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College Weekend Preview: Feb. 18-20

by Will Kimmey
February 18, 2005

MEANINGFUL MATCHUP

We're going back to Cali in this spot for the second consecutive week. And it's going to be difficult not to highlight that part of the country every week given the ambitious schedule Southern California coach Mike Gillespie has drawn up. The Trojans get No. 3 Cal State Fullerton at home on Friday (with Team USA veterans Ian Kennedy and Ricky Romero taking the mound) and then away for two games. That's on the heels of winning two against Long Beach State last weekend, with a nonconference series versus Stanford on the horizon next week. Southern California's nonconference schedule includes 15 games against top 25 opponents. Yikes.

Fullerton's playing as well as any team in the country right now, but we're taking this opportunity to call for at least one Trojans win as the program with 12 national championships--more than twice as many as any other school, as we're often reminded--makes its push to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.

MIDWEEK MONSTER

Florida sophomore outfielder Brian Leclerc cranked three home runs Tuesday in a 17-2 dismantling of Florida A&M. Teammate Jeff Corsaletti hit two home runs and enjoyed his second consecutive six-RBIs game.

Here's a bet the 15th-ranked Gators don't score quite that easily this weekend when No. 5 Miami comes calling. The Hurricanes will have junior righthander Cesar Carrillo back in the rotation after not starting last weekend as punishment for showing up late for game preparations.

WE DIDN'T MAKE THIS UP

Washington State gets a slight travel breather this weekend with a "home" series against Portland. The teams will play at the park of the short-season Tri-City Dust Devils in Pasco, Wash., which is roughly 130 miles from Wazzu's Pullman campus. The Cougars opened at Sacramento State, traveled to Southeastern Louisiana (in Hammond, La.) last week and still have trips to Hawaii and Lewistown, Idaho, (for a tournament at NAIA Lewis-Clark State) remaining. Add it all up and Washington State will travel about 16,000 miles before its first actual home series of the year.

FUN WITH NUMBERS

5.37--Balls really fly in the Mountain West Conference. That figure is Nevada-Las Vegas' team ERA, which happens to lead the league. The league is so offensively charged that of the MWC pitchers who worked at least 50 innings in 2004, just eight finished with an ERA less than 5.37.

Jeff Gilmore always held an affinity for flying, having spent countless hours in flight simulators before he was old enough to drive a car. The day after graduating from Edison High in Huntington Beach, Calif., Gilmore took a $5,000 check from his grandmother to John Wayne Airport and declared he'd have his pilot's license before he started college at Stanford that September.

An instructor told Gilmore that wasn't possible because he'd need to show up twice a day all summer to accumulate enough hours. The instructor hadn't met Gilmore before. That's why he doubted him.

Gilmore ended up spending $7,000, but he earned his license before unpacking in Palo Alto that fall. He wasn't supposed to do that, either. Ivy League college recruiters told Gilmore, who throws in the upper 80s, that he didn't fit the power-armed Stanford prototype and would get buried there.

"He's the type of guy who steps on campus and is already behind the 8-ball because he was not one of the top guys, per se," classmate Mark Romanczuk said.

Gilmore is too grounded an individual to issue an I-told-you-so, but the junior will make his 21st career start for the Cardinal on Saturday in the middle of No. 6 Stanford's series at No. 4 Texas. That's a loud enough rejoinder itself.

Gilmore went 10-2, 4.43 in 108 innings in 2004 after entrenching himself in the rotation behind Romanczuk. He's 2-0, 1.89 with 16 strikeouts and three walks in 19 innings this year, posting the best numbers on the staff.

However, Gilmore admits there was a time during a freshman year in which he pitched just 2 1/3 innings that he wondered if those recruiters were correct.

"The hardest part about my freshman year was going back into the lockerroom and putting a clean uniform in the laundry," Gilmore said. "Then doing it the next day. And the next day. Day after day, three days on the weekend and then on Tuesday. It was really tough."

Conscious that Stanford was about to bring in another top recruiting class replete with new pitchers to battle him for innings, Gilmore requested a meeting with coach Mark Marquess at the end of the 2003 season to ask if Marquess thought he had a chance to earn more playing time. He was prepared to seek out alternative options if the answer came back negative.

Marquess told Gilmore he needed a strong summer in the Alaska League, then a strong fall back at Stanford to earn innings as a sophomore.

Gilmore went to Alaska League and produced a 1.41 ERA in 32 innings. (He also took trips down to Lake Hood Seaplane Base in Anchorage to fly seaplanes.) He then experienced success in fall practice, earning two relief appearances against in the season-opening Cal State Fullerton. Five scoreless innings against Fullerton earned a start the next week against Fresno State.

