Weekend Preview: April 3-5

Meaningful
Matchup
UC Irvine at Cal State Fullerton

It’s still early to start thinking about postseason positioning, but this weekend’s showdown between the Anteaters and Titans could have major ramifications on Selection Monday. Irvine and Fullerton are the two best teams in the Big West, which is the premier conference out West this year and one of the best conferences in the nation. Whichever team wins the Big West is a lock to host a regional and a leading contender for one of the top national seeds, and this series will give either the ‘Eaters or the Titans a major leg up in the conference race.

If the season ended today, Fullerton would be a lock for the No. 1 national seed. The Titans have played the toughest schedule in the nation, according to boydsworld.com, and have compiled a 19-5 record. Not surprisingly, they sit atop the Ratings Percentage Index.

TOP
25
SCHEDULE
(8) UC Irvine at (1) Cal State Fullerton

(2) Louisiana State at (6) Georgia

(3) Arizona State at Washington

Tulane at (4) Rice

(5) North Carolina at (10) Georgia Tech

(7) Baylor at Kansas

(9) Texas at (17) Oklahoma State

Florida State at (11) Miami

(12) Oklahoma at Missouri

(13) Arkansas at South Carolina

(14) Texas A&M at Texas Tech

Kentucky at (15) Mississippi

(16) East Carolina at Alabama-Birmingham

(18) New Mexico at (22) Texas Christian

California at (19) Oregon State

(20) Florida at Vanderbilt

UC Davis at (21) San Diego State

Cal State Northridge at (23) Cal Poly

Maryland at (24) Virginia

Ohio State at (25) Minnesota

“It has been pretty remarkable,” Titans coach Dave Serrano said of his
team’s fast start. “I said this to the team after we lost Friday (at UC
Riverside): Because we’ve been so fortunate getting out of the gate
playing great baseball against great programs in tough atmospheres,
that loss Friday felt like it was five or six losses, because we hadn’t
experienced that much. Every loss has felt magnified because we haven’t
gotten accustomed to it. This team has gotten used to winning.”

Naturally, the Titans rebounded from Friday’s loss by winning the next
two games to take the series against the Highlanders. Then they went to
No. 3 Arizona State and split two midweek games. Now the Titans face
another top 10 opponent in the rival Anteaters, who are coming off a
series sweep of then-No. 19 Cal Poly and carry a 17-7 overall record
into this weekend. But as good as the Anteaters are, there’s no doubt
who’s chasing whom this weekend.

“I think we realize we’re in for a real dog fight,” UCI coach Mike
Gillespie said. “There’s very little surprise in how good (the Titans)
are. This is always fun for our guys. It continues to be, and I think
there’s a little more electricity in the air because we have so many
players still that played for that (Fullerton coaching) staff. There’s
always going to be a little more excitement for this than there
otherwise might be.

“If we’re going to compete, we’re going to get good pitching from our
starters and hope we’re ahead by one when we get the ball to (closer
Eric) Pettis. I think their pitching has come along farther than anyone
could have expected given they’re counting on some freshmen. They’re a
real talented, veteran team—they’re really good. But if we pitch and
play defense and keep the games close, we think we should be able to
compete.”

There’s a natural tendency to lump the Anteaters and Titans together as
small-ball addicts who rely on bunting, hit batsmen and basestealing,
but that’s an oversimplification this year. The Titans have one of the
nation’s most explosive offenses, a high-octane West Coast attack that
ranked second in the nation in sacrifice bunts (34), seventh in hit by
pitches (51) and 24th in batting (.335) through last weekend. They’re
also plenty athletic and rank 44th in the nation in steals per game,
but they’ve added a power dimension, ranking 51st in homers per game.
Last year, the Titans ranked 146th in homers per game.

A big part of the power surge has been the long-awaited emergence of
junior outfielder Khris Davis, who is batting .344/.407/.708 with a
team-best eight home runs. Davis was a heralded recruit who struggled
mightily in his first two years at CSF, but the coaching staff made a
commitment in the fall to get him 150 at-bats this spring and let him
get into a rhythm rather than benching him after a bad stretch. Davis
has responded in impressive fashion.

“I see a big maturity process from last year. We all knew his talent
was as good as anybody’s in this program, but it was about the
day-to-day consistency from him, not just on the field but off the
field, the maturity and work ethic,” Serrano said. “It’s not just his
numbers that are impressive; he’s taking great at-bats and playing
fabulous in right field for us this season. I’ve said to many people
this season: Khris Davis is going to be a key part of our success this
year.”

