It’s the series of the year in college baseball: the two-time defending national champions against the indisputable preseason No. 1, a rematch of the College World Series Finals taking place in the heart of baseball-crazed Gamecock nation.
Florida and South Carolina were evenly matched a year ago, when they finished as two of the three teams tied for the Southeastern Conference regular-season title. Three of the five games between the two teams were decided by one run. But the Gamecocks came from behind to win Sunday’s rubber game when the teams met in Gainesville in late March, and the Gamecocks won in 11 innings the next time they met in the first game of the CWS Finals. The following night, the Gamecocks won again to open TD Ameritrade Park Omaha the same way they shut down Rosenblatt Stadium—with a national championship.
This time around, Florida looks like the clear favorite, even heading into Columbia without Sunday starter Karsten Whitson (who is slated to return from arm fatigue next Tuesday or next weekend against Mississippi) and center fielder Tyler Thompson (who tore his anterior cruciate ligament last Friday against Vanderbilt).
The top-ranked Gators are 20-1 overall and carry a school-record 18-game winning streak into this weekend. They own sweeps over Vanderbilt and at Miami, plus a series win against Cal State Fullerton.
|TOP 25 SCHEDULE|
|(1) Florida at (8) South Carolina
Southern California at (2) Stanford
(3) Arkansas at Mississippi State
(20) North Carolina State at (4) North Carolina
(5) Arizona at (19) Oregon State
(6) Florida State at Wake Forest
Washington State at (7) UCLA
(9) Rice at Memphis
(10) Texas A&M at Pepperdine
(11) Louisiana State at Auburn
Maryland at (12) MIami
Oral Roberts at (13) Cal State Fullerton
California at (14) Arizona State
(15) Georgia Tech at Boston College
(16) Kentucky at Tennessee
(17) Mississippi at Alabama
(18) Georgia at Vanderbilt
East Carolina at (21) Central Florida
(22) Texas at Kansas State
(23) Texas State at Sam Houston State
Utah at (24) Oregon
(25) Purdue at Ohio State
The Gamecocks, who entered the season ranked third, slid to No. 8 after getting swept at Kentucky last weekend. Their strong pitching has carried them to a solid 16-5 start (highlighted by a series win against rival Clemson), but their offense remains “a work in progress,” as hitting coach Chad Holbrook put it, and new faces occupy starting roles all around the lineup.
The numbers, naturally, favor the Gators. Through five weeks, Florida led the nation in fielding percentage (.985), fewest walks allowed per nine innings (1.63) and even sacrifice flies (21); ranked second in home runs (31), third in slugging (.522), 23rd in scoring (7.7 runs per game), 33rd in batting (.308) and 19th in ERA (2.70).
South Carolina’s pitching numbers stack up favorably. Through five weeks, the Gamecocks led the nation in strikeouts per nine innings (9.8) and fewest hits allowed per nine innings (5.83) while ranking sixth in ERA (2.23) and 12th in fewest walks per nine (2.39). South Carolina’s .979 fielding percentage lags behind Florida’s but still ranks 14th in the nation. But the Gamecocks ranked 187th in scoring (4.9 runs per game), 101st in batting (.285), 58th in homers (12) and 80th in slugging (.406).
Of course, the Gators were the favorite on paper last year, too—but the game isn’t played on paper.
“I know Florida is riding high and they’ve got all these prospects, but I wouldn’t be surprised if South Carolina matched them and maybe came out of there with two out of three,” an American League scout said.
Clearly, Florida is loaded with more professional talent than South Carolina, but scouts make their living watching baseball night after night, and they recognize good baseball teams when they see them. So we thought it would be illuminating to ask a pair of scouts—a National League crosschecker and an AL area scout—to break down the Gators and Gamecocks.
