Weekend Preview: (April 26-28) North Carolina, North Carolina State Face Off For ACC Dominance

THIS WEEK:
1. Scouting Report: North Carolina at N.C. State.
2. Surprising Kansas travels to take on scrappy West Virginia.
3. Pitching focus: Memphis at East Carolina.
4. Quick takes on top series around the nation.

One of the most anticipated series of the year takes place in the Atlantic Coast Conference this weekend, as No. 6 North Carolina State hosts No. 1 North Carolina. We’ll break down that matchup in detail below, and also examine a pair of upstarts jockeying for position in the Big 12 (Kansas and West Virginia), and look at a pair of intriguing pitching matchups in the Conference USA series between Memphis and East Carolina. There are also some juicy matchups in the Southeastern Conference this weekend, and we’ll touch on them below, but we’ll focus on the SEC in greater depth next week.

Scouting Report: North Carolina at N.C. State

When we featured North Carolina’s Colin Moran and Kent Emanuel on our College Preview cover alongside North Carolina State’s Trea Turner and Carlos Rodon, we were forecasting a banner year for baseball in the Triangle. North Carolina was our preseason No. 1, while N.C. State also garnered its highest ever preseason ranking, No. 8.

Top 25 Schedule
(1) North Carolina at (6) North Carolina State
(15) South Carolina at (2) Louisiana State
(16) Mississippi State at (3) Vanderbilt
(4) Cal State Fullerton at Hawaii
(5) Virginia at Virginia Tech
Southern California at (7) Oregon State
(8) Arizona State at Utah
(9) UCLA at Washington State
Wake Forest at (10) Florida State
Texas Tech at (11) Oklahoma
Georgetown at (12) Louisville
(21) Stanford at (13) Oregon
(14) Arkansas at Georgia
Michigan at (17) Indiana
Kentucky at (18) Mississippi
(20) Georgia Tech at (25) Clemson
Brigham Young at (22) Gonzaga
(23) UNC Wilmington at Towson
Nevada-Las Vegas at (24) New Mexico

The Tar Heels haven’t budged from the top spot all year, and they enter this weekend’s showdown against the rival Wolfpack with an incredible 40-3 record. But N.C. State lost Turner to an ankle injury at the end of its ACC opener against Clemson and limped to a 3-6 start in conference play, dropping it all the way out of the Top 25. With Turner sidelined and Rodon battling inconsistency, it looked for a while like the Wolfpack might not be able to justify the preseason hype.

But Turner returned to the starting lineup in time for the Maryland series at the end of March, and the Wolfpack hasn’t lost since the middle game of that series. N.C. State carries a 15-game winning streak (the nation’s longest, now that UNC saw its 14-game streak snapped Tuesday against UNC Wilmington) into this weekend. Sweeps of Virginia Tech, Boston College and Georgia Tech vaulted the Wolfpack into first place in the ACC Atlantic Division and up to No. 6 in the rankings.

So the series between the two rivals in Raleigh this weekend has regained all of its luster, and then some. These are two of the nation’s hottest—and, it appears, best—teams, leading their respective divisions and battling for national seed positioning. The series sold out Monday.

We asked three coaches who have faced both teams to break down the matchup. We blended their responses below, with different speakers set off by new sets of quotation marks. In a few cases, the coaches had differing opinions, but one thing they agreed upon is that both UNC and N.C. State are legitimate Omaha-caliber clubs.

UNC Rotation

“That staff’s got to be close to when they had (Andrew) Carignan, (Andrew) Miller and (Daniel) Bard. (Kent) Emanuel, that’s a really good fastball—that kid can pitch. It’s different than (N.C. State ace Carlos) Rodon—his is electric. With Emanuel it’s angle, it’s located, there’s deception coming out. It’s 90, but it might as well be 97 at times. For me, that is a really good fastball because of the angle and location. and it’s always down, so it allows him to work off that slider. You want to go in there saying make him throw the ball up, but he just throws strikes at the knees with the fastball all day. And he can throw that cutter/slider for a strike. The changeup is a better pitch because the fastball is located down.”

