TOP 25 SCHEDULE
UC Riverside at (1) Cal State Fullerton
Tulane (28-15, 5-7) visits East Carolina (27-15, 6-6) this weekend in a series where the winner should earn the inside track to a third-place finish in Conference USA. That standing looks like a very safe one for NCAA tournament hopes, though CUSA should end up with four–and maybe even five–bids. Both teams have won eight of their last 10 games, and Tulane has earned six straight victories.
Former CUSA member Texas Christian (25-17, 11-2), which visits San Diego State (15-29, 8-5), owns first place in its first year in the Mountain West Conference. SDSU beat TCU in the MWC’s preconference tournament at the beginning of the month, and the Aztecs winning this series could make this a three-team race, as second-place New Mexico (27-15, 9-4) still has a home series against TCU to end the season.
Maybe it’s because the team really needs it. Maybe it’s because of how hard it is to believe a once-mighty program has fallen this far. Or maybe it’s because Arkansas (30-12, 10-8) left with a sweep the last time it came to town and arrives this time battling all kinds of injuries. But something somewhere says Louisiana State (27-16, 6-12) will win this weekend’s series to help dig itself out of the last place hole in the Southeastern Conference.
As for the Arkansas injuries, starting middle infielders John Henry Marquardt and Ben Tschepikow are out for the year, but James Ewing (broken foot) is healthy again and expected to start at second base for the first time in four weeks. Center fielder Craig Gentry (right knee infection) isn’™t likely to play. Logan Forsythe and Chris Hollensworth will return to action after missing last week’s Mississippi State series with food poisoning.
IN THE DUGOUT
Lefthander Dave Huff spent his freshman year under John Savage at UC Irvine, transferring to Cypress (Calif.) Junior College the next season after Savage left for UCLA. Huff turned down the Phillies, who selected him in the 18th round last year, to spend his junior year with Savage at UCLA. The reunion has proven a success. UCLA is 23-17 and ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since March 2001, while 6-foot-2 Huff is 5-2, 2.85 with an 83-19 strikeout-walk ratio in 88 innings. And he’s coming off a complete-game two-hitter against Arizona State last weekend.
How has the season gone for you and the Bruins?
It’s a huge turnaround from last year. We’™re happy we’ve been so successful this year, it’s almost like a night and day difference from 15-41. This year we’re doing pretty good; we got the national ranking this week. It’s fun. Not everybody thinks UCLA is a good team, and we show them how good we are and we pretty much dominate sometimes.
I don’™t think we’re necessarily surprised. We didn’™t even know what to expect actually. We just worked hard. We’re thankful about it, but we also have the mentality that we’re going to get after it.
When we swept N.C. State and played against Cal State Fullerton, we noticed we can compete with these guys. We’re not a bad team. Obviously, it showed when we swept N.C. State, took two of three against Ole Miss–those are some pretty good East Coast teams. There’s so much hype about the SEC and ACC being so powerful, we went out and we just showed them we’re not that bad.
As young as (UCLA’s freshmen) are, their maturity level is very high when they’™re playing the game. You see blips on the radar as far as being a freshman, but they are playing the game as if they were a third-year or fourth-year (player).
Why did you decide to transfer to UCLA from Cypress Junior College?
Making that decision, it was funny because I did notice that they only won 15 games. On other hand I had Texas knocking on the door. I had verbally committed to UCLA and told Coach Savage I wanted to check out all my options. I’ve got Texas over here and I want to see what that’s like. I’m not going to make any rash decisions. He was a little concerned because, well, it’s Texas. I came back and said I had to think about personal reasons: getting to the next level, maturing as a pitcher and understanding the game better. I thought I could do that better at UCLA.
Usually when a coach tries to recruit players, they try to sweet talk you and show you all the great stuff about the program. When I was at JC, (Savage) was saying, “I’m really excited to get to next year,” he showed me the determination and his willingness to get after it the next year. He was really pumped on everybody coming in and getting me in there.
We had a good relationship (at UC Irvine). My freshman year I was a sponge. I pretty learned everything I could from him. The big hype of John Savage, he’s the No. 1 pitching coach in nation. I just thought I’d benefit from one more year with him.
Why is Barry Zito your favorite pitcher?
I love Barry Zito. He understands the game very well, knows how to pitch and has best curveball in the major leagues right now. It was kind of funny, he came out to UCLA one time to throw a bullpen, and I got to meet him and talk to him. I was star-struck from the beginning, but then we got to talking. Again, I was just a sponge trying to listen to what he had to say. He and I have the same fluid motion, but when I finish my pitches, I finish toward third base. I really need to work on finishing toward home plate, getting more extension to get one or two more miles an hour and make my offspeed pitches more deceptive. Zito has expert mechanics. I’m trying to get mine like his.
What’s your individual highlight of the season?
