|When then-No. 22 Texas Christian hosted then-No. 18 New Mexico on April 3-5, it was the first time in the 10-year history of the Mountain West Conference that two ranked teams faced off in league play. This weekend will be the second time, as TCU (now ranked 16th) travels to No. 19 San Diego State.
But in a sign of just how far this league has come in a short time, that’s not the only big MWC series of the weekend. The two teams currently tied with the Horned Frogs atop the conference standings—New Mexico and Brigham Young—will also go head-to-head this weekend.
|(1) UC Irvine at Utah
(3) Arizona State at California
Maryland at (4) North Carolina
(23) Kansas State at (5) Texas
Auburn at (6) Louisiana State
(7) Georgia Tech at Clemson
(8) Georgia at (11) Mississippi
(13) Oklahoma at (9) Baylor
(10) Cal State Fullerton at UC Davis
(12) Arkansas at Tennessee
(14) Cal Poly at UC Santa Barbara
North Carolina State at (15) Virginia
(16) Texas Christian at (19) San Diego State
(17) Oregon State at UCLA
Virginia Tech at (18) Miami
(20) Hawaii at New Mexico State
Wake Forest at (21) Florida State
Kentucky at (22) Alabama
Oklahoma State at (24) Texas A&M
(25) Kent State at Ohio
“This is the best the league has been ever—by far,” Aztecs coach Tony Gwynn said. “I think we’ve got four teams who really are capable of playing some good baseball in a regional. That’s the first time I honestly can sit here and say that. I think the other coaches would agree.”
Indeed, the coaches from all four teams said the Mountain West is stronger than it has ever been, even at the bottom, where Air Force and Nevada-Las Vegas are considerably improved and Utah has played everybody tough. And while the MWC has almost no chance to get more than three regional bids, its top four teams all have regional-caliber talent and solid resumes. Particularly with the Pacific-10 Conference looking at two or three regional bids, at least two of the four MWC contenders are almost certain to get bids, and three bids is very possible. That’s a huge development for a conference that has never sent more than one team to regionals.
TCU (11th in the most recent Ratings Percentage Index, released Tuesday) is a lock for the NCAA tournament. San Diego State (29th in the RPI), BYU (51st) and New Mexico (66th) are all in striking distance of at-large territory in the RPI and all own winning percentages greater than .600. Three years ago, the league’s coaches made a pact to improve their scheduling in order to strengthen their RPI, and now they are reaping the fruits of that scheduling labor.
Of course, it was much easier for the Aztecs and Horned Frogs to schedule aggressively given their locations in college baseball hotbeds. The Cougars and Lobos have much more remote locations and cannot easily convince top opponents to pay them a visit, so they must pay to travel far and wide. New Mexico coach Ray Birmingham has drawn on his connections to secure sizable financial guarantees from Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Stanford, Nebraska and Arizona, allowing his team to play at least two road games against each of those opponents.
BYU, meanwhile, has just three games on its schedule against local foes (and RPI drains) Southern Utah and Utah Valley, instead traveling for midweek series at Wichita State, Oregon State, Washington State, Kansas State and Washington. The Cougars also swept a three-game weekend series at Western Carolina and opened the season with a five-game swing through Texas.
“We’ve spent a lot of money trying to upgrade our nonconference schedule—in order to do that we have to travel a lot more,” Cougars coach Vance Law said. “Our (sports information director) figured out we’ll have traveled around the world, about 24,000 miles, by the end of the year. We’ve done a lot of work trying to make ourselves more marketable to the selection committee.”
Of course, BYU is 0-7 against teams from the Pac-10 and Big 12 conferences, so the Cougars know they must finish strong in the Mountain West in order to make the NCAA Tournament. Both BYU and New Mexico enter this weekend’s showdown in Provo with 10-5 conference records.
“We’ve got to really come out and play well these next two weekends (against UNM and then TCU), because otherwise our overall record won’t look nearly as good,” Law said. “I think we have a good chance this weekend. We love playing at home, and we’ve done a good job protecting our home field. We get good crowds. It’s still not going to be an easy thing—New Mexico has a completely changed attitude; they come in with a lot of confidence. We used to be able to count on winning two out of three against them. Now we have to work for every win we get.”
