Weekend Preview: Feb. 28-March 2

THIS WEEK

1. Louisiana-Lafayette and Alabama face heightened expectations—and each other.

2. Cal State Fullerton visits Oregon in a top-10 matchup layered with intrigue.

3. Notes from other big series around the nation.


TOP 25 SERIES
Monmouth at (1) Virginia
(14) Miami at (2) Florida State
(3) South Carolina vs./vs./at (11) Clemson
Wright State at (4) Oregon State
(5) Cal State Fullerton at (9) Oregon
Yale at (7) Louisiana State
Stanford at (8) Vanderbilt
(21) Alabama at (10) Louisiana-Lafayette
(13) Cal Poly at Southern California
North Florida at (22) North Carolina
(23) Texas A&M at Fresno State
South Alabama at (24) Arkansas

Showdown In The Bayou

When Louisiana-Lafayette beat No. 7 LSU 4-1 in a rain-shortened five-inning affair Tuesday at Alex Box Stadium, Ragin’ Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux wanted to make sure his team did not celebrate.

“We played well through five. When the game is over, you pack up your stuff,” Robichaux said. “No social media, Twitter, nothing. Let’s move on.”

For the Cajuns, who broke into the top 10 in Baseball America’s rankings this week for the first time since 2000, handling the weight of expectations is critical. For the first time since 2000, Louisiana-Lafayette entered the season as a team expected to compete for a trip to the College World Series. The program’s passionate fan base is keyed up, scouts are bearing down on Lafayette, and media attention has intensified. Since stumbling out of the gate in a 5-1 loss to Eastern Illinois, the Cajuns have won eight straight, including a quality road series sweep at Southern Mississippi last weekend. They head into a big series this weekend against Southeastern Conference power Alabama as the favorite.

“It’s so hard. It’s so much surrounding everything,” Robichaux said. “They’ve really done a good job (managing it). I think they saw what happened opening night when we tried to be something we’re not—they were too amped up. I think since then, we’ve gotten back to who we are, what we are.

“We don’t go out there one day and preach to them that we want to lead the country in home runs, or runs scored, or anything. Because we’re a mid-major. When I got sent to South Carolina (for the 2000 super regional), they were (55-8), No. 1 in the country. In ’99 when they sent me to Rice in the Astrodome, they were No. 1 in the country. So we’re not going to get anything easy here. We have to earn everything we get . . . If we don’t get good at competing, I don’t know that we can get through a regional or a super regional.”

Carson Baranik

Carson Baranik has a power fastball and a swing-and-miss breaking ball.

Louisiana-Lafayette might just lead the nation in home runs or any number of other offensive categories, because the bulk of last year’s elite offensive team is back in the fold, with slugging outfielder Caleb Adams (who is tied for the team lead in batting at .368 and OBP at .500) leading the way out of the leadoff spot. Last year’s team reached the Baton Rouge Regional finals before falling to host LSU, and Robichaux believes that experience prepared this team to make a deeper run, just as ULL’s 1999 loss to Rice in super regionals set the stage for the team’s 2000 run to Omaha.

So experience is a major strength for the Cajuns, but a big reason this team looks built to go even further than last year’s club is because of three newcomers on the mound. Heading into the season, Lafayette’s rotation was built around a proven junior ace in righthander Austin Robichaux, but the other two projected starters had to prove themselves. Both Carson Baranik and Greg Milhorn have power fastballs, swing-and-miss breaking balls they can throw for strikes or use as chase pitches, and feel for changeups. But both junior-college transfers needed to prove they were ready to start on weekends at the Division I level. Fortunately, both of them began their collegiate careers around big-time SEC programs at LSU and Arkansas, respectively. That made it easier for them to get acclimated at ULL.

TOP 25 TOURNAMENTS
USA Baseball-Irish Classic, Cary, N.C.:
(6) North Carolina State, (19) UCLA, Appalachian State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Youngstown State
Houston College Classic:
(12) Rice, (15) Texas, (16) Texas Christian, Houston, Sam Houston State, Texas Tech
Louisville tournament:
(17) Indiana, (20) Louisville, Toledo
Diamond Classic, Starkville, Miss.:
(18) Mississippi State, Eastern Illinois, Michigan State
Florida Tournament, Gainesville, Fla.:
(25) Florida, Florida Gulf Coast, Illinois

And so far, both have performed at a high level. Baranik, the Saturday starter, is 1-0, 1.10 through 16 innings. Milhorn, who will serve as the Sunday starter most weeks but perhaps not this week after he threw five strong innings at LSU on Tuesday, is 2-0, 0.73.

