Atlantic Coast Conference play begins this weekend, and the highlight of the schedule is a showdown between two of the nation’s very best offensive teams—Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.
The change to BBCOR bats has caused many coaches to shift their recruiting styles, focusing on speedy athletes rather than power hitters. That’s why the physicality in these two lineups stands out. It isn’t easy to find players with the strength and hitting ability to smack home runs in this era, but both of these teams are loaded with legitimate power threats.
|Top 25 Series|
|(1) North Carolina at Wake Forest
(2) Vanderbilt at (15) Oregon
Central Arkansas at (3) Mississippi State
Texas State at (4) Oregon State
Alabama at (5) Louisville
Rider at (6) South Carolina
Lipscomb at (7) Mississippi
Washington at (8) Louisiana State
Clemson at (9) North Carolina State
Texas A&M at (10) Cal State Fullerton
Michigan State at (11) Kentucky
Nevada-Las Vegas at (13) Stanford
(14) Georgia Tech at (24) Virginia Tech
San Diego State at (16) Arkansas
Boston College at (18) Florida State
(19) Rice at Florida International
Columbia at (20) Arizona
(21) UC Irvine at Brigham Young
Long Beach State at (23) Arizona State
Maryland at (25) Virginia
Top 25 Tournaments
Dodgertown Classic, Los Angeles:
(12) UCLA, (17) Oklahoma, (22) Notre Dame, Southern California
“If you can see us walk in a park, we’re physical,” Virginia Tech coach Pete Hughes said. “It’s work ethic and philosophy in the weight room that can dramatically change productivity, I believe. The bat’s not even in my head; I know it’s a hot-button topic. I know our park is offensive certain days, the wind does blow out, we definitely take advantage of that and recruit accordingly. But there’s nothing like a three-run homer because then the pitcher can relax, the defense can relax. When you do that, life’s easier for everybody involved.”
Mark Zagunis, Chad Pinder, Andrew Rash and Tyler Horan comprise a fearsome quartet in the heart of Virginia Tech’s offense, while Brandon Thomas, Daniel Palka, A.J. Murray and Zane Evans can match them in the Georgia Tech lineup. With that kind of heavy artillery gathered in one place, there could be some fireworks in Blacksburg this weekend.
“This will be fun—that’s exactly the way I described it to our guys,” Hughes said. “We’ve got two teams that, I don’t want to say they’re identical, but they’re very similar. They’re very experienced and have a lot of firepower one through nine.”
But it’s the firepower in the middle of the lineup that really makes these teams special, so let’s break down the big boppers.
Both teams have offensive catchers with the versatility to help in other ways. Sophomore Zagunis is Virginia Tech’s leading hitter (.415 with a team-best six doubles) and its best runner (six steals in seven tries). The Hokies also play him in the outfield to reduce the wear and tear on his body and to put his speed to use, a luxury they can afford because they have a quality second option in Chad Morgan.
The Yellow Jackets hope Connor Lynch or Mitch Earnest can emerge to help take some of the catching load off Evans, who doubles as the team’s most trusted late-innings reliever (2.25 ERA with one save in four innings). Since beginning the season 2-for-16, Evans has caught fire, hitting .485 with a team-leading five home runs over his last 33 at-bats.
“He got off to a bad start, wasn’t swinging the bat good at all,” Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said. “He kiddingly said it to my volunteer coach one day in the locker room, he said, ‘I’m one weekend away from being a full-time pitcher.’ But he worked real hard on his swing, he and (assistant coach) Bryan Prince got together and did some things that I think clicked with him. Ever since then, he’s been locked in and scorched some balls.”
Both teams have premium lefthanded sluggers manning right field in Horan (.365/.424/.577, 2 HR, 14 RBI) and Palka (.449/.525/.735, 3 HR, 20 RBI). Horan was a high school football player who “wasn’t close to being ready” when he showed up in Blacksburg, so he redshirted in 2010, then made just nine starts in 2011. Last year he learned how to unlock the massive power in his 6-foot-2, 232-pound frame, hitting 15 home runs for the Hokies and then mashing 16 more in the Cape Cod League to tie the league record.
