Strike One: Auburn Makes Noise in SEC West
After losing seven of the top eight hitters and 34 of the 39 home runs from a team that finished 29-29 a year ago, Auburn entered 2012 with modest expectations. The Tigers opened the season with three straight losing weekends (against Missouri, Arizona and at their own tournament), and there was little reason to expect much from them once Southeastern Conference play began.
But the early tribulations helped Auburn recognize and address its shortcomings. The Tigers shuffled some pieces around to new roles on the pitching staff and on the diamond, and they have opened plenty of eyes through two weeks of SEC play, winning back-to-back series against ranked SEC West foes. Auburn has played five one-run games in two weeks against Ole Miss (in Oxford) and Louisiana State, and its veteran bullpen has given it an advantage in close games.
"It keeps you on the edge of your seat, that's for sure," Auburn coach John Pawlowski said of all the nail-biters.
Fifth-year senior Justin Bryant, who earned Auburn's starting second base job in 2010 but missed nearly all of last year following Tommy John surgery, has emerged as a key righthander in the late innings, going 1-0, 3.09 with three saves in nine appearances. Bryant's hard curveball is one of the better out pitches on Auburn's staff, and his velocity has returned to the 88-92 mph range. Bryant has teamed sinkerballer Slade Smith and wily lefthander Cory Luckie to give Auburn a reliable, veteran core in the bullpen.
Like Florida State, the Tigers have found success by using inexperienced arms in the weekend rotation and veterans in the bullpen. Freshman lefthander Daniel Koger (1-1, 1.67) has the highest upside on the staff, with a lanky, projectable frame, an 88-92 mph fastball and good feel for his breaking ball and changeup, Pawlowski said. He has been a fixture in the rotation, and sophomore lefty Will Kendall (3-0, 1.98) has joined him after making just five relief appearances a year ago. Kendall, who works in the 86-90 range and also mixes in a breaking ball and changeup, has matured considerably since his freshman year, and he pitched well in Saturday's win against LSU, allowing just two runs over six innings.
It helps that Auburn has an experienced senior at the front of the rotation in righthander Derek Varnadore (1-2, 4.23), who out-pitched LSU ace Kevin Gausman on Friday, allowing just one earned run over 7 1/3 innings while running his fastball up to 94 mph.
"His first outing against Missouri, he was outstanding, then he went through a couple starts where he just didn't have the command that he had," Pawlowski said. "We went back to the bullpen and made some adjustments; the biggest adjustment was with the slider. He was using more of a curveball; we turned it into that hard power slider that he's had. We took him down to the lab a little bit and tweaked him a little bit, and now he's pitching with so much confidence."
Last year, Auburn won enough conference games to get into the SEC tournament, but midweek struggles led to its .500 finish, keeping it from being eligible for the NCAA tournament. With this year's deeper pitching staff, the Tigers have the luxury of using senior righthander Jon Luke Jacobs (4-0, 0.96) as a midweek starter, which makes them much more competitive in nonconference games. Jacobs struck out 11 over 8 1/3 shutout innings last week against South Alabama. And if one of the young lefthanders runs into adversity in the weekend rotation, Jacobs gives Auburn an insurance policy.
"Last year we were just short (on the mound)," Pawlowski said. "We knew what we needed to do—we put a lot of emphasis on the arms. It's become an arms race—look at the scores across the country."
Auburn has had to alter its identity more than most programs in the BBCOR era. The Tigers have traditionally been a home run-hitting team in a home run-hitters' ballpark, and they bashed 131 homers just two years ago in their 43-win campaign. But the coaches saw the writing on the wall and adjusted their recruiting philosophy, opting to build around pitching and speedy, athletic position players. This year's team ranks among the national leaders with 57 stolen bases, led by the speedy trio of Creede Simpson (15 steals in 21 tries), Jay Gonzalez (14-for-17) and Ryan Tella (8-for-11). If Bobby Andrews (6-for-7) can get his bat going, he'll give Auburn a fourth burner in the lineup. Pawlowski said the makeup of his team is somewhat reminiscent of some of his old speed-oriented teams at College of Charleston.
