When first place meets second place in a power conference, there is plenty of fanfare, but not always so much on the line. Those teams know they’re going to be in regionals, and in many cases they know they’re in good shape to host regionals, regardless of who wins the series.
But the stakes are higher this weekend when first-place Stetson visits second-place Jacksonville. Stetson has its sights set on hosting a regional, while Jacksonville is trying to shore up its at-large credentials. So in addition to determining who controls the Atlantic Sun Conference, this series has huge implications for both teams’ postseason resumes.
The Dolphins (23-12 overall, 13-5 in the A-Sun) rank 48th in the NCAA’s official Ratings Percentage Index report, released Tuesday. They are 6-1 against fellow bubble teams Samford and East Tennessee State, but they need a signature win, and they need to maintain or bolster their RPI.
“We know that we’re on the edge, and we have to take care of business,” Dolphins coach Terry Alexander said. “We have to play well down the stretch. We’re planning on doing that, and we know that that’s our task. Down the stretch, I’d like to be 14-6 or 15-5. Stetson’s in a better seat—they’ve won some big games.”
Indeed, Stetson’s resume includes a season-opening sweep of Georgia that has looked better and better as the season has progressed, plus a midweek win against Florida State and a series win against ETSU (which has a freakishly high RPI—No. 31). The Hatters (29-8, 12-3) are 22nd in the RPI, and coach Pete Dunn said they plan to submit a bid to host a regional if they can continue playing at a high level. So this weekend is critical.
|Top 25 Schedule
|North Carolina State at (1) Virginia
(2) South Carolina at Mississippi State
Washington State at (3) Oregon State
Louisiana State at (4) Vanderbilt
Alabama at (5) Florida
(16) Oklahoma State at (6) Texas A&M
(7) Texas at Kansas
(8) Cal State Fullerton at Cal Poly
(9) Arizona State at (15) California
Duke at (10) Florida State
Nevada-Las Vegas at (11) Texas Christian
(12) Fresno State at Sacramento State
Boston College at (13) Georgia Tech
(25) Miami at (14) North Carolina
Nebraska at (17) Oklahoma
(18) Stetson at Jacksonville
Marshall at (19) Southern Mississippi
(20) UCLA at Stanford
(21) Arkansas at Kentucky
(22) Rice at Alabama-Birmingham
(23) Arizona at Oregon
St. Mary’s at (24) Gonzaga
“We’ve got to really win out down the stretch to be a legitimate option for that,” Dunn said. “But when we built this place (Melching Field at Conrad Park) 12 years ago, the one thing that we did was we went to the NCAA and said, ‘What do you look at for criteria to host?’ So we built this with that in mind, that maybe one day we’d be in position to bid. It all starts this weekend.”
The Hatters and Dolphins are constructed very differently. Stetson is all about pitching (3.33 team ERA) and defense (.969 fielding percentage). Jacksonville’s staff ERA is more than two runs higher (5.46), and its fielding percentage is more than 10 points lower (.957)—but few teams are as dangerous offensively. Jacksonville ranks in the nation’s top 10 in scoring (sixth with 8.2 runs per game), batting (seventh at .323), home runs per game (10th, 0.97 per game) and slugging (ninth, .472).
“It’s a situation where Stetson has a great pitching staff with great numbers, and we’re trying to make our way through ours,” Alexander said. “So we’re almost totally opposite. Offensively, I think we have the advantage. I don’t expect us to score double digits against Stetson—somewhere in the four-to-five-run range would be realistic, but that means that our pitchers who have an ERA of 5 have got to be a little bit better than that. And their pitchers who have a team ERA of 3, we’ve got to be a little better than that offensively. It could turn out to be some close ballgames if we pitch. If it’s a close game, then I like our chances, because we’ve been scoring a lot of runs late.”
