GOLDEN SPIKES AWARD NEWS

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Louisville's Brendan McKay Wins 2017 USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award

June 29, 2017

DURHAM, N.C. - Louisville's Brendan McKay was named the 40th USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award winner on Thursday, honoring the top amateur baseball player in the United States based on their athletic ability, sportsmanship, character and overall contribution to the sport. Presented in partnership with the Rod Dedeaux Foundation, the 2017 award was presented live on ESPN's flagship program, SportsCenter, by George Grande, who anchored the first-ever SportsCenter telecast on September 7, 1979.

McKay is the first Golden Spikes Award winner in Louisville's history and the fifth ACC player to win the award following Jason Varitek (1994), J.D. Drew (1997), Khalil Greene (2002) and Buster Posey (2008). He is the eighth player from a current ACC program to earn the honor after Florida State's Mike Fuentes (1981) and Mike Loynd (1986), and Miami's Pat Burrell (1998) won the award prior to their schools joining the ACC. The Golden Spikes Award was the sixth National Player of the Year honor McKay received in addition to being named the 2017 ACC Player of the Year.

"Brendan McKay has proven to be the epitome of a two-way player with his success on the mound and at the plate this year, and we are elated to honor his tremendous season by naming him the recipient of the fortieth Golden Spikes Award," said Paul Seiler, Executive Director/CEO of USA Baseball. "All four of these young athletes had noteworthy seasons and we are honored to celebrate their accomplishments with the Rod Dedeaux Foundation at its annual awards dinner. We look forward to following these young men as they begin the next chapter of their baseball careers."

McKay held an 8-3 record with a 2.22 ERA and 116 strikeouts in 85.0 innings on the mound during the regular season. During his three-year collegiate career, McKay has accumulated a 32-10 record with a 2.23 ERA and 391 strikeouts, the most ever for a Louisville pitcher. At the plate, he maintained a .341 batting average, 18 home runs, 15 doubles, 51 RBIs and a .457 on-base percentage as a hitter this season. In 182 career starts and 189 total appearances as a hitter, McKay has a .328 career batting average with 28 home runs, 48 doubles and 132 RBIs.

The two-way standout was a consensus All-America in both 2016 and 2017. He led Louisville to its first NCAA World Series appearance since 2014 this season, was an All-ACC selection in each of his three seasons, and was named the National Freshman of the Year by three publications in 2015.

Following the nationally televised announcement of the winner on June 29, all four finalists and their families will be celebrated at the Jonathan Club Los Angeles as part of the 2017 Rod Dedeaux Foundation Awards Dinner. Hosted by the Rod Dedeaux Foundation, the dinner will honor the Golden Spikes Award finalists, the Rod Dedeaux Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Augie Garrido, and the 2016 Rod Dedeaux USA Baseball Coach of the Year award winner, George Horton (Oregon).

The winner was selected after the list of finalists was sent to the Golden Spikes Award voting committee, a collection of more than 200 voters that include past Golden Spikes Award winners, past USA Baseball National Team coaches and press officers, members of the media highly attuned within the amateur baseball landscape, select professional baseball personnel, and select USA Baseball staff members.

For the tenth consecutive year, fans were also able to get involved with the award voting by visiting GoldenSpikesAward.com, powered by MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM). The website features content devoted exclusively to the Golden Spikes Award, including news, voting history, past-winner photo galleries and photographs of the 2017 finalists.

 

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USA Baseball names 2017 Golden Spikes Award finalists

June 14, 2017

DURHAM, N.C. - USA Baseball named the four finalists for the 2017 Golden Spikes Award on Wednesday. The Golden Spikes Award is presented in partnership with the Rod Dedeaux Foundation and for the fourth consecutive year the award will be presented live on ESPN's flagship program, SportsCenter, on Thursday, June 29.

2017 marks the 40th consecutive year the Golden Spikes Award has been awarded to the top amateur baseball player in the United States based on their athletic ability, sportsmanship, character and overall contribution to the sport.

J.B. Bukauskas (North Carolina), Adam Haseley (Virginia), Brendan McKay (Louisville) and Brent Rooker (Mississippi State) are the 2017 finalists after receiving the most votes among the 25 semifinalists announced on May 31.

J.B. Bukauskas earned ACC Pitcher of the Year honors in 2017 after tallying an 8-0 record and 106 strikeouts in 82 innings pitched. He also ranked top-five nationally with a 1.87 ERA as the Friday-night starter for North Carolina. He was named first-team All-ACC as well as a first-team All-American by Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball. The Houston Astros drafted Bukauskas in the 2017 MLB Draft with the 15th overall pick.

Virginia's Adam Haseley was named first-team All-ACC and a first-team All-American by Baseball America in 2017 after he finished the regular season as the league's batting champion with a .400 average. He also led the ACC in runs scored (64) and on-base percentage (.498). In addition to his offensive prowess, Haseley also served on the Cavalier's weekend rotation as a starting pitcher and went 7-1 with a 3.58 ERA. He was drafted eighth overall by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2017 MLB Draft.

University of Louisville two-way standout, Brendan McKay, was named the 2017 ACC Player of the Year while also earning All-ACC first team honors as both a starting pitcher and designated hitter. Offensively, McKay hit .361 with 15 home runs, 47 RBIs and a .683 slugging percentage in 53 starts as a hitter, and was equally effective on the mound. He led the ACC in strikeouts with 116 while also accumulating an 8-3 record with a 2.22 ERA in 13 starts. A first-team All-American selection by Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball, McKay was drafted fourth overall in the 2017 MLB Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays.

Brent Rooker was named first-team All-SEC in 2017 and is the first Mississippi State player to earn SEC Player of the Year honors in school history. He led the league in nine offensive categories and finished the regular season atop the national rankings in slugging percentage and doubles. Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball named him a first-team All-American after posting a .415 batting average, 28 doubles, 20 home runs, 73 RBIs, 18 stolen bases and a .873 slugging percentage in 2017. The Minnesota Twins selected Rooker in the first round of the 2017 MLB Draft with the 35th overall pick.

The Golden Spikes Award voting committee, which selects the finalists and the Golden Spikes Award winner, is comprised of over 200 voters, consisting of past Golden Spikes Award winners, past USA Baseball National Team coaches and press officers, members of the media highly attuned within the amateur baseball landscape, select professional baseball personnel and select current USA Baseball staff members. The voting committee will have the opportunity to vote for the winner from today until Friday, June 23.

Fans will also be able to vote for the 2017 award winner by visiting the online home for the award, GoldenSpikesAward.com; which is powered by MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM). Voting for fans ends at 5 p.m. EST on Friday, June 23, and the finalist with the most fan votes will receive one overall vote.

Following the nationally televised announcement of the winner on June 29, all four finalists and their families will be celebrated at the Jonathan Club Los Angeles as part of the 2017 Rod Dedeaux Foundation Awards Dinner. Hosted by the Rod Dedeaux Foundation, the dinner will honor the Golden Spikes Award finalists, the Rod Dedeaux Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award winner, former USA Baseball assistant coach, Augie Garrido, and the 2016 Rod Dedeaux USA Baseball Coach of the Year award winner, George Horton (Oregon).

USA Baseball recently announced a ten-year partnership extension with the Rod Dedeaux Foundation that provides the marketing and sponsorship rights surrounding the Golden Spikes Award to fund the foundation's mission to support youth baseball and softball programs in underprivileged areas.

For more information on the Golden Spikes Award and the four 2017 finalists, follow along on social media @USAGoldenSpikes on Instagram and Twitter.

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USA Baseball unveils 2017 Golden Spikes Award semifinalists

May 31, 2017

DURHAM, N.C. - USA Baseball unveiled the 25 semifinalists for the 40th USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award on Wednesday. The Golden Spikes Award is given to the top amateur baseball player in the United States and is presented in partnership with the Rod Dedeaux Foundation.

The Atlantic Coast Conference leads 10 different NCAA conferences represented on the list with six semifinalists, followed closely by the Pac-12 Conference with five and the Southeastern Conference with four. The Big 10 and Big 12 conferences both host a pair of semifinalists while the Big West, Conference USA, Missouri Valley, Southern and Sun Belt conferences each have one athlete on the list.

Also represented in the list of semifinalists is the College of Central Florida in the National Junior College Athletic Association with right-handed pitcher Nate Pearson.

