|Texas Christian at Cal State Fullerton|
When Jim Schossnagle was the head coach at Nevada-Las Vegas in 2002-03, his teams played an annual early-season series against Cal State Fullerton. While wins typically tend to be hard to come by for most teams when they play against the Titans, Schlossnagle found those series to be quite valuable.
"Every year they're so well-coached, and Southern California kids play baseball year-round, so anything you're not good at, they expose it," said Schlossnagle, who has been the coach at Texas Christian since 2004. "So you learn pretty quickly where you stand and what areas you have to get better at. For me, that's the brand of baseball that I like to play, and I would prefer that our program plays. You tell your team, 'You see what they're doing? This is where we want to be.'
"From a (Ratings Percentage Index) standpoint, I used to have the theory that you don't want to play top 10 teams; you want to play good teams but not the great teams, because if you don't win it's useless in terms of the RPI. But there's value if you can win a game or two, because later in the season you get those bonus points that help you (with NCAA tournament seeding)."
So when Schlossnagle's good friend Dave Serrano became head coach at Fullerton in 2007, Schlossnagle jumped at the chance to schedule a home-and-home series with the Titans. CSF opened at TCU in 2008 (with Fullerton winning two of three), and the Horned Frogs will repay the visit this weekend.
This year more than ever, Cal State Fullerton is constructed to play that brand of baseball that Schlossnagle so admires. In preseason All-America shortstop Christian Colon, junior center fielder Josh Fellhauer and sophomore third baseman Gary Brown, the Titans have a trio of exceptional athletes who will wreak havoc with their speed and their line-drive bats. All three excel at small ball, just as veterans Joe Scott, Jeff Newman and Cory Jones do. Senior first baseman Jared Clark and junior outfielder Khris Davis provide big power potential, though Serrano said the Titans are still waiting for Davis to become more consistent in all phases and tap into his considerable talent. Freshman Nick Ramirez will start at DH immediately, adding a crucial lefthanded power source.
The Titans also should be extremely strong defensively, with elite defenders up the middle in Colon, Scott, Fellhauer and catcher Dustin Garneau. Brown, who figures to take over for Fellhauer in center field next year thanks to his plus-plus speed, moves from left to third base this year to shore up a hole, and Serrano said he is still working on slowing the game down and playing under control, but he flashes great instincts at the hot corner, particularly on slow rollers.
The lineup's proficiency at the plate and in the field takes pressure off a talented but somewhat inexperienced pitching staff. Sophomore Daniel Renken will start Friday night, followed by polished junior college transfer Kyle Witten on Saturday and touted freshman righty Tyler Pill on Sunday. Pill, who missed time in the fall after suffering a collapsed lung in a freak incident one night in his apartment, has bounced back strong in the spring and beat out junior righty Michael Morrison for the Sunday job.
Pill has shown an 89-91 mph fastball, a good curve and a plus changeup, according to Serrano. Morrison has shown even more electric stuff but his command isn't yet where it needs to be, so he'll likely begin the year pitching in relief on weekends and starting midweek. Strike-throwing sidearmer Ryan Ackland begins as the closer in a bullpen that will rely on several newcomers.
"We know we'll be challenged, but we'll be protected by an exciting lineup, an attack offense that will put pressure on a lot of teams," Serrano said. "We'll play phenomenal defense in the infield and the outfield. We'll have a lot of veteran leadership on the field every day. It will allow this pitching staff to kind of grow up so they don't have to carry the load out of the gate. We want them to start carrying the load as we get to conference play."
Like the Titans, TCU will start a heralded freshman on Sunday in righthander Kyle Winkler, who dazzled with a 91-94 mph fastball and sharp 78-81 breaking ball at the team's alumni game (Schlossnagle said Winkler was more impressive than alums Lance Broadway, Jake Arrieta and Sam Demel). Saturday starter Sean Hoelscher, a sophomore righty, is equally capable of dominating with a sinking 88-93 mph heater, a good changeup and hard-breaking slider. But ace Tyler Lockwood, a junior righty, relies on location and pitches to contact.
"A lot of our guys pitch down in zone, and get a lot of balls hit, especially to the left side," Schlossnagle said. "We've been top 10 in the nation in defense last two years (with a .976 fielding percentage that ranked sixth in 2008), and it's really important that we catch the ball. If you don't play defense behind Lockwood, you're going to be in trouble."
