1. Unlikely underdog: Florida State.
2. Unlikely underdog: North Carolina State.
3. Unlikely underdog: Arizona State.
4. Unlikely underdog: Arizona.
5. Unlikely underdog: Texas Christian.
6. Notes from around the nation.
In five of this weekend’s most compelling series, an unranked or lower-ranked team is an unlikely underdog, for one reason or another. The weekend’s marquee series in the Atlantic Coast Conference pits No. 9 Georgia Tech against No. 12 Florida State. At 20-1, FSU might not seem like an “underdog,” and the Seminoles are an ACC goliath every year, but we are dubbing the more talented Yellow Jackets the road favorites this weekend. The Yellow Jackets have the nation’s most explosive offense—they averaged exactly 10.0 runs per game through the first five weeks of the season.
Boston College at (1) North Carolina
“Every time I look up they’re scoring double figures,” Florida State coach Mike Martin said. “I can tell you now, if we’ve got to get nine to win the ballgame, it’s going to be a challenge. It’s going to be a challenge to get to nine, no question. And they’re averaging 10.”
Sticking in the ACC, league coaches voted North Carolina State as the preseason favorite to win the conference title, and we ranked the Wolfpack No. 8 in the preseason Top 25, while Virginia was unranked due to a young pitching staff. But heading into this weekend, the 19-2 Cavs are ranked No. 14, while the 16-6 Wolfpack is No. 16. N.C. State, not Virginia, finds itself looking for answers on the mound this weekend.
In the Pac-12, two members of college baseball’s warm-weather royalty—No. 20 Arizona State and defending national champion Arizona—hit the road to take on teams based in Oregon. And the Oregon teams are clear favorites. How’s that for an inversion of the traditional norm?
“The reality of this conference, it’s really been a neat thing to see, because when I came here 12 years ago, Oregon didn’t exist, Oregon State wasn’t even going to regionals,” said Arizona coach Andy Lopez, whose team was swept at home by Oregon State for the first time ever last weekend. “That club we saw last week has a chance to win it all.”
Then there’s the Big 12, where our preseason pick to win the conference—preseason No. 14 Texas Christian—opened the season 0-6, then lost its first conference series this past weekend at home against Kansas. The Frogs travel to No. 17 Oklahoma this weekend, and they are significant underdogs against an 18-4 Sooners club that now looks like a heavy favorite to dominate the Big 12. While the Sooners are far from a surprise contender (the league’s coaches picked them to win the league, and we ranked them just a few spots behind the Frogs in the preseason), TCU’s rough start has been one of college baseball’s biggest surprises this year.
Let’s take a look at some of the issues facing each of these unlikely underdogs.
Few programs handle attrition and adversity better than Florida State, which had to replace first-team All-Americans James Ramsey and Robert Benincasa plus fellow mainstays Jayce Boyd, Devon Travis and Sherman Johnson after last season. As if losing its top four hitters from a year ago wasn’t enough, FSU lost Saturday starter Mike Compton (a freshman All-American last year) to Tommy John surgery just before the season began, and senior shortstop Justin Gonzalez was lost for the rest of the season after just five games due to hip surgery.
So to recap, Florida State is off to a 20-1 start this spring even after losing its entire infield, a first-round pick in center field, an accomplished weekend starter who Martin said “was pitching like our No. 1″ before he went down, and arguably the nation’s best closer from last year’s team.
“We were devastated that Gonzo is through for the year,” Martin said, referring to FSU’s latest setback. “He is our captain, he is a great young man, and it just killed us for him. But we’ve always just accepted what happens, and we do have a saying here at Florida State. It’s, ‘Shut up and play.’ That’s what we’re trying to do.”
In Gonzalez’s place at shortstop, the Seminoles have called upon sophomore Giovanny Alfonzo, the nephew of former big league all-star Edgardo Alfonzo and the son of long-time minor league player and coach Edgar Alfonzo. Giovanny Alfonzo (.233/.365/.267) won’t replace the offensive production of Gonzalez, who ranked second on the team with nine homers last year, and he is still learning the ropes defensively, currently fielding .923. But he is a smart player, and the Seminoles hope he can provide steady defensive play at short.