Louisville, Oregon State and Virginia are the only schools with multiple Golden Spikes Award semifinalists in 2017 with two apiece, including Cardinals pitcher and infielder, and three-time semifinalist, Brendan McKay. Missouri State infielder Jake Burger is also a semifinalist for the second year in a row.

The list includes several NCAA Division I statistical leaders including UC Irvine outfielder Keston Hiura, who leads the nation in on-base percentage. Mississippi State's Brent Rooker leads the nation in slugging percentage and is tied with Arizona infielder J.J. Matijevic for the most doubles this season. Luke Heimlich of Oregon State leads the country with a 0.81 ERA and The Citadel's JP Sears leads the nation in strikeouts (142), followed closely by David Peterson (140) from Oregon.

USA Baseball officials will announce the finalists for the 2017 Golden Spikes Award on Wednesday, June 14. To select the finalists, the list of semifinalists is sent to a voting body consisting of past Golden Spikes Award winners, past USA Baseball National Team coaches and press officers, members of the media that closely follow the amateur game, select professional baseball personnel, and select current USA Baseball staff, representing a group of more than 200 voters in total. As part of the selection process, all voters will be asked to choose three players from the list of semifinalists. Voting will be open until Friday, June 9.

Fan voting will once again be part of the Golden Spikes Award in 2017. This announcement officially marks the opening of voting for amateur baseball fans from across the country on GoldenSpikesAward.com - the online home of the award, powered by MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM).

The live presentation of the 2017 Golden Spikes Award will be announced exclusively on ESPN's flagship program, SportsCenter, on Thursday, June 29. The announcement will take place in ESPN's Los Angeles Production Center at L.A. Live.

The finalists and their families will be also honored at the Rod Dedeaux Foundation Awards Dinner that evening at the Jonathan Club Los Angeles.

USA Baseball recently announced a ten-year partnership extension with the Rod Dedeaux Foundation that provides the marketing and sponsorship rights surrounding the Golden Spikes Award to fund its mission to support youth baseball and softball programs in underprivileged areas.

Mercer University outfielder Kyle Lewis took home the prestigious award in 2016, joining a group of recent winners that includes Andrew Benintendi (2015), A.J. Reed (2014), Kris Bryant (2013), Mike Zunino (2012), Trevor Bauer (2011), Bryce Harper (2010), Stephen Strasburg (2009) and Buster Posey (2008).

The remaining timeline for the 2017 Golden Spikes Award announcement is as follows:
Friday, June 9: 2017 USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award semifinalist voting ends
Wednesday, June 14: 2017 USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award finalists announced, voting begins
Friday, June 23: 2017 USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award finalists voting ends
Thursday, June 29: 2017 USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award trophy presentation

The complete 2017 Golden Spikes Award semifinalist list is as follows:

Name, Position, Class, School
Jake Adams, Jr., IF, Iowa
J.B. Bukauskas, Jr., RHP, North Carolina
Jake Burger, Jr., IF, Missouri State
Griffin Canning, Jr., RHP, UCLA
Morgan Cooper, Jr., RHP, Texas
Greg Deichmann, Jr., OF, LSU
Drew Ellis, Jr., IF, Louisville
Alex Faedo, Jr., RHP, Florida
Stuart Fairchild, Jr., OF, Wake Forest
Steven Gingery, So., LHP, Texas Tech
Nate Harris, Sr., RHP, Louisiana Tech
Adam Haseley, Jr., LHP/OF, Virginia
Luke Heimlich, Jr., LHP, Oregon State
Keston Hiura, Jr., IF/OF, UC Irvine
Gunner Leger, Jr., LHP, Louisiana Lafayette
Nick Madrigal, So., IF, Oregon State
J.J. Matijevic, Jr., IF, Arizona
Brendan McKay, Jr., LHP/IF, Louisville
Nate Pearson, So., RHP, College of Central Florida
David Peterson, Jr., LHP, Oregon
Brent Rooker, Jr., OF, Mississippi State
JP Sears, Jr., LHP, The Citadel
Brian Shaffer, Jr., RHP, Maryland
Pavin Smith, Jr., IF/OF, Virginia
Evan White, Jr., IF, Kentucky

 

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Golden Spikes Spotlight: J.B. Bukauskas

May 24, 2017

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - An uncharacteristic mistake early in Friday's game against Duke revealed a lot about J.B. Bukauskas.

With a runner at third base and two outs in the second inning, Bukauskas got ahead of dangerous Duke righthanded hitter Jimmy Herron - he said later that he was beating Herron with fastballs, and he should have stuck with it. Instead, he shook off the call from the dugout and threw a changeup, and Herron turned on it for an RBI double down the left-field line. When Bukauskas got back to the dugout between innings, North Carolina coach Mike Fox greeted him.

"I very rarely will say something, but I said something to him. I'm like, 'He's probably their best offensive player. There's a guy in scoring position, you have to make him beat your best stuff.' He got mad at me; he said, 'Yes, sir,' but in one of those (tones)," Fox said. "And then after the game he came up to me and apologized. I said, 'J.B., you don't need to apologize to me. If you weren't upset with that, then I would really be worried about you.' That's the way he is. He cares a lot, I think his teammates love him."

It was clear that Bukauskas didn't have his very best stuff early in that game. Afterward, he said he was having problems with a blister that broke open on his finger, which hindered his feel for his slider - normally one of the most devastating pitches in college baseball. On this day, the 82-86 mph slider showed flashes of its typical filthy late tilt, but its break was inconsistent and he struggled to command it.

So Bukauskas made an adjustment. Rather than leaning on his slider for outs, he pounded the zone with his fastball, which sat at 94-96 mph in the first and then sat mostly at 92-94 over the next six innings, touching 95 repeatedly. And starting in the third, he found his groove, retiring 12 straight Duke batters.

"He's had some outings like that where he just finds a way for three or four innings, just to show the other team that, 'OK, I may not have this pitch or that pitch, but I've got this one.' And he just gives our team a chance," Fox said. "It's as much a boost for our offense as anything else. They're like, 'OK, J.B.'s getting in a groove now, they're probably going to go three or four innings without scoring, so let's do something."

That's what happened Friday night, as UNC overcame an early 2-0 deficit and won 3-2 in 10 innings. A few days later, when the regular season was over, Bukauskas was named ACC Pitcher of the Year after going 8-0, 1.87 with 106 strikeouts and 31 walks in 82 innings. He had some brilliant days this spring, but most impressively, he was amazingly consistent from week to week.

"He's a special competitor. He works so hard on the five, six days between his outings, just very meticulous in his routine, his preparation," UNC pitching coach Robert Woodard said. "That carries over into the game in terms of his competitiveness - he invests so much that when something doesn't go his way or he has a little bit of adversity, he has that extra gear he can kind of take it to. He did a great job (Friday) of making pitch to pitch adjustments, over not waiting for the next inning or having to go to another reliever. He really gathered himself, adjusted and kept competing."

Back in May of 2014 when Bukauskas wrote a letter to every major league club telling them he intended to honor his commitment to UNC rather than entertain draft opportunities, the Tar Heels surely felt they had won the lottery. They must have suspected they were getting a potential future ACC pitcher of the year and an obvious first-round talent.

Fox remembers getting the phone call from Bukauskas three years ago, informing him of the young righthander's intention to attend UNC. As Fox remembers it, the call came in around 1 a.m.

"I wasn't totally surprised, I kind of was, but just the way he told me, just very calm, like, 'Hey Coach, this is J.B., I just wanted to let you know we've written a letter to the teams and I'll be coming to UNC.' Just like that - flat, matter-of-fact. That's him. Like, 'OK J.B. See you soon.'"

That direct, businesslike approach has served Bukauskas well so far in his career. He's one of the more analytical and self-aware pitchers in the country, capable of diagnosing his own strengths and weaknesses, and working to turn his shortcomings into strengths.

Exhibit A is his changeup, which he has been working hard to develop since at least last summer with USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team. The pitch has continued to make progress, as he showed when he used it to strike out Duke slugger Griffin Conine early in Friday's game. But a couple of scouts observed that Bukauskas has a tendency to slow down his delivery and let hitters know the pitch is coming. So it was illuminating to hear Bukauskas bring that up himself later in the night, without being prompted.

"It's getting better," Bukauskas said. "I threw like 15 of them tonight, I was happy with it. Got some good swings and misses, some pop-ups and ground balls, and a couple were hit hard. That's the thing, I slowed my mechanics down a little bit, and that will happen - if you show guys what's gonna come, these guys are good hitters, ACC hitters. So can't do that, but I was happy with where it's going."

