|San Diego at Pepperdine|
Pepperdine might have been the most talented team on the West Coast in 2007, with nine players who were drafted in June—including four players among the first five rounds. Those Waves rolled into their annual showdown against San Diego last April 27 ranked No. 13 in the nation and sitting tied with the Toreros atop the West Coast Conference standings at 10-2.
San Diego unceremoniously swept Pepperdine that weekend to take control of the WCC and send the Waves into a 5-9 tailspin. They wound up as the No. 3 seed in the Long Beach regional, where they went 0-2.
A year later, San Diego is in just about the same position heading into the Pepperdine series, with a 35-12 overall record, a 13-2 conference mark and a No. 8 ranking. The Waves, though, are unranked and trail the Toreros by three games in the WCC standings (one in the loss column). This year’s Pepperdine team is markedly less experienced—seven of last year’s nine drafted players signed pro contracts, and first-team preseason All-America righthander Brett Hunter has been limited to just 13 innings by an elbow injury. Yet for all of that, Pepperdine coach Steve Rodriguez feels even better about his team than he did a year ago.
|TOP 25 SCHEDULE|
|St. Mary’s at (1) Miami|
|San Jose State at/vs. (3) Stanford|
|(4) Arizona State at UCLA|
|(5) Florida State at Clemson|
|Louisiana-Lafayette at (6) Nebraska|
|(8) San Diego at Pepperdine|
|Utah Valley State at (9) Oklahoma State|
|Dallas Baptist at (10) Texas A&M|
|Mississippi at (11) Georgia|
|(12) Cal State Fullerton at UC Santa Barbara|
|(13) UC Irvine at Cal State Northridge|
|Northern Iowa at (14) Wichita State|
|Kansas State at (15) Missouri|
|Arizona at (16) California|
|Florida at (17) South Carolina|
|Louisiana State at (18) Kentucky|
|High Point at (19) North Carolina State|
|(20) Coastal Carolina at Georgia Tech|
|Ohio State at (21) Michigan|
|(22) Vanderbilt at Tennessee|
|(23) Oregon State at Washington State|
|West Virginia at (24) St. John’s|
|(25) Long Beach State at UC Davis|
|Off for Exams: North Carolina (2), Rice (7)|
“We lost some huge guys in Barry Enright and Danny Worth and Adrian Ortiz and Jason Dominguez. When you lose guys like that it’s tough to rebound, but at the same time we’ve brought in some amazing talent,” Rodriguez said. “The guys who we brought in have stepped up. This might be one of the more talented teams that we’ve had with regards to the depth on the mound and the defense and athleticism. We’re different but it doesn’t mean we’re worse. I actually think we’re better. This team has been able to sustain some success over the year, whereas last year we came out like barnstormers and there wasn’t a team we couldn’t beat, and by the end we couldn’t beat ourselves in intrasquads.
“I’ve said this to several people: This might be one of the more fun teams I’ve had to coach because of their willingness to do the things you ask them to do. Is it frustrating at times? Absolutely, because they’re so young, but they’re wanting to get it.”
Hunter hasn’t pitched since March 1 against Texas Christian and won’t pitch this weekend either, but he’s getting close to returning. Tests have revealed no structural damage in his elbow, rather a nick that simply needed rest to heal itself. Rodriguez said Hunter has felt good for the last three weeks and has wanted to start pitching again, but doctors advised caution, so the Waves are being cautious. He has begun throwing bullpen sessions recently, and the plan is for him to throw a couple of innings in relief next weekend against Portland, then slot back into the rotation the following week against Santa Clara.
In Hunter’s place, junior college transfer Nathan Newman (5-2, 2.92) has been very solid, though not as overpowering. Newman works in the 88-90 mph range with his fastball and has a solid curveball, but his competitiveness is his strongest attribute. The other two weekend starters, freshman lefthanders Scott Alexander (5-2, 4.45) and Matt Bywater (6-1, 4.70) have big-time arms and have learned on the job, though they’ve had their ups and downs.
But no matter how many freshmen the Waves rely upon, Rodriguez expects them to win—and it shows.
“I think they’re extremely well-coached,” San Diego coach Rich Hill said of the Waves. “Losing guys like Danny Worth and Adrian Ortiz, Barry Enright, Adam Olbrychowski—for them to lose all of that, have the injuries they’ve had and be where they’re at is amazing. It’s really a testament to the heart and the chemistry that the players have. They put on that Pepperdine jersey and that ‘P’ on the hat, and it’s like something happens to them. They rise above any time of adversity and play well.”
