1. Louisville hosts St. John's in critical Big East showdown
2. Streakin' Travis Parker and A-10 leader Saint Louis head to Charlotte
3. Quick takes on other big series around college baseball
Big Weekend In The Big East
Since Louisville's 2007 trip to Omaha in Dan McDonnell's first season as head coach, the Cardinals and St. John's have been fixtures in the top third of the Big East standings. The two teams have played plenty of important series over the last five years, but none bigger than this weekend's set in Louisville—the marquee weekend on the Big East calendar this season.
Saturday's game starts at 11:30 a.m. ET in order to accommodate ESPNU, and the television factor adds a little extra excitement to a series that features the top two teams in the Big East standings. St. John's (16-5) has a two-game lead over Louisville (14-7) and Connecticut.
"I'm assuming that's why ESPN picked this game—you've got No. 1 and 2 going at it on the second-to- last weekend of the year," McDonnell said. "Kyle Peterson's in town—this is a big game, now! He doesn't do just any game. This is big."
Louisville and St. John's entered the season as almost co-favorites; the Cardinals were ranked in the preseason Top 25 while the Red Storm began just outside the rankings. But St. John's got off to a sluggish start in nonconference play, falling to 4-9 after getting swept in a Saturday doubleheader at Liberty—during which the Red Storm committed 10 errors, six by shortstop Matt Wessinger.
St. John's salvaged the Sunday game at Liberty to avoid a four-game sweep, and since that day it has gone 27-8 to surge into at-large contention.
"I guess it's typical for us: sketchy early, but high hopes, high aspirations, accolades, all that nonsense," St. John's coach Ed Blankmeyer said. "I just can't figure it out. The usual excuse for a Northeastern program is, 'Aw gee, we're not ready. The weather, we're inside the whole time'—the typical excuses. This year it's been great. We were outside Jan. 27 for the first practice, guys got enough at-bats prior to the regular season starting. But we were just stuck in the mud, if you will. But we're playing better, we've ironed some things out."
First and foremost, the Johnnies settled in defensively. Blankmeyer's biggest concern heading into the season was how his team would replace departed first-round pick Joe Panik at shortstop. He wound up deciding to move Wessinger over from second base, and Wessinger got acclimated quickly after the Liberty series; his hands and arm play at the position, and he has done a good job making the routine plays, Blankmeyer said. Sliding Wessinger across the keystone sack created uncertainty at second base, but freshman Brett Dennis has taken to the spot.
And Danny Bethea has done a solid job replacing a three-year starter behind the plate, making the Red Storm sound up the middle. St. John's .959 fielding percentage is still an eye sore, but Blankmeyer said the defense is no longer a liability.
|Top 25 Schedule|
|(1) Florida State at Clemson
(2) Baylor at Oklahoma
Vanderbilt at (3) Louisiana State
(4) South Carolina at Georgia
Alabama-Birmingham at (5) Rice
(25) Mississippi State at (6) Florida
Alabama at (7) Kentucky
(8) Cal State Fullerton at UC Santa Barbara
Southern California at (9) Oregon
San Diego State at (10) Texas A&M
(11) UCLA at Washington
(12) North Carolina at Duke
(13) North Carolina State at Virginia Tech
(14) Arizona at California
Michigan at (15) Purdue
(16) Central Florida at Marshall
Washington State at (17) Stanford
Loyola Marymount at (18) San Diego
(19) Arizona State at Gonzaga
Auburn at (20) Arkansas
Georgia Tech at (21) Virginia
St. John's at (22) Louisville
(23) Oregon State at Utah
(24) Texas Christian at Air Force
"We have our moments where we'll give you a five-out inning, but all in all, I would say the hole has been patched, my concern has been eradicated," he said.
Louisville had its own questions to answer in the middle infield. Freshman Zach Lucas wound up winning the shortstop job, and though he has 16 errors (.884 fielding percentage), McDonnell said few of them have come in crucial situations, like with runners in scoring position. A former football player who was the Gatorade Player of the Year for Kentucky in baseball last year, Lucas is an athletic, high-energy player with the range, hands and arm strength to be a standout defender as he matures.