“Tyler Horan has as much raw power as I’ve ever coached,” Hughes said. “He can hit velocity, he can hit breaking balls, and you can’t match up against him with lefthanded pitching—two years ago I couldn’t say that. The thing about Tyler is he doesn’t swing and miss a lot for a power guy. When you have a guy with that kind of power who doesn’t swing and miss, the probability of something good happening increases.”
Palka has been one of the most dangerous power hitters in the ACC since he arrived at Georgia Tech, hitting 12 homers as a freshman and 12 more as a sophomore. Like Horan, he had a strong summer in the Cape League, where he was named MVP of the 2012 all-star game. Even though Palka was more refined than Horan as a freshman, he still chased too many pitches out of the zone, and Hall said he has become a much more mature hitter, more willing to take walks and trust his teammates to get the job done behind him.
And even though Palka has plenty of support in the Georgia Tech lineup, that didn’t stop Mercer from intentionally walking him twice Tuesday—once with runners on first and second, and a lefthanded pitcher on the mound. How’s that for respect?
“They loaded the bases rather than pitch to him with a lefthanded pitcher,” Hall said. “I was kind of shocked, and I know Craig Gibson at Mercer really well—he told me before the game, ‘Palka’s probably not going to get too much to hit tonight.’ “
Of course, Palka wound up going 0-for-4 in that game, and Georgia Tech still pounded out 18 hits and scored in double figures for the seventh consecutive game. Leading the way was Thomas, who went 4-for-6 with three RBIs.
In Thomas and Rash, these two teams both have unusually accomplished senior center fielders with varied skill sets. Thomas (.426/.517/.511), an unsigned fourth-round pick last year, is a switch-hitter with true five-tool ability, making him perhaps the best prospect in the senior class (teammate Buck Farmer, Georgia Tech’s Friday starter, might be his biggest challenger for that mantle).
Rash, a fifth-year senior, lacks that kind of prospect pedigree, but he has been a productive player for four years, highlighted by his 18-homer season in the first year of the BBCOR era in 2011. He’s off to a strong start this spring, hitting .388/.446/.551 with one homer and 16 RBIs.
“Andrew Rash will go down as one of the most prolific home run hitters at Virginia Tech,” Hughes said. “He’s an energy guy, one of the best leaders I’ve ever coached. I expect a great year out of him as a fifth-year guy. He can run, he can steal bases, but it’s the person, the leadership he brings to our lineup every day.”
Finally, each team has a slugging corner infielder with quality defensive skills in Pinder and Murray. Hughes calls Pinder “our most complete hitter,” a veteran with a quiet approach and emerging power. He’s hitting .391/.517/.587 with two homers and 16 RBIs through 13 games, and he also rates as one of college baseball’s premier defensive third baseman.
Murray has seized Georgia Tech’s everyday job at first base by showing improved defensive skills, but his bat has progressed even more. He leads the team in hitting (.455) and OBP (.571), while slugging .705.
“I think he has a very quick, compact swing, he can hit the ball to all fields, and he’s a great competitor,” Hall said. “I felt like when fall baseball was over, he was probably the most improved hitter we had on our team. A lot of that started last summer in the Valley League—he had a lot of at-bats and played every day. He came back with certainly a lot of confidence.”
There is a lot more to both of these teams, of course. Defense was a problem for Georgia Tech last year, but Mott Hyde has settled in nicely at shortstop, and the Jackets are fielding .980 so far this year.
Virginia Tech, meanwhile, has made great strides on the mound, where lefthander Eddie Campbell and righty Brad Markey give the rotation a pair of power arms in the first two games of this series. Campbell is filling in for ace Joe Mantiply, who hasn’t pitched over the last two weeks for precautionary reasons but could return on a limited pitch count in the bullpen this weekend. Campbell (1-0, 2.40) has power stuff from the left side, with a fastball that reaches 93, a good breaking ball with depth and a nice changeup, and he is learning to make adjustments from pitch to pitch. Markey can reach 94 and throws strikes with a 76-80 mph breaking ball, and Sunday starter Devin Burke works at 88-91 with a very good changeup.
