Weekend Preview: March 20-23

Meaningful Matchup
Central Florida at Southern Mississippi

Just one team in college baseball has reached the 19-win plateau heading into this weekend, and it’s not in the top 25. That’s because the bulk of Central Florida’s wins have come against small, cold-weather teams like Wagner, Siena, Monmouth and Central Michigan, as well as non-powers in the South like Florida A&M. The Knights’ best win was a Monday victory against Missouri when they scored five runs in the seventh (and final) inning to win 10-9, but other than that the schedule has offered little opportunity for them to prove how good they are. A 19-1 record is impressive in itself, but this weekend UCF will have a chance to prove itself in a hostile environment against perennial Conference USA contender Southern Mississippi.

TOP 25 SCHEDULE
(2) Arizona at Southern California*
(3) North Carolina at Maryland
(14) Baylor at (4) Missouri
(5) Vanderbilt at Alabama
Wake Forest at (6) Miami
(11) UCLA vs./at/at (7) Long Beach State
Florida at (8) Mississippi
(10) Florida State at Virginia Tech
(12) California at Washington State*
Mississippi State at (13) South Carolina
(15) Rice at Marshall
(16) Kentucky at Auburn
(17) Stanford vs./at Pacific
(18) Texas at Texas Tech*
Harvard at (19) San Diego
(20) Wichita State at Illinois State
Albany at (21) Coastal Carolina
Oklahoma at (22) Nebraska
Houston at (23) East Carolina
Boston College at (24) Virginia
IPFW at (25) Michigan

Top 25 Tournaments
Bob Schaefer Memorial Tournament, Tempe, Ariz.:
(1) Arizona State, (9) UC Irvine, Florida International, Northern Colorado*
*denotes series begins Thursday

“We’re playing pretty good, obviously,” Knights coach Jay Bergman said. “Obviously the strength of our schedule probably hasn’t been as good, but when you schedule people you never know what’s going to happen a year later. I think the one thing you can expect is we’re not going to give in to anybody.

“It’s tough to play at Southern Miss; they’ve got good, rabid fans, and it’s a tough ballpark to play in. Our kids have been there as freshmen, they know what to expect as far as the crowd’s concerned. Southern Miss is Southern Miss: They play a good schedule, they’ve been in regional tournaments the last five years, their pitching is strong. We’re going to play them like we always do.”

But last year, UCF dropped two of three at home to the Golden Eagles en route to a 27-32 season (7-17 in conference). In 2006, their first in Conference USA, the Knights were swept in Hattiesburg to end a miserable 23-33, 5-19 campaign. For a program that had reached regionals four of the previous six years before joining CUSA, the last two years have been bitterly disappointing.

But the silver lining is that veterans like Shane Brown, Dwayne Bailey, Ryan Richardson, Tyson Auer and Chris Duffy have had plenty of playing time, making this a deep and experienced lineup. Brown, a sophomore, has filled in at first base while slugger Kiko Vasquez has been sidelined with a broken wrist suffered in intrasquads. All Brown has done is bat .449/.559/.696 with three homers, eight doubles and 30 RBIs—all team highs. Bailey, a lean, swift-footed second baseman, has boosted his average from .232 a year ago to .439 so far this spring, largely by abandoning switch-hitting and concentrating from hitting from the right side. He has also stolen 12 bases in 12 attempts, adding a dimension of speed along with center fielder Auer (10 steals in 13 attempts) and right fielder Josh Siebenaler (10 steals in 11 attempts).

Siebenaler, a junior college transfer, is one of three newcomers whom Bergman credits with stabilizing the lineup. The others are catcher Robert Lara, a transfer from Louisiana State, and third baseman Colin Arnold, a transfer from Daytona Beach (Fla.) CC.

“Behind the plate, third base defensively and in left field, those are the areas we’ve had to improve,” Bergman said. “They’ve done what they had to do. Arnold’s had to bat in the cleanup spot all year with Kiko gone, and he’s not a true fourth hitter, but he’s gotten RBI after RBI and just done great job. Siebenaler and him are both good lefthanded hitters. Lara has stabilized our catching tremendously—he’s very good defensively.”