The Anteaters, meanwhile, are not nearly as explosive offensively, and
they’re not a typical West Coast offense, either. While UCI ranks 11th
nationally in sacrifice bunts (25 through last weekend), it ranks just
51st in hit by pitches (34) and 190th in steals per game.

“We haven’t thought to earn the reputation as a team that likes small
ball,” Gillespie said. “I think it’s first and foremost: Can you hit?
If you can’t hit, I don’t really think you can win. We do not have
basestealing speed. It wouldn’t surprise me if we won all three games
and did not steal a base. If we’re going to have a chance, we simply
have to be able to hit. We’re not going to hit a lot of home runs. We
can run into a ball and hit some. But if you had watched us play for
the 20-plus games we’ve played, we’ve been boring. We can’t run, we
don’t small ball. We don’t have many bunt base hits. When we’ve been
good, we’ve hit. We’re a team that just has to get good pitching, and
we have to catch behind them.”

Fortunately, the Anteaters can usually count on getting strong starting
pitching from junior lefthander Daniel Bibona (4-1, 2.77, 47-11
strikeout-walk ratio in 39 innings) and junior righty Christian Bergman
(3-1, 2.79), who turned in one of the best outings of his career last
week against Cal Poly. Sophomore righty Crosby Slaught (2-0, 4.08) has
impressed Gillespie on Sundays with his poise and ability to throw
strikes, but he’s not overpowering. Pettis (2-0, 3.10, seven saves) has
been a workhorse as usual who gives the Anteaters an edge in most close
games. But Gillespie is quick to admit that pitching depth is a
significant concern, and his team is vulnerable midweek and in the
middle innings of weekend games if his starters fail to turn in long
outings.

Pitching was the one question about the Titans coming into the season,
as Gillespie suggested, but they found answers on the mound quickly.
Sophomore righty Daniel Renken (4-1, 2.50) has quietly blossomed into
an elite Friday night starter thanks to his heavy fastball, outstanding
changeup and quality slider. His duel with Bibona—who also relies on an
excellent changeup and excellent command—could be a classic.

“He has been a silent assassin for us,” Serrano said of Renken. “He’s
winning games for us and setting the tone. That’s what you need on
Friday night, especially with a young pitching staff. He’s not a real
outgoing young man, kind of quiet in his own way, but he likes the
limelight, and he rises to occasion.”

The Titans have a pair of freshmen righties in the rotation behind
Renken, and they have proven savvy beyond their years. Noe Ramirez
(3-0, 2.03) supplanted junior Kyle Witten as the Saturday starter
thanks to his superior feel for pitching and composure. Tyler Pill
(5-0, 3.19) has come on strong since struggling the first weekend
against Texas Christian. Both pitchers throw strikes with quality
three-pitch repertoires.

Meanwhile, junior righthander Michael Morrison (1-1, 2.03, four saves)
responded to being beat out for a weekend starter spot by finding a
home for himself at the back of the bullpen. Sidearmer Ryan Ackland
struggled against lefthanded hitters, so Serrano decided to plug the
power-armed Morrison into the closer spot. His low-90s fastball and
sharp curveball play up in one-inning stints, and his arm has proven up
to the challenge of pitching on back-to-back days.

With pitching roles firmed up, there are no significant questions
remaining about the Titans. Now Serrano’s biggest challenge will be to
keep his players from feeling too good about themselves. Not that
motivation should be much of a problem this weekend.

“Obviously they’re a very good team and we’re a very good team,”
Serrano said. “But just like the Riverside series—I was proud we won
two out of three, but if we throw our pom-poms up and get all excited,
we’re in for a big fall. I don’t want our team to get too up for it,
because it’s just three games in our slate of 24 conference games. Even
though it is two very good teams in Orange county, 20 miles apart,
where this staff used to coach.

“Fortunately, it’ll be at our place, even if it will be 60 percent
Titans fans, 40 percent ‘Eaters, like it usually is with these two
teams. That place is going to be rocking—it will be an exciting
atmosphere.”

Marquee Mound
Matchup
Kentucky’s James Paxton vs. Mississippi’s Scott Bittle

Thanks to a sinking 90-94 mph fastball and a much-improved 78-82 mph breaking ball, Paxton’s draft stock has improved more than any other player’s this spring, but the junior lefthander was hit hard last week against South Carolina. With winds gusting out at 20-30 mph, Paxton surrendered nine runs on 10 hits in two innings in a 20-19 loss.

Kentucky’s coaching staff said Paxton was affected somewhat by tendinitis in the IT band in his left knee. He still worked in the 91-93 mph range and threw strikes, but he gave up a few cheap hits, and the Gamecocks squared up a couple of other balls and took advantage of the wind.

