|Georgia at Vanderbilt|
Vanderbilt knows what it’s like to be in Georgia’s position. A year ago, in fact, the Commodores were almost exactly where the Bulldogs are now: Vandy was 17-7 in the Southeastern Conference with two weeks left in 2007, and Georgia is 17-6-1 with two weeks left this year. The Commodores were the class of the SEC from start to finish last year, just as Georgia has been up until this point in 2008.
Now Georgia’s trying to do what Vanderbilt did a year ago: finish the regular season strong. The Commodores won five of their final six conference games in 2007 to win the SEC’s regular-season crown. All Georgia needs to do to clinch the title is win two out of three this weekend—at Vanderbilt. But if Vandy can come up with a sweep, the two teams will be tied for first place with one weekend left.
|TOP 25 SCHEDULE|
|(1) Miami at Virginia Tech|
|(2) North Carolina at Virginia|
|Loyola Marymount at (3) Arizona State|
|Savannah State at (4) Florida State|
|(9) Texas A&M at (5) Nebraska|
|(16) California at (6) Stanford|
|Houston at (7) Rice|
|(8) San Diego at San Francisco|
|Texas Tech at (10) Oklahoma State|
|(11) Georgia at (18) Vanderbilt|
|Pacific at (13) UC Irvine|
|Cal Poly at (12) Cal State Fullerton|
|(14) Wichita State at Evansville|
|(15) Missouri at Kansas|
|(17) South Carolina at Arkansas|
|(19) North Carolina State at Maryland|
|(20) Michigan at Minnesota|
|South Florida at (21) St. John’s|
|Mississippi State at (22) Louisiana State|
|(23) Kentucky at Tennessee|
|High Point at (24) Coastal Carolina|
|Texas-Pan American at (25) Texas Christian|
“They’ve played very good baseball and very consistent baseball right through the season, similar to how we played last year, and we’re right behind them,” Commodores coach Tim Corbin said. “I just look at it for us, the way the SEC’s been so topsy-turvy, one weekend can make you or break you. We’re in a pretty good situation right now, but one weekend can set you in a different situation. They’re entrenched in that first spot, and some teams will have to do some special things to overcome where they are. It’s good to have them in front of you knowing they’re the team to beat right now. They look like a very well-balanced team.”
Georgia coach David Perno lauded Vanderbilt’s deep lineup, which starts four seniors and standout juniors in Pedro Alvarez and Ryan Flaherty. But unlike in past years, Vanderbilt does not boast an edge on the mound.
“They’re tough, but we can match up,” Perno said. “I think it’s probably the first time since Tim’s been there that we match up pitching-wise with them. They’ve always had a better staff and always had a big star on their pitching staff. I think this is the first year since he’s been there that we’re pretty even and we might even have an edge because of our experience and a good closer in Josh (Fields). It’s going to be very tough, they’re playing with confidence, and they’re very good up there. Hopefully our veteran club will do the things they’ve been doing all year.”
For all the Commodores’ experience in the lineup, they’ve had to break in a fleet of fresh faces on the mound. But the staff behind steady sophomore ace Mike Minor (5-3, 4.00) has begun to stabilize during the last four weeks, and Vandy has gone 14-3 over that stretch to get back into the SEC title chase. Redshirt freshman righty Caleb Cotham (7-3, 3.64 with 71 strikeouts and 25 walks in 64 innings) has been even better than Minor at times thanks to a heavy fastball and the ability to throw his breaking ball and changeup for strikes. Junior righty Nick Christiani (5-2, 3.64), who relies heavily upon the late life on his fastball, has done a better job pounding the strike zone and solidified the No. 3 starter spot, though he missed his start last weekend with a pinched nerve.
Perhaps most importantly, the best arm on the staff has settled into an effective role. Junior righty Brett Jacobson (1-3, 5.91 with four saves) struggled mightily as a starter early in the year, as he put too much pressure on himself and struggled to locate his secondary stuff. But he’s settled into a sort of utility role in the bullpen, sometimes closing games and sometimes entering earlier in key situations. And he’s started to dominate the way a guy with a 95-98 mph fastball and a promising slider ought to.
