TOP 25 SCHEDULE
(1) Rice at Marshall
Lehigh and Princeton already have earned two of 30 automatic bids to the NCAA tournament (and scheduled a home-and-home series against each other next weekend as a tune-up), and that number will double this weekend after the Mid-Eastern Athletic and Southwestern Athletic conferences play their tournaments in Norfolk, Va., and Pearl, Miss. North Carolina A&T won the MEAC regular season and tournament a year ago to end a six-year run by Bethune-Cookman. BCC (27-25, 15-0) restored order this season and faces sixth-seeded N.C. A&T (20-34, 6-12) in the opening round.
Southern (24-18, 16-8) won the SWAC a year ago and opens against Alcorn State as it tries to win the event for the sixth time since 1999. Both of those clubs are No. 2 seeds from their divisions as Prairie View A&M (17-7, 29-20) and Mississippi Valley State (23-30, 20-4) earned the top seeds from the Western and Eastern divisions. Don’t read too much into MVSU’s dominant conference record, as it never faced Prairie View or Southern during split-division conference play.
Jackson State would have finished second in the West, but the SWAC reversed its decision on granting a medical hardship waiver for one Tigers player and the team had to forfeit the four conference games in which he played (two wins against Mississippi Valley State and two against Alabama State).
There are multiple reasons for picking Tennessee (31-15, 11-15) to beat No. 10 Alabama. The Volunteers need the series win much more than Alabama (36-17, 17-10), which is battling more for postseason positioning at this point. Tennessee sits in a tie with Mississippi State for ninth place in the Southeastern Conference, a league that invites eight teams to its conference tournament. UT lost the season series to MSU, and it would lose the tiebreaker. So it needs a series win to keep its NCAA tournament hopes alive a season after reaching the College World Series. Tennessee also has played well of late, winning four of its last five SEC series after dropping its first four of the year. The last three of those wins have come against teams more known for their pitching than explosive offenses–at Georgia, against Vanderbilt and at South Carolina–and Alabama also fits that billing.
IN THE DUGOUT
James Madison sophomore outfielder Kellen Kulbacki leads the nation with 22 home runs and a 1.005 slugging percentage. He ranks second with a .485 average, and his 68 RBIs were four behind national leader Jacob Dempsey of Winthrop. Kulbacki is aiming to become the second player since 1965 to lead Division I in batting average, home runs and RBIs. (Indiana’s Mike Smith did so in 1992.) That’s a nice improvement following freshman totals of .343-8-34 with a .552 slugging percentage. And it’s helped JMU into a tie for first place in the Colonial Athletic Association at 33-18, 20-7 after missing the conference tournament the previous two seasons.
When did you first realize this team could challenge for the CAA title?
Our first weekend of the year against Clemson. It probably sounds weird because we didn’™t get a win and they swept us, but we held in those games and didn’t back down. Everyone came out of that, and even thought it was a bad weekend for us in terms of wins, how we handled the atmosphere, mentally, we knew how to play in that environment. Going down there and playing Clemson, it was going to help us realize how our season was going to go. We could have gotten stomped by 15 runs every game, and that would have showed us we’re not there yet as a team. The first game, we lost 8-0, but with 6,000 fans there, we were a little nervous. The second game, we calmed down and played better the rest of the series. I think we got more out of that than we did in blowing out a Wagner.
It’s tough to really comprehend everything that’s been happening this year. I came in this year hoping to have a better year and improve on how I did last year. I didn’t see any of this coming. It’s been mind blowing at times. My mentality is take one game at a time and not try to do too much, try to stay at an even keel. You can’t get ahead of yourself and start thinking too far down the road without going there. It’s a long season, there’s going to be times where you’re not seeing the ball well and sometimes it feels like you’re seeing a volleyball. Take it one at-bat at a time, and if you strike out, you’re going to get another chance.
How closely do you follow your statistics and where you stand on the leaderboards?
I’m aware of it, I always check our conference notes to see how other teams are doing, if they’re on a hot streak or swinging bats well. They always have notes on how guys are doing nationally. I kind of keep up on it a little bit. I don’t get too caught up on it, because then I start taking myself out of what I do best. I find when I’m not hitting the ball as well, I go up to the plate and get more anxious, try to do too much with what they’re throwing me. I need to step back and realize they’re going to pitch me differently. I’ve got to go up there and hit what they’re throwing me. My strength is being able to hit the ball to all fields. When hitting my best, I can sit back and hit a ball hard no mater where it is or what it is.
How has working with (sports psychologist) Wendy Burlabi helped you this year?