Brigham Young has gotten huge seasons from senior DH Kent Walton (.427/.497/.710 with nine homers) and junior third baseman Steve Parker (.399/.497/.643 with eight homers), but Law said the key to his team’s success has been a deeper pitching staff anchored by junior righthander Jeremy Toole (5-2, 3.70) at the front and senior righty Jordan Muir (2.22 ERA, nine saves) at the back.
Muir took his lumps over the last two years as a starter before finding a home in the closer role. Toole arrived at BYU overweight but has dropped 20-plus pounds in three years, and he has legitimate power stuff. He has worked in the 88-94 mph range with his fastball and reached 95 this spring, to go along with a big-breaking 12-to-6 curveball.
“He’s not quite (Stephen) Strasburg, but I’ll tell you, he was really dominant when we played Western Carolina,” Law said of Toole’s 1-0 victory over the Catamounts. “He was getting his fastball, curveball and changeup all over the plate. He didn’t have a good outing last time we faced New Mexico.”
The Lobos have that effect on many pitchers. Through Sunday, they led the Mountain West and ranked in the top 10 nationally in batting (.371), scoring (9.6 runs per game), doubles (111) and triples (38, most in the nation). New Mexico won a huge series against San Diego State last weekend even after losing a 1-0 duel Friday against Strasburg, who turned in his best performance as an Aztec, according to Gwynn. The Lobos also won a home series against BYU in late March, but they were swept on the road at TCU. They are very tough to beat at home, where they excel at shooting the ball into the huge gaps at Isotopes Park, but they are just 7-6 on the road.
New Mexico is 30-11 overall and has a pair of big wins at Texas A&M on its resume, but with the lowest RPI of the four MWC contenders, there is little margin for error for the Lobos. Five remaining games against Nebraska and Stanford looked like great RPI games heading into the season, but the Huskers are just 106th in the RPI, and the Cardinal is 101st. So this weekend is critical for New Mexico’s at-large hopes.
“My assistant coach Ken Jacome, who’s been here longer than I have, said this is the biggest weekend in Lobo baseball history,” Birmingham said. “I said I’m not going to tell my kids that. I don’t want any tight butt. I want my kids to get after it. But he’s probably right—this program hasn’t been to regionals since 1962. (Sam Houston State coach) Mark Johnson played here, and he called and said, ‘Go get ‘em, Coach.’ So the alumni are behind us.”
San Diego State is trying to end its own regionals drought—18 years—and could really use a second series win over the Horned Frogs to bolster its resume. The Aztecs are 9-6 in the league, with losses in their only two series of the year against BYU and New Mexico. They won a huge road series at TCU in late March, winning Strasburg’s start in biting cold weather Friday, then scoring two in the ninth to steal a 2-1 win in Sunday’s rubber game.
“They have a lot of energy in the dugout, and it’s noticeably different than how it’s been there in the past,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said of the Aztecs. “They’ve had a lot of talented players in the past that haven’t played nearly as hard as this team has. From a position-player standpoint, they remind me of a really good West Coast club. They’ll drop a bunt on you when they have to, and they’re fielding .972 or so. And when you have pretty much a dead ‘W’ on Friday night, that helps too.”
Indeed, Strasburg has been as good as his enormous talent, going 8-0, 1.28 with 121 strikeouts and 12 walks in 63 innings. Behind him in the rotation, command-and-control righty Jon Berger (2-1, 4.70) and sinker/slider artist Tyler Lavigne (4-0, 3.44) have been solid, and Addison Reed (0.56 with a nation-leading 13 saves and a 21-5 strikeout-walk ratio in 16 innings) has been lights-out at the back of the bullpen.
The Aztecs started slow offensively, but junior catcher/third baseman Erik Castro (.377/.503/.623 with seven homers) and sophomore outfielder Cory Vaughn (.336/.402/.612 with nine homers and 41 RBIs) have come on strong, giving SDSU some thump in the middle of their West Coast lineup. Meanwhile, outfielder Brandon Meredith (.306) and shortstop/righthander Ryan O’Sullvian (.248) lead a freshman class that has helped change the culture in the program.