“He’s a guy that threw hard from day one and now he throws harder, but the best thing about him was he’s learned to pitch with the velocity,” Corbin said. “He’s developed a lot that way, he’s no longer the grunt and throw. He’s got some savvy, some pitchability, some down angle. And now he’s got other pitches he can throw for strikes. He’s throwing the slider well and he’s got several offspeed pitches besides that. People asked questions about him early in the year, and we always said he works too damn hard, he deserves success.”
Speaking of guys who work hard, Alvarez has battled back from a broken hamate bone in his wrist and is starting to look like the guy who could go No. 1 overall in the draft in June. He blasted two home runs Tuesday against Memphis, giving him five on the season, and he’s raised his average to .303.
“What we were seeing the last four weeks is really 75 percent of what he really is,” Corbin said. “People who had never seen him before, I kept telling them, ‘You haven’t seen this kid hit, wait until he gets going.’ You take a bone out of someone’s hand, it usually requires some time off. It took some time; it wasn’t easy. He’s got a remarkable attitude, because even when he got hurt, he just went on about life like a kid who had none of these things in front of him. That was the most remarkable thing about how he handled himself. It was never a feel sorry attitude, he got right back into the dugout. Now he’s starting to turn it up.”
So are Vanderbilt’s pitchers, and that’s a dangerous combination for the rest of the country.
|Marquee Mound Matchup|
|Alex White vs. Jacob Thompson|
Don’t expect a lot of runs to be scored this weekend in Charlottesville, Va., where two of the nation’s top pitching staffs will clash at pitcher-friendly Davenport Field. North Carolina leads the nation in ERA (2.21), strikeouts per nine innings (10.1) and hits allowed per nine innings (7.37), while Virginia ranks in the top 10 in all three categories. This series will feature two of the front-runners for Atlantic Coast Conference pitcher of the year honors in UNC sophomore righthander White and UVa. senior lefthander Pat McAnaney, but they won’t face each other because the Cavaliers have moved McAnaney from the Friday starter spot back to Saturday. Junior righty Thompson will slide back into the Friday spot that he had occupied for the better part of the last three years before running into some adversity this year. Thompson, 21-4 his first two seasons, is just 5-2, 3.88 overall with 51 strikeouts and 27 walks in 60 innings.
“Thompson’s been up and down,” an American League area scout said. “I saw him early, and he was good, commanding his fastball and his secondary stuff; his fastball was 88-92. Then I saw him late in April, and his command had really gone backwards. It was 88-90 and up in the zone.”
After serving up a two-run first-inning homer to Yonder Alonso in his last start two weeks ago at Miami, Thompson settled down and retired 11 of the final 12 batters he faced. He held the nation’s most fearsome offense to three runs on three hits over six innings, and then he got two weeks off for exams to rest up for the home stretch.
White, though, is also fresh, having last pitched two weeks ago against another of the country’s best offenses, Florida State. White allowed only one hit in that start but still allowed three runs (two earned) after walking the bases loaded to start the sixth. But rather than imploding like he might have a year ago, White limited the damage and kept the Tar Heels close, and they exploded for 11 runs in the eighth inning.
“I couldn’t find the strike zone there in the sixth inning, I lost my mechanics for a few pitches and it cost me,” White said. “Last year, that inning could have been a lot worse. I feel like I’ve learned a lot, and I just get the ball down in the zone and let my guys play behind me.”
White has the best pure stuff in the ACC, with a fastball that regularly tops out at 95-96 and a devastating hard slider, helping him go 7-2, 2.13 with 61 strikeouts and 23 walks in 55 innings this year. He looks like he’s got the inside track on the league’s top pitcher honors, but McAnaney’s got a good case. The lefty is 4-2, 2.05 with an ACC-leading 80 strikeouts and 16 walks in 70 innings.
“I like him. He’s a finesse lefty, a strike-thrower,” the AL scout said. “He pitches at 86-90, and his curve and change are both average. His fastball is fringe-average. He’ll show you some 90s now and then, but he really knows how to pitch, and he’s very competitive.”
