|March matchups don’t get more meaningful than the annual Clemson-South Carolina donnybrook. The Palmetto State is simply bonkers for college baseball, and these two programs are two of the nation’s best on a consistent basis.
And, of course, there’s the rivalry—perhaps the fiercest in college baseball. So while a weekend in March will not make the season for the players or coaches, it just might for some of the fans.
“Clemson-USC is such a great rivalry that’s been around in this state for a while—it gets ridiculous whether it’s golf or baseball or football,” South Carolina junior lefthander Michael Roth said. “Both sides have amazing fans, and both sides want to kick the crap out of each other on the field.”
Fans of Clemson and South Carolina are extremely passionate, and many of them are more than willing to express their contempt for each other, sometimes at the expense of good taste. The intensity in the stands certainly ratchets up the intensity level on the field, but the players and coaches also insist that they don’t hate each other. That’s an emotion for fans.
“It’s definitely a lot different being on the field than being in the stands,” Clemson junior third baseman John Hinson said. “We respect those guys. There’s a lot of people on this team who grew up with those guys, played with them in travel ball, etc. We take a lot of pride in our school, but at the same time we respect our opponents. We don’t hate them or anything like that, as players, but we definitely understand the magnitude of the rivalry, and we enjoy it.”
Roth acknowledged that the recent history between the two clubs “spices it up a little bit” for the fans, if not for the players. The details have been rehashed over and over again (especially among South Carolina fans, doubtlessly): Clemson was sitting pretty at 2-0 in the College World Series last year, but South Carolina beat the better-rested Tigers twice in a row to advance the CWS Finals and win its first national title.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for Clemson. And it was the second time in a decade the Tigers started 2-0 in Omaha, only to lose back-to-back games against the Gamecocks to fall short of the championship round. (South Carolina did it in 2002, too.)
|TOP 25 SERIES
|Miami at (1) Florida
|Brown at (2) Vanderbilt
|(4) South Carolina vs./vs./@ (12) Clemson
(9) Stanford @ (6) Texas
|(7) Cal State Fullerton vs./vs./@ Southern California
| (8) Texas Christian @ Texas Tech
| (11) Florida State @ Georgia
| (15) Oregon @ Long Beach State
|Utah Valley @ (17) Arizona
|Princeton @ (19) Louisiana State
|Stony Brook @ (23) North Carolina
State @ UC Davis
|(25) UC Irvine @ St. Mary’s
|Top 25 Tournaments
|USD Tournament, San Diego:
| (3) Oklahoma, (14)
California, (22) Connecticut, San Diego, San Diego State
Classic, Surprise, Ariz.:
|(10) Arizona State, UC Riverside, Cal State Bakersfield, Kansas, Northern Illinois
Tournament, Charlottesville, Va.:
| (13) Virginia, Cornell, Rider
(20) Texas A&M, (21) Rice, Kentucky, Houston, Utah
of Charleston Classic:
|(18) College of Charleston, Auburn, New York Tech, Western Kentucky
“It was tough to go 2-0, and it would have been tough if we would have lost to anyone in that situation, being so close to our goal,” Hinson said. “The fact that it was South Carolina was tough. The postseason’s all about being hot and making things happen. They had a couple good pitching performances, they played hot, but it was definitely tough.”
Roth was responsible for the most memorable of those heroic South Carolina pitching performances. Making his first career start, Roth limited the lefthanded-leaning Tigers to one run on three hits in a complete-game victory. Turns out, that was just a sign of things to come for Roth.
With workhorse righthanders Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson gone to professional ball, it has fallen to Roth and fellow lefty Tyler Webb to hold down the first two spots in South Carolina’s weekend rotation. Through two starts, Roth has proven up to the challenge, going 2-0, 2.19 with 15 strikeouts and three walks in 12 innings. He has set a new career high in strikeouts in each of his first two starts.
