Weekend in SEC
This week’s Southeastern Conference coaches teleconference was filled with the usual talk about how deep the league is once again, and how there are no “gimmes” in the SEC. If we hear those lines from SEC coaches every year, it’s because they ring true just about every year, and especially this year. There are 11 teams in the conference with legitimate NCAA tournament aspirations (while Mississippi State admits to being in rebuilding mode but doubtless harbors its own ambitions to sneak up on the rest of the league and steal a regional bid). In that kind of hyper-competitive atmosphere, every week takes on added importance. Every team wants to get off to a strong start with an opening series win, but for road teams it might be more important just to survive.
“I think one of the most important things in this conference is you’ve got to do everything you possibly can not to get swept—even if you get one win on the road in a tough environment, it’s a huge plus,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “It’s very difficult to win series on the road in this league. Anytime you’ve got an opportunity to do that, you’ve got to cash in, and you’ve got to take care of your home field advantage. But I think the sweep thing is one of the more important things I saw last year; if you can avoid those things, you’ve got a chance to stay above water.”
With six quality series to choose from, let’s spotlight two of the most intriguing matchups of SEC’s opening weekend:
Kentucky at No. 4 Louisiana State
“I wish I could give an explanation why we didn’t hit well,” Tigers
The main question about the Tigers heading into the season was their
Kentucky has had no such questions about its weekend rotation.
“They’re both healthy now, pitching well, and they’re in the strike
Starting two quality lefties gives Kentucky a real chance against an
No. 8 Georgia at Alabama
“We just didn’t beat (Arizona)—I think the games were decided pretty
Four members of Georgia’s exceptional freshman class are everyday
Perno said he almost prefers teams where freshmen play critical roles, like his 2004 Omaha team.
“There’s just no pressure,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys that had
The Crimson Tide relies on fewer young players, and its veteran-laden
“Kent’s been great—he’s literally carried us for the first part of the
The Tide is still trying to figure out its Sunday starter slot. Senior
“We’ve asked ourselves that question many times: Why is Miers Quigley
|Missouri’s Kyle Gibson vs. Texas’ Chance Ruffin|
Unlike the SEC, the Big 12 does not have a full complement of conference games this weekend, but six teams do open league play. No. 3 Texas A&M travels to No. 5 Baylor in a critical clash; Nebraska visits Texas Tech; and Missouri begins a grueling five-week stretch at top-ranked Texas. The Tigers follow this series with sets against A&M, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Baylor—two of them on the road.
Mizzou coach Tim Jamieson said his team will need to get better
“He’s a guy that’s going to keep us in every game,” Jamieson said of
Gibson, a junior righthander, spent most of his freshman year anchoring
“I think the stuff is a little firmer, a little later,” Jamieson said.
Ruffin emerged as Texas’ de facto ace during his All-America freshman
“He’s a great competitor,” Jamieson said of Ruffin. “He gets by with, a
Missouri’s offense started characteristically slow but has come around
“We’re starting to come out of the darkness here offensively,” Jamieson
|Wade Kapteyn, rhp, Evansville|
Remember Wade Kapteyn? The No. 2 prospect in the state of Illinois (and the No. 88 prospect in the nation) heading into the 2006 draft, Kapteyn opted for Evansville over pro ball and rated as the No. 8 freshman in the nation heading into 2007. His freshman season as mediocre (2-2, 4.98), but his sophomore year was an outright disaster (1-4, 9.38), due in part to tendinitis in the middle finger of his throwing hand.
But anyone who wrote off Kapteyn as a prospect might have been premature. The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder is once again showing why scouts were so enamored with him three years ago, going 2-1, 3.07 with 12 strikeouts and two walks through 15 innings. In two appearances last week, Kapteyn threw 11 straight scoreless innings, leading Evansville to two of its only three wins so far this year. First he threw seven shutout frames against Cal State Northridge on Tuesday, then he threw four shutout against Pepperdine on Saturday, allowing just two hits and no walks while striking out three.
