College Weekend Preview: March 31-April 2

TOP 25 SCHEDULE

(1) Mississippi State at Alabama
Cal State Northridge at (2) Cal State Fullerton
(3) Georgia Tech at Maryland
(4) Florida State at (7) North Carolina
(5) South Carolina at (16) Louisiana State
(6) Rice at (11) Tulane
(8) Nebraska at Kansas State
(9) Clemson at (25) Miami
(10) Texas at (18) Oklahoma
UT Pan American at (12) Oregon State
(21) Tennessee at (13) Arkansas
(14) Arizona State at Washington State
Vanderbilt at (15) Florida
(17) Wichita State at Creighton
(19) Pepperdine at Loyola Marymount
Auburn at (20) Kentucky
Mississippi at (22) Georgia
(23) Virginia at North Carolina State
Birmingham-Southern at (24) Winthrop

MEANINGFUL MATCHUPS

Earning road victories might be the most difficult task facing young teams. Texas (19-10) has won 10 of its last 12 games while starting four freshmen, a junior college transfer and using three more freshmen in key pitching roles. Still, the Longhorns have yet to win a series in which they were the road team, though they split two games at Texas Tech two weeks back to improve to 3-8 in hostile environments. Texas can expect just that this weekend when it visits a veteran Oklahoma (20-7) club that’s 11-3 at home.

Of a more singular variety, let’s follow Pittsburgh junior second baseman Jim Negrych, a third-team preseason All-American batting .412/.511/.592 with four homers, as he visits Notre Dame and hard-throwing junior righthanders Jeff Manship (2-1, 2.32) and Jeff Samardzija (2-1, 3.72). All should be drafted in the first five rounds, though Samardzija’s football skills–he’s a potential Top 50 pick as a pitcher and as an NFL wide receiver in 2007–could complicate his baseball draft status.

UPSET CITY

A reporter asked Baylor coach Steve Smith this week about his team’s troubles at Texas Tech in recent years. “That’s not true,” Smith said, “we won there in 1998.” Since taking two of three games at Lubbock’s Dan Law Field that year, the Bears have fallen victim to three straight sweeps. They’ve lost nine straight games there and 10 of their last 11. When Baylor went 23-7 to win the Big 12 Conference in 2000, it still lost all three games in Lubbock. Maybe, as Baylor media relations maven Larry Little suggested, the Buddy Holly Museum, beautiful sunsets and Tech Hecklers’ humor provide too many distractions, or maybe playing in a wildly offensive park simply means the last team to bat will win most games. So this is a much weaker limb that it appears: Baylor (18-8) wins two times at Texas Tech (17-9).

While we’re at it, let’s take two more road ‘dogs in conference play. That’s Elon (21-8) at Charleston (21-5), which has won 57 of its last 66 Southern Conference games, and a young UCLA (15-11) team with good pitching to tip-toe through a treacherous Washington (18-10) offense in a park conducive to home runs.

Last Week: 2-1. Season Record: 14-16. Series Record: 5-5.

IN THE DUGOUT

Mississippi State fifth-year senior Thomas Berkery has started at four positions the last four years–second base, third base, catcher and now shortstop. He typifies the Bulldogs’ roster, existing more as a hard-working grinder than jaw-dropping star. Then again, maybe the former quality has begat the latter: Berkery was batting .417-1-14 on the year and currently riding a 19-game hit streak.

How do you feel about your team’s 21-1 start?

Overall, we’ve played great. In all aspects of the game we’ve been pretty sound: our pitching is right at the top of the conference, we’re getting enough runs to win, and our defense has played as expected. We’re right in line with our expectations we set for ourselves. We knew we were a very veteran and very talented team. We figured we’d be good. I don’t know if we thought we’d be 18-0, but with the guys we had coming back–we only lost one position player and two pitchers–we figured we ‘d put together a good run. A couple of the wins were not expected, but we’ve just played consistently. We haven’t lost any we should’ve won.