My performance against Pacific. (Huff struck out 15 batters in eight innings.) As it was going on, I didn’™t know I struck out the first nine batters, I didn’™t know how many K’s I had. That night, everything was working even though we had a rain delay. It was pretty much untouchable. I don’t like to brag usually, but it was all working that night. At the end of the game I saw I had 15 strikeouts, two hits, two walks, one run. I’ve had actually games better than that that I lost. I’ve thrown a no-hitter and lost. A walk, passed ball, passed ball, passed ball, score. And that was it. But that was in Little League.
What can you tell me about your ping-pong skills?
I like to call myself the Bobby Fischer of ping-pong. I’ve gone in retirement right now, but if there’s a challenge, I’ll come and play and beat them and then go back into retirement. We bought a table my freshman year in high school. We stuck it right in the front living room where everybody could look in and see us playing ping-pong. I’ve been playing since then. My brother (Tim) has beaten me a few times. (UCLA teammate) Josh Roenicke has beaten me. He’s really good. He’s the all-around athlete. But it’s usually a one or two-point ballgame.
Danny Ray Herrera knows something about underdog stories. He grew up in Odessa, Texas, going to Permian High football games with his grandfather. That includes the school’s famed 1988 season that turned into the subject of the book and movie “Friday Night Lights.”
“I’ve gone to every Permian game since I was like 4,” said Herrera, who, like most people, prefers the book to the movie. “The town is still nuts. Everything revolves around football.”
Now a junior lefthander at New Mexico, Herrera has put together his own stretch of incredible performances–while wearing a black Permian High Class of 2003 T-shirt beneath his jersey for every start. He’s compiled an 8-0, 2.08 record with 76 strikeouts, a .220 opponents average and four home runs allowed in 95 innings while pitching in New Mexico’s Isotopes Park, where the elevation (5,314 feet above sea level) and thin air make it the Coors Field of college baseball.
Games there yield about 75 percent more runs than the average NCAA game, and 26-11 scores aren’t uncommon (that was the final score of a Herrera-pitched victory against Air Force). New Mexico’s team ERA stands at 5.86, and Damon Miller (4.67 ERA) is the only other Lobos pitcher with an ERA of less than 5.00.
And while people try to comprehend that batch of numbers, they might do a doubletake at these: 5-foot-7, 145 and 86. That’s Herrera’s listed height and weight, and his peak fastball velocity.
“People have been like, ‘That’s not really him, right?’ Yes it is,” said RaeAnn Feenaughty, New Mexico assistant director of media relations. “You look at him and say, ‘Oh my god, this kid’s so tiny,’ and then people just swing and miss.”
Hitters often miss one of two new pitches Herrera has developed since arriving at New Mexico, the only Division I school that recruited him. He succeed by locating his 84-86 mph fastball in high school, but when catcher Jeff Grady hit a mammoth homer off him during his first fall practice, he realized pitching in elevation was going to be very different.
Herrera, D-Ray to anyone who knows him, started experimenting with his grips on a circle changeup. He twists his wrist outward (like a screwball) when he releases the pitch and grips it with his index finger off the ball, guiding it with his middle finger. He changes the position and pressure of his ring finger and pinky to vary the movement either down or away from righthanders. The changeup trickles to the plate at about 65 mph.
“My changeup is my money pitch,” said Herrera, who throws it 30-40 percent of the time. “I can throw it any count, any time, any spot on the plate. That’s pretty much what I rely on because I don’t throw hard at all.”
Pitching coach Ken Jacome calls Herrera’s changeup a cartoon pitch, because opposing hitters remind him of characters taking three swings at a ball that never seems to arrive at the plate.
“To see some of the swings guys have taken at different pitches, you can’t do anything but chuckle, people take some crazy swings,” Jacome said. “Then he throws his fastball and they can’t catch up to it.”
Even with those two pitches, Herrera went 4-7, 5.32 as a freshman and 8-5, 6.10 as a sophomore. Jacome got Herrera to scrap his curveball for a tighter slider, a pitch that breaks into righthanders who previously would sit on his changeup and attempt to slap it to right field. Herrera’s adjusting mentally to the perils of pitching at what he calls a ridiculous elevation and his competitive nature have also aided in his development.
Word has started spreading on Herrera lately. Perhaps it’s because of what Jacome called Herrera’s most impressive performance, which came in a 13-2 win against Oregon State on March 11. The lefty allowed two runs on 11 hits over eight innings, with no walks and nine strikeouts.
“Early on, he would run out to the mound and the other team would kind of look at him. The expression on their face was, ‘Look at him, he can’t beat us,’ ” Jacome said.
“Just recently, opposing teams have gotten information on him and we’ll have him getting ready for a game in the bullpen. Our bullpens are back-to-back, and it’s amazing to watch the other pitching staff hanging over the fence just watching him get loose. Guys just want to see what exactly he does that makes him so successful.”