“He threw 54 pitches on three days’ rest, so it was kind of like a bullpen for him,” Evansville coach Wes Carroll said. “He’s physical enough to handle it, and he stepped up for our team and our program on that day and set a tone. I was proud of him. That was the best I’ve seen him throw. He’s shown flashes of that type of brilliance in the winter and the fall.”
It was a huge turnaround from Kapteyn’s first start of the year at Tennessee-Martin, when he was shellacked for 10 runs (five earned) on nine hits over 3 2/3 innings.
“He had an eye-opening experience at UT Martin—he did not have his breaking ball or changeup, and it was a little chilly so his velocity wasn’t there and he wasn’t throwing it by anyone either,” Carroll said. “He realized he has to have his offspeed stuff, too. Most importantly what I’m seeing with Wade is he’s really matured mentally. I think going up to La Crosse playing in the Northwoods League, the head coach up there was really pounding the mental side, and we’ve continued to do that also.”
Carroll said Kapteyn has also made a significant mechanical adjustment, eliminating his windup and pitching exclusively out of the stretch. The tweak has allowed him to repeat his three-quarters arm slot and find a consistent release point. In the past, he would shift back and forth between three-quarters and over the top, causing his release point to vary and his control to be erratic. Carroll said Kapteyn has been able to pound the zone over his last two outings, and his stuff has been outstanding.
“We didn’t have radar on him last week, but I’d say he was 92-94 with power sink and some movement, and a power slider,” Carroll said. “That’s always been Wade’s type of thing—just have that power-pitcher mentality, throw that fastball by them. He didn’t have as much depth on his breaking ball, but he’s been able to develop that. By getting depth on it and throwing it for strikes, hitters can’t sit on the fastball. And he mixes in the changeup.
“He’ll start Saturday against Purdue. It was nice to see him throw well back to back, but now let’s see him turn into that Valley type of arm, that guy who can pitch on Friday nights and dominate.”
|Mike Spina, 3b, Cincinnati|
After transferring from Florida CC, Spina emerged as one of the top power hitters in the Big East in 2008. He caught fire down the stretch and kept on hitting over the summer in the New York Collegiate League, where he slugged 10 homers and ranked as the circuit’s No. 5 prospect. The senior’s bat has remained hot in 2009, and he owns a 20-game hitting streak dating back to last spring. Through 11 games, Spina is hitting .432/.509/.909 with seven homers and 24 RBIs.
“He has been hot, but it almost doesn’t feel like he’s hot, it just feels like that’s how he is,” Bearcats coach Brian Cleary said. “Last year, I didn’t know if he just was a really, really good hitter or a guy that just got hot toward the end of the season. Then he carried it over with a really good summer and came back in the fall with a good feel for his swing, knowing what he’s doing, and I thought, ‘He didn’t just get hot. He’s a really good, mature hitter.’ He’s really worked hard on his swing, he can maintain his swing day in and day out, and he really understands it. He coaches himself really well.”
The 6-foot, 219-pound Spina smacked 20 homers as a junior, but he’s on pace to eclipse that mark as a senior. A 45th-round pick a year ago, the righthanded-hitting Spina figures to go considerably higher this year as a senior sign with a power-hitting track record.
“I think his raw power is as good as anybody’s,” Cleary said. “He hit a home run this past weekend that a bunch of scouts are still talking about. The thing that’s most impressive to me is he shows it to left and to right. He hit a ball this weekend that climbed halfway up our basketball arena to right-center, and he can turn on it also. We spend a fair amount of time hitting with wood, and he shows it with wood too.”
|Despite smacking 27 home runs in 13 games, Tennessee is just 7-6 heading into this weekend’s series against Auburn. The biggest culprit for Tennessee’s inconsistency has been its starting pitching.
“We still haven’t really formulated our three starters yet,” Volunteers coach Todd Raleigh said. “Nick Hernandez has done a great job, but we’re still looking for our guys after that.”
Bryan Morgado, a redshirt sophomore who ranked as the No. 36 college prospect for the draft heading into the year, has an 8.03 ERA over his first 12 innings. He’s allowed 16 hits and eight walks, though he also has struck out 15. Raleigh has pulled Morgado out of the weekend rotation, but so far he’s taken his lumps in two relief appearances, allowing four earned runs on four hits and four walks over four innings against Ohio on Saturday, then allowing an RBI single and a groundball that turned into an error against the only two batters he faced in Wednesday’s loss to Louisville.
