College Weekend Preview: March 24-26

TOP 25 SCHEDULE

(1) Mississippi State at (15) Louisiana State
East Carolina at (2) Rice
(3) North Carolina at (5) Georgia Tech
Long Beach State at (4) Cal State Fullerton
Duke at (6) Florida State
(9) Florida at (6) South Carolina
Kansas at (8) Nebraska
(20) North Carolina State at (10) Clemson
(25) Georgia at (11) Arkansas
Kentucky at (12) Tennessee
Southern Illinois at (13) Wichita State
(14) Tulane at Memphis
Utah Valley State at (16) Oregon State
Washington State at (17) Stanford
Oklahoma State at (18) Texas
Penn State at (19) Arizona State
Northwestern at (21) Pepperdine
(22) Baylor at (23) Oklahoma
Wake Forest at (24) Virginia

RECOMMENDED READING

Hard-working Donnie Marbut has done a fine job of rebuilding Washington State’s baseball program, but he might need even more effort to rebuild his reputation following allegations in the Seattle Times.

MEANINGFUL MATCHUP

As
listed above, plenty of ranked teams square off in the power
conferences on a weekend that should provide at least a little insight
into how those teams stack up. But two series pitting teams on the cusp
of the rankings will prove just as interesting. At 17-5, Liberty is off to the best start since opening 19-3 in 1979. It opens Big South Conference play at preseason favorite Winthrop
(18-5). Grabbing two games against the Eagles would put the Flames in a
good early position to claim their first NCAA Tournament bid since
2000. Kansas State (16-1) never has reached the tournament, but taking out a solid Missouri
(13-7) club at home this weekend would offer a step in that direction
while helping extend the best start in school history and a 15-game win
streak. Missouri’s Max Scherzer is questionable for his Sunday start
after missing last week’s outing with tendinitis in his right shoulder.

UPSET CITY

We’ll admit to not being brave enough to pull the trigger on Kentucky’s
series win against Louisiana State last week, despite premonitions of
that result. Kick up the bravery this weekend and write down UK (18-4)
to take the series at No. 12 Tennessee (16-5), a
young club coming off two losses at Mississippi State a week ago.
Neither club faced much of a pre-conference schedule, though the
thinking here is that a Wildcats team scoring nearly 10 runs per game
can slug its way past the Volunteers.

Season Record: 12-15. Series Record: 4-5.

IN THE DUGOUT

UC Irvine junior righthander Blair Erickson
saved his 35th career game over the weekend against Oral Roberts to
pass Chad Cordero, formerly of Cal State Fullerton and now with the
Nationals, for second place on the Big West Conference career saves
list. Erickson, who is 3-0, 1.47 with 23 strikeouts, five walks and
eight saves in 18 innings this year, needs nine more saves to tie the
46 Gabe Gonzalez recorded for Long Beach State from 1992-95. That’s an
attainable number for Erickson, who led the nation with 17 saves as a
freshman in 2004.

What does passing Cordero on the Big West saves list mean to you?

I
hope it’s a good sign. Obviously you can see what he’s done in the big
leagues, leading the majors in saves. It really shows me that what I’m
doing right now, the way I’m getting hitters out, the way I’m
approaching it, I don’t think it changes going to the next level.
There’s a lot more things off the field, there’s less structure, but
it’s still 60 feet, 6 inches.

Coach talks about what
made Chief (Cordero) so successful. He wasn’t the greatest athlete. A
great example is with me my senior year in high school I completely
destroyed my ankle (playing in an intramural basketball game). Running
has always been a problem since then. Chief wasn’t in the greatest
shape because he had asthma and couldn’t run as much, but when it came
time to get in between the lines and compete, he was unbelievable. No
one was going to beat him. That’s a great example of how much pitching
is just mentality. He doesn’t necessarily have the greatest stuff, but
he more than gets by with what he has.

How did you feel when coach John Savage, who recruited you to UC Irvine, left for UCLA after your freshman year?

That
was a little bit of a difficult summer. I remember in the whole
recruiting process there had been rumors about him and that job, I
asked him and he said he was 100 percent committed to Irvine. When you
find that out, him going there, your first feelings are you feel a
little backstabbed. That’s just the business. He had the opportunity
for what he felt was a better job. He’s got a family, that’s the
decision he made. It was hard, that was one of two big reasons I
decided to go to UCI, basically for him and to be part of something
new. I think everyone’s past that, we all have respect for Coach
Savage. It will be fun to play them (on April 4) because several of our
teammates from that year transferred there.