Junior-college transfer Nick Ratajczak has done a nice job replacing star second baseman Ryan Wright and getting on base in the No. 2 hole. McDonnell calls him "a machine," a good fit in Louisville's recent tradition of quality "clock-punchers" at second base—from Logan Johnson to Justin McClanahan to Wright and Ratajczak.
Helping make the Cardinals strong up the middle, sophomore Kyle Gibson has seized the catching job, and fellow sophomore Adam Engel is a dynamo in center field. Engel, another former football player, throws his body around with reckless abandon, slamming into walls and constantly diving for balls in the outfield, and sliding head-first when he steals bases. That caused him to injure his thumb on a stolen base against Seton Hall on April 15, and he was sidelined until entering Tuesday's game against Vanderbilt in the seventh inning. He is expected to return to the starting lineup this weekend, which will give Louisville a jolt. Engel has 28 stolen bases in 29 attempts, and his presence adds an important dynamic to the offense.
Scoring runs was a major challenge for the Cardinals last year, when they ranked 269th in the nation in batting (.253) and 243rd in scoring (4.6 runs per game). That experience helped mold Louisville's young core. Last year's overmatched freshmen have evolved into confident, dangerous sophomores, led by Engel, fellow outfielder Jeff Gardner and versatile hitting machine Ty Young (the team's leading hitter at .347/.473/.571 with six homers). This year's team is hitting .301 and averaging 7.3 runs per game.
"This is a determined group, and largely because of the sophomores," McDonnell said. "It's the biggest group on our team, and they went through one of the toughest years last year. That's not why they came to Louisville. We went to four straight NCAAs before they got here, and they came here to win. They committed to the weight room, committed to getting us back into the NCAAs. It's been fun to see this group evolve."
The Red Storm offense has a similar character. Both teams do a solid job grinding out at-bats up and down the lineup. Both have some speed and some power. Wessinger (.350/.448/.519 with six homers, 44 RBIs and 28 steals in 30 tries) provides both of those things for St. John's. As a senior, he has emerged as the team's most dynamic offensive player, and Blankmeyer said the senior has boosted his draft stock from the 37th round last year into contention for the top 10 rounds this year.
The Red Storm's top hitting prospect coming into the year, outfielder Jeremy Baltz (.326/.418/.495 with five homers and 43 RBIs), is still a quality run producer in the middle of the lineup, though he has struggled to repeat the first-team All-America form of his freshman year. Blankmeyer said Baltz swings wood bats better than the BBCOR bats, which have caused him to overswing and get away from hitting to the opposite field like he used to.
But the primary reason St. John's and Louisville entered 2012 with high expectations is that both teams are loaded with quality arms, and pitching has proven to be the biggest strength for each club. All three days this weekend feature intriguing pitching matchups.
St. John's junior righty Matt Carasiti (4-3, 3.75) takes on Louisville junior righty Justin Amlung (7-3, 2.16) in Friday's opener. Amlung is the more polished of the two, with better command and exceptional defensive skills off the mound, but he also has very good stuff: a 90-93 mph fastball and an 80-82 slider, according to McDonnell. Carasiti will show more velocity, sitting at 91-93 and bumping 95-96. He has improved his slider, changeup and split-finger, which has become a true out pitch for him. Blankmeyer originally thought Carasiti would be a good fit at the back of the bullpen, but he's found Carasiti does better when he has time to use all his pitches and work his way out of jams over the course of several innings, so he has spent the bulk of the season in the rotation.
On Saturday, St. John's most polished pitcher, lefthander Sean Hagan (6-2, 2.96), takes on Louisville sophomore righty Jeff Thompson (9-1, 3.48), who might have the biggest upside on the staff. The 6-foot-6, 245-pound Thompson has a swing-and-miss fastball that reaches 91 with good life and an 83 mph slider with tilt and depth. He's still learning the finer points of pitching, but he's making progress. Hagan, meanwhile, is a classic crafty lefty who works in the 84-88 range, has a solid changeup and throws different versions of his breaking ball.
