Hits -- and wins -- just keep on coming for streaking Aggies
The bitter memory of last season's disappointment in the NCAA super regionals is never too far away from Texas A&M's players.
A poster of former A&M player Parker Dalton dejectedly walking off the field after the Aggies' season-ending NCAA tournament loss at Rice last June hangs prominently for inspiration in their dressing room at Olsen Field."We see that every day before we go out on the field, walking through the tunnel," senior second baseman Blake Stouffer said. "It's a reminder how close we were last season and how close we are from having a chance to get back there again." The streaking No. 18 Aggies are the Big 12's hottest team after winning 12 straight conference games heading into Friday's key showdown against No. 4 Missouri. It has matched A&M's school record for consecutive conference wins, set in 1971 and tied in 1974.
"I think we're as good as anybody in the nation," Stouffer said. "We have a swagger and we feel like we can't be beat."
The Aggies' first-place position will be on the line this weekend against second-place Missouri in College Station. The pivotal three-game series starts a difficult regular-season finish for the Aggies, which also includes closing series against conference powers Nebraska and Texas.
"We're fortunate that we've got five of these nine games at home, and we've got to take advantage of it," A&M coach Rob Childress said. "It will come down to us doing what we can and being great at routine plays. If we can throw strikes and make routine plays, we'll have a chance."
Childress, a former pitching coach at Nebraska under Mike Anderson, has been the architect of a dramatic culture change since his arrival at A&M in 2005.
After one season coaching at A&M, Childress orchestrated the biggest turnaround in NCAA Division I baseball last season. His team finished 48-19, winning 23 more games than in 2006. The Aggies also claimed a regional NCAA tournament championship, a berth in the super regionals and their first Big 12 tournament championship.
This season's team has built on that success. A&M has claimed 17 of its past 18 games since losing consecutive games at Oklahoma State on March 22 and 23.
The Aggies are a balanced squad, ranking among the top 25 teams nationally in batting average, runs, hits, triples, slugging percentage, earned run average, strikeouts per nine innings and hits allowed per nine innings.
"We're a very dynamic team with speed, power and guys who can beat you a lot of different ways," Stouffer said. "It hasn't been just one guy or a couple of guys. Different guys have stepped up, and that's the makeup of this team. It's a real team with great chemistry, and it just kind of adds to our swagger."
The potent A&M offense has provided most of the juice for the recent streak, scoring at least 10 runs in eight of its past 11 games.
Third baseman Dane Carter has emerged as the conference's leading hitter at .428; he also leads the Big 12 in hits (71), triples (eight) and total bases (114) -- through Tuesday.
"During the fall, the coaches changed my batting stance and got my bat up taller," said Carter, who hit .203 in limited playing time last season with the Aggies. "It brings more confidence to me to just go up and swing the bat. The caliber of players I saw last season opened my eyes about how hard I have to work."
Shortstop Jose Duran has made a smooth transition after playing at North Central Texas College last season. He's emerged as a solid producer in the cleanup position, ranking second in the Big 12 in hitting (.398), hits (70) and triples (six).
But the recent run has been keyed by the return to form of Stouffer, who was a fourth-round draft choice of the Cincinnati Reds last season after leading the nation with 85 RBIs.
Stouffer struggled early and was hitting only .188 on March 5. But a recent 17-game hitting streak has boosted him to .279 for the season.
"I didn't have a lot of confidence going earlier in the season," Stouffer said. "I was still hitting the ball hard, but it seemed like it was always going straight at somebody. Lately, I've just tried to relax and trusted my natural ability. And the guys around me are helping me out."The Aggies' pitching staff has been charged by the work of two freshmen. Left-hander Brooks Raley is 5-0 in seven starts this season. And right-hander Barret Loux is 3-1 in nine starts. "Everybody has an expectation, but I never figured it would happen like this," said Raley, who was steered to A&M for a chance as a position player as much as a pitching opportunity.
That strong starting pitching has built on a veteran and deep bullpen keyed by Kyle Thebeau (18 games, 1.91 ERA, two saves) and Travis Starling (19 games, 2.22 ERA, eight saves) that was the key to last season's late success.
A&M's 15-3 conference record heading into the weekend series is the team's best-ever start in the Big 12. The record includes a seven-game road winning streak, capped by a wild series sweep last week at Baylor. The three games represented a microcosm of the A&M season. The Aggies won a tight 2-1 pitchers' duel in the opener, pounded out 18 hits in an 11-1 victory on Saturday and then rallied for six runs in the ninth inning in an eventual 13-12 conquest in 11 innings on Sunday.Childress wasn't around to see the end of the game after he was ejected in the eighth inning on Sunday. A&M nailed down the triumph after a Baylor runner was thrown out at home for the second out of the 11th inning and the final out of the game came when a runner was picked off third base.
"That was by far the craziest game I've ever played in," Duran said. "I've never witnessed anything like it. We had great offense and Coach Talbot [A&M hitting coach Jeremy Talbot] kept telling us we had a chance if we didn't give an at-bat up. He told us we could do what we did with everything going on."
The showdown with Missouri this weekend will provide an interesting matchup. The Tigers' pitching staff has yielded the most hits per nine innings among Big 12 teams. But A&M leads the conference with a .330 team batting average.
"They are probably playing as well as any team in the country," Missouri coach Tim Jamieson said. "The numbers they have been putting up are remarkable. Obviously, they are very confident and there's not a gap in their lineup."
Raley will be matched Friday against ace Missouri right-hander Aaron Crow, who is 9-0 with a 2.37 ERA and had a scoreless streak of 43 innings earlier this season.
A&M appears to be a lock for the NCAA tournament. But the next three weeks will give an indication whether the Aggies are ready to seriously challenge for their first College World Series appearance since 1999.
"I think last year, we got to realize how good we were and what we could accomplish as a team," Stouffer said. "We were two games away from Omaha, and that's served as a big building block on what we want to do this year. What we did last year really has opened our eyes to what the potential for this team can be."Tim Griffin covers college sports for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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