UCF also has plenty of pitching, with five quality starters and a reliable, veteran bullpen. Senior righty Jaager Good (3-0, 3.86) and junior righty Kyle Sweat (2-0, 3.32) both rely on mixing speeds and locations more than on overpowering stuff, but both know their way around a college lineup. Sunday starter Mitch Herold, a junior lefty, has the best stuff on the starting staff, with a fastball around 90 mph and a nasty, hard-breaking curveball. Sophomore lefty Mitch Houck (2-0, 3.18), who redshirted last year because of a flexor mass injury in his elbow, has bounced back strong, even striking out 13 over seven innings in a combined no-hitter against Wagner on Monday. The fifth starter, Florida State transfer Caleb Graham, was banged up early in the year but threw five scoreless innings against Wagner on Tuesday.

The bullpen is anchored by righthanded sidearmer Justin Weiss (1-0, 0.00, three saves in 12 innings over nine appearances), who Bergman calls “one of the premier closers in college baseball.” He’s surrounded by power arms like touted sophomore Carmine Giardina (recovered from shoulder soreness that limited him as a freshman), and young righthanders Cody Allen and Austin Hudson, both of whom top out at 93.

On paper, it’s a pretty complete team, and Southern Miss coach Corky Palmer is not surprised by the Knights’ early success.

“They’ve gained a lot of confidence because they’ve been on a roll,” Palmer said. “They had a young team last year. I thought before the year that they could be the sleeper of the league, kind of like Memphis was last year. It’s going to be a tough series, one I’m anxious to see. They’ve got a good record, but they’re coming in here to prove something, and we’ve got to be ready.”

The Golden Eagles have generated some momentum of their own, winning five straight on the heels of a five-game losing streak that included a three-game sweep at the hands of Cal State Fullerton. USM is a pitching-and-defense outfit, and Palmer said he feels real good about his club’s starting pitching.

Leading the rotation is fifth-year senior righthander Barry Bowden (3-1, 1.37), a seasoned competitor with an exceptional changeup that he will throw to righties or lefties. Another fifth-year senior, righthander David Clark (2-1, 3.16), is the Saturday starter. His change and his feel for pitching complement a fastball that tops out around 88. Clark, drafted in the 13th round by the Angels last year, works in the 89-92 range and has a good downer curveball. The Sunday starter is redshirt freshman Todd McInnis (4-1, 4.07), who has recovered from a minor back surgery that caused him to miss most of last year. His four-pitch mix includes an 88-91 mph fastball and a good curve.

Like UCF, the Eagles have a quality closer in junior lefty Tyler Conn (0.00 ERA, five saves, 14-3 strikeout-walk ratio in eight innings), a rare lefthanded closer with an 89-91 mph fastball and excellent changeup.

The Eagles are very strong defensively, especially up the middle, where shortstop Brian Dozier, second baseman James Ewing and center fielder Bo Davis are all standout defenders. But scoring runs can be an issue; after Dozier and first baseman Trey Sutton (who is starting to attack the ball again six months after major knee surgery), the lineup lacks threats. That might not be such a problem, though.

“That’s our M.O.,” Palmer said. “Pitch, play defense, rally around Sutton and Dozier.”

Marquee Mound Matchup
Jerry Sullivan vs. Victor Black

Quietly, Oral Roberts righthander Sullivan and Dallas Baptist righty Black have emerged as two of the more intriguing arms in the sophomore class. The Patriots beat Sullivan when these two teams met two weeks ago at the Texas-Arlington Invitational, putting up four runs against him in the third inning. Junior righty Jordan Meaker was on the mound that time for DBU, but there will be no rematch because weather postponements have allowed Black to shift from midweek starter back to the rotation.

Black, a former catcher who didn’t start pitching until his senior year of high school, showed flashes of his significant upside as a freshman, when he ran his fastball up to 95-96 at times and went 5-5, 4.86 with 91 strikeouts and 57 walks in 87 innings. He joined Team USA for one scoreless, two-inning stint this summer, then was shut down with tendinitis until this spring. Dallas Baptist used him as a midweek starter while working him back into form, and he went 0-2, 3.77 with seven strikeouts and seven walks in 14 innings.

But DBU coach Dan Heefner said the stuff is just about back: he’s been working in the 92-93 mph range and touched 94 in DBU’s March 5 win against Rice, and he threw a 97 mph fastball into a hitter’s back against Texas Christian in his first start. He shows a good, hard curveball. At 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, Black is projectable and a good competitor who loves pitching in big games. And, most importantly, he’s back to 100 percent.

