Meaningful Matchup: Cal State Fullerton at Texas Christian
Marquee Mound Showdown: Ryan Carpenter vs. John Stilson
Under The Radar: Loyola Marymount
Stat of the Week: Length of games
Scouting Report: Connecticut
In The Dugout: James Madison’s David Herbek
|Cal State Fullerton at Texas Christian|
There are two premier weekend series on the docket this weekend. One scout commented that the series in Nashville between No. 8 Stanford and No. 3 Vanderbilt will be a “scout’s paradise,” but we devoted plenty of words to both teams last week, so let’s focus on the showdown in Fort Worth between No. 12 Cal State Fullerton and No. 4 Texas Christian. And we wrote plenty about the Titans on the College Blog in the last week, so we’ll begin with a look at TCU.
As expected, pitching has carried the Horned Frogs in the early going. They surrendered just three runs over their first two victories last weekend against Kansas, then dropped a 4-3 decision in 14 innings Sunday. They bounced back with a 2-0 win Tuesday at Baylor, which has one of the state’s most talented offenses. Freshman righthander Andrew Mitchell was dominant in that one, giving up just two hits over 6 2/3 shutout frames, and fellow freshman Stefan Crichton followed with 2 1/3 hitless innings of relief. The strong work by the freshmen is a key development for TCU, which knew it could count on stalwarts Matt Purke, Kyle Winkler and Steven Maxwell in the weekend rotation but needed some youngsters to rise to the challenge of replacing three departed seniors in the bullpen plus projected closer Kaleb Merck, who was lost for the season with Tommy John surgery.
“The biggest area of concern for me was how our young pitchers would handle their first few times out,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “So often you have guys who are good in practice and they shy away when the lights come on. It’s great to have guys who do the opposite—who are good in practice and great when the games start. Everybody talks about the first three pitchers on our staff, but our season will be defined by the rest of our staff. So far, so good on that.”
Mitchell, in particular, is a key piece. He made his debut in the bullpen Friday against Kansas, allowing one run on two hits and no walks while striking out four in two innings of work.
“Mitchell’s going to be a Team USA guy—he’s been 93-94 with big-time down angle and a power curveball at 84 mph,” Schlossnagle said. “He throws strikes, he’s physical—he was a high school tight end—and he really looks good.”
Crichton was similarly firm in his debut, sitting 91-93 and topping out at 94 to go along with a good 83-84 slider and an effective 87-88 sinker. Schlossnagle is also high on freshmen Tyler Duffie and Nick Frey, who both should contribute in the pen this weekend. Righty Tony Rizzotti was the most heralded freshman in the class, but he had knee surgery in the fall and is still working his way into shape. When he’s back to full strength, TCU’s staff will be even more formidable.
It also helps that veterans Erik Miller and Trent Appleby have elevated their games to anchor the pen. Miller has always had a great arm, but he’s taken off after dropping to a low three-quarters arm slot, giving his 89-92 mph fastball hard sink. His hard slider is a weapon, too, and he can mix in a changeup when he needs to. He seems well suited for the closer job.
“Most importantly he’s pitching with some confidence and feels like he has a defined role on the team,” Schlossnagle said.
The starters are established commodities, of course. The Horned Frogs planned to ease Purke into the season after he felt some soreness during spring practice, but his arm got a clean bill of health, and he looked good in his debut, working at 93-94 and showing a good breaking ball and changeup. But he’s dealing with a blister on his left index finger, so TCU will hold him back until Sunday this week to give it extra time to heal. Schlossnagle said if that doesn’t work, the Frogs might have to force him to skip a start in the next few weeks so the blister doesn’t affect him all season.
Winkler is perfectly capable of handling the Friday job in the interim, and his matchup this week against Fullerton ace Noe Ramirez should be a good one.”
“Winkler’s the best he’s ever been,” Schlossnagle said. “He’s always been a guy with a really good fastball with good life, but he’s had very low strikeout per innings pitched numbers, considering how good his stuff can be. His freshman year he was throwing a curveball, and last year more of a cutter. He wasn’t a big strikeout pitcher because he didn’t have that swing-and-miss pitch unless it was a changeup or a sinker. In his last intrasquad, he showed a really good slider, and it was even better Saturday. It’s hard—86, with good depth, and it’s a legit swing-and-miss pitch. He was a completely different pitcher than he’s ever been this past Saturday.”
