Three weeks into the season, Cal State Fullerton is battle-hardened, and its coaching staff has a good idea where the team stands. Titans coach Dave Serrano is never one to shy away from expectations, and he said this week that he believes this might be the best pitching staff he’s ever coached. After the Titans allowed just nine hits in a three-game sweep of Southern California last weekend, it seemed clear that their pitching staff is firing on all cylinders.
The Titans proved themselves among the nation’s elite teams with a road series win at Texas Christian—an experienced, talented team loaded with Omaha veterans. That set drew very good crowds in excess of 5,000 fans per game, so the Titans don’t figure to be intimidated this weekend when they travel to Baton Rouge to take on Louisiana State, which draws better than any team in college baseball. The new Alex Box Stadium should be rocking this weekend, as the Tigers face their first true test of the season.
|Top 25 Series
|Rhode Island at (1) Florida
Illinois-Chicago at (2) Vanderbilt
Arkansas-Little Rock at (3) Oklahoma
Cal State Bakersfield at (4) South Carolina
Brown at (5) Texas
(6) Cal State Fullerton at (16) Louisiana State
Houston Baptist at (7) Texas Christian
Boston College at (8) Florida State
(9) Arizona State at Auburn
11) Virginia at (10) Clemson
Colorado at (14) Arizona
15) North Carolina at Wake Forest
Louisiana Tech at (17) Baylor
21) College of Charleston at Davidson
International at (22) Texas A&M
(23) Fresno State at Nebraska
State at (24) Tulane
at (25) Georgia Tech
Top 25 Tournaments
Dodgertown Classic, Los Angeles
(13) UCLA, Georgia, St. Mary’s, Southern California
AT&T Tournament, San Francisco:
(18) Rice, (20) California, UC Santa Barbara, Long Beach State, Louisiana-Lafayette, San Francisco
LSU got off to a 12-1 start by beating up on the likes of Wake Forest, Holy Cross and Princeton, but the Tigers haven’t seen anything like Cal State Fullerton yet. The next two weeks, when LSU hosts Fullerton and Florida, will tell us a lot more about just how good the Tigers are than the first three weeks revealed.
“Everybody’s making a big deal out of that—we haven’t played the strongest schedule, and this is like our first major test,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “But listen, they’re playing one of the best teams in the country, and we’re playing one of the best teams in the country. But both of us will have a long way to go after this. But you can’t help but get excited about it. It’s going to be electric, no question about that. Everybody in Baton Rouge has been excited in anticipation of this series.”
While Cal State Fullerton had to replace its premium up-the-middle players from a year ago (All-Americans and first-rounders Christian Colon and Gary Brown), LSU welcomed back two of the nation’s best middle-of-the-diamond players in center fielder Mikie Mahtook and shortstop Austin Nola. Junior Tyler Hanover was originally slated to play second base this year, with talented freshman JaCoby Jones at third, but Mainieri flip-flopped them before the season began, and Jones in particular has benefited. He leads the Tigers in hitting (.439) and has three homers, 14 RBIs and four stolen bases, and Mainieri said the move to second base has taken some pressure off him at the plate.
“He’s been pretty electric—when he’s good, he’s a really good player, but he can also be at the other end of the spectrum sometimes,” Mainieri said. “He’s got a lively body, kind of a Mikie Mahtook in the infield type of guy. Hanover’s better than him at third right now—he’s got good hands and a strong, accurate arm. I think third is the most underrated position on the field. The move has allowed JaCoby to relax defensively, and come into his own as a hitter. And he’s an outstanding second baseman, with his range. I believe the further you area way from the hitter, the more your athleticism comes into play. Third is more of a reaction position, and Hanover has better reactions than Jones.”
Jones was one of the crown jewels of LSU’s second-ranked recruiting class last fall, but he’s hardly the only freshman making a big impact for the tigers. Ty Ross hasn’t started hitting yet (.185), but Mainieri said he’s done a terrific job replacing Micah Gibbs behind the plate.
And freshmen are holding down two-thirds of the weekend rotation. Righthander Kevin Gausman (2-0, 2.55 with 22 strikeouts and four walks) is living up to the lofty expectations that followed him from Colorado to Baton Rouge, but fellow righty Kurt McCune (3-0, 1.47) has been a revelation.
