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GSA Spotlight: Andrew Vaughn

April 11, 2019

BERKELEY, Calif. - A Twitter user posed an interesting question last week: Is Andrew Vaughn the best college hitter ever? Considering all the great bats that have passed through college baseball over the decades, it's impossible to put that label on any single player, past or present. But the fact that Vaughn is right there in the discussion with any of the all-time greats is telling.

Few college hitters have ever shown the combination of elite power and elite hitting ability that Vaughn has demonstrated during his three-year college career at California. He hit .349/.414/.555 with 12 homers and 50 RBIs to earn freshman All-America honors in 2017. He hit .402/.531/.819 with 23 homers, 14 doubles, 63 RBIs to become just the Division I underclassman this century to win the Golden Spikes Award in 2018. That season, he had more than twice as many extra-base hits and walks (44) as strikeouts (18).

And Vaughn has kept on terrorizing opposing pitchers at a remarkable level as a junior this spring, hitting .344/.519/.708 with 10 homers and 30 RBIs, along with 31 walks and 20 strikeouts. Despite returning to campus as the reigning Golden Spikes Award winner and a slam-dunk top-10 (probably top-five) pick in the upcoming draft, Vaughn hasn't been fazed one iota by any external expectations or pressures.

"It's just a game, man. That's all I've got to play it as," Vaughn said. "I just go out there every day, try to do my best, help my teammates win, and everything else takes care of itself. I mean, it is a great stage to be on, winning that Golden Spikes last year was unbelievable, but just gotta go out there and play the game. Can't think about trying to win it again, or try to go out and do better than I did last year - can't think that way, or you're not gonna do well."

Vaughn is as even-keeled as athletes get. He said he hasn't gotten any extra attention walking around campus as the reigning national player of the year, but he likes it just fine that way. "I just like to stay to myself and be a quiet guy," he said.

He's focused on playing for his teammates, on a mission to get Cal to the postseason for the first time since 2015.

"We talk about it all the time with all of our draft guys - 'Hey, just put the team first, do what you're supposed to do for the team and it'll all work out for the draft,' but it's a lot easier said than done," said second-year Cal coach Mike Neu. "A lot of guys, it's tough, there's distractions, there's a lot of scouts, there's so many things that happen. But he just truly has lived that. He's just, 'Hey, I'm gonna do whatever I can to help the team win.' I think that's why it's working out for him. He has some distractions but it doesn't affect him. He just goes out and plays the same way every day."

And the way he plays every day is nothing short of dazzling. If he comes to the plate with first base occupied, and you know he might actually get something to hit, you can't help but inch forward in your seat in anticipation of seeing something special. In Saturday's win against Washington State, Vaughn walked in his first at-bat - something he's used to doing, like most elite sluggers. In his second at-bat, he drove a screaming double the other way into the right-center gap and went on to score.

In his third at-bat, he hit one of the most jaw-dropping moon shots you'll ever see. Wazzu lefty A.J. Block left an 87 mph fastball over the heart of the plate, and Vaughn deposited it on the roof of the second building beyond the left-field wall for a monstrous two-run homer.

"Either that one or the one I hit at Cal Poly this year - they were very close, some of the farthest balls I've ever hit," Vaughn said.

An ultra-physical 6-foot, 214-pound righthanded hitter, Vaughn seems in complete control of the strike zone at all times, and there's no obvious way to get him out - he can crush the ball to the opposite field, as I saw him do for a solo homer to right in Week One in Arizona and again for that double to right-center on Saturday. Or he can turn on the ball with authority as well as any hitter in the country. Even though pitchers work him very carefully every time he comes to the plate, he seldom chases out of the zone, and his career walk-strikeout mark is now 94-62, which is particularly insane for an elite power hitter.

"Just being a hitter first, that's the biggest thing," Vaughn said. "Knowing my strike zone, the strike zone may change game to game, but it's still the same box. Just get my pitches in that zone and hit 'em. I think I've grown into it a little more. Throughout high school I had a good eye, but then coming in here and learning it even better, better umpires so the zone gets better. I just came into my own and learned it good."

And that's what makes Vaughn so special: not only does he have prodigious power, but he also might be the best pure hitter in college baseball.

"The combination of him just, he's a hitter, he can get a hit, he can use the whole field, he can take a walk, and then he can launch a ball as far as anybody in the country," Neu said. "It's just such a rare combination. You just really don't see that this level, almost ever. So it's pretty fun to watch. I'm glad I'm getting to see him for these two years, it's just impressive."

Vaughn is also an ideal teammate. When freshman Grant Holman decided to dye his hair pink to support his mother's fight against cancer, Vaughn was right there with him.

"Beginning of the year he was like, 'Hey man, I'm gonna dye my hair pink.' He was telling a couple guys, 'Hey, come over to my house, let's do it.' We cut up some mohawks and put pink dye in it," Vaughn said with a chuckle. "It said it was gonna come out in 30 washes, but it's been two months, so I think it's in there for a while."

"It's just him being a great teammate again," Neu said. "Just one of those things like, 'Yep, hey. You've got a battle, I'm in it with you.' Pretty cool.

"Not only is he an unbelievable hitter and an unbelievable player, but he puts the team first all the time. And he just wants to win. It's just fun to see him take batting practice every day, and to see how far he hit that ball today, that was impressive. I think this is my sixth year at Cal, and I don't think I've seen one hit that far in a game before. That was unbelievable. I just enjoy watching him play every day."

Anyone who's gotten the chance to watch Vaughn do his thing over the last three years surely feels the same way - watching him play feels like one of those rare privileges that should never be taken for granted.

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Adley Rutschman Named Forty-Second Golden Spikes Award Winner

Rutschman is the ninth Pac-12 Conference player to win the Golden Spikes Award
June 13, 2019

OMAHA, Neb. - Oregon State's Adley Rutschman was named the 42nd winner of the Golden Spikes Award on Thursday in a presentation during "Baseball Tonight" on ESPN2. Presented in partnership with the Rod Dedeaux Foundation, the Golden Spikes Award honors the top amateur baseball player in the United States based on their athletic ability, sportsmanship, character and overall contribution to the sport.

Rutschman is the first athlete from Oregon State University and ninth Pac-12 Conference player to win the award, following Bob Horner (Arizona State, 1978), Terry Francona (Arizona, 1980), Oddibe McDowell (Arizona State, 1984), Mike Kelly (Arizona State, 1991), Mark Prior (Southern California, 2001), Tim Lincecum (Washington, 2006), Trevor Bauer (UCLA, 2011) and Andrew Vaughn (California, 2018). This is the first time the Pac-12 Conference has had back-to-back Golden Spikes Award winners.

"USA Baseball is proud to name Adley Rutschman the forty-second winner of the Golden Spikes Award after a remarkable record-breaking season for Oregon State University," said USA Baseball Executive Director and CEO Paul Seiler. "His ability to manage one of the elite pitching staffs in the nation while also leading the NCAA in multiple offensive categories was unmatched in the amateur game this year, making him a truly deserving recipient of this prestigious award."

After earning College World Series MVP honors and leading Oregon State to the national championship in 2018, Rutschman followed with a record-setting junior season in Corvallis that garnered Pac-12 Player of the Year, Co-Defensive Player of the Year and Batting Champion honors. The switch-hitting catcher managed the pitching staff for the Beavers to a 3.02 team ERA and finished his junior season hitting .411 with 17 home runs, 58 RBIs and a .751 slugging percentage. He started all 57 games in his final season and his Oregon State-record 76 walks contributed to an NCAA-leading .575 on-base percentage.