The offense has started a bit more slowly, hitting .262 as a team, but Schlossnagle expects it to take off as key veterans Jason Coats, Taylor Featherston, Joe Weik and Jerome Pena find a groove. But the Frogs will be without the physical presence of sophomore catcher Josh Elander this weekend after he sustained a deep hip bruise diving for a foul pop-up last Saturday. Fortunately, veteran Jimmie Pharr has done a good job handling the staff and has gotten off to a strong start with the bat, going 7-for-19 (.368).
Schlossnagle said he loves the annual early-season series against the Titans because it lets his club know where it stands.
“If you come out of it and it’s not a great weekend for you, you know exactly what you have to do to get better,” he said. “And if it is a good weekend for you, you can take a lot of confidence from that, because very few teams in the country will challenge you like Fullerton does with pitching, defense and a high-pressure offense.”
Fullerton’s pitching staff is even deeper than TCU’s, and it should be fun to watch the two staffs match up this weekend. Like the Frogs, the Titans have an All-American ace in Ramirez, who gave up just one run in seven innings in a 2-1 win against Long Beach State last Saturday—and yet did not even have a great outing, according to Titans coach Dave Serrano. That’s partly a measure of just how high the bar is for the junior righthander.
“He was very amped up before the game and in the first inning, and he admitted it,” Serrano said. “I think he was able to be successful because he’s good, but I don’t think his pitches were as crisp as they usually are, being down in the zone. But I expect Noe to rebound—he gives us a chance every time he goes out there.”
The Titans went 2-2 in a four-game weekend—three against Long Beach, one against North Carolina—but their pitching depth will be even more formidable in a three-game set. Junior righty Jake Floethe moves into a midweek starter role now, and he’ll be available to pitch in relief Friday and Saturday, expanding the bullpen. Serrano was thrilled with sophomore righthander Dylan Floro’s relief work last weekend, and the Titans have two more quality late-innings options in two-way star Nick Ramirez from the left side and Chris Devenski from the right.
Junior righties Tyler Pill and Colin O’Connell will start Saturday and Sunday, and both have advanced feel for pitching and very good stuff.
So Fullerton’s pitching is stable, and it will be a major strength. The offense is still a work in progress. Richy Pedroza and Anthony Hutting look like a capable, disruptive duo atop the lineup, and the Titans have plenty of run producers behind them in Nick Ramirez, Carlos Lopez, Pill and Joe Terry. But Serrano was displeased with the quality of his team’s at-bats in its first three games, though he was much more satisfied after Monday’s win against Long Beach State.
“I don’t know if we’ll know what our best team will be until a month down the road, and that’s a good luxury to have,” Serrano said. “We have a lot of good athletes, a lot of good baseball players, and we’ll find the best mix of players we can put on the field at one time. We have a lot of good hitters right now, but we just need to get into more of our offense, and start making more productive outs. If we can start doing that, making productive outs and moving guys along, then we’ll be a tough team to beat.
“I think with the teams that we’re going to go up against, the challenges we’re going to have, the pitching we’re going to see—I think this lineup when it’s all said and done will be a tough lineup to get through, because they’re going to be battle tested and they’re going to see some of the best.”
The Titans will certainly see one of the best teams in college baseball this weekend.
|Marquee Mound Showdown|
|Gonzaga’s Ryan Carpenter vs. Texas A&M’s John Stilson|
A pair of potential first-round picks will square off in College Station, Texas, on Friday, and each has something to prove to scouts. Carpenter, a junior lefthander, has flashed premium talent throughout his career, but has yet to translate his potential into results at the college level, posting a 5.26 ERA as a freshman and a 5.67 ERA as a sophomore. Stilson, meanwhile, is one of the nation’s most accomplished pitchers, having led the nation last year in ERA (0.80) and finishing second in strikeouts per nine innings (12.99). But the junior righty spent all of 2010 as a bullpen ace (going 9-1 with 10 saves and a 114-23 strikeout-walk ratio in 79 innings), and this spring he has moved into the Friday starter role.
Carpenter earned a no-decision in his season debut last week against Oregon State, allowing three runs on eight hits and three walks while striking out five over five innings.
“He gave up a few hits, a few walks, but he looked good,” Gonzaga coach Mark Machtolf said. “It was really, really chilly—the weather wasn’t good. He threw his breaking ball over. His velocity’s not quite what it will be, but it was decent.”
