College Weekend Preview: March 30-April 1

Meaningful
Matchup
Vanderbilt at South
Carolina

Right
after highly touted freshmen Lonnie Chisenhall and Nick Fuller were
charged with burglary and grand larceny and kicked off South
Carolina’s team early last week, the coaching staff and players
agreed it was time to move on. There would be no dwelling on the
unfortunate incident; the Gamecocks would plow through and focus on
baseball. They proceeded to win five of their next six games,
including a road series at Mississippi State, and ascend to No. 1 in
the rankings.

Top
25 Schedule
(3)
Vanderbilt at (1) South Carolina
(2) Florida State at
Duke
(4) Oregon State at Arizona
(5) Virginia at
Virginia Tech
Wake Forest at (6) North Carolina
(7)
Arkansas at Tennessee
Marshall at (8) Rice
(17)
Oklahoma at (9) Texas
(10) Wichita State at
Bradley
Miami at (11) Clemson
St. Mary’s at (12)
Pepperdine
(13) Cal State Fullerton at Cal State
Northridge
Baylor at (14) Oklahoma State
Charleston
Southern at (15) Coastal Carolina
(16) Arizona State at
Washington
Nebraska at (18) Texas A&M
(19)
East Carolina at Tulane
(20) San Diego at Gonzaga
(21)
Mississippi at Auburn
(22) Kentucky at Mississippi
State
(23) Long Beach State at (24) UC
Irvine

It
was a strong statement that South Carolina will be just fine without
Chisenhall and Fuller–this year, at least. If anything, USC
assistant coach Jim Toman said, the Gamecocks have played even harder
since the incident than they did before.

“You
don’™t ever want anything like that to happen to galvanize a team,”
Toman said. “I remember (former Louisiana State) Coach (Skip)
Bertman when he was in the SEC saying you have to lose a few games,
have a few obstacles, jump over them, to build toughness in your
team. This isn’t the type of thing we wanted to happen to make us
tougher or galvanize us. I can see how some people would say that.
We’re just going to grind it out. We have a few bullets left in the
gun.”

The Gamecocks will need all of their
ammunition this weekend against No. 3 Vanderbilt, which held the No.
1 spot in the rankings last week before dropping a hard-fought road
series against Arkansas. Fortunately, South Carolina has gotten a
boost from the return of senior outfielder Robbie Grinestaff from a
pulled hamstring that sidelined him for two weeks. Grinestaff, who
slugged 17 home runs a year ago, can certainly replace Chisenhall’s
production in the middle of the lineup, though he’s still only about
80 percent healthy, according to Toman.

Of
course, heading into the year USC was counting on having both
Grinestaff and Chisenhall in the lineup. It’s really junior
outfielder Harley Lail (who filled in for Grinestaff during his
absence) who replaces Chisenhall, and so far Lail looks up to the
challenge, batting .345/.426/.552 through 58 at-bats. A hard-nosed
second baseman at Spartanburg (S.C.) Methodist Junior College, Lail
transferred to South Carolina in 2006 but redshirted last year after
a couple of hamstring pulls limited him to 10 at-bats. A back injury
limited him further in the fall and early this spring, but since he
was cleared to play about three weeks ago he has showed some pop
(three homers) and some speed (four stolen bases in four attempts) in
the outfield.

The deep, dangerous South Carolina
lineup has only gotten stronger as middle infielders Reese Havens and
Travis Jones have begun to bust out of their early slumps. Havens
went 5-for-6 in last Friday’s win against Mississippi State, and
Jones smacked two home runs in a midweek win at Elon. The key for
Jones has been a more aggressive approach at the plate, rather than
sitting back and taking quality pitches for strikes early in the
count. For Havens, it’s been about hard work in the batting
cages.

“Even though he wasn’t hitting well
early, he still was a leader for us,” Toman said. “It’s
very hard when you’re struggling to still lead a team, but he hung
with it, he grinds it out. The guy works extremely hard, and usually
good things happen to guys with that kind of work ethic. He’s in the
cages all the time–he’s very strong. It’s just a matter of time
before he starts hitting very well.”

As
potent as the USC offense is, you could make a case that pitching has
actually carried the Gamecocks so far this season. Righthanders
Harris Honeycutt (6-0, 1.42) and Mike Cisco (2-1, 3.51) have been
solid atop the weekend rotation. Junior transfer Jay Brown (2-0,
4.66) threw pretty well as the third weekend starter before
tenderness in his forearm sidelined him; it’s nothing too serious,
but he’s likely to be out another week or two. In the meantime,
strike-throwing freshman righty Blake Cooper (3-0, 1.00) is a good
Sunday option, thanks to a solid four-pitch mix that includes an
86-90 mph fastball and a split-finger.

