Arizona and Arizona State are accustomed to facing off at the end of the Pacific-10 Conference schedule. This year, the two rivals will open conference play against each other this weekend in Tempe. It gives the series a different feel, but the stakes remain high.
“My only regret is we’re playing it so doggone early—usually we play it at the end,” Arizona coach Andy Lopez said. “When the schedule came out, I looked at it and kind of scratched my head. But no matter when you play it, it’s a good rivalry, and obviously they’re always good. We’re still in the mode of getting some reads on some guys.”
The Wildcats and Sun Devils have had five weeks to find their identities. While ASU coach Tim Esmay said he feels comfortable with the way his players have settled into their various roles, the Wildcats are still trying to figure out their bullpen.
Arizona hoped junior lefthander Bryce Bandilla was ready to hold down the back of the bullpen. Bandilla has premium arm strength, with a fastball that can reach 96-97 mph, but Lopez said he is trying to get Bandilla to realize he is more effective when he pitches at 92-94. Walks have been Bandilla’s bugaboo; he issued five of them in a midweek loss to Wichita State last week, helping the Shockers come back from a 5-1 deficit to stun the Wildcats, who then came out flat the next day. Through 15 innings, Bandilla is 1-1, 1.84 with 15 strikeouts and 11 walks.
“I really had hoped Bandilla would be our guy by the time we got to Pac-10 play, then we’d have one other guy so we could tag team and go after you in a series,” Lopez said. “But Bandilla has not been as consistent. He shows you moments of absolute brilliance, then things like Wichita happen and it’s like, holy smokes, that can’t happen. That’s not conducive to having a solid year. My whole mission right now is to try to get him on track. He just has to harness his delivery, repeat his release point a little more, and we could have what I envisioned we could have.”
|Top 25 Schedule
|(4) South Carolina at (1) Florida
(2) Vanderbilt at Arkansas
Maryland at (3) Virginia
(5) Texas at Oklahoma State
(15) Arizona at (6) Arizona State
Wake Forest at (7) Florida State
Kansas at (8) Texas A&M
(9) Oklahoma at Missouri
San Diego at (10) Fresno State
(11) Louisiana State at Georgia
Long Beach State at (12) Stanford
(13) Cal State Fullerton at Hawaii
Houston at (14) Texas Christian
Washington State at (16) California
(17) Georgia Tech at Miami
Duke at (18) North Carolina
(19) Clemson at North Carolina State
(20) Tulane at Southern Mississippi
Kansas State at (21) Baylor
(22) Auburn at Mississippi State
UC Santa Barbara at (23) Oregon State
(24) UCLA at Southern California
Central Florida at (25) Rice
The Wildcats (16-5) have missed sophomore righty Nick Cunningham (sidelined with an oblique strain) in the pen, but other options have emerged. Fourth-year junior lefty Matt Chaffee has “really emerged,” according to Lopez, showing a 90-92 fastball and a hard 12-to-6 curve that Lopez said is unhittable when he’s on. And freshman righty Jacob Doyle is a strike-thrower with an 89-90 fastball and a good breaking ball, but Lopez is a bit hesitant to put a true freshman in the closer role at this juncture. As he gains experience, though, he may become the solution.
The Wildcats have gotten strong work from starters Kurt Heyer (3-1, 1.12), Kyle Simon (5-0, 1.77) and Tyler Hale (3-0, 2.37). Heyer has always been a bulldog, but Lopez said Simon has demonstrated increased toughness and commitment as a junior. He pitches around 88-90 with an extremely heavy sinker, and he’s throwing a cutter at 86-87 to give him another weapon against righties, and a changeup against lefties.
Like the bullpen, Arizona’s lineup is still settling. The Wildcats have gotten a boost with the return of outfielder Steve Selsky from a broken bone in his hand, though he’s still shaking off some rust. Selsky’s return does create a lineup crunch, because outfielders Joey Rickard (.495/.539/.582 with eight steals in 21 games), Johnny Field (.358/.436/.612) and Robert Refsnyder (.341/.380/.518) have all played well, and Bobby Rinard offers excellent speed off the bench. And DH Josh Garcia leads the team with five home runs, so it’s hard to sit him, too.