On the Gators:
“Florida is like they were last year. They have good depth on the mound even though Whitson came out of the rotation due to an injury. (Righthander Jonathon) Crawford stepped up and picked up the slack for them. They’re good offensively. Some of them are just the grinders, and Preston Tucker can just hit—he’s a force in the middle of the lineup. (Mike) Zunino gets his hits, and (Nolan) Fontana is the igniter at the top of the lineup—he makes them go (hitting .329/.456/.534, 4 HR, 16-5 BB-K ratio). They’re a fun team to watch because they’re fundamentally sound, they don’t beat themselves offensively.
“I was kind of surprised—I thought (freshman) Josh Tobias may struggle a little bit because of some of the rawness he showed in high school. But he’s swung the bat for them, taken the everyday job at third base, and he’s held his own (hitting .255/361/.333). (Freshman Taylor) Gushue, who enrolled early in January, was a guy that showed well at the showcase circuit last summer. He’s stepped in there at first base and been able to give Zunino some time off behind the plate and rest his legs. Those guys have done well, and with the older guys ahead of them, it takes the pressure off those kids; they don’t feel like they have to overachieve. They can go through their ups and downs because those guys will be able to pick it up for them.
“Even with Tucker in right, he’s not a great defender out there and has limited range. But when you go watch those guys in the fall in practice, they do a lot of fundamental stuff well. They know what they can do and they know what they can’t do. They don’t try to do too much. It’s not one of the great outfields, where you’ve got that center fielder with great range who runs everything down, and the bangers on the corners. (Daniel) Pigott is a senior that plays hard, he runs well, he’ll probably be a solid-average defender in center. He may not get to some balls that other guys do, but the ones he’s expected to get, he does. They throw to the right bases, they just plug guys in there and they run with it.
“Zunino (hitting .408/.465/.803, 7 HR) is kind of a funny one, because it’s not the prettiest swing in the world. To be honest, I had a hard time with Zunino because I was maybe too critical of him. It’s not a conventional swing or approach, but this guy just gets hits and he hits with power, he’s doing it in the best conference in the country against good pitching all the time.With his approach, it’s kind of top-hand dominant, the bat is in and out of the zone real quick. I’ve seen him struggle really bad against offspeed pitches. Fullerton fed him a steady diet of sliders away and he just swung through them. But you’re not going to get a fastball by him no matter how hard you throw, and if you hang a slider, he’s going to hammer it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him miss that pitch. If you make a mistake, he’s going to hurt you and hurt you hard. So it’s not that fluid, easy stroke and good finish; it’s more heavy to the front side, bat’s in and out of the zone, look to pull a lot of pitches, but in the end he gets his hits and does his damage. It may look a little funky, but he’s a catcher with a durable body, a baseball rat, great makeup, hard worker, takes charge behind the plate. I could envision him being a Jason Varitek-type guy—a team leader, always comes up with the big hit. Just one of those guys that will be a winner. He’s a good kid. I wish the best for him; I’d like to have him.
“With Tucker (.329/.387/.720, 8 HR), you’re buying a bat. The body is almost too strong, where it’s not real flexible. I kind of see him as that platoon guy, that lefthanded bat off the bench. For an AL club he could end up being a DH. All the guy does is hit, and he’s got power. One knock on him is it’s all pull side. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him hit a ball to the left of second base. He’s going to have to learn to do that, but at this level he can get away with it. I think that kind of pushes him down; I would say more likely to go between the fifth and 10th (round) than between the first and fifth, with some of the defensive limitations and him being what I say is a dead-pull hitter. He can hit, but will go through a little bit of growing pains.