Cooper
will be entrusted to hold down the Sunday job until junior lefty Arik
Hempy is back to full strength. Hempy, who is recovering from Tommy
John surgery, is still on a 50-pitch limit during his midweek starts,
but next week he could be up to the 70-75 range. His fastball is not
all the way back, but he has run it up to 91 mph, and his curveball
and changeup were very sharp in his first two starts, though he
struggled to command them earlier this week against
Elon.

Another power arm could give the bullpen a
boost. Senior lefty Forrest Beverly is most of the way back from the
arthroscopic surgery he had on his shoulder late last year, and
though his fastball is not all the way back to its former 94 mph
velocity, he has been up to 89, and he’s making progress. A big,
experienced lefty, Beverly is certainly capable of replacing Fuller’s
power arm in a deep pen that already includes closer Wynn Pelzer
(1.59 ERA), righthanders Jordan Costner (0.73) and Jeff Jeffords
(2.31), and lefties Alex Farotto (0.84) and Will Atwood
(2.42).

“After Hempy went down last year,
we were at least an arm or two short,” Toman said. “It
seemed like we moved everyone around, it kind of had a dominoes
effect last year . . . we didn’™t quite have enough to get to Omaha.
We couldn’t get Georgia out late (in the super
regional).”

That shouldn’t be a problem
this year. It won’t be a problem for Vanderbilt, either, because few
teams have deeper pitching staffs than the Commodores. Vandy coach
Tim Corbin will shift his rotation around this weekend, moving
sophomore righty Brett Jacobson to the midweek starter spot after he
failed to get out of the second inning last Sunday at Arkansas. He’ll
be replaced in the rotation by freshman lefty Mike Minor, who will
take his polished three-pitch mix to Saturday, pushing sophomore
righty Nick Christiani to Sunday. Minor has good control and isn’t
likely to hurt himself with many walks.

Then
there’s junior lefty David Price, who faces Honeycutt on Friday in a
matchup between two of the Southeastern Conference’s elite pitchers.
The two have very different styles–Price is a power lefthander with
a fastball in the mid-90s, while Honeycutt works in the 86-89 range
and relies upon his savvy and four-pitch mix.

“(Honeycutt
is) as good as anyone in this conference,” Corbin said. “He’s
very competitive, very aggressive in the zone. Seems like his
confidence has just grown and grown.”

Marquee Mound
Matchup
Tony
Watson vs. David
Newmann

Last
week, for the second consecutive Friday, a highly touted junior
lefthander threw a 10-inning complete game. This time it wasn’t
Vanderbilt’s Price, however, it was Watson, whose 10-inning effort
against Missouri was the longest outing by a Nebraska pitcher in the
Big 12 era. Watson was brilliant from start to finish, allowing just
an unearned run on three hits while striking out seven and walking
three. He handed off to the Cornhusker bullpen in the 11th, and
Missouri promptly scored four runs en route to a 5-1 win. The Huskers
went on to lose the series–their second straight series loss in Big
12 play, following a road loss to Texas Tech the previous weekend.

The Friday game against the Red Raiders went
extra innings as well, but Watson lasted just 5 1/3 in that one,
allowing five runs (four earned). As brilliant as he can be at times,
with a lively low-90s fastball and a terrific circle changeup, Watson
has been up and down this year; he surrendered eight runs (five
earned) in a loss to Alabama three weeks ago. Overall, he’s 1-1, 3.31
with 26 strikeouts and 14 walks in 33 innings of
work.

Nebraska will need Watson at his best
again this week, when it travels to No. 18 Texas A&M in a big
conference series. It’s too early to call any series “must-win”,
but the Cornhuskers were among the preseason favorites to win the Big
12, and they’re just 2-4 in league play right now. Friday’s game
features a dynamite matchup between two junior lefties who could be
drafted in the first two rounds in June. Using a quality four-pitch
mix highlighted by an 88-92 mph fastball with good movement, Newmann
improved to 4-0, 2.81 with a 42-17 K-BB ratio through 42 innings
after holding Oklahoma to three runs over 6 1/3 innings last week.
That was A&M’s only victory in the three-game series, so this
weekend is big for the Aggies as well. Friday’s duel will set the
tone, but as the Aggies can attest after last weekend, winning the
opener doesn’t ensure a series victory.