The infield features three athletes capable of playing shortstop in third baseman Zach Alvord, second baseman Simpson and junior-college transfer Dan Glevenyak, who won the shortstop job thanks to his ability to make routine plays consistently. Another juco transfer, the lanky Garrett Cooper, is a standout defender at first who also has provided some timely hits for the Tigers. Cooper and Glevenyak provided the tying and winning RBIs in Saturday's extra-innings win against LSU. Tella, a third juco transfer, is the team's leading hitter (.438), the engine that makes the offense go. He hit a two-run homer in Sunday's loss to LSU, and his RBI single provided the winning run in the eighth inning Friday.
Pawlowski knows the SEC schedule is a meat-grinder, and he's not getting ahead of himself. Auburn still has a long way to go to prove it is an NCAA tournament team, but the last two weekends were huge steps in the right direction.
"We have 17 new faces on our team. One of the ways you learn is to put them in new challenging situations," Pawlowski said. "We know it's a long journey and there's a lot of work to do."
Strike Two: Radar Watch
We're always keeping an eye out for college baseball upstarts and mid-major powers to feature in our Under The Radar blog posts, and there is no shortage of worthy candidates through six weeks of the season. Here's a look at some of the less-heralded teams that have caught our attention with strong starts and big Week Six performances. We'll likely expound on several of these teams in more detail in the coming weeks.
• Teams from the Land of Enchantment have put themselves in the driver's seats early on in the Mountain West and Western Athletic conferences. New Mexico got off to a slow start for the second straight year, falling to 2-8 after getting swept by Oklahoma in Week Three, but since then the Lobos have shown why they were regarded as the top challenger to TCU's dominance in the MWC entering the year. New Mexico swept a Week Four series against previously undefeated Gonzaga (who, by the way, swept a four-game set from Hawaii this weekend). Then the Lobos swept three from San Diego State in Week Five, and took two out of three from perennial Mountain West juggernaut TCU this weekend. D.J. Peterson has been a menace in the middle of the lineup, hitting .458 with five homers and 25 RBIs through 83 at-bats, and he had three-hit games Friday and Sunday to lead New Mexico to a pair of high-scoring victories, 9-8 and 12-7.
Other than Saturday against TCU, New Mexico's only loss during the last three weeks came to New Mexico State in midweek action—the second time NMSU has beaten the Lobos this year. The Aggies have put together a nice resume through six weeks, starting the season by winning three of four from an improved Wake Forest team and making more noise this past week with a two-game midweek sweep at then-No. 5 Arizona. This weekend's four-game sweep of Texas-Pan American boosted New Mexico State to 21-8 overall heading into another big five-game week: at Texas Tech, vs. New Mexico again, then vs. Nevada for three games in its WAC opener. Standout catcher Zac Fisher (.373/.426/.542, 3 HR, 41 RBI) leads another strong New Mexico State offense, and the pitching looks solid enough to make a run at the WAC title, especially since preseason favorite Fresno State has been up and down during its 13-10 start.
• We already thought Missouri State was the team to beat in the Missouri Valley Conference heading into the year, and the Bears drove that point home emphatically with a sweep of defending MVC champion Creighton this weekend. The Bears got back-to-back complete-game shutouts from their dynamic pitching duo of Pierce Johnson (who became the first Bear in more than four decades to strike out 16 in a game) and Nick Petree (who fanned 10 in a four-hitter) on Friday and Saturday, then got a third strong start in Sunday's 5-3 win from Clay Murphy (7 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 7 K). We wrote about Johnson's overpowering stuff in Weekend Preview last week, and Petree and Murphy give hitters completely different looks the next two days. Petree is a pitchability lefthander with an outstanding changeup and advanced command, while Murphy is a diminutive righthander with an 82-86 sinker, a quick 78-80 slider and a good changeup of his own. Murphy already owns two midweek wins against Oklahoma State this year.
Missouri State's offense has yet to begin firing on all cylinders, but its lineup is stocked with quality seniors (Kevin Medrano, Brock Chaffin, Brent Seifert in the infield, Spiker Helms and Derek Mattea in the outfield) and juniors (catcher Luke Voit, outfielder Keenen Maddox). Teams that have faced the Bears say they are very dangerous, and they backed that up this weekend.
