|UCLA at Arizona State|
There’s plenty on the line this weekend in Tempe, Ariz., where the top two teams in the Pacific-10 Conference standings will collide for a three-game series. UCLA is off to a 12-3 record in the Pac-10, its best conference start since 1924. The Bruins lead Arizona State (11-4) by one game and can put themselves in the Pac-10′s catbird seat with a series win against the Sun Devils.
|TOP 25 SCHEDULE|
|(1) Vanderbilt at Auburn
(18) Clemson at (2) Florida State
North Carolina State at (3) Virginia
Tulane at (4) Rice
Georgia Tech at (5) North Carolina
(6) San Diego at Santa Clara
(8) Arkansas at Alabama
Cal State Fullerton at (9) Wichita State
(21) UCLA at (10) Arizona State
(11) Texas A&M at Kansas State
(12) South Carolina at Tennessee
(13) UC Irvine at Pacific
Southern California at (14) Arizona
Washington State at (15) Oregon State
Penn State at (16) Michigan
Gonzaga at (17) Pepperdine
(19) Oklahoma State at Texas Tech
(20) Coastal Carolina at UNC Asheville
(22) Long Beach State at UC Santa Barbara
Texas-Pan American at (23) Texas Christian
Kentucky at (24) Mississippi
(25) UC Riverside at Cal State Northridge
UCLA has come a long way from its 8-14 start; the Bruins are no longer anywhere near the NCAA tournament bubble, and are instead making a push to host a regional. They plan to submit a bid, and with the West Coast regional picture up in the air, they’ve got a pretty good shot at hosting if they can finish strong. Arizona State remains a likely host, and Long Beach State is a strong candidate to host out of the Big West. San Diego is almost certain to be a No. 1 seed in a regional, but it remains to be seen if the Toreros can get San Diego State to agree to let them host at Tony Gwynn Stadium, since USD’s facilities are inadequate. If USD and SDSU can’t work it out, San Diego could be sent to UCLA as a No. 1 seed, allowing the Bruins to host as a No. 2.
That, of course, would still depend on UCLA taking care of business down the home stretch. This weekend is a huge test, and Arizona State has plenty to play for, too. For one thing, there’s the conference title. For another, there’s a top-eight national seed. The Sun Devils are also very protective of their home field–they are 24-2 at Packard Stadium this year and own a 16-game home winning streak, the longest in the nation. Not that UCLA is likely to wilt–the Bruins have won six straight conference road games for the first time since 1969–the first of UCLA’s two College World Series trips (1997 is the other).
“They’ve always been very, very good at home,” Bruins coach John Savage said. “This is a big weekend. I think everybody’s goal is to win the Pac-10 Conference. Arizona State is clearly the favorite to win the league, by the coaches’ poll and everybody’s preseason poll, and I think we’ve kind of come out of nowhere, we were 8-14, and now we’ve won 20 of our last 25. I think we just need to go in there and play well. They are clearly the favorites, a top-10 team nationally, and a legitimate Omaha team. We’re going in there as the underdog.”
Of course, the Bruins had the higher preseason ranking (13 to Arizona State’s 20), so that underdog talk only goes so far. Still, the Sun Devils hit no matter where they go–their offense scores a nation-best 10 runs per game–and they’re even tougher at home.
“If they’re not the most offensive team in the country, I would like to see the other,” Savage said. “They have power, they use the whole field, they’re extremely lefthanded, just a dynamic offense who has really handled mostly everybody. It’s a very dangerous lineup with a lot of good hitters.”
Sophomore first baseman Brett Wallace (.435/.517/.759 with 13 home runs and 66 RBIs in 191 at-bats) is one of the leading candidates for national player of the year honors, and he’s got plenty of protection in outfielder Ike Davis (.368/.436/.569) and the catcher/DH platoon of Kiel Roling (.397/.458/.685) and Petey Paramore (.380/.510/.532). Junior second baseman Eric Sogard (.387/.493/.624) is one of the most underrated players in America, a table-setter in front of Wallace who has good pop in his own right (eight homers). The emergence of athletic outfielder Tim Smith (.368/.436/.569) in the leadoff spot has further stabilized the lineup, and allowed outfielder/lefthander Matt Spencer (.356/.413/.570; 1-0, 3.60 in six relief appearances) to focus more on his pitching as he battles through some offensive inconsistency in a fourth outfielder role.
