|Top 25 tournaments|
Since 2004, Houston's Minute Maid Park has been the center of the college baseball universe in February. The Houston College Classic (formerly the Minute Maid Classic) has earned a reputation as the unofficial kickoff event to the college baseball season, attracting bunches of elite teams and scores of scouts and scouting directors eager to get an early look at some of the nation's top talent.
|TOP 25 SCHEDULE|
|Sacramento State at (1) Arizona|
|Indiana State at (2) Mississippi|
|Florida at (9) Miami|
|(10) South Carolina vs./at (19) Clemson|
|(20) Wichita State at (11) Long Beach State|
|Georgia vs. (12) Oregon State @ Portland, Ore.|
|(21) Oklahoma State at South Florida|
|(21) Oklahoma State vs. Northwestern @ Tampa|
|(23) Cal State Fullerton at Stanford|
|Top 25 Tournaments|
|Urban Invitational, Compton, Calif.|
|(3) UCLA, Southern, Bethune-Cookman, Southern California|
|Coca-Cola Classic, Rock Hill, S.C.|
|(4) North Carolina, Kent State, St. John's, Winthrop|
|USD Tournament, San Diego|
|(5) Missouri, (17) San Diego, (22) San Diego State, (24) Fresno State, Cal Poly, California|
|Coca-Cola Classic, Tempe, Ariz. and Surprise, Ariz.|
|(6) Arizona State, (8) Michigan, Hawaii, Portland|
|Music City Classic, Nashville|
|(7) Vanderbilt, Iowa, Kansas, Xavier|
|Quala-T Imprints Baylor Classic, Waco, Texas|
|(13) Baylor, Illinois, Illinois-Chicago, Stephen F. Austin|
|Houston College Classic, Houston|
|(14) Texas, (15) Rice, Houston, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas Tech|
|UVa. Tournament, Charlottesville, Va.|
|(16) Virginia, Cornell, Siena|
Dairy Queen Classic, Minneapolis
|(18) Tulane, Minnesota, Pepperdine, Texas Christian|
|Louisiana-Lafayette Tournament, Lafayette, La.|
|(25) Louisiana-Lafayette, Miami (Ohio), Southern Mississippi|
This year's Houston College Classic figures to be another strong event—you can expect fireworks anytime rivals and perennial national powers Rice and Texas get together, and unranked teams such as Tennessee and Oklahoma have intriguing young talent—but it's no longer a can't-miss stop on the college baseball calendar.
The Feb. 22 uniform start date has created a proliferation of early-season tournaments from coast to coast. A look at the Top 25 schedule this week reveals just nine weekend series on the docket, as opposed to 10 tournaments.
And the marquee event is not in Houston, but in San Diego, where four top 25 teams and two other NCAA tournament hopefuls will play at the USD Tournament, which starts Thursday and runs through Sunday at San Diego's Cunningham Stadium and San Diego State's Tony Gwynn Stadium.
"I'll be in San Diego, and I'd be surprised if 29 other scouting directors aren't there as well," said an American League scouting director who went to the Houston College Classic last year. "You've got a concentration of some of the top college pitchers in the country. If you can get a bunch of top arms together, it's very helpful because the compacted schedule only gives you 13 chances to see Friday night pitchers."
The hardest thing for scouts and other observers will be deciding which elite matchups to watch. Friday's duel between likely first-rounders Brian Matusz of San Diego and Tanner Scheppers of Fresno State will start at 1 p.m. at Cunningham, just an hour before likely first-rounders Aaron Crow of Missouri and Tyson Ross of California will face off at Tony Gwynn Stadium.
"Can you imagine what a scouting bonanza it's going to be with the pitching?" Missouri coach Tim Jamieson said. "And people aren't even talking about Cal Poly, but they had a great weekend too (winning a season-opening road series against Alabama)."
Unfortunately for the Mustangs, they're likely to face two of the top three pitching prospects for the 2009 draft in sophomore righties Steven Strasburg of San Diego State (on Thursday) and Kyle Gibson of Missouri (Sunday), as well as another potential first-rounder in San Diego lefty Josh Romanski (Friday). Cal Poly, meanwhile, has its own rising star climbing up draft boards in little lefthander Derrick Saito, who will start Friday against Fresno State.