2009
STATS
Player W L ERA IP H BB K AVGA
Paxton 4 1 5.62

32 37 8 49

.280
Bittle 1 2 3.06

18 11 13 29 .177

This week, the Wildcats will push Paxton back from his usual Friday
starter spot to Sunday in order to give him an extra couple of days’
rest. That means he’ll match up with Bittle, Mississippi’s senior
righthander. A first-team All-American as a closer last year, Bittle
made a smooth transition to the Sunday starter spot last week against
Louisiana State in order to stabilize the Rebels’ weekend rotation.
Against the nation’s most talented offense, Bittle allowed just one hit
and two walks over seven shutout innings, striking out 10. The Ole Miss
coaching staff reports Bittle mixed his devastating 80-86 mph cutter
with an 88-91 fastball and an excellent changeup to lefthanded hitters.

That’s one area Bittle has an edge over Paxton: the third pitch. Paxton
throws a couple of changeups per game, but he’s been so dominant with just
his fastball and breaking ball that he hasn’t needed to use it much. As
the season progresses, he’ll need to work in his changeup more often to
convince scouts he profiles as a three-pitch starter in pro ball.
Bittle might have made his reputation as a closer, but he’s already
shown he has three legitimate major league offerings.

Under The
Radar
Bryant

You’ve probably heard that Oregon and Cal State Bakersfield have new Division I programs this year, but the most successful new D-I program so far in 2009 is Bryant. The Bulldogs jumped to Division I after three seasons in Division II. Last year they won the wood-bat Northeast-10 Conference and reached the Northeast Regional final for the second consecutive year.

The transition to D-I and metal bats is significant, but Bryant has handled it with aplomb. The Bulldogs enter today’s game against cross-state rival Brown with a 19-7 record that includes series wins against quality Southern programs Richmond and James Madison, a four-game series split against Northeast Conference power Monmouth, and midweek wins against solid New England opponents Boston College, Rhode Island and Maine. Bryant’s 19 wins lead all independent teams.

“It’s certainly been a lot of fun for our guys so far,” Bryant coach Jamie Pinzino said. “As a former Division II program, you always kind of think you’re good enough to play with some of those guys and you could beat some Division I teams. But I guess going into the year, nobody really knew for certain what to expect. We had never really played any of these guys before. Wins and losses-wise, we didn’t really set any type of goals like that. I think our guys believed in themselves and they still do. We had had a couple of good years in Division II, and our guys had used that to build some confidence. No matter who we’re playing, they believe we can play with anybody.”

Using wood bats in past years, Bryant relied heavily upon speed, small ball and execution. The Bulldogs have maintained their aggressive approach, but they’ve taken advantage of the switch to metal bats to blast 28 home runs in 26 games. They hit 25 homers in 64 games last year, and just 24 homers in 110 games the previous two years combined.

Leading the power surge is 5-foot-10 senior shortstop Pat McKenna, whose eight homers and .686 slugging percentage are tops on the club.

“I really think McKenna has really been a key guy for us over the years,” Pinzino said. “He’s been a three-year captain for us. Both at practice and during games, he has a lot to do with our success. He gets guys on board, he’s a real competitive kid, just really plays on another level with how hard he plays. He plays big, and he’s taken his offense to another level this year.”

Pinzino said his pitchers were understandably leery about having to face D-I hitters with metal bats, but Bryant’s pitching staff has been excellent, posting a 3.58 ERA. The Bulldogs don’t have any power arms, but senior righty Kevin Cobb (5-0, 2.37, 35-6 K-BB in 38 IP) leads a fairly deep staff that has gotten strong production out of its starters and bullpen.

“They’re all different; they each have their own strengths and weaknesses,” Pinzino said of his arms. “From a pure stuff standpoint, Cobb probably gets the most notice. At this level it’s not overpowering—he pitches at 87-88, with a real good split-finger that helps him pick up some strikeouts. None of our guys have 90-plus stuff and are going to blow guys away. But these guys all have enough stuff and locate it well enough, keep it down and throw strikes.”

Streakin’
Georgia Tech

The Yellow Jackets have won 10 straight weekend series dating back to last April. Last weekend, they passed their first major test of 2009, winning two of three at Miami. Tech now sits atop the ACC’s Coastal Division with an 8-2 mark in conference play heading into this weekend’s showdown against No. 5 North Carolina.

“It seems like all our games usually are really competitive with them,” Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said of the Tar Heels. “I’m sure these are going to be the same way. They’re one of the elite teams not only in our league but in the country, and hopefully we are too. We’ll find out.”