A consensus first-team All-American, he was selected with the number one overall pick by the Baltimore Orioles in the 2019 Major League Baseball Draft, making him the first Golden Spikes Award winner to be taken first overall since Bryce Harper in 2010. He is the eighth Golden Spikes Award winner to be selected with the first overall pick in the Draft, joining Horner (1978), Ben McDonald (1989), Phil Nevin (1992), Pat Burrell (1998), David Price (2007), Stephen Strasburg (2009) and Harper (2010).

Rutschman joins a group of past winners that include Andrew Vaughn (2018), Brendan McKay (2017), Kyle Lewis (2016), Andrew Benintendi (2015), A.J. Reed (2014), Kris Bryant (2013), Mike Zunino (2012), Trevor Bauer (2011), Bryce Harper (2010), Stephen Strasburg (2009), Buster Posey (2008), and David Price (2007).

Historically, Golden Spikes Award winners have gone on to have tremendous success in Major League Baseball. Of the 41 previous winners, five have earned Rookie of the Year honors, two have won the Cy Young, three were named MVP and 10 have won a World Series championship as a player or manager, combining for a total of 16 championships. In addition, 18 previous winners have made one or more All-Star Game appearances as a player or manager, combining for 56 total selections.

The award winner was selected through the distribution of ballots to a voting body consisting of national baseball media, select professional baseball personnel, previous Golden Spikes Award winners and select USA Baseball staff, totaling a group of over 200 voters and accounting for 95% of the vote. Fan voting continued to be a part of the Golden Spikes Award in 2019 and contributed to the remaining 5% of the total vote.

For more information on the Golden Spikes Award and its past winners, visit GoldenSpikesAward.com or follow along on social media at @USAGoldenSpikes on Instagram and Twitter.

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2019 Golden Spikes Award Finalists Announced

The 42nd Golden Spikes Award will be presented on June 13 in Omaha
May 29, 2019

DURHAM, N.C. - USA Baseball announced the four finalists for the 2019 Golden Spikes Award on Wednesday. JJ Bleday (Vanderbilt), Adley Rutschman (Oregon State) and Noah Song (Navy) join reigning Golden Spikes Award winner Andrew Vaughn (California) as the final four amateur baseball players contending for the 42nd Golden Spikes Award. 

Presented in partnership with the Rod Dedeaux Foundation, the winner will be announced on Thursday, June 13, at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska, during "Baseball Tonight" on ESPN2 prior to the GEICO Summer Series MLB game between the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals.

"On behalf of USA Baseball and the Rod Dedeaux Foundation, we are pleased to name JJ Bleday, Adley Rutschman, Noah Song and Andrew Vaughn the four finalists for the 2019 Golden Spikes Award," said Paul Seiler, USA Baseball's Executive Director and CEO. "These four athletes have each had tremendous seasons at their respective schools and have proven to be truly worthy honorees of this recognition. We look forward to celebrating their achievements with them and their families, and naming the forty-second Golden Spikes Award winner in Omaha."

Commodores outfielder JJ Bleday was named the SEC Player of the Year in 2019 after leading the conference in slugging percentage (.748), home runs (25) and total bases (160), as well as breaking the Vanderbilt single-season home run record. Currently ranked in the top 10 of five offensive categories in the NCAA, Bleday leads the nation in home runs (26), is second in home runs per game (.44), fourth in total bases (173), seventh in total runs scored (72) and eighth in slugging percentage (.752). Bleday is the sixth Commodore to be named a Golden Spikes Award finalist and the first since 2015 (Carson Fuller, Dansby Swanson).

After earning College World Series MVP honors and leading Oregon State to the national championship in 2018, Adley Rutschman followed with a junior season that garnered Pac-12 Player of the Year, Co-Defensive Player of the Year and Batting Champion honors. The switch-hitting catcher also manages the pitching staff for the Beavers-who currently ranks second in the country in Team ERA (2.98)-and ranks in the top 10 nationally in five offensive categories including leading the nation in on-base percentage (.580), walks (73) and walks per game (1.33). Additionally, he ranks fourth in batting average (.419) and sixth in slugging percentage (.765). Rutschman is the second Golden Spikes Award finalist to come from Oregon State University after Michael Conforto earned that recognition in 2014.

Navy right-hander Noah Song pieced together a record-breaking senior season where he was named the Patriot League Pitcher of the Year, set three program records in Annapolis and was named the first-ever Golden Spikes Award finalist in Navy history. He currently owns the career wins record (32) and holds a share of the program record for career shutouts (9). Additionally, his 428 career strikeouts are both a Navy and a Patriot League record. Song leads the nation in three pitching categories, including strikeouts with 161-which also broke a 59-year-old Navy record for strikeouts in a single season-wins (11) and strikeouts per nine-innings (15.41). He also ranks second in the nation in complete games (6), sixth in ERA (1.44) and seventh in total hits allowed per nine innings (5.27).

Andrew Vaughn followed his Golden Spikes Award-winning sophomore season with another outstanding year in Berkeley, being named to the All-Pac-12 team for the second straight year. He currently ranks second in the nation for walks per game (1.16), third in on-base percentage (.549) and eighth for walks (58). His .387 batting average ranks him in the top five in the Pac-12 Conference and he has posted three multi-home run games and 18 games with two or more hits. Vaughn is the second California Golden Bear to be named a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, joining Lance Blankenship who was named a finalist in 1984.

Vaughn is the 17th amateur baseball player to be named a Golden Spikes Award finalist for a second time and is the first since David Price earned back-to-back finalist recognitions in 2006 and 2007. The California first baseman joins Jim Abbott and Mark Kotsay as the only previous winners to be named a finalist again the year after winning the award; but, he will look to become the first-ever athlete to be named the Golden Spikes Award winner for a second time.

The 2019 winner will look to join a group of recent winners that include Vaughn (2018), Brendan McKay (2017), Kyle Lewis (2016), Andrew Benintendi (2015), A.J. Reed (2014), Kris Bryant (2013), Mike Zunino (2012), Trevor Bauer (2011), Bryce Harper (2010), Stephen Strasburg (2009), Buster Posey (2008), and David Price (2007).

Historically, Golden Spikes Award winners have gone on to have tremendous success in Major League Baseball. Of the 41 previous winners, five have earned Rookie of the Year honors, two have won the Cy Young, three were named MVP and 10 have won a World Series championship as a player or manager, combining for a total of 16 championships. In addition, 18 previous winners have made one or more All-Star Game appearances as a player or manager, combining for 56 total selections.

A final ballot will be sent to the Golden Spikes Award voting body consisting of national baseball media, select professional baseball personnel, previous Golden Spikes Award winners and select USA Baseball staff, totaling a group of over 200 voters. From Wednesday, May 29, through Monday, June 10, the voting body will cast their final vote for the Golden Spikes Award winner and fan voting will simultaneously be open on GoldenSpikesAward.com. Selections made by the voting body will carry a 95 percent weight of each athlete's total, while fan votes will account for the remaining five percent. 

