College Weekend Preview: March 10-12

TOP 25 SCHEDULE

Virginia at (1) Georgia Tech
(25) Kansas at (2) Clemson
(4) North Carolina at Wake Forest
Akron at (5) Tennessee
Arizona at (6) Mississippi State
East Carolina at (7) Cal State Fullerton
Maryland at (8) Florida State
Quinnipiac at (9) South Carolina
Cal State Northridge at (10) Arkansas
(11) Oregon State at New Mexico
Oral Roberts at (12) Tulane
Stetson at (13) Louisiana State
Alabama at (14) Nebraska
Harvard at (15) Florida
(16) Stanford at Southern California
Purdue at (18) Missouri
(19) Mississippi at UCLA
(22) Long Beach State at (21) Texas
Oklahoma State at (23) Pepperdine
(24) Cal Poly at/vs./at UC Santa Barbara

TOP 25 TOURNAMENTS

Whataburger Classic, Corpus Christi, Texas
(17) Arizona State, (3) Rice, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Texas Christian

Baseball Express Collegiate Classic, San Antonio, Texas
Illinois, Louisiana-Lafayette, Notre Dame, UT-San Antonio, (20) Texas A&M

MEANINGFUL MATCHUP

Long Beach State at Texas
looked like an important series when schedules were released in the
fall, and it has shaped up to be one. The reason for the series’
importance has changed, however. We’re not looking at two teams
battling for national superiority as much as a pair of clubs flirting
with .500 and in need of the validation a big series win would bring.
Both teams have defeated Rice in tournaments, but aside from Long Beach
State’s season-opening sweep of Southern California, neither team owns
a defining series win.

UPSET CITY

Purdue
coach Doug Schreiber enjoys playing an aggressive schedule. Maybe his
hitters won’t agree. The Boilermakers (2-3) faced Daniel Bard last
Saturday and Andrew Miller on Sunday in a series at North Carolina.
Their next game? Friday at Missouri, where Max
Scherzer awaits. That’s three straight opposing pitchers who could be
the first three players selected in this year’s draft.

Purdue
hitters struck out 23 times in 16 innings against Bard and Miller, but
the experience should leave them as prepared as any team in the nation
when they face Scherzer. Factor in that Purdue upset North Carolina in
the Friday opener and played two close games to finish the series, and
we like the Boilers to win twice against the Tigers.

IN THE DUGOUT

Senior shortstop Chris Minaker
leads Stanford in all kinds of offensive categories (.381 average,
three homers, 19 RBIs, .587 slugging percentage) after adjusting his
approach in the offseason to focus more on driving certain pitches in
certain areas of the strike zone. He’s started and played every inning
of every game since midway through his sophomore year–even staying in
a 2005 game against Kansas despite suffering a minor concussion. The
Lynnwood, Wash., native recently received an invitation to apply to
become a Rhodes Scholar.

Sitting on the bench your freshman year, did you expect at some point to see your name atop the stats leader board?

I’d
be lying if I said I wholeheartedly believed that the whole way–there
were definitely frustrations earlier in my career. Danny Putnam was a
big influence on me. He struggled his freshman year and turned into one
of best college hitters Stanford has had. He did wonders in encouraging
me.

Hitting in middle of the order, I really try to focus
in and get the big hit in the big situation when we need it. It helps
having guys like Michael Taylor around you in the batting order to take
the pressure off. But I want to be the guy in the big spot.

Who’s the toughest pitcher you’ve faced?

Our
conference is chock full of them. I start off with (Washington’s) Tim
Lincecum. He’s got the fastball and the curveball and that funky am
slot. The guy we’re seeing this weekend, (Southern California’s) Ian
Kennedy always has to be considered one of the best for his ability to
control his fastball. It’s not as if (California’s) Brandon Morrow or
(Oregon State’s) Dallas Buck are on any different of a tier; every
Friday night in the Pac-10 is tough.

What about your teammate, Greg Reynolds?

I
saw him enough in intrasquads, I’ve had enough of Greg Reynolds. He’s
pitching well off his fastball and is very aggressive. He has the
confidence to throw his curveball in any count. He trusts his stuff.
His walk numbers jump out at you–they’re not there.

You’ve
already finished your degree in sociology and have started graduate
school in the same field, do you think your aptitude in school turned
some teams off to drafting you as a junior?

I
would have loved to have been able to sign, but looking back in
retrospect I don’t feel like I was ready. Jumping into pro baseball is
the start of your career. If you’re not where you want to be confidence
wise and skill wise, you’re not ready. Now I’m happy that I didn’t get
drafted. Ultimately, I want to be a major league baseball player. I
really like working with people and management. I’ve kept my undergrad
and graduate degree fairly broad, so I have leeway when my career is
over to do a lot of different things.