“With (Benton) Moss and (Hobbs) Johnson, if they don’t command the zone, North Carolina could be in trouble. If they command the zone, they have a good defense behind them and could be in pretty good shape. Moss, seems like he wants that breaking ball to be his best pitch, but he’s got to command it. But that’s a pretty true 12-6 breaker, pretty hard breaker, just got to command it to be effective. The fastball is good, it’s just straight. Johnson has a good arm, solid three-quarters slot, kind of a slurvy breaking ball, 90-91 fastball. He’s good, man. He’s thick, good body, loose arm. Just can struggle commanding the zone. I know he’s got good numbers.”

N.C. State Rotation

Trea Turner, Carlos Rodon, Kent Emmanuel and Colin Moran

Trea Turner, Carlos Rodon, Kent Emmanuel and Colin Moran

“Rodon didn’t have his stuff against us; his fastball didn’t have much life, he really couldn’t get through that breaking pitch, and he was up in the zone. I’ve seen him good, I know what he should look like. Obviously he was really good last weekend, so it must have just been a bad start, but he was flat against us, all his stuff was up in the zone. But he’s also shown that he’s got his stuff back. Lefthanders don’t have a chance against him when he’s right with that breaking pitch. He can throw it to the back foot of a righthander too. When he’s got that fastball going, he’s making everybody cheat to that fastball, and it exposes all the hitters to that slider. Rodon has been so up and down, he might no-hit them, or he might give up five in four innings.

“They have (righthander Ryan) Wilkins in the rotation now, and he’s good. Wilkins didn’t have stuff that jumped out at you—you’re not saying, ‘This is unbelievable stuff,’ but he’s able to throw the fastball to both sides. You pitch to both sides with the fastball and that slider for a strike and out of the zone, that combination was pretty good against us. I think (lefthander Brad) Stone’s going to be really, really good, he really pitched and showed some really good touch and feel. His fastball, I thought, was better than the radar gun showed, a little life and deception, throws across his body a bit I think. Guys just didn’t quite see it coming out, guys just couldn’t get a barrel on it. He showed a breaking ball and some very good changeups, and was able to throw his breaking ball for a strikes. Stone didn’t look like a freshman out there.”

UNC Bullpen

“Their bullpen depth is ridiculous. They’ve got guys with eight or nine innings that would pitch a lot on any other ACC/SEC team, guys that just can’t get innings that are legitimate ACC arms.”

“In my opinion, they have four special players—very special players. Two position players, two pitchers. Obviously (Colin) Moran and (injured outfielder Skye) Bolt, and their special pitchers are Emanuel and (Trent) Thornton. They have a lot of good players around them, but those guys are special. Those are the kind of guys you might see playing in Yankee Stadium. Those are the kind of guys who are going to beat you when the money’s on the table. Thornton, a true freshman, he has that bulldog mentality, got really good stuff. Just pounds the zone, gives you no freebies, doesn’t walk anybody, just pounds the bottom of the zone. He was more fastball-slider against us, everything was hard, he was 90-93, good fastball, hard slider, it was hard to elevate the ball against him. It was just strike, strike, strike coming at you. When he gets the lead, very tough guy to score runs against. They play good defense as it is, don’t give you many freebies.”

N.C. State Bullpen

“Their bullpen has been the key to their hot streak. (Travis) Orwig was really good against us, he had good fastball velocity and a legit 75 mph lefthanded curveball. (Grant) Sasser was an old-fashioned crafty lefty that trusts his stuff. (Anthony) Tzamtzis had some control trouble but he was 92 on the gun with a power slider. They have I think it is 18 guys who have pitched twice or more. I mean, you just don’t see that kind of pitching depth . . . They just want their starter to give them five innings, then they feel they’re going to win it because their bullpen has been so good, they have a lot of confidence at the back half of the game that they are going to pull it out.”

“(Chris) Overman and Sasser are really good, they’re tough. Tzamtzis has stuff but who knows where it’s going to go? I think it’s really those two guys, Overman and Sasser, that you have to worry about. I think a key to that series will be when they use them and what’s the result when they use them. If they go close games Friday night and both those guys pitch and they lose, that changes the series. Whereas if they lose 5-1 Friday night and don’t burn those guys, they still could win the next two ballgames. (Josh) Easley’s pretty good, (D.J.) Thomas is solid. Sasser changes speeds, uses the breaking ball, sneaks a fastball by you when he needs to, but he just pitches with that breaking ball. Overman is power, power, downhill fastball, come at you. That’s a really good one-two punch.”