The Dolphins are only hoping their pitchers can prevent big innings and keep them in games long enough for their offense to do the heavy lifting. Jacksonville is without two of its best pitchers this weekend. Ace Steve Eagerton (6-0, 4.26) has been out since a line drive bounced up and hit him in the face two weeks ago against Mercer. Eagerton suffered a concussion and some bleeding under his skull, and he has yet to pass a concussion test. Alexander said he’s likely out for two more weeks. The Dolphins also lost senior Chris Kaminski to a shoulder tear.
Jacksonville allowed double-digit runs in three straight games against Campbell last weekend, but still swept the series, winning 11-10, 16-13 and 16-10. Sophomore first baseman Adam Brett Walker had a lot to do with that, going 11-for-18 with four doubles, two homers and 13 RBIs in four games last week. Walker (.418/.497/.719 with nine homers, 51 RBIs and nine stolen bases) and sophomore outfielder Daniel Gulbransen (.423/.529/.650 with five homers, 36 RBIs and nine steals) have followed up their standout freshman seasons with even better sophomore years, and the Jacksonville offense is built around them.
“Walker and Gulbransen have got to be as good of guys hitting back to back as there is in the country,” Alexander said. “They’re both hitting .420 or so, they both score runs, they both hit doubles, they both steal bases, they both hit home runs. Walker has got more power—when the ball touches his bat, it’s lightning. It’s just something that you say, ‘Wow.’ But then again, he does strike out more. But if the ball just touches the barrel of his bat, it’s going to be hit hard. Then you have the contrast with Gulbransen, who doesn’t ever strike out, gives you a good at-bat every time.”
Another big key has been junior third baseman Kevin Lehane (.333/.408/.520 with six homers and 27 RBIs), who has given Walker some protection in the No. 5 hole.
“They can walk one of those big guys in the middle, but can’t really walk both,” Alexander said. “Then Kevin Lehane in the five-spot comes up, just a pretty good hitter, but it almost never fails that if they walk Walker, he hits a double. That’s just a real key: When you walk a great hitter, what’s the next guy do? They’ve pitched around Gulbransen sometimes to pitch to Walker, because they think he’s got a chance to strike out. Sometimes they do strike him out, and other times they get really, really hurt. It’s a tough decision for a manager: What do I do?”
Dunn knows what he’s up against.
“I know those big guys are awfully strong, and they swing it pretty good up there,” Dunn said. “The big thing is—it’s no secret—our guys will have to pitch ahead so they can use their offspeed stuff. If you get behind and have to throw fastballs in hitters’ counts, they’re not going to be successful on the mound, and we’re not going to be successful this weekend.”
While Jacksonville is without its ace this weekend, Stetson is getting its back. Junior righthander Lindsey Caughel (4-1, 3.00) sprained his ankle while out for a run after the first week of the season, and he pitched with it for a while, but the pain lingered and an MRI revealed a deep bone bruise. He sat out the last two weeks, but he will return to action this weekend. Command is Caughel’s calling card, and Dunn said he hopes the layoff won’t affect his ability to locate.
Caughel will pitch Saturday, as sophomore righty Kurt Schluter (7-0, 1.57) has done a terrific job filling in for Caughel on Fridays, continuing his stellar season. A former two-way player, Schluter has been able to focus his attention solely on pitching this year, and Dunn said that has helped him mature as a pitcher. He and junior catcher Nick Rickles have a special chemistry, Dunn said.
Rickles, of course, is Stetson’s best player, and Dunn said he might be even more valuable behind the plate than he is with the bat—which is saying something, because Rickles is hitting .361/.421/.618 with 15 doubles, six homers, 40 RBIs and only one strikeout in 144 at-bats.
“It’s incredible how good he’s been—not only not striking out, but he’ll keep fouling pitches off, fighting pitches off with two strikes, then hit a double,” Dunn said. “He’s pulling the ball now on pitches that are pullable, he’s hitting home runs—several of his home runs have been to dead-center field. So he’s pulling balls but not pulling everything—he’s going the other way with a two-strike approach. He’s swinging now like we thought he would when we recruited him.”
