National seeds are up for grabs in three critical weekend series this weekend. Six teams that are very likely to host regionals will go head-to-head, as Miami visits North Carolina, Arkansas travels to Georgia and Oklahoma heads to Texas. It’s still to early to draw any sweeping conclusions, but the teams that prevail in those series this weekend will have the inside track at three of the eight national seeds.
|Top 25 Schedule
|Tennessee at (1) Louisiana State
Marshall at (2) Rice
(3) UC Irvine at UC Riverside
Stanford at (4) Arizona State
(13) Miami at (5) North Carolina
Pacific at (6) Cal State Fullerton
(7) Baylor at Oklahoma State
(11) Arkansas at (8) Georgia
(10) Oklahoma at (9) Texas
(12) Georgia Tech at Wake Forest
Southern California at (14) Oregon State
(15) San Diego State at New Mexico
(16) Texas Christian at Air Force
(17) Mississippi at Florida
UC Davis at (18) Cal Poly
(19) Virginia at Boston College
(20) Coastal Carolina at High Point
Missouri at (21) Kansas State
(22) Gonzaga at Portland
(23) East Carolina at Tulane
(24) Kansas at Texas Tech
(25) Minnesota at Illinois
Let’s focus on baseball’s version of the Red River Rivalry. Tenth-ranked Oklahoma currently sits atop the Big 12 standings at 8-4, but No. 9 Texas is just a half-game back at 9-6. This matchup pits strength vs. strength: Oklahoma has far and away the best offense in the league, leading the Big 12 by wide margins in batting (.336), home runs (61) and runs (343). Texas, meanwhile, boasts far and away the league’s best pitching, leading the Big 12 by wide margins in ERA (2.12) fewest hits allowed (231) and fewest walks allowed (78).
“It’s a great matchup—their arms, our bats,” Sooners coach Sunny Golloway said. “We lead the Big 12 in hitting and they lead it in pitching. That, to me, means that our pitchers have a chance to make a statement for themselves, and their hitters have a chance to make a statement for their side. Maybe it’ll wind up being whichever one of those performs best.”
Offense was a real concern for the Longhorns early in the season. Even when they climbed to No. 1 in the rankings on March 9, their pitching was carrying the load, and their bats were doing just enough to get by. The bats went quiet during a three-game sweep at the hands of Kansas two weeks later, mustering just 10 runs all weekend. But lately, Texas has quietly started to hit, helping the ‘Horns win 10 of their last 11 games even without getting quite as dominant performances from their arms.
“We’re getting better, we’re making steady improvement offensively, and we’re continuing to get good pitching and defense,” Texas coach Augie Garrido said. “We’ve hit almost .340 for the last week or so. That’s been the difference in our team’s performances.”
Oklahoma’s pitching has come around, too. Friday starter Andrew Doyle (5-2, 3.67) has been a rock-solid ace, as expected, and the return of Stephen Porlier (1-0, 0.00 in 10 innings) from shoulder surgery gives the weekend rotation a major boost. A third quality starter, Antwonie Hubbard (1-2, 3.18), has worked his way back from a stress fracture in his leg. The Sooners allowed just 10 runs in three games two weeks ago at Missouri, then gave up just five runs in three games against Texas Tech last weekend. If they get that kind of pitching this weekend, they should score enough to win, even against UT’s stellar staff.
And Oklahoma wants to beat Texas badly, not just to better position itself for the postseason.
“It’s a huge series,” Golloway said. “When you’re an athlete at the University of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma-Texas rivalry is what you come here for. It’s huge in every sport. One of the things that will be fun is both teams will enter this contest ranked in the top 10. You hear it more in our other sports that compete against each other; you really don’t need any added incentive, but there it is. The winner of that series will probably move into first place. So it’ll be big, there’s no doubt, there’s no shying away from it.”
|Creighton might be in first place in the Missouri Valley Conference with a 9-3 mark, but preseason conference favorite Missouri State (6-2) and perennial MVC powerhouse Wichita State (5-2) are lurking. The Shockers will visit the Bears this weekend in a series that could shape the rest of the conference race.
Both teams have gotten back on track after slow starts. The Shockers started 6-6 but have won six straight series since, including home sets against Pepperdine and Long Beach State. They’re 20-15 heading into this weekend. The Bears, meanwhile, started off 4-10 but have won 16 of 20 since, including series against Oregon State and Oral Roberts.
