|North Carolina at Florida State|
Florida State coach Mike Martin could have been speaking for any number of coaches at the top of the national heap this season.
“It’s really one of those years that we have played a good schedule, but we’re really getting into it now where we’re playing some real strong people,” Martin said.
|Top 25 Schedule|
|Top 25 Schedule
Tennessee at (1) Vanderbilt
(2) North Carolina at (3) Florida State
(4) South Carolina at (24) Mississippi
(5) Texas at Nebraska
(6) Virginia at (14) Clemson
Central Florida at (7) Rice
Nevada-Las Vegas at (8) Oregon State
(9) Arkansas at Georgia
(10) Wichita State at Missouri State
Louisiana-Lafayette at (11) Arizona State
(12) Arizona at Washington State
Santa Clara at (13) Pepperdine
(15) Oklahoma State at (16) Texas A&M
Pacific at (17) Cal State Fullerton
(18) UC Irvine at UC Santa Barbara
(19) San Diego at Loyola Marymount
Louisiana State at (20) Mississippi State
Virginia Military Institute at (21) Coastal Carolina
Purdue at (22) Michigan
Houston at (23) Tulane
(25) North Carolina State at Georgia Tech
The top contenders are all really getting into it this weekend. Conference races are heating up around the country, and this figures to be one of those weekends that coaches look back on later as a significant turning point. The top six teams in the rankings all face major tests, as No. 1 Vanderbilt takes on in-state rival Tennessee, No. 2 North Carolina visits No. 3 Florida state, No. 4 South Carolina travels to No. 24 Mississippi, No. 5 Texas visits Nebraska and No. 6 Virginia visits No. 14 Clemson.
Throw in the big Western Athletic Conference showdown between Hawaii and Louisiana Tech, and there’s no shortage of very meaningful conference series on the docket. But none is bigger than the UNC-FSU tilt, which could go a long way in deciding who enters the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament as the top seed, and indeed, who earns the No. 1 national seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Tar Heels sit atop the ACC’s Coastal Division at 13-5, and the Seminoles lead the Atlantic Division with a 13-2 mark. Florida State also leads the nation with 35 wins, while UNC’s 32 wins are tied for second with Virginia and Vanderbilt.
Then there’s the Tallahassee factor; FSU ran its home winning streak to 30 games before dropping a midweek contest to Florida this week. The Tar Heels are the only team in the nation that has only one road loss this season (they’re 6-1 away from Boshamer Stadium), but Tallahassee has not been kind to the Tar Heels in recent years. UNC is just 1-11 there since Mike Fox took over as head coach before the 1999 season, and 3-17 there since 1993.
“They have the advantage, there’s no question about it,” Fox said. “We’re very much an underdog. I think everyone who goes in there is. You have to go down there with great confidence, but obviously other teams have had their troubles down there too. The 6,000 people that are there, they’re up in the stands, they’re not down on the field, so let’s not let them be a factor. Give Florida State credit, they’ve got a great team, and they play with great confidence.”
Fox said he doesn’t dare talk with his players about what happened the last time the Tar Heels visited Florida State two years ago. After the Seminoles beat UNC ace Andrew Miller on Friday, the Heels carried a 5-3 lead into the ninth inning Saturday, but FSU’s Ryan Malone hit a walk-off, three-run homer with two outs. Then on Sunday, North Carolina failed to hold a 6-2 lead.
Of course, Florida State had its own collapse last year in Chapel Hill, committing back-to-back errors with two outs in the ninth on Saturday to allow UNC to come from behind for a 4-3 win.
“Last year was one I don’™t think about,” Martin said. “I’ve had a few nightmares in my 28 years as a head coach, but that one was an absolute no-brainer nightmare.”
Martin’s point is that UNC’s history of struggles in Tallahassee matters less than its impressive track record in 2006 and 2007.
