It would be easier to explain the success of UCLA center fielder Eric Valent if he were batting ahead of teammate Troy Glaus in the Bruin lineup. The protection afforded by Glaus, an Olympian and a potential national player of the year, would be the perfect excuse for Valent’s attack on pitchers 15 games into the season.
But Valent hits behind Glaus, leaving only one explanation for his .467 batting average, nine home runs and 35 runs batted in going into Tuesday’s game at UC Santa Barbara.
“He is en fuego [on fire],” UCLA Coach Gary Adams said. “I don’t think you can expect anybody to be that stellar. But, hey, that’s why we gave him a scholarship.”
Valent, who had 13 RBIs last week and four home runs in four games, is on pace to break Pete Incaviglia’s NCAA Division I season-record of 143 RBIs. The UCLA record is 91 set by Ryan McGuire in 1993.
Valent, a sophomore from Anaheim, was a first-team freshman All-American last season after hitting .289 with 12 home runs and 55 RBIs. But even more was expected. He had been a high school All-American at Canyon High and was a 26th-round selection by the Detroit Tigers after his senior year.
“Last year, coming in, I was rated pretty high, and I put too much pressure on myself,” Valent said. “It’s almost impossible to come right in as a freshman, and I think now I am more mature . . . not trying to do so much.”
According to Adams, he also has tightened his swing, which got longer and slower last season.
“What I’m seeing this year is what I saw in high school,” Adams said. “He is hitting the ball to all fields.”
Valent’s lack of speed may necessitate a move to right field at the next level, but he has one of the best arms in the Pacific 10 Conference.
He also knows he has had his success against such teams as Loyola Marymount, Nevada and Nevada Las Vegas, and that hits might be harder to come by when UCLA gets into Pac-10 Southern Division play, beginning Friday night against Arizona State at Jackie Robinson Stadium.
“This might all change once we get into the Pac,” said Valent, whose brother, Royce, is a senior catcher for the Bruins. “I’m just taking [the success] for what it is. But it’s nice.”
If Valent is not the hottest player in the country, then it is Pacific pitcher Dan Reichert, who has been named Collegiate Baseball’s national player of the week for two consecutive weeks.
The junior right-hander struck out 22 in the Tigers’ 4-0 victory over Washington State on Friday, the fifth-highest total in NCAA Division I. The record is 26 by Buddy Schultz of Miami of Ohio against Wright State in 1971.
Reichert pitched Friday before 40 major league scouts, and probably will be selected higher at the end of this season than he was in high school, when he was an 11th-round draft pick by the St. Louis Cardinals.
That Reichert is challenging NCAA strikeout records is surprising, considering that last season he was only four wild pitches short of the NCAA record of 27. Although he had a good slider, Reichert was not in command of his fastball, which peaks in the low 90s, until this season.
He is 5-1 with a 1.32 earned-run average in seven appearances and is averaging 16.24 strikeouts every nine innings. The record is 16.23 by George Dugan of Murray State in 1964.
Arizona State Coach Pat Murphy alienated several coaches last season when his team got into a fight in a game against USC and he was accused by UCLA’s Adams of having a Sun Devil pitcher intentionally throw at Glaus.
But if Murphy is not a favorite among his peers, he has a way with fans.
The Sun Devils were at Florida State earlier this season, handing the top-ranked Seminoles their only loss. For most of the series, Murphy and the Florida State fans exchanged words, and the fans began calling him “Spurphy,” saying they disliked Murphy as much as they dislike Florida football Coach Steve Spurrier.
Late in the third and final game, with Florida State leading handily and the Seminole fans really on Murphy, the Arizona State coach retreated to the clubhouse, then returned minutes later wearing a Florida Gator visor identical to the one Spurrier wears.
The Florida State fans gave him a standing ovation.
College Baseball Notes
The week’s best matchup is the weekend series between No. 8 Arizona State and No. 2 UCLA. The opening game is Friday at 5 p.m. Left-hander Tom Jacques will probably pitch for the Bruins, left-hander Ryan Mills for the Sun Devils. Jacques is 3-0, thanks to an array of breaking pitches. Mills is overpowering with a fastball in the mid-90s. He will be facing a Bruin lineup that has hit at least one home run in 14 of 15 games.
The Top 25 college baseball teams as determined by the staff of Baseball America magazine, with records through Feb. 16. Ties are not included in records:
Rk. Team Record 1. Florida State 6-2 2. UCLA 13-1 3. USC 10-3 4. Stanford 8-4 5. Georgia Tech 5-0 6. Florida 8-1 7. Texas A&M; 7-3 8. Arizona State 9-5 9. Rice 7-2 10. Miami 7-5 11. Mississippi State 0-0 12. Cal State Fullerton 7-4 13. Louisiana State 3-0 14. Tulane 3-0 15. Wichita State 0-0 16. Tennessee 5-1 17. Stetson 4-3 18. Alabama 3-0 19. South Florida 4-3 20. Auburn 6-0 21. Oklahoma State 4-3 22. Clemson 3-0 23. Cal State Northridge 9-3 24. Missouri 2-1 25. South Alabama 3-4