“He’s been a little inconsistent, but I think it’s just the fact that this is the first year he’s ever started in a Division I lineup,” Martin said. “I think that once he gets his feet wetter, the more reps and games that he plays in, I think you’ll see him be a very good shortstop. He’s not going to be one of these guys that has a cannon, not going to hit the ball off the wall. He’s a contact guy. Just a guy that is a winner and will continue to get better as the season goes on. He’s a very, very big part of this ballclub.”
As for helping to fill the power void left by Gonzalez’s injury, junior-college transfer Marcus Davis has mashed five home runs to lead the team. He and freshman D.J. Stewart both bring physicality and athleticism, but Martin said both are still in the learning stage, and they are both “being introduced to Division I baseball and experiencing a little bit of failure right now.”
The ‘Noles have gotten more offensive production out of senior catcher Stephen McGee, who did not hit a home run during his first three college seasons (225 at-bats) but already has three long balls in 63 at-bats this spring. Sophomore Jose Brizuela (pictured) (.377/.511/.551) has emerged as Florida State’s best hitter while also moving from the outfield last year to third base, where he is improving, though he does have 10 errors.
A central tenet of the Seminole Way is plate discipline, and the new wave of FSU regulars has carried the torch admirably in that department. As a team, Florida State has drawn 138 walks and struck out just 99 times. Josh Delph (19-3 BB-K), Brizuela (17-10) and McGee (20-10) have led the way. McGee had an astonishing 61 walks and 16 HBPs last season and has taken a “dos” three more times this spring, putting him on base 100 times without the benefit of a hit in that span.
In light of all the losses in the lineup, pitching was supposed to be Florida State’s strength this year, and it has been—even without Compton. FSU has a 1.77 staff ERA, and ace Brandon Leibrandt (4-0, 3.64) actually has the highest ERA of any pitcher on the staff who has logged more than three innings. Bulldog senior righty Scott Sitz (4-0, 0.60) has handled the Saturday starter role with aplomb. Sunday starter Peter Miller (3-0, 1.88) has the biggest raw stuff of the trio, but his command and feel for pitching remains a work in progress.
Sophomore righthander Luke Weaver (3-0, 1.00) has thrived in the midweek starter role, and Martin said he’s about one more strong start away from forcing his way into the weekend rotation, presumably at Miller’s expense. Weaver has the biggest arm on the staff, with a fastball that bumps 94-95 and sits at 91-92, a good slider and a very good changeup.
Junior-college transfer Robby Coles (0.77 ERA, four saves) has filled Benincasa’s shoes at the back of the bullpen. Coles attacks the zone with a heavy high-80s sinker and has a solid slider, as well as an improving changeup. The supporting cast in the bullpen is strong, led by submariner Gage Smith (2-0, 3.27), lefties Brandon Johnson (1-1, 0.90) and Bryant Holtmann (1-0, 1.86), and two-sport/two-way talent Jameis Winston (1-0, 1.86).
“I don’t think there’s any question that our pitching has carried us thus far,” Martin said. “(Pitching coach) Mike Bell has just been instrumental in preparing our pitchers. He’s got them prepared every day, whether they’re a reliever or a closer or a starter, what their role is. There’s no question, we are where we are because of our pitching.”
It goes without saying that Florida State should feel great about being 20-1. FSU’s first four weeks featured 15 straight home games, including weekend series against Rhode Island, South Florida, Villanova and Boston College. The ‘Noles went on the road for the first time last weekend at Maryland and took two of three. But FSU hasn’t faced anything remotely like Georgia Tech’s high-powered offense. Against a slightly stronger schedule (including three games against a quality Georgia Southern team, three at No. 24 Virginia Tech and another against Mercer), the Yellow Jackets have hit .352 and mashed 21 home runs, compared to Florida State’s .286 average and 13 homers.
The Yellow Jackets, making their first road trip to Tallahassee since 2008, have also been a better defensive team, fielding .979 compared to FSU’s .963. And while Georgia Tech’s team ERA is higher (3.42), the Jackets have faced much better offenses than FSU has. Georgia Tech, just 15-34 all-time in Tallahassee, has the best pitcher in this series going Friday night in senior righthander Buck Farmer (4-0, 1.64).