Spencer, strictly an outfielder last year at North Carolina before transferring to ASU, is probably more vital to Arizona State’s success off the mound, anyway. ASU’s pitching staff was stabilized somewhat when freshman transfer Jason Jarvis finally joined the club after being ruled academically eligible halfway through the spring, allowing freshman righthander Mike Leake to join lefties Josh Satow and Brian Flores in the rotation. That’s a solid weekend rotation, but there is a gap in the bullpen between the starters and Jarvis.
That’s where two-way players Spencer and Davis come in. Sun Devils coach Pat Murphy considers Davis his “ace in the hole,” a lefthander who throws 90 mph from a downhill angle and mixes in a nice changeup. But Spencer has even better stuff, if he can harness it.
“On the mound, he’s got first-round stuff,” Murphy said of Spencer. “We’ve had him up to 94, but he doesn’t throw strikes, he’s got to harness that a little bit. I don’™t think he’s worked at (pitching) much. Whenever your arm’s that fast, you can manipulate the ball. He’s got a little slider and a change, and he’s got a little feel. He’s got to mature a little bit physically.”
Pitching depth is one area where UCLA might have an advantage over the Sun Devils, though the Bruins have gotten inconsistent relief work from redshirt junior closer Brant Rustich (3-1, 5.81). Sophomore lefthander Tim Murphy, who like Spencer was solely an outfielder a year ago, has emerged as a reliable Saturday starter in the absence of freshman righty Charles Brewer, the projected Saturday starter in the preseason. Murphy is 4-0, 3.10 in five conference starts thanks to a low-90s fastball, a power curveball in the mid-70s and a developing changeup.
Brewer has finally recovered from mononucleosis and arm soreness and is on the 25-man roster. He has looked strong in two bullpen sessions, showing an 88 mph fastball, a very good changeup and a usable curveball, and Savage said he plans to get Brewer some relief action this weekend. Brewer and fellow freshman righty Garett Claypool give UCLA a pair of swing men who can either start a fourth game of a regional or solidify the bullpen down the stretch. Murphy’s emergence means there is no rush to get Brewer ready to start on weekends.
Clearly, UCLA’s pitching staff has rounded into shape behind ace righthander Tyson Brummett, but this weekend we’ll find out just how good that staff is.
“You’ve just got to contain them,” Savage said of the ASU bats. “You’re not going to shut them down–it’s a pretty offensive place. They’re as good an offensive team as there is in the country. We just need to go in there and be aggressive, be ourselves.”
|Marquee Mound Matchup|
|David Phelps vs. Zack Pitts
A year ago this weekend, Notre Dame carried a 14-4 lead into the ninth inning against Seton Hall and called upon Phelps to mop up the final frame. Instead, the righthander gave up six earned runs in 2/3 of an inning and closer Kyle Weiland had to bail the Irish out of an unexpectedly tight game. Phelps was left off Notre Dame’s postseason roster–he finished the year with a 7.09 ERA in 27 innings of work.
Fast forward to this past Friday night, when Phelps got a chance at redemption against the Pirates. The sophomore made the most of the opportunity, allowing just one run and striking out 11 over a complete-game victory. He has emerged as the surprising ace of the Notre Dame staff, going 8-3, 1.58 with 78 strikeouts and 20 walks in 86 innings. His resume also includes big wins over Texas Christian and Nebraska.
“First of all, David came in with the mindset that he was going to prove he was going to be the guy, No. 1,” Irish first-year pitching coach Sherard Clinkscales said. “Second of all, you look at guys and say they’re max effort, well he was a max-effort guy. He pulled off a little bit, he had no balance, a rushed delivery. We told him, ‘You’ve got a good arm, you’ve got to stay on line better and get more sink.’ Now he’s become more efficient–max effort doesn’t apply anymore. The biggest thing is we made his delivery more efficient.”