“I think his stuff is better than it was last year,” South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. “He’s been a contributor here prior to now—he had a tremendous number of appearances last year in that bullpen, and we used him in a different role at the end of the year. Now he’s a starter, and one of the reasons is because of his experience. We felt based on his makeup, his poise and composure, his ability to throw multiple pitches, that he could be that guy. He’s not going to knock you down with a 93-94 mph fastball, although his fastball has jumped: It used to be low- to mid-80s, now it’s getting into the upper 80s, so it’s making people respect him.”
Roth said he has worked with new pitching coach Jerry Meyers on throwing from a higher arm slot against righties, and he still attacks lefties from a sidearm slot. His changeup has always been his go-to secondary pitch, giving him a weapon against righthanded hitters, and he mixes in a slider against lefties and an over-the-top curveball against righties, but he’s primarily a fastball-changeup guy.
Webb has also improved. His fastball is firmer than Roth’s, ranging from the high 80s to the low 90s, and Tanner said his changeup has come a long way under Meyers’ tutelage.
Starting pitching was the greatest question mark facing the defending national champions heading into the season, and so far Roth, Webb and redshirt sophomore lefthander Adam Westmoreland have provided answers.
“It’s actually been kind of a running joke on the staff because right before the spring practice started, one guy said to Webb, ‘We hear the weakest point is going to be the pitching staff,’ ” Roth said. “We’ve used that as motivation a little bit. We’ve got a great staff, an enormous amount of depth. We weren’t sure who it was going to be starting, and it could still change from now until the end of the season, or even in the middle.”
The core of Clemson’s lineup remains lefthanded, and how those veterans handle South Carolina’s all-lefty rotation will be critical. The Gamecocks still have one of the nation’s deepest bullpens, as well, and it features more quality lefties in Steven Neff, Logan Munson and Bryan Harper.
But Clemson’s righthanded bats have all gotten off to very good starts, making the lineup more balanced and dangerous. Catcher Spencer Kieboom (.579 with 10 RBIs), second baseman Jason Stolz (.438) and catcher/DH Phil Pohl (.438) are the team’s top three hitters through six games, and all are righthanded.
South Carolina’s veteran hitters have performed, too, over the team’s 7-0 start. Sophomore first baseman Christian Walker (.538 with two homers and 12 RBIs) has been on a tear in the cleanup spot, giving All-American Jackie Bradley Jr. (.423 with two homers and eight RBIs) plenty of protection. Senior Adrian Morales (.381 with nine RBIs) also has hit in the middle of the lineup, but Tanner is still tinkering with different combinations at the top and bottom of the lineup.
The South Carolina offense will face a much different challenge than the Clemson offense. The Tigers have power arms bookending their rotation in junior righthander Scott Weismann (2-0, 4.50) and redshirt sophomore righty Kevin Brady (2-0, 0.73 with 19 strikeouts and one walk in 12 innings). Brady, in particular, has been a revelation, finally harnessing the talent he has flashed over the last three summers. Erratic command plagued him in the past, but he has pounded the strike zone in his first two starts. His secondary stuff still lags behind, but he had great success against Michigan State attacking hitters with a fastball that sat at 92-94 mph all game—and most importantly, he located it.
While Clemson’s bullpen is not as deep and varied as South Carolina’s, it has a nice anchor in cutter specialist Alex Frederick, and youngsters Kevin Pohle, Matt Campbell, Jonathan Meyer and Joseph Moorefield are emerging to provide a solid supporting cast.
In sum, these are two well-rounded clubs with legitimate chances to get back to Omaha. This weekend might be a preview; there will certainly be a postseason feel to the games in Columbia, Clemson and Greenville.
“It’s electric—there’s just an energy, there’s something about when we meet them on the field that’s just different than when we play anyone else,” Hinson said. “It’s something that we look forward to, and I know they look forward to, too. It’s going to be fun this year—I think it should be a really good show.”
