Since he left Cal State Fullerton to resuscitate Oregon’s program in the summer of 2007, George Horton has been asked about the Civil War everywhere he goes.
“I’ve been talking about this for basically 18 months,” Horton said. “Every Oregon club, every interview I do, the two questions I was fielding most frequently were, ‘What are your uniforms going to look like?’ and ‘What about the rivalry with Oregon State?’ It got to the point I started answering it differently, saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t just about Oregon State. There are other good teams in the Pac(-10 Conference) and in the country.’ I almost got tired of it. Now here we are and it’s almost coming to fruition.”
|Top 25 Schedule
(1) Cal State Fullerton at UC Riverside
(11) Mississippi at (2) Louisiana State
(3) Arizona State at Southern California
Memphis at (4) Rice
(24) Virginia at (5) North Carolina
(6) Georgia at Tennessee
(13) Georgia Tech at (7) Miami
Kansas State at (8) Baylor
Texas Tech at (9) Texas
(19) Cal Poly at (10) UC Irvine
Nebraska at (12) Oklahoma
Mississippi State at (14) Arkansas
Kansas at (15) Texas A&M
San Diego State at (16) Texas Christian
(17) Pepperdine at San Diego
(18) Coastal Carolina at Hawaii
(20) UC Santa Barbara at Cal State Northridge
Brigham Young at (21) New Mexico
(22) East Carolina at Marshall
Missouri at (23) Oklahoma State
(25) Minnesota at Indiana
Anticipation for the renewal of the baseball Civil War has reached a
fever pitch. Earlier this week, 14,000 tickets had already been sold
for the two games that will be played Saturday and Sunday at PGE Park,
home of the Triple-A Portland Beavers. The coaches expect crowds in
excess of 18,000 total for the two games in Portland, and you can
expect a full house Friday night for the series opener in Eugene
(though Horton won’t be on hand for that one, as he’ll be serving the
final game of a three-game suspension handed down after his hat made
contact with an umpire during an argument last weekend).
“People will make it huge,” Beavers coach Pat Casey said. “The Civil
War rivalry in all sports between these two schools is huge, and it
only gets bigger and bigger due to the fact it’s new. When we started
having success, a lot of Oregon fans said, ‘Hey, let’s get baseball.’
They’re pumped to have baseball up there. I think for the fans, it’s
going to be remarkable. I always tell our guys this: fanfare is
awesome. Our job is between the white lines.”
|WEEK SIX PACK
|There are some huge series around the country this weekend. Here are some quick takes on six other matchups to watch:
(1) Cal State Fullerton at UC Riverside
The last time the Titans went to Riverside ranked as the nation’s No. 1 team in May of 2003, they were swept. The Highlanders have gotten off to a strong 15-4 start (the best in school history) against a tough nonconference schedule, but do they have enough firepower to topple the nation’s hottest team in the Big West opener for both clubs?
(13) Georgia Tech at (7) Miami
Rebuilding year? Yeah, right. The Hurricanes have won series against Florida, North Carolina State, Duke and Virginia and own a 7-2 record in ACC play. Jim Morris has his young players believing in themselves, but Georgia Tech is undoubtedly eager to prove its meddle in its first series of the year against a likely regional team. The Yellow Jackets are the more talented, experienced team; we’ll see if they can match Miami’s toughness and poise in tight games.
San Diego State at (16) Texas Christian
The Horned Frogs have won the Mountain West Conference regular-season and tournament championships all three seasons since leaving Conference USA. San Diego State is off to a solid 16-8 start behind Stephen Strasburg, the nation’s best pitcher, but TCU is still the class of the MWC until somebody proves otherwise. This weekend is SDSU’s chance to stake its claim as a legitimate threat to TCU’s dominance.