“Bryan Morgado’s been struggling—he’s certainly a guy we need to step up,” Raleigh said. “But he’s been struggling of late, so we’ve moved him to the bullpen.”
|Stat Of The
College of Charleston’s record at home since last April 18. After losing that Friday night game to Elon, the Cougars won their final nine home games of 2008, including eight in Southern Conference play. The current 18-game home winning streak is the nation’s longest.
Charleston has traditionally been strong at hitter-friendly Patriot’s Point. Of course, since the Cougars made their first regional in 2004, they’ve been strong pretty much everywhere—but especially at home, where their record over the last six years is 131-28 (.784 winning percentage). On the road, Charleston is 81-41 (.664).
CofC opened Southern Conference play with a sweep of UNC Greensboro at home this past weekend. The Cougars carry a 9-0 home record (and an 11-2 overall mark) into a SoCon showdown this weekend against Western Carolina (off to its own hot start at 9-2). Greensboro coach Mike Gaski, whose team was outscored 26-5 last weekend, said the Cougars always present a challenge, but that winning a series at Patriot’s Point is particularly difficult.
“It’s so different from what most of us play in,” Gaski said. “Their park plays small. The wind blows in at The Citadel on one side of the river, and it blows out on the other side at College of Charleston. While the wind blows for both teams, they exploit it better than other teams. They recruit to their park, which is the appropriate thing to do.
“Environmentally, I don’t think of it as particularly hostile, but I think their kids are far more comfortable playing in their park than across the street in a bigger park like ours. So they’re in their comfort zone—if you hit it 380 feet, it’ll get out there, but not in other parks. They’ve got a real short porch in left with a high wall, a Fenway sort of thing. Those guys are momentum changers, that’s what they are.”
Of course, Gaski was quick to point out that Charleston has the personnel to exploit its park. Senior sluggers Brandon Sizemore (.327 with five homers), Matt Mansilla (.413 with six homers), Joash Brodin (.420 with five homers) and Mike Hentz (.396 with three homers) are all off to strong starts for first-year coach Monte Lee, who took over when John Pawlowski went to Auburn.
“John certainly didn’t leave the cupboards bare,” Gaski said. “He left them a full house, so you’ve got to give Coach Pawlowski credit for that. It’s an older team, just an awful lot of juniors and seniors in their everyday lineup. That’s a lot of at-bats those guys have had under their belts, a lot of experience. That really helps them. They’ve got a nice mix, a little bit of power and a little bit of speed.”
The Hilltoppers got hot down the stretch in 2008, winning their final two regular-season series to earn the No. 5 seed in the Sun Belt tournament, where they went 4-1 to win the conference’s automatic NCAA tournament bid. On the heels of the third regional appearance in school history, Western Kentucky opened 2009 in an unfamiliar position: as the preseason conference favorite. So far, so good: the Hilltoppers swept Louisiana-Monroe to open conference play last weekend, and they carry a 9-4 overall record into this weekend’s series against South Alabama.
As expected, WKU is a very offensive team, averaging 10.6 runs per game and batting .349 as a team with 20 home runs. Senior outfielder Chad Cregar slugged 21 home runs a year ago and has picked up where he left off, batting .317/.412/.927 with eight homers and 22 RBIs. He has plenty of help in the middle of the lineup in junior third baseman Wade Gaynor (.467/.597/.844), junior first baseman Jake Wells (.388/.446/.469) and senior catcher J.B. Paxson (.333/.476/.606), among others. Western Kentucky also has steady veterans on the mound in junior righthander Matt Ridings (2-0, 2.55 after going 10-3, 3.88 last year) and senior lefty Matt Hightower (2-0, 0.77). A coach whose team has played the Hilltoppers offered his thoughts on the Sun Belt favorites.
