The good news for Evansville and Wichita State is they get to escape the brutal Midwestern winter for a weekend, at least. The bad news is neither team will be sipping boat drinks by the beach; they’ll be playing against tough, experienced teams who have been practicing and playing outside for weeks.
The Purple Aces and the Shockers represent the best the Missouri Valley Conference has to offer in 2007, but don’t be surprised if both teams struggle this weekend. Wichita State will play its first games of the season this weekend against a Pepperdine team that has already played eight games, winning five of them and having one postponed by darkness after 10 innings.
|George Mason at (1) Clemson
Seton Hall at (2) North Carolina
Ohio at (4) Vanderbilt
(5) Miami at Florida
Milwaukee-Wisconsin at (6) Arkansas
Long Beach State at (7) Rice
George Washington at (8) Virginia
Hofstra at (9) Florida State
(11) Wichita State at (23) Pepperdine
Arizona at (12) Cal State Fullerton
Stanford at (14) Texas
East Carolina at (15) UCLA
Illinois-Chicago at (16) Georgia Tech
Virginia Commonwealth at (18) San Diego
Bethune-Cookman at (20) Tennessee
(21) Evansville at Mississippi
North Florida at (22) Tulane
Oral Roberts at (24) Texas Christian
Xavier at (25) Winthrop
Citadel Shootout, Charleston, S.C.
(3) South Carolina, Liberty, Richmond, The Citadel
(10) Oregon State, (13) Arizona State, Gonzaga, Missouri
Florida Atlantic Tournament,
Boca Raton, Fla.
(17) Oklahoma State, Ball State, Florida Atlantic, LaSalle
(19) Nebraska, Illinois State, New Mexico, Texas-Arlington
“We’ve gotten outside when it was 20 (degrees),” Wichita State coach Gene Stephenson said. “Our pitchers look awful good because they’re throwing against blocks of ice. Some days I felt like we could play for two weeks and never score. It’s beautiful, but we have no indoor place to work out.”
Inclement weather has limited Evansville to just two outdoor practices this spring, and two of its three games last weekend at Lipscomb were played in sub-freezing temperatures.
“This year, with how the weather’s been, if we go down (to Mississippi) and do well, great, if not, at least we go down there to play at Ole Miss and get that experience,” Evansville coach David Seifert said. “I just told (the players) to enjoy the atmosphere, the crowd, the great competition we’ll be playing, enjoy the Southern hospitality, make it as much a life experience as a baseball experience. We’d like to win the series, but it’s not a life-or-death series. I hate to make excuses for the team, but it’s just the way it is. We’re not going to go out and do everything 100 percent correct this early, we just haven’™t been out there.”
Of course, it’s been cold in Oxford, Miss., as well, but at least it’s been dry. The Rebels, who began the season ranked 25th and then slid out of the rankings without playing a game, have been able to get outside for practices and intrasquads, and coach Mike Bianco said he’s been happy with what he’s seen. The offense was a bit of a question mark heading into the season, as the Rebels lost their two best power bats in Mark Wright and Justin Brashear, who combined for 28 home runs a year ago, plus leading hitter Chris Coghlan (.350 a year ago). But the bats have actually outshone the talented arms so far this spring.
“Through the fall and early spring, we thought we’d be so dominant on the mound, but we’ve seen more offense in fall intrasquad games than we expected,” Bianco said. “We’re a little concerned–are we as good on the mound as we thought? But we’ve been real strong early this year.”
Freshman first baseman Andrew Clark and junior college transfer Fuller Smith will be expected to fill much of the power gap, and Bianco raved about Clark’s development. The Rebels led the Southeastern Conference in stolen bases a year ago, and speed figures to be a big part of their attack again this year, led by junior second baseman Justin Henry and his little brother Jordan, a freshman outfielder who has earned the starting job in right field. Then there’s first-team All-American shortstop Zack Cozart, who provides power and speed in the middle of the lineup.
Despite its losses, the Ole Miss lineup is dangerous, and it will be interesting to see how Evansville’s pitching holds up this weekend. It’s supposed to be a bit chilly in Oxford, but Evansville ace Ben Norton threw six no-hit innings in 27-degree weather last Friday against Lipscomb. Seifert said Norton is already throwing his fastball in the 88-90 mph range, which is about where he topped out in past seasons, and his slider and changeup look sharp. He’ll be opposed by Old Miss junior lefthander Will Kline, who wasn’t his sharpest last week against New Orleans but still picked up the win.