He also acknowledged that he has gone to UNC closer Josh Hiatt - who owns one of the best changeups in the country - for changeup advice. Again, Bukauskas showed uncommon self-awareness when he described that consultation with Hiatt.

"The biggest thing for me is everything I want to throw, I want to throw for a swing-and-miss. And I'm learning from him that you don't need to go for a swing-and-miss with a changeup, it's a good quick-out pitch," Bukauskas said. "I learn from everybody, talk to everybody, especially guys that have had that kind of success. They're doing something right."

The other thing he's working on is trying to stay closed in his delivery, instead of flying open and letting hitters get a longer look at the ball. He said that when he stays closed, his fastball has more run and better downward angle, and he can locate it better. He's always been better at locating to his glove side, but he has worked to improve his arm-side command as well.

Bukauskas isn't a finished product yet, and he knows that better than anyone. But he's still gotten dramatically better year after year, improving from 5-3, 4.09 as a freshman to 7-2, 3.10 as a sophomore to 8-0, 1.87 as a junior. His strikeout rate has gone up, and he's become harder to hit. He's obviously a major reason for No. 2 North Carolina's superb season, and he'll finally get to pitch on the big stage of the NCAA tournament after the Tar Heels missed the postseason each of the last two years. Getting the program back to the elite level it had reached over the past dozen years (when it made six CWS appearances) was a major motivator for the team-oriented Bukauskas - though he was characteristically understated when he looked ahead to the postseason. "Really looking forward to that," he said. "I think we got a good shot."

Bukauskas' combination of competitiveness, intelligence, selflessness and electrifying stuff make him stand out even among the star-studded list of marquee pitchers who have passed through Chapel Hill in the Fox era (from Andrew Miller, Daniel Bard and Woodard himself to Matt Harvey, Adam Warren, Alex White and Kent Emanuel). Fox and Woodard know how lucky they are to have him leading their staff.

"Blessed is an understatement," Woodard said of the opportunity to coach Bukauaskas in his first year as UNC's pitching coach.

"I remind him of that all the time," Fox quipped.

They're going to enjoy the rest of the Bukauskas era, however long their postseason ride lasts.

"Getting to be his pitching coach this year, there's a sense for me that I just really relish every bullpen session, every one of his outings, just because the time here is limited," Woodard said. "So there's definitely a part of me that's definitely just staying in the moment with him, every bullpen session, every one of his outings and just enjoying.

"It carries over to the rest of the staff, and all the other guys see it. They see him perform, they see him prepare, and it trickles down to all of them and makes everybody else better, just by what he does."

"He's special," Fox added. "He's special in a lot of ways."

 

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Golden Spikes Spotlight: Pavin Smith

May 16, 2017

No matter what else happened in his career, Pavin Smith secured his Virginia legacy in the final game of his freshman year.

That game happened to be the winner-takes-the-title third game of the 2015 CWS Finals against Vanderbilt. The Commodores had beaten the favored Cavs for the championship the year before, and this time around Virginia was a heavy underdog. But after squeaking into the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed, UVa. simply refused to lose. A core of battle-tested warriors in the upper classes carried plenty of the load, but a couple precocious freshmen had a very big role to play, too.

One of them was Adam Haseley, the two-way talent who helped keep UVa. alive with five scoreless innings in the middle game of the Finals, then reached base safely in all four at-bats of the rubber game. The other was Smith, who turned around that last game with a game-tying two-run homer in the fourth, then put Virginia ahead for good with an RBI single an inning later.

It was an incredible pinnacle at the end of freshman All-America campaigns for Smith and Haseley, but it was just the beginning of their impact in Charlottesville. They have gone on to become two of the most accomplished and celebrated players in program history. Both players have managed to get even better each year, and now both are poised to be drafted in the top half of the first round.

They've been so good for so long, and they go about their business with such quiet professionalism that it's easy to take Smith and Haseley for granted. But that would be a mistake.

"(Smith) obviously hit the big home run there in Omaha in his freshman year that helped him win Game Three against Vanderbilt. Now it's like, 'All right, it's come to be expected,'" Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said. "Pavin's worked really, really hard to continue to progress in his game. He's got great balance in his life, he's a great kid, faith is really important to him. He's playing the game with a smile on his face. There's been times where maybe he's scuffled for a couple games, and you say to him, 'Everything all right?' He's got a smile, and it's, 'Hey coach, I'm great!' There's never been any panic about him."

That kind of even keel is obviously critical to maintain the kind of consistent performance Smith has turned in for three years. He hit .307/.373/.467 with seven homers and 44 RBIs as a freshman, then improved to .329/.410/.513 with eight homers and 57 RBIs as a sophomore, in eight fewer games.

Smith and Haseley are both having special seasons, worthy of legitimate Golden Spikes Award consideration, but Smith is doing something as a junior that is nearly unheard of for a power hitter. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound first baseman is batting .355/.433/.585 - with more home runs (10) than strikeouts (seven). He has four times as many walks (28) as he has punchouts.

"He gets his money's worth, and he he still does with two strikes," O'Connor said. "His hand-eye coordination, his contact rate, I don't know what the right words to use, it's just really, really impressive. You see some of these guys swing and miss so much that are great prospects, but it's pretty rare to see him swing and miss. The quality of contact rate is really good.

"I think you ask a lot of people about hitters, everybody says, 'Jeez there's no hitters in the draft, hitting's down.' At a point in time where a lot of people are complaining about offense, this guy is really, really special. He's just got a knack to be able to hit."

Scouts agree with that assessment, of course. Smith has always hit. He hit in high school in Jupiter, Fla., and he hit the very first time UVa. recruiting coordinator Kevin McMullan ever went to see him, after O'Connor got a tip about him from a close friend down in Florida. That first time McMullan set eyes on him, he hit the ball out of the park.

Smith was drafted in the 32nd round by the Rockies but could have gone a lot higher if not for his strong commitment to Virginia. Education was important to him and his family, so he was determined to head to college.

He also hit with a wood bat in summer ball. After he batted .331 with four homers and nine doubles in 163 at-bats for Harwich last summer (counting the playoffs), Smith firmly established himself in the eyes of scouts as one of the best bats in the 2017 draft.

"He's the best pure college hitter in this draft, and his power is a little bit undervalued. I think he's a pure hitter who happens to have power," one AL crosschecker said. "He's always had power, but now he's getting to it with frequency, and he's a good first baseman."

That's the part of Smith's game that can get overlooked: his defense. He has spent some time in left field during his UVa. career, and O'Connor insists he has the athleticism to play there in pro ball or continue to be a standout first baseman.

"The kid takes great routes to the ball in the outfield. He moves around well," O'Connor said. "His defense at first base, some people might want to be critical of it, but all you have to do is go back and watch highlights of this guy … It's very, very rare to see somebody throw the ball in the dirt and him not clean pick it. He's not just a guy who squares it up and keeps it in front of him. He's very, very good with his glove. I think that's something that maybe not a whole lot of people care about for a first baseman, they're just consumed with the power numbers."

Of course, the power numbers are there too. The fact that his power numbers have continued to grow with each passing season is a testament to his physical maturity. The fact that his strikeout numbers have continued to shrink is nothing short of a marvel.

The Cavaliers know how lucky they've been to have Smith and Haseley anchoring their roster for the last three years. And even though their place in history was secure two years ago after they played such a huge part in delivering Virginia its first national title, they didn't rest on their laurels. They're not wired that way, which is a very good thing for the Cavs.

"Certainly we've been fortunate to have a lot of really good players. Both of these guys, as far as performers and people, they're on a very, very short list," O'Connor said. "It's rare to have guys make such an immediate impact like these two guys did their freshman year. And the most impressive thing to me is they've just continued to get better and better. Some guys come in and plateau, and that's who they are. These guys have continued their development, because they have dreams and ambitions beyond here. They've played a huge part in winning a national championship and keeping it a high level. What these two guys are doing back to back 3 and 4 in the lineup, are there many other 3-4 combinations doing that? I'm sure there are, but not very many. these guys are pretty special.

"Their humility is very impressive. They lead by example in their own ways. I think this is part of the reason they're having so much success in their draft-eligible year, something that players don't always handle well - they've handled it great, because they're two centered, humble men."

 

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Golden Spikes Spotlight: Darren McCaughan

May 9, 2017

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- "Honestly, I don't like Cal Poly one bit."

