With eight weekends in the books and seven to go before Selection Monday, it’s time to present our annual Midseason Report in lieu of the usual Weekend Preview. Let’s hand out some awards.
Player of the First Half
A.J. Reed, 1b/lhp, Kentucky
Reed might deserve this award for his offensive contributions alone. Through eight weeks, he ranked second in the nation in home runs, fourth in RBIs, third in slugging, sixth in total bases and 15th in on-base percentage. By a landslide, he has been the most dangerous hitter in the nation’s best conference. And he’s also been one of the top Friday starters in the rigorous SEC, going 6-1, 1.93. It’s hard to imagine a player being more valuable than that. And he’s doing it for the No. 12 team in the country.
“It’s a pretty good package isn’t it?” Kentucky coach Gary Henderson said. “We’re real fortunate to have him. He’s changed his body, he’s competing at a high level. No matter how well you’re going, the game’s going to present failure to you, and he’s handling it well. He’s got a real mature approach and perspective, so that part has been good.”
For more on Reed, check out Jim Shonerd’s profile of him and teammate Austin Cousino from earlier this spring.
Pitcher of the First Half
Aaron Nola, rhp, Louisiana State
At this stage of his college career, Nola’s weekly excellence is a given. He is mind-bogglingly consistent—a pre-eminent strike-thrower who never seems to have a bad outing. Certainly, he has been unblemished through eight weeks, going 6-1, 0.47 with 71 strikeouts and just 11 walks in 57 innings. He set the bar high last year, when he went 12-1, 1.57 with a 122-18 K-BB mark in 126 innings as a sophomore, but he is on track to clear that bar.
“His consistency is unbelievable, and you have to fight yourself from really taking it for granted,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “The only thing that concerns me about the way he’s perceived by people is that because he has such great control, people perceive him as a crafty, knows-how-to-pitch guy. But he’s throwing the ball 93-94 with pinpoint accuracy, and can get up to 95.”
That’s what really makes Nola special: his fastball is plenty firm, and his ability to locate it is uncanny.
“He’ll be anywhere from 88-94, but he’ll use both sides of the plate, get ahead in the count and expand a little bit for a purpose,” one scout told BA in March. “Nola’s like, ‘OK, I’m going to go two inches off the plate here with purpose.’ . . . If Nola’s got a guy in a 1-2 hole, and he sees him leaning on a slider away, he’ll purposely go an inch in with a two-seamer and run it in, start at the black and run it in.
“Nola’s not a finesse guy, but he can really dissect the plate, and he can manipulate the baseball with purpose. Intent. With pitcher’s savvy.”
Nola said he’s always been able to command his fastball—a skill he developed playing catch with older brother Austin in the backyard years ago, when they could challenge each other to throw the ball right to each other’s chests without moving their gloves. But a key part of Nola’s development was learning when not to throw strikes.
“I’d say my freshman year, I think I threw too many strikes,” he said with a chuckle, “and I got hit around a little bit. As each year goes on, I learn that there needs to be balls out of the zone in certain counts, for the better. If you keep throwing too many strikes, guys are going to catch on, and eventually they’re going to hit you.”
Nola went 7-4, 3.61 as a freshman, with an 89-7 K-BB mark in 90 innings. Austin Nola was a senior shortstop on that team, and Aaron said he learned a lot by playing alongside his brother.
|TOP 25 SERIES|
|(1) Florida State at Georgia Tech|
|(14) Clemson at (2) Virginia|
|Arkansas-Little Rock at (3) Louisiana-Lafayette|
|(4) Cal Poly at Hawaii|
|(15) Florida at (5) South Carolina|
|(6) Oregon State at Washington State|
|(7) Texas at Oklahoma|
|(13) Louisville at (8) Houston|
|Stanford at (9) Washington|
|Auburn at (10) Alabama|
|Texas A&M at (11) Vanderbilt|
|Missouri at (12) Kentucky|
|Arkansas at (16) Louisiana State|
|(19) Mississippi at (17) Mississippi State|
|(18) Cal State Fullerton at (22) UC Santa Barbara|
|San Jose State at (20) UNLV|
|(21) Rice at Tulane|
|Morehead State at (23) Indiana|
|Pittsburgh at (24) Miami|
|UC Riverside at (25) Oregon|
“He would tell me what I was doing wrong, he would teach me,” Aaron Nola said. “It was good for me because I would learn from a hitter’s perspective also. He would actually catch my bullpens and tell me what I was doing wrong and right, what I needed to work on. That helped me look at it in a different way.”
Both Nola brothers stand out for their control of their emotions, but their personalities are different.
“Austin was like the altar boy, the poster child for our program,” Mainieiri said. “I think Aaron’s probably got a little more edge to him, but Austin keeps him humble. Austin’s like the typical older brother; whenever he thinks Aaron’s getting a little carried away with himself, Austin puts him in his place . . . They have a lot of the save values. I think Aaron’s a little more fun-loving, a little more talkative probably than Austin. But all in a positive way. He’s really an outstanding young man.”
Nola is likely to be drafted in the top half of the first round this June, with a solid chance to go inside the top 10 picks. Whoever drafts him will be getting a high-character pitcher with a track record unmatched by any other current college pitcher. And he has become a complete pitcher with a pair of quality offspeed pitches in his three-quarters breaking ball and changeup. He was able to dominate with just his fastball and changeup when he was younger, but he has gotten more and more comfortable with his breaking ball under pitching coach Alan Dunn’s tutelage at LSU.
“When I got here, it was OK; it was average,” Nola said of the pitch. “But we’ve definitely worked on that a lot each fall, each year. I’m throwing it harder, have more command of it, and I’m definitely more confident in it than I was two years ago and last year. I kind of struggled with my changeup here and there last year, but I’ve always pitched off my fastball. That’s what you have to do to progress and make it to the next level—pitch off your fastball. But having that third pitch has opened up so much for me.”
