Top 25 Tracker: Feb. 16-18
Recapping all the action from the weekend for the top 25 teams, including new No. 1 North Carolina.
Recapping all the action from the weekend for the top 25 teams, including new No. 1 North Carolina.
For a while, it looked like North Carolina was going to upstage fellow CWS finalist Oregon State, which started off 2007 by throwing a combined no-hitter against Hawaii-Hilo. UNC senior righthander Robert Woodard took a perfect game into the seventh inning in the Tar Heels' season-opening 11-0 win against Seton Hall on Friday, before Matt Smedberg's two-out double to right field spoiled the bid on Woodard's 66th pitch. His final line: 7 2/3 economical innings (just 80 pitches, 63 strikes), one hit, no runs, seven strikeouts (tying a career high), no walks. He worked mostly with his fastball, which sat in the mid-80s and topped out at 87. That's a change from late last year, when pitching coach Scott Forbes said Woodard topped out around 84-85 thanks to a tired arm.
The reigning national runner-up, North Carolina, has opened its season at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill. UNC senior righthander Robert Woodard looks very sharp early, striking out Seton Hall leadoff man Dan Lopez on four pitches to start the game, then retiring the next two batters on a pop-up and a ground ball to second. The Tar Heels' lineup looks a little different than it did in the College World Series last June, as left fielder Jay Cox is now in the Rockies system and returning outfielders Mike Cavasini and Seth Williams are banged up. Junior Reid Fronk shifts from third base to his new position of left field, and freshmen Drew Poulk and Dustin Ackley occupy the center and left-field spots, respectively. Expect to see plenty of Ackley this year; he'll play the outfield against lefthanded pitchers (like today's Seton Hall starter, Dan Merklinger), allowing Chad Flack to slide from third base to first so the Heels can get Kyle Shelton's bat in the lineup at third. Shelton hits lefthanded pitching well (he just singled through the left side of the infield in the top of the first inning). Against righthanded pitching, Flack figures to play third base, with Ackley shifting to first and Williams manning right field.
Aaron Fitt previews the upcoming weekend of college baseball.
Nice win for Troy last night, coming back from a three-run deficit to tie the score in the eighth inning and then beating Alabama 7-5 on Edgar Ramirez' go-ahead RBI single in the 12th. Meanwhile, Auburn also lost a game in 12 innings, falling to Lipscomb 4-3, but the Tigers got an encouraging debut from freshman Taylor Thompson, who struck out four and allowed just a pair of runs over 4.2 innings of work. He'll end up being an important arm for Auburn this year. On to the mailbag:
Clemson didn't have to do much to assume the No. 1 spot in the latest Baseball America Top 25 rankings. The Tigers ascended to the top without playing a game, as No. 2 Miami dropped a pair of games to Mercer last weekend and No. 1 Rice limped to a 2-3 start. Clemson hosts George Mason this weekend in the first tuneup series of its rather light non-conference slate. The biggest challenge between now and Clemson's March 30-April 1 series against Miami is a two-game home-and-home set against No. 2 South Carolina on March 3-4. That gives the Tigers plenty of time to break in their brand-new weekend rotation. Jason Berken, Josh Cribb and Stephen Faris are gone, replaced by junior righthanders P.J. Zocchi and David Kopp and sophomore lefty Ryan Hinson.
In an effort to stem the tide of e-mails correcting me for a couple of errors in yesterday's chat, I figured I'd clarify a couple of things. First of all, I wrote that Elon was snubbed for a regional last year, which is of course false; the Phoenix was the No. 2 seed in the Clemson regional. Also, I said that San Diego State is the favorite in the Mountain West Conference, forgetting about that little program in Fort Worth. Texas Christian is undoubtedly still the team to beat in that conference--I love the Horned Frogs' pitching staff. Earlier, in the podcast, I referred to Vanderbilt's Brett Jacobson as "Casey," who was actually a former Stanford basketball player. It was just one of those days--sorry for the brain cramps. That's what happens when travel and lack of sleep conspire against me.As for the other topic flooding my e-mail inbox--yes, we left Mississippi out of the top 25 this week.
Strike One: That's Why They Call 'Em DirtbagsLong Beach State coach Mike Weathers tempered his expectations a bit heading into the season, and with good reason. Of the 35 players on the Dirtbags roster, 21 are freshmen or sophomores."It's the youngest team I've had," said Weathers, who took over as LBSU head coach in 2001. "This is the first time I haven't had a starting pitcher back on the weekend--we had Jered Weaver, Abe Alvarez and then last year we had Jared Hughes. This year we don't have one guy, so it's going to be different for us."That inexperience was supposed to translate into a down year for the Beach, but somebody forgot to give the Dirtbags the memo. LBSU followed up its surprising series win against Southern California last weekend by taking two of three this weekend against No. 7 Texas.
Aaron Fitt chatted with readers about college baseball on Feb. 12.
