|California at Arizona State|
It wasn’t so long ago that Arizona State was an unstoppable freight train that seemed destined to break the Division I record for winning percentage in a season. Just three weeks ago, on April 4, the Sun Devils were 28-1, with wins under their belt against preseason top 10 opponents Vanderbilt, Oregon State, Michigan and Arizona. ASU was the talk of college baseball, with a deep, powerful lineup and strong frontline pitching led by sophomore righthander Mike Leake.
Even the losses of closer Jason Jarvis and heralded freshman Devin Fuller to academic ineligibility and senior righty Derik Olvey to a lingering elbow injury weren’t enough to derail the Sun Devils in the first half. But a closer look reveals that the question marks surrounding Arizona State in the preseason—a lack of pitching depth and just four returning starters in the lineup—never truly went away, they were just masked for a while by ASU’s hot start.
at (1) Miami
Florida State at (2) North Carolina
|(4) Missouri at (18) Texas
|Southern California at (5)
California at (6) Arizona State
|(8) Nebraska at
at Central Florida
|(10) Georgia at
Marymount at (11) San Diego
|(12) South Carolina at Louisiana
(13) Oklahoma State
|(14) Wichita State at Indiana
|UC Davis at
(15) Cal State Fullerton
|(16) UC Irvine at New
Kentucky at (17) Vanderbilt
|(19) Michigan at
Coastal Carolina at Virginia Military
|Arkansas at (21)
Arizona at Oregon State
|Boston College at (24) North Carolina
(25) Long Beach State
Since then, the Sun Devils are just 4-6, with series losses at Stanford and at home against Oregon State. There’s no time for the Devils to lick their wounds, because No. 7 California comes to Tempe this weekend. And as Arizona State coach Pat Murphy is quick to point out, the Golden Bears are more experienced than his team.
“People think we’re faltering right now, but the truth is, we’ve got four returning starters,” Murphy said. “We’re way less experienced than every other team in the Pac-10. Cal comes in here this weekend with nine returning starters, three starting pitchers and their closer. They’ve got the exact same kids back. They’re good, and they’re just more experienced than us. We have to reload every year. This is a very inexperienced team except for those four guys.”
Fortunately for Arizona State, three of those four guys are preseason All-Americans: first baseman/lefhander Ike Davis (.412/.483/.843 with 15 home runs and 62 RBIs), third baseman Brett Wallace (.390/.529/.692 with 11 homers and 50 RBIs) and catcher Petey Paramore (.319/.469/.444 with three homers and 31 RBIs) have been key components of one of the nation’s best offenses for three years. The fourth returnee, DH Kiel Roling (.278/.384/.492 with six homers and 29 RBIs) got off to a very slow start while recovering from a knee injury but has started to come on strong over the last month and went 4-for-5 with a double, a homer and three RBIs in ASU’s 10-8 extra-innings win at Cal State Fullerton on Wednesday.
And Arizona State’s newcomers aren’t half bad, either. The biggest surprise has been junior shortstop Marcel Champagnie (.370/.429/.571), a transfer from Kaskaskia (Ill.) Junior College who has been an offensive upgrade over the man he’s replaced, Andrew Romine. Another transfer, outfielder Jason Kipnis (.329/.457/.603 with eight homers and 44 RBIs) from Kentucky, has cooled down a bit after his torrid start, but remains a key contributor near the top of the lineup.
The Sun Devils are an offensive juggernaut not just because they hit for power, but because they are masters of getting on base. Through 39 games, Arizona State has reached base via walks or hit by pitches 311 times, and struck out just 280 times.
“They’re pretty scary,” said Cal pitching coach Dan Hubbs, whose staff must find a way to slow down an ASU offense averaging 9.5 runs per game. “I think you have to throw strikes, no question. When you look at their ability to be patient, they don’t strike out a whole lot—even the guys who have power, which you don’t often see. Even their young guys. They’ve always been like that. Their walks and HBPs are more than their strikeouts for the season. There aren’t many teams you can say that about. That’s what makes them so scary, because they do have the guys who can hit, and they can get on base and they can run. It just never ends in their lineup.”