Of all the people you’ve met at Stanford, who’s provided the biggest ‘Wow’ moment?

I
sat down for an hour and got to interview (for a graduate class) Bill
Walsh (the former Stanford and 49ers football coach who invented the
West Coast offense and is now serving as the school’s interim athletic
director). I was very intimidated–here’s a Super Bowl-winning Hall of
Famer. He turned out to be one of the nicest, most genuinely
interesting men I’ve ever met. I asked him about how competitiveness,
success and failure have shaped his life. It was cool to hear stories
about his coaching career and how winning and losing shaped his career.
I learned about what a motivating factor losing is. He can remember
every loss all the way back to his high school coaching career. He
hates the thought of being outsmarted. He told me in the midst of
competition winners say, ‘I won’t let this happen.’ I really applied
that to baseball. The worst part of losing or not coming through is
letting everyone down. It’s not the personal failure.

RECOMMENDED READING

Boyd Nation has all kinds of interesting statistical studies on his Website, and in the latest one he looks at conference records and winning percentage for every league over the last 10 seasons. The results can be helpful in quantifying which teams have played consistently well, and some of the top teams are surprising.

WINNING WAYS

The nation’s longest active win streaks, entering weekend play:

Georgia Tech 14
Florida State 12
Wake Forest 10
Wichita State 10
Alabama 8
James Madison 8
Kansas 8
Kansas State 8
Mississippi State 8
New Mexico 8

Please don’t say rebuilding in front of Ray Tanner.

“That’s a disgusting word to me,” the South Carolina coach said. “I never have used that word and I never will use that word.”

He won’t even say the word.

“You’re
either good enough to win games, or you’re not. I’ll never hide behind
having a young team. That’s unacceptable, and my players know that.”

So
with a roster that includes 22 new players (12 freshmen and 10 junior
college transfers), Tanner is pleased that his club owns a 10-2 record
that includes a two-game split with a veteran Clemson team.

But he’s not satisfied.

Tanner
wants his team, which gets regular contributions from seven of those
newcomers–including freshmen Justin Smoak, Reese Havens and James
Darnell starting in the infield and righthander Mike Cisco (8 2/3
scoreless innings)–to continue improving.

Tanner would love
if he could instantly age his players, adding the maturity and
experience that can only come from progressing through the schedule and
the calendar. But he cannot, of course, so the freshmen must learn on
the fly. Junior college transfers such as left fielder Cheyne Hurst
(.395-1-8) and DH Robbie Grinestaff (team-leading five homers and 16
RBIs) also are still adjusting to the nuances of the Division I game,
though they add a modicum of experience.

Still, there’s no substitute for actual game experience.

“At
the college level it’s paramount,” Stanford senior shortstop Chris
Minaker said. “You get into so many situations where everyone is very
evenly matched skill wise, it really becomes who’s mentally tougher in
a situation. Talent wise, everyone’s really good, so having experience
gives you the comfort and relaxation in the big moment to calm down and
play the game.”

Minaker and Stanford have started 10-5 with
series wins against Cal State Fullerton and Texas despite an unusually
large number of freshmen regulars for the Cardinal. In a program where
even heralded recruits such as Minaker’s classmates John Mayberry Jr.
and Jed Lowrie must wait their turns for stardom, seven freshmen have
found regular roles this season.

That includes left fielder
and leadoff man Joey August, who leads the team with 14 runs scored and
a .525 on-base percentage, lefthander Jeremy Bleich, who has recorded
five saves, and righthander/third baseman Austin Yount, who has a
game-winning home run to his credit and has combined with Bleith to
allow one earned run in 19 innings of relief.

“Expectations
for us weren’t astronomically high at the beginning of the year, but
we’ve been fortunate enough to beat some good teams,” Minaker said.
“It’s good experience for the young kids because a lot of freshmen are
getting a lot of opportunities. You can really see the adjustments
being made. It’s a credit also to our senior leadership with John
Hester and Chris Lewis and Matt Manship. We’ve all tried to do our job
of easing players into their positions, and it’s easier if you have the
support.”

Progress comes in small steps and big jumps. Smoak
walked into Tanner’s office on a Sunday morning in the middle of South
Carolina’s series sweep of Radford offering an apology for his slow
start. He knew he was swinging at pitches he should not have, and
taking pitches he should have attacked. He was applying pressure to
himself, to which Tanner simply asked him to relax and play the way he
always had.

Smoak collected five hits in that afternoon’s
doubleheader, reaching base in seven consecutive plate appearances
while swatting two doubles and a home run.