Upset
City
Tulane over East
Carolina

Heading
into the season, when Tulane was ranked No. 15 and East Carolina
wasn’t among the top 50 teams in the nation, we wouldn’t have guessed
that a Green Wave victory over the Pirates this weekend would count
as an upset. And considering the games will be played in New Orleans,
maybe it oughtn’t be. On the other hand, the Pirates’ 14-game winning
streak is the longest in the nation, and as March turns to April it
is ECU that sits comfortably in the rankings while Tulane seeks to
break back in. The Green Wave has won eight of nine since dropping a
home series to Loyola Marymount, a stretch that included four
consecutive shutouts against New Orleans and Siena. Tulane’s resume
still includes series losses to Southeastern Louisiana and Southern
California, but the Wave has rebounded to go 20-7 heading into this
weekend against the red-hot Pirates.

Tulane is
still waiting for junior outfielder Warren McFadden (.258/.345/.402)
and junior second baseman Brad Emaus (.317/.429/.471 with a
team-leading four homers) to really get going, and offense remains
somewhat of a question mark. But both of those quality bats will get
hot sooner or later, and junior shortstop Cat Everett
(.350/.434/.379) has improved dramatically at the plate after
entering the season with a career .270 average in 296 at-bats.
Tulane’s strength is its pitching, anyway, and veteran righthanders
Sean Morgan (5-1, 1.91, 69 strikeouts in 47 innings), Brandon Gomes
(3-2, 3.15) and Virginia transfer Shooter Hunt (5-2, 1.57) have been
every bit as good as expected. Morgan takes his power repertoire
against ECU junior righty T.J. Hose in a fine pitching duel Friday;
Hose isn’t overpowering with a fastball in the 86-87 mph range and a
very good swing-and-miss slider, but he’s proven a big-game pitcher
this season, with wins against highly touted righties Barry Enright
(Pepperdine), Wes Roemer (Cal State Fullerton) and Zach Putnam
(Michigan). This is the first big game for Hose on the road,
however.

The resilient Pirates, who are 20-6
overall with considerably more quality wins under their belts than
Tulane has, came back from a 10-4 deficit to beat Memphis last
Friday, then overcame an 8-0 hole to beat UNC Wilmington on
Wednesday. But they’ll have a much harder time erasing any deficits
against a loaded Tulane bullpen that includes closer Daniel Latham
(2-0, 1.66, six saves) and power-armed freshmen Preston Claiborne
(0-1, 1.88 with a 27-4 strikeout-walk ratio in 24 innings) and Drew
Zizinia (0-0, 1.38). ECU’s bullpen is just as good, but the
come-from-behind win has become the Pirates’ signature, not Tulane’s.
The Green Wave wins the early innings this weekend and defends its
temporary home at Zephyr Field.

Under The
Radar
Creighton

The
Bluejays got off to a bit of a rough start, dropping decisions to the
likes of Northwestern and South Dakota State, but they’ve righted the
ship lately, taking a road series against defending Missouri Valley
Conference champion Evansville and upsetting a red-hot Missouri team
on Tuesday. Creighton now sits at 15-9 on the strength of its
pitching and defense. Leading the way is junior lefthander Ben
Mancuso (3-0, 0.00 through 13 innings), who has overcome some arm
problems entering the season and tossed 6 1/3 shutout frames against
the Purple Aces on Sunday. He has a lot of sink on his fastball and
good fading action on his changeup. The bullpen is anchored by
ambidextrous junior Pat Venditte (2-1, 1.25 in 14 appearances) and
senior righthander/outfielder Andy Masten (4-1, 0.48 with four saves
and a 22-5 K-BB ratio in 19 innings). Masten, who transferred from
Auburn after last season, works in the 84-88 mph range with his
fastball but has three quality offspeed pitches in his curveball,
slider and changeup. He is typical of the Creighton pitching
staff.

“Masten has a
pretty nice swing and does well in the closer role for them,”
said one coach whose team has faced the Bluejays. “Their
starters just throw strikes and go right at you. Nothing
overpowering, but they just challenged. Creighton will win a lot of
games this year and be in the top tier of the Valley.”

The
lineup is not great, but Creighton’s hitters do a good job putting
the ball in play. And the Jays have excellent defenders up the middle
in catcher Chris Gradoville and second baseman Michael Lam. Teams
that pitch and defend well tend to overachieve, and Creighton has
that look about it. The Bluejays host Northern Iowa this weekend
before embarking upon a tough stretch that includes a midweek
showdown at Rosenblatt Stadium against rival Nebraska and a
three-game series at Wichita State.