There are plenty of other quality tournaments from coast to coast this weekend, but one of the most intriguing is right up the Pacific coast from San Diego.
Major League Baseball's Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., will host the first Urban Invitational, featuring two traditional powers in UCLA and Southern California, and two historically black powers in Bethune-Cookman and Southern. The event, which was organized by Urban Youth Academy director Darrell Miller and conceived by MLB executive VP of baseball operations Jimmie Lee Solomon, will incorporate a battle between the marching bands of Southern and USC on Saturday, as well as a job fair. Saturday's games will be televised on ESPN2.
"I really think it has a lot of merit and value when you look at what they're trying to accomplish, and the focus is to highlight historical black schools and the traditional schools out of California," Southern coach Roger Cador said. "More than anything else is they're bringing the band in to create excitement. They want to attract young people, and young people want music, band, excitement. That's why I'm saying Jimmie Lee is brilliant: He understood just getting the teams playing won't be enough. You have to make this thing well-rounded, and you also can get the curiosity of the casual young person that might say, 'Baseball—maybe not; band, career day—maybe yes."
It's also a great opportunity for the Jaguars and Wildcats to showcase their programs to a national audience and gain experience in a regional-caliber environment against elite competition.
"It's a big deal for our program, a good opportunity for us to show the nation what the Bethune-Cookman program is all about," BCC coach Mervyl Melendez said. "As far as competition is concerned, we're no stranger to good competition. We're going to see teams from the West Coast that we've never seen before, but that's who we like to compete against. We've been as far as Oklahoma to play Oral Roberts, but we've never been on the West Coast. I think it's going to be a great event for college baseball."
|Marquee Mound Matchup|
|Brett Hunter vs. Shooter Hunt|
The Dairy Queen Classic in Minneapolis is another venerable older tournament that will have to share the spotlight this weekend, but there will be plenty of eyes on Friday's Pepperdine-Tulane game, which will feature two junior righthanders who are safe bets to be drafted in the first round in June. Pepperdine ace Brett Hunter prepared to start Friday against Wake Forest and had his start postponed by rain 10 minutes before the scheduled first pitch. The first-team preseason All-American impressed a massive gaggle of scouts by bouncing back Saturday and firing 94-97 mph fastballs deep into his start and touching 98. He flashed an outstanding two-plane curveball in the 79-82 range, but it was inconsistent. But his 100th pitch was a 97 mph fastball, and he finished with six strikeouts over six innings, allowing two runs on four hits.
Tulane coach Rick Jones said he saw Hunter pitch last summer for Team USA.
"The last three pitches I saw him throw against the Netherlands were 94, 95, 96," Jones said. "He really throws that riding fastball and combines it with a very solid breaking ball."
Hunt has garnered plenty of attention of his own. A second-team preseason All-American, allowed just three hits and walked none while striking out eight over six shutout innings in his first start against Illinois-Chicago.
"He had a good outing on Friday; no question there are going to be some butterflies because of the importance of the game, but he punched out the side in the first," Jones said. "He probably had the least command he's had all spring, he was so hyped up, but he didn't walk anybody. He had to come back from a couple of three-ball counts, and he's been ahead in the count all preseason. He was 92-94, his breaking ball was tight, 79-82, 83. It's more 12-to-6 and it's hard. We've had so many scouts and crosscheckers and even GMs in to see Shooter already. He's a special guy."
|Clemson over South Carolina|
One of college baseball's most intense rivalries renews its annual home-and-home series this weekend, as No. 19 Clemson visits 10th-ranked South Carolina on Saturday and the Gamecocks return the visit on Sunday. Both teams are coming off series victories in the opening weekend, Clemson having swept Mercer fairly easily and South Carolina having blown out preseason No. 24 East Carolina 22-5, then dropping a 13-4 blowout and bouncing back with a hard-fought 7-6 win in 11 innings.