The Saturday matchup is a good one too, with Evansville’s Fred Jones going against Mississippi’s Lance Lynn. Jones, a senior righthander, has been working in the 90-93 mph range with a good breaking ball, and Lynn, a sophomore righty, has made major strides with his command, according to Bianco. Lynn came up big for the Rebels as the Sunday starter a year ago, but Bianco says he’s a better pitcher this year, thanks to his ability to throw his breaking ball and changeup in the strike zone.
The Purple Aces will not send freshman righthander Wade Kapteyn to the mound Sunday, instead giving the start to senior lefty Kai Tuomi. That allows Kapteyn to pitch out of the bullpen, giving Seifert another option to go along with senior stalwarts Matt Brinkman and Mark Murray. Evansville should have an advantage in the bullpen against the Rebels, who are still without sophomore closer Cody Satterwhite, who is battling tendonitis and inflammation in his shoulder. Senior lefty Craig Rodriguez, freshman lefty Nathan Baker and sophomore righty Scott Bittle will fill in for him, but none of those arms are as accomplished as Brinkman or Murray.
It all points to an entertaining series that will make both teams stronger in the long run.
“When (former UE) coach (Dave) Schrage and I put this schedule together a year and a half ago, that was our thought,” Seifert said. “We’re going to have the type of veteran team that needs to play a tough schedule in order to get us an at-large bid (in the NCAA tournament). So we ended up putting together that type of schedule.”
Building a strong schedule gives the Aces the security of knowing that even if they don’t win the MVC, they’re in good shape for the NCAA tournament. That’s a nice assurance to have given the strength of Wichita State’s team.
The Shockers enter the season as one of the most balanced teams in the nation, with speed, power and pitching. Junior outfielder Matt Brown, a five-tool talent, was hospitalized this week with food poisoning but hopes to play this weekend. The weekend rotation is healthy and strong, with righthanders Aaron Shafer and Travis Banwart going Friday and Saturday and lefty Rob Musgrave scheduled to pitch on Sunday. It’s a very good group, but all three will likely to be limited to 75 or 80 pitches, which will make it hard to get a true read on how good the Shockers are.
“I have no idea what to expect from us,” Stephenson said. “Traditionally we’re not very good in February or March. And this has been an extraordinary winter the last month, just been ridiculous. I’m just trying to be realistic, but at the same time we’re going in there to win.”
|Sean Black vs. Luke Putkonen|
We’ve been hoping for months to see a battle of Black vs. White–the No. 2 prospect in the freshman class (Seton Hall’s Black) taking on the No. 5 prospect in the class (North Carolina’s Alex White). But as of right now, White is slated to pitch Saturday and Black will pitch Sunday. That could change, but even if it does not, the Black-Putkonen matchup is a good one. Both are power arms with good breaking balls. Black burst onto the national scene last spring, when he ran his fastball up to 95 mph. He’s been impressive in practice and earned a weekend starter spot, but sophomore lefthander Corey Young will get the start Saturday against White. Putkonen was penciled in as the Tar Heels’ No. 2 starter (behind Robert Woodard) going into the spring, but Putkonen’s progress was hindered by poor weather, so UNC decided to push him back to Sunday. North Carolina assistant Chad Holbrook reports Putkonen has looked strong, however, running his fastball up to 94 mph and flashing much-improved offspeed stuff. Holbrook also raved about White, saying he has worked in the 89-91 range early in his sessions then ratcheting it up to the 94-95 range by the fourth or fifth innings, to go along with an above-average slider. Here’s hoping a Black vs. White showdown still materializes.
And don’t forget about Woodard against Pirates ace lefthander Dan Merklinger on Friday; Merklinger ranked as the No. 17 prospect in the Cape Cod League last summer thanks to an 88-91 fastball with late life and solid curveball. He’ll be up against a slightly banged up UNC lineup; leadoff man Mike Cavasini won’t play this weekend after taking a ball to the eye during an attempted bunt, and outfielder Seth Williams will sit out for at least Friday’s game, as well. Freshmen Drew Poulk and Dustin Ackley will get the nod in their place in the outfield. That’s a big difference between this UNC team and last year’s national runner-up squad: the 2007 version has the depth to plug in capable replacements almost anywhere on the field, thanks to an infusion of talent from the freshman class.
|Arizona over Cal State Fullerton|
Picking against well-coached teams hasn’t been a wise strategy so far in 2007, as Mike Trapasso, John Savage and Dave Van Horn have rallied their teams to 2-1 series wins after being pegged for upsets in the last three weeks. Unfazed, this week we’ll pick against one of the best coaching staffs in the country.