“It’s a rite of spring here when we play,” Tanner added. “Coach (Jack) Leggett and I always say, this is a pretty good deal, the attendance, the interest in college baseball—it’s hard to get tickets, and it’s not always like that in college baseball, so that’s special. It’s an in-state deal, but it’s a national deal, and we’re proud of it. It’s Clemson-South Carolina—let’s go!”
The weekend’s premier pitching matchup will take place Friday in Austin, when Stanford’s Mark Appel takes on Texas’ Taylor Jungmann in a duel between a pair of potential top-five overall picks for the next two drafts. But we’ve already written about Appel this season, and we’ll cover Jungmann in the Scouting Report section below, so let’s dig deeper for our Marquee Mound Showdown this week.
Toledo rebounded from a rough opening weekend with an eye-opening series win at Louisville in Week Two, and pitching carried the Rockets to wins in the first two games. Hamann, a sophomore righthander, has emerged as the staff anchor and an intriguing prospect for the 2012 draft. Friday he’ll take on Putknonen, a junior righthander for Samford.
Hamann stepped right into the Saturday starter role as a freshman last year, going 6-3, 4.12. He’s made a seamless transition into the Friday job as a sophomore, starting the season 1-0, 0.69 with 16 strikeouts and two walks through 13 innings. He allowed one run on six hits and no walks over eight innings while striking out six in last week’s 3-1 win against Louisville. Toledo coach Cory Mee said his fastball sits in the 88-92 range and could add velocity as he fills out his loose, projectable frame, currently listed at 6-foot-3, 163 pounds. He has improved his slider, and he mixes in a curveball and changeup.
“The thing Mike does really well is he pounds the strike zone with four pitches,” Mee said. “He really challenges the hitters—that’s probably one of his biggest strengths. The other thing Mike does is he’s got a real good feel for pitching, and he’s very poised on the mound. The mound presence he has really gives our team confidence playing behind him. I can’t say enough good things about him—he’s a coach’s dream.”
The biggest name on Samford’s pitching staff is sophomore lefthander Lex Rutledge, a potential first-round pick for the 2012 draft. Rutledge racked up 12 saves and posted a 1.71 ERA as a closer last year, but he has struggled early on in a starting role as a sophomore, and Samford coach Casey Dunn said the coaches will see how Rutledge fares in another start Sunday, then decide whether to keep him in the rotation or move him back to the bullpen. He was electric as a reliever last year, sitting 92-93 and reaching the mid-90s at times, but his heater has dialed back to 89-92 as a starter.
So there won’t be a Hamann-Rutledge showdown this week, but Putkonen is talented in his own right. The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder is the younger brother of former North Carolina righthander Luke Putkonen (a third-round pick by the Tigers in 2008) and a cousin of current Samford outfielder Kevin Putkonen, whom he had never met until the Bulldogs began recruiting the two.
Kyle Putkonen was outstanding in his season debut against Western Illinois, striking out nine and allowing just three hits and two walks over six shutout innings, but he labored a bit in a loss to Jacksonville last week. He enters the Toledo series 1-1, 3.09 with 12 strikeouts and five walks in 12 innings.
“His first outing of the year, he was phenomenal, and then he struggled with his command against Jacksonville,” Dunn said. “His stuff is a lot better; last year he would be 87-88 and touch a little higher, but this year he’s holding it right at 90-91. The breaking ball’s getting better, the changeup has always been his best pitch, and he’s throwing a little 83-84 mph cutter that’s been a good pitch for him. His stuff has gotten to the point where we had a lot of scouts coming back in multiple times in the fall to see him. The last two years, he’s thrown a bunch for us but just never was able to shut people down. But his arm strength’s gotten better, and I think he’s got a chance to be a good draft.”
Scott Malone jokes that he almost feels like he’s got a no-hitter going and doesn’t want to jinx it by talking about it. That’s how encouraged the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi coach is by his team’s 8-2 start, and how good he feels about the pieces the Islanders have in place.