“N.C. State has nobody coming out of the bullpen like Thornton. They had some decent guys, but no one like that guy.”

UNC Offense

“That lineup doesn’t stop. They’ve got juice in the middle. They’ve got guys at the top that can get on. They can steal some bags, but there’s thump in the middle. There’s guys on base all the time. It’s a combination of the power in the middle and the length of the lineup, those are the two things. You’re battling, battling, battling, all of a sudden you’re back at the top again, like how did this happen? You can’t catch your breath in that lineup.

“(Brian) Holberton didn’t quite come as early as you thought but he’s now becoming the player you thought he would. It’s just veteran at-bats. Seeing ACC pitching, high level pitching, it’s just better at-bats. He’s going to make you work. When he was a junior in high school, I would have told you he’s going to hit a fair amount of home runs in college, and he never really had until this year. But if you leave it up, he’ll run it out. He’s a tough out, hits the ball in the oppo gap—just a very tough out.

“You want to say, ‘Don’t let the middle of that order beat you,’ and that’s assuming Bolt was in there. Bolt obviously bumps all those guys down (in the order). But the guys at the bottom are getting on base a lot, and they can hit-and-run at the bottom, they can move a runner, bunt, do all those things that make it such a grind. Those guys in the middle will get their hits, you just need to keep them in the ballpark and limit the damage, not let that bottom of the order get anything going. If they do, then boom, you’re right back at the top. You’ve got to keep them from getting anything going at all. Moran’s going to hit a double, don’t let it be a two-run double, because he’s going to hit a double—he just is. You can’t give them any extra bases or extra outs, you can’t walk anybody, you can’t kick the ball. The biggest thing with me is that 6-7-8-9, because of how fast it seems like you’re at the top of that order.”

N.C. State Offense

“Those guys are tough. They’re very aggressive hitters. I thought Trea Turner, he’s one of the best hitters we’ve seen all year, if not the best. He’s inside the ball, he runs like a deer, he’s very good. He’s a 6.4 or whatever runner. They’ve got some other good runners up top there.”

“The thing with Turner is he’s so good with two strikes. You get him to two strikes and he’s battling, battling. He’s tough late in the count. Emanuel will be able to slow him down a little bit (on the basepaths), but I don’t know if Moss and Johnson will, unless Johnson’s move has gotten a lot better. If he’s on base, there’s not even much you can do.”

“My assistant told me before this would be the fastest team we’d see, and that was definitely true. They have a lot of guys who look right doing it. They’ve got a pro look to their roster. (Brett) Austin, Turner, I like (Jake) Fincher, his approach and situational hitting was solid, he had a couple of really good at-bats.”

“(Brett) Williams is the least scary out of that group (in the top half of the order). Fincher’s not scary in terms of running a ball out of the yard, but he has good at-bats, can hit into the gaps, line drive guy. Brett Austin has a knack for driving in runs and having good ABs. (Tarran) Senay has gotten better, there’s a little bit of strength in there.”

“Their lineup is not as good as Carolina’s. It’s not the same type lineup. When you get down there toward the bottom, you can pitch to them more. It’s a good lineup, a very good lineup, but not what Carolina’s is. They’ll hit for somebody, they’ll hit for (Bryan) Adametz in the sixth or something. There’s going to be a different combination down there, they’ll try to play some matchups. So that bottom is just, it’s a bottom half of a good team. Not like what North Carolina’s running at you.”

UNC Defense

“Their catchers are like college quarterbacks that just manage the game, just hand it off to the right people. That’s like their catching position; they do enough, they’re solid, won’t hurt you, but it’s not something you really have to worry about. They’re not (Jacob) Stallings, but they’re OK.”

“They’re just solid behind the plate. (Catcher Matt Roberts) is not going to get a lot of base hits, but he’s just solid back there, does a great job handling their staff. He makes productive outs, puts the bunt down when he needs to. They do a good job holding runners too—Emanuel does as good a job holding runners as I’ve seen. He’s like a college version of Andy Pettite. His move is very late, very hard to see.

“(Shortstop Michael) Russell, he’s not the prettiest guy in the world, but he just gets it done. He goes in the hole well, his lateral movement’s very good, he plays the position pretty easy. He’s got a lot of swag to him, and he just gets it done. He’s not very fazed. He’s a big guy, looks about 6-3, kind of gangly. Not the prettiest looking guy at the position, nor at the plate, but he’s tough, he’s good, got talent.”