While the Hatters don’t have as much power as Jacksonville, they do get some pop from Rickles, Ben Carhart (five homers), Mark Jones and Robert Crews (three piece). The offense should also continue to benefit now that leadoff man Jeff Simpson (16 steals in 18 tries) has worked back close to full strength from a pulled hamstring. His speed at the top of the lineup is disruptive.
So while Stetson is not the offensive juggernaut that Jacksonville is, the Hatters are no slouch at the plate.
“We’ve been very efficient, we’ve gotten guys on, we’ve moved them over, and we’ve been very efficient driving guys in from third base with less than two outs,” Dunn said. “So we’ve got to play our game and not worry too much with their club. If our pitchers do what they’ve been doing all year, then I like our chances.”
Like the A-Sun, the Sun Belt Conference features a showdown series between first place and second place this weekend, as 11-4 Troy hosts 10-5 WKU. The series kicks off with a stellar matchup between two of the conference’s best pitchers on Friday: WKU sophomore lefty Tanner Perkins and Troy junior righty Tyler Ray.
“That will be fun to watch. I’d pay money to watch that one if I wasn’t going to be in the dugout,” Hilltoppers coach Chris Finwood said. “Perkins has been very consistent—you can see his strikeout-walk ratio and opponent batting average, you can’t ask for a lot better than that. Heck, the only one better than him has been Ray.”
Indeed, Ray is 8-0, 1.26 with 41 strikeouts and eight walks in 64 innings. He leads the conference in ERA, and Perkins ranks second—he’s 6-1, 1.95 with 50 strikeouts and 12 walks in 60 innings. Ray ranks second in the SBC in opponents’ batting average (.209), and Perkins ranks third (.212).
Ray, a former high-profile high school football quarterback, has never shied away from the spotlight and found a home in Troy’s weekend rotation as a freshman. But he tore his left labrum swinging a bat in the fall of his freshman year, preventing him from concentrating on gaining strength. He went 15-7, 4.98 over his first two seasons at Troy, then earned Cape Cod League all-star honors last summer. When he returned to Troy, he focused on strengthening his body, and it has made a big difference.
“He’s been sensational, man,” Trojans coach Bobby Pierce. “He’s undefeated, and he’s pitched against some really good guys so far, including Southern Miss’ All-American (Todd McInnis), and beat him. He’s not an extremely hard thrower, 88-91, but he has plus command of his fastball, and his secondary pitches have really improved throughout his career here. He throws all three: a curveball, slider and changeup. The changeup has really made some strides—well, all three really have. The first two seasons he didn’t have a knockout pitch, but he’s starting to develop that with the slider to righthanded hitters, the changeup for lefties. He’s got a pitch he can go to now when he needs to put somebody away with two strikes. Mixing the fastball in and out is his main pitch, but he’s got more ways to get you out.”
Perkins got off to a strong start as a freshman, and Finwood told Baseball America last March that he is “mean as a rattlesnake out there.” Fatigue took its toll down the stretch, as it does with many freshmen, and he finished 3-4, 5.27.
Like Ray, Perkins has gotten stronger and more durable. And like Ray, he’s come a long way with his secondary stuff.
“He’s worked hard with (pitching) coach (Matt) Myers to develop that changeup—that’s really been his bread and butter,” Finwood said. “He’s kind of got a sidearm slurvy pitch that he’ll flip in there for strikes, then a little more of a back-foot breaking ball that he’ll throw in to righties, more of a slider. But fastball-change are his primary tools.
“When he’s going good, he’s real efficient—not a big strikeout guy, but he keeps the ball down and lets people make plays behind him. He’s been pretty solid 86-90, and he’ll pop a 90 or 91 now and then but will pitch at the 87-88 range mostly with his fastball. It’s nothing staggering, but he’s doing a good job with his two-seam, running it down and away, getting ground balls with it.”
The Jaspers have established themselves as the team to beat in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Association, racing out to a 12-0 start, capped by a three-game sweep of Marist last weekend. Manhattan is one of just three teams to remain undefeated in conference play heading into this weekend (Bethune-Cookman is 9-0 in the MEAC, and Utah Valley is 4-0 in the Great West). Manhattan has won 17 of its last 18 regular-season MAAC games since getting swept at Canisius last May 8-9.