“Finally getting the arm to feel back to normal,” Black said in an e-mail. “I am just loving that fact that I am playing. Since that week with USA I hadn’t thrown in a real game until TCU, so I am just loving life.”

Black faces a stiff test in Oral Roberts, which has gotten off to an 11-4 start against a good schedule (the Patriots are 11-5). After missing his senior year at New Jersey’s Mt. Olive High while recovering from Tommy John surgery, Sullivan made an immediate impact at ORU last year, going 5-0, 2.04 with a 45-8 K-BB ratio in 53 innings. Sullivan started this year with eight strikeouts over eight innings against Army, then followed it up with a 12-strikeout game against Le Moyne; he has been more hittable in his last two starts against DBU and Pepperdine and is 2-2, 3.86 overall with 30 strikeouts and six walks in 30 innings. But he has been impressive even in defeat.

“He’s kind of what you’d expect from pitchers under Coach (Rob) Walton—he’s got a good arm, but he can really pitch too,” Heefner said of Sullivan. “He didn’t just rely on his fastball, he threw a lot of changeups to us, we have a lot of lefthanders in our lineup. He’s got a good slider too, but he threw the change in any count; on 2-0, he’d throw a changeup. He’s got a good arm, but he knows how to pitch, and my guess would be he was in the low-90s.”

Upset City
Auburn over Kentucky

Auburn’s season has been a rollercoaster through four weeks. Kentucky’s has been a freight train.

The Tigers opened the year with a four-game sweep of East Tennessee State, then were swept in four games by Florida State, then swept a four-game set with Virginia Military Institute, then were swept in a three-game series by Florida in their Southeastern Conference opener.

Meanwhile, all Kentucky has done is win—18 times, against zero losses. The Wildcats have put up video-game numbers, leading all SEC teams in batting (.363), on-base percentage (.472), slugging (.606), runs (202), hits (222), doubles (56) and walks (102) through Sunday. Kentucky padded its stats with a soft early schedule, but a sweep of Alabama in the first weekend of SEC play vaulted the Wildcats to No. 16 in the rankings.

Auburn, on the other hand, is just 12-8 overall. But the Tigers are better than their record indicates. The coaches of the two teams that have swept Auburn so far—FSU’s Mike Martin and Florida’s Kevin O’Sullivan—both praised the Tigers’ powerful young lineup and quality arms. Both coaches said Auburn had the look of an NCAA tournament team. There have been some growing pains, as Auburn relies heavily on heralded true freshmen like Hunter Morris, Kevin Patterson, Brian Fletcher and Trent Mummey. The Tigers have been much stronger at home (11-3) than on the road (1-5), and this weekend they’ll get Kentucky in the friendly confines of Plainsman Park. They have a terrific bullpen, led by talented veterans Evan Crawford (3-0, 1.88, 20-5 K-BB) and Bryan Woodall (1.04 ERA, four saves), which gives them a good shot in close games. The Wildcats haven’t had many of those this year, so we don’t yet have a great idea how they’ll respond. Here’s betting they get an unexpected reality check this weekend.

Under The Radar

Justin Parker, ss, Wright State

Chances are, you know more about Parker’s little brother than you know about him. Righthander Jarrod Parker was the ninth overall pick by the Braves last June out of Indiana’s Norwell High, signing for a $2.1 million bonus. But more and more scouts are taking notice of older brother Justin, a junior shortstop who batted .379 with a school-record 26 doubles last year for Wright State.

Like his little brother, Parker was drafted as a pitcher out of high school, but he went in the 43rd round to the Twins in 2005. Wright State’s coaches loved his toughness and athleticism and moved him to shortstop as a freshman. That toughness has been on display for all to see this season, as Parker was hit in the face by a pitch from Arkansas’ Kendall Korbal in WSU’s third game of the season. He broke his jaw and was supposed to be out for six weeks, but he came back three weeks early and played the hero in the Raiders’ first series win of the year against Eastern Michigan last weekend.

In the first game of the series, Parker broke a 7-7 tie with a two-out, two-strike, walk-off three-run homer, capping a 3-for-5 performance. Later in the nightcap, in a seven-inning contest, the Raiders trailed 4-0 in the bottom of the sixth, when Parker blasted a game-tying grand slam with two outs and two strikes. Wright State won the game with a run the next inning to improve to 3-10 heading into this weekend’s Horizon Conference opener against Valparaiso.