Darren McCaughan entered Friday night's start with a chip on his shoulder and some fire in his blood. The Long Beach State ace had been roughed up in his last start and he was pitching against a team that had previously overlooked him.

"In high school, they told me that I wasn't good enough to go there," McCaughan said. "They told me I should probably go to juco. Little did they know, I was coming here, so it just kind of fires me up to play them every time."

That motivation and a couple of small mechanical tweaks helped McCaughan produce one of the best starts of his career. He tossed a three-hit shutout and struck out 11 to lead the Dirtbags to a 3-0 win in the opener of an important conference series. He also became just the 10th Dirtbag to reach 20 career wins and the first since Cesar Ramos did so in 2005.

"McCaughan was great. He was fantastic," Long Beach State head coach Troy Buckley said after Friday's start. "Even more fantastic coming off what he did last weekend. That's what I'm proud of."

Against UC Davis a week ago, McCaughan was roughed up for a career-high eight runs in 4.1 innings. With the wind howling, Davis hit a double, a triple and three homers - all to left field. He was leaving the ball up and didn't have a feel for his changeup. The offense picked him up, leading the Dirtbags to a 14-9 win, but McCaughan knew he needed to make some adjustments.

As the conference season had progressed, the coaches had already noticed something different about McCaughan's delivery compared to last season. But McCaughan had been stellar in his first four conference starts this season, going 3-1, 1.35. He had worked into the eighth inning in all four, including back-to-back complete games prior to facing Davis.

With their ace pitching well, the coaches didn't want to make a change just to make a change. There was no need to mess with what was working. Like most pitchers, McCaughan is at his best when he is able to get into a rhythm and isn't contemplating his mechanics.

"When I'm not doing so well, I'm kind of thinking about too much maybe and trying to do too much with my pitches," he said last month.

By comparing film of McCaughan's start at Davis to when he was dominating last season, Buckley and first-year pitching coach Dan Ricabal noticed when McCaughan raised his left leg and began striding toward the plate, the bottom half of that front leg was bending at the knee and getting underneath his rear rather than dangling straight down. When he began to stride forward, the extra bend in his front leg was leading to a shorter stride and a compression of the front leg when landing. That led McCaughan to push the ball up instead of getting his hand on top of the baseball and getting extension forward as he released the ball.

It was a minor adjustment, but it allowed McCaughan to clear his hips and get out in front of the ball by working against a hard front side.

"I didn't even realize that I was doing it. It's not something you think about on the mound, but I think just hammering that in the week in all of my work that I was doing, it just translates over to the mound," McCaughan said.

He was able to command his 84-88 mph fastball with his normal fervor, moving it to both sides of the plate. McCaughan consistently got ahead and forced Cal Poly into defensive counts. He threw 111 pitches with 80 strikes, getting to two strikes on 21 batters, including 10 of the last 11.

"He just spots the ball, has a little bit of sink and mixes. And he competes. He's good," Mustangs head coach Larry Lee said.

After getting ahead, McCaughan worked in a changeup at 80-83 mph and his developing 77-80 slider. He felt both offspeed pitches were much better than his previous start. His sequencing followed a similar path to the game.

McCaughan had to quickly show his mettle against the Mustangs. It's hard to ever say that a game is decided in the first inning, but that's definitely when all the action was Friday night.

"First innings for me are big pitching coach situations," Buckley said. "We have six days to prepare for that first inning. How you're going to pitch it, how you're going to script it. You can do whatever you want to do. The challenge is to handle the adrenaline once the adrenaline injects into that pitcher."

The adrenaline immediately began flowing for McCaughan. One pitch into the game, Cal Poly had a runner in scoring position after the Dirtbags threw away a fairly routine chopper.

"I think it's hard to overcome bad first innings," Buckley said. "We always talk about make the first inning like the ninth inning. If you've got to throw the kitchen sink to put up a zero in the first inning, then you've got to do it."

McCaughan bore down. He got a popup to first base and a grounder to second that moved the runner over. Then McCaughan stranded him there with the first of his 11 strikeouts.

"You know that with McCaughan on the mound, it's going to be a low-scoring game," Lee said. "To put up a run in the first inning and play with a lead, that's a must."

Instead, it was the Long Beach offense able to do that. The Dirtbags scored two runs in the first, added one in the third and relied on their ace to carry them the rest of the way.

"Coming into this week, I knew it was going to be a big week for conference. Knew I had to get the team off on the right foot to start the weekend," McCaughan said. "I think that was kind of my job and I did that."

Buckley was more impressed with the way McCaughan took the coaches' advice, deployed a plan of attack to address the issues during a strong week of practice and then bounced back to perform in the opener of a series between two teams that sat atop the Big West standings entering the weekend.

"You got punched in the mouth and knocked to the mat," Buckley said. "It's a TKO-type of thing. Even though we won [last week], he had to get back to work because he did have to make a few little tweaks. Nothing crazy, but it showed up. That's really exciting when you can take those things and implement them and then see some results. That's like the best, best ever."

When McCaughan was invited to join USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team in the summer, he knew his opportunities were going to be limited with the number of quality power arms on the roster. Ultimately, his three innings over four appearances were the fewest by anyone that made the final travel roster. He didn't allow a run in his first three outings, earning a save over Chinese Taipei and getting out of a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the team's final exhibition game before traveling overseas. He blew a save giving up two runs in his final appearance, a 3-1 loss to Cuba.

But the experience was still worth it for the 6-foot-1, 200-pound righthander. He got to wear the red, white and blue. He got to travel to see different countries and cultures. And he got to learn from some of the best pitchers in college baseball.

McCaughan picked the brains of pitchers like North Carolina's J.B. Bukauskas, Florida's Alex Faedo and Vanderbilt's Kyle Wright, who combined to allow five earned runs in 54 innings last summer and should all hear their names in the first 15-20 picks in this summer's draft.

"You can learn a ton by how you watch a guy go about things," Buckley said. "Grips, what the process is, what the intentions are. A lot of different things."

For McCaughan, the focus was improving his breaking ball.

"I learned how everyone threw their sliders. Just kind of watching everyone throw and seeing how they would do it," McCaughan said. "It was mainly I wasn't getting out in front with it and that's kind of what I was seeing everyone do with it. The more they would get out in front with it, the better it would break down."

McCaughan's ERA (6-2, 2.97) hasn't been as good as last season (10-1, 2.03) as he's given up a couple more home runs already this year than he did in 2016, but his peripheral numbers are just as good, if not better. Opponents are hitting just .188 against him after batting .193 last year. His walk rate has slightly declined from 1.30 base on balls per nine innings to 1.02 and his strikeout rate is up from 6.8 to 8.2.

He leads the Big West allowing just 6.1 hits per game and is tied for the conference lead with four complete games. Two of those have been shutouts. Two of his other starts have been team shutouts. The Dirtbags lead the nation with nine shutouts. Nearly half have occurred when McCaughan starts.

That is partly due to his 8.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is top 10 in the nation. His walk rate is No. 15 in the country and he has college baseball's third-best WHIP. He is allowing 0.80 walks and hits each inning.

McCaughan credits his improvement to the development of the slider.

"I think I really improved my slider this year, which has been allowing me to put more guys away and just not running up my pitch counts as much," McCaughan said. "With Rico [Ricabal] coming in, he's helped me out a lot with it. Now I've got my fastball going, I've got my slider going, so it's been pretty good."

In one seventh-inning sequence on Friday, McCaughan got Cal Poly middle of the lineup bat Nick Meyer waving at a slider that finished more than a foot off the plate. He buzzed Meyer up and in with an 0-2 pitch and then threw the slider, starting it in the strike zone and letting it break into the lefthanders batting box. Meyer had no chance.

"What makes it better is that you have to respect the fastball and the command of the fastball," Buckley said. "That's where I think when he goes well, that's what he does and especially against righthanded hitters, it frees up the breaking ball to not have to be as wipeout-ish."

His fastball isn't overpowering but constantly throbbing the mitt. He can also throw his changeup in any count. With the breaking ball improving into a putout pitch, honestly, hitters don't like facing Darren McCaughan one bit.

 

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Golden Spikes Spotlight: Brendan McKay

May 3, 2017

Brendan McKay's collegiate debut came in the eighth inning of a Sunday game against Cal State Fullerton in Clearwater, Fla. It was opening weekend of the 2015 season, and Louisville was down 8-6 against the Titans, so the coaching staff decided to give McKay, their prized freshman lefthander, a chance on the mound.

