Before we get to today's mailbag, we've got a few injury notes on Friday starters to pass along. First, San Diego State junior righthander Addison Reed will miss at least three weeks after breaking his pinkie finger on a comebacker in Saturday's win against Santa Clara. After the game, he said his finger just felt stiff but was not broken, but he continued to feel pain over the next few days and had surgery on Tuesday, according to the Daily Aztec. Reed has been superb this spring in his transition from All-America closer to Friday ace, going 4-1, 2.70 with 36 strikeouts and seven walks in 33 innings.
The news is better for Louisiana State junior righthander Anthony Ranaudo. Tigers coach Paul Mainieri told BA last week that he hoped Ranaudo could return from his stress reaction in his throwing arm this weekend against Tennessee, and he confirmed this week that Ranaudo will indeed be back on the mound against the Volunteers. He will get the start Sunday and will likely only throw two or three innings.
And Boston College junior lefthander Pat Dean, a potential top-three-rounds pick in June's draft, will be back in action this weekend after missing last weekend's series against Virginia. The Eagles say Dean merely slept on his arm wrong and had some lingering stiffness. He wanted to throw Sunday, but BC held him back to be safe. He'll be back in the rotation this weekend. Dean was outstanding in his last start two weeks ago, striking out nine over eight shutout innings in a win against Miami. One scout said he has seen Dean up to 93 mph this year to go along with a good curveball and changeup, though another scout said he saw Dean working at 87-90.
On to the mailbag:
Can you please analyze the Mountain West? TCU is steady as a dominant force, but New Mexico and Utah intrigue me. Is UNM’s hot start a mirage? Utah had a nice weekend, do you see (coach Bill) Kinneberg’s guys picking up steam as the weather warms? Does San Diego State return to being kind of enigmatic in (Stephen) Strasburg’s wake? Does Air Force present enough of a drag at the bottom of the league to prevent it from really making a move in the national consciousness—and the RPI?
Last year was a banner season for the Mountain West, which sent three teams to regionals after never sending more than one team for the first decade of the conference's existence. Texas Christian has emerged as a superpower in 2010, surging into the top five in the rankings and looking like an early contender for a national seed in the NCAA tournament, and I don't think any RPI drain incurred by facing Air Force six times will doom TCU's national seed ambitions, though that drain leaves little margin for error. But the rest of the conference picture is more muddled.
New Mexico is the only other team in the MWC with a viable chance to earn an at-large regional bid if it fails to win the conference tournament. John Manuel wrote about the rise of the Lobos in a recent column, and I agree wholeheartedly with his bottom line: The culture of that program has changed, and New Mexico is a legitimate regional contender. Winning that season-opening series at Texas gives UNM something big to hang its hat on, provided it gets through the conference season in good shape. I still don't think New Mexico has the kind of front-line pitching staff (its team ERA is 5.68 heading into the second of two midweek games at Arizona today) to make it a lock for regionals, but it has at least a real shot to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1962.
But San Diego State, which earned an at-large bid last year with a team built around national Player of the Year Stephen Strasburg, has taken a step back with a younger team this year, and losing Addison Reed to a broken finger for a while is going to sting. The Aztecs don't have a consistent enough lineup or a deep enough pitching staff to return to the postseason this year, unless they get hot at exactly the right time and run through the conference tournament.
That's exactly what Utah did last year, winning the automatic bid to reach regionals for the first time since 1960 after finishing 8-16 (sixth place out of seven teams) in MWC play. The Utes are sitting at 9-9 right now, having won a big road series at New Mexico this past weekend, but they squandered their opportunity to build an at-large case in the preconference season, dropping road series against UC Davis and Washington State and going 1-2 against Oregon State and Portland in a tournament. Still, Utah has a dangerous lineup built around a solid core in corner infielders C.J. Cron and Nick Kuroczko plus shortstop Michael Beltran, and competitive senior righty Jordan Whatcott gives the Utes a chance every Friday.
On the whole, the Mountain West is not as strong as it was a year ago, when Brigham Young gave the league yet another team with regional aspirations. But once again it is stronger than fellow Western mid-major conferences like the West Coast and Western Athletic, and the MWC undeniably has upward momentum.
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