Strike One: Small Conference Roundup
Our weekly Tuesday Stock Report has looked only at the conferences likely to receive multiple regional bids, so let's take a moment to examine the races in the leagues that are likely to receive just one bid even if the league favorites fail to win the automatic bids:
• In the America East, Binghamton swept a four-game series from last-place Hartford and took a two-game lead over second-place Maine. Maine, though, looks like the favorite to win the AEC's automatic bid. The Black Bears are battle-tested, having played nonconference series at Lamar, North Carolina and Oregon State, and they have the most talented pitching staff in the league.
• Charlotte is the clear favorite in the Atlantic 10. The 49ers lead the league by three games over Rhode Island, George Washington and St. Joseph's, and their potent offense should carry them through the A-10 tourney. Sidenote: Massachusetts is just 9-9 in the league, but the Minutemen received one of the better individual performances of the season in yesterday's 14-13 win against George Washington, as senior center fielder Brian Baudinet slugged four home runs and drove in seven.
• Preseason favorite Florida Gulf Coast is 17-4 in the Atlantic Sun, three games ahead of second-place East Tennessee State. This is the Eagles' year.
• After taking two of three from Ohio State this weekend, Michigan has become the team to beat in the Big Ten (especially with Michigan State fading fast). The Wolverines are tied for first place with—surprise!—Northwestern. If Ohio State ace Alex Wimmers is sidelined for any significant amount of time, the Buckeyes are in trouble.
• The Colonial is characteristically jumbled, with five teams within four games of first place, led by preseason favorite James Madison. The Dukes swept Delaware this weekend and lead the CAA by 1 1/2 games, and they must still be regarded as the favorites.
• Wright State swept a road series at Youngstown State to take control of the Horizon League. The Raiders lead Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Illinois-Chicago by 2 1/2 games. Wright State was another preseason favorite that looks like a regional team.
• Columbia won the Ivy League's Gehrig Division by four games, and Dartmouth won the Rolfe by three games, setting up a best-of-three showdown between the two teams for the Ivy title next weekend. Columbia has home-field advantage, but defending champion Dartmouth was our preseason pick, and we'll stick with it.
• Manhattan was the preseason pick in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, with Canisius pegged No. 2. The Golden Griffs lead the MAAC by three games, but the Jaspers have won eight straight games to surge into second place. Next weekend's series between the two teams at Canisius will determine the favorite; for now, we'll stick with our preseason pick, Manhattan.
• The Mid-American Conference is wide open. Coming into the year, I thought Kent State, Bowling Green State and Ball State were the three best teams in the league, and I had a difficult time choosing one of them over the others but settled on the Falcons. After a slow start, BGSU climbed within a game of Kent State in the East with an 11-game winning streak, which was snapped Sunday at Miami (Ohio). In the West, Toledo and Ball State are tied for first at 13-5. Given no clear favorite, I'll stick with my preseason pick—surging Ball State.
• Perennial power Bethune-Cookman (15-0) is running away with the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The Wildcats have a three-game lead over North Carolina A&T and are a heavy favorite to get back to regionals.
• Wichita State made its move in the Missouri Valley Conference this weekend, winning a series against first-place Illinois State to get within a half-game of first place. Wichita's strong pitching should carry it back to regionals.
• In its first season as a provisional member of the Northeast Conference, Bryant leads the league by three games after sweeping preseason favorite Wagner, but the Bulldogs will not be eligible for the conference tournament until 2013. Forced to pick someone else, let's go with Monmouth, which has played well since being swept at Wagner two weeks ago. This week, the Hawks won a midweek game against Rutgers and took three of four from Quinnipiac.
• Ohio Valley Conference leader Southeast Missouri State dropped a big doubleheader against Murray State on Sunday. The Thoroughbreds drew within a half-game of first place, and they also have a series win at third-place Jacksonville State on their resume. Let's call Murray State the favorite in a wide-open league.
• Preseason Patriot League favorite Army clinched the regular-season title by taking three of four from Bucknell this weekend. The Black Knights are strong favorites for the Patriot's automatic bid.
• Never bet against Oral Roberts in the Summit League, even in a down year for the team. ORU is up a game and a half on second-place Centenary, and the Golden Eagles must be considered the prohibitive favorites until somebody knocks them off.