Sunday's matchup pits St. John's junior righty Kyle Hansen (3-5, 3.57) against Louisville freshman righty Jared Ruxer (6-1, 2.47). Hansen came out of the chute throwing 94-97 mph in his first start of the season, but was out of gas by the fourth inning, and he has learned to do a better job conserving his strength as the season has progressed. Now he'll pitch in the 91-94 range with better command, and his 78-84 slider has been effective. At 6-foot-8, 215 pounds, Hansen is "like a baby giraffe—arms and legs coming at you, some deception in his delivery," in Blankmeyer's words. Ruxer is a more traditional 6-foot-3 righty with an 89-92 fastball and impressive command for his age. He's a flyball pitcher and a strike-thrower.
Both staffs have power arms in the bullpen, too. Louisville's deep 'pen is anchored by senior Derek Self, whom McDonnell calls the ultimate winner. He also has good stuff, with a fastball that bumps 93-94 and a hard 88 mph cutter that is very difficult to hit. Junior righty Matt Koch has an even bigger arm, capable of reaching 94-96 mph regularly, but he has been less consistent.
Sophomore righty James Lomangino has emerged as St. John's closer thanks to a 92-94 mph fastball, good slider and ability to pound the zone. Lefthander Kevin Kilpatrick and righty Stephen Rivera give the bullpen a pair of savvy, reliable veterans around Lomangino.
So there are plenty of similarities between these two clubs, and there is a lot on the line. With six wins against the top 50, Louisville is in much better shape than St. John's to secure an at-large bid, but at No. 47 in the Ratings Percentage Index the Cardinals aren't exactly an at-large lock. Still, McDonnell is confident his team will be in a regional, and he said he feels good about his team's chances to make noise in the postseason because it is battle-tested and blessed with a deep supply of quality arms.
St. John's needs to boost its RPI (No. 61) a bit more to get into at-large range, and a regular-season Big East title would be a big boost for a resume that lacks wins against top 50 teams.
"I think from here on out, the next two series are for an at-large bid," Blankmeyer said. "I think we're in consideration. Certainly there are a lot of other teams that are in a similar situation as us. Some of them started out like a ball of fire and played themselves out. I think we're playing ourselves in . . . I do think this is at least a two-bid league, but I guess time will tell."
Streakin: Saint Louis closer Travis Parker
He hasn't pitched enough innings to qualify for the national ERA title, but Travis Parker's 0.00 ERA through 31 2/3 innings still induces a double take. Parker, a fifth-year senior closer for Saint Louis, hasn't allowed an earned run in 34 1/3 innings, dating back to last season (though he has allowed five unearned runs this year).
"Travis has been just really, really good," Billikens coach Darin Hendrickson said. "He's a low three-quarters guy who is 88-90, no higher or lower, but has developed a breaking ball that's really helped him. He gets a lot of groundballs—they don't square him up a lot."
Parker had 10 saves last year but posted a 3.41 ERA, as the righthander struggled at times against lefthanded hitters. Hendrickson said he has figured out how to work in a decent changeup to help him against lefties—no easy task from his arm slot. And his sweeping breaking ball has made him more effective against righties, too. Parker is holding hitters to a .172 average (down from .288 last year) and has 28 strikeouts and 12 walks to go with his nine saves.
"He's a poor man's Huston Street—that's what he is," Hendrickson said. "This year, he's our guy—if the game's on the line in the late innings, he's our guy, no question."
Parker gives the Billikens plenty of confidence when games are close in the late innings, and his success is part of the reason Saint Louis finds tied itself atop the Atlantic 10 Conference standings with two weeks left in the season. At 14-7, the Billikens have the same winning percentage as Rhode Island (12-6). The top two teams in the standings get first-round byes in the all-important conference tournament, which helps conserve pitching in the six-team event. The Billikens have a quality one-two punch atop their rotation in Clay Smith (6-2, 2.45) and Alex Alemann (6-0, 2.57), a pair of strike-throwers who command 85-87 fastballs and solid sliders. If Saint Louis can secure a first-round bye and hold Smith and Alemann for the next two rounds, they stand a solid shot of making their second regional in three years. And this weekend's series at rebuilding A-10 power Charlotte (8-9 in the league) is critical, with six teams within two games of first place.
