|Rice vs. Vanderbilt|
There are so many intriguing games this weekend that it’s hard to choose just one matchup to focus on. We’ll get to UCLA-Miami and Oregon State-Georgia later, but it seems only right to start with the action at the Houston College Classic, where six potential NCAA Tournament teams (and hordes of scouting directors) will converge upon Minute Maid Park. The event gets started with the game we circled on our calendars as soon as the 2007 schedule came out: No. 8 Vanderbilt against No. 1 Rice.
It’s not every day the best pitcher in the country (Vandy’s David Price) goes up against the nation’s top-ranked team. For Rice, which managed just two runs on five hits in a midweek loss to Texas State, the timing of this showdown seems bad, but Owls coach Wayne Graham has a different theory.
“I think they’re pressing a little bit right now because of all that hoopla,” Graham said of his hitters. “I think it will be real interesting because maybe some of the pressure will be off of them–they’re not expected to hit (Price). The pressing will go away with time; we’ve got enough talent to work through some of these things. Facing top-notch pitching puts you in the height of awareness–the ball’s going to be coming in between 92-97.”
|(11) UCLA at (5) Miami
(6) Arkansas at Troy
(7) Texas at Long Beach State
(12) Cal State Fullerton at Nevada-Las Vegas
(13) Georgia Tech at Georgia Southern
UNC Asheville at (14) Florida State
(15) Oregon State at Georgia
(17) San Diego at/vs. Southern California
Southeastern Louisiana at/vs. (18) Tulane
Eastern Michigan at (20) Tennessee
(21) Evansville at Lipscomb
UC Davis at (23) Pepperdine
(24) Texas Christian at Central Florida
|Top 25 Tournaments|
|Houston College Classic, Houston
(1) Rice, (8) Vanderbilt, (16) Arizona State, Baylor, Houston, Texas A&M
Hughes Bros. Challenge, Wilmington, N.C.
Springmaid Beach Resort Tournament, Conway, S.C.
Citrus Tournament, Edinburgh, Texas
Winthrop Challenge, Rock Hill, S.C.
The Owls have plenty of weapons in their lineup and on the mound, but they’ll be without one of their biggest guns. Closer Cole St. Clair, a third-team preseason All-American, won’t be available this weekend because of “residual soreness in his shoulder,” according to Graham.
Even without St. Clair, Rice is formidable–and Vanderbilt knows it.
“I think (the players are) very understanding of who they’re playing–I probably don’™t need to shake them up anymore,” Commodores coach Tim Corbin said. “Our players know what Rice is about, they’ve seen them in the College World Series.
“We’re just excited to play someone else, really. We’re sick and tired of seeing each other (in intrasquads).”
More than anything, this weekend is a barometer. This early in the season, it’s hard to tell who is a legitimate contender and who isn’t, but playing against top competition gives coaches some idea how their teams stack up.
“You know you’re going to get the games in, you just try to get your pitchers stretched out a little bit, get your bullpen some work,” said Houston coach Rayner Noble, whose team faces Baylor, Texas A&M and Arizona State this weekend. “I don’™t think you put a tremendous amount of stock in this kind of tournament this early in the year, unless you’ve got a veteran club. Our pitching staff’s a little taxed right now.”
Noble said ace righthander Ricky Hargrove has had some shoulder problems that will keep him out at least another four to six weeks and possibly for the rest of the season. Sophomore Luis Flores, a freshman All-American last year as a catcher/righthander, is battling tendonitis in his elbow that will limit him to just two innings on Saturday. Noble’s plan is to throw junior righty Aaron Brown on Friday against Baylor, then use freshman lefty Wes Musick on Sunday against the Sun Devils and turn Saturday into a staff day. Brown has an interesting arm and pro body at 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, and has run his fastball up to 95 mph at times.
Arizona State’s dangerous lineup, which scored 61 runs in a three-game sweep of Southern Utah last weekend, presents a big challenge for all three of its opponents (Texas A&M on Friday, Vanderbilt on Saturday and Houston on Sunday). The Commodores have some pitching questions after Price, but they’ll go with strike-throwing sophomore righty Nick Christiani against the Sun Devils.