Cal State Fullerton nearly swept Nevada-Las Vegas last weekend, but 11 runs weren’t enough to win, and senior Bryan Harris was called for a balk with the winning run on third base to give UNLV a 12-11 win. Fullerton’s offense has performed above expectations after losing a large chunk of its production to professional ball and losing third baseman Evan McArthur, their top returning player, to a hand injury for the season’s first month. But the pitching staff has not resembled the group that led the nation in ERA a year ago. The Titans have a 6.08 ERA through the first six games of the season and have not held an opponent under four runs in any game. By contrast, the 8-0 Arizona Wildcats have gotten terrific production from starters Preston Guilmet (1-0, 1.88 in 14 IP), Brad Mills (2-0, 1.32 in 14 IP) and Mike Colla (1-0, 2.08 in 9 IP). The wily Guilmet should at least keep Arizona in the game against Fullerton ace Wes Roemer, and Mills and Colla have better stuff than their Titan counterparts on Saturday and Sunday. Plus the Wildcats have a pair of power arms in the bullpen in Daniel Schlereth and Jason Stoffel, but CSF’s bullpen picture remains unsettled. Arizona is a better team than most realized in the preseason, and its pitching advantage should enable it to steal a series at Fullerton.
|Grant Desme, of, Cal Poly|
After losing their first five games of the year, the Mustangs rebounded with five straight wins before dropping the second game of a doubleheader against Nevada last Sunday. Desme has been a big part of that turnaround–he went 5-for-13 with a pair of doubles, a grand slam and seven RBIs in the three-game series against the Wolf Pack. Desme was one of Poly’s most consistent hitters a year ago, when he hit eight homers. He has good power to the gaps and the ability to make consistent, hard contact, according to the Poly coaching staff. The Mustangs will try to keep their winning ways going this weekend against Washington.
|Blake Gailen, of, Nevada-Las Vegas|
Gailen was a beneficiary of Cal State Fullerton’s pitching woes last weekend, going 11-for-13 (.846) with a home run, four doubles, a triple, four stolen bases, eight runs scored and five RBIs in the three-game set. He started the weekend off by going 4-for-4, falling just a homer shy of the cycle, and capped off his weekend with a 5-for-5 outing in UNLV’s 12-11 win. He even scored the Rebels’ winning run on a balk.
It wasn’t long ago that the Owls were flying high as the No. 1 team in the nation, the favorite to win the 2007 College World Series. They might still be the favorite, but a 1-3 week raised a few questions and dropped them in the rankings. First was a loss at Texas State, when the Owl bats mustered just two runs on five hits. Then there was the 1-2 weekend at the Houston College Classic, when Rice lost to Vanderbilt and Texas A&M, sandwiched around a win over Baylor. Even in a midweek win against Texas-San Antonio, Rice was outhit 10-7. In their five games against Division I opponents, the Owls are averaging just 3.6 runs per game. The pitching staff has been better, but the continued absence of closer Cole St. Clair is a cause of serious concern; without the All-American lefthander, Rice is not the same team that earned the No. 1 preseason ranking.
Rice needs to get its offense figured out in a hurry, as dangerous Long Beach State comes to town for a three-game set this weekend. The Dirtbags stunned Southern California and Texas the last two weeks, winning series against both. But Long Beach lost Saturday starter Manny McElroy for four to six weeks with a strained rib cage, depleting the Dirtbags’ already thin pitching staff. Rice’s bats will try to capitalize against McElroy’s replacement–either lefthander Shane Peterson or righty Andre Lamontagne.
|Stat of the
Matt LaPorta’s career home run total. Florida’s senior first baseman blasted his 55th career homer Saturday against Virginia Military Institute, trying Brad Wilkerson’s school record. Then in the seventh inning Sunday he smashed his 56th homer, establishing a new record. LaPorta looks locked in early in the season–he is 10-for-17 (.588) and has yet to strike out through four games. Don’t expect Miami to give him too much to hit this weekend in Gainesville. The Gators got homers from five other players last weekend and four more long balls in a 15-1 win against Florida A&M on Tuesday, and they’ll need similar production from their complementary players this weekend. One encouraging sign: a pair of highly touted freshmen got off to a good start against VMI, as shortstop Cole Figueroa went 5-for-14 with a homer and outfielder Jonathan Pigott went 3-for-7 with a double. Pigott started just one game against the Rams, but with returning outfielders Chris Petrie and Brian Leclerc off to a combined 1-for-14 start, look for Pigott to see more at-bats this weekend.