Streakin’
Marcus Quade, of/c/1b, New Mexico
State

Quade
went 2-for-4 in a midweek loss to Texas Tech to extend his hitting
streak to 23 games. The reigning Western Athletic Conference hitter
of the week has recorded multiple hits in five of his last six games,
and his two-run homer in the eighth inning Sunday helped the Aggies
overcome a 4-0 deficit to take the series against San Jose State. His
.396 batting average is the best in the WAC. Quade and NMSU will try
to keep it going this weekend against Nevada.

Slumpin’
Auburn

We
gave the Tigers some love earlier this season when they upset Arizona
State, so it’s only fair we acknowledge their rough start in
Southeastern Conference play. The week after toppling the Sun Devils,
Auburn swept Purdue and rose into the top 20 in the rankings, but
then the wheels fell off a bit. The young Tigers suffered a couple of
ninth-inning meltdowns in their SEC-opening series at Georgia, a
three-game sweep for a Bulldogs team that had lost seven of its
previous eight en route to a 5-11 start. The next weekend, Auburn
returned to the friendly confines of Plainsman Park to face a Florida
club that carried an 11-13 record into the series. The Tigers lost in
extra innings Friday; committed seven errors Saturday, blowing a 6-5
lead when the Gators scored seven runs in the seventh inning; and
fell victim to Tiger-killer Matt Laporta on Sunday. Laporta went
4-for-4 with a homer in Florida’s 10-3 win, and the senior first
baseman now has eight career homers against Auburn.

The
point is, many of those losses came in very winnable games. Auburn’s
bullpen, which was its strength during its 17-2 start, has been shaky
over the last couple of weeks, and so has its defense. The Tigers did
end their six-game losing streak (all conference losses) with a 5-1
midweek win against Mercer, but now it’s back to the SEC grind with a
home series against No. 21 Mississippi. The Rebels are a solid
fundamental team that makes opponents pay for mistakes, so the Tigers
better be sharp if they want to get on the right track in conference
play.

Stat of the
Week
2.7

Runs
per game allowed by Oregon State, the best mark in the nation. The
Beavers have won 12 straight games, their longest winning streak
since 1986, and pitching and defense has an awful lot to do with it.
Oregon State has allowed two or fewer runs in each of its last nine
games; during its three-game sweep of Cal Poly last weekend, OSU gave
up just three runs and 14 hits. The Beavers have committed one or
fewer errors in each of their last 11 games, and they are very strong
up the middle thanks to the improved catch-and-throw skills of Mitch
Canham behind the plate, the slick middle-infield tandem of Darwin
Barney and Joey Wong and the speedy Chris Hopkins in center. The
starting pitching hasn’t missed a beat without departed stalwarts
Dallas Buck and Jonah Nickerson, as the weekend rotation of Mike
Stutes, Joe Paterson and Daniel Turpen has averaged over 6.0 innings
per start, allowing 5.1 hits and 1.5 walks while striking out 5.0 per
game.

Now it gets fun for the Beavers, who open
their two-time Pacific-10 Conference title defense this weekend
against a 22-6 Arizona team. The Wildcats have their own impressive
stat, having compiled a 15-2 record at home. We know plenty about the
Beavers, but this weekend should tell us a lot about
Arizona.

Scouting
Report
Maryland

The Terrapins are off to
an 18-8 start and have played very good baseball for three straight
weekends against quality Atlantic Coast Conference opponents. First
the Terps went to North Carolina State and took two out of three,
then they traveled to Miami and would have won that series if they
held onto a late 3-0 lead Saturday. Even after dropping that series,
Maryland rebounded to take two out of three against then-No. 6
Clemson. This week offers no break, as Maryland travels to Atlanta to
face a dangerous Georgia Tech team. One veteran talent evaluator who
was on hand for the Clemson series offers this analysis of the
Terrapins:

“The
first two games, Clemson didn’t hit. Sunday, Maryland didn’t.
Maryland pitched well. I saw all of Saturday’s game with Ryan Moorer.
About 25 scouts–including crosscheckers–attended this game.
Moorer’s fastball is average, 88-91; his curveball is about 74 mph
with late break away from righthanded batters; his changeup is 80-81.
His pitchability and command are average to plus. He moves the ball
in and out, up and down, never giving guys a good
look.