Phelps pitches with an average major league fastball, according to Clinkscales, a former scout with the Braves and Devil Rays. He sits in the 88-91 range and touches 93, and it jumps on hitters because of his deceptive delivery. His changeup has been a go-to pitch for him this year, and he also works in a tight 1-to-7 curveball and a slider at times. He does a good job getting ahead in counts by spotting his fastball, then changing planes with his curve. The total package has been very impressive.
“You never know who’s going to rise up, and David has done that,” Clinkscales said.
After a rough start, the Irish have clawed their way back to .500 in the conference (10-10) with series wins against Seton Hall, Rutgers, West Virginia and Georgetown the last four weeks. They sit in fifth place in the Big East heading into this weekend’s pivotal series at Louisville, which is in third place at 14-7.
Pitching has been instrumental in the Cardinals’ surge toward the top of the Big East, and Pitts has thrived as the staff ace on Fridays. Pitts, a junior righthander, is 7-3, 1.77 with 66 strikeouts and 17 walks in 86 innings. He commands his 88-92 mph fastball to both sides and does a good job keeping the ball down. Pitts flashes a good slider at times, though he doesn’t repeat his delivery when throwing the pitch, and his changeup has been solid.
“Zack can pitch–there are some similarities between him and Phelpsy,” Clinkscales said. “They’re both righthanded pitchers, they both pitch with fastballs aggressively, they can locate, both can get breaking balls and changeups over, and they’re both efficient. I think it will be a good matchup.”
|Cal State Fullerton over Wichita State|
Road dogs rarely get any love in Upset City, but this week it’s time for Cal State Fullerton to make amends for spoiling two perfectly good upset picks earlier this season. Both times–Feb. 16-18 against Arizona and March 23-25 at Long Beach State–picking against the Titans backfired, as George Horton’s plucky bunch won both series. This week, the struggling Titans will visit No. 9 Wichita State, which has dropped just one weekend series all year–its season-opener at warm-weather Pepperdine.
Not much went right for Fullerton last weekend against UC Santa Barbara, but junior righthander Wes Roemer is in All-America form. He struck out a career-high 13 in a complete-game victory Friday, before the Titans dropped the next two games of the series. Offense has been the biggest problem–the Titans lost seven out of eight before beating Loyola Marymount this week, and they hit just .239 during that span. They’ve also had trouble in the rotation, but moving junior righthander Adam Jorgenson to the Sunday starter spot last weekend looks like the right move to stabilize things. With the emergence of junior lefty Dustin Birosak as the bullpen anchor of late (he’s got a 12-inning scoreless streak), the pen should survive without Jorgenson.
The Shockers are tough at home, and they have survived even without sophomore righthander Aaron Shafer, who is still on the shelf with elbow stiffness. On paper, Wichita State should have a big advantage this weekend, but that’s why this is Upset City. Fullerton is in danger of sliding toward the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble, so it’s time for Horton to summon a bit of that Titan magic.
|Under The Radar|
The Roadrunners have won six straight to improve to 20-4 in the conference heading into a weekend series at Nicholls State. They lead Texas State by three games, and all they need is one game this weekend to clinch the Southland Conference’s West Division title over the second-place Bobcats, rendering next weekend’s three-game series between Texas State and UTSA essentially moot. That shouldn’t be such a tall order, considering Nicholls State is 5-19 in conference play, while UTSA has swept its last two Southland series and five of its eight conference series on the season.
The Texas-San Antonio bats have been on fire of late. Last weekend, UTSA outscored Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 51-21. The 51 runs set a school record for scoring in a three-game series, shattering the previous record of 41 set in 1995 and tied in 1996. UTSA has scored in double figures in 12 of its 24 games this season. Junior first baseman Trent Lockwood led the onslaught this past weekend, going 8-for-14 (.571) with a home run in each game, eight total runs scored and nine RBIs. He leads UTSA in batting (.379), on-base percentage (.442), slugging percentage (.679), homers (11) and RBIs (50), among other categories. Lockwood’s consistent bat has helped the Roadrunners reach the 30-win plateau for the second straight season, the first time since 1994-95 they have repeated that trick. With six games remaining, UTSA is just two wins shy of the Southland’s single-season conference victories record.
