Weekend Preview: K-State, Cal Poly In Fascinating Faceoff

THIS WEEK:
1. Cal Poly hosts Kansas State in battle of rising programs.
2. Stanford and California turn to youth on the mound against Rice and Texas.
3. Notes from around the nation.
4. Preseason Roth Stars—the best players who did not crack our All-America teams.


A year ago, Cal Poly and Kansas State elevated their programs to new heights. Both teams set school records for victories in a season. The Mustangs reached their second regional—as a No. 2 seed at UCLA—while the Wildcats won a regional for the first time, falling in a hard-fought super regional series at Oregon State. K-State’s banner season helped Cal Poly construct an at-large-caliber Ratings Percentage Index, as the Mustangs won a road series at KSU in early March.

TOP 25 SERIES
(3) Indiana at Texas Tech
Washington State at (4) Cal State Fullerton
(5) N.C. State at UC Santa Barbara (cancelled)
Niagara at (6) Florida State
Bucknell at (7) South Carolina
Hofstra at (8) Mississippi State
(10) Vanderbilt at Long Beach State
(11) Oregon at Hawaii
Portland at (12) UCLA
Eastern Michigan at (13) Clemson
Eastern Illinois at (14) Louisiana-Lafayette
(15) Rice at Stanford
Maine at (16) Miami
(17) North Carolina at College of Charleston
(18) Texas at California
Jacksonville at (19) Texas Christian
Saint Louis at (21) Alabama
(22) Kansas State at Cal Poly
Maryland at (23) Florida
Northeastern at (24) Texas A&M
Appalachian State at (25) Arkansas

Poly coach Larry Lee saw first-hand just how offensive the Wildcats were last year—they scored 10 runs twice in the three-game set, losing one of them 13-10, and he knows that they return six key pieces in the everyday lineup. But the Mustangs will start nine position players who saw meaningful action a year ago, and they expect to be physical and dangerous on offense too.

“Kansas State was very, very offensive last year,” Lee said. “It was probably the best baserunning/basestealing team that I’ve come across since I’ve been at Cal Poly. So they did a lot of things extremely well. There are parallels (between the two teams). Usually we’re known more as an offensive team, because the ability to stockpile pitchers is pretty difficult for us. Last year was kind of a flip side. Last year we underachieved as an offensive ball team, and defensively we were very average. I see that we’re much stronger in those two facets.”

Lee said his team did not really reach its offensive potential until the regional last year, and he saw signs this fall and winter that his hitters carried over that momentum and confidence. The Mustangs have a pair of impact players anchoring the lineup in junior outfielders Jordan Ellis and Nick Torres. Lee calls the athletic Ellis “a skills guy that likes to swing the bat from the two-hole,” and Torres is the team’s best player. He had minor knee surgery in the fall that sidelined him for a few weeks, but he’s back to 100 percent now. He hits for average and power (.333/.376/.520 with seven homers a year ago) and has a strong arm in right field.

“He’s kind of the backbone of the offense,” Lee said of Torres. “A tough kid, very hard-nosed, really the leader, I think, in our offense in how he carries himself and how he approaches each at-bat.”

Having a fully healthy Tim Wise atop the lineup should also provide a spark. Wise had been one of the team’s best hitters heading into last season, but he stepped on a ball in batting practice and rolled his ankle before the first game, and he never really recovered from it.

Two other keys are senior third baseman Jimmy Allen and sophomore DH Brian Mundell. Allen ranked No. 300 on the predraft BA 500 last year, a reflection of his intriguing talent, but he did not have a great junior year, hitting a soft .299 and posting just five walks and 44 strikeouts. Mundell hit 11 home runs, but he struggled mightily during the Big West season. If those two can perform up to their ability level for the bulk of the season, the Mustangs will be very good in the top two-thirds of their lineup, and the bottom third should be capable enough.

Jake Matthys

Jake Matthys

The last three hitters in the lineup—catcher Chris Hoo, shortstop Peter Van Gansen and second baseman Mark Mathias—will be counted upon to make the Mustangs strong defensively up the middle, along with Ellis in center field.