The Bears have one ace in the hole this weekend, and that’s ace righthander Tyson Ross (6-1, 3.56), who is back to feeling 100 percent healthy after a sore lat muscle forced him to miss time early this season. But the rest of the weekend rotation has been a concern to Golden Bears coach Dave Esquer. Junior lefty Chad Bennigson (3-2, 6.30) was outstanding early this season but has struggled to locate his fastball in recent weeks and has relinquished his Saturday starter spot in favor of freshman righty Kevin Miller (5-0, 0.93 with 51 strikeouts and 23 walks in 48 innings). Miller’s ability to throw strikes with four pitches and keep hitters off balance made him a revelation in the bullpen early this season and seems to make him a fine fit in the rotation. Sunday’s start remains up in the air, as senior righty Alex Rollin (4-1, 4.08) has not been as efficient in Pac-10 play as he was in the non-conference part of the schedule.
The Bears also figure to have an advantage in the bullpen, where closer Matt Gorgen (0-2, 2.37 with eight saves and a 34-10 K-BB ratio in 30 IP) and sophomore outfielder/righthander Blake Smith (2-0, 2.31) make for a dynamite one-two punch. Smith’s emergence has cushioned the recent struggles of righty Daniel Wolford (2-0, 4.64), who was a bullpen stalwart early but has not located as well in recent weeks.
Even so, Cal should have an advantage in the bullpen, which could loom large in a series between two outstanding offenses who can knock out starters in a hurry.
“You’d like to think that (would be a major factor), but Tempe plays to the offense so much that I don’t know that even a pitching advantage shines as bright there as it would other places,” Esquer said. “You can create so much offense there that you hope at that point your pitching can slow them down. But my experience there is it’s pretty tough to stop someone’s offense completely there because it’s such an offensive yard.”
Esquer said his team knows it will have to go on the road for regionals and super-regionals because Evans Diamond’s lack of lights precludes the Bears from hosting. So winning a tough series on the road now will do wonders for Cal’s confidence heading into the postseason.
“I’ve told our guys, this weekend means a lot obviously for our season and our conference, but these are the types of teams on the road we would have to play if we want to get where we want to be,” Esquer said. “This is a super-regional team. This is kind of a test run for us to go on the road in a hostile environment to see how we’re going to play. Our league week in and week out is the kind of tests like we’ll see in regionals, but Arizona State is a super-regional-type team. They’ve got murderer’s row through the middle of that lineup—you have to get through Paramore, Wallace and Davis. Their numbers are phenomenal, there’s no let-up in their lineup. We’ve got to be able to counter-punch and not get knocked out. You’re going to take some blows, you know it going in, you’ve just got to keep your feet underneath you and kind of punch back.”
No one loves a good boxing metaphor more than Murphy, who remarked multiple times in Omaha last year that his team hadn’t really been punched in the mouth all year until the CWS. But in 2008, the Sun Devils have been slugged plenty, and they’ve remained on their feet.
After Jarvis, Fuller and Olvey were lost for the season, Davis emerged as a key figure in the ASU bullpen, going 4-1, 2.66 with four saves and a 26-4 K-BB ratio in 20 IP.
“Not only a key guy, he’s been the guy, the only guy,” Murphy said. “Losing those three guys was a huge blow to our season. We don’t have any experience coming back anyway. We had three starters returning, then you lose those three guys, especially Jarvis. Then you lose Fuller, and a kid like Olvey who’s a proven winner who was throwing the ball great for us in the fall. Now we cruise early, and those other relievers were doing a great job. Now those relievers are a little run down, their confidence is a little shaken. So yeah, we’re a little thin on the mound. But we’ve got Mike Leake, he’s pretty special. We’ve got some kids who have been roughed up now, and I think that’s probably a good thing. We certainly aren’t faced with what we were faced with last year: three starters and Jarvis, that was it.”