Now, the people around town are realizing we’re pretty hot. Even the Taco Bell sign said something about the baseball team. We had 3,000 people the other night, and for a midweek game, that’s a pretty good crowd.

How do you guys feel about the comparisons to the 1984-85 teams with Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Jeff Brantley and Bobby Thigpen?

It’s pretty crazy, those guys obviously were very talented. I think those teams maybe have been more dominated by those three or four or five guys; we’re just nine, 10, 11 guys going out there and swinging the bat and eight pitchers getting the job done. We don’t have any big studs, we’re just a bunch of guys that, night in and night out, it seems like a different guy is getting the big hit and making the pitch for us. I think that will pay off in the long run, because down the road we think if it’s a big spot and our No. 9 hitter is up, he’ll be able to come through.

How do two teammates (Berkery and first baseman Brad Jones) from Sarasota, Fla., end up at Mississippi State, with all the good programs in Florida?

At the time I didn’t really think about it like that. It might have been nice to be closer to home. I wasn’t really recruited by any of the big schools in Florida. It was just South Florida and Mississippi State. I came up here and there was no question where I wanted to go. The atmosphere and people are so nice. Obviously, the stadium is top of line.

Brad was the one who actually got recruited first. His family is from up here. Somehow he got connected–obviously by his talent, not just because his family’s from here–they saw him and saw me and did some homework on me. So this is like our ninth year of playing together.

What’s it like being one of three fifth-year seniors on the team (along with closer Brett Cleveland and Jones)?

I can’t imagine being here for five years. It seems so long ago. I’m the only one that’s engaged, the only one close to being there. I’m enjoying it. I’ve been with her (Jana Golson, a Starkville native) for three years now. Plus I’m getting up in age . . . It’s nice to have three guys that are the same age as you, three years ago we had one fifth-year guy and we all called him grandpa. They get on me about being locked down and where’s the wifey, but I’m proud of it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of with this girl.

Bryan Henry hasn’t taken the normal route to becoming the staff ace of one of the nation’s best teams.

Florida State’s junior righthander didn’t impress the Seminoles staff enough as a prospect at Tallahassee’s Florida High to receive a substantial scholarship offer until he already had attended his first class at North Florida Community College. He started 2005 as Florida State’s everyday third baseman and didn’t crack the weekend rotation until the end of April.

And now, here he is with a 7-0, 1.52 record and a 60-7 strikeout-walk ratio in 53 innings as the staff ace on a 26-2 team ranked No. 4 in the country. That’s a long way from his childhood days when his sportswriter father Jim would introduce him to FSU football coach Bobby Bowden and take him to run the bases after games at Dick Howser Stadium.

“You sit back and look at it, going to high school in Tallahassee, I’d tell myself I’m going to pitch there in a couple years.” Henry said. “Now, I’m pitching Friday nights in my hometown. It is kind of a dream come true.”

Henry’s numbers compare favorably to those of North Carolina lefthander Andrew Miller (5-0, 1.58 with a 52-9 strikeout-walk ratio in 40 innings), his opponent Friday night. The 6-foot-6 Miller comes armed with a mid-90s fastball, power slider and favorite status to become the No. 1 pick in June’s draft.

Henry might touch 90 mph on occasion, but he can locate his 86-87 mph fastball anywhere in the strike zone. And this fall, the first at Florida State he spent primarily as a pitcher, Henry added a two-seam fastball that generates more ground balls and switched from a slider to a curveball that seems to get better with each start. He mixes his breaking pitch and a solid changeup into any counts to keep hitters off balance, using a varied repertoire and pinpoint command to dominate opposing hitters despite not having a dominant pitch.

Florida State associate head coach Jamey Shouppe compares Henry to former South Carolina ace Kip Bouknight, the 2000 Golden Spikes winner, and former Florida State ace Mike Ziegler, who went 10-4, 3.03 to help the Seminoles to Omaha in 2000.

“He’s a true pitcher in every sense of the word,” Shouppe said, praising Henry’s abilities at holding runners and fielding his position. “He makes it look easy. He doesn’t have the wow factor. He just competes. He locates, but he doesn’t have that one pitch.”

