College Baseball Makes A Big Hit Too

ALSO: 30th ANNIVERSARY OF THE CLASSIC POSTSEASON OF 1991

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Pregame Pepper

Did you know ...

Don’t believe everything you read: the 2021 Season Preview issue of Baseball Digest erred when it said the Washington Nationals hit five consecutive home runs against the Milwaukee Brewers on July 27, 2017. They hit five homers in the inning but only four were consecutive. No team has ever connected five times in a row . . .

Speaking of Washington, Nationals starters led the majors in gopherballs (62) and yielded a worst-in-baseball 178 earned runs in 298 innings during the shortened 2020 campaign . . .

Sixto Sanchez, the 22-year-old Marlins right-hander, had 33 strikeouts and 11 walks while throwing three home run balls during 39 innings pitched last year but retains his rookie status . . .

Now that manager Brian Snitker has signed a contract extension that could carry him through 2024, the Braves will focus on finding common ground on a new deal with NL MVP Freddie Freeman. Interesting to note that Snitker, the oldest manager in the Senior Circuit, may be given the youngest roster.

Leading Off

It’s Finally Here!

By Benjamin Chase

One may think that the headline has something to do with spring training opening or even spring training games, which do actually begin tomorrow, but that’s not what is being discussed here.

Baseball Undercover

Every year, some of the best baseball in the country is played from February to June across the country in stadiums that range from empty to roughly half the size of a major league stadium, and that’s for the largest parks. I’m not talking about minor league baseball, which is its own breed of amazing baseball, but instead college baseball.

The season kicked off across the country last weekend, giving those desperate for baseball not only excellent baseball to watch but a higher level of quality than has been seen in many years in the college game.

Due to the pandemic, last year’s season was canceled after roughly a month of play, and the NCAA chose to grant an additional year of eligibility to players who requested it as well as allowing for scholarship room for those players to return (baseball is a limited scholarship sport at the collegiate level). While that has put stress on roster management for many programs, it meant that the elite players didn’t all flood to a handful of schools and then choose to go to their respective pro team after the draft. Many high schoolers were allowed to change their commitment due to full rosters, and the depth of talent around the country right now is as high as it has been potentially ever in the college game.

One thing to consider, and this is coming from a former walk-on college football player who saw the dozens of scholarships strewn upon the football program for guys who never played a snap for the team, is that on a typical college baseball team, as each of the approximately 300 Division I collegiate baseball programs are allowed 11.7 scholarships to offer among 27 roster spots, with any offered scholarship needing to be at least 25%.

In other words, it is nearly guaranteed that the starting nine for a college baseball team includes at least one player whose schooling is not being fully compensated by the school to play baseball, not something seen often in other “major” sports in the country, but college baseball doesn’t tend to draw in the revenue that college football or college basketball does, and money seems to do the talking in scholarship allocation, sadly. 

Top Names to Know

With the short five-round draft in 2020, many top names returned to college, meaning this year’s college talent is through the roof. As such, many early draft mocks have projected as many as eight collegiate players being selected in the top 10 picks of the draft.

The teammates that could end up competing for the top overall slot are righties Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter of Vanderbilt. Rocker (no relation to John) has arguably the best pitch in college baseball with his dominant slider, and Leiter is the son of longtime big-leaguer Al Leiter and is coming off a strong first impression after which he added notable velocity to his repertoire. Both dazzled in their first starts of the season.

A few years ago, many were enamored at the potential of Joey Bart of Georgia Tech going with the top overall selection. He ended up going #2 to the Giants, but Miami has a catcher this season that could be better than Bart in Adrian Del Castillo, who could be a guy that pushes for #1 overall if the Pittsburgh Pirates with the top overall selection believe in his bat enough regardless of position or thinks he’d move very quickly behind the plate.

It would take a strong season for another collegiate prospect to jump into the top overall spot, especially with the pedigree and talent of those three, but shortstop Matt McLain of UCLA, right-hander Jaden Hill of LSU, and outfielder Jud Fabian of Florida would be on my personal radar of guys who could make a strong argument with excellent 2021 seasons.

Other names to watch in 2021 include Louisville’s Alex Binelas (3B) and Henry Davis (C), Texas’ Ty Madden (RHP), Sam Houston State’s Colton Cowser (OF), Boston College’s Sal Frelick (OF) and Cody Morissette (SS), Auburn’s Richard Fitts (RHP), and Mississippi’s Gunnar Hoglund (RHP).