“Chris Hoo is great—catch, receive, block, intelligent behind the plate,” Lee said. “And I think it’s going to be one of the better DP combinations around. Van Gansen is terrific at shortstop, played in every game last year. Mark Mathias has really developed into an outstanding second baseman, and Ellis can run down a fly ball in center field. So we’re strong there.”

Kansas State, of course, should be one of the best offensive and defensive teams in college baseball, led by its veteran infield (first baseman Shane Conlon, second baseman Ross Kivett, shortstop Austin Fisher and third baseman R.J. Santigate) and catcher (Blair DeBord).

“They’re all good offensive players and very good defensive players,” K-State coach Brad Hill said. “I’m excited about having those guys back, and the leadership they’ll provide . . . We’ll be what we always are—just kind of scrappy, competitive, maybe a guy runs into one here or there.”

Cal Poly should be one of the best offensive and defensive teams on the West Coast, so this matchup will be fun. Another parallel between the two teams is how their pitching staffs are constructed. Both teams have resilient stoppers who can pitch multiple innings at the back of the bullpen in K-State’s Jake Matthys and Poly’s Reed Reilly. Both stand out for their fastball command and competitiveness, but Matthys works off an 86-88 sinker, while Reilly’s velocity is back up to where it was early last season, sitting in the low 90s and touching 93-94.

Kansas State has a second trusted bullpen gun in Nate Williams, and Cal Poly will use one of its more experienced arms (Bryan Granger) in a similar role. Both can work in the 89-92 range, and Granger has flourished this fall after dropping from a high three-quarters slot to low three-quarters, improving his command and giving him better action on his slider. Lee said lefty Taylor Chris has also gotten much better thanks to simplified mechanics, improving his ability to throw strikes with his swing-and-miss curveball and changeup. That bullpen trio gives Poly the ability to shorten games significantly.

And that’s important, because the rotations for both of these teams are unproven—although the Mustangs have a legitimate Friday ace in junior lefthander Matt Imhof, a potential top-two-rounds draft pick this June. The 6-foot-5 Imhof works downhill with an 88-92 fastball that touches 94, a quality curveball and a solid changeup. He gives Poly the edge on Friday against KSU sophomore righty Levi MaVorhis, a strike-thrower with a low-to-mid-80s fastball and an adequate slider.


TOP 25 TOURNAMENTS
Hughes Brothers Challenge, Wilmington, N.C.:
(1) Virginia, Kentucky, UNC Wilmington, VMI.
Husker Classic, Tempe, Ariz.:
(2) Oregon State, Gonzaga, Nebraska, Pacific
MLB Urban Invitational, Louisiana:
(9) Louisiana State, Grambling State, New Orleans, Southern
Homewood Suites Tournament, Charleston, S.C.:
(20) Louisville, The Citadel, Delaware, West Virginia

“Other than A.J. Morris (in 2009), we really haven’t had a legit Friday guy,” Hill said. “Again this year, we’ll probably just try to find some starters who keep it close, fight their way through five innings, hopefully have good bullpen guys again. We think we have a couple young kids who may develop. If it happens this year, great. If not, maybe next year.”

One of those young arms is sophomore righty Jordan Witcig, who will take the ball Sunday for the Wildcats. Senior lefthander Jared Moore will go Saturday, and Hill thinks he has a chance to give KSU a much-needed rotation upgrade.

“He had a breakout fall for us,” Hill said. “He’s always been a one-, maybe two-inning guy, but he came out focused and hungry this fall to maybe be a senior starter. He’s 84-86, his changeup got better over the summer—that was a big thing for him. He was a lefthander with a fastball and curveball, then the changeup came into play, and it changed him into a five-inning guy.”