“With Brian Johnson, it’s phenomenal: You’ve got a guy that could be a Friday starter at any other team in the SEC (.3-0, 3.16), and also a guy that could hit in the middle of the lineup with any club out there (.295/.333/.432). He’s a big burly guy, he’s an OK athlete for his size. But that’s the debate right now. From what I’ve been hearing, there’s kind of a split game with a lot of teams whether they like him better as a hitter or a pitcher. I like him better as a pitcher. It’s a good bat, there’s some power in there. I just don’t think it’s the type of bat you’re going, ‘Wow.’ But I like the aggressiveness that he pitches with, he’s got three pitches and he can throw them all for strikes. Granted they’re not all wipeout pitches, but when you command the zone the way he does, he strikes out a lot of guys looking because of the pitch sequences he uses. There’s still some upside in there—I think he’s not one of those guys that what you see is what you get. I think he’ll get a little bit better. It will also come down to what he wants to do. People have asked him and he said he’ll do whatever they want him to do. It’s a good body, and there are not a lot of those lefties. He probably fits in the middle of a rotation, a No. 3 or 4 type starter who will give you close to 30 starts every year and you don’t have to worry about him.
“Austin Maddox is one of the more pleasant surprises I’ve seen so far this year. He’s a big, strong kid that in the past was max effort; he’d show you big velocity and a decent slider. They’ve cleaned up his delivery. It’s not as much effort, better pitchability, able to go both sides with the fastball, velocity is still there—92-94—and the slider’s a little sharper. I thought when Whitson got hurt, they may move Maddox into that Sunday spot. The way he was throwing, I thought he had a chance to start. He’s come a long way. After the big freshman year, you thought maybe he’s a position player. Then last year he struggled offensively, now I think he’s realized his future’s on the mound. He’s worked on his craft to become a pitcher, and I think it’s really going to help him out. The size, the arm works good, he’s showing more feel for the strike zone, not afraid to pitch to contact. Worst-case scenario, throw him in the bullpen, chance to be a back of the bullpen arm, 94-95.
“(Lefthander Steven) Rodriguez is one of those guys, you almost wonder if this guy could start, because he’s got really four pitches now, he’s developed the cutter to go along with the slider that he uses to get on righthanded hitters’ hands. It’s become a solid-average to maybe a tick above pitch for him. He has that demeanor late in games, when he gets the ball, the game’s over. He’ll go off the board pretty well, a big-bodied lefty that can be up to 93-94, also run that cutter in there 86-88, with a good slider, feel for the changeup, not afraid to pitch inside. Florida’s fortunate to have a guy like that to hand the ball to that’s not just a one-inning guy, He can go three if you need him to. Kind of like South Carolina had last year with (Matt) Price, they were running him out there three or four innings time after time, and they’d feel confident he’d get it done, just like Rodriguez does.
“With Hudson Randall (3-0, 3.45), you love the pitchability, you love the way he throws strikes, he’s got four pitches, kind of pitches like he throws harder than he does, you like that. But you’ve got to look big picture here, and what’s the best-case scenario? If he was lefthanded, you give him a little bit of a pass. Being righthanded, he’ll have to be one of those guys that has success and keeps moving up the ladder. He doesn’t have the big velocity or the wipeout breaking ball. For me he’s, best case, a fourth starter (in the big leagues), probably a good fifth guy. I think his makeup and aggressiveness that he pitches with are some plusses for him. My gut says probably somebody may take a flier on him in that third round, especially a team that has some extra picks, but I would rather take him in that fifth/sixth round and on, because then you’re getting a little better value.
“It’s kind of crazy: South Carolina always seems to have those type of guys that you think, ‘I wouldn’t think this would be a Friday night guy for South Carolina.’ Like when (Mike) Cisco was there, you’re looking at him, kind of like Randall, a smaller guy, mid- to upper-80s fastball, decent slider, competed his butt off. I think he pitched like he was 6-5 and threw 95. There’s something to be said for those guys who get in that atmosphere and thrive off it, have the utmost confidence when they get on the mound. Once they get that confidence and it gets going, it’s fun to watch. You walk out of there going, these guys really compete. Two good teams going at each other, it’s going to be a barn-burner.
“You’ve got to give credit to the coaches as well. On the professional side of it, there’s certain guys you root against, certain guys you root for. Sully (coach Kevin O’Sullivan) at Florida has always been very open with the scouts, giving info any time you ask, everybody roots for him. I know South Carolina coaches them up to win, and the proof’s in the pudding: two national championships, you can’t do that by just being lucky.”