“With Buck Farmer pitching on Friday night, of course we know Georgia Tech’s as good as anybody in the country,” Martin said. “I’m anxious to see how we line up with them. I must admit, I’ve gone into games with them before and I’ve said the same thing, and they’ve beat us 9-1, and I’ve said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to play them two more times.’ So it’s a very good baseball team. We’ve just got to make pitches and take advantage of any scoring opportunities we get, because those guys are for real.”
North Carolina State
For the Wolfpack, expectations were higher than ever heading into the season, as first-team preseason All-Americans Trea Turner and Carlos Rodon headlined one of the nation’s most exciting collections of talent. But N.C. State coach Elliott Avent rightfully points out that many people underestimated just how much his team would miss four departed regulars: leading hitter Danny Canela, leading home run hitter Ryan Mathews, starting shortstop Chris Diaz and senior leader Andrew Ciencin.
Injuries have also affected the Wolfpack. Sophomore second baseman/outfielder Logan Ratledge broke his hand on Opening Day, and while he has returned to action sooner than expected, he still is not 100 percent. Center fielder Brett Williams has missed a few games with a severe case of shin splints, but Avent said an MRI came back clean and Williams is expected to return to full duty this weekend.
Most notably, Turner injured his ankle stepping on first base while running out a ground ball at the end of N.C. State’s ACC opener against Clemson two weeks ago. Avent said a piece of bone chipped off the ankle, and the swelling associated with that break has been Turner’s biggest hindrance. But he saw a doctor Tuesday and was cleared to run on turf Wednesday.
“Then it’s just a matter of when he gets his mobility,” Avent said. “There’s a possibility we get him back in some capacity this weekend. That’s optimistic thinking—it will all depend on his lateral movement.”
Turner was originally expected to miss four to six weeks, so getting him back after two or three weeks would be a big lift. Especially since Turner followed up his sensational freshman year with an incredible start to this season, hitting .464/.522/.893 with five homers, 18 RBIs and eight stolen bases in eight tries. He might be the best all-around player in college baseball, and the Wolfpack desperately needs him back on the field.
Defense-oriented senior Matt Bergquist and junior-college transfer Sam Morgan have filled in for Turner at short and will continue to share that duty until he returns to full strength. Morgan and fellow JC transfer Jake Armstrong have “given us some very valuable at-bats,” and a few returners have elevated their games to help N.C. State get by on offense without Turner and the four key players it lost from last year’s team.
Jake Fincher (.352/.436/.420) has followed up his freshman All-America 2012 campaign with a strong start this spring, and senior Tarran Senay (.329/.408/.598, four homers, 24 RBIs) has finally emerged as a bona fide middle of the lineup power threat. After posting a 45-90 walk-strikeout mark over the last two seasons, Senay (pictured) has been more selective so far this year, drawing 12 walks while striking out 13 times. And increased offensive production has not been his only contribution.
“Senay’s been very, very valuable for us,” Avent said. “First of all, he’s made the transition from left field to first base and done a great job. But what he’s done more than anything is leadership. He’s taken over some leadership responsibilities from Andrew Ciencin, and he’s helped this team grow.”
Leadership and defense were N.C. State’s two main question marks heading into the season, and while the leadership void has been filled, the defense remains an issue—N.C. State is fielding at a dismal .954 clip. And pitching has unexpectedly become an area of concern.
While the deep bullpen has performed well and bailed out the starters a number of times, there’s no getting around the fact that North Carolina State’s starting pitching has been mostly horrific. In the Wolfpack’s last 14 games, its starting pitcher has lasted one inning or less seven times. N.C. State starters have gone five or more innings just seven times in 22 games this season, and four of those outings were turned in by Rodon. But even Rodon, a first-team All-American as a freshman last year, has been up and down, going 2-2, 5.04 with 54 strikeouts and 11 walks in 30 innings.
“Early on, his velocity was’t there,” Avent said. “We gave him the fall off after he pitched for Team USA this summer. I’m not sure his arm was in shape at the beginning of the season—it didn’t appear to be. His velocity was down, but mostly his command hasn’t been as good as it was last year at times. But his velocity is up now, and hopefully we’ll be getting his command back. I know he hit a 95 or 96 last game. His changeup’s been a much better pitch for him this year, he’s got a better move to first and second.”