“We brought in eight freshmen in the fall, and they do bring an energy that honestly we hadn’t had here in a while,” Gwynn said. “O’Sullivan and Meredith are guys that I really didn’t think we were going to get—I thought they both were going to sign. I didn’t really count on these guys being here, and now here they are, and boy, the impact they’ve had on our program is amazing.”
Schlossnagle knows what his team is in for this weekend.
“They had been struggling a bit offensively to start the season, but Cory Vaughn and Castro have really gotten it going in the middle, they have the best starting pitcher in the country, and Addison Reed leads the country in saves,” Schlossnagle said. “I think they’re in a much more stable situation than we are, on the mound especially. We consider ourselves the underdog in this series.”
Be that as it may, the Horned Frogs are the class of the MWC until proven otherwise. With a resume that includes wins over Cal State Fullerton, Mississippi, Wichita State and Texas Tech, the Frogs are in position to host a regional if they can win the MWC regular season and tournament titles. Having last weekend’s three-game series at Air Force canceled by snow probably cost TCU two or three conference wins, but it also helped TCU’s RPI, as Air Force ranks 268th out of 301 Division I teams.
Winning the series at San Diego State is critical to TCU’s hosting chances. The Frogs will have to do it without senior infielder Ben Carruthers, who is dealing with a stress fracture in his wrist, which has forced freshman Taylor Featherston from second base back to shortstop. Featherston struggled mightily there earlier this season before switching positions with Carruthers, but Schlossnagle said he’s looked much steadier there in his second go-round.
On the mound, TCU might not have a Strasburg, but it does have a power arm scheduled to throw Friday night in righty Sean Hoelscher (2-1, 7.00), who has overcome command and mechanical issues and is now pitching with abundant confidence. Hoelscher pitches in the 88-92 range and owns a power slider in the 80-84 range.
“He’s really excited to pitch on that stage,” Schlossnagle said.
For the first time Gwynn can remember, the Aztecs expect a sellout for Friday’s game, which will also be televised on The MountainWest Sports Network. That is yet another sign of the MWC’s ascent.
“I know our conference has made tremendous strides this year, and we all should be congratulated because we’ve played good teams and beat good teams, but we still haven’t finished the deal,” Gwynn said. “We’re knocking heads this weekend—we get TCU, and UNM gets BYU. There’s more head-knocking to do in the conference.”
|Brothers, a junior lefthander, has exploded onto the draft landscape, as detailed in this week’s Draft Tracker. He has gone 4-4, 2.37 with 94 strikeouts and 29 walks in 65 innings, and a number of scouts believe he’ll be selected in the first half of the first round of the draft this June. With a 93-94 mph fastball that reaches 97 and a devastating 86-88 slider, there’s no wonder Brothers is generating that kind of buzz.
Lipscomb pitching coach Chris Collins told BA’s Conor Glassey that
Brothers has increased his fastball velocity a few mph from a year ago,
but more importantly he’s shown considerably more polish. He’s now able to locate both his fastball and his slider to both sides of the plate.
Of course, Brothers has absorbed his share of tough-luck losses this season.
“Now, if we could just score for him,” Lipscomb coach Jeff Forehand
said. “We’ve scored two runs in his last 24 innings. It’s going to be
funny that the best pitcher in our conference is going to have a losing
Runs won’t be easy to come by for the Bisons this Friday either.
Loosen, a 6-foot-2 sophomore righthander, has struck out 10 batters in
his last two starts and has whiffed at least seven in all five outings
since moving from the bullpen into the Friday starter spot on March 20.
Jacksonville head coach Terry Alexander said he expected junior righty
Carson Andrew to be his ace heading into the year, but Andrew returned
from a successful summer stint with the Santa Barbara Foresters with a
shoulder injury, and it’s taken him some time to regain his stuff this
spring. Loosen was thriving in a long relief role early in the spring,
so the Dolphins just replaced Andrew with Loosen in the Friday starter
spot while Andrew tries to rebuild his arm strength in the bullpen.
Since moving into the rotation, Loosen has posted a WHIP
(walks-plus-innings-pitched) below 1.00. On the season, he’s 2-0, 2.45
with 64 strikeouts and 19 walks in 51 innings.