The Waves have newcomers in their lineup as well, but they also have talented veterans playing at a high level. Junior Chase d’Arnaud (.340/.429/.571 with seven homers and 40 RBIs) has made a seamless transition from third base to shortstop, and athletic junior Eric Thames (.403/.511/.812 with 13 homers, 56 RBIs and 10 stolen bases) has moved from mostly DH duties a year ago to center field and played at an All-America level.
“He’s doing an amazing job for us,” Rodriguez said. “We developed a new strength and conditioning program that we think has really helped him. He’s always been a big strong kid, but a lot of things in his swing were flawed in a way, and I think our strength and conditioning program has really helped him. He’s really improved his defense in center field by his hard work. He’s really developed a knack for making adjustments as the game goes on.”
San Diego, of course, has no lack of star power, and Hill has gotten the kind of elite performance he’s come to expect from his preseason All-Americans: lefthander Brian Matusz (9-1, 1.59 with a 99-18 strikeout-walk ratio in 74 innings) and lefthander/center fielder Josh Romanski (8-0, 4.00, 57-13 K-BB in 70 IP; .337/.429/.526 with six homers and 44 RBIs). The Toreros also have an elite sophomore closer in A.J. Griffin (1-1, 2.27 with 10 saves, 36-10 K-BB in 35 IP) and two of the nation’s most heralded freshmen in third baseman Victor Sanchez (.301/.367/.566 with 11 homers and 45 RBIs) and righthander Kyle Blair (5-3, 4.39 with a 77-28 K-BB in 55 IP).
But Hill gives much of the credit for USD’s recent 16-game winning streak (which ended Tuesday at Cal State Fullerton) to less ballyhooed players like outfielders James Meador (.370/.408/.562 with five homers and 46 RBIs) and Kevin Muno (.289/.385/.394); infielders Jose Valerio (.358/.404/.558) and Kevin Hansen (.350/.397/.444); and catchers Logan Gelbrich (.307/.366/.533 with seven homers) and Nick McCoy (.261/.388/.319).
“That’s the real story of our team,” Hill said. “You’ve got poster boys Matusz, Romanski, Sanchez and Blair, but the real story has been Valerio, McCoy, Muno, Hansen and Gelbrich. All five of those guys are recruited walk-ons and they’re all starting. Valerio is a redshirt junior, a local boy, who’s been behind some really good first basemen since he’s been here, and he’s just grinded it out. Nick McCoy came in as a 5-foot-10, 160-pound walk-on catcher who has lived in the weight room and bullpen, and when he’s gotten his chance, he’s been great. His quality at-bats have been unbelievable: he’s only struck out twice in 69 at-bats.
“Muno has stepped in and really done an amazing job—he really fits in with our system in terms of the offensive skills part of the game. The guy’s totally bought in, and made himself a .300 hitter. He doesn’t pass the look test—how he fields, how he throws, how he bunts, how he runs. But at the end of the day it’s a great productive at-bat, a great defensive effort, and he creates havoc on the basepaths.”
As usual, San Diego and Pepperdine are the class of the WCC, and this weekend is likely to decide which team gets home-field advantage in the best-of-three conference championship series. The Toreros and Waves are elite programs in Southern California, but that doesn’t preclude them from embracing a blue-collar approach. And that has an awful lot to do with their success.
|Marquee Mound Matchup|
|Bobby Gagg vs. David Duncan|
Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall chuckled when asked about his upcoming series against mid-major superpower Coastal Carolina.
“Pretty neat bit of scheduling on my part, huh?” Hall said. “I’ve known (Chanticleers coach) Gary Gilmore for a long time and have the utmost respect for him and his program. He has had us over there for the Baseball at the Beach tournament, we’ve gone over there and played before. Both of us had an open weekend, and I knew they’d be very good. For us it’s like having another ACC weekend where you have to be ready to play. I think they might be in first place if they were in our league right now, the way they’ve been playing. They’ve been one of those programs that’s been right on the edge of breaking through and getting to Omaha.”