The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Carpenter has shown mid-90s velocity in the past, while last week he sat at 88-92 mph. He also throws a hard, sharp slider, a solid changeup and a curveball that acts as a show pitch.
“This summer and fall he’s commanded his fastball where he wants to and thrown his offspeed stuff over,” Machtolf said. “He’s pitching a lot better.”
Stilson’s first start in his two seasons with the Aggies was a rousing success. He held Le Moyne to one unearned run on three hits and a walk while striking out nine over six efficient innings.
“I felt like he controlled the night,” Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said. “So many times that first game, that first time under the lights in front of 6,000 people, you let your emotions get away from you a little bit. Coming from a closer, where it’s all about energy, I was a little concerned, but he just did a nice job, and got us through six innings at 90 pitches. He was definitely competitive, definitely aggressive, and I felt like he’s got a chance to be a true No. 1.”
Childress said Stilson threw all four of his pitches for strikes, and his fastball ranged between 90-95 mph. But his wicked changeup, which was his signature pitch a year ago, “wasn’t a true factor for him” last week, as he threw it just a dozen or so times. Childress expressed confidence it will be a major weapon for him going forward, and he was pleased that Stilson was able to throw both his curveball and his slider for strikes while also using them to expand the zone. He used both offerings sparingly in a relief role but will need them to thrive as a starter.
“He’s out there pitching more, instead of just trying to blow you away for four or five or six outs,” Childress said. “He’s got very good command of all four of his pitches. There’s a lot of guys who can throw 95 mph, but being able to throw a 2-1 breaking ball for strikes makes 95 look 98. Look back to Rice’s big pitchers—(Philip) Humber and (Jeff) Niemann and (Wade) Townsend—they all threw 95, but they could also throw any pitch in any count. That’s what made them special.”
The Aggies have the luxury of plenty of talented veterans on their pitching staff, so they could afford to move Stilson into the rotation without compromising their bullpen. Childress is experimenting with Ross Stripling in the closer job, and he likes what he’s seen from the junior righty so far. And if he needs to move Stripling into the No. 4 starter job to face some of A&M’s tough midweek opponents, he has more reliable bullpen options in senior righties Nick Fleece (who works off an 88-94 power sinker) and Joaquin Hinojosa (a sidearmer with a lively upper-80s heater) plus lefthander Brandon Parrent (a junior college transfer with an 88-92 fastball and a wipeout curve).
“With these bats, you need the starters to get you off to a good start,” Childress said. “You might have the greatest bullpen in the world, but if you’re down 7-1 after five innings, you won’t get a chance to use them.”
And that’s why A&M’s greatest pitching weapon will start Friday night.
|Under The Radar|
When coaches in the West Coast Conference talked about their league heading into 2011, it was common to hear them say, “Watch out for LMU—I think that’s going to be a good club.”
The Lions went just 23-33 last year, and finished in last place in the WCC at 5-16. But coach Jason Gill overhauled his coaching staff in the offseason, bringing in two fellow former Titans assistants—Bryant Ward from South Florida and Ted Silva from from UC Irvine. Silva, one of the most respected pitching coaches on the West Coast and a former All-American who won 18 games for the Titans in 1995, has had a dramatic impact on LMU’s pitching staff.
The Lions have allowed just eight runs over five games during their 4-1 start, taking three out of four games against an experienced, talented UC Riverside club last weekend and beating Long Beach State 5-1 on Tuesday.
“So far, hats off to our pitching and defense,” Gill said. “We’ve had some timely hitting. I think our offense has a ways to go, but it seems to be a different guy each game, which is encouraging. In the early part of the year, it’s got to be about pitching and defense. The pitching, that’s coach Silva’s area—that’s why we brought him over. He’s got his guys confident and throwing strikes.”
LMU’s two most talented arms, lefthander Jason Wheeler and righty Martin Viramontes, have had success in the summer but had been unable to put everything together in the spring over their first two college seasons. But Wheeler was outstanding in Friday’s season opener, allowing just one run on six hits and three walks while striking out eight over seven innings.
“Wheeler was 89-93. He’s got pretty good command of his fastball, his offspeed stuff is marginal but getting better,” Gill said. “He’s 6-foot-7, 255 pounds, and the ball comes out at a pretty good angle, so he can pitch off his fastball. His offspeed stuff’s getting better, but he’s pretty much living off his fastball.”
