|South Carolina at Vanderbilt|
The meat-grinder known as the Southeastern Conference schedule opens this weekend, with the league’s marquee series headlining the action right out of the gate. Last year, Vanderbilt went to South Carolina and took two out of three. The Commodores went on to win the SEC’s Eastern Division by five games over the Gamecocks and ran through the conference tournament to earn the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
But South Carolina did what the Commodores could not in the postseason—win a regional. Both teams return the bulk of their talented offenses and enter this weekend ranked in the top 10, and the Gamecocks have a chance to reassert their position as the league’s perennial favorite with a series win in Nashville.
State Fullerton at (1) Arizona
|Troy at (2) Arizona
Tech at (3) North Carolina
|Toledo at (4)
Mississippi at Mississippi State
|(8) South Carolina at (6)
Miami at North Carolina State
|Southern California at/vs./at (9) Long Beach
Oklahoma State at (10) Baylor
|(11) UCLA at Cal
Marymount at (12) California
|Hawaii at (13)
Tech at (14) Florida State
|Winthrop at (15)
Virginia at Duke
|Alabama at (17)
at (19) Texas
|(21) San Diego at
Oregon State at Nevada
|Texas Christian at (24) Wichita
Centex Homes Invitational, Conway,
Michigan, Ball State, Coastal Carolina,
“You know South Carolina’s good,” said Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, who saw plenty of the Gamecocks as an assistant at Clemson before heading to Nashville. “They’ve been good for years, and I’ve been in the same state with them for years. They’re a very good ballclub. It really doesn’t matter who you start off with in the conference, it’s a very powerful conference. Everyone is good.”
It’s certainly true that no conference is deeper from top to bottom on an annual basis than the SEC, but that doesn’t mean the league is without its heavyweights. Nowadays, relative upstarts Vandy and Mississippi fit that description, but so does South Carolina, which has become a traditional power this decade under coach Ray Tanner. Though it’s just the first conference weekend of the year, this series is bound to have major ramifications near the top of the conference standings. Neither coach is overselling the importance of one series in March, but Tanner knows what his club is up against.
“We know what kind of club we’re facing. We’re getting into a hornet’s nest,” Tanner said. “We go to Vandy and play a team that’s very, very good, very deep offensively. (Sophomore lefthander) Mike Minor might be the top pitcher in the league. There are some other good ones, but he’ll certainly be one of the top three or four at the end of the year . . . We’ve got to go in and play some mistake-free baseball.”
Entering the year, Vanderbilt figured to hold a pitching edge over South Carolina, even despite losing Player of the Year David Price. But through 13 games, each team is 10-3, and South Carolina’s staff actually has a better ERA, 3.53 to 3.72. Gamecock starters Mike Cisco, Blake Cooper and Will Atwood might not have overpowering stuff, but all three throw strikes and compete, and they have performed above many preseason expectations.
“The thing that I saw in the second week of the spring, in the prognostications for our team, our pitchers were never mentioned, and I started to see a little chip, like, ‘Hey, we’re part of this lineup too,'” Tanner said. “It was a ‘no-respect’ kind of thing. I think that was mentioned a couple of times, and I think it helped us. That’s the part I’ve noticed and I’ve liked. Mike Cisco’s been around three years; he knows the league. Blake Cooper won seven games as a freshman. Will Atwood is back now. I’m pleased with what we’re doing.”
The Commodores, meanwhile, have gotten exactly the kind of elite performance they expected out of Minor, who has slid into Price’s Friday starter spot seamlessly. Through three starts, Minor is 2-1, 1.66 with 21 strikeouts and six walks in 22 innings. In his lone loss, last Friday against Illinois-Chicago, he carried a shutout into the ninth before giving up two runs in the final frame and falling 2-1. But the staff has been unsettled behind him. Junior righty Brett Jacobson, who has a first-round arm, was supposed to be a rock on Saturdays, but he has been hit hard, going 0-2, 8.74 with a .367 opponents’ batting average. The Commodores should be encouraged by the four solid innings of relief he threw Wednesday against Western Carolina, allowing just one run while striking out six, but in the meantime Vandy will use freshman righty Taylor Hill in Jacobson’s vacated weekend starter spot.
Hill is part of a large group of talented freshmen the ‘Dores have been forced to break in this year. Fellow freshmen righty Chase Reid has yet to allow an earned run in 10 innings of relief; he and redshirt freshman Russell Brewer (1-0, 2.08, 12-0 K-BB in 9 IP) have stabilized the bullpen. Redshirt freshman righthanders Caleb Cotham and Mark Lamm have looked good in midweek starter roles as well as in relief.