As usual, the Chanticleers are perched atop the Big South with a 12-3 conference record to go along with a 37-9 overall mark and a strong Ratings Percentage Index (15). That puts them in position to earn a No. 1 seed in a regional for the second straight year, though they’re unlikely to host because of inadequate facilities and the unavailability of the nearby Myrtle Beach Pelicans’ facility, where they hosted last year. Coastal is leading the Big South in just about every significant offensive category, including batting (.313), scoring (7.4 runs per game), homers (57), stolen bases (75), walks (220) and even sacrifice bunts (56, which is fourth-most in the nation), so Georgia Tech’s strong pitching staff will have its work cut out for it. But the Chanticleers are also the best in the Big South in fielding percentage (.973) and ERA (3.72, 20th-best in the country), giving them a good chance to win any pitcher’s duel. Leading the way is Gagg, a junior righthander with excellent command of an 87-91 mph fastball, a very good feel for pitching and a nasty competitive streak. He’s gone 6-1, 2.33 with 44 strikeouts and just five walks in 66 innings.
Tech counters with Duncan, a 6-foot-8 junior lefthander who could go in the top two or three rounds of the draft in June. Duncan struggled with his mechanics early in the year but has gotten on track in his last few starts; on the year he’s 5-2, 3.84 with a 57-23 K-BB ratio in 66 innings.
“I think David has thrown very well his last couple outings—he probably has thrown the best that he’s thrown maybe the whole year the last two outings,” Hall said. “I think that does shape up as a great matchup (against Gagg). I know he’s going to have to pitch well in order for us to have a chance to win. The split’s been good his last couple outings, but he’s had great velocity his last couple. For him, that’s sitting a lot of 90s, 91s lately, and his control has been better.
“The biggest thing is he’s gotten his arm slot back on top of the baseball and he’s throwing the ball downhill again. When he throws to home plate and doesn’t pull off his pitches, he has good velocity, his control is good and his split is good.”
With the Yellow Jackets off this week for exams, there was speculation that Hall might move freshman righthander Deck McGuire (7-0, 3.25) into the weekend rotation in place of junior righty Eddie Burns (5-3, 5.17), who has struggled recently as he has gotten underneath the ball, causing his fastball and slider to flatten out. But Hall said Burns has been working to make mechanical adjustments to throw downhill more, like Duncan, and he had a very good bullpen session this week, so he will remain in the rotation. The other reason to do that is line McGuire up to face Georgia in one or both of Tech’s remaining midweek games against the Bulldogs. McGuire has already beaten Georgia once and has shown good command of a quality four-pitch mix all season.
“That’s a big reason he’s been a dominant guy midweek,” Hall said.
The Yellow Jackets will need all the quality starts they can get in their final 11 games against Coastal, Georgia, Clemson and Virginia. It’s a challenging closing stretch, but Tech could nail down a No. 2 regional seed and maybe contend for a No. 1 with a strong finish. It all starts with Friday’s showdown against Gagg and the Chanticleers.
|Texas vs. Baylor|
It would have been hard to imagine in the preseason, when Baylor and Texas were ranked No. 15 and No. 16, that these two perennial powers would find themselves on the NCAA tournament bubble as May begins. But that’s just where the Bears and Longhorns find themselves.
“We’ve got our backs against the wall and I think our guys are clearly aware of that,” Baylor coach Steve Smith said. “We’ve had a couple good ballgames this week and I think we’re in good shape to move forward this weekend and see if we can make some progress toward the end of the year, because we’re going to have to do that in order to be considered for the NCAA tournament.”
The Bears won a pair of midweek games against Texas-Arlington and Sam Houston State to improve to 27-20 overall, but they’re still just 9-12 in the Big 12. Their RPI (40) is in prime bubble territory, but Baylor’s biggest problem might be a lack of quality wins.
“I just know we’re three games below .500 in the league, I know what our overall record is, and I know for us to put ourselves in contention, short of having to win the conference tournament, we really need to do something in the next couple of weeks,” Smith said. “I thought the win against Nebraska on Sunday, along with the two wins at the beginning against Oklahoma State, that might be the only three wins we’ve got against any really good club. Texas is obviously a good club, regardless of what their record is right now, and we don’t have many opportunities left to win games against good teams, so this is a big opportunity for us.”