USA Baseball has partnered with the Rod Dedeaux Foundation to host the Golden Spikes Award since 2013. The Foundation was formed to honor legendary USC and USA Baseball Olympic team coach, Rod Dedeaux, and supports youth baseball and softball programs in underserved communities throughout Southern California.

For more information on the Golden Spikes Award and the four 2018 finalists, follow along on social media @USAGoldenSpikes on Instagram and Twitter.

Golden Spikes Award Winners:

2018: Andrew Vaughn - California
2017: Brendan McKay - Louisville
2016: Kyle Lewis - Mercer
2015: Andrew Benintendi - Arkansas
2014: A.J. Reed - Kentucky
2013: Kris Bryant - San Diego
2012: Mike Zunino - Florida
2011: Trevor Bauer - UCLA
2010: Bryce Harper - Southern Nevada
2009: Stephen Strasburg - San Diego State
2008: Buster Posey - Florida State
2007: David Price - Vanderbilt
2006: Tim Lincecum - Washington
2005: Alex Gordon - Nebraska
2004: Jered Weaver - Long Beach State
2003: Rickie Weeks - Southern
2002: Khalil Greene - Clemson
2001: Mark Prior - Southern California
2000: Kip Bouknight - South Carolina
1999: Jason Jennings - Baylor
1998: Pat Burrell - Miami
1997: J.D. Drew - Florida State
1996: Travis Lee - San Diego State
1995: Mark Kotsay - Cal State Fullerton
1994: Jason Varitek - Georgia Tech
1993: Darren Dreifort - Wichita State
1992: Phil Nevin - Cal State Fullerton
1991: Mike Kelly - Arizona State
1990: Alex Fernandez - Miami Dade CC
1989: Ben McDonald - LSU
1988: Robin Ventura - Oklahoma State
1987: Jim Abbott - Michigan
1986: Mike Loynd - Florida State
1985: Will Clark - Mississippi State
1984: Oddibe McDowell - Arizona State
1983: Dave Magadan - Alabama
1982: Augie Schmidt - New Orleans
1981: Mike Fuentes - Florida State
1980: Terry Francona - Arizona
1979: Tim Wallach - Cal State Fullerton
1978: Bob Horner - Arizona State

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GSA Spotlight: Ryan Garcia

May 23, 2019

UCLA righthander Ryan Garcia, the No. 1 pitcher on the No. 1 team in the nation, couldn't stop crying.

Granted, he was just 4 years old at the time, and he was a most-reluctant T-ball player.

"'I don't want to be here'," said Garcia's father, Edgar, quoting his son from 17 years ago. "But I put the ball on the tee for him, and he smacked it to left field.

"When he got to first base, I asked him if he wanted to go home, and he said, 'No, daddy, I want to stay here.'"

Unfortunately for Bruins opponents, Garcia stuck to baseball from that point forward, arriving on UCLA's campus in the fall of 2016 as an infielder/pitcher. Right away, Bruins coach John Savage decided that Garcia's best position was pitcher.

Good call.

After a freshman season in the bullpen, Garcia became a starter in 2018, going 8-1, 2.23.

This year, he has been even more dominant: 8-0 with a 1.30 ERA in 12 appearances, including 10 starts.

In 69 innings, Garcia has allowed just 38 hits (.161 batting average), including seven doubles and four homers, and 21 walks.

He is a Golden Spikes semifinalist who ranks third in the nation in ERA and first among Power Five conferences.

"I'm not saying he's in the Trevor Bauer/Gerrit Cole class," Savage said of two former UCLA first-round pitchers now in the majors. "But he's in that company."

Diamond Destiny

Garcia's parents, Edgar and Liz, have known each other since elementary school, and they were baseball teammates in middle school.

Liz made her high school baseball freshman team - against boys - but opted to play varsity softball instead.

Edgar and Liz became high school sweethearts, and he had a scholarship offer to play baseball as a catcher for Cal State Northridge. But Liz, who was in college at the time, became pregnant with Ryan just before Edgar graduated high school.

That was the end of Edgar's baseball career. He went to work to support his growing family, and he and Liz married one year after Ryan was born. Edgar and Liz have another child, Dylan, 12, who is also an aspiring baseball player.

Meanwhile, Ryan, who is California-born but has Mexican heritage on his father's side, didn't really get serious about pitching until he got to UCLA.

Bruins catcher Will McInerny, a fellow junior, remembers the first time he caught Garcia in the fall of 2016.

"He has such an easy delivery, it doesn't feel like you're catching someone throwing in the 90s," McInerny said. "It feels like you're just playing catch with another position player."

The fact that Garcia played shortstop and third base in high school helps him on the mound.

"He's like a fifth infielder," McInerny said. "He's a really good athlete. And with his history as a hitter, he trusts his pitches. He knows how hard it is to hit."

Slow Start

Garcia started this season on the sidelines with an injury to his right forearm. He made his season debut on March 9 as a middle reliever, pitching one scoreless inning against Oklahoma State.

On March 24, he made his first weekend start of the year, on a Sunday, and he allowed just one hit and one walk in 7 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out eight Arizona hitters.

His biggest breakthrough came on April 26, his first Friday start as a member of the Bruins.

In that win over Utah, he became the first Bruins pitcher to throw a complete game since 2017 and the first since Bauer in 2011 to get 14 strikeouts. He threw a two-hitter, requiring just 106 pitches and allowing three baserunners, including one walk.

No Utah hitter got past first base.

"That game felt great," said Garcia, who is much more shy and silent than bold and brash. "I try to pitch every game like I'm the Friday starter. But, on Fridays, it is an important task to set the tone for the weekend."

Garcia has done that for the Bruins, who are 45-8 - including 18-4 away from home - and have won eight straight games.

No team has beaten UCLA more than once this season, and the Bruins have not lost consecutive games since March 8.

Inner Intensity

Garcia said he gets far more nervous during media interviews than he does when he's staring at a batter from a distance of 60 feet, six inches.

But even though he doesn't wear his emotions on his Bruins jersey, he didn't get this far without being competitive. An example of that comes out when asked about his size - he is a 6-foot, 185-pounder, which is smaller than most top prospects at his position.

"It adds fuel to my fire," Garcia said when asked about his doubters.

Garcia gets batters out by having a superior mix of four pitches: a four-seam fastball that ranges between 89-94 mph; an 81-84 slider with sharp, late tilt; a mid-80s changeup and a 73-75 curve.

"All four of Ryan's pitches are beneficial to each other," McInerny said. "His arm speed and spin rate add zippiness to his fastball. As a hitter, you think you are on time … but you're late.

"Batters leave the box confused as to why they are not hitting him. Guys start the game against him in a groove, and, by the end, they're in a slump."

After not getting drafted out of high school, Garcia is projected to go in the top four rounds next month. In fact, a selection in the top two rounds would not be a surprise, given his success this season.

Savage, who led UCLA to its only College World Series title in 2013 and may have the horses to do it again this year, said he is not surprised at how Garcia has developed.

"I thought he could be special," Savage said. "I knew it would take time - and it has. He was a high school shortstop with a terrific arm. We had him at our camp, and he had a clean delivery. The way the ball came out of his hand, it wasn't hard to see he could be a legit pitcher in our program.

"We dug into him and invested into him, and he has become our No. 1 guy. … His (forearm) injury has been a blessing in disguise because he has just 69 innings - he's fresh and pitching at the highest level of his career."