• Preseason SWAC favorite Southern swept Arkansas-Pine Bluff this weekend and sits in sole possession of first place in the Western Division. We'll stick with coach Roger Cador's club.
• New Mexico State continued its torrid play in the Western Athletic Conference, sweeping a four-game set from Louisiana Tech to take a 4 1/2-game lead over perennial power Fresno State. It's time to acknowledge the high-powered Aggies as the WAC favorites.
Strike Two: Impressions Of Two ACC Heavyweights
I got my first in-person looks at Georgia Tech on Friday and Sunday at North Carolina State, and in between I saw Virginia (which took on Duke at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park) for the first time since opening weekend. The top-ranked Cavaliers swept Duke and are just now starting to fire on all cylinders, while the Yellow Jackets are going through a rough patch, having lost three of their last four series, culminating in a series loss to the Wolfpack.
Virginia has been consistent all season—after all, the Cavs are 39-9 overall, and 18-6 in the ACC, tied for first place. But the Cavaliers are just now starting to become as dangerous as they can be. They got dominating complete-game performances Friday and Saturday from lefthander Danny Hultzen and righty Robert Morey, the latter of whom has turned the corner over the last few weeks, according to UVa. coach Brian O'Connor. At their best, Hultzen and Morey give Virginia a one-two punch atop the rotation that can compete with any in college baseball, and for the first time this season, both those pitchers are at their best.
But the biggest reason Virginia is more dangerous than ever is the resurgence of junior center fielder Jarrett Parker, a first-team preseason All-American who had gotten off to a slow start offensively. He has started to warm up recently, and he busted out in a big way at Duke, going 2-for-4 with a triple on Friday and 5-for-5 with two homers and four RBIs on Saturday. His first long ball was a monstrous shot that one-hopped the Fox 50 building beyond the right-field bleachers.
The big weekend raised Parker's overall line to .318/.413/.547 with six homers and 43 RBIs. Parker said a big key to his surge has been a more aggressive approach early in counts and staying away from offspeed stuff out of the zone. O'Connor said he was also in between stances early in the season, but he's starting to find his rhythm.
"When his timing's right and he's on time at the plate, he squares the ball up," O'Connor said. "He's starting to put it all together. And when he puts it all together like he was (Friday) and (Saturday)—that's what he was for the first 75 percent of the season last year, and he would make the complete difference in our lineup. I've got a great feeling about this kid that he's going to have a great end of the season, and it'll make the difference for our club, I think."
While the Cavaliers scored in double digits in all three games of an ACC series for the first time since joining the league in 1990, the usually high-powered Yellow Jackets mustered just 12 runs all weekend at N.C. State. Georgia Tech is a powerful team that ranks second in the nation with 94 home runs (two behind New Mexico State), but the Jackets have averaged just 2.6 runs per game in their seven conference losses—with six of those losses coming over the last four weekends.
"I think every team I've ever had hits a little lull in the season where the ball just doesn't bounce your way, it doesn't find holes, it doesn't get down," Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said. "I think we're in a little bit of a lull, a little bit of a funk. But I think guys are battling hard. They're not getting frustrated, they're just battling through it. We have finals this week, so we won't practice as much, so maybe their bodies just need a little time to recover, and then we can point to the rest of the season."
Georgia Tech's physical lineup will bounce back, and a home series against Illinois-Chicago next week might help the bats get going. In the meantime, the Jackets should be encouraged by their solid work on the mound. Even in a series loss this weekend, they allowed just 13 runs in three games against an offensive N.C. State club. Sophomore lefty Jed Bradley was good in Sunday's win, allowing just three runs (two earned) over six innings and holding his 92-94 mph fastball velocity into his final inning. And sophomore righty Mark Pope, the usual midweek starter, allowed only one hit over three scoreless innings in his first relief outing of the year.
Junior righthander Brandon Cumpton has great stuff, but he's been up and down in this spring and in his career as a whole. He allowed two runs in each of the first two innings Saturday before settling down, but the Jackets could never recover from their early hole against State righty Cory Mazzoni, who was still throwing 93 in the eighth inning. It's natural to wonder if the Jackets might move the strike-throwing Pope—who beat Georgia on Wednesday with seven strong innings, striking out nine—into the Saturday role in Cumpton's place.