(17) Pepperdine at San Diego
Either the Waves or the Toreros have won the West Coast Conference title every year since 2000, and they remain the co-favorites in 2009. Both teams entered the spring ranked in the top 20, but San Diego stumbled out of the top 25 and lost mainstays Sammy Solis and Kevin Muno to season-ending injuries. Pepperdine looks somewhat vulnerable too, having lost five of their last 11, including games against Brown and Chicago State. This weekend’s WCC-opening series between the two powers will determine who’s in the driver’s seat now.
(25) Minnesota at Indiana
Indiana opened the season as the Big 10 favorite, but the Hoosiers have slumped to a 7-14 start while Minnesota (13-6 against a solid schedule), Ohio State (18-3), Illinois (13-5) and Michigan (14-6) have started strong. If Indiana is going to be a factor in the Big 10 this year, it needs to start with a series win at home against the Gophers.
(18) Coastal Carolina at Hawaii
The Chanticleers have played just one of their 22 games outside the Carolinas (at Tennessee on St. Patrick’s Day). This weekend they’ll travel 4,805 miles to Honolulu to take on Hawaii in a four-game series. For the Rainbows, this series is a huge opportunity to pad an increasingly impressive at-large resume in case they can’t win the Western Athletic Conference tournament. For Coastal, this might be the toughest series on the schedule, and winning it would be crucial for the Chanticleers to have a chance to host a regional for the third straight year.
The Beavers hold a 150-146 edge in the all-time series between the two
rivals, and Oregon State has won two straight games against Oregon,
dating back to their last series in 1981, before Oregon discontinued
It did not take long after Oregon announced the rebirth of its program
for tensions between two programs to start simmering. Horton and Casey
still haven’t spoken since Horton joined the Ducks.
“Maybe I created some of this, but we got off to a slow start because I
was exuberant in my press conference and said we would dominate the
Northwest in recruiting,” Horton said. “I wish I wouldn’t have said
that, because that was disrespectful. Who am I to say we’re going to
take over? My respect for him and what he has accomplished is just
immense . . . Coach Casey’s taken a position with the media here, he
almost doesn’t acknowledge that we have a program. He knows we have a
program because he’s going to come here and play us. Hopefully he walks
away from this weekend with some respect about our program and the way
we do things.”
So far, the 10-12 Ducks have held their own against a challenging schedule
despite struggling mightily on offense. Oregon won a series against
defending national champion Fresno State in the second week of the
season, then took three out of four against Santa Clara and split four
games at Nevada.
Pitching has carried the Ducks. Freshman lefthander Tyler Anderson
(1-2, 3.56) has emerged as a legitimate Friday night guy with a very
good three-pitch mix. Junior righty Erik Stavert (3-1, 3.24) is a
sinker/slider guy who reaches the low 90s and gives Oregon a strong
Saturday starter. Junior lefthander Bennett Whitmore (1-3, 5.33) has
been hittable, but at least he’s been throwing strikes as the Sunday
The Ducks have four reliable arms in the bullpen, led by sophomore
righty Drew Gagnier (0-0, 1.50 with four saves), who can run his
fastball up to 94 and shows a good slider at times. Junior lefty Jeff
Fleckenstein (1-0, 4.50) and righties Geoff Nichols (1-2, 2.45) and
Scott McGough (1-0, 5.79) are the other key late-inning options on a
staff that boasts a 3.63 ERA. And the Ducks will get another boost on
the mound when power-armed righties Justin LaTempa and Zack Thornton
finish working their way back from offseason surgeries. Both have
thrown in the low-to-mid-90s in recent scrimmages and are getting close
to making meaningful contributions.
Of course, the pitching staff has had to be nearly perfect, because Oregon is scoring just 3.7 runs per game.
“It’s a little bit of a mismatch for obvious reasons,” Horton said of
the upcoming weekend. “(The Beavers) are playing very well, they’ve got
a very deep ballclub. They weren’t hitting early on, but now they’re
starting to hit, and their pitching staff’s very deep. The only area we
match up with them is our pitching staff. That is I think the only
reason we stand any kind of chance of being competitive in the Pac. We
are very inept right now offensively.