Nola’s dominance may be old hat, but LSU coaches and fans are going to savor the rest of his final spring in Baton Rouge.
“I’ve had some really special pitchers in my coaching career,” Mainieri said. “I’ve had Kevin Gausman and Louis Coleman here at LSU. When I was at Notre Dame I had Jeff Samardzija and Aaron Heilman and Brad Lidge. But I would rate this kid right up there with the very best of them. He has everything you would want in a pitcher.”
Freshman of the First Half
Keegan Thompson, Auburn
Thompson arrived at Auburn with sky-high expectations and has largely lived up to them. As the Tigers’ Saturday starter, he is 5-1, 1.71 with 43 strikeouts and 15 walks in 58 innings. He hasn’t made as much of an impact with his bat as Auburn expected, but he is a winner whose presence has helped Auburn land in the thick of the SEC race.
“He’s as good as I’ve ever seen as far as a freshman,” Auburn coach Sunny Golloway said in our Week Six Golden Spikes Spotlight on Thompson. “Everybody wants to make a comparison between (last year’s No. 3 overall pick and former Sooner) Jonathan Gray and Keegan. What I tell them is at the same time, he’s further along than Jonathan Gray because he has tremendous fastball command. Gray had a lightning arm but didn’t have as good fastball command. Then Keegan’s got a good slow breaking ball and an outstanding slider, so we can go backdoor slider when we want to, then we can come with that looper. He’s got two different breaking balls, then he’s got a really good changeup. With all that working for him, he’s just a pretty special guy.”
Breakout Team of the First Half
Pacific-12 Conference coaches picked Washington to finish 10th in the 11-team league heading into the season. The Huskies haven’t posted a winning record in the Pac since 2004. So it’s a big deal that Washington sits alone atop the Pac-12 standings at 10-2, having opened conference play with four straight series wins against Arizona State, Arizona, Southern California and Oregon. The Huskies are ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 2005, back when Tim Lincecum was in their rotation.
“Nobody obviously expected anything from us. And our guys were aware of that, and have used that as motivation,” Washington coach Lindsay Meggs said in our Weekend Preview two weeks ago.
The Huskies are experienced and balanced, and they look like a legitimate threat to host a regional at brand-new Husky Ballpark this June. And nobody saw that coming.
Most Compelling Storyline of the First Half
Virginia lefthander Nathan Kirby delivered the most impressive individual performance of the first half last week at Pittsburgh, striking out 18 in a no-hitter. It was the 10th no-hitter of the 2014 season.
There were two other particularly notable no-hitters in March. On March 23, Stony Brook senior righthander Frankie Vanderka threw the third no-hitter of his career in a 7-0 win against Albany. And on March 4, Miami’s Javi Salas threw a perfect game against Villanova. It was just the 23rd perfect game in Division I history, in records dating back to 1957.
Quick Takes on Week Nine Action
There are five series between ranked foes this weekend:
• (13) Louisville at (8) Houston: The most important series of the year in the American Athletic Conference, pitting two teams that have regional hosting aspirations; the team that wins the series will be in the catbird seat.
• (14) Clemson at (2) Virginia: Tigers hope to rebound after losing home series vs. N.C. State, while Cavs aim to remain unbeaten in weekend series.
• (15) Florida at (5) South Carolina: Both teams are coming off road series losses but head into the series tied atop the SEC East standings.
• (19) Mississippi at (17) Mississippi State: Magnolia State rivalry series has important ramifications, as both teams jockey for regional hosting position.
• (18) Cal State Fullerton at (22) UC Santa Barbara: Gauchos dropped a hard-fought series at Cal Poly last weekend and could find themselves in trouble in Big West race with a third straight conference series loss. Fullerton needs to get hot to boost No. 57 RPI and have chance to host.
|MIDSEASON ALL-AMERICA TEAM
|C: Connor Joe||San Diego||(.394/.484/.621, 5 HR, 30 RBI)|
|1B: Casey Gillaspie||Wichita State||(.393/.497/.697, 9 HR, 33 RBI)|
|2B: Jace Conrad||Louisiana-Lafayette||.379/.452/.644, 6 HR, 39 RBI, 14 SB|
|3B: Ty France||San Diego State||(.388/.469/.603, 4 HR, 30 RBI)|
|SS: Vince Conde||Vanderbilt||(.336/.441/.473, 2 HR, 24 RBI, 6 SB)|
|OF: Joey Epperson||UC Santa Barbara||(.462/.544/.615, 3 HR, 20 RBI, 11 SB|
|OF: D.J. Stewart||Florida State||(.384/.496/.687, 6 HR, 26 RBI)|
|OF: Bradley Zimmer||San Francisco||(.430/.497/.711, 7 HR, 24 RBI)|
|DH: Michael Katz||William & Mary||(.409/.484/.796, 13 HR, 57 RBI)|
|UT: A.J. Reed||Kentucky||(.373/.500/.771, 12 HR, 41 RBI; 6-1, 1.93)|
|SP: Aaron Nola||LSU||(6-1, 0.47, 71-11 K-BB in 57 IP)|
|SP: Brandon Finnegan||Texas Christian||(5-2, 1.60, 80-15 K-BB in 56 IP)|
|SP: Matt Imhof||Cal Poly||(6-2, 1.96, 81-19 K-BB in 55 IP)|
|SP: Ben Wetzler||Oregon State||(6-0, 0.38, 35-13 K-BB in 47 IP)|
|RP: Ryan Thompson||Campbell||(4-0, 0.19, 50-12 K-BB in 48 IP, 8 SV)|