“They scored about three or four touchdowns each day last weekend,” Corbin said of the Devils. “We’re going to be throwing with screens in front of us.”
Still, like Graham and Noble, Corbin welcomes the challenge.
“It’s kind of an honor to be there, because I know they’ve heightened the tournament to the point they want some name teams,” Corbin said. “We’re not really a name team–we haven’™t done much, we’re not a tradition or anything–but I guess we have some returning players. The positive for us is playing a high level of competition. We’re not at home, not in our comfort zone, and we’re playing against very good talent. I think for our kids that’s probably just what the doctor ordered right now.”
• No. 11 UCLA survived a big test from Winthrop last weekend, and now the Bruins will be the team traveling across country to play a highly ranked team. Last year, Miami went to UCLA and took two out of three, and this weekend the Bruins will have a chance to return the favor.
“We know them pretty well. They’ve got a bunch of very good young players,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “Last year I thought they were the best club that we played, or if not the best, near the top of the list. They run, they play catch, they play extremely hard, really the type of program you love to play, because they do so many things right. You can learn a lot from it, and I think our players did that last year. Just watch Miami take infield, this and that.”
UCLA might be without third baseman Jermaine Curtis again this weekend, though Savage hoped Curtis would be cleared academically in time to play.
UCLA is still without projected Saturday starter Charles Brewer, who was diagnosed with mononucleosis last week, so Savage will turn to sophomore lefthander Brendan Lafferty on Saturday. Lafferty, who redshirted last year while he worked out some academic issues, has a big 6-foot-4 frame and a decent four-pitch mix. Freshman lefty Gavin Brooks, who is slowly getting stronger as he recovers from surgery to repair a small tear in his labrum that kept him from pitching during his senior year of high school, will continue to start on Sundays.
Miami, meanwhile, will start ace lefthander Scott Maine on Friday. Maine did not pitch in last week’s series loss to Mercer because of a team rule violation. Having Maine back allows the Hurricanes to move junior lefty Manny Miguelez to Sunday and bump freshman lefty Eric Erickson to the bullpen, giving Miami a lefty option in relief other than two-way player Dennis Raben.
The bullpens could loom large this weekend, because UCLA closer Brant Rustich looked dominant last weekend according to two scouts, flashing three plus pitches at times. Miami closer Enrique Garcia, meanwhile, blew a save Friday in his first appearance in the pen. Garcia started for two years at Potomac State (W.V.) Junior College before transferring to Miami.
“He came in in the eighth and got out of a big jam–second and third, two outs, he got a big strikeout,” Miami pitching coach J.D. Arteaga said. “But he didn’t come in and close the door (in the ninth). He’s a hard-thrower, got a good split-finger and a decent slider. He’s got the stuff; all the guys in our bullpen have the stuff.”
• Oregon State continues its tour of America, visiting fellow 2006 College World Series participant Georgia. The Beavers play their first 17 games on the road this year, a stretch as difficult as any that OSU coach Pat Casey can recall. This weekend will be the biggest challenge during that string.
“You’ve got a World Series team that’s returning a fair amount of guys–it’s pretty big,” Casey said. “They’ve got four or five starters back, they’ve got a couple arms back, they’ve got (closer Joshua) Fields, who’s probably as good as anyone in the country. Playing at home, and a World Series club, they’re going to be very, very good. For us, being inexperienced, it will be a tremendous test for us.”
|Marquee Mound Matchup|
|David Price vs. Joe Savery|
Rice isn’t certain to start Savery on Friday against the Commodores, but there’s a decent chance it will happen, and that’s good enough for us. Price and Savery are probably the top two lefthanded starters in the nation, and a head-to-head showdown is tantalizing.
Savery usually pitches Sunday to keep himself fresh for hitting in the first two games of the series, but Graham said he planned to ask Savery if he wanted to pitch Friday against Price instead. Savery’s a competitor, and it’s hard to imagine him backing down from a chance to face his old friend Price, his Team USA teammate in 2005.