“(Former William & Mary head
coach) Jim Farr is Maryland’s pitching coach and it shows. His guys
are generally poised, aggressive and don’t back down from hitters.
Maryland’s on-field demeanor is vastly improved. Their defense is
better, especially up the middle with (shortstop Dan) Melvin, (second
baseman Steve) Braun and (center fielder Nick) Jowers. (Catcher Chad)
Durakis has delivered some key hits–witness Friday’s walk-off double
in the bottom of the ninth.

“These
might be the key early-season questions: are teams–N.C. State, Miami
and Clemson–taking the Turtles lightly? Is the ACC as a whole down
this year? Have the Terps improved their roster to move into the
ACC’s middle tier? Yes is the early answer to those questions.
Another ingredient is that Terry Rupp has upgraded his coaching staff
with Jim Farr and Carmen Carcone. And, as importantly, the players
seem to be buying into their coaching staff’s
message.”

In The
Dugout
Danny
Payne, of/rhp, Georgia Tech

As Payne led off last
Friday’s game against Duke with a flare to center field that he
stretched into a double, a National League scout turned to an
American League scout sitting next to him and said, “That’s how
you’re supposed to play.” In the second inning, when Payne
worked a walk and took third base on a perfect hit-and-run where he
correctly realized a line drive would not be caught, the two scouts
started arguing about who likes Payne more. By the time Payne led off
the ninth inning with a game-tying home run, sprinted to the bullpen
and started warming up, then shut down the Blue Devils in the bottom
of the frame to pick up the save, the scouts were calling Payne
(generously listed at 5-foot-11) a lock to go in the first three
rounds in June, and maybe higher. Through 27 games, Payne is batting
.412/.577/.649 with 37 walks and is 0-0, 0.00 with two saves in six
appearances off the mound. Here’s what Payne, a junior center fielder
and closer, had to say after his big game against
Duke.


It just looks like you have a
lot of fun when you’re playing the game. Are you having as much fun
as it looks like?

Oh,
definitely. The pressure’s off. I didn’t get to play at all last year
(he missed the final 25 games of the season with a dislocated
shoulder after colliding with Steven Blackwood in the outfield), and
it kind of made me realize how the game’s supposed to be played, and
just to enjoy it while you have it. What happened last year kind of
really hit at home, it was a freak accident, and you don’t really
look at baseball as something that can be snatched from you. But it
happened, it was a very humbling experience, so the pressure’s off
when I’m out here. I’m just out here having fun now.

Was
it disappointing to miss the run to the College World Series last
year?

I didn’t get to
go to Omaha, I had to sit at home and watch that. I had shoulder
surgery the week of the ACC tournament, so I missed the last stretch.
It was tough sitting at home and watching it, but at the same time it
lit that fire underneath me to rehab faster, get back out here so
hopefully we can make another run.

When
looking at your numbers this year, your walk total jumps out. Is that
a part of your game you’ve made a concerted effort to work
on?

Yes, I knew after
last year I kind of surprised some people with my power. They don’t
necessarily pitch around me but they know the potential at the plate.
But at the same time I’ve got the easy job of getting on base. I’ve
got (Luke) Murton and (Matt) Wieters and (Wally) Crancer hitting
behind me, they’ve got the tough job of driving me
in.

What’s it like playing center field
all day, you’re at the top of the lineup, you’re making all this
stuff happen on the basepaths, then at the end of the game you come
running in from the bullpen?

I
love it. I pitched a lot in high school and I missed it because when
you’re on the mound you control the tempo of the game–nothing can go
until you say so. It’s just a shot of adrenaline. When you’re out
there, I know I’ve got three outs to throw as hard as I can and get
batters out, and I love it.

How do you
describe your pitching style? It seems like you just attack people
with that fastball.

Oh,
I make them hit my fastball. I’ve got other pitches, but I like to
get ahead with my fastball. I’I go to the secondary stuff when I need
to, but when the adrenaline’s throwing, I’m spotting up, I think that
makes it tough for me to hit sometimes.

What’s
the best short joke you’ve heard?

I get knocked
on my hide a lot, I get a lot of guys on the team giving me a hard
time about putting me on their backpack, slipping me in stow-away
when we fly. But I like to think I play the game the way the game’s
supposed to be played, and good things come in small
packages.

A lot of smaller guys seem to
play with a bit of a chip on their shoulder. Do you have that as
well?

Oh, definitely.
Everyone hates that P-word, projectability, that if you don’t look
good in a uniform you’ll have a hard time playing pro ball. But I
just go out there and everyone has their own style of play. I just
have fun out there, and hopefully it makes me stand out from the
others. I just like playing the game, and that’s all that really
matters to me.

College | #2007 #Weekend Preview

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