“He’s been tremendous,” Alexander said of Loosen. “He changes speeds on
you. His fastball’s anywhere from 89-91, and he throws a slider but
also throws an overhand curveball, which he can throw behind in the
count. He takes quite a bit off, you’d have to really sit on that pitch
to hit it, and you can’t sit on it when you’re looking at 91. His
slider has good downward plane, breaks down and away, and he also
throws a changeup. His strikeout pitch against righthanded hitters is
his slider. He’s a true four-pitch guy.”
Don’t expect the Dolphins to roll over if Lipscomb takes an early lead.
They showed plenty of resilience last weekend against Campbell, when
Loosen left with a 2-1 lead after eight innings Friday and the Camels
scored two in the ninth to steal the win in Game One. The next day,
Jacksonville trailed 6-1 with two outs and the bases loaded in the
bottom of the ninth, before rallying with seven straight hits to win
7-6. The Dolphins went on to win the series to improve to 14-7 in the
Atlantic Sun Conference, the best mark among teams eligible for the
|The Jaspers are red-hot heading into this weekend’s showdown against preseason Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference favorite Canisius. Manhattan has won seven straight and 15 of its last 16 to take control of the MAAC. At 26-10 overall and 11-1 in conference play, the Jaspers have built a 2 1/2-game lead over second-place Niagara, and they have a chance to bury Canisius (7-5 in the league) this weekend.
“I think this is a big one for us,” Manhattan coach Kevin Leighton said. “I’ve been telling our guys, I still think Canisius is the best team in our league. They’re similar to us in that they can go out and score 12, 15, 20 runs pretty much any game. I think it’s a big weekend because right now they are 7-5. We can really put some serious pressure on them in order to make the playoffs if we can get two of three or if we can get three from them. And that’s a team you don’t want to see in the playoffs. They’ve been struggling here and there, but they’re a team that’s just waiting to break out and go on a real tear. And just to keep the momentum going for us is big also.”
Manhattan has built that momentum largely with its bats. The Jaspers are hitting .355 as a team with 45 home runs in 36 games (already eclipsing last year’s total of 44 homers in 52 games). Leading the power surge is junior outfielder Kevin Nieto (.400/.495/.793 with 12 home runs and 46 RBIs), who hit just two homers in 360 career at-bats heading into this season. At 5-foot-9, 182 pounds, Nieto has been known more for his speed (he has 62 career steals in 69 tries) and doesn’t look like a power hitter, but Leighton said he showed a bit of pop with a wood bat last summer in the New England Collegiate League. Nieto has worked hard to increase his strength and become a better hitter.
“I walk into the gym some mornings at 8:30, and he’s hitting in the back on his own,” Leighton said. “He’s always had it in him, and we’ve been waiting for him to hit for some power. I never thought he’d hit 12—I was thinking around that four or five mark. He’s just had a big year for us. It helps him that we’ve got some good guys sandwiched around him, in front of him and behind him.”
Indeed, sophomores Mike McCann (.443 with nine homers and 42 RBIs), Chad Salem (.362 with seven homers) and Austin Sheffield (.345 with four homers) have all progressed nicely in their second seasons in the program. As a small private school with just seven scholarships to offer, the Jaspers cannot build a roster with a ton of depth, and they lost five players for off-field reasons in August right before classes began, leaving them with a 23-man roster. That’s why it’s critical for young players to make impacts in a hurry.
“The big thing for us, when we recruit guys, we look for guys who will come in and play as freshmen,” Leighton said. “Some other schools will carry 35 kids, and the guys who come in are a year or two away. We can’t do that. But our sophomores, these guys have played 50 games last year as freshmen. Now they’re sophomores, but in my eyes I feel like they’re juniors or seniors as far as leadership and experience. The big thing we’ve been emphasizing is: We’ll find a way to get it done with the guys we have. You only need nine.”
|The Bobcats have won nine straight, including a 7-2 win at No. 9 Baylor on Wednesday (their second road win of the season against the Bears). Texas State has surged to 28-10 overall and 15-5 in the Southland Conference, giving coach Ty Harrington’s team a 1 1/2-game lead over second-place Sam Houston State and Texas-Arlington. The Bobcats will try to keep it going this weekend against McNeese State.