I could toss out names for hours but instead I’ll encourage reading the writing of so many of the great writers out there who do a tremendous job covering the sport like Baseball America, D1Baseball, and ESPN, which offers excellent college baseball coverage through the ESPN+ program.

A Bucket List Experience for Every Fan

While many baseball fans have put various baseball experiences on their baseball “bucket list”, one that is often overlooked involves college baseball. For roughly two weeks every June, the focus of the college baseball world turns to Omaha, Nebraska.

The experience is unlike any I’ve had at any other baseball game at any level, and I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Hall of Fame, witness a no-hitter in person, and watch games that are still discussed in baseball lore in person. None of them had the atmosphere of witnessing baseball in Omaha.

For me, part of that experience was that I could take my children, and they were overjoyed with the experience. While they watch baseball often on television without complaint, in person gets a bit boring for them, but even at ages 4-7 at the time, they were enthralled with the environment the entire time.

The cost is also very reasonable. Attending multiple games in Omaha costs less than attending one major-league game with my family, and that’s just ticket cost. The ballpark costs were considerably less as well (food, souvenirs, etc.) My children still have hats and shirts from their adopted team of the weekend and remember the experience well (including my youngest two taking the above picture while eating hot dogs with daddy). We will definitely be back.

Yes, spring training has kicked off, and it’s great to know that the big-league guys are tossing the ball around again as well, but for some players who truly are playing the game for the love of that game, take a moment to tune into some college baseball!

Benjamin Chase may be from a small town in South Dakota, but his baseball interests span the globe, focusing primarily on prospects at BaseballFarm.com and many of his previous writing stops. He’s also a reporter for a newspaper and an adoptive father to four children who are learning the nuances of scorekeeping during games. He’s @biggentleben on Twitter.

Cleaning Up

Potent Pitching Kept Upstart Braves Afloat In Worst-To-First Postseason Of 1991

[The following is excerpted with author’s permission from When the Braves Ruled the Diamond: Fourteen Flags Over Atlanta, Sports Publishing, New York, 2016.]

By Dan Schlossberg

It’s hard to believe 30 years have passed since 1991, the only year that teams from both leagues enjoyed worst-to-first seasons, rising from last place one year to first the next. Without wild-cards, they went directly into the two League Championship Series — and eventually into that year’s World Series.

To reach the World Series for the first time since 1958, the Atlanta Braves of 1991 had to beat the power-packed Pittsburgh Pirates in a best-of-seven playoff. Although the more experienced Pirates were favored, pundits hadn’t factored in the enormous potential of Atlanta’s young pitching.

Pittsburgh had led the league in batting and runs scored during the season but that didn’t matter to Atlanta pitchers.

Steve Avery not only took the second and sixth games by 1-0 scores but worked 16 1/3 straight scoreless innings, a National League Championship Series record, to win Most Valuable Player honors. John Smoltz, at the start of his Hall of Fame career, clinched the flag with a 4-0 shutout in the seventh game.

Atlanta's pitching was impregnable. It posted a composite 1.57 earned run average while holding the heavy-hitting Pirates hostage for the last 22 innings of the entire series. Nor did Pittsburgh score a run at home in its last 27 innings at home.

Pittsburgh won the opener at home, 5-1, but Avery combined with Alejandro Pena for a 1-0 shutout in the second game. The Pirates then won consecutive squeakers, 3-2 in 10 innings and 1-0, after the series reverted to Atlanta. That meant the Braves had to win both games in Pittsburgh to win the pennant.

They not only won but held the heavy-hitting Pirates scoreless. Avery and Pena combined for another 1-0 win on October 16 and Smoltz, buoyed by a three-run first, banked the Bucs with a six-hit complete game the next day. Pena, who had converted all 11 of his save chances after his August arrival from the Mets, saved both of Avery’s wins and added another save in the World Series that followed.

The Braves had lots of other heroes, including a few surprises.

One year after becoming the first Braves rookie to make the All-Star squad, 30-year-old catcher Greg Olson became a surprise hitting hero when it counted most. His .333 NLCS batting average tied Brian Hunter for best on the Braves and he even hit a rare two-run homer in the third game. Hunter, Sid Bream, Ron Gant, and David Justice also homered in the seven-game series while Gant and Justice shared the team lead with four runs scored (Gant’s seven stolen bases, an NLCS record, helped).

MVP honors went to Avery, a 21-year-old lefthander who had won 18 regular-season games, two of them during the pressure-packed final month. Nicknamed “Poison” Avery by Pirates outfielder Andy Van Slyke, he became the youngest pitcher ever to win a playoff game. He fanned 17 men in 16 1/3 innings while posting a perfect 2-0 mark and 0.00 ERA against Pittsburgh.