"I'll consider it," Hall said. "I'm not saying that I would do that right now. I was impressed with the way Cumpton battled back (Saturday) after he did not pitch well in the first two innings. But Pope's going to have to get in there somewhere, whether it's ACC tournament or the postseason that he gets into that rotation."
In the bullpen, the Yellow Jackets have been solid even without first-team preseason All-America closer Kevin Jacob, who has been limited to just seven innings by tendinitis in the front of his shoulder. Senior righty Andrew Robinson (4-0, 2.84 with four saves) has been a steady anchor for Tech's versatile bullpen, but that unit could still get a boost by Jacob's return down the stretch.
"He's started to throw again—his shoulder feels better than it has in a month," Hall said of Jacob, a flame-throwing junior righty. "We'll continue him on a throwing program here the next couple days. I wouldn't expect him to get back in by this weekend, but I do think he's on the road to getting back in there. He had a little tendinitis in the front of his shoulder, it just took a long time to get it out of there. Our doctors looked at it, and we actually sent him to Dr. (James) Andrews, and he said the shoulder is clean. He just had a little tightness, a little impingement, but he's progressing real well right now."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Cole Green
Augie Garrido, the winningest coach in college baseball history, has been around the game for a long time. But when the Texas coach was asked if he had ever seen a team dominate on the mound the way his Longhorns have in 2010, he thought for a moment, then said, "No."
Texas has won 20 straight games, including a Big 12-record 17 straight conference games, to take a seven-game lead in the league. Pitching and defense have been the hallmarks of this team, which leads the nation with a tiny 2.17 ERA through 45 games.
The Texas pitching staff is loaded with power pitchers with strikeout stuff. The weekend rotation is bookended by a pair of future first-round picks in sophomore righthander Taylor Jungmann (4-1, 2.30) and junior righty Brandon Workman (9-1, 2.77). Junior righty Chance Ruffin (5-1, 0.96 with 10 saves and 68 strikeouts in 47 innings) has been a tour de force at the back of the bullpen.
But over the last three weeks, no pitcher in college baseball has been better than junior righthander Cole Green. The Longhorns' Saturday starter threw a one-hit shutout two weeks ago at Texas A&M, then allowed just four hits in another complete-game shutout last week against Oklahoma State. This week against Baylor, he carried another shutout into the ninth inning before allowing an unearned run, snapping a streak of 30 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. He finished with five strikeouts, one walk and six hits allowed over 8 1/3 innings in a brilliant no-decision, as Texas went on to win 2-1 in 14 innings. In 78 innings, Green is 9-0 with 55 strikeouts and 19 walks.
"You've got the strikeout pitchers in Jungmann and Workman, and even Ruffin can get a lot of strikeouts—but Green pitches to contact," Garrido said. "It's the movement and the change of speeds; the other guys are more like power pitchers, and he's more like a young Greg Maddox. They just mis-hit it, they mis-time it, they don't square it up as often. He gets his groundballs and he gets his flyballs."
Green's fading, sinking changeup is devastating against lefthanded hitters, and his slider can be a wipeout pitch against righties. His fastball velocity is average—around 88-92 mph—but Garrido said that might actually be his most effective pitch.
"His ball movement on his fastball is interesting. He's one of the few pitchers that I've seen, as a righthanded pitcher, he can throw to the outside half of the plate, and the ball will come back, actually," Garrido said. "The ball will come back, sink back toward the plate, and I haven't seen that. Lefthanders, you'll see that ball move a lot, and that's kind of what he does. But it doesn't do that unless he is just relaxed and confident, and his presence is his biggest gift. I think a lot of that is because he's really matured academically as well as athletically, and he's found balance between the two. He's pretty much the same person wherever he is and whatever he's doing. For a young college player, that's pretty unusual.
"I would liken him to the peaceful warrior. He's a pretty jovial, personable, likable, happy person. He's confident, but not arrogant. He's open, and not defensive. But he's very in-the-moment, and very realistic about things. His emotions don't sway all over the place. He's found focus without forcing that to happen—it's a part of him. And he's developed that since he's been here at the university."
He's also developed into one of the nation's very best pitchers—perhaps the most consistent ace on a staff chock full of aces.