A big reason for Baylor’s lofty preseason expectations was the development of its ballyhooed 2006 recruiting class, which ranked as the nation’s best. But while righthanders Kendal Volz (3-4, 4.19) and Shawn Tolleson (4-3, 5.15) and hitters Aaron Miller (.303 with 10 homers), Dustin Dickerson (.320 with four homers), Shaver Hansen (.322 with five homers) and Raynor Campbell (.314 with three homers) have all shown flashes of their significant potential, their second year in Waco has not gone as planned.
“I have felt like I contributed to those expectations, because I had them too and I voiced them publicly,” Smith said. “I have thought about that through the season and it probably wasn’t fair. I certainly put them in a no-win situation. They are young. Yes, they are very talented, but they are young. What I’ve noticed is even when we’ve played teams that may have less long-term talent, less prospects, those guys are still pretty good, particularly on the mound. You get a guy on the mound who’s a senior, he may not have the future on the mound that some of these players have, but he’s got some moxie and he’s got some experience and he knows how to pitch. And those kind of guys can get you out.”
Of course, Texas has struggled to get outs just as Baylor has—the Longhorns’ 4.97 ERA ranks seventh in the Big 12 and 88th in the nation. That’s unusual for an Augie Garrido-coached team, and it’s a big reason the ‘Horns are just 27-18 overall and 10-11 in Conference, good enough for fifth place.
“It’s always about the pitching,” Garrido said. “Jim Leyland said it best at the beginning of the major league season: How well any team does finally becomes a reflection of the pitching. Everyone is capable of winning if the pitchers perform at a high enough level. That’s not to say I’m blaming the pitching for what has happened. We’ve had our share of shabby defensive play, and we have not handled the fundamentals of the game offensively or defensively in consistent detail.”
With a slightly higher RPI (34) and a few more quality wins on the resume (including single victories against Rice, Houston, Stanford, Missouri, Nebraska and Baylor), Texas’ regional hopes look brighter than Baylor’s. But Garrido said he believes his team is in the same boat as the Bears heading into this weekend’s series, which begins in Waco on Friday night before shifting to Austin for the final two games.
“I’m sure that Steve and the guys over there know that as well as we do,” Garrido said. “Our season’s been turned around in two weekends with Missouri and Oklahoma State back to back . . . Even though it isn’t a battle for first place and first place is not going to be decided in Waco or Austin this weekend, it is extremely important that both teams do as well as they can to advance to the regional championships.”
|Under The Radar|
While Baylor and Texas scrap for their postseason lives, another less-well-known Lone Star State power is cruising to a second straight regular-season conference title. Texas-San Antonio posted a 15-2 mark in April, including midweek wins against Baylor, Texas, Houston and fellow Southland Conference contender Lamar. At 33-12 overall, 17-4 in conference play, the Roadrunners are running away with the Southland’s West Division race. But then, that’s just what they did a year ago, going 24-6 before being toppled by upstart Sam Houston State in the conference tournament.
UTSA returned a number of key contributors from last year’s team who are hungry for a taste of regionals, including its stellar core of shortstop James Keithley (.368 with 13 steals), DH Tim Palincsar (.363 with eight homers and 49 RBIs), center fielder Michael Rockett (.389 with 22 doubles, seven homers and 59 RBIs) and first baseman Trent Lockwood (.327 with 11 homers and 60 RBIs). Those four players combined for 36 home runs in 2007 and have been every bit as potent in 2008, giving UTSA a dangerous top half of the lineup.
The Roadrunners also have good depth, which was put to the test early in the spring when senior shortstop Marshal Davis and junior righty Red Patterson were ruled academically ineligible for the season and junior infielder Lance Brown was lost for the year with a stress fracture in his back. But Keithley slid over to shortstop and has anchored the infield, and freshmen Ryan Hutson and Tyler Carpenter have emerged at second base and right field, respectively.
“I’m extremely pleased with the way we’ve played,” UTSA coach Sherman Corbett said. “We thought coming into this season that this could be our most talented team. It’s not exactly the team we had on paper at the beginning of the year. It’s a team that has the most depth since I’ve been here.”
