|Virginia at Florida State|
Atlantic Coast Conference play opens with a bang this weekend, as top-ranked Virginia travels to Tallahassee to take on No. 5 Florida State, which has been the nation's most dominating, impressive team through the season's first three weeks.
Virginia and FSU entered the season as the favorites to win their respective ACC divisions, but the Cavaliers started the year seven spots ahead in the rankings thanks to a roster that returned the bulk of its key players from last year's College World Series team. The Cavaliers moved up to the No. 1 ranking after winning a road series against a dangerous East Carolina team in the opening weekend, and UVa. has been solid since, winning eight of its last nine games against lighter competition by a combined score of 99-28 (including a 2-1 upset loss to Wright State last Friday).
But Florida State has obliterated its opponents during its 12-0 start, outscoring them 133-32. The Seminoles have a .353 team batting average, a 2.29 team ERA and a .972 fielding percentage. Their offense actually has slowed this week, with Monday's 2-0 win at Jacksonville (when three FSU pitchers threw a combined one-hit shutout) and Wednesday's 6-2 win against North Florida, and they bludgeoned ranked Southeastern Conference foes Florida and Georgia by a combined score of 48-13 in four games last week.
"That just happened to be a weekend everything went our way, there's no other explanation," FSU coach Mike Martin said of his team's three-game sweep of Georgia. "I mean, if Georgia made a mistake, we took advantage of it. If we made a mistake, they'd hit a line drive right at somebody. Georgia is a very, very good baseball team that just had a bad weekend. I was sitting over there going, 'You got to be kidding me.' In fact I said it after the game—it was one of the most surprising weekends I've ever seen."
Virginia coach Brian O'Connor certainly took notice of Florida State's monstrous week.
"If you think about it, what they did between Florida and the three games against Georgia, I mean, who does that?" O'Connor said. "So the numbers they're putting up, what they're doing, I don't know how anybody's giving us a chance."
He said that last bit with a chuckle, but it's safe to say Florida State is the favorite against the No. 1 team in the nation this weekend in light of its recent dominance—and its home-field advantage. The Seminoles were an astounding 322-59 (.845 winning percentage) at Dick Howser Stadium from 2000-2009, partly because they are loaded with talent every single year, partly because they feed off the energy of their great crowds, and partly because they are annually constructed to take advantage of the hitter-friendly dimensions of their home park, which is famous for its short porch in right field.
Martin said the Seminoles always try to load up on quality lefthanded pitching (like ace Sean Gilmartin and Saturday starter John Gast), which helps neutralize visiting lefthanded power hitters, and Florida State always seems stacked with its own lefthanded power bats as well as righties who can hit the ball hard the other way.
You might think Virginia, which plays in a spacious pitchers' park in Charlottesville, would not be built to succeed in a place like Dick Howser Stadium. And It's worth noting that the last time Virginia visited Florida State in 2008, the Seminoles swept the series, though the last two games were tight 3-2 affairs. But like Florida State, the Cavs have serious lefthanded power threats (Jarrett Parker and Dan Grovatt), righties with opposite-field pop (Steven Proscia and Phil Gosselin), and a bona fide lefthanded ace (Danny Hultzen).
"I don't personally don't get into too much of how your team plays in a certain ballpark," O'Connor said. "Who would have thought two years ago when we went down there, we played really low-scoring, one-run ballgames? In their type of ballpark, I think our team plays well in that kind of ballpark. We're an offensive club that has some good lefthanded hitters that can hit the ball out of the ballpark. With Hultzen starting Friday night, I like how we can play in that ballpark."
"I thought the same way when I was looking at them on tape," Martin said. "When people play in big ballparks and then come to our ballpark, after they've taken batting practice, they all wish they played in this ballpark every day. When the ball is carrying well, it can get into pitchers' heads. I don't think we even barreled a ball up against (Hultzen) last year . . . We have a small advantage in playing at home, but Virginia has proven it doesn't matter where they play. They're very good on the road, that's evidenced by their success. They also have a strong bullpen, and a strong rotation. We're hoping that our bullpen continues to pitch well."