Starting pitching had much to do with each team’s turnaround, and this
weekend will feature three excellent pitching matchups. The most
intriguing is Saturday’s, when 6-foot-4 freshman lefthander Lowell
takes on 5-foot-10 lefty Baumann. While Missouri State Friday starter
Tim Clubb (3-2, 4.66) has not been able to duplicate his 11-0, 2.52
sophomore season, Baumann has emerged as the Valley’s most dominant
pitcher, going 7-0, 1.37 with 58 strikeouts and 19 walks in 46 innings.
“Baumann could pitch for anybody in the country on Friday or Saturday,”
said a coach of another team who has played the Bears. “He’s very, very
Missouri State pitching coach Paul Evans said Baumann has gotten much
better with runners on base, as evidenced by his start two weeks ago
against Southern Illinois, when he issued seven walks and seven hits
but allowed just one unearned run over seven innings. Baumann matured
plenty over the last two summers, excelling first in the Northwoods
League and then in the Cape Cod League.
“Those two summers have catapulted his confidence level,” Evans said.
“His command of the offspeed has been much improved. He’s really gone
in and out, mixed, and been really aggressive on the mound. He has a
good arm, too.”
Baumann makes up for his smallish size with real long arms and huge
hands. Like Clubb, he pitches in the high 80s to low 90s early in
games, then settles into the 87-89 range in the middle innings. He’s
been able to command his hard slurve against both righties and lefties,
and his changeup command has improved. Most importantly, he’s fearless.
Lowell was a key recruit for the Shockers, who were afraid they would
lose the Rangers’ 27th-round pick after his velocity spiked into the
92-93 range last summer. He lacked polish with his secondary stuff when
he arrived at Wichita, but he’s made big progress in those areas, and
it has translated into success in the weekend rotation. Lowell is 5-1,
2.59 with 45 strikeouts and 16 walks in 42 innings.
“He’s a lefthander that pitches 88-90—he’ll touch better than that,
probably up to 92-93,” Shockers pitching coach Brent Kemnitz said. “He
really hides the ball well, he’s deceptive. He’s improved his offspeed
stuff, picked up a good slider and a good changeup. He’s a bulldog for
us, and he’s been really good on Saturdays.”
Friday’s matchup is plenty intriguing, too, with Wichita’s Tim Kelley
(3-2, 1.76) taking on Clubb. Both righthanders compete and throw
strikes with three-pitch mixes. And Sunday pits another talented
Wichita freshman in righty Jordan Cooper (5-3, 2.52) against Missouri
State sophomore lefty Aaron Meade (5-2, 3.18).
“They’ve got three very good starters,” Evans said. “Tim Kelley was
more their midweek guy the last two years, but he definitely has the
talent, maturity and ability to handle the Friday role. They have two
very talented freshmen that because of the youth on their team have
been able to jump in and have been equally good. But I expect with us
being at home and the maturity of our three guys, it should be a hell
of a series.”
|After just a few minutes on the phone with Ed McCann, it becomes exceedingly obvious that he has boundless energy, optimism and humor. Those are particularly useful qualities for a coach at Centenary, the nation’s smallest Division I school with an enrollment of just around 800. Even after 13 years—11 as head coach—McCann still maintains his field himself, from fertilizing to mowing. He said his legs are all chewed up right now from being on the back of the weed-eater.
“We’re doing things other people probably don’t have to do,” McCann said. “But we’re not everybody else. That’s what makes what has gone on here special.”
When the Gents played a road series last weekend at Summit League foe Western Illinois, they took a bus from Shreveport, La., to Macomb, Ill., and back. Google Maps says that’s a 778-mile trip.
“I don’t know anyone else who spends 18 hours on a bus ride back from Western Illinois,” McCann said. “But you win three (out of three), you feel good about yourself.”
The Gents have had plenty of reason to feel good about themselves in 2009. They’re 23-6 and have posted wins at Texas A&M and at home against Arkansas. They’re also 6-1 in conference play heading into this weekend’s four-game series at perennial Summit League winner Oral Roberts.
“Every time we play someone, they’re Goliath, we’re David,” McCann said. “We beat A&M, when they were No. 1 in the nation, at their place. Was that a big win? Yeah, it was. Then we beat Arkansas, and we thought, ‘You know, we’re pretty good.’