“I hate to use the word ‘surprise,’ because when you recruit a player you never want to say you’re surprised they’ve done well,” Mainieri said. “But even among our program, he was not necessarily the one we expected to evolve into one of our main guys. But he has an aura about him; he believes he can get the job done. He pounds the zone. He’s not a tall pitcher, but he has a very high delivery, so he can get that plane working down in the zone, and it’s deceptive. He’s handled some adversity, and always seemed to pitch out of those situations.”
Gausman and McCune have markedly different styles, but they’ve both gotten results. McCune pitches heavily off his fastball, which sits around 88-91 but plays up because of its angle and deception. He mixes in a big roundhouse breaking ball that has been surprisingly effective. Gausman, meanwhile, is a true power pitcher who works in the 93-95 range and gets up to 97-98 at times. Mainieri said his curveball has more bite now that he’s gotten out of the high altitude of Colorado, and his changeup and two-seamer have really come on strong.
“It doesn’t matter how hard you throw; the country is filled with hard throwers,” Mainieri said. “I told him, ‘You need to be a pitcher as well as a guy with a good arm.’ This past Saturday was the first time he was really in total command of all four of his pitches.”
The young pitchers, as well as senior righty Ben Alsup, will have to be sharp this weekend, because the stingy Fullerton staff won’t give up many extra runs.
“We know this weekend who we’re up against,” Mainieri said. “You’re facing one of the very best pitching staffs in the country. There’s just not going to be a lot of margin for error for our pitchers. It seems like every time I look up, Fullerton’s playing a 2-1 game or a 1-0 game or whatever. We just haven’t gone up against a pitching staff like that yet. This weekend will tell us if we’re ready for that.”
After three games against UCLA last weekend, Nebraska coach Mike Anderson came away suitably impressed with the Bruins’ pitching staff.
“I think it is one of the better pitching staffs that I’ve seen in college baseball, ever—those guys are exceptional,” Anderson said.
|INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Yet the Cornhuskers went toe-to-toe with the Bruins, whose two All-Americans (Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer) both earned no-decisions despite a combined 19 innings of brilliant work. All three games of the series went extra innings, so Nebraska’s young starters earned no-decisions, too. And while they did not pitch as deep into the games as their UCLA counterparts, they did not back down, either.
Keller, a freshman righthander, is flashing front-line potential early on in his Nebraska career. Keller allowed just one hit over six shutout innings last Friday, striking out eight while walking four. He was a key member of Nebraska’s 23rd-ranked recruiting class last fall, and with freshman lefty Logan Ehlers suspended for 60 percent of the season for violating the NCAA’s contemptible “no agent” rule, Keller has taken center stage. Through three starts, Keller is 1-0, 0.00 with 15 strikeouts and 11 walks in 14 innings.
Anderson said Keller has had two strong starts so far, and he walked five over 2 1/3 innings in his second start, down in Texas against Northern Colorado. Keller is a diabetic, and Anderson said his blood sugar was off in that game—an experience that taught the Huskers they must prepare Keller carefully for each start.
“Right now, he’s got a lively fastball—he’s 91-92 mph, and the offspeed’s coming along, a slider and a changeup,” Anderson said. “He’s a freshman, and his Achilles’ heel is he probably walks a few too many guys. But he does a good job. He had a good fall for us—I wouldn’t say it was spectacular, but there were signs. I really think the biggest thing is, come January, he really started to compete. We feel confident enough in him to throw him out there Friday against UCLA and Fresno State.”
Fresno coach Mike Batesole says the Bulldogs finally have their own legitimate ace on Fridays for the first time since their 2008 national championship run. They always hoped Benny would become that rotation anchor, ever since he arrived as one of the gems of their 17th-ranked 2008 recruiting class. That was a big class with 17 freshmen, and it took some time for the young arms to mature. Benny had his ups and downs over his first two seasons, going 4-4, 5.09 as a freshman, then regressing to 1-3, 8.18 as a sophomore last spring.
“He threw a couple games his freshman year where you thought you had a Friday night guy locked in,” Batesole said. “He threw a great game against Irvine in a regional down there when they were No. 1 in the country. We thought we had our Friday guy locked down, then he took a little step backward last year.”
