Weekend Preview: March 7-9

THIS WEEK

1. Coach Andy Lopez is happy to be alive, but that doesn’t mean he accepts Arizona’s current level of play.

2. The UCSB Gauchos face their first big test of the season.

3. Mississippi State’s rolling but still looking to define roles in the lineup.


TOP 25 SERIES
(1) Virginia at Duke
Maryland at (2) Florida State
Brown at (3) South Carolina
(4) Cal State Fullerton at Baylor
Northern Illinois at (5) Oregon State
Notre Dame at (6) N.C. State
Texas Southern at (7) Louisiana-Lafayette
Winthrop at (8) Vanderbilt
Purdue at (9) Louisiana State
Hawaii at (10) Texas
(11) Cal Poly at Seattle
Ohio State at (14) Oregon
Virginia Tech at (15) Clemson
Boston College at (16) Miami
(17) Indiana at Jacksonville
Old Dominion at (18) Rice
Miami (Ohio) at (19) Louisville
Cal State Northridge at (20) Sam Houston State
Pittsburgh at (21) North Carolina
Michigan State at (22) Texas Christian
Ball State at (23) Kentucky
(24) Fresno State at Air Force
Arkansas-Little Rock at (25) Mississippi

Every time someone tells Arizona coach Andy Lopez, “It’s good to see you,” his response is the same: “It’s good to be seen.” And he means it. Lopez knows he is very fortunate to be alive right now.

Having quadruple bypass surgery this fall changed his outlook on life, especially since he said he ignored the warning signs and the history of heart disease in his family. He would go out jogging last summer and come back feeling pain in his neck, and he would think, “Man, I’m out of shape.” His wife saw him icing his neck one night and convinced him to see a doctor, on the first day of Arizona’s fall practice. As it turned out, four of his arteries had significant blockage—and one was 95 percent blocked.

“My cardiologist said, ‘With that blockage, I’m surprised you didn’t have a massive heart attack somewhere,’” Lopez said. “That’s been humbling. It gives you perspective in many ways.”

But that doesn’t mean Lopez is willing to accept his team’s poor play during its current five-game losing streak. After the Wildcats were swept in a pair of home midweek games against Long Beach State, he quipped to his team, “You know fellas, I believe in God’s sovereignty more than ever, because if I hadn’t had that surgery in the fall, after watching you guys play, I think I would have had a heart attack. I’d be dead.”

The Wildcats are 6-7, and they’ll have their hands full this weekend against No. 12 Mississippi State and 7-1 UC Santa Barbara, who will travel to Tucson for a three-team tournament that came together on short notice this winter after all three programs had to scramble for games.

Lopez, who returned to his team on Jan. 19, said some of his young players have struggled to get acclimated to his coaching style after he missed the entire fall. He expects a certain attention to detail and energy level from his players, and he has not gotten it.

“There have been some things we do that I don’t like, some situations we don’t perform well,” he said. “There’s a lot of days I feel like I’m in the fall season, and we’re not. We’re in the season. Never going through this before, I’m not going to overlook the mental mistakes, and I’ll approach the mental mistakes as I always approach them.

“I had heart surgery. They gave me four new arteries. But they didn’t take away my desire and competitiveness. If you expect me to come back like Mr. Rogers, then somebody gave you bad information. You’ve got to figure it out.”

Lopez expected his juniors to lead by example. Losing junior righthander Mathew Troupe to Tommy John surgery Wednesday was a big blow. Troupe was the closer on Arizona’s 2012 national championship team, and he was expected to serve as the Saturday starter behind James Farris this year.

“He’s a big piece of the puzzle,” Lopez said. “If you’re not real deep, and we aren’t, that means everybody has to move up a slot or two. So that’s an issue right now.”

 

TOP 25 TOURNAMENTS
Hi Corbett Classic, Tucson
(12) Mississippi State, Arizona, UC Santa Barbara
Dodgertown Classic, Los Angeles
(13) UCLA, Houston, Pepperdine, Southern California

In Troupe’s absence, junior-college transfer Cody Hamlin has had to move up to the Saturday job, and Lopez said Hamlin has pitched well, going 2-1, 1.57. But last week against Seton Hall (which swept the Wildcats in Tucson), Arizona used freshman Morgan Earman as the Sunday starter, and he failed to make it out of the second inning. Lopez said he has good arm strength, with a fastball that sits at 89-90, but he needs to improve his mound presence and his strike-throwing ability.