“You’ve got to change that mindset at Centenary, to think we’re not very good. We’ve got a good thing going on here. I call us the Princeton of the Pines, the Brown of the Bayou. We’re the only Division I school in Shreveport, a city of half a million people. We’ve got great facilities, a great schedule, it’s just taken some time. I think we can be the Rice of the Red River; we have high academic standards, and I think we have a chance. That’s what it’s about right now.”
That attitude was nowhere to be found at Centenary 13 years ago, when McCann says he arrived at “Tumbleweed Tech” or “Horseshack U.” Slowly, the Gents have upgraded Shehee Stadium, which was renamed after local philanthropist Peyton Shehee in 2001 after a generous donation allowed Centenary to erect quality grandstands, a fully functional press box and sound system. Each year, improvements are made on the facility: new lights, a sprinkler system, locker rooms and coaches’ offices were added in 2000; concessions and restrooms in 2001; a new outfield wall with a 20-foot “monster” in 2002; dugout improvements in 2004; a new entrance area in 2006; new batting tunnels in 2007. Shehee’s widow, Virginia, donated $100,000 for new restrooms and concessions, but there was a catch: She didn’t want women to have to wait in long lines to use restrooms anymore. So there are eight stalls in the women’s room, and two in the men’s room.
It’s taken some time, but Centenary now has facilities that the players take pride in. They even comb the stands picking up trash after games.
“Everybody else could have done all this (stadium renovating) in two or three years, but it’s taken me 13 years,” McCann said. “And I don’t have that kind of patience. The only one who has that kind of patience is Job.”
McCann’s patience is being rewarded on the field, too. The Gents cast a wide net on the recruiting trail, reeling in many of their 22 players from California, Washington (where associate head coach Mike Diaz has roots) and Texas (where assistant Pat Holmes has ties) as well as Louisiana. For the first time McCann can remember, he has three middle-of-the-lineup threats who protect each other in Michael Tompkins (.390 with five homers), Tell Ross (.418 with three homers) and Travis Leverson (.351). Tompkins (or “Boomer”, as McCann calls him) is a transfer from Walla Walla (Wash.) CC; Ross (“Big ‘Un”) transferred from Lon Morris (Texas) JC; and Leverson (“this little bitty guy who can swing it”) came from Santa Ana (Calif.) CC.
McCann said the backbone of his team is his middle infield. Senior shortstop Ricky Imperialli and senior second baseman Tim Deering (“Batman and Robin”) both transferred from Palomar (Calif.) CC and have played together since they were kids. McCann said their laid-back Southern California attitude drives him nuts, but maybe it’s helped him mellow a bit.
“Do they cause me headaches? Yeah, they do,” he said. “But on the field, they’re cash money. They can pick it a little bit—they’re the best double-play combination I’ve had here in years. Look at my roster, we have quite a few kids from California, quite a few from Washington. I think it makes us a better team because you blend, and you get a different flavoring.”
Sophomore righthander Boone Whiting (4-1, 2.68), who beat Arkansas, is another California product, and sophomore righty Justin Kraft (5-1, 2.20) hails from Washington. Senior righty Joe Hagen (1-0, 2.50), who beat the Aggies, is another Washington product, but junior lefty Dakota Robinson (4-2, 4.46) is from Louisiana. Robinson is Centenary’s best pitcher and prospect, but he rolled his ankle and is not expected to pitch this weekend.
The Gents have also been dealing with injuries to third baseman Morgan Brian (wrist) and center fielder Jomar Tabor (hamstring). They only have 22 players to begin with (three players decided in the fall they wanted to do something else and left the baseball team), so dealing with injuries is not easy.
“But we’re finding a way,” McCann said. “I’m not making excuses—that’s for losers. They’re gamers, and they want to pony up this weekend. Oral Roberts, they’ve got a tradition, they’ve got a culture of winning, a very rich heritage of winning. It’s taken a long time to get it done here. We know the conference tournament and conference championship runs through Tulsa, Oklahoma.”
This trip means even more for McCann, an Oklahoma native who still has family in Tulsa. In 1984, when he was the head coach at Mannford (Okla.) High, the school was destroyed by a tornado on a Sunday morning. That season, McCann coached his team to a state championship, which it won on the field at Oral Roberts.
