In the big picture, maybe there’s not so much on the line this weekend in Columbia. No matter what happens, Vanderbilt and South Carolina are both likely to wind up as national seeds, which means neither will have to leave home in the postseason until Omaha.
But Southeastern Conference supremacy is its own great prize, and the team that wins this weekend will have it, at least for the time being. Certainly, regular-season weekend series do not get much more compelling than this one, which pits the nation’s No. 1 team (Vanderbilt, at 31-3) against the No. 3 team (South Carolina, 26-6). The Commodores and Gamecocks are tied for the best record in the SEC (10-2), and neither has a significant weakness.
Top 25 Schedule
(1) Vanderbilt at (3) South Carolina
Duke at (2) Virginia
(4) Florida at Georgia
Baylor vs./at/at (5) Texas A&M
Texas Tech at (6) Texas
(7) North Carolina at North Carolina State
UC Santa Barbara at (8) Cal State Fullerton
(9) Oregon State at (17) Stanford
Washington State at (10) Arizona State
(11) Florida State at Virginia Tech
(12) Texas Christian at San Diego State
Nevada at (13) Fresno State
(14) Oklahoma at (19) Oklahoma State
(15) Georgia Tech at Wake Forest
(16) California at Washington
(18) Troy at Middle Tennessee State
(20) Arizona at (23) UCLA
Savannah State at (21) Stetson
New Orleans at (22) Southern Mississippi
Tennessee at (24) Alabama
Mississippi State at (25) Arkansas
They do have differences, however. Both offenses are plenty capable, but Vanderbilt leads the SEC in batting (.313), while South Carolina ranks seventh (.289). But South Carolina leads the league in homers with 30, while Vandy ranks 11th with 12. Vanderbilt’s table setters (Tony Kemp and Anthony Gomez) have excelled at getting on base and into scoring position ahead of the run producers in the middle of the lineup (Aaron Westlake, Curt Casali and Jason Esposito, who have 27 RBIs apiece).
“They have the capability to hit the ball out, but that’s not something we ask them to do—we just ask them to give us productive at-bats,” Vandy coach Tim Corbin said of the heart of his order. “Westlake, obviously, has the strength to leave the field in any direction, and Casali and Esposito can do it too. It’s three kids that have a thousand at-bats in college and summer ball, and you can see the progression they’ve made each year. It’s just more experience. Then the younger guys are just baseball players—they play the game well. It makes for a well-rounded offense.”
As good as Vanderbilt’s pitching is (more on that later), its lineup sometimes gets overlooked. It shouldn’t.
“They’ve got so many weapons; people always talk about their pitching staff, and deservedly so, but they’ve got great players, too,” South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said of the Commodores. “Look at Aaron Westlake and the year he’s having, and Esposito is very, very special, I think. They line up. They have all the ingredients to make a deep, deep run, no question.”
Tanner’s team, of course, made a deep, deep run in last year’s postseason, and much of the core of the national title team is back. Like Vanderbilt, South Carolina has a pair of All-America-caliber players in the middle of the lineup in Christian Walker (.344/.415/.616 with seven homers and 37 RBIs) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (.286/.403/.545 with six homers and 24 RBIs). Fellow Omaha vets Adrian Morales (.333 with three homers and 21 RBIs) and Scott Wingo (.314 with three homers) join Walker in a rock-solid infield, and Peter Mooney is a talented defender at short, though he’s been a bit up and down. Tanner said Morales’ wrist has bothered him lately, so he did not play Tuesday to rest up for this weekend, but he will play against the Commodores—and that’s important.
“In a lot of ways, this team is about his personality,” Tanner said of Morales, a senior third baseman. “We’re going to play you hard, we’re going to try to play you tough, and we’re going to try to win. You talk about a lot of the prospects and talented guys, you’ve got Jackie Bradley and Christian Walker—when you talk about guys you want to see at the plate in big situations, certainly Morales is one of those guys as well.”
Both these teams are very strong defensively, as usual. Vanderbilt experimented with Esposito at shortstop to start the year, but the infield has fallen into place since he moved back to his natural third base, and Gomez slid from second base to shortstop, with Riley Reynolds and Westlake holding down the right side. The outfield features three players with excellent range capable of playing center field in Kemp, Connor Harrell and Mike Yastrzemski, from left to right.