“When you have everybody coming back from a team that played for the national championship, for me to say that we have a mental edge I think would be overstepping a little bit,” said Martin, forgetting the somewhat significant losses of Daniel Bard and Andrew Miller from the Tar Heels’ rotation. “North Carolina has experience, and you can’t substitute experience. I’m just looking forward to a very competitive weekend. We’ll probably draw 20,000 for the weekend.”
Friday’s pitching matchup between senior righthanders Robert Woodard of UNC and Bryan Henry of FSU, which will be televised on ACCSelect.com like a number of other top ACC games this weekend, could be a classic. Woodard is 30-3 in his career and needs just one more win take sole possession of first place on UNC’s all-time wins list. Henry is 27-7 in his three-year pitching career.
“Both of those guys possess the ability to put the ball where they want to put it,” Martin said. “Both have the all-important experience. Woodard has what Henry wants badly, and that’s a College World Series appearance. So you are looking at two very good competitors, and that should be a very interesting matchup.”
The Tar Heels expect to have junior righthander Luke Putkonen back for Sunday’s series finale, after he missed the past two weekends with an illness. That allows them to slide fill-in starter Adam Warren to the bullpen, giving them another option in a deep relief corps. Junior righty Andrew Carignan anchors that group; he is 1-1, 0.65 with eight saves and a 32-7 strikeout-walk ratio in 28 innings this year. Carignan saved 15 games a year ago, but he’s been even better in an expanded role this year, as the Tar Heels have turned to him in moments of truth and haven’t been afraid to let him work multiple innings at a time. Fox said he has worked hard to improve his slider, which is an excellent complement to his low-to-mid-90s fastball.
Florida State’s bullpen got a boost last weekend when senior righthander Luke Tucker returned from a sore shoulder. The Seminoles expected to Tucker to be their closer entering the year, but junior walk-on Danny Rosen emerged in that role in his absence, going 1-0, 2.75 with five saves. Martin said Tucker’s stuff is close to being back to where it was last year, and he’ll be available for two games this weekend if necessary.
The Seminoles also got bad news this week on the injury front, as junior outfielder Dennis Guinn tore his posterior cruciate ligament and will miss the rest of the season. Guinn was fourth on the team with four home runs, and his loss is a bit of a blow, but Florida State’s offense is awfully good even without him. The Seminoles are batting .369 as a team.
“Not in my wildest imagination did I expect this,” Martin said of his offense. “We’ve got a number of things that we need to do a better job at, but overall I’ve just been surprised and elated with this club.”
Now the surprising Seminoles will test their mettle against a seasoned North Carolina team that is every bit as good as expected.
|Marquee Mound Matchups|
|Jacob Thompson vs. Daniel Moskos, Mitch Harris vs. Nick Hill
There are so many good pitching matchups this weekend that it was difficult to narrow it down to two, and impossible to narrow it down to one. So, with apologies to the Harris Honeycutt-Will Kline duel in Oxford, Miss., and the Travis Banwart-Ross Detwiler clash in Springfield, Mo., we’ll focus on Thompson-Moskos and Harris-Hill.
Thompson, one of the top pitching prospects in the sophomore class, is 8-0 for Virginia and leads the ACC in ERA (1.32) while ranking second in wins, strikeouts (72 in 68 innings) and opponents batting average (.192). The righthander is the favorite for ACC pitcher of the year honors, but Clemson’s Moskos matches his prospect cachet.
Moskos, a junior lefthander, finally made the move from All-American closer to Friday starter two weeks ago, and the early returns are very good. He was on a 60-pitch limit in his first start against Virginia Tech as he began to build up his endurance, and he held Wake Forest to one run over six innings while striking out seven last week despite an 80-pitch limit. Moskos worked mostly with his heavy fastball and mid-80s slider out of the bullpen, but he’s been able to use his good changeup and promising 78-80 mph downer curveball early in the count as a starter.
“He looks really comfortable, and it’s been a shot in the arm for us,” Clemson assistant coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “The one thing that I think has been key for him is he has maintained his velocity throughout the whole six innings. Against Wake, he was 94-95 in the fifth inning.
“I think runs are going to be at a premium Friday night. It’s going to come down to who executes offensively.”