And Hughes says he loves his bullpen, which has another power arm in senior righty Jake Joyce (who can reach 94) as well as a resilient, reliable sidearmer in fifth-year senior Clark Labitan. Another senior, Tanner McIntyre, has made three starts this year but will move back to the bullpen this weekend, giving this ‘pen a deep group of veterans.
It might be Hughes’ best pitching staff since he’s been at Virginia Tech, and it gives
the Hokies a chance to keep Georgia Tech’s offense in check this weekend—but that will not be easy. Of course, it won’t be easy for Tech’s solid staff to hold down the Hokies, either.
“For most people that aren’t locked in on college baseball and following it, I would say Virginia Tech is under the radar. But they’re not under the radar for me,” Hall said. “We played some high-scoring games against them last year. Their ballpark, I know they’ve got new turf, but it sometimes can be very conducive to a lot of balls flying out of there. Myself or Pete Hughes will probably be holding our breath all weekend.”
Jacksonville’s Chris Anderson vs. Central Florida’s Ben Lively
Orlando will be a hot destination for crosscheckers and scouting directors Friday night, as these two power-armed junior righthanders go head-to-head. “It’s going to be one of the best matchups in the country that night from a pro standpoint, no question,” UCF coach Terry Rooney said.
There might not be a player in college baseball whose draft stock has spiked more this spring than Anderson’s. He struck out 13 over seven innings of one-hit, scoreless ball on opening day against Radford, and afterward one scouting director said he worked in the 90-96 range and showed four good pitches. He struck out 13 again last week against Texas Christian, allowing three runs (just one earned) in a complete-game victory. On the season, he is 1-1, 1.17 with a startling 35-4 strikeout-walk mark in 23 innings. Opponents are hitting .138 against him.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Anderson arrived at Jacksonville as a two-way player, and he spent his freshman year splitting time between hitting and working in the bullpen. But he focused on pitching as a sophomore, going 5-4, 4.48 in 88 innings over 16 outings (14 starts). Now he’s putting it all together.
“He’s the real deal—knock on wood and all that good stuff,” Jacksonville pitching coach Tim Montez said. “He’s really progressed over the last three years since he came in. He’s done a real good job mentally learning how to get past the things he can’t control. That’s probably one of his biggest improvements over the years is he doesn’t allow himself to get so emotional.”
It helps, too, that his velocity has jumped from the 88-91 range when he was a freshman into the 91-96 range now—and he throws downhill. He also has learned how to pitch with four quality offerings.
“He’s really developed a good changeup,” Montez said. “He throws a cuveball and slider that he can locate—I would say the slider’s his out pitch, and he can drop the curveball in to get-me-over early in the count, in case teams start being real aggressive on his fastball. It’s a lot like the progression that Matt Garza made with me at Fresno State. Matt and Chris were very similar as freshmen—when they got into trouble, they tried to throw harder instead of smarter. As they grew and developed, they learned how to change speeds.”
Rooney invokes another big leaguer’s name when he discusses Lively’s development: Cubs righthander Jeff Samardzija, whom Rooney coached at Notre Dame. Lively has pitched in the UCF weekend rotation since 2011, when he went 5-1, 5.05 in 16 outings (10 starts). Rooney said in the past, Lively would get himself into trouble with a couple of walks or a hit batsman, but he has always shown a knack for making big pitches to minimize the damage.
“I compare his competitiveness to Samardzija—those are two of the greatest competitors I’ve ever been around,” Rooney said. “Samardzija just knew how to rise up when the situation called for it, even if he created his own jam. Both are extremely athletic, similar builds, athletic and competitive, and early in their careers they created their own jams because of the lack of command, but they’ve always had a knack for getting out of it.”
Lively took a step forward last year, going 9-2, 3.00, but like Anderson he has been superb so far as a junior, going 3-0, 0.43 with 20 strikeouts and five walks in 21 innings. Like Anderson, Lively has a prototypical power pitcher’s build (6-foot-4, 211 pounds). Unlike Anderson, his velocity hasn’t made a huge jump since his freshman year; Lively still works comfortably in the 89-92 range and touches 93, which has been about his range since his freshman year. Like Anderson, his slider is a swing-and-miss weapon, and he has the ability to throw four pitches for strikes.
