Weekend Preview: Rejuvenated Vegas, Vols Meet in Knoxville

Neither Tennessee nor UNLV has made a regional since 2005. But in the last few years, new coaches have taken over both programs and injected them with life, and hope. Expectations are starting to build, and this weekend’s series between the two in Knoxville will match up two talented, confident 4-0 teams with real chances to make some noise this year.

TOP 25 SERIES
East Carolina at (1) Virginia
San Francisco at (3) Cal State Fullerton
Georgia at (4) Florida State
Eastern Kentucky at (5) South Carolina
Appalachian State at (6) North Carolina State
Holy Cross at (7) Mississippi State
Illinois-Chicago at (9) Vanderbilt
(11) Oregon at Loyola Marymount
(22) Cal Poly at (12) UCLA
Maine at (13) Clemson
(14) Louisiana-Lafayette at Southern Mississippi
Purdue at (15) Rice
(23) Florida at (16) Miami
Xavier at (17) North Carolina
Stanford at (18) Texas
Western Michigan at (20) Louisville
Stephen F. Austin State at (21) Alabama
Sacramento State at (24) Texas A&M
Eastern Illinois at (25) Arkansas

UNLV’s rebuilding project picked up steam in head coach Tim Chambers’ third season last spring, as the Rebels won 37 games, their most since 2004. The Volunteers are coming off a 22-win season in Dave Serrano’s second year at the helm, but Serrano’s staff has brought in back-to-back strong recruiting classes, giving Tennessee one of the most exciting young cores in college baseball.

“I think these are two programs that have had the same amount of years of recruiting, with the changes in coaching staff, and I feel like we’re kind of on the same course—one in the South, one in the West,” Serrano said. “It’s a different aura, a different confidence level from this team. I think this team realizes we now have the ability to match up with most people in the SEC. We don’t know that yet, but we definitely fit the part. We’re pretty physical and pretty athletic. What’s amazing is we’re probably 80 percent freshmen and sophomores. A lot of people have said, ‘Boy, your guys’ bodies are strong, they’re fit, they’re athletic.’

“This coaching staff’s had many years of experience and a lot of success. I think we recognize when we have good players, we’re not just looking through rose-colored glasses.”

The Vols and Rebels have different roster makeups; UNLV is experienced on the mound while Tennessee is very young. Though the Rebels have experienced hitters and good depth, they stand out for their firepower on the mound; the Vols stand out for their firepower in the lineup.

UNLV allowed two or fewer runs in three of its four games against Mid-American Conference favorite Central Michigan last weekend. Second-team preseason All-American Erick Fedde was dominant on Friday, striking out 11 over 7 1/3 innings of one-hit, shutout ball. His secondary slider and changeup have continued to get better over the course of his career, and both were effective complements to his lively fastball last week. He reached 95 mph with good arm-side run, and he was efficient.

Erick Fedde (Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode).

Erick Fedde struck out 11 in his 2014 debut. (Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode).

“He pounded the zone, too,” Chambers said. “That was one thing we said to him: ‘You’ve got to quit nit-picking, get yourself 0-2 and then full count, 0-2 and then full count.’ He had no walks and no hit batters, only one baserunner. He just continues to get bigger and stronger, and his velocity keeps going up.”

Junior righty John Richy has made a similar progression in his three years at UNLV after the Rebels discovered him as an unheralded Colorado high schooler who planned to join the Merchant Marines. Richy has always featured good secondary stuff, but he has lost about 25 pounds since he arrived on campus, helping his velocity climb. Now he can bump the mid-90s, too. Richy allowed just two hits over his 7 1/3 strong innings last week.

Bryan Bonnell and Kenny Oakley give the Rebels two more quality starting options who can reach the low 90s and pound the strike zone. Bonnell and lefthander Brayden Torres have flourished since ditching their curveballs and focusing on split-fingers. Torres has the ability to start, but he appears to have found a home at the back of the bullpen, where he has worked 4 1/3 scoreless innings over two appearances to start the year.

In its season-opening three-game set against Purdue, Tennessee started three pitchers who had never thrown a college inning: freshmen Hunter Martin and Kyle Serrano plus sophomore Andrew Lee (who only hit last year). Martin, who reminds Dave Serrano of his former UC Irvine ace Scott Gorgen for his fastball command and quality changeup, exited after three strong innings with shoulder stiffness, which will keep him out at least two more weekends. In his place, senior bulldog Nick Williams will start Friday.

Kyle Serrano, one of the nation’s top pitching recruits and Dave’s son, showed 92-93 mph heat in his debut but struggled with his command. “He’s got to learn how to pitch with his stuff—that’s one of his Achilles’,” Dave Serrano said. “His stuff is plenty good enough; for him it will be about keeping his pitch count down and having effectiveness in the zone.”