“We’ve just gotten consistent, consistent play,” Corbin said. “We’re doing enough to win ballgames. Our defense has some rhythm to it, with Esposito back at third base, Gomez playing with nice confidence at shortstop, Reynolds and Westlake on the other side and a senior (Casali) behind the plate makes us very consistent. And our outfield defense is as good as it’s ever been since I’ve been here. They all throw pretty well, and they all make good decisions when they do throw.”
Vandy is fielding at a solid .972 clip, and South Carolina has been even better, fielding .976. That’s nothing new for the Gamecocks, who have premium defenders up the middle in center fielder Bradley and second baseman Wingo, plus quality veterans in catcher Brady Thomas and Mooney.
“Ray’s teams, since we’ve played them, have always been very good defensively,” Corbin said. “They always have a shortstop who can handle the ball, infielders who don’t make mistakes. They’re not going to give you a thing.”
And, oh yeah, both teams have elite pitching staffs. Vanderbilt’s 2.19 staff ERA leads the conference and ranks sixth nationally, while South Carolina’s 2.46 mark is 10th in the nation. Both bullpens are extremely deep, and both have dependable Friday aces in Sonny Gray (7-1, 1.54) and Michael Roth (7-1, 1.25), though they do it very differently. Gray is likely to be drafted in the top 10 picks thanks to a plus-plus fastball and plus-plus curve, while Roth is a low-slot lefty who carves hitters up with a mid-80s fastball, filthy changeup and outstanding command.
The weekend rotation was an uncertainty for South Carolina heading into the year, but in recent weeks the No. 2 and No. 3 slots have stabilized around righthanders Colby Holmes (3-0, 3.00) and Forrest Koumas (4-0, 1.91). Both found themselves in the starting rotation partly because biceps tightness sidelined lefties Steven Neff and Tyler Webb (both of whom are back now), but they have proven well suited for their new roles. That’s a bit of a surprise in Koumas’ case; he arrived on campus as closer Matt Price’s heir apparent, thanks to a fastball that reached the low 90s in short stints and an aggressive approach. But he and Holmes have developed deep enough repertoires to succeed as starters.
“Their velocity is upper 80s and will get into the low 90s, and at times a little better than that,” Tanner said of Holmes and Koumas. “They mix. They both throw two different breaking balls, and they continue to develop their changeups. They haven’t walked people—they’ve been around the zone with pretty good stuff.”
The bullpen was key to South Carolina’s national championship run a year ago, and it is a strength once again, with a stable of lefties and righties surrounding Price, who remains a shut-down closer. Sidewinding righty John Taylor (2-0, 0.61 with 35 strikeouts and 10 walks in 29 innings) has been better than ever, emerging as a key setup man for Price. Tanner said his stuff has gotten a little better, and he’s been more effective against lefties thanks to a higher slot and the addition of a changeup. His deceptive arm angle and excellent movement causes major headaches for righties.
And, of course, South Carolina has the ability to mix and match. Neff, Logan Munson and Bryan Harper are all good options from the left side, while Jose Mata is a second submariner from the right side.
“If there’s any similarity between South Carolina and us, that may be the similarity—having different guys come out of the bullpen and be effective,” Corbin said.
Everyone knows his role in the Vanderbilt pen, too. There is a flame-throwing closer (Navery Moore), a pair of power-armed righthanded middle relievers (Mark Lamm and Will Clinard), a dynamic young lefthander (Kevin Ziomek), and plenty more. Junior righthander Jack Armstrong’s return from a back injury makes this unit even deeper; Armstrong has a 1.12 ERA in eight innings, and Corbin said he has had good action on a fastball that sits at 92-93 and touches higher. He’s throwing his breaking ball for strikes to both righties and lefties, and it has morphed from a slurve into a true power curveball with late, sharp break.
“Jack coming back into the mix, getting more innings every time he comes out will benefit our bullpen as a whole,” Corbin said. “Eventually he may start again, but Jack’s not thinking that way and we’re not thinking that way—we’re just trying to get him as many touches as possible. We know that was kind of our demise at the end of last year, when (Russell) Brewer got hurt, and we were tired at the end of last year. Jack gives us a little more depth to a bullpen that has some pretty good depth.”
That’s understating it, to be sure. Add in quality veteran weekend starters Grayson Garvin (6-1, 2.04) and Taylor Hill (2-0, 3.19), and Vanderbilt’s pitching staff matches up favorably with just about any staff in college baseball.