With plenty of strength in his 6-foot-1, 190-pound frame, a mature offensive approach, good speed and arm strength, Parker could be drafted between the fourth and eighth rounds if he submits another strong season. He won’t go ninth overall, but who’s to say he won’t wind up being the better-known Parker brother?

“A lot of people say he’s just like his brother, but he’s older, so people are starting to realize that Jarrod’s a lot like him,” Wright State coach Rob Cooper said. “He’s a special guy.”

Streakin’
Alex Hassan, of/rhp, Duke

Few players have meant more to their team’s early-season success than Hassan. Heading into this weekend’s series at Georgia Tech, the Blue Devils are 18-3 overall and 3-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, thanks to a single win against then-No. 3 North Carolina and a series victory over then-No. 14 Virginia. (Both series were at home.) Hassan, a sophomore from Boston, has gone 14-for-28 (.500) over his last seven games to raise his overall numbers to .424/.475/.565 with nine doubles, 16 RBIs and eight stolen bases. He shifted to the leadoff spot for last weekend’s Virginia series and went 6-for-8 with four runs scored in Duke’s two wins against the Cavs.

But that’s not all. Hassan, who went 2-6, 5.80 as a weekend starter for the Blue Devils last year, has taken to the closer role as a sophomore. He saved both wins against Virginia and has now thrown six consecutive scoreless innings of relief over his last four appearances. On the year, he’s gone 0-0, 1.00 with four saves, seven strikeouts and just one walk in nine innings (seven appearances). And if his prowess as a leadoff man and closer weren’t enough, Hassan plays a fine center field.

Slumpin’
Evansville

The Purple Aces knew this would be a rebuilding year. They lost 12 seniors off last year’s 35-23 team, including the core of 2006′s Missouri Valley Championship club.

But for a program featured in Baseball America’s 2007 College Preview as one of college baseball’s top rising programs, a 1-15 start is jarring. Some of those losses have come against quality opponents like Vanderbilt, St. John’s, Kentucky and The Citadel. But most have come against the likes of Radford, Tennessee-Martin, Cleveland State and North Dakota State—teams that a program like Evansville should beat, rebuilding year or no.

But it’s been a perfect storm of bad luck for the Aces in the season’s first month. The team’s best player and captain, senior outfielder Jim Viscomi, played just one game before going down with a knee injury that will force him to miss the entire season. When healthy, Viscomi hits for average, steals bases, plays excellent outfield defense and sets the hard-nosed tone for the team, and he has proven impossible to replace. Add in injuries to the team’s projected top two pitchers, righthanders Tom Heithoff and Wade Kapteyn, that have limited the duo to 11 combined innings of work, and the reasons for Evansville’s rough start become clearer. Heading into their MVC opener against Bradley this weekend, the Aces have been outscored 142-59; opponents are hitting .330 to their .241; and opposing pitchers have logged a 2.64 ERA to their 6.98.

Stat Of The Week

12

Tennessee’s rank among the 12 Southeastern Conference teams in runs (83), batting (.273), slugging (.404), doubles (23), home runs (11) and total bases (197) through Sunday. Yet the Volunteers are 3-0 in the conference, having swept Louisiana State last weekend for the first time ever, and ran their overall winning streak to eight games before dropping a midweek game to Lipscomb. They bounced back Wednesday with a 7-6 win against Louisville to improve to 13-5 on the year. How do you reconcile the disparity between Tennessee’s early first-place perch in the standings and its last-place rankings in most offensive categories? Start with a newfound toughness instilled by first-year coach Todd Raleigh, who brought that mentality with him from Western Carolina.

“Our kids right now, they don’t care who we’re playing, they’re just going out there and playing,” Raleigh said. “I know we have some deficiencies, but I like how the attitude is shifting to more of a blue-collar approach. That’s all I’ve been trying to do since I got here. It’s the only way I know how. I played for Coach (Jack) Leggett (at WCU, before Leggett headed to Clemson). My teams at Western won two conference championships in five years on six scholarships. I don’t know any other way.

“To be honest with you, I think we’re a little soft coming in here, a little bit of wine and cheese. We need to get tougher, everybody. It’s a process, and we’ve got a long way to go, but I do like what I’ve seen so far.”