Garcia's career record at UCLA is 18-1. In two years as a starter, he is 14-1, 1.58 with 145 strikeouts in 125 2/3 innings.

In addition, he pitched in Cape Cod for the first time last summer, and he was an all-star for the league champs, going 2-0, 1.28 with 33 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings.

He also finished the summer with a streak of 25 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run.

"Statistically, Ryan is lights out," McInerny said. "But he hasn't been pitching that long. He still hasn't hit his ceiling, and that's what's most exciting."

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GSA Spotlight: George Kirby

May 16, 2019

ELON, N.C. - It's the kind of stat you'd expect to see from a finesse pitcher: just six walks in 82.2 innings, spanning 13 starts. But Elon's George Kirby is no thumber - he's one of the premier power arms in college baseball.

Kirby also has 105 strikeouts and has held batters to a .203 average this season, while going8-1, 2.07 for the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season champion Phoenix. Kirby ranks fifth nationally with a 0.83 WHIP, and he leads all of Division I with a ridiculous 17.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

"It's quite a floor, ain't it?" said Elon pitching coach Sean McGrath. "He's the best of both worlds. He's a command guy, kind of what you see from a mid-major Friday or Saturday guy who's a mid-to-upper-80s guy, and he's doing it at 95. And beyond that, he's doing it probably better than most ever do it."

The combination of plus fastball velocity, an ideal pitcher's frame at 6-foot-4, 201 pounds, and elite strike-throwing ability gives Kirby perhaps a better combination of a high floor and a high ceiling than any other pitcher in the 2019 draft class. In his final regular-season start Sunday against UNC Wilmington, Kirby came out of the chute sitting at 96 mph with his fastball and bumped 97. He pitched comfortably at 94-95 and touched 96 repeatedly over the first four innings, and he didn't throw a fastball below 93 mph in his five excellent innings of work, before Elon pulled him at the 79-pitch mark to get him a little extra rest heading into the conference tournament and hopefully the NCAA tournament. It was typical Kirby dominance: he allowed just one unearned run on two hits while striking out nine - and walking none, as usual.

For most college pitchers, learning to pound the strike zone is paramount. Kirby, however, has had to learn to expand the zone more often.

"He's really taken to being able to leave the zone, because the beginning portion of this year, he was so much in the zone that he was putting guys in swing mode," McGrath said. "Then he learned, 'OK, I can pitch a couple balls off or I can pitch a couple balls up, and they're probably still gonna offer.' And he commands it well enough that even if you do it 1-0 and 2-1, you're not afraid you're gonna go walk them, and it gets called more because he has the reputation."

Kirby showed good control as a sophomore too, going 10-3, 2.89 with a 96-27 K-BB mark in 90.1 innings. But he's gotten better across the board as a junior.

"One thing I've done a lot better this year is be able to command and limit the walks, which has helped me a lot. I expect to do this well every time I go out," Kirby said. "I think just the work I do during the week, trying to hone in my mechanics, I think that's helped me a lot. The pitch calling helps me a lot to expand, so I just try to hit those spots, keep it out of the zone. I didn't really change anything mechanically, I just tried to add more flow in my delivery. I changed the way I step back, I'm a little quicker to the plate now, which has helped me in the flow of the game, staying consistent. … It kind of just clicked."

Kirby took an important step forward last summer in the Cape Cod League, where he posted a 1.20 ERA in 11 relief appearances for Harwich. He said he enjoyed the closer role last summer, and he gained confidence from facing the best hitters in college baseball day-in and day-out. He also worked hard to improve his changeup and slider in the summer and throughout the fall.

Kirby's calling card remains that electric fastball, which served as the putaway pitch on eight of his nine strikeouts against UNCW. But he has refined his secondary stuff to the point that he now feels comfortable mixing with four quality pitches. His 85-86 mph straight changeup has been his best secondary pitch for most of his collegiate career, and he threw it with good arm speed against the Seahawks, helping him get ahead of hitters early in counts. He also excels at throwing his 78-80 mph curveball as a backdoor strike against lefties. It's not a hammer, but he has developed it to the point that he can get occasional swing-and-misses with it, as he did Sunday against Riley Zayicek, who struck out on the pitch.

"He's been able to go ahead and leave that thing short and believable, more often than he was last year," McGrath said. "Last year it was almost, how do you mix early to finish with fastball? Now we can give any assortment of pitches early in the AB and finish them whichever way we see fit late in the AB."

The biggest difference from last year is the development of Kirby's slider, an 82-85 mph offering that flashes solid-average. That's become an important weapon for him, as he has learned to throw it harder, with more intent, as he put it.

"We tried to add a slider last spring and it never really took shape. Some days he'd have it and would be able to throw a couple, and other days it just wouldn't be there," McGrath said. "And then this fall, a little bit this summer when he was up in the Cape, he was able to go ahead and fiddle around with grips and fiddle around with thoughts of what exactly he's looking to do with the slider, if he were to add one. Man, he's hammered away at it in bullpens and game plan, and it's taken shape. But he went from fastball-changeup with a show-me breaking ball, to now he can put people away with four different pitches."

Kirby and fellow junior righthander Kyle Brnovich form one of the best one-two pitching duos in college baseball, giving Elon a chance to beat any team in America in a weekend series. They have two very different styles - Brnovich pitches heavily off his devastating slider, one of the best in the country, while Kirby lives off that fastball - but they complement each other well. They also have a healthy competitive relationship; last year Kirby pitched on Friday and Brnovich went 8-2, 1.71 with 147 strikeouts in 105 innings as the Saturday starter. This year, Brnovich is 6-3, 3.81 on Fridays, and Kirby has been utterly dominant on Saturdays.

"We definitely push each other, but I'd say it's more individual, honestly," Kirby said. "We both have different styles of pitching, and we both worked on that during the week all the time, bullpens and everything. But we definitely do push each other a little bit, because Friday-Saturday, either of us could really have the Friday spot. So we're both competing with each other, and it's good to be competitive when you're good friends."

Kirby places great value in being a model teammate and helping Elon's young arms improve. He's soft-spoken and even-keeled, and he isn't afraid to offer teammates some insights.

"He's a guy's guy. Teammates love him. They know not to bother him too much on game day, but you won't to be able to tell, 'Oh, that's George Kirby.' He doesn't want to look any different than any of these other 33, 34 guys," McGrath said. "He's just one of the boys. The guys take to him. The other thing he's been really, really good at is he's been a great leader, whether it be allowing young guys to watch his bullpens and allowing them to take something from him, or he'll sit down with guys and talk about how he thinks about using his lower half, or his thoughts on certain pitches, where to execute, how to execute. He's done as much developing as I have with those freshman and sophomore arms, in terms of getting in touch with them and making sure in his catch play that he's a good example for others. He's diligent, and I think he's helped some buy-in, and other guys carry themselves pretty similarly."

"I'm just trying to share all the information I can give them," Kirby added. "A lot of times we struggle just hitting the zone, so I'll spot some things that guys are doing down there that I think have worked for me. I think having McGrath down there, we're both on the same page, so if I have something to say he'll let me say it, and he usually agrees with it. I think just giving my advice has helped them get a little more confidence on the mound, and I think it's shown. The past couple weeks the younger guys have gone out and done pretty well."

