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Sunday, March 03, 2013

Astros Classic: Saturday notebook

Kendall Rogers        

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HOUSTON -- Sophomore two-way player Daniel Mengden might just be Texas A&M's Saturday stopper in the program's inaugural SEC season.

The Aggies suffered a tough loss to Houston in the tournament opener when senior right-handed pitcher Kyle Martin allowed seven runs in just four innings in a rather uncharacteristic performance. But with their backs against the wall against Rice on Saturday, Mengden responded in impressive fashion with a big-time performance.

Mengden struck out eight batters and allowed just three runs on four hits in eight innings of work, as the Aggies captured an 8-3 decision over the Owls.

"I thought he did a good job. He kept the left-handed hitters honest by using a three-pitch mix," Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said. "And fortunately when they did hit some balls good, they were right to our guys. We grabbed an early lead and he was pretty good against a heavy left-handed lineup."

The Aggies jumped off to a good start against Houston on Friday with three runs in the first inning, only to squander that lead as the game progressed. But that wasn't the case against the Owls, as the Aggies not only jumped on Owls starting pitcher Jordan Stephens for three runs in the first, but also three runs in the second inning with a trio of singles from shortstop Mikey Reynolds, outfielder Krey Bratsen and Logan Taylor, also aided by a pair of errors by Rice third baseman Shane Hoelscher, who ended up leaving the game with an apparent arm injury.

Before the Owls could catch their breath amongst the aura of Minute Maid Park, the Aggies were spotted a commanding 6-0 lead. Outside of a Michael Aquino home run in the fourth inning, Mengden and the Aggies were on cruise control.

"I kind of hung a slider a bit there to Aquino. But overall, I did what I was supposed to do, other than walking a few batters that kind of hurt," Mengden said. "I was just trying to go out there and pound the zone, while letting the defense do the job."

Though Mengden finished the contest 0-for-2 at the plate, he pitched well enough where he didn't need to aid his own cause. Mengden flashed very solid stuff against the Owls. He was consistently 88-91 with his fastball on a chilly night with temperatures in the mid 40s. He also flashed an effective 79-80 changeup, a 78-79 slider and a couple of 73-74 curveballs.

"I was actually mixing in a lot of changeups, using a fastball and changeup mix, then trying to figure it out from there. It worked for me tonight," Mengden said. "I was just trying to keep a good approach out there. Getting a bunch of runs early in the game certainly was a huge boost for me, especially getting a few runs in the second inning."

While the 6-foot-1, 210-pound, Mengden started strong against the Owls, Rice sophomore right-handed pitcher Jordan Stephens wasn't able to match him, at least not in the earlier innings.

Stephens, and particularly Rice defensively, were erratic early in the contest. The Aggies consistently squared up Stephens' offerings early in the contest, with A&M infielder Blake Allemand providing a key three-run double in the first inning.

From a stuff standpoint, Stephens was consistently 86-88 with his fastball, though, he touched a few 89s on the radar gun. Meanwhile, he was 72-75 with his curveball and 78-79 slider.

Also worth noting, Texas A&M junior right-hander Jason Jester closed out the contest with a clean and crisp ninth inning. Jester, who had a stocky frame, was victim to the cold elements from a velocity standpoint, only sitting 90-91 with his fastball.

Perhaps this win gets the Aggies on track for good.

North Carolina's Lassiter redeems himself

Sometimes the best way to escape a funk is to keep playing the game of baseball.

Well, at least that was the case with North Carolina freshman shortstop Landon Lassiter.

Though the Tar Heels squeaked past Rice in the opener of the Astros Foundation Classic on Friday afternoon, there's no doubt Lassiter had a day to forget with an 0-for-4 effort at the plate combined with two key errors in the field.

But instead of sending Lassiter to the bench for Saturday's contest, UNC head coach Mike Fox had a better idea -- he'd have a nice talk with Lassiter, and play the offensively talented youngster in Saturday's contest against California.

Apparently the chat worked.

"It was good to get him back on the field. It's really important to do that when they're young and confidence is shaken a little bit. I had a little bit of a talk with him yesterday," Fox said. "He's a very good offensive player, and that's why we've got to him in there. And he showed that today. He just needs to work through [the defensive funk] it. It's a confidence thing. I've tried to reward these kids by putting them back out there, then you hope a few more balls get hit their way, and they make those plays."