The Mustangs will start freshman righthander Slater Lee on Saturday and sophomore righty Casey Bloomquist on Sunday. Neither is overpowering, but Lee has shown an advanced mindset and the ability to mix four pitches, including a mid-80s fastball. Many of Poly’s Saturday games are played at night, when the ball doesn’t travel as well, so Coach Lee likes to use his freshman then. Bloomquist, the Tuesday starter a year ago, has heavy sink on his fastball, making him better suited to pitching in the daytime on Sundays.

“From a starting standpoint, there’s a big gap between Imhof and whoever is your second-best pitcher,” Lee said. “To have question marks on the pitching end of it is always concerning. Last year, we played a lot of one- and two-run ballgames, never blew anybody out. That was one of the reasons we had to go to those bullpen guys so much. If our offense can step it up this year, that will hopefully take some of the pressure off our bullpen, and we can ride our starters a little longer, or go to some other bullpen guys a little sooner.

“If you can swing the bat, play defense and put up some runs, it goes hand in hand with how you use your pitching staff.”

And both Cal Poly and Kansas State should be strong enough in the lineup to take pressure off their pitching. It was a winning formula for Kansas State last year, and it could work again this year for both of these teams.

Spotlight On NorCal

For much of the college baseball world, the major storyline of Opening Weekend is the wintry weather, which crippled the South and East this week. Vince Lara-Cinisomo rounded up some of the travel misadventures and scheduling challenges that have so far resulted from the weather. Schedule changes and cancellations continue to pour in today:

Davidson was snowed out. (Courtesy of Davidson College).

Davidson was snowed out. (Courtesy of Davidson College).

• North Carolina’s series against College of Charleston has been moved from Chapel Hill to Charleston.

• Maryland-Eastern Shore’s series at South Florida has been cancelled.

• Stony Brook at Southern Miss is cancelled. The Golden Eagles will join Missouri (which was unable to reach the North Florida tournament, as scheduled) in an impromptu tournament at McNeese State, where Chicago State will be the fourth participant.

• George Washington at UNC Greensboro is cancelled. More cancellations are on the way.

In California, forecasts for this weekend call for 60s and 70s—welcome news for visiting teams that can make it there (the weather prevented N.C. State from reaching UC Santa Barbara). Many of Week One’s most compelling matchups will take place in the Golden State, including a pair of series in Northern California: No. 18 Texas travels to Cal, and No. 15 Rice plays at Stanford. Weather should not affect travel for those visiting teams, fortunately.

We broke down the ranked visiting teams in detail in our recent Top 25 capsules, so let’s take a look at some of the major issues facing the California teams heading into Week One.

Stanford and California are playing two of the more challenging nonconference schedules in the country, so their young players will have to mature in a hurry. Cal follows its Texas series with tournaments at Auburn and San Diego, then a home tournament that includes Tulane, San Francisco and Arkansas. Stanford makes back-to-back road trips to Texas and Vanderbilt after this weekend, then finishes nonconference play with a home set against Kansas.

“If the schedule doesn’t kill us, we’ll be pretty good, if we can survive it,” Cardinal coach Mark Marquess said at NorCal college baseball media day.

The Cardinal will be without its two best arms heading into the season, as big-name sophomore righty Freddy Avis and senior righthander A.J. Vanegas are both coming off injuries. Vanegas, who had disc surgery in his back last year, could be ready to return next week at Texas, according to Marquess, and will probably start the season in the bullpen but could work his way into the rotation by the start of conference play. Avis, who was limited by a shoulder injury last year and eventually was diagnosed with a small tear in his labrum, might not pitch at all this year.

“He’s throwing now, playing catch on a throwing program, feels great,” Marquess told the San Jose Mercury-News this week. “Probably going to go real conservative and at best pitch him at the end of the year or not at all and save the year and redshirt him. Because he’s going to be great. The problem is that it didn’t show up in an MRI initially.”

So Stanford will need its strong group of freshman arms—led by Cal Quantrill, Chris Viall, Brett Hanewich and Tyler Thorne—to shoulder significant pitching loads right away. The lone experienced starter returning this weekend is junior lefthander John Hochstatter, a crafty southpaw who lacks overpowering stuff. At the back end, fourth-year junior Sam Lindquist will anchor the bullpen, unless Vanegas eventually seizes the closer job.