Viramontes also had a strong season debut in the third game against UCR, yielding just two runs (one earned) on five hits and a walk while fanning four over 5 1/3 innings. Silva’s tutelage has benefited Viramontes greatly.
“The talent and arm strength has always been there, but about a week after we got back in the spring, in individual workouts, coach Silva made a big-time change in his delivery,” Gill said. “I think it took a lot of courage for Martin to change, as old as he is and the expectations that have been put on him. He changed his entire delivery in two weeks, and it really paid off. He’s not bumping 95-96 like he used to, but he’s pitching at 90-93, and he’s got command of four pitches—not plus command, but average command. He’s starting to learn how to pitch instead of throw.”
Silva sped up Viramontes’ delivery, shortened his arm circle and his leg kick, lowered his arm slot and taught him a slider, which he has taken to.
“For two years, I was wondering why Martin’s two-seamer didn’t move when he threw it 94 mph,” Gill said. “Now he’s getting on top of it, and he’s throwing it 89-90, but it’s got movement.”
Of course, one of the reasons opposing coaches were bullish on the Lions is because they have five quality veteran starters. Junior righty Alex Gillingham (8 IP, 11 H, 3 ER) and junior lefty John Lally (5.1 IP, 6 H, 1 ER) both pitched well against the Highlanders, too, while sophomore righty Aaron Griffin (5.2 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 6 K) shut down Long Beach. And Gill thinks converted center fielder Brian Hawthorne will surprise people in the closer role.
Gillingham might be the most advanced pitcher on the staff, Gill said, with excellent command of an 88-90 sinker, good slider and changeup. Lally has similar stuff from the left side.
With that kind of pitching depth, Loyola Marymount should be a legit contender in the wild West Coast Conference. But Gill is tempering expectations.
“I don’t think anyone should get all up in arms about it—it’s 4-1,” he said. “With the exception of (Tuesday night), which we handled, the other four games could have gone either way.”
But it’s very encouraging that LMU has the kind of quality pitching to win those low-scoring games that could go either way. After all, those games figure to be abundant in the BBCOR era, especially in the West.
|Kennesaw State’s Ronnie Freeman and Old Dominion’s Chris Baker|
Now that Garrett Wittels’ hitting streak is over at 56 games, Freeman has the nation’s longest active streak (34 games). He was tied with Baker at 33 games until going 2-for-5 in Wednesday’s win against Jacksonville State to move one game ahead.
“I think everybody exhales a little bit,” Kennesaw coach Mike Sansing said of Freeman’s first hit each game. “Everybody in the dugout is cheering him on because they know what’s going on with it. He’s a pure teammate, a great teammate, and everybody’s pulling for him each game.”
Freeman, a sophomore catcher, hit .365/.401/.531 with nine homers and 47 RBIs in his standout freshman year, and he ended the season with a 29-game hitting streak. He’s picked right up where he left off during Kennesaw’s 5-0 start, going 7-for-18 (.389) with four RBIs.
“He just keeps going,” Sansing said. “I feel like he’s got a professional work ethic in an amateur sport. He’s the kind of guy that’s there early, he’s there late. He’s just that kind of person—you love to be around him. He’s a 3.9 academic student, and he keeps a journal in practices and games, just charting things on his own. Everybody walks in with their bags; he’s got his bag, but he’s got his notebook in his back pocket as he comes into practices. From a coaching standpoint, you’re just like, ‘Man, we’ve got a great one here.’ “
Freeman has also worked hard on his receiving, and Sansing thinks he’s a good prospect for next year’s draft. But the bat is his calling card—he just has a natural ability to hit, and he manages to get on base plenty despite drawing few walks (just 10 in 211 at-bats last year, but just 31 strikeouts also).
“He’s an aggressive hitter,” Sansing said. “He’s not up there working counts, for the most part. He’s up there swinging. His hand-eye coordination—some guys just see it a little bit better than others, and he’s like that. He’s able to barrel balls up because of the physical tools that he has. He hits breaking balls well—and if you extend the streak like he’s done, you get pitched a lot of different ways.”
Baker, meanwhile, has gotten off to an even hotter start to extend his streak to 33 games. Through five games this year, Baker is hitting .450/.522/.900 with three doubles, two homers and 10 RBIs.
“He’s got some juice, but he’s a gap-to-gap guy, a lefthanded hitter who’s pretty flat in the zone, and he’s got a good approach,” ODU coach Nate Goulet said. “He’s really become a smart hitter, and it’s all because of him. When he’s going well, he’s spraying the ball from left-center to the right-field line.”