“It’s a great problem, but it is a problem,” Lopez said. “Getting Selsky back was a tremendous addition—I would put Steve Selsky with anybody in the outfield, in terms of arm strength, accuracy and ability to get assists. So now it’s who do we put at DH? We really do have to manage this week, so that we keep all these guys sharp. It would be a crime to have one of these four guys not get enough at-bats and not be ready when we call on them.”
Arizona State, meanwhile, has discovered that some of the more unheralded players in its lineup are ready to answer the call. Preseason All-Americans Zack MacPhee (.282) and Deven Marrero (.299) have gotten off to relatively slow starts, and fellow stars Riccio Torrez (.305 with three homers and 24 RBIs) and Zach Wilson (.310 with three homers and 24 RBIs) have been up and down, but Joey DeMichele (.416/.455/.667) and Austin Barnes (.436/.508/.655) have emerged as impact hitters as sophomores, and senior Matt Newman (.338/.407/.493) has also provided a spark. DeMichele is the biggest surprise; he registered just nine at-bats as a freshman, going 1-for-9.
“He’s a local kid who played at a 4A high school, but he is a hitter, and was always a hitter in high school,” Esmay said of DeMichele. “He’s confident, he knows how to barrel it up. Last year was a typical freshman year, where he got some at-bats, got his feet wet, then went out and had a great summer and came back a different person. He got stronger, he’s kind of grown into his body a little bit—but he’s always been a hitter. You’re seeing a kid who’s growing into the program and handling it really well.”
Arizona State always seems to find diamonds in the rough like that (remember Marcel Champagnie?) who make major contributions unexpectedly. While ace Brady Rodgers was sidelined earlier this year with forearm tightness, righthander Kramer Champlin emerged as a viable Friday starter, and lefthander Kyle Ottoson (2-0, 3.91) has been similarly effective on weekends. Champlin, a transfer from Western Nevada CC, is 3-0, 3.06, and he’ll stay in the Friday spot this weekend, with Rodgers and Jake Barrett following him in the rotation.
“He commands the strike zone,” Esmay said of Champlin. “What’s good is he’s a tall kid (6-foot-6), and he pitches with a down angle, so he changes eye levels really well and he has the ability to make adjustments. That’s the best thing about him: He makes adjustments during a ballgame.”
Arizona State as a team thrives at making adjustments. It doesn’t seem to matter what sort of adversity the Sun Devils face, they just develop impact players and keep on winning. An unexpected coaching change and an NCAA investigation couldn’t stop ASU from winning the Pac-10 and reaching Omaha last year. On Dec. 15, the NCAA banned ASU from the 2011 NCAA tournament, and the school has filed an appeal, which will be heard on May 16, two weeks before selection day. If the appeals committee doesn’t reach a decision before the postseason starts, the Sun Devils can play in the NCAA tournament, and even if they later lose the appeal they could simply serve the postseason ban in 2012, according to the Arizona Republic. Or the appeal could be denied before Memorial Day, and Arizona State’s very real Omaha aspirations for this year could be dashed.
That sort of thing might distract another team, but it hasn’t stopped the Sun Devils from jumping out to a 16-5 start. Neither has a far more devastating incident, the neck injury suffered by freshman outfielder Cory Hahn in a collision at second base during opening weekend. Hahn is rehabbing in California, and he got the chance to attend ASU’s game at Cal State Fullerton on Tuesday. Esmay said visiting with Hahn was an emotional lift for his team, which has proven to be such a resilient bunch.
“I think it’s just a credit to what the program does,” Esmay said. “The program just kind of pulls that out of you, but also you have to have the kids that believe it and trust it. A lot of these kids have been through a lot in their careers. Their ability to just take the four hours on the baseball field and go out and play baseball is a true credit to them, because they do do that. No matter what’s going on, when the first pitch happens, they’re locked in, they’re ready to play. And they enjoy playing baseball, they enjoy competition, they enjoy coming out here. If you continue to have that thought, it allows you to keep going through the situations that might come up off the field.”