Henry’s all-around athleticism helped him win the third base job during fall practice in his sophomore season. He pitched only occasionally until an April 16 game at Georgia Tech. Henry entered in the fourth inning with FSU trailing 5-3. He held the nation’s best offense to one hit over three innings, recording three strikeouts, and stood to be the winning pitcher until Tech scored three times in the bottom of the ninth for a 9-8 victory.

“I always knew what I could do, and I just needed the chance,” Henry said. “When I got it, I just took my chance. That Tech game was definitely it, they had one of the most powerful offenses in the country, and I was able to go in and neutralize them. I was pretty pumped that night.”

Henry started the following Tuesday against Florida and held the high-scoring Gators to two earned runs in 7 1/3 innings in a 4-2 win. That earned him a Sunday start at Miami–his first turn in the weekend rotation–and Henry again delivered. He held Miami to one run in eight innings as Florida State earned its only win of the series.

Henry ascended to the Friday starter’s role the next week, and finished the year as the Atlantic Coast Conference leader in ERA (2.23), conference ERA (1.59) and opponents average in conference play (.203). Henry has made 17 starts since being installed as Florida State’s ace, and he has lost only one (at Florida during 2005 super-regional play). In the same span, he has held opponents to two runs or fewer 14 times and allowed one walk or fewer 11 times.

The best of those starts might have come last weekend against Duke. Henry held the Blue Devils hitless for eight innings before yielding three hits and two runs in the ninth inning. Henry said his performance against Duke topped the perfect game he threw on senior night in high school, because the prep game lasted just seven innings.

After the Duke game, reporters asked Shouppe what made Henry so good.

“I told them, ‘Tomorrow, he’ll work harder the next day than he did the previous day in preparation for his next start,’ ” the coach said. “Saturday, he’s at the park an hour before everybody else running. We time our guys when they run their eight poles, and his time Saturday was 25 seconds better than any previous time.”

Henry certainly ran through Dick Howser Stadium at a faster pace that morning than he had years earlier. But it’s hard to discern who had a bigger smile on his face: the youth who ran dreaming of playing for Florida State, or the one now living that dream.

AROUND THE NATION

• USA Baseball announced Mark Machtolf (Gonzaga), Jim Schlossnagle (Texas Christian) and Tom Slater (Auburn) will serve as assistants to Tim Corbin (Vanderbilt) this summer with Team USA. The 2006 edition of Team USA will be selected from a pool of 34 freshmen and sophomores and will compete in the Japan Friendship Series and the FISU World University Championship in Havana, Cuba.

• Florida, fresh off a sweep at South Carolina last weekend, can’t be excited about facing Vanderbilt and David Price this weekend. The sophomore lefthander threw a complete-game shutout with 11 strikeouts at Auburn last weekend and leads the Southeastern Conference with 65 strikeouts against 13 walks in 41 innings. “That gentleman from Vanderbilt, probably in three or four years, major leaguers aren’t going to want to see him on a Friday night,” Louisiana State coach Smoke Laval said.

• Arizona State freshman lefthander Jeff Urlaub isn’t scheduled to start at Washington State this weekend, nor is fellow freshman lefty Ike Davis. Urlaub is battling mononucleosis, while Davis has been knocked around lately and moves to the bullpen. Righthanders Daryl Arreola, Pat Bresnehan and Frank Mesa get the starts for the Sun Devils. It will mark the first career start for Arreola, the second for Mesa and the fifth for Bresnehan, who has pitched out of the bullpen recently.

• Pepperdine junior catcher Chad Tracy was batting .325-1-15 through 21 games, which could be construed as struggling for a guy who hit .367-12-61 a year ago. So he and the coaching staff looked at video of his 2005 season, when he won the West Coast Conference triple crown. Tracy realized he wasn’t standing nearly as tall in his batting stance and made the adjustment. He’s hit .433-4-10 in nine games since, and the fix has come right on time as Pepperdine starts conference play at Loyola Marymount this weekend.

College | #2006 #Weekend Preview

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