I think it’s been an enormous effect on my play this year. I’ve been seeing a sports psychologist, and I feel like that’s been a tremendous advantage I’ve had–working on mentally preparing for a game and the mental approach to going up there and hitting. It helped me become that much stronger of a hitter. If I strike out, OK, that at-bat is over, forget about it, you can’t do anything to change it, but you can do something next time up. It’s an advantage I didn’™t have last year. I would have a bad first at-bat and tell myself, “This is not going to be a good day.” For the rest of the day, I swung the bat like I was just giving them an out. Now I can come back the rest of the game and get two or three hits.
Is it true your mom thought of your name while watching a football game?
My mom named me after Kellen Winslow (the former Chargers all-pro tight end). She bought a cat who was a couple months older than me and named it Winslow. He lived to be 16. I don’™t really know much about his career other than he was an unbelievable player who worked hard. I have a card of him from that overtime (playoff) game (against the Dolphins), where at the end he was being carried off the field because he had nothing left. If any athlete wants to be known for playing hard, to be carried off the field is a great example of that.
Is that a prom picture of you on jmusports.com?
That’s just my style in suits. I got that in New York. It’s a custom suit. I like showing style, wearing different stuff that makes me stand out a little bit. That was something I liked when I saw. When it comes to clothes, I guess I am flashy a little bit. My teammates bust on me a little bit with some of the stuff I wear. I don’™t wear typical collared shirts all the time. I wear Jordan shirts and shoes all the time. There’s nothing wrong with that; he’s my favorite athlete of all time. I probably have 25 Jordan shirts. Any Jordan thing you can name. I just read his book, “Driven from Within,” and he said so much about the way he perceived the game in practice and his work ethic. You can learn a lot by reading a book by the best basketball player in history. I try to take a lot from what he was saying in the book and parallel it with myself on the baseball field: playing as hard as you can and never being satisfied with success.
What’s your favorite thing about going to college in Harrisonburg?
The JMU girls. You can’t go wrong here. It’s like 70-30 (female). They’re all over the place. If you’ve been here, you know there’s not much else in Harrisonburg.
Well, what’s the worst part of Harrisonburg, then?
When it rains, it smells like dog food because of a plant near campus. When it’s about to rain, you can smell dog food in the air and it’s absolutely terrible. Coming from Hershey (Pa.), if you can smell chocolate in air, that means it’s about to rain. What a transition.
Brooks Brown loves this time of year. Finals are over, and he can shift his full concentration to baseball. His career numbers at Georgia back that up, as he’s never lost a game after April.
“Here’s a guy who always finishes strong,” Georgia coach Dave Perno said. “He did it his freshman year, he did it last year and hopefully he does it here.”
Brown started his season-ending success a few weeks early this year, as the junior righthander struck out 14 batters in a three-hit shutout April 22 against Tennessee and allowed two earned runs or fewer in each of his next three starts. Those four outings helped Brown add three wins and lower his season ERA by nearly a run for a 6-3, 3.53 overall record with 94 strikeouts and 28 walks in 83 innings.
Brown’s late-season success has bred similar results for Georgia. The Bulldogs have won 12 straight games–including three straight Southeastern Conference sweeps and two midweek wins against Georgia Tech. Georgia (36-16, 16-11) plays host to Kentucky (41-11, 19-8) this weekend, and a sweep would earn it a share of the SEC Eastern Division title and a chance at the overall title, depending on how Alabama (36-17, 17-10) fares at Tennessee.
The late spurt is reminiscent of the 2004 Georgia team that closed the regular season with 16 wins in 19 games–including 12 straight at one point–to finish in a tie for the best record in the league before advancing to the College World Series.
“It’s starting off just like ’04,” Brown said. “We started the season off mediocre. Something sparked in ’04 and we rolled off 12 straight wins, just like it is now. It started with the Tennessee weekend. We’ve beaten some really good teams. We beat South Carolina, we were hitting on all cylinders. It’s a good thing heading into the postseason, especially with Kentucky this weekend for all the marbles.”
Like his team, Brown struggled in the middle of the year. He lost three straight starts and his Friday night starter’s role as March turned to April. His first Saturday start was the gem against Tennessee, and Perno said he has kept Brown there since because of the pivotal nature of the middle game of a series.
At his best, Brown might be the best pitcher in the SEC. He pitches at 90-93 mph and tops out near 95 with his fastball and throws a hard, downward-breaking curveball that either settles in the zone for strikes or bounces to elicit swing-and-misses. He has smoothed out his delivery, adding consistency and deception to his entire repertoire, and improved his changeup, a key weapon against lefthanded batters he lacked as a sophomore.
“His good outings have been as good as anybody we’ve seen,” Perno said, noting that Brown held Arkansas to two hits over seven scoreless innings to beat Nick Schmidt 2-0 on March 24.