“It’s the best college pitching staff I’ve ever seen,” said a veteran National League crosschecker. “They can go left-left, right-right, they have guys who can close a game, the Clinard guy is good, the lefty (Corey) Williams is good. That’s as good a pitching staff as you’ll see.”
Tanner knows it.
“I think the big key is we’ve got to show we can score some runs against this pitching staff from Vanderbilt,” he said. “You start Sonny Gray, and go to Garvin, and bring in Moore—they just don’t give up a lot of hits. When you don’t get a lot of hits, how are you going to get runs? Can we score enough runs against Vandy? But assuming we both play good defense and don’t walk people, which neither of us has done, it’s can you hit the other guys?”
Tanner called Vanderbilt the favorite in this series, but it’s a very even matchup. Corbin thinks the little details will loom large.
“We have to play clean baseball—that is the key for us, for sure,” he said. “You go to an opponent’s ballpark, it’s just handling the baseball, pitching well, making few mistakes. Looking at both teams, I would say they’re going to be very tight ballgames. I just think it will come down to the team that plays the cleanest baseball wins. Who knows that will happen, when you’ve got two pretty good teams matched up against one another?”
A pair of upstart Conference USA regional hopefuls will face off this weekend when Memphis travels to Alabama-Birmingham. The Blazers (6-3) are locked in a three-way tie atop the conference standings, while the Tigers (3-3) are coming off a huge series win against Southern Mississippi. Both teams will send power-armed righthanders to the mound Friday in Langfield and Napoleon.
The 6-foot-2, 196-pound Langfield showed the ability to miss bats as a freshman last year, striking out 47 in 39 innings working primarily in relief, and he followed it up with a strong summer in the Northwoods League, going 4-0, 2.91 with 50 strikeouts in 46 innings. Northwoods coaches spoke highly of his loose, easy arm and quality fastball-breaking ball repertoire. He entered this spring as the Friday starter from the onset of the season, but he missed a start two weeks ago with a slight muscle strain in his leg, and Memphis coach Daron Schoenrock said his command of his secondary stuff was off a bit when he returned to action last week against USM. Still, he threw seven solid innings in a no-decision, and he enters this weekend 2-2, 4.10 with 47 strikeouts and 24 walks in 42 innings.
“He’s a guy with high velocity, and his secondary pitches have been better some days than others,” Schoenrock said. “The transition he’s been making is not just trying to blow fastballs by hitters. He’s been up to 94-95 at times, and he’s learning it takes more than that now to pitch on weekends. The velocity’s a great thing to have, but he’s learning to do other things in different counts. He’s got good secondary stuff when he’s in the zone with it—the velocity sets up the secondary stuff very well.”
Napoleon has been a revelation for UAB. He attracted little professional interest during the last two years at Heartland (Ill.) JC, though he captured NJCAA all-America honors as a sophomore, when he went 12-0, 3.05. He made a seamless transition to Division I ball this spring, going 5-1, 1.67 with 43 strikeouts and 17 walks in 59 innings as UAB’s Friday ace. Blazers coach Brian Shoop said Napoleon is generating draft buzz, as his fastball sits in the low 90s and he holds his velocity deep into games. He also throws a very good changeup and a solid slider.
“He’s a great athlete—he was a quarterback in high school,” Shoop said. “He fields well; he has quick feet, controls the running game pretty well. He’s just got a lot of sink on the baseball, and on top of that he’s got a great arm, a low-90s arm, and he’s throwing a lot of strikes. When it’s going well, which he’s been most of the time; he’s getting a lot of groundball outs.”
That’s been a winning formula for the Blazers because they have “been defending really, really well, in the infield in particular,” Shoop said. UAB has committed just 21 infield errors this year during its 20-13 start. Leading the way is senior Nick Crawford, who has made a successful shift from second base to short, where he is fielding at a .977 clip.
Like Napoleon, Saturday starter Ryan Woolley (5-3, 2.51) has taken advantage of the strong infield defense behind him—he got 17 groundball outs last week against Southern Miss. Like Napoleon, Woolley has a big arm, with a fastball that sits in the low 90s, but the key for him this season has been improved composure on the mound, which has also helped him with his command.
“Our first two guys, Napoleon and Woolley, have both been exceptional—we’re 12-4 in the games they’ve started,” Shoop said. “When those two guys pitch, we’re pretty good. The rest of the time we’re average, but we’re trying to get better, and our program has gotten better. Maybe not as much and as quick as you like, but we’ve honored every roster spot and scholarship we inherited (when the coaching staff took over four years ago), and almost every one of those kids has graduated, so we feel good about that. And we are better—we’re a more competitive team.”