Batesole said Benny pitched in the 90-92 mph range as a freshman, but his velocity dipped into the 86-88 range as a sophomore while he struggled to grow into his body. Now his velocity is back up, and he has rediscovered the life on his fastball, helping him go 3-0, 2.70 through three starts.
“He’s a power sinker guy, and his slider complements that,” Batesole said. “He’s been working on a changeup but hasn’t had it until this year. The most important thing was he’s gotten that power sinker back. His freshman year it had run and sink on it, then last year it was just run. Now it’s back to a power sinker, and on top of that he’s got a changeup, too. Having a good fastball that runs is one thing, but when you’ve got one that runs and has depth to it—any time you can pitch off your fastball and not rely on tricking guys, you’ve got a chance.”
Bill Kernen’s vision is materializing just as he laid it out more than three years ago.
In November of 2007, before Cal State Bakersfield had ever played a baseball game, Kernen told Baseball America he wanted to field a competitive team in 2011.
“I’m actually pointing toward that year, which is the reason I’m not afraid to have a freshman-dominated recruiting class and team that first year,” Kernen said then. “If I went in and had a junior-college-dominated team or even 50-50, those guys will be gone by the time we are postseason eligible (in 2011).
“I would go so far as to say this has the potential to be the most interesting story in college baseball over next four or five years, to see how this thing develops.”
Kernen—whose distinguished resume includes successful stints as head coach at Cal State Northridge and an assistant at Cal State Fullerton and North Carolina State, in addition to a stint as a playwright—built Cal State Bakersfield’s program from scratch. The freshman-laden Roadrunners took all kinds of lumps in the program’s first season in 2009, going 13-37 against a challenging schedule, but they progressed in Year Two, jumping to 26-30.
Now Bakersfield is an experienced bunch that appears capable of withstanding another rigorous schedule. The Roadrunners travel across country this weekend to face defending national champion South Carolina, but they carry an 11-3 record with them. Bakersfield has five wins against Pac-10 teams, including a 2-1 upset of Arizona State last Thursday and a sweep of Washington the previous weekend. The Roadrunners also have quality wins against Washington State, San Francisco and Kansas.
“We’re gratified to have a successful start like this, because we’ve been dedicated and working hard on this for 30 months to get this program going,” Kernen said this week. “When we begin to see the results of the efforts, that’s just very encouraging. You hope that’s going to happen—it was certainly the plan.”
From the beginning, Kernen’s plan also involved doing it with a small roster. One of the remarkable things about Bakersfield’s success is that it has just seven scholarships and one paid assistant at its disposal. Kernen likes a small roster anyway, to keep everyone actively engaged and allow him to sell the opportunity of playing time to recruits, and it’s easier to stretch seven scholarships among fewer players. So Bakersfield’s roster only features 22 players, leaving little margin for error.
“We know we have to stay healthy,” Kernen said. “We have a team rule that nobody can get hurt, so hopefully nobody violates that one.”
The Roadrunners are led by a handful of true impact players. The team’s best player is junior catcher Jeremy Rodriguez (.449/.517/.592), a talented switch-hitter who also runs the show defensively.
“He calls all the pitches, leads the defense, bats third for us—does some very, very key things day in and day out,” Kernen said. “That’s the most important defensive position, we feel, and he’s living up to that responsibility as well as you can. He knows he can play and he plays that way, looks for challenges. He’s been special for us. He hit .400 last year for the whole year, and he didn’t get much recognition because nobody was paying attention to us, but he’s a premier player on the national level.”
Outfielders Andrew Letourneau (.293 with five steals), Kevin Younger and Ryan McIntyre (.354 with five steals) bring speed to the lineup, while McIntyre, Rodriguez and Mick Gaston (.333 with 12 RBIs) provide a bit of pop. The Roadrunners don’t figure to outslug the likes of South Carolina, but they’ll grind out at-bats, and their pitching should keep them in a lot of games.
Fifth-year senior Mike McCarthy (1-1, 1.71) holds down the Friday starter spot. He’s a good competitor with a split-finger that can be real out-pitch when it’s on. Five-foot-7 lefty Jonathan Montoya (2-0, 2.95) and 6-foot-6 righty Tommy Hoenshell (2-1, 2.42) round out the weekend rotation, and both are tenacious strike-throwers. Two-way talent Martin Medina (1-0, 2.25 with two saves) provides invaluable versatility on the diamond and holds down the back of the bullpen with his great slider and his heart. He escaped a 10th-inning, bases-loaded jam against Arizona State to secure Bakersfield’s defining win so far.