North Carolina might have an advantage over the Yellow Jackets on the mound—the Tar Heels have a pitching edge over just about everybody—but Georgia Tech’s offense has been decidedly more explosive thus far. The Yellow Jackets lead the ACC with 42 home runs (eight more than second-place UNC) despite playing three fewer games (22) than any other team in the conference. Tech is scoring nine runs per game, while UNC is averaging 7.5. The balanced Jackets have 11 players with two or more home runs, led by corner infielders Tony Plagman and Matt Skole, who have seven apiece.

“I think we have power up and down the lineup,” Hall said. “What hopefully is always in the back of the minds of our opponents is you’re never out of a game, and if you’re behind you could be ahead with one swing. We’ve had different guys hit home runs at different times to get us back in games. Last week at Miami, our second baseman—who is physically not a big guy at all—hits two home runs down there. We’re getting contributions from different guys up and down the lineup.”

That undersized second baseman, 5-foot-8 junior Jason Garofalo, has elbowed his way into a starting role and giving the Yellow Jackets a real spark. His grand slam highlighted Tech’s seven-run sixth inning in Friday’s 13-9 win against the Hurricanes.

Meanwhile, mainstays like senior outfielder Luke Murton and sophomore shortstop Derek Dietrich have found their power strokes of late. Murton hit his first three home runs of the season in the Miami series, while Dietrich doubled his season homer output by hitting two against the ‘Canes. Of course, even before his power surge, Murton had become a much better all-around player than he was earlier in his career. A .299 lifetime hitter in three seasons entering 2009, Murton is batting .350/.454/.575 through 80 at-bats. He averaged one strikeout every 4.2 at-bats last year, but so far in 2009 he’s striking out just once every 7.3 at-bats.

“He’s swung the bat well,” Hall said of Murton. “I’ve told everybody he’s a much better hitter than he has ever been.”

Of course, power and run production was expected to be a strength for Georgia Tech heading into the season. Pitching and defense were question marks to some degree, but Hall said his team has played somewhat better defensively so far than he thought they were capable of. On the mound, sophomore righthander Deck McGuire (5-0, 2.50, 48-13 K-BB in 40 IP) has successfully transitioned from midweek starter to Friday ace, thanks to a 90-92 mph fastball that touches 94 (a jump of about 2 mph from last year), a good slider and good changeup. McGuire hasn’t been quite as dominant in ACC play as he was early in the season against a soft nonconference slate, as his command has lapsed at times, but he’s made up for it with his competitiveness.

Hall said Saturday starter Zach Von Tersch (5-1, 5.79) turned in perhaps the best start of his career against Miami, allowing just two runs while striking out seven over five innings.

“He was much more aggressive, he had a good tempo and a good demeanor on the mound, and he threw strikes with all of his pitches—his fastball, slider and changeup,” Hall said. “He was just much more consistent than he had been.”

The Sunday starter spot has been more of a concern, as sophomore Brandon Cumpton struggled in the role early, and sophomore righty Kevin Jacob gave up five runs over 3 2/3 innings in his first Sunday start against the Hurricanes. But Jacob (4-1, 2.97) had been very effective in midweek action and has the best power stuff on the staff, with a 92-96 fastball that reaches 97 and a quality power breaking ball at times. He’ll get another shot Sunday against UNC.

Tech’s bullpen is deep and versatile, led by power-armed freshman righthander Mark Pope (seven saves, 3.48 ERA), who can reach 92 mph and has a very good curveball. Jake Davies (0.75) and Zach Brewster (2.53) have been very effective against lefthanded hitters, while Patrick Long (3.60) and Andrew Robinson (4.11) give the Jackets solid righthanded options.

If the pitching holds up, Georgia Tech might establish itself as the ACC’s most balanced team. Certainly the Jackets can take control of the ACC by weathering their current three-week stretch, which includes series at Miami and home against UNC and Virginia. By Easter Sunday, we’ll know if Georgia Tech has passed North Carolina as the ACC’s team to beat.

Slumpin’
Tennessee

Things have gotten ugly in Knoxville. The Volunteers have limped to a 12-16 start and are just 1-8 in Southeastern Conference play heading into this weekend’s series at Alabama. The Vols were always going to have to deal with a lack of depth, but their stars were supposed to carry them to contention, or at least respectability. Instead, first-team preseason All-America outfielder Kentrail Davis (.277/.425/.525) and talented lefthanders Nick Hernandez (1-3, 5.35) and Bryan Morgado (1-0, 5.27) have scuffled. Davis, the nation’s best speed/power talent, had at least five hits in two games this week against East Tennessee State and Charleston Southern, giving Vols coach Todd Raleigh hope that his slump could be over.