After going 19-5 in CAA play to run away with the regular-season title, Elon is now focused on winning the automatic bid that goes to the conference tournament champion, and getting the program back to regionals for the first time since 2013. With Kirby and Brnovich leading the way, and talented sophomore Jared Wetherbee rounding out the rotation with flame-thrower Ty Adcock anchoring the back of the bullpen, the Phoenix have the pitching firepower to make some serious noise in the postseason. And Elon's progression over the last three years has been very gratifying for Kirby, as you might imagine.

"Came here freshman year, we didn't do very well. Last year we got bumped out in the semis. So I'm just glad we're making progress every year," Kirby said. "We have a special group of guys, our pitching staff's really good, gave our guys a chance to win every time out there. You see we just dominated the CAA this year, so it was pretty fun to watch."

Kirby is awfully fun to watch, too.

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USA Baseball Names 2019 Golden Spikes Award Semifinalists

The 42nd Golden Spikes Award will be presented on June 13 in Omaha
May 15, 2019

DURHAM, N.C. - USA Baseball named the 25 semifinalists for its Golden Spikes Award on Wednesday. Presented in partnership with the Rod Dedeaux Foundation, the 42nd Golden Spikes Award winner will be announced on June 13 at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska.

The list of semifinalists spans 20 different colleges and universities, one high school and nine NCAA conferences. The list also features three athletes who were also a semifinalist in 2018 with Josh Jung (Texas Tech), Spencer Torkelson (Arizona State) and 2018 Golden Spikes Award winner Andrew Vaughn (California). Since 2007, 29 athletes have been named a semifinalist more than once in their careers, including past Golden Spikes Award winners Stephen Strasburg (2009), Trevor Bauer (2011), Mike Zunino (2012), Kris Bryant (2013), Brendan McKay (2017) and Vaughn (2018).

"The twenty-five student-athletes honored as Golden Spikes Award semifinalists this year highlight the depth of elite amateur baseball talent in the United States," said USA Baseball Executive Director and CEO Paul Seiler. "Each and every one of these athletes have excelled on the field this season and we are honored to continue our partnership with the Rod Dedeaux Foundation to recognize their contributions to their teams and schools."

Joining Sun Devils teammate Torkelson as a 2019 semifinalist is Hunter Bishop (IF; Arizona State), meanwhile Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt join Arizona State as the only schools with multiple semifinalists with the selections of Jake Mangum (Mississippi State), Ethan Small (Mississippi State), John Doxakis (Texas A&M), Asa Lacy (Texas A&M), JJ Bleday (Vanderbilt) and Austin Martin (Vanderbilt), respectively.

Jackson Rutledge (San Jacinto College) and Bobby Witt Jr. (Colleyville-Heritage High School) have also been named a Golden Spikes semifinalist in 2019. Since USA Baseball introduced semifinalists to the voting process in 2007, Rutledge is the fourth semifinalist from the junior college ranks while Witt is the first-ever high school student athlete to earn this honor. To this date, Alex Fernandez (1990) and Bryce Harper (2010) are the only non-NCAA Division I athletes to win the Golden Spikes Award.

Last year, Cal's Vaughn took home the prestigious award, joining a group of recent winners that include Brendan McKay (2017), Kyle Lewis (2016), Andrew Benintendi (2015), A.J. Reed (2014), Kris Bryant (2013), Mike Zunino (2012), Trevor Bauer (2011), Bryce Harper (2010), Stephen Strasburg (2009), Buster Posey (2008), and David Price (2007).

Beginning with the announcement of semifinalists, a ballot will be sent to the Golden Spikes Award voting body consisting of national baseball media, select professional baseball personnel, previous Golden Spikes Award winners and select USA Baseball staff, totaling a group of over 200 voters. From Wednesday, May 15 through Sunday, May 26, each voting member will select three athletes from the Golden Spikes Award ballot of semifinalists and fan voting will simultaneously be open on GoldenSpikesAward.com. Selections made by the voting body will carry a 95% weight of each athlete's total, while fan votes will account for the remaining 5%. 

The finalists will then be announced on Wednesday, May 29. Beginning that same day through Monday, June 10, the voting body and fans will be able to cast their final vote for the Golden Spikes Award winner.

The winner of the 42nd Golden Spikes Award will be named on Thursday, June 13.

USA Baseball has partnered with the Rod Dedeaux Foundation to host the Golden Spikes Award since 2013. The Foundation was formed to honor legendary University of Southern California and USA Baseball Olympic team coach, Rod Dedeaux, and supports youth baseball and softball programs in underserved communities throughout Southern California.

A complete list of the 25 Golden Spikes Award semifinalists is as follows:

Name, Class, Position, School, Conference
Hunter Bishop, Jr., OF, Arizona St., Pac-12
JJ Bleday, Jr., OF, Vanderbilt, SEC
Isaiah Campbell, RS-Jr., P, Arkansas, SEC
Reid Detmers, So., P, Louisville, ACC
John Doxakis, Jr., P, Texas A&M, SEC
Ryan Garcia, Jr., P, UCLA, Pac-12
Nick Gonzales, So., IF, New Mexico St., WAC
Emerson Hancock, So., P, Georgia, SEC
Kody Hoese, Jr., IF, Tulane, AAC
Josh Jung, Jr., IF, Texas Tech, Big 12
George Kirby, Jr., P, Elon, CAA
Asa Lacy, So., P, Texas A&M, SEC
Jake Mangum, Sr., OF, Mississippi St., SEC
Alek Manoah, Jr., P, West Virginia, Big 12
Austin Martin, So., IF, Vanderbilt, SEC
Jackson Rutledge, So., P, San Jacinto, Region XIV
Adley Rutschman, Jr., C, Oregon St., Pac-12
T.J. Sikkema, Jr., P, Missouri, SEC
Ethan Small, RS-Jr., P, Mississippi St., SEC
Noah Song, Sr., P, Navy, Patriot
Bryson Stott, Jr., IF, UNLV, MWC
Zack Thompson, Jr., P, Kentucky, SEC
Spencer Torkelson, So., IF, Arizona St., Pac-12
Andrew Vaughn, Jr., IF, California, Pac-12
Bobby Witt Jr., HS-Sr., IF, Colleyville-Heritage High School

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From Golden Spikes to First Overall

May 14, 2019

Since the inaugural Golden Spikes Award was presented in 1978, there have been seven winners selected first overall in the MLB First-Year Player Draft. In the spirit of the upcoming 2019 Draft, here are the eight Golden Spikes Award winners to be taken with the number one overall pick.

1978 - Bob Horner (Arizona State)

The winner of the first-ever Golden Spikes Award, Bob Horner was selected by the Atlanta Braves with the first overall pick in the 1978 MLB Draft after a junior season in which he batted .412 with 25 home runs and 100 RBIs. Horner skipped the minor league ranks entirely, becoming just the thirteenth player to do so in the decade, and went straight to the Major Leagues where he homered off of current Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven in his Major League debut. He played 10 years in the show, including nine with the Braves and one season with the St. Louis Cardinals. While still with the Braves, he had four home runs in one game on July 6, 1986, one of only 18 players to ever accomplish the feat.