Andy Lopez

Andy Lopez (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

Veteran lefty Tyler Crawford will get the call as the No. 3 starter this Sunday, and Lopez at least knows he will compete and throw strikes, even if he won’t dominate.

“Crawford will give you a good performance, but he’s a little short on stuff,” Lopez said. “It’s 82-84. He’ll be good for three or four innings, but then they’ll figure him out. He’s dynamite out of the pen, and he’s done the best job possible (as a starter).”

Freshman two-way talent Bobby Dalbec blew a save Tuesday, but Lopez expects Dalbec to be fine in the closer role. He attacks hitters with three quality pitches—an 89-90 fastball, a cutter and changeup. And a couple of key supporting pieces are emerging in Tyler Parmenter (who was up to 94-95 on Tuesday) and Xavier Borde (who works at 89-91 from the left side).

But Farris is the leader of the pitching staff, and Lopez said his other Omaha veterans need to lead the offense. Junior second baseman Trent Gilbert and junior catcher Riley Moore both started as freshmen two years ago, and they need to lead the way. Both have decent averages so far, at .340 and .333 respectively, but Lopez calls Arizona’s offensive statistics “watercolor numbers, really.” His team is hitting .316, but it has not been very productive in key spots. It is up to the juniors to take charge.

“As I told the juniors the other day, ‘When you were freshmen, you had grace. But by the time you’re juniors, you really have to perform,’” Lopez said. “Slam dunk. Nothing else needs to be said. If you want to stop this madness, you older guys have to do it.”

Lopez knows his team can’t afford to fall into a deeper hole, making this weekend very important. “And it might be good. It might give us a little more of a sense of urgency. The biggest disappointment to me is we don’t look very competitive, which really irritates the heck out of me.”

UC Santa Barbara coach Andrew Checketts said he is wary of the Wildcats. “I’d feel better about it if Arizona had won about 10 in a row,” he said. “I think they’ve got a chance to be pretty hungry.”

With no marquee series on the Week Four schedule, the tournament in Tucson might be the most compelling action of the weekend. Let’s take a look at the Gauchos and Bulldogs heading into the tournament.

UC Santa Barbara

This will be the first big weekend test of the year for the Gauchos, who took two of three at San Jose State, won a midweek game at UCLA and swept Princeton at home. At 7-1, they are off to their best eight-game start since 1996. They were supposed to open the season with a home series against North Carolina State, but a winter storm in the East prevented the Wolfpack from traveling that weekend, and UCSB was not able to make up the games. Checketts said he never had a game rained out during his three years on George Horton’s staff at Oregon, but he managed to get a series in Santa Barbara canceled by snow.

“It’s hard for us to get N.C. State to come out here, or a team of that caliber from the East Coast being willing to fly across country and play, so missing that opportunity to really see where we’re at, that was the thing that really hurt,” Checketts said. “And we were counting on those games for some RPI points. So that makes it a little bit difficult to build the RPI.”

Joey Epperson

Joey Epperson is hitting .500 through 32 at-bats.

UCSB built a strong enough RPI last year to earn an at-large regional bid, ending a 12-year postseason drought. The Big West was stronger last year than it had been in recent years, sending three teams to regionals, and it looks to be similarly strong at the top this year, but with more depth. So the conference schedule should not hurt the Gauchos in the RPI, but if they can play well in seven games against Mississippi State, Arizona and Wichita State over the next two weekends, they can put themselves in strong position heading into conference play.

And Checketts said this team is better offensively than last year’s team was.

“We’ve got more weapons,” he said. “We’re not very deep after our starting nine—after that there’s probably a pretty significant drop-off—so we’ve got to stay healthy to perform offensively.”

Santa Barbara’s most dangerous offensive weapon is senior Joey Epperson, who started the year in center field but has moved to third base, where his defense is a work in progress. Epperson is versatile and athletic, and his plus or slightly better speed is an asset on the basepaths, where he has five steals in five tries, helping push the action in UCSB’s typical West Coast offense. He is hitting .500/.575/.781 with two homers through 32 at-bats.