“We’ve been relying heavily on first-year guys, some of them redshirt freshmen, some true freshmen, and they’ve all pitched really well, throwing a lot of strikes,” Corbin said. “I like those kids a lot, I think they’re only going to get better. They don’t seem spooked when they get out there or frightened.”
Offensively, the heart of Vandy’s lineup has a rather ostentatious absence in All-American third baseman Pedro Alvarez, sidelined for six to eight weeks with a broken bone in his wrist. But the injury has opened up a spot for sophomore Andrew Giobbi, who has taken advantage by leading the team with a .442 average in 43 at-bats. He has taken over the first base job, with incumbent Brad French sliding to second and Alex Feinberg moving to third, where he has some experience. Feinberg has also gotten off to a hot start, batting .435, which helps pick up the slack for scuffling All-Americans Ryan Flaherty and Dominic de la Osa. There might be freshmen aplenty on the mound for Vandy, but its lineup is filled with veterans who won’t roll over just because Alvarez is out.
“We can’t do anything about Pedro,” Corbin said. “You’d love to have his 20 home runs on the field, but right now he’s standing in the dugout next to me.”
South Carolina, though, has no lack of fearsome sluggers. First baseman Justin Smoak and third baseman James Darnell garnered preseason All-America honors, but junior shortstop Reese Havens has been South Carolina’s most dangerous offensive threat so far, batting .411/.514/.679 with four homers and 22 RBIs. Even with Darnell (.236, one homer) and senior DH Phil Disher (.196, but with three homers) off to slow starts, the South Carolina offense is as dangerous as ever.
“The thing that I’ve always seen in them is the physicality of the swings,” Corbin said of the Gamecocks. “Smoak is obviously a premier hitter and power hitter. Phil Disher it seems has been on that team for five or six years, he’s a premier power hitter and can hit the ball out at anytime. The player that everyone’s been waiting to see do this is Havens, he’s having a terrific year so far . . . You’ve got to be careful with them because they can separate the game very quick.”
And with a series win on the road against Vanderbilt, South Carolina could also separate itself from the other SEC contenders.
|Marquee Mound Matchup|
|Andrew Oliver vs. Kendal Volz|
Aside from thriving as Friday starters for two of the Big 12’s ranked teams, Oliver and Volz are emerging as two of the top prospects in a sophomore class rich with quality arms. They’ll go head-to-head Friday in the best duel on the docket in the Big 12’s first weekend of conference play.
Oliver, Oklahoma State’s sophomore lefthander, was one of the top pitching prospects in a strong Ohio high school class in 2007, and he was a major reason OSU’s recruiting class that year ranked as the seventh-best in the nation. He showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman, compiling a 6-1 record and 42 strikeouts in 44 innings, but his 5.52 ERA was evidence of his inconsistency. He followed his spring with an outstanding summer in the Cape Cod League, where his 92-93 mph fastball, good curveball and changeup helped him rank as the league’s No. 10 prospect. He entered 2008 as the No. 12 prospect in the sophomore class and has thrived as Oklahoma State’s ace, going 2-0, 0.96 with 18 strikeouts and six walks in 19 innings.
Volz has been just as impressive in the same role for Baylor, going 3-0, 1.71 with a 21-7 K-BB ratio in 21 innings. The 6-foot-4, 228-pound righthander was the top pitcher in Baylor’s top-ranked 2007 recruiting class, and like Oliver, he showed plenty of promise but also took his lumps as a freshman, going 6-2, 5.16 with a 65-18 K-BB rate in 68 innings. He showed good stuff in the Cape—a 91-93 mph fastball and two good, hard breaking balls—but struggled with consistency, often running into one bad inning in each outing. But he began 2008 as the No. 14 prospect in the sophomore class, and so far he’s backed up that billing, holding his low-to-mid-90s velocity deep into games and making it look easy.
