|Michigan at Ohio State|
The Big Ten looked like a three-horse race entering 2007, with Michigan, Ohio State and Minnesota all returning plenty of talent and experience. None of those teams has disappointed, and none has yet separated itself from the pack, as the Wolverines (18-6, 4-0 in conference play), Buckeyes (18-5, 4-2) and Golden Gophers (18-6, 2-1)–as well as Michigan State (14-10, 5-2)–are all major factors in the league standings. Either Michigan or Minnesota might have established itself as the early favorite had last weekend’s series between the two not been canceled by cold, snowy weather.
|Top 25 Schedule|
|(1) Vanderbilt at Kentucky
Duke at (2) North Carolina
Virginia Tech at (3) Florida State
Auburn at (4) South Carolina
Georgia Tech at (5) Virginia
Texas Tech at (6) Texas
(7) Rice at Houston
California at (8) Oregon State
Florida at (9) Arkansas
(10) Pepperdine at San Francisco
(11) Wichita State at Southern Illinois
Washington State at (12) Arizona State
Stanford at (13) Arizona
(14) Clemson at Wake Forest
Kansas State at (15) Oklahoma State
(16) Texas A&M at (25) Missouri
Cal Poly at (17) UC Irvine
(18) Cal State Fullerton at UC Davis
(19) Coastal Carolina at High Point
(20) Mississippi at Louisiana State
Portland at (21) San Diego
(22) Mississippi State at Tennessee
Nebraska at (23) Oklahoma
(24) Tulane at Southern Mississippi
This weekend, weather permitting, Michigan and Ohio State will battle for Big Ten pole position in Columbus. It will be cold and potentially snowy again this weekend, but the Wolverines and Buckeyes can’t afford to lose this series. Michigan coach Rich Maloney said he’s already concerned about the hit his club will take in the Ratings Percentage Index because it didn’t get the chance to face Minnesota. Ohio State coach Bob Todd echoed the concern about RPI and said he hopes the selection committee takes the weather into effect when filling out the NCAA tournament field.
“People are scrambling to make up games, and the fields are not in good condition,” Todd said. “It’s not like out West or down South–people are condensing everything and just trying to get in as many games as they can. We’re going to do everything we can to get them in (this weekend). My point is, what 80 percent of the country is having to do is not just come out and play a game at 1 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. We’re liable to be at the ballpark at 10:30 a.m. trying to get ready for a game at 1, and not playing it until 8 at night.”
The forecast looks the best on Friday, so don’t be shocked if the Wolverines and Buckeyes try to squeeze in a Friday doubleheader. One thing is for sure: this series means an awful lot to both teams, and not just because of the standings. The Ohio State-Michigan rivalry is as fierce on the diamond as it is in any other sport. Then there’s the added wrinkle of recent history; the Wolverines swept the Buckeyes in last year’s four-game set, en route to the conference title.
“After last year, when we had big-time success against them, they’re going to be champing at the bit,” Maloney said of the Buckeyes. “But we’re champing at the bit too, because we realize this is huge for us to defend our title, especially after we didn’t get to play Minnesota last week.”
On paper, Michigan probably gets the slight edge, if for no other reason than Zach Putnam. The sophomore righthander/left fielder has had no trouble handling his two-way duties this spring, going 4-2, 1.95 off the mound with a lively fastball that sits in the 90-92 mph range and reaches 95 when he needs it. Maloney said pitching coach Bob Keller is trying to help Putnam develop a true out-pitch with a split-finger or a cutter (which could help him become a top-10 pick in the 2008 draft), but he already commands four adequate pitches. And Maloney said his professional future might wind up being in the field anyway, because his bat is legit. He leads the Wolverines with a .389 average and is beginning to tap into his above-average raw power, swatting two home runs earlier this week against Eastern Michigan.
Ohio State’s own two-way star, lefthander/left fielder J.B. Shuck, has nearly matched Putnam’s offensive production, batting .384/.435/.493, but he has struggled to locate his three-pitch mix at times off the mound, going 1-0, 3.98. There’s more pressure on Shuck and lefty Cory Luebke (4-0, 1.64) to carry the rotation now that ace lefthander Dan DeLucia (2-0, 3.18) is out for the season. DeLucia, who has been Ohio State’s Friday starter for two and a half seasons, had arm surgery this week with Dr. James Andrews to remove the calcium deposits that had formed on the tendon in his elbow. Luebke will be fine in the Friday starter role, and Todd hopes sophomore lefty Josh Barrera (4-0, 3.30) can continue to hold down the Saturday starter spot, but losing DeLucia is definitely a blow.