The 1991 NLCS was the first postseason series to feature three 1-0 games. But that score would resurface in the next round.

Wild World Series

The World Series pitted two worst-to-first teams with the Braves against the Minnesota Twins.

Each team won all of its home games, thanks in part to partisan crowds whose decibel levels were amplified by the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

As [Atlanta GM] John Schuerholz said later, the Braves were the champions of the outdoors while the Twins were the indoor champions.

In one of the most exciting Fall Classics in baseball history, five of the seven games were one-run affairs, four were decided on the final pitch, and three of those four extended into extra innings – a Fall Classic first. The series remained deadlocked through nine innings of the seventh game, eventually won by the Twins, 1-0.

Playing at home, Minnesota won the first game, 5-2, and led the second, 2-1, in the top of the third when controversy raised its ugly head. After Lonnie Smith was safe on an error by third baseman Scott Leius, Ron Gant singled to left. Seeing Dan Gladden’s throw get by Leius, Gant rounded first with second base in his sights. But pitcher Kevin Tapani retrieved the ball and fired a strike to first baseman Kent Hrbek. As the 170-pound Gant lunged for the bag, the 250-pound Hrbek appeared to lift his leg off the bag. Although Gant claimed interference, umpire Drew Coble called him out, ending the inning and killing a rally in a game the Twins eventually won by one run, 3-2, when Leius redeemed himself with a solo home run in the eighth inning against Tom Glavine.

Atlanta needed six pitchers and home runs from Justice and Smith to win a 12-inning duel in Game 3, a 5-4 affair played in Atlanta on October 22. Smith and Pendleton pounded solo homers the next night but the biggest hit was a ninth-inning triple by Mark Lemke, who came home with the lead run in a 3-2 game.

Smith, Justice, and Brian Hunter cleared the Fulton County fences in the fifth game, a 14-5 blowout in which the Braves scored a combined nine runs in the seventh and eighth innings.

Back in Minnesota, the Twins tallied two in the first against Avery and never trailed. It took 11 innings but the home team prevailed on a Kirby Puckett poke against veteran lefthander Charlie Leibrandt, making a rare relief appearance. Puckett, whose circus catch above the wall in the third nullified two Atlanta runs, was the only man Leibrandt faced.

That set the stage for a Game 7 showdown that pitted Smoltz against Morris.

Bad Base-running

After becoming the first National Leaguer to homer in three straight World Series games, Smith made a base-running gaffe in the eighth inning of the last game that denied the Braves their best chance to score.

Smith, who played for three different world championship teams, was quick on the bases and in the outfield. But he lacked good judgment, both on the bases and in the field, where he acquired the unflattering nickname of “Skates” for the way he glided after balls hit his way.

That judgment was evident even earlier than the 1991 finale. Smith had been thrown out at home in the fifth inning of Game 4, keeping the score tied at 1-1, when he couldn’t score from second on a double by Terry Pendleton. Only when the ball got past centerfielder Kirby Puckett did Smith start his run from second base to home. Puckett threw a strike to Brian Harper and Smith was out. Fortunately for him, the Braves rallied to win.

He wasn’t so lucky in the seventh game, however.

On first base with a leadoff single, he headed for second as Jack Morris threw the next pitch. Pendleton belted it to left-center but Smith, running with his head down, saw neither the ball nor the third-base coach. Noticing the runner’s confusion, second baseman Chuck Knoblauch deked the runner by pretending to feed the ball to shortstop Greg Gagne as if he were making a double-play. The ruse worked as Smith, who could have scored easily, stopped at second.

By the time he realized the Twins were still tracking down the ball, he could only advance to third. With runners on second and third and nobody out, the scoreless tie seemed to be on life support. By bringing in their infield, Minnesota needed a grounder to hold the runner at third and erase the batter at first. Fleet Ron Gant, coming off his second straight 30/30 season, obliged, with Smith holding at third.

David Justice, a dangerous left-handed hitter, drew an intentional walk, setting up a double-play possibility that could end the inning. Sid Bream, a lumbering runner easy to double on any grounder, delivered just that – preserving the deadlock. The play went first-to-catcher-to-first.

“I made the mistake of not looking in,” said the 36-year-old Smith, who had previously played for three World Series teams. “I heard the crack of the bat and saw Knoblauch make a fake. Then I saw Dan Gladden move. By the time I got to second, I had to slow down to see if Gladden or Kirby (Puckett) could catch the ball. By the time I saw they weren’t going to catch it, I started running toward third but (third base coach) Jimy Williams held me up.”