“He can really play,” Checketts said. “He can short game, he doesn’t strike out, he can hit mistakes over the fence, he can run, he can steal bases. A really, really good player.”

Senior first baseman Tyler Kuresa also has the ability to drive the gaps and hit the occasional home run—he has two long balls in eight games as well. Robby Nesovic and Andrew Calica bring additional strength to the gaps. Calica was the biggest name in UCSB’s 12th-ranked 2012 recruiting class, but a back injury forced him to redshirt last year. He is finally back to 100 percent, and he brings intriguing lefthanded bat speed to the lineup, though he still needs to shorten up his swing and fine-tune some of his baseball instincts.

Calica gives the lineup another weapon, and the improvement of junior shortstop Peter Maris has been another key development. His primary responsibility is replacing Brandon Trinkwon at shortstop, but he has also done a good job wearing out the 6-hole offensively and hitting the ball up the middle.

“I do think we’re better offensively,” Checketts said. “Are we going to be unbelievable? I don’t know. We’re still going to run a West Coast offense, hit-and-run, bunt, do all that stuff. But our guys are stronger, we’ve got a little more gap power than we’ve had in the past. We talked about that too—we have to get more power. But what’s power? Power is doubles. We want doubles. We’re tired of hitting 14 singles a game. Hit some doubles, make some outfielders turn their backs a little bit. And we’ve started to do that.”

The Gauchos are still trying to figure out their pitching, but their bullpen looks like a major strength. The two other members of that banner 2012 recruiting class who ranked inside the BA 500 out of high school, righthanders Dillon Tate and Connor Baits, have made significant gains in the last year. Tate stood out for his easy arm action and projectable frame in high school. He has added 10-15 pounds at UCSB, and his velocity has jumped up. Checketts said he touched 97 mph against UCLA and has worked consistently at 93-95 mph, with command of a power curveball around 80 mph, a cutter/slider and a good changeup. He has the four-pitch repertoire to start, and Checketts said there was at least a possibility he could wind up in the rotation, but he is thriving as the closer and figures to remain there for now.

Baits also has power stuff, with an 89-92 fastball and a split-change he can throw for strikes or use as a chase pitch. His biggest improvement from last year has been his strike-throwing ability. And lefthander Greg Mahle has seen his velocity jump from the 86-90 range last year to 89-92 this year, bumping 93. He had offseason surgeries on both of his knees, and he has started throwing harder since returning to action. Another lefty, Hector Lujan, has worked in the 88-92 range with a recently developed cutter/slider in the mid-80s.

The Gauchos started the season with last year’s closer, Dylan Hecht, in a starting role. He was overpowering in relief as a freshman in 2013, and he is still working in the 90-95 range as a starter, but his command and confidence have faltered. He has lost some feel for the slider that was his security blanket in the past.

“We gambled a little bit with trying to move Hecht into the rotation, because we thought he had the best chance to be a Friday night starter from a stuff standpoint. We lost that gamble so far,” Checketts said. “He’s got a good arm and his stuff’s good, but he’s trying to be somebody he’s not. We have to make a decision to move him back into the bullpen or not this weekend, and we probably will do that.”

Ace Austin Pettibone is still sidelined with a shoulder injury, but Checketts now expects him back possibly by the start of Big West Conference play. In the meantime, underclassmen Justin Jacome and Shane Bieber will lead the rotation. Both are strike-throwers who mix speeds and locations. Jacome pitches at 88-91 from the left side, while Bieber reminds Checketts of Pettibone when he was a freshman. Bieber pitches in the 85-89 range from the right side.

The staff is deeper than it was a year ago, when the Gauchos mostly relied upon five pitchers down the stretch. Now they can comfortably go eight or nine deep. If the weekend rotation can gel, the Gauchos should be able to make it back to regionals. They’ll get a good idea where they stand after this weekend.