“Kentrail Davis has had a really rough year, but I think he’s coming out of it now,” Raleigh said. “I know at one point he was 2-for-31 in conference play. I’ve never seen anybody ever struggle like this. Then they go get his eyes checked (Tuesday), he gets new prescription contacts, and he gets a double, triple, and a home run (Tuesday against ETSU). Maybe that’s a good sign for us.”

With Davis, first baseman Cody Hawn (.301 with 11 homers) and catcher Blake Forsythe (.396 with 11 homers), Raleigh felt like he had an elite heart of the lineup. But then this week Hawn was diagnosed with mononucleosis, which will sideline him at least a month and maybe all season. And Cody Brown, one of the top defensive third basemen in the SEC, dove for a ball a few weeks ago and tore his labrum, ending his season. The Volunteers simply do not have the depth to overcome those losses.

“We’re struggling,” Tennessee coach Todd Raleigh said. “I feel like we probably started in the biggest hole in the country, in a lot of ways. People say, ‘You should have had more depth.’ Well, I can’t have more depth, because I didn’t have any more money. We’ve got the maximum scholarship penalty right now. I brought in 17 kids last year on 1.6 scholarships. I’ve got two pitchers on full rides who’ve pitched one inning total this year.”

When Raleigh took over the head coaching job from Rod Delmonico last year, he inherited a mess. The Volunteers were assessed the maximum 1.17-scholarship penalty for falling below the 925 Academic Progress Rate cut-line. The reduced scholarships, combined with the fact that most of Tennessee’s scholarships were tied up in a few players on full rides, made it very difficult for Raleigh to restock the cabinets.

“We’re one of three schools in the country on the max penalty,” Raleigh said. “We have never made APR here in the history of the program until last year, my first year. We’d never even made 900. Last year we made it, but the APR works on a three-year average. Last year we blew it away, 950, but we still won’t get our three-year average up to 925.

“There has not been a game this year I’ve had two scholarships on the field, not counting pitchers. I can’t do it. Kentrail Davis is on more scholarship than all my position players put together. You can’t compete in the SEC on two scholarships, you just can’t. The administration’s behind us, they understand. Tennessee fans don’t understand, but that’s OK, that’s what makes this league so great. It’s not a lost cause. This is the first time I’ve ever said any of this to anybody. I’ve never talked about how big of a hole we’re really in.”

Bubble
Watch

Tulane

The Green Wave got off to a bad start in Conference USA play last weekend, dropping two of three at home against Houston. Tulane heads into this weekend’s critical series at Rice with a 17-11 overall record, but coach Rick Jones’ team has wasted plenty of opportunities to pad that record, going just 2-4 in one-run games and 2-4 in two-run games. But if there’s ever a decent time to catch Rice, it might be this weekend, with ace righty Ryan Berry sidelined with arm soreness.

“I don’t know if there’s ever a good time,” Jones said. “I know we’ll have to have a better weekend than we did (against Houston), that’s for sure. It’s very important for us. We’re going to have to finish really good in our league, or win our tournament. Getting off to the start we got off to last weekend was very frustrating. I didn’t think we were competitive enough at the plate. We were non-competitive in too many at-bats late. Very frustrating.”

Tulane rebounded with a win against rival Louisiana State on Wednesday, with shortstop Josh Prince (3-for-5, two runs out of the leadoff spot) and first baseman Sam Honeck (2-for-4 with a double, a homer and four RBIs in the No. 3 hole) carrying the offense as usual. That duo has been a bright spot for the Green Wave, as Honeck his hitting .394/.508/.848 with 11 homers and 43 RBIs, while Prince is hitting .378/.508/.567 with 22 steals in 24 attempts. Both players carried big expectations with them when they transferred to Tulane before the 2008 season, but both struggled in a year ago—especially Prince, who hit just .236.

“Prince has had a good year,” Jones said. “The thing about Josh was last year, he had arm surgery on his elbow and couldn’t work out in the weight room. He lost a lot of weight, and it really affected his swing. Last summer, he got a lot stronger in the Northwoods League. Offensively, he’s been a big plus.”

Like Prince, righthander Josh Zeid was once an elite prospect who had nearly fallen off the prospect map with a couple of down seasons. Zeid transferred from Vanderbilt to Tulane before last season, but he posted a 5.62 ERA and threw just 16 innings in his first year with the Green Wave. But this year, he’s finally put it all together, going 4-0, 2.57 and helping solidify the weekend rotation behind Conrad Flynn (3-2, 3.92) and Matt Petiton (3-1, 4.54). Jones said Zeid has worked in the 92-94 mph range and shown a good slider and better feel for his changeup.

