Weekend Preview: March 6-8

Meaningful
Matchup
N.C. State vs. Miami

With the uniform start date in place, many teams have lost the luxury of easing into conference play by warming up with a month of nonconference action. It’s Week Three, and already league play is beginning for the Atlantic Coast, Atlantic Sun, Southland and Sun Belt conferences. It actually started last week for the Southwestern Conference.

Of the power conferences, the ACC is the only one kicking off the conference schedule this weekend. The full slate of ACC games is highlighted by Clemson’s visit to North Carolina (check Monday’s Three Strikes for a recap and analysis of this series), Virginia’s trip to Wake Forest (a set featuring two teams with a combined 15-1 record, but against soft competition) and North Carolina State’s series at Miami.

The Wolfpack and Hurricanes each began the season on the periphery of the top 25, and Miami has since vaulted to No. 15 in the rankings after sweeping a three-game series at then-No. 24 Florida. N.C. State was stunned in its season-opening tournament in Raleigh, dropping its first two games against Rhode Island (which later upset Miami in midweek action) and Xavier. But the ‘Pack has rebounded with seven straight wins to match Miami’s 7-2 record heading into this weekend.

“We felt good about our club all fall and all spring; we know we’re kind of young. We were probably more shocked than anything after the first couple of games,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. “To open it up at home, we were a little shocked the way we played. I think it’s going to be a growing experience all spring. We have a lot of guys who haven’t played before. Once we get some at-bats, hopefully we’ll be fine.”

TOP
25
SCHEDULE
Illinois at (1) Louisiana State

(2) Texas at Stanford

(19) Clemson at (3) North Carolina

Utah at (4) Texas A&M

(7) Cal State Fullerton at Southern Mississippi

Holy Cross at (8) Arizona State

Quinnipiac at (10) Georgia

(11) San Diego vs./at/vs./at San Diego State

Evansville at (12) Pepperdine

Wichita State at (13) Texas Christian

Vermont at (14) Mississippi

North Carolina State at (15) Miami

UCLA at (16) Oklahoma State

Maryland at (18) Georgia Tech

California at (21) Arkansas

Boston College at (22) Florida State

(25) Cal Poly at Houston

Top 25 Tournaments

Quala-T Imprints Baylor Classic, Waco, Texas:

(5) UC Irvine, (6) Baylor, Alabama-Birmingham, South Alabama

Academy Sports & Outdoors Rice Classic, Houston:

(9) Rice, Notre Dame, Oral Roberts, Washington State

UNCW Seahawk Round Robin, Wilmington, N.C.:

(17) Kent State, UNC Wilmington, Wright State

Caravelle Resort Tournament 2, Conway, S.C.:

(20) Coastal Carolina, Albany, Creighton, Stony Brook

Palm Springs Baseball Invitational, Palm Springs, Calif.:

(23) Oklahoma State, (24) Oregon State, UC Riverside, Gonzaga, San Francisco, Texas Tech

The Wolfpack was a pitching-dominated team last year, and it rode its
standout staff all the way to super regionals despite an offense that
ranked 109th in the nation in scoring. The ‘Pack still have one of the
ACC’s best pitching staffs, but the coaches are hopeful their offense
will be stronger this year, thanks in part to some newcomers. Junior
college transfers Drew Poulk and Kyle Wilson give the lineup some punch
out of the right field and shortstop spots, respectively, though Poulk
is questionable for this weekend after rolling his ankle Wednesday
against Akron.

Freshman first baseman Harold Riggins is off to a 7-for-16 start (.438)
and has flashed huge raw power in practices. But the biggest surprise
has been freshman catcher Pratt Maynard, an unheralded member of the
recruiting class from tiny Franklinton, N.C., who leads all N.C. State
regulars in batting (.367), slugging (.700) and homers (three).

“He is flying under the radar,” Avent said of Maynard. “(Assistant
coach) Chris Hart saw him a few times and said he’s going to be a good
player. His heart and makeup’s off the chart. Plus where he was from,
maybe he didn’t go to some of the showcases, but he’s going to be a
great player. We’ve got some young guys that will contribute in this
league right off the bat—that doesn’t happen every day.”