“(Second baseman Mike) Zolk’s a very good defender, enough arm to go up the middle, turn the double play. Moran makes every play he’s supposed to over there; not flashy flashy, but makes the plays. They just make the plays, not an unbelievably flashy infield. When you hit a ball that’s supposed to be an out, it’s an out.”

N.C. State Defense

“I’d say it’s a pretty good defense, not great. I don’t think Turner is an outstanding shortstop; he’s average—not as good as Russell. Their left side is nowhere near as good as UNC’s. Turner has arm strength, he’s just a little inconsistent, didn’t play the position as comfortably as you’d think a guy like that would. I think he’s an average at best defender at shortstop right now, he could get better. He may end up being a first-rounder in the outfield. Obviously he’s a great offensive player. But I think Russell plays the position better than Turner does right now.”

“Trea Turner’s very good at short. Senay’s a lanky lefthanded guy who can really pick it at first. It’s a solid defensive infield. (Second baseman Logan) Ratledge is really athletic, really good hands, enough arm to play short. It’s hard to get a ball between those guys, both have very good range. They’re a good defensive outfield too. Austin, I really like him back there (behind the plate). He can be somewhat unorthodox, especially with his blocking. But he’s not afraid to be hit by the ball, and he’s athletic enough that he’ll block one that looks funky but it settles right in front of him. He controls the balls he blocks. I know he gets knocked a little bit, he can get a little bit lazy sometimes receiving, but I like him back there. He’s a competitor. I think he’s better than passable, I really do. Not the best catcher in our league, but I think in the top third of our league.”

Prediction

“I don’t think Carolina will sweep them. I think they’ll win the series, but I think N.C. State gets a game.”

“Overall I think it’s a pretty solid matchup. I just think Carolina has better players overall. If I were going to give a nod, I’d give the nod to them. Turner is good though, he might be best position player on both teams. I don’t know, Moran can change a game with one swing, but Turner can dominate a game with his bat and his speed. They’re both pretty damn good players, just different types of players.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see N.C. State beat them because they’re at home, but if i was betting, I’d bet on N.C.”

Kansas takes on West Virginia in battle of Big 12 upstarts

Heading into the season, Big 12 coaches voted Kansas and West Virginia to finish eighth and ninth in the nine-team conference. But in the topsy-turvy Big 12, the Jayhawks head into this weekend’s series at WVU in second place, while West Virginia is tied for fifth, just two games behind first-place Oklahoma.

Both teams have won series against perennial Big 12 power Texas; the Jayhawks have won three straight series, taking two of three from Oklahoma, Texas and at Texas Tech. The Mountaineers took two of three in Austin last weekend. The Longhorns aren’t the powerhouse they usually are, but that series still opened some eyes, because nothing was expected of West Virginia heading into this season, coach Randy Mazey’s first at the helm.

“We’re kind of scrappy,” Mazey said. “It’s nice to coach a team that feels like they’re an underdog every time they take the field. We kind of play with that nothing-to-lose mentality. We’ve won every Friday game in the Big 12, and lost the second game of every series. We show up, people don’t expect much, and we play really well. Then after we play and win, maybe our guys are like, ‘Jeez, we’re better than these guys.’ The second game we come out and kind of roll over. We’ve tried everything to win that Saturday game—good cop, bad cop, no cop.”

Harrison Musgrave

Harrison Musgrave

West Virginia’s success on Fridays is largely a product of lefthander Harrison Musgrave’s emergence as a legitimate ace as a redshirt sophomore. Musgrave missed all of last season after having Tommy John surgery, and Mazey said he “just kind of floundered his way through the fall.” At the end of the fall, the coaches met with Musgrave to tell him that unless he ramped up his dedication to conditioning, nutrition and academics, he wasn’t going to make it in the WVU program.

Musgrave took it to heart, started working harder, and his stuff has gotten better over the course of the season. Mazey said he works in the 91-93 mph range and has a good changeup, though his breaking ball is a work in progress. Through 10 starts, he is 6-1, 2.70 with 46 strikeouts and 21 walks in 63 innings.