“We felt last year we were just a little short with the pitchers,” Tony Robichaux said. “This year we have a little more depth, and the two big cogs there were Baranik and Milhorn, because they’ve been in the SEC, even though they didn’t have a lot of innings at Arkansas and LSU, they’ve been at programs where the standards are very high. By getting back here, they’re not your typical freshman or junior college transfer that maybe played in front of 500 people for two years.”

Louisiana-Lafayette’s other key newcomer on the mound is freshman righthander Reagan Bazar (1-0, 1.80, 2 SV), who seems to have found a home at the back of a bullpen that is stocked with seniors in supporting roles. At 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, Bazar strikes an intimidating presence on the mound, and his stuff is even more imposing. His velocity began to spike in the fall, when the Cajuns reported he was throwing 94-96 mph. It has continued to climb this spring.

“We joked after the fall was over that he might be the first guy we’ve had here who can hit 100,” Robichaux said. “I didn’t know it would be the first night out on the mound in the spring. I think folklore has creeped in now, because 100 mph has appeared up on the scoreboard. People call up who don’t even know the kid’s name—they call up and say, ‘Who’s that kid who can throw 100?’ We’re a traveling circus now.”

Robichaux said the Cajuns are still trying to help Bazar turn himself from a thrower into a pitcher, but he is making progress. He ditched his curveball in favor of a slider, and he is starting to command the pitch better and better. His changeup is a work in progress, but his top two pitches should be enough to dominate in a relief role.

Like the Cajuns, Alabama made a regional last year and headed into this spring with elevated expectations, ranking No. 21 in the preseason. The Crimson Tide leaned heavily upon freshmen last year and reached the NCAA tournament ahead of schedule, and its sophomore class (which ranked No. 4 in the nation when it showed up on campus) has gotten plenty of attention, led by up-the-middle stalwarts Mikey White, Kyle Overstreet and Georgie Salem.

But like the Cajuns, Alabama has gotten a big boost on the mound from newcomers. This group of freshmen arrived with less fanfare, but Crimson Tide coach Mitch Gaspard said this class might be even better than last year’s watershed group. “We were going, ‘The class before was pretty loaded,’ but we really feel like this class is as good or maybe even a touch better, because it’s a real rounded class,” Gaspard said.

Three freshman pitchers—lefthander Thomas Burrows and righthanders Geoffrey Bramblett and Nick Eicholtz—have opened their careers by throwing a combined 19 1/3 innings without allowing an earned run. They have allowed 10 hits and one unearned run while striking out 14 and holding opponents to a .162 average.

Thomas Burrows

Thomas Burrows has emerged as a key member of the ‘Bama bullpen. (Courtesy of Alabama Athletics)

Eicholtz was the biggest name of the three coming out of high school, and he fared well in his first career start Tuesday against Southern Miss. Burrows and Bramblett have emerged as key pieces in the bullpen, making it easier for Alabama to move last year’s closer, Ray Castillo, into the Sunday starter role. Gaspard said Castillo is still learning to maintain his aggressiveness as a starter rather than pacing himself too much, but he took a step forward last week, holding his 90-92 mph fastball for five innings. “It’s still a work in progress, but I think pretty quick the pieces will line up,” Gaspard said.

Burrows, the nominal closer, is a fierce competitor with an 89-91 mph fastball from the left side and a pair of quality secondary pitches. Bramblett is Alabama’s latest find from powerhouse Hoover High School, where he was “the typical quarterback/point guard/pitcher/shortstop kid,” as Gaspard put it. He sits at 90-91 and has a very good curveball and solid changeup as well.

“They have good heads on their shoulders, very good mentality, confident kids,” Gaspard said. “I could very easily see in the next year or so having Eicholtz, Bramblett and Burrows being the three weekend starters for us. Right now we have a nice luxury having some older guys in front of them.”