Baker, a fourth-year junior first baseman, missed all of 2009 with a wrist injury, and he started slow in 2010. Goulet said he wasn’t a permanent fixture in the lineup until the second half, when his hit streak started. He finished the season hitting .369/.433/.644 with eight homers and 51 RBIs. Then he had to sit on his streak the entire offseason, and as Wittels found out, it’s not easy to pick it right back up nine months later.
“It’s a pretty amazing feat, I think,” Goulet said. “You had the kid down in Florida who finished up at 56—God, that’s amazing. For me, anything over 20 is a pretty good feat. Over two seasons, that’s pretty amazing, too. Baker ended up last year at 28, then to sit on it all summer and all fall, then come back opening day, it takes a special person to block that out and have a good approach every at-bat.”
After a disastrous 16-37 (5-23 in the Southeastern Conference) campaign in 2010, Georgia headed into this spring filled with optimism that its struggles had made it stronger, and that its talented junior class was finally ready to live up to the immense expectations it carried to Athens three years ago. But the season has not gotten off to the start that coach David Perno wanted.
Georgia was swept in a three-game series at Stetson, scoring just nine runs in three games and losing all three games by three or more runs. The Bulldogs hit just .111 with runners in scoring position, while allowing the Hatters to hit .355 with men in scoring position.
“We had our chances today, and overall we had some experienced guys just have a tough weekend,” Perno said after Sunday’s 8-4 loss. “We’ve got a lot of baseball left and I saw some good things, especially from Alex Wood and Patrick Boling on the mound and Chase Davidson and Jonathan Hester at the plate. We’re disappointed at being 0-3, and we have to get better on the mound and at the plate. I thought we played good defense.”
As Perno pointed out, there were bright spots, and Davidson’s early performance is a big one. One of the centerpieces of Georgia’s third-ranked 2008 recruiting class, Davidson’s huge raw power made him a third-round pick by the Astros out of high school, but he hit just .231/.291/.398 with three homers as a freshman, and .189/.277/.267 with one homer as a sophomore. Davidson has gotten off to a great start to 2011, though, going 5-for-11 in the Stetson series and then going 3-for-4 with three RBIs Wednesday to propel Georgia to a 6-4 win against Furman. He’s hitting .533 with three doubles and four RBIs through four games.
And Wood, a sophomore lefthander who was limited to one appearance last spring after having Tommy John surgery, has built upon his strong summer in the New England Collegiate League, where he ranked as the No. 7 prospect. Wood’s quality three-pitch repertoire includes an explosive fastball, and he pitched well in defeat against Stetson, allowing three runs (two earned) over five innings.
The road doesn’t get any easier for Georgia. No. 16 Baylor comes to Athens for a three-game set this weekend, and No. 10 Florida State visits the following weekend. Then, after tough midweek games against Mercer and Alabama, the Bulldogs travel cross country to the Dodgertown Classic, where they will face No. 2 UCLA in their first game. And then SEC play opens with a trip to No. 7 South Carolina. So Georgia better find its stride in a hurry.
|Stat of the Week|
|Two hours, 46 minutes|
The average length of Division I games during opening weekend, according to collegesplits.com. Thanks partly to the advent of new clocks that mandate teams spend no longer than 90 seconds between half innings and no more than 20 seconds between pitches when no runners are on base, and partly to the less-potent BBCOR bats, games are taking less time than they did in 2010.
The average time of D-I games last year was 2:51, but that was for all games. During opening weekend, games tend to be sloppier and higher-scoring (last year, for instance, College Splits says teams averaged 6.5 runs per games for the season, but 7.6 runs per game during opening weekend). The average time of games last year during opening weekend was 3:02—a quarter of an hour longer than this year’s opening-weekend games.
Some more numbers from College Splits, comparing opening weekend 2010 with opening weekend 2011:
• Scoring is down from 7.6 runs per game to 6.5 runs per game.
• Batting average is down from .294 to .279.
• Home runs per ball in play are down from 2.8 percent to 1.9 percent.