“The only thing we do well on offense right now is steal bases. We’re
athletic, but we’ re giving away way too many at-bats, we’re showing
our youth. We don’t have the big bopper to hit the three-run home run
and bail us out. We’re not putting the ball in play with any kind of
authority or consistency. Until we figure out how to steal first, we
don’t know how to do anything to get going.”
Pitching was supposed to be Oregon State’s strength coming into the
year, but the Beavers have had some setbacks on the mound. Sophomore
lefthander Tanner Robles earned the Friday starter spot out of the gate
but has been limited to 12 innings by discomfort in his arm.
Hard-throwing sophomore righty Taylor Starr, the No. 3 prospect in the
West Coast League last summer, had Tommy John surgery this week.
Flame-throwing lefty Josh Osich has been limited to relief work by a
nerve issue, and junior righty Jorge Reyes has battled a sore back.
This weekend, OSU will throw sophomore righty Tyler Waldron (1-1, 5.40)
on Friday, sophomore righty Greg Peavey (2-1, 3.91) on Saturday and
Reyes (3-1, 5.09) on Sunday.
The 13-5 Beavers have won five straight since dropping a series against
Missouri State in Portland, and their pitching has come up strong
during that stretch. The Beavers allowed three runs or fewer in four of
the five games, and they gave up just four runs in Monday’s win against
“There’s no question we have started to see the flicker of what we
thought a lot of those guys could be,” Casey said of his highly touted
arms. “I thought Peavey has thrown really well—his breaking ball is
much, much better. We extended Osich the other night to 60 pitches, and
I thought he was good. At times, Osich has been 95-96 mph in short
stints. Reyes (Monday) against Hawaii, that’s the best I’ve seen him in
a year. His velocity was back up there to 88-94 for eight innings. He
was really good.”
OSU’s bats have picked it up as well, averaging 10.6 runs per game over
the last five. Four of those games were against Utah Valley and St.
Mary’s, but last year the Wolverines went to Corvallis and won a
midweek game, one of several losses down the stretch that helped keep
the Beavers out of regionals despite series wins against three teams
that earned No. 1 seeds in regionals.
“We were disappointed last year, but we also understood we made
ourselves vulnerable,” Casey said. “We lost some games midweek that we
needed to take care of. This week was a good example: Utah Valley, St.
Mary’s and Hawaii, we said we need to win all five.”
Oregon State is still searching for answers offensively beyond
mainstays Ryan Ortiz, Joey Wong and John Wallace. Thirteen different
Beavers have recorded 20 or more at-bats this season, and two others
have reached double-digit at-bats. Most OSU box scores are filled with
substitutions as Casey tries to give many players opportunities until
he finds the right combinations.
“We’ve done what we think we’ve had to do to be good,” Casey said. “The
three guys who have Division I experience on our club are Wong, Wallace
and Ortiz. Other than that, it’s their first experience with Division I
baseball. We’re looking for balance. We have to be able to execute, we
have to be able to defend. When you return as many pitchers as we do,
you think pitching and defense will take you where you want to go.
Offense will just have to come along.”
The Ducks are in the same boat. Runs should be at a premium this
weekend—at least that’s one thing Oregon and Oregon State can agree on.
If the season ended today, Leake (along with Missouri’s Kyle Gibson and Rice’s Ryan Berry) would give Stephen Strasburg a real run for his money in a Player of the Year discussion. Leake, the Sun Devils’ junior righthander, struck out a career-high 15 in a complete-game masterpiece against rival Arizona last week to improve to 5-1, 1.35 with 48 strikeouts and seven walks in 40 innings. There might not be a pitcher in the country with better command of a quality three-pitch mix than Leake.
“Leake’s been good for years,” one talent evaluator said. “I think the
difference this year is he can command his fastball arm-side away: in
to a lefty and out to a righty. He’s always had good command in to a
righty and away from a lefty with the fastball. He’s always had good
command of the changeup and the slider, but picking up the other half
of the plate was the difference for him. The game’s easy for him. He
manages the game—it works at such a slow speed for him, it’s fun to
watch. It’s like he’s a 35-, 40-year-old guy pitching out there. He
gets it, he really is advanced.”