Napoleon and Woolley have a lot to do with that. That duo gives the Blazers a chance to compete in every series, and by extension, a chance to make a run at regionals.
Jim Case knows he’s got a special team on his hands at Jacksonville State this spring.
“The fall of 1982 was my first year coaching,” Case said, “and I told my wife the other day, ‘This is the most fun I’ve ever had.’ This is a good group of kids to be around. They do the right things—we play hard. Not always good, but always hard. Sometimes we’ll walk seven, sometimes we’ll make three errors, but it’s a team that doesn’t give up and always stays after it.”
Case’s hard-nosed Gamecocks have earned their share of big wins, too. They beat Troy 7-6 in 10 innings Tuesday, and they have other midweek wins against fellow NCAA tournament hopefuls UAB, Auburn and Samford. Jacksonville State is 23-11 overall, and sitting atop the Ohio Valley Conference standings at 6-3, a half-game in front of Austin Peay State heading into this weekend’s series between the two.
Athleticism is Jacksonville State’s calling card. The Gamecocks lost four drafted players off last year’s regionals team, including second-round pick Todd Cunningham, but even so the coaching staff believes this year’s club might be its most talented in 10 years. The most exciting talent is freshman infielder Coty Blanchard, who earned OVC freshman of the year honors in football last fall, serving as the starting punter and backup quarterback. He endeared himself with Jacksonville State fans in the football team’s season opener, when he threw a touchdown pass on fourth-and-30 and then completed a successful two-point conversion pass to lead the Gamecocks to their first-ever win against a Southeastern Conference opponent (Mississippi).
“The two-point conversion was nothing more than athleticism—he almost threw the ball behind his head when he was in a guy’s arms,” Case said. “He’s a playmaker, and he’s fearless—he finds a way to win. He brings energy every day and has a great time playing. And he’s been successful.”
Blanchard has been a catalyst atop the lineup, hitting .379/.444/.515 with seven steals in 10 tries. Case admitted he has been surprised how advanced Blanchard is offensively, considering he did not spend a single day with the baseball team until after Christmas.
“We knew he was very athletic, and we felt like he’d be a good player, but we felt like we’d have to suffer through some growing pains,” Case said. “He had one little skid where he went several games without a hit, but other than that he’s been tremendously consistent. I think in time he’ll hit for even more power, but that’s not what we’re asking him to do. He’s our leadoff man—he hits a lot of balls in the gaps, and he can short game, he can drag and push. Offensively he’s a little bit of a handful.”
The same could be said for a number of Gamecocks—after all, the team ranked ninth in the nation in batting (.322) through this weekend, though that average has dropped to .317 in the two games since. Junior outfielder Erik Underwood (.398/.463/.441) is the team’s leading hitter. “He’s not a home run hitter, but he can just hit,” Case said. “He’ll hit righthanders, lefthanders, hard throwers, soft throwers—he’s very, very consistent.”
Blanchard has settled in at third base, where Sam Eberle was a standout freshman last year. But starting catcher Cal Lambert hurt his arm the first day of the season and had to have surgery, Eberle soon found himself behind the plate, where he has filled in admirably. Athletic and strong, Eberle has hit for power (four homers), hit for average (.347/.396/.524) and shown good speed on the basepaths (eight steals in nine attempts).
And the Gamecocks get even more power from hulking first baseman Ben Waldrip (.389/.460/.667 with seven homers and 27 RBIs) and outfielder Kyle Bluestein (.317/.397/.553 with five homers and 27 RBIs), who has gotten hot recently. It’s a dangerous lineup, with loads of athleticism and physicality, and it has shown resilience and explosiveness as well.
“It’s a team of good character; we fall behind, but we don’t give up,” Case said. “We were behind 4-0 to Auburn going into the seventh inning, and we came back to win 5-4. There’s been a lot of games like that. It’s been fun; I hope it continues. I’ve never woken up wanting to go to the park as much as I have this year.”
Miller has been on a roll since returning to shortstop full time last week. He missed seven games in March after breaking his finger when he was hit by a pitch against Virginia, and he returned to the lineup as a DH for a couple of weeks. But he returned to shortstop on April 5 and has gone 15-for-25 at the plate since, with two doubles, two triples, seven RBIs, nine runs and four stolen bases, leading the Tigers to wins in five of their last six games heading into this weekend’s series at Boston College. The junior has raised his season line to .415/.533/.549 with nine steals in 11 tries.