Two of the nation’s hottest pitchers will square off Friday in Eugene, Ore. Kelley, a senior righthander, has been a rock at the top of the Wichita rotation, going 3-0, 0.84 with 34 strikeouts and seven walks in 32 innings. Anderson, a junior lefty, has been similarly dominant on Fridays for Oregon, going 3-0, 0.96 with 52 strikeouts and 14 walks in 37 innings.
Both pitchers pound the strike zone and do a great job mixing speeds and locations. Kelley has thrived by keeping hitters off balance during his entire career. When Kelley first arrived at Wichita, pitching coach Brent Kemnitz thought he was getting a future power pitcher, but Tigers scouting director David Chadd helped Kemnitz realize that was never going to be Kelley’s game—but that was just fine. Chadd was on Wichita’s coaching staff in 1991, when Kennie Steenstra went 17-0 for the Shockers. The first time Chadd saw Kelley, he compared him to Steenstra, and Kemnitz said the light went on for him.
|INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Like Steenstra, Kelley has below-average fastball velocity, but he can throw a two-seamer with sink and a four-seamer with some jump, and his command is superb. Kelley has also tightened up his slider over the course of his Wichita State career, and now it is an out pitch. He throws his changeup with good rotation, and it looks just like his fastball.
“We’ve had a ton of guys with just power arms, and those are the guys the pro people have the most interest in, and I get it, I understand,” Kemnitz said last year. “But from a coaching standpoint, you love when Kelley’s on the mound.”
Anderson, though, has a reassuring mound presence as well as first-round potential. In fact, not only does Anderson look like a lock for the first round at this point, but he has a chance to go in the top 10 picks. Scouts who saw him rack up 11 strikeouts over eight scoreless innings of two-hit ball last week at San Diego say Anderson maintained his 90-92 mph fastball velocity deep into his outing. Ducks pitching coach Andrew Checketts said Anderson even flashed a bit of 94-95 mph heat at Hawaii, where all of his pitchers seemed to throw a little harder each of the past two seasons.
“He’s shown more consistent velocity this year, and even his high numbers have been better,” Checketts said. “He’s definitely made a jump (from last year). The command of his offspeed pitches—really last year, I thought he pitched with one and a half pitches. It was a fastball that was effectively wild, and he didn’t throw many of his offspeed pitches for strikes. This year he’s really been able to command three to four pitches, depending on the day.”
Checketts said Anderson’s changeup is his best secondary pitch. It was a very good pitch for him his freshman year, and Checketts said he lost it a little bit last year, but he has found it again. He also throws a hard cut slider and a curveball. Like Kelley, Anderson’s greatest asset might be his aggressive approach.
“He does such a good job of pitching in to righthanded hitters that it’s really hard for people to take that lefthanded approach and try to take that changeup away from him,” Checketts said. “He’s fearless on the inside part of the plate to righthanded and lefthanded hitters, so it’s really hard to get up on the plate and two-strike adjust and do a lot of those kinds of things.”
Atlantic 10 Conference play opens this weekend with a series between two of the top contenders for the league title: Rhode Island and Charlotte. The 49ers are the league’s perennial favorite, of course, but the Rams have quietly finished in the league’s top three each of the past two years, and coaches up and down the East Coast respect URI coach Jim Foster’s ability to develop players and make the most of his modest resources.
The Rams always play hard, and they made a statement last weekend at the Cougar Invitational, beating Connecticut and College of Charleston and taking Southern Mississippi to 15 innings before falling 4-3. The Rams enter the weekend with a 9-8 record, and they figure to have one of the top offenses in the A-10. Fourth-year junior outfielder Jeff Cammans (.412/.488/.500 with 11 steals in 14 tries) makes the offense, and senior first baseman/outfielder Tom Coulombe (.364/.366/.571 with 11 doubles and 20 RBIs) gives the lineup a quality RBI man.
“If Tommy hits for a little more power, he’ll get a chance at the next level, because he’s a plus athlete who can run,” Foster said. “Cammans has been outstanding at this point being a sparkplug. He’s been great offensively—he’s doing a good job getting on base, scoring runs, stealing bases. I do think the offense is the strength of our club. I base everything on defense and pitching. I think our bullpen is a strength and our lineup is a strength. If our starters can hold up, we’ll be a decent ballclub, with a chance to play in the postseason.”