With expectations soaring and hordes of scouts hovering, UConn stumbled to an 0-2 start at the Big East/Big Ten Challenge before recovering with a win Sunday against Michigan. But the Huskies, ranked No. 9 in the preseason, had yet to practice outdoors this spring until arriving in Florida, so overreacting to their rough first weekend would be a mistake. The same is true of junior outfielder George Springer, who went just 2-for-12 (.167) over opening weekend. UConn’s other premium draft prospect, junior righthander Matt Barnes, had a better start, striking out 11 on Saturday, but he still took a loss in UConn’s 3-2 defeat against Minnesota.
The Huskies will have a chance to rebound at another strong tournament this weekend in Corpus Christi, taking on Oregon State, Indiana (and first-team preseason All-American Alex Dickerson) and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, which is coming off a midweek win against No. 6 Texas. A National League crosschecker who sat on the Huskies last weekend expressed confidence that they will hit their stride in short order.
“Barnes and Springer were the marquee guys. Springer really struggled, but I like him. He brings a lot of energy to the field. I got close up watching him in the cage, and he really interacts with his teammates well, seems like a team leader guy. I don’t know if he’s pressing or just gotten into some bad habits. He was swinging with a hitch, dropping his hands before swinging. He was dropping his hands late and wasn’t getting his bat through the zone on time. Having said that, he’s got such a strong track record, I think it’s only a matter of time before he makes the adjustments and gets back to where he was last year. There’s no denying the speed and the arm and the defense. The tools are loud. Scouts will just chalk it up to a slow first weekend. He’ll have a breakout weekend soon, I’m sure.
“Barnes was up to 97 and looked every bit like an early first-rounder. His command was pretty good—the fastball command. The breaking pitch command was fringy, but it was his first outing. He threw one slider, but I wasn’t sure if it was intentional or he got on the side of something. He was primarily fastball-curveball-changeup. He showed a nice downer curve with some good power and tight break. The changeup is a usable pitch—he only threw two or three, but it had some fade to it. I think he’s probably going to end up having a well above-average fastball, above-average curveball and average changeup. The slider might be a show-me pitch. And he’ll pitch the whole spring at age 20—he turns 21 in June. He is intriguing—I think he’ll wind up going in the top 10 picks.
“Their other pitching was just so-so. Elliot Glynn struggled on Friday. He will be a decent senior sign, but he struggled with his command Friday and doesn’t have enough stuff to get away with subpar command. But he’s been around so long at UConn and in the Cape, I think he will wind up being a good mid-rounds senior sign. (Greg) Nappo started Sunday, and they annihilated Michigan—Michigan’s young. Nappo didn’t pitch exceptionally well, gave up some runs in the middle of the game, and they yanked him.
“I liked their team; they’ve got some veterans there, and good team speed. I like (Mike) Nemeth—he’s a guy, he’s a draft for sure—and I like (Nick) Ahmed, and they’ve got the (John) Andreoli guy—just a strong mix of veterans. The speed really plays; I think they’ll be a strong team. Ahmed had two triples Friday night—one to the gap in right-center and one to the gap in left-center. Saturday and Sunday, he struggled both days, and Sunday he struggled in the field as well. But he’ll get so much exposure with scouts coming in to see Barnes and Springer. I don’t think he’ll be an above-average shortstop (in the big leagues), but he’ll make that routine play. Some scouts will have him as an everyday guy, and some as a utility guy. I think he’d go in rounds 3-5 if the draft was tomorrow. And (L.J.) Mazzilli is interesting. He swung the bat well all weekend long. He’s taking the next step in his offensive game. They lost their catcher (Joe Pavone to injury), but I didn’t detect the catching having any impact on their pitching, especially with Barnes.”
|In The Dugout|
|David Herbek, ss, James Madison|
Herbek has put together a strong career at JMU, hitting .331 with 20 homers, 119 RBIs and 36 stolen bases in three seasons as the starting shortstop heading into this spring. After hitting seven home runs as a junior in 2010, Herbek exploded for five long balls in James Madison’s season-opening four-game sweep of Bucknell. He homered three times in Friday’s 37-7 rout and added one more in each game of Saturday’s doubleheader. He finished the weekend 7-for-13 with 12 RBIs and a 1.769 slugging percentage, helping James Madison score 91 runs in four games.
Congratulations on the huge opening weekend. To put up the kind of ridiculous numbers you posted, the ball must have looked like a beach ball, huh?
I think the biggest thing was, on Friday, even before my first at-bat, I was batting fifth, and the leadoff guy got on, I believe our No. 2 hitter got on, and the cleanup hitter hit a home run. I said, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’ Everyone’s just kind of feeding off each other at this point.
