College Weekend Preview: March 23-25

Meaningful
Matchup
Texas A&M at
Oklahoma

Oklahoma
coach Sunny Golloway remembers looking at the Big 12 landscape early
in the season and feeling just a bit antsy. Texas was loaded again,
Oklahoma State was brimming with offensive firepower, Nebraska had a
terrific pitching staff. Meanwhile, the Sooners had lost five key
senior hitters and five key senior pitchers from a team that fell one
game short of the College World Series and finished with a No. 9
national ranking.

Top
25 Schedule
(1) Vanderbilt at (9) Arkansas
(2) South Carolina at
Mississippi State
Boston College at (3) Florida
State
(4) Oregon State at Cal Poly
Miami at (5)
Virginia
(6) Clemson at Maryland
(7) North
Carolina at Virginia Tech
(8) Rice at Southern
Mississippi
Kansas State at (10) Texas
Indiana
State at (11) Wichita State
UC Santa Barbara vs./at/at (12)
Pepperdine
(13) Cal State Fullerton at (18) Long Beach
State
(14) Oklahoma State at Kansas
Radford at
(15) Coastal Carolina
(16) Texas A&M at (20)
Oklahoma
(17) Arizona State at (19) Southern
California
(21) San Diego at Nevada-Las Vegas
Memphis
at (22) East Carolina
Alabama at (23) Mississippi
(25)
Kentucky at Louisiana State

“I
was sitting here with virtually a young club saying, ‘Oh my gosh,’”
Golloway said.

Golloway admits that at that
point, he “had no idea that (Texas) A&M was going to be this
good.”

Neither did Aggies coach Rob
Childress. Texas A&M welcomed 26 new players to College Station
in the fall, including 13 junior college transfers, many of whom
would be counted on to step into high-impact roles
immediately.

“Going into the season with 25
new players, I don’™t think any of us knew what we were going to
get,” Childress said. “We’ve been playing good teams, and
we’ve found a lot of different ways to win.”

In
fact, the Aggies have won 21 times in 24 games this season, including
a win at No. 8 Rice earlier this week. Oklahoma has been just as hot
lately, rebounding from a 2-4 start with wins in 16 of its next 18.
Now both teams are ranked in the top 20 heading into this weekend’s
Big 12 Conference-opening showdown between the two in Norman,
Okla.

Both teams have faced (and aced) the
challenge of incorporating crucial new faces into their rosters. The
Aggies hoped for and have received major contributions from juco
transfers such as shortstop Brandon Hicks (.372/.466/.543 with 16
stolen bases in 18 attempts) and outfielder Ben Feltner
(.388/.444/.439 with 18 steals in 18 tries), who have been the
catalysts in the first two spots in A&M’s lineup.

Lefthander David Newmann (3-0, 2.55) has been
everything Childress hoped for, using his lively 88-92 mph fastball
and quality four-pitch mix to emerge as a legitimate Big 12-caliber
Friday starter. Other newcomers like lefthander Kirkland Rivers and
righties Gary Campfield and Scott Migl have increased Texas A&M’s
pitching depth, particularly in the bullpen. The key will be for
sophomore righthander Kyle Thebeau and senior lefthander Jason Meyer
to hold down their weekend rotation spots, allowing the Aggies to
keep senior Kyle Nicholson in the bullpen, which has been depleted by
the loss of junior righty Jordan Chambless. The former football
player threw very well early in the season before being sidelined by
a stress fracture in his foot, which eventually broke and required
surgery last week.

Pitching and defense would
seem to be the calling cards for a Texas A&M team that has hit
just 13 home runs in 24 games, but scoring runs is not a problem for
the Aggies, who have outscored their opponents 191-103. They do it by
applying pressure on the defense with their speed–they bunt, they
hit-and-run, they steal bases (74 of them in 87
attempts).

“Last year we stole a lot of
bases to try to create innings,” Childress said. “This year
we run because we can, not because we need to create innings. That
creates an awful lot of pressure on the other
team.”

Golloway uses analogies from
multiple other sports to describes the A&M
offense.