On the Gamecocks:
“It’s a combination of some veteran guys with some freshmen. They’ve started a number of freshmen, but their pitching for the most part, it’s a veteran starting staff on the weekends with (Michael) Roth, (Matt) Price and (Colby) Holmes. That kind of helps with the youth. I like their team—I think they’re going to be all right. I just think this past weekend, taking a young team on the road, it was probably overwhelming for those kids. They had leads in two of the games late and lost, it’s just a matter of taking hold of it and actually learning how to win. I think they’ll be all right, I think they’re just going through a growing period.
“It’s a tough assignment in any league—I don’t care what league—as a freshman to play shortstop. But you’re asking (Joey Pankake) to play shortstop for the defending national champions in the SEC. The kid’s got talent, I’m sure he’s getting more comfortable. He made a few errors when I saw those guys early, but that’s part of the learning curve. You’re looking at a freshman shortstop, a freshman catcher, a new starter at second base. Their only veteran up the middle is (center fielder Evan) Marzilli, who played left field last year. But Marzilli’s a good player. He stepped in when they lost Jackie Bradley last year. I don’t think that’s as big an issue as the middle infield. I think those young middle infielders are going to be good, it’s just a matter of getting their feet under them. Look around the country—how many other teams are playing five freshmen at one time, like they are at times?
“(Freshman catcher Grayson Greiner) has got a lot of talent. He’s a big guy, and when you’ve got long levers like that, sometimes making some baseball movements is a little more difficult. Long levers, long swing, long arm path, long strides. So he’s fighting that, but on the other hand he’s a good athlete. I think eventually he will be a good player and hit for power. But his throwing, the exchange and transfer behind the plate—his arm stroke is long, he’ll have to shorten that up to play at the next level behind the plate. But I think his bat is going to play because he’s got some power in that bat.
“I like Christian Walker (.333/.430/.487). I think Christian is one of those guys that can wake up out of bed at 3 o’clock in the morning and hit—he’s always hit. Right now he’s more of a gap hitter, you don’t see a whole lot of power there, but the contact ability that he has now will eventually turn into power at the next level. You look at a guy with 400, 500 at-bats, he’ll run into 15 or 20 homers and be an above-average hitter. He’s got a chance to hit over .300 at the next level, because the guy doesn’t strike out. He makes contact. Basically what you’re drafting is a bat, a now bat for the most part. It’s one of those situations where there’s not a whole lot of versatility; if he doesn’t hit you can’t move him around the diamond, he’s pretty much stuffed at first base. It’s kind of hard to say where he fits on a draft board.
“(Third baseman) L.B. Dantzler’s got some power. He’s got an unorthodox setup, but if he gets his pitch, he can hit it out. Adam Matthews (hitting .211/.313/.281) is a kid we’ve been waiting on. He’s got tools, he’s a tools guy, we’ve been waiting for those tools to carry over to playability. He’s a senior, but he’s still kind of a raw kid. We would have thought as an industry that those things would have come together by now. Last year unfortunately he got hurt, missed a good chunk of the season. A guy like him that needs reps, needs to play, he needs to get on the field to get better.
“(Freshman outfielder) Tanner English is going to be a great player. He’s got the run tool, and what I’ve seen with him, making the adjustment to the college game, he’s got to stop hitting so many fly balls. He’s got to utilize his God-given talent, his legs. He needs to hit the ball on the ground, play the short game. He’s not going to be a guy who hits for power. He’s swinging out of his rear end trying to hit the ball 500 feet, and that’s not going to play. If he hits the ball in the 6-hole, he’s going to get three leg hits in a game. It’s that kind of speed.