Rodon is the least of N.C. State’s worries; he is college baseball’s most talented pitcher, and he’ll be just fine. But fellow power-armed sophomore Logan Jernigan has struggled mightily with his control and has found himself outside the weekend rotation. Senior Ethan Ogburn has been steady and reliable, if unspectacular, during the course of his career, but he’s been up and down so far this year. He pitched into the sixth inning and gave up just one unearned run in his last start against Wake Forest, an encouraging sign.
Ogburn will remain in the rotation this weekend, and lefthander Brad Stone is likely to remain the No. 3 starter, though the Wolfpack hadn’t made a decision about that as of Wednesday. Stone is a competitor with a decent four-pitch mix and an 87-89 fastball. But he gave up seven runs (five earned) in one inning of work last week against Wake, with the wind blowing out.
While N.C. State has unexpectedly found itself searching for answers on the mound, Virginia has pitched better than expected, as its young arms have matured quickly. Freshmen have thrown 49 percent of Virginia’s innings this season, and the staff ERA is 2.27.
Freshman Brandon Waddell (2-0, 2.48) has given UVa. an athletic, polished lefthander atop the rotation. Sophomore two-way talent Nick Howard (3-1, 1.27) has made a smooth transition from a relief role last year into the rotation this year. With veterans Whit Mayberry (returning from Tommy John surgery) and Kyle Crockett (who was slowed by a back injury early on) easing into action this spring, Howard seized a weekend starter job and ran with it, while also playing third base and hitting .339 in 16 games.
“Last year he’d come out of the ‘pen and was low 90s, just throwing with a good slider,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “Now he’s probably 89-92, but he’s got good pitchability too, throws a breaking ball and a slider, a changeup. He doesn’t have that much pitching experience, but he’s got a good arm and he’s done a nice job.”
The bullpen is well stocked with more quality freshmen, led by power righty Josh Sborz (2-0, 1.32), who can reach 93-94 and has a good hard slider. Heralded freshman Nathan Kirby (1-1, 8.49) has shown electric stuff, but “his pitchability is not there yet,” as O’Connor put it. Instead, freshman David Rosenberger (1.93) has given the Cavs a lift from the left side. And another freshman, righty Cameron Tekker, has been limited to four innings by an infected finger, but O’Connor said he has one of the best arms in UVa.’s freshman class, with a fastball that reaches 92.
Crockett has returned strong and seemingly found a home in the bullpen, where he is 2-0, 0.73. And another veteran lefty, Scott Silverstein (3-0, 3.25), has shown better stuff this year, as his long journey back from shoulder problems has progressed. O’Connor said he’s hopeful that Silverstein won’t run out of gas down the stretch this year like he did last year, when he was still building his strength back up.
Though Virginia hasn’t played the most challenging nonconference schedule, the Cavaliers proved their mettle by taking a road series at Clemson last weekend. The deep, athletic lineup has been potent, as expected, and the emergence of their young arms has turned a question mark into a strength.
“They’ve done everything that we’ve asked them to do and been very, very consistent,” O’Connor said of his young pitchers. “Our starters for the most part have pitched deep into the game or at least into the middle of the game. We’ve mixed and matched out of the bullpen. There’s certainly talent in that freshman group. I didn’t know how quickly they would gain enough experience, and I still don’t think we completely know yet. But certainly they’ve shown us in these first three weeks that they’ve got talent.”
N.C. State has no shortage of talent, of course. But the Wolfpack has a lot more to prove, especially on the mound.
“Right now, we’ve just got to get better,” Avent said. “It’s a long season, and obviously you want to be playing your best ball in May and June. Right now we’ve got a lot of work to do, and it’s all about how bad they want it. We all know that’s got a lot to do with it—mindset, how hard they’re willing to work, sacrifice. We’ve got to learn to compete a little harder, get after it a little better. Once we do that, and once we get healthy, I feel like we’ll be in good shape in May.”
Third-ranked Oregon State is the most complete team in the Pac-12, and the Beavers made a loud statement by sweeping Arizona in Tucson last weekend. The Beavers enter this weekend with a 19-1 record, while No. 20 ASU is 12-5 and heads to Corvallis with three losses in its last four games.
“With their start, and going to Hi Corbett (Field) and sweeping the University of Arizona on the road, they’re showing that they’re the cream of the crop of the Pac,” ASU coach Tim Esmay said. “It’s never easy to go into Corvallis anyway—they play really well at home. It’s going to be a real stiff challenge for us to go in there and play well.”