“I think the biggest thing is since he’s been back, compared to before his injury, he’s been super aggressive,” Clemson hitting coach Bradley LeCroy said. “Before the injury, he ran some deep counts, a lot of two-strike counts. Now he’s hitting first-pitch fastballs, first-pitch breaking balls. Over that week, they started nibbling, then next thing you know he’s in a 2-0 count and gets a fastball—because they don’t want to walk him. He can steal second and third and has guys behind him.
“So I think it’s gotten around in scouting reports that Miller will take early in counts, so guys will feed him breaking balls or maybe fastballs away. He just changes a little bit; they spin that hit-me breaking ball early in the count, and he bangs it in the right-center gap. I think that aggressive mentality has carried over to the field, too.”
It’s no coincidence that Clemson has started playing better since Miller returned to shortstop. In his absence, the Jason Stolz filled in ably at short, but that left a void at second base, and it hurt Clemson. Now the defense is settling in, and Miller is playing at a very high defensive level, LeCroy said.
“It’s unbelievable—the first night out against Coastal, he probably took four hits away from them, probably saved two or three runs,” LeCroy said. “Then he played really good defense the next day against Western Carolina, then this weekend he played phenomenal in front of some crosscheckers and scouting directors. He was gone for two or three weeks in the field, so he just had some super energy, and he just played hard and played unbelievable. The knock on him is he could make that awesome play, the web gem, but the routine play is the one that’s gotten him. He’s a year older, more confident and mature.”
Scouts are divided on Miller, but he is a very good athlete, and there is no denying his feel for hitting.
“It’s not orthodox—you probably wouldn’t teach his swing to a youngster, but he’s got a good approach, he’s got good hand-eye coordination, and he has a knack for barreling the ball,” an AL area scout said. “He starts his hands up high, almost above his head, and to be honest it’s a long swing, and the plane is kind of in and out of the zone. But he just always figures out how to hit. Right now you almost can’t get him out.”
Last place is unfamiliar ground for Missouri. The Tigers were fixtures in the NCAA tournament during most of the last decade, making six straight trips to regionals from 2003-09. Injuries and youth torpedoed the Tigers a year ago, when they went 29-26 overall and 10-16 in the Big 12, finishing eighth out of 10 teams and snapping their regionals streak.
Missouri has slid further this spring. Heading into this weekend’s series against Kansas, the Tigers have lost eight straight games, falling to 13-20 overall and 1-7 in conference play. But it’s not as bad as it seems: Missouri’s first three weeks of conference play were very rigorous, with a home series against Oklahoma and road trips to Texas and Oklahoma State. And the Tigers have been competitive in most of the conference losses, allowing five or fewer runs in five of the seven games.
“I’m not making any excuses: The bottom line is we’re playing well enough to stay close, not well enough to win,” Missouri coach Tim Jamieson said. “The common denominator in those games is we’ve gotten good starting pitching, but absolutely no timely hitting. All those games we had either bases loaded or second-and-third situations late in the game, and all we needed was a hit, and we didn’t get any hits. We just have not gotten that from this year’s club. I truly believe that last year’s club was one of those injured pitchers away from being a regional team, and this year’s team—we’re just not as good offensively. Pitching-wise, we’re actually better than we were last year.”
During their sterling six-year run, the Tigers always had an ace or two with first-round talent, from Max Scherzer to Aaron Crow to Kyle Gibson. They thought righthander Eric Anderson had a chance to be the next ace in that line, but Anderson tore his labrum as a freshman last year, and he just made his first start of the year in Wednesday’s loss to Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, allowing two runs on four hits over four innings. Anderson’s stuff is still working its way back, but his progress has been encouraging—he was throwing his fastball about 77 mph in January, and now he’s touching some 86s and 87s, Jamieson said.
“We had significant injuries last year, particularly on the mound. That and the draft has really thinned out our pitching,” Jamieson said. “We just haven’t been as strong on the mound as we’re used to being—that’s the biggest reason (for the struggles of the last two years). We were really good on the mound during that (six-year) stretch. We’re a little better this year.”