Both Oliver and Volz have been highly regarded prospects for awhile now, but they’re becoming better pitchers as sophomores, and by doing so they’re solidifying their status as potential first-round picks in 2009. But this weekend, each will be focused on shutting down a dangerous conference rival.
|Troy over Arizona State|
Welcome to the compacted schedule. Through 14 games, the second-ranked Sun Devils have yet to lose a game, but their top two starters—Mike Leake and Josh Satow—have already made a combined eight starts. Leake’s 25 innings pitched and Satow’s 23 rank them first and third, respectively, in the Pac-10. The Sun Devils used Leake for 6 1/3 innings in Tuesday’s win against Arkansas, then used Satow for 7 2/3 innings in Wednesday’s win against the Razorbacks. So ASU is still unbeaten, but it lacks fresh starters for this weekend’s three-game set against Troy beyond righthander Jason Franzblau. Freshman righty Seth Blair could start, but Arizona State might have been counting on him in the bullpen now that closer Jason Jarvis has been ruled academically ineligible for the remainder of the season. Expect Reyes Dorado to assume the closing duties this weekend, and don’t be surprised if Leake comes back on less than full rest to start later in the weekend.
Troy, meanwhile, staffed its one midweek game against Kennesaw State, meaning normal weekend starters Travis Burge, Ryan Ellison and Tim Wheeler come into this series fully rested. Burge has been tremendous so far this year, going 3-0, 1.71 through three starts, and Ellison has racked up 20 strikeouts in 16 innings to go along with a 3.38 ERA. Those guys will have their work cut out for them against Arizona State’s powerful offense at hitter-friendly Packard Stadium, but they’re in better position to keep the scoring down than their ASU counterparts. Don’t sleep on Troy’s offense, which is led by slugging catcher Beau Brooks (.500/.610/.841 with two homers and five doubles through 44 at-bats) and unrelated senior outfielders Bryan Miller (.333/.369/.567) and Lance Miller (.412/.462/.500). The Trojans are 12-3, but this weekend will be by far their biggest challenge to date.
|Under The Radar|
|Christian Friedrich, lhp, Eastern Kentucky|
He’s the first-team preseason All-American and consensus first-round pick that nobody’s talking about. Friedrich, who entered his junior year as the No. 6 college prospect for the 2008 draft, has been strong in three starts this season. He struck out 11 in five innings in his first start of the year against Bucknell, then whiffed nine over six scoreless, two-hit innings against Bradley.
Friedrich’s worst outing came in a loss to Central Michigan in Bradenton, Fla., this past Saturday, when he allowed four runs (two earned) on five hits while striking out five in 6 2/3 innings. But a National League scouting director who was on hand for that outing came away impressed.
“He looked pretty good,” the scouting director said. “He was up to 92 with an occasional plus curveball, and he also threw a slider. He didn’t really show the changeup in a game, but he’s certainly an interesting-looking player. He really worked the curveball—it’s not a hard curveball, but it’s one that he can command. He uses it to change speeds, and it’s effective. It’s not a power pitch by any means, but a touch-and-feel pitch that he can command. He’s sound mechanically and with his delivery, and he hides the ball well. He’s a very interesting college lefthander.”
|Aaron Murphree, of/1b, Arkansas|
When Murphree transferred to Arkansas prior to last season, he had already spent three years at Northeast Texas Community College, thanks to a medical redshirt his freshman year. The Razorbacks convinced him to walk on, but he was an experienced, older player expected to step right into the Hogs’ lineup and contribute. The 6-foot-5, 235-pounder showed plenty of strength and speed in fall practice that year.
“He came in last fall and did fantastic, then in the spring it didn’t happen for him,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “He was swinging and missing by a foot, just a long swing. We didn’t know if he’d want to come back (after the season). He didn’t know if we wanted him back, but we knew it was in there.”
Murphree found his way into just 16 games in 2007, eight of them starts, and batted just .243/.333/.324 with no homers and one RBI in 37 at-bats. But he opted to return to Arkansas for his senior year rather than transferring, and he has exploded onto the national scene in the first three weeks of the season. Through 12 games, Murphree was batting .447/.519/1.298 with 12 homers and 28 RBIs. In five games last week, he belted eight home runs and drove in 15. After just 47 at-bats, Murphree was halfway to the Arkansas single-season home run record, set by Ryan Lundquist in 1997.
“It’s been fun for me to watch Aaron,” Van Horn said. “I’ve never seen a home run streak like this. He’s hit some bombs, he hit one over the batter’s eye the other day. He’s hit two that were wind-aided, and two to win games for us. He’s taken a lot of pressure off a lot of other players.”