The Sun Devils began the year unranked but got off to a strong 11-2-1 start, including a pair of wins against then-No. 3 Arkansas, a road series win at Tennessee and a sweep of Long Beach State. Arizona State pitched very well during those first 14 games, but ASU’s arms were knocked around by Washington State in a series loss at home last weekend, allowing 26 runs in two losses. Preseason All-American Trevor Williams, who was coming off back-to-back complete-game gems, gave up nine runs (seven earned) on 13 hits in Friday’s stunning 15-4 loss. Esmay said Williams had good stuff in that game, and he insisted that a number of Washington State’s hits came on well-executed pitches that the Cougars put in play, and they found holes. Against a strike-thrower like Williams, teams often use an aggressive approach, trying to put balls in play early in counts, and Washington State executed its game plan perfectly, Esmay said.
The Sun Devils aren’t concerned at all about Williams, who will go head-to-head with OSU senior lefty Matt Boyd in a fine Friday pitching matchup. Freshman lefthander Ryan Kellogg has emerged as a rock-solid Saturday starter, going 4-0, 0.93 with 20 strikeouts and five walks in 29 innings. He allowed just three hits over seven innings of one-run ball in last week’s 4-1 win against Wazzu.
“He has been lights out,” Esmay said. “His past experience pitching with the Canadian national team, it’s just kind of prepared him mentally—he’s not your typical freshman. He’s not a power-armed guy, he’s a three-pitch guy that repeats things. I think those guys have a little better shot of not hitting that freshman wall. He has such pitchability, it allows him to not have to be a max-effort outing all the time. It’s probably 87-89, he’s got a slider, changeup, and he’s also got a breaking ball. So he kind of pitches off of four pitches that he can use.”
The Sun Devils, like Virginia, are leaning heavily on freshman pitchers, and Esmay said he is concerned about overtaxing his young arms, because freshmen pitchers have a pronounced tendency to hit a wall during the second half of the long college season. In order to pace his freshmen, Esmay said he hopes veterans like Zak Miller and Billy Young can help share the workload.
One of ASU’s power-armed freshmen, lefthander Brett Lilek, is already experiencing some arm tenderness. Lilek, who allowed just one run over five strong innings to beat Arkansas All-American Ryne Stanek in his first collegiate start, showed 92-94 mph heat and a power slider when he was at full strength, but Esmay said Lilek’s availability at Oregon State was still in doubt.
Freshman righty Ryan Burr (1.62 ERA, three saves) has been outstanding in the closer role, but he had his first real hiccup in Tuesday’s 8-7 loss at Texas Tech, relinquishing a one-run ninth-inning lead by walking four and hitting a better in the final frame. A physical, 6-foot-4 righty with a big fastball, Burr evokes former ASU closer Jake Barrett. When he’s on, Burr can also eat hitters up with his power curveball, but Esmay said he didn’t have good feel for it in his outing against Texas Tech.
Esmay said the Sunday starter this weekend is to be determined. Sophomore lefthander Adam McCreery began the year in the rotation but has struggled, going 1-2, 6.86. Esmay said McCreery is still learning how to control his gangly 6-foot-9 body and repeat his delivery. “I just think he’s caught in between: ‘Do I want to be a serious command guy or be a power arm?’ Sometimes you get some cheap outs just because it’s power,” Esmay said.
Like the pitching staff, Arizona State’s lineup still has “newbies in there trying to figure it out,” as Esmay put it. Seven regulars were at least part time players last year, but all of them played supporting roles, while Joey DeMichele, Andrew Aplin, Abe Ruiz and Deven Marrero provided the star power. With that quartet gone, players like Jake Peevyhouse, MIchael Benjamin, James McDonald, Kasey Coffman, Drew Stankiewicz and Trever Allen have moved into central roles.
Shortstop Stankiewicz and second baseman McDonald are learning on the fly in the middle infield, but Esmay said he has enjoyed watching them grow. ASU is fielding .958 as a team, and Esmay said the Devils must clean up their defense in order to meet their team goals.
Arizona State’s lineup isn’t flashy, and it isn’t yet mature, but Esmay has been pleased with his team’s “commitment to attacking the baseball and kind of being a thorn in somebody’s side.” Maybe the Sun Devils lack their typical star power—and certainly they lack Oregon State’s star power—but they still have talent, and they have great makeup.