Leake (6-1, 3.06 with a 62-8 strikeout-walk ratio in 68 IP) has been sensational, and junior righty Stephen Sauer (4-1, 3.38) has been mostly solid in a swing role, though Murphy said he’s been up and down. Senior righty Tommy Rafferty (7-0, 3.77) has been very good at times out of the bullpen, as has junior righty Reyes Dorado (3-1, 4.76), but all of those pitchers have taken their lumps during ASU’s recent rocky patch. And senior lefthander Josh Satow (4-2, 5.56) has had an understandably difficult time finding his confidence since his father died unexpectedly in mid-January.
“That just crushed him,” Murphy said. “He hasn’t been himself. You throw in that, throw in Kiel Roling just didn’t get his knee healthy until February. Throw in Jarvis, Fuller, Olvey, throw in this ridiculous investigation (into recruiting and academic violations) that has amounted to nothing and will amount to nothing, but it’s time consuming, it’s negative feedback, players getting interviewed. The kids had to go through it. (Assistant coach) Josh Holiday had kidney stones, and he hasn’t missed a day, but he has been sick as a dog, had to have emergency surgery. Our trainer, Kenny McCarty, went down with an emergency appendectomy, and he was in emergency care for a week and a half. We’ve had everything thrown at us, and at the same time, nothing so tremendous that we don’t still need to be grateful.”
Now, all the Sun Devils have to deal with is a dangerous California team, led by slugging first baseman David Cooper (.392/.481/.778 with 16 homers and 47 RBIS) and second baseman Josh Satin (.417/.511/.750 with 13 homers and 39 RBIs).
“Cal’s got something. I’m looking forward to it,” Murphy said. “They’re explosive, and they’ve got one of the top pitchers in the country in Tyson Ross. They always play us very tough. They have great hitters in Satin and Cooper. They’ve got older guys, and they play good. They’re relentless, a really good hitting team, very talented. They’ve been left out of regionals for I don’t know how many years now, and this year it’s all come together. It should be fun.”
|Marquee Mound Matchup|
|Aaron Crow vs. Brooks Raley|
The winner of this weekend’s Big 12 showdown between Missouri and Texas A&M will have the inside track on hosting a regional and maybe even a shot at a national seed. The Aggies already lead the Big 12 with a 15-3 record after sweeping Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Baylor and taking two out of three from Texas Tech—all of whom are in the bottom half of the conference standings. So winning a series against No. 4 Missouri would prove that the Aggies can also beat the nation’s elite teams, not to mention put them in terrific shape to sew up the Big 12 title.
Standing in their way is Crow, the country’s only 9-0 pitcher, with a 2.37 ERA and a 79-15 strikeout-walk ratio in 65 innings. With a plus-plus fastball, a plus breaking ball and a good changeup, Crow has a very real chance to go No. 1 overall in June’s draft. But you knew that already.
“It’s just an incredible challenge,” Aggies coach Rob Childress said. “Last week was as well with (Baylor righty) Kendal Volz—that guy’s a true No. 1 in every sense. I’m glad we’re doing it here rather than Columbia. I think Brooks Raley enjoys that challenge. We’re going to have to do a good job on the mound and defensively.”
Raley (5-0, 3.11 with 44 strikeouts and 10 walks in 55 innings) and Barret Loux (5-2, 3.21) have emerged as Texas A&M’s top two starters as freshmen. Loux was the more high-profile recruit, but Raley has been even better thanks to an 86-92 mph fastball from the left side, a curveball, slider and changeup.
“Raley flew under the radar a little bit, and we feel like he fits for us,” Childress said. “He’s just an extreme competitor. He’s also a 6.6(-second) runner (in the 60-yard dash), probably our best outfielder, and he’s had a chance to play quite a bit for us in the outfield. He’s got a four-pitch mix, he throws strikes, and loves to get after it. We tell our recruits, ‘We think you can step in and play, but can you step in and play in front of 5,000 fans cheering for you at home, or 5,000 fans cheering against you on the road?’ He loves that atmosphere.”