“In the bullpen, I know they’re throwing (freshman righthander) Evan Beal, using Tyler Webb as kind of a matchup lefty. They don’t have the power out of the closer role that they had last year with Price, so they lose that with him being in the rotation. Beal is pretty good. But again, he doesn’t have the power that Price had. He’s throwing 88-90 out of the bullpen as opposed to a guy throwing 93-95 when you’re talking about Price. I saw Forrest Koumas once this spring and wasn’t that impressed; he was 88-90. Webb is 87-90; it’s just nothing overpowering.
“With Roth and Randall, you’re talking about two pitchers that have track record and have won at that level. You’re looking at a marquee first night matchup in college baseball. Roth is fun to watch; you’ve got to tip your hat to him and give him credit for what he’s done on that level. I think he’s been a perennial winner, he’s done it on the big stage, done it in the SEC, done it in the College World Series. (Righthander Colby) Holmes is your stock college righthander that competes. He follows the line of the traditional Gamecock righthanders: the Blake Coopers and the Mike Ciscos and the Kip Bouknights—he fits that tradition. Guys that have been college winners, you look at their stuff and they don’t throw 95 and have wipeout sliders, but they win at that level and give the team a chance to win.
“A Ray Tanner team, you can’t ever count them out. They’re well coached from coach Tanner to coach Holbrook to coach (Jerry) Meyers, it’s probably one of the best staffs in the country. Never count those guys out. You look at the games they lost to Kentucky, they were all close games. You’re talking about a replay of the national championship series in March. You get right in it, right quick. Those freshmen are going to find out how good they are.”
East Carolina, UCF Get Chance To Prove Their Mettle
A year ago, East Carolina and Central Florida had very different identities. The Pirates were the best pitching team in Conference USA, with a 2.67 staff ERA that ranked seventh in the nation (while UCF ranked 92nd with a 4.14 ERA). The Knights were the best offensive team in Conference USA, leading the league and ranking in the nation’s top 25 in scoring, batting, runs, doubles, home runs and slugging (while ECU mostly ranked in the middle of the C-USA and national pack in most offensive categories).
But heading into this weekend’s Conference USA-opening series between the Pirates (15-5) and the Knights (17-5) in Orlando, both teams look quite balanced.
“I actually think we’re two very similar teams, to be honest with you,” UCF coach Terry Rooney said.
Through five weeks of the season, East Carolina was once again leading C-USA in ERA (2.94), but UCF was second (3.02). The Knights ranked second in batting (.295, just five points ahead of fourth-ranked East Carolina), but the Pirates actually had more home runs, 14 to 12. And although UCF was leading the conference in scoring at seven runs per game, their five weekend series came against teams from New York and Massachusetts, none of whom has a winning record.
The Knights have played 10 one-run games, losing four of them. In four midweek losses to in-state powers Florida, Florida State and Miami, UCF has scored just eight runs total.
“We’ve struggled offensively, which is a surprise to me,” Rooney said. “But I feel like we’re starting to come out of it. We have so many proven hitters in our lineup that I know it’s just a matter of time. Going into the year, I think you would have said our offense was the strength of our team, and so far it’s been the opposite. We had a good win (Tuesday) against (South Florida)—we didn’t have a lot of hits to show, but that was the first time in two weeks I felt like we had some looseness and confidence back in our swings.”
East Carolina represents by far the biggest challenge yet for UCF on a weekend, and it will be interesting to see if the Knights can get their bats going against ECU’s quality pitching staff. As Rooney says, his lineup has balance and depth on paper, with power on the corners (D.J. Hicks, Chris Taladay, Nick Carrillo), speed and athleticism up the middle (Ronnie Richardson, Darnell Sweeney, Travis Shreve), a pair of capable catchers (Ryan Breen and Taladay) and plenty of experience.
Hicks, a physical fourth-year junior with 28 career homers (including six already this year), gets plenty of attention in the middle of the lineup, and pitchers have approached him cautiously, issuing him 21 walks through 22 games (to go with 18 strikeouts). Hicks also ranks among the national leaders with 33 RBIs, but Taladay has shown a knack for delivering RBIs when the Knights need them most.