N.C. State has gotten used to being able to rely on its arms, and its
starters will have to be efficient this weekend to take some of the
burden off a pitching staff that worked 27 innings on Wednesday. The
‘Pack bludgeoned Villanova 15-0, then played a recently added game
against Akron that turned into an 18-inning marathon; NCSU used 11
pitchers in the game and struck out an NCAA-record 31 Zips in a 5-4
win. Closer Joey Cutler led the team with four innings of work,
throwing 51 pitches. In his place Friday, junior righty Sam Brown will
fill in as the late-innings go-to guy.

Fortunately, ace junior lefthander Jimmy Gillheeney has become an
innings-eater with a four-pitch mix who gives the Wolfpack a real
chance against Miami ace lefty Chris Hernandez in the opener.

“You can go ahead and dodge Hernandez because he’s so good, or you can
go out and beat him, and we’re going to go right after him,” N.C. State
pitching coach Tom Holliday said. “Let the best man win. I’ve never
been one to cower away, I don’t like that juggling. (Hernandez) will
have to be on top of his game, because we’ll go at him with our best.

“Gillheeney has been outstanding. He’s a year older, a year stronger,
and he’s as good a four-pitch pitcher as I’ve had in a long, long time.
He’s not the guy you’re going to write about throwing 95 mph that can’t
beat anybody, he’s the other way around. He’s a pitcher’s pitcher: He’s
got a major league changeup and a major league cutter.”

Sophomore righty Jake Buchanan will start Saturday against Miami junior
righthander David Gutierrez, and Holliday said lefty Alex Sogard will
get the nod Sunday. Holliday said his pitchers will have to be sharp to
win—but maybe not as sharp as they had to be last year against the
Hurricanes.

“Last year, you could not make a mistake. If you did, they banged you,”
Holliday said. “I don’t know if they’ll be as offensive as they were
last year, although they scored some runs against Florida.”

The Hurricanes lost All-Americans Yonder Alonso, Jemile Weeks and Blake
Tekotte, plus top-two-rounds draft picks Dennis Raben and Mark
Sobolewski from a lineup that ranked 11th in the nation in scoring last
year. Junior shortstop Ryan Jackson, who has improved as a hitter but
stands out most for his stellar defense, now hits in the No. 3 hole,
and so far he’s responded, batting .333/.447/.467. The lineup around
him features plenty of newcomers, starting with freshman center fielder
Nathan Meledres (.353) out of the leadoff spot and junior college
transfer Scott Lawson (.348) hitting second. Melendres is a converted
third baseman who’s still adjusting to center field, but Miami coach
Jim Morris said he’s encouraged by what he’s seen so far from the
freshman.

“He’s a really good athlete, he can run and throw, and the ball jumps
off his bat,” Morris said of Melendres. “He may steal second, he may
get picked off. With that said, he’ll be a pretty good player for us.”

Miami’s most touted freshman, corner infielder Harold Martinez (.375
with a team-best 10 RBIs) gives Morris some punch in the middle of the
lineup, along with junior college transfer Chris Herrmann (.321). So
far, Miami has also gotten strong production from returning players
like senior outfielder Dave DiNatale (a team-best .414) and catcher
Yasmani Grandal (.292), both of whom seem to be tapping into their
considerable talent now that they have regular playing time.

The weekend rotation features two new faces after Hernandez, as last
year’s Saturday starter Eric Erickson was lost to Tommy John surgery
before the season, and Sunday starter Enrique Garcia graduated.
Gutierrez, whose older brother Carlos was a first-round pick after
serving as Miami’s closer last year, doesn’t have the hard sink his
brother had—almost no one does. But he throws strikes with a high-80s
fastball, a curveball and a changeup, and so far he’s been Miami’s best
starter, going 1-0, 0.75. Sophomore lefthander Iden Nazario (2-0, 4.09)
has been effectively wild on Sundays and has racked up a team-best 15
strikeouts in 11 innings. With a quality fastball-slider-changeup mix,
Nazario can be dominant when he throws strikes and gets ahead of
hitters.

