1. Texas Christian and Mississippi square off for the third weekend in the last two years.
2. Stanford and Rice tweak pitching staffs in advance of showdown.
3. Florida moves forward without Whitson by emphasizing bullpen, as usual
4.Notes from other intriguing series and tournaments around the nation
Regionals Rematch In Oxford
Texas Christian coach Jim Schlossnagle thinks this will be the last time his team faces Mississippi for a while, barring a postseason encounter. This is the second straight year Schlossnagle's team has opened up against the Rebels and coach Mike Bianco—his old friend from Bianco's days at Louisiana State and McNeese State while Schlossnagle was at Tulane. The two will reunite this summer as members of Team USA's coaching staff.
|TOP 25 SERIES|
|Seton Hall at (1) North Carolina
Long Beach State at (2) Vanderbilt
Western Illinois at (3) Arkansas
Portland at (5) Mississippi State
Liberty at (7) South Carolina
Appalachian State at (8) North Carolina State
(9) Stanford at (18) Rice
Maryland at (10) Louisiana State
Minnesota at (12) UCLA
(14) Texas Christian at (13) Mississippi
(15) Oregon at Hawaii
Akron at (16) Georgia Tech
Duke at (17) Florida
Hofstra at (19) Oklahoma
Rhode Island at (20) Florida State
Oklahoma State at (21) New Mexico
(22) Cal State Fullerton vs. Southern California, vs./vs. Nebraska, at Cal State Bakersfield
Missouri at (23) Southern Mississippi
Coppin State at (24) Arizona
San Diego State at (25) San Diego
TOP 25 TOURNAMENTS
Big East/Big Ten Challenge, Dunedin, Fla.
Palm Springs (Calif.) Tournament
USC Upstate/Wofford Tournament, Spartanburg, S.C.
"I just don't enjoy that type of setup that much when you're playing close friends," Schlossnagle said.
The Rebels certainly didn't enjoy their last meeting with the Horned Frogs last year, in the College Station Regional. The two teams had split the two games they played last February in Fort Worth (the third game was rained out), and Ole Miss beat TCU in the first game of the regional en route to a 2-0 start. But the Horned Frogs stormed back through the losers' bracket to beat the Rebels twice in a row and win the regional.
"In the regional, we were starting to feel real good about our club," Bianco said. "We beat them in the opening game, then beat Texas A&M and needed one game to go on to a super regional. They were kind of struggling offensively, but then they just kind of found themselves. They just played really well for the last three days of the tournament. They're always talented and very sound fundamentally. They're going to play the way they're supposed to play, with a lot of energy. I think their style of play is actually pretty similar to ours."
Indeed, both coaches regard their pitching as the clear strengths of their teams, and both have some offensive questions to answer. They are ranked back-to-back in the Baseball America preseason Top 25, at No. 13 and No. 14.
The Rebels have a proven one-two punch atop the rotation in junior righties Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers, and an emerging sophomore righty on Sunday in Chris Ellis. Schlossnagle is excited about his own one-two pitching punch of lefty Brandon Finnegan and righty Preston Morrison, but both are sophomores, not quite as established as Mississippi's first two starters.
"They're obviously going to have elite front-line pitching between Wahl and Mayers—those are proven commodities, elite Division I SEC starters who are deep in their college careers," Schlossnagle said. "That's where Finnegan and Morrison are trying to get to."
The sidewinding Morrison earned freshman All-America honors last year after going 9-2, 2.08, but he doesn't do it with overpowering stuff. Finnegan has a chance to be a prototypical Friday dominator with front-line stuff—including a 91-94 fastball—if he can throw strikes more consistently as a sophomore. Schlossnagle said new pitching coach Kirk Saarloos has lowered Finnegan's arm slot just a hair from the over-the-top angle he used last year, and that has helped him improve his command of his three-pitch repertoire.
"Finnegan is pitching as well as any lefthander has pitched on our campus, and that includes (Matt) Purke," Schlossnagle said. "How he pitches and handles his emotions in a great SEC environment remains to be seen. But he's throwing more strikes at the bottom of the zone, with three pitches. He's really matured off the field—I think he's got a chance to be special."
Steady veteran Stefan Crichton should make TCU competitive most Sundays, and the bullpen is in good hands with junior righty Andrew Mitchell back in the closer role.