The rest of the staff isn’t overly talented, except for junior righty Corey Walter (3-4, 4.41), who has a 92-93 mph fastball but has been erratic. He began the year as the Friday starter but struggled, and he continued to struggle on Saturdays, so the Mountaineers moved him into the bullpen last week. As a staff, West Virginia has a 3.88 ERA—good enough to keep the Mountaineers (24-18) competitive given the quality of their offense. The Mountaineers also have an uncommonly high number of pickoffs (24), and Mazey said that has been a significant part of their success as well.

“I think our guys have really overachieved, to be honest with you,” Mazey said. “I think we’ve gone above and beyond with our pitching. Our ERA’s been floating right around 4; going into the season I would have guessed 5.5 or 6. We’ve pitched it really well. The whole thing with this staff last year was walks to strikeouts. Now we’re attacking the zone, and playing defense behind them.”

The defining characteristic of the defense and offense is athleticism. Right fielder Brady Wilson was a track star in high school, and Mazey said center fielder Bobby Boyd is even faster. Jacob Rice, who started his collegiate career at Arkansas before heading to junior college and then to WVU, brings more athleticism to left field, giving the Mountaineers three rangy defenders in the outfield.

That athleticism also plays in the lineup—Wilson, Boyd and Rice have combined for 30 stolen bases, and they are three of the team’s top four hitters. Ryan McBroom and Matt Frazer provide some thump in the middle of the lineup, combining for 14 home runs. But the centerpiece of the lineup is junior third baseman Ryan Tuntland (.370/.457/.478), who has a mature approach and a pretty righthanded swing.

“I look at all the lineups we play against, talk to some scouts and some pro guys, they like some kids in our lineup,” Mazey said. “You’ve got to pitch to us the whole way, through the No. 8 spot. I’d like to think we’re capable of scoring any inning. We’ve got enough guys that different guys can carry us on different days. We’ve got some guys at the top who can run a little bit, some guys in the middle who can drive it a little bit. It’s a good lineup, and I could see us potentially having five or six kids drafted off this team.”

WVU’s lineup will face a good challenge this weekend against a Kansas team whose strength is its pitching. The staff is bookended by a pair of standouts—senior righthander Thomas Taylor (4-0, 2.47) at the front of the rotation, and junior righty Jordan Piche (5-1, 0.47, eight saves, 29-5 K-BB in 38 innings) at the back of the bullpen.

Kansas coach Ritch Price said Taylor has excelled by commanding his 90-94 mph fastball down in the zone to both sides of the plate, and he has improved his slider as a senior so hitters can no longer sit on his fastball in advantage counts. Piche, a transfer from Indian Hills (Iowa) CC, came out of nowhere to become one of the best closers in the Big 12.

“Piche has put up numbers as good as anybody in America,” Price said. “He came from Indian Hills, a non-scholarship guy. His stats are as good as anybody we’ve had, right up there with Don Czyz, our all-time saves leader. He’s an 88-90 strike-thrower, completely controls his emotions and demeanor on the mound, and has an outstanding slider.”

Saturday starter Wes Benjamin (4-4, 4.50) has pitched very well for three straight weeks, Price said. The sophomore lefthander has improved his velocity since he arrived at KU, working now in the 88-91 mph range. He struggled with his slider and changeup earlier in the year, but he has commanded them better of late. As Price put it, “He’s like the greatest kid walking the planet—clean-cut, first-class, all-American boy.”

Junior righthander Frank Duncan (3-4, 4.45) is one of KU’s top prospects thanks to his power sinker, but the Jayhawks took him out of the rotation about a month ago after three straight bad starts. He rediscovered his rhythm and did a better job repeating his release point in the bullpen, and Price said he was considering moving Duncan back into the rotation this Sunday.

The pitching staff benefits from KU’s strong defense, which is anchored by strong-armed catcher Ka’iana Eldredge plus rock-solid middle infielders Kevin Kuntz (a senior shortstop) and Justin Protacio (a sophomore second baseman). Protacio also has emerged as an ideal table-setter atop the lineup, hitting .283/.439/.331 with 34 walks and 21 strikeouts, plus nine stolen bases in 11 tries.

“He’s made phenomenal progress,” Price said. “That’s exactly why I recruited him, to get on base. He’s 5-foot-6—there were questions whether he would hit at our level. But my take on it was if he hit .280 or better, his OBP would be over .400, and that’s taken place. He takes walks, works counts, sets the table. And he turns the double play fabulously.”

