TOP 25 SCHEDULE
With top Friday pitching matchups in italics
There are plenty of great pairings this weekend in conference play, many of which get enhanced by impressive mound matchups on Friday. The winners of the Nebraska-Texas and San Diego-Pepperdine series should emerge as the conference champions. The same might be true in the Big 10, where Michigan (20-13, 8-4) visits Purdue (20-11, 7-5) for four games this weekend after taking all four from preseason favorite Ohio State a week ago. Both teams have won seven of their last 10 games–the best current streaks in the conference–and stand in second and third place. Michigan owns a conference ERA of 2.86 with three of its four weekend starters boasting ERAs less than 1.00 (Zach Putnam, Andrew Hess and Chris Fetter). That’s pitching. Purdue boasts the league’s best offense, leading it with .322/.399/.505 numbers as well as 13 home runs in 12 conference games. Junior shortstop Mitch Hillgoss’ season stats of .413/.497/.636 all lead the league, while senior righthander Jay Buente still might be the league’s best pitcher.
It’s not a great week for picking upsets, as most matchups look very even on the surface. So Vanderbilt’s freshman- and sophomore-dominated team (25-13, 10-5) winning two of three on the road against a veteran Alabama club (28-12, 10-5) will count. In a more adventurous pick, let’s go with Texas Tech to take two at home against visiting Oklahoma (29-10, 8-4). The Sooners enter the game with seven straight wins, including a 15-3 thrashing of Rice on Tuesday, but the Red Raiders are 18-5-1 at home.
IN THE DUGOUT
Kentucky junior second baseman John Shelby III grew up in Lexington as the son of a major league outfielder and coach. He committed to play for his hometown school, one that went 24-32, 9-20 his senior year of high school and then 24-30, 7-23 and 29-27, 7-22 his first two seasons on campus. Despite a .239 average, Shelby’s nine home runs, 33 RBIs and team-best eight steals have helped Kentucky to a 27-10, 8-7 start this year, and he’s enjoying his role in helping the Wildcats rebuild the program under third-year coach John Cohen.
What are your thoughts on how the year has gone so far?
As a team we’re doing very well. It’s kind of expected with the group of guys that we have, but not expected by the media covering us. We’re surprising some people. We’ve got the fans into it, which has helped out a lot. I can’t tell you how much fan attendance has increased since I’ve been here. We had 50 people a game my first year, and now it’s in the thousands.
Individually, I’m hitting the ball hard and getting out a lot. We’ve got a great group of guys, so if I’m not hitting, somebody else will be hitting.
How different has this season been from your first two years?
It was difficult last year, we were in nine games, we lost nine games by one run. It was very difficult always losing in the last inning. We got a few guys back from last year and we made a pact that we’re not doing that again. We got some junior college guys in Ryan Strieby and Sean Coughlin and they bring tremendous character. I don’t even know if you can describe that feeling (of having consistent success). The sky is the limit with this team. I couldn’t say that in the past. This year we have high standards and we’re expecting to win.
The past two years we were dead last, now we’ve got people noticing us in class, people supporting the baseball team, signs getting put up. Campus has a different atmosphere. We’re actually getting basketball players coming to our games. I’m close to Ravi Moss and he and Sheray (Thomas) have come. We told them we support them, so they have to come support us.
Growing up in Lexington, did you always want to play for Kentucky?
Believe it or not, Kentucky was our last choice. My family wanted me to experience the rest of the world. I’m the oldest of six (five boys and a girl) and I thought it would be a great idea to play in front of my friends and family. It’s been the best experience of my life. Me, Collin Cowgill and Michael Bertram have the chance to be hometown heroes. We were all high school rivals, but we were good friends. We played on fall ball teams and what not.
What are you working to improve?
Defense is a big thing I was trying to work on this year. I’ve made some dramatic improvement. I’ve decreased my error count. I always liked shortstop, and I could never see myself playing second base. I made that adjustment last year and I’m getting more comfortable the more games I play. I’m trying to have a two-strike approach and take the ball to the other side of the field, which is a challenge because I like to pull the ball. I’m getting fed a whole lot of sliders this year.
What was it like growing up with your father being a big league player and coach?