Lassiter more than redeemed himself against the Golden Bears in a contest in which the Tar Heels captured an easy 11-5 victory. The talented freshman was flawless in the field and was even better at the plate. Lassiter finished the afternoon 4-for-6 with three singles, a triple, two runs scored and an RBI.

"You just have to keep your head up, everyday is a new day, and everything will workout," Lassiter said. "I just have to concentrate and be better each time out. I have some great teammates, and they do a really good job of helping us [young players] out."

Interestingly, despite the Tar Heels having some veterans in key spots, Lassiter isn't the only youngster the Tar Heels continue to rely heavily upon. For instance, heralded outfielder Skye Bolt, who entered the tournament hitting over .500 for the season, had an RBI single in the win over Cal, while catcher Korey Dunbar had an RBI single in the victory.

While the freshmen led the charge at the plate for the Tar Heels, also give some credit in the win to sophomore right-handed pitcher Benton Moss, who battled the cold elements early in the contest and eventually settled into a groove.

Moss struck out nine batters, walked three and allowed three runs (two earned) on four hits in 5 2/3 innings of work. He also threw 94 strikes in the game, 57 for strikes. Meanwhile, from a stuff standpoint, Moss was a little lower than usual on his fastball, sitting 86-88 with a couple of 89s, while he flashed a low 70s curveball and 78-79 slider.

Even as the top-ranked team in America, UNC's youth movement continues.

Houston rolls, Baylor left in a tailspin

Houston's run so far this weekend has even impressed head coach Todd Whitting.

Though Whitting had high hopes that his program could at least knock down some sort of barrier after fall workouts, his world seemed to come back to reality a bit after the Cougars found out that Casey Grayson and Jacob Lueneburg likely were done for the season.

At that point, Whitting was relatively sure the Cougars would take several weeks, perhaps even a few months to get things put together on a consistent basis.

In reality, unless something quickly changes, it only took a couple of weeks. UH moved to 2-0 in the Astros Foundation Classic Saturday afternoon with an impressive, yet, ugly 15-4 win over the Baylor Bears.

"One thing I considered, was being a young club like this, winning a big game over Texas A&M, I wondered how we would come out against BU," Whitting said. "Then we come out with four runs in the first inning, five in the second, and I think our team answered that quick."

UH junior third baseman Jonathan Davis, a physical player who has shown good defensive skills for most of the weekend thus far, had a big-time grand slam to feature the scoring in the first inning, while catcher Caleb Barker led the charge in the second with a three-RBI double.

"Something we've been working on from day one is not getting too high, or too low," Whitting said. "This coaching staff did a pretty good job during fall workouts. This team is going to make mistakes, but we're riding the tide a little bit, while also gaining a lot of confidence."

Speaking of mistakes, the Bears had one of the worst performances in recent years at the annual Astros College Classic. BU, which moved to 1-1 in the tournament, committed three errors in the contest, but that really was just the tip of the iceberg.

Here are some other ugly facts to chew on: The Bears walked a whopping 14 batters, didn't have a pitcher throw over 46 pitches, and didn't have a pitcher work more than two frames. To make matters worse, the Bears, offensively, left six runners on base in the contest.

"That's baseball. You're going to have those types of days at every level in the game at some point in the season. It was awful, nobody likes them, and to have a game like this. We pitched several guys today that aren't even on financial aid," Smith said. "This was a chance to give some guys a chance to see what they could do. Sometimes you learn things you don't want to.

"You can lose perspective in a hurry with a game like this," Smith added. "Games like this, if anyone is going to have a come to Jesus meeting, it'll be the players themselves. I know we have a lot of players with pride, and this was a particularly embarrassing moment."

Far more troublesome than embarrassing was the outing of right-handed starting pitcher Austin Stone. Stone, who continues to fight back from an injury, was only 85-87 with his fastball with a low 80s changeup, both pitches average to below average. Stone finished the afternoon allowing six runs (five earned) on two hits in just an inning.

"He's throwing on rehab. It's kind of a bad deal to begin with when you go out there and know you're on a pitch count and limit," Smith said. "With that said, I was disappointed with how he presented himself. He didn't look like a guy with much confidence from the get go. He throws a 2-2 changeup to the leadoff guy. Again, he just didn't pitch with a lot confidence."

While Houston looks like a team moving forward, Baylor made it painfully obvious there are some significant holes to fix or fill.

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