Mississippi State

Like the Gauchos, Mississippi State heads into the Hi Corbett Classic on a hot streak, riding a seven-game winning streak. There was some gnashing of teeth in Starkville after the Bulldogs lost two of four home games against Holy Cross in Week Two, but they have not lost since, outscoring their opponents 50-8 in the last seven games.

“I’ve kind of taken the attitude that, like Skip Bertman used to say, you’re going to lose some games early based on shuffling some personnel,” MSU coach John Cohen said. “We feel really good about where we are. We’re playing four-game weekends—it really forces your hand pitching-wise. We have some freshmen we think are pitching really well.”

Jonathan Holder

Bulldogs coach John Cohen needs a healthy Jonathan Holder. (Photo by Andrew Woolley)

Freshmen Austin Sexton (1-0, 0.00) and Dakota Hudson (1-1, 1.42) have assumed weekend starter jobs early in the season, joining junior righty Trevor Fitts to give the Bulldogs a promising rotation. Hard-throwing righty Brandon Woodruff has struggled in two of his first three outings as the No. 1 starter, but lefthander Ross Mitchell has plenty of experience coming out of the bullpen in the early innings and stifling opponents deep into games. He did just that in two of Woodruff’s starts.

Sexton and Hudson have power arms and athletic deliveries, making Cohen excited about their futures.

“Sexton’s going to be really good,” Cohen said. “He’s just such a clean arm, no doubt in my mind he’s going to be a 90-92 guy with a really good breaking ball, and he’s got a plus changeup.”

Hudson set Dudy-Noble Field abuzz by flashing premium velocity in his first outing—Cohen said “there were a bunch of 95-pluses”—and since then he has worked in the 91-93 range, occasionally bumping 94-95. More importantly, he has pounded the strike zone and shown good feel for his secondary stuff.

Another big arm is coming out of the MSU bullpen. Junior lefthander Jacob Lindgren has taken to a relief role, challenging hitters with a 92-95 fastball and a wipeout slider that can reach 85. “His stuff is electric,” Cohen said. “He’s getting more and more comfortable with being a one- or two-inning bullpen guy.”

In the side-winding Mitchell and the hard-throwing Lindgren, MSU has two lefties with dramatically different styles, to go along with power options and lower-slot options from the right side. The depth and variety of the bullpen caused us to dub it the best bullpen in college baseball heading into the season—but that was assuming closer Jonathan Holder would anchor it. A swollen middle finger hindered Holder early in the year, and being the dogged competitor he is, he tried to pitch through it—and he got hit.

“He probably shouldn’t have pitched,” Cohen said. “Really the last three years we’ve been one of the best teams in the country when having a lead in the eighth and ninth inning, and we let two leads get away from us in the ninth inning, which should never happen. But we gave him five days off, he got some treatment from our doctor, and I think he’s right back to where he was. For us to be as good as we need to be, Jonathan Holder needs to be our save guy.”

With their preseason All-American back to full strength, the Bulldogs once again look extremely formidable in the bullpen.

Roles in the lineup are still settling. Mississippi State has played three shortstops, two third basemen and three catchers in its first 14 games, and it has enough roster depth that it figures to get key contributions from the bench all season long. But junior-college transfer Seth Heck seems to have won the job at short, which stabilizes the infield. Entering the season, replacing Adam Frazier at shortstop was one of the biggest challenges facing the Bulldogs.

“He’s been excellent,” Cohen said. “He’s a blue-collar kid from Washington, very much a righthanded version of Adam Frazier, but with not as much range as Adam. When he walks up to the plate, you think he’s going to get a hit, kind of like Adam. He’s not been a surprise, but somebody who has stepped forward for us.”

As for the catching battle, Cohen has been pleased with the solid play of junior-college transfer Cody Walker, but he is particularly excited about the potential of freshman Gavin Collins, who really stands out for his arm. In one game, Collins threw out three basestealers and picked a runner off second base.

“Collins has an incredibly high ceiling, but he’s a freshman, trying to find his way,” Cohen said. “You just can’t throw too much on a freshman catcher, because there’s a bunch going on. I think (associate head coach) Butch Thompson’s done a great job giving him as much knowledge as you can.”