Dominic de la Osa picked the right time for his first hit of the season. The Vanderbilt right fielder entered Sunday's game against Baylor in a season-opening 0-for-9 slump, and he struck out swinging in his first two at-bats against Baylor starter Jeff Mandel. But in the fifth inning, with the score tied 3-3, de la Osa came to the plate with the bases loaded and the Baylor fans chanting, "Zero, zero"--a reference to de la Osa's batting average. He reached for a pitch over the outside corner and pulled it through the hole between third base and shortstop, driving in two runs. The Commodores added two more in the inning to break the game open a bit.I won't be around for the late game tonight--have to catch a 7:15 p.m. flight back to Raleigh-Durham. That means I'll miss an excellent pitching matchup between Rice's Joe Savery and Texas A&M's David Newmann, who has a terrific arm and just needs to command his stuff. But it's been a great weekend of baseball here in Houston, with competitive, exciting games and terrific talent on display. The event is very well run and the ballpark is beautiful; I hope to make this an annual trip.
Josh Satow was exactly what Pat Murphy said he'd be: a soft-tossing lefthander who gets by with his savvy and competitiveness. He stymied Houston in Arizona State's 11-1 win Sunday, allowing just one run on six hits in a complete game while striking out eight and walking just one. Talking to Satow on the field afterward was interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the 5-foot-9 junior is one of the few players who stands eye-to-eye with me, which was refreshing after I spent the morning craning my neck to chat with giants like Ryan Flaherty and Casey Weathers of Vanderbilt and Matt Spencer of ASU. (Weathers, by the way, is listed at 6-foot-1 but might be taller than that. Or maybe it just seems like it because he has such a massive upper body. I digress.) The second thing that is striking about Satow, other than his diminutive build, is his thoughtfulness and intelligence. He is clearly a guy who holds no delusions about his own limitations and understands what he has to do to be successful.
After Vanderbilt's Pedro Alvarez doubled in the ninth inning against Arizona State yesterday, Sun Devils coach Pat Murphy went out to make a pitching change, and Alvarez used the break in the action to confer with Vandy coach Tim Corbin along the third base line. As Alvarez returned to second base, he and Murphy crossed paths, and I noticed that Murphy said something to him. Always gracious, Alvarez said last night that Murphy simply complimented him in a show of good sportsmanship. Murphy had a slightly different take this morning.
Baylor's going to be a heavy contender for the 2008 College World Series; the Bears will probably even be a solid club by the end of this season, but right now their inexperience is looming pretty large. Baylor started three freshman on Opening Day yesterday, the most since 1996 when they started four. Baylor's crack sports information director Larry Little came up with this little chestnut: senior outfielder Chase Gerdes had 459 career at-bats entering the night, and the rest of the lineup combined for just 614. Gerdes alone accounted for 42.8 percent of Baylor's at-bats.Rice had its own freshman on the mound Saturday in freshman righthander Ryan Berry, but he turned in perhaps the best pitching performance of the weekend so far. Berry allowed just three hits over six shutout innings while striking out seven and walking just one in Rice's 7-0 win. Scouts liked Berry coming out of high school but shied away from him because of his strong commitment to Rice, and he pitched well enough in the fall to earn the Owls' Saturday starter spot. Looks like another great find for Wayne Graham and company.As the lights go down here in Minute Maid Stadium, I'd like to pass on one more little tidbit from Larry Little: the temperature in Twin Falls, Idaho: 45 degrees. The temperature in Houston: 44.Not that I'm complaining. I'm watching baseball in early February, and Jim Callis is returning to Chicago tomorrow morning, where the temperature is 5 degrees. Ouch.
The frigid weather inside Minute Maid Park did not deter fans of Houston and Texas A&M, who filled most of the lower level in the best-attended game of the Houston College Classic. The bundled-up Aggies fans might not have realized it, but the weather also might have helped their team beat the Cougars 3-2.A&M sophomore righthander Kyle Thebeau said he loved the conditions, and it showed, as Thebeau struck out eight and allowed just one run over 5 1/3 innings.
An addendum to the Zane Carlson anecdote in the last post. Baylor coach Steve Smith came by while we were eating dinner in the media lounge, and he recalled a Big 12 Tournament game against Texas in 2003--two years after Carlson's wild pitch ended Baylor's season--when he went out to the mound and ordered Carlson to intentionally walk a batter in eighth inning with a runner on third base and the score tied. As he walked back to the dugout, he thought, "That was the dumbest thing I've ever done."As the catcher set up to receive the free pass, the umpire stood directly behind the plate and took his mask off. Carlson proceeded to throw a strike right down the middle, passing through the umpire's legs and nearly hitting him in the crotch. The go-ahead run scored from third base, and Texas went on to win. And the petrified umpire didn't even call the pitch a strike, even though it was right over the heart of the zone."The umpire was asking for trouble when he took his mask off," Smith said.