Did you think about following your coach to UCLA?

There
were a lot of questions at the time. I was in the Cape at the time and
got a call from the athletic director here that Coach Savage had left.
He stressed to me: “Wait if you’re going to make a decision (about
transferring) until we fill the position.” When they hired Coach (Dave)
Serrano (who had been Cal State Fullerton’s pitching coach), he’s got a
fabulous track record, they were just coming off a national
championship. What more could you want to fill your head coaching role?

Can you explain why Coach Serrano gave you the nickname “Happy”?

I’m
just a serious person. That’s just how I am. I guess it really comes
with the fact that I’m really hard on myself with pitching and
everything. Coach will be down in the bullpen and there’s always things
I don’t like about how I threw. Coach always gets on me about being so
negative on myself. It started this year, and the guys were all over
it. Coach informed my parents of the nickname and they loved it. I’m
going to have to get him back for this.

As a Trevor Hoffman fan, did you ever consider entering the game to “Hell’s Bells” like he does?

You
can’t take his song. It’s just a song that fires you up. That’s part of
the reason that it’s fun to go to the (Padres) games and watch that.
When he comes in the games, it’s like a show. You’re just a guy in
college, you can’t steal his thunder. It’s Trevor Hoffman when you hear
that song. The same thing with (Eric) Gagne and “Welcome to the
Jungle.” I have a Rob Zombie song (“Demon Speeding”) that fires me up,
but when I’m out there warming up, I’m totally oblivious to it.

Remember Dustin Miller?

The
righthander earned freshman All-America honors in 2003 after going 9-2,
3.33 as Cal State Fullerton’s Sunday starter. Three years, two shoulder
surgeries and one long battle later, Miller’s right back where he
started: starting on Sundays for the Titans. The fifth-year senior has
compiled a 4-0, 3.37 record in his four starts, gaining strength and
momentum every week.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Miller, who
will face Long Beach State this weekend in a nonconference series. “It
brings back memories of the old days. It’s amazing.”

Miller
no longer owns the heavy sinking 88-90 mph fastball that reminded
Fullerton recruiters of Kevin Millwood during his time at Diamond Bar
(Calif.) High. He’s more in the mid 80s, a downer 12-to-6 curveball and
his go-to pitch, a changeup that never seems to get to the plate from a
hitter’s perspective. Miller’s endurance and strikeouts have gradually
risen, reaching season highs of eight innings and five strikeouts last
Sunday at Arizona.

“As a pitcher, I don’t think I’m
actually physically to the point I was (in 2003),” Miller said. “I’m a
smarter pitcher now, which is what gets me by.”

Miller, a
2001 high school graduate, has spent nearly as much time in surgery as
he has on the mound since enrolling at Fullerton. He missed 2002 after
having bone chips removed from his right elbow. Pain in his right
shoulder led to rotator cuff surgery in March 2004, costing him the
entire season. The procedure didn’t alleviate any of the pain, so six
months later Miller went to Birmingham, Ala., where noted surgeon Dr.
James Andrews performed a complete shoulder reconstruction in November
2004.

“The day they told me I’d have to have a
reconstruction, they kind of said there wasn’t a great chance I’d ever
throw again,” Miller said. “It was probably the worst day of my life.”

“I’m
always pretty optimistic,” Fullerton coach George Horton said. “I have
a lot of confidence in modern medicine, but after one minor surgery and
two major ones, you start to wonder if the kid will ever come back.”

The
down time wasn’t easy on Miller. To keep his scholarship (of which
Fullerton has given him every penny he was promised for five years), he
was required to attend every practice, home game and nearby road game
during the 2004 and 2005 seasons. He had to keep pitching charts and
run the radar gun, a constant reminder of what he wished he could be
doing. He slipped into depression and started seeing a therapist.

“To
tell you the truth, I really didn’t want to be there a lot of the
times,” Miller said. “There were multiple times I wanted to quit and
say, ‘OK, this just isn’t meant for me.’ “

Miller, who
helped pitch Fullerton to the College World Series in 2003, watched
Fullerton win the 2004 CWS on television in California at a friend’s
place. He was glad when he watched his teammates–”my boys, these guys
are like family to me”–celebrate the victory. Then sadness set in. He
excused himself and went for a long walk.