My dad’s a person too. If he didn’t have his uniform on you’d never know he’s a baseball player. He’s a dad and a baseball player. My mom actually relays most of the things (I do on the field) to my dad. She knows more of the game than I do. There’s no pressure on me because of who he is; I want to go out make a name for myself.
It’s very tough sometimes. I see my friends, their parents go on road trips, my mom’s been on one to Tennessee. She has to take care of my brothers and sister. It’s tough not having Dad around some times, but he’s doing something big, and something I’d like to do one day.
We go out there (to stay with Dad) in the summer time, my whole family goes. My dad coached on the field with the Dodgers, and I’d get to take groundballs with big leaguers. They’d show me what to do, and have fun and I got to be a part of that. I talked to Alex Cora and Cesar Izturis, seeing how they act on and off the field. I can see what it takes for them to play the middle infield and make those adjustments in college. Them and my dad both try to help me out. My dad is my favorite player, but I really like Adrian Beltre and Cesar Izturis. Those are two guys I talked to a lot; they play their hearts out every day.
Fans in Houston rejoiced when San Diego swept Texas to open the season. Those in College Station might have chuckled when the defending national champions were 6-6 after 12 games. And some in Waco might have relaxed a little in seeing the Longhorns at 9-8 a few weeks later.
Those weren’t the feelings in Austin, where fans once giddy with the thought of Texas bookending its football national championship with a second consecutive one in baseball wondered what had happened to their preseason No. 1 team.
Texas has produced an 18-5 record since, including a 12-2 Big 12 Conference record that puts the Longhorns in first place–right where they were expected to be.
“I don’t think anyone panicked,” associate head coach Tommy Harmon said. “There was some concern and some ‘Wow, what’s going on?’ maybe a little bit of worry.
“We’re probably pleased with where we’ve come from after the first month of season. I don’t think we’re pleased with where we are because we can get better. I think there’s more in there.”
Now back to No. 5 in the rankings, 27-13 Texas should find out exactly where it stands this weekend when No. 4 Nebraska brings its 30-5, 10-2 record to Austin. The Cornhuskers will encounter a team that already has faced a season’s worth of adversity and emerged from it with maturity.
That’s important for a young Texas team that lists six freshmen among its top 10 pitchers and four among its nine regular position players. More adversity struck after freshman outfielder Jordan Danks (.327/.430/.542 with seven steals and a team-best five triples) broke his right ankle running the bases last Saturday. He won’t return until at least the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“We’ve got an extremely young team this year,” junior center fielder Drew Stubbs said. “We were asking a lot of freshmen to step up and contribute, and that showed early in our lack of experience. We didn’t have confidence. The young guys, coming in seeing Texas in the College World Series the last few years, they got their eyes opened real quick (by) getting swept at San Diego. We sputtered after that, it put a question in their mind and our minds about what this team was all about.
“Now we’re playing with a lot confidence and swagger. In my three years at Texas, there’s always been a lot of that. Starting off, we might have been deprived of that. Now we’ve got that back.”
Coach Augie Garrido said he was most pleased with how his team handled the difficulties early in the season, and the change in attitude that his players have shown since that time. The team’s talent always was apparent, as three wins in three tries against No. 2 Rice would indicate, but consistency proved an early problem, evidenced in road series losses to San Diego, Stanford and Nevada-Las Vegas. That last series was a debacle in which the Longhorns allowed 15 unearned runs in three games, blowing two late leads.
“That was pretty ugly,” Harmon said. “I was actually back at the hotel, I said, ‘You know, we were up by 10 runs and got beat, I don’t know how it happened.’ We felt as a staff it could be corrected. We basically lost some games because we couldn’t catch a fly ball.
“They really did take those negatives and use them to grow from. That’s a tribute to the makeup of these guys. Nobody yelled at them. We told them they had a lot of talent but they had to learn how to be baseball players.”
Nearly every player on the roster had to learn a new role, not just the freshmen adjusting to Division I baseball and daily life as college students.