Malone took over the program after its first season in the Southland Conference in 2007, and it has taken a little longer than he first hoped to turn the Islanders into Southland contenders. They finished in last place in 2009 (9-24 in the league) and 11th out of 12 teams in 2010 (10-22).
But the talent level has gradually increased, and Corpus Christi earned a pair of statement wins last week at Texas and against Oregon State in the Islanders’ Kleberg Bank College Classic.
“This is our fourth year here as a staff; we’ve been somewhat offensive each year, and just never really put it together on the mound,” Malone said. “That’s easy to pinpoint as the big difference: We’ve got a few more horses on the mound now, and some kids who’ve had some success. That’s changed the mindset. The guys that play defense and hit know we’re going to be in a lot of games because we have horses on the mound.”
The projected staff ace, power-armed Texas Christian transfer Sean Hoelscher, has been limited to one inning by a nasty blister on his pitching hand and some back soreness, but TAMU-CC’s other top arms have elevated their games. Junior lefthander Todd Simko, a transfer from Cuesta (Calif.) JC, has emerged as the staff anchor, going 1-1, 1.86 in three appearances, including a save in the midweek game against Texas.
A 6-foot-4, 220-pounder with an easy delivery, Simko has overcome an April 2006 car accident that required multiple surgeries to repair a broken left arm and two broken vertebra, as well as an unrelated brain tumor. Malone says he physically resembles retired big leaguer Andy Pettitte and throws three pitches for strikes, including an 89-91 fastball that reached 93-94 in the short stint at Texas.
No. 2 starter Justin Meza, who battled through 5 1/3 innings to get the win against Texas, has a big arm, with a fastball that ranges from 87-93 mph. He was a big-name recruit out of Corpus Christi’s Moody High, but he struggled academically, so some of the top programs in the state backed off him. Rather than let him go to a junior college, Meza’s parents insisted he stay local at TAMU-CC and take his freshman year off from baseball to work on his grades. So now he’s a sophomore academically, but a freshman on the field, and his control is still a work in progress.
“He’s got a little Nuke Laloosh in him,” Malone said, citing the iconic “Bull Durham” character with the huge arm and erratic control. “His ball moves; he throws everything sideways. He has a really good breaking ball and a really good changeup—he’s a true three-pitch guy. For him it’s not even harnessing the zone, it’s just being around the zone.”
Righthander Brett Carnline, a fifth-year senior coming off shoulder surgery, gives the Islanders another quality starter, with excellent movement on his 88-90 fastball. Malone said Carnline emerged from his surgery as a completely different pitcher than he was previously, and he demonstrated his maturity with five solid innings to earn the win against Oregon State.
And junior righty Michael Boyle is a weapon in the bullpen, where he has posted a 1.42 ERA and three saves in five appearances this spring. Malone said he works in the 89-93 range.
“We haven’t really had that kind of velocity in this program, definitely not in the last three or four years,” Malone said. “It’s not like we’ve got just one guy that’s leading the way; we’ve got three or four kids that are really throwing well. You can see how the confidence of this club has changed.”
The Islanders also have a strong core of physical veterans to lead the lineup. Their top four hitters—Jacob Perales, Matt Holland, Trey Hernandez and Chris Vergne—are all true seniors or fifth-year seniors who know the ropes. And Corpus Christi is blessed with a talented two-way catcher in junior college transfer Jumpy Garcia.
“He’s defensive, he hits in the middle of our lineup—definitely a pro guy,” Malone said of Garcia. “He looks like he ought to be catching for the Indians instead of the Islanders. He’s changed how we go about it when we’re on defense and offense. Not many clubs have a catcher hitting in the middle who’s a good defender.”
One of the reasons Malone took this job four years ago was because he believed South Texas was a baseball hotbed with a strong recruiting base and a community that would rally behind the Islanders if they started to win. Malone said that is starting to happen, as evidenced by the 3,023 fans who showed up to see the Oregon State game Saturday at Whataburger Field, home of the Double-A Hooks.