On Saturday, Army and Navy will play a doubleheader, and CSTV will televise the first seven-inning game. Viewers will be treated to a showdown between two of the most highly touted pitchers ever to pitch for the service academies in Navy’s Harris and Army’s Hill.
Hill, a senior lefthander, is 4-3, 1.42 with 68 strikeouts and 13 walks in 57 innings. He finished second in the nation with a 1.21 ERA in 2005, and it looks like he’ll be among the national leaders again this year. With a 6-foot-1, 185-pound frame, Hill isn’t overpowering, but he more than makes up for it with his fierce competitiveness and pinpoint command. His fastball velocity tops out around 88 mph according to one National League area scout who’s seen plenty of him, but his changeup is a bona fide out pitch, and he commands a slurvy breaking ball.
Harris, a junior righthander/outfielder, has a more projectable frame at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, and he already runs his fastball up to 92 to go along with a promising cutter and a changeup in the mid-70s. Harris is a major reason the Midshipmen are 28-13 and sitting in second place in the Patriot League with a 9-3 conference mark. Not only is Harris 7-3, 2.09 with 87 strikeouts and 25 walks in 65 innings, but his seven home runs account for more than half of Navy’s team total, and his 42 RBIs make up 20 percent of Navy’s total.
|Mississippi over South Carolina|
The Gamecocks have already survived two very difficult road tests in the Southeastern Conference, winning tight series against Mississippi State and Florida. This weekend’s trip to Oxford could be the stiffest challenge yet.
Friday’s pitching matchup features two of the SEC’s best in junior righthanders Honeycutt (South Carolina) and Kline (Ole Miss). Honeycutt is coming off his first career loss last week against Auburn, when he allowed eight earned runs over four innings, but he’s still 7-1, 2.65. Kline had one of his less impressive outings two weeks ago against Georgia, allowing four earned runs over five innings, but he bounced back last week at Louisiana State, allowing three runs (two earned) over 7 2/3 innings while striking out seven, though he did give up 12 hits. The Rebels lost that game when closer Scott Bittle walked in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth, but the burden on Bittle figures to be decreased this week. Sophomore righthander Cody Satterwhite is fully recovered from the tendonitis and inflammation in his shoulder that slowed him early in the year, and he’s been excellent lately, going 3-0, 1.59 in 23 innings. Bittle filled in admirably, compiling an SEC-leading seven saves and a 1.88 ERA in 24 innings, but he’s just 1-4. Nine of the Rebels’ 14 losses have come in one-run games, but Mississippi coach Mike Bianco hopes that problem will be alleviated by moving Satterwhite back to the closer spot.
“We’ve lost so many games late, and of course Scott has worn the brunt of it,” Bianco said. “It’s tough to come into the end in a tie game or a one-run game, and one swing of the bat changes everything. I’m proud of the way Bittle’s handled it.
“Satterwhite was tremendous in an inning stint down in Jackson on Tuesday. Our gun had him at 96-99, so there’s not a lot of humans who throw that hard. So I think Satterwhite’s ready to take over, but we’ll still use Bittle.”
If the Rebels can improve in late-game situations, they could make a run in the conference, because their weekend rotation compares favorably with anyone’s. South Carolina, on the other hand, has had some uncertainty in its rotation with junior righthander Jay Brown injured and sophomore righty Mike Cisco struggling, though he pitched well in a midweek win against Clemson. Junior lefthander Arik Hempy could be one major remedy; he completed his rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery and pitched very well last Saturday in his debut in the weekend rotation, allowing just two hits over 6 2/3 shutout innings against Auburn. But South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said he’s not sure what to expect from Hempy this weekend.
“If he is successful in the second half, it certainly changes the complexion of our pitching staff and our club quite a bit,” Tanner said. “He was pretty good in the first (inning), threw the ball extremely hard in the first and pitched extremely well, and after that he was very efficient. He did maintain his velocity, and he pitched well, used his breaking ball, his changeup, and moved his fastball in and out. Quite honestly I was very impressed he was able to pitch as well as he did against a team that can swing the bat like Auburn.”