Miller again
watched from the stands in 2005 as Fullerton looked poised to defend
its title. When Fullerton ran out of arms in the final game of its
super-regional loss to Arizona State, Miller wished he could have taken
the mound. He wasn’t able to sit in the stands for those games as the
NCAA doesn’t allow player pass lists for those not on the 25-man
postseason roster. So he and some of the redshirt players saved their
money and followed the action from beyond the left field wall.

Miller
felt that far removed from the team at that point. Ricky Romero, its
ace, barely had logged any innings on the 2003 team but blossomed into
a first-round pick during the 2004 and 2005 seasons Miller missed.
Felipe Garcia, Miller’s catcher at Diamond Bar High, transferred in for
those same two seasons and never caught a pitch from Miller as a Titan.

“The
camaraderie is a lot different when you’re playing and then when you’re
sitting on sidelines,” Miller said. “The last two years, it was like
all I had was (outfielder) Joe Turgeon. He’s a fifth-year guy like me
now and one of my best friends. The last two years I haven’t felt like
I was part of team at all. It feels so good to be back now.”

Miller
made it through his tough times with the support of people such as
Turgeon and Horton, with whom he engaged in several candid discussions
about problems they each encountered in their personal lives. Miller
also credits his parents, Michael and Eulema Miller, his brothers
Damian and Dylan and sister Kristen with helping him through his lowest
moments.

All were in attendance Feb. 26 when Miller made his first start since 2003. Dylan even got to be the batboy.

“I
almost started crying to be honest with you,” Horton said of Miller’s
start. “I know on a personal basis what he was going through. It was a
very difficult time for him.”

That game is tied with his
first appearance of the year as his season highlight. On Feb. 3,
Opening Night at Stanford, Miller entered in the eighth inning of a tie
game. It was a cold night, but his heart was racing and steam was
rising off his head. He was nervous just warming up in the bullpen.
Miller made a good pitch that Michael Taylor sliced for a triple
leading off the ninth. Taylor scored on a single off closer Vinnie
Pestano.

“It was welcome back, here’s a loss for you,” the ever-competitive Miller said as he narrated the inning. “But it was nice.”

Horton,
who rarely singles out specific players, made a point of congratulating
Miller on the bus that night. Miller had only been throwing in game
action for less than a month. He didn’t throw a competitive pitch
during fall practice and only found out a week before the Stanford
series that he had made the travel roster.

Miller still
hopes pro ball is in his future, and Horton said that if the
righthander doesn’t get offered a pro contract after this season,
Fullerton may appeal to the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility.

Even
if Miller’s baseball career ends after this season, his comeback will
remain a great story of perseverance and inspiration. Miller initially
worried that some people might view his struggles through surgery,
rehab and depression as a sign of weakness. He’s changed his mind
since. He’s talked to students at his old high school at the behest of
his former guidance counselor. Just this past Wednesday morning, Miller
found himself in tears while recounting his story in a personal
experience paper for a class.

“It made me feel good,
because once I got to the end I started talking about what kind of
person I am now, how I’ve changed making it through it, how I’m
stronger. By the end I’m really proud.

“I wouldn’t take any
of it back. I could have been a top-five rounder and gotten drafted and
had some money, but I like the person I am today.”

AROUND THE NATION


Expect plenty of scouts, radar guns and punchouts in Berkeley on Friday
as Washington visits California, providing a matchup of two
hard-throwing junior righthanders. Tim Lincecum is 4-2, 2.72 with 69 strikeouts and 30 walks in 43 innings for Washington, while Brandon Morrow has gone 4-0, 1.29 with 46 strikeouts and a .186 opponents average in 42 innings.

• Santa Ana (Calif.) College coach Don Sneddon
became the winningest coach in California community college history
with a 2-1 win Tuesday against Riverside Community College. Sneddon
improved to 832-286-3 in 25 years at Santa Ana. Jerry Weinstein, now in his fifth season as Cal Poly pitching coach, accumulated an 831-208-12 mark in 23 seasons at Sacramento City College.


James Madison has won 16 straight games largely by out-slugging
opponents. The Dukes had out-scored opponents 233-105 during their 16-4
start, with sophomore center fielder Kellen Kulbacki leading the Mash
unit. His .533/.604/1.107 numbers and 11 home runs look a lot like
something spit out of a video game.

College | #2006 #Weekend Preview

Add a Comment

comments powered by Disqus