Texas State has been pretty consistent all year long but has really hit its stride in April, going 11-1 this month.
“I think it’s two things: One, we felt going into the season we were going to be a fairly offensive team,” Harrington said. “The consistency part of it, we’ve had some guys offensively, and different guys, perform really well. It’s not just the guys in the middle of the order. Also we’ve pitched better. Early in the year we did not pitch well out of the bullpen.”
The Bobcats remedied their early bullpen struggles by moving junior righthander Michael Russo (4.54 ERA, five saves) from a starting role to closer and sliding senior righty Lance Loftin (2-0, 4.26) from third base to the bullpen, though he really hadn’t pitched since high school. A third key has been the development of senior righty Tyler Brudridge (3-1, 3.81), who pitched sparingly a year ago but has thrived after dropping his arm slot in the offseason.
Texas State also has a reliable ace in senior righty Kane Holbrooks (8-0, 2.16), who has made a major leap forward in his second year since transferring from Temple (Texas) JC. Holbrooks attacks the strike zone with a 90-91 mph fastball and mixes in a slider and changeup.
“He’s prioritized his baseball and has done an incredible job of physically training himself,” Harrington said of Holbrooks. “I think those things have really led to the success that he’s had this year. There have been moments this year he’s been really good. He commands three pitches, and when he’s at his best, he’s going to attack you.”
But offense is Texas State’s forte, and it’s centered around slugging first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. A 6-foot-4, 240-pound junior, Goldschmidt is hitting .367/.466/.720 with 13 homers and 66 RBIs. He ranks second in the nation in RBIs (one behind Georgia’s Rich Poythress) despite getting few good pitches to hit (he has drawn 32 walks while striking out 21 times).
“He’s an impressive guy,” Harrington said of Goldschmidt. “He’s a 4.0 student, he’s won every academic award known. He was the offensive player of the year last year in the Southland—he’s just an incredible young person. He doesn’t get pitched to a bunch. It’s really easy for young guys who don’t get pitched to to start chasing balls, and he’ll do it every once in a while because he wants to help this team so much. But when he’s good, he takes his walks, then goes out there and plays first base as good and hard as you can play it.”
Harrington knew he would get this kind of production from Goldschmidt, but the reason Texas State is so dangerous is because the other guys in the lineup have given him plenty of help. The Bobcats have a pair of scrappy little table-setters atop the order in freshman outfielder Tyler Sibley (.363/.475/.596 with 10 steals) and sophomore outfielder Bret Atwood (.411/.466/.521). Goldschmidt hits third, and he has gotten quality protection from cleanup man Keith Prestridge (.382/.451/.618 with 33 RBIs) and No. 5 hitter Spenser Dennis (.457/.508/.657 with 36 RBIs). And there are no easy outs in the bottom of the lineup, either.
“There’s no question, that’s been the key to our offense: We’ve got as much depth as we’ve ever had here before offensively,” Harrington said. “Our power numbers have been good. If you run some OK stuff out there, we’ll hit you pretty good. This past month, our hitters have been real consistent with their at-bats.”
It’s been a trying season for the Demon Deacons, who have lost five straight to fall to 20-20 overall and 6-15 in the ACC heading into this weekend’s series at Florida State. Wake was outscored 27-3 in a three-game sweep against Georgia Tech at home last weekend, then lost a midweek game at High Point 12-5.
“We’re just not playing good baseball, in any phase,” Wake Forest coach Rick Rembielak said. “Not taking anything away from the teams in this league—there are some very good teams—but there have been some games we have not even competed. We’ve made it too easy for them. We are definitely aware of it as a team, and we know what we’re doing wrong.”
A major culprit has been the defense. Through Sunday, the Deacons ranked last in the ACC and 243rd in the nation with a .949 fielding percentage. Two freshmen on the left side of the infield have struggled in particular: Shortstop Shane Kroker has 23 errors (.887 fielding percentage), and third baseman Carlos Lopez has 12 (.883).