Ole Miss is pleased to get its own closer back to full strength this year, making its bullpen a strength as well. Fifth-year senior Brett Huber, who had Tommy John surgery in high school, managed to post a 2.84 ERA and 10 saves last year even though bone chips in his elbow rendered him unable to pitch at all some days. He had surgery this summer to remove particles from his elbow, and he has returned to top form so far this spring.
Last year, the Rebels were forced into moving righty R.J. Hively from the rotation into the bullpen because of Huber's elbow issues, causing the Sunday starter spot to become a problem area. That was evidence of the staff's lack of experienced depth—something that should not be a problem in 2013. Ellis isn't the only Ole Miss pitcher who has taken a significant jump forward in his second year in Oxford; righties Hawtin Buchanan, Josh Laxer, Aaron Greenwood and Austin Bailey are also improved.
"The angle that most people will talk about is you return your Friday night guy, your Saturday guy and your closer. And that's true, we did," Bianco said. "But it's amazing how much of a jump guys tend to take in their sophomore years; they've just continued to improve and gain confidence. I think that's the difference with this staff: a lot of those guys logged innings last year, much like Bobby and Mike (Mayers) did as freshmen. They threw in SEC games, threw in a regional. I think that experience is an invaluable thing."
Both teams are counting on breakout seasons from returnees in their lineups, as well. Multi-talented center fielder Auston Bousfield generated all kinds of buzz in the offseason for Ole Miss, which will have more speed than it has in years and figures to run more often. Another plus-plus runner, junior-college transfer Lance Wilson, has won the second base job, and sparkplug Tanner Mathis brings more speed. Mathis sets the tone for the Rebels.
"No disrespect to (former Rebels) Alex Yarbrough, Matt Snyder or Zach Kirksey—those are really good players—but if I could pick one guy not to have back at Ole Miss, it would be Tanner Mathis," Schlossnagle said. "He's an awesome teammate, great to have on your team, but in the other dugout he's a pain in the rear end. I really think Bousfield is a really good player. I know (Andrew) Mistone is an outstanding defensive player at third base, and I've heard great things about Stuart Turner, the junior college catcher."
Bianco he is excited to see what Turner can do against other Division I teams this spring after he has showcased outstanding offensive and defensive tools during the offseason. TCU has its own group of impact junior-college transfers, including a defense-oriented catcher in Kyle Bacak. But the biggest difference maker among TCU's newcomers figures to be center fielder Cody Jones, who could become a catalyst to rival Mathis.
"He's a switch-hitter that can really, really run," Schlossnagle said. "He's an igniter, a table-setter who likes to steal bases. I think he has a chance to be a real threat. We've never really had a true leadoff hitter here, a guy with a good on-base percentage, good at stealing bases, things like that."
With Jerrick Suiter limited to DH duties for at least the first weekend while he recovers from a shoulder issue, junior Brett Johnson will move from left to right, and four players are in the mix in left. Johnson has emerged as a key lefthanded presence in TCU's typically righthanded-leaning lineup, and Jones' switch-hitting ability also gives this lineup some more balance. Three of the four players in the mix in left field—Kevin Daniels, Dylan Fitzgerald and Travis Hennessy—are also lefthanded, so if the Frogs need to load up on lefties against Mississippi's righthanded-dominant pitching staff, it has more of an ability to do so.
The other key developments for the Frogs are the improvement of slick-fielding shortstop Keaton Jones and hulking first baseman Kevin Cron. Both players had work to do on their bodies in the offseason—Jones added about 20 pounds while Cron lost about 20 pounds, according to Schlossnagle—and both look poised to increase their offensive output as sophomores. Jones' calling card will still be his defense, of course, but Cron had a strong freshman year with the bat and has a chance to be a very special hitter.
"I've never told him to lose weight; I told him to be strong, and to eat healthier," Schlossnagle said. "He did that—he's a lot stronger, a little more mobile on his feet, very good around first base, still has some work to do as an infielder. But he's an elite hitter."
So while both these teams should have outstanding pitching staffs this year, both will get a nice challenge this weekend.
Owls, Cardinal Shuffle Pitching In Advance Of Annual Showdown
Stanford hoped to go into the season with a pair of talented upperclassmen bookending its staff—senior Mark Appel on the front end and junior A.J. Vanegas anchoring the back of the bullpen. But Vanegas had surgery last month to repair a herniated disc in his back, throwing a wrench into Stanford's pitching plans.