The Vols have their own talented lefthander anchoring the bullpen in Drake Owenby, who had a good summer in the California Collegiate League, just like Torres. Owenby’s calling card is his downer curveball and aggressiveness with a solid fastball. Junior-college transfers Peter Lehnstrohm, Zac Grotz and Brett Marks give the Vols a group of mature veterans who can bridge the gap to Owenby, shortening games. That is the biggest difference from Serrano’s first two years at Tennessee.

TOP 25 TOURNAMENTS
Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge, Surprise, Ariz.:
(2) Oregon State, (10) Indiana, Michigan State, Nebraska, Utah, Washington
LSU Tournament, Baton Rouge, La.:
(8) Louisiana State, Texas Southern, Toledo, Virginia Tech
Kleberg Bank College Classic, Corpus Christi, Texas:
(19) Texas Christian, Brigham Young, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Texas-San Antonio

“We went from a pitching staff that had one or two guys who would touch 90, to eight or nine guys who will go over 90,” Serrano said. “That’s important, especially in the SEC. We’ve been able to secure two good classes, and next year’s class on paper has a chance to be the best ability-wise. It’s not as big, but it has a lot of depth of quality in it. If we can hold onto that, then it really gets this place rolling, I believe.”

Tennessee’s exciting lineup figures to take a big step forward thanks to the maturation of ultra-talented sophomores A.J. Simcox, Christin Stewart and Vincent Jackson, plus the additions of freshmen Nick Senzel and Nathaniel Maggio. The catalyst is senior right fielder Scott Price, who hit .361 last year but remains one of the most underrated hitters in the SEC, as Serrano put it. Price is a pure lefthanded hitter who reminds Serrano of big leaguer Greg Dobbs. Stewart and Jackson have serious power potential, and Simcox is a talented hitter who has become more physical this year and taken a step forward with his defense at shortstop—a major key for the Volunteers.

A.J. Simcox

A.J. Simcox (Photo by Tony Farlow)

Tennessee and UNLV opened last season with a four-game meeting, and three of the games were decided by one run. So the teams have familiarity, and Chambers said they have similar styles of play—manufacturing offense by any means.

Junior third baseman T.J. White has matured into a dynamic player for UNLV, providing speed (he’s 5-for-5 in stolen-base attempts) and strength in the No. 3 hole. Sophomore second baseman Justin Jones has also developed into one of UNLV’s best players, but he sustained a minor hamstring injury Friday, resulting in some lineup shuffling. Like Tennessee, UNLV has recruited well enough over the last few years that it can overcome injuries.

“Now we’ve got a little more depth, we can give guys a day off here and there, which will be super important as we get into the meat of the schedule,” Chambers said.

That schedule is formidable, as the Rebels make nonconference trips to Tennessee, Nebraska and Clemson, plus midweek road games against Arkansas (for two), Arizona State and Cal State Fullerton. But this veteran team—which earns plaudits from Chambers for its makeup and chemistry—looks like it is good enough to survive that slate and make a real run at a regional.

“When I recruited this group of kids, we said we’d try to play the best teams we could play, and whatever happens, happens,” Chambers said. “It’s a difficult schedule, but when you look back on it, you say hey, maybe 37 (wins) is not the number. We could possibly get in with 33 or 34 or even less with this schedule.”

This weekend offers a true litmus test for two teams that think they are ready to return to the postseason.

Reigning Champs Remain Confident

Cal Poly made a splash last weekend by sweeping Kansas State out of the Top 25, and now the Mustangs visit defending national champion UCLA for a three-game set. UCLA coach John Savage knows this series will be a challenge. “Poly looks completely real,” he said. “They look real.”

Poly is the more offensive of the two, especially now that UCLA is coping with the losses of Kevin Kramer and Eric Filia (for the season) and Kevin Williams (for at least a month). But UCLA has the young talent to withstand those losses. Its group of three freshman outfielders is reminiscent of the Jeff Gelalich/Cody Keefer/Beau Amaral class that played a critical role in UCLA’s ascension to national powerhouse status. One of those three freshman outfielders—Luke Persico—is filling in at second base for Williams, while gritty sophomore Trent Chatterton plays short (where he has been flawless through four games). Persico is learning second base on the fly, but Savage compares him athletically to former LSU second baseman JaCoby Jones.

Ty Moore (Photo by Larry Goren).

Ty Moore looks ready to break out. (Photo by Larry Goren).

“Persico has never played second, but he’s a very, very good athlete, he can run, he’s got some power, he can throw,” Savage said. “We had to move somebody into the infield, and Persico was really one of the few options. That’s why, when I saw JaCoby Jones playing second—it doesn’t quite look like that, but at the same time you’ve got a 6-foot-3 second baseman, a bigger body, and he looks pretty comfortable.”