In addition to the sophomore Castillo, Alabama leans upon talented juniors Spencer Turnbull and Justin Kamplain in the rotation, and Gaspard said both have shown good stuff so far. Turnbull did not have his best command in a no-decision last week against Stephen F. Austin State, but he pitched his way out of jams with his 90-95 fastball and an improved breaking ball, which is more of a slider now, with sharper break. His changeup has been less consistent, but he has learned to run his two-seamer in on righthanded hitters, giving him another weapon to complement his explosive four-seamer.

Kamplain’s command took a step forward last summer in the Cap Cod League, and so did his changeup, which has become his bread and butter pitch, according to Gaspard. He pitches in the 88-91 range from the left side and also mixes in a curveball.

Meanwhile, three other freshmen have forced their way into playing time in the lineup. Freshman Will Haynie is splitting time behind the plate with Wade Wass (who has returned strong after missing all of last year with an injury), and both of them should be key run producers in the lineup who are capable catchers as well. Scrappy outfielder Hunter Webb is a table-setter with premium speed, capable of running the 60-yard dash in 6.4 seconds. And outfielder Casey Hughston has an impressive 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame, serious athleticism and bat speed. “I think he can be a superstar in this league eventually,” Gaspard said.

With a team loaded with underclassmen, Alabama faces a major test this weekend on the road against a top 10 team. For the first time Robichaux can remember, his team is at home for Mardi Gras weekend, which should make for an even wilder crowd. SEC teams rarely leave their home parks for early nonconference weekend road series against dangerous mid-majors like Louisiana-Lafayette, but Gaspard said he likes to get his team away from home early in the season to prepare it for conference play. Last year, the Tide went to Florida Atlantic (where it won two of three) and Louisville (where it was swept, losing a pair of one-run games).

“I just feel like being a young team, you learn so much and it prepares you for the tough SEC, so I try to take one trip a year in a tough environment,” Gaspard said. “Last year we were swept by Louisville—and they were just dynamite—but even walking out of there, I think we got better, and it showed up later in the season. This is another weekend where I think our team has a chance to get better.”

Titans, Ducks Renew Acquaintances

There will always be plenty of anticipation around a matchup between Oregon coach George Horton and Cal State Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook, two men who worked together for many years at Fullerton and now are the leaders of two of the West Coast’s premier programs. Last year, both teams were ranked inside the top 20 when they met in Week Three in Fullerton. This year, both teams head into their series ranked in the top 10.

The ninth-ranked Ducks are 8-0, having outscored their opponents 58-24, but Horton told reporters Wednesday that he was not thrilled with the way his team carried itself in Tuesday’s 8-2 win against Portland, suggesting some of his younger players “didn’t finish the game” mentally. Perhaps he is just trying to keep his team hungry and grounded.

“We just have to reflect our own personal history,” Horton said. “We’ve won 94 baseball games the last two years, and we don’t have a championship to say for it and we don’t have a trip to Omaha to speak for it. So if we’re looking at 7-0, great job, and now 8-0, great job, we’re very happy.

Matt Chapman

Matt Chapman has stayed at third rather than move to short as planned. (Photo by Larry Goren)

“Our obligation is to master the game. Certainly the stakes of the game go way up when you compete against a Cal State Fullerton, a Pac-12 opponent, a regional opponent. The excitement for that speaks for itself, because the other team knows how to play the game. The excitement about a Cal State Fullerton is the respect that I have for them. It isn’t just another opponent—it would be ludicrous for me to say that, on a personal basis.”

Oregon might have to play the series without junior third baseman Scott Heineman, its most talented player, as he is day-to-day with a strain in his left shoulder. If he’s out, Mitchell Tolman will shift from third to first, with freshman A.J. Balta playing first. Balta, a hitting machine who is off to an 8-for-20 start (.400), was a second baseman in high school, and he’s still learning the nuances of first base.

“First base is a pretty demanding position, especially in college, especially playing an opponent like the one coming up for us that is very versed in the inside game, very well-trained—if there’s an Achilles’ heel, they’re going to go after it,” Horton said. “So we’ll see how he handles it if Heineman’s injury keeps him out for an extended period of time.”

The other notable development for the Ducks is in the rotation. Lefties Tommy Thorpe (1-0, 1.38) and Matt Krook (0-0, 2.03) are entrenched in the top two spots, but there has been good competition for the Sunday starter job between veteran righty Jeff Gold (2-0, 2.45) and lefties Jordan Spencer (0-0, 5.87) and Porter Clayton (0-0, 0.00). Horton said there was little separation between the three heading into the season, and he said he’ll give Clayton a shot at the job this week.