The Roadrunners will have plenty more chances for big wins, starting this weekend but continuing later this season with series against UC Irvine, UCLA and Fresno State, among other quality West Coast foes.
“I felt very confident that we would at least compete this year,” Kernen said. “Particularly with the difficulty of this schedule, we have a lot of bloody noses ahead of us, and we understand that. We’ll get beat up a few times, and probably have some games we’ll score some runs too. But most of the games will be scratch and claw type of games. That’s really the main objective we’ve had: to be able to be in games, compete every day, and grow up through that experience.
“We don’t have any illusions about being an elite program yet. But when we have our top three going their best, we think we can compete with anybody.”
The Sooners have opened their season with a 14-game winning streak, the nation’s longest active streak. At 14-0, Oklahoma is the lone Division I unbeaten team left standing heading into Week Four, when OU hosts Arkansas-Little Rock.
Oklahoma did beat up on some overmatched opposition early, sweeping a four-game set against William & Mary, two midweek games against Arkansas-Pine Bluff and a three-game series from Oakland. The Sooners then aced their first legitimate test of the season this past weekend on the West Coast, cruising to a pair of wins against San Diego State plus single victories over San Diego and California.
While coaches across college baseball are bemoaning their teams’ offensive struggles with the new BBCOR-certified bats, Oklahoma just keeps chugging along at the plate. The Sooners have out-hit their opponents .383 to .233; out-homered opponents 17-3; and outscored opponents 131-44. Oklahoma ranks third nationally in scoring (10.9 runs per game, behind only James Madison and New Mexico State), and first in scoring margin (plus-7.4 runs per game).
“We didn’t make a mental issue of it early,” Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway said of the new bats. “Sure enough, our guys believe that everything’s the same and let’s just go play. It’s fair for everybody—everybody’s swinging the same bats. Our guys are strong believers, they’re very humble, they’re very hungry. We don’t have a cocky bunch at all, but we have a very confident bunch. We never made the bats an issue. I was surprised by some of the coaches’ comments around the country about how much it’s going to change the face of college baseball. There’s still some things you’re able to do, and our kids still believe in their skills and abilities.”
This weekend, Oklahoma will get even stronger. Last year’s starting shortstop, Caleb Bushyhead, has been sidelined while recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and he is set to make his return to the lineup Friday. And senior closer Ryan Duke, the program’s all-time saves leader (26), will return to action Saturday after serving a 15-game suspension for violating team rules.
Senior Cale Ellis and sophomore Jack Mayfield have filled in admirably at short, though Ellis has gotten the bulk of the playing time at the position recently. Mayfield’s versatility has been invaluable; he’s hitting .361/.410/.556 while making three errors in 12 games. He has also held down the back of the bullpen, racking up three saves and posting a 1.80 ERA in five appearances. Now that the Sooners are returning to full strength, Mayfield’s burden figures to shrink somewhat, but Oklahoma will be stronger long-term for knowing that he can handle the dual role.
Meanwhile, senior righty Michael Rocha has emerged as a legitimate ace of a strong pitching staff. Rocha has gone 3-0, 0.78 with 19 strikeouts and two walks in 23 innings.
“He’s been really good—he just hits his spots,” Golloway said. “He doesn’t try to overpitch; he’s right there about 88-90, he’s got tremendous sink. The velocity’s not the key for him, it’s just location, location, location. I think our team’s really starting to believe when he’s on the mound.”
And belief is a powerful thing, as Oklahoma’s hitters have demonstrated.
Pitching was the primary reason the Ducks ranked No. 14 in the nation in the preseason, a year after winning 40 games and finishing as runners-up at the Norwich Regional. And Oregon’s pitching has largely been as good as expected so far this spring, posting a 3.06 ERA, led by starters Tyler Anderson (1-0, 1.27) and Madison Boer (2-0, 0.39).
But the Ducks were also supposed to be more physical and dangerous offensively. To say the offense has been a disappointment thus far is putting it lightly. Oregon is hitting just .215 as a team. Just one regular—freshman Aaron Jones, who also has two of the team’s three homers—is hitting above .250. Another freshman, Stefan Sabol, was providing a boost, getting off to a 5-for-9 start before being hit by a pitch against St. Mary’s in Week Two. The powerful Sabol suffered a broken bone in his left hand and was expected to be sidelined four to five weeks.