“I think that’s why nobody wanted to pick us—everybody thinks we’re going to have a little bit of a down year because we have new kids,” Esmay said. “What we don’t have is that first-rounder coming out of here, that position player. We don’t have a Marrero or a (Brett) Wallace or a (Jason) Kipnis. But what we do have, we’re starting to show a little bit of our personality. This team has shown so far this year the ability to score late, put things together, play nine innings—all that stuff, I really like the makeup. A lot of these kids who are playing now didn’t play as freshmen, they’ve been kids who have had to fight and claw their whole time here.”
Expect them to fight and claw this weekend, too.
The defending national champions dropped out of the Top 25 after getting swept by Oregon State last weekend, and they’ll have their hands full on the road against an Oregon team that returned most of the core of its 2012 super regional team. The Wildcats, meanwhile, lost five key regulars (Alex Mejia, Robert Refsnyder, Seth Mejias-Brean, Bobby Brown, Joey Rickard) and their ace (Kurt Heyer) from last year’s club, and they are still trying to find the right combinations to fill in the gaps.
“It was a big turnaround; we lost a slew of people,” Lopez said. “When you lose five, six key guys like that, you’ve got to have the older guys really perform to their abilities. We’ve been a little up and down. (a) We still don’t know who the first baseman is. Neither (Ryan) Koziol nor (Sam) Parris has done anything to prove they need to be there. (b) We don’t know who the DH is, same situation. And (c), we have had a couple older guys not necessarily perform the way we need with the loss of the guys we lost.”
Lopez said the Wildcats are likely going to move some pieces around to address those problems. One piece of good news is that junior third baseman Brandon Dixon (.430/.500/.721, four homers, four triples, 26 RBIs) has taken a leap forward to become the centerpiece of the lineup, as Arizona hoped he would. In order to strengthen the lineup, Lopez said he was considering moving Dixon back across the diamond to first base and inserting energetic, athletic freshman Cody Ramer at third.
Once fellow freshman Jackson Willeford returns from mononucleosis (which has limited him to just seven at-bats), he figures to take over the DH duties. Willeford was Arizona’s biggest-name recruit last year, and he should make a big impact once he returns to action, probably next week.
“He’s a good baseball player,” Lopez said. “That would be one button I would push without a doubt. I’m looking forward to pushing that button.”
With Heyer gone, junior righty Konner Wade has struggled to duplicate his postseason success in the Friday starter role, going 2-1, 4.41. Lopez said Wade’s trademark sinker has lost some of its movement, and he has been leaving his changeup up in the zone, where it has gotten hit.
“Konner Wade has to pitch better on Friday night. Period. End of story,” Lopez said. “I told him, ‘If you don’t pitch well, you’re going on Saturdays, because (James) Farris is out-pitching you.’ (Wade) had a good ‘pen (Tuesday), and we’ll give him another shot Friday.”
Wade isn’t the only veteran who has struggled. Sophomore outfielder/DH Joseph Maggi is hitting .193/.352/.211, and Lopez said he has looked bad, getting caught out on his front foot, hitting balls out of the catcher’s glove—just demonstrating poor timing.
In the bullpen, Lopez was counting on veterans Nick Cunningham (4.50 ERA), Stephen Manthei (5.82) and Tyler Hale (13.50) to build a bridge to dominant closer Mathew Troupe (2-0, 0.00, four saves, 24-4 K-BB in 14 IP). Troupe has held up his end of the bargain, but the middle men have struggled, despite showing good velocity.
“They look good midweek, then you stick them in the weekend and, holy smokes, it’s bang-bang-bang, it’s over,” Lopez said. “And it’s no secret that we won’t chase runs down offensively like those guys did last year, so that means you have to be really effective when we give you that six-out appearance or even that three-out appearance. Troupe’s numbers are Bugs Bunny-ish, but you’ve got to get to Troupe.
“I really like to give the older guys a real long leash, I just want to see them have a good senior year. But we can’t fall too far behind; we’ve got to pick it up in that role. So it’s a big weekend for a couple guys. In the Pac, if they do it, hip hip hooray. If not, we’ll do something else.”
Those veteran relievers are on notice; Lopez told them they need to perform this weekend, or he’ll have to start using Tyger Talley (1.59) and Augey Bill (0.66) in those crucial setup roles in their place. Talley and Bill don’t have nearly the pure stuff as that other group, but they have been more effective.