The Rams lean on three upperclassmen in the weekend rotation: lefthander Chris Pickering (3-1, 4.55) and righties Ken Graveline (2-2, 4.13) and Stephen Peterson (0-3, 5.60). URI has a group of six seniors who figure to do the heavy lifting on the mound, but Foster said he has a pair of freshmen to keep an eye on in righthander Kevin Lee and lefty Nick Narodowy. And junior lefty Anthony Pisani has made a jump this year, flashing 91-92 mph velocity at times, though he sits at 86-87 most of the time. If that trio improves as the year progresses, Rhode Island has a chance to make a run in the A-10.
But it won’t be easy to unseat the 49ers at the top of the A-10 standings. Charlotte enters this weekend with a 17-5 record, thanks in large part to a pitching staff that has posted a 2.11 ERA. Weekend starters Andrew Smith (3-1, 2.30), Corey Roberts (4-0, 1.06) and Tyler Barnette (3-0, 1.00) have been superb, and Bryan Hamilton (1-0, 3.72 with four saves) is a force at the back of the bullpen. Smith has recovered from Tommy John surgery to emerge as a quality anchor at the front of the staff.
“We don’t have any big-time power arms, any guys that will light up the gun with stuff, but we’ve got a good mix of guys that allow us to change looks,” Charlotte coach Loren Hibbs said. “Smith’s a little different than Roberts; he’s developed a pretty good slider, he’s a little better in terms of getting down in the zone than he was before he got hurt. He doesn’t really freak out; he’s a fourth-year junior that’s used to being around it. Roberts is a guy that can really locate. He can pitch, and he’s really tough on righthanded hitters; it’s a little bit of a different look than what Andrew is.”
Barnette, though, has the highest upside of any Charlotte pitcher. An unsigned ninth-round pick by the Red Sox out of Hickory (N.C.) High last year, the freshman righthander has projection but has also shown advanced feel for pitching.
“Barnette’s the guy everybody looks at,” Hibbs said. “You see his athleticism and arm action—he has a chance to get better as time goes on. His breaking ball can get a little loopy at times, but he can run his fastball up there into the low 90s when he’s right. All three of those guys do a good job fielding their positions and controlling the running game.”
Defense and athleticism are the hallmarks of the lineup. All three starting outfielders can run the 60-yard dash in 6.5 seconds or better, according to Hibbs, and the infield boasts three former high school shortstops. Charlotte doesn’t have the offensive firepower to bludgeon opponents, so it better be able to defend and create offense with its speed.
“We’re kind of offensively challenged with this group,” Hibbs said. “We do a decent job putting balls in play, but we have no power whatsoever. We just want guys that can move around. We’re not going to get the big, physical guy that can run—that’s just reality for us. Those people are going to go to SEC or ACC schools in this part of the country. So we tend to go with a little undersized guys that we think we can develop through conditioning and the weight room. We can put a pretty athletic team out there.”
The Pirates enter Conference USA play on a roll, having won five straight games and 10 of their last 11. They are 16-4 overall, and they will open CUSA play with a three-game series against Memphis in Greenville.
Pitching has carried East Carolina, as expected. The Pirates boast a 1.67 staff ERA, the lowest in the nation. Veterans Seth Maness (3-1, 1.98), Mike Wright (4-0, 1.80) and Kevin Brandt (2-0, 0.72) have been stellar in the weekend rotation, while senior righties Brad Mincey (4-0, 0.40) and Seth Simmons (2-0, 0.00 with four saves and a 17-6 K-BB mark in 11 innings) have given the Pirates a dynamic duo at the back of the bullpen.
“We knew the strength of our team was going to be our pitching staff, and it’s been fun to watch them develop,” ECU coach Billy Godwin said. “The big thing is all these guys are strike-throwers. They’re challenging guys, and we’re playing a lot better defense than we did last year. I think our pitching has certainly allowed our hitters to mature, and that was a key going into the year, that we don’t have the pressure of having to score a lot. I think if we score five runs, we’ve got a shot to win every game, and they believe that.”
Maness has been a model of consistency throughout his career, winning nine games each of his first two seasons and 10 games as a junior last year. On a staff full of strike-throwers, Maness leads the way, with 36 strikeouts and four walks through 36 innings.