This week, give the Rebels the edge at home, particularly with an overpowering Satterwhite closing out any late leads.
|Under The Radar|
|Brandon Waring, 3b, Wofford|
Waring slugged 10 homers as a freshman in 2005, and he hit four more last year before breaking his wrist in early March, cutting his season short. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound junior has been even better this season than he was as a freshman, batting .384/.521/.840 with 15 homers and 36 RBIs through 125 at-bats. He even has 10 stolen bases in 11 attempts.
“He’s very strong, he generates a lot of bat speed, gets the barrel of the bat to the ball quickly–he’s got that God-given ability to get it there,” Wofford coach Steve Traylor said. “He’s got very good upper-body strength, but at this point he doesn’t generate a lot of power with his bottom half. Maybe one day that will be an additional aspect to his power potential.
“He can sit on a fastball and crush it, and he’s got power to all fields. When we went to Georgia Tech a couple of weeks ago, he hit two opposite-field home runs at Georgia Tech. He has power to right field, he can jerk it down the left-field line–definitely legitimate power to all fields.”
Waring played shortstop his first two seasons, but he’s built more for a corner position, and he’s showing the kind of power potential necessary to hold down a corner spot in professional ball. He also has good arm strength at third base and has shown an aptitude for the position.
“He definitely has the tools to play third base, and he’s learning some of the angles and making some of the plays on bunts,” Traylor said. “Those things are a new aspect of playing defense that he’s getting progressively better at. He’s taken to it, and he’s playing like a power-hitting third baseman we hoped he would be.”
In just its fourth year of existence, the Division III UT Tyler baseball team is the last remaining undefeated team in the nation, at any level. The Patriots, who are in the final year of a four-year provisional membership in the NCAA, improved to 35-0 heading into their final weekend of the season on the road against Louisiana College.
The Patriots are hitting .375 as a team, led by sophomore shortstop Kendall Fox (.466/.624/.647 in 116 at-bats) and senior first baseman Brett Amyx (.358/.461/.758 with 11 homers and 60 RBIs in 120 at-bats). The pitching staff, which has a 2.72 ERA, is anchored by junior righthander Ryan Campbell (8-0, 2.39 with a 60-9 K-BB ratio in 68 innings).
The Trojans rose to No. 19 in the nation after surging last month to a 16-9 overall record against a very difficult schedule, but they had a weekend off after winning a non-conference series against Stanford, and little has gone right since they opened Pacific-10 Conference play. USC has lost six in a row and 10 of its last 13 to fall to 19-19 overall. The Trojans are just 2-7 in conference play, good enough for seventh place in the nine-team league.
Offense has been USC’s biggest problem; the Trojans’ .276 batting average ranks 188th in the nation. They’ve scored just 5.1 runs per game, 226th in the nation and last in the Pac-10. Shortstop Grant Green (.307) is the only regular hitting better than .300.
Even the heralded Southern California bullpen has struggled lately. In UCLA’s sweep of the Trojans last weekend, USC coughed up a 6-2 lead over the final three innings Saturday, capped by a three-run outburst against Trojans closer Paul Koss in the ninth inning. Then in Sunday’s series finale, the Trojans surrendered an early 4-0 lead, highlighted by UCLA’s five-run eighth inning. Ballyhooed freshman righthanders Robert Stock (4.80), Kevin Couture (5.19) and Hector Rabago (5.32) have been hit hard by the punishing reality of Pac-10 play.
|Stat of the Week|
Consecutive strikes thrown by Harvard freshman righthander Max Perlman during one stretch of his start last Saturday against Yale. The 6-foot-6, 215-pound Perlman finished with 74 strikes out of 97 pitches in a seven-inning complete game, and his 20-straight-strike period covered seven batters from the fifth to the seventh innings. He allowed only a run on three hits while striking out eight in the game. Perlman is now 3-1, 3.56 and has emerged as a reliable weekend presence for the Crimson.