Raleigh got his start in college baseball by hitch-hiking from his home in Vermont to Cullowhee, N.C., and walking on for Leggett, so he has little tolerance for players who take their opportunities for granted.

That’s why the moment that stuck out most to him from last weekend’s sweep of LSU was not sophomore catcher Yan Gomes’ walk-off grand slam to win Sunday’s finale, but his full-body dive into first base on an infield single to drive in a sixth-inning insurance run in the second game of the series.

“He’d been struggling mightily,” Raleigh said of Gomes’ season prior to the LSU series, during which he went 6-for-11 with a double, triple, two homers and nine RBIs. “He’s talented. Everybody knows he’s probably our best player or one of them. But he’s been the hardest guy to get out of his comfort zone. Some guys like to be challenged, and he’s stubborn, and I’m stubborn, and he was one of the last guys to buy in. But (last) weekend, I never saw anything like it, he was just playing with fire in his eyes.”

On that play where Gomes laid out at first base, Tennessee outfielder Kentrail Davis scored from second base—the second time this season he has scored from second on an infield hit. That’s a reflection of his outstanding speed as well as his pedal-to-the-floor mentality. He’s also been Tennessee’s best hitter, batting .463/.592/.778 with four homers and 19 RBIs through his first 54 at-bats. He homered twice in Tennessee’s win against Louisville on Wednesday.

At 5-foot-9, 198 pounds, Davis packs a punch; Raleigh likens him to a chiseled, lefthanded-hitting version of Kirby Puckett, a comparison that has come up before with Davis.

“He’s the real deal. That’s all I can say,” Raleigh said. “This guy can’t miss—there’s no way. He plays too hard, there’s no way. Some guys have already put him as a 30-30 man in the big leagues. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but he’s a big leaguer for sure. I was blessed inheriting him as a true freshman. He’s already becoming a leader with how he plays, and that’s not easy to do as a freshman.”

Tennessee is not blessed with great depth anywhere on the field, but its frontline pitching is good enough to compete with anyone’s in a three-game series, including a veteran Georgia staff this weekend. Sophomore righthander Steve Crnkovich, a transfer from Illinois-Chicago, works in the mid-80s and lacks a standout secondary pitch, but he locates and competes and has gotten off to a 4-0, 2.93 start pitching on Fridays. Redshirt freshman Bryan Morgado, who missed last year after having Tommy John surgery, has come back very strong, working in the 90-94 mph range from the left side and showing a good slider and changeup. The results bear out his excellent stuff: he’s 3-1, 1.29 with 39 strikeouts and eight walks through 28 innings. Morgado and sophomore lefty Nick Hernandez (0-1, 4.95) were the crown jewels of Tennessee’s 15th-ranked 2006 recruiting class, and Hernandez has done a much better job throwing strikes with his 87-89 mph fastball and good changeup than he did as a freshman.

But does Tennessee have enough firepower to get into the SEC tournament, and by extension, the NCAA tournament?

“Ten days ago I would have said, ‘No,’ just because we’re very limited, we don’t have a lot of depth,” Raleigh said. “I’d say we pitch well enough to get into a regional. I think three games doesn’t make or break us. What I’ve learned about the SEC, doing research, is 14 (conference) wins usually gets you into the SEC tournament. I think we might be able to grind out that many wins on the weekend and give ourselves a chance. We can’t afford injuries though, we’re not deep anywhere on the field. We’re starting six, seven, eight walk-ons at times. I don’t know what to expect.”

One thing you can expect is that Raleigh’s Volunteers will be fighters.

Scouting Report

Washington State

The Cougars were picked to finish eighth in the Pacific-10 Conference in the preseason, more because of the strength of the league than because of any of their own deficiencies. But they’ve opened some eyes with a 13-5 start, capped last weekend when they took three out of four at Oklahoma. A trio of freshmen—shortstop Shea Vucinich (.381/.426/.540) and outfielders John Desmarais (.413/.472/.587) and Garry Kuykendall (.342/.390/.368)—have formed a solid offensive core around senior third baseman Paul Gran (.350/.408/.617). The bullpen, led by closer Ross Humes (1-0, 0.00, four saves in 14 appearances) has been excellent, making up for a shaky weekend rotation. As Washington State opens conference play with a three-game series against No. 12 California, two coaches who have played the Cougars offered their opinions on the team.