Clemson unquestionably has the better arms, with junior lefthander Ryan Hinson and junior righty D.J. Mitchell trumping any pitcher that South Carolina will run out this weekend. The Gamecocks boast the far better offense—indeed, it's one of the nation's most powerful, featuring mashers like first baseman Justin Smoak, third baseman James Darnell, catcher Phil Disher and shortstop Reese Havens. But Clemson's offense isn't bad either.
Junior shortstop Stan Widmann made a triumphant return against Mercer after having a benign tumor removed from his neck last season, recording four hits on the weekend, and he provides a major spark atop the lineup. Freshmen Chris Epps, Jeff Schaus and John Hinson are college-ready bats who had fine weekends against Mercer, and returnees Ben Paulsen and Wilson Boyd are poised for breakout years. The Tigers will score enough runs against a hittable Gamecocks pitching staff to overcome South Carolina's offensive onslaught. Clemson might be wise to start Mitchell, a ground ball specialist, in Columbia to limit the long ball in a very offensive park.
|Under The Radar|
The Aggies got off to an impressive start in their first season as a full-fledged Division I member, traveling to No. 18 Fresno State and splitting a four-game series. Catcher Jake Jefferies, perhaps the best out of Davis' solid group of pro prospects, enters the weekend batting a team-best .438 with four RBIs, and he does more than just anchor the lineup in the No. 3 hole.
"He handles velocity well, can catch and throw and has soft hands, and he has good size," UC Davis coach Rex Peters said.
The Aggie's strength, though, is on the mound. Senior righthander Eddie Gamboa allowed just one run on two hits while striking out seven over five strong innings in a win against Fresno State on Friday. Gamboa missed all of 2006 and worked mostly out of the bullpen in 2007, and building up stamina will be key for him; Peters said he left Friday's game only after cramping up a bit.
Junior righthander Brad Mcatee was very impressive in Saturday's win against the Bulldogs, striking out six over seven shutout innings. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Mcatee has an 88-91 mph fastball with good movement. And junior closer Justin Fitzgerald, a physical 6-foot-4 righthander, recorded the save in both wins against Fresno. Peters said Fitzgerald was sitting in the 93-95 range with his fastball Friday but worked more in the 90-92 range Saturday. Setting up Fitzgerald is senior righty Marco Grifantini, who also sits 90-92 and who pitched in three of the the Aggies' first five games.
They open a four-game home series against Utah on Friday.
|Dustin Ackley, 1b/of, North Carolina|
Ackley went just 1-for-5 with a walk in UNC's 8-6 loss to Old Dominion on Tuesday . . . and still he's hitting .579/.609/1.105 through four games. He recorded at least three hits in each game of North Carolina's three-game sweep at Florida Atlantic, swatting a pair of home runs in the opener and adding a three-run shot in the series finale. He has six home runs in his last eight games, dating back to the College World Series. By Sunday, the Owls wanted nothing to do with him: with two outs and nobody on in the sixth inning, and FAU clinging to a 4-3 lead, Adam Morrison issued Ackley an intentional walk. He promptly stole second base, before Chad Flack struck out to end the inning.
"It's a short swing, he's got the ability to stay inside the ball and he really gets the bat head through the zone," said one talent evaluator who saw him in Florida. "They moved his feet by pitching inside, but he got right back in the box—he's got a toughness about him. He showed opposite-field power; he's a good runner, and he played a very good left field.
"In my time in college baseball, I feel Ackley is the best hitter I have seen. Better than (Pat) Burrell, (J.D.) Drew, (Brad) Wilkerson, and anyone else."
|San Diego weekend rotation|
The Toreros earned a No. 11 ranking in the preseason based largely on a pitching staff that projected as one of the nation's best. USD's entire weekend rotation returned for 2008, an experienced bunch that included preseason All-America junior lefthanders Brian Matusz and Josh Romanski and senior righty Matt Couch. But that trio was hammered in San Diego's season-opening series against San Diego State, and they enter the USD Tournament this weekend with ERAs of 11.57, 12.60 and 15.19, respectively. Incidentally, the Toreros dropped three of four games to the Aztecs before righting the ship with a midweek win against No. 11 Long Beach State behind a decent start from senior lefty Ricardo Pecina and three relievers, including Couch.
