCSB swept a four-game series against BYU to open the year, and the degree of difficulty was ramped up a notch Friday, as Kentucky visited Santa Barbara and sent likely first-rounder-to-be Kyle Cody to the mound. The Gauchos proceeded to score seven runs on six hits against Cody, chasing him after three innings. And emerging sophomore Shane Bieber, who moved into the Friday starter role this week, turned in eight strong innings in UCSB’s 10-3 win. Cameron Newell led UCSB’s offense with three hits, falling a triple shy of the cycle.
We knew the Gauchos would pitch at a very high level this year. We’re starting to believe in the offense, too. UC Santa Barbara just might be the best team in the West aside from fourth-ranked UCLA.
10. DUEL IN CHARLESTON FIZZLES
We expected a low-scoring affair in the series opener between crosstown rivals The Citadel and College of Charleston. We highlighted the pitching matchup between Bulldogs lefty James Reeves and Cougars righty Taylor Clarke as one of the 10 best of the weekend.
So naturally, both pitchers struggled, and CofC won 8-7 in 11 innings. Reeves, who struck out 14 in his season debut last week, went five innings and allowed four runs on seven hits. Clarke exited after four innings, allowing three runs on two hits and three walks.
It was a back-and-forth game, and The Citadel tied it up with two runs in the top of the ninth against Chase Henry. But Charleston eventually won it against flame-throwing Citadel closer Skylar Hunter in the 11th, as Bradley Jones manufactured a run mostly by himself.