Still, Raley’s in for a challenge this weekend against perhaps the best pitcher in America. But then, Crow’s in for quite a challenge too, against a relentless A&M lineup that Childress said “doesn’t give you a chance to catch your breath.” The Aggies lead the Big 12 in batting and triples, rank second in scoring and home runs, and rank third in stolen bases.
“Offensively, we’ve been very good, I think the entire season,” Childress said. “We’ve been able to overcome some of our mistakes on the mound or defensively because we’ve been scoring so many runs. The one time we played a 2-1 game (against Baylor), we played great defense and pitched exceptionally well and were able to win that game.”
|Auburn at Alabama|
Enough is enough. We’ve had it with providing coaches with bulletin board fodder. “Upset City” has proven an utterly pointless exercise—we’re picking upsets at a 22 percent clip this year—so we’ve decided to scrap the feature and focus on something that actually matters: the looming NCAA tournament. Now that the NCAA has released the official Ratings Percentage Index for the first time this year, we’ve got an even better idea of where postseason contenders stand.
A good rule of thumb in the Southeastern Conference is that teams need to qualify for the eight-team conference tournament if they want a realistic shot at earning an at-large regional bid. This year, at least five of the eight SEC tournament teams figure to come out of the Eastern Division, where all six teams currently sport .500 or better records. In the Western Division, Mississippi (10-8) is the lone team above .500. In that context, this weekend’s series between Alabama (8-10 in the league) and Auburn (7-11) takes on even more significance than it usually would as a heated rivalry.
“It’s a big series,” said Alabama assistant coach Mitch Gaspard, who could be calling the shots this weekend if head coach Jim Wells is still away from the team with his ailing mother. “First of all, it’s Auburn—obviously a huge rival and always a good series. More importantly right now, in the conference standings, we’re sitting in second in the West, and this weekend is big for a lot of people. There are a lot of big matchups in the West. Our guys are very aware of the situation here and how big the series is. There’s a lot on the line for this weekend in this three-game series.”
Making the conference tournament is certainly no guarantee of an NCAA tournament berth, as the league got just five bids a year ago. Right now, Auburn is better positioned for an at-large appearance if it can make it to Hoover, Ala., for the conference tourney, because its RPI (45) is considerably stronger than Alabama’s (69). The Tigers have been streaky, getting swept by Florida State, Florida and South Carolina but winning series against Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas.
One thing separating Auburn and Alabama is that the Tigers have been more consistent in the weekend rotation, thanks to the emergence of freshman lefthanders Grant Dayton (5-1, 3.81) and Cory Luckie (4-4, 4.23).
“Grant Dayton has really thrown the ball well,” Auburn coach Tom Slater said. “He’s a strike-throwing lefty, he’s done a really nice job for us on Friday nights. He always gives us a chance. He’s pitched deep into the games every Friday night. Luckie has done a really nice job, another freshman lefty, a three-pitch guy, really smart kid, gives you a chance, throws lots of strikes. They’re both really good competitors. We’ve been excited about both of them all season long.”
The Tigers are also fielding at a .970 clip, much better than Alabama’s .956. But Gaspard said the Crimson Tide has begun to gel defensively, in part because its pitchers have begun to throw more strikes. Still, Alabama will mix up its rotation this weekend, moving junior lefthander Miers Quigley (4-3, 3.99) into the Friday starter slot and sliding junior righty Austin Hyatt (3-3, 4.85) to Saturdays. Those guys will have to be sharp this weekend in a must-win series.
|Under The Radar|
Louisiana-Monroe has been down this road before. In 2007, the Warhawks’ first since leaving the Southland Conference to join the Sun Belt, ULM started 8-1 in league play before going 7-13 down the stretch and missing out on a regional berth. So Monroe coach Jeff Schexnaider isn’t taking for granted his team’s 17-4 start in conference play—and its 28-12 record overall. The Warhawks lead the Sun Belt by 3 1/2 games with three conference series remaining.