He worked two scoreless innings that day, pitching at 88-92 mph and flashing a power curveball that would become one of his trademarks. Appropriately, his first career strikeout came on an 81 mph curve against Scott Hurst.

Days later, Louisville coach Dan McDonnell sent a text message insisting that the first weekend didn't really showcase just how good his all of his freshmen would be. "Make sure you keep an eye on Brendan McKay," he texted. "Reminds me of Stephen Head…"

Head was one of the most accomplished two-way players of the new century. During his three-year career from 2003-05, Head hit .338 with 37 homers while posting a 2.32 ERA in 213 innings for Ole Miss, where McDonnell served as an assistant at the time.

Three weeks after McKay's collegiate debut, the Cardinals played a two-game midweek road series at Ole Miss, where Head was finishing his degree. By that point, McKay (who didn't hit during his first college weekend) was already entrenched as Louisville's cleanup man, and when closer Zack Burdi was sidelined for a few weeks with an injury, McKay filled in admirably at the back of the bullpen. Two days before the visit to Oxford, McKay had gone 3-for-3 with a walk-off single and worked two scoreless innings of relief in the series finale against Miami. Then, in the Tuesday game against Ole Miss, he struck out two in a scoreless ninth to earn his fourth save.

"I told Stephen before the game that Tuesday, 'This is the closest kid I've had to you,'" McDonnell recalls. "He had to close the game that night, he was like 92-94 with a snap dragon curveball. After the game, Stephen walks up to me and puts his arm around me and says, 'Hey Coach, man, this dude's way better than me. I never threw that hard and I didn't have that breaking ball.'

"But you know what I mean - this is our Stephen Head. When I always talk about greatness, I always talk about a career. Nothing wrong with doing it for one year, that's awesome, but Stephen Head did it for a career. Just like McKay, he was the national freshman of the year and was on Team USA. What he did for three years, he changed the program. By the time he rolled through there, that program was at a different level. McKay is doing the same for us now."

McKay's career isn't quite over yet - he still has two very important months left to add to his legacy - but he's already certain to go down as one of the greatest two-way players of his era, or any era. He was the consensus national Freshman of the Year in 2015, when he settled into the Saturday starter role once Burdi returned and finished 9-3, 1.77 off the mound while hitting .308 at the plate. He stepped up into the Friday starter role as a sophomore, going 12-4, 2.30 with 128 strikeouts in 109.2 innings, and his offensive production climbed - he hit .333 and improved his slugging percentage by 82 points to .513. He was a first-team All-American as a freshman and again as a sophomore, and he surely will be once again as a junior, because he is having his best season yet.

In 10 starts on the mound, McKay is 6-3, 2.15 with 95 strikeouts and 16 walks in 67 innings. That's roughly in line with his career stats heading into the season, although his strikeout rate is up (from 1.2 per nine innings to 1.4) and his walk rate is down (from 0.37 to 0.23 per nine innings). But McKay has taken his offensive game to a different planet. Through 142 at-bats, he is hitting .394/.514/.739 with 13 homers and 42 RBIs. Entering the season, he had hit just 10 career homers in 439 at-bats.

McKay started earning real draft buzz as a hitter last summer for Team USA, for whom he hit .326. But McDonnell had a feeling his offensive game would benefit if he spent more time at first base and less time at DH, where the Cardinals used him a lot last season in order to keep him fresh. McDonnell believed he would thrive by being more engaged throughout the game - but he told McKay he had to earn the job, and prove that he could play at a high level and pitch at a high level despite taking on the extra workload.

"He was phenomenal all fall on the mound, phenomenal all fall at first base, phenomenal all fall at the plate," McDonnell said. "So I told all the scouts this fall, 'He's hitting 15 homers this year.' They said, 'Fifteen?' I said, 'Fifteen. I promise you.'

"He got off to a good start. Then there was a little lull in the season, and I'm thinking, 'Oh man, I promised these dudes he's hitting 15.' Then he got it going again this week."

That's an understatement. McKay went bonkers at the plate last week, going deep six times in five games. It started with a four-homer, nine-RBI game on Tuesday against Eastern Kentucky. Then, in Sunday's series finale against Toledo, he homered twice more.

"I've never really hit multiple home runs in a game up until that point, since I was 12," McKay said. "When I was 12, we were at Cooperstown, N.Y., at a tournament, and I hit two in the very first game we played, in the first inning. That was the last time I had two in a game."

Around that same time, when McKay was 12 or 13, a kid he played travel ball with showed him a curveball grip. "I don't think he was a pitcher, but he knew the grip for some reason, and he showed it to me," McKay recalled. "From there I tried it, I just tweaked it a little more to throw it with different shapes and speeds. As you get into high school, you kind of start to realize you're throwing it pretty well and it's hard to hit for a lot of guys."

The numbers McKay posted at Blackhawk High School in Western Pennsylvania were just silly - though not so much sillier than the numbers he has put up for Louisville, especially this year. During one stretch, he posted 72.1 consecutive scoreless innings off the mound. He went 8-1, 0.56 with 130 strikeouts as a senior while hitting .429. He was 7-0, 0.13 with 101 strikeouts as a junior, when he hit .440. He was 9-1, 0.69 with 98 strikeouts as a sophomore, when he hit .400. He was a two-time winner of Gatorade Player of the Year award in the state of Pennsylvania.

After that kind of domination, McKay attracted plenty of interest from Division I schools and pro scouts. But he actually committed to Louisville fairly late in the process - the summer before his senior year. Louisville pitching coach Roger Williams told McDonnell he needed to drop everything and make his way up to Darlington, Pa., to visit with McKay's family, because his college decision was imminent. So McDonnell hitched a ride with a pilot who used to work as a manager for the Louisville women's basketball team.

"So I show up to the airport, this was the smallest plane ever. It was his seat, the pilot, I'm the co-pilot, there's no seat behind us. That's it," McDonnell recalls. He and the pilot made plans to meet up after the home visit by 10 p.m. to fly back to Louisville, because a storm was coming, and getting caught in a storm in that little plane was probably a bad idea. But McDonnell turns his phone off when he goes into a home visit, and he got carried away in conversation with Brendan's mother Kim.

"If you put Kim McKay and myself in a room together, the hours fly by," McDonnell said. "We're talking, talking, talking. I'm selling everything … For some reason, the mom said, 'Oh my gosh, it's already 10 o'clock.' So I reach into my bag, I have like 10 missed calls from this dude. All these texts - severe storms are coming, we've gotta leave now."

McDonnell said a hasty goodbye and rushed back to the airport.

"He can't crank the engine. He's cranking the engine, the engine won't start," McDonnell said. "He's on the headset, he's trying to get clearance. The storm is coming, you can see the radar, it's this giant green coming across. I'm sitting there going, 'Holy cow, I'm gonna die, this is it. This is not good.' He finally gets the engine cranked, finally gets clearance, with the understanding that we'e got to do some dodging, we've got to reroute, avoid some of these storms. The two-hour flight became at least two and a half, three hours. We're constantly looking left and right, there's lightning strikes, there's rain. I was so tired, we got back probably 2 in the morning. It's a funny story because of how this kid turned out and what he's done for your program."

The other notable thing about the story is that while McDonnell and Kim McKay were carrying on for hours and causing McDonnell to nearly get himself killed in a thunderstorm, Brendan sat by quietly and "probably said 10 words the whole night," McDonnell recalled. McKay is just a quiet, unassuming guy - but his personality translates perfectly to the baseball field. It's a big reason for his success.

When asked what moment was his personal highlight of this incredible season, McKay doesn't go with the four-homer game or the 15-strikeout performance against Pitt or the eight innings of one-hit ball he threw at Georgia Tech. Instead, he singles out a seven-hour bus ride to Georgia Tech, because he got to spend all that time playing games with teammates and bonding with them even more. Heading into the season, when the coaches asked all the players to write down their personal and team goals, more than one of McKay's top goals were simply to enjoy spending time with his teammates and getting as close with them as possible before going their separate ways. He's not interesting in chasing numbers; that stuff comes naturally. But he really feels happiest when he's joking around and playing games with his friends. He has grown into a vital piece of the clubhouse chemistry.