“Chris Taladay is one of the most clutch players in college baseball,” Rooney said. “The guy was the newcomer of the year in Conference USA as a freshman. He hits third, he catches, plays third base and left field, a lefthanded bat. He doesn’t have any outstanding athletic tool, he’s just a gamer—the epitome of a ballplayer.”
But for UCF’s offense to run at peak efficiency, Richardson, Shreve and Sweeney need to get on base and be disruptive. Richardson is getting on base at a .515 clip despite a .273 average thanks to 20 walks and 14 hit by pitches. Shreve (.451) and Sweeney (.413) also have solid on-base percentages, though Sweeney is hitting just .268 (though he has 19 walks to just 10 strikeouts), while Shreve is hitting a team-best .350.
The Pirates’ lineup is constructed similarly and has comparable experience, with eight returning starters from a year ago (though one of them, Chase McDonald, has missed the last week or so with a hamstring injury and probably won’t start this weekend). Like UCF, East Carolina has physical mashers at the corner infield spots in third baseman Corey Thompson and John Wooten, who are tied for the team lead with three homers apiece. ECU coach Billy Godwin highlights Thompson (.358/.457/.552 with 16 RBIs) as the glue of the lineup, similar to the way Rooney describes Taladay.
“He’s huge. The guy is one of the best hitters I’ve coached, period,” Godwin said of Thompson. “I think he’s underrated a little bit—he can hit. He’s really developed into a good leader, he leads our infield at third base. He really does play a good third base, that’s the one area he’s gotten tremendously better at. He’s shed some pounds, built some muscle, and his first step is way better than it was two years ago.”
Like the Knights have in Sweeney, ECU has an athletic playmaker at shortstop, though Jack Reinheimer has gotten off to a rough start defensively, committing 10 errors. Godwin said Reinheimer actually has been better making plays on the move than on routine plays, but the Pirates are confident he’ll make the necessary adjustments mentally.
Second baseman Tim Younger is ECU’s version of Shreve—a scrappy gamer who does all the little things, plays solid defense and creates havoc with his speed. Godwin calls the 5-foot-10 Younger “Timmy Baseball.”
The Pirates also have good speed in the outfield with Philip Clark, Jay Cannon and Ben Fultz, and a veteran behind the plate in Zach Wright.
“We’re solid,” Godwin said. “I don’t think we’re world beaters, but I think we’re going to show up and play hard.”
Each team will call upon a crafty veteran lefthander on Friday, though ECU’s Kevin Brandt (3-1, 1.77) is bigger and has a firmer fastball than UCF’s Brian Adkins (1-0, 5.72). The Pirates start another southpaw, Tyler Joyner (3-0, 1.97), on Saturdays. Joyner missed most of the last two years because of an academic-related suspension, but the Pirates have been impressed with his maturation on and off the mound. His four-pitch mix includes an 88-90 fastball that bumps 92, a good cutter, curveball and changeup.
UCF’s Saturday starter is similarly talented. Six-foot-4 sophomore righthander Ben Lively (3-0, 3.46 with 33 strikeouts in 26 innings) has some of the best stuff on the staff, highlighted by an 89-92 fastbll, but he is still learning to be consistent.
Like Lively, ECU Sunday starter Jharel Cotton (4-0, 2.22) has a quality arm but inconsistent command, though he is competitive enough to get outs with his changeup and breaking ball even when he has trouble locating his 88-92 fastball.
The Knights haven’t named a Sunday starter, but the candidates include talented freshmen Garrett Nuss and Eric Skoglund plus veterans Ray Hanson and Chris Matulis. That group has comprised much of UCF’s much-improved bullpen, which is anchored by junior lefthander Joe Rogers and junior-college transfer Roman Madrid. Rogers is 1-0, 1.23 with six saves and 18 strikeouts in 15 innings—and he has not issued a walk. Madrid is 2-2, 0.63 with 19 strikeouts and six walks in 14 innings.