“Our team had high expectations our first year in the conference—I think we were picked last, and we finished a half game out of second because we started out so hot,” Schexnaider said. “Hopefully this team can stay focused and finish as strong as we started. We really knew this was a special team coming in, especially how close they are as a team. We knew we were pretty talented position-wise. The key was going to be if the pitchers could throw strikes, and they have confidence to throw strikes because of our defense.”
Through Sunday, the Warhawks had turned 46 double plays, fifth-most in the nation. So even though their pitchers were allowing 11.12 hits per game—which ranked 205th in the nation—their defense was getting them through innings with minimal damage.
ULM is very strong up the middle, with junior shortstop Ben Soignier, senior second baseman Kyle Suire and senior center fielder A.J. Siggers. That trio is also a big reason the Warhawks rank 10th in the nation in scoring (9.2 runs per game). Monroe’s top five is very strong, with DH Jon Prevost (.376 with 11 steals) and Soignier (.394 with 12 homers and 11 steals) setting the table for Suire (.384 with 12 homers and 50 RBIs), left fielder Dexter Fontenot (.399 with 10 homers and 51 RBIs) and Siggers (.350 with five homers and 30 RBIs).
All of those players are having career years, though Suire and Fontenot were also major contributors for ULM last year. Soignier is making a name for himself after missing last year with a broken hand.
“I think one of the keys to our team is you can’t just say, ‘Don’t let one person beat you,'” Schexnaider said. “We’re pretty solid through the lineup and you can’t make big pitches all game.”
Monroe’s pitching staff is not overpowering, but Friday starter Jared Jennings (3-2, 3.70) leads an experienced group that competes hard. And junior righthander Derek Ward (5-1, 2.45 with six saves) uses a good sinker to anchor the bullpen. But Schexnaider insists that the sum is even greater than Monroe’s solid parts.
“I think the biggest thing is the chemistry and the way the guys get along,” he said. “They all accept their roles and do whatever it takes to win.”
Monmouth, the defending Northeast Conference champions and the heavy preseason favorite to repeat, has lived up to its billing. The Hawks have won eight in a row and 23 of their last 24 games to take command of the NEC with an 11-1 conference mark, to go along with a 25-9 record overall. They’re on pace to break the school record of 36 wins, which they set a year ago.
Monmouth’s outstanding pitching duo of senior righthander Brad Brach and sophomore righty Ryan Buch combined to win 18 games a year ago while posting sub-3.00 ERAs, and it’s more of the same this year. Brach (4-1, 2.44 with a 43-6 K-BB in 48 innings) has been the Friday ace the Hawks have come to rely upon, and Buch (5-1, 3.52 with a 45-16 K-BB in 31 IP) has shown why he was the top prospect in the Atlantic Collegiate League a year ago, with a low-90s fastball and good downer curveball. The NEC plays four-game weekend series, so it’s crucial that the Hawks also have two other reliable starters in senior lefty Matt Marc-Aurele (2-2, 2.72) and sophomore righty Brett Brach (3-1, 3.69), the brother of Brad.
It’s not all pitching for Monmouth. Preseason NEC player of the year Andy Meyers (.309/.409/.456) has been solid if not spectacular, and preseason all-conference shortstop Kyle Higgins (.388/.447/.520) has been outstanding.
With a series win this weekend at second-place Central Connecticut State, the Hawks can all but lock up the NEC regular-season title.