Lopez said the Pac-12 “is not for little boys,” and his team needs to do some growing up. Last week, in the middle of Saturday’s loss to Oregon State, Lopz turned to assistant Shaun Cole and said, “You see those guys? That’s what we were last year: old, a little bit of a chip on your shoulder. Old and deep.”
The same can be said for Oregon, though the Ducks are not nearly as explosive offensively as last year’s Wildcats or this year’s Beavers. But they are old and deep. Arizona is not old, and it needs to prove it has the depth to overcome attrition and underperformance.
It is pretty easy to pinpoint the root cause behind TCU’s disappointing 9-11 start: The Frogs haven’t hit. In particular, talented sophomores Kevin Cron (.185/.221/.247), Derek Odell (.185/.280/.185) and Jerrick Suiter (.146/.212/.167) have not hit at all.
“Last year, in the last 20 games, Odell, Cron and Suiter all hit over .350, and they carried us in the last portion of the season, in the regional and super regional,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “Those guys have scuffled for the most part. We just haven’t scored enough runs. For most teams, and especially for a private school, the guys that you’re most heavily invested in will have to carry you. We’ve pitched well enough, played good enough defense—we just haven’t scored enough runs. You’d like to think that since some of those guys have track record, that’s going to turn around.
“But when you’re teeing up against Jonathan Gray and Dillon Overton, trying to turn your season around, that’s a tough mountain to climb.”
Oklahoma’s co-aces certainly represent a daunting assignment this weekend, and the Frogs can ill afford to fall into a deeper hole after dropping two of three at home against Kansas last weekend. The Horned Frogs have generally gotten strong starting pitching from Preston Morrison and Brandon Finnegan, but the best arm on the staff—junior righthander Andrew Mitchell—hasn’t gotten enough opportunities to impact the game in his closer role because TCU hasn’t handed him enough leads. So Schlossnagle said the Frogs will move Mitchell into the Sunday starter job this weekend.
Schlossnagle said Mitchell has done a better job pitching down in the zone with his fastball than he did in his uneven stint as a starter last year, and his changeup is better than it was last year, so he looks better equipped to handle starting. One scout said “guys are getting excited about Andrew Mitchell,” citing better command of a fastball that reaches 96 and his trademark wipeout power curve.
TCU has faith that exciting freshmen Alex Young and Riley Ferrell can anchor the bullpen, paving the way for Mitchell to move into the rotation. Young, a 6-foot-3 lefthander works at 89-92 and bumps 93, his firm breaking ball comes in at 80-81, and he has a good changeup, though he doesn’t use it as much in relief. Ferrell, a 6-1 righty, has a huge arm, working in the 93-95 range and touching 96-97 with a heavy fastball, and mixing in a good slider that he can throw for strikes.
So the pitching is in good shape. The key is getting that trio of sophomore hitters going. Suiter had shoulder surgery in the fall and still isn’t 100 percent, but he’s getting closer, and Schlossnagle said he’s hopeful Suiter can provide a spark.
The massive Cron needs to be a power-hitting presence in the middle of the lineup. Schlossnagle said he’ll go through a stretch where he’s driving the baseball well, then other stretches where he looks bad. He has just two walks and 14 strikeouts on the season, and he needs to do a better job taking his walks and trusting his teammates to drive in runs, Schlossnagle said.
Odell has had a lot of good at-bats, Schlossnagle said, but hasn’t been rewarded with many hits.
“That’s not an excuse, but if something happens good for him then he’ll be fine,” Schlossnagle said. “Paul Hendrix we put in the lineup (Tuesday) at second base, he’s swung the bat well, hitting right around .300. So there are some guys pushing him. But we know that for us to have a good season, he more than likely has to be a big part of it. He’s got to trust his approach, can’t get pull happy—just normal college kid stuff.
“We’ve got to figure it out on the fly, and time is of the essence.”