“So it’s very, very special for me; it’s hard to explain,” McCann said. “Oral Roberts is a campus where you expect a miracle.”
|Redal, a junior center fielder, is riding a 31-game hitting streak into this weekend’s huge series against Winthrop. That ties the Big South record for longest hitting streak, set last year by UNC Asheville’s Kevin Weidenbacher (highlighted in Streakin’ last April).
The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Redal has made a huge impact in his first season at Liberty after transferring from Wenatchee Valley (Wash.) CC. In 35 games, Redal is batting .422/.484/.652 with six homers and 39 RBIs, leading the Flames to a 23-12 record (11-3 in the Big South). Liberty’s offense has struggled a bit recently as the Flames have dropped seven of their last 11 games, but Redal has kept on hitting.
“He’s just a baseball player—very knowledgeable, one of them baseball rats,” Liberty coach Jim Toman said. “You always like to get kids who know the game, and he’s one of those coach-on-the-field type guys. He’s not that big, but he runs pretty well—like a 6.8(-second 60-yard dash), but he’s not a burner. He’s hard to strike out, and he uses the whole field. He gets good jumps in the outfield. He’s a pretty good player.”
The Golden Bears have one of the most talented rosters on the West Coast, but they have struggled mightily since starting the season 7-2. They’ve gone just 9-16 since that point, falling out of Pacific-10 Conference contention with an eight-game losing streak that ended Wednesday with a midweek win against UC Davis. In a year when most of the Pac-10 is vulnerable, Cal has failed to capitalize, going just 3-9 in conference play and 16-18 overall.
Though sophomores Mark Canha (.388 with 11 homers) and Brian Guinn (.379) have taken big steps forward this year, and uber-talented juniors Brett Jackson and Blake Smith have shown flashes of their huge potential, smacking seven homers apiece, the Bears just haven’t been able to put it all together. Jackson, who is hitting .340 but has 40 strikeouts and just 16 walks, is Cal in a microcosm.
“Jackson’s got tools—maybe he’s the best five-tool guy in the college game—but he strikes out a lot,” said a National League area scout. “I have questions about his contact ability . . . Jackson just isn’t putting it all together. He’s still a bit of an enigma, kind of like Cal.”
The bigger problem, though has been the pitching. California has a 5.85 cumulative ERA, and opponents are hitting .281 against Cal pitching. Smith might be even more talented on the mound than he is at the plate, but he’s struggled to an 0-1, 5.85 line in 20 innings. He has 20 walks and 26 strikeouts.
“(Smith) is up to 97 and is physical, has the closer mentality, but he’s all over the place,” the scout said. “He’s got a chance to have three plus pitches, legit, but he never has a clean inning. He’ll put one on the black, then hit the batter and then walk the next guy on five pitches, with one perfect pitch and four balls.
“Cal could have seven to 10 guys drafted, but it’s really not happening there. They have lots of good arms but they all seem like relievers. Even Yasser Clor (3-1, 8.04) comes out throwing 92-93 at times, but they are all so inconsistent.”
The Golden Bears will try to get back on track this weekend at home against Oregon, which has lost six in a row in its own right and enters the weekend just 12-21 (2-7 in the Pac-10). Of course, Oregon is a first-year program; Cal was a regional team last year that returned loads of talent.
|This weekend’s nonconference series between the Spartans and Gauchos is critical for both teams to improve their chances for an at-large NCAA tournament bid. Santa Barbara is one of the most talented teams in the Big West and was ranked in the Top 25 earlier this season, but the Gauchos are just 5-4 in conference play after facing the three weakest teams in the league (Cal State Northridge, Pacific and UC Davis). UCSB is just 20-10 overall and ranks 70th in the official Ratings Percentage Index, which are now available online. That’s not an at-large resume, but the Gauchos will have a chance to boost their RPI significantly if they can fare well in upcoming series against Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, UC Riverside and UC Irvine.
The Spartans have racked up a 24-10 record against largely softer competition, but they rank 62nd in the RPI and are in position to make a run in the Western Athletic Conference. They’ll have their work cut out for them on the road this weekend.
“That series should be a war,” said a West Coast talent evaluator who has seen both teams. “Those teams match up pretty well with each other. San Jose State plays as good of catch as anybody I’ve seen. (David) Berner, their lefty, is as good a college lefty as there is out there on the West Coast this year. He’s 85-87, he’ll touch 88, but it’s any pitch, any time, anywhere.”