The Bulldogs entered 2008 as strong contenders for the Western Athletic Conference title, thanks largely to the return of two-way star Jericho Jones, preseason All-America righthander Luke Burnett and hard-throwing righties Dylan Moseley and Aaron Lorio. Jones has been outstanding, batting .350/.411/.577 with eight homers and going 5-3, 4.96 off the mound, but Burnett (0-3, 7.43) and Moseley (1-5, 5.59) have struggled mightily, and Louisiana Tech has gone into a tailspin. Before scratching out a 12-10 win against Northwestern State on Wednesday, the Bulldogs had lost 11 in a row and 16 of 18 to fall to 2-16 in the WAC. Their struggles are baffling to teams that play against them.
“Wade Simoneaux is a great coach and he works his tail off, but they just don’t have the chemistry they had last year,” said one coach whose team has played the Bulldogs. “They still have those guys like Jones and Moseley and of course Burnett, those guys throw hard, and Burnett threw well against us. But they didn’t throw enough strikes or make pitches when they needed to. They lost Brian Rike and (Brandon) Hudson, and I think people forget how good those guys were. Those were big shoes to fill, and they just haven’t been able to fill them. They can hit and they still have pitchers with good stuff. They just need a break, and if they click, they’ll be a very good team. I’d hate to face them if they ever get going. But they just can’t seem to get it going.”
|Stat of the Week|
Consecutive scoreless innings thrown by Lewis-Clark (Idaho) State’s pitchers, a new NAIA record. The Warriors saw the streak come to an end Saturday when Corban (Ore.) College scored an unearned run in the fifth inning of the second game of a doubleheader, but not before they broke the previous record of 49 scoreless innings, set by Southeastern Oklahoma in 1977.
The streak included five consecutive shutouts by Lewis-Clark, which has won 11 straight to improve to 40-4 overall.
“I didn’t even know we had it going until a reporter from the local paper told me about it,” Warriors coach Ed Cheff said. “Just about every guy on the staff pitched, we didn’t have one or two guys doing all the work. We had good pitchers and great defense and a little bit of luck, that’s how you do something like that. Every well-hit ball seemed to be hit right at people, and we made all the plays. It is interesting, though, because you figure to give up a run somewhere with a bloop hit, a walk, a wild pitch, something.”
Quietly, Rice has won 11 in a row to seize control of Conference USA for the third straight year. So much for any notions that the Owls were vulnerable after losing mainstays Joe Savery, Brian Friday, Tyler Henley, Danny Lehmann and Ryne Tacker from their 2007 College World Series team—through 42 games, Rice is 32-10, one game ahead of its pace at this time last year. All of those holes have been filled by newcomers or veterans who have waited their turn. Savery has been replaced by senior J.P. Padron (.350/.420/.478) at first base and by junior righty Matt Langwell (4-0, 4.26) as the Sunday starter. Tacker has been replaced by senior righty Chris Kelley (5-1, 3.02) in the Saturday spot. Friday has been replaced by freshman dynamo Rick Hague (.346/.410/.569) at shortstop. Henley has been replaced in center field by silky smooth sophomore Jared Gayhart (.341/.448/.537 with eight steals). And Lehmann has been replaced behind the plate by Adam Zornes (.336/.419/.566 with eight homers and 40 RBIs), who has emerged as Rice’s top power threat—a role that Lehmann never filled. A coach whose team has played the Owls broke them down this way.
“I thought they were outstanding. I thought their catcher Zornes was very good defensively—he made the throws when he had to, he blocked the ball. They throw a lot of breaking balls they bury on purpose, and he blocks them well. He can do damage with the bat, too.
“Padron is a solid college first baseman, and he had a couple key hits for them. (Jimmy) Comerota is a very sound second baseman, runs good. Hague was outstanding. Offensively he had some big hits, he’s got some good offensive numbers, played a good shortstop, covered some ground, showed a lot of arm strength. (Diego) Seastrunk handled third base for them and hit third, and you know he’s a good offensive player if he’s hitting third for Rice. Gayhart didn’t kill us but he’s a good leadoff guy. Top to bottom offensively they’re very solid. They’re not an all-or-nothing team—there’s no wiggle room. They don’t chase a lot of pitches, they put the ball in play.