Incidentally, the Jaspers get a chance to avenge that series loss this weekend, hosting the Golden Griffs, who are in third place at 6-2.
“The Canisius series is big for us year after year,” Manhattan coach Kevin Leighton said. “For us, we’ve been fortunate to be one of the better teams in the conference the last five years, so we’ve had a good rivalry with Le Moyne and now Canisius. They’re a tough opponent—they have some talent. I think it will be a much tougher weekend than we’ve had so far.”
Manhattan looks built to make its first regional since 2006. The Jaspers win with pitching and defense, and they have a core of four quality seniors that make the offense go. Leading the way is third baseman Chad Salem (.402/.479/.680 with seven homers and 39 RBIs), who has hit for power and average in the No. 3 hole. Two more seniors—sweet-swinging lefty Mike McCann (.375/.464/.518 with 24 RBIs) and first baseman Austin Sheffield (.296/.400/.407 with 19 RBIs)—offer Salem some protection in the middle of the order. And the fourth, center fielder Mark Onorati (.341/.439/.563 with four homers and 10 steals), sparks the offense out of the leadoff spot.
“Onorati is a complete pest, a guy the opposition can’t stand,” Leighton said. “He’s been hit 15 times and only struck out three times on the year. He’s more of a gap-to-gap average hitter who can run a little bit, just a guy that wears the pitcher out, fouling pitches off, getting hit by pitches with two strikes, stuff like that.”
On the mound, Manhattan is not overpowering, but its staff is filled with strike-throwers who compete, led by ace sophomore righty John Soldinger (6-1, 1.68 with 42 strikeouts and 25 walks in 64 innings), who pitches downhill with a mid-80s fastball that tops out at 87, to go along with a good curveball and slider.
“I think we’ve significantly improved up the middle defensively, and I think that takes a little pressure off your pitchers,” Leighton said. “When you combine that with three starting pitchers on the weekend that, they don’t blow you away, they don’t overly impress you, but they locate and they throw three pitches for strikes. They’ve been able to do a real nice job for us early on.”
A coach who’s seen both Elon and Georgia Southern sizes up this weekend’s series between the two top teams in the Southern Conference. Elon enters the series at 14-4 in the SoCon, Georgia Southern is 11-4.
“Our guys, based on everything we’ve seen, we think Georgia Southern is the best team in the league. They’ve got the two sophomores that the pro guys like in (Chris) Beck and (Victor) Roache. Roache has hit everything lately, it seems. He’s got legitimate power, big-time power.
“Beck has the power stuff to dominate the first couple of times through the order. After four or five innings he was more vulnerable, but he was in the low 90s with his fastball and threw strikes pretty well. Their other key guy is Andy Moye. He has thrown well for them on Sundays of late, and they are debating whether or not to keep playing him at third base, or how often to keep playing him there, because he’s important to their pitching (4-1, 2.70 in 40 IP).
“Elon just wins. You have to give their coaches and kids credit. There’s a lot to be said for just their experience, and their ability to win close games, and the regionals they’ve been to, just the winning they have done. If they give up nine they score 10; if they score one it seems like they give up zero. I really thought it would hurt them when (Scott) Riddle decided not to play to focus on football; that left a big power hole in their lineup, and it’s not an imposing lineup.
“But they seem to always do enough. I was watching GameTracker of them the other day against College of Charleston and they were down 4-0 in the eighth. Usually I just shut the thing off with the way the bats are playing this year, but I just knew Elon had a comeback in them, and next thing you know it’s 4-4 and they went on to win 5-4. You just know they are going to keep grinding and grinding.
“They can still hit some, but you look at their numbers and it’s hard to be impressed. They’re hitting .250 as a team, they’ve been caught stealing a lot, they don’t strike you out on the mound, they don’t have a great ERA. But they figure out how to make plays. (Neal) Pritchard, the shortstop, is probably their best player. He’s leading the team in home runs and he swings it, has some pop, makes things happen. But they’re better on the mound than they are offensively.”