No conference has more talented teams than the Pac-10, but all that depth has created a muddle after the league’s top two teams, Arizona State and Stanford. Assuming California and Arizona are safe bets for regional bids on the strength of top-25 RPIs (through Sunday) and strong overall records (each is already past the 30-win mark), and assuming Southern California’s regional hopes were dashed last weekend when Washington swept the Trojans at Dedeaux Field, here’s a look at how the league’s other four regional contenders stack up:
Each of these teams has a different blemish on its at-large resume. Washington State has a strong RPI thanks largely to early series wins against mid-major conference leaders Wright State and Kent State and three wins at Oklahoma, but the Cougars have won just one conference series and are in last place in the Pac-10. The Beavers have racked up quality wins, including series victories against Georgia, Pepperdine, Arizona and Arizona State, but they’ve also run into a few rocky patches and are too close to .500 overall for comfort. The Huskies are in third place in the conference thanks to their sweep of USC and an early series win against Arizona, but their RPI is the worst in the league thanks to 10 games (all wins) against Holy Cross, Utah Valley State and Hawaii-Hilo. And UCLA has simply failed to put together any stretch of consistent play, resulting in a middle-of-the-pack RPI and a middle-of-the-Pac conference record.
Clearly, all four of these teams have work to do to secure regional berths. The margin for error is minimal for each, which means this weekend will be critical, as the Bruins visit the Beavers and the Cougars visit the Huskies.
Washington has the toughest road; even though the Huskies get the Cougars at home this weekend, they finish at Arizona State and home against Stanford. With that shoddy RPI, it’s easy to envision UW finishing in the top half of the conference standings and getting passed over for a regional bid by a team lower in the standings, like happened to Cal in 2005 and 2007. But these last three weekends do at least give Washington, led by junior righthander Jordan Merry (7-0, 2.15) and slugging outfielder Kyle Conley (12 homers), an opportunity to make a case.
Washington State’s road isn’t much easier; a gaudy RPI won’t save a team that finishes well below .500 in its own conference. Stanford earned a bid with an 11-13 conference record in 2006, and Oregon State got in despite a 10-14 mark in 2007, but those teams had powerful name brands and better non-conference resumes than Washington State has. For the Cougars to get back to .500, they’ll need to go 7-2 in their final three series—at Washington and UCLA, and home against USC. With a 12-12 conference mark, they could feel good about their chances.
The Bruins just need some quality wins, and the good news is the schedule presents opportunities to get them. The bad news is two of their final three series are on the road: trips to OSU and Cal are sandwiched around a home series against the Cougars. Winning two of those final three series should put UCLA in the top half of the conference standings and into a regional.
Oregon State has the best combination of a good conference record, good RPI, good name recognition and favorable schedule. The Beavers are home for two of their final three series—against UCLA and Pacific, with a winnable trip to Southern California in between. The two-time defending champs are in good position to get back into regionals for a fourth straight year, barring a May meltdown.
|Under The Radar|
The Bears haven’t been able to make regionals the last two years despite producing first-rounders on the mound each season, but they’ve got a shot of breaking through in 2008. Last year, Missouri State went 23-34 overall and 7-17 in the Missouri Valley Conference (tied for last place) even though lefthander Ross Detwiler was dominant en route to being selected sixth overall by the Nationals. The year before, the Bears went 33-22, 15-8 with Detwiler and righthander Brett Sinkbeil (the 17th overall pick by the Marlins that year) both on the roster, but finishing second in the MVC’s regular season standings and conference tournament wasn’t enough to secure an NCAA tournament appearance.
With an RPI in the high 60s, the Bears still need to win the MVC tournament this year to feel truly safe about a regional bid, but they’re building a decent at-large resume nonetheless. Not only is Missouri State 16-5 in the conference (a half-game ahead of Wichita State, though the Shockers have a one-game lead in the loss column), but it already has 33 wins overall. If the Bears can win out, they’ll have 39 wins entering the conference tournament, and 40 wins might be enough to secure an at-large bid in this year of widespread mediocrity across the country.
Close games were Missouri State’s bugaboo a year ago: the Bears were 6-19 in games decided by two or fewer runs, helping explain why Detwiler was just 4-5 despite posting a 2.22 ERA and a 110-38 strikeout-walk ratio in 89 innings. But this year the Bears are 6-3 in games decided by two or fewer runs, a testament to a veteran lineup that has produced plenty of timely hits and an improved bullpen anchored by junior righthander Matt Frevert (5-1, 3.42 with six saves). Frevert, who was limited to 12 dominant appearances in 2007 because of an elbow flexor muscle injury, works in the 90-91 mph range with a lively fastball and has a good slider.