The good news is Vanegas could return to action in time for Pacific-12 Conference play at the end of March, according to coach Mark Marquess. But in the meantime, Stanford will have to discover the right roles for its young pitchers, who will have to learn on the fly against a quality Rice team in Houston this weekend.
Stanford will start Appel on Friday against Rice junior ace Austin Kubitza. Both teams will turn to sophomores Saturday—finesse lefthander John Hochstatter for Stanford, power righty Jordan Stephens for Rice. Sunday is where it gets interesting.
Marquess said Sunday's starter will be determined depending on how the first two games of the series go. Candidates include senior righty Dean McArdle and freshmen Freddy Avis, Daniel Starwalt and Logan James. But if the Cardinal needs to use any of those arms in extended roles to win Friday or Saturday, it will.
"Even Appel may only go five or six innings, and I'm probably not going to go much further with Avis or McArdle in (a starting) scenario," Marquess said. "Best to use Avis or McArdle or somebody (in relief), because the starters will only go four or five anyway. Starwalt could do that, too."
Marquess said no one has seized the closer job with Vanegas sidelined, so the bullpen will be a committee effort this weekend, with most of the key arms going three or four innings. For Stanford to live up to its preseason top 10 billing, it needs its freshmen pitchers to perform, and Marquess said he is encouraged by what he's seen from Starwalt, James, Avis and Marcus Brakeman.
Starwalt has not regained the mid-90s velocity he flashed before suffering a back injury as a high school senior, but he is pitching around 90 and has shown the ability to throw four pitches for strikes, Marquess said. "He's pitched very well—he's very poised, throws a lot of strikes," Marquess said. "He can pitch because he's got good control and keeps the ball down really well."
Avis was a marquee recruit in the same category as Appel and Vanegas, but he's more advanced at this stage of his career than the other two were as freshmen.
"He's probably a little bit further along with the breaking ball than we thought he'd be—it's a real good breaking ball, which is unusual for as hard as he throws," Marquess said. "It's more a curveball than a slider, a 12-to-6 curveball. And he's 92-94, right around there."
James, a 5-foot-11 lefthander, has been a bit more of a surprise, working in the 90-92 range with a good changeup and breaking ball. And Brakeman, a righty, has a very good curveball and should be a key bullpen piece.
Originally, Rice was also planning to start a freshman in the Sunday role, but righty Kevin McCanna is on the shelf with an as-yet undetermined injury, according to coach Wayne Graham. In his place, the Owls will move junior righty John Simms into the Sunday starter role, though Graham said he could also be available to throw one inning in relief Friday.
Simms has spent most of his collegiate career in the bullpen, where he has been successful, but he has filled in with big starts at times, including in the final game of the regular season last year to clinch the Conference USA title, and in the opener of the Houston Regional. He has the stuff and makeup to be a dominant closer, but don't be surprised if he winds up sticking in the rotation. Graham said Simms has dealt with a problem in his nose for the last two years that has made it difficult to breathe well and affected his sleeping. He had a surgery to alleviate the problem in the fall, and now Graham has a hunch that he could be on the verge of a breakout season.
"I have high hopes John will maybe elevate a little bit," Graham said. "He just seems like a little bit of a different guy. He was always a great kid and a great student, but if you're miserable physically all the time, it makes it hard to train.
"He can start. Particularly if his split-finger is doing well, it's starter stuff. He doesn't walk a lot of people, he's got some deception, hides the ball well. When he's in the 89-92 range, he's really above that because of how he hides the ball. His breaking ball is coming; it's been erratic. The main thing he must do is keep the proper tilt on it. When he's throwing it right, it ranges from 74-78, but like a lot of guys, it depends on command and tilt."
Graham said he feels comfortable using Simms as a starter because he believes Zech Lemond is ready to anchor the bullpen. Lemond has excellent movement on his fastball and a very good changeup, but the development of a spike curveball this offseason has crucial.
"The only thing that's held him back in the past was he just didn't have a pitch with enough tilt on it—his slider would flatten out, spin there and wait to be hit," Graham said. "He's still in the developmental stage with that spike curveball, but he's thrown some really good ones with excellent tilt. If he gets command of that, he can be really outstanding."