The bullpen has a veteran stalwart in sidewinding closer Kyle Bellamy
(0.00 ERA through 4 1/3 innings), and newcomer Taylor Wulf (0.00 in
four innings) has emerged as a reliable setup man. Wulf, a junior
righthander who transferred from Alvin (Texas) CC, gives hitters a
different look, throwing a 90 mph fastball and a downer curve from a
considerably higher arm slot than Bellamy.

So there are some older players to provide stability, but the ‘Canes
will rely on a host of players who will get their first taste of ACC
play this weekend.

“I don’t know what to expect right now from our guys,” Morris said.
“We’re a talented group, but we’re young, and we’re going to make some
mistakes and have some mental lapses, too. Our club will be better in
May and June come tournament time than right now.

“We’d better get after it this weekend. N.C. State to me is always a
club that, under Avent and (former coach) Ray Tanner, that plays hard.
It’s a blue-collar team that plays hard. When you play State, they’re
going to play hard for nine innings and get after it.”

Marquee Mound
Matchup
Gonzaga’s Ryan Carpenter vs. Texas Tech’s A.J. Ramos

Maybe it lacks the cachet of the Gillheeney-Hernandez matchup (or any number of others), but good luck finding a more intriguing pitching matchup than Carpenter against Ramos on Saturday at the Palm Springs (Calif.) Baseball Invitational, which kicks off tonight. Carpenter, a 6-foot-5 lefthander, is one of the nation’s top freshmen and a key part of Gonzaga’s surprising 6-2 start (which includes a pair of wins against Missouri). Ramos, a 5-foot-10 senior righthander, is just 10 months removed from Tommy John surgery and already looks stronger than ever.

2009
STATS
Player W L ERA IP H BB K AVGA
Carpenter

2 0 2.13 13 7 1 10

.163
Ramos 1 0 0.00

7 8 2 9 .286

Carpenter, a native of Peoria, Ariz., was the jewel of Gonzaga’s
standout recruiting class last fall, and so far he has lived up to
expectations. Through two starts, he is 2-0, 2.13 with 10 strikeouts
and one walk over 13 innings. His fastball sat at 89-92 and touched 94
in his Gonzaga debut, then sat at 88-90 in his second start, according
to Bulldogs coach Mark Machtolf. He has commanded all four of his
pitches well, including a very good changeup, a slider and a curveball.

“The big thing is his strike-throwing ability,” Machtolf said. “So far
he’s thrown all four pitches for strikes, and his velocity has been
decent. Usually the pitchability is the last thing to come, but with
him it’s been there, it’s real plus, and that’s why he’s been effective
so early.”

Ramos has been a prominent member of the Red Raiders’ pitching staff
since his 2006 freshman year, but he entered 2009 with a career record
of 11-11, 5.64. He started last season as Tech’s Friday starter but had
Tommy John surgery on April 30.

“Halfway through the fall, we held money to bring him back, but we just
assumed we’d redshirt him,” said first-year Red Raiders head coach Dan
Spencer. “As the fall kept going, I watched him throw 220 feet on a
line in the outfield, and I started thinking, ‘You know, he could
probably pitch sometime this year.’ Then he was throwing 92 in his
diagramed throwing program at Christmas time. I said, ‘Holy smoke, it
looks like he’ll be able to throw opening weekend.’ And he has.”

Ramos has been on a strict pitch count through two weeks—50 in his
debut, then 65 the next weekend against Cal State Northridge—but he’s
been outstanding in limited action. Through two starts, he is 1-0, 0.00
with nine strikeouts and two walks in seven innings. This week, his
pitch limit will increase to 80, and he should be able to throw 95
pitches when Texas Tech opens Big 12 play next week against Nebraska.

Ramos has shown excellent stuff so far, running his fastball up to the
90-92 range and complementing it with a good slider, a curveball and a
changeup.

“The slider is the No. 2 pitch, but he really has four very solid
pitches,” Spencer said. “The curveball and slider are distinct pitches.
I haven’t had a whole bunch of guys have a curveball and a slider—they
tend to cross together. He’s the real deal, boy. He’ll make somebody a
great senior sign.”