South Florida moved from Conference USA to the Big East in 2006, but the move was rougher than expected. The Bulls went just 23-35, 12-15 in the conference, and the fall cost coach Eddie Cardieri his job. Former University of Tampa coach Lelo Prado came back to the city he calls home, leaving fellow Big East school Louisville to replace Cardieri, and he brought former Miami pitching coach Lazaro “Lazer” Collazo with him. The Bulls got off to a good start with a sweep of High Point last weekend, and take on Jacksonville next. We found a talent evaluator who’d seen the Bulls and was impressed with their team and Friday night starter Danny Otero, a fifth-year senior righthander who transferred in from Duke.
“Otero might be the best pitcher I’ve had beside Sam Militello,” Prado said in an e-mail. “(He) has great control and doesn’t miss his spots. We had to let him pitch seven innings to get his pitch count. This guy can pitch for anyone in America and be their Friday starter.” Here’s how our observer sized up Otero and South Florida:
Otero topped out at 89 and pitched 83-87. His slider was 79-81 and was a good pitch for him. He lived on the outer half of the plate. Lelo had his team fired up, they played with an incredible amount of energy, I was impressed. High Point made them look a little better than they are because they didn’t throw strikes and didn’t catch the ball. But South Florida did a nice job. Left side of the infield made some plays and almost all of their guys had plus arms and threw at least two pitches for strikes. I’m interested to see how the South Florida-Jacksonville series goes.
|Ryan Flaherty, ss, Vanderbilt|
Third baseman Pedro Alvarez gets most of the ink, but he’s not the only potential high pick in the 2008 draft on the left side of the Vandy infield. Flaherty is the cleanup hitter charged with protecting Alvarez in the lineup–no easy task when Alvarez is being called a lefthanded Albert Pujols in the making. But the 6-foot-3 Flaherty led the Commodores in batting a year ago and figures to increase his power production as a sophomore. Flaherty talked about Vanderbilt’s hot start, his defense, and his New England roots In The Dugout:
You look pretty comfortable at shortstop right now, and you’re getting some big hits too. How are you feeling?
I’ve got a year under my belt now in the program, and I feel confident when I’m out on the field, which is good. I think the team as a whole feels a lot of confidence. We’ve been around, we’ve got some older kids now, and I think it’s working well for us.
You spent the beginning of last year at shortstop, then moved to first base for most of the season before returning to short. Was it discouraging at first when you moved off short?
It wasn’t too discouraging. All I wanted to do was play as a freshman. I just wanted to get in the lineup and be able to hit. It didn’t work out at shortstop at first, but I was able to get back there. It doesn’t matter where I play, I just want to help the team.
In your outstanding high school career up at Deering High in Maine, you beat (Brewers first-round pick) Mark Rogers in the state championship game one year. What was that experience like?
It was a great experience, facing a guy like that, especially in Maine you don’t get a chance to face too good of competition. Playing in a game with a lot of people there, it was my junior year, it was a great experience for me and my teammates. It was awesome to face a guy like that, who was such a high draft pick.
After that, we ended up going on to win the American Legion World Series in August, so it was quite a summer. Especially being a team from Maine, baseball I think is improving a lot up there, and I think eventually it will keep coming on slowly. The weather really affects it up there.
Coach Corbin’s also a New England guy. Did that New England connection help you wind up down at Vanderbilt?
Yeah, my father told me about that. It’s good having some of those New England ties down in Nashville.
I noticed in your bio under “favorites”, you’ve got Derek Jeter listed. You’re a New England kid; what’s the deal with that?
Actually, I’m a die-hard Red Sox fan. So for me to write that in there it takes a lot of guts. But growing up I was always a big Jeter fan–he’s a tall shortstop, he plays the game the right way, he’s a great role model. I always looked up to him growing up, him being a tall shortstop and also a great person. I do root for him, however I am a die-hard Red Sox fan. So I know a lot of my Red Sox fans probably won’t be happy seeing that in there, but he is a favorite.
I think Red Sox fans might be more interested in knowing how you feel about A-Rod.
A-Rod’s not well-liked where I’m from. He’s a good player, but he’s not a favorite in Boston.