“Really it’s a lack of execution, and it’s a bunch of little things,” Rembielak said. “Our defense has certainly not been stellar by any means—it’s been pretty bad. We’re extending a lot of innings defensively, so that hasn’t helped our pitching staff at all.
“This week, really, we had no spark from the offense at all. We can’t string hits together. It’s a lot of compounding mistakes that keep accumulating on us, and there’s a lot on our shoulders now. It seems to be very contagious, good or bad, and right now it’s a lot of poor stuff. The biggest question is, why is it continuing to happen? And I can’t find a definite answer.”
|Control of the Big East is at stake this weekend when first-place South Florida (12-3 in conference) takes on West Virginia (11-4, tied with Louisville for second place). The Bulls (24-15) and Mountaineers (28-9) both have solid overall marks, but both have plenty of work to do to shore up their regional resumes thanks to RPI troubles. USF ranks 87th in the latest RPI, and West Virginia 103rd. Four games against New Jersey Tech (295th), three against Siena (257th) and three against Duquesne (226th) have submarined West Virginia’s RPI. The Mountaineers also suffer from a lack of series wins against regional contenders; their best series win game against St. John’s, which is a fringe Big East contender and must win the conference tournament to get back to regionals. The Mountaineers lost a big series last week at Notre Dame.
Neither West Virginia nor South Florida sports an RPI in at-large range, but here’s the good news: Since the Big East added West Virginia, Notre Dame and Rutgers in 1996, its regular-season champion has made the NCAA Tournament every year, either as the tournament champion or an at-large team.
“It’s very premature for us at West Virginia to even speculate about the NCAA Tournament—we’ve got a lot of baseball to play,” Mountaineers coach Greg Van Zant said. “But I think the Big East is definitely deserving of more than one team in the tournament, for sure. I’d say we, or just about anybody in the Big East, has to win the regular season to have a shot at an at-large, other than maybe Louisville.”
That’s what makes this weekend so critical: Whichever team wins the USF-WVU series will be in position to challenge preseason-favorite Louisville for the regular-season crown. And that would give either team at least a chance at an at-large bid in case it falls short in the conference tournament.
The Mountaineers have the kind of offense that would give them a chance to compete for the postseason in any league. Through Sunday, West Virginia led the Big East and ranked in the top 10 nationally in batting (.363), scoring (9.9 runs per game), doubles (113) and slugging (.571). They have physical, gap-to-gap hitters up and down their lineup, led by outfielders Justin Parks (.405/.489/.665) and Austin Markel (.348/.451/.644), who are tied for the team lead with 10 home runs. The infield is just as offensive, as shortstop Jedd Gyorko (.396), third baseman Dan DiBartolomeo (.433) and second baseman Vince Belnome (.415) have all had standout years, while first baseman Joe Agreste (five homers) is another power threat.
But what really makes West Virginia tough to beat is its ability to play small ball. Morgantown sits on the Monongahela River—not the Pacific Ocean—but the Mountaineers lead the nation in sacrifice bunts (62) and rank second in hit-by-pitches (79).
“We encourage them to swing as hard as they can, and hit it hard,” Van Zant said. “We also do a lot of situational hitting, hitting with two strikes. We’ve done a good job cutting our strikeouts down this year. We spend a lot of time on our bunting game too, because ideally you’d win every game 20-5, but most of the games are close. We bunt every day, just like a basketball team would shoot foul shots every day.”
West Virginia belongs on any short list of the nation’s most dangerous offenses, and its pitching staff has been solid enough to keep the Mountaineers in most games, posting a 5.02 ERA. Whatever the RPI says, West Virginia doesn’t figure to go down quietly.
“We have a caliber of team that could go play in the NCAA Tournament,” Van Zant said. “Whether or not it will pan out, I don’t know. Up to this point, we’ve played well enough. What’s really going to matter will be how we play in the last 15 or 16 games. I’m not saying we deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament yet, but we have the talent to do it. It will depend on that last month.”
Combined hitting streaks of Cal Poly’s Ryan Lee and Matt Jensen. The Mustangs are the only team in the nation with a pair of active 20-plus-game hitting streaks. Lee, a senior center fielder, broke Brandon Roberts’ school record by extending his streak to 26 games on Sunday, while Jensen, a freshman second baseman, owns the third-longest streak in school history at 23 games. Both will try to keep their hot bats going this weekend in a big series at UC Santa Barbara.
