Weekend Preview: March 28-30

THIS WEEK

1. Red-hot Huskies

2. Trojans on the rise

3. Showcase series in the SEC


Heading into the third week of Pacific-12 Conference play, an unfamiliar name is locked in a three-way tie for first place with Oregon and UCLA: the Washington Huskies. UW hasn’t posted a winning record in the Pac since 2004—Tim Lincecum‘s freshman year.

TOP 25 SERIES
(1) Florida State at Boston College
(22) Tennessee at (2) South Carolina
Virginia Tech at (3) Virginia
Western Kentucky at (4) Louisiana-Lafayette
UC Davis at (5) Cal Poly
(6) Oregon State at Arizona
(19) Kentucky at (7) Vanderbilt
(8) Louisiana State at Florida
(9) Cal State Fullerton at Wichita State
(10) Rice at Middle Tennessee State
(11) Oregon at Stanford
(12) Texas at Texas Tech
(13) Mississippi at Alabama
Xavier/Butler at (14) Louisville
Hawaii at (15) UC Santa Barbara
Arkansas at (16) Mississippi State
Memphis at (19) Houston
Arizona State at (18) UCLA
(20) Clemson at Maryland
Missouri at (21) Auburn
(23) Georgia Tech at Pittsburgh
(24) North Carolina at Duke
Miami at (25) North Carolina State

But the Huskies are off to a 5-1 start in conference play this year, and strikingly, their two series wins have come against perennial powers Arizona State (against whom UW won two of three in Tempe) and Arizona (whom UW swept at home last weekend).

The balance of power has shifted in the Pac in recent years, as Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA have established themselves as national powers. Those three teams headed into this season as the conference favorites, the only three Pac-12 teams to make the BA preseason Top 25. They might still be the teams to beat, but Washington, Washington State and Southern California look like they are going to be significant factors in a rough-and-tumble race. The Huskies visit the Trojans this weekend in a key matchup for helping to establish the Pac-12 pecking order.

“Nobody obviously expected anything from us. And our guys were aware of that, and have used that as motivation,” Washington coach Lindsay Meggs said. “It’s so early that we’re not looking at this weekend as a chance to keep pace with the Oregon schools or separate ourselves from the middle of the pack. It’s an opportunity for us to prove to people that we will be around in the end, and we have some guys that can play this game at a pretty high level. And our guys are just excited to play—the third straight weekend we’re playing against historically one of the best program in the country.”

The Trojans have had a rough decade—they haven’t made a regional since 2005, before they ran off Mike Gillespie. But they recruited well over the last two years, and we picked them to make a regional heading into this season under second-year head coach Dan Hubbs. They got off to a 7-0 start in nonconference action before losing eight of their next 10, but they rebounded with a big series win last weekend on the road against another struggling perennial power, Stanford. So the Trojans head into this weekend at 13-10 overall, and 3-3 in the Pac-12, having played two conference series on the road (they opened at Oregon, where they lost two of three).

“We think we’re ready to make a little bit of a run,” Hubbs said. “You hope you do that while you’re in league. When you play the first two road series at Oregon and at Stanford, come away with a split, you feel pretty good. Then we beat a really good Loyola team Tuesday at their place, and they’d been on fire. Apparently we’re just going to catch everybody when they’re on fire. Now we’ve got Washington when they’ve won 14 of their last 15.”

The Huskies are 17-5 overall, and they have been red-hot since going 1-3 in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge in Week Two. It’s a carry-over from their strong finish a year ago, when they went 15-7 down the stretch to go .500 in the league (15-15), despite a 24-32 overall mark. Ordinarily, it takes Washington some time to gel defensively because it must practice indoors early in the season.

That’s one of the reasons you wouldn’t expect Washington to win series against Arizona State and Arizona in March. But the Huskies are fielding .980 this year, and Meggs said they are very strong up the middle. Erik Forgione (.974 fielding percentage) and Andrew Ely (.992) form a rock-solid double play tandem, live-bodied athlete Braden Bishop is a standout in center, and Meggs calls sophomore Austin Rei the best defensive catcher he’s seen all year.

Braden Bishop

Braden Bishop has emerged as a catalyst atop Washington’s order. (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

Bishop has also taken the expected leap to stardom as a sophomore, emerging as a catalyst atop the order. He is hitting .349/.406/.434 with seven steals in eight tries. He hit .270/.351/.304 last year, with 25 strikeouts and just three walks.

“We needed him to become a legitimate leadoff threat, and that’s what he’s done,” Meggs said. “He’s taken better at-bats, put the ball in play. Andrew Ely in that 2-hole has gotten on base consistently; that’s made our offense go.”

Ely (.354/.433/.544) and Forgione are part of a core group of juniors that form the backbone of UW’s roster, along with Trevor Mitsui (.338/.443/.431), Robert Pehl (.287/.323/.517, 3 HR) Alex Schmidt (3 HR) and Branden Berry, who is back from a torn labrum. That quartet provides the punch in the middle of the lineup. Those juniors arrived on campus in the fall of 2011 as part of Meggs’ first recruiting class, lured in part by the promise of a new ballpark on the way.