“When I came in here, I had the same arm I’ve got now,” Brown said. “As a freshman, I was more a thrower than a pitcher. You finally learn to swallow your pride and learn how to pitch. If that takes taking something off the fastball and hitting a spot, that’s what you do.”
Brown’s maturity also has bred confidence, something he struggled with his first two seasons. He pitched limited innings as a freshman in 2004, but earned a relief appearance against Georgia Tech in a May 11 game at Turner Field. Brown got two strikes on Tech’s Wes Hodges before trying to get inside with a fastball. The pitch slipped and hit Hodges in the face, breaking his cheekbone in four places. He called Hodges in the hospital that night to check on him and the two agreed the incident was simply a part of baseball and that there were no hard feelings. But it shook Brown’s confidence and he lost his command.
“That set him back, or he would have pitched more for us down the stretch that year,” Perno.
Brown ultimately finished the year by pitching a scoreless inning with two strikeouts against Texas in the College World Series. He spent the summer at Keene of the New England Collegiate League, where he struck eight batters in five innings while allowing a run on three hits against a Team USA lineup featuring seven future first-round picks.
His confidence rebuilt, Brown started his sophomore year as Georgia’s Sunday starter but found himself in the bullpen after a 1-2, 4.60 start. He fell behind in the count too often, hitters waited on his fastball and teed off with big innings. Brown’s confidence again dragged, but he said the move ultimately became the best thing that happened to him as it allowed him to pitch more regularly and constantly hone his offerings. He worked his way back into the rotation by season’s end and won his final three starts while posting a 2.95 ERA to finish the year 4-2, 5.51.
The struggles have helped Brown serve as a leader and mentor in his junior season. He pays close attention to the starts of freshmen Trever Holder, Jason Leaver and Nathan Moreau, and when they’ve struggled, he’s been there with advice and stories to relate to them. “I can always relate to them,” Brown said. “I’ve had my ups and downs.”
Brown also relates the feeling of reaching Omaha in 2004.
“You tell those stories to those guys, you want them to experience same thing we did,” he said. “If they do, it means we’re going back, too.”
AROUND THE NATION
• Pepperdine senior second baseman David Uribes injured his knee in practice Monday and missed Tuesday’s 2-1 win against Southern California. That ended his streak of consecutive games played at 241. Uribes, who leads the West Coast Conference with 85 hits, 53 runs and 22 steals, hopes to be ready for the WCC championship series against San Francisco next weekend.
• A week after Georgia and Georgia Tech drew 19,000 fans to Atlanta’s Turner Field, Nebraska beat Creighton 4-1 in front of 21,158 at Rosenblatt Stadium. That marked the best-attended college game of the year and the ninth-largest regular season crowd in college baseball history. The game out-drew seven of the 15 major league games Tuesday.
• South Alabama beat Florida State 7-2 in 10 innings Tuesday, making the Seminoles 5-10 since a 32-4 start. They have won only one of their last six Atlantic Coast Conference series. “We need a win,” FSU coach Mike Martin said. “We need a win. We need to regain our confidence. We are trying so hard. The young men are putting forth every ounce of energy they have. There is not anybody going through the motions. We are just struggling to get that elusive win. These young men deserve better. But that is the way this game is. It doesn’™t owe you anything.”
• Florida State faces North Carolina State this weekend, and the Wolfpack will be without ace righthander Andrew Brackman (1-3, 6.35) for the rest of the season because of a stress fracture in his left hip.
• The 2006 Division I Independent Invitational fittingly takes place this weekend in South Dakota’s Sioux Falls Stadium, home to the minor league Sioux Falls Canaries of the independent American Association. The first two editions of this event took place at Northern Colorado’s Jackson Field. The third-year event expanded from four teams to six this year and features Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne, New York Tech (the 2004 champ), North Dakota State, Northern Colorado (the 2005 champ), South Dakota State and Utah Valley State. The nation’s best independent college team, Dallas Baptist (31-21), plays a three-game series against UT Arlington.
• The 2009 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament will take place in Boston’s Fenway Park. Boston College, which began play in the ACC this season, will serve as host of the northernmost tournament in the league’s history. “We are thrilled that the ACC Baseball Tournament will be coming to Fenway Park,” BC’s director of athletics Gene DeFilippo said. “Not only will this be a treat for baseball fans in New England, it will be a chance of a lifetime for the student-athletes to play in one of the most storied ballparks in baseball.”
• The Southeastern Conference tournament will remain in Hoover, Ala., just outside of Birmingham, through 2011 after the league and the city this week extended their working agreement by five years.