“When you’re
recruiting, you project a lot on what players might become,” Tanner
said. “With this class, we’ve got a lot of guys like Smoak and Havens
who are already good players. They just need to play, to build
confidence and adjust to the pitching.”

Pat Murphy’s Arizona
State club serves as another example. Veterans led the Sun Devils to
the College World Series before moving on to pro careers, but there’s
no consideration given to rebuilding when one of the nation’s best
recruiting classes shows up the following semester.

Freshman
lefthander Jeff Urlaub (4-0, 1.93) has emerged as Arizona State’s best
pitcher, with classmate Ike Davis (2-2, 5.93) also a stalwart in the
weekend rotation. They throw to first-year catcher Preston Paramore
(.293-1-12), who has impressed with his abilities behind and at the
plate. Davis starts at DH and bats cleanup, where he has posted a .347
average and team-best 28 RBIs following a pair of grand slams last week.

Still,
there will be times when the fact that these clubs have freshmen
playing key spots is readily apparent. Take Arizona State’s first road
trip, for example. It trekked an hour from Tempe to Surprise for a
tournament in which it lost three games by an aggregate score of 32-9,
made six errors and walked 27 batters. Other than that unsightly blip,
the Sun Devils are 15-2 win a series win at Baylor on their second road
trip of the year.

Tennessee joined Arizona State as a
veteran team in last year’s CWS, and this year’s Volunteers feature
seven players in the everyday lineup or weekend rotation in their first
year at the Division I level. That inexperience, coach Rod Delmonico
said, played a role in an 8-5 loss to Georgia Tech two weeks ago.
Tennessee made two first-inning errors that led to five unearned runs.

“It’s
hard to factor in that experience, you have to grow into it,” Delmoncio
said. “We’re making some mental mistakes that a veteran club doesn’t
make. A team like Winthrop can beat a Miami or Alabama because it’s got
a lot of players back on its roster from last year, and that was a
regional team.

“(Georgia Tech) reminds me a lot of us last
year. They’ve got everybody back except for a couple of guys. They’re
experienced. They had a lot of opposite-field hits. When they were
struggling they did a good job of hitting the ball where it’s pitched.”

Experience
encompasses those small nuances of the game: hitting a cutoff man,
running the correct bunt defense, calling a popup, taking an extra base
on a dirt ball, scoring a runner from third base with less than two
outs.

“It’s things that don’t show up in the box score,” Tanner said.

“We’re
not as good now as I want to be, and we’re not as good now as we’re
going to be. We have to go through the process to get there, and you’ve
got to win games as you go. You can lose games and still gain
experience, but you’d rather go out and win.”

AROUND THE NATION

• Nebraska ace Joba Chamberlain
will not pitch against Alabama this weekend. He had tightness in his
triceps during a bullpen session and coach Mike Anderson decided to
skip his start as a precaution. Lefthander Tony Watson moves to Friday, righthander Johnny Dorn slides to Saturday and red-shirt freshman righthander Charlie Shirek will start Sunday.


Oregon State junior righthander Dallas Buck is off to a 3-0, 2.35
start, but said he’s going through something of a dead arm period and
isn’t pleased with the velocity on his sinking fastball. “The fastball
hasn’t been good since last year. I’m just waiting to get better,” he
told the Oregonian. Winners of six straight games, Oregon State (10-4)
will need Buck to throw well this week at New Mexico, where it will
again play without center fielder Tyler Graham after his balky
hamstring acted up again. The Lobos (13-4) have won eight straight
games, scoring at least six runs in 13 of their last 14 games and
reaching nine or more six times. New Mexico averages 8.8 runs per game,
led by the video game-like statistical outputs of juniors Chris Carlson (.359-6-23) and Daniel Stovall (.351-4-32).

• List Florida junior first baseman Matt LaPorta
as “hopeful” to play this weekend against Harvard. He has missed the
last 10 games (six of which UF has lost), but was swinging the bat with
more intensity this week.

• Northeastern junior righthander Adam Ottavino
might have authored the pitching performance of the week in a 2-1 loss
at No. 1 Georgia Tech. The 2005 America East pitcher of the year took a
no-hitter into the seventh inning and struck out 12 Yellow Jackets
before Steven Blackwood connected on a two-run homer.
The 6-foot-5 Ottavino consistently worked at 91-93 mph and used a plus
slider in helping limit Tech to two hits–its lowest total since Feb.
18, 1992.

• Righthanders Kenn Kasparek and Kyle McCulloch
combined to help Texas beat Rice 9-5 on Tuesday. Texas showed how
important the game was in using arguably its two best arms in a midweek
game with Long Beach State and Arizona State coming to Austin over the
next week. Texas has eight consecutive wins against Rice.

College | #2006 #Weekend Preview

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