Junior righty Chase McDowell is the other key piece on this staff, capable of starting or pitching in the late innings. He will start out in the bullpen this weekend. McDowell can run his fastball up to 93-94 mph and has a good changeup, but the key for him will be commanding his curveball, Graham said. Likewise, if sophomore righty Connor Mason can continue to make strides with his curveball, he could emerge as a setup man. "It's about strikes with Mason," Graham said. "His curveball is good, but about half the time it's flatter than a pancake."
Both of these staffs have the potential to be strong, but they need some of their young arms to provide answers. This weekend will go a long way toward helping the coaches figure out which pitchers are ready for primetime.
Third-team preseason All-America righthander Karsten Whitson is on the shelf with shoulder discomfort, and there is no timetable for his return. So visions of a Jonathon Crawford-Whitson dynamic duo atop the rotation have been dashed, for now at least.
This weekend against Duke, Florida plans to go with Crawford, freshman Tucker Simpson, and sophomore two-way talent Justin Shafer in their rotation, according to coach Kevin O'Sullivan. Sure, it is not as fearsome as a healthy Crawford-Whitson duo, but Florida has the pitching depth to withstand his loss.
"We'll be fine," O'Sullivan said. "We've got enough. There's a lot of interchangeable parts and nothing's written in stone, but I do like the versatility of our pitching staff, because we do have a bunch of guys who can go back and forth."
At least to begin the season, the Gators will use juniors Daniel Gibson and Keenan Kish, plus sophomore Johnny Magliozzi, in the bullpen.
"I really like the idea of having (Ryan) Harris, Gibson, Kish and Magliozzi in the 'pen for the second half of the game, at least for the first few weekends, when the starters have limited pitch counts," O'Sullivan said. "I could see Gibson possibly making a turn at the end of the rotation if he continues throwing as many strikes as he has, but his stuff really does fit best in the 'pen. I've got so many freshman pitchers that I have to have some coverage. If we have a four-run lead and I bring in a freshman in the sixth and he gives up a leadoff walk, I've got to have some veteran coverage behind him."
Simpson, a 6-foot-6, 220-pound right-hander, has good poise for a freshman thanks in part to his showcase experience with the East Cobb program. He attacks hitters with a four-pitch mix highlighted by an 88-92 mph fastball that plays up because hitters do not pick up the ball well out of his hand.
Shafer pitched just six innings out of the bullpen last year, and O'Sullivan said he originally had him penciled in as a closer candidate this spring. But he has been dominant in intrasquads, holding hitters to 2-for-38. He's a sinker/slider specialist with an 88-90 fastball, reminding O'Sullivan of former ace Hudson Randall.
"The whole idea is to have strike-throwers on the front end," O'Sullivan said. "We only had one pitcher throw 100 pitches in a game last year. The year before, only two times did a starting pitcher go 100 pitches in a game. So we're pretty strict on the pitch count thing; the back end of the game is as important as the front end. The way the bats are now, they're low-scoring games. The way momentum changes in the second half of a game, I just like having older guys there in the pen."
Emphasizing the bullpen is nothing new for Florida, which has used premium arms like Austin Maddox, Paco Rodriguez, Nick Maronde and Anthony DeSclafani in relief roles in recent years. Early in the year, starters are on particularly strict pitch counts, so the bullpen becomes even more important. O'Sullivan has proven he knows how to handle his pitching staff as well as any coach in the nation, and he'll figure out how to get the most out of his deep staff.
• The weather looks great for Opening Weekend here in Southern California, and I'll be bouncing around from one ballpark to another taking advantage of an intriguing slate of games. On Friday, Minnesota lefthander Tom Windle will take on UCLA righty Adam Plutko in the weekend's best matchup between draft-eligible pitching prospects. Windle, the No. 11 prospect in the Cape Cod League last summer, will have to carry Minnesota staff in the early going, because Saturday starter D.J. Snelton will miss several weeks with a sprained elbow, and Sunday starter Alec Crawford is out until mid-March after having a knee scope. This weekend, the Gophers will go with sohomore righty Ben Meyer on Saturday, and sophomore lefty Jordan Jess on Sunday.
• Baylor visits UC Irvine in an intriguing matchup between two teams we have projected to make regionals. The Bears lost plenty of key pieces from last year's Big 12 title team, but they still have three veteran strike-throwers in the rotation with righties Ryan Smith, Max Garner and Dillon Newman. Likewise, Irvine is well stocked with steady veterans on the mound in Andrew Thurman, Evan Brock, Kyle Hooper and Matt Whitehouse. These two teams are constructed similarly, reliant upon strike-throwers rather than overpowering arms, and upon line-drive hitters who can handle the bat rather than power hitters. It should be a fun matchup.