“He just seems to get better and better every year,” Godwin said. “He’s just a great competitor, and he has tremendous feel. He has feel to locate four pitches in the zone or out of the zone. He’s been 88-92, and the other day his 90th pitch was still up around 90, so his velocity has maintained as he’s continued to get stronger. I think his slider has gotten a lot better—he’s throwing it a lot harder. We’ve seen that pich in the low 80s, and when you’ve got a breaking ball in the 80s, it’s got a chance to be a special pitch.”
Godwin said he always thought Wright had a chance to have electric stuff, but the key has been his maturation. He has worked in the 90-94 mph range with his fastball, and he’s located his changeup and his slider better than he had in the past. Godwin said Wright’s slider has been up to 86-87 mph, making it a true power pitch.
Brandt, a lefty, works in the mid- to upper 80s, and he’s always had a terrific changeup. But this year he’s also developed a cutter, which gives him a weapon to run in on the hands of righthanded hitters, or run away from lefties. Mincey has a resilient arm and a great sinker, making him a nice fit in the setup role. A forearm injury hampered him a year ago, but he has stayed healthy as a senior, and that’s been a key development for ECU. Simmons, who recently set ECU’s career saves record (24 and counting), has improved his command of an 88-92 fastball and a really good slider at 82-83. Godwin calls it the best breaking ball on the staff.
And the Pirates have depth on the mound. Sophomore righty Shawn Armstrong (1-0, 3.60) has a power arm like Wright’s; he ranges from 88-93 as a midweek starter and has touched 94-96 in relief, according to Godwin. And senior righty Zach Woods (0-2, 4.11), the Friday starter a year ago, hasn’t even really gotten going yet. His fastball command was his calling card last year, but Godwin said he’s been wild in the zone this year. Once he finds his command again, the Pirates will have yet another weapon.
There is less pressure on the East Carolina pitching staff because the defense has improved. Shortstop was a black hole for the Pirates a year ago, but freshman Jack Reinheimer has stepped into the job and largely done well, excepting a three-error hiccup in a loss to Virginia.
The offense is a work in progress, but the emergence of catcher Zach Wright as a power source has been a pleasant development. Wright leads the team with six homers, and Godwin said he’s been a huge key offensively and defensively. Catalyst Trent Whitehead is back atop the lineup, and Corey Thompson and John Wooten join Wright in a solid heart of the order.
“I knew going into the year we were going to be young positionally,” Godwin said. “With Zach Wright, who played about 70 percent of last year, and John Wooten, Corey Thompson and Whitehead, that’s four really good guys. But we’ve been starting three or four freshmen and a few juco guys every game. I think we have a chance to have a solid offensive club. We started the year hitting around .250, now we’re up to around .280. I think this group’s got a chance to be a good offensive club. I wouldn’t say a great one, but a very good one. If we can put pressure on some people, we can do some good things.”
|The Wolfpack picked up a pair of midweek victories against Northwestern to improve to 12-10 heading into a crucial weekend series against Clemson. The visiting Tigers are 3-3 in Atlantic Coast Conference play while the Wolfpack is just 1-5 with a series loss at Duke and a sweep at Georgia Tech in which the Yellow Jackets outscored the Pack 32-6.
“It’s way too early to think of it (as must-win), but it is important for our players’ morale right now,” North Carolina State coach Elliott Avent said following Wednesday’s 8-7 victory against Northwestern. “For our players, winning a series could be a big boost for the rest of the season.”
That’s because the Wolfpack hasn’t won a weekend series all year in four tries against Elon and Penn State (at home) and the two ACC tilts, which were both on the road. N.C. State’s lone winning weekend was in a tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with victories against host Coastal Carolina and 5-12 Pacific. And the Pack doesn’t have one glaring hole, as it hasn’t pitched or hit up to expectations. Friday starter Cory Mazzoni (1-2, 3.31) has been victimized by a pair of three-run homers in his losses, and the rest of the rotation hasn’t firmed up behind him. Avent expects freshman lefthander D.J. Thomas to make his first start this weekend while sophomore righthander Danny Healey gets the other start, but neither spot is set in stone.