Virginia does have an edge in the bullpen, where proven closer Kevin Arico and rubber-armed setup man/long reliever Tyler Wilson can really shorten games, but O'Connor said he actually gives the edge to the Seminoles in the pitching depth category. Both teams are looking for more consistency out of Sunday starters Cody Winiarski (UVa.) and Geoff Parker (FSU), and the Saturday game features a matchup of emerging power arms in Virginia righty Robert Morey and Gast.
But the marquee matchup is Friday's duel between Hultzen and Gilmartin, two of the front-runners for ACC pitcher of the year honors. O'Connor said Hultzen has improved mightily since his season-opening win against East Carolina, when he didn't have his best stuff or sharpest command. In his last two starts, his fastball velocity has been back in the low 90s, his command has been terrific, and he's been putting hitters away.
Gilmartin, meanwhile, has gotten even better than he was as a freshman, when he went 12-3, 3.49. Through three starts this year, he's 3-0, 0.90 with 23 strikeouts and four walks in 20 innings.
"Gilly has developed a slider, and it's made him a notch above what he was last year," Martin said. "He was more of a fastball guy last year, and pitching against the University of Georgia this past weekend, he probably threw the slider 50 percent more than he did his previous outing, and was very effective. He was impressive the way he was able to keep lefthanded hitters thinking. In the past he was fastball in, fastball out, occasional curveball, but it wasn't consistent. And Virginia is just an excellent hitting club that doesn't go out of the zone many times, but now with Gilly's slider, I'm hoping that he can have a good night. If he's got that thing in the zone, it gives them more to think about."
That's as good of a pitching matchup as there is in the country this weekend—a great way to kick off a series between two teams that are so evenly matched from top to bottom.
"I think offensively, we're both very, very good clubs," O'Connor said. "If we get off to great starts on the mound, I think it'll be a great series, and it'll just be about who gets the clutch hits. They've got some dynamic, athletic players like we do, so it'll be a great test for both of us."
|Marquee Mound Matchup|
|Kevin Brandt, East Carolina, vs. Cole Cook, Pepperdine|
After losing Wednesday at Cal State Northridge, East Carolina enters Thursday's opener against Pepperdine still searching for its first-ever win in the state of California, where the Pirates are 0-7 all-time. But Brandt, a sophomore lefthander, might be just the man to snap that skid.
Brandt has supplanted Seth Maness atop the ECU rotation, going 1-0, 1.86 with 22 strikeouts and two walks in 15 innings. Two of his three starts were against offensive top 10 teams Virginia and South Carolina, but he held both teams in check with his stellar command of a three-pitch mix. Brandt does not have overpowering velocity, working primarily in the mid-80s, but he attacks hitters with his fastball, mixes speeds and keeps all of his pitches down in the strike zone. His changeup and curveball are both quality offerings, helping him keep opponents off balance.
Pepperdine counters with Cook, a 6-foot-6 redshirt sophomore righthander with a big arm. Cook works at 91-93 mph with his fastball, and his No. 2 pitch is a good 84 mph changeup. The key is harnessing his 77-78 power slurve and repeating his release point from his relatively low arm slot. Through three starts, Cook has been solid, but he's still looking for his first victory for the struggling Waves, just 4-8. He's 0-2, 3.00 with 18 strikeouts and five walks in 21 innings.
|Under The Radar|
After going 42-20 last year, winning the Sun Belt Conference regular-season title for the first time and making their deepest NCAA tournament run ever (to a decisive regional championship game against Mississippi), the Hilltoppers had quite a few key pieces to replace. Third-round pick Wade Gaynor—the highest draft pick in school history—and his 25 home runs were gone, as were Chad Cregar (19 homers) and Matt Hightower (11 homers; 7-3, 4.01 in 15 starts on the mound). WKU was a power-hitting outfit in 2009, but that trio accounted for five-eighths of the team's 88 long balls, so the 'Toppers knew they had to change their identity if they wanted to compete for another Sun Belt title in 2010.
So far, that transformation has been a success. Western Kentucky is off to a strong 9-4 start, including weekend series wins against quality mid-major regional contenders Kent State and Illinois-Chicago; eye-opening wins against Texas A&M, Texas State and Baylor in a tournament at Baylor in Week Two; and a midweek win against Tennessee on Tuesday.