Under The
Radar
Ross Heffley, of/2b, Western Carolina

Bobby Moranda was an assistant coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference for 20 years between stints at Virginia, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, but had to go to the Southern Conference for a top job, at Western Carolina. The Catamounts program has catapulted others (Jack Leggett, Keith LeClair, Todd Raleigh) to bigger and better things, and Moranda could get Western on its way if his top recruit to the program keeps hitting like this.

Ross Heffley is a 5-foot-7, 175-pound freshman whom Moranda calls “our Dustin Pedroia.” Heffley starred at Brookwood High in suburban Atlanta, helping lead the team to the 6-A Georgia state championship. However, Heffley wasn’t heavily recruited due mostly to his size.

Moranda had seen Heffley at a showcase when he was an assistant coach at Georgia Tech, and his associate head coach, Dave Haverstick, had done the same when he worked at Savannah College of Arts & Design. They dug up their notes when Heffley e-mailed them to see if Western Carolina had interest; at that point, Heffley was resigned to going to junior college. Moranda and Haverstick had written positively about Heffley in their old notes, and Heffley came to Cullowhee, N.C., the next day. He left after accepting a scholarship offer.

Now Heffley has climbed into the No. 3 hole in the Catamounts’ lineup. He’s shown a plus arm, average speed (6.95 second in the 60) and an aggressive, powerful swing, a la Pedroia. He was off to a 14-for-26 start (.538) with a team-best eight RBIs, moving to left field in deference to junior second baseman Nick Liles, the team’s leadoff hitter.

“He had five extra-base hits in the series against Southern Cal,” said Moranda, whose team won two of three from the Trojans. “The USC players were asking our guys about him. Scott Boras’ son plays for SC, and he was at one of the games and asked me after the game about this guy. He’s 5-foot-8 and has the best power on our team. He’s just got great hands and flat-out hits.”

—JOHN MANUEL

Streakin’
Georgia

The Bulldogs have matched the 1911 Georgia squad with a 9-0 start, the best in school history. And they’re doing it in dominating fashion.

Georgia has played 81 innings this season and has yet to trail after any of them. Georgia’s pitching was supposed to be its strength—and the staff has been outstanding, posting a 2.89 ERA and an 88-23 strikeout-walk ratio—but the offense has been even better. The Dawgs lead all Southeastern Conference teams in batting (.376), on-base percentage (.482), hits (128) and doubles (27) while ranking second behind Louisiana State in runs (106), walks (63) and slugging (.624). And while many of those numbers are inflated by six total games against Youngstown State, Presbyterian and Wofford, the Bulldogs also outscored Arizona 33-14 in a three-game sweep in Tucson.

Georgia coach David Perno regarded last fall’s recruiting haul as the best in school history, and the freshmen in that class are making huge impacts immediately, especially in the lineup. Freshman outfielder Johnathan Taylor has started seven of nine games and leads the team with a .538 batting average and six steals in eight attempts. Fellow freshmen Levi Hyams (.333), Chase Davidson (.323) and Colby May (.290 with four homers, tied for the team lead) have also produced immediately in the lineup.

“Offensively you just can’t say enough about our guys,” Perno said following a 13-6 win against Wofford this week. “We’re playing a lot of guys and they are all coming up big for us. The depth we have really allows us to stay fresh and sharp.”

Georgia’s pitching depth, though, will come in handy this weekend against Quinnipiac. Junior lefthander Alex McRee, who has gone 2-0, 0.00 as the Saturday starter after spending the last two years in the bullpen, has mononucleosis. He’ll miss his start this weekend and will be reassessed on a weekly basis. Power-armed sophomore righty Justin Grimm (0-0, 4.66) will replace him as Saturday starter this week, and senior lefty Jason Leaver (2-0, 2.00) will start Sunday.