They were rewarded this weekend when Husky Ballpark opened its doors for the first time.

“We’re a pretty veteran group right now out on the field, and the majority of those guys are here because were able to get them excited about the stadium getting done by the time they were juniors,” Meggs said. “That allowed us to bring in some pretty competitive freshmen a couple of years ago, and that’s the product that’s on the field right now. It’s been nothing but helpful with the 2015s and ’16s and ’17s that have been on campus for unofficial visits—they’re all blown away and excited about Husky baseball and the ballpark.

“I don’t know if you ever saw our place before, but it was a miserable place to watch a game. But this has changed it from a game to an event. We drew better each day—opening day Friday night was cold, but we still drew pretty well; Saturday was better, and Sunday was outstanding. That might be more people in the ballpark all weekend than we had all last season.”

Meggs said his Huskies might have been overwhelmed by their new digs early Friday, as he said the top of the first inning was the sloppiest they have looked on defense all year. But they settled down quickly and slugged their way to an 8-7 win Friday despite a poor outing from junior righthander Jared Fisher (3.2 IP, 11 H, 7 ER). Fisher has been up and down this season, but he has a live arm and a 91-93 mph fastball, and Meggs said he’s tough to square up when he works downhill.

Washington’s other two starters, Tyler Davis (4-1, 1.36) and Jeff Brigham (4-0, 1.06) have been more consistent, and they present hitters with two different looks. Davis is a savvy finesse righty with an excellent changeup, while Brigham has returned strong from Tommy John surgery, pitching at 92-93 and touching 95. The Huskies have built him back up to a pitch count limit around 100, and he is getting more comfortable with his slider in recent weeks. “The last two outings he’s thrown more sliders, and that is a plus pitch, no question.”

Jeff Brigham

Jeff Brigham is 4-0, 1.06 (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

Washington is fortunate to have a pair of quality closing options in 6-foot-7 junior righty Trevor Dunlap (who can reach 94) and sophomore righty Troy Rallings, who has excellent sink on his fastball and a good slider. “He has great makeup—he was born to close,” Meggs said of Rallings. Though Dunlap has four saves and Rallings has three, Meggs said Dunlap is effective over multiple innings, so he’ll likely work more as a setup man going forward, strengthening a dramatically improved middle relief corps.

USC has its own shutdown stopper in sophomore righty Kyle Davis (1-0, 0.68), whose velocity has ticked up from last year into the 88-91 range. His slider has also gotten firmer, bumping 86 at times according to Hubbs, and he mixes in a curveball and changeup against both righties and lefties.

But the Trojans need some other arms to emerge as reliable bullpen pieces to help keep Davis fresh, and they need more consistency out of their starters. Junior ace Wyatt Strahan (2-2, 3.57) has found his stride over the last two Fridays, and Hubbs said he was impressed with the way Strahan competed after he allowed Stanford to take a 3-0 lead over the first three innings last week. He followed with five scoreless innings, allowing USC to come from behind and win 4-3.

“One of the big jumps he’s been making is that he can struggle a little bit, hold them down, and then dominate. As opposed to, OK, it’s not my day, then it’s a bad day,” Hubbs said. “But he’s really set the tone for both weekends; we go on the road and he has two road starts and he’s 2-0. Against Oregon he was up to 97, last weekend he was up to 96. The difference in the last couple weeks is he’s re-found his change that he had; he really didn’t have it the first few weeks, but he has the last couple. What it does is allows his pitch count to stay lower, he can get out of an at-bat pretty quick, throw it to right and lefthanded hitters. Early on it was just fastball-curveball, two pretty good offerings, but the changeup lets him get more outs early in counts.”

Wily senior lefthander Bob Wheatley will start Saturday, and Hubbs said Sunday’s starter is TBA. High-profile sophomore lefty Kyle Twomey started the year in the rotation and struggled, as Hubbs said he had a tendency to get underneath balls, causing his stuff to flatten out. Hubbs said opponents were hitting about .370 against him heading into the Stanford series, but that number dropped to .318 after he worked 5 2/3 innings of two-hit, shutout ball in relief Sunday. Twomey is a big key for the Trojans, so if he can carry over his progress from last week and hold down a spot in the rotation, USC could take off.

Kyle Twomey

Kyle Twomey is an important piece for the Trojans. (Photo by Larry Goren)

The Trojans also need more out of three talented hitters who have struggled in the first six weeks, junior Dante Flores (.231) and sophomores Vahn Bozoian (.227) and Timmy Robinson (.234). We need those three to be good, there’s no doubt.”

He’s seen signs lately that Robinson and Flores are coming around. Teams have been feeding Robinson fastballs and breaking balls away, and he’s starting to adjust and drive balls the other way. He and Bozoian have the most raw power on the team, but Bozoian’s problem is he has been trying too hard to hit home runs, and his swing has gotten long. “He just needs to stay short to the ball, try to hit line drives, and the homers will come,” Hubbs said. “The last couple days, he’s been better.”

Fortunately for USC, veterans Kevin Swick (.368), Jake Hernandez (.333) and Garrett Stubbs (.304) have been very steady, and sophomore A.J. Ramirez (.307) is dramatically improved from a year ago. Ramirez had a 30-3 K-BB mark last year, but he ranks third on the team this year with eight walks, and his strikeout rate is down.