“I was surprised it wasn’t 40 (consecutive strikes), because when he misses, he’s right there, pounding the zone,” Harvard coach Joe Walsh said. “He looks so polished as a freshman. He changes speeds, he’s got a cutter, a curveball, and a fastball–he’s the real deal. He gets it up there to 90-91 when it’s nice and warm, 86-87 when it’s New England weather.”
Weather permitting, Perlman will pitch the first game of Harvard’s big four-game series at Brown on Saturday against his former teammate at Lake Brantley (Fla.) High, junior righthander Jeff Dietz. The Crimson and Bears are currently tied atop the Ivy League’s Red Rolfe Division standings at 7-3.
|Andrew Brackman, rhp, North Carolina State|
Andrew Brackman entered the spring as the highest-rated righthander in college baseball on most draft boards. Because he’s at listed 6-foot-10, 245 pounds, and throws a fastball in the upper 90s (though more regularly in the low 90s lately), he’s not going to fall far down most draft boards. His 6-3, 3.67 overall record, including a pedestrian 53-24 walk-strikeout ratio, belies his power stuff, which includes a hard spike curveball. But because the former basketball player is in his first full season–his 61 innings this spring is close to his career total of 71–he’s harder than most players to evaluate. One veteran scout with an American League organization sized up Brackman at the halfway point of his season, emphasizing that both the pitcher and the evaluation of the pitcher are far from complete.
“It will come down to the last month on him. His stuff has not dropped off, but also he still has not struck out a lot of guys. There’s still so much development to be done with him. He needs to tweak his breaking ball, but it will be better, it has been better. His athleticism is above-average, and that’s an asset, and he’s throwing hard, but we all still will be evaluating him late. I still feel some team will take him high, first five picks or first 10 picks. But to me, a major league contract wouldn’t be best for a guy, starting his clock, when he needs a lot of development still. I can see Scott (Boras, the agent who advises Brackman) starting with (Jeff) Samardzija money ($10 million), because there are similarities with the stuff, and the bonus could be spread out over five years with the two-sport rule.”
|In The Dugout|
|Cory Gearrin, rhp, Mercer|
It’s been a whirlwind year for Gearrin, Mercer’s junior closer. The transfer from Young Harris (Ga.) Junior College exploded onto the prospect landscape last summer, recording 41 strikeouts in 27 innings for Cotuit in the Cape Cod League, where he ranked as the No. 29 prospect. The sidearmer, who uses a low-90s fastball and a hard-breaking Frisbee slider to rack up his strikeouts, started his Mercer career in dominating fashion. He allowed just five hits in his first 30 innings of work and didn’t allow a run until March 20. Though he allowed six earned runs over 1 2/3 innings in an April 6 loss to Lipscomb, Gearrin’s numbers are still impressive. Through 18 appearances (32 innings), Gearrin is 3-1, 1.97 with eight saves, 52 strikeouts and 21 walks, and he’s still given up just seven hits (.072 batting average against).
It’s been an amazing season for you right from the get-go, as you saved a win against Miami in your very first Division I appearance, then you saved another win against the Hurricanes the next day. What was that experience like?
It was about as exciting a start to my Division I career as I could ask for. I knew we were going to be down at Miami as soon as I committed here. We knew we had a good team, we knew they had a good team. We stuck with them in the sixth, seventh innings. Come the eighth inning, we were right there, took the lead, I came in and got it in the ninth. The next day, we took the lead a little bit earlier, so I got to come out in the eighth and ninth. Coming from junior college, I didn’™t really know what to expect. I played in the Cape this summer, but those were wood bats, and I wondered what these guys would have done with aluminum.
Did you feel some jitters, trying to save a win at Miami in your debut?
Oh yeah. As a closer, you’ve got to be a pumped-up guy anyway, at least I am, I’m a big intensity guy, so I try to bring that anyway. But that situation, having the lead, knowing how big that would be for us to start the season, it was crazy. After that final out, you don’t want to start the year going out of your mind like you just won the World Series, but that was a big moment for me and for our team to start the season on that note.