Herrera’s success hasn’t attracted a lot of pro interest, but he’ll get a chance to pitch in front of plenty of cross-checkers and scouting directors this weekend as New Mexico and Cal Poly travel to Oregon State to play a round-robin event scheduled by the schools to fill off weeks in their conference schedules. They’ll be assessing Oregon State righthanders Dallas Buck and Jonah Nickerson and lefty Kevin Gunderson, as well as Cal Poly righthanders Gary Dailey, Bud Norris and Rocky Roquet. All of whom could get drafted in the first five rounds this June.
Herrera, who will pitch Saturday against Cal Poly, won’t be selected that early. He said he hasn’t talked to any scouts, so he’s not sure if they’re surprised at his success or think it’s a fluke. He’s more concerned with New Mexico’s team success anyway, as the Lobos are 25-17 and 9-4 in the Mountain West Conference to put them in contention for their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1962.
“When D-Ray’s on mound, I think we can compete with any team in the country,” Jacome said.
“I don’t know how you can’t take a chance on that guy. He beats people regardless of how big he is. If he was 6-3, a lefthanded pitcher doing what he does–throwing 85 miles per hour with a changeup and slider–he’d be a top 10 round pick, no question.”
AROUND THE NATION
• Oregon State junior righthander Dallas Buck is rolling along this season and beat California ace Brandon Morrow last weekend in a 5-2 duel. But scouts’ concerns about his decreased velocity this season–Buck slid from the 89-91 mph range last year to the 85-88 range this year–were validated when an MRI revealed his elbow soreness was caused by a sprained ligament. There was no evidence of a tear, and he threw 7 2/3 scoreless innings Thursday against Cal Poly to improve to 9-0, 2.76.
• Notre Dame’s school-record and season-best win streak ended Wednesday at 23 games. The Irish are still 23-1 since a 10-8 start, which isn’t bad. The longest active win streak is now 11 games, held by two teams. Oklahoma (33-10) is the more obvious of the duo, but take some credit if you had Monmouth (24-11) as the other team. The Hawks are 12-0 in the Northeast Conference and bidding for their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1999.
• Rice sophomore Joe Savery hasn’t pitched since March 26 because of shoulder tendinitis. The lefthander/first baseman has stayed in the lineup at first base. He’s batting .303/.399/.467, and his 15 doubles and 41 RBIs are each one off the team lead. He’s 4-1, 1.68 in eight starts. Even without Savery on the mound for four of its five Conference USA series, Rice is 14-1 in league play and 36-9 overall. “Coach (Wayne Graham) wants to be overly cautious because of how we’re playing in conference,” Savery told the Houston Chronicle. “I know I want to pitch but it’s kind of up to him (Graham), too. My first outing definitely won’t be a start. There is some rust that has to be knocked off.”
• The College Baseball Foundation announced its initial College Baseball Hall of Fame class, which officially will be inducted this July. It includes Will Clark (Mississippi State), Brooks Kieschnick (Texas), Bob Horner (Arizona State), Robin Ventura (Oklahoma State) and Dave Winfield (Minnesota) along with coaches Skip Bertman (Louisiana State), Rod Dedeaux (Southern California), Ron Fraser (Miami), Cliff Gustafson (Texas) and Bobby Winkles (Arizona State).
• College of Charleston (33-10, 15-3) sophomore shortstop Oliver Marmol left Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to The Citadel after getting hit on the right hand by a pitch. X-rays were negative, and he’s listed as day-to-day. The Cougars don’t play again until May 6, and that should give the team leader in batting (.368) and runs scored (45) time to heal.
• North Carolina State (31-13, 13-8) will face Miami (27-15, 12-9) in a key Atlantic Coast Conference series this weekend without Friday starter Andrew Brackman. The 6-foot-10 sophomore righthander has what was relayed to the media as an “undisclosed illness” that isn’t expected to be season ending.
• Senior lefthander Glenn Swanson walked a batter and struck out a career-high 14 in throwing UC Irvine’s first no-hitter in 32 years Tuesday in a 7-0 win against San Diego. Swanson threw 89 pitches over nine innings and his tremendous efficiency led coach Dave Serrano to allow him to complete the game on what was planned as a staff day.
• It’s great for a college team to play in a pro park, but there are downsides. Virginia Commonwealth (22-17, 11-7) shares The Diamond with the Triple-A Richmond Braves, and both teams have home series scheduled for this weekend. The Braves take precedence, so VCU’s games against UNC Wilmington (30-12, 11-7) will start at 9 a.m. Friday and Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday. Rams righthander Harold Mozingo (6-1, 2.14) will miss his second straight start with a hairline fracture near his right thumb–the result of a line drive in an April 14 start against William & Mary.