Cal will also lean upon freshmen on the mound, with two of them slated to start in the four-game series this weekend. Sophomore righty Ryan Mason, who served as Friday starter last year, is behind schedule thanks to a twisted knee and an infection, so freshman righty Daulton Jefferies will start the opener. Jefferies (No. 228 in the BA 500 last year) was the crown jewel of a strong Cal recruiting class thanks to his advanced command of a fastball that has bumped 93 and a very good curveball and changeup. Veteran lefties Kyle Porter and Michael Theofanopoulos will start the second and fourth games of the series, with freshman righty Alex Schick starting Game Three. The young arms give Cal its most talented roster since its 2011 Omaha team—its recruiting class that year was decimated by the university’s attempt to disband the program.

“I think I probably foresaw the last couple years being a little bit of a rebuilding process for us,” Cal coach David Esquer said. “With the events of 2011 and the lack of recruiting, it probably affected our depth and our talent level a little bit, but I thought by year three we’d be back where we were comfortable and ready to compete for playoff contention. I think we’ve got a lot more depth than we’ve had in the last few years. The competition for playing time has been real high.”

The Golden Bears expect to be much more offensive thanks to the return to full strength of three key veterans from their 2011 Omaha run: outfielders Derek Campbell and Vince Bruno plus first baseman Devon Rodriguez.

Around The Nation

• The NCAA’s odious “no agent” rule has claimed another victim, as it does seemingly at random once or twice a year. Arkansas sophomore righthander Trey Killian, who was projected to serve as the Hogs’ Friday starter, will be withheld from the first six games of the season “as a result of an impermissible interaction while he was a high school student-athlete,” according to a statement from the Razorbacks. “We support Trey and look forward to his return to the field for the Razorbacks.”

Trey Killian

Trey Killian

Most high-profile baseball prospects have advisers who have contact on their behalf with MLB clubs out of high school and college—violating the “no agent” rule even though that is baseball’s industry norm. The only ones who get punished for it are the ones who get turned in by a spurned former agent or a spurned club official, or those who refuse to lie to the NCAA about it (like James Paxton a few years back). Top NCAA officials have acknowledged for several years now that the policy regarding agents and baseball must be re-examined, but no action has been taken. So another player must endure unjust punishment.

This weekend, Arkansas will move junior lefty Jalen Beeks from the back of the bullpen into the Friday starter role, though the Hogs indicated the move is probably temporary and he could head back to the bullpen as soon as Week Three. Junior righthander Chris Oliver, the team’s biggest arm, is slated to start Saturday after working in middle relief last year. How he handles the job is a huge key for Arkansas, which will host Appalachian State this weekend.

• As we reported last week, Oregon sophomore lefthander Cole Irvin will miss all of 2014 season after having Tommy John surgery. Irvin, who went 12-3, 2.48 last year to capture freshman All-America honors, was slated to serve as Oregon’s Saturday starter behind Tommy Thorpe. “I feel bad for him; I think he was postured to have a really big year,” Ducks coach George Hortonsaid. “But the good news is the prognosis on Tommy John is tremendous, and the recovery period is on the short side of 12 months. So we’ll keep our fingers crossed.”

The Ducks will stick with their plan of using junior righty Jake Reed as the closer, rather than keeping him in the rotation, where he pitched for the last two years. The rest of Oregon’s rotation for its four-game series at Hawaii will be junior lefty Jordan Spencer, freshman lefty Matt Krook (one of the nation’s top recruits, an unsigned supplemental first-rounder) and senior righty Jeff Gold. Spencer has flown somewhat under the radar during his career but has a solid three-pitch mix headlined by a deceptive 88-91 fastball. The crafty Gold and sophomore lefty Porter Clayton, who has looked good this fall and winter after returning from a two-year Mormon mission, give the 11th-ranked Ducks admirable depth.