The night before that game, he told himself that was his one chance. "If I don't have success, I might end up back in the bullpen," he thought.

Gilmore allowed two runs in six innings while striking out eight batters to earn his first win--and a permanent spot in the rotation. It capped an impressive, frustrating, trying ride for Gilmore, who midway through his freshman season realized he didn't have what it took to pitch at Stanford.

"I had to admit that what I had wasn't working," Gilmore said. "It's hard to do. I couldn't keep going out there with the same arsenal of pitches and expect better results. It was a lack of stuff."

To do that, Romanczuk said, Gilmore set about "revolutionizing every single pitch he had." It started with the changeup. It was his best pitch, but his 85-88 mph fastball often got hit before he could get to the change. So at one scrimmage that spring he threw seven straight changeups and retired the side in order. The same thing happened the next two innings.

Teammates wanted to check out the pitch, one he gripped like a split-finger, but with his entire hand. Catcher Ryan Garko said Gilmore's grip looked like a moose hoof, and the pitch earned the nickname "the Moose." Infielders chanted its name as he mowed through the batting order during intersquad games.

Better hitters, however, could read the spin on the pitch and began laying off, so Gilmore refined the Moose during his second summer in Alaska. There, he worked with Arizona State pitching coach Jack Krawczyk, who set NCAA single-season and career saves marks at Southern California with his circle changeup. Gilmore can now make the pitch tumble like the Moose did or follow a straighter path depending on his finger pressure, and it more closely resembles a fastball than did his original changeup.

At the same time Gilmore was developing the pitch called the Moose, he met the pitcher called the Moose--former Stanford ace Mike Mussina--during a series at California. Mussina showed Gilmore how he threw his spike curveball, and Gilmore picked it up quickly.

Then Gilmore went to work on his fastball. Pitching coach Tom Kunis clocked him as high as 91 mph once, but Gilmore sat more in the high 80s. Realizing he couldn't throw it by hitters consistently, he countered by junking it in favor of an 82-85 mph cut fastball that he can locate with precision.

Unlike his Krawczyk changeup and Mussina curveball, Gilmore's cutter doesn't have a famous teacher. "I probably should call Mariano Rivera for that one," he said.

Now, Gilmore's uniform is dirty every Saturday evening.

"After his freshman year, you would question if he would start here," Marquess said. "He would get hit (in scrimmages), but he wouldn't back down. He challenged hitters. That's what I liked about him.

"I'm real proud of him because he wasn't the highest recruited guy, but he's a real example to other kids in the program."

Gilmore said former teammate John Hudgins served as his example, noting that Hudgins has been the biggest influence on his college pitching career. As a freshman in 2003, Gilmore admired Hudgins' tenacity to throw 350 pitches in 10 days while winning three College World Series games and the Most Outstanding Player award despite Stanford's loss to Rice. More than that, Gilmore admired that Hudgins pitched with that kind of heart and desire every start, and not just in the CWS. That trait has rubbed off.

"His mental capacity and tenacity, this kid competes at a very high level," Kunis said. "He's very strong mentally."

Gilmore and Hudgins, now a Rangers farmhand, talk on the phone from time to time. After Long Beach State (where his father Rick was a catcher in 1974-75) eliminated Stanford in regionals last year, Hudgins called Gilmore to point out the similarities in their sophomore statistics:

HUDGINS, 2002: 10-1, 4.71 ERA, 105 IP, 106 H, 35 BB, 62 K
GILMORE, 2004: 10-2, 4.43 ERA, 108 IP, 106 H, 24 BB, 77 K

Gilmore was stunned. "Yours are actually a skosh better," said Hudgins, who followed his 2002 season with a 14-3, 2.99 record.

"I'd sure like to replicate his junior season," Gilmore said. "He told me I could, if I controlled the count and threw pitches hitters don't expect are coming."

Gilmore doing something someone doesn't expect? How likely is that?

AROUND THE NATION

There were some top 25 upsets in Texas this week, with Texas Tech tripping No. 23 Texas Christian 7-4 and UT-Arlington topping No. 8 Baylor 9-6 in front of the Bears' largest-ever crowd for a home opener (3,721). No. 14 Texas A&M and No. 17 Rice nearly came up short as well. A&M narrowly topped Sam Houston State 2-1 when shortstop Cliff Pennington recorded a one-out save after closer Kevin Whelan walked in the Bearkats' first run. A shortstop was the hero for Rice as well. Freshman Brian Friday tripled in the bottom of the 10th inning and scored on a suicide squeeze by Josh Rodriguez to help the Owls past Houston 7-6.