"For us as coaches to see how he's grown up, from not making a peep as a freshman to coming out of his shell last year, now he's like a pro, like a big leaguer. He just handles the media requests," McDonnell said. "I just love how he loves his teammates and they love him. Our quote on the practice schedule the other day was, 'Don't forget, this game allows you to be a kid.' He plays this game like a kid. That doesn't mean he doesn't take it serious, but he ain't getting too worked up - his heart rate, his pulse."

Another anecdote to prove the point: Louisville returned to Ole Miss for a weekend series when McKay was a sophomore. The Rebels beat Cards ace Kyle Funkhouser on Friday night, so Louisville needed a big performance from McKay on Saturday. But McKay wasn't exactly keyed up before the game.

"As Rog (Williams) tells the story, it looks like Brendan McKay is gonna fall asleep in the dugout," McDonnell said. "He said, 'You gotta go out to the bullpen and get started.' He kinda yawned and was like, 'OK.' I don't think anybody got past second base (in a three-hit shutout). Rog is shaking his head like, 'You know how many kids are all emotional and ramped up? This kid looks like he he was gonna fall asleep in front of 10,000 people.' That's why he is who he is."

Who he is is the top prospect in college baseball for the 2017 draft. Most scouts still prefer him as a pitcher - it's hard to walk away from a polished lefty who pitches comfortably in the low 90s and has a wipeout power curve and an improved changeup and an unflappable mound presence and an incredible track record of high-level success. But there are other organizations that would take him at the top of the draft as a hitter. "It is close, but if I was picking high I would always take the hitter, unless you feel he is a 1 or 2 starter," one scouting director said. In a quick straw poll of five high-level decision makers in scouting departments for various organizations, three said they would take him as a pitcher, and two like him more as a hitter. Another said he estimated that 20 clubs like him more as a pitcher, and 10 prefer him as a hitter.

McKay, for his part, said he doesn't have a preference to hit or pitch. But in a perfect illustration of his quiet, unassuming confidence, he said he'd love to do both in pro ball - something that is pretty much unheard of. But when McKay talks about it, he's not being audacious. It's just something he thinks he could do.

"I think if you can find a way to do both and be successful, how to handle your arm and the wear and tear of your season, I think it can add a special element to Major League Baseball at some point, if you've got a guy who can hit well or come in in the 13th or 14th inning or something when your pitching staff is getting thin," McKay said. "If we can find a way to do it in the minor leagues and it works out well and it can translate on up, I think it would be a neat thing to do, and would be fun."

If anyone can do it, it's McKay, who is just as productive and perhaps just as talented at the plate as he is on the mound. For years, McDonnell has held up former lefthander Justin Marks and former slugging third baseman Chris Dominguez as the best pitcher and best player to ever play for Louisville - after all, they helped the program get to Omaha for the first time in 2007, and they were standout players for three years.

"So for 10 years I've been saying, the greatest pitcher and hitter in our program were Marks and Dominguez," McDonnell said. "Kind of the running joke this year is one guy's gonna take both accolades. Like, holy cow! Did you see that coming?"

McDonnell saw a lot of success coming for McKay, as that early text message comparing him Stephen Head attests. But what McKay has actually done over three seasons is beyond any optimist's wildest dreams.

D1Baseball.com is the weekly contributor of the USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award Spotlight and assists with the Gold Standard Performance of the Week video series. D1Baseball.com provides news, analysis and commentary from writers: Aaron Fitt, Kendall Rogers, Mark Etheridge, Eric Sorenson, Shotgun Spratling, Michael Baumann and Dustin McComas.

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USA Baseball, Rod Dedeaux Foundation Announce Ten-Year Partnership Extension

May 1, 2017

DURHAM, N.C. -- USA Baseball and the Rod Dedeaux Foundation announced a ten-year partnership extension on Monday. The agreement provides the Rod Dedeaux Foundation the rights to market and sell sponsorships surrounding the USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award and the USA Baseball Rod Dedeaux Coach of the Year Award.

USA Baseball has honored the top amateur baseball player in the nation with the Golden Spikes Award since 1978 and has partnered with the Rod Dedeaux Foundation since 2013 to host the annual award ceremony at its Rod Dedeaux Foundation Award Dinner. The award dinner is a yearly celebration of baseball excellence, which has become synonymous with the Dedeaux name. In addition to honoring the top amateur player and coach in the country, the dinner also features an all-star class of former baseball greats.

"It is truly an honor to continue our partnership with the Rod Dedeaux Foundation and we are proud to continue presenting the Golden Spikes Award to athletes who best exemplify the characteristics of Rod Dedeaux, with exceptional on-field ability and outstanding sportsmanship," said Paul Seiler, Executive Director and CEO at USA Baseball. "Rod's legacy in the collegiate baseball landscape and around the world is remarkable. Watching him firsthand at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games stand next to his longtime friend and Team USA Manager Tommy Lasorda, as we celebrated our gold medal victory, was inspiring, and yet just a small piece of the astounding baseball tradition he shaped."

The partnership between USA Baseball and the Rod Dedeaux Foundation honors the legendary University of Southern California and U.S. Olympic Manager Rod Dedeaux. Dedeaux led the Trojans to 11 national championships, was instrumental in the creation of the annual USA versus Japan international friendship series in 1972 and coached Team USA to the silver medal in the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games. He was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

"It is a privilege to partner with USA Baseball, the national governing body for amateur baseball in the United States, with whom our namesake, Rod Dedeaux, held in the highest regard," said Brett Dedeaux, Executive Director of the Rod Dedeaux Foundation. "Our expanded partnership will serve to further enhance the visibility and prestige of the premier award in amateur baseball, the Golden Spikes Award, while serving as a platform to raise funds for inner-city youth baseball and softball."

Marketing and sponsorship sales will benefit the Rod Dedeaux Foundation and its mission to support youth baseball and softball programs in underprivileged areas by renovating urban playing fields and providing a supportive environment designed to build character and academic achievement among the nation's youth.

The 2017 USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award will be presented on Thursday, June 29, on ESPN's flagship program, SportsCenter. The finalists and their families will be honored at the Rod Dedeaux Foundation Award Dinner at Jonathan Club in downtown Los Angeles immediately following the presentation.

The 2016 USA Baseball Rod Dedeaux Coach of the Year George Horton (Oregon) will be honored at its annual award dinner. Horton led the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team to its first-ever series victory in Cuba after claiming a 2-1 victory over the Cuban National Team in the rubber game on July 27. Former U.S. Collegiate National Team assistant coach Augie Garrido will also be honored at the dinner, where he will be presented the Rod Dedeaux Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.

Mercer University's Kyle Lewis took home the Golden Spikes Award in 2016, joining a star-studded group of former winners including Kris Bryant (2013), Bryce Harper (2010), Buster Posey (2008), David Price (2007) and Terry Francona (1980), as well as other current and former major league stars.

For more information on the Rod Dedeaux Foundation, visit DedeauxFoundation.org. For up-to-the minute news about the USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award, visit GoldenSpikesAward.com and follow @USAGoldenSpikes on Instagram and Twitter.

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Golden Spikes Spotlight: Brent Rooker

April 25, 2017

MOBILE, Ala. - There are times when natural talent and hard work align. When they do, the results can be amazing. Like the time your Aunt Eunice made the greatest pecan pie in the county. She even has the ribbon to prove it. Or the time you and your college buddy Jay won 10-straight games of cornhole. Those are the moments we live for.

Sometimes baseball players have moments like Aunt Eunice or Jay did. Brent Rooker had one of those moments. The Mississippi State first baseman entered mid-April hitting .450 with 16 homers and led the SEC in almost every offensive category. He was basically living out the dreams many of us share - waiting for everything to come together and performing at your peak.

The epicenter of the Rooker barrage came in a home series in Starkville against Kentucky.

"Every time Rooker swung the bat, I felt the ball was going to go out," Kentucky coach Nick Mingione said. "Every .. swing … he ... took."

Fortunately for the Wildcats' coach, it only seemed that way. During the first game of the series, Rooker went 0-2 with a walk and a hit by pitch. Then came the second game where all he did was go 4-4 with three homers and six RBIs. After the four hits, three of them turning into souvenirs into the homemade rigs that surround the outfield wall, Mingione just intentionally walked Rooker.

Kentucky walked him even though there were already runners on first and second. Yep, he advanced two runners into scoring position to avoid pitching to Rooker.

"The game plan was not to let him beat us," said Mingione. "It didn't matter what we threw, he hit it out. Finally you get to the point where we are not even going to try to intentionally throw him balls, because they are ending up strikes and going out of the yard.