“As far as the mound goes, that’s where they’re really different from a lot of teams. Langwell didn’t quite have the command of the other two. (Righthander Ryan) Berry and Kelley were OK, but (coach Wayne Graham) has no problem going to the bullpen from the fifth inning on. I was most impressed with (junior righty Bryan) Price. He was 92-96 with a lot 4s and 5s. It was just here it comes. He had an 86-87 mph hard slider, outstanding. (Freshman lefty Matt) Evers threw very well, he was throwing a real hard slider about 83-84, he was 90-91. When you’ve got those two guys, then you’ve got (senior lefty Cole) St.Clair—he’s got a good presence about him, got a good feel for what he’s doing. His velocity wasn’t quite as good, but he’s so big and it’s so awkward with that high leg kick, the ball just gets on you quickly. He was 88-89, but it just gets on you. When they got to that point of the game where they could match up from the sixth inning on, it was very impressive. That bullpen depth stands out. You look at the teams that have had a lot of success in college baseball recently, it’s the teams that have that quality depth in the bullpen. You can do it without it, but your starters have to really go deep into the game. They’ve got five or six guys out of the pen that are all good.
“Berry was about the same guy as last year, he threw a boatload of strikes. He’s going to throw three pitches for strikes. You can’t run on their guys, they’re 1.0, 1.1 to the plate, they make it difficult to run. Kelley is similar to Berry—good, hard breaking ball, moved the fastball in and out, kept his fastball down. Langwell, it’s funny, it seemed like he didn’t have the command as much as Berry and Kelley, but he was almost effectively wild a little bit. You couldn’t ever settle down against him.
“It’s not fun as a coach saying somebody’s better than you, but they seemed a notch better against us. They got very timely hits, they bunted the ball well. I was very impressed. People had said they didn’t seem like the same club this year, but as the stretch run begins, they seem to get a little bit better. Same thing last year, you look at their stats, nothing’s jumping out, then they seem to beat people’s butts.”
|In The Dugout|
|Adam Warren, rhp, North Carolina|
It took some time for Atlantic Coast Conference heavyweights Miami, North Carolina and Florida State to start playing each other this year, and those three teams have taken advantage of the softer part of the league schedule to climb to the top three spots in the national rankings. But the meat of the conference slate is finally here, as Florida State played Miami last week in Tallahassee and will travel to Cary, N.C., this weekend to face UNC at the USA Baseball Training Complex, the 2008 home of the Tar Heels. UNC’s talented pitching staff has taken advantage of the spacious confines of its temporary home to lead the nation in ERA (2.15), strikeouts per nine innings (10.3) and fewest hits allowed per nine innings (7.41).
Friday starter Alex White and Sunday starter Matt Harvey are candidates to go in the top five picks of the draft in 2009 and 2010, respectively, but Warren can trump them both, because he simply never loses. He is the only Tar Heel pitcher every to start his career 19-0, and he’s made a smooth transition from midweek starter a year ago to Saturday starter as a junior, going 6-0, 3.83—even after allowing eight earned runs in 1 1/3 innings in his first start of the year at Florida Atlantic. With a lively two-seam fastball in the 88-90 range, a decent four-seamer, a cutter, curveball and changeup, Warren keeps hitters off balance and keeps the ball down in the strike zone. But against Florida State, he’ll face his stiffest challenge since the 2007 College World Series, when he won both of his appearances against Mississippi State and Rice. Before he takes on the Seminoles, Warren talked about his streak, his Wolfpack roots and his ping-pong prowess, In The Dugout.
You guys beat a good Charlotte team 17-0 this week—I sure didn’t see that coming. You guys must be feeling pretty locked in, huh?
Yeah, we’re playing our best baseball right now, and it’s just kind of (fun to) watch the potential we have on pitching and on offense.
How are you feeling? Is this the best you’ve thrown in your career?