All four teams get back after it this weekend in some compelling intersectional matchups. TCU (4-1) travels to Florida Atlantic (3-0), which won the Atlantic Sun tournament last year. FAU outfielder Tim Mascia started his second consecutive season by winning the A-Sun player of the week award by collecting seven hits and five RBIs last weekend in a sweep against Cincinnati.

(In other FAU news, the school will officially abandon its Blue Wave nickname in favor of the Owls with a new logo to be unveiled on Feb. 28. FAU previously used both monikers, sort of how Long Beach State can be either the 49ers or Dirtbags.)

Baylor faces No. 24 Oral Roberts. We didn't learn much about the Golden Eagles last weekend as they lined up and knocked down Division II Missouri Southern. That figures to change by Monday. And don't go in expecting the beasts of the Mid-Continent Conference to roll over against a Big 12 foe. Remember, Oral Roberts went 6-6 against top 25 opponents during the 2004 regular season and impressed Texas coach Augie Garrido in losing two close games to the Longhorns in the Austin regional.

Texas A&M heads over to Mobile, Ala., for the Coca-Cola Classic. Meanwhile, Rice stays home to play in its own Coca-Cola Classic. We've got to thank the syrupy brown soda company for sponsoring some good baseball early this year, but here's to wishing the corporate folk could be more creative in naming these events. The Aggies will face Jacksonville, South Alabama and Wake Forest.

Rice plays Southwest Missouri State, No. 16 Mississippi and Lamar. Saturday's game should offer Rice righthander Josh Geer, named the top pitcher at the Minute Maid tournament, opposing Ole Miss lefty Stephen Head.

Top-ranked Tulane nearly got toppled Tuesday by McNeese State before pulling out a 3-0 win with an eighth-inning rally. Junior righthander Jacob Marceaux ran his fastball up to 96 mph and allowed four hits and two walks while holding the Green Wave scoreless for seven innings. He struck out six. Tulane sophomore righthander Brandon Gomes went six innings, allowing no runs on two hits and two walks while striking out a career-best 11 in his first start back from Tommy John surgery in 2003.

Things don't get any easier for Tulane with No. 11 Arizona State coming to town. Saturday's game takes place at Zephyr Field (the home to Triple-A New Orleans), and more than 4,000 fans already have purchased tickets.

It's weird to say in February, but this is a crucial series for the Sun Devils. They lost a 14-inning, 7-6 heartbreaker to rival Arizona on Tuesday thanks to Jordan Brown's two-out, two-run homer. That put ASU at 6-5 for the first time since 1997, and it will be a .500 or worse team if it can't win this road series. And it won't get any easier after this series, with another midweek game at Arizona, a series against Baylor and then games against North Carolina, East Carolina and Ohio State in Greenville, N.C., up next on the schedule.

Do some math, play the percentages or calculate whatever you wish given those teams and there's a legitimate chance that Arizona State could stand at that .500 mark in mid-March.

"There's some downside to it," ASU coach Pat Murphy said of his aggressive schedule back in January. "You can get in a bad stretch and it can make you look like a bad team and the kids can lose confidence.

"But the benefits far out-weigh the negatives."

It says here that Arizona State will emerge a better team for its struggles. Though the rigorous schedule might make for an ugly record, the Sun Devils will be more prepared for Pacific-10 Conference play than if they merely had faced a schedule of guaranteed wins.

Louisiana State provided some slo-pitch softball-type scores against Nicholls State last weekend, winning the first two games 12-1 and 19-2. It also fielded a slo-pitch softball-type lineup, with 6-foot-3, 240-pound senior Clay Harris, a first baseman who played third base last year, having moved over to second base. Harris committed his first error in 18 chances Tuesday in a 9-6 win against Louisiana-Monroe, but went 3-for-4 with a two-run homer in the eighth inning to put the game away. The No. 2 Tigers face Arkansas-Little Rock this weekend.

Arizona also has hung softball-like scores on its opponents this year, scoring 10 or more runs in five of its seven games and double-figure hits in every one. The No. 10 Wildcats trek to UT-Pan American this weekend (for the first time since a 1976 NCAA regional) and hope to continue their offensive explosion. All-America junior outfielder Trevor Crowe said he wasn't happy about a 7:15 a.m. wakeup call to catch the team flight to Texas, but was excited about how his team fought back to beat Arizona State in extra innings Tuesday. That was Arizona's first true test after walking over New Mexico and Northern Colorado.