This blog post is a little late for a couple of reasons. First was the four-hour, five-minute slugfest between Arizona State and Vanderbilt, which the Commodores won 7-6 when when pinch-runner Jonathan White scored from third base on a wild pitch by Sun Devils reliever Ike Davis--on an intentional walk. Then I was sidetracked by a conversation with Baylor assistant coach Mitch Thompson and Rice assistant David Pierce, whose teams play each other in the third game tonight. Those two gentlemen had a unique perspective on the wild finish between ASU and Vandy; a Baylor-Rice game in the 2001 regionals was decided in the exact same fashion. Zane Carlson's wild pitch on an intentional walk allowed Rice to score the winning run and advance to super-regionals. Thompson made a great point: "If that's going to happen to you, much better for it to happen in the first weekend of the year than the last."
Alan Matthews, who is in Southern California for the Angels fanfest, attended the San Diego-Southern California game tonight and called with another glowing report about USD lefthander Brian Matusz. The sophomore struck out 13 over six innings, allowing two runs (one earned) on three hits and two walks, but did not factor in the decision as the Trojans scored four runs against the USD bullpen and went on to win 6-2. Matthews reports that Matusz worked in the 91-92 mph range with his fastball, touching 93, and his secondary stuff drew raves from assembled scouts. Matthews estimated that Matusz' changeup could rate as a 65 pitch on the 20-80 scouting scale, and his curveball could be a 55. His command was erratic at times, but scouts love his sound delivery and 6-foot-4 frame. The Trojans scored most of their runs against sophomore lefty Ricardo Pecina, but senior righty Anthony Slama made a good impression against the one batter he faced (and retired), running his fastball up to 92.
One of the things I was looking forward to most this weekend was seeing Baylor's highly touted freshmen in action, and so far I've been disappointed. Slugger Dustin Dickerson did not get the start, though he should get some time at DH this weekend. He appeared as a pinch-runner in the seventh inning and remained in the game at first base. Right fielder Aaron Miller struck out chasing breaking balls in the dirt in his first two collegiate at-bats, then reached on an error on a ground ball to second. And righthander Kendall Volz, the third Baylor freshman to rank among the 20 best in the nation, got hit around in Houston's three-run fourth inning. After inducing a meek ground ball back to the pitcher to start the inning, Volz allowed the next five batters to reach base on a walk and four straight hard-hit singles. He struck out Luis Flores to end the threat, but the damage was done.
Early on, it looked like Arizona State was well on its way to another 20-run outburst against Texas A&M. The Sun Devils' leadoff batter in the bottom of the first, Brett Wallace, started things off by rocketing a triple to the right-center-field gap. You read that right; 6-foot-1, 245-pound first baseman Brett Wallace tripled. Wallace is a very talented hitter (who was just a homer shy of the cycle through six innings), but fast he is not. Anyhow, Wallace scored on a scorched line drive to center by Eric Sogard. Two batters later, Kiel Roling smoked a double to the ridiculous hill in dead center field, and then Preson Paramore singled to right. Texas A&M starter Jason Meyer wasn't fooling anyone, and the red-hot Matt Spencer came up with runners on the corners. Early in the count, Spencer hit a mammoth fly ball down the right field line that hooked barely foul, missing a home run by just feet. He worked the count full, then fouled off a couple of slow breaking balls. Finally, Meyer tried to sneak a fastball by him, and Spencer proceeded to hit one of the most gargantuan home runs I've ever seen, a towering blast that disappeared somewhere between the Budweiser sign and the third (uppermost) deck of seats in right field. Spencer is a tremendous athlete who flashed power and speed at times in two up-and-down seasons at North Carolina, and it is starting to look like he could put it all together this year at ASU.
The first game here in Houston has been very entertaining. Since we've been anticipating the Price vs. Rice showdown for so long, I figured I'd break down Vanderbilt starter David Price's outing in some detail. The Owls jumped on Price early, putting a couple runners aboard in the first inning before Pedro Alvarez ended the threat with a 5-3 double play. Two Vandy errors and two Rice singles led to a pair of runs in the second, but then Price settled into a bit of a groove. He recorded strikeouts with his breaking ball in the third and fourth innings, during which he allowed just a pair of infield singles. Then in the fifth, after the first two Rice batters reached, Alan Zornes popped up a bunt for the first out, and Price struck out Aaron Luna and Joe Savery, both looking on pitchers on the inside corner (Luna watched a fastball go by him, and Savery was fooled by a slider). Price kept it going to start the sixth, getting Jordan Dodson looking at a fastball over the inside corner. Then he walked J.P. Padron on four pitches, and I noticed for the first time that he worked very quickly through that at-bat. Price has said the big reason he struggled down the stretch last season was because he let the game speed up on him, leading to big innings. On this occasion, however, he rebounded to strike out Chad Lembeck on a fastball up and in--his last batter of the game. Padron would score on a pinch-hit RBI double by Jess Buenger, closing the book on Price after 5 2/3 innings and 95 pitches. He finished with three earned runs on six hits and three walks while striking out six. The gaggle of scouts assembled behind home plate were dutifully impressed by Price's 92-95 mph fastball with good tailing action and his 82-84 slider, though his command was spotty at times, especially early in the game. That's to be expected in early February.