The pitching staff was bolstered by the return of senior righty Steven Vasquez (7-2, 4.62) from Tommy John surgery. Vasquez was UTSA’s top starter for two years before missing all of 2007, and he has slid right back into the Friday starter role, showing good command of an upper-80s fastball and a somewhat newly developed slider. Early in the year, junior lefty Kris Ruepke (4-2, 5.05) was in the weekend rotation, but he got off to a slow start so the Roadrunners moved him into a midweek starter role, where he has given UTSA a chance to win every week against quality opponents. Sophomore righty Ryan Proudfoot (6-2, 3.66) replaced him in the rotation and has thrived by pitching off his outstanding changeup, which makes his mid-to-upper-80s fastball more effective. The other weekend starter is senior righty Bradley Chovanec (7-2, 4.71), a strike-thrower with a good sinker/slider attack.
Everything’s clicking right now for the Roadrunners, who have won 15 of 17 since starting the year 18-10. That hot streak began with a nine-game road trip in early April, during which UTSA went 7-2.
“At the beginning of the year, I wouldn’t say we struggled a lot, but I don’t think we were really reaching our potential offensively because guys were pressing a little bit because guys thought they were supposed to be really good,” Corbett said. “We went on that nine-game road trip, we kind of likened it to the Spurs going on the rodeo road trip where they’re gone for a month. That trip was tremendous. It started turning things around—guys got comfortable, confident, not only at the plate but on the mound as well.”
|Justin Smoak, 1b, South Carolina|
Even in an 0-for-4 performance Sunday against Louisiana State, Smoak hit the ball hard—he was robbed of a hit on a diving catch by shortstop D.J. LeMahieu and hit an opposite-field shot that was caught on the warning track. Other than that, he’s been near impossible to retire at all. Smoak went 6-for-8 with two homers on Friday and Saturday after hitting three homers Wednesday against Wofford. That was Smoak’s second three-homer game in eight days. In his last 10 games, Smoak is 21-for-42 (.500) with eight homers and 22 RBIs. In his last 20 games, he’s 35-for-79 (.443) with 13 homers and 29 RBIs, to go along with 14 walks and just four strikeouts.
The hot streak has raised Smoak’s overall numbers to .395/.512/.802 with 18 home runs and 51 RBIs. He is just two long balls behind Gordon Beckham for the national lead.
The Tigers have lost five in a row and six out of seven, putting their hopes to host a second straight regional in jeopardy. Missouri is 42nd in the RPI and just 9-9 in the Big 12, which puts them in fourth place. The Tigers played their second straight conference road series last weekend against Texas A&M and were swept, but this weekend they’ll return home to face Kansas State.
“It’s good to be home. We’ve been on the road for a couple of weeks now, and we’re looking for a shot in the arm to get ourselves going again,” Tigers coach Tim Jamieson said. “This is the time of year we need to start playing good baseball, and traditionally that’s what we’ve done. Hopefully we can crawl up into that top three position (in the league) and still put ourselves in position to host, but we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. It looks to me like a three-team race right now with us maybe being a spoiler.”
A few weeks ago, Missouri looked like a safe bet to host another regional, but its bats have gone cold. The Tigers allowed three or fewer runs in three of their last five losses, but they managed to score just three runs total in those games.
The low point came Sunday, when pitchers Ian Berger and Ryan Gargano and infielders Lee Fischer and Steve Gray were suspended a game after missing bed check the night before.
|Stat of the Week|
Josh Harrison’s batting average in Cincinnati’s three-game series against Louisville last weekend. Harrison, a junior second baseman, went 10-for-10 in the three games, and he kept on hitting in a pair of midweek games against Xavier, though he did finally record some outs. He’s riding a seven-game hitting streak into this weekend’s series against Rutgers, and he’s batting .667 (16-for-24) during that stretch. Over his last 13 games, Harrison has raised his batting average from .260 to .347. He’s also doing damage with his speed, racking up 20 stolen bases for a team that ranks ninth in the nation with 89 steals.
“He’s the most instinctual player we’ve had here since Kevin Youkilis left, and he reminds me a lot of him the way he plays,” Bearcats coach Brian Cleary said of Harrison earlier this spring. “He’s a great baserunner, a good runner—not unbelievable, but a great basestealer and a good runner. A lot of this comes to him very naturally—his older brother played baseball ant Kentucky and pro ball, his uncle is John Shelby, who played big league ball and coached with the Dodgers. He’s just a fun kid to coach because he just makes things look easy. I’d love to say we taught that to him somehow, but that’s not the case.