You really burst onto the scene last summer in the Cape Cod League, but it seemed like you came out of nowhere. Was your head spinning at all?
It was such a great experience, and it all happened so quick, just from me even getting up there. It was a total freak thing, a complete blessing that I got up there, I didn’™t even think I was going up there until two or three weeks before the Cape Cod League season started. (Former Young Harris teammate) Jay Brown from South Carolina was going up there, and another guy on my team at Young Harris, Charlie Blackmon, were both going up there. I wasn’t planning on playing summer ball at all, but I knew they had open tryouts. I talked to Charlie Blackmon to see if I could get a tryout. He said they’ve give me a temporary contract, so I just went up there and it was a great experience. Every guy you talk to about the Cape, they talk about how amazing it is, and being able to make the all-star team, and you guys giving me some love at the end of the year (in the Cape League top 30 prospects list), I appreciated that.
As good as you were in the Cape, there had to be some teams trying to steal you away from your commitment to Mercer, right?
I had people talking to me. Some of the guys on my team were like, ‘You know . . . ” But I’m a big guy on, you make a commitment, you stick to it. I told them last fall, we had a lot of guys at Young Harris who signed at South Carolina and Georgia Tech, big-time schools, and I just never heard anything. If you say you’re going to do something, commit to it, sign your name, then that’s what you do. It’s worked out well for me, we’ve got a great group of guys. But there were definitely people talking, and I thought about it, it’s tempting. I had a decent amount of interest. I wouldn’t say I was swamped or overwhelmed, they’re still pretty reasonable. They understand guys are going places. But I had enough that I was thinking.
How did you wind up as a sidearmer, and how have you managed to gain so much velocity?
I thought I was going to be a second baseman coming out of high school. Coach asked me, ‘What do you think of dropping down to sidearm?’ He said, ‘If you want to play, drop down.’ So I did. Starting off my freshman year at Young Harris, I was only 78-80 (mph). As time progressed, I guess I just got used to throwing from that angle, and I gained velocity. And my approach has gotten better. I realize as a sidearm guy, I’m not going to be a starter, even though I started some at Young Harris.
My velocity over the last year has really amazed me. During the fall when I signed at Mercer my sophomore year, I was still low 80s, 80 to 84. Then it was 86-88 in the spring. Then in the summer it was 87-90. This spring, they’re telling me it’s a pretty consistent 90-92, I know I hit 94. I’m just loving it. As a guy who not too long ago was throwing in the low 80s, it’s a lot of fun. I think a lot of it is getting used to the arm slot, getting my body used to the motion, getting more fluid. At the same time, I’ve put on weight, hit the weights, throwing program, figured out what I have to do to my arm. I’ve taken the “throw approach.” I’ve kind of figured out what I need to do to make back-to-back appearances. A lot of throwing, don’t ice, just keep working. At first I long tossed–I always heard if you want to gain velocity, long toss, hit the weights. I tried, but I didn’™t want to change my arm angle to long toss. I can throw it long, but in order to do it, I have to change my release point, have to start way out front to bring it all the way back. I usually don’™t go more than 100, 120 feet.
You were so dominant early in the year that we started to wonder if you’d ever give up a run. Were you disappointed when you finally did?
I definitely was, especially the way it happened. We went down to Georgia. I hadn’t given up a run, I think I had only given up one hit at that point. I’ve got to be honest, I usually know exactly what’s going on around the country, I keep up with a lot of guys, I try to do my best when I go out there. I went out there and gave up a hit, then walked two. That first run I gave up, I hit a guy with the bases loaded. It just killed me. To give it up that way, I mean, I’d rather a guy get a hit and earn it. My last outing wasn’t too hot. But all the runs I’ve given up this season have been on me, I haven’t given up a run on a hit yet. It was an exciting start to the season, everybody said it was just a matter of time, I don’™t really buy into that. It was fun and all, but ultimately it comes down to winning games and closing out.