|Beau Mills, 3b, Lewis-Clark (Idaho) State|
Mills, a transfer from Fresno State, has had quite a few memorable weeks this season, but last week might have topped them all. He delivered a walk-off RBI single to win Saturday’s game against Linfield (Ore.) College, then set a new Lewis-Clark record on Sunday by driving in eight runs in a 15-3 win. Mills also set the school’s single-season home run mark in that game, swatting two to bring his total to a mind-boggling 30 in 205 at-bats. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Mills is batting .468/.546/1.010, and he has driven in 105 runs in 51 games. Don’t be fooled into writing off this performance based on the NAIA competition; Mills hit 22 homers as a freshman at Fresno State and followed it up with 14 more as a sophomore, when he batted .355.
In case you were wondering, the Warriors are 48-4.
A perennial Pac-10 powerhouse, Stanford has lost seven consecutive conference series for the first time in the school’s recorded history. The seven straight overall series defeats mark the longest stretch since the Cardinal dropped eight in a row from April 13, 1978 to March 31, 1979. Stanford isn’t doing anything particularly well: it ranks last in the Pac-10 and 236th in the nation with a 6.30 staff ERA; it ranks last in the conference and 161st in the nation with a .950 fielding percentage; it ranks second-to-last in the conference and 188th in the nation with 5.6 runs per game. Opinions from two observers–one a scout, one a college coach who’s seen the Cardinal several times this season–confirms the fall of the Cardinal.
“They are just bad. Just a bad college baseball team,” one observer said. “There’s some talent there but no one is performing. I’ve actually seen Nolan Gallagher pretty good, saw him 90-92 with a plus curveball once, but command was an issue and so was confidence. Michael Taylor looks great in a uniform but he has the same approach that so many of their hitters have, the inside-out approach, but you’ll see him turn on one every once in a while. He’s still a lump of coal.
“They just don’t play defense and they do not pitch well at all,” the other observer noted. “No one impressed me there, except Taylor. He can be jammed and chases breaking balls but I saw him hit a 400-foot homer to center field, so it’s in there.”
Next up for the Cardinal is Washington–the last team the Cardinal has beaten in a Pac-10 series. That occurred a full year ago–last May 12-14 in Seattle.
|Stat of the Week|
Creighton’s record when leading after eight innings during coach Ed Servais’ four-year tenure. The Bluejays have won 39 consecutive games when leading after eight. Perhaps even more impressive, they’ve won 36 straight when leading after six innings, including a 27-0 mark this season. Those numbers are a testament to Creighton’s outstanding defense–it ranks third in the nation with a .978 fielding percentage–and its terrific bullpen. Those are the major reasons the Bluejays have won 15 of their last 16 games and all but secured a regional berth, thanks to a 34-12 overall record and a 14-4 mark in Missouri Valley Conference play. Ace Ben Mancuso has had a great year (8-1, 1.90), but you could argue that Creighton’s two most valuable pitchers have been relievers Pat Venditte (7-2, 2.30 with three saves in 67 innings), who has shown his ambidextrous pitching is no novelty act, and Andy Masten (4-3, 1.17 with 12 saves in 38 innings).
“Our No. 1 and 2 pitchers are the two kids in relief,” Creighton assistant coach Rob Smith said. “Theoretically they could be our Friday and Saturday guys, but we choose to keep them in the bullpen. We haven’t lost any games late. If we have a lead after five, we don’t lose many games.”