“We knew you’ve got to win,” he said. “It probably took a year or two longer than we would have liked, but I think people have felt like we’re doing it right, people have been patient with us, and now things are going better. With our team, it’s kind of a perfect storm. Everything’s coming together—knock on wood.”
Conference play starts this weekend with a home series against Southland heavyweight Texas State, which has not lost a series to the Islanders in Malone’s tenure. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi has built some confidence, but now the real work begins.
“Texas State knows how to win,” Malone said. “I think the biggest thing we’re going up against this weekend is expectations. Now we’ve caught up physically, we’ve got some bangers in the lineup and three of four kids that can really pitch. Now when we walk across the lines, will my kids be able to believe we’re on a level with Texas State, Southeastern Louisiana, Lamar? We’re at home; we need to win two out of three. If we’re going to be one of the top teams in the league, we have to win series.”
Eckerle, a senior leadoff man, is a major reason Michigan State got off to a 5-0 start, its best since 1964, before losing Sunday against Clemson. Eckerle recorded multiple hits in each of MSU’s first five games and carries a 14-game hitting streak into this weekend’s Bethune-Cookman tournament, where the Spartans face the Wildcats, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville and Boston College.
Through six games, Eckerle is hitting .696/.731/.783 with a pair of doubles, three walks and no strikeouts. After hitting below .280 his first two years at Michigan State, Eckerle turned a corner last year, hitting .362, but he continued to work on improving his swing over the offseason, earning all-league honors for a second time in the Jayhawk League.
“He runs well, and he’s got to be able to put the ball in play, hit a lot of line drives and ground balls, and that’s what he’s doing,” Spartans coach Jake Boss said. “In past years, he hit a lot of fly balls and pop-ups, so he’s made some adjustments with his swing last spring and fall. He got a little steep, and as a result the barrel would drop a lot, so when that happens the ball goes up. He’s tried to keep the barrel in the hitting zone longer, flatten that swing out a little bit. It’s a lot more line drives than fly balls now, and he’s really bought into the concept of staying in the middle of the field.”
It’s critical that Eckerle get on base to make use of his above-average speed. He stole 22 bases in 26 tries last year, and he has four steals in five attempts this spring. His speed is also an asset in center field.
“He’s fantastic in center field—he doesn’t have the best arm, but he’s the best outfielder I’ve coached,” Boss said. “He plays every ball live off the bat in practice. It’s fun to watch him in (batting practice)—he’s the dirtiest guy on the field after BP, because he’s diving all over the place. He’s fun to watch out there.”
Ray Birmingham’s Lobos broke through to regionals last year for the first time since 1962, but the roster turned over in the offseason, leaving New Mexico fighting to stay out of the dreaded “rebuilding mode.”
New Mexico was swept in a road series by Arizona State to open the year, but that wasn’t exactly a surprise—the Sun Devils are loaded. But then the Lobos dropped a midweek game against New Mexico State and were swept in a four-game home series against Creighton, leaving them sitting at 0-8 for the first time in program history heading into this weekend’s set against Texas-San Antonio.
“We’re building for the future, but the growing pains are killing me,” Birmingham told the Albuquerque Examiner. “All I know to do is to keep working.”
New Mexico lost two-thirds of its weekend rotation and eight everyday starters from last year’s team, and the team’s youth has been on full display. Errors, walks, hit batsmen, wild pitches and passed balls helped Creighton overcome deficits of four and six runs in the final two games of the series. Three of the losses were one-run affairs.
“Every ballgame we’ve played in, we’ve been in it at some point in time and then someone has made a mistake, a monumental mistake that breaks it open,” Birmingham told the paper. “It’s just simple execution in baseball.
“We’re a tentative young ballclub, we’re playing a really good ballclub and we should have won three out of four but we didn’t, because we’re trying not to mess up instead of winning a ballgame. Then guys press and try to do stuff on their own.”
