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College Weekend Preview: 1/28-1/30

by Will Kimmey
January 28, 2005

MEANINGFUL MATCHUP

Cal Poly, fresh off a three-game sweep at San Diego to open the college season last weekend, travels to Westwood, where UCLA begins the John Savage Era. The Mustangs and Bruins haven't played each other since 1970, but Savage faced Cal Poly thrice yearly during his three years at UC Irvine before taking over for Gary Adams this summer.

"We were proud of what we did working for Irvine," Savage said. "It's different being in the Pac-10, in terms of that in Southern California, being at UCLA and having the tradition that coach (Gary) Adams has laid down. We were very fortunate to take over a program in such high regard, a history of players and major leaguers. We're just trying to carry the torch."

Expect UCLA to field a scrappy and well-schooled club under Savage, though it might not compete for the conference title until he gets a class or two of his own recruits on campus. His current list of commitments for next season looks strong with four players rated in the Top 100 high school prospects list that will appear on this Website next week, led by outfielder John Drennan, a polished hitter from the San Diego area.

But that's for next year. Right now, the focus will be on an NCAA tournament berth. And, as early as it is, each team in this matchup could help its case with the selection committee from a series win. That's because UCLA and Cal Poly could end up battling each other for an at-large spot. They're located in the same geographic region and figure to finish right at the tournament cutoff points for their conferences: fifth or sixth place in the Pacific-10 and third or fourth in the Big West.

The most fun game, as usual, comes Friday night. Draft-eligible sophomore righthander Hector Ambriz of UCLA will oppose senior lefthander Jimmy Shull, and each pitcher should be among the first in his class selection in June.

Ambriz went 2-2, 5.62 with 27 strikeouts and nine walks in 32 innings as a freshman. He allowed only one hit over five innings in the alumni exhibition game, while Shull struck out seven San Diego hitters in seven innings while allowing six runs--four earned--on nine hits. He didn't earn a decision in a game that Cal Poly won 8-6 by scoring two runs in the top of the ninth.

MIDWEEK MONSTER

There have been just two midweek games thus far this season, so bear with us as we stretch this weekly honor back into the three-game series from last weekend. Cal Poly junior first baseman Bret Berglund and San Diego sophomore catcher Jared Abruzzo and share the first honor of the year. Berglund drove home nine of Cal Poly's 28 runs on just three hits in a three-game sweep at San Diego last weekend. Abruzzo added five hits in San Diego's first two games at Hawaii-Hilo on Wednesday and Thursday, giving him 10 hits in his first 18 at-bats. That includes two home runs and nine RBIs.

FUN WITH NUMBERS

16--Paul Lo Duca's jersey number during his one season at Arizona State. The Sun Devils will add those digits to the outfield wall Friday night at Packard Stadium, where it will join those of Bobby Winkles (1), Reggie Jackson (44), Oddibe McDowell (0), Barry Bonds (24), Sal Bando (6), Bob Horner (5), Jim Brock (33), Floyd Bannister (19), Rick Monday (27), Larry Gura (14), Alan Bannister (7), Eddie Bane (21) and Hubie Brooks (14). The current Marlins catcher set a Sun Devils record with a .446 average in 1993, after transferring in from Glendale (Ariz.) CC.

WE DIDN'T MAKE THIS UP

Though their names are nearly identical, Long Beach State sophomore third baseman/DH Evan Longoria is not related to "Desperate Housewives" star Eva Longoria. He's from Downey, Calif., and a Rio Hondo JC transfer, while she's from Corpus Christi, Texas. Don't be afraid to plop Eva's name into a search engine; the results are fun.

TOP 25 IN TWO WEEKS

Our in-season 2005 Top 25 rankings kick off Feb. 7

Mike Weathers knew there would be questions about his Long Beach State pitching staff this year, but not these kinds of questions.

First, people continue asking if 2004 College Player of the Year Jered Weaver, the Angels' still-unsigned first-round pick, will return for his senior year.

Actually, Weaver did return to pitch in a Dirtbags uniform. He took the mound at Blair Field for the alumni team in an exhibition game against the ’05 Dirtbags last Saturday. Weaver struck out two in an inning of work, but won't pitch again for Long Beach State.

"He had thrown a few bullpens lately and told me he wanted to pitch," Weathers said. "He was about 50 percent, but still struck out two of our guys. Really, it was just great for the fans to see him here again."