"We go to a place that's not been good to us —Charlotte's been tough to a lot of people," Hendrickson said. "They haven't had the best year, but we still respect the heck out of them."
In 2010, Saint Louis surprised top-seeded Charlotte and the rest of the A-10 by winning the conference tournament as the No. 5 seed. This time around, Saint Louis is more of a known quantity.
"We made it in 2010 after only our third year here. I didn't think we'd get there that quick," Hendrickson said. "This is the final year of that first recruiting class, so maybe we're reaping some of the fruits of that. The way we're going to make a regional is to win the Atlantic-10 tournament—we know who we are. I think the kids that were here in '10 got a taste of it, and they want to go back, for sure."
• The bubble watch is on in the ACC, where borderline at-large contenders Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech continue to jostle for the last two spots in the conference tournament. Virginia Tech (10-14 in the league) hosts No. 13 N.C. State this weekend, while Georgia Tech (10-14) travels to No. 21 Virginia and Wake Forest (9-15) heads to Miami. All three teams need to finish strong, but the Yellow Jackets seem to be warming up at the right time, with nine wins in their last 12 games. That stretch includes two wins against rival Georgia, and Wednesday's victory boosted the Jackets to No. 28 in the RPI.
• A pair of Big 12 bubble dwellers take a break from conference play to host series against SWAC opponents with ugly RPIs. Texas plays a doubleheader against No. 277 Texas Southern, while Oklahoma State hosts three games against No. 268 Alcorn State. The Longhorns and Cowboys are tied for second place in the Big 12 at 13-8 (six and a half games behind Baylor), but Texas has slipped to No. 51 in the RPI and Oklahoma State is stuck at No. 84. This weekend won't help either team's RPI concerns.
This weekend continues a trend of Big 12 teams playing bad RPI games to fill scheduling holes left by Nebraska's departure—which helps explain why the Big 12 is in danger of sending just three or maybe even two teams to regionals this year. When Kansas State had to play three games against No. 273 Nebraska-Omaha last week, or Oklahoma had to play three against No. 267 Alabama State, it dragged down the entire conference RPI.
"We didn't see it at the time, and coaches were part of it; it's not an administrative deal from the Big 12 office, it's everybody," Sooners coach Sunny Golloway told the Norman (Okla.) Transcript. "Those two bye weekends means we've added over 20 bad RPI games to the league."
• Cornell punched its ticket to regionals by winning the Ivy League championship last weekend, and a second conference begins postseason play this weekend. The Patriot League playoffs feature a pair of best-of-three semifinal series this weekend, with the winners advancing to the championship series next weekend. Top-seeded Army (18-2) takes on No. 4 Lafayette (7-13), while No. 2 Holy Cross (13-7) hosts No. 3 Navy (9-11).
• Vanderbilt has managed to recover from its 1-7 start to climb back to .500 this week (24-24), inserting itself back into the at-large discussion. But the Commodores need to finish above .500 to be eligible for an at-large spot, and their last six games are daunting. This weekend, Vandy must travel to No. 3 Louisiana State. For the 'Dores to have a shot at pulling off the upset, it will need its starting pitchers to go deeper into games than they did last weekend at Tennessee, when T.J. Pecoraro lasted 4 2/3, Tyler Beede went 2 2/3 and Kevin Ziomek exited after 2 1/3.
• Keep an eye on a pair of showdowns in the Southern and Southland conferences. In the SoCon, first-place Appalachian State travels to third-place Samford, which has come on strong with wins in eight of its last nine conference games. This could be a high-scoring series, as the Mountaineers rank fifth in the nation in scoring (7.5 runs per game) while Samford is 15th (7.1). And the Bulldogs rank eighth in homers per game, while ASU ranks 19th.
In the Southland, first-place Sam Houston State hosts second-place Southeastern Louisiana. The Bearkats carry a three-game lead into the weekend, but the Lions have performed well against the other top teams in the conference, sweeping Texas-Arlington and Texas State earlier this season. Granted, those series were at home, but Southeastern has won three of its four conference road series as well. The Bearkats, meanwhile, have slid onto the at-large bubble after losing two of three at Arlington last weekend. The team that wins this series will give its at-large hopes a significant shot in the arm.