Rather than bludgeoning opponents like they did a year ago, the Hilltoppers have relied on athleticism and timely hitting. Speedy outfielders Jared Andreoli (.321/.381/.358) and Kes Carter (.434/.484/.566) and scrappy senior second baseman Matt Payton (.346/.424/.673) have been disruptive forces in the top third of the lineup, getting on base ahead of junior catcher Matt Rice (.327/.400/.558 with a team-leading 14 RBIs), the centerpiece of the lineup.
"We're a different kind of team," Western Kentucky coach Chris Finwood said. "We've hit a few home runs (12 in 13 games), but we don't have near the power we had. Last year we could run, but we had so much power and would hit the balls in the gaps and over the fence. This year we need to get more timely hits and move the ball around because we don't have as much power."
Pitching has been key to WKU's early success. The physical, offensive Golden Flashes mustered just three total runs in their two losses to the Hilltoppers, while A&M, Texas State, Baylor and Tennessee combined for just 10 runs in their four games against WKU. The Hilltoppers returned two-thirds of their weekend rotation from last year in senior righthanders Matt Ridings and Shane Cameron, and they have been able to replace Hightower with freshman lefthander Tanner Perkins (2-0, 2.40 with 14 strikeouts and three walks in 15 innings), a projectable, emerging talent.
"He's a 6-foot-3 lefty that's throwing in the mid-80s right now, he's got a good changeup and a good slider, and he's just mean as a rattlesnake out there—one of those kids you never forget because he just absolutely hates to lose," Finwood said. "Those kids are rare. If he's running wind sprints, he's got to win them. Those guys are special. He's going to be a mainstay on the mound for years to come."
The bullpen is anchored by sophomore righty Rye Davis, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound behemoth from Pig, Ky. Davis redshirted last year after Gaynor lined a ball off his face in WKU's final intrasquad game before the season started, shattering his right eye socket and affecting his vision for a few months. He has returned stronger than ever, going 1-0, 0.00 with two saves and a 10-2 strikeout-walk ratio in nine innings over seven relief appearances. In the win against Texas A&M, Davis struck out the side in the ninth inning.
"He's a special kid, and getting him back out there has been a real shot in the arm in a lot of ways," Finwood said. "Our guys love him, and it's been awesome to see him come back from the terrible injury he's had. He's been 93-94 this spring with a good slider. He's just a big, strong country kid from about 15 miles from here that nobody really recruited."
It helps the staff—and the rest of the team—to have an excellent leader behind the plate in Rice, the top engineering student at WKU and a candidate to become the school's first-ever Rhodes scholar. His savvy is contagious, but he's also a strong defensive backstop and a mature hitter.
"He's really taken on a leadership role for us behind the plate," Finwood said. "He's got a good arm. He doesn't pass the look test because he's a little on the lean side, but he can really hit. He's one of those kids that has some strength from the elbow to the fingertips. He's very smart, he sees it real well, and he's really gotten better behind the plate. He's developed into an absolutely first-rate catcher."
The Sun Devils have opened the season on a 12-game winning streak heading into this weekend's series against Auburn. This is the third straight year Arizona State has jumped out to a hot start; last year the Devils started 8-0, and in 2008 they started 19-0. Over the first three weeks of the last three seasons, they are 33-1.
But what's different about this year's hot start is that Pat Murphy is not involved. Murphy had proven himself as one of the most successful coaches in college baseball during his 16-year tenure at ASU, but he was forced to resign in the midst of an investigation into NCAA violations on Nov. 20, just three months before the 2010 season started. Former Murphy assistant Tim Esmay took over as interim head coach and has done yeoman's work establishing some stability in a reeling program. The Sun Devils were not derailed by the fallout from Murphy's high-profile departure, and haven't been derailed by the absence of senior ace Josh Spence, who has yet to pitch this season because of soreness in his forearm. His return is still at least two weeks away, though he did start throwing again this week.