Fellow freshman Brett Stephens should get some time in the outfield, and Kort Peterson should compete for at-bats also. That trio has a bright future, but UCLA still has some competition for jobs, as sophomore Ty Moore looks ready to break out in a big way as the starting left fielder, Brian Carroll is a mainstay in center, and Christoph Bono is solid in right.

So UCLA’s lineup should be OK, even though it will miss CWS heroes Filia and Kramer. The team’s most pleasant surprise so far has been the performance of the bullpen pieces around All-American closer David Berg. Redshirt freshman righthander Nick Kern and fourth-year junior lefty Max Schuh have taken steps forward with their stuff, working around 90 and showing good secondary stuff. Redshirt sophomore Jake Ehret has taken an even bigger leap, running his fastball up to 94 and showing a nasty 85-86 slider. Freshmen Scott Burke and Grant Dyer give UCLA midweek starter options or more depth in the ’pen.

“I think we’ve got a sneaky bullpen again, to be honest with you,” Savage said. “I think so far our stuff has surprised some people, just in terms of some names being gone.”

Talented sophomore righthanders James Kaprielian and Cody Poteet have yet to show their best stuff in the rotation, pitching in the 88-91 range and struggling with their secondary stuff—but Savage has faith that both will find their strides soon. And junior lefthander Grant Watson is a proven commodity whom has come out of the gate strong. Certainly, the Bruins have the arms to remain a major factor on the national scene, despite their injury losses.

“Our pitching’s been very good,” Savage said. “The three bats out of there are a blow. But at the same time, I think we showed a little resiliency. It’s still really early, and they believe they can do it, so that’s really all that matters a lot of times.”

Around The Nation

• In the other series between Top 25 teams, No. 23 Florida travels to No. 16 Miami. The Gators have won 13 of the past 14 games against Miami, and 16 of their past 18, but Miami enters this weekend as the favorite—which has not been the case during most of the Kevin O’Sullivan era at Florida. The Hurricanes have more experience in the starting rotation, and both teams are counting on talented freshmen to make a difference. I’ll be on hand in Coral Gables with reports on how those young players look.

Jeff Hoffman

Jeff Hoffman is projected as a top-5 pick in 2014.

• The most heavily scouted game of the weekend figures to be top-ranked Virginia’s home opener against East Carolina, whose ace Jeff Hoffman is a potential top-five overall pick. As Clint Longenecker wrote last week, Hoffman’s stuff was electric in his season debut against James Madison, and it will be fascinating to see how he handles the nation’s best lineup in Virginia—which scouts are already comparing to the loaded 2008 Miami roster (which featured Yonder Alonso, Jemile Weeks, Dennis Raben, Blake Tekotte, Mark Sobolewski and Ryan Jackson, among others). Virginia needs ace lefthander Brandon Waddell to bounce back after he struggled in the middle innings of his debut against Kentucky last week. He was very sharp out of the gate, however, and he has added strength and velocity since last year, so expect him to rebound.

• The inaugural Pac-12/Big Ten challenge takes place in Surprise, Ariz., where three cold-weather teams from the Pac-12 (Oregon State, Utah, Washington) take on three cold-weather teams from the Big Ten (Indiana, Nebraska, Michigan State). The marquee game of the weekend pits No. 2 Oregon State against No. 10 Indiana, which is hoping to rebound after a 1-3 weekend at Texas Tech. The 4-0 Beavers should get a nice test in three of the Big Ten’s top programs. The event is a fantastic idea, allowing quality cold-weather teams from two good conferences to play each other in a neutral setting where the weather is good.

“It’s awesome,” OSU coach Pat Casey said. “This all got started when the Pac-12 and the Big Ten were going to have an agreement to have interleague play with basketball and football. I talked to our AD and said, ‘Hey, I’d like to have something set up with baseball, too.’ Arizona State had always hosted this tournament down there, and the city of Surprise asked if we wanted to host it and we said yeah. We’ll get to play at a quality site against quality opponents, so we’re excited about that.”

With Ben Wetzler still sidelined pending the NCAA’s ruling on his eligibility, OSU will stick with Andrew Moore, Jace Fry and Scott Schultz in the rotation. Fry has come back strong from Tommy John surgery, Casey said, working at 89-91 early in the game and holding it pretty well, still bumping 90 in the sixth (while sitting 87-88).

“He was really consistent,” Casey said. “He throws a curveball and a slider, and a change. He likes to settle in with the slider more than the curveball, but he throws them both. The change was really good. He’s a guy who is 19, 20 months (removed from Tommy John), and getting stronger all the time.”