The weekend rotation no longer has a first-round talent, but redshirt sophomore righthander Tim Clubb (8-0, 2.85 with a 70-24 K-BB ratio in 79 innings) has emerged as a quality ace. Bears pitching coach Paul Evans compares Clubb to former Bear and current Athletics farmhand Brad Ziegler, who helped lead the Bears to Omaha in 2003. Clubb has built up his strength since having ulnar nerve transposition surgery two years ago, and he now works in the 88-91 mph range early and the 86-88 range later. He also has a good slider and curveball and a very good feel for pitching.
The Bears also have a quality No. 2 starter in sophomore lefty Buddy Baumann (5-3, 4.65), who is a little undersized at 5-foot-10 but makes up for it with a competitive streak and a fastball with good armside run and sink.
Of course, it helps that the Bears haven’t had to play too many close games thanks to an offense that leads the Missouri Valley in batting (.322), home runs (47) and scoring (8.2 runs per game). Scrappy senior outfielders Ben Woodbury (.415/.480/.528) and Nolan Keane (.349/.455/.509) set the tone. At 5-foot-10 and 5-foot-9, respectively, Woodbury and Keane make up for their lack of size with their patient offensive approaches (they have a combined 55-30 walk-strikeout rate) and speed (a combined 20 steals in 28 attempts). The third outfielder, junior Ryan Mantle (.302/.372/.485), is a third cousin of Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle, and not surprisingly he runs and throws very well and shows big power in batting practice, though he struggles against breaking balls. Sophomore first baseman Ben Carlson (.407/.486/.712 with 14 homers and 57 RBIs) provides much of the pop in the middle of the lineup.
Missouri State is an experienced, balanced team, and it has played very consistent baseball—its only series loss was at Wichita State. However, its best non-league wins are against Oral Roberts and Dallas Baptist, while it’s 0-4 against the likes of Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri. Winning the MVC’s regular-season crown could make up for that blemish on the resume. After this weekend’s non-conference home series against Middle Tennessee State, the Bears will travel to Northern Iowa for their final conference series. In order to win the MVC title, they’ll need the Shockers to lose two of their final six conference games against lowly Evansville and Bradley, which seems unlikely. But if Missouri State can get hot and make a run through the conference tournament, the regular-season crown won’t matter.
With two weeks left in the regular season, it’s not Elon or College of Charleston or Western Carolina sitting atop the Southern Conference standings. Rather, it’s Furman, which has won a school-record 13 consecutive SoCon games to improve to 15-6 in league play. The Paladins, who were picked ninth in the league’s preseason coaches poll, haven’t been in first place this late in a season since 1976—the last time they won a SoCon regular-season title. At 29-17 overall, Furman is one win away from reaching the 30-win plateau for just the fifth time in school history. And the Paladins are doing it despite having just 6.5 scholarships at their disposal.
Leading the way for Furman is the best two-way player you’ve never heard of: junior outfielder/righthander Jay Jackson. Hard-core Baseball America readers might remember Jackson as the No. 2 prospect in the Great Lakes League last summer, when he commanded a 90 mph fastball that reached 93 and also showed above-average running speed and excellent athleticism. He’s done it all for the Paladins this spring, going 9-1, 2.59 (both best in the SoCon) with a 76-32 strikeout-walk ratio in 76 innings as the Friday starter and batting .319/.376/.602 with eight homers (tied for the most on the team) and 29 RBIs as a middle-of-the-order threat.
In last Sunday’s 11-9 win against Davidson, Jackson sustained a deep cut on his left (non-throwing) hand while sliding safely into home plate in the top of the ninth. The cut required five stitches and held him out of Furman’s two midweek losses against Charleston Southern and Clemson, but the Paladins were hopeful he’d be available to make his normal Friday start against Appalachian State.
As recently as April 13, the Volunteeers were 22-13 overall and 9-6 in the SEC, putting them in good shape to make a regional run. But Tennessee’s postseason hopes have faded quickly with series losses to Arkansas, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt over the last three weekends. The Vols carry a six-game losing streak into this weekend’s must-win series against Kentucky, which is tied with Tennessee for last place in the SEC’s Eastern Division at 11-13.