The first three weeks have been all about gaining knowledge for the Bulldogs, who have learned plenty about themselves. Mississippi State seldom travels West—or leaves Starkville at all in the preconference season, considering how much money it can make filling up its large ballpark. That’s why this tournament in Tucson is particularly unusual.

“Any time you go on the road, the kids get really excited about it,” Cohen said. “We’re playing a team that won the national championship two years ago. Looking at UC Santa Barbara, man are they good. They’re older, they pitch it, they get on top of the plate, take HBPs. They are a really good club. That’ll be a tough weekend for us.”

Around The Nation

• There are no games on the schedule this weekend between ranked teams, but there are a few notable tournaments in the West. In the Bay Area, California and San Francisco will host Arkansas and Tulane in a tournament that features four teams with legitimate postseason aspirations. The Razorbacks and Green Wave are looking to get back on track after losing home series to South Alabama and Sacred Heart, respectively. The Golden Bears look dramatically improved from a year ago, with an 8-3 record that includes two wins against No. 10 Texas, one against Auburn, two against Baylor and one at San Francisco. The Dons won their first series of the year last weekend against Sacramento State, with preseason All-American Bradley Zimmer powering the USF offense (8-for-14, 4 R, 6 RBI). Zimmer is hitting .420 with two homers and 11 RBIs in 11 games.

• UCLA, Southern California, Pepperdine and Houston get together in a four-team tournament (formerly known as the Dodgertown Classic). The Bruins and Cougars have been particularly stingy on the mound. Houston leads the nation in fewest runs allowed (1.0 per game), while UCLA is coming off a weekend in which it allowed just one run in three games at the Irish Classic in North Carolina. USC is off to a strong 8-3, while Pepperdine has quietly gotten off to a 9-3 start of its own, including a midweek win Tuesday against CAA favorite UNC Wilmington.

• Conference play begins in the ACC, but none of the seven teams we projected to make regionals heading into the season will face each other. The most compelling matchup might be No. 1 Virginia’s series at Duke, which is off to a 7-5 start and coming off a winning weekend in Myrtle Beach, where it beat Marshall and Coastal Carolina. The Blue Devils stand out for their pitching, but they’ll have their hands full against the nation’s most talented lineup—not that they have shown it yet. UVa. has scored seven or fewer runs in each of its last seven games, including last weekend’s three-game sweep of Monmouth. The Cavs have scored enough to go 9-2, but their offense hasn’t really started firing on all cylinders yet.

• Three inter-regional series stand out this weekend. Ohio State (7-3), coming off a solid 2-1 showing at the Keith LeClair Classic at East Carolina, travels west to take on Oregon, which must rebound after getting swept at home by Cal State Fullerton last weekend. The Titans, meanwhile, hit the road again for a three-game set at Baylor (6-6), which went 0-4 last weekend at a tournament in San Diego. And undefeated Tennessee faces its first road test of the year, traveling to Arizona State. ASU sophomore righthander Ryan Burr, who started the season as the No. 1 starter, will move back into the bullpen, where he was a freshman All-American last year. His overpowering stuff plays well in the bullpen, and his mentality is well suited for it. He was 1-1, 6.57 in three starts this year.

“Some guys are wired a little bit different,” ASU pitching coach Ken Knutson told the Arizona Republic. “Burr wants to win every game. When he’s not pitching, he’s sort of a pain in the (butt) because he doesn’t get to play. He came up to me (Monday) and said, ‘I want to close again. I can’t stand the wait in between.’”

“Closers don’t just save games, they intimidate the other team,” Burr told the Republic. “I’ve always been a bullpen guy. You can wake me up in the seventh inning, that’s when the fun starts.”

• Don’t let it be said that Southeastern Conference teams never travel West early in the season; Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi State all head west this weekend, while Vanderbilt and Texas A&M have already made trips to the West Coast this year. Of course, in the ACC, only cold-weather Boston College makes a trip to the West Coast this year (but as noted above, N.C. State was supposed to visit UCSB before winter weather intervened).

And in case you’re wondering, three of the 11 teams in the Pac-12 travel east of the Mississippi River this year: UCLA, Cal and Stanford. Utah and Washington traveled as far east as Texas. Kudos to all the teams that are willing to hit the road for intersectional competition in the nonconference schedule.