Boxberger, another junior righthander, has put last year’s
injury-plagued 2-4, 6.12 campaign in the rear-view mirror and emerged
as a legitimate ace for the Trojans. He’s still issuing too many walks
(25 in 32 innings), but he’s been able to work around them, going 2-2,
2.23 with 42 strikeouts and just 17 hits allowed. One scout said
Boxberger has been able to spot his 90-94 mph fastball to both sides of
the plate, and his low-80s slider is an out-pitch. His draft stock has
climbed into the supplemental first round or even the back of the first
Boxberger will have to be sharp to keep the Trojans in the game against
the stingy Leake, and USC sorely needs to win this series. The Trojans
dropped their Pac-10-opening series last weekend against UCLA and also
have lost series to Tulane and Western Carolina. They sit just 10-10
overall and, though it’s early, they’re in danger of missing regionals
for the fourth straight year.
|It’s been a trying 13 months for coach Steve Peterson and his Blue Raiders. This time a year ago, Middle Tennessee State’s Reese Smith Field was a baseball field surrounded by a construction zone. The Blue Raiders had spent most of the last decade raising funds to renovate the facility, but fundraising was just the beginning. The construction was delayed until the start of January 2008, and the cold winter weather slowed the process down further. The day before MTSU was scheduled to play its home opener last year, the fire marshal told the Raiders they could use the field, but no one was allowed to go behind the backstop or the dugouts—not even to shag foul balls. Fans were forced to sit in the upper deck of the neighboring football stadium, which overhangs the outfield fence from the left-field line to center field. Meanwhile, behind the backstop, construction carried on, even during games.
“You’ve got people sitting in left field in the upper deck, where you can’t hear anything except the clanging of steel and construction workers,” Peterson said. “The umpires loved it because there’s nobody behind them giving them grief on a blown call. I was very involved in the design, and I almost became the superintendent. During a game I’d be coaching third base and I’d holler over, ‘Hey Pete, is this wall supposed to be this high?’ We had no press box; we had a bus down the right-field line that we had equipped with things to run the scoreboard. It was something I had never gone through. My players finally got used to it, but it was a distraction.
“If there were excuses made, I never heard any. Because I wouldn’t tolerate it.”
Middle Tennessee State slogged through a 27-29 season, just the sixth losing season in Peterson’s 20-year tenure as head coach, but in the fall Peterson found out there were far more important things than winning. Shortly before Thanksgiving, Peterson was admitted to the hospital for chest pains. Two days later, he had quintuple bypass surgery.
“I’m doing good,” Peterson said. “I’ve still got a long ways to go, and some of it is just a matter of time—I just have to be patient, and I’m not a very patient guy. But I’m very lucky. I’m physically not able to coach third base, so I’m having to learn to manage from the dugout, which I’ve never done. I said the other day after the game, ‘I can suck up heart attacks; it’s bad pitching and defense that’s going to drive me crazy.’”
Fortunately, the Blue Raiders are much better in both of those areas than they were a year ago. Their 4.46 ERA is the second-lowest of any Sun Belt Conference team, and their .970 fielding percentage is tied for second-best. Those ingredients, combined with a characteristically potent offense that leads the conference and ranks seventh in the nation in scoring (10 runs per game), explain MTSU’s 17-4 start. The Blue Raiders are also tied for first place in the Sun Belt with an 8-1 conference record heading into this weekend’s series at Arkansas-Little Rock.
Sophomore righthander/outfielder Bryce Brentz has blossomed into an elite two-way player for MTSU. Brentz went 1-0, 2.20 in 29 innings a year ago before hyper-extending his elbow. Peterson said he was concerned Brentz would need Tommy John surgery. Dr. James Andrews gave Brentz clearance to continue hitting but said he could not pitch for the rest of the season. He finished with 18 home runs and 68 RBIs en route to Sun Belt freshman of the year honors.