1989 - Ben McDonald (LSU)

Ben McDonald was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles with the first overall pick in the 1989 MLB Draft after a stellar career at LSU that was capped off with him winning the Golden Spikes Award. In his time with LSU, McDonlad led the Tigers to the College World Series twice and set an SEC record by fanning 202 batters in 1989. The previous summer, he led Team USA to the gold medal at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games, pitching complete-game victories against Korea and Puerto Rico. After McDonald was selected by the Orioles, he went on to become the second player from the 1989 Draft class to receive the call up the Majors. In total, McDonald enjoyed a nine-year Major League career, splitting time between the Orioles and the Milwaukee Brewers. He finished his career with a cumulative 3.91 ERA. 


1992 - Phil Nevin (Cal State Fullerton)

Phil Nevin had a big year in 1992 as he was named Most Outstanding Player of the 1992 College World Series, where his Cal State-Fullerton Titans finished second. Nevin was then selected first overall by the Houston Astros in the 1992 MLB Draft, becoming the third Golden Spikes Award winner to be selected first overall. After the Draft, Nevin went on to play in the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games for Team USA where he finished second on the team in batting average (.347) and first in doubles (9). The corner infielder and outfielder made his Major League debut in 1995 and played in the big leagues over the span of 12 years for seven teams. He was named an All-Star when he was with the San Diego Padres in 2001, finishing the season with a .301 batting average and a career-high 41 home runs. Nevin last played in 2006 as a member of the Minnesota Twins and finished his career with 208 home runs.


1998 - Pat Burrell (Miami)

Pat Burrell was the first overall pick out of the 1998 MLB Draft after winning the Golden Spikes Award. A force at the hot corner, Burrell capped off his college career with a .442 batting average and a .888 slugging percentage in his junior campaign, which both rank among the top 10 in college baseball history. Burrell made his Major League debut with the Philadelphia Phillies on May 24, 2000, and went 2-for-5 with a triple and two RBIs. In total, Burrell enjoyed 12 years in the big leagues between the Phillies, Tampa Bay Rays and San Francisco Giants. He won a World Series ring with both the Phillies (2008) and Giants (2010).


2007 - David Price (Vanderbilt)

David Price was the winner of the 2007 Golden Spikes Award after a fantastic season with Vanderbilt in which he recorded 194 strikeouts, shattering the Commodores' single-season record of 155. The figure represents the second most strikeouts in a single season in SEC history behind only fellow Golden Spikes Award winner Ben McDonald's 202 set in 1989. Price's efforts were rewarded as he was the first player selected in the 2007 MLB Draft, going to the Tampa Bay Rays. He would make his Major League debut the next season and was a key piece on a Tampa Bay team that went on to win the 2008 American League Pennant. Price won the American League Cy Young Award as a member of the Rays in 2012 and has since gone on to play for the Detroit Tigers, Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox. He has been named an All-Star five times and won a World Series with the Red Sox in 2018.


2009 - Stephen Strasburg (San Diego State)

Stephen Strasburg won the 2009 Golden Spikes Award after a stellar season with San Diego State University, just a year after he was the youngest member on a Team USA squad that won a bronze medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympics. He finished the 2009 season with a perfect 12-0 record, 1.34 ERA and 174 punchouts in 94.1 innings pitched and was named the 2009 Mountain West Conference Pitcher of the Year. Strasburg was selected by the Washington Nationals with the first pick and made his much-anticipated Major League debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2010, getting the 5-2 win and striking out 14 in seven innings of work. Strasburg is currently in the middle of his tenth year in the Major Leagues, all with the Nationals. He has been named an All-Star four times.


2010 - Bryce Harper (Southern Nevada)

Bryce Harper posted impressive numbers during his one season at the College of Southern Nevada, setting the school's single-season home run record with 31 home runs while also driving in 98 RBIs and posting a .443 batting average. The Las Vegas native was named the 2010 Southwestern Athletic Conference Player of the Year and First Team SWAC All-Conference. At the time, Harper joined Alex Fernandez (Miami Dade CC [JUCO], 1990), Michael Tucker (Longwood [Division II], 1992) and Alex Rodriguez (Westminster Christian High School [Fla.], 1993) as the only non-Division I players selected as Golden Spikes Award finalists in the last 20 years. Harper was the No. 1 overall selection by the Washington Nationals in the 2010 MLB Draft and made his debut in 2012, at the age of 19. He finished his rookie campaign with a .270 batting average and 22 home runs and was named 2012 National League Rookie of the Year. Harper has since gone on to win the 2015 National League MVP award, has been an All-Star six times and is currently a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.

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GSA Spotlight: Corbin Carroll

May 10, 2019

For OF Corbin Carroll (Lakeside School, WA), the high school season is over. Lakeside was eliminated in the playoffs Monday, but on Tuesday, Carroll lifted weights and hit. A season is over and chapter closed, but much is still to come for the UCLA recruit. So the work doesn't stop.

"I'm just thinking what got me to this position," Carroll said. "I don't think anything is changing right now. I'm just trying to work as hard as I can."

That hard work has made him one of the top high school players in the country, one who will likely hear his name called early in the first round of the 2019 MLB Draft, less than a month away. It would put a stamp on the last 11 months, an impressive run in which Carroll traveled the United States to play in different showcases and tournaments, as well as to Panama where he helped Team USA's 18U National Team win a gold medal in the 2018 Pan Am Championship. As part of the squad's offensive dominance, Carroll hit .500 with three home runs, 15 RBIs and nine stolen bases in eight games. An important time for many rising seniors, the summer and fall seasons served as a proving ground for Carroll.

"I learned that I can go out there and compete with whoever I want to compete with," he said. "The biggest thing for me was confidence. Going into that summer, not really playing at that level before, and then coming out of that summer feeling like I can hang with anyone. That was huge for me and pretty cool to see, given that I didn't really have those expectations going in per se."

Carroll's confidence, and talent, extends off the field as well. He was just selected to the all-league academic team and hasn't received a B since he was a sophomore. That's a noteworthy accomplishment in itself, but Lakeside is an academically rigorous institution and boasts an impressive alumni list that includes the co-founders of Microsoft-Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

"The community there is really incredible and supportive," Carroll said. "One of the coolest things about being at such a rigorous academic school is you're constantly challenged. I'm constantly challenged in the classroom, which is really cool, competing in those different ways."

Carroll has a bright future in baseball, no matter which direction his path takes next month. However, if a Plan B were to become necessary, science seems to be his calling. His declared major for UCLA is physiological sciences and he's currently taking sports medicine and physiology courses. That same drive that elicits success on the field, helps off it too. Being a senior and baseball being his likely career, it would be easy for Carroll to hit cruise control.

"(I'm) not making excuses for myself from the baseball front," he said. "(I'm) going in with the mindset that I'm just another student here and I need to get my business done. That's really paid off for me. I was named to the all-league academic team. Seeing that hard work pay off has been rewarding for me."

Rewarding and a testament to the work he's put in since freshman year. As much as he's proven as a player, he's also done so as a student.

"I definitely wasn't this caliber of a student going into the school freshman year," Carroll said. "School was definitely a lot tougher for me then. I didn't have some of the study habits that I do now. I just think that's a testament to the work I've put in, as well as the school.

"Freshman year, I was mostly a B student. And then I haven't had a B since sophomore year. From the work perspective, what that looked like, was those two hours a night not really making excuses and saying I've done enough. Just pushing through that extra hour and finding ways to get my stuff done. If I have a 45-minute free period and I've got work to get done, I have the self control now where I say, 'I'm not gonna goof off with my friends. I'm gonna go get some work done.'"