Kansas doesn’t have the kind of juice in its lineup that West Virginia does—senior first baseman Alex DeLeon has five of KU’s seven home runs. But DeLeon (.326/.407/.535) is a presence in the middle of the lineup, and sophomore outfielder Michael Suiter (.354/.422/.415) has had a nice year in the No. 3 hole. The lineup’s greatest assets are its speed (five Jayhawks have eight or more stolen bases, with three players in double figures) and ability to execute small ball.

“I think the key for us has been, our short-game offensive execution has been really good,” Price said. “We’ve got really good stolen base numbers, but as far as being able to handle the bat and manufacture runs, this team’s done a really good job of it. It’s something we’ve worked really hard at. We recognize that we lack physical pop in the lineup, so it’s a style we have to play. We steal second base and steal third base, move guys over in sacrifice situations.”

The Jayhawks made a trip to the Dominican Republic in the fall, and under NCAA rules they were allowed 10 extra days of practice because of the foreign tour. Price said he thinks that extra practice time and the six games against pro teams in the Dominican really helped his team develop good baserunning skills.

So the Jayhawks enter this weekend with a 25-15 record and a Ratings Percentage Index ranking right around No. 50, putting them strongly in the mix for an at-large berth.

“We like the position that we’re in,” Price said. “We recognize that we’ve got to finish. This is our last road series in conference, as we go to West Virginia, we know their Friday night guy beat Texas last week and is one of the best guys in the league. We have to take care of business this weekend, then our two final series are at home.”

The Mountaineers look forward to the day they can play a true home series. The West Virginia state legislature passed a bill just last week approving financing for a new $16.2 million baseball facility in Morgantown, but in the meantime the Mountaineers have played most of their Big 12 home series in Charleston. This weekend they’ll get on a bus and travel nearly three hours to Beckley, W.Va., home of a team in the summer collegiate Prospect League.

“We don’t play any home series—even our home conference weekends are two and a half, three hours away,” Mazey said. “So we literally get on a bus every Thursday and leave town. Our kids don’t attend class on Thursday and Friday. But we have tutors go to their classes, audiotape their lectures, download them into a Dropbox on the Internet, the kids are listening to them on their own.

“When that bill got passed, it will probably go down as the biggest thing that ever happened to WVU baseball. We’re already having design meetings and everything. You can recruit to an artist’s rendering as much as you want, but there’s nothing like recruiting a kid to the real thing. The future of this program will begin when they put the last brick on that thing.”

Pitching Focus: Memphis at East Carolina

Friday and Saturday feature outstanding pitching matchups in this series between middle-of-the-pack Conference USA teams. East Carolina has recovered from a rough first half to win three of its last four series and climb above .500 overall (21-20), and up to 6-6 in C-USA. ECU doesn’t have a single regular hitting above .300, but its weekend rotation has helped it stay afloat.

Memphis, meanwhile, has won two of its last three series and sits at 8-7 in the league. The Tigers also own a 6-2 record against Southeastern Conference opponents, including a pair of midweek wins against Mississippi, but they still have RPI troubles, ranking 116th. The Tigers are especially tough against lefthanded-leaning lineups, as southpaws started each of their first 32 games on the mound, and 40 of their 42 games overall. But the Pirates are a predominantly righthanded-hitting team.

Erik-Schoenrock-2013-jp

Erik Schoenrock (Photo by Joe Murphy)

Memphis will move junior lefthander Sam Moll back from Friday to Saturday this week to give him an extra day of rest, so fellow junior lefty Erik Schoenrock (5-3, 2.87) will start on Friday against ECU sophomore righty Jeff Hoffman (4-4, 2.84). Schoenrock, the son of Memphis coach Daron Schoenrock, had even better numbers before he had his worst outing of the season last week against Southern Mississippi, giving up eight runs on 10 hits in seven innings. The younger Schoenrock is a polished three-pitch southpaw with an 87-91 mph fastball, a good changeup and a nice downer curve at 77-79.

“Last week against Southern Miss he couldn’t feel his breaking ball and got hit a little bit,” Daron Schoenrock said. “He’s got three complete games for us. He’s in unchartered waters physically—he missed half of last year with a back injury and pitched mostly out of the bullpen the last two years, but he’s at 70 innings now. Going into the year I thought he would be a reliever, a left-on-left guy. He came back from the Cape dominant with three pitches. (Pitching coach) Fred Corral said ‘Look, he’s got to be a starter, either Friday or Saturday.’ They’re interchangeable, basically.