"I think it's just a total credit to the kids," Esmay said. "The kids, they're obviously showing they're pretty resilient. I kind of knew that going in; we just have such strong leadership—those guys are the best. There's some strength in that clubhouse, and there's strength in the assistant coaches . . . I think everybody feels like it's still the Sun Devil Way, I think that's the whole key. I think everyone wanted to make sure that the expectations are the same. There is a lot of energy out here, but these kids just love to play. They love to play."
Of course, Murphy and Spence aren't the only notable absences from the ASU team that reached the College World Series in 2009. Two-time Pacific-10 Conference pitcher of the year Mike Leake is gone too, as is Pac-10 player of the year Jason Kipnis. Yet so far, the Sun Devils haven't missed a beat on the mound or in the lineup, posting a 2.60 ERA and hitting .372/.480/.616 as a team. Some of those numbers were accrued in eight games against Northern Illinois and Towson, but Arizona State also swept through a strong field at the Coca-Cola Classic last weekend, beating Cal Poly, Oregon State, UC Riverside and Florida International.
The Sun Devils always hit, and though they're less offensive than they were a year ago, they have gotten breakout sophomore campaigns thus far from sparkplug second baseman Zack MacPhee (.564/.638/1.026 with 16 RBIs and seven triples) and first baseman Zach Wilson (.421/.511/.737), helping to fill the offensive void. The bigger story has been on the mound.
Junior righthander Seth Blair has filled in admirably atop the weekend rotation, going 2-0, 3.38 with 20 strikeouts and seven walks in 16 innings. He's always had premium arm strength, but in the past his lack of advanced feel for pitching seemed to cause Murphy to lose confidence in him in big spots, like in Omaha last year, when they brought Leake and Spence back on short rest in their third and fourth games rather than give the ball to Blair. This year, Esmay and new pitching coach Ken Knutson have shown total confidence in Blair.
"The biggest positive for him is he hasn't tried to be somebody he's not," Esmay said. "He's matured, and one of the things that we've had conversations with him about has been, 'We want you to understand that we're not coming to get you. We want you to figure out that you're going to be in situations where you're going to be uncomfortable, so we'll let you figure out how to get out of those situations and minimize the innings.'
"He's learned that one pitch or one swing doesn't necessarily mean the inning has gotten away from him. That's been the biggest difference from last year—he's been able to pitch out of some situations. And the stuff's good, the arm's fresh. He's been up to the mid-90s, pitching in the low 90s. He's always had a pretty good slider, but he's learning how to use his changeup a little bit more and learning how to throw those pitches where he wants them to be."
Behind Blair in the rotation, Arizona State has gotten rock-solid work from sophomore righty Jake Borup (3-0, 1.12) and junior righty Merrill Kelly (3-0, 3.38). Their emergence has allowed Esmay to leave sophomore lefthander Mitchell Lambson (3.38 ERA, 16-2 K-BB in 11 innings) and highly touted freshman righty Jake Barrett (1.50 ERA, 13-2 K-BB in six innings) in the bullpen, where they team with sophomore righty Jordan Swagerty (1.29 ERA, 8-3 K-BB in seven innings) to form a menacing trio. Lambson, owner of a devastating changeup, proved himself as an elite lefthanded bullpen option as a freshman, while Swagerty has added strength and seen his velocity jump into the low to mid-90s. Barrett throws even harder, sitting in the mid-90s and touching 97—with command.
Esmay envisions his bullpen as a potential weapon the way Arizona's was in 2008, when relievers Daniel Schlereth, Ryan Perry and Jason Stoffel helped lead the Wildcats to super regionals.
"I learned a lot from watching U of A that year," Esmay said. "Running the offense, it's almost like you had to have a little more sense of urgency with your guys. The game almost had to be set up early. It made for a tough mindset, and I always put that in the back of my mind and thought, 'Look at the feeling we've got going into this series and how we have to approach it.' They shortened the game. It's kind of what I would like to happen with this staff."
Arizona State using Arizona as a model? Maybe things have changed in Tempe more than it appears at first glance. It's still the Sun Devil Way, for sure, but Arizona State is finding out that there's a lot to be gained by embracing the Esmay Way, too.