Michigan, meanwhile, matches up well with Ohio State’s horde of lefthanders. The Wolverines’ only regular who bats lefthanded is shortstop/leadoff man Jason Christian, a willowy 6-foot-3 athlete with leverage in his swing and good speed on the basepaths. Third baseman Adam Abraham (a former hockey player), first baseman Nate Recknagel and second baseman Doug Pickens all have decent pop that plays up outside spacious Ray Fisher Stadium.
“We feel like we have a really good team,” Maloney said. “I said from the beginning, if you have good starting pitching, and you field the ball the way we do, and we’ve got good power and speed–when you’re putting together a team that’s what you’re looking for.
“Ohio State has a great program and a great coach in Bob Todd. Whenever we play in this series, the focus is a lot tighter for both teams. Playing at Ohio State, there should be a great crowd. We’re looking forward to this challenge. This is another opportunity for us in our minds to prove ourselves again.”
|Aaron Shafer vs. Cody Adams
Shafer, Wichita State’s sophomore righthander, entered the season as the No. 3 prospect in the sophomore class, and though he’s been the No. 2 pitcher on his own team this year (behind junior righty Travis Banwart), he’s been very good. Through nine starts, Shafer is 5-2, 2.53 with 63 strikeouts and 13 walks in 53 innings, a significant improvement in his strikeout rate from 2006 (77 K in 99 IP).
While Shafer entered the season as a proven commodity after going 11-3, 2.63 and earning freshman All-America honors in 2006, Adams was a virtual unknown a few months ago. Adams, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound righthander for Southern Illinois, began his freshman season in the rotation but struggled to command his secondary pitches and wound up in the bullpen. He breezed through the beginning of 2007 before exploding onto the prospect landscape with a complete-game victory against Illinois State on March 24, when his fastball sat at 93 mph and touched 96 in the eighth inning. He followed that up with a rough outing against Evansville when he got tentative and tried too hard to miss bats instead of pitching to contact, but he bounced back last week with a complete-game, two-hit shutout against Valparaiso, striking out 10 and walking none. Overall, Adams is 8-1, 2.26 with a 51-13 K-BB ratio in 60 innings of work.
Salukis pitching coach Tim Dixon said Adams is the best all-around athlete on the team, capable of running a 6.9-second 60-yard dash. He’s always had excellent arm strength, but he’s been working hard on developing reliable secondary pitches this year, even changing the grip on his changeup and slider over the past few weeks. Early in the season, his split-finger was his best secondary offering, but against Valpo his slider showed outstanding depth and late movement, and his changeup had good fade.
“His splitty has suddenly gone from his second-best pitch to his fourth-best pitch,” Dixon said. “It’s kind of unrealistic to think that he’ll have four pitches every single time out. But the good thing about it is as long as he’s got two or three, he’ll always have one to go to. Wichita State has a lot of lefthanded hitters, so if his changeup is on, he’ll be in good. He has a chance to have three above-average pitches (down the road). And he’s pretty mechanically sound, but I think there’s more velocity in there.”
That’s a scary thought for the rest of the Missouri Valley Conference. The Shockers will have their hands full as it is this weekend against Adams and the young, dangerous Salukis, who are 23-9 and hungry to prove themselves against the MVC’s elite. The Friday matchup between Bawart (6-2, 1.09) and SIU senior righty Jordan Powell (5-4, 3.40) is a good one, but the Shafer-Adams tilt has the glamour of a showdown between two very intriguing pro prospects.
“I have not seen Shafer before, so I’m excited, especially as a pitching coach,” Dixon said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch. I don’t know if the offensive guys are going to be too happy about that matchup.”
|Nebraska over Oklahoma|
The Cornhuskers were backed into a corner early in Big 12 Conference play, losing their first three weekend series to Texas Tech, Missouri and Texas A&M. They responded with a huge series win over Oklahoma State last weekend, getting a masterful start from ace lefthander Tony Watson (9 IP, 2 ER, 12 K) on Friday and a strong outing from junior righty Johnny Dorn (6 IP, 2 ER, 8 K) on Saturday. That duo and sophomore righty Charlie Shirek comprise the best weekend rotation in the Big 12, and they’ll need to come up with more clutch performances this weekend at No. 23 Oklahoma. The Sooners have their backs up against the wall as well after dropping consecutive series at Texas and Baylor, and they won’t go down easy at home this weekend. But Nebraska’s pitching edge will trump Oklahoma’s home-field advantage.