“He would not overwhelm you with tools—they’re not bad, but he has a very, very good idea how to play. He’s a line-drive guy with occasional power, but there’s been more power than I thought there’d be. He’s not very tall (5-foot-8), and he has a short, flat, quick swing. Some balls he hits just jump off his bat—he has sneaky power. And he’s stronger than he was.”
|Northern Iowa at Wichita State|
Perennial Missouri Valley Conference favorite Wichita State has some competition this year. Heading into this weekend’s series against Northern Iowa, the Shockers and Panthers have identical 11-4 conference records, while Missouri State is 13-5. Wichita State still has one of the nation’s best premier weekend rotations, with seasoned veterans Rob Musgrave, Aaron Shafer and Anthony Capra performing well. But Northern Iowa has enough bats to test those pitchers this weekend, led by outfielder Deric Manrique (.416 with 13 steals in 15 attempts) and Dane Embury (.366 with nine homers), shortstop Brandon Douglas (.399 with 21 doubles and 50 RBIs) and DH Chris Lopez (.319 with nine homers and 41 RBIs). One coach whose team has played the Shockers and the Panthers broke down the matchup.
“With UNI, they’ve actually got a pretty nice lineup up and down. Manrique’s a good runner, so he poses some threats at the top of the order with bunting, and if he gets on base he can cause some havoc. Brandon Douglas, Dane Embury and Chris Lopez give them some pop in the middle of the lineup. A guy who’s a little underrated is Brett Douglas, Brandon’s brother—he’s a tough out, a solid little baseball player. They’ve got a little bit of speed, a little bit of power, and a lot of guys who can be tough outs at times. They rely heavily on the big inning. They’ll get some momentum going and all of a sudden they’ll get on a roll.
“All three of their starting pitchers are very, very solid. Guido Fonseca is a solid righthander, a low-90s guy with a good slider. Taylor Sinclair is a funky lefty, he gives you a little different look, obviously he doesn’t throw quite as hard, but he’s got a little different arm slot. They’ve been using (Nick) Kirk on Sundays now, and he’s probably their best overall guy. The reason he’s on Sundays, he had a little bit of a forearm strain. He was their Friday guy, but strained his arm, I think he sat out a weekend, and they brought him back on Sundays. Their bullpen’s probably what they’ve got to shore up if they’re going to win the conference. At Southern Illinois this past weekend they let a game get away from them late. That’s probably their biggest hole right now.
“Obviously if it was at UNI it would make a big difference for them. Obviously Wichita is a solid club, they’re going to run out three real solid starting pitchers. But they have issues in the bullpen as well, I don’t know if they have a real knockout guy at the back. The Indiana State game got away from them on Sunday. They’ve got some issues in their pen, but their three starters are outstanding, they’re going to defend really well. They have a lot of lefthanded hitters, and that’s one thing that gives UNI a chance is two of their pitchers are lefties. I think UNI certainly has a chance. If Wichita can draw off its crowd out there it could make it a pretty tough deal for UNI. If they can go into Sunday 1-1, maybe they can steal one with Kirk, but you’ve got to think Wichita is pretty heavily favored.
“Some people might say that Capra might be the best one of the three. Pro-wise, I think Shafer’s the guy everybody’s talking about the most. Musgrave’s just a solid college lefty that knows how to pitch. Shafer is a projectable body, hard-throwing righthander. Capra has a good body and he’s lefthanded. All three of them are very tough, you’ve just got to hope you catch one of them on an off day. They all three pose different challenges.
“They had a few other guys last year in that lineup that helped. I think their leadoff guy’s outstanding in (Andy) Dirks. (Ryan) Jones is a solid two hitter, and they have (Conor) Gillaspie obviously, and after that it gets a little interesting. (Dusty) Coleman is not your prototypical four hitter, (Tyler) Weber has power but there are ways to get him out. Kenny Williams is in the mix there. But they don’t have that one guy you have to fear after Gillaspie, and that makes it tougher on Conor. Some of the guys after him, you can get them out if you show a few pitches. With Gillaspie, you have to execute and think a step or two ahead.