The work is only beginning for Carroll, but you can bet he'll find his way on Lakeside's notable alumni list.

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GSA Spotlight: TJ Sikkema

May 9, 2019

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - For most pitchers, it would have been a major disruption. For Missouri lefthander TJ Sikkema, it was business as usual.

A two-hour weather delay cut short Sikkema's start Saturday at Tennessee in the third inning - a setback for the Tigers at the time, but it came with a silver lining. Sikkema's early exit meant he'd be available out of the bullpen in Sunday's rubber game. And that offered the Tigers serious peace of mind heading into the finale.

"We set it up that if we could get late in the game and have the lead, he would take this opportunity," Missouri coach Steve Bieser said. "He said [Sunday] when he came out, 'I feel pretty good, I feel like I could go more.' When we got to the latter part of the game he was wondering when he was gonna go in. He's just a great young man and a tough, tough competitor. He's got a lot of good qualities, but that's probably one of his best qualities."

The Tigers called upon their not-so-secret weapon in a tight spot Sunday, with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh. He minimized the damage to one run, then breezed through two perfect innings in the eighth and ninth, helping lead Mizzou to a huge series-clinching 10-8 win.

Sikkema has been a Swiss army knife for Missouri since his freshman year, regularly pitching out of the bullpen early in a series if the Tigers need key outs, then coming back to start later in the weekend. He was primarily a bullpen weapon during his standout freshman year, going 8-2, 2.72 in 22 appearances (three starts). Last year was more of a hybrid role; he posted a 3.34 ERA in 16 appearances (10 starts). This year has been more of the same - 15 appearances, 11 starts.

"It's a little different, but at the same time I'm here for the team, and I'm just gonna compete when they give me the ball," Sikkema said. "I knew there was a good chance that I was gonna come out and throw today, and even after we went down seven runs [in the first two innings], I was still pretty confident that we were gonna come back and I was gonna get a chance to pitch in this game where it meant a lot. … It's just really working hard on recovery, we have a good program set up with our strength and conditioning, and it's really helped me these past three years, so I think that's a big part of it."

"The luxury with that is you're not putting him into a foreign situation," Bieser added. "There are a lot of starters that could probably come in and close, but since they've never done it, you always wonder how they're going to respond in a different role. He's done everything in our program, from starting to opening to middle relief, you name it he's done it, and he's done it at a high standard."

Indeed, Sikkema has been a standout his entire collegiate career, but he's really taken his game to another level as a junior this spring. He ranks fourth in the nation with a sparkling 1.22 ERA, along with a 6-3 record, two saves, a .189 opponents' batting average and an 87-27 K-BB mark in 73.2 innings. Sikkema says his experience in the Cape Cod League (where he was an all-star) last summer helped him make this leap as a junior.

"I think it's just a little bit more mature. I'm learning how to pitch," Sikkema said. "I think this summer really helped me, I learned how to pitch with all four of my pitches, going out there reading hitters' swings, really knowing what to throw after a batter takes a selected type of swing, you just have to read that. I think that's the biggest part I've really grown on, just the mental side of the game."

As Bieser said, Sikkema is a premier competitor, and he as an innate feel for pitching that is rare - in some ways he's like former South Carolina star Michael Roth, but with better stuff. Like Roth, he can vary his arm slots and add and subtract from his fastball deliberately to keep hitters off balance. But Sikkema has more velocity; he touched 93-94 from a three-quarters or slightly higher slot this weekend. Then he'll drop down to sidearm or a tick above and give lefthanded hitters fits.

"Each year his stuff has improved. Now when he needs to or wants to, he'll run it to 93-95," Bieser said. "What makes him effective is it's such a tough angle. He slings it, he's way on the first-base side of the rubber, and you never see a pitch the same speed. So it's anywhere from 88 to 95 with the fastball, and he's changing it intentionally. Then his breaking ball, he's got a couple different arm slots, he throws one harder. So it's just so many different speeds, and it's really tough for a hitter when they have to face him.

"I don't think you teach what he has. It's something that he's grown up and done all of his life. You start trying to teach that, usually they're not effective and they don't know when to use it. But he's done it all his career. Those things are invaluable. There's days he hasn't had his best stuff, and he starts changing more arm angles, and he starts turning that little sidearm throw over a little bit to get more sink. So he's a smart guy, he's a baseball guy."

Sikkema said his 81-82 mph slider from a lower slot is his go-to out pitch against lefties, and it's a filthy strikeout weapon for him. But he prefers to use more of a downer curveball at 78-79 against righties, and he also will mix in a changeup.

"But I lean heavy on my fastball just because of the deception and everything," Sikkema said. "I feel confident in all my pitches, and I think that's one of the biggest things for me."

So there are many reason's for Sikkema's incredible success - and his excellence is a major reason Missouri is closing in on a regionals berth, with a No. 20 RPI and a 12-11-1 record in the rugged SEC. Bieser said the Tigers feed off Sikkema and fellow star Kameron Misner, and the team plays with a little extra confidence when Sikkema is on the mound and rolling.

The Tigers haven't been in the NCAA tournament since 2012, so Sikkema and his teammates are well aware of how much it would mean for the program to break the drought. And he's enjoying the ride.

"It's fun. It's very special," he said. "These guys are my brothers, and it's an awesome ride. We're playing really well as a team. As you can see, we have a lot of fight. We've worked for this all fall, we had a tough fall, tough winter. And I think it's now starting to show: these guys aren't gonna give up, and there's nobody who's not ready for the challenge. So a lot of guys stepped up, and a lot of guys came up big for us, so it was a huge team weekend.

"Hope we can continue this, and I'm sure we're gonna fight hard and keep going, so I'm excited to see what the future holds."

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GSA Spotlight: Aaron Ochsenbein

May 2, 2019

Eastern Kentucky's Aaron Ochsenbein has been one of the most dominant closers in college baseball this year. In 23 appearances, the fifth-year senior righthander is 4-1, 0.46 with seven saves and a dazzling 63-10 K-BB mark in 39.1 innings. He's given up just two runs all season, and he had yielded just one run through the first 10 weeks. 

"He's as dominant as I've seen - and I coached Marcus Stroman, but he's as dominant as I've seen every time out," said Eastern Kentucky coach Edwin Thompson, who coached Stroman at Duke. "Doesn't matter who we've played - Louisville, Kentucky, Boston College - he's been that dominant. And obviously it's comfortable to have that at the back of the game."

Ochsenbein's emergence as a shutdown closer was a long, gradual process that kicked into overdrive over the last year. As Thompson put it, Ochsenbein was not a "blue-star" recruit coming out of high school in Lexington, Ky. He made eight appearances as a freshman in 2015, but his season was cut short by Tommy John surgery that cost him all of 2016.

When he returned to action in 2017, Ochsenbein split time between starting and relieving, posting a 7.90 ERA in 14 appearances (eight starts). EKU thought he was ready to take over as the staff ace in 2018, especially after he threw five strong innings in a win against Virginia in Week Two and five shutout frames against Coppin State in Week Three. But a week later, a setback: Ochsenbein was shelled for 10 earned runs by Belmont, prompting Thompson to re-evaluate his role.