• Our two preseason favorites in the West Coast Conference square off this weekend in Spokane, Wash., as Gonzaga hosts San Diego. Both teams have been solid over the last few weeks, and Gonzaga carries a 12-6-1 record into the series, while USD is 14-6. These teams have contrasting styles, as San Diego has real thump in the middle of the lineup in Kris Bryant, Dillon Haupt and Connor Joe, who have combined for 18 home runs, while Gonzaga has hit just two home runs all season. The Toreros are hitting .313 as a team, and the Bulldogs are hitting .281. But Gonzaga has played much better defense (.972 fielding percentage vs. USD’s .952), and Gonzaga’s one-two pitching punch of Marco Gonzales and Tyler Olson has performed very well, while USD’s Michael Wagner has been solid but Dylan Covey has struggled.
“His numbers aren’t that astounding, but he improves every time out,” San Diego coach Rich Hill said of Covey. “The stuff is there, just where he’s missing—he’s missing by a couple of inches, whereas before he was really all over the place (last year). So his delivery is a lot cleaner, he’s a lot more on line. He really has shown command of his breaking ball, changeup. And he’s learning how to go deeper into the game. So I’m actually kind of fired up on him right now. But we just haven’t been able to play defense behind either of those guys.”
And while Gonzaga doesn’t have gaudy offensive numbers, coaches always walk away from a series against the Zags shaking their heads at how difficult they are to play against, because of the way they grind out at-bats.
“I’ve always thought Gonzaga is one of the more underrated teams in the country,” Hill said. “With Marco and Tyler going back to back, that’s pretty special. You don’t get that very often in a career, and I think they’ve found some guys at the back end of the bullpen. They’ve created an atmosphere up there. It’s cold, they’re drawing a thousand people, it’s a very difficult place to win. And what’s overlooked is the job coach (Mark) Machtolf does with their hitters—they just grind you, wear you out. You can’t strike them out, they’re aggressive on the bases, they don’t chase. They just wear you down.”
• Heading into the season, this weekend’s showdown between Rice and Southern Mississippi looked like the series of the year in Conference USA, but the Golden Eagles have been one of college baseball’s biggest disappointments thus far, going 8-12. USM has lost six of its last seven games and 10 of its last 12 heading into this weekend’s series in Hattiesburg. The biggest culprit has been offense: Southern Miss is averaging a paltry 2.7 runs per game during its current 1-5 skid. The Owls, on the other hand, have won seven straight games and 10 of 12 since their ugly 0-3 weekend at the Astros Foundation College Classic.
• Another disappointing Conference USA team, East Carolina, visits red-hot Houston, the league’s most impressive team so far. The Pirates have lost five of their last seven, including midweek games against UNC Wilmington and High Point this week, dropping them to 11-10 overall. The 18-4 Cougars have won seven straight, a stretch that includes two wins against Baylor and another against Texas. The Cougars have gotten great play out of their young lineup, but the improvement of returning starting pitchers Austin Pruitt (4-1, 2.15) and Aaron Garza (3-0, 2.73) have been critical to Houston’s resurgence. As a staff, Houston has lowered its ERA from 5.32 last year to 3.18 through 22 games this year.
• For the second weekend in a row, the Southeastern Conference schedule features two matchups between teams that are both ranked. In both cases this weekend, the road team is coming off a home series loss and now faces the prospect of falling into an early hole with another series loss. Arkansas travels to South Carolina in one marquee matchup, and the Hogs will shuffle their pitching staff once again, moving righty Barrett Astin from the bullpen back into a starting role. He’ll get the nod Friday night against Evan Beal, who has been dominant in two starts since taking over for injured Jordan Montgomery atop the South Carolina rotation. Ryne Stanek moves up a day into the Saturday starter role for Arkansas, and he’ll face red-hot lefthander Nolan Belcher, who carries a 26.1-inning scoreless streak into this weekend. The Hogs will start Randall Fant on Sunday, while South Carolina has not announced its Sunday starter.
In the other prime SEC series, Mississippi State travels to Kentucky, which is fresh off a nice road series win at Florida. I’m planning to catch the Sunday game in Lexington (after seeing Florida-Vanderbilt on Friday and Rutgers-Louisville on Saturday), and I’ll have a report on the College Blog on Monday.
• After opening the season with 18 straight road games (and going 3-15), Boston College had its home opener against Northeastern this week postponed, and now the Eagles have had their first conference home series moved because of a snowstorm that left their field unplayable. Instead of hosting No. 1 North Carolina, BC will have to travel to Chapel Hill, where the two teams will play a doubleheader Saturday and finish the series on Sunday.