Meanwhile, key veterans like J.J. Altobelli (.174/.216/.239), Jack Marder (.205/.367/.256) and K.C. Serna (.182/.308/.227 in five games since returning from a seven-game suspension for violating team rules) have struggled mightily. Oregon has averaged just 3.8 runs per game during its 5-7 start, which has plunged it out of the Top 25.
“Once we get that big hit with the bases loaded, I feel we’re just going to take off and we’re going to get more runs for our pitchers, because our pitchers are doing great,” Altobelli told the (Salem, Ore.) Statesman Journal after Oregon’s 4-1 loss to Oregon State on Tuesday.
That loss was Oregon’s fifth straight in the Civil War rivalry. The Ducks had their chances Tuesday, loading the bases in the fifth and the seventh but coming away with just one run.
“It’s kind of been a bugaboo of ours so far, not scoring runs,” Oregon coach George Horton told the paper. “To a man, you all tend to try a little harder, and sometimes less is more, especially as a hitter and staying behind the ball.
“They did a much better job than us with guys in scoring position.”
Horton is one of the game’s great coaches, and he seems likely to round his offense into shape eventually. But there is little time to waste; Oregon’s solid nonconference schedule continues this weekend with a visit from an experienced Brigham Young club.
“We’re going through what teams go through when they’re not playing well,” Horton told the (Portland) Oregonian. “When you’re playing like we’re playing . . . every little detail gets magnified. I wish I had the answer, otherwise we wouldn’t be 5-7 right now.”
Virginia’s strikeout-walk ratio through 126 innings this year. Check out the strikeout-walk numbers for Virginia’s top four starters and closer:
Jr. LHP Danny Hultzen: 36-1 K-BB in 21 IP
Sr. RHP Tyler Wilson: 23-5 in 19 IP
Sr. RHP Cody Winiarski: 17-4 in 19 IP
Jr. RHP Will Roberts: 20-2 in 20 IP
So. RHP Branden Kline: 9-1 in 7 IP
The Cavaliers will put their 1.50 staff ERA on the line this weekend at fellow ACC power Clemson, by far the best offensive team on their schedule thus far. But the Tigers know what sort of challenge awaits them in their ACC-opening series.
“They’re certainly one of the top quality teams in this conference,” Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. “They have some of the best pitching in the country—they haven’t allowed more than four runs in a game at any point this season so far, which tells you we’re going to see some top-quality pitching on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. So this is going to be a tremendous challenge for our team.”
Clemson is hitting .343 as a team, led by sophomore catcher Spencer Kieboom (.500/.571/.533 through 30 at-bats). The Tigers have an experienced, talented lineup that is very patient, having drawn 69 walks while striking out just 47 times through 10 games. But there might not be a staff in the country that has done a better job throwing strikes than Virginia.
“We’ve got some hitters on our team, so hopefully we can solve some of the things coming at us this weekend, but it’s going to be a big challenge,” Leggett said.
The Shockers carry a 9-2 record into their big series at Tulane this weekend, and they have largely dominated inferior competition, though they lost twice to Texas-Arlington last weekend at the Dallas Baptist tournament. Wichita boasts a 2.13 ERA, led by senior righty Tim Kelley (1-0, 1.69) and big lefthanders Charlie Lowell (2-1, 1.20), Josh Smith (3-0, 1.88) and Brian Flynn (2-0, 4.26). Flynn and junior righthander Chance Sossamon (0-0, 1.50) have anchored a deep bullpen. Offensively, Wichita is hitting .326 as a team, with shortstop Tyler Grimes (.412) leading the way. A National League scout offered his thoughts on the Shockers.
“They’re better than they were this past weekend. Pitching is the strength of that team. They’ve got the three lefties, and Tim Kelley’s a good, experienced senior guy. He knows how to pitch, he’s had a lot of success. He’s had a good career there. Everything’s just a touch below-average across the board, but he’s just a good senior guy.