• San Diego opens sparkling new Fowler Park this weekend against crosstown rival San Diego State, and the Toreros are expecting a packed house. All three games are already sold out, and USD is also dealing with an uncharacteristic media crunch. Fans will be treated to some nice mound matchups Friday and Saturday, as San Diego power righty Dylan Covey takes on SDSU flame-thrower Michael Cederoth on Friday, while USD's Michael Wagner faces emerging junior Philip Walby on Saturday. USD says Covey has pitched very well over the last three weeks and earned the Friday job, which is a very encouraging development. San Diego State pitching coach Eric Valenzuela, meanwhile, thinks his rotation—which also will include senior righty Ryan Doran on Sunday—has a chance to be as good as his celebrated Brian Matusz-Josh Romanski-Matt Couch trio when he was at USD.
• The two major questions facing Louisiana State heading into this season are who will be the Sunday starter and who will close. It turns out, the answer to both questions might be Chris Cotton. LSU coach Paul Mainieri announced this week that he will deploy the senior lefthander in a dual role this weekend against Maryland, using him as a closer if needed on Friday and the starter for the third game of the season. Mainieri has had success in the past using Jared Bradford and Louis Coleman in that sort of hybrid role, and at least until potential closer Nick Rumbelow returns from a strained oblique in a few weeks, Cotton should be able to handle it. "I think he's our third best pitcher and he's uniquely qualified to handle a variety of roles," Mainieri told the media, as reported by the Times-Picayune. "He could be a good closer, a good setup man or a good starter, and he'd be very valuable to us in all of those roles. By doing this, we can use him in a couple of different roles. If somebody else evolves as a closer or somebody else evolves as a starter, we don't have to stay with it. But this is the best situation for this weekend."
• Virginia will travel to East Carolina in the weekend's best series on the East Coast. The Cavaliers will turn to a freshman on opening day—lefthander Brandon Waddell—for the first time since 1986. UVa. is excited about Waddell's potential, and the last two freshmen to make starts during opening weekend went on to become stars: Danny Hultzen and Branden Kline. East Carolina will counter with sophomore righty Jeff Hoffman in the opener. Following a star turn in the Cape Cod League last summer, Hoffman looks primed to make the leap to college baseball superstardom as a sophomore, and Friday could be his coming-out party.
• Sticking in the Old North State, former North Carolina State assistant Billy Jones returns to his old stomping grounds as the head coach at Appalachian State, which is coming off a banner season. The Mountaineers made national waves by winning a series early last year at LSU, but this team is much less experienced on the mound and will be a heavy underdog at loaded NCSU. ASU's strength will be its senior duo in the middle of the infield: second baseman Hector Crespo and shortstop Will Callaway. By contrast, N.C. State is breaking in a new starter at short in first-team preseason All-American Trea Turner. How he handles the position is a key to the Wolfpack's season, and he'll be under the microscope this weekend.
• The weekend's best mid-major series might be Saint Louis at Oral Roberts. We highlighted the Billikens as a sleeper in yesterday's Three Strikes, thanks in large part to their veteran pitching staff and veteran lineup. But Oral Roberts also has three upperclassmen in its rotation, and its one-two punch of Drew Bowen and Alex Gonzalez should be formidable. Expect a well-pitched series between two teams that could be dangerous in regionals if they can make the postseason.
• Finally, opening weekend also features a handful of fascinating tournaments. The Big East/Big Ten Challenge has been slimmed down from 20 teams to five, but field includes the teams favored to win each conference in Louisville and Indiana—who will go head-to-head in the opener. UNC Wilmington is hosting a tournament that features three projected regional teams: Kent State, Virginia Tech and the Seahawks. Oregon State is hosting a tournament in Palm Springs, Calif., that features Gonzaga, UC Riverside and Utah Valley. Saturday's matchup between Gonzaga All-American Marco Gonzales and Oregon State veteran Taylor Starr should be a good one. And Texas State hosts the CenturyLink Bobcat Invitational, welcoming three other teams that we have projected to make regionals: Tulane, Missouri State and Sam Houston State. The Friday matchup between Texas State's Kyle Finnegan and Missouri State's Nick Petree should be a gem.