“He’s got all four of them, and the command of everything is really continuing to come,” Rooney said. “His slider’s his out pitch, there’s no question, but he’s got a lot of late life on his fastball, so he can use that late in the count too. The one pitch that is really emerging for him is the changeup. The first few years, the changeup was probably the third pitch, but it has come and he can throw it on both sides of the plate.”
Lively’s improved command of his entire repertoire has meant he hasn’t needed to pitch out of trouble as often as he used to.
“When you look at Ben and what he’s done since he’s been here, first of all he’s never really gotten hit. His stuff is electric,” Rooney said. “It wasn’t terrible command, just things here or there. The big difference this year is he’s eliminated the mistakes, truly working pitch to pitch. He really is the complete package.”
Maryland’s Jimmy Reed vs. Virginia’s Brandon Waddell
Assuming UVa. can clear its field of snow before Friday, the ACC’s opening day will feature an intriguing battle between one of the nation’s best senior lefthanders (Reed) and one of the best freshman lefties (Waddell). While Hughes said the Blacksburg area did not get any snow, Cavaliers coach Brian O’Connor said the Charlottesville area received about 10-12 inches of snow Wednesday, which could cause the series opener to be pushed back to Saturday, but he expressed confidence that the games will be played this weekend.
And the Reed-Waddell matchup should be a treat, whether on Friday or Saturday. These two southpaws have taken completely different paths to their respective roles as staff aces. Reed spent all of his first two seasons and half of his junior year as a reliever, finally moving into the rotation last April after he had racked up eight saves over the season’s first two months. Waddell, on the other hand, started his collegiate career as the Friday starter and quickly made a name for himself on the national stage, striking out 15 over six scoreless innings in his second start against Toledo.
At 6-foot-2, 160 pounds, Waddell is taller and more projectable than the 6-foot, 177-pound Reed. But they are similar in their makeup and in the quality of their current stuff.
Maryland coach John Szefc said Reed did not have his best stuff in his first two outings, though he more than held his own in a 1-0 loss at Louisiana State on Opening Day, then picked up the win a week later against Oakland. But he was at the top of his game in Week Three against Princeton, when he struck out 10 over six scoreless innings. On the season, he is 2-1, 1.50 with 21 strikeouts and six walks in 18 innings.
Reed’s fastball sits consistently in the 89-91 range, and he has incorporated a cutter into his repertoire, which also includes a solid curveball and changeup.
“I’d say his biggest assets are his mental toughness and makeup on the mound, but also he’s able to command the strike zone,” Szefc said. “You see a lot of prospects who are velocity guys—they might have one secondary pitch. You’re talking about a guy here who has three or four pitches with command and respectable velocity for a lefthander. He’s pitched in the Cape and pitched at a high level in the ACC for three years. He’s the kind of guy anybody would welcome on their pitching staff.”
Waddell might not have Reed’s experience, but his maturity has stood out since he set foot on Virginia’s campus.
“Coming out of fall baseball, he certainly was our most consistent pitcher. It was a pretty clear decision for us, as we moved into the preseason practice, that he was going to be our Friday starter coming out of the gate,” O’Connor said. “He’s certainly proved us right. He’s been really good and really consistent in his first three starts.”
Waddell followed his 16-strikeout game with six more scoreless innings against Harvard last week, improving him to 2-0, 0.54 with 27 strikeouts and five walks in 17 innings. Like Reed, he can run his high-80s fastball up to 90-91, and he mixes in a quality downer curveball and a solid changeup.
“He’s got really good stuff, but he’s got tremendous poise,” O’Connor said. “He’s a really good athlete on the mound—he actually hit for us in the fall. He’s very athletic and has a really good delivery that he repeats. It’s just really good pitchability. He controls the running game, fields his position really well. He’s not overwhelmed at all about that.”
It is tempting to compare Waddell to Danny Hultzen, another loose, athletic lefthander who experienced success from the outset of his career at UVa. O’Connor said Waddell does not have the consistent power stuff that Hultzen owned, but it is easy to envision him adding velocity as he fills out his skinny frame. And in another respect, it is fair to compare him to Hultzen.