Lee, Jensen and sophomore DH D.J. Gentile have emerged as Poly’s offensive leaders this year while veterans Adam Buschini (who took a fastball off his right index knuckle during his first at-bat of the year) and Wes Dorrell (illness) missed time earlier this year, and Luke Yoder scuffled. Lee has been a catalyst out of the leadoff spot, batting .365/.422/.473 with 19 stolen bases in 21 attempts. Not bad for a player who arrived in San Luis Obispo five years ago as a recruited walk-on and battled his way into a regular role, eventually earning a scholarship.
“He’s a real tough out,” Poly coach Larry Lee said. “He usually sets the stage from the first at-bat of the game. You get two strikes on him, and he battles and fouls off pitches, and just gets a lot of high-pitch at-bats. He’s adapted to all parts of the game: He’s good at the short game, he’s a solid line-drive hitter and a tough out. He’s also a leader of our team, a great success story. His maturity really helps our younger players understand what’s expected of them, on and off the field.”
One of those younger players, Jensen, leads the Mustangs in home runs (nine), doubles (12), RBIs (45), on-base percentage (.488) and slugging (.679). The Mustangs originally recruited him as a pitcher—after all, he hit below .240 as a high school junior—but after seeing the way the ball jumped off his wood bat in summer ball, they decided to work on developing him mostly as a position player in the fall. The plan heading into the spring was still to use Jensen as a two-way player, but Buschini’s injury early in the year gave Poly less infield flexibility and dictated he remain at second base full-time. It’s worked out pretty nicely.
“He’s continuing to get better in all areas of his game,” Larry Lee said. “The main reason is he wants to be the guy. He just has the right mindset—he puts in the time, and he’s going to be a real dominant player in the future.”
He’s been a pretty dominant player as a freshman, and it’s a big reason Cal Poly has gone 27-9 (8-4 in the Big West) even after losing ace Steven Fischback to a season-ending shoulder injury before the season even began. And here’s an even more impressive stat of the week: With 20 games left in the season, the Mustangs have already eclipsed their win total from all of 2008, even with a shaky pitching staff that owns a 5.71 ERA.
“As a team, we’ve figured out how to win ballgames,” Lee said. “We still need to get much better on the pitching side of the equation. We have the tough part of our conference schedule remaining, and it should be more difficult to continue our offensive production against some of the pitching staffs we’re going to come up against.
“Santa Barbara has one of the best starting rotations on the West Coast. They play extremely well at their ballpark and usually are able to put up quite a few runs. It’ll be an interesting series.”
|It’s a good year for the Southern Conference, which has five legitimate regional contenders in Elon, Georgia Southern, Western Carolina, College of Charleston and The Citadel. The Phoenix leads the pack right now with a 14-4 conference record, which includes a series win at second-place Georgia Southern. As expected, Elon is a very offensive club, and its 83 home runs are the second in the league and fifth nationally, trailing College of Charleston’s 87. Elon was a good offensive team last year too, but this year’s edition has already exceeded last year’s home run total (80) in just 38 games. Leading the homer barrage are seniors Pat Irvine (.414 with 14 homers), Cory Harrilchack (.365 with 12 homers) and Bennett Davis (.352 with 11 homers). Two coaches whose teams have played Elon offered their thoughts on the Phoenix.
“Elon is the best team we’ve seen this year. I know they’ve struggled a little with the bullpen so far, but the thing that I like about them is their depth. They can throw a lefthanded lineup at you if you throw a righty, and if you throw a lefty, they’ve got a righthanded-hitting lineup they like just as well. They match up with you on the mound too, lefties and righties out of the bullpen. They have a deep team.
“Harrilchak is the best player in the conference. He’s a real good player. If you’re a pitcher, he’ll barrel you up, and you can’t get your feelings hurt. His outs are just at ‘em balls. You just have to hope he hits it at somebody. He has a real simple approach at the plate and is a good athlete. He throws strikes off the mound but they use him in midweek against some of those teams they play (he’s pitched against Duke, Auburn, Clemson and UNC Wilmington). He’s a real good center fielder and they need him enough out there that they don’t pitch him weekends.