“He’s a big, tall lefthanded pitcher, the ball comes out of his hand really well,” Horton said. “He’ll touch 92 sometimes, he’s got good feel for a changeup, he’s got command of the fastball to all four corners. And he’s got a pretty good breaking ball at times.”

The Titans are more established in the rotation, with three proven strike-throwers in Thomas Eshelman (1-0, 3.21), Justin Garza (1-0, 2.84) and Grahamm Wiest (1-0, 0.55). Vanderhook said during the offseason that Wiest’s stuff has improved, and his numbers so far are filthy. He has 17 strikeouts and one walk through 16 innings, which will endear him to Vanderhook.

“It’s stupid,” Vanderhook said of Wiest’s success. “Two hours, 15 minutes for nine innings the other day—boom, boom, boom. He doesn’t mess around.”

Righty Koby Gauna has emerged as Fullerton’s bullpen anchor in place of departed first-round pick Michael Lorenzen, just as former starter Jake Reed has solidified Oregon’s bullpen in place of Jimmie Sherfy. Gauna allowed just three hits in nine shutout innings of relief during last weekend’s 19-inning marathon against San Francisco, and Vanderhook said he has been as good as any other pitcher on his staff.

Despite their elite pitching staff, the fifth-ranked Titans carry a 4-3 record into this weekend, as they have clearly yet to find their rhythm.

“We’ve been up and down,” Vanderhook said. “We could be sitting here 5-1 and everybody thinks we’re good like you guys did before. But we’re not; we’re 4-3, because we just haven’t done enough. It’s not like we’re all broke, but we just haven’t played good enough defense. We’re scoring runs pretty consistently, we’re pitching consistently. We just need to play better defense.”

For much of the offseason, Vanderhook said he planned to play preseason All-American Matt Chapman at shortstop, but when the curtain lifted on the season, Chapman was back at third base, where he played last year and where he is a standout. Veteran Keegan Dale and freshman Timmy Richards have split time at shortstop, while freshman Taylor Bryant has challenged Jake Jefferies for playing time at second base. If Fullerton has a lead late in the game, Vanderhook said he will call upon Bryant as a defensive substitute at second.

Vanderhook has been very pleased with the work of Jared Deacon and A.J. Kennedy behind the plate, where Fullerton had to replace departed stalwart Chad Wallach. Fullerton pitchers excel at holding baserunners, and its catchers can both throw, which should help them keep Oregon’s potent running game in check. The Ducks are 19-for-26 in stolen base attempts through eight games.

“Against Oregon, those two (catchers) are going to be key, because they like to run all over the field, and we don’t like people to run on us,” Vanderhook said. “It will be a good challenge, their running game against our catching game.”

It will be one of many challenges facing both teams this weekend.

“It might be tougher (to run),” Horton said. “They do a lot of things better than a lot of people. First of all, getting on base against their pitching staff will a little more of a challenge. Those first two guys don’t walk you at all, and Wiest was really good on Sunday . . . and coach Vanderhook was telling me how much he’s improved. So it’s going to be harder to get on, first and foremost, and then once we get on, it will be harder to do things that we’ve been extremely successful at, stealing bases and picking the right time.

“That’s what I’m saying: the measuring stick, the challenge is they play the game, certain parts of the game, extremely well. We need to take advantage of whatever crack in the armor we can take advantage of.”

Around The Nation

• Two of college baseball’s best rivalries will renew this weekend, as Clemson and South Carolina get together for their annual traveling series, and Miami visits Florida State. John Manuel touched on the Clemson/South Carolina rivalry in his column Thursday, and I will be on hand all weekend to report on the series, which pits an elite South Carolina pitching staff riding a 51-inning scoreless streak against a deep, balanced Clemson lineup.

• Miami is coming off a big series win at home against Florida last weekend, and scouts who were in Coral Gables for the series agreed that this is Miami’s best team since 2008. But No. 2 Florida State can match Miami’s veteran weekend rotation, and this series should feature three stellar pitching matchups (Chris Diaz vs. Luke Weaver on Friday, Bryan Radziewski vs. Brandon Leibrandt on Saturday, Andrew Suarez vs. Mike Compton on Sunday). For the first time in years, Miami also has the offensive firepower to rival the Seminoles.