Calls also started trickling into Weathers' office about 6-foot-7 sophomore righthander Jared Hughes, who transferred in from Santa Clara. Word was Hughes had decided to leave Long Beach State, and some junior-college coaches and area scouts started chasing the rumor. No need.

"He's here," Weathers said. "I don't know where that started, but it's like any other rumor."

That brings things to the third most popular question, one that actually has some substance: Who will be in No. 22 Long Beach State's rotation when it travels to Tempe to face No. 9 Arizona State this weekend?

Weaver and fellow 2004 starter Jason Vargas, who started for the alumni Saturday team after pitching on Sundays last year, surely will not be.

Turning over a significant part of the rotation is nothing new for Weathers. The 2003 rotation featured Abe Alvarez, followed by Weaver and Cesar Ramos. One has left per year, with the lefthanded Ramos moving up to Friday in this, his junior year, after a 12-4, 2.29 sophomore season on Saturdays.

"Obviously you know what you get with Cesar: He's not overpowering, but throws strikes and induces contact with his cutter and command," pitching coach Troy Buckley said. "It's his chance to establish the (tone for the) weekend being a Friday night guy. He's been able to see those two guys in front of him and how they did it."

Cody Evans, a 6-foot-5 righthander, transferred in from Golden West (Calif.) Community College to serve as the Saturday starter. Evans rang up five strikeouts against one walk in six innings against the alumni, allowing two runs on five hits.

This year's Sunday starter? That's another question. Weathers didn't plan to decide until the last minute, listing the candidates as Hughes, senior righthander Neil Jamison (3-5, 4.35 with 12 saves in '04) and junior righthander Marco Estrada, who transferred in from Glendale (Calif.) Community College.

The best-case scenario for Long Beach State is for Hughes to earn a weekend rotation spot. If he does, Jamison and Estrada will shift to the bullpen to join senior Brian Anderson and junior Brett Andrade in what should prove to be a team strength. It will need to be, as the staff lost 72 percent of its innings pitched from last year.

Buckley is certain five pitchers won't throw 85 percent of the team's innings this year, and said this could be his most challenging year as a coach. But he looks forward to that challenge.

"We have a lot of plugging in to do and have to see how season progresses,” Buckley said. "We're not obviously as top end (heavy) as we were, but we do have the talent, probably 10 guys that we're comfortable with."

The coaches will use the first several games to experiment with different players and their roles, something they weren't able do last season. So it's likely that even if Jamison begins the year in the rotation, he could still move back to the closer's role if it suits the team best. The fall and spring work as a starter has allowed the senior to further develop his changeup, adding an effective complement to his low-90s fastball.

"It's going to take a few weeks for that to play out," Weathers said. "We're going to try to do a better job getting more guys opportunities. I don't think we developed a lot of guys because we had some veteran guys in set roles. We might pay the price for it some early this year."

AROUND THE NATION

• Miami suspended juniors Gaby Sanchez and Marcelo Albir indefinitely for violating a university policy. They are able to practice with the team, and coach Jim Morris said neither has shown any drop-off in their effort or commitment since the suspension.

"It's really not a suspension by me, it's by the University of Miami," Morris said. "I don't have any control over it from that standpoint, and I'm not supposed to comment on it. Hopefully they'll be playing for the University of Miami in the near future, but that's really all I can say."

Sanchez started 56 games at third base and five at DH last season, batting .316-7-47. He was expected to DH this season, and freshman catcher Alex Garabedian will start at DH in Sanchez' absence. Albir, a righthanded reliever, went 0-0, 2.25 last season. The No. 5 Hurricanes begin play Feb. 1 against Florida International.

• No. 6 Stanford is the only other top 25 team in action this weekend. The Cardinal opens at home against Fresno State, which along with Hawaii could give No. 18 Rice a run for the Western Athletic Conference title this season.

Stanford lost nine players from its 2004 roster to the professional ranks, but still boasts a strong returning group of juniors. The lineup offers to preseason All-Americans in second baseman Jed Lowrie (.399-17-68, winning the Pac-10 triple crown) and first baseman John Mayberry Jr. (.333-16-62). And there's the usual deep stable of pitchers, headed by lefthander Mark Romanczuk (11-3, 4.31) and righthander Jeff Gilmore (10-2, 4.43).

"We did lose a lot of key players from last year," coach Mark Marquess said. "But we also have some talented people returning that are capable of doing a great job for us, and we need them to step up to help this team establish its own identity."