The USD mainstays will get a shot at redemption this weekend in front of half the known scouting universe. Matusz, in particular, has a history of bouncing back strong from losses. He suffered just two losses in the regular season a year ago, the first coming March 2 to Fresno State. The next week he struck out nine in a win against Michigan. Then, after losing to Gonzaga on March 30, he bounced back with a 10-strikeout complete agme in his next start against St. Mary's.
|Stat Of The Week|
Number of Missouri batters hit by pitches through four games.
"Their offense was a little short for a top 10 team I thought, but it's a very good team and they have a plan at the plate. A big part of that plan is getting hit by a pitch—they will take it," said a coach from one of the other four schools that played Missouri. "They just stand in there and take it—even some of the pitches were strikes, at least I thought so, and their guys were right on top of the plate and took it. That's a big part of how they scored their runs."
Of course, the Tigers have also drawn 24 walks, helping them compile a team on-base percentage of .458. That has helped them score 39 runs through four games despite hitting only one home run.
"People will look at our numbers and say we didn't swing it really well, but we still scored 10 runs a game getting hit all those times," Jamieson said. "We really preach it. Most of our guys stand pretty close to the plate, and we don't want our guys to get out of the way. It's demoralizing with two strikes for a pitcher to hit a guy. A lot of guys would have ducked out of the way, but ours don't move."
The two-time defending national champions started the season ranked seventh in the country despite losing key contributors like Darwin Barney, Mitch Canham, Daniel Turpen and Joe Paterson, and a big reason for the high expectations was the influx of promising young arms. Three OSU pitchers—Greg Peavey, Tanner Robles and Kevin Rhoderick—rank among the top 50 freshmen in the nation, and a fourth—lefthander Josh Osich—wasn't far from cracking the list. Add in exciting freshman infielder Garrett Nash (another member of the Fab 50 freshmen list), and the Beavers have a young nucleus to build around for the future. But Oregon State is also relying upon its youth in the present, so growing pains weren't entirely surprising during the season's first weekend. The Beavers went 1-2 at the DeMarini Invitational, losing by a combined score of 19-1 against the two ranked teams they played. A coach from one of the other three teams at the DeMarini broke down what he saw of OSU:
"Oregon State has tremendous young pitching talent, really an amazing group of young pitchers, maybe the best I've ever seen. They're not a great offensive team yet; I think they'll get better. When they get in synch, I think they'll be an efficient offensive club—I don't think they'll be real powerful, the only guy with any power is (Jordan) Lennerton.
"Peavey's stuff wasn't bad, he was 92-93, he just got pounded. Osich, he's going to be outstanding, he'll be a first-round pick in a couple of years. I would say that without question. He was 94-95, with a good hard overhand curveball, and a big league body, about 6-foot-5. Kevin Rhoderick was outstanding out of the bullpen.
"Oregon State's going to be really good; they may be rebuilding, but they're going to make a strong run at it again this year or next year because they've got great young pitching. Lennerton's the lone power threat. (Jason) Ogata has become a better player, he probably will be their three-hole hitter most of the year.
"Nash, he's young. He's got some holes in his swing. He's a real good athlete who can run, but he's going to get picked apart in the early part of his college career, you can get him on the outside.
"Tanner Robles has got a chance to be a real solid one as well. Peavey, Rhoderick, Osich and Robles—that's a pretty special group of young arms. You can go a couple of righthanders, a couple lefthanders, a couple starter-type kids, a dominant closer type kid—you're talking about the foundation of a pitching staff that's going to be awfully good. They had to spend a lot of scholarships on pitching, they'll have to spend some money on hitting.