“He’s one of my good buddies,” Price said. “That would be cool to go against Joe. We’ve been talking about this since our freshman year, because coach Corbin told me we’d be playing in this tournament, and we always thought it would be cool to pitch against each other.”
Savery was on a 40-pitch limit last weekend against Central Missouri State, and Graham said he touched 91 with his fastball and showed an excellent changeup. His arm felt good and his delivery was near perfect. If he pitches Friday, he’ll be limited to 55 pitches and three innings, and he’ll be relieved by junior lefty Chris Kelley. If Savery doesn’t throw until Sunday, Kelley will get the start Friday.
There won’t be any significant limitations on Price, who said he feels as good as he ever has. Price said he felt some tightness in his arm when he took nearly a month off after summer ball because he had never taken off that much time before, but he worked out and feels fine now. Price said he has added a slurve to his repertoire, which already included a plus fastball, plus slider and a promising changeup. He plans to showcase all four pitches against Rice.
|Troy over Arkansas|
First off, give the Razorbacks tons of credit for starting off their season with back-to-back series on the road against dangerous mid-majors Louisiana Tech and Troy–there aren’t a lot of Division I powers who would try that. Arkansas pulled out a hard-fought series win against the Bulldogs last weekend, but its bats are going to have to heat up quickly against Troy, which will do its share of scoring. Both teams have excellent closers in Jess Todd of Arkansas and Josh Dew of Troy, so whoever gets the early lead could be in good shape. We’re betting Troy pulls that off a couple of times this weekend.
Last week: 1-2 (Winthrop over UCLA). Season: 2-4. Series record: 0-2.
|Under The Radar|
|Danny Espinosa, ss, Long Beach State|
Espinosa has hit a three-run home run in each of his past two games (against Southern California on Sunday and against Pepperdine on Tuesday). Long Beach has established quite a shortstop tradition, with Bobby Crosby, Troy Tulowitzki and Evan Longoria jumping from LBSU to professional stardom, and Espinosa has the physical tools to be the next very good one. He did not homer last season in 210 at-bats, but he got stronger over the offseason, and it shows already. He could be a factor this weekend as the pesky Dirtbags host No. 7 Texas.
|Carl Uhl, of, UC Riverside|
With apologies to Hawaii’s Kris Sanchez, who we wrote about last week in this space, it’s time to get some new blood in here (even though Sanchez is now hitting .636 with 10 RBIs through six games). Arizona State’s Matt Spencer, who drove in 13 runs in three games last weekend, and Cal State Fullerton’s Joe Scott, who went 9-for-12 in three games, are also worthy candidates, but the nod goes to Uhl, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound sophomore who reached base in 13 of his first 15 plate appearances in UC Riverside’s season-opening three-game sweep of Nevada. Uhl hit .778 with four runs scored and four doubles over the weekend.
The Volunteers certainly didn’t look like a top-25 team in a three-game sweep at the hands of Florida State last weekend. FSU outscored the Vols 32-9 and outplayed Tennessee in just about every facet of the game. UT will need to get better pitching from senior righthander Craig Cobb this weekend against Eastern Michigan.
|Stat of the Week|
South Carolina’s winning percentage in the month of February since 2000 (67-2). The Gamecocks will look to improve upon that impressive number this weekend in Wilmington, N.C., against Oklahoma, Western Kentucky and UNC Wilmington. South Carolina will start Harris Honeycutt on Friday, junior college transfer Jay Brown on Saturday and Mike Cisco on Sunday. South Carolina assistant coach Jim Toman said Cisco has looked very good in scrimmages, as has closer Wynn Pelzer, who has pitched in the 89-93 mph range.
The Gamecocks will get a boost when junior lefthander Arik Hempy returns from Tommy John surgery in late February or early March–he threw his first live session Sunday, throwing nine pitches in one inning and showing an 88-90 mph fastball and a good changeup.
“His arm feels great right now, and he wants to pitch now, but we want to take it slow with him,” Toman said.
Toman also reported that sophomore first baseman Justin Smoak is 12 pounds stronger and hitting the ball well, and sophomore Reese Havens looks better at shortstop than he did last year.