Offensively, though, N.C. State expected much more. The Pack hit 98 homers a year ago and returned top power plants such as Harold Riggins (12 homers a year ago), Chris Schaeffer and Pratt Maynard (11 apiece) and Andrew Ciencin (10). Last year’s team hit 33 homers through 20 games. This year’s club had eight through the same amount of games and went homerless against Northwestern, so Avent is trying to figure out how to manufacture more offense with the new bats, which clearly have sapped much of his club’s power.
“The bats changed because people were cheating,” Avent said. “Instead of punishing the cheaters, the NCAA changed everything about the bats, changed the rules. But we need to adjust, which mostly has to happen mentally. We’ve been early and under too often (with our swings), but that worked with the old bats. You’d be early and under and get the ball in the air, and a lot of the time it would go out. That’s not happening with these bats, so we need to hit more line drives and be more gap-to-gap.”
Avent took solace in Ciencin, who led the team in RBIs with 77 a year ago but is hitting just .241 this season, coming through with the go-ahead RBI double on Wednesday, hoping it will get one of the team’s key hitters going. N.C. State’s offense remains dangerous thanks to its patience (102 walks in 22 games and a .382 OBP) but needs more timely hits like the one Ciencin delivered.
“I hope that gets us going,” Avent said. “John Gianis had a great at-bat before Andrew with the bases loaded and hits one hard, but it hits their pitcher and not only does he stop the ball, but the kid (Ethan Bramschreiber) still turns a double play. But then Andrew clutched up and came through with a huge hit, just a huge hit. Harold Riggins was on deck and smiled at me in the dugout, and I just said, ‘Did that get the monkey off Andrew’s back, or is it still crawling down off of him?’
“We proved today that we’re still fighting, still playing hard, but in some ways we’ve been fighting ourselves and we’ve lost some confidence. Hopefully winning two games like this helps us get some of that back.”
One scout who has seen the Wolfpack offered a similar take.
“I don’t think they’re as bad as their record is, to be honest with you,” the scout said. “But if there is an Achilles’ heel, it’s the depth on the mound. Mazzoni’s a good Friday night starter, but after that I think it drops off some. I don’t think there’s a guy in the bullpen that’s really stepped up and been a reliable arm, game in and game out. (Pratt) Maynard and Ciencin are good hitters, Riggins has as much power as anybody around. (Chris) Diaz plays a nice shortstop, (Brett) Williams plays a nice center field. I just think they’ve been kind of in a funk.”
|The difference between Air Force’s staff ERA in 2010 (11.31) and its ERA through 23 games this spring (4.86). After splitting two midweek games with Creighton last week and then sweeping a four-game set against Portland over the weekend, Air Force’s record sat at 11-10. It was the first time the Falcons were over .500 that late in the season since 2002. Air Force has since lost two midweek games at Wichita State to fall to 11-12, but even so, its progress has been remarkable in Mike Kazlausky’s first season as head coach. And credit new pitching coach Tim Dixon with helping to turn around the pitchers already on the staff—Air Force’s success is not simply a product of a roster overhaul.
Righthander Sean Carley had an 11.46 ERA in 60 innings as a freshman last year. He’s 2-2, 2.50 with 33 strikeouts and eight walks through 36 innings this year.
Righty Evan Albrecht was 1-7, 8.94 in 53 innings as a sophomore last year. He’s 5-0, 4.35 with 24 strikeouts and seven walks through 31 innings this year.
Lefthander Michael Ceci had an 11.41 ERA in 24 innings last year. He’s 2-3, 3.76 in 26 innings this year. Improbably, those three pitchers have given Air Force a solid weekend rotation.
Now the upstart Falcons will try to maintain their strong start into Mountain West Conference play, which begins this weekend with a series at Utah.
The Yellow Jackets used their dominant pitching staff and exciting young lineup to jump out to an 18-4 start heading into their first major road test this weekend at Miami. Tech’s 13-game winning streak is the longest active streak in the nation. Weekend starters Mark Pope (5-0, 0.23), Jed Bradley (3-0, 1.44) and Buck Farmer (3-1, 2.43) were supposed to carry the Jackets, and they have. But Georgia Tech’s seventh-ranked recruiting class has come up huge, as freshmen like center fielder Kyle Wren (.467/.529/.622 with eight steals) and first baseman/DH Daniel Palka (.352/.410/.648 with five homers and 26 RBIs) have helped lead the offense. Another freshman, Mott Hyde, started the year at shortstop before swapping positions with junior second baseman Jacob Esch (.374/.436/.505), who also has a 2.25 ERA in four relief appearances. Three scouts weighed in on Georgia Tech, and we condensed their thoughts into one report.