“Zeid has been good. He’s throwing a lot more strikes, pounding the zone,” Jones said. “His stuff has always been good. He’s throwing everything out of the stretch now, which has allowed him to keep his balance point more consistent. It’s nothing earth shattering, but it does have an impact. He’s pounding the ball on the inner half more.”

The re-emergence of Prince, Honeck, Zeid and righthanded reliever Preston Claiborne (2-1, 2.08) gives Tulane a solid chance to make a regional run. A series win against Rice could serve as a springboard for that run.

Stat Of The
Week
.643
Brett Nommensen’s on-base percentage, which ranks first in the nation. Good luck finding a better leadoff hitter anywhere than Eastern Illinois’ senior center fielder, who has reached base safely in each of his last nine plate appearances and is hitting .518/.643/1.024 with 10 home runs, 21 RBIs and five stolen bases in 24 games.

“One of the neatest things about Brett is his ability to know how opposing pitchers want to get him out,” Panthers coach Jim Schmitz said. “Obviously he’s a gifted athlete with the plus speed, so he can use that to beat out some singles or get some doubles. And when you don’t swing at bad pitches, that’s a key thing.”

Nommensen already established himself as one of the nation’s most dynamic players last year, when he capped his .402/.518/.603 season by going 13-for-25 (.520) in the postseason, leading EIU’s run through the Ohio Valley Conference tournament and then capturing all-tournament honors at the Lincoln regional. He followed that up by leading the Coastal Plain League in batting (.377) and OBP (.462) while ranking as the circuit’s No. 6 prospect. Yet Nommensen went undrafted due to his 5-foot-10, 190-pound stature.

“At the end of last year I thought we had a chance to lose him because he had such a great ending,” Schmitz said. “He’s kept working on his game, he’s gotten a lot stronger. A couple years ago, we rededicated ourselves to the weight room. It just doesn’t happen in a year, it’s been about a two-year process. These guys that are putting time in the weight room are seeing the great results.”

Nommensen has energized the Panthers out of the chute a number of times this season, slugging four home runs to lead off games, including Tuesday at St. Louis, when he homered in his first two at-bats. Nommensen has been instrumental to EIU’s 19-5 start and current nine-game winning streak.

But Nommensen isn’t the Panthers’ only prospect. Six-foot-3 junior lefthander Tyler Kehrer (2-1, 4.99, 37-21 K-BB in 31 IP) has caught scouts’ attention with a 90-93 mph fastball, an improved slider and a changeup.

“It’s neat to see him go from thrower to pitcher, really commanding the zone,” Schmitz said. “We’re getting more (draft) buzz on those two guys than we ever have.”

Scouting
Report
Oklahoma State

The Cowboys enter this weekend’s showdown against Texas with a 20-8 overall record and a 3-3 mark in the Big 12. OSU is built around one of the nation’s most talented weekend rotations in junior lefthanders Andrew Oliver (4-2, 5.59) and Tyler Lyons (4-2, 3.60) and righthander Tyler Blandford (5-0, 3.83). Freshman righthander Randy McCurry (1-0, 2.35, six saves) has stabilized the back of the bullpen, and the offense has produced 41 home runs in 28 games, led by outfielders Neil Medchill (.375 with nine homers and 36 RBIs), Doug Kroll (.340 with seven homers) and Michael Dabbs (.359 with six homers); and corner infielders Tyrone Hambly (.347 with seven homers), Dean Green (.326 with three homers). A coach whose team has played the Cowboys broke them down.

“Oliver has enough offspeed to keep you off balance, but it’s mainly a fastball that he can climb the ladder with. It’s a tall guy throwing 94 at you. Coach (Frank) Anderson has him going in and out enough, you just don’t see that very often—a kid that big throwing in and out. It looks like he’s gone back to more of a slider than a curveball. At the next level, I think it’s an understatement to say he needs to improve his offspeed stuff. He’s big, he’s out on top of you, you know it’s one pitch he’s winning with, but there’s enough of the other ones to help him a little bit, and the one is real good.