"(Blake) Keitzman is a nice little pitcher. He came in and slammed the door Saturday night, threw the ball real well. With him, (Jorge) Reyes, (Mike) Stutes, Peavey, those other guys, they're about eight or nine deep on the mound, with quality guys."
|In The Dugout|
|Mike Bianucci, of, Auburn|
If there's a player hotter than UNC's Dustin Ackley, it might be Bianucci, a second-team preseason All-American who hit .583/.737/1.333 in Auburn's season-opening four-game sweep of East Tennessee State. The hot start is nothing unusual: as a sophomore in 2007, Bianucci hit .477 in February with three doubles, five homers, 10 walks, 16 runs and 17 RBIs. He struck out just three times in his first 44 at-bats.
He's on pace to do even better this February—he's already got two homers, three doubles and six RBIs through four games—but the Tigers play just two more games before the calendar flips to March. Both are home games against a Florida State team that destroyed Duquesne by a 44-9 score in three games last weekend. The four-game series begins Thursday in Auburn, then shifts to Tallahassee on Saturday. Bianucci talked about his loud start to the season and his hopes for this weekend In The Dugout.
Congratulations on the big weekend. You must be pretty locked in right now, huh?
I've been working with Coach (Tom) Slater every morning around 8. He's been working with me on pitch recognition, not chasing pitches. Basically getting the right pitch to hit, get deeper in the count and see more pitches.
You didn't get to see that many pitches to hit this past weekend—it looked like you were drawing intentional walks left and right.
I got intentionally walked three times one day, a couple of times the next day. That was going to happen with Hunter (Morris) hitting behind me because he's a freshman.
Can you ever remember being intentionally walked that many times in one series?
There hadn't been that many so close together. I got some last year but not in such a close span of time. With the way these young kids are hitting behind me, teams won't be able to do that much longer.
Is it frustrating to have the bat taken out of your hands, or are you just happy to get on base?
Obviously you always want to hit, but you're not going to argue with that. I was just planning to steal second base and third base.
You stole 37 bases in 37 attempts in high school, and Coach Slater says you're a 6.5-second runner in the 60-yard dash. Is speed the area of your game that flies under the radar?
No one ever notices it. I don't mind; going in, scouting reports always leave out the fact that I can run, but I don't mind because it makes them look bad when I'm stealing bases.
Are you making an effort to run more this year?
Coach Mo (new Auburn assistant Bill Mosiello) likes to put a lot of pressure on the defense, and it opens up a lot of holes when you're running and stealing bases. When he talks, people listen to what he has to say. You've just got to trust and buy into it.
You've got a number of prominent freshmen hitting in your lineup, like Hunter Morris, Kevin Patterson and Brian Fletcher. How good of an offensive team is this?
It's amazing hitting in that kind of lineup. We've got depth like you wouldn't believe, we've got power one through nine. Then we've got Matt Hall transferring over from Arizona State. It's our best-hitting team since I've been here in three years. I'd say this year, the biggest thing we've got is depth. Last year and the season before, we had a lot of injuries and no one to take his position.
You've also got some pretty good arms over there. You've seen a lot of those guys the last few weeks in intrasquads—what's your take on the Auburn pitching staff?
What's crazy about it is, I was talking to Tony Delmonico at Florida State this morning, I said our pitching gets better as the games go on. Our starters are good, but then we've got Evan Crawford and Bryan Woodall at the back, I think those are our best two pitchers. They're not guys to panic when it comes down to the wire.
Did you talk any trash to Delmonico about this weekend?
I talked to him (Tuesday) morning, he said, 'You know we're probably not going to give you much to hit.' I said, 'That's fine, you guys don't know about Hunter.' Hunter, he's got a smooth, natural swing. Me and Slates were talking about this, he's just so consistent, not one of those guys who needs to constantly work on his swing.
Who's got the most raw power?
Patterson's got the most power, he's a man child. The kid's like 6-5, 240, he looks like a middle linebacker.
Does he have more power than you?
We're not going to get into that. I like to think I do, but when he's a junior, he'll probably have more power than I do. He's a freak.
What do you know about Florida State, and what do you expect this weekend?
I saw them play us my freshman year, but I didn't get a chance to play because I was hurt. I know a couple guys who go there. There's always going to be a big crowd when we play them, and they're always going to be at the top of their conference. When you play a series like this against top-rated teams, it really shows you where you're at and how your season's going to go.