“The three lefties, Flynn, Lowell and Smith—Flynn and Lowell have both been up to 94. Lowell has a little better breaking ball, but they’re similar guys. They’re probably more comfortable with Lowell as a starter; Flynn’s been relieving. (Pitching coach) Brent Kemnitz does a good job with those guys and their deliveries—it’s tough to be a big 6-7 high school guy. Josh Smith, I think he did a little better in the summer and the fall. He’s like 86-88 right now, and the slider is 80-81. I heard he was up to 91 back in the fall, but he’s one of those lefties that can pitch. His secondary stuff is OK, and he has some pitchability.
“Sossamon has great arm strength. He’s struggled a little bit when he leaves his fastball up; they can catch up to it. But he’s got a good arm, he’ll sit 90-91 and he’ll get up to 92-93. His fastball’s a little straight, and he threw his slider 76-82. But he’s interesting.
“Grimes is playing pretty good, the shortstop. Range might be an issue at short down the road, but he’s got enough arm, and he’s making the plays so far. He’s really open in his stance at the plate—he needs to do something with that. He’s a baseball player. He needs to rework that approach, but so far he’s putting up some numbers. Kevin Hall’s come on a little bit, the outfielder. He’s the guy that can really run. His bat’s OK, there’s a little buzz about him. Plus speed, at least, four(-second) flats from the right side.
“Johnny Coy, he’s a big power guy, he’s got some power. I like him OK. He’s getting better as a hitter; I think he had a real good summer. Long levers, there’s holes in there. He’s pretty athletic, he was a basketball player. Might have been more of a shooter than a real good premium athlete. He’s played some left field for them, but he’s probably a first baseman. Chris O’Brien grows on you. He’s probably more of a senior-type guy, but a good player with good bloodlines, good makeup. Preston Springer has always hit, but he doesn’t really have a position. They’re mixing a freshman in there, Dayne Parker, at second and third with (Erik) Harbutz.
“I think they are good enough to win a regional, because they go deep pitching.”
Barnes has developed from a skinny, projectable Connecticut high schooler into a marquee draft prospect and a second-team preseason All-American at UConn. The junior righthander has learned to harness his stellar stuff, which includes a fastball that reaches the mid-90s, a two-seamer, a slider, a curveball and a changeup. Scouts like both of his breaking balls; UConn pitching coach Justin Blood said he prefers the slider, while head coach Jim Penders likes the curveball better. In any case, Barnes is loaded with weapons, and he has pitched very well despite a pair of tough-luck losses in his first two starts. He heads into this weekend’s series at San Diego 1-2, 2.12 with 26 strikeouts and seven walks in 20 innings. UConn, which posted losing weekends at the Big East/Big Ten Challenge and the Kleberg Bank tournament in Corpus Christi, bounced back with a nice showing at the USD tournament last weekend. The Huskies are 5-5 heading into the final three games of their West Coast road trip. We sat down with Barnes before UConn’s game at UC Irvine on Tuesday.
Good to see you out here on the West Coast. You guys don’t make your home opener until March 22; how taxing is that on you?
It’s taxing. I think it’s hard to go from playing outside on the weekend, to back inside during the week, to back outside for the weekend. It’s hard to go in and out, it’s hard for the hitters because while we try to simulate live play as much as we can, the backdrops are different, you don’t get to see the ball flight as much. You don’t have the realistic aspect of the game, which I think is a huge part. But I really can’t complain about this, coming to California and Florida and Texas and seeing 70 and sunny.
Do you feel like there’s a sense out there nationally, especially from the South and the West, that they don’t really buy into you guys as an elite team yet because you’re from up North, even though you won 48 games last year? Do you feel like you have something to prove still?
Absolutely. Last year we had a great team, and we did a lot. But people still think that, especially since we hosted regionals as a No. 2 seed and we didn’t win the regional, people definitely still don’t think that we’re an elite team, an elite university baseball-wise. They might be right saying that the first two weekends, because we didn’t exactly play that well. Now that we’ve got a couple weekends under our belts, we’ve been on the grass and the dirt and had different backdrops, I think our true ability is starting to come out now. Hopefully we can continue to play that way and show people that last year wasn’t a fluke season, and go further this year.
Was it hard to get used to the hype surrounding the program early on, and the scouts following you guys everywhere?