• Sam Houston State made a case for being the front-runner in the competitive Southland Conference, sweeping Texas State right out of the Top 25. The Bearkats won a pair of quality nonconference series against San Diego (which moved into the Top 25 this week) and UC Riverside, and they have gotten off to a 7-2 start in conference play to climb to 14-9 overall. Coming into the year, lefthanders Cody Dickson and Caleb Smith were two of the biggest keys for SHSU—both showed good stuff but needed to improve their command. Through six weeks, Dickson is 3-2, 1.34 while Smith is 3-2, 2.89. A third key was fifth-year senior righty Justin Jackson, who had flashed 90-93 mph heat but was coming off Tommy John surgery. Jackson is 4-2, 3.34, and he has joined Dickson and Smith in a formidable rotation. All three of those pitchers turned in strong starts this weekend against the Bobcats, leading the Bearkats to their first sweep of Texas State since 1989.
• Finally, a few upstart teams have put together long winning streaks (albeit against softer competition) that have caught our attention. Campbell, which swept a road series at Winthrop this weekend, now owns the nation's longest winning streak at 18 games. The Camels are 23-3 overall, but the last game they played against a team with a RPI inside the top 130 (per WarrenNolan.com), they lost (at North Carolina State). Saint Louis, coming off a sweep of Temple, has the nation's next-longest winning streak at 13 games. But all 13 wins have come against teams outside the top 200 in the RPI.
I'm more intrigued by North Dakota State, which has won seven straight, including a pair of wins at Minnesota this weekend. The Bison opened the season with a series at Arizona, where they won the middle game of the three-game set. Head coach Tod Brown's team got a complete-game shutout from junior ace John Straka in the first win against Minnesota, then came from behind with four runs in the eighth inning to win the second game, capped by Tim Colwell's RBI double. Colwell (.432) and his older brother Nick (.461) make the Bison go out of the first two spots in the lineup.
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Brady Rodgers
Junior righthander Brady Rodgers has been a strike-throwing machine since the day he arrived at Arizona State out of Richmond, Texas. With 193 strikeouts and just 26 walks in 219 innings so far in his collegiate career, it's easy to see why scouts rate Rodgers' control as the best in this college draft class.
"I definitely take pride in it—it's something I've worked on my whole life, me and my dad in the backyard when I was little," Rodgers said of his ability to locate all four of his pitches. "When he got a little older and couldn't see in the dark, I got a throwback net and worked on it. So it's something I take pride in and something I've worked on all the time.
"My repertoire is I have four pitches, and I've always worked on them, even in bullpens. I try to perfect every single pitch so I can put it in any spot in any count. That's something I've worked hard at, and something I'm still trying to perfect. I have those days I'm wild, and one walk isn't good enough for me—I have to have zero walks. I'm still working on my control."
Using that standard, Rodgers has a lot of work to do after issuing one walk in Friday's complete-game win against California, when he allowed just one run on eight hits while striking out six. Using any other standard, that's a pretty darn good day.
But it was just another day in the office for Rodgers, one of the most consistent pitchers in college baseball. After going 4-3, 2.11 as a freshman and 9-4, 2.75 as a sophomore, Rodgers has thrived in his second year atop ASU's weekend rotation as a junior, getting off to a sterling 4-0, 1.31 start, with 39 strikeouts and six walks in 48 innings. It should be no surprise that opposing Pacific-12 Conference coaches regard him with considerable esteem.
"The guy is so good, he's so complete—four pitches for strikes, any count, competitive," UCLA coach John Savage said after facing Rodgers last week. "He's as good as there is out there in terms of pitchability and competitiveness. I can't say enough about him."
Rodgers attacks the zone with a fastball that sits comfortably at 88-91 mph and occasionally bumps 92-93. He mixes in a solid changeup at 81-82, and he has good feel for two distinct breaking balls, a sharp 73-75 mph downer curve and an 83-84 slider that one scout called his best pitch. Rodgers said he doesn't consider any of them to be his go-to offering.
"I can't pick any one—I like them all," he said. "If it's an 0-2 count, I can throw a changuep, or I can throw a slider or a curveball. It depends what's working that day."
Rodgers works at a very fast tempo, keeping his defenders engaged in the action and giving hitters little time to get comfortable. He is similarly energetic off the field, from his amusing dispatches on Twitter (@Rodgers20) to his presence in the clubhouse.
"I'm a good leader on the field and off the field," Rodgers said. "I like to bring energy wherever I'm at, whether it's just in study hall or wherever, just keep everybody loose—just not get tired. Some guys are lazy, they want to slouch their shoulders a little bit. I try to bring energy all the time.
"Everybody knows how I pitch. I feel like that kind of rubs off on them, because I'm a competitor. They know they're going to get 110 percent out of me, so they're going to bring 110 percent for me also."