I feel like I’m improving each outing. Last outing I didn’t feel like I had my best stuff, but I really had my cutter working, so I feel like I’m improving each start. (The cutter) has been a consistent breaking ball for me. I have a curveball, but it’s not really consistent, so we developed (the cutter) over the summer of my freshman year, and it’s really been a good pitch for me.
(Pitching coach Scott) Forbes said you’ve also slimmed down a little bit since your freshman year.
He always makes fun of my baby fat my freshman year. It’s really become the thing to be in shape as a pitcher, and to work hard—you’ll see after a game, almost every pitcher is in the weight room working out. We’ve really set that standard that every pitcher works hard and is in good condition, so I think that’s why we’ve had a lot of success so far.
This seems like a fun pitching staff to be a part of with all of these talented arms. Do you guys like to compete with each other and push each other a bit?
Definitely. Especially me, Alex and Matt, the weekend starters, after a good outing Alex will say, ‘All right, now it’s your turn.’ And I’ll say, ‘Matt, now it’s your turn.’ We try to challenge each other to have that mentality. We just have so many good pitchers that if you don’t have a good outing one day, somebody else is going to have a good outing to back you up. It’s encouraging.
You had kind of a rough start to this season down at Florida Atlantic, which is a tough place to pitch, but it seems like since then you’ve been pretty lights-out. How did you respond to that outing?
It was discouraging to work hard through the fall and the winter, then you get to that first start and it’s pretty terrible. They’re a good hitting club, but I didn’t live up to my ability and they made me pay for that. But I just kind of took it with a grain of salt and said that was the only bad outing I was going to have this year.
But even in that one, Adam, you still didn’t get the loss. Are you ever going to lose here in your college career, or what?
Well, I don’t know about that, but the hitters have backed me up, that’s the main reason. I’ve had a lot of luck to go 19-0. The hitters have backed me up all the time, not most of the time.
You’re the first guy to win this many in a row for UNC since Scott Bankhead back in the mid-1980s. That’s a long time. Does it ever strike you what you’re accomplishing here?
I try not to think about it too much. I don’t want to go into a start afraid I’m going to lose. If I lose, it was meant to happen. I’m not really going in saying, all right, I’ve got to win this game. My mentality is just to try to give the team a chance to win.
Your father was a punter for North Carolina State. How does he feel about you starring for North Carolina now?
He’s definitely supportive of me. He has a lot of Carolina gear now, which I couldn’t say about him three years ago. I grew up a State fan, and when it came time to make a decision about where to play baseball, UNC was definitely the right fit for me, and I put all that other stuff aside.
You’re in the business school and are a pretty academic guy. Are you hoping to play pro ball after this year?
Oh, definitely. That’s my goal, and I’m sure that’s everybody’s goal that’s out here. But I also want to get my degree. I would have to have a reasonable offer, but I definitely want to play professional baseball at some point.
I can’t imagine business school is real easy . . .
It’s definitely not easy, but it’s all about setting aside the time to do the work. It’s a lot tougher coming to Cary than it was the other two years. I don’t know how it gets done, but somehow we all find time to get our schoolwork done.
On the flip side, is it a little bit nicer for you to pitch in this park than Boshamer Stadium? A little more pitcher-friendly?
It’s definitely more pitcher-friendly. Every game, our hitters will hit balls to the warning track, and we’d say it’d be gone at the Bosh. We say we’d have 50 more home runs at the Bosh. But as pitchers, we’re not going to throw down the middle and let them hit it as far as they can and not go out. We’re still just trying to pitch to our strengths and hitters’ weaknesses, just trying to keep the same game plan as the last few years.
I understand you were part of the ping-pong club in high school. Are you pretty good?
I like to think so. But we actually broke out the ping-pong table in the locker room this fall, and I wasn’t the best, but I was probably the third-best. I know Dustin Ackley beat me just about every time. He’s pretty good.
What makes him so good?
He has that funky spin where the ball would kind of run right into you. It was a fun time just to compete outside of baseball with those guys.