• Florida State sits on the cusp of the top 25 and opens its 2005 slate against Charleston Southern. It marks the first game for first-year Charleston Southern coach Jason Murray, the 30-year-old former Michigan recruiting coordinator. Seminoles coach Mike Martin has the experience edge in the coaching matchup--he's held the top job at Florida State since Murray was playing tee-ball--but will field perhaps the youngest team in his 26 seasons in Tallahassee.

"We've got our work cut out for us," Martin said. “We've got probably the youngest bunch I've had since I've been here. But hey, no excuses, shut up and play. That's been our philosophy for many, many years."

Twenty-four of Florida State's 34 players are freshmen and sophomores, and four freshmen could start against Charleston Southern. Two of those newcomers--Tony Thomas Jr. at second base and most likely Nick Francis over Ryne Jernigan at shortstop--will replace Martin's up-the-middle security blanket of the last few years: shortstop Stephen Drew and second baseman Bryan Zech.

"Middle infield play is a big concern of ours year in and year out," Martin said. "Having Drew there for three years and Zech for four years was very relaxing because you flash (a sign) and they immediately recognize it. It takes usually about 40 ballgames before you're comfortable. Now we're starting all over."

• UC Riverside plays at Santa Clara with long-time Riverside assistant Doug Smith calling all the shots for the Highlanders in his first season replacing Jack Smitheran, who retired this summer after 31 years at Riverside.

• Central Florida lost two sophomore righthanders for the season in the span of two days during spring practice. Taylor Meier sustained a torn labrum, while an ankle injury will sideline Brett Bordwine. The 6-foot-6 Meier went 6-3, 2.55 with 56 strikeouts in 74 innings in 2004, and entered this year as a preseason all-conference pick in the Atlantic Sun. The Golden Knights were counting on Meier, the fourth starter a year ago, playing a larger role this season after losing Matt Fox (14-2, 1.85) and Kyle Bono (8-2, 1.94) to the draft. Bordwine went 1-1, 6.48 as a freshman and had emerged as a front-runner for the closer's role with his increased velocity and improved slider. Central Florida opens its season Feb. 5 against Florida International.

• Louisiana State's Board of Supervisors approved construction of a $23 million stadium that would open in 2008. Construction will begin in August 2006. It will sit about 2,000 feet from the current Alex Box Stadium and bear the same name. The new 8,000-seat park will be financed through private donations and revenue bonds. The No. 2 Tigers open 2005 on Feb. 11 against Nicholls State.

• The Mountain West Conference will add Texas Christian as its seventh member for the 2006 season and switch from a 30-game league schedule with annual home and away series to six three-game conference series alternating home and away for a total of 18 games. The league will add a preseason conference tournament (at San Diego State in 2006) with predetermined matchups so that each team would play four additional games that would also count in the league standings. That would push the conference slate to 22 games.

MWC spokesman Ron Christian said the MWC planned to speak with the Pac-10 (which fields nine teams for baseball) and other Western conferences about possibly aligning bye weeks for some inter-conference matchups during the conference season, because teams often find trouble scheduling nonconference weekend series at that time of year.

"It's a possibility," Christian said. "There's a mixed opinion on that now. It's a means to pick up games. Sometimes (Brigham Young) and Utah have a difficulty to pick up games up there (because of geography and travel), they might just play some nonconference games like what the Pac-10 does."

There also was some to about playing three more conference games by adding a rivalry series for each team. That doesn't compute for a seven-team conference, and one interesting (read: strange) solution was to have TCU play a nonconference series that counted in the league standings.

The MWC's postseason tournament, the one that offers the automatic NCAA tournament berth, will shift to a seven-team double-elimination format in 2006. The regular-season champion will earn a first-round bye.

Hosts for the postseason tournament have rotated each year since the league's formation in 2000, and the rotation will be complete with Utah serving as host this year. Beginning in 2006, league members will bid for the postseason tournament.

• The West Coast Conference will shift to a single division with 21 conference games in 2006. The eight-team WCC began a two-division setup in 1999, with 30 conference games. Each team will play a three-game series against the other seven teams in the new format; currently teams play everyone with additional three-game sets against division foes.

The league's championship series will continue, now pitting the two teams with the best conference records rather than the two division winners. Those teams will meet on the home field of the team that wins the regular-season series.

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