The Tigers are pleased with the work of freshman lefthander Rob Zastrynzny (2-2, 3.08) as the Friday starter. He might not have the elite stuff that Gibson and Crow and Scherzer had, but he can touch 91-92 from the left side, and he flashes a good curveball and changeup, though there are days where he must rely mostly on his fastball. Another newcomer, junior-college transfer Matt Stites (1-3, 4.29), has settled into the Saturday spot. After a slow start to the season, Stites has learned to throw more quality strikes down in the zone, and throw more offspeed pitches in fastball counts to keep hitters off balance. Jamieson thinks Missouri’s weekend rotation has a chance to be very solid in the second half, especially if Anderson continues to get stronger and can take over the Sunday spot.
The lineup is not explosive, but Jamieson said he is starting to see encouraging signs. Talented sophomore outfielders Dane Opel and Brannon Champagne both had shoulder surgery at the end of last season, so they have been behind physically, but Jamieson said both are starting to come on, which is a huge development. Another sophomore outfielder, Blake Brown (.268/.408/.423 with three homers and 16 RBIs), has shown flashes of his considerable promise as well, though not consistently.
“There’s no question that Eric Garcia, Blake Brown and Opel and Champagne, and even Conner Mach are guys we’ve been counting on, but Blake is the only guy that’s putting up any kind of numbers,” Jamieson said. “But we’re hopeful. We still have six weeks left in conference, and we haven’t played any bad teams yet. But we should be better than 1-7 in conference, no question.
“Every day in practice I feel that we’re close to putting it together. This team has continued to work hard, and we’ve had some good practices—guys have shown they’re capable. But we need some guys to step up at the plate, and if that happens, we’ll be OK. We’ve been setting the table all spring, we just need some guys to step up and drive them in.”
San Francisco’s fielding percentage, best in Division I. In fact, the all-time record for best fielding percentage in a season is .985, set by West Virginia in 1971.
Across the nation, more teams are fielding at an elite level, presumably because the new BBCOR bats result in fewer hard-hit balls, which are more difficult to field cleanly. The strikeout rate across college baseball is comparable to a year ago (last year it was 7.11 strikeouts per nine innings in the season’s first half, compared with 6.97 this year), so balls are still being put in play at a similar rate. Batting average has tumbled (from .301 at the midpoint last year to .279 this year), but that stat functions independently of fielding percentage, because reaching on an error does not help batting averages, obviously. Across D-I baseball, the fielding percentage has only inched up from .961 to .962, but that doesn’t tell the whole picture.
In each of the last two years, just two teams posted fielding percentage of .980 or better. In 2008, no teams fielded at a .980 clip. This year, seven teams currently boast percentages of .980 or better.
Last year, 20 teams fielded .975 or better. In 2009, 14 teams reached that mark, and in 2008, just 10 did it. This year, 31 teams are fielding at .975 or better.
And 78 teams are fielding .970 or better, compared with 62 last year, 55 in 2009 and 49 in 2008.
The progression has been linear: fewer teams fielded at an elite level when the composite-barreled bats were at their peak in 2008 and 2009. More teams posted strong fielding percentages when the composite barrels were outlawed last year. And far more teams are playing great defense this year, when the bats have been toned down even further.
|The Bedlam rivalry between the Sooners and Cowboys is one of college baseball’s best, but it had lost just a bit of its luster over the last two years, as Oklahoma State sunk to the bottom of the Big 12 and Oklahoma won each of the last two series. But the Cowboys are back in the Top 25 this weekend and sitting ahead of the Sooners in the conference standings—OSU is 8-4, while OU is 6-5. Both teams are also competing for chances to host a regional, so this weekend’s series in Tulsa and Oklahoma City takes on even more importance. The Sooners won the first of two midweek meetings between the teams this year, 8-3 in Norman on April 5. A National League scout broke down the matchup.
“Coming into the season, I would say Oklahoma would have been the definite favorite in this series, but Oklahoma State’s been playing very good. (OSU coach) Frank (Anderson) has got the Cowboys going. They’ve got a lot of the same type of guys they had last year, but they’re playing better this year. Frank has got (lefty) Michael Strong throwing really well—sounds like they’ve done a very good job getting those guys going. They seem to be playing pretty good. (Righthander Chris) Marlowe is solid, throwing really well in the bullpen. Marlowe’s got that plus-plus breaking ball, the great breaking ball. He throws it a lot, and there’s nothing wrong with that because it’s a very good pitch and it works, but he can run it up there to 94-95 with his fastball, too. He’s just not very physical, and I think he might have some trouble in back-to-back days. But he’s helped himself this year. With his size and his delivery, he’s probably not a top 50 pick, but he could crawl up into the third round or so.