“We’re blessed to have Jeff Gold back,” Horton said. “He doesn’t have Cole Irvin’s stuff, but he has great experience and has won a lot of games for us . . . This is one of the reasons you want to have a lot of arms.”

As Oregon assistant Jay Uhlman put it, “Next Duck up.”

• Auburn’s best all-around player, senior outfielder Ryan Tella, was suspended for the first two games of the season for violating team rules. Freshman J.J. Shaffer will start in center field in his place. The Tigers will host Indiana State, Ohio State and Connecticut in the Snowbird Classic.

• Vanderbilt travels west to face Long Beach State, and the Commodores will do so without sophomore outfielder Rhett Wiseman, who could miss a few weeks after hurting his shoulder diving for a ball. Also noteworthy for the ’Dores: sophomore righthander Tyler Ferguson will open as the Sunday starter, following Tyler Beede and Jared Miller in the rotation. Flame-thrower Carson Fulmer will remain in the bullpen, and sophomore righty Walker Buehler is slated to start midweek. Ferguson is one of the less heralded members of last year’s recruiting bonanza, but he has good stuff, with a good heavy fastball and a quality downer curve.

• The best pitching matchup of Week One might be the opener of the Central Michigan-UNLV series, as Chippewas junior righty Jordan Foley takes on Rebels junior righty Erick Fedde. Both power pitchers performed well last summer in the Cape Cod League, where Fedde ranked as the No. 6 prospect and Foley came in at No. 25. Both work downhill with fastballs that can reach the mid-90s, both have swing-and-miss power sliders, and both have the makings of solid changeups. Incidentally, we are projecting both teams to make regionals this year as well, so this is a quality early-season series.

• Fourth-ranked Cal State Fullerton opens up at home with a nice test, as Washington State comes to Goodwin Field. The Titans might have the nation’s best weekend rotation (Thomas Eshelman, Justin Garza and Grahamm Wiest), but the Cougars should be talented enough on the mound to compete. On Friday, WSU will go with fourth-year junior righty Scott Simon, a 6-foot-8 sinkerballer who reminds WSU assistant Pat Waer of big leaguer Doug Fister, whom he coached at Fresno State. Junior righty Tanner Chleborad, a power pitcher who can run his fastball up to 94 and features an emerging slider, will start Saturday.

Preseason Roth Stars

Finally, we’ve got one last piece of preseason business to take care of before we turn our focus to the action on the field, and away from predictions. For more than three decades, major league scouting directors have voted for Baseball America’s preseason All-America teams, providing our readers a valuable look at how the premium talent breaks down at each position.

Wes Rea (Photo by Andrew Woolley)

Wes Rea (Photo by Andrew Woolley)

Sometimes, accomplished players with impressive college baseball resumes get left off those teams because they are not elite draft prospects, or simply because there are only three All-America teams and there is not room for all the great players at each spot. South Carolina ace Michael Roth was a prime example; he was a first-team All-American after his 2011 junior season but did not get any votes from scouting directors heading into 2012, so he did not make our preseason All-America teams despite appearing on the cover of the magazine.

Inspired by Roth, we have selected the best players at each position who did not crack our preseason All-America teams—we call them Roth Stars. These are not based exclusively on numbers; we are still considering league context and pure ability level. Ultimately, these are players we suspect could wind up on our postseason All-America teams in June.

ROTH STARS
C: Mark Zagunis, Virginia Tech
1B: Wes Rea, Mississippi State
2B: Edwin Rios, Florida International
3B: Dustin DeMuth, Indiana
SS: Kevin Newman, Arizona
OF: Joe McCarthy, Virginia
OF: Mark Payton, Texas
OF: Nick Torres, Cal Poly
DH: Nick Backlund, Mercer
SP: Thomas Eshelman, Cal State Fullerton
SP: Daniel Mengden, Texas A&M
SP: Jordan Montgomery, South Carolina
SP: Jordan Stephens, Rice
RP: Zech Lemond, Rice
UT: Nick Howard, Virginia