Berner, who is 6-1, 2.83 with a 57-11 strikeout-walk ratio in 64 innings, will face UCSB ace righthander Joe Gardner (5-0, 3.14, 46-20 K-BB in 52 IP) in a fine matchup Friday night.
“Gardner has been a difference maker since the moment he arrived in our program,” Santa Barbara pitching coach Tom Myers said of the juco transfer. “Six-foot-5 and athletic, he commands a fastball that ranges from 91-94 with heavy sink. He had received comparisons to Derek Lowe with the type of movement. His slider is 77-83 and at times can be slurvy. His changeup is still a work in progress but is effective when the velocity is 77-79. It can be at times too hard.
“He is a competitor with great aptitude . . . Whoever drafts him, the player development people will be quite pleased.”
A day after all major leaguers wore the No. 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson, it’s worth pointing out that UCSB is the rare college team that sends black pitchers to the mound Friday and Saturday. Six-foot-5 lefthander Mario Hollands (4-2, 3.86) takes the mound Saturday for UCSB. A draft-eligible sophomore, Hollands has worked in the 89-91 range with his heavy fastball, according to Myers, and has a solid four-pitch mix. Myers said some scouts worry about his arm action and ability to repeat his delivery at higher levels, but he’s a stellar athlete who was a standout tennis player before arriving in Santa Barbara.
The Gauchos have been searching a bit for their offensive identity, but veterans like Brian Gump (.336), Eric Oliver (.303) and Matt Valaika (.311) are tough outs who have provided some stability.
“They take very, very good at-bats,” the talent evaluator said. “They have an older lineup, and they take excellent at-bats. You can gauge their approach, but they’re veteran enough to adjust. There’s a lot of good discipline there. I like Eric Oliver—he can handle all speeds and all locations when he’s swinging a good bat. He has very good hands, and a very good eye. They started off hot and got into kind of a funk here, but I really like their team. With (Shane) Carlson at short starting off the year hurt, they put (Ryan) Cavan there, and now they’ve got Carlson back and they’re trying to re-find themselves.”
The Gauchos need to be sharp this weekend, because San Jose State won’t make many mistakes.
“They’re a very well-coached club, and they play tremendous defense,” Myers said of the Spartans. “You’ve got to be prepared for anything. They like to short game it, they’re very similar to a Big West team in their offensive approach. Getting their leadoff guy will be critical.”
Home runs for Troy Channing, tying the St. Mary’s single-season record. Channing reached the mark on April 4 against San Francisco, when he homered for the third straight game, and will try to break the record this weekend against San Diego. Channing, a 6-foot, 215-pound third baseman who plays occasional DH and first base, is one of the leading candidates for national Freshman of the Year honors, leading all freshmen in homers, RBIs (52), slugging (.760) and total bases (111).
“He’s a formidable bat,” said one coach whose team has played the Gaels. “He doesn’t swing and miss a lot. We made mistakes to him, but he can hit to the middle of the field and to the pull side very well. And he’s strong. For a freshman he was very impressive.”
St. Mary’s associate head coach and former recruiting coordinator Gabe Zappin first saw Channing when he was a sophomore at Foothill (Calif.) High. Zappin told Gaels head coach Jedd Soto that he needed to see Channing, who reminded him of former Nevada star Andy Dominique. In Soto’s first year as a coach in 1996-97, he had Dominique and Zappin on his Wolf Pack team.
“Channing does have an uncanny resemblance in stance and set-up to Dominique,” Soto said in an e-mail. “He quickly became our favorite ‘must-get’ recruit. I couldn’t have predicted that he would have this kind of freshman campaign but considered him the best high school hitter in Northern California in the 2008 class.
“Channing is a very patient hitter who knows his strike zone well. He hits both left- and righthanded pitching and makes adjustments from game to game. He is very mature, hard-working and has a great attitude every day. Troy doesn’t miss many fastballs and has proven to hit sliders and changeups. He’s a special young man. With his strong start, Troy’s patience is getting tested as teams begin to pitch around him.”
|Ohio State has made regionals in every odd year since 1991 (with three regional trips in even years sprinkled in), and the Buckeyes are on track to keep that streak going in 2009. They’re 26-8 overall (6-3 in the Big Ten) and ranked 21st in the most recent RPI report. They have single wins against Miami, George Mason, Minnesota and Notre Dame, but they have yet to win a weekend series against a legitimate regional contender. This weekend at Purdue, they’ll try to extend their three-game conference winning streak.