“The thing that they do, they’ve got a really good bullpen, so if they get you in the middle part of that game, they’re going to run some solid guys out of the bullpen at you. Having played them, they’re still trying to get a handle on their starting pitching. They’ve got (lefthander Jayson) Miller, who’s been fairly consistent for them (as the Saturday starter). The kid who’s been pitching on Fridays who was hurt last year (redshirt freshman righty Chad Arnold) is still trying to find a rhythm, and so is (junior righthander/outfielder Jared) Prince. If they find some starting pitching and get some consistency, they could be a really, really good club. I know one thing about that club, some of their better hitters are freshmen, you have to wonder how they’ll hold up in the Pac-10. Desmarais, Vucinich, Kuykendall, they’ve been great for them. They’ve got some components you always look for: a solid leadoff hitter (in second baseman Travis Coulter), defensively they’ll be solid, and a solid bullpen.

“The one thing about Humes, he’s just incredibly competitive. In terms of his stuff, there’s nothing like wow, that’s just an overwhelming pitch. He just gets out there and gets after it. Really in any closer that’s what you’ve got to have. Once he comes in the game, they really get lifted. He’s a real competitive kid, I think that carries him more than anything.

“Miller’s a command lefty, he can change speeds, throw a couple pitches for strikes, expand the zone, keep guys off balance. He’s just a solid lefthander. You look up and you’re in the fifth or sixth inning and he’ll give you a chance to win.

“Gran’s their best guy, in my opinion. He’s the guy in that lineup where you don’t want him hitting with guys on base, he makes a lot of adjustments. How you pitch him the first time isn’t necessarily how you can pitch him the next time. Plus he’s got some power; he’s the most dangerous guy in the lineup. (Senior first baseman Jim) Murphy, he’s been on fire with the home runs and he’s hitting for average, so he’s been real good for them in the middle of the order. But I was most impressed with Desmarais when I left that series. Coming into the season, he was a backup center fielder, maybe a platoon guy. He just gets base hit after base hit, really a spark for them, did a good job staying on the ball, showed he can hit to all fields.”

The second coach added:

“I think they have as good an offensive approach as any team we’ve played against. They’re very good offensively, they can swing the bat, they play hard. From a pitching standpoint, I didn’t see one guy that stood out, like hey, that’s a Friday night Pac-10 guy, that’s a Tyson Ross. But I feel like they had guys who can pitch. Their closer doesn’t blow you away, but he’s pretty effective. They’re a solid team, I think they’re a regional type club. But we’ll see how they do in the Pac-10. I think they’re going to do all right in the Pac. I think if they’re in the ACC, they’re definitely getting in.

“Their shortstop (Vucinich) jumped out to me: solid defensively, good balanced approach at the plate, great approach at the plate. One through nine, I never felt like we could take a breath. Their three, four and five guys are good. I would be surprised based on what I saw if they’re not in the (NCAA) tournament.

“Prince can pitch, man. That guy’s a baseball player. He competes and he can pitch. Nothing’s overpowering, but you never have good at-bats against him. They’re solid on the mound, definitely in the bullpen, but if they go into Arizona State, who’s going to match up with those guys? But I thought they played hard, I think Donnie (Marbut) coaches them really well, a very businesslike team with as good of an offensive approach as I’ve seen.”

In The Dugout
Andrew Liebel, rhp, Long Beach State

Liebel, the senior ace for the nation’s No. 7 team, has only one win in four starts, but one could make a case that he’s been the nation’s most dominant pitcher of the season’s first month. His ERA is just 1.11 and he has 36 strikeouts and just three walks in 32 innings. The Dirtbags have won all four of his starts—against Rice, Wichita State, Hawaii and Southern California—but he registered no-decisions in the first three, all of which were extra-inning affairs. Liebel spent the first two and a half years of his career as a reliever before shifting to the rotation last April 27, and he went 4-1 down the stretch and has emerged as one of the nation’s best pitchers. He talked about that transition, the adjustment to a new pitching coach, and his relationship with young players like LBSU freshman Jake Thompson.

I’m sure you’ve been happy that your team has won all those extra-inning games, but it had to be nice to get some support this weekend and get into the win column, right?