Slumpin’
Iona
The Gaels have been as hapless in getting off to an 0-6 start as Georgia has been dominating in opening 9-0. Iona has a 13.59 team ERA, but opponents are averaging 18.73 runs per game against them thanks to 28 unearned runs on 24 errors in six games. Opponents have hit just six homers against the Gaels but are batting .372, have drawn 58 walks (against 28 strikeouts), and have been hit by 11 pitches. And it’s not like Iona is facing the 1927 Yankees; their losses are against Buffalo, William & Mary and Richmond.

On the bright side, Iona’s offense has been just below-average, not putrid like the pitching staff and defense. The Gaels are batting .250 as a team, led by Chris Burke’s .467 mark and Andre Passarelle’s .385.

Iona will try to right the ship this weekend at the Navy Tournament in Annapolis, Md. The Gaels play two games against the Midshipmen and two against Central Connecticut State.

Stat Of The
Week
.247
Aggregate winning percentage of the 15 Division I independents that have begun play in 2009 (New Jersey Tech was rained out last weekend and hopes to open at West Virginia this weekend). Just one of the 15—independent powerhouse Dallas Baptist—has a winning record (5-3), but the combined record of all 15 is 24-73. Perennial punching bag Chicago State plays its first 22 games on the road and has gotten off to an 0-9 start against Nicholls State, Charleston Southern and New Mexico State. The other 0-9 team is Texas-Pan American, while Houston Baptist (in the second year of its transition back to Division I) is 0-8.

Scouting
Report
Southern Mississippi

The Golden Eagles were expected to be a pitching-and-defense outfit in 2009, but they reached double digits in scoring in their first seven games and have racked up 100 runs overall in their 8-1 start. Seniors Brian Dozier (.487) and Bo Davis (.464) have led the offensive barrage while holding down shortstop and center field, respectively, but Davis will miss the next two weeks after tearing a a meniscus tendon in his knee. Freshman right fielder Kameron Brunty (.432) has been a revelation, and junior Taylor Walker (.400) has stepped at second base for injured mainstay James Ewing, who has missed time with a nearly identical injury to Davis’. Meanwhile, sophomore righthander Todd McInnis (2-0, 0.66) has emerged as the ace of a pitching staff that has posted a 1.98 ERA through nine games.

Southern Miss owns solid midweek wins over New Orleans, South Alabama and Louisiana-Monroe, as well as a quality series win against Louisiana-Lafayette, but the Eagles get their first major test this weekend when No. 7 Cal State Fullerton comes to Hattiesburg for a three-game set. An American League area scout who has seen Southern Miss offered his opinion about the Eagles.

“I’ll tell you what, that is a good, good college baseball team. Position player-wise, they’re nine guys, none of them are really standout pro prospects. They’re all college-sized with college ability. They all can play defense, they’re juniors and seniors so they’re experienced. They’re going to win a lot of games because they play the game right. They make contact, they’re aggressive at the plate, they spray the ball around. They’ll just put pressure on other teams, and they’re not going to beat themselves.

“They’ve got this leadoff hitter, Bo Davis, he can really run—he’s a sparkplug for them. He steals bases and plays real good defense in the outfield. He’s got a wide stance and can hit a few homers, too. Dozier is a good college shortstop—a senior, a leader, he makes the plays he’s supposed to make. He doesn’t have tremendous range, he probably has a fringe-average arm, but he can make the plays around him and has good hands. He’s probably their most experienced hitter who has the best approach of any of them. He makes good contact and drives the ball around the field. For pro ball, I don’t think the bat will propel him into the big leagues and he’s not going to play shortstop.

“Brunty is a lefthanded hitter batting second for them. He can run. He doesn’t have an average right fielder’s arm, but he’s got a good bat, man. He squares the ball up and he can drive it. He’s a good-looking freshman. He’s the only underclassman playing, the rest of the team are juniors and seniors. He’s their best pro prospect.

“Taylor Walker and (third baseman) Josh Fields are good, veteran, complementary players who do what they’re supposed to do. They’re good college players.

“McInnis has good stuff, but as far as professional ball, he’s just little—he has a real slight build. He did a good job, showed good pitchability, threw strikes. His fastball was 90-91. McInnis had a good breaking ball and a pretty good changeup. He moved the ball around and threw a lot of strikes. He’s just a little guy.