"So we just finally decided we were going to walk him and make somebody else beat us. I wish it wouldn't have taken three homers to do that. He was going through one of those phases where it didn't matter what anyone was going to throw him. If it was around the strike zone, he was getting barrel and it was going out. I have only seen a few players in that kind of place before."

It is the kind of moment hitters fantasize about but few ever enjoy. For those of us who will never know how that feels, just what is that like?

"There are times at the plate where you walk up there and literally you feel invincible," Rooker told D1baseball.com. "There is no way the guy on the mound is getting you out. It is that kind of confidence that comes with repeated success. Baseball becomes really fun and it slows down a lot.

"It seems easy at the time but as everybody knows, baseball is a really, really hard game," Rooker continued. "For short stints, it can seem easy when you are locked in. At the same time, those kinds of grooves can go away really quickly and the game speeds back up and gets really hard. You just try to stay in that mindset where the game is slow and try to focus for as long as you can."

When a player is going like Rooker was at the time, there just isn't much you can do from the opposing dugout.

"You just put him on." said Mingione. "I was even debating, with the bases loaded, do you put him on? They did that in the big leagues with Barry Bonds. You are just out one run. You go through in your mind, 'what are the chances of him getting a hit?' Well, he is hitting .450. So there is a 45% chance he is getting a hit. He had already hit five home runs that week. He is in place where even his mis-hits were falling in. Yep, just put him on."

Brent Rooker: A Historical Perspective

Through the years, there obviously have been countless great SEC hitters, many of whom went on to star in the big leagues. Few have had the aura that Rooker amassed in his half season in Starkville. Since the bats have changed, Rooker's season is reminiscent of a few other SEC stars. Matt LaPorta at Florida had a similar run. A.J. Reed at Kentucky had the power numbers as well. Andrew Benintendi enjoyed an incredible season at Arkansas. But Rooker is in position to do something none of those greats nor frankly, anyone else has done. He leads the SEC in batting average, home runs, RBIs, and stolen bases. Yep, he could win the conference's Triple Crown - the last SEC player to do so was Rafael Palmeiro in 1984 - and he could one-up him by taking the steals title as well.

"He is having a really special season," said Mississippi State coach Andy Cannizaro. "Each year there are typically one or two guys around the country that are having really incredible years and he is that guy this year. He has worked so hard and has earned everything he is getting. He is a great leader for our team."

Entering Tuesday's game in Pearl against Ole Miss, Rooker has a line of .400/.505/.877 with 16 homers, 58 RBIs, and is 16-20 in steal attempts. He has also slugged 20 doubles and been walked 28 times.

The batting average dropped 50 points in seven days. He was batting .450 a week earlier but in the last seven games went just 4-for-26. He hasn't homered since April 14 at South Carolina.

Everyone has those dips. But when you are hitting .450, any mini-slump affects your batting average more than most. Rooker has played 42 games and has 14 regular season scheduled games remaining. With 1-to-6 games in the SEC Tournament, 2-to-5 games in Regionals, a potential for 3 in the Supers and up to 7 in Omaha, he could have as many as 35 games left. While that may make batting over .400 more difficult, it could really aid his chase toward the Triple Crown.

Regardless of whether his run at the triple crown is successful, he is already having a historic season.

Last year, Florida's Pete Alonso and Ole Miss' J.B. Woodman led the SEC in homers with 14. Rooker has already eclipsed that mark with 16.

Jake Mangum, Rooker's teammate at State, hit .408 last season and was the first SEC player to hit over .400 since Raph Rhymes of LSU hit .431 in 2012.

In 2015, Benintendi hit 20 homers and hit .376 to lead the SEC in both categories. He was sixth in RBIs with 57.

In 2014, Kentucky's A.J. Reed slugged 23 homers and drove in a league-best 73 runs. He was tied for fifth in batting at .336.

The last SEC Triple Crown winner was Rafael Palmeiro who hit 29 homers, drove in 94 runs and hit for a .415 average. That was in 1984, 33 years ago.

"We are not talking about some random league," said Mingione. "There is a reason why this hasn't been done since Palmeiro. The SEC has 68 big leaguers right now. There are a lot of really good players who have played in this league and they have not done that."

None of those guys did everything Rooker is doing this season. The question now is can he pull out of his mini-slump and sustain the early season pace through the remainder of the year?

"That is the thing about this league is that it never stops," said Cannizaro. "The arms, they just keep coming and coming and he just continues to have success. He will continue to because he is a great hitter. He is very smart. He makes pitch to pitch adjustments at the plate. He is going to be a great hitter for a long time."

"He is the most dangerous guy," said South Alabama coach Mark Calvi whose team faced Rooker three times this season (Rooker went 3-10 with a double, homer, and 3 RBIs). "Rooker, there are not a lot of weaknesses there. He is a good runner. He hits for average and he hits for power. He can go out to all fields. He does everything that you want him to do and then some. No one has figured out how to get him out. When you think about it, he's getting hits 45 percent of the time. That is unbelievable. As the season goes on, you are thinking, no one can sustain that. You keep waiting to see if the well runs dry. That kid is no fluke. I don't know if there is a better one in the game."

How Rooker Got Here

This rise to stardom has not come quickly for Rooker. The 6-foot-4, 220 pound redshirt junior out of Germantown, Tenn., was a three-sport star in high school. He split his time between various sports - he was a football quarterback as well as a basketball player. He entered Mississippi State not quite ready for SEC pitching, especially those nasty breaking balls. Mingione, who was on the staff at MSU as an assistant for Rooker's first three years in Starkville, felt the redshirt year was just what a 19 year old Rooker needed.

Think about that for a minute … the SEC's top hitter was someone who not only didn't come in as a heralded professional prospect, he was an unpolished talent that used a redshirt season to help develop. He waited his turn and used not only the redshirt year but also his first year on the field to improve without that many in-game reps. It says a lot about his makeup.

"This guy is an unbelievable human being," Mingione said. "When you talk about having your priorities in order, this guy has got it. He is selfless. He is into the team. He is intellectual. I cannot tell you enough great things about him. He is the package. I was around him every day for three years. In three years I never saw him give one swing away. This guy is in love with hitting. He has watched every video. He has watched every drill.

"I always thought he could hit but I didn't know what position he would play," Mingione added.

"He is a really special player, a special hitter," said Cannizaro. "He is really bright and processes information so well at the plate. He is an absolute winner that I love coaching every single day."

After the redshirt season in 2014, in 2015 Rooker played in 34 of the team's 54 games with 18 starts as designated hitter and two in left field. He hit .257 in just 74 at bats with a pair of homers. Last season, despite playing with an ankle injury, Rooker appeared in 58 games, starting 53 as an outfielder and designated hitter. He hit .324 with 11 homers and 54 RBI and was playing well late in the year as the Bulldogs won the SEC regular season and won a regional. Minnesota took him in the 38th round last June.

"At the end of the year, it started clicking for him and he got some pro interest," Mingione said. "We basically had a conversation with him that went something like this, 'Brent if you come back to Mississippi State next year, you are going to be the SEC Player of the Year'. I told him that. You can ask him."

So we did.

Rooker confirmed that is exactly how it went down. "It meant a lot to me coming from a guy that had been around the league for as long as he has," Rooker explained. "He has seen a lot of players come through the SEC and knowing that he thought I could have that type of season was pretty special."

Why was Mingione so confident Rooker would take the next step into stardom?

"Here's why, he got hurt at the beginning of the year when he hurt his ankle," Mingione said. "Ankles can be slow to heal, especially with how he hits and how involved his lower half is. It just took him a while. So by the time he got healthy and got the other at bats, you could see it happening for him. It was a no-brainer he would break out.

"This guy is wired different," Mingione said. "The way he handles success. The way he handles failure. The way his brain handles pitching. The guy is an animal in the weight room. He loves to compete. He is not afraid."

But he hadn't reached his potential yet. This year he is healthy. But what does Rooker feel made the difference between a good season in 2016 and whatever superlative you want to slap on 2017?

"I think it just another year of experience of seeing SEC arms every day," said Rooker. "This past summer going to the Cape (Cod League) and seeing high caliber arms each day; learning to adjust to that. Learning how to combat what pitchers are are trying to do to me. There have been some physical changes to my swing in the off season that I worked really hard on."

So what kind of physical changes did he implement? Because just about everyone south of AAA wants to try the same thing.