Still, there is cause for optimism. The Lobos have plenty of talented young players, but their two most talented freshmen—righthander Jake McCasland (0-1, 5.25) and outfielder/lefthander Sam Wilson (.192/.222/.231)—have yet to find their strides. They figure to learn from these early struggles and be better for the experience, down the road.
“It isn’t about now, anyway,” Birmingham said. “Record doesn’t mean anything to me right now. We’re trying to learn to play baseball the right way. We play baseball the right way and I guarantee you that record is a whole lot different.”
California’s team ERA through six games. Seven of the nine Golden Bears who have made an appearance on the mound this year have ERAs of 0.00, while standout starters Justin Jones (1.93) and Dixon Anderson (4.76) are the only ones who have given up earned runs. Not coincidentally, Cal is 5-1 heading into this weekend’s tournament in San Diego.
Cal pitchers have combined on three shutouts this year, including two last weekend against potent offenses Coastal Carolina and North Carolina State. The lone run allowed by Cal last weekend was in an 8-1 win against Kansas State, a third 2010 regionals team.
“We pitched well and we played fantastic defense,” Bears pitching coach Dan Hubbs said. “Our middle infield, Marcus Semien and Tony Renda, played awesome, and it gives the kids a lot of confidence. We turned a ton of double plays, it seemed like, we threw strikes, and we have some good arms on the team. They’re pitching confidently right now.”
The Bears have four quality starters in Anderson, fellow junior righty Erik Johnson, Jones and senior righty Kevin Miller. The first three will pitch in that order this weekend (Cal plays San Diego today, San Diego State on Friday, Oklahoma on Saturday and Connecticut on Sunday), and Miller will start Sunday unless the Bears need him out of the pen to win a game before that.
Miller set the tone last weekend in Myrtle Beach, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning against Coastal (whose own ace, Anthony Meo, was shellacked for nine runs on 10 hits in that game). Hubbs said Miller pitched primarily off his deceptive fastball, which has crept up into the 91-92 range now that Miller further removed from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip, which affected him the last two years.
Johnson has shown the best stuff on the staff this year, reaching 94 mph, and he has the best numbers, too: 2-0, 0.00 with 14 strikeouts and three walks over 13 innings. Anderson also has a power arm but has been working more in the 89-92 range in the early going. Jones, a sophomore lefty, works mostly in the upper 80s but has the most movement and the most savvy.
“It’s nice, because you’ve got three guys, you can split up the two righthanders with the lefty, and they can get guys out different ways,” Hubbs said. “One guy’s strength might be another guy’s weakness, and vice versa. There’s good competition between the three of them—they’re always looking to one-up the other guy.”
When the Bears only have three-game weekends, Miller strengthens the bullpen, which has solidified considerably earlier this year than it has in the past. Hubbs said the Bears feel very comfortable going to righties Miller, Matt Flemer or Logan Scott, plus freshman lefty Kyle Porter. Flemer’s velocity has spiked into the 89-92 range, and he pounds the zone with three pitches. Scott and Porter work in the 88-90 range and also have good secondary stuff. Hubbs said he thinks Porter has a chance to be a “bona fide weekend shutdown starter eventually in the Pac-10.”
Whether he’ll have a chance to reach that destiny at Cal is another question. Baseball supporters are still fighting to raise more money to save the program from the chopping block, but they’re fighting an uphill battle after the school’s administration recently reaffirmed its decision to cut the program after this season. But the Golden Bears have not let that derail them.
“The culture in the program is they love each other, they work really hard,” Hubbs said. “When the first announcement came (in September), it was like we have a chance to do something here; we’re not going to let anything happen. They really wanted to prove to everybody that it was a program that meant something, and they took it personally, and they should have . . . They think if this is the last time we’re going to play together, we want to make it special.”