This year, Brentz is healthy and has settled into the Friday starter job, using an 88-92 mph fastball and a nasty slider to go 2-0, 3.19 in five starts. He’s also picked up where he left off offensively, batting .427/.488/.867 with nine home runs and 23 RBIs in 75 at-bats. Peterson said Brentz is also the fastest player on the team and a capable center fielder, but the Blue Raiders use him in left field to spare his arm.
“I’ve had scouts say, ‘I like him as a hitter,’ and others say, ‘I like him as a pitcher,’” Peterson said. “Thank goodness he’s just a sophomore and I’ll have him at least one more year. He’s got big-time power, he gets great backspin on the ball. In two years he’s a proven power hitter. He’s learning how to handle a breaking ball. He’s a much better hitter today than he was this time last year. He’s a fun guy to watch—I’d buy a ticket to watch him play.”
Now, fans get to watch Brentz and the rest of the Blue Raiders from the comfort of a beautiful—and finished—stadium. The players are awfully thankful, too.
“The new players only hear stories (of the construction),” Peterson said. “The old players are telling the stories and they’re very, very appreciative. The former players are so envious because they’ve been hearing about this stadium for the last 8, 10 years. I never could come up with enough money, and we finally got it. My statement was I was going to be the will to find a way. Thank god we did it before the economy dropped. But we ended up building almost a $7 million stadium renovation project. It’s a big-time stadium, it seats about 2,000, and it has all the amenities to host a regional. It solidifies the future of our program.”
| The Razorbacks carry a six-game Southeastern Conference winning streak into this weekend’s series at home against Mississippi State. After sweeping a home series against Florida and a road series at Auburn, the Hogs are 6-0 and have a two-game lead over Louisiana State, Mississippi and Georgia in the SEC. They could pad that margin this weekend against a scrappy but not overly talented Mississippi State team.
A year ago, Arkansas got off to a 2-4 start in conference en route to a ninth-place finish in the regular season. The 2008 Razorbacks did not win their first SEC series until their fifth conference series, and their lone conference series sweep came in their second-to-last SEC weekend against South Carolina. Despite missing the SEC tournament, the Hogs earned a No. 3 seed in the Stanford Regional, where they went 0-2.
“We were really trying to figure out who we were and how good we were,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said of last year’s club. “Obviously we were OK, but we weren’t anything special.”
Arkansas emerged from 2008 as a wiser, more experienced bunch, and now the Razorbacks are in the SEC driver’s seat. Van Horn challenged his older club with a nonconference schedule that included six games against Pacific-10 foes Washington State and California and four games against Big 12 opponents Kansas and Nebraska. Arkansas went 7-3 in those games and entered SEC play brimming with confidence despite posting mediocre statistics.
“Our players just got better,” Van Horn said of the nonconference slate right before conference play began. “They knew we couldn’t just mess around and play this team or that team . . . If you look at our numbers, we’re not hitting like a lot of teams in our league, our defense is where it is and our pitching has struggled, but we’ve played good teams, and we feel like we’ll be OK.”
Indeed, Arkansas looks like one of those sum-is-greater-than-the-parts kind of teams. Heading into the year, power looked to be the Hogs’ greatest asset, and sophomore first baseman Andy Wilkins has lived up to expectations, slugging eight home runs in 21 games. Senior second baseman Ben Tschepikow has exceeded expectations, belting seven homers, but the other anticipated power sources (Travis Sample, Zack Cox, Brett Eibner, Jacob House) have been quiet. After five weeks of play, Arkansas ranked 10th among SEC teams in batting and scoring and seventh in home runs. But the Razorbacks have gotten big hits when it matters most, going 4-0 in extra-inning games and compiling a 17-4 overall mark.