“They can really pitch. Pope’s been as good as any Friday night starter in the country. He changes speeds and he locates. He’s not afraid to throw the ball over the plate. He competes, he doesn’t give in. He’s throwing the ball well. Jed Bradley—you’d be hard-pressed to find a better guy pitching on Saturdays, other than at UCLA. He threw seven innings against N.C. State, shut them out but had three walks and only five strikeouts. It wasn’t like he was dominant, but you look up and he threw seven zeroes on the board. He was 88-94, his slider was 77-83, and his changeup was 78-81. He’s good, he’s lefthanded, physical and he’s got good stuff. And Buck Farmer’s been throwing well. Their starters have been so good they haven’t really had to go to the bullpen too much it seems like. But they’ve still got (Kevin) Jacob in the back of the bullpen, and Esch is good in the bullpen, and Luke Bard has a good arm. (Freshman Dusty) Isaacs has stepped up nicely. They brought in (freshman DeAndre) Smelter on Saturday, and his velocity was down from last year—he was like 86-90. It wasn’t the big velo that you would see last year. Then they’ve got a fourth-rounder pitching on Tuesdays—Matt Grimes.
“The pitching we all knew could be pretty good, but their hitters have come along more than probably they expected. Kyle Wren is a little itty bitty guy, probably 5-7 or 5-8, 160 or so, but he’s got some strength in his swing and a good approach. He’s contact oriented and focuses on hitting the balls to the gaps and taking advantage of his speed. He plays a good center field. The Esch kid is hitting two-hole, they just moved him to shortstop. We have interest in him as a pitcher, but he looks like he plays a good shortstop, and he swung the bat well this weekend. He has a good body, good looking kid.
“(Matt) Skole’s a lefthanded power bat that’s got a track record of hitting home runs. He had 37 the first two years, and he’s got five this year. The Palka kid’s been a pleasant surprise, he’s hitting four-hole. Their catcher, Zane Evans, is hitting five hole. I think they’ve been hurt by the draft with their catching. I think the catching will be something they’ll have to really monitor. They lost (signee Alex) Lavisky (as an eighth-round pick) last year, and Tucker Barnhart (a 10th-rounder) the year before. Skole’s caught some.
“They’re pretty good. They’re not great, but they’re all right. They’re a regional team, they’ll make a good run at the ACC. I don’t know that they’re as good as Virginia or Florida State necessarily, but they’re pretty good.”
“Isaacs in the bullpen and Wren, Palka and Hyde seem to have stepped in nicely. It’s a good bunch; Grimes and Smelter also should be good; the next couple of years could be very good over there.”
Price earned third-team preseason All-America honors as a closer coming into this spring, and with the exception of a loss to Clemson, he’s been lights-out in the back of South Carolina’s bullpen all season. Price gave up six runs in the second game against the Tigers, but he has not allowed a run in any of his other nine appearances this year. Through 11 innings, Price has five saves and a 14-2 strikeout-walk mark, to go along with a 4.91 ERA. Price emerged as a College World Series hero as a redshirt freshman last season. Over four sparkling appearances in Omaha, Price went 2-0, 0.93 with 15 strikeouts and one walk in 10 innings, leading the Gamecocks to their first national title. He’s a significant reason the fourth-ranked Gamecocks are strong contenders to repeat as champions. They’ll face a major test this weekend, traveling to face No. 1 Florida in Gainesville.
Looks like your bats are busting out just in time for this Florida series, huh? Forty-one runs in two games this week?
We’re starting to swing it pretty good now. I think hits come in bunches, and they’re coming right now. Seeing hitters hit like that, it does give the pitchers some confidence, too.
So now you get to face the Gators, two of the top five teams in the country—is there a little extra buzz surrounding this series?