Ohio State has ridden the right arm of sophomore righthander Alex Wimmers (6-1, 3.32, 72-28 K-BB in 57 IP) to a number of big wins this spring. Senior righty Jake Hale (1.35 ERA, seven saves, 35-9 K-BB in 27 IP) is one of the top closers in the Midwest, anchoring a thin bullpen that also includes sophomore righty Drew Rucinski (5-2, 2.93, two saves). The offense is led by outfielders Zach Hurley (.389/.441/.591 with five homers and 11 steals in 13 attempts) and Eric Stephens (.338/.396/.594 with a team-best seven homers), as well as DH Ryan Dew (.389/.441/.487) and catcher Dan Burkhart (.372/.438/.628 with six homers).
A Midwest talent evaluator offered his take on the Buckeyes.
“Ohio State has a prolific record, but they haven’t played anybody. When Wimmers is on the mound they can beat anybody, but he’s only one guy. They pitched Wimmers three times in eight days when they beat Miami, and the third outing he got hammered against Penn State. So there’s not a lot of quality depth there, and they won’t pitch guys who can’t pitch. But Wimmers is legit. He can compete with anybody, as evidenced by the fact he handled Miami.
“They have a big righthander, Dean Wolosiansky, who is very similar to (Eric) Arnett at Indiana. He’s 86-88, he had a slider, he’s a strike-thrower, throws downhill with three-pitch command. Sunday they pitch a portly lefthander named (Eric) Best. He was only 84-87, couldn’t throw it over and when he did he got hammered.
“In the bullpen they have Drew Rucinski, another strike-thrower, 87-88, with a floppy arm and a changeup. But they want to go deep into the game with their starters and get to Hale. Hale is 88-92 with sink, he’s got a very good slider, he’s very experienced. He’s a beanpole, 6-5 or 6-6 and can’t weigh 200 pounds (Editor’s Note: He’s listed at 6-foot-7, 200). If they’ve got a lead, he can air it out for three or four batters. That’s about where his arm is at right now.
“Offensively, Hurley is their leadoff guy, a hacking, slashing-type guy. He has no lower half, so guys are able to get to him. I was a little disappointed in Stephens. He’s got a long swing, and I think he’s piled up some numbers against some suspect pitching. (Justin) Miller’s been a clutch hitter for them over the years. His numbers this year aren’t as good. He’s a smaller guy, and they’re playing him out of position at third base—he’s not really a third baseman. To be honest, I think he’s just an average college player.
“They’re a typical Ohio State team: They have a lot of good college players, not many prospects. I don’t want to say they’re not that good, because they’re winning like crazy, but compared to other Ohio State teams, their talent level is not there. And I just think there’s holes in their schedule.”
|A strong case can be made that A.J. Morris has been the nation’s best pitcher in 2009 (non-Strasburg category). The nation’s lone nine-game winner, Morris has beaten a number of the best pitchers and prospects in the nation: Arizona State’s Mike Leake, Baylor’s Kendal Volz, Texas A&M’s Alex Wilson and Oklahoma’s Andrew Doyle, to name the most prominent victims. Morris’ 1.19 ERA ranks third in the nation, and his 64 strikeouts in 61 innings rank fourth in the Big 12. It’s quite a turnaround for the fourth-year junior, who went 4-4, 6.04 as a sophomore in 2008. The transformation began last summer in the West Coast League, where Morris ranked as the No. 4 prospect.
Morris’ emergence mirrors that of the Wildcats, who are 28-9 overall heading into this weekend’s series against Missouri. K-State has won series against Nebraska and Texas A&M over the last two weekends to climb into the Baseball America Top 25 for the first time ever. They also won a pair of midweek games against Wichita State this week, giving them wins in seven of their last eight games. At 7-5 in the loaded Big 12, Kansas State is in strong position to make its first-ever trip to regionals.
Congratulations on all your success this season, A.J. You’re one of the biggest stories in college baseball this season—does it ever strike you just how remarkable this year has been for you?
I just try not to read too much into it or look too much at numbers. We’ve still got five more games and then the Big 12 tournament and regionals.
You guys are on track to make regionals for the first time ever. Is there a lot of excitement about that around the program right now?
There’s not too much excitement for the simple fact we’ve yet to do something. We’re still in conference play, we still have to come out every day and try to win every game. We know there won’t be any free tickets given out. We want to put ourselves in position where we don’t have to worry in the conference tournament.