“We’ve got a big weekend, obviously, this weekend, and we’re not playing our best baseball of the year right now,” Volunteers coach Todd Raleigh said. “We’ve just got to turn the corner. If we can’t get fired up to play with what we’ve got on the line this weekend, we’ve got bigger issues.”
Early in the year, when Tennessee was off to a surprisingly good start with series wins against Louisiana State and Florida, Raleigh was cautiously optimistic, but he acknowledged that his team’s lack of depth could be a factor down the stretch. After the Vols took two out of three against Florida in early April, UT athletics director Mike Hamilton was understandably excited, but Raleigh was concerned. The Vols lost junior righthander Aaron Everett to a season-ending elbow injury in the finale against the Gators, and four days later their other bullpen anchor, sophomore lefty Jeff Lockwood, got hit on the middle finger of his left hand while trying to put down a bunt in practice, limiting his work on the mound. Up until that point, Tennessee was 8-2 in one-run games.
“The strength of our team was our bullpen at that point,” Raleigh said. “I think not having those guys has worn on us a little bit. I’m trying to close games out with guys throwing 82, 83, 84 miles an hour and not a lot of great stuff. I think mentally when a team fights as hard as it can, puts itself in position to win a game and can’t close it out, that takes a toll on us. Before that we were playing pretty good, the bullpen was our strength, but you lose two guys and it’s very difficult to overcome that.”
But despite the losing streak, Raleigh said nobody on his team has quit.
“I think we’re young, we have a new coach, one or two seniors, we’ve never been through this before,” Raleigh said. “Remember too, the coaches picked us to finish last (in the preseason), it wasn’t the media, the coaches did. We’re not exactly the most talented team in the SEC, so we’re struggling, but maybe we came out of the gates quicker than people thought. I don’t think we’ve quit, we’re still competing, but maybe just not competing enough.”
|Stat of the Week|
Trinity (Conn.) College’s record heading into this weekend’s New England Small College Athletic Conference tournament in Hartford. The Division III Bantams are the only undefeated team remaining in college baseball at any level and became the first D-III team in the modern era to post an unbeaten regular season after outscoring Wesleyan (Conn.) 25-2 during a doubleheader sweep last Saturday. Trinity has outscored opponents 323-81 on the year, out-hit opponents .339 to .206 and out-homered opponents 31-4; the Bantams have a 1.86 team ERA, and their opponents have a 9.14 mark. They’ve posted a .965 fielding percentage to their opponents’ .945. In short, Trinity has dominated in every phase of the game—and that’s how you go 34-0.
“You might want to try to go out and win them all, but in baseball you never expect to do that,” Bantams coach Bill Decker said. “This is just one of those special groups that’s had a special year. I think our biggest strength is that we have stayed together as a squad. You’re going to get those kids that have more innings and play more than others, and this group has really just pulled for one another. We haven’t had any of those internal problems that no coach wants to deal with. We’ve pitched it and played pretty good defense, so that has kept us in and won a few ballgames for us. And we can put a few runs on the board, I guess. Our run differential is just crazy.”
Want more crazy numbers? How about ace righthander Tim Kiely’s line: 8-0, 1.45 with a 66-1 K-BB ratio in 62 innings.
“There are no mistakes with those numbers,” Decker said of Kiely’s otherworldly strikeout-walk rate. “He’s a pretty good one.”
Kiely, the best prospect on the team, commands his 88-89 mph fastball to all quadrants of the strike zone and has a hard, tight slider and a changeup with good fading action. Trinity’s other top three pitchers—righthanders Chandler Barnard (8-0, 2.03), Michael Regan (7-0, 1.34) and Jeremiah Bayer (6-0, 1.30)—all share Kiely’s aggressiveness and ability to pound the zone, though only Barnard has stuff that compares to Kiely’s.
The offense has some power courtesy of junior catcher Sean Killeen (.409/.541/.678 with six homers and 37 RBIs) and stellar sophomores Kent Graham (.416/.520/.712 with seven homers and 47 RBIs) and James Wood (.379/.490/.681 with nine homers and 43 RBIs). Decker said that group of players gained valuable experience last year, when the Bantams missed the NESCAC tournament but still earned an at-large berth to regionals, where they won a pair of games, including one against top seed Cortland (N.Y.) State.