“The breaking ball was the first thing that showed up with Erik his freshman year—he had a swing-and-miss pitch when he walked in the door. He was throwing 82-84 then, didn’t have the changeup he has now. The velocity jumped up, then the changeup came, and we said we’ve got to start him.”

Hoffman made even more of a name for himself in the Cape Cod League last summer, where he showed 95 mph heat and ranked as the circuit’s No. 7 prospect. His projectable 6-foot-4, 182-pound frame, clean arm action and quality stuff make him a potential high first-rounder in 2014.

Hoffman has really come into his own over the last three weeks. He pitched into the ninth and allowed just three unearned runs in a loss to Rice, and ECU coach Billy Godwin said that was one of the best pitching performances of his tenure. The next week, he carried a one-hit shutout into the ninth against Tulane before giving up two runs (one earned), but he went back out in the 10th and got two outs before exiting with a no-decision. Last week he threw eight strong innings against Alabama-Birmingham to level his record at 4-4.

“He’s given us a chance to win every time out,” Godwin said. “I think the big difference is he’s really starting to locate his fastball. I know he’s touched some 94s, 95s, and really started to pitch with his fastball. Probably the biggest difference is he’s been able to command his breaking ball, and throw a good changeup too. Early on his fastball command was average, but it’s been better lately.”

The 5-foot-11, 187-pound Moll is a power lefty with electric stuff. Schoenrock said Moll usually works in the 92-94 range, and he presents a different look than the lanky Erik Schoenrock, who has better feel for his secondary stuff but doesn’t have as much fastball velocity and isn’t as physical.

“Sam has a very quick arm, short levers,” Schoenrock said. “I guess you’d say the biggest change from last year is the development of his slider. He went from a curveball to more of a slider in the Cape last summer. It’s more power, a shorter tighter version of the curveball he was throwing. It is a true slider now; sometimes a lot of these kids you see throwing what you think is a slider but more of a slurve, but his is a true slider, 80-81. He can beat righthanded barrels with his slider.

“The changeup is still a definite third pitch, but it shows signs. He’s such a power guy, the changeup concept is kind of a tough concept for those guys—’You mean you want me to throw the ball slower?’ But it’s getting better.”

East Carolina will counter with redshirt freshman righthander David Lucroy (4-1, 2.01, 53-27 K-BB in 54 innings) on Saturday. The younger brother of Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy, David established himself last summer in the Coastal Plain League, before he tweaked his knee in a rundown, ending his summer.

“In the fall he seemed to get better and better every time out,” Godwin said. “We didn’t have him in our original rotation, but when we put him in there he ran with it. He’s a high 80s to low 90s guy, good slider, curveball, changeup. The slider is probably his best pitch. He’ll flash some 93s up there, he’s a competitor. The more I coach, that’s the trait you want the most. A lot of guys have good arms, but his bloodlines, growing up, his background helps him with that.”

Around The Nation

• The SEC features two matchups between ranked foes this weekend, as South Carolina travels to LSU for the first time since 2008 (at the old Alex Box Stadium), and Mississippi State visits Vanderbilt. From a postseason positioning standpoint, both of those series are more important for the visiting teams than the home teams, because the Tigers and Commodores are practically locked in as national seeds. The Gamecocks are trying to firm up their hosting resume, and the next two weeks will be critical (they host Vanderbilt next week). The Gamecocks rebounded from getting swept by Florida with a sweep of Kentucky last weekend, and their weekend rotation finally looks settled, with three polished lefthanders pitching well last weekend (Nolan Belcher, Jordan Montgomery and Jack Wynkoop, although South Carolina currently lists its Sunday starter as TBA). Of course, LSU has a righthanded-leaning lineup, and remember that the Tigers blasted Kentucky’s all-lefty rotation three weeks ago, scoring 29 runs in a dominating three-game sweep. But all three South Carolina southpaws have very good changeups that are effective against righties, so the matchup isn’t as bad for the Gamecocks as it might appear at first glance.