The final leg of Stanford’s season-opening gauntlet run is this weekend in Austin, where the No. 9 Cardinal visit No. 6 Texas. Stanford already won a road series at Rice and dropped a tight series at Vanderbilt, and its work will be cut out for it again this weekend. The Longhorns are 5-3, with series wins against Maryland and at Hawaii, and they have the nation’s hottest pitcher in junior righthander Taylor Jungmann, who has opened the season with back-to-back complete-game shutouts. With a staff filled with top-flight arms and elite defenders all over the field, Texas stands a very good chance to lead the nation in run prevention for the second year in a row. An American League scout who saw the ‘Horns during Week One broke them down, focusing on the bread and butter: the pitching and defense.
Jungmann’s got that thing you can’t teach: When he gets in a game and gets zoned in, the bigger the game is, the better he pitches. He always steps up in a big game, finds something extra, hits his spots. He’s just a prototypical top-of-the-rotation starter. Maybe a No. 2 in the big leagues—I don’t know about a No. 1 guy. Worst-case scenario, a No. 3. He goes out and gets it done—he’s unflappable. He’s a really good athlete. I’d heard the velocity was up into the mid-90s, but I didn’t see that; I saw him sitting at 92-93. The slider’s pretty good, and he’s got a hard curveball that’s plus, the changeup’s average to maybe solid-average, 50-55. And he pitches with all four of them, and he pitches to contact. When you’ve got (Brandon) Loy at short, you don’t have to worry too much about stuff going through the middle.
“Cole Green was not great first time out of the chute, but it sounds like he was back to normal in Hawaii. (Sam) Stafford looked OK. He was up to 93 or 94, like 88-93, maybe bump a 94. His curveball was on a 1-to-7 path, 75-77, something like that. His changeup was average—he looked good. It’ll be interesting to see if he stays as the Sunday guy or if it’s (Hoby) Milner. Milner was really good against Maryland, throwing three pitches for strikes, and he’d dump that curveball in any time in the count. He pitched 90-91, up to 93, in that 88-93 range. The curveball is his out pitch, and the changeup was solid too.
“They’ve got some time to figure out how they want to set up the pen, and once they get that figured out—seems like they always do—they’ll be pretty tough. (Andrew) McKirahan’s good, a situational lefty. (Kiefer) Nuncio will be fine; there’s pretty good depth there, lefthanded and righthanded options out of the pen.
“I think there’s enough gap guys and contact guys, with their pitching, that will give them time for their hitting to come around. (Erich) Weiss, shoot, he was unconscious that opening weekend. His average at one point up on the video board was .900—are you kidding me? He’s always been a solid guy, a solid player, growing and getting stronger, and with that strength he’s gotten even more confidence.
“Cohl Walla still hasn’t gotten stronger. He’s still really athletic, he can play center for them, and that’s obviously a great yard to play it in. Their defense is pretty good. They’ve upgraded with Weiss at third—he can cut that stuff off in the hole pretty good, and does probably a little better job than (Kevin) Lusson did there last year. Behind the plate, they had a freshman two of the games, then Lusson too. He looked comfortable back there, plus he’s got an average arm. The transition looks like it’s working good for him. (Jordan) Etier’s solid, and Loy’s obviously money—he picks it up and throws it out. Tant Shepherd evolved into a pretty good first baseman last year.
“Then they’ve got Walla in the outfield, and that little kid (Mark) Payton, he plays with some energy and passion. It’s interesting how the freshmen have come in and done very well in a tough environment to play in. Payton has a great first step in the outfield, and he’s always heading in the right direction. His arm is fringy, and he’s probably an average runner, but it plays up with his instincts. That was a guy you loved—he just makes things happen. The proverbial gnat—there he is again, he’s on base, stealing a base, or drag bunting or getting a knock when you need it. He’s got those winner traits in him.”