The pitching staff has been solid despite nagging injuries to several key arms. Junior righthanders Mike Bolsinger (mononucleosis) and Bryan Bingham (rib muscle pull) have been limited, and there was some question heading into the year how redshirt freshman lefthander Drew Smyly would bounce back from Tommy John surgery. Smyly’s senior year at Little Rock (Ark.) Central High was plagued by arm troubles, and he had surgery in the fall of 2008. But Smyly has settled nicely into the Sunday starter role behind junior lefthander Dallas Keuchel (3-0, 3.00) and junior righty T.J. Forrest (1-1, 4.12). In 25 innings over five starts, Smyly is 2-0, 1.80 with 19 strikeouts and six walks.
“The first couple outings of September of his freshman year when we were in fall ball, we thought, ‘Wow, we’ve got a pretty good lefty here. He’s wiry and tall, and he throws strikes,’” Van Horn said. “Then he hurt himself again. The biggest fear for us was, in the very beginning when he first starts letting it go, will there be any problems? But he’s good to go. Realizing that thing’s healed, it was a big step for us.”
After talking with Terry Rooney, you’d never guess that Central Florida is 7-17, riding a seven-game losing streak during which it has been outscored 87-25 and took a 26-1 loss to East Carolina. UCF’s relentlessly upbeat first-year coach instead is quick to point out what’s going well for the Knights: The team’s grade-point average is the highest in program history; its opening-weekend series against Virginia Commonwealth drew more fans than any other series in program history; and the crowd for last Wednesday’s game against Florida set a single-game attendance record. Though UCF has been steamrolled of late, there are positives on the field, too.
“It’s definitely a transition and a process to get this program to the upper echelon of college baseball,” said Rooney, who spent the last two years as the pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at Louisiana State. “I have absolutely no doubt that it’s going to happen. How soon it’s going to happen remains to be seen. Right now the kids are playing the game the right way. We’re implementing an effort-based system here, and the kids are doing all that they can. I’m proud of their effort, I really am.
“When you come to see us taking batting practice or infield, you’ll never know what our record is, you’ll never know. I know that the foundation is being laid by the way the game is being played.”
Rooney’s track record speaks for itself: He’s been to regionals at Old Dominion, Stetson, Notre Dame and LSU. His first recruiting class at LSU ranked as the second-best in the nation and propelled the Tigers back to the College World Series the very next year. That track record gives players, administrators and fans reason to believe Rooney can get the Knights rolling in a hurry, despite their struggles in Year One.
The biggest culprit for UCF’s woes has been a pitching staff that owns a 7.91 ERA. Rooney said he is confident that senior righthander Kyle Sweat (2-2, 5.11) will keep his team in the game every time he takes the mound, and he sees potential in freshmen D.J. Hicks (8.05) and Bryan Brown (0-3, 11.30), but both have taken their lumps, to say the least.
“Right now we have some interesting challenges from a pitching standpoint,” Rooney said. “I think we’re going to have to use multiple kids in shorter roles instead of lengthening some guys out. I think D.J. Hicks, specifically, is a big part of the foundation of the future of this program. He is going to be a legitimate two-way player in college baseball. He’s an 88-91 righthander, a big kid. He’s a lefthanded bat with some legitimate power. Like a lot of young guys he was pressing at the plate early on. His numbers are not indicative of the type of player he’s going to be.”
It might take a little patience for Hicks to become the kind of player Rooney envisions, just as it will take patience for him to change the culture of the program and patience for him to increase the overall talent level on the roster. But it might not take as much patience as you think.
“This recruiting class we’ve got coming in, we’re so excited about it,” Rooney said. “It’s very similar to our first year at LSU—we had tremendous kids who were doing things the right way, and that one recruiting class at LSU got us back to Omaha the next year. I don’t know if it’ll happen that quick here, but it is a process. That’s why I took this job, and I’m not backing down from those expectations.”
Stanford needs to get its season turned around in a hurry if it wants to make regionals. Heading into Week Six, the Cardinal is just 5-10, which is bad on two levels. First, and most obviously, it’s not good to be five games below .500 with five weeks of the season in the rear-view mirror. But it’s also not such a good thing to have played just 15 games.