Fortunately, the Frogs have a sublime defender at second base in senior Ben Carruthers, and another steady senior at third in Matt Carpenter. But perhaps the key player for TCU is freshman shortstop Taylor Featherston, who must replace departed defensive whiz Bryan Kervin. Featherston has shown good instincts and an excellent arm in intrasquads, and he has flashed some power at the plate.
Power is an area where TCU should be much improved in 2009. Carpenter led the team in homers with 11 last year thanks to a late-season power surge, and he'll get more help in the middle of the lineup from junior college transfer Matt Curry, a Matt Stairs type with a powerful lefthanded bat. Right fielder Matt Ellington—an RBI machine—is back for his senior year, and junior first baseman Matt Vern provides some pop as well.
Like Fullerton, the Frogs will rely on youngsters in the bullpen, especially power-armed freshmen righties Tyler Merck (who will start as the closer thanks to a heavy fastball up to 93 mph and a bulldog mentality) and Erik Miller (who owns a deceptive three-pitch mix and reaches the low 90s as well). And just as Morrison is the X-factor on the mound for the Titans, strong-armed righties Steven Maxwell and Greg Holle could take TCU to another level.
Maxwell, the team's best prospect, is mostly recovered from Tommy John surgery and worked in the 88-91 mph range in his last intrasquad outing; he'll start Tuesday against Dallas Baptist. Holle's offseason progress was slowed by bad weather when he went home to New York for the holidays, and he's about two weeks behind the rest of the staff with his arm strength and endurance, according to Schlossnagle. When he's back to 100 percent, the Frogs will have the option to structure their pitching staff a number of different ways, just as the Titans will.
Clearly, this series is not just valuable for the Horned Frogs. Fullerton will also benefit from the early-season test.
"Jim and I have an agreement: We hope to carry this series on for years to come," Serrano said. "We think it's good to get to another region of the country and play other good teams. We both play in environments with good weather this time of year. To me on paper they're kind of under the radar a little bit, but they've got some guys back and they're going to be a challenge."
|Marquee Mound Matchup|
|Vanderbilt's Mike Minor vs. Stanford's Jeffrey Inman|
A pair of preseason All-Americans will go head-to-head at Sunken Diamond on Friday, as Vanderbilt lefthander Mike Minor matches up against Stanford righty Jeff Inman. Minor, who won BA's Summer Player of the Year in 2008 after dazzling for Team USA, is a second-team preseason All-American with a chance to become the third Commodore in three years to go in the top 10 overall picks of the draft. He'll give SEC hitters a slightly different look this year than in his first two seasons, as he'll complement his plus changeup, solid fastball and decent slider with a swing-and-miss curveball that he really developed last summer. Vandy coach Tim Corbin said Minor hasn't dazzled so far in practice this spring, but that's the idea.
"We've just brought him along slow, like with (former Vandy lefthander
Inman had a strong summer in his own right, ranking as the No. 9 prospect in the Cape Cod League and striking out 13 against eventual league champion Harwich in his final start of the season. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Inman's command was inconsistent as a sophomore last year, but he owns a lively low-90s fastball, a good curveball and a changeup.
"I've seen Inman in the Cape, and it looks like he's got a good arm and good stuff," Corbin said. "It was very clean, and his fastball topped out at 91-92. He was pretty good, a strike-thrower who was around the plate."
The Commodores will play four games in four days on the West Coast—two against No. 15 Stanford and then two against California. Despite the rigors of Southeastern Conference play, Corbin said he thinks his young team will benefit from the tough nonconference opening weekend.
"We just want to play someone at that level out West where you get a little bit of a different look," he said. "It takes a kid out of his comfort zone. With a young club like this, I think it's the thing to do—I might not say that when we get back. We play a good schedule, and there are some people who do the same type of thing we do; I like that. You don't give the kids any false hopes, playing one of the best teams right away."
|Under The Radar|
|Rob Rassmussen, UCLA|
Bruins coach John Savage has his pick of quality arms every weekend, but his initial weekend rotation of 2009 is a bit of a surprise. Rasmussen, a 5-foot-11 sophomore who was limited to just 18 innings last year by a broken foot, will make the start on Friday against UC Davis. Rasmussen has filthy stuff—his hammer curveball should emerge as one of the best in the nation, and he attacks hitters with a lively fastball—but lacks weekend experience. Meanwhile, expected ace junior lefty Gavin Brooks, who has pitched on weekends since he was a freshman, is not in the rotation against the Aggies. The nation's top freshman, righthande Gerrit Cole, will start Saturday, while junior righty Charles Brewer will start Sunday.