“Western Kentucky is a very, very dangerous club. They can put lefties in there with some power, they’ve got some guys in the middle of the lineup and some guys at the back end. There’s not a lot of guys in the lineup you can say, ‘He’s an out, he’s an out.’ If you don’t make pitches, they can put you in a headlock and not let go for a while. They’ve got a great head coach (in Chris Finwood), and Matt Myers has done a tremendous job with their pitching. They’re very well coached, they’re very confident. They’re a classy team, and they play hard. They jog around and sprint around like they belong. They think they’re going to another regional this year, I’ll tell you that.
“They’ve got a bully in the middle of the lineup—Cregar’s a bully who will take your lunch money, but they’ve got some other guys who will steal some food from you, too. They have about four or five guys in there that square up a lot of balls. Dangerous, dangerous—I will say that. Gaynor’s a big, physical kid, and the shortstop (Terrence Dayleg) plays his (rear end) off. There’s so many guys that have different strengths, if you get into a pattern, you’ll play into one of their strengths. Those kids, they’ve been through the wars. They got beat up as freshmen, then they added Cregar to that mix, a juco guy, he brings the thunder. They all bring a different weapon to the fight: One’s got a knife, one’s got a jackhammer, one’s got a club. They get in there, and not only do they hit early, they’ll work counts. You get two strikes, and they work your (tail) off. After four or five foul balls, a freshman pitcher will say, ‘To hell with it, I’m going to sneak a fastball in there,’ and next thing you know it’s in the road.
“They roll Ridings out there, he does his thing, and Hightower pitches well behind him. I think Matt Ridings is a tremendous college pitcher. He can get you through the lineup three times, which can usually take you late into the game. He’s got a couple different pitches he can throw. Hightower’s a lefty, he’s got decption, he’s tough to hit. So they’ve got a lefty and a righty, and after that they’re trying to figure out how everybody settles in. Their pitching coach is a huge addition. They force the tempo, they’re on the mound throwing, right down your throats. They score, then don’t give you any time to do anything.”
|Nathan Newman, rhp, Pepperdine|
|Nathan Newman’s route from Houston (Texas) Christian High to Pepperdine has been unconventional. After arriving at Tulane as a freshman, Newman and the Green Wave spent that fall in Lubbock, Texas, after Hurrican Katrina forced them to evacuate New Orleans. Newman transferred to Grayson County (Texas) CC for his sophomore year, then headed west to Malibu for his junior year in 2008. He settled immediately into the Friday starter role and went 8-4, 3.46 for the Waves last year, capping the season with a 10-strikeout performance in a victory over Arkansas in the Stanford Regional. The 6-foot-4, 214-pound Newman was drafted in the 10th round by the Mariners last June but elected to return for his senior year, and he is off to an even better start in 2009, going 2-0, 1.35 with 18 strikeouts and six walks through 20 innings heading into this weekend’s trip to Wichita State.
Congratulations on your hot start, Nathan. You had a great season last year, but have you made any adjustments since then that have helped lead to your early success this year?
We’ve been using my 12-to-6 curveball a lot more than we did last year, as more of a strikeout pitch. Last year I threw predominantly sliders, but this spike curve is helping to finish hitters a lot better. I usually throw the slider more for a strike pitch, less of a strikeout pitch. The slider is a lot easier for me to control. It has less break, though.
So you throw a fastball, curveball and slider. Anything else in your repertoire?
Also a split. It’s definitely a pitch I use against lefties. It’s a pitch I’m still learning. I picked it up midway through last season, started throwing it a lot more in the regionals against Arkansas. They had a lot of free-swinging lefties, so it helped a lot.
That must have been quite an experience, striking out 10 against Arkansas in your first career NCAA tournament appearance?
That was awesome. My first time pitching in regionals, it was definitely exciting. Especially since I had a buddy on the other team who threw, Mike Bolsinger. I went to junior college with him.
So I guess you got bragging rights over him since you guys won, huh?
Hah, I guess—I’m not much of a bragger. It was fun, it’s a shame we lost those two games to Stanford. It hurt a lot losing a big bat like (outfielder Eric) Thames (to injury in the regional), but a bunch of guys picked up the slack.
It had to be disappointing to win your first two games in the regional but then lose twice in a row to Stanford. Did you guys learn anything from the experience, you think?