“For me, I think they’ve got to get that bullpen figured out if they’re going to make a run. They’ve got to figure out who can come in and close a game out for them. They haven’t really been scoring a ton in many of their games, so it’s not like they can really protect that situation by getting up eight or nine runs, especially as they begin playing better competition in the conference tournament, regionals and beyond. I don’t think they’re a team that will put up eight or nine runs in a big game like that.”
|In The Dugout|
|Kevin Rhoderick, rhp, Oregon State|
The Beavers are once again looking dangerous as the postseason approaches, and Rhoderick, their freshman closer, has a lot to do with their success. Using a mid-90s fastball that has reached 97 mph and a good 83-84 slider, Rhoderick has gone 0-0, 2.79 with nine saves and a 25-14 strikeout-walk ratio in 19 innings. Rhoderick talked about being part of one of the nation’s elite groups of freshmen, how he got to Oregon State and why he gets compared to “Bull Durham” character Nuke LaLoosh.
You guys are rolling along right now, having beaten Arizona State and Arizona in back-to-back weekends, but it took you a little while to gel. Did you expect there to be a growing process with all of these young players taking on key roles for you?
Well I was hoping it wasn’t going to be, but it’s kind of turned out to be. Our preseason schedule was so good, we played a lot of good teams early, so we knew we had to play well or we weren’t going to win games. We’ve all played against good talent, but Division I is a lot different than high school baseball. My experience from Day One is you’ve just got to wait until you get on a roll, you’ll see. When everyone gets going, we feel like we always have a shot. Last year’s team had a little lull in conference play, and after that UCLA series, they didn’t lose a game. So hopefully we can win a game this weekend, then win the rest of our games against the California schools.
Is it fun to be part of such a highly touted, talented freshman class along with Tanner Robles, Garrett Nash, Greg Peavey and Josh Osich?
We’ve all been friends for the last few years. Me and Peav have been playing together for Team USA for a while. Me and Robles and Osich, we all live together, and right next door is Peavey and (Jorge) Reyes. And we all have a lot of fun.
How do you compare and contrast each other off the field?
We’re all kind of different. Tanner’s a little reserved, doesn’t talk as much, still kind of quiet. Peavey came in a little more nervous, a little shy, I’ve kind of helped him open up more. We had a freshman initiation where we had to buzz our heads, and Greg Peavey’s hair hasn’t come in well, he really looks like a baby bird. So we give him a hard time about that. Robles loves to play video games, we like to hide his X-Box on him. Osich is from Idaho, it’s a little hard to explain, he’s just very Idaho. He’s just a little oblivious to the world.
I understand you’ve got your own little quirks too, like throwing your first warm-up pitch over the catcher’s head whenever you enter a game. How did that come about?
We were playing Georgia, I think I was a little too amped up and I just airmailed the catcher, 20 feet over his head. The fans enjoyed it, so I kept doing it, up until last week I messed up and hit the catcher in the chest. And then I gave up a run, so I’ve got to get back to doing it. I think it does loosen the nerves up a little bit. Coming into the ninth is a little stressful, it lets me know it doesn’t matter, I can do that and still be good.
Sounds like you’ve got a little Nuke LaLoosh in you.
Everyone’s kind of comparing me to that, I don’t know about that, but I’ll take that.
It seems like closers tend to be just a little off the wall. Do you have any other quirks?
I’m one of the most superstitious guys out there. I had the same undershirt on for the first so many outings, and I didn’t give up a run. Then I gave up a run, so I gave that up. I have to have Icy Hot, if I don’t have that, I’m done. I always have to have PB&J before I go out to the field. That kind of stuff.
You mentioned being amped up against Georgia. That’s pretty understandable considering you were originally committed there. Was it Joshua Fields’ return for his senior year that caused you to change your mind and head to Oregon State?
That was the main component. I was down there this summer hanging out with the guys, and I played a game for the East Cobb program. Me and coach (Jason) Eller, Georgia’s recruiting coordinator, we still talk, he’s one of my best friends. I was pretty good friends with Fields, and toward the end of the summer he was thinking he would end up back at school. It may sound a little selfish, but I wanted to pitch as a freshman. I had Greg Peavey, Tanner Robles, these guys I’m friends with, they’re all saying they’re going to school. So that helped a lot too.
Coming from Arizona, you probably never thought of Oregon State as a baseball powerhouse growing up. But now that you’re up there, just how bonkers are people up there for their Beavers?
Beaver Nation is probably the most fun group of fans I’ve ever been around. The fans in Georgia are fun, Arizona State has good fans, but we draw huge fans. When I come in the game, they’re on their feet, stomping, clapping. I know I feed off that.