“I just really like watching Lyons. It’s a hybrid of everything you want. He’s real athletic, he competes, he’s real good about showing different looks so guys are constantly out of rhythm—the opposite of Oliver. He can throw stuff at you and also he can pitch. He uses the breaking ball more than the changeup. With the fastball, he’ll expand down, expand out, flash in every now and then. He’s above hitting speed from the left side. The breaking ball is good, it’s tough to beat a lefty with a good breaking ball. He has good feel for his changeup, just because he’s athletic. I like Lyons better than Oliver at this level, and I think I do at the next level too. They’re both kind of unique kids. I like Lyons’ athleticism—he’s a complete pitcher, and I like his intangibles a little better too.

“Blandford shows you a fastball first time through the order, here’s real good velocity, got some deception to it. I don’t know if it moves as much as you thought but it’s tough to pick up, plus he throws hard. Later in the game, he uses more of that breaking ball, low and away to righties, back foot to lefties with it. He didn’t throw much of a changeup. He’s tall and he’s throwing hard, he’s right on top of you, and you don’t have much time to get comfortable on him. By the time you get comfortable, they go to the pen or you’re down a few.

“McCurry came in and just pounded the bottom of the zone. He’s kind of a wannabe Huston Street: You know it’ll be in the zone but it’ll be down and moving left to right, so good luck. If you’re coaching, it’s what you want in the ninth inning. He touched 92 and was showing a decent slider too.

“With their offense, it kind of seems like if they don’t have it rolling, the offense is not very good, but if it is rolling, it’s dangerous. They’ve had a lot of turnover in that lineup, but it’s a bunch of guys that are real confident in their park. They coach hitters real well, and if you make mistakes you’re in trouble. Top to middle, it’s not real fun to sit there and watch. Hambly is a guy who’s an old school gorilla ball guy. They do have some power. With Medchill, here’s the scouting report—you know if you hit this spot or this spot, it’s over. But if you miss, you’re going to get hurt more often than you would against other teams.

“Kroll basically slides into (former Cowboy) Rebel Ridling’s spot—they do the same things. That’s an even tradeoff there. Dean Green makes that thing go. Dean Green sits in the middle and is just a headache. He’s got one of the best attitudes I’ve seen; he approaches the game awesome. It’s not a great swing—he’s patient, rarely chases offspeed out of the zone. He’s got kind of a lean-over, angled lefty swing. He’s really disciplined and has an aggressive attitude in the box.

“(Shortstop Tom) Belza is kind of unique—he has real wide shoulders, big feet. It’s not that pretty, but there’s something to be said for guys who get hits, and he gets hits. I think he led the league in hitting last year—I don’t think he’s that good, but he’s a lefthanded-hitting shortstop, making all the routine plays, none of the great ones.

“Defensively, Hambly gets it done at third base, Belza makes the routine plays, (Davis) Duren is a role player for them. Dean Green’s what you want at first base, he’s real tough. The catchers are both offensive, but that’s a fine tradeoff for them. In the outfield, they’ve got solid group of athletes who are veteran guys.

“Frank (Anderson) might be the best in the league, he’ll figure it out. It seems to me they’re searching for themselves a little bit; they don’t seem to have a great leader on their team. But they have an opportunity to win the league, even though they started off poorly.”

In The
Dugout
Brian Pearl, rhp, Washington

Coming into this season, Pearl had pitched just 11 innings at the collegiate level. But the converted third baseman has flashed mid-90s heat on the mound and has abandoned playing the field to focus on his pitching this year. Splitting time between starting and relieving, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior is 0-3, 3.10 with 14 strikeouts and seven walks over his first 20 innings. The Huskies host Arizona State this weekend and Friday’s game is at Safeco Field. BA’s Conor Glassey sat down with Pearl this week on his swing through the Pacific Northwest.

How’s the season going so far?

I mean, I think we’ve got a really talented team, we just haven’t put it all together, you know? One day we’ll pitch and we won’t hit. The next day we’ll pitch, but we just won’t hit, so it’s been up and down, but I feel like it’s going to turn around. We should be fine. It was a rough weekend in Stanford, pitching-wise, but our offense was there until Sunday. If we turn it around then it will be good, but if we keep going like we are now, then who knows how it’s going to end up?

How has it been going, personally for you?

It’s been going pretty well. I made the transition from closer to starter and that’s new to me. I think last week was probably the third or fourth start of my life, so it was different. But, if I can help the team win by moving into the starting rotation, that’d be fine, but at the same time, it’s kind of difficult.

What kinds of things go into making that transition?

Just, I’ve got to get my stamina up. My first outing was good. I went six innings and I felt like I could have went eight or nine, you know, but they felt like it was a smart decision—since I haven’t done it—to cut it a little short. During my last outing, my lat kind of tightened up on me. I talked to Ken (Knutson) about it and he said it was mainly something . . . the transition process from the bullpen to starter, it’s kind of a common thing for your body reacts differently. So, hopefully this week that’ll be fine. I’m still in the bullpen as far as midweek goes, then weekend comes around and I’ll be on the hill either Friday or Sunday.