“It’s like a full-court press;
they try to put pressure on you every inning with the running game,
bunting, the hit-and-run,” Golloway said. “Our style is not
quite an all-out blitz offensively like people define theirs. We’re
in more of the mold of Texas and Nebraska, sacrifice bunting, just
trying to get our guys in scoring position as soon as we can. If we
get our leadoff guy on, we’re (sacrificing) most times, giving you a
chance to mess it up. I would say our styles are similar–we’re both
trying to put pressure on you, we’re both sound with pitching and
defense. They field the ball better than us, no doubt.”

It
has taken the Sooners some time to improve their fundamentals and
defense, not surprising given their youth. Freshmen Devin Shepherd
and Aaron Baker have both stepped right into starting roles
immediately, and both have handled their first taste of college ball
with aplomb. Baker, a catcher by trade who has played first base to
accommodate Sooners star Jackson Williams, had an OU freshman record
22-game hitting streak snapped recently and leads the team with a
.396 batting average and a .471 on-base percentage, to go along with
a .538 slugging percentage. Baker has been able to catch some
opponents by surprise early on, a luxury that Shepherd didn’t have.
One of the top prospects in the freshman class entering the season,
opponents have pitched Shepherd carefully like they did in high
school, and that has frustrated him at times. Still, he’s batting
.304/.415/.377 through 69 at-bats.

The offense
has also gotten a boost from the continued development of junior
outfielder Joe Dunigan, a freakish athlete who is learning to make
more consistent contact and leads the team with four homers and 26
RBIs. The return of shortstop Aaron Reza from a broken thumb has
helped the offense as well, but more than that, the junior is a
stabilizing force on the infield.

“We’ve
won 15 of our last 17, and he wasn’™t with us in those first six
ballgames (during OU’s 2-4 start),” Golloway said. “That is
no excuse, but that’s how much he means to our club. He’s such a good
player, very steady at shortstop. He moves our guys around, knows our
philosophy defensively. Reza just gets guys in the right
position.”

Another factor in Oklahoma’s
slow start was its unsettled weekend rotation, which has now
crystallized. The Sooners opened the year with Ryan Mottern and Jimmy
Rollins as their first two starters, but both of those veterans are
now pitching in relief as two transfers have taken over the Friday
and Saturday starter spots. Sophomore righthander Stephen Porlier, a
transfer from Tulane, has gone 4-0, 2.38 on Fridays thanks to a 90-92
mph fastball that looks even harder on the heels of one of his
excellent changeups. Junior lefty Heath Taylor has gone 4-0, 1.86 in
eight appearances, seven of them out of the bullpen. He struck out 11
over eight innings against Michigan State in his first start of the
year last Saturday, and Golloway plans to leave him in the rotation
thanks to his toughness and his ability to locate his 88-90 mph
fastball and very good curveball down in the zone.

Some
weeks, Golloway might start the power-armed Mottern on Sundays, but
this week he’ll go with senior lefthander/outfielder Joseph Hughes,
who Golloway believes is a good matchup for Texas A&M because of
his ability to defend the bunt and control the running game. That allows
the Sooners to bring Mottern out of a bullpen that has already
emerged as a strength for Oklahoma. Freshman righthander Garrett
Richards has run his fastball up to 93 mph to go along with a good
hard breaking ball, helping him compile a Big 12-leading seven saves.
Sophomore righty Nich Conaway has touched 95 with his fastball,
helping him post a 25-6 strikeout-walk ratio in 18 innings of work as
OU’s primary setup man. Now Golloway can call upon one power arm in a
moment of truth early in the game, knowing he’s still got more power
arms waiting at the back of the pen.

“We
didn’™t have that luxury last year,” Golloway said. “We
were probably one or two arms short of getting to Omaha, and it
caught us. We had the lead against Rice in the third game of the
super regional. Texas had that lead a few years ago, they threw
Huston Street out there, and he closed the game. We’ll have that this
year.”

And that’s why this young team might
be even more poised to make a run than last year’s senior-laden team.
First, the Sooners will have to take care of business against a
fellow Big 12 upstart with similar aspirations.