“(Lefty Andrew) Heaney’s solid—he’s going to be a guy for next year. (Righthander Brad) Propst is throwing really well. Those four are the main guys. Heaney is a little like Hoby Milner at Texas—he’ll touch a 91 or so with a good breaking ball, he can pitch a little bit, lefthanded. Propst is just a good senior type pitcher that throws strikes and competes, gives them a chance to win. He’s not a big stuff guy, but a good pitchability guy. With the new bats this year, you throw strikes like he does; you put them in position to win. (Randy) McCurry’s come back pretty good (from Tommy John surgery). His stuff’s back—I saw him up to 92-93. He’s got a bad delivery, so you do worry about that, but he’s good.
“(Second baseman Davis) Duren had that great year last year, and he started slow this year, but he’s come out of it. I like him as a prospect; he’s a senior, but more than just a fill guy. He’s a gap guy, he can steal a base, plays pretty good defense, puts the bat on the ball. (Third baseman Mark) Ginther is finally playing with more confidence—just looks more comfortable to me. The hits are coming; he’s starting to get some big hits, showing up in the big games. Dane Phillips is swinging the bat well. He’s got some power; he should be a pretty good draft for next year. The hit tool is his best tool, and he’s OK behind the plate, a little arm strength.
“They definitely have a shot against Oklahoma. OU will run out three pretty good starters. They’re more physical offensively and deeper pitching than Oklahoma State.
“(OU ace righty) Michael Rocha is a good senior sign, just because he throws strikes and competes, he’s had success in a big conference. He doesn’t wow you with any of his stuff, but he’s done a really good job throwing strikes. His body’s not good, and it’s nothing plus, but throwing strikes is the main thing, and competing. He goes out and gives his team a chance to win. They’ve got a good offensive team, which you think helps him, but he doesn’t give up any runs or hits anyway. Other arms on the team are better prospects, but if you’re trying to win games, that’s the guy. Everything’s fringy—slider, changeup—but he can throw strikes with them and uses them well. He might touch a 90, but he’ll pitch 87-88.
“(Junior righty) Burch Smith has thrown well. He’s doing a better job of throwing strikes, and he’s up to 93-94 with a good slider, a change, showing some pitchability. He’s got the good body, and he’s done well. Dillon Overton, the freshman lefthander, he’s helped them. He’ll throw some velocity at you and a decent breaking ball. He’s a projectable guy, and I think he’ll just continue to get better.
“In the bullpen, Ryan Duke’s been OK since he’s been back. Tyson Seng has been throwing for them in the bullpen; Bobby Shore is in and out of the rotation and the bullpen. Then they have a lefty, Jordan Johns. That’s the big difference: They’re just deeper pitching-wise than Oklahoma State.
“(Third baseman Garrett) Buechele just hits. He’s a good hitter and a bad athlete. He surprises you at third base, he makes some plays, his hands are OK, and he really knows how to play baseball. He’s a baseball player, and he can hit. His draft status depends on the club. Teams that are big on athleticism will shy away, but maybe the stats people will jump on him. Seven home runs with these bats is impressive, but he’s not a power guy at the next level, more of a gap-to-gap guy. He’ll hit some home runs, but having that many surprises me. He hasn’t hit one in a while.
“They mix and match, different lineups every day. Guys are in and out of the lineup. (Caleb) Bushyhead, the shortstop, has been solid. Tyler Ogle, the catcher, is having a really good year. (Cam) Seitzer seems like he’s gotten hot the last couple weeks. Chris Ellison is a good ballplayer in center field—he can really run; he’s like another leadoff hitter down there lower in the lineup. The corner outfielders, Cody Reine plays mostly in right, then left is mix and match with Casey Johnson and Max White, those guys. They’ve got a good team.”
Conley transitioned from closer and occasional starter to full-time, Friday night starter for the Cougars this year. After taking the summer off, Conley burst out of the gate and got off to a great start, even touching 95 mph earlier in the year. Through the midway point of the season, he is 4-3, 3.32 with 53 strikeouts and just nine walks over 57 innings. Last week, he went toe-to-toe with UCLA ace Gerrit Cole and he’ll have similar challenges the next two weeks when he squares up against Top 25 teams in Arizona State and Oregon State. Conor Glassey caught up with Conley.