“He’s got that kind of competitiveness and poise to him, certainly,” O’Connor said.
The same could be said of Reed.
“There’s a lot of intangibles there—he’s a mentally tough guy,” Szefc said of his ace. “He wants to stay in the game, he wants to grind out those tough innings as well as when he’s having success. He’s just a good, quality, polished arm.”
• Week Four’s best nonconference series pits No. 2 Vanderbilt against No. 15 Oregon in Eugene. This will be the first test outside the state of Tennessee for the Commodores, who have dominated their opposition during a 13-1 start. Vanderbilt’s stars have largely performed as hoped—led by lefthander Kevin Ziomek (3-0, 0.82, 33-6 K-BB in 22 IP) and righty Tyler Beede (3-0, 1.45) on the mound, and senior outfielder Connor Harrell (.362/.500/.766, 4 HR, 25 RBI) in the lineup. But Vandy has gotten a pleasant surprise from sophomore infielder Vince Conde, who leads the team team in hitting (.413) and slid ably from third base to shortstop after injuries sidelined Joel McKeithan and Dansby Swanson.
• California (5-7) and Fresno State (3-8) are both off to disappointing starts, and both teams got very bad news this week, losing sparkplug center fielders to injury. Fresno’s Jordan Luplow injured his left (non-throwing) shoulder diving for a ball Sunday against Southern California, and he will definitely miss this weekend and could be out an extended period. Campbell, who plays center field and second base, is out for the season after suffering a fractured tibia on a hard slide while turning a double play against Houston on Sunday. He is expected to make a full recovery in three months. Cal lacks roster depth, and losing an athletic catalyst like Campbell is a big blow.
“If Campbell goes down, if he’s hurt, that’s going to be a killer,” Cal coach David Esquer said Sunday, before the extent of the injury was known.
• Another injury note: South Carolina will be without ace lefthander Jordan Montgomery for at least the net two weeks because of a stress reaction in his throwing arm, just above his elbow. Gamecocks coach Chad Holbrook told reporters that while Montgomery would like return in time for the Arkansas series in two weeks, the Texas A&M series a week later is a more realistic target. In Montgomery’s absence, South Carolina announced righthander Evan Beal will start Friday while keeping Colby Holmes and Nolan Belcher in their Saturday and Sunday slots.
The Gamecocks don’t have a gimme this weekend, as Rider enters the series with a 6-1 record, coming off a road sweep at Radford. Senior lefthander Tyler Smith (2-0, 1.38) has handled the conversion from closing to starting with aplomb, and sophomore righty Kurt Sowa (2-0, 1.29) joins him to form a decent one-two pitching punch.
• Since starting the season 2-5, Baylor has won five of its last six heading into its series this weekend against Illinois. Cal Towey has powered Baylor’s surge, driving in runs in nine consecutive games, including six multi-RBI games during that stretch. But the player who makes Baylor go is senior outfielder Nathan Orf, who leads the team in hitting (.479) and on-base percentage (.561). The Bears used Orf in the No. 2 and No. 3 slots earlier in the season to get him some more RBI opportunities, but they slid him back to the leadoff spot—where he excelled last year—in the last week.
“He’s got a short stroke, he’s a good hitter,” Baylor coach Steve Smith said of Orf. “That’s all you can attribute (his strong start) to. He won’t hit .500 for the year, but he’s controlling what he can control right now, taking a lot of good at-bats.”
• The Dodgertown Classic is loaded with star power, as three of the four teams in the field are ranked. Friday night features a fine duel between UCLA’s Adam Plutko and Notre Dame’s Sean Fitzpatrick. The Fighting Irish will be the greatest challenge to date this season for Plutko, with legitimate firepower in the middle of the lineup in Trey Mancini and Eric Jagielo. Oklahoma ace lefty Dillon Overton will face Southern California on Friday, and hard-throwing righty Jonathan Gray will go up against UCLA’s Nick Vander Tuig on Saturday. The Irish and Sooners will face off Sunday at UCLA. I’ll be on hand this weekend with updates.