One key position remains in flux: shortstop. Blake Lacey (.262) is more offensive than Frankie Rios (.152), but Lacey is fielding .882, while Rios is fielding .953.

“We just need to solidify shortstop,” Hubbs said. “Whether it’s Lacey or Frankie Rios or whoever, we need that position to play better than it has the last couple weeks.”

Hubbs pointed out that the Trojans are still a young team, with 23 underclassmen on the 35-man roster. He is encouraged that his team found a way to win a road series last week even though it didn’t play its best.

“Maybe that’s the next progression in the program. Before we had to play really well to win,” Hubbs said. “But our league is stacked. It’s one of those things you just eat each other up. Part of it’s going to depend on who you play and where you play them, and do you catch them the right weekend?”

This might not be the right time to catch the confident Huskies, but at least USC’s confidence is on the rise, too.

Around The Nation

• The weekend’s two showcase series take place in the Southeastern Conference—but what else is new? The only two series between ranked teams are SEC battles, but of course there are eight SEC teams in the rankings. No. 22 Tennessee travels to No. 2 South Carolina in a matchup between two teams looking to rebound from series losses a week ago. The Gamecocks are coming off their 10th shutout of the year in a midweek win against Coastal Carolina, just four shutouts shy of the school record set in 1974. Tennessee is a talented offensive club, so Friday will be a big test for South Carolina ace Jordan Montgomery, who has struggled in his three starts against quality opponents, seeing his season ERA inflate to 4.99. Another one of South Carolina’s junior stars, Joey Pankake, is getting hot at the right time. He enters the weekend riding a 12-game hitting streak, during which he is batting .404 with 11 runs and 13 RBIs.

Joey Pankake (Photo by Tom Priddy).

Joey Pankake (Photo by Tom Priddy).

Tennessee got solid starting pitching in all three games last week against Auburn, despite losing two of them. The rotation has stabilized (Nick Williams, Hunter Martin and Andrew Lee), but the Vols scored just two runs in each of their two losses Friday and Saturday, before their bats woke up Sunday in an 8-6 win.

• The series between No. 19 Kentucky and No. 7 Vanderbilt pits the team that leads the nation in runs (Kentucky) against a Vandy pitching staff that leads the nation in fewest hits allowed per nine innings and ranks sixth in ERA and fourth in strikeouts per nine. Last week, Kentucky scored 13 runs in the series opener against South Carolina, which entered the week with the nation’s best ERA. And the Wildcats have gotten plenty of strong work from their own rotation of A.J. Reed (4-1, 2.20), Chandler Shepherd (5-0, 2.20) and Andrew Nelson (1-1, 2.89). Vanderbilt lost its first series of the year last weekend, when it played uncharacteristically sloppy defense in the first two games, and ace Tyler Beede struggled with his command for the first time all season Friday night. Plenty of scouts figure to be in Nashville to see how he rebounds this week against a marquee offensive club.

• Seven weeks into the season, the Miami-N.C. State series is looking pretty crucial for both clubs. The Hurricanes fell out of the Top 25 last week and enter this big road series at just 14-12 overall, having lost three of their last four series. The Wolfpack tumbled 15 spots to No. 25 in the rankings after getting swept for the second straight week by Maryland, plunging them into a 3-6 hole in the ACC. Both teams entered the season with regional hosting ambitions, and the team that loses this weekend could find itself facing long odds to host.

• Speaking of the Terrapins, they carry a 16-6 mark into a home series against Clemson, one of just two series left on their schedule against teams that are currently ranked (the other is another home series, against Georgia Tech). The Terps did well to avoid getting swept during tough early-season road series at Florida and Florida State, and they made a loud statement by sweeping the Wolfpack last weekend. If they can follow it up with a series win against Clemson, they figure to find their way into the Top 25, and well on their way to a regional. The Friday matchup between Maryland’s Jake Stinnett and Clemson’s Daniel Gossett should be a gem.

• Ohio State hosts Indiana in an intriguing Big Ten matchup. Indiana’s vaunted offense has been up and down, but the Hoosiers do lead the Big Ten in ERA. IU is just 12-10 overall though, while Ohio State is 16-7 against a similarly stout schedule. The Buckeyes rode strong pitching to a pair of wins last week against Michigan State, and if they can take the series against Indiana, they will establish themselves as the new Big Ten front-runner.

• I’ll be in Lincoln on Friday to see UNLV ace Eric Fedde take on the Cornhuskers. Freshman outfielder Ryan Boldt has caught fire for the Huskers, hitting .486 over his past 10 games, including a 4-for-4 performance Wednesday at Kansas State. Recent reports on Fedde from scouts have been glowing; he might be pitching his way into the top 10 picks this June. Saturday and Sunday I’ll be in Wichita to see the Shockers host Cal State Fullerton. Justin Garza is now scheduled to return next Saturday rather than this weekend, so the Titans will go with Thomas Eshelman on Friday, Phil Bickford on Saturday and Grahamm Wiest on Sunday.