"I made myself move more efficiently to make myself square balls up more consistently," Rooker said. "I added some adjustability into my swing. Just the combination of experience and hours and hours of work trying to perfect my skills."

His work has paid off in a big way.

"He is a different animal this year," said Cannizaro. "He is using the field. He is not chasing outside of the strike zone. He is recognizing spin. He has turned himself into a complete hitter."

He's Not Just A Hitter

For all of the talk about Rooker's offense, it is easy to overlook that the speedy, big armed once-outfielder is now a first baseman. He has grown into the role and even made a sparkling game-saving defensive play in bottom of the ninth at Ole Miss to end the game and give MSU the sweep.

Rooker played some first base in high school, but since he arrived at MSU, had been an outfielder for three seasons and it appeared he would remain there this spring. Then he got a text.

"We were playing Columbia on a Monday morning at 11 because we had had a game rained out," said Rooker. "Coach Cannizaro texted me at 6:30 AM and said, 'hey, can you play first base?"

"I said, 'I will try'. I played it that morning and then I have been over there every day since."

"Originally, it happened out of necessity," said Cannizaro. "We have had so many injuries and so many things happen to force us to play with a limited roster this year. We needed somebody to play first base and Brent had taken ground balls over there earlier in the year. He won the job that day and has continued to get better and better at it. The thing about Brent is he is such a coachable kid and he continues to improve because he works at it. He pays attention to details. He wants to be a good first baseman. Everybody is talking about all the stuff he is doing offensively and rightfully so, but he really has played a nice first base for us all year."

Rooker's team is now 28-14 and 13-5 in conference play. The Bulldogs continue to find creative ways to win games. They are coming off a weekend sweep of Alabama where they trailed in all three games and won each by a single run. They won the prior SEC series at South Carolina and Ole Miss along with home series against Kentucky and Tennessee. They haven't dropped an SEC series since Arkansas. They close at home versus Auburn, at Texas A&M and Georgia, and at home against LSU.

"We are playing really well," Rooker said prior to the series against Alabama. "The past few weekends we have played really well against some really good teams. I think we are surprising a lot of people with how well we are doing. We have a lot of young guys stepping up, a lot of inexperienced guys doing what we what needed them to do. They are maturing and we are building as a team and playing well."

"We are having a lot of success as a team," Cannizaro added. "We are playing with a lot of confidence. Our pitching staff has been outstanding. Coach (Gary) Henderson has done a phenomenal job navigating the bullpen with a limited staff. We are just playing at a high level."

No one is playing at a higher level than the Bulldogs' first baseman. His numbers may be surprising to some but for others, it is the natural destination for his combination of talent and work ethic.

"It all goes back to the way he is wired," said Mingione. "It was so obvious to me that this guy was going to be great. He had the tools and he was going to work his way into it. It was just a matter of time."

D1Baseball.com is the weekly contributor of the USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award Spotlight and assists with the Gold Standard Performance of the Week video series. D1Baseball.com provides news, analysis and commentary from writers: Aaron Fitt, Kendall Rogers, Mark Etheridge, Eric Sorenson, Shotgun Spratling, Michael Baumann and Dustin McComas.

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GSA

Golden Spikes Spotlight: Griffin Canning

April 19, 2017

Even before Griffin Canning ever threw a Division I pitch, UCLA's coaching staff knew it had a future ace on its hands.

"Canning is special," UCLA coach John Savage said in November of 2014, the fall of Canning's freshman year. "Canning is really good - you're going to love Canning. He's 88-91, curveball anytime. Slider, changeup, athletic - you're going to love him."

UCLA's recruiting coordinator at the time, T.J. Bruce (now head coach at Nevada), was even more specific in his forecast for the tall righthander.

"When you go out and evaluate players, it's about three pitches. If you can command three pitches, you'll be pretty good for a long time, and that's what he does," Bruce said that fall. "There's more velo in there too, in my opinion. I think he has a chance to be 93-94 every day, with some maturity of the body. The biggest thing is the fastball command is special."

Fast-forward a few years, and the words of Savage and Bruce seem prescient. Canning has been a key contributor on UCLA's staff for three years, going 15-11, 3.26 in 234.2 innings over the course of his career. He's having his best season as a junior, with a 2.77 ERA and a 78-20 strikeout-walk mark in 61.2 innings.

Canning has also taken the velocity jump that Bruce predicted, and he has blossomed into a likely first-round pick who could be the first college pitcher drafted on the West Coast this June. Of course, the velocity gains were accompanied by a few growing pains during the middle part of this season.

"You're dealing with a pitchability guy who's all of a sudden trying to pitch with 92-95, whereas he was 89-92 last year," one Southern California area scout said. "So maybe some of his struggles with being elevated and throwing more balls than we're accustomed to could be related to that."

"He was really sharp early - he came out of the chute throwing the ball extremely well," Savage said. "Then his velocity kind of took a spike, he was up to 95, 94. His stuff has been really good all year - he's been 92-94 every outing. He kind of, for whatever reason, lost his Canning command a little bit, missed up in the zone, walked more than he normally walks. And then it seems like we kind of found his slot again against ASU, made a little adjustment with the slot. He seems to be back on track."

Canning got on track emphatically last week against Stanford, when he struck out a career-high 12 batters without issuing a walk in a complete-game, four-hit shutout. When he's at his very best, he can smother hitters with quality strikes, like he did on Thursday against the Cardinal.

Savage said that during his brief and uncharacteristic struggle with his command this season, Canning had started throwing from a high three-quarters slot, but he found his comfort zone again after settling back into his normal three-quarters slot. Suddenly his angle to the plate was better, his pitches started coming out of the same tunnels again, and he had more success locating down in the zone to his glove side.

And Canning can do a lot more than blow hitters away with velocity. His fastball has a high spin rate, which gives it some extra life. He's a true four-pitch guy who also has hard, late rotation on his power curve at 80-82, a solid slider at 85-86 and very good hand speed on his changeup, which is firm at 85-86 but is nonetheless effective. Scouts seem to like the curveball the best out of his three secondary offerings.

"The curveball's special. He gets in trouble with the slider, but I think the curveball is going to be an above-average major league pitch," the area scout said. "I think he goes out (in pro ball) as fastball-curve-change and I think he destroys guys. It's high-level athleticism and defense, and it's great makeup."

Canning knows how to hold runners, and he fields his position very well. Savage referenced a standout play he made on a bunt against Stanford last week as an example of his athleticism and body control at work.

As polished as Canning has always been for his age, it's remarkable to think that he did not make the Area Code Games or the USA Baseball junior national team in high school. So maybe he was just a bit overlooked in some quarters, but Savage always knew what he was getting when he signed Canning. He was pursuing an ace, and that's just what he's gotten.

"He led Santa Margarita to a Division I CIF championship on his back. It's called the 'Canning Rule,' they've changed that whole league how it's set up, how you play an opponent three times now, whereas before you were running into the best pitcher," Savage said. "I thought he was the best high school pitcher in Southern California that year. He did not make the USA team, did not make the Area Codes, which is a little crazy to think back at it. But we knew we had a gem. We knew we had a special guy. He's a winning pitcher, very competitive, with pitchability. And we knew he was gonna get stronger. As soon as his stuff took a jump, then you're talking about a legitimate guy. Just his makeup, his work ethic, his competitiveness - it was just very easy to see. It was hard to miss. We just felt that this guy was going to be in line with some of the really good pitchers we had."

Indeed, Canning is a perfect heir to that long tradition of former UCLA aces - he fits right in the conversation with David Huff and Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole, Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig and James Kaprielian. Canning looks up to his UCLA predecessors, but his idol has always been former Dodgers ace Orel Hershiser - which is why he wears No. 55.

"He's a bulldog. It's a Hershiser competitor," Savage said. "He's about the right things. He's about team, he's about making pitches. He's got the big picture in front of him. This guy will pitch in the major leagues. There's just too much pedigree there and too much athleticism to think otherwise. He's been a great asset to our program and to the younger guys, he's helped (Kyle) Molnar, he's helped (Jon) Olsen. He's just a guy that's had a major impact on our program."

D1Baseball.com is the weekly contributor of the USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award Spotlight and assists with the Gold Standard Performance of the Week video series. D1Baseball.com provides news, analysis and commentary from writers: Aaron Fitt, Kendall Rogers, Mark Etheridge, Eric Sorenson, Shotgun Spratling, Michael Baumann and Dustin McComas.

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