Mississippi State, meanwhile, has won three straight series (vs. Florida, at Texas A&M, vs. Auburn) after losing its previous four series, and the Bulldogs now find themselves in the thick of the national seed conversation. MSU ranks 10th in the RPI and is up to 10-8 in the SEC. Like South Carolina, Mississippi State has found stability in its weekend rotation, which has helped propel its run over the last three weeks. Senior lefthander Luis Pollorena has generally been solid as the No. 1 starter, and senior righty Kendall Graveman has been outstanding on Saturdays. Sophomore lefthander Jacob Lindgren has his best outing of the year last week against Auburn, striking out 11 over eight shutout innings. And Jonathan Holder has once again been a dynamo at the back of the bullpen, going 1-0, 1.61 with 12 saves, 52 strikeouts and seven walks in 28 innings.

But it’s one thing to pitch well against Florida, A&M and Auburn. Vanderbilt is another animal entirely. The Commodores have scored double-digit runs in six of their last nine games, capped by a 10-2 thrashing at Louisville on Tuesday. The Commodores’ lineup was already very deep, but redshirt freshman Zander Wiel has come out of nowhere to give Vandy another boost. Wiel has started each of Vandy’s last three games and has slugged three home runs.

• The weekend’s biggest series in the West is No. 21 Stanford at No. 13 Oregon. Since going 1-5 at home in back-to-back series against UNLV and Utah, the Cardinal has won four straight weekend series to rejoin the Top 25, but its RPI is still down at No. 84, and its remaining schedule is very difficult (a road trip to Arizona State and home sets against Oregon State and UCLA remain). That schedule means Stanford will have plenty of opportunity to bolster its RPI, but if the Cardinal struggle against that challenging slate, it will be sunk. After scuffling offensively for much of the season, Stanford is finally starting to hit as anticipated, scoring 38 runs over its last three games against Arizona and San Jose State. The return of preseason All-American Austin Wilson has ignited the Cardinal’s offensive surge; he’s hitting .405/.510/.738 with three homers and 12 RBIs in his first 12 games since returning from a stress reaction in his elbow. But Stanford’s offense faces its stiffest challenge of the season to date against an Oregon pitching staff that ranked third in the Pac-12 and 24th in the nation with a 2.81 ERA through 10 weeks. The Ducks got outstanding pitching from all three starters (Tommy Thorpe, Cole Irvin and Jake Reed) last weekend against UCLA, but they still dropped a pair of 1-0 decisions, making them 0-for-4 in series against ranked opponents this year. If they lose a fifth series to a ranked foe this weekend, their national seed ambitions will be in trouble.

Georgia Tech travels to Clemson in a series that could make or break both teams’ hosting hopes. The Tigers are in better shape in the RPI (No. 12 vs. No. 22) and in the conference standings (13-8 vs. 11-10), and they have the advantage of being at home against the Yellow Jackets, who are in a funk. Tech averaged 10 runs per game through the first five weeks of the season, but they have scored just 3.6 runs per game over their last 12 games. Take out a 14-1 midweek win against Savannah State, and that average drops to 2.8 runs per game in the other 11 games. They hit .351 through the first six weeks of the season, but they have hit just .261 since. Incidentally, the Jackets have lost two of their three series, dropping a road set at Duke and getting swept by North Carolina State. They might have hit rock bottom Tuesday against 16-26 Georgia, which blew them out 17-0 at Turner Field. Tech heads into this weekend riding its first four-game losing streak since 2009.

“We’re not doing things we need to do—whether it’s on the mound, at the plate, in the field—to play good, sound baseball,” Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the UGa. loss. “So we’ve got to start doing that, or there’ll be more games like this because we’re not playing anybody easy the rest of the year on our schedule.”

• The regular season concludes in the Ivy League this weekend, and Columbia and Dartmouth are in the driver’s seats in their respective divisions. The Lions took three of four at Princeton last weekend to improve to 12-4 in the Ivy, giving them a three-game lead over the Tigers and Cornell in the Gehrig Division. Columbia finishes with a four-game set against Pennsylvania (7-9), needing just one win to clinch a spot in the Ivy championship series. Preseason Ivy favorite Dartmouth has won seven of its last eight Ivy contests over the last two weekends against Brown and Yale, giving the Big Green a four-game lead over Harvard in the Red Rolfe Division. Unless the Crimson (10-26 overall) can sweep a four-game series against Dartmouth this weekend (with Saturday’s doubleheader in Cambridge and Sunday’s in Hanover), the Big Green will return to the Ivy championship series for the sixth straight year.