Weekend Preview: April 18-20

THIS WEEK:
1. Resurgent Georgia carries three-series winning streak into Gainesville.
2. Illinois-Chicago celebrates opening of Granderson Stadium against rival Wright State.
3. Surprising Conference USA contender UAB faces a big measuring stick at Rice.
4. A scout weighs in on Cal State Fullerton in advance of the Titans’ big series at Cal Poly.

TOP 25 SERIES
North Carolina at (1) Virginia
(2) Louisiana-Lafayette at Texas-Arlington
Cal State Fullerton at (3) Cal Poly
(4) Florida State at Wake Forest
Texas Christian at (6) Texas
(7) Washington at California
(8) Alabama at Tennessee
Georgia at (9) Florida
(10) Louisville at Central Florida
(11) South Carolina at Auburn
(12) Louisiana State at (13) Mississippi
South Florida at (14) Houston
Notre Dame at (15) Miami
Alabama-Birmingham at (16) Rice
(17) UC Santa Barbara at Long Beach State
(18) Vanderbilt at Arkansas
(19) Kentucky at Texas A&M
(20) UNLV at Air Force
Michigan State at (21) Indiana
(22) Clemson at Pittsburgh
Washington State at (23) Oregon
(24) Mississippi State at Missouri
(25) Georgia Tech at Maryland

Not Fuzzy In The Peach State

This season could have spiraled out of control early on for Georgia. A year after going 21-32 overall and 7-20 in the Southeastern Conference, the Bulldogs stumbled to a 2-6 start under first-year head coach Scott Stricklin, and they were on the verge of falling to 2-7 in their Week Three series opener at home against Binghamton.

“Our guys were a little bit beat up from last year; it was a tough year,” Stricklin said. “You questioned whether they believed they could be a good team. Before you can be a great team, you have to believe you’re a great team.

“We said, ‘We’re not going to panic. We know that we’re a good team, and we have to keep believing we’re a good team. The only way we can show people that is if we continue our effort level, and it will come.’ Against Binghamton, I think we were down in the ninth inning, we’re staring 2-7 in the face. We score two runs in the bottom of the ninth, then we won it in the 11th inning, and then we won 11 in a row. So that was a turning point for us. We had three walk-off wins in that streak. That was an emotional streak, and it helped us believe we could compete in the SEC.”

In college baseball’s deepest conference, staying competitive is a tall order, but Georgia has done it. At 21-15 overall and 7-7-1 in the SEC, the Bulldogs have already matched last season’s overall and conference win totals, with five weeks left in the regular season. They have won three straight weekend series, with home series wins against Texas A&M and Tennessee sandwiched around a road series win at Missouri.

Winning three straight series in the SEC is a legitimate accomplishment, and all three of those opponents have proven they can win series against other SEC contenders. But those three opponents are all sub-.500 teams in SEC play, and now Georgia’s schedule gets brutal. This week, the Bulldogs travel to SEC East-leading Florida, and next weekend they visit Vanderbilt. They finish with South Carolina at home, Ole Miss on the road and Kentucky at home—five opponents who all rank inside the top 13 in the Ratings Percentage Index. That stretch could sink the Bulldogs, but if they can hold their own in the next five weeks, they’ll be a shoo-in for regionals, because their RPI will climb from its current position (No. 44).

“That’s why everyone came to Georgia, to play in the SEC and have this kind of schedule,” Stricklin said. “That’s why this is the best conference in the country—there’s so much parity from top to bottom. No team has more than 10 wins or less than 6 wins. One weekend can put you at the bottom or the top. We’re excited to be in the middle of it; it’s a great challenge. We’re trying not to let the kids look at the big picture. We’ll look at Ryan Lawlor on the mound Friday night at Florida, and take it one game at a time.”

Ryan Lawlor

Ryan Lawlor

Lawlor (3-2, 3.44) scuffled a bit early in the season, but he has come on strong of late, and he’s coming off a complete-game five-hitter against Tennessee, with 10 strikeouts. The sophomore lefthander is a strike-thrower with a lively 86-88 fastball that “doesn’t go straight,” Stricklin said, and bumps 90. His breaking ball is sharp, and hitters have a tough time barreling him up. He’s also a good athlete who fields his position and holds runners well.

Lawlor and freshman righthander Robert Tyler (4-2, 1.56) give Georgia a one-two pitching punch that gives the Bulldogs a chance against anybody in the SEC. Tyler has a huge arm, but he has impressed Stricklin even more for his feel for pitching.