The Cardinal had a pair of games against UC Riverside canceled by bad weather, and it took a week off for quarterly exams. But the light early-season schedule means Stanford must weather six weeks of five games apiece, and two weeks of four games apiece.
Compare that with UCLA, which also sits five games under .500 (8-13) but which has played six more games than Stanford. The Bruins have no more five-game weeks left on the schedule, so they’ll be able to get extra rest and extra practice time during the meat of the conference schedule. UCLA has also won two straight weekend series (against East Carolina and Southern California), while Stanford has lost three straight (against Cal State Fullerton, Texas and California).
With that math in mind, this weekend’s home series against Washington (9-12) is crucial for Stanford. To get back into the regional picture, Stanford must take advantage of winnable home series like this one before the grind of the season really sets in. Stanford’s defense has been solid as expected (its .975 fielding percentage through five weeks led the Pac-10 and ranked 18th in the nation), but the Cardinal has been horrible in all other phases, batting .228 (last in the conference and 285th in the nation), scoring 3.5 runs per game (also last in the Pac-10 and 285th in the nation) and posting a 5.54 ERA (143rd in the country) through five weeks.
The Division I single-game attendance record, at least for a few more days. The mark was set on March 11, 2004, when Houston and San Diego State played the first game ever at Petco Park, the home of the Padres.
The Mets expect to threaten that record Sunday when St. John’s and Georgetown open 42,000-seat Citi Field, the new home of the Mets. According to BA correspondent Adam Rubin, the Mets sold out 30,000 seats for the event and distributed the remainder of the tickets to the schools and community organizations.
The packed house will get a look at a St. John’s team that has won 10 of its past 11 games to improve to 12-7 overall. The Red Storm swept Villanova in its Big East-opening series last weekend. The frisky Hoyas, meanwhile, are just 8-14 but stole a game from heavy Big East favorite Louisville on the road last weekend.
|After dropping games to Mercer and South Alabama during the first weekend of the season, Mississippi got on track quickly. The Rebels won their first two SEC series of the year, taking two out of three at Vanderbilt and two of three at home against Alabama. Mississippi’s deep, physical lineup is led by senior outfielder Logan Power (.405/.511/.622 with three homers and 26 RBIs) and sophomore first baseman Matt Smith (.284/.365/.446) in the middle of the lineup, while junior outfielder Jordan Henry (.377/.505/.478 with 15 stolen bases) and sophomore second baseman Tim Ferguson (.339/.388/.466) spark the top of the lineup. Junior college transfer Kevin Mort has been a stabilizer at shortstop, where the Rebels struggled last year after Evan Button was injured. Mort is hitting .352, but more importantly he has just three errors in 21 games.
The pitching staff is highlighted by sophomore lefthander Drew Pomeranz (1-0, 3.44) and junior righty Phillip Irwin (4-0, 1.82). Senior righthander Scott Bittle (1-2, 5.06), who was a first-team All-American as a closer last year, will move into the Sunday starter slot this weekend against LSU, as the Rebels try to find a third starter who can turn in a quality start. The Rebels and Tigers were the two preseason favorites in the SEC’s Western Division, and this series could have significant SEC tournament seeding implications later in the season.
A coach whose team has faced the Rebels broke them down.
“Ole Miss is Ole Miss. They find a way to score runs—they’ve got a pretty good offense. Henry and Ferguson are definite table-setters for them who can run well. Matt Smith and Logan Power can hurt you with any mistake you make against them. They have a couple of transfers in Phillips and Hubbard, they do a decent job. They have some kids at the bottom, Zach Miller is just a pain in the (behind)—he gets on base and runs well. Basham knows his job well, he’s a tough kid to strike out, makes contact, gets runners over. Snyder’s a big, strong kid with a leveraged swing. (Jeremy) Travis, one of their outfielders, is pretty good. I like their offense, they can score some runs . . . I think they played pretty good defense.