"Brooks is fine, completely healthy," Savage said in an e-mail. "We are working on him mechanically, (and he) will play a major role."
In case Bruins fans are wondering what to expect from Rasmussen, here's BA's scouting report on him from the 2007 draft preview:
Rasmussen emerged as the area's most dominant arm, coming in a reported 5-foot-10, 155-pound package. Scouts agreed his curveball, a true mid-70s, 12-to-6 hammer, was the best pitch for any high school pitcher in the area, and Rasmussen had used it to dominate inferior small-school competition, with four starts of 15 strikeouts or more. He had a 20-strikeout effort that was his best of the year, as Rasmussen sat at 86-89 mph, and the Los Angeles Times reported that he was up to 91 mph. He also throws a slider and a changeup. Rasmussen has committed to UCLA and doesn't have ideal size for a pro, but he has been crosschecked enough that the first three rounds was a possibility. Most scouts thought Rasmussen's family wanted him to go to college.
BA's Dave Perkin saw Rasmussen in the fall and reported he worked in the high 80s with his fastball and still had that "outstanding, old-fashioned, over-the-top, drop-straight-down curve."
|Ryan Lockwood, South Florida|
|Lockwood, who redshirted at Florida as a freshman and then transferred to South Florida for the 2008 season, made an immediate impact for the Bulls, hitting .415 and earning freshman All-America honors. He enters 2009 on a 30-game hitting streak that was interrupted early last May when he broke his hand. Lockwood hit .464 with 11 doubles, two triples, 27 runs and 24 RBIs during the streak, which began on March 19 against Oklahoma. A pure lefthanded hitter with enough speed to beat out his share of infield hits, Lockwood will try to keep his streak going in the Big Ten/Big East Challenge this weekend in the Clearwater/St. Petersburg area. He'll have his work cut out for him in Friday's opener, when he'll face Michigan ace righty Chris Fetter. The Bulls will take on Purdue and Indiana in their other two games this weekend. You can check the college blog for updates from the Challenge all weekend.|
|The Ducks haven't won a baseball game in 28 years—by far the longest drought in the Pacific-10 Conference. But at least the Diamond Ducks have an excuse; their program was dissolved in 1981 and was not reinstated until the summer of 2007. What excuse does the Oregon basketball team have for starting this season with an 0-13 record in the Pac-10?
Fans in Eugene are probably eager to turn their attention from the train wreck on the hardcourt to the upstart baseball team, which makes its long-awaited return Friday at St. Mary's. Anticipation is indeed high: Oregon's home opener against Fresno State on Feb. 27 already has sold out. The Ducks will hit the ground running, with 13 games televised on the Oregon Sports Network this spring and all 56 games broadcast on the radio.
And while coach George Horton will have his work cut out for him in the hyper-competitive Pac-10, don't expect Oregon's 28-year winless streak to continue much longer. The Ducks will be dangerous right out of the gate.
Horton will hand the ball to 6-foot-3 lefthander Tyler Anderson, a freshman from Las Vegas, in the opener against St. Mary's. Ducks recruiting coordinator Andrew Checketts regarded Anderson as an intriguing high-upside sleeper going into the fall, a 50th-round draft pick by the Twins with good feel for an 86-89 mph fastball, a promising cutter and a breaking ball. But Anderson has improved his velocity since then and has commanded all three pitches consistently.
"The freshman, Anderson, has knocked our socks off," Horton told the Oregonian. "He's passed every test that we've thrown his way. And, quite frankly, he deserves to be the guy on Friday. He's the real deal."
|Stat Of The Week|
Nebraska's record in season-opening road trips in coach Mike Anderson's first six years as head coach. The Cornhuskers travel to Louisiana-Lafayette this weekend, and Louisiana is the seventh different state in which they have opened the season in the last seven years. The others are California, Texas, South Carolina, Hawaii, New Mexico and Texas.