As recently as Feb. 29, Georgia was sitting at 6-2 and ranked No. 25 in the nation, and coach David Perno was feeling good about his team even despite injuries to starting middle infielders Levi Hyams and Kyle Farmer.
Perno's mood reversed course in a hurry.
The Bulldogs were blitzed 13-2 by Alabama in a nonconference game last Tuesday, then were annihilated by Florida State by a score of 46-10 in a three-game sweep. But that wasn't even rock bottom; this past Tuesday, Georgia was embarrassed at home by Kennesaw State, 11-1.
"We're not a good baseball team right now," Perno said after the loss to the Owls. "We're not showing a lot of fight and this has been the worst week in my tenure. We have to figure something out and identify some roles. We'll continue to shuffle some things, and we need to get some confidence at the plate and on the mound. We're struggling, and it's very contagious. I'm very disappointed in the team right now. The wins and losses at this point in the season are not a concern but the lack of competitive energy and pride does concern me. I thought this team would show more grit; we'll see how they respond."
The five-game skid has dropped Georgia to 6-7 heading into this weekend's three-game set against Siena. One positive is that Hyams made his season debut Tuesday, entering in the eighth inning at shortstop. Perhaps his return will bring some stability, but the Bulldogs simply must play better in all facets of the game—and show more intensity—if they are to get back on track before opening Southeastern Conference play next weekend against Auburn.
|Stat of the Week|
Consecutive innings without allowing an earned run by Texas A&M's bullpen over an 11-game stretch from Feb. 20 to March 9. The streak ended when Penn State scored three times in the ninth inning of the Aggies' 17-3 win Tuesday, but the A&M pen started a new streak the next night, working two scoreless frames in a 7-0 win. Texas A&M's rotation and starting lineup have been bright spots in their own right, but the bullpen is the single biggest reason for the team's 11-2 start heading into a big nonconference series against Washington State this weekend.
The anchor of the pen has been sophomore righthander John Stilson, a transfer from Texarkana (Texas) CC who ranked as the No. 127 prospect in the nation for the 2009 draft. Stilson was selected by the Twins in the 19th round but elected to attend A&M instead of signing, and the Aggies are awfully glad he did. Through six appearances, Stilson has been utterly overpowering, going 2-0, 0.00 with two saves, 25 strikeouts and five walks in 17 innings. He has given up just two hits, and one was a bunt single. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Stilson has a serious power arm; he ran his fastball up to 95 down the stretch last year for Texarkana, and he's been even better than that this spring.
"He'll be 94-98, and he touched 99 last week in Waco," Aggies coach Rob Childress said, and scouts have reported seeing similar velocity. "But he's got great feel to pitch. He can work backwards with four pitches—it makes his fastball that much better. He's just got a winnability about him; he'll do whatever he's got to do to get you out. He's got a change, a slider and he'll throw a split on occasion. His changeup is the equalizer—you can run your lefthanded hitters off the bench to try to get him, but you can't match up against him because of that changeup."
The co-anchor is freshman righty Michael Walla (2-0, 0.46 with 30 strikeouts and three walks in 20 innings), who made his first career start Tuesday against Penn State and struck out 11 over six scoreless, three-hit innings. At 6-foot-6, 195 pounds, Wacha has loads of projection, but he's already awfully good.
"He came in and worked hard. He has a lot of confidence and a great aptitude," Childress said. "You tell him something one time, and he builds on it. He's 88-92 with a four-pitch mix, outstanding tilt and finish, and great command of four pitches."
The relief corps also has good depth and plenty of different looks. Senior righty Shane Minks works at 84-88 mph from a sidearm slot and excels at inducing ground balls. Sophomore righty Denny Clement has power stuff, working at 90-93, and sophomore Estevan Uriegas is a good situational lefty with a four-pitch mix. None of those three has given up an earned run yet, either.
