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3-Strike Preview: Villanova at St. John's

Rain, rain and more rain interrupted the Wildcats' and Red Storm's Wednesday plays, but the two are back in action on Friday, as they kick off a three-game series at Jack Kaiser Stadium.

Villanova.com

Evey Hammond's grandmother once said 'God is in the rain.' If you don't understand that reference go see V For Vendetta immediately. Or, if you have time, skip that and read the sublime graphic novel by Alan Moore.

But, I digress. What Mrs. Hammond did not realize is that baseball, unlike God, is not in the rain. We've seen weather constantly deter the promise of hardball all season, with winter's clutch holding on for far too long and rain storms washing out games every few days. On Wednesday, Villanova was set to face cross-town rival La Salle and St. John's was also supposed to host a neighboring foe in Manhattan. However, rain or the threat of it, left both teams in the dug out.

Luckily for St. John's, nothing has been able to dampen the Johnnies when they actually get to play, as they have won four of  their last five games, including a weekend split with Creighton. (Interestingly enough, the third game of the weekend was, you guessed it, rained out). The Red Storm is 22-13 overall and locked in a tie with the Bluejays for first in the Big East entering the weekend.

A rain out was probably a nice change of pace for Villanova, which has begun to fall on tough times. The Wildcats are 2-3 over their last five games and wobbling on the edge of the top four spots in the Big East, currently tied with Georgetown for fourth. Here's what to watch out for as these two squads collide.

1. Caught looking

You may not think it, but Villanova leads the Big East in backwards Ks this season, striking out 89 batters looking. Hot on the Wildcats' heels is St. John's, which has sent 88 batters to the dug out with bats on their shoulders. For the Wildcats, Mike Sgaramella has led the way, with 14 strikeouts looking, as well as a team-high 41 total strikeouts. Josh Harris has matched Sgaramella in terms of looking punchouts, but he has not been nearly the overall pitcher that Sgaramella has. Harris' ERA stands at a laughable 7.46, while Sgaramella has whittled his down to 3.89, the best among Villanova starters.

On the other side, Ryan McCormick (6-1 3.91 ERA) and Cody Stashak (5-4, 3.58 ERA) are, predictably, the best at mowing down batters for St. John's. McCormick, who was exceptional in his last outing (7 1/3 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 8 SO), has sent 19 batters back to the dugout without a swing, tying with Simon Mathews of Georgetown for the most in the conference. Stashak, the unquestioned ace of the staff, has 14 such strikeouts and a team-high 47 overall. With the two tricky righties leading the staff, Red Storm fans have been busy plastering Ks all over Jack Kaiser Stadium, as the boys from Queens have a Big East best 266 strikeouts.

2. Closing time

The save is a largely overblown statistic used by talented relief pitchers as a negotiating tool in contract negotiations. More and more, we are seeing that using your best pitchers in key situations is much more valuable than having each pitcher serve only pitch in a certain inning. While shutting the door in the ninth is important, making sure you can get to that point is also a necessity.

With that said, let me congratulate Villanova and St. John's for being tied for the Big East lead in saves, with 10 apiece. Luckily, the 'Cats and Storm have solid bullpens top to bottom and not just an anchor for the ninth. Chris Haggarty is the stopper for Villanova. He has struck out 23 batters in 27 2/3 innings, while posting an ERA of 2.28. He is one of four relievers who has been utilized in at least 10 games by manager Joe Godri, All four have a sub-3.50 ERA.

St. John's has a much deeper bullpen, with six different players making at least eight relief appearances. If you are losing to the Red Storm after the seventh inning, you may as well pack it in. That's just how effective Tom Hackimer and Joe Kuzia have been as the final guns in Ed Blankmeyer's arsenal. Hackimer uses pin-point control to put opponents to bed. He has struck out 38 batters in 31 1/2 innings and only walked three. Kuzia is not as much of a strikeout pitcher, but his 2.41 ERA proves that he is capable of getting outs. Lefthander Matt Clancy is reliable as heck, as well, with a team-high 10 appearances and strong work across those innings (.295 ERA, 18 1/3 IP, 18 SO).

3. Revenge and Caruso

No, it's not a new buddy comedy series coming to FOX. (I deserve at least a producer credit if it is). Just two things to get to for this preview to be complete.

Last season, St. John's finished 35-20 overall and was one of, if not the best team in the Big East during the regular season. Villanova was, uh, not that. The Wildcats finished at just 16-34 overall, with five wins in 18 tries against the rest of the Big East. Despite those differences, it was Villanova that had the upper hand in the three-game set between the two squads in early April of the 2014 campaign. The Wildcats lost the first game, but pulled off back-to-back one-run victories to finish off the weekend. The 6-5 decision on April 6, which ended the series, marks the last meeting between the 'Cats and Johnnies. For those keeping track at home, that's 382 days of waiting for St. John's.

Leadoff man Alex Caruso will have a great deal of impact on whether St. John's can exact its sweet, sweet revenge. The outfielder has put up a sparkling slash line this season (.363/.405/.400), which includes the Big East's best batting average. Caruso has been feasting of late, cracking bats to the tune of a .429 average during a 14-game hitting streak, which has included eight multi-hit games. Keeping him off base will be a key for Villanova, if it has any hope of sneaking a game out of the weekend.