That’s a major reason why Arkansas carried an 11-1 record into this week even though its best player, third baseman Logan Forsythe, missed six games with a nagging hamstring injury. Forsythe returned for the Hogs’ two midweek games at No. 2 Arizona State, but the Sun Devils held on for a 6-5 win Tuesday and a 7-4 victory Wednesday. Murphree failed to go deep in either game, though he went 2-for-4 in Tuesday’s loss. The Hogs will try to get back on track this weekend in their SEC opener against Georgia.
The Ragin’ Cajuns got a much-needed midweek win against a good Louisiana Tech team on Tuesday, but they’re still just 5-9 heading into this weekend’s three-game series at Florida Atlantic. Worse, they’re off to an 0-3 start in Sun Belt Conference play after being swept at home by upstart Arkansas State last week. That’s a pretty disappointing start for a Louisiana-Lafayette club that ranked 19th in the nation in the preseason and was the consensus choice to run away with the Sun Belt.
Prior to beating Louisiana Tech, the Cajuns were struggling mightily with their bats and their gloves. Their .200 team batting average, three home runs and 35 runs through 13 games all ranked last in the Sun Belt. So did their .945 fielding percentage and 26 errors. Arkansas State coach Keith Kessinger said it snowballed so bad for the Cajuns that they were struggling to catch routine pop-ups by the end of the weekend. Louisiana-Lafayette coach Tony Robichaux expressed concern about the defense heading into the season, but he couldn’t have expected these kinds of struggles.
“If there’s a question mark on us, for us to be there in the end, I believe our biggest challenge is, I believe we’ll hit and pitch, but the question mark is that we do have to play better defense,” Robichaux said in January. “Will Long didn’t have the year we thought he’d have last year, but him and (Greg) Fontenot had a good fall at shortstop, those two guys will be OK. We don’t have really anybody fully proven yet at the other infield positions.”
Long and Fontenot have combined for 10 errors in 14 games, making the middle infield a nagging concern for UL-L.
|Stat Of The Week|
Florida State’s record in games played prior to St. Patrick’s Day during the last three years. If you go back even further and include the three years before that, the Seminoles are 114-13 before St. Patrick’s Day. They’re off to a 13-1 start this year after taking their first loss in a midweek game against Georgia this week, then bouncing back to win a second game against the Bulldogs.
“Wish I had the answer (for why FSU traditionally starts strong), I’m just very impressed with the way we’ve played,” Florida State coach Mike Martin said. “The schedule is certainly one of the most difficult we’ve played. Playing four with Auburn, two with Georgia, and we’ve already opened conference play. We’ve played a little bit better than I thought we were capable of offensively, we’ve been pretty impressive offensively. It’s been a little bit of a surprise so far, but there’s a lot around the corner.”
First up around the corner is a three-game series with ACC rival Georgia Tech this weekend. The Yellow Jackets also carry a 13-1 record into the weekend, and while Florida State’s offense appears considerably more potent than Tech’s, the Yellow Jackets have a more impressive stock of power arms. Weekend starters David Duncan, Eddie Burns and Zach Von Tersch are all superior prospects than their Florida State counterparts, but Elih Villanueva and Matt Fairel have been a solid one-two punch atop the FSU rotation.
“Both of those guys have been very impressive,” Martin said. “They’re slightly different, in that (Fairel) will rely more on a changeup, whereas the other one is more of a power guy. They complement each other very well, when you go from one guy one night to one guy the next. Elih is a little bit better than I thought he’d be. Fairel has improved greatly over last year. The third starter is (senior righty) Ryan Strauss, and he’s a little snake-bit right now. Every pitch he makes bad gets hit out of the ballpark. He’s pitched well for four years here, and he’s a heck of an athlete. I think he’ll solidify himself as a third starter.”
Miami brings an 11-1 record into its first ACC road series this weekend at North Carolina State. Even with first-team preseason All-American outfielder Dennis Raben sidelined with back issues, the Hurricanes have plenty of bats. One scouting director who caught some of the Hurricanes’ series against Maryland last weekend came away impressed with first baseman Yonder Alonso (who is hitting .450/.574/.875 with a team leading four homers and 14 RBIs), second baseman Jemile Weeks (.409/.458/.750) and center fielder Blake Tekotte (.293 with five stolen bases)—all of whom are preseason All-Americans. Draft-eligible sophomore Mark Sobolewski, who drove in five in a midweek win against Maine, also garners attention. The scouting director said that Miami might not have enough pitching, but its offense is as good as advertised.