As disappointing as Tennessee was last weekend, Florida State looked that good. One National League scout who attended the series raved about catcher Buster Posey’s conversion from shortstop to catcher, as well as the talent of freshman center fielder D’Vontrey Richardson:
I don’™t think Tennessee is a bad team, but Florida State looked pretty good. I’m not sure how far they’ll go, when their first two pitchers are seniors who work without much velocity. They’re a nice team defensively, they’re pretty darn strong up the middle. (Shortstop Mark) Hallberg was a real good pickup for them, just a baseball guy. (Tony) Thomas at second base looks good, and Posey, well, put it this way, Posey’s better than (Tennessee catcher J.P.) Arencibia, and I like Arencibia. That was a very smooth conversion, he does it easy back there. His feet work well, he has a quick transfer. All we need to find out is if he can handle velocity.
Richardson was DHing, but I watched him in BP and he was running them down like crazy. He looks like he could be a special center fielder.
They look strong, they put the ball in play, they catch the ball, they don’t strike out a lot. If those two seniors (Bryan Henry and Michael Hyde) can get by throwing 85-86, they have a chance to do real well.
|In The Dugout|
|Alex Wilson, rhp, Winthrop|
Wilson pitched well in Winthrop’s 2-1 loss against UCLA last weekend, but Bruins senior Tyson Brummett outlasted him, and UCLA pushed across a run in the ninth inning to foil Wilson’s bid to beat another major opponent. This weekend, Wilson will pitch against Maryland in the Winthrop Challenge. The 2006 first-team freshman All-American talked about his reputation as a giant killer, his road to Winthrop and his impressive freshman year, which ended with a loss to North Carolina:
You have opened up at Miami and at UCLA the last two years, and you very nearly beat both of them. It just so happens that Miami and UCLA play each other this weekend–how would you break down that matchup?
They both seem like they lost some good players from last year, but I believe Miami has enough talent returning. They had a couple real solid freshmen last year, (Jemile) Weeks and (Yonder) Alonso, and their team speed was incredible last year, and it seems like they have the arms coming back to come and compete, where I believe UCLA is short an arm in their rotation. I wasn’t very impressed with the Sunday guy they had (Gavin Brooks), I think he can be beaten. Their lineup is pretty tough from top to bottom, they do a very good job of picking up little details–if you’re tipping pitches or the catcher’s tipping pitches, we had to switch signals two or three times in the game. Solid lineup, not tremendous power, but base to base.
Last year you beat Miami, then you beat Wade LeBlanc and Alabama, then you pitched into the ninth in a win against Evansville in your first three starts. Later in the year you beat Clemson. That’s quite a resume for a freshman–what was the highlight?
My favorite game last year by far was Clemson. Just seeing a lot of the guys on the team are from that area, a big rivalry for them, going into the game and never being in it, I can still feel the atmosphere of the game, great game to go in and pitch very well and come out with the win. Phil Carey hit a home run in the second or third and Heath Rollins hit one later. That really set the tempo.
You also pitched against North Carolina last year in regionals. Out of all the teams you faced, who was the toughest? Who was the best hitter you saw all year?
The toughest team was North Carolina. That last game of the year, I couldn’t throw anything by anybody, they were putting balls in play, bounces were going their way, they were on a roll there at the end and they were the toughest team I faced. I was worn down at the end of last year, (had) not ever thrown that amount of innings in that short a period of time. My arm felt fine, but I lost my legs a little at the end.
The best hitter is Josh Horton from UNC. He will hurt you deep if you make a mistake, otherwise he will put everything in play. I had trouble with him every time he came to the plate.
How did a West Virginia kid end up at Winthrop, anyway?
One of my good friends, Daniel Carte, I went to high school with him (in Hurricane, W.V.). He came down here and had a great year, drafted in the second round in 2005, there was a little connection there. It basically came down to where I’d fit in the best. I’m not a big school type of guy, just found a small school where I’d feel comfortable and play big schools. Everybody characterizes me as a country kid, I just kind of go along with it. I get picked on every once in a while and it fits.