The junior class of Stubbs, Carson Kainer, Kyle McCulloch and Randy Boone–a quartet of roommates–all had contributed to Texas’ success their first two years, but always had veterans including Seth Johnston, Robby Hudson and Taylor Teagarden around to provide leadership. “You can say coming into season we knew we’d need some leadership, but actions are a whole different deal,” Stubbs said. “It took some time.” Other returnees on the club who hadn’t played much in their first season or two with the team had to cope with the disappointment of having served their apprenticeships but being beaten out by freshmen for starting roles they expected to be theirs.
“It was more about sociology than it was baseball for a while,” Garrido said.
A series of meetings helped sort those things out, and the meetings varied in composition. Coaches met with players individually and collectively to discuss responsibility and roles. Players met with other players. The four juniors had their own pow-wows in their shared apartment. Academic counselors even reminded the team of important factors for success, with leadership and good practice habits rising to the forefront.
Stubbs and Harmon each said Texas first put everything together in a three-game sweep of Oklahoma State in its second conference series. It started with the veterans leading by example. McCulloch, the staff ace, entered the OSU series 1-4, 4.10, and he has gone 4-0, 1.52 with a 28-7 strikeout-walk ratio in 30 innings in his last four starts.
Stubbs and Kainer have also increased their production in conference play. Six of Stubbs’ nine home runs and 17 of his 36 RBIs have come in 14 conference games, where he’s reaching base 42.6 percent of the time and slugging .741. Kainer has experienced a similar jump, hitting .404/.431/.684 with a team-best 22 RBIs in conference play–all increases from his overall rates.
That aforementioned freshman class has also produced. Outfielders Danks and Kyle Russell (who has equaled Stubbs’ nine homers and 36 RBIs) have strengthened the middle of the order, while Bradley Suttle has shuttled around the infield before establishing himself at third base, and Preston Clark has performed admirably at catcher.
Freshmen abound on the mound, especially lefthanded ones. Austin Wood leads the team with a 1.05 ERA and four saves in 34 innings, Riley Boening has started seven games, two in Big 12 play. Joey Parigi and Kyle Walker have also worked key innings.
“I’d say if they’re not ahead, they’re pretty close behind where I was as a freshman,” said Stubbs, a freshman All-American in 2004. “They’re very good learners of the game and situations around them.”
The result has Texas earning three conference sweeps in five series. It has advanced to the championship round of the College World Series in each of the last two seasons, but swept only one Big 12 series a year ago and two the season before.
Fans again are excited at the chance of seeing their Longhorns reach Omaha for the fifth straight season and win their third title in that time span. But Garrido’s coaching philosophy includes no expectations. That creates a false reality, he said.
True to the actual reality, Texas still has areas in which it needs work. Garrido grades the team’s performance to this point simply: “We’ve done OK.”
Texas’ .962 fielding percentage, created by plenty of position shuffling and staffing those spots with callow players, stands some 15 percentage points from where the coaching staff wants it. Garrido also would like to see his pitchers get more aggressive in the strike zone in 3-2 and 2-2 counts.
“It’s three steps forward, two steps back,” Garrido said. “When we come out the other side, we’re going to be a better team.”
That could be a scary thought in Houston, College Station, Waco or anywhere else in the nation.
AROUND THE NATION
• Notre Dame extended its win streak to 19 games, the longest in school history and longest in the nation this year, with a pair of midweek wins. Mississippi State and Old Dominion each won 18 games in a row this year.
• Sophomore center fielder Kellen Kulbacki enjoyed a three-homer game against George Mason last weekend, and his 20 home runs set a James Madison season record. That total also leads the nation, as do his 59 RBIs and 1.014 slugging percentage. The triple crown watch continues as his .479 average stands second nationally.
• Johnny Allstaff got a workout Wednesday night as Missouri beat Saint Louis 4-0 in a Wood Bat Classic game in which both teams used eight pitchers. Missouri allowed only one hit, a fifth-inning single by Tim Landy off Taylor Parker. The win stopped a nine-game losing streak for the Tigers (17-18).
• Not many teams can score against Division II Southern Illinois-Edwardsville. The staff had thrown 16 shutouts in its 26-12 start, tying the record set by Central Missouri State a year ago while compiling a 1.80 team ERA. Senior righthander Kyle Jones was doing his part. He hasn’t allowed an earned run in a D-II record 54 innings (and counting) while throwing five shutouts and winning all eight starts.