Is there anything specific that you’re working on while you make the transition?

I started throwing a curveball—that’s new. One day I just decided that I wanted to start throwing something else. I feel like a lot of teams were sitting on my fastball and my slider. So I thought, ‘Maybe if I throw a curveball, it will maybe throw them off guard a little bit.’ Maybe go fastball strike one, then curveball or slider.

Is there anybody on the team that you’ve been talking to or working with for the curveball?

I just talked to Tighe (Dickinson), our pitching coach. I mean, I don’t think anybody really throws a curveball like mine. It’s almost like a slurve. But, he’s been helping out a lot with it because sometimes I get it caught in between the 12-6 and my slider, and I don’t want it to be a similar pitch. So he tells me to get it out front and let it do its thing, so I’ve just been trying to do that.

What about a changeup? Is that something you’re working on as well?

I throw a changeup. I don’t throw it a lot, but I think it’s a pretty good pitch. It’s actually one of my favorites to throw, but my slider and my curveball lately have been so much better that I just go to those. But, at the same time, it’s a nice pitch to lefties to mix in. I throw it every now and then. I’d like to throw it more, but I’m not the one doing the pitch calling.

So, you’ve come out of the bullpen and now you’ve done some starting. Do you have a preference between the two?

Whatever helps us. It’s a completely different thing. Closing, you’ve got to have that mindset of just, ‘Nobody can touch me.’ Starting, you kind of have the same thing, but eventually someone’s probably going to get a hit, so you have to pace yourself a little more. I don’t know. My dad always tells me, before every start he’s just like, ‘Go out there and pretend like you’re closing every inning.’ So, I mean, that seems to work. It’s pretty good advice.

Did you grow up as a Husky fan?

I did. It was actually my number one school I wanted to go to, but I wasn’t recruited here until late. I just got lucky enough to have one of the coaches come down to see me play and as soon as they offered, that was what I wanted to do.

Did you grow up coming to games or going to the football or basketball games?

Yeah. I actually probably only went to one football game growing up. I’m more one of the guys that just wants to watch it on TV. I still do that here, I mean I probably go to two games a year. I’ll watch it at home or whatever.

Are you going to pitch on Friday at Safeco Field?

I don’t know yet. I think it would be fun under the lights in the big stadium, me versus (Mike) Leake. It’s something that I was kind of looking forward to, but I have to realize that I didn’t put forth the best outing last Friday. So it’s kind of up to the coaches and we’ll just see what happens. As far as right now, I’ll probably close Friday and start Sunday. I don’t know if it’s going to stay that way or what’s going to happen. But, whatever they decide to do, then that’s what I’ll do.

How’s the Pac-10 looking so far this year?

I’ve heard pretty good things. We’ve only played Oregon and Stanford. Oregon, they’re going to play a little bit. I would definitely say their strong side is their pitching. They don’t really have that home run threat in their lineup, they kind of just attack their bats. And then, I was actually really surprised with Stanford. People are saying they’re not very good, they can’t hit, but they came out this weekend and really swung it and I think we have a pretty good pitching staff. So, compliments to them—they put the bat on the ball and they play in a pretty hot park. If they keep doing that, they’ll make a run again.

I read in your player profile that you’re the career leader in stolen bases at Cascade High School.

Yeah, that’s a typo.

Is it? Aw . . .

Actually, it’s from a summer team I played for—the Seattle A’s my senior season at (high) school. It says 44, but I was 48 of 49 and the record was 47. Chad Boudon, who played here, actually had the record. My junior season I wasn’t very fast and, all of a sudden, my senior season I could run. So, I was telling him all season, ‘I’m going to break your record.’ and the record happened to be 47, so that was kind of my goal all summer to get 48, because I knew I wouldn’t beat his home run record here.


I was bummed that was a typo, because I thought you might have broken a Grady Sizemore record or something. Have you ever met Grady?

I know his younger brother, Corey. I actually think I’ve only met Grady once. He’s a pretty quiet guy from what I remember.

What do you like to do when you’re not playing baseball?

I play MLB 2K9 quite a bit. I hang out with my roommate, Tyler Cheney . . . wander around. I just like to go over to friends’ houses and chill out. I’m kind of one of those people that just likes to be alone—not all the time, of course—but I’ll sit around, I’ll hang out with my family, play video games, take a lot of naps.

College | #2009 #Weekend Preview

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