Yeah, last year you guys got so close to breaking through to regionals, only to lose to Texas in the Big 12 tournament championship game. That must have been excruciating to get that close and fall short.
It’s tough. I threw that game, and that left a chip on my shoulder. I took that this summer and said to my teammates, “We don’t want to feel like that this year.” Just to get so close and not get there just eats at you. Nobody wants to feel that twice.
Coach Hill said earlier this year that he thought there was a leadership gap on last year’s team, but that you and Drew Biery and some other older guys have taken the reins this year. Do you feel like improved leadership is a big reason for this team’s success?
Definitely. There’s not just one leader on this team—we’ve got tons of leaders. It doesn’t matter if you’re a senior or a freshman, and everybody’s open to criticism if they need it. Everybody has checked their egos at the door.
I know you just try to focus on what you can control, but is it kind of neat to part of the team that earned Kansas State a spot in the Top 25 rankings for the first time in program history?
It’s nice to see the strides that we’ve made so far. But our expectation levels this year were high from the beginning. From the beginning of the year, I had some questions about how our pitching staff looked—on paper, it wasn’t very strong. I told the guys, “It’s just paper, that doesn’t decide anything.” Now that we’re ranked, we have to go out and play even harder because we have a little mark on our back.
What was the mindset like when you arrived at this program knowing you were going to a place that had never been to regionals? You were in one of the nation’s best conferences, with so many great programs that seemed to be good year after year—it must have seemed daunting at times to get up to that level.
We’ve always had good talent here. We’ve never really jumped over that hump. This year we took the approach that we’re going to out-work and out-hustle everybody. This team this year has just taken that to heart. When you play like that, a lot of good things are going to happen. And now we’ve put ourselves in position to do something we’ve never done before.
You’ve beaten so many great pitchers and teams this year. Does any game stand out in your mind as a personal highlight?
I would go with Arizona State and Mike Leake. That was a fun game—he’s a great pitcher, and they’re a great offensive team. The atmosphere was nice. It’s always fun to go in and play a team that was highly ranked going into the year. It was a great way to go in and prove that we’re for real this year.
Who’s the toughest hitter you’ve faced this year?
(Baylor outfielder) Aaron Miller, just because that guy just had a great approach. He handled the ball in well, handled the ball away well—great player.
Against a lefthanded hitter like Miller, have you been able to develop your changeup into a weapon against those guys? Or are you still mostly fastball-slider?
I have a changeup, I threw it over the summer, I threw it in the fall. It’s a good pitch, but I still have yet to be comfortable with it. At this point in the season, it’s more about my team winning than me showing three pitches. I don’t use it much in games.
Are you confident enough in both your fastball and slider to throw either in any count?
The slider feeds off the fastball release point—it’s been a huge difference this year, changing from a curveball to a slider. It’s made my control better, and now I’m comfortable to throw either one in a 3-2 count.
What are some of the other big differences from last year? Coach Hill said you added about 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason, right?
I just worked out, put on some weight this year. For the most part this summer I worked on only worrying about the things I could control. I know earlier in my career I let things outside my control affect me. This year I just focused on worrying about what I could control, and also getting ahead in counts. I’m trying to force contact early in the count. Early in my career, it was like, “God, I don’t want them to hit the ball.” That leads to bad counts, bad pitches. Now I’m trusting my teammates, that they’re going to make the plays. I just go up there and make the hitter beat you.
It seemed like last summer in the West Coast League was a real turning point for you. How big was that summer?
It was a great experience. I was glad I got to experience that. It was good for me to work on some things and face some good hitters, really put to work what I was trying to figure out. Learning how pitchers handle situations, counts, what have you. I was really worked on trying to get in the zone as fast as possible. That was a big problem for me in past, and I really wanted to correct that this summer.
This weekend you’re facing Missouri and Kyle Gibson. Do you get a little extra juiced up to face the top opposing pitchers?
It’s always fun to face the best guys in the league or the nation, and the Big 12′s just full of them every Friday. You always want to beat the top dogs—it gives you that extra boost to make pitches and compete.
You’ve done a great job blocking out distractions this year, but is the draft in the back of your mind at all?
I just try and stay away from it. I’ve seen in the past, guys let it get to them and it kind of hurt them. I take the approach that if you help the team, the team will help you in the end.