Luke Weaver

Luke Weaver faces Miami Friday. (Photo by Mike Janes)

Regardless of how they match up on paper, FSU and Miami always seem to play competitive series. Eleven of the last 19 games between the rivals have been decided by two runs or fewer. Florida State has won 11 of those 19 games. This is certainly one of college baseball’s most anticipated rivalries, which is why the two programs worked together to ensure they meet in nonconference action this weekend, even though they won’t face off in conference play.

“As a Seminole, that’s the biggest weekend of the year. Let’s face it,” Florida State coach Mike Martin said in a story on FSU’s website. “Even though it’s a nonconference game, it means something to both teams . . . The first game that I ever coached as the Florida State coach came against the University of Miami, and it’s a special series. I can remember almost every single series that we’ve played against them. They’ve been memorable.”

• The annual Houston College Classic at Minute Maid Park is loaded with marquee pitching staffs. Texas, TCU and Rice all are loaded with premium arms, helping all three earn preseason rankings. The other three teams in the field rank among college baseball’s most notable upstarts through two weeks, as Houston, Sam Houston State and Texas Tech are a combined 22-2. And all of them have pitched very well, too. The Red Raiders have allowed two or fewer runs in seven of their eight games, despite opening the season with a four-game set against an explosive Indiana offense. The Bearkats have allowed two or fewer runs in six of their nine games, including a 3-1 win at Rice on Tuesday. And Houston has allowed just six runs total in its seven games, including its own midweek win at Rice, 3-0 on Feb. 19. We projected both Houston and SHSU to earn regional bids heading into the season, and the Bearkats were one of my favorite Omaha sleepers. Texas Tech’s early success has been one of college baseball’s brightest surprises. This weekend, we’ll get a better sense just how good those teams are, in a Houston College Classic field that looks as deep from 1-6 than it has ever been.

• Speaking of upstarts and measuring sticks, one of the most intriguing series on the West Coast this weekend pits No. 13 Cal Poly against 7-1 Southern California, which is trying to make its first regional since 2005. The Mustangs have proven that they are legitimate by taking series agains Kansas State and UCLA over the last two weekends. USC’s signature win is a midweek victory against Cal State Fullerton, but the Trojans generated positive reports throughout the fall and early on this spring, prompting us to project them as a regional team this year, too. USC’s rotation of Wyatt Strahan, Bob Wheatley and Kyle Twomey is its best in years, and its bullpen is deeper than it has been in a long time. Perhaps the biggest surprise so far for USC has been the performance of sophomore outfielder/DH A.J. Ramirez, who leads the team in hitting at .409.

Michael Cederoth

Michael Cederoth has thrived as a closer.

• Elsewhere on the West Coast, San Diego State flame-thrower Michael Cederoth, who BA contributor Kirk Kenney profiled in the preseason, has thrived since moving from the rotation into the closer role. He has struggled throughout his career to harness his command, and after he issued four walks in 3 2/3 innings in SDSU’s season-opening loss to San Jose State, the Aztecs decided to see what he could do in a relief role. In four relief appearances, Cederoth has yet to allow a run over five innings, yielding just one hit and three walks while striking out five. He has picked up two saves and a win out of the bullpen. This weekend, Cederoth goes head-to-head against his former pitching coach, as the Aztecs head north to face St. Mary’s and first-year head coach Eric Valenzuela. The 4-4 Gaels went 3-1 at their home tournament last weekend, capping it with a win against Kansas State.

• One of the weekend’s most intriguing pitching matchups pits Texas A&M junior righthander Daniel Mengden against Fresno State junior righty Jordan Brink. Both arrived in college as two-way players, and both have excelled since focusing exclusively on pitching. One scout who has seen Mengden this spring said he worked in the 90-95 mph range and showed an advanced changeup. He is pounding the strike zone with all of his pitches, posting a 20-4 K-BB mark in 13 innings to go along with a 1.38 ERA. Brink, who garnered scouting buzz heading into season by flashing 96 mph heat and a wipeout power breaking ball, is 1-0, 0.61 with 10 strikeouts and four walks in 15 innings.

 

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