Yeah, it was nice. Definitely I’m out there pitching for the team, not really too concerned with wins or losses, but it was nice to receive some support.

It seemed like you were in midseason form right out of the gate. Is this the best you’ve ever felt?

I would say that I feel pretty good. I go out of the gates competing as hard as I can, really focusing on execution. I picked up velocity on my fastball, and being able to locate my fastball and also my secondary stuff being where it is has helped me get the strikeouts. I throw a changeup, a curveball and a slider, and I have confidence in all four pitches. I could throw any of those pitches in any count that comes up. I would say my strikeout pitch could either be my slider or my curveball. Some days my curve is better than my slider, and sometimes vice versa. It’s more of a feedback thing as the game progresses.

How much velocity have you added to your fastball, and how did you do it?

Last year I was low 80s to 90. Now I’m 90-93. This summer I really focused on gaining more weight and also gaining more strength. I worked out extremely hard and also paid more attention to my diet. I’m on a high-protein diet to feed my muscles so they regenerate faster, creating more size. Also the recuperation of my muscles is a lot faster.

What was it like making the transition from relieving for the first two and a half years of your career to starting down the stretch last season?

The transition is one I’ve been waiting for, for a long time. I’ve always wanted to be a starter, and was definitely accepting of my role with the team as a reliever, but always wanted to work toward starting. Last year due to some injuries, I got the opportunity to start, I got the opportunity to prove myself and open some eyes on the coaching staff. I pretty much ran with my opportunity and made the most of it.

It all seemed to happen very fast for you. In about six weeks, you became a key starter and found yourself throwing a complete-game to beat Pepperdine in the regional. What was that experience like for you?

That experience for me in the regional was my first regional I’ve ever played in. It was exactly the situation I wanted to be in. I’ve always wanted the ball, and I definitely wanted the ball in that situation, because I thrive off of energy and pressure situations. I loved every moment of it.

You guys wound up losing that regional to UCLA, of course, and it just so happens you’re playing the Bruins this weekend. Do you have a little payback in the back of your minds?

We’re not really too focused on making this game any more important than any other game. If you’re thinking that we need to do more, we really need to do a little extra, get some payback, I think that will get us out of our element, which is taking care of business in a controlled manner.

Any team that we play has a chance to be tough, but as long as you stick to the principles of how to pitch, good pitching will beat good hitting any day. As long as I compete down in the zone and throw to both sides of the plate, it will be hard for anyone to hit it. It’s hard to protect both sides of the plate. You can’t give the hitters too much credit. It’s hard to hit, the odds are in my favor. If I go and do what I do and command my pitches, it’s going to be tough on hitters.

I know your old pitching coach, Troy Buckley, has had a lot to do with the success of your staff over the years. What was your reaction when he left to become the Pirates’ minor league pitching coordinator last fall?

I would say that when I first heard the news that Troy Buckley was leaving, it was bittersweet. I was upset at the fact that he was leaving, but also glad that he had the opportunity to go and be the pitching coordinator, it was a great honor for him. It would be selfish on our part if we didn’t let him go do that. I’m glad he went and did what he did. I’m also glad we have another former Dirtbag, Jon Strauss, with us now—that made the transition much easier. He was my assistant coach my sophomore year, and we built a little bit of a relationship then. There really aren’t that many differences between him and Buck, because Strauss being a former Dirtbag, he knows how we do things around here.

How do you do things? What makes Long Beach unique?

I would say that we have a much more advanced pitching program, obviously, because of Troy Buckley and his experience. It has definitely laid a very, very good foundation to be followed here at Long Beach State. Our long-toss program, the way we analyze video and use video as a teaching tool (is unusual). Basically just the way we utilize our teaching tools and get people to understand what exactly pitching is and how to throw a ball correctly.

As a senior, you’ve been around there for a few years now, but you guys have a true freshman pitching on Sundays in Jake Thompson, a guy who should be a senior in high school right now. Do you ever feel like an old man hanging around him?

He definitely makes me feel pretty old. He’s young, and he’s definitely got the ability and the talent to compete at this level. But he also has a lot of room to grow, just like any incoming freshman; as time goes, they get better as well. He’s done a good job for us this far, it’ll be very interesting to see how he progresses as he goes along at Long Beach State.

College | #2008 #Weekend Preview

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