Marquee Mound
Matchup
David
Price vs. Nick Schmidt

Early in the season, we nearly got to see a showdown
between two of the top lefthanders in the nation when Vanderbilt’s
Price threw against Rice, but Owls ace Joe Savery opted to make his
usual Sunday start instead of moving up to Friday to face Price. We
won’t be shortchanged this week, as Vanderbilt travels to Arkansas and
Price takes on fellow preseason All-American and Team USA teammate
Schmidt. Friday’s showdown between elite lefties figures to be even
better than the early-February Price-Savery matchup would have been,
because Savery was on a three-innings limit then, and Price was also
on a pitch count, it being his first start of the
season.

Now we’re into the conference season,
and the chains are off for both Price and Schmidt, two of the most
durable, physical, competitive pitchers in the nation. Price has
thrown three straight complete games, including last week’s
10-inning, 14-strikeout, 130-pitch (according to Vandy coach Tim Corbin) masterpiece against
Mississippi. Schmidt threw just five innings in last Friday’s win at
Kentucky, but he lasted at least eight innings in each of his two
previous starts. Don’t expect either to relinquish the ball easily in
this clash between two of the country’s top 10 teams, not to mention
two top Southeastern Conference contenders.

“They’re
the type of kids that you really want to spend a lot of time with
them off the field, because they’re fun to be around, they make you
laugh, but you don’™t want to spend any time with them between the
white lines because they’re so competitive,” said Corbin, who coached both pitchers with Team USA. “Schmidty’s
like a hornet’s nest. God forbid you’re the guy who has to take ball
out of his hands. David’s the same way.”

Price
has the more dominant stuff of the two, and Corbin said he was even
stronger in the 10th inning (throwing his fastball in the 95-96 mph
range) last week than in the first (91-92). Price still relies
heavily on his pair of above-average pitches, his four-seam fastball
and his slider, but he also mixes in a changeup, a two-seamer and a
slurve. Corbin said Price has been a more complete pitcher in his
last two starts than ever before, making it all the more difficult to
take him out of tight games. But Corbin said he knows he must be
careful not to overburden his ace too much this early in the season.

“I
think we’ve just got to be smart with him,” Corbin said. “You
don’t want to back a kid in the corner and have him throw complete
games back to back to back to back, otherwise you might not have as
much as you need in May and June. I think you just need to be wise
with what you’re doing. At times we’ll want to get him out of there.
He’s pitched some very close games the last few weekends, and back in
eighth and ninth innings in the dugout, you get to the point where
you ask him, ‘Are you ok?’ But he just walks quickly by you’”’Don’t
ask me that question because I’m not going to answer it.’ That’s
what’s happened. We’ve also got the right-of-way to say, ‘Hey David,
that’s enough.’”

It might be the hitters in
both dugouts who are saying, “That’s enough,”
today.

Upset
City
Long Beach State over Cal State
Fullerton

You can debate how much of an upset this would actually
be, but the Titans have the higher ranking, though the Dirtbags are
the home team. It seems unwise to pick a side to win this rivalry
series, since really, anything can happen. But Long Beach State is a
battle-hardened team, building a 12-7 record against the nation’s
most arduous schedule, and you have to give the Dirtbags the upper
hand in this weekend’s nonconference series against a Fullerton team
that has been hurt by injuries. The loss of second baseman Joel Weeks
to a broken fibula this week exacerbates things, though the return of
Evan McArthur to the left side of the infield is a significant
development. Look for a hard-fought, down-to-the-wire series.
Fullerton swept LBSU in all six meetings last year for the first time
since 1998, but neither team figures to sweep this year.

Under The
Radar
Western
Carolina

The Southern Conference is wide open. Preseason favorites
Elon and College of Charleston have had their ups and downs, but both
will get major tests this weekend as conference play opens. Elon
travels to 15-5 The Citadel, while Charleston plays host to 14-7
Western Carolina. The Catamounts already have a number of
high-profile wins under their belts, having beaten Georgia Tech,
North Carolina State, Georgia and, most recently, Clemson, whom the
Catamounts beat this week. Even with star outfielder Steven
Strausbaugh (who hit 29 homers over the past two seasons) struggling
to the tune of .235/.289/.321 and just one homer, the offense has
been very productive. Leading the way is senior second baseman Kenny
Smith, a senior transfer from UNC Wilmington, who has nine home runs
and 34 RBIs. WCU has also gotten strong hitting performances from
Barrett Shaft (.411), John Ingram (.398), Blake Murphy (.384) and
Nick Liles (.350).