A 32nd-round pick by the Rays out of high school, Gaedele was the first drafted player to spurn pro baseball in favor of Valparaiso. He had a breakout sophomore year, hitting .373/.429/.610, then ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the Northwoods League last summer, showing off huge raw power, good athleticism and speed. His great uncle Eddie Gaedele was the shortest man ever to play in the big leagues (3-foot-7) thanks to a publicity stunt by the St. Louis Browns in 1951 (he walked on four pitches, then was removed for a pinch-runner). But Kyle has a chiseled 6-foot-3, 225-pound physique and a good offensive approach, and he could be drafted in the first two or three rounds this June. Though Valpo is off to a rough 1-8 start, Gaedele has been a bright spot, hitting .400/.463/.457 with a team-leading six RBIs and six steals in seven tries. The Crusaders continue their 13-game West Coast road trip with a three-game series at 1-6 Cal Poly this weekend.
You guys have gotten off to a slow start. Do you feel like you’re close to putting it together?
As a team, we haven’t been playing well. Our hitting’s inconsistent, pitching’s inconsistent. It hasn’t been very fun for our team, we’ve made a lot of mistakes. I think we’re right around the corner. It’s a different team since I’ve been here, I’ve been here three years, and it’s a different attitude about this team. I like this team a lot; I think we’re right around the corner.
It does seem like the program’s headed in the right direction. How far do you think the program’s come since you got here?
Oh, man, it’s night and day. Coach (Tracy) Woodson and Coach (Brian) Schmack have turned this program around. What they’ve done to our facilities, our field, it’s just night and day. The attitude they bring every day to work and make us better, it’s just incredible.
I know it’s hard as a cold-weather team coming out of the chute playing warm-weather teams. Has it just taken you guys some time to shake the rust off a little bit?
I don’t think it’s an excuse for us. Some guys can make that excuse; I’m personally not going to make that excuse. Everyone puts their pants on the same way, it’s a simple game and everyone plays the same game. It doesn’t matter if you come from snow all winter. But there is an adjustment period.
You’ve found yourself in the prospect spotlight, particularly after your summer with Madison in the Northwoods League last year. What was that experience like for you?
It was a great learning experience. Playing 70 games in 74 days or whatever it was, it was a great learning experience for me, and hopefully it will get me ready for the next level. The crowds in Madison are one of a kind; I think they rank right at the top in the nation for summer college baseball attendance. It was pretty fun.
You had three hits in the all-star game up there, with three hits in front of a bunch of scouts. Kind of a coming-out party for you?
The all-star game was a blast for me. On one hand, you’re there, it’s fun, just hanging out with the guys. On the other hand, we’re all competitors, we want to win.
How have you developed in your time at Valparaiso? You’re a big, physical guy; were you like this when you got here?
I wasn’t. Coming out of high school, I was always 6-3 or 6-4, but here they work with you. They put you in the weight room and give you programs to work on.
I think the biggest thing for me was Coach Woodson put me in there every day. He let me experience failure, let me get the experience I needed. He put me in different summer leagues. The more I’ve played, the better I’ve become.
You were the first drafted player out of high school to show up at Valparaiso. Did you see it as a chance to make a big impact and help build the program up?
That was one of my goals coming here, kind of put Valpo on the map, give them a little exposure. We had two kids drafted last year, for the first time in a really long time. The amount of talent they’re getting in here to Valpo continues to grow. I was kind of under the radar in high school, I never really did any showcases. Coach Brian Schmack went to the same high school I went to, so there was a little connection there. When I went on my visit to Valparaiso, it just appealed to me, the direction they wanted to go and how they wanted to help me become the player I wanted to be, there was just no other choice for me.
I’ve got to ask you about Eddie Gaedele; I’m sure you hear about this all the time, right?
Yeah. He was my great uncle. It really wasn’t big until I was in the Prospect League my freshman year in Hannibal, Missouri. The coaches found out about it and did an interview, then MLB Network came in and I did an interview with them. The next thing you know, Bob Costas is talking about me and Eddie Gaedele and that story, so it was pretty cool. If you know baseball, you know that story. I’m grateful to be a part of that.
Looks like you got the other end of the gene pool though, huh?
(Laughing) Yeah, you could say that.