"We're playing really well on offense and our pitching has been great," he said from the airport. "Sometimes you just have to focus and beat the game regardless of the opponent."

No. 20 Long Beach State faces California this weekend without shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who's out five to six more weeks following wrist surgery. However, outfielder Sean Boatright's return looks probable. He hasn't played since straining a hamstring in the second game of the year.

The Dirtbags also shuffled the righthanders in their rotation. Junior Cody Evans (0-1, 2.57) is out, with fellow junior Marco Estrada (1-0, 1.80) moving up to Saturday and sophomore Jared Hughes (four strikeouts and no runs allowed in four innings) getting the Sunday duties.

No. 25 Winthrop plays host to its second straight tournament with the Pontiac Challenge this weekend in Rock Hill, S.C. Akron, Gardner-Webb and Missouri round out an interesting field. We know about Winthrop with names such as Daniel Carte, Jacob Dempsey and Tommy Lentz filling the lineup and Kevin Slowey and Heath Rollins on the mound. Now, remember that Missouri advanced to the final of the Big 12 Tournament last year to earn an NCAA tournament berth. Also, Gardner-Webb boasts junior righthander Zach Ward, who impressed heaps of scouts with his season debut in an 18-1 win against Appalachian State on Saturday: 6 IP, 0 R, 0 H, 2 BB, 7 K. He topped out at 94 mph and allowed just three batted balls out of the infield.

Four top 25 teams entered the week not having played yet, but each will have a record come Monday. No. 13 North Carolina kicked things off Wednesday with a 5-0 win against Appalachian State, thanks to 6 2/3 strong innings from All-America lefthander Andrew Miller. The Tar Heels continue play this weekend against Seton Hall, which travels to Chapel Hill for the 17th time in 18 seasons.

No. 9 Georgia starts its season Friday against Elon, without senior shortstop Josh Smith, who won't play for six games after violating athletics department rules. Virginia transfer Matt Dunn takes his place in the lineup. Southeastern Conference foe Vanderbilt, ranked No. 18, takes on Virginia Military Institute to open its 2005 campaign.

Down in Orlando, 22nd-ranked Notre Dame kicks things off with a pair of games against both Florida A&M and Central Florida. So that's Golden Domers against Golden Knights when ND and UCF face off; maybe FAMU unofficially can be called the Golden Rattlers this weekend.

No. 12 Washington's three-game set at Santa Clara will take place Saturday through Monday as rain forced things to slide back a day. Huskies outfielder Zach Clem (groin) and closer Richie Lentz (hand) are expected to see their first action after not playing in the sweep at UC Irvine last weekend. Those No. 19 Anteaters play Brigham Young in a Thursday-Saturday series because the Cougars don't play on Sundays.

Rounding out the top 25 action, No. 7 South Carolina moves from facing Longwood to Radford as its tour of small schools from western Virginia continues. No. 21 Georgia Tech gets Iona, with All-America junior shortstop Tyler Greene cleared to play after missing the opening weekend while recovering from a broken jaw.

Another week brings warmer weather and another group of teams throwing their first official pitches. Nebraska and Player of the Year candidate Alex Gordon start play at Hawaii-Hilo. Gordon won the Big 12 player of the year honor in 2004 and seeks to become the second player to repeat the feat. It'd be notable, but then again, the Big XII has been around for just IX years. (Baylor two-way star Jason Jennings won the award in 1998-99.)

Clemson kicks things off at Myrtle Beach's Coastal Federal Field in the Bash at the Beach, a tournament also featuring Coastal Carolina, East Carolina and West Virginia. A quick note on the Tigers: junior righthander Jason Berken, the No. 1 starter last year, won't pitch this season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.

There's a fun bi-coastal matchup just miles from Baseball America World Headquarters this weekend as Tony Gwynn brings his San Diego State club across the nation to face North Carolina State in what BA staffer Aaron Fitt dubbed the Battle of I-40. The Aztecs actually flew, but if they had some 40 hours to kill, they could spend more of the 2,700 miles between the two schools on Interstate 40, according to Yahoo! Maps.

Just to clear something up from the BA chat session Monday, when the Atlantic Sun Conference's makeup became a topic of discussion: Central Florida (Conference USA), Troy (Sun Belt) and Georgia State (Colonial) will be leaving the conference prior to the 2006 baseball season. Florida Atlantic (Sun Belt) will leave prior to the 2007 season (so that it doesn't have to pay the conference buyout fee). Stetson will stay in the A-Sun, and be joined in 2006 by newcomers East Tennessee State, Kennesaw State and North Florida. ETSU will leave the Southern Conference; the latter two schools are moving up from Division II play.

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