When Winkler arrived at Texas Christian, he carried a reputation as a fierce competitor and a winner. In three years at TCU, he has done plenty of winning, going 25-5. But Winkler has made a leap forward as a junior this spring, going 6-1, 1.42 with 69 strikeouts and 11 walks in 63 innings and emerging as a candidate to be drafted in the top two rounds this June. When his more heralded weekend rotationmate Matt Purke was battling a blister problem early in the year, Winkler slid into the Friday starter spot, and he has thrived in the role. Now, with Purke sidelined indefinitely with shoulder soreness and going to visit Dr. James Andrews, Winkler and senior righty Steven Maxwell must carry even more of the load. He’ll lock horns with another dynamic ace this Thursday: Nevada-Las Vegas junior righty Tanner Peters (6-2, 1.40 with 72 strikeouts and 15 walks in 71 innings).
“Tanner Peters is going crazy—that’ll be a big matchup,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “(Winkler)’s been just money in the bank for us this year.”
Editor’s note: Winkler threw a complete-game in TCU’s 4-1 win against UNLV before this piece was posted. He allowed six hits and one walk while striking out five to improve to 7-1 on the season.
Congratulations on all your success this year. What has been the biggest key for you?
I think the key is just attacking hitters. My freshman year and last year, I kind of avoided contact and really just tried to pitch on the corners and didn’t attack the middle of the zone. This year, with the new bats, you don’t have to pitch on the corners, you can really just attack the zone.
Coach Schlossnagle has talked about the slider you have developed this year. You just learned that right before the start of the season, right?
Yeah, actually I was having a hard time with it last year, it was more of a cutter than anything else, and the same last summer. I got to school, and coach (Randy) Mazey and I were just working on it, and I couldn’t get it to have any depth down in the zone. I started talking to Steven Maxwell one day, and he said something about doing something with my hand and getting over the ball a little more, and I just started throwing it in the outfield, and that’s how I found it. I really can’t take credit for it—all the credit goes to Max. Me, Max and Purke are always talking about what we can do better, and it just happened that Max gave me the idea, and it went from there.
You three guys have been together a while now and it seems like you have great chemistry. Do you feed off each other, do you compete with each other?
We’re each other’s biggest fans. Every weekend, we want the person behind us to do better than we did. We have a competition every week to buy dinner—whoever has the most strikeouts gets his dinner paid for. We’re all competitiors, we’re all going out there to compete, because we know if we throw well, the team will do well.
You’ve gotten a lot of free dinners this year, I’ll bet.
Yeah, I’ve been the winner a lot. Hopefully I can keep that going.
You used to throw a curveball, right? Have you scrapped that altogether?
Yes, my freshman year I was a curveball guy, but I just couldn’t really throw it for strikes. It was a good pitch, but when you can’t throw a pitch for a strike and people aren’t swinging at it, you’re not going to have a lot of success with it.
Do you still consider your changeup a go-to pitch for you?
Yeah, I’ve always had a pretty good changeup, and I can throw it for strikes when I need to. I like it a lot; I haven’t really thrown it that much this year since my slider’s been really good so far, but Coach Mazey usually has that one in the bag when I need it.
You had such a great sophomore year, and at the end of the season Omaha did not go as you wanted it to. I understand that experience really shaped you; can you describe how?
Obviously, it didn’t go the way I wanted it to, or the team. But it’s something that’s driven me. I think the biggest thing that I could have done was going to pitch for Team USA afterwards. Getting on the mound, knowing that I could compete with those guys, really taught me a lot about myself, and really proved that I was just as good as everybody. Especially after struggling so much there, getting a little bit of confidence back and playing for Team USA was big.
What was the biggest thing you picked up with Team USA?
I really think it was just confidence. It’s really hard not to gain confidence when you’re playing with 25 of the best guys in the country. It was just a lot of fun; I got to learn a lot just from watching other people. That’s how you learn in baseball, just watching other people, seeing how they get outs.