“They can hit,”
Clemson assistant coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “They’re
definitely a regional-type team, if their pitching comes on. The guys
in the middle, they’re a little bit like an SEC-type team. They can
really hit.”

Streakin’
Tim
Alberts, 1b, Niagara

Alberts extended his hitting streak to 35
games (dating back to last year, of course) in Niagara’s doubleheader
sweep of Maryland-Baltimore County on Monday, capping it with a
4-for-4, two-double performance in the nightcap. The senior is now
batting .479/.537/.938 with five homers and 17 RBIs in 48 at-bats
over the Purple Eagles’ first 13 games. He’ll try to keep the
ridiculous hot streak going this weekend at
Fairfield.

Slumpin’
Chicago
State

Chicago
State figured to have a difficult year with a 64-game schedule that
includes 56 road games. In their first year as an independent, the
Cougars indeed have struggled and are off to an 0-20 start. This
weekend could be their chance to get off the deck, though, as they
visit Valparaiso, their former Mid-Continent Conference brethren.
It’s bad karma to poke fun in a situation like this, but it’s also
responsible to report that this team is headed for a historically bad
season if it does not turn things around. The Cougars do not have
stats at their website, but entering their March 16-18 series at
Cincinnati, they were hitting .203 as a team, with an 11.45 team ERA.
They’ve been more competitive of late, with a 4-3 loss to Cincinnati
in the series opener and a 5-2 loss at Eastern Illinois. Like Chicago
State, Valpo is getting out of the Mid-Con, and South Dakota
State–which with North Dakota State is getting into the Mid-Con next
year–will also be on hand for a three-team round-robin this weekend.
Valpo, coached by former big leaguer Tracy Woodson, is off to a 2-11
start, while the Jackrabbits are off to a 10-11 start that includes
victories against Kansas, Creighton and Missouri
State.

Stat of the
Week
35-0

P.J. Zocchi’s career record
in high school and college. Clemson’s junior righthander improved to
3-0 on the season and 10-0 in his Tigers career with seven shutout
innings last Friday against Duke, when he allowed just three hits
while striking out eight. A consummate winner, Zocchi had a 25-0
career record at New York City’s Iona Prep School. That streak will
be on the line this weekend as Clemson travels to Maryland to take on
a pesky Terrapins team that has already won a series at North
Carolina State and nearly took a series at Miami.

Scouting
Report
Jake
Arrieta, rhp, Texas
Christian

Arrieta,
a preseason All-American, has come on his last two starts, beginning
with an 11-strikeout, four-hit performance in eight shutout innings
against Air Force last week. He wasn’t quite as sharp in last night’s
win against Brigham Young, allowing four earned runs on five hits and
five walks over six innings of work, but he did strike out 10. One
scout who saw him allow six runs over  4 2/3 innings in a loss
to Rice two weeks ago had this to say about him:

“He
took the loss because I think he left the game with two guys on, and
a reliever came on and gave it up. He was getting his fastball up in
the zone, still touching 93, but I don’™t want to say 94. He looked
OK. Didn’™t look like he was destined to be a first-rounder, but I
wouldn’t be surprised if he goes in the back half. He’s got to be
more consistent as the year goes on. He’s got a slurve he throws, not
an average pitch, but he throws it for strikes, it works. It’d be
nice to see it crisper, but it works for him. He’s got a good-looking
delivery, a durable pro body, and he’s put on good weight in his
lower half since last year. Keep an eye on him, but nobody’s overly
excited right now.”

In The
Dugout
Zach
Putnam, rhp/of, Michigan

Putnam,
one of the top prospects in the sophomore class because of his power
repertoire off the mound, has handled an increased offensive role for
the Wolverines as well, batting .327/.365/.500 in 52 at-bats in the
middle of the lineup. He’s also been terrific off the mound, going
2-2, 1.88 with 20 strikeouts and eight walks in 24 innings. Putnam
didn’t hit much last year because of a nagging hamstring problem, but
he’s healthy now and relishing the two-way role. Michigan has played
a tough schedule, but this weekend might be the biggest series yet
for Putnam. Weather permitting, the Wolverines will play their home
opener against Oakland, which is coached by Putnam’s brother
Dylan.