Things could have been different if Otis Nixon had not been suspended for substance abuse in September. He had stolen a club-record 72 bases in the first five months and made a habit (double meaning intended) of driving rival pitchers to distraction. The Braves also missed the speed of Deion Sanders, who was spending the team’s unexpected postseason playing football for the Atlanta Falcons.

Nixon never got a chance to veto the Twins, allowing Lonnie Smith to fill his position. As a result, the Braves got more power but also more problems.

As a reward for escaping the eighth-inning jam, Minnesota manager Tom Kelly allowed Morris to stay in the game. In a Twins uniform for the last time, Morris meandered into overtime.

Smoltz worked into the eighth for the Braves but yielded to Mike Stanton in the eighth and Alejandro Pena in the ninth. Pena, who had converted all 11 save chances for Atlanta after arriving from the New York Mets, finally proved mortal after the game remained scoreless in regulation time. In the Minnesota tenth, a Dan Gladden double, Knoblauch bunt, and two intentional walks loaded the bases with one out. Hoping for a double-play from Gene Larkin, Pena instead allowed a sacrifice fly that scored the only run. It was only the second time that the seventh game required extra innings to produce a winner.

The hero for the Braves in the 1991 World Series turned out to be little second baseman Mark Lemke, not known for his speed or his bat. A .234 hitter during the regular season, he singled in the winning run in Game 3, scored the game-winner in Game 4, and wound up with a .417 batting average that included three triples, tying a World Series record. His slugging percentage was .708. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t run.

Morris won the MVP honors that otherwise would have gone to Lemke. To compound the felony, the right-handed workhorse also positioned himself to haunt the Braves again a year later when he joined the Toronto Blue Jays as a free agent.

The young Braves missed stepping on the summit by only a step. Owner Ted Turner, taking the podium in the clubhouse after the last game, had a message for his team. “I told them I was real proud of them, no matter how the game came out, and I looked forward to seeing them next spring.”

He wouldn’t have to wait that long: the city saluted its heroes with a ticker-tape parade that snaked down Peachtree Street on October 29, 1991. Police estimated the frenzied crowd at 750,000 – almost as many people as the Bad-News Braves of the ‘70s and ‘80s would draw in a season.

MARTA, the city’s sleek subway system, reported triple its normal weekday ridership. The procession stretched for 12 blocks in a virtual sea of fans waving tomahawks and chanting. “I could hardly imagine what would happen if we’d won the World Series,” mused batting coach Clarence Jones.

Braves mania went viral. A woman wearing a Braves shirt in the New York Marathon was greeted by chants and cheers in all five boroughs. As far away as Japan, sporting goods stores were besieged by requests for foam-rubber tomahawks.

Although Atlanta missed a world championship by a whisker, the winter awards season was sweet. In addition to Pendleton’s MVP trophy and Glavine’s Cy Young, Bobby Cox was named Manager of the Year and John Schuerholz Executive of the Year. The team they built was young, talented, and capable of winning many more accolades in the years to come.

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is weekend editor of Here’s The Pitch, national baseball writer for forbes.com, and contributor to Latino Sports, Ball Nine, USA TODAY Sports Weekly. He is also the author of more than three-dozen baseball books. Write him at ballauthor@gmail.com.

Timeless Trivia

After the 1982 Atlanta Braves took the NL West title, minor-league pitching coach Leo Mazzone got a gold watch from major-league manager Joe Torre inscribed ‘Best in the West 1982." . . .

Braves starters won six Cy Youngs in an eight-year stretch from 1991-2005 . . .

He may be a local guy and a member of the Hall of Fame but Wade Boggs should not have had his No. 12 retired by the Tampa Bay Rays . . .

Brash Billy Martin, then managing the Yankees, was ejected from the last game of the 1977 World Series for throwing balls at umpire Bruce Froemming . . .

Jackie Robinson got four hits, including a home run, in his first game in Organized Ball after leaving the Negro Leagues, on April 18, 1946.

Globe Life Field, which made its debut last year as home park for the Texas Rangers, measures 329 feet to left field as a tribute to retired third baseman Adrian Beltre, who wore No. 29.


Know Your Editors

HERE’S THE PITCH is published daily except Sundays and holidays. Brian Harl [bchrom831@gmail.com] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [nymfan97@gmail.com] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [ballauthor@gmail.com] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.

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