There’s been so much talk about the new bats diminishing offense, but they sure didn’t slow you guys down. Do you think all that talk is overblown?
I think there’s a couple factors that helped us this weekend. First thing, we used wood all fall, in batting practice and in our intrasquad scrimmages. So we really had to make adjustments to be successful with wood. When they finally did hand over the new bats, they felt like a huge upgrade over the wood we’d been using the entire fall. We looked at it that way, instead of thinking these bats are worse than the ones we used last year. Instead of that mindset, we looked at it as a good thing that we could finally use the metal bat. A little bit of wind didn’t hurt this weekend either.
I heard from a scout that the wind was blowing out at 30-40 mph during Saturday’s doubleheader. When the conditions are like that, do you start thinking all you have to do is put the ball in the air and it’s got a chance to go out?
Me personally, I don’t. Any time I do think like that, it never happens. So my mindset was don’t get caught up in home runs. If you hit a ball hard, it’s got a chance. Just find the barrel, try to drive something in the gaps, be satisfied with that. Don’t get greedy and try to do too much. That’s really easy to do, but our team as a whole didn’t fall into that trap this weekend—everyone was putting good swings on the ball, not trying to do too much, and we reaped the benefits.
You’ve had decent power numbers each of the last two years also, but have you gotten better as a power hitter this year?
I don’t consider myself to be a power hitter, by any means. I rarely, if ever, go up there and think about hitting a home run. After Friday’s games, I had three home runs, I told myself, ‘You know what? That’s great, but you don’t need to try to do that. Just keep trying to put good swings on it, stay in control, and don’t try to be something you’re not.’ I think that might be the biggest thing that’s helped me out so far this weekend. Maybe earlier in my career I would have maybe thought, ‘OK, I’ve got three, I can do this.’ This is my fourth year, I know what kind of player I am, I know my strengths. I just made a conscious effort to stay within myself and be the hitter I know I am: a line-drive, gap-to-gap kind of guy.
Your defense probably gets a little overshadowed by all the home runs you hit this weekend, but you’ve been the starting shortstop there for four years. Is your defense a really important part of your game?
Absolutely. I try to balance the priority between offense and defense equally. I know last year I didn’t hit as well as I would have liked, but I also played defense a little better than I thought I was going to—I think I only made five errors last year. I try to separate the two. I do take a lot of pride, especially being a shortstop, trying to be a leader out there. We’ve got some older guys, but we’ve also got some younger guys on the team. I try to be a stable force out there and help them out as much as I can, too.
You’ve got plenty of experience on this team, and also a lot of young talent. How do you think this team compares with the other teams you’ve had there, including that regionals team your freshman year?
I think it’s a different team. Certainly it’s a different team than last year. We had some higher-profile guys—our closer (Kevin Munson) got drafted high, our third baseman (Matt Browning) and second baseman (Michael Fabiaschi) got drafted. All three of those guys were exceptional players; they were great to have on the team. This year’s team, as evidenced by this weekend, we had a total team effort, as clichéd as it sounds. From the top to the bottom, everybody put up great numbers and really contributed. Even the guys who came off the bench, you couldn’t tell who was a starter and who wasn’t, because everybody was feeding off each other and playing so well. That’s a trademark of this year’s team: We might not have as much star power, if you will, but everybody’s solid, and everybody’s in it together.
How badly do you want to get back to regionals after a two-year absence?
I actually have a picture of the trip we took down to Raleigh (for regionals in 2008)—I have a picture hanging up on the wall that I look at every day. As a freshman, that was an unbelievable experience for me. I don’t think I quite grasped how special it was to be playing in that atmosphere. Every year, as the season rolls on, that’s certainly an aspiration. All the other guys that were there and are still on the team certainly have fond memories of how exciting that was. I think that trickles down to the other guys.
I was looking at your bio, and it says you are a “world-class ping-pong player.”
(Laughs) That’s self-proclaimed world-class ping-pong player. I’m still looking for a worthy opponent on our team, at least.
Yeah, your bio says you’re 428-0 against (junior righthander) Evan Scott.
(Laughs again) That’s also a self-proclaimed record. He might dispute it, but I’d never admit he’s right.
I understand you’re also a golfer. What’s your handicap?
It wouldn’t be too good right now. I couldn’t give you an exact number . . . but it’s one better than Evan Scott, I’ll tell you that.