You guys
have played a pretty tough schedule so far and you’ve held your own
despite not yet playing a home game. Do you feel pretty good about
where the team is right now?

I do feel good.
The thing I feel the best about is when I go out on the mound, I know
with the way this team plays defense and the way we’re able to hit
the ball, we’re always going to have a chance to win, so that’s
exciting for me. I hope as the season goes on and I start pitching in
warmer weather, I’ll get better.

You’re a
much bigger part of the offense this year than you were as a
freshman. How has that transition gone?

It’s
been going great. I feel like I’m finally back to what I’m used to.
My whole baseball career prior to college, when I wasn’t pitching I
was playing shortstop or hitting. Last year was weird for me, I’d
pitch Friday nights and I’d be done for the weekend, it was bizarre,
tough mentally for me to get used to.

Other
two-way stars, like Joe Savery at Rice and now Sean Doolittle at
Virginia, pitch on Sundays so their bats are fresh the first two
games of a series. You’ve been pitching on Fridays; does that affect
your offense at all the rest of the weekend?

The
only concern that I have with pitching on Friday night, Big 10 series
having three games to play after that, I recover pretty fast, but
being able to go out the next day and play a position, coach will
have me in left field when I’m not pitching. It’s going to be an adjustment.
In the past going back to high school and summer ball, I’d pitch and
if we played the next day I’d always DH. It’s going to be weird
bouncing back and playing a position, but hitting wise, I don’™t
need any rest, I just hit whenever.

You
played shortstop in high school, but you’re in left field now. Do you
like the outfield, or do you prefer to play in the
infield?

I do prefer the infield, to be
honest. If I had my druthers I’d be playing third base or shortstop,
but I think Adam (Abraham) and Jason (Christian) are doing a
fantastic job. Left field has been interesting making the adjustment,
because I’ve never played outfield my entire life, always played
infield or pitched. All winter long we’re practicing indoors, so
reading fly balls off the bat was not really an option. I came out
and didn’™t make any errors, but I definitely didn’™t make it look
pretty.

It’s already been an interesting year
for you on the mound, as you’ve beaten Bethune-Cookman and
Mississippi State and had a couple of hard-luck losses against San
Diego State and East Carolina. Did you enjoy pitching at Petco Park against the Aztecs?

It was a blast. The only other big league
park I’ve ever pitched in was Comerica, maybe in front of a couple
hundred people. Having 10,000 people there pitching against against
Tony Gwynn’s team, it was surreal for me.

Any
regret about not getting to go head-to-head with San Diego’s Brian
Matusz the day before?

I was pretty excited
about the possibility of facing off against him. But I think it was
kind of like facing a very highly respected prospect or pitching in a
big league park in front of 10,000 people, take your
pick.

How was hitting against Matusz? You and
he are two of the top pitching prospects for the 2008 draft; who’s
better?

He’s pretty filthy. The rumors are
true; he’s very, very good. I really don’t know (who’s better). I
think each of us has our strengths, we’re both hard throwers. He’s
got that lefthanded thing working for him. I think it will be
interesting to see how the rest of season plays out. We’re both off
to great starts, but it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
Maybe you better ask me that one again after the
season.

This weekend, you’ll face your
brother’s team. Of course, last year you got your first collegiate
hit against your brother. What’s it like playing against
him?

It’s weird, really weird. He and I have
always been competitive, but we’ve still got that brotherly
connection going on. Playing on two different teams, we’re obviously
still doing our best trying to win.

Your
brother pitched at Michigan State, and you’re at Michigan. Does that
add to the sibling rivalry at all? Did he give you a hard time when
you decided to stay in Ann Arbor?

It was
weird. When I was getting recruited heavily my junior year, he was
still at State, and I remember him telling me something to the effect
of, ‘You know I support you anywhere you want to go, just please
don’™t go to Michigan.’ A few months, later I signed with Coach
Maloney, so we didn’™t talk for a while after that. But we’re over
it now.

College | #2007 #Weekend Preview

Add a Comment

comments powered by Disqus