|Derek Blacksher, rhp, McNeese State|
Those overall numbers don’t look great–Blacksher is just 3-4, 5.29 on an 11-23 team. But after his first Southland Conference start, when UT-San Antonio ripped him for 11 hits and 11 runs in 5 1/3 innings, Blacksher was 0-4, 8.00, and the Cowboys were a woeful 3-20. They fell as far as 3-22 but have ripped off eight wins in their last nine, with Blacksher, senior outfielder Charlie Kingrey (.359, 11 HRs) and senior catcher Joe Hulett (school-record 19-game hitting streak) leading the way. Blacksher has thrown three straight complete games, using a high-80s fastball and 12-to-6 curve to beat Nicholls State, Northwestern State and Southeast Louisiana in succession. He’s given up just five earned runs in 27 innings while sporting a 34-3 strikeout-walk ratio in that span. The team has turned its season around under interim coach Chad Fackler, who took over when head coach Chad Clement quit after four games due to frustration with school administration over poor conditions at the team’s ballpark.
|Josh Collmenter, rhp, Central Michigan|
Collmenter, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound junior, has thrown two complete-game shutouts in his last three starts. He allowed just three singles while striking out a season-high 12 without issuing a walk last Friday against Bowling Green State, just two weeks after holding Buffalo to three hits while striking out nine in the Chippewas’ Mid-American Conference opener. In between, Collmenter threw seven strong innings in a 2-1 win against Kent State. He’s now won all three conference starts for the Chippewas, who sit atop the MAC’s Western Division at 8-1, their best conference start since 1990. Central Michigan is 19-12 overall, and Collmenter is 4-2, 2.03 with 57 strikeouts and 15 walks in 58 innings.
The Black Bears, who won the America East Conference last year, entered 2007 as the favorites to win the league again, thanks to an outstanding offensive core of shortstop Curt Smith, third baseman Kevin McAvoy and first baseman Joel Barrett, plus the addition of power-hitting freshman catcher Myckie Lugbauer. All of those players have performed fairly well this year, yet Maine sits in last place in the league at 0-4 and is just 5-19 overall. The Black Bears have lost eight games in a row and 17 of 18 since starting the season 4-2. Some of those struggles were to be expected, as Maine has played a tougher schedule than years past, traveling to Arizona State for four games in addition to trips to Miami and Florida Atlantic, but the last four losses came against fellow America East opponent Stony Brook.
“I think for us, we tried to upgrade our schedule and not worry as much about wins and losses early,” Maine coach Steve Trimper said. “Arizona State was a great team for us to play, but they’re a heck of a ballclub. We just need to get into a routine, and because of travel and some weather stuff, we haven’t been able to find a routine. It’s affected us on the mound. Our pitching hasn’t been what we want it to be right now.”
Indeed, Maine hasn’t gotten consistent pitching from anyone on its staff, helping explain a staff ERA of 7.63. Senior righthander Greg Norton, who took a medical redshirt in 2006 but entered this year as the projected ace, has taken his lumps, going 2-3, 7.62. Junior lefty Brad Hertzler has a good arm but has struggled like everyone else on the staff, going 0-3, 5.52.
The weather has been a major obstacle like it has been for most teams in the Northeast and Midwest this year. Maine had a pair of games against Brown canceled by rotten weather this week, and this weekend’s series against Maryland-Baltimore County has been moved to Eastern Connecticut State. The weather affects practice schedules, as well.
“If you talk to Northeast coaches, you have to come up with some great practice plans and organization; there’s only so much you can get done indoors,” Trimper said. “But that’s something that’s part of the game. At a school like Maine or–I’ve been in the Northeast my whole career. You start off slow and get better as it goes along. We’re a team that we have some kids that can play, we just have to get into a groove.”
|Stat of the
The nation’s longest winning streak, which belongs to Arizona. The Wildcats are now 26-8 overall and a sparkling 6-0 in the Pacific-10 Conference heading into this weekend’s trip to Stanford, which is 0-6 in conference play.
Augie Garrido got to be Division I’s winningest coach and a five-time national champion with pitching-and-defense clubs as his trademark. But Garrido is smart enough to know there’s more than one way to win games, and this year’s Texas team is an offensive powerhouse, averaging 7.5 runs per game (32nd in the country) while ranking sixth in slugging (.532). An area scout sizes up the Longhorns’ explosive lineup.