Nebraska has finished in the top four of the Big 12 during every season of Anderson's tenure except 2004, but league coaches picked them to finish seventh in the loaded conference this year. That's a product of the stacked league, but also of Nebraska's inexperience. On the mound, the Huskers return just 13 of their 41 wins from 2008. In the opener, they'll turn to sophomore righthander Michael Mariot, who will become the first Nebraska pitcher to make his first career start in the season-opener since Shane Komine in 1999 (and for the record, it worked out well for Komine, who went 6-2, 3.58 to anchor a 42-win Nebraska club as a freshman that year). In fact, Mariot never even started a game in high school, as he played one season on the varsity at Southlake Carroll (Texas) High as a junior, then had to sit out his senior year because of a problem with classes transferring over from the California high school where he spent his first two years.
Nebraska's youth is partially a product of its recent success. The Huskers have lost 16 players to the draft over the last two years, though a number of last year's losses were seniors.
"I think this program's had some success and done some things professionally," Anderson said. "I think some of the recent success of some of our guys in professional baseball, especially Joba Chamberlain and Alex Gordon—I call it the Joba and Alex effect. A lot of our guys realize, hey, they might be next.
"Don't take this wrong, I love my kids, but I'd say there's concerns on all parts (of the roster heading into 2009). We're improving and I do believe we have a chance to be a better offense than we were, but the guys we have haven't done it in the Big 12 or Division I baseball. I think we're going to be strong defensively. Until we go out and play 10, 15 games and find out where we're at, we've got to develop and find those roles."
The Eagles have struggled in recent years as the coldest-weather team in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and while they're a long shot to earn a regional bid in 2009, they do have several impact players to build around. Leading the way is catcher Tony Sanchez, who led hit .313/.394/.517 with nine homers and 45 RBIs last year (all team bests) and has garnered top two- to three-rounds draft buzz in the Northeast heading into the season. Sophomore infielders Mickey Wiswall (.306/.374/.461 a year ago) and Garret Smith (.285/.366/.377) are good all-around players who could be poised for breakout years as sophomores. The pitching staff lost several mainstays but returns one of the ACC's most talented closers in two-way player Michael Belfiore (2-0, 2.45 with eight saves) and a steady veteran atop the rotation in sophomore righty John Leonard (4-0, 5.27). BC also landed one of the ACC's best freshmen in righthander Mike Dennhardt, a New Jersey product who should slot right into the weekend rotation.
Boston College will get a test right out of the gate this weekend when it visits perennial Atlantic Sun Conference powerhouse Stetson for a four-game set. An American League area scout who recently saw the Eagles practice broke down some of their top players, starting with Sanchez.
"Sanchez finished about .310 last year, but he did hit about .350 most of the year and got tired toward the end. I saw him work out last week, he's OK. He did hit well at the Cape (Cod League), and he's a worker. He's an extremely likable kid, very polite and professional. You know he's well-raised from a good family.
"Against not great pitching, he didn't have a great scout day with an aluminum bat, but it's one day, you can throw that out. He is an advanced catch-and-throw guy, and the minor leagues are full of catch-and-throw guys. We'll just have to see how he swings the bat. There's no red flags with him offensively; it's not like he bails and pulls off and the back side collapses. He doesn't have any fear, he's got hand strength and he's a worker—he's got a chance, we'll just have to really bear down and see what he does. You see him hit off a tee, you can tell the components work a little bit. We'll see what kind of strike zone he'll have this year. He's got raw power, some physical strength. He's a big weight-room guy too, just in phenomenal shape. He was never overweight, but he's trimmed up, his waist's a little leaner, his back's a little wider. They're workers at BC—their strength coach does a nice job up there.
"Belfiore threw well. He's throwing 91 downhill pretty easily. I've seen him throw a very good change, he's got a good feel for it. And he threw some decent breaking balls the other day indoors.
"I don't love their club, but they've got some good local guys. Wiswall's a nice college player with good tools, a strong kid, a baseball player. Belfiore has strong tools and some ability. Dennhardt, if he continues doing what he did last spring, he'll be pretty good. He was 89-92 with a good curveball and a good changeup last spring. I hope he's at least that this spring—then you can just pat him on the back and say go get 'em. I like Leonard. He has a near-average fastball, he moves it around, he has a fringy breaking ball and will battle with a changeup. He's usually around the plate and comes at guys. He's fearless. He's gotten bigger—he's not overwhelming stuff-wise, but he's not scared, and he competes well. Garret Smith actually threw on scout day, and he threw well—up there to 89-90. He has a good arm. They've got some good college players and they'll compete well; they've got good kids who like to play."