“He throws strikes. That’s the amazing thing about Robert,” Stricklin said. “There’s been some 98s flashed up on the board. At LSU it was 95-96, touching 97, and it’s just strike after strike. I’ve heard somebody describe it as ‘suffocating the strike zone.’ He’s got a lot of first-pitch outs, not walking anybody. The fastball is downhill, high slope, 95 mph, here it is. Then he’s got a really good changeup that coach (Fred) Corral helped develop with him this year, and he has an unbelievable feel for it. And a good breaking ball that keeps getting better; he’s starting to get swings and misses with his slider, which is encouraging. He has a great feel for pitching, which you don’t usually see from hard-throwing freshmen.”

Stricklin said Sunday’s starter is TBA; he had been planning on using lefthander Patrick Boling on Sunday, but Boling’s control troubles in Tuesday’s loss at Georgia Tech made him reconsider. Despite the lack of a consistent third starter, the Bulldogs have held it together on the mound despite not having returning ace Sean McLaughlin available (due to a “dead arm type of thing,” as Stricklin put it). Last year’s No. 3 starter, Jared Walsh, has also been limited to nine innings by a back injury, though Stricklin said he hopes Walsh will be able to provide a boost to the middle of the UGa. lineup down the stretch, starting next week at Vanderbilt.

The Bulldogs don’t have gaudy offensive numbers, and in fact they have just one .300 hitter—outfielder-turned-third baseman Hunter Cole (.322/.416/.450 with a team-leading 13 doubles and two homers). But they have found enough ways to generate offense to stay competitive.

“I would say that we just find ways,” Stricklin said. “We’re not flashy, we don’t run a bunch, we don’t bunt a bunch, but we bunt when we need to. We rely on our pitching and defense, which have been good. For the most part, we’ve been pretty steady.”

The infield defense looks completely different than expected. Freshman Mike Bell was originally slated to play shortstop alongside returning second baseman Nelson Ward, but Bell broke his hand right before the season started, forcing Ward to slide to shortstop—where he has been very solid, fielding .959. When Bell returned to action, he took over at second base, because Ward looked so comfortable at short. Meanwhile, Cole has surprised scouts by ably handling a move from left field to third base, where he is fielding .950.

“Hunter Cole has been unbelievable at third base,” Stricklin said. “A scout actually joked to me the other day, ‘He actually looks like a third baseman.’ Everyone thinks of him as an outfielder, but he has turned himself into a legitimate third base prospect because he is so athletic, it’s a plus-plus arm. He’s worked hard with Brandon May, our infield coach, on his footwork. He looks like a third baseman now, whereas before he looked like an outfielder playing third.”

That has been one of several pleasant surprises for these Bulldogs. And pleasant surprises are awfully refreshing for a program that had seemed snake-bitten in recent years.

Grand Opening

Home Plate Plaza-Granderson

Thursday is a watershed moment for Illinois-Chicago, which will celebrate the grand opening of $10 million Curtis Granderson Stadium before its series opener against rival Wright State. But it’s also a big day for the baseball community in the entire city of Chicago.

“Really this project was brought about because what we are trying to create is a central hub for all of the youth baseball programs in the city of Chicago,” UIC coach Mike Dee said. “It’s not just the stadium; there are three ancillary fields we’ll be turfing. We’re trying to bring every player from T-ball on up through high school onto campus. We’ll try to begin a discussion for the kids, especially the younger kids—this is what college is—and plant a seed in their heads. So yes, this is a big moment for our program, but we are viewing this as we are a tenant inside a bigger mission. That’s really what drove the project and the generous donation on Curtis’ part: the chance to reach 20,000 kids in the city of Chicago.”

Granderson, a three-time big league all-star who was drafted in the third round out of UIC in 2002, donated $5 million to the project, which is the largest known gift from a professional athlete to his alma mater, according to UIC. He’ll be on hand to throw out the first pitch this afternoon, but seeing Granderson around the program is nothing new for the Flames. Dee said Granderson lives two blocks from the field, and he works out at UIC all winter, regularly offering advice to players about their swings and answering questions.

“There is absolutely no big league about him—none. He is truly one of the most unique young men I have ever been around, and he’s been like that every since I’ve known him,” Dee said. “He has a tremendous sense of social responsibility; he’s very humble. He’s all about kids and education. He’s one of about 25 guys in the big leagues that have his college degree. His mom and dad were both public school teachers, so education has always been a crucial part of who Curtis is, and it’s what drives his charity, Grand Kids. He’s just the real deal, and he’s so humble. He’s hard to corner or give credit to or even thank, because he doesn’t want that. He just wants the kids to be served.”

Rendering-Granderson

The project will include a 50,000-square foot indoor facility, which will allow UIC to welcome youth baseball groups for 12 months out of the year, and it will all be free for the community. “It’s a really big deal, something that’s never been done before,” Dee said. “All the attention right now is on the stadium, but that’s just one piece of a much, much bigger program that Curtis envisioned.”