It’s been an up-and-down year for the Tigers, the nation’s preseason No. 2 team that has battled to a 32-17 overall record after taking home series the last two weekends against Georgia Tech and Boston College. Clemson has pitched very well, but the offense still hasn’t really recovered from losing junior shortstop Stan Widmann for the season back in February, when a large-cell tumor was discovered in his neck. Preseason All-American Brad Chalk, Clemson’s leadoff man and most consistent hitter this year, has missed the past eight games and 10 of the last 11 with a disc problem in his back, and the Tigers have missed him. They’ll have to cope without him again this weekend, as they travel to No. 2 Florida State. Clemson trails the Seminoles by five games in the ACC’s Atlantic Division with six games remaining. Here’s what one ACC coach whose team has played Clemson had to say about the Tigers’ pitching staff:
“There’s no question, they have some very good arms. You look at the fact they moved (lefthander Daniel) Moskos to the rotation and a month later I don’t think they’ve had any trouble filling his role in the back of the bullpen. (Righthanders Stephen) Clyne and (Alan) Farina are going to be tough, and (righty David) Kopp has also got really tough stuff. One thing about him is that he likes to work fast–in fact, all of their guys do. They all pitch with impatience. Get them in the stretch and they change a little bit. They work ultra fast to try to hurry you in the box. If you can slow them down, get on base and make them work from the stretch, they are very hittable.”
|In The Dugout|
|Austin Krum, of, Dallas Baptist|
Dallas Baptist, the nation’s best Division I independent program, has put together another solid campaign, going 27-23 against a challenging schedule. The Patriots will get another test this weekend when they travel to Southern Mississippi for a three-game series before wrapping up their season next weekend at New Mexico State. Before embarking on that road trip, DBU wrapped up its home schedule by outscoring Central Arkansas 26-10 in a doubleheader sweep earlier this week, and Krum had himself a day to remember. The junior center fielder went 5-for-8 with four runs scored, six RBIs and two stolen bases in the sweep, showcasing his impressive all-around game. Krum is now batting .364/.465/.617 with eight homers and 46 RBIs in 214 at-bats, and he could be drafted as high as the second or third round in June thanks to his five-tool package. Krum discussed his multi-sport background, his aggressive approach to baseball and his unusual walk-up music–you’ll want to hear this one–In The Dugout.
I understand you pattern your game after Indians outfielder Grady Sizemore. How come?
He competes every single day. He plays every single day with a balls-to-the-wall mentality. That’s something that I hope that I do in my game. He just gets after it in everything he does, whether at the plate, diving for the balls in the outfield, stealing bases, whatever it is.
Like Sizemore, you can do a lot of different things on the baseball field. What do you find the most satisfying?
I’d say making a big catch. There’s not many opportunities you get to do that. Robbing a ball from somebody, especially in a big situation, that’s probably the most gratifying.
As a standout in football, baseball and basketball in high school in Colorado, you had quite a few options for college athletics. How did you settle on baseball?
To tell you the truth, I was kind of going football or baseball, even going into the summer of my senior year. DBU and baseball just kind of fell right into my lap. I was offered to play football at Northern Colorado and preferred walk-on options from (Colorado) and (Colorado State). Number one, I was going to try to go to San Diego State, but that didn’™t work out. If I would have played football there, I definitely would have tried to play baseball as well.
Has baseball always been your first love, or did you prefer one of the other sports when you were younger?
Growing up, I actually would say I enjoyed football more. My dad played football throughout his entire life. He played at Colorado State and had a tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs, and he instilled those values in me.
Last summer must have been kind of a whirlwind for you, going to the Team USA trials and then playing in the Cape Cod League. Can you describe that experience?
The Team USA thing, to this day, that’s one of the greatest honors that I’ve had in my life. Just getting the opportunity to try out with those guys, every single one of those guys are going to be top-two-rounders. It couldn’™t have been a better situation for me–I got to see the cream of the crop in the college baseball world. It was, first of all, very humbling, and I’m very proud.
Who was the toughest pitcher you faced in intrasquads during the Team USA trials?
(Vanderbilt lefthander) David Price, first of all, no question. He’s dirty. (TCU’s Jake) Arrieta was pretty tough to hit, too.
What was your approach stepping into the box against Price?
Just try to make contact and put it in fair play.
Did you have any luck with that?
I understand you’ve got some unusual walk-up music. Care to explain?
The Gummi Bear theme song. That was my walk-up song in high school. When we got here, I just figured that I would keep the tradition. It’s been my walk-up song for five years now.
What ever made you decide back in high school to go with the Gummi Bears song?
It was kind of just a big joke. Some kids on my basketball team introduced it to me. To tell you the truth, I think it’s kind of a cool song. It relaxes me, makes me have fun, that’™s important. Why not, you know?