For sure. I think our team expected to come into the year ranked nationally, and once we saw that we were pretty highly ranked, it went from, ‘We know we’re good,’ to we kind of got caught up in it, and I almost thought we felt like we could show up to the ballpark and we were just going to roll over teams. I think the first two weekends, we found out that wasn’t going to happen, especially in the opener against Purdue. As much as it sucked to lose those early games, I think it was a good lesson, and I’d rather learn that lesson now than later on in the season when they count more. I don’t think the scouts affected us too much, because we had scouts around the team last year to see (Mike) Olt and Pierre (LePage), and a little bit the year before with (Dan) Mahoney.
But it’s a little bit of a circus now, isn’t it?
Yeah, it definitely is. There’s a lot, and it’s hard not to get caught up in it, but we have good teammates and coaches that keep us all focused. Those first games of the year really grounded us. We just have to play our game, have fun, stay loose and get after it.
Are you pretty happy with the way you’ve pitched in your first three starts?
Yeah, I’m pretty happy with it. My goal every time out is to try and put a quality start out there and give my team an opportunity to win, and I think my first three times out I did that.
The Indiana game, you get to face Alex Dickerson, who you know well from the summer—did he talk trash after he hit that three-run homer off you?
No, he didn’t talk trash. Me and Springer are really good friends with him because we played with him for two summers in the Cape and then Team USA last summer. When we got on the bus, I was kind of (ticked) off, so I texted him asking, “What happened? Did you see it well, was it left up?” He said he saw it really well and it was left up a little bit. It was a changeup, and you can’t do that against a hitter like that. He ragged on me a little bit about it, but what are you going to do? I told him, “If I was going to get beat by anybody on that team, I wanted it to be you.”
Your pitching coach (Justin Blood) said he thinks sometimes you’re doing hitters a favor by throwing your changeup, and he’d almost like to see you reach back and blow 95 by hitters more often. What do you think?
I think it obviously makes life a little bit easier that I throw hard, but I do like to incorporate the changeup. Right now it may not be the best pitch, but I think down the road, against the really good teams who can hit hard pitching, the changeup is going to be a pitch that I need to have in order to keep hitters off balance. They can’t time up mid-90s if you throw a changeup, and it makes the fastball seem five miles an hour harder. I want to throw it in games so I have the confidence to throw it when I do need it.
Do you feel like your secondary stuff—you throw a slider and a curve as well as your changeup and your two-seamer—has improved the most since you got here?
Definitely. When I came out of high school, in my conference in high school if you could throw 90 mph, you were going to dominate, so I didn’t really need offspeed pitches. So I had a curveball, but it wasn’t that great. It was loopy, not sharp, it was more of a show-me curveball. But after my freshman fall, I learned quickly that 90 in college will get crushed. So my freshman year I was really trying to work on my breaker to make it consistent, and really develop trust in that pitch. Over the past couple years, it’s become a pitch I can throw anytime I want. Then my freshman summer in Cape Cod, one of my buddies from St. John’s showed me a slider, and then that pitch became another breaker that’s a little harder, a little different spin. This summer, my pitching coach at Wareham really helped me with my changeup. In the two and a half years I’ve been here, my main focus has been to develop offspeed pitches I could command and control whenever I want.
Do you consider either your curveball or your slider as a primary out pitch?
A lot of people question why do you throw two curveballs? You won’t be able to do that in pro ball. But I like throwing two curveballs. One day, one of the breakers is going to be on. It depends on the situation, who’s hitting, which one is working better that day, as to which is the out pitch. Every single day I go out to the mound, I know that one of the breakers is going to work, no matter what. Some days there’s two in there, and those are the fun days.
Were you one of those guys that always wanted to go to UConn?
UConn wasn’t my first choice to go to as a baseball school. I wanted to go down South—all the schools you always hear about, the Clemsons, the Virginias, the Floridas, the LSUs. That’s where I wanted to go initially, but I didn’t really get much attention from them out of high school. I maybe got a letter from LSU, and I went to a camp at Virginia, but it didn’t work out with the roster limitations. Ultimately it came down to St. John’s and UConn. I ended up coming to UConn because I was good buddies with Springer before high school. I knew they had a good rising program with a lot of talent, and I wanted to go somewhere to make an impact and help make the program better.
Do you take pride in where the program is now?
I definitely take pride in it, especially being from the Northeast, being from Connecticut. It’s my home state school, a place a lot of people in the Northeast hear about. I think we take a lot of pride in bringing our team to that level, making ourselves nationally recognized.