This is your first year as a full-time starter, what has that transition been like for you?
It’s been different. There’s definitely been a lot of adversity and everything. Your game plan is a lot different and you kind of attack hitters in a different way. When you come in for one inning and you know you’re going to face guys once, it’s easy to come in there and pound the strike zone. You kind of just let your defense work for you and get guys to get themselves out. As a starter, you’ve got to have a little bit of a mix and be able to fool guys as they come through the lineup three or four times. The approach and that aspect is a lot different than closing. And, beyond that, you just have to pace yourself a little bit more.
Walk me through the pitches that you throw and how you like to use them.
My best pitch, the pitch that I throw the most, is my fastball. It’s the pitch that I can locate at the highest percentage the most often. So, the first thing that I’ll typically do in a game is establish my fastball. Once I know that I can throw it for a low strike, then I’ll typically start working it to the outer half of the plate. When I’ve established that, then I’ll typically start mixing in some secondary pitches and see if I can get those dialed in and throw those for strikes. And once I’ve done that, then I like to move my fastball to the other side of the plate. As the game progresses and I start to get settled in a little bit, if the plan goes well, then I’ll be able to throw my fastball to both sides of the plate and I’ll be able to throw both my secondary pitches for a strike. I throw a slider and a changeup and, in the past, when I’ve been able to throw those pitches for a strike, things have gone well for me.
You talked about wanting to improve your secondary pitches. What, specifically, are you looking to improve with those pitches?
I think that, at times, my secondary pitches have been really, really good and they’ve shown a lot of potential to be good, wipeout-type pitches. When I mentioned consistency earlier, I think I’m just trying to get closer to being able to throw that wipeout-type pitch more often. There’s been flashes of it, but it hasn’t been as consistent as I’d like. So, the main focus for me is to be able to repeat those pitches over and over again.
I’ve never seen you pitch, but I was talking to a scout out there and he said you kind of have a Dontrelle Willis-style delivery. Is that something you’ve always had?
Yeah, there’s a lot of twisting, there’s a lot of extension and torque. Dontrelle Willis is a lot bigger than I am, but essentially the movements and the body type are all the same there. I think he had a lower three-quarter arm slot as well, so our arms kind of work in the same fashion. It’s pretty similar.
Another thing the scout mentioned is that he thought you might have the best makeup of any player in his area. What does that mean to hear someone say that about you?
It’s great. That’s a big part of baseball. It’s a big part of being a competitor and refusing to lose and hating to lose and, ultimately, expecting to win. I think with the persona that you can’t get beat when you’re out there and being relentless to throw strikes, I think automatically that puts you at an advantage. I think that attitude will lead right into your performance and when you have that attitude out there, it really keeps hitters on their heels and keeps them guessing. It puts me in a good position to be successful.
What do you like to do when you’re not playing baseball?
I really love being a student of the game. No matter who it is, if I get a chance to watch baseball, I want to take everything I can from it and learn everything I can. I don’t just like watching baseball to learn about it. I read a lot about it and look at older guys to see how they had success—it really is a passion for me. Whether baseball for me ended tomorrow or I get to make a career out of it, I really just want to spend a lot of time learning about it.
Who are your favorite pitchers to watch?
I remember when I was 7 years old, I decided I wanted to play Major League Baseball and I was watching Randy Johnson of the Seattle Mariners. It was about that time that I realized I threw with my left hand and Randy Johnson did that too, so I thought that was pretty special. That was the first pitcher I really idolized. Once I started to learn more about the game, I really respected Nolan Ryan. If you look at his numbers, you’ll see that he walked a lot of guys and didn’t win a lot of games, but if you go back and look at the teams that he was playing for and the records that they had, you’ll find that Nolan Ryan did some pretty outstanding things in his career and I really respected that.
Are there any current pitchers that you really like?
I think DVR is the greatest invention, ever. In the World Series last year, I must have watched Tim Lincecum’s second appearance like five times. I just really respect the fact that all of his pitches leave his hand from the same arm slot at the same arm speed. He just keeps the ball in the tunnel for a really long time and it forces hitters to guess on him. I don’t know, I just think it’s incredible what he can do to hitters and how much he can disrupt their timing. I think Tim Lincecum would probably have to be No. 1 on my list.
Giving some love to a Washington Husky, huh?
(Laughs) Well, he’s a San Francisco Giant now.