“They’re a very good offensive team. They’ve got six guys who can beat you with home runs, six guys in double digits. Justin Hilt can run and has as good an arm as there is in our league. Bennett Davis, their third baseman, is another hitter and another veteran. And Pat Irvine is having a tremendous senior year, another guy who can beat you with power or speed.
“They have other starters, they have sophomore starters, and (Jimmy) Reyes is their best one, he’s pretty good, but they don’t have an ace like they did last year with (Steven) Hensley. Their best arm is (Thomas) Girdwood, their closer. We’ve seen him up to 94 and he’s got a pretty good slider too. He always makes it interesting, though; he doesn’t have a lot of clean innings.”
|If scientists ever find a way to genetically engineer a perfect leadoff man, chances are he’ll look a lot like Holt. Florida State’s sophomore center fielder does everything you’d want a leadoff hitter to do: He gets on base, causes havoc with his speed, and scores runs. Through 39 games Holt is batting .420/.550/.650 with five homers, 58 runs and 21 stolen bases in 24 tries. He ranks in the top 10 nationally in runs, walks and on-base percentage. He also leads the Atlantic Coast Conference in batting and ranks second in stolen bases. But numbers just scratch the surface of Holt’s value to the Seminoles.
“There’s one word to describe Tyler Holt: He’s a winner,” FSU coach Mike Martin said. “Tyler Holt plays hard every single day, whether he gets one hit, whether he gets two walks, he plays hard every single day. The guy just loves to play this great game. He’s a joy to watch play. Tyler Holt is a throwback.”
Holt and the Seminoles currently lead the ACC’s Atlantic Division by a game over Clemson. They will try to pad that lead this weekend in a three-game home series against struggling Wake Forest.
How much pride do you take in being that guy at the top of the lineup that really gets the whole team going?
I take a lot of pride in it. I’ve never hit anywhere else but the one-spot. Especially coming in here after Shane Robinson, you have to fill some big shoes. That’s a guy that led this team for three years and never reached Omaha, and I came in here, took his spot and helped them get to Omaha my first year. I take pride in keeping this team rolling and trying to get on base for them.
You’ve been able to rack up a lot of stolen bases and beat out infield hits. How big a part of your game is your speed?
My main goal is to get on base. I might not get a hit one night, I might go 0-for-3 with two walks—I’ve got to make something happen when I do get on base. So that’s my main goal: getting on base, no matter how it happens, and making pitchers work harder. It gives our hitters a better chance of getting a fastball instead of a curveball when there’s a chance of me going. So I take a lot of pride in my baserunning and speed.
Do you think you’ve gotten stronger since last year, too?
Oh yeah. I took weightlifting in the fall and speed drills in the fall a lot more serious than I did my freshman year, no doubt.
What are some other keys to the jump you’ve made from your freshman year to your sophomore year?
The biggest jump is I know the pitching a lot better. The first year in the one-spot kind of helped, and this year kind of takes the pressure off. But the main thing, I would say is reading the pitchers, with stealing. Last year I was 15-for-30, and I didn’t know how to steal. In high school, you steal just by speed. I know how to lead pitchers a lot better.
Off the field, what kind of things do you like to do when you’re not playing baseball?
Nothing. Sit on the couch. It’s baseball. If we’re not doing anything, I’m sitting on the couch, or driving to Taco Bell. That’s about it.
Yeah, Coach Martin did make it seem like you’re one of those baseball rats.
If it’s not baseball, I’m not doing anything.
You mentioned getting to Omaha as a freshman, something this team hadn’t done in a while. You got a taste of it, now how much do you want to get back there?
The young guys that weren’t here last year don’t know what it’s about. The returners who came back take a pride in what Omaha was. I think the younger guys feed off of it. It helps a lot to get there and come back the next year.
With all the departures from last year’s club, did you feel like you needed to take more of an active role this year?
More of a leadership role. I could sit back and play my game and have that show. But this year I feel like me, Stu and the older guys—sophomores and juniors—need to step up into a leadership role and guide these guys more than we did last year.