“From innings seven to nine, those guys have been awesome,” Rooney said. “Roman Madrid has made a little jump, pitching 89-92 with a really good slider. Rogers has made some good adjustments this fall—a hard-throwing guy, 88-92 from the left side. He’s got a slider and a change, the slider’s a little better than his changeup. His command is the biggest thing that has come on.”
Heading into the season, Godwin’s biggest concern about his team was a lack of proven bullpen arms. But the duo of junior righty Andy Smithmyer (2-0, 1.10, 18-5 K-BB in 16 IP) and sophomore righty/infielder Drew Reynolds (1-0, 2.89, 7 saves) has emerged to stabilize the ‘pen. Reynolds, a junior-college transfer who starred for Potomac State (W.V.) in the Juco World Series last year, attacks hitters with an upper-80s fastball, good slider and changeup. Reynolds, a sophomore who was recruited primarily as an infielder, throws a fastball up to 90-91, a breaking ball and a changeup from varying arm slots.
“There’s some guys on the mound that are starting to fill some roles,” Godwin said. “We have been good on the mound. I like our weekend rotation, Smithmyer’s done an outstanding job in the setup role, and Reynolds has been really good as our closer. I like our club a lot. I still try not to anoint anyone; time will tell.”
And this weekend should tell a good deal about which of these teams is likeliest to challenge Rice for the C-USA title.
Marquee Mound Showdown: Creighton’s Ty Blach vs. Missouri State’s Pierce Johnson
Maybe it’s not quite Florida-South Carolina, but this weekend’s Creighton-Missouri State series is a rematch that is enriched with its own memorable recent history.
The Bears and Bluejays played each other six times in nine days last spring, as Creighton swept a tight final series of the year against Missouri State to clinch the Missouri Valley Conference title, then lost to the Bears in its first game of the conference tournament before winning a pair of nail-biters against them later in the tournament. The Bluejays needed to beat the Bears twice in the title round to win the MVC’s automatic bid, and they came from behind to win the first game 6-5, then won a 12-inning classic the next day, scoring the winning run on a wild pitch.
“That was the end of our season,” Missouri State pitching coach Paul Evans said. “Nobody forgets that scenario, only a year later. We don’t forget it, Creighton doesn’t forget it. It was like that sudden heart attack—we had so many opportunities late in that game, just never could get the hit, and then it was over.
“It’s a good rivalry between us and Creighton. We know what they are all about, they know what we are all about.”
The highlight of the series is Friday’s matchup between juniors Johnson and Blach, the conference’s two best prospects for the 2012 draft. Johnson, a hard-throwing righthander, is likely to go higher in the draft, but the lefty Blach has a longer track record of success.
“We’ll have a lot of people in here Friday with Blach and Pierce hooking up—there’ll be some heat in here,” Evans said, referring to the anticipated scouting contingent. “Those are both going to be pretty high draft picks.”
Johnson flashed 92-93 mph heat and drew comparisons to Brett Saberhagen as a high school senior in Colorado, but a comebacker broke his hand and caused him to miss two months of the season, so he slid to the 15th round of the draft. The Bears “babysat” him all summer, as Evans put it, and were thrilled to get him to campus, but it has taken him some time to blossom into an ace for a program that has produced first-round picks such as Brett Sinkbeil (Marlins, 2006) and Ross Detwiler (Nationals, 2007), as well as big leaguers like Jeff Gray, Shaun Marcum, Matt Palmer and Brad Ziegler.
Johnson went 1-2, 7.52 as a freshman, then struggled in the weekend rotation early as a sophomore, so Missouri State demoted him to a midweek starter/weekend reliever role, and “he just took off—he was blowing everyone away,” Evans said. He finished the year 6-5, 4.76 with 72 strikeouts and 34 walks in 76 innings, then headed to the Cape Cod League, where he pitched well before his summer was cut short when his kneecap popped out of place on a warmup throw in a bullpen session. The injury did not require surgery, and doctors concluded it was just a freak incident that was unlikely to be be repeated. He has had no problems with it since.