But the stadium will provide a major boost to UIC’s program. Designed by renowned architecture firm Populous, it features an impressive brick entryway, 1,284 fixed seats and space for 500 more fans in the seating berms beyond left and right field. It also offers a luxury suite that can accommodate 40 fans and a new press box.

A big challenge for UIC this weekend will be staying focused on the baseball once the first pitch is thrown. The second-place Flames (14-15 overall, 9-6 in the Horizon League) are chasing the first-place Raiders (18-16, 12-2) in the standings, and they were swept when the two teams met at Wright State in mid-March. UIC is a dangerous offensive team, with a .313 team average and a trio of power threats in Alex Jurich, Tyler Detmer and Jeff Boehn. High-energy senior Jacob McNamara (.402) has emerged as a spark plug atop the lineup, and the pitching staff has been better of late after a rough first half. Though the staff ERA is 5.66, Dee said his pitchers have posted an ERA round 3.00 over their last dozen or so games. The staff leader is junior righthander Tomas Michelson (4-2, 3.64), a groundball machine with a lively sinker, an improved changeup and slider.

Joey Hoelzel

Wright State’s Joey Hoelzel (Courtesy of Wright State)

Wright State has been much more consistent on the mound, with a staff bookended by senior righthander Joey Hoelzel (4-3, 2.82) at the top of the rotation and junior righty Andrew Elliott (0.48 ERA, six saves) at the back of the bullpen. The Raiders are in the first year of a new era this season too, as former assistant Greg Lovelady replaced Rob Cooper (now at Penn State) as head coach. That transition has been seamless, and having a veteran pitching staff certainly helps.

“All facets of our pitching staff have done a tremendous job,” Lovelady said. “There are very few games where I feel like we haven’t given our hitters a chance to win the game.”

Hoelzel, like Michelson, stands out for his heavy sinker, and Lovelady said his velocity has jumped this year. He worked in the 91-93 range in the early innings last week before settling into the 88-91 range. “The sinker gets on guys, and they pound it into the ground,” Lovelady said. “And he can get strikeouts with the slider. He’s had some dominant performances. You can see the maturity level is there; he’s got a lean, muscular body, and with the sink he has, he’ll be a great senior sign.”

Elliott’s velocity has also climbed now that he’s about a year and a half removed from Tommy John surgery. Early this year he worked around 86-88, but now he’s up to 90-91, and he has an out pitch in his slider, along with a curveball he can throw for strikes.

Freshman catcher Sean Murphy has done an excellent job handling the staff and controlling opposing running games, playing a significant part in the success of the pitching staff. He has also hit more than expected, batting .311 with two homers and 22 RBIs, joining Michael Timm (.333, 3 HR, 22 RBI) and Andrew McCafferty (.258, 3 HR, 22 RBI) to give Wright State a trio of solid run producers.

“The biggest surprise so far has been Sean Murphy,” said Lovelady, who was the catcher on Miami’s 2001 national championship team. “He has been unbelievable defensively, and I knew he would be, but offensively he’s been a surprise.”

Right-Field-Granderson

The emergence of Murphy and McCaferty, a junior-college transfer, have helped WSU survive the loss of senior center fielder Mark Fowler, who was expected to be the team’s best player heading into the spring. He has been limited to 10 at-bats this season due to a torn hamstring, which is likely to keep him out the rest of the year.

But the Raiders have dealt with that loss, and they carry a 3.5-game lead into this weekend. Lovelady said the festive atmosphere could be a distraction for his team as well, but the Raiders are looking forward to it too.

“Thursday’s supposed to be a pretty big day, dedicating it and Curtis will be there to throw out the first pitch,” Lovelady said. “It’s already a pretty good rivalry, so I’m sure this is going to add to it. It’s no bigger than the rest of the games, we’re trying to win them all and just kind of get better. But it definitely heightens the awareness of probably the biggest rivalry in our league, and they’re opening it against us. It’ll be fun, and it’s the kind of stuff our kids will probably remember.”

Chasing Wayne

Conference USA looks a whole lot different this year, with seven new members replacing three mainstays who left for the American Athletic Conference. But in one way, the landscape remains the same: everybody is chasing Rice. The Owls (13-5) own a 1.5-game lead over three teams tied for second place: Texas-San Antonio, Southern Miss and Alabama-Birmingham (10-5). This weekend, the Blazers travel to Houston in a big C-USA showdown.