The Bantams will soon be making their seventh regional appearance in 11 years, including trips to the Division III College World Series in 2003 and ’05. This year, Trinity is poised to fare better in Appleby, Wisc., than it did in its two previous appearances, and a national championship is within reach.
“I think with this group, we’re on target with what we wanted to do, and I’m not talking about being 34-0,” Decker said. “We really wanted to get back and host our (conference) tournament, which has happened. Regardless of this weekend, they’re not going to keep us out of a regional. The kids have done a great job, they’ve stayed focused. If you talk to them, (winning a national championship) is their goal, but I don’t want to get too far ahead. I just want to play well this weekend and in the regional, and then who knows?”
The Red Storm has taken the Big East by storm, winning its last six games and 11 of its last 12 to build a one-game lead over second-place Notre Dame. The Johnnies have climbed to No. 21 in the rankings, their highest position since being ranked 14th in May of 1981—the first year of the Baseball America top 25. St. John’s has confirmed plans to submit a bid to host a regional, and with a mid-30s RPI and 37-10 overall record, hosting is a real possibility. Pitching is the Red Storm’s strength: lefthanders Scott Barnes (5-3, 4.34) and George Brown (9-0, 2.74) and righty Jared Yecker (3-1, 4.35) make for a strong weekend rotation, and all three are good prospects for the 2008 draft. St. John’s also has two other good prospects in the bullpen with closer Colin Lynch (2-1, 2.82) and middle reliever Justin Gutsie (4-3, 4.12). Two AL area scouts who have seen the Johnnies, including during last weekend’s sweep of West Virginia, weighed in on them:
“That might be one of the best-coached teams in the country. St. John’s can’t get the top recruits up here like (Quinton) Miller and (Jason) Knapp (who are both going to North Carolina), but what they do get, they make better. They coach, they teach, they motivate, and the kids look like they’re having fun. That’s how you’re supposed to do it.
“Barnes made himself a lot of money Friday night. He was 90-92. Last year he was 85-89, now he’s 89-92. He’s got a good slider, a solid-average slider. He flips this little curveball out there, a slower version of a slider. He competes. There was some emotion Friday night. I don’t think he’ll ever have perfect mechanics, he’s got his quirks, but I think that adds to his deception.
“Yecker doesn’t really have an out pitch. But it’s a good body (6-foot-6), and he’s in the low 90s. He doesn’t have much of a secondary pitch, that’s what’s going to hurt him.
“Brown is having a good year, he’ll be drafted. He pitches around 84-86, tops out at 88. He’s an 84-88 guy, but he has a real good changeup. He commands real well, his curveball is about a 40 (on the 20-80 scouting scale)—he doesn’t have a lot of stuff, but you could send him out and he’ll have some success early.
“I wouldn’t say they stack up favorably with the big powers, but they play fundamentally sound ball. They play hard, and I think they can make some noise in the tournament. There’s no middle of the order guy that you’re scared of. There’s nobody to fear in the order. But they do hit and runs, they get timely hits, they’re good at getting a man in from third with less than two outs—that kind of team.”
|In The Dugout|
|Blake Stouffer, 2b, Texas A&M|
Stouffer hit .398/.487/.668 with 12 homers and 85 RBIs last year for Texas A&M, but his senior year has been more of a trial. A fourth-round pick of the Reds last June, Stouffer elected to return to Texas A&M and learn to play second base, where he profiles better in professional ball. He got off to a slow start this spring but has recovered in the second half, improving his overall line to .271/.375/.365 with 14 homers, 31 RBIs and five stolen bases in seven attempts. His turnaround coincided with Texas A&M’s surge to the top of the Big 12 standings. The Aggies have won 15 consecutive conference games and carry an 18-3 record and a 2 1/2 game lead over second-place Nebraska into this weekend’s showdown in Lincoln. Stouffer talked A&M’s relentless offense, the program’s rise to prominence and his own past and future, In The Dugout.
You guys won another slugfest this week against Sam Houston State, and here you are with an even better record than you had at this time last year. Is this the best offense you guys have had in your four years at Texas A&M?