Johnson has added strength to his 6-foot-3 frame as a junior, helping him maintain his 91-93 mph fastball velocity deep into outings, whereas he used to fall into the 88-90 range by the later innings. Evans said he has even touched 94-96 at times this spring.
He has also been able to throw his 80-83 mph three-quarters breaking ball for strikes consistently, and the pitch has good depth. Evans said he’ll mix in an 86-87 mph cutter eight to 10 times per game, and he has developed more action on his changeup, to the point that he’s now able to get some strikeouts with the pitch. Through five starts, Johnson is 1-3, 2.41 with 50 strikeouts and 15 walks in 37 innings.
“He had been a hard thrower with life, but all the secondary has really come together,” Evans said. “It’s just real, real easy. It’s over the top with the hands, an old-school delivery—everything just kind of flows, then FOOM! It looks like he’s just freakin’ playing catch. When you’re looking at a guy and say, ‘His arm works,’ he’s the epitome of that.”
Blach has been more polished and successful than Johnson since he was a freshman, when he went 3-3, 3.11. He took a step forward as a sophomore last year, going 10-3, 2.65 with 100 strikeouts and 29 walks in 102 innings, but he has continued to refine his craft as a junior, getting off to a 3-1, 1.60 start with 25 strikeouts and seven walks in 34 innings over six starts.
“Early in his career, he had a really hard time throwing inside to righthanded hitters, going (glove) side,” Creighton pitching coach Rob Smith said. “He’s done a much better job with that, been very consistent with that. So his fastball command, we saw a big jump there as a sophomore. Now he’s very consistent throwing his fastball on both sides of the plate.”
That fastball is plenty firm, especially for a lefthander, as Blach sits in the 89-92 range. Like Johnson, Blach has improved the movement on his changeup since last year, thanks in part to some adjustments in the way he grips the pitch. It was a solid pitch last year, but it is better now, and he can throw it for strikes or miss bats with it. His slider can be a major weapon when it’s on, but he is still learning to repeat it consistently.
“Last year, the last third of the season, he really had his slider going,” Smith said. “That pitch is still coming along. It probably still needs to get more consistent for him. It has velocity to it when it’s right. The slider is interesting because it’s got to be a firm pitch. When it’s good, it’s a late, tighter pitch, not a big loopy slider. It plays off his fastball, looks a lot like the fastball out of his hand. When he struggles with it, it gets too big and gets recognizable by hitters. When he’s able to keep it on that plane, it’s got good action to it, and it makes him a complete pitcher.”
• No. 2 Stanford ends its exam break by opening Pacific-12 Conference play against Southern California. The 13-2 Cardinal hasn’t played since a 1-0 loss to Rice on March 11. One Pac-12 series, No. 5 Arizona at No. 19 Oregon State, features a pair of ranked teams.
• Stetson opens Atlantic Sun Conference play with a road series at Belmont. It’s the first trip outside the Sunshine State for the 15-6 Hatters, who lost a pair of midweek games at Florida State.
• Eight of the Big Ten’s 11 baseball-playing schools open league play, with 15-8 Nebraska opening its first Big Ten league slate at home against defending champion Illinois, which is off to a 10-7 start. The opener Friday also opens the Big Ten Network’s baseball coverage for the spring. No. 25 Purdue visits Ohio State.
• North Carolina and N.C. State meet in a regional rivalry in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Monday night showcase game on ESPNU. The Saturday-through-Monday series could be overshadowed for the schools’ fans if their basketball teams win Sweet Sixteen games on Friday. That would force an Elite Eight game with a Final Four berth on the line and a fourth meeting between the teams, which might make Triangle area fans’ heads explode. More pertinent to baseball, 20th-ranked N.C. State hits the road for the first time in league play, while No. 4 North Carolina is coming off consecutive road series wins and plays its league home opener.