"The next week we decided to make a change," Thompson said. "He didn't really have a third pitch, the changeup wasn't there. The next week he got a couple saves, he was throwing 94-95, and it was like, 'Whoa, man.' He was more 88-92 as a starter. He didn't really like moving to the bullpen at the time, but I told him long term I think this is a good option for him."

Considering how Ochsenbein has thrived in the bullpen, that comment looks prescient in hindsight. He wound up recording nine saves last spring and striking out 71 in 51.2 innings over 25 appearances, though his ERA was still a bit inflated (4.70) by that rough start at Belmont.

Ochsenbein carried his momentum into the summer, posting a 3.42 ERA in 18 appearances for Orleans, recording seven saves and racking up 43 strikeouts against 12 walks in 23.2 innings. Thompson said he went to Orleans on a temp contract and wound up sticking around and becoming one of the top closers on the Cape. At the end of the summer, he had opportunities to sign as a nondrafted free agent, but he elected to return to EKU instead - and that move sure looks like it will pay off handsomely.

The physical 6-foot-3, 225-pound Ochsenbein already had the ability to strike hitters out last year with his fastball and his hard slurve at 78-80 mph, but he's taken it to a new level this year, thanks in part to the addition of a nasty split-finger he developed with the help of EKU pitching coach Shaun Cole in the fall. That's become his best putaway pitch, relegating the slider to a third pitch that he uses more to get ahead in counts. 

"Everyone saw Casey Mize last year and saw what he did with the splitter. It's kind of a pitch that you don't see in college baseball, so if you can hone it … we wanted something different for him to have the option," Thompson said. "Pretty much from day one he just took that pitch and ran with it, really, and hasn't looked back since. It's working out pretty well."

And that's not the only difference for Ochsenbein this spring.

"I think one is confidence. Anytime you have some success in the Cape, you naturally feel good about your situation coming back, but then I think he took the next step as far as how hard he worked, in the fall and then in the season, in between outings taking care of his body," Thompson said. "Then his velocity has creeped up to, where he can touch 97 miles an hour. He doesn't sit there, but he's touched it many times this year. And his fastball command has really increased, that's something Coach Cole and him worked on a lot in the fall. So it's being able to get ahead, and then put guys away with the splitter."

Ochsenbein is a graduate student who already has his degree in Aviation, so he'll have other career opportunities when his playing days are done. But that might not be for a while, because Thompson is confident Ochsenbein will be selected on Day Two of the draft, and he's got a chance to be one of those rare senior signs with a legitimate chance to carve out a big league career. He has the right makeup.

"He's a leader. He's older, he's mature. Not a lot's gonna faze him," Thompson said. "He just has a presence about him, when he talks. He's not a vocal rah-rah type of guy, but he'll get on guys and challenge guys, and they really respond in a positive way.

"He's really just handling himself in a way that sets such an example for our program. Coaches will be like, 'What are you looking for?' I'm looking for that - a 3.5-plus student, great leadership, good on the field. That's the part that's been fun for me to witness every day."

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GSA Spotlight: Kody Hoese

April 25, 2019

Tulane third baseman Kody Hoese leads Division I with 21 home runs, but his success this season is beyond surprising.

In fact, it almost never happened.

Hoese, now 21, hit just .213 with no homers in 44 games as a freshman, most of them at shortstop. As a sophomore, he moved to third base full-time and improved his OPS from .566 to .803 with five homers. He was draft eligible as a sophomore that year, and the Kansas City Royals selected him in the 35th round.

"It was a tough decision - I was pretty close to signing," Hoese said. "Playing pro baseball has always been my dream."

But Hoese - a Finance major and the son of an accountant - crunched the numbers and decided that the Royals' offer wasn't royal enough.

He came back to Tulane and has simply exploded, hitting .417/.500/.881, ranking second in the nation with a 1.381 OPS. He leads the American Athletic Conference in all those and many other categories, and he ranks among the national leaders, too.

Hoese, a righthanded hitter, also ranks among the nation's top 75 prospects, which would peg him as a top-three-rounds player. But don't tell that to Tulane coach Travis Jewett.

"First round," Jewett said without hesitation when asked about Hoese. "He's proving to everyone he's a major league talent, and those guys go in first round.

"Someone will get a heck of a player and an even better person. He's a humble kid who doesn't get too high or too low."

Hoese - pronounced HO-zee - is from Griffith, Ind., which is in the Chicago metropolitan area. He grew up a Cubs, Bears and Bulls fan, and he sprouted from 6-foot to 6-4 between the eighth grade and his sophomore year of high school.

Like a lot of Indiana kids, Hoese played basketball, and he was good enough to start on the Griffith High varsity as a freshman. But it was after that season that Hoese decided to quit basketball to devote himself to baseball, and that is yet another decision that has worked out well for him.

Hoese went on to star at shortstop for Griffith, parlaying his high school success into an offer from Tulane.

"Kody loved the facilities and the warm weather," said his father, Dave.

However, shortly after Hoese signed with Tulane, the coach who recruited him, David Pierce, took the top job with the Texas Longhorns, taking his top assistants with him, Phil Miller and Sean Allen.

Still, Hoese never thought about transferring, and Jewett, who was hired about two weeks later, is grateful.

"I didn't recruit him, but thank goodness someone did," Jewett said. "I don't know if anybody thought he would be the player he has turned out to be, but I'm happy he's here."

Tulane (26-14, 8-3), which is in second place in its conference, wouldn't be where it is without Hoese, who has hit in 38 of 40 games. The exceptions happened on Feb. 24, when he went 0-for-4 against Ole Miss; and on March 31, when he went 0-for-2 with three walks against Cincinnati.

With 16 regular-season games remaining - plus the playoffs - Hoese is already seventh in school history on the single-season home run chart. With three more homers, he would be alone in second place as he pursues the school record-holder, Jason Sparks, who hit 30 in 1998.

Hoese has also done some good things without a bat in his hands, including a .959 fielding percentage (just four errors) and four stolen bases in four tries.

"There's nothing he can't do," Jewett said. "He has the courage to handle the hot smash, the athleticism to field the ball on the run and the arm to throw from any angle."

Given that he was a shortstop in high school, perhaps that athleticism defensively is not surprising now that he's at third base.

But how he has transformed himself offensively is more complex.

For starters, Hoese is now able to spend more time playing baseball outdoors, and that has quickened his progress. Back home in Griffith, due to the frigid winters, Hoese's seasons would start in March. He and his teammates would do a lot work with indoor batting cages, but typically the first popup Hoese would field would come on opening day of the high school season.

Secondly, Hoese has gotten stronger since enrolling at Tulane, gaining about 25 pounds of muscle, with room for 20 more quite comfortably. He currently weighs 200 pounds on his 6-4 frame.

Lastly, Hoese has just gotten smarter about baseball.

"Kody has identified how his swing works," Jewett said. "He is using deductive reasoning to understand how pitchers are trying to get him out. He is finding the bottom and the middle of the ball and striking it with force."

On most nights, there are 20 to 25 scouts in attendance at Hoese's games. His decision to return to school for one more year has proven correct so far, and Jewett said the secret sauce has been hard work.

"He is such an invested kid, working on his swing and taking grounders all the time," Jewett said. "He has a good plan when he gets to the plate, and his frame is so good.

"You kind of knew his power would come. It's just shown up sooner than we thought."

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