“Alonso and Weeks and Sobolewski, they got a bunch of interesting guys. It’s pretty fun watching them play, because they have a bunch of good players. I saw one of the home runs (Alonso) hit this weekend, it was a bomb. I think he has power, but I’m not going to anoint him as a power guy, but he has some pop. He’s more of a line-drive, gap-to-gap hitter. (Weeks) was moving pretty good, he ran pretty good and is playing well. He’s got to work a little bit defensively, but he’ll be fine. I think just the day-to-day things, taking ground balls—he could make things look easier. He’s getting to balls but he’s got a little effort right now. The more ground balls he takes, the less effort he’ll use. Sobolewski is susceptible to the breaking ball, but he’s got to continue to play, and experience will take care of that.
“We were joking around, along with the other scouts, saying it’s kind of like doing pro coverage when you go there to see Miami. It’s like minor league coverage, because they have so many position players you have to bear down on. Even the center fielder (Tekotte) is an interesting player. They have a bunch of guys who are probably going to get drafted and play professional ball one day.”
|In The Dugout|
|David Sappelt, of, Coastal Carolina|
A year after winning 50 games and hosting a regional for the first time, Coastal Carolina is off to a 13-1 start and carries plenty of momentum into this weekend’s Centex Homes Invitational, which features two games against No. 25 Michigan. On Tuesday, the Chanticleers extended their winning streak to nine games with an 11-4 win on the road against No. 3 North Carolina. Junior center fielder David Sappelt has been a major part of Coastal’s surge over the last two years, batting .359/.410/.580 with 10 homers and 50 RBIs last year and getting off to another strong start this year, hitting .333/.457/.592 with three homers and 12 RBIs. Following Coastal’s upset of the Tar Heels, the compact Sappelt (who is generously listed at 5-foot-9) talked about his size, his fierce on-field mentality and the rapid rise of the Chanticleer program.
How big is it for you guys to come on a trip like this and get a chance to make a statement on a national level?
We’re just trying to keep working our way up the ladder to gaining respect around the country. Because, you know, we’re a mid-major school, just trying to play with the big boys.
It seems like you guys are starting to get there—I remember last year at the Myrtle Beach regional, it seemed like there was a lot of excitement around the program. How far has this program come just since you’ve been here?
My freshman year, that was a really down year, there were a lot of negatives on the team. I feel like the last two years we’ve really come together as a unit. We lost a couple key guys last year but we’ve really replaced them pretty well. Guys filled in roles, and I just feel like we’re working our way up. We definitely are getting a lot more fans coming out at home, a lot more people enjoying the games, looking at us now as a D-I program. Usually we’d always get asked if we’re a D-I program. Now we don’t have to answer that so much. I feel like we’re growing with our population at our school. We had 4,000 five years ago, now we’ve got 9,000. We’re stepping it up right with the school.
Watching you, it’s obvious how hard you play—you seem like one of those guys who would just run through a wall. And you’ve got all of that eye black on your face, is that kind of indicative of your mentality a little bit?
Yeah, I look at myself as a warrior. I come out here no matter who’s on the mound and who we’re playing, I feel like we can win, and I’m going to be successful.
You got drilled with a pitch in the ninth inning against UNC, and it looked a little painful, but of course you just walked it off like you didn’t notice. No big deal, right?
Nah, it didn’t hurt. I just didn’t want them to get my pretty face.
You’re in center field now after playing left last year. Which do you prefer?
I like center field better. It’s a lot easier to get reads on balls back there. You’re always playing deep, and you always got the slice on the ball.
Tell me about your game offensively. How far have you come personally since you’ve been at Coastal?
My freshman year, I started out seeing a lot of fastballs. Last year I saw more breaking balls. This year, pitchers are starting to pitch me and make me make the mistake. I’ve been pretty good this year at not offering at bad pitches. So it’s coming together.
You’ve got some power too. Talking to people who saw you with a wood bat in the Northwoods League last summer, they said you would surprise people with your power. Do you think people underestimate you at all because of your height?
Yeah, there’s always that myth that short guys can’t hit home runs. I’m proving them wrong.
Do you hear a lot of short jokes?
Oh, yeah, they always call me (undersized actors) Tony Cox and Gary Coleman.
Do you shoot right back at them?
Nah. I like it.
I hear you’re ambidextrous. Is that true?
I do everything lefthanded. The only thing I can do righthanded is throw a baseball. I throw a football lefthanded, I write lefthanded, everything’s lefthanded. I throw a baseball better lefthanded.
So why do you throw with your right?
I haven’t figured out completely how to catch the ball really well with the other hand. But I can throw it.