“They’ve got (Kyle) Russell, who’s having the year he’s having (20 home runs to tie a Texas single-season record). It helps who surrounds him and hits ahead of him though–he hits fifth a lot. (Jordan) Danks and Brad Suttle are really good hitters in front of him. Then you’ve got guys like Preston Clark and Nick Peoples in there, a veteran like (Chance) Wheeless, it’s a very good lineup. That does make it all the more impressive that Russell has separated himself not just historically but in this group. That is a very good college lineup. You’re not going to pitch around him to get to Suttle or Clark, so it’s really a fun lineup to watch. You can’t just go out and try to throw it by them. They have different strengths, they run well (59 steals in 72 attempts)–it’s just an enjoyable team to watch.”
|Adam Mills, rhp, Charlotte|
Charlotte coach Loren Hibbs resisted the urge to throw Mills, his senior righthander, against No. 2 North Carolina earlier this week in order to keep his ace fresh for Friday’s game at Rhode Island. The 49ers still gave the Tar Heels a run, but the way Mills has thrown this year he might very well have beaten them–he did throw three shutout innings against them last year. As detailed in Weekend Preview last week, Mills has thrown three straight complete games and five on the season, helping him improve to 8-1, 1.06 with 99 strikeouts in 77 innings of work. The gregarious senior talked about his amazing season, his approach to pitching and his love for Madison, Wis., In The Dugout.
The way you’re pitching right now, do you get the feeling you’re just in the zone? Have you ever felt like this before?
Any time you have that one good outing, the next outing you always have that little extra confidence in you. I’ve felt like I’ve had that confidence all year. When I get out there, even if I don’t have every pitch, I have most of my pitches, and I have fairly good control of all of them. If you have two pitches in the zone every game, you can do a lot with that. Some days when you have three, four pitches in the zone, those are the fun days to pitch.
Tell me about your repertoire; what makes you successful?
I throw a two-seamer, a four-seamer. Any time I go away I usually go straight four-seamer. And I have a slider and a knuckle curve and a changeup–pretty much I’m a four-pitch guy. Usually, I’m just using my fastball and pitching off that. But my out pitch is my slider, and I usually don’t show that too much unless I’m ahead in the count, 0-2, 1-2, sometimes I use it 2-2. Usually I use what I’ve got to get ahead and put them away with that. But if you get to the point late in the game where they’re sitting hard early and sitting soft late, you kind of change it up on them and go hard late. My last two complete games I’ve had, that’s what I did in the eighth and ninth innings–instead of putting them away with the slider, I just went off the plate a little bit with the fastball and they were late on it.
It seems like every week when I look at your box scores, each of your outings is better than the last. Is there any particular outing that was your personal favorite, where you were at your best?
Obviously the one that stands out a little bit is the one against Campbell when I had those 10 strikeouts in a row. I kind of know where I’m at as far as strikeouts sometimes, but a lot of times I don’t really. If I get a chance to put somebody away, I’m going to. I was sitting there, I knew I had struck out two sides in a row, I knew I had struck out six in a row, but when I went back out for that third inning I wasn’t going for punchouts or anything. But once I started getting more to seven, eight, nine, I started realizing it. I got in counts where it was 2-2 or 3-2, instead of going fastball like I normally would, I was pitching for punchouts.
You were a good pitcher last year too, but you’ve taken it to another level this year. What’s been the biggest difference?
I was talking to my dad about this, because he asked me the same question, and I felt like that Campbell game was a turning point. Before that 10 strikeout thing happened, coming out the first inning all my balls were up and they were hitting me pretty hard, I gave up three runs or something. But it aggravated me so much, it just set a fire off in me, and I came in, I was yelling in the dugout, “They ain’t scoring the rest of the game, let’s go!” Trying to get everybody pumped up. Ever since then, I feel like I have this attitude. Things don’t get to me the way they used to. Before, if I gave up that little bleeder hit, I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” thinking I was getting screwed or something. Stuff doesn’t get to me like it used to. I don’t know if it’s me maturing as a pitcher over four years or what, but the mindset, that’s the biggest difference in me this year.
You played for the Madison Mallards in the Northwoods League for two summers in a row. What was that experience like for you?
Me and my catcher played out there two summers in a row, and everybody gets so tired of us talking about it. It’s one of the most amazing places you’ll ever play. We had like 6,000 fans per night, one night I think we had like 12,000 on the Fourth of July. The atmosphere out there is amazing. I promise you, there is no better place to play over the summer than Madison.