The scary thing is Texas A&M's staff isn't even at full strength. Talented sophomore lefthander Ross Hales is still working his way back from offseason rotator cuff surgery, but he has begun throwing to live hitters and has shown 86-89 mph velocity. When he returns to game action in a couple of weeks, the Aggies will have even more options. Childress' goal is to keep Stilson as a dominating presence in the bullpen, so he needs starters Barret Loux, Nick Fleece, Ross Stripling and Clayton Ehlert to continue pitching well. If any of them should falter, Wacha or Hales could slide into a regular rotation spot. Whatever it takes to avoid having to call upon Stilson to start unless absolutely necessary.
"We knew what we had with John Stilson, it was just a matter of, can we keep him in the bullpen?" Childress said. "If we can, we've got a chance to be pretty good on the mound. The three starters have allowed us to keep him back there, and each of the last two weekends we haven't had to use him early in the weekend, so we've been able to use him for one game as an X-factor. Sunday (against Winthrop) was a perfect example: He came in in the sixth inning when it was 1-1, and we knew we only had to get one run (which they did, winning 2-1). If you don't have a guy who can finish the game it can be real demoralizing, not just to your starters but for the entire team. For us to keep Stilson back there is definitely a luxury."
|Carson Smith, rhp, Texas State|
|Smith has exploded onto the prospect radar this spring after transferring to Texas State from Grayson County (Texas) CC. Scouts were buzzing about Smith after he pitched three scoreless innings to pick up a save in Texas State's season opener against Houston. He moved into a starting role last week and cruised through five innings in a midweek contest against Rice, allowing just one run, before the Owls put up a four-spot on him in the sixth. Rice coach Wayne Graham and pitching coach David Pierce both went out of their way to heap praise on Smith this weekend at the Houston College Classic, and he showed why they were so excited Tuesday against No. 3 Texas, allowing one run on five hits and a walk while striking out eight over seven innings. He left with a 3-1 lead, but the Longhorns came back to win against Texas State's bullpen.
Smith is just a sophomore and is not draft-eligible, but he has already made a name for himself for the 2011 draft. Two scouts who saw him in the first two weeks weighed in on him.
"He was 91-95 (against Houston)," the first scout said. "It was 95, 94, with sink and life on it, so he did real well for himself. He's a big-bodied guy, 6-foot-5, 215, with a pretty good arm, a changeup, and his slider was pretty firm."
"He's a reliever all the way—deep counts on everyone (against Rice)," the second scout said. "Great arm, but not much pitchability. It's a quality arm, no question."
|In The Dugout
Bryan Holaday, c, Texas Christian
Holaday's senior year has gotten off to a roaring start. The senior catcher went 10-for-17 last week and earned Most Outstanding Player honors at the Houston College Classic, raising his overall line to .444/.528/.689 with one homer, six double and 11 RBIs in 45 at-bats. But Holaday's impact on the Horned Frogs goes way beyond the numbers, as we found out In The Dugout.
You must be seeing the ball really well. How big does it look to you right now?
It seems like you've kind of mastered that move where it looks like you're going to nonchalantly throw back to the mound, but instead you throw behind the baserunner.
We call it the sleeper play. It's kind of our little thing. Whenever we notice them going back to the bag kind of sluggish, we do a little delayed pickoff.
Absolutely, that's exactly how I try to play. Just be that kind of dirtbag and hustle everything out, because my mentality is hustle can make up for mistakes.
I understand that coach (Jim) Schlossnagle told you when you came back this year that this is your team, you're going to be the leader of this team. What have you done to try to take these younger guys under your wing?
You're also in charge of discipline for this team, right?
I am. Earlier in the year we had some slip-ups, some people showing up late for things. So me and some of the other seniors threw out the Ten Commandments of TCU baseball, and we had everybody sign their life away to it. So, I'm in charge of disciplining people however I want. So we had a guy late for a workout, so he's got locker room duty for the rest of the year, and made him read a book in one trip—which is tough for him.
I want to ask about your development as a catcher too. You came in as a third baseman out of high school; how have you matured behind the plate?
Working at it. (Volunteer) Coach (Ryan) Shotzberger has really done a great job of helping me receive and block. Just working on it every day, I just adapted to it once I realized that's where I was going to be every day. And I love it.
There's a lot of diversity on the staff in terms of that, but they all know exactly how they can pitch, and they don't try to do too much. They trust the guys that are behind them, which really helps them out.