“Obviously Pomeranz is going to be a guy. He was like 90-92, his curveball was good, like a 1-to-7 action. He only threw his changeup to righthanders, so he’d throw all three pitches to righties. He’ll use his offspeed early to get ahead, and he knows how to throw his fastball in and out. He’s got some savvy and good stuff.
“Irwin just stayed away and kept his curveball down in the zone. His curveball was a pretty good pitch and he’d use it all the time. His velocity was just OK, I’m sure he was around 90 or so, but his fastball wasn’t his best pitch. His curveball was by far his best pitch, and that was his go-to pitch. He threw it with runners in scoring position and when he needed guys to chase; he commanded it real well. His fastball wasn’t great, but he threw it away and moved it in at times.
“Bittle is not the same as he was last year. He had plus-plus bite on his cutter the last two years, but this year I thought it was just OK—it wasn’t the lights-out, unhittable pitch that it was. He’s still pretty good. (Starting him) might be (the right move), because they’re searching for a third starter. He’s got good stuff, there’s no question about that. His cutter and changeup have very good down action.”
|Ebert, a junior transfer from Central Florida CC, has already had a rollercoaster spring at South Carolina, and it’s not even April. Ebert was one of 21 people displaced when his apartment complex burned down in a fire the night after the Gamecocks completed a season-opening sweep against Duquesne to open the season. The next day, Ebert showed up to practice with a smile on his face, according to coach Ray Tanner. Soon enough, he forced himself into the regular starting lineup, and through 22 games he leads the team in batting (.386), on-base percentage (.519) and slugging (.895). He’s also tied for the team lead with eight home runs.
Ebert and the Gamecocks are desperate for a series win this weekend at Kentucky after dropping their first two SEC series against Mississippi State and LSU.
Congratulations on your hot start, Nick. What has been the key to your success so far?
I’m just swinging it well. I slowed down a little bit—I was off to a really hot start. I just worked my butt off in the cage and got an opportunity finally. I didn’t start the first six or seven games of the season, but I got my shot and made the most of it.
Much has been made of South Carolina having to replace its “Big Four” from last year—Justin Smoak, Reese Havens, James Darnell and Phil Disher. But you guys actually have more home runs right now (40) than you had at this point last year. Does that surprise you?
I don’t think it’s as big of a surprise to us as to maybe everyone else. This team can hit, and we’re at a ballpark where the ball does fly a little bit. We’re not as surprised as everyone else is, but that’s not taking anything away from Smoak and those guys, because they have tons of power.
You mentioned Carolina Stadium—so what do you think of it?
Oh man, it’s unbelievable. The opportunity to play in a park like this, many kids don’t get that opportunity. It’s a beautiful park, it’s done right. There were no shortcuts made. It’s tough to pitch in a park like this, runs are going to be scored. As a pitcher it helps to know if you give up a few runs, in a couple batters you can be back in the game.
Do you have a favorite feature of the new park?
Other than the field itself—the playing surface is perfect—I would have to say the weight room. It’s unbelievable, man. It’s right down the hall from the locker room, and the cages are right down the hall too. That’s what I like most, it’s all right here at the stadium, we don’t have to leave.
What’s your impression of SEC play through two weeks?
The competition level’s the best of the best. I’m not surprised by it because over the years the SEC has been the best competition in the nation. We’ve only played two series, and it’s lived up to everything I’ve expected it to be. That’s what the SEC is all about, having great players out there and facing great competition day in and day out.
A lot of people are talking about Kentucky’s pitching lately, especially James Paxton, who has been up to 97 from the left side. What have you heard about those guys?
I haven’t heard much about them, and I don’t really care to know much about them. In the SEC, everyone’s good, everyone’s got arms. When you hear about a guy throwing 97, 98, I think about how we’re going to see a lot of fastballs, and we can hit fastballs. I think we’re all pumped to see more fastballs.