“If I was just a college baseball fan, shoot, I’d go watch them play a lot, because they’re fun to watch. Once they run up against a team with some good arms, their offense is not an offense that’s going to pound on some good pitching. They should be able to manufacture runs because they’re a scrappy team, but they’re not going to wow you with overall athletic ability; they’ll wow with how good of a team they are. I think they could host a regional, maybe. I don’t know if they have the pure pitching, the big power arms that you might need, but they’re going to win some games, just because they can play.”

In The
Dugout
Matt den Dekker, of, Florida

Den Dekker, a junior center fielder, has always stood out for his athleticism, and he started tapping into his potential last spring, batting .333/.419.507 with eight homers, 48 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in 20 attempts for the Gators. His all-around game stood out last summer, when he started 20 of Team USA’s 24 games and hit .229. Scouting directors voted the 6-foot-1, 205-pounder to the preseason All-America second team in 2009 thanks to his five-tool potential, and he’s off to a .265/.426/.382 start through 10 games. One American League scout said den Dekker is an above-average runner with a solid-average arm and above-average defense. He has good raw power, but the scout said his bat remains a question. Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said den Dekker has improved offensively since last year.

“He’s a lot more aggressive. He doesn’t miss his pitch as much as he did a year ago,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s competitive, and he expects more out of himself than maybe he did last year. He wasn’t very strong last year, so he had to cheat a little bit on the inner half, but he’s probably put on 15 pounds of muscle in the last year. He’s really filled out. He’s always had the frame, and he’s worked hard in the weight room. That’s probably the biggest difference from last year—he’s made some strides confidence-wise, but also physically he’s just a different kid.”


You guys got off to a great first weekend, and even when you weren’t able to get hits, it looked like you had productive at-bats, moving runners along, that kind of thing. How do you think your offensive game is progressing?

My swing’s been feeling good. I try to use all sides of the field, not just pull. I’ve been working on hitting lefthanders, and I think I’m getting better at that. I’ve still got some work to do to get where I want to be.

How did you grow as a hitter last summer with Team USA?

I struggled a little bit, but I tried to focus on my approach, use more of the field. I was more of a pull hitter—my swing was long so I tried to shorten that up. If you’re not making solid contact with the wood, you’re not going to be successful. You’ve got to work on making hard contact every at-bat. I was working on trying to cut down on strikeouts and use my speed.

What was that entire experience like last year, representing your country and being part of a team that went 24-0?

It was an honor to play on the U.S. national team. I got to play with some great guys. It was an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything—I got to go out of the country and play some other top players. I learned a lot about my game. It was exciting to win that 11-inning game against Japan in the FISU World Championships—it was an exciting finish.

Did you have a favorite stop during the summer?

The first place we went, the Netherlands, it was kind of like an SEC atmosphere. We were kind of the crowd favorite other than the home team.

You’ve come a long way since you arrived at Florida, playing for Team USA last year and starting this year as a preseason All-American. What has been the key to your development?

I signed late with Florida and I didn’t really get a lot of attention out of high school. The coaches worked with me and really helped me develop. I really owe it to them—they pushed me, and I’ve worked hard, and they know a lot about the game and I’ve taken everything in and put it to work.

Are you one of those guys who always wanted to be a Gator?

I lived down South and played for Westminster Academy, and I really just wanted to play anywhere I could. I got the opportunity to come to Florida, and it’s been awesome—I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It’s a great campus, a great college town, just an awesome school.

It seems like a pretty great place to go to school. What kind of things do you like to do when you’re not playing baseball?

A lot of our time is out here on the field, but when I’m home I like to just relax, play some video games, nothing too crazy, just try to get my rest in. I’m pretty laid-back, but also at the same time, I’m competitive out here, and when I’m home playing video games I get at it with my roommates too.

So, over the last few years the football and basketball teams here have won championships. Are you guys next?

We’ve been working hard and we want to get this team back to Omaha. It’s been a while. We’re looking for big things this year.

College | #2009 #Weekend Preview

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