I would have to say it is. I think we’re very dynamic; top of the order to the bottom of the order we’ve got guys who can hit, hit for power, hit for average, and steal bases, so it puts a lot of pressure on the defense. I would definitely say this is the most explosive offense we’ve had here. Kyle Colligan is a great leadoff hitter, he gets on base all the time and he’s scoring tons of runs. Then we have guys in the middle of the order like Dane Carter, Jose Duran and Luke Anders who have been killing the ball all season. Everybody’s embraced their role on the team, and that’s the reason we’ve had so much success. Everybody’s doing their part.
You used the word “pressure,” which seems to be a big part of what you guys do there. I’ve heard Coach Childress say your offense doesn’t leave opponents time to catch their breath. Are you guys just coached to never take your feet off the accelerator?
That’s the way they’ve coached us since they came in three years ago. Our job as an offense is to get on base and create havoc by stealing bases. By doing that it gives our hitters a lot of fastballs because the pitchers are worried about us stealing bases. We have a “never let up” attitude, and we’re going to put pressure on you from first out to the last out.
You’ve seen quite a transition at A&M in your four years—in fact last year you won 23 more games than you did in 2006, the biggest turnaround in Division I history. Just how far has this program come since the current coaching staff arrived before your sophomore year?
It’s come a long way. The first year we were here, it was just a bad year overall. It was a tough transition, and our season showed that it was a tough year, we were 25-30-1, nobody enjoyed being out here, just a bad year overall. Once everybody kind of bought into the coaches’ philosophy and really selling out to this program, we’ve had great success from it. A&M baseball is finally back to where it needs to be: one of the elite programs in the nation.
Last year, of course, you guys advanced all the way to super-regionals before falling just short of Omaha. What was that whole experience like for you?
It was great, especially to be one of the guys that had to go through the tough times the previous two years going through the change. Then to finally have some success and make it to a super-regional was a great feeling, and at the same time I feel like we have a lot more to accomplish this year. Looking back at last year it was a building block for this program. Being two games away from Omaha gave us a taste of what the postseason’s all about and how good we actually were last year. That definitely has kind of lit a fire under our bellies to go out this year and really lay it all on the line.
When you look back at what you accomplished individually last year, leading the nation in RBIs, do you ever just shake your head in disbelief?
Sometimes I do, it was a magical year. But that’s the type of player I see myself as regardless of whatever numbers I put up, that’s the type of player I am. A lot of things have to go right to drive in that many runs. I’m in a little different role this year, I’m more of a setup guy, letting Jose and Dane drive in the runs, which is fine. I’m embracing my role this year.
You were a fourth-round pick last June, and usually guys who are drafted that high tend to sign. Did you get close to signing?
My decision came down pretty close to the deadline. It kind of came down to the wire. I knew either way it was going to be a good decision. Pro ball’s a great thing, something I want to do this year, but at the same time I had a great program to come back to, and pro ball was definitely on my mind, but my main goal was I wanted to go out on top and win a national championship. That was the driving force for me coming back. I think we’re going to have a great shot to make that happen.
Early on this spring, it looked like you were struggling, but it seems like you’ve picked it up in the second half. What’s been the difference?
I started out a little slow, I think I was maybe putting too much pressure on myself. I figured out a few things physically I was doing with my swing. But the main thing was getting my confidence back, not putting too much pressure on myself, letting the guys around me do their thing. I feel like myself again. I had changed my stance up a little bit, kind of letting my stance free up. I was maybe trying to kill the ball while I was up there. I needed to just kind of let the game come to me, not chase pitches.
You’ve also had to learn a new position this year, and reports are you’ve adjusted very well to second base. Do you like it there?
Yeah, I do. I think it’s probably the most suitable position for me, it lets me use my range and kind of allows me to be an athlete out there, which I like.
So now you’ve won 15 conference games in a row heading into a big weekend against Nebraska. Does it kind of feel like everything you guys touch turns to gold lately?
It kind of does feel like that. We’ve won some close ballgames, and the mentality we have, we don’t let up until the last out. When you’ve got the momentum on your side like we do, you find different ways to win. I know it’s going to be a very competitive weekend. I know Nebraska’s got a great team like they always do. They’re going to have a great crowd out there, but this is what we play for, getting a chance to play Nebraska, knowing they’re second in the conference. We’re excited about it and ready to go get after it this weekend.