|In The Dugout|
|Hiram Burgos, Bethune-Cookman|
After years of providing college teams with bulletin board fodder, we have finally retired the Upset City feature of the Weekend Preview, but that doesn't stop players from making their own bold predictions. Bethune-Cookman senior ace Hiram Burgos exudes confidence from every pore and is undaunted by the prospect of facing the nation's best pitcher—San Diego State All-American Stephen Strasburg—on Friday in the opening game of the MLB Urban Youth Academy Tournament in Compton, Calif. (Southern and San Diego will face off in the nightcap and Saturday's doubleheader will be live on MLB Network, starting at 5 p.m. Eastern.) While Strasburg's 1.57 ERA ranked third in the nation last year, Burgos was right behind him with a 1.58 ERA that ranked fourth, to go along with a 9-1 record in 80 innings. Wildcats coach Mervyl Melendez said Burgos has gotten stronger since arriving at B-CC from the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, increasing his velocity from the 83-85 mph range to the 90-92 range at scout day this year.
"He's a five-pitch type of guy," Melendez said. "I don't think I've ever coached anybody that can throw five pitches for strikes. He can throw anything for strikes at any given time, and he's got enough confidence in his pitches that he can do that. He has a little more command of his stuff than he used to have, that's why he's been successful. Bottom line, he's a competitor, he wants to pitch against the best teams. He likes a challenge."
So Hiram, you get to open the season in Compton against Stephen Strasburg—that's quite a way to start. How are you feeling—ready to go?
Yeah, I'm ready to go, I can't wait to start. I'm just working hard, and I'm telling you, I'm very ready to go.
Your coach says you like to go up against the best. Are you especially excited to go up against Strasburg, who is the favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft?
You know, I will do my job like all the games, it doesn't matter if I'm throwing against the No. 1 guy—it's another game. But yeah, I'm excited because we're starting the season and I'm going to face a guy like that, so that makes me excited to compete. Of course, that's the best competition right there. I feel comfortable with myself. You're going to be surprised with that game, I'm telling you.
So are you predicting the upset?
Yeah. That's the guy I want to face, seriously. That's the team I want to face.
It was a good experience. I can't wait to go again because it's good for us college baseball players. We're excited to play that tournament, to play those big teams like San Diego, San Diego State and Southern—that's good.
You had an amazing year last year and pitched against some great competition. Do you ever look back at last year and feel amazed at what you accomplished?
I'm telling you, this year I'm looking for higher expectations. Last year was a really, really good year. I had great confidence in myself, and I think that's going to help me this year too, having that confidence. I like a challenge. I will enjoy this year because it's my last season in college.
What was it like pitching in a regional against Miami?
I'm not going to forget that. It was a good experience; I felt like the fans, they had real, real good fans. They treated us like we are like family even though we were the other team. It was a good, good experience to pitch over there.
I laugh when I say this: The only guy I had trouble with was (Dave) DiNatale from Miami. He's a good, good hitter. He was the only guy that makes me feel like, 'Phew, what will I throw now?' He made me think about it.
You are a true five-pitch guy. That's pretty unusual—how do you describe your stuff?
I have five pitches; that's what makes me a good pitcher, because I have command of all of them, I can throw whatever I want. If it's 3-2, or 2-0, I can throw a breaking ball—I think that's my best pitch. I can throw my fastball anywhere: inside, outside. I throw a cutter to the righties, inside or backdoor. I've been working a lot on my changeup—I didn't use it a lot last year, but during the fall and now in the spring, I've got more confidence in it. I use the slider just to change the hitter's vision a little bit.
When you first came to Bethune-Cookman from Puerto Rico, what was the transition like?
It was real, real difficult for me. First of all, I didn't know anything about English, because in Puerto Rico we had English classes but I wasn't taking them that seriously. Then when they offered me a scholarship, they said in Florida, the weather is just like in Puerto Rico, and it's Division I baseball. I made the right choice coming to Bethune-Cookman. My first year was real difficult because Spanish is my first language, English is my second language, so it was difficult to communicate with people. So I started watching movies, listening to music, listening to people talk, and that's how I started learning English here. My first year, I lost that year because I didn't learn that much English my first year. I'm still working on it, but I'm doing my best.
We can do it. Those guys did it, so we can do it. That's one of the special things that Coach Melendez always says. We can do the same thing. This year, we're going to try to win a lot of games midweek, and I will be throwing a lot of midweek games to see if we can try to get a three seed. We can do it.