Chase Mallard

Chase Mallard (Courtesy UAB Athletic Media Relations)

UAB coach Brian Shoop said there is no question that Rice has been the “gold standard” in Conference USA since it joined the league in 2006, but he pointed out that the Blazers have been very competitive with Rice in the last five years, going 8-10 against the Owls during that period. UAB might have its best team of the Shoop era this year; the Blazers (24-13) have already eclipsed last season’s win total (23) and have recorded double-digit conference wins for the first time since 2010. And they have five C-USA series left.

“It was a team that was predicted by most to finish at the bottom of the league,” Shoop said. “We lost three kids in the draft, our best remaining signee broke his ankle. Two of our top four pitchers haven’t thrown a pitch all year, and we’ve still been very competitive. So I’m grateful and proud of them.”

The Blazers have the pitching to be competitive in any series, but last weekend against Southern Miss, the UAB bullpen uncharacteristically coughed up a pair of ninth-inning leads, including a four-run lead in Sunday’s rubber game. Shoop said the Blazers remain confident in their bullpen group, which is led by righthanders Cory Eller (a lower-slot guy) and Adam Lau (a more traditional fastball-slider pitcher), and lefties Turner Lee and Thomas Lowery.

The team’s biggest strength is its weekend rotation. Righthander Chase Mallard (6-0, 0.95) has developed into a true ace as a senior, following three seasons spent mostly in the bullpen. In past years, he was effective against righthanded hitters but struggled against lefties, but this year he has learned how to contain lefties as well thanks to the improvement of his changeup. He works in the 88-92 range, and when his slider is on, it’s very hard to pick up.

“He’s just so mature on the mound; really nothing fazes him,” Shoop said. “How many guys in the country have had a quality start every outing? He’s one of them. He’s been very special.”

Sinkerballer Alex Luna (5-0, 1.56) attacks the bottom of the strike zone and induces loads of ground balls. Heading into last Saturday, he had issued just three walks all season in 46 innings, but he walked five against Southern Miss, and the Blazers need him to be sharper against the Owls. Sunday starter Johnny Lieske (3-1, 2.08) has superb movement on his fastball as well, but his control has been more erratic, as evidenced by his 26 walks in 52 innings. But Shoop said he’s improved as the season has progressed.

Shoop said the Blazers are just “average” offensively, but their three starters give them a chance against anybody—even Rice. Heading into the home stretch, UAB is a legitimate contender for the C-USA crown, though it will need to boost its RPI (No. 81) to have a shot at an at-large bid. Regardless of how it plays out, this season has given the program a shot in the arm.

“I do believe we have taken a significant step,” Shoop said. “Who knows what the next five weeks have in store? But I think we’ll remain competitive and have a good team next year. I feel like we’ve taken a step that’s very hard to take. You just sense that when you watch the kids go about their business. It’s a positive approach, as opposed to a hopeful approach. That’s a hard mountain to climb.”

Scout’s Take On The Titans

There’s a new dynamic in the Big West, where perennial juggernaut and preseason No. 4 Cal State Fullerton has scuffled, while Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara have surged. The Mustangs are tied for first place with UC Irvine (8-1) heading into a key series this weekend against the Titans (3-3), who are coming off a series loss to the Gauchos, which knocked Fullerton out of the Top 25. At 18-13 overall and No. 46 in the RPI, the Titans find themselves on the at-large bubble heading into Week 10, making their trip to San Luis Obispo this weekend loom very large. One piece of good news: All-America righthander Justin Garza returned to action last week in a relief role and is expected to see more innings this weekend.

Our John Manuel caught up with an area scout who offered his thoughts on the Titans and the current power dynamic in the Big West.

Matt Chapman

Matt Chapman (Photo by Larry Goren)

“I’m not in there (the Fullerton clubhouse), but it’s possible they stopped listening. I saw them taking in & out (infield and outfield practice), and it was sloppy. It was fairly unathletic. It just was very un-Fullerton. It was certainly not the No. 4 team in the country or whatever they were preseason.

“I know they’ve pitched well, but the (Justin) Garza injury still affected them. Their depth takes a hit, their bullpen isn’t as good, and against the Gauchos, that really showed. They had some mid-80s guys they’re using out of the bullpen toward the end of the weekend, so like any team would, they missed Garza. (Matt) Chapman is really important for them. He’s an athlete, he’s got the arm, he’s got raw power. He’s really good. (J.D.) Davis has some presence and some power, but you also will see him swing and miss at moderate to good velocity, or even below-average velocity. That’s concerning.

“The other thing that stood out to me is they used to have a swagger. You knew with George Horton or Dave Serrano, especially Horton, they were a half-step ahead of their opponent; if you played Fullerton, you had to have your ‘A’ game. When they played (coach Andrew) Checketts and Santa Barbara, I thought it was the opposite. I think that team (Fullerton) is feeling that pressure of the preseason hype. It’s the third-best team in the Big West, I believe.”