There’s definitely a lesson to be learned. It definitely left a sour taste in my mouth—that’s one of the reasons I wanted to come back to school. We just didn’t play as well as we could have. We had this team coming back with all the seniors, we figured we’d be in the mix again.
Were you close to signing with the Mariners last summer?
I was extremely close to signing. But I definitely felt like I had unfinished business (at Pepperdine).
Are you enjoying being a part of such a veteran club with high hopes this year?
We’ve got a great mix. The pitching, we’ve got guys like Cole Cook coming back—he’s obviously been lights-out in the bullpen, and he’s really picking up the slack on Tuesdays. Cole Cook and Matt Bywater have been a tremendous combo, not to mention Tyler Hess coming out of the bullpen, a strong setup man for (closer Nick) Gaudi, who’s back as a senior too. Not to mention (Scott) Alexander on Saturdays; you’re not going to find a better lefty when he’s throwing strikes.
Do a lot of the younger guys on the staff look up to you as a leader?
I’m still learning the same as them, but we’ve got such a close-knit group of guys, we all feed off each other. I certainly hope they look up to me, though.
So how did a Texas boy like you wind up at Pepperdine?
It’s been a wild journey. I was moving into the dorms at Tulane when coach (Mark) Kingston gave me a call and told me, ‘Newman, you’ve got to get out of town, leave your books and clothes and everything, hit the road and we’ll be back in a few days.’ That was around Aug. 17, and I wasn’t back at Tulane until the end of January. The entire team got moved out to Texas Tech at Lubbock—that was an experience. The hospitality was second to none. They treated us so well. So I was there for a semester, then at Tulane for a semester, then out to Grayson County on the border.
Why did you decide to leave Tulane?
At Tulane, they wanted to make me a closer. The guy we had, Daniel Latham, was already the Conference USA saves leader, and it looked like he was coming back, so I wouldn’t have the chance to close until I was a junior. I just wanted an opportunity.
Did you grow a lot in your year at Grayson?
Without a doubt. Junior college is quite an experience. It’s completely different than D-I baseball. You’re playing a ton of games, and I had an opportunity to play with a ton of great players out there. Pretty much everybody from that team ended up going to play Division I after. (Current Angels farmhand) Jordan Walden is the only guy I’ve seen throw 100 other than (former Wave Brett) Hunter. His final outing at Grayson, he hit 100 eight times.
When you’re on a staff with hard-throwers like Hunter and Walden, and you see them lighting up the radar guns, is it ever tempting to get out on the mound and just try to reach back and throw as hard as you can?
I know I can’t run it up that high. I like to work that two-seam in on their hands. I’ve got to throw everything but the kitchen sink at them. My velocity has been up and down. The two-seam’s a little slower, people have told me high 80s with the two-seamer, low 90s with four-seamer. I use the sinker, the two-seamer, a lot more, trying to get those groundball outs. The middle infield we’ve got, they’re life-savers on those ground balls.
What do you expect this weekend at Wichita?
I expect a sweep, but we don’t really worry about the outcome. If we do our jobs, with our pitching staff and the way our guys have been swinging it lately, I think we’ll go in there and compete with them. We have a freshman, (Ryan) Van Amburg, who’s tearing the cover off the ball, and Colin Rooney transferred in and is really swinging well also.
It sounds like you think you’ve got a pretty good shot to reclaim the West Coast Conference title from San Diego this year.
I felt like we were the better team last year. They flat-out beat us last year (in the WCC championship series). That’s another sour taste that I think is left in all of our mouths. We’ve got so many returning seniors, I think everybody’s counting down the days for that one. We’ve got a shot this year, if everything falls into place and our pitching keeps going the way it is.
It seems a little more laid-back out in Southern California than in Texas or Louisiana, but how intense is that USD-Pepperdine rivalry?
It’s definitely a rivalry, but the fans aren’t quite as rabid as they are down South. When you play at Alex Box Stadium and you’re sitting in the bullpen, you can pretty much expect to have beer spilled on you and people yelling at you. Out here, there are not as many fans, but the competitive nature is still there.