It’s going to be a big series, but it’s just another series, and we have to try to go out there and win it. We have to bring our ‘A’ game and do all the small things. It’s going to be competitive games, and there’s some hype—two good teams going at each other. It’s going to be a battle.
The bullpen was such a key part of your national title run last year, and it remains such a big part of the identity of this team. It seems like you and Florida might have the two best bullpens in the nation; are you a little extra fired up to head-to-head with those guys?
We’re hoping, as a bullpen, we’re ready to go whenever we’re needed. We want our starters to go as deep as they can and get the job done, and all the starters are willing to hand the ball off to the bullpen. We’re both deep as pitching staffs, so it will be a battle of the bullpens. I know that our bullpen is one of a kind, and we’re going to go after it and do our job. We have people that come in for one hitter, and people that can go long distances.
All right, so who’s the bullpen jokester? You’ve got to have at least one, right?
We’ve got a few of them, but our main one left—he’s starting on Fridays. (Michael) Roth was the jokester. But we’ve always played games in the bullpens, 2-2 counts, some crazy stuff. Right now, the biggest jokester might be Pat Sullivan. He comes up with random games that we play in the pen. The two-strike, two-ball, two-out thing we do sometimes, it’s all random. We’ve got some dances we do, he just comes up with everything in his head.
I understand a bunch of you guys shaved your head (Thursday) to raise money for children with cancer?
The other guys did a thing for Camp Kemo, for the chemo patients, so they were out in front of our cafeteria on campus. But as soon as I got to the field, I did it too. We had about 10 guys on the team, mostly the pen guys, all have bald heads.
So who looks the goofiest with a shaved head?
It has to be (Bryan) Harper. He’s got the bald head, and he’s got the Rollie Fingers mustache going right now.
And who looks the best?
Roth has a perfect shaped head—it just goes with it. I like to think mine looks pretty good, because my hair was already thin anyway. I’m going bald, so I just figured, what the heck? Just get it all off.
Seems like your clubhouse chemistry continues to be pretty special over there. You just seem like a very tight-knit group.
We are. I’m glad that I’m a part of this team. Last year we had great chemistry as a team, and this year we’ve just gelled. The newcomers, all the juco guys and freshmen gelled together.
It’s amazing how many of you guys are on Twitter, too. Do you have some fun with that?
I know a few of the guys like Jackie (Bradley), Roth and (Adam) Matthews, they’re always on Twitter. I don’t get on it that much—I’ll send some random tweets now and then. Throughout the country, I think our team has the most people on Twitter. I just laugh at it.
Jackie Bradley Jr. is your roommate, right? How do you guys like to keep yourselves busy when you’re not doing baseball stuff?
Jackie is my roommate. We usually just hang out and watch TV; me and Jackie both are movie geeks, we like to watch movies and hang out. We don’t do much, but we talk trash a little bit, try to get each other motivated. We have a special bond.
What is something that you’d only know about Jackie if you lived with him and spent every day with him?
He’s funny. He’s secretly funny. He’ll say some things that will just crack you up. He doesn’t try to come out and try to be funny, he’ll stay low-key, then say one sentence and make everybody laugh. He’s really secretly funny.
There is a lot of talk in the South Carolina media about the possibility of you moving into a weekend starter role. What do you think about that, and is it something you have talked about with the coaching staff?
Me and coach (Ray) Tanner and coach (Jerry) Meyers have talked about it, but they want me to be a versatile guy. They don’t want to just hold me for one day in a series. As of right now, I’m still in the pen. I’m going to go out and do my job, and if I happen to start Sunday or something, I’ll go out there and do my best shot, try to give our team a quality start. I still want to be in close ballgames, tight situations, try to go in there and give our team a win. If that happens Friday or Saturday, I’ll probably wait until the end of the game.
Your makeup seems perfectly suited to those late-innings situations. Do you agree?
I’ll feed off adrenaline. I like to go into tight situations and get our team back in the dugout. I go in, my heart starts pounding, I get a little more juiced up. Some of the guys say I’m a different person when I get out on the mound. They see the change as soon as I come off the field after a game. I guess I have two different personalities. I just try to do my job on the mound, but off the mound I try to be friendly and funny.