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College Weekend Preview: Mar. 18-20
by Will Kimmey
On Saturday, righthander Alan Horne will make his first Southeastern Conference start since 2002. He'll make it in the place his SEC career began, at Mississippi. But this time, Horne's hat won't display the home team's M but instead an F for Florida.
It's been three years, two new schools and a new elbow ligament since Horne last took the Swayze Field mound. But he's ready to get back after battling a stress fracture in his back in 2002, having Tommy John surgery in 2003 and transferring from Mississippi to Chipola (Fla.) Junior College for the 2004 spring semester and baseball season.
"I'm ready to go, to go back up there," Horne said Thursday while waiting with his team at the airport. "You always want to do well against a team you were part of at another time.
"The only guys I'm not going to know are the new guys that came in this fall. I was there for two years and then the fall (of 2003) before I transferred, so I know almost everybody on that team."
Horne said seeing Anthony Cupps, a redshirt junior like himself, start Sunday's game for Mississippi might be the most odd part of his return. They were roommates for two years in Oxford and also played together last summer for Wareham in the Cape Cod League.
Horne (1-1, 4.87) was supposed to have been Mississippi's Friday starter for three years after he turned down the Indians' offer after they made him a first-round pick in 2001. Instead, the back trouble limited him to a 5-2, 4.97 record in 12 starts as a freshman, and he made five appearances and posted a 3-2, 3.86 mark in 2003 before feeling a pop while unleashing a curveball.
Losing a pitcher with a mid-90s fastball and hard hook could cripple a lot of programs, but Mississippi has barely mentioned the loss unless prompted by the media. Heck, Rebels coach Mike Bianco also dismissed No. 2 starter Brae Wright from the team midway through last season for violating team rules. (The lefthander surfaced in the same role at Oklahoma State this year, going 4-1, 3.28.)
"It doesn't do anybody any good to cry over spilled milk. That's Coach Bianco's hard-nosed philosophy," assistant Dan McDonnell said. "You can sit there and make excuses but, one, it doesn't help you win and, two, it's not fair to the other 25 guys. They don't want excuses; they want to go to Omaha, and the clock is ticking. They get one, two, three years in some cases."
The no-excuses Rebels still boast enviable depth on the mound, especially in a deep junior class. Cupps (3-1, 4.01) and righthander Matt Maloney (4-0, 0.65) have been battling for the third starter's role, with Maloney posting better numbers because he's faced a slightly easier road in the midweek thus far. Stephen Head, a player of the year candidate splitting his time between first base (.361-5-23) and the mound (3-0, 2.84), has settled into the Saturday role. He moved between the rotation and closer's role the last two seasons, but the coaching staff likes how a regular mound day helps his mental preparation. Lefthander Eric Fowler struck out a career-best nine batters in a 3-0 win against Southeast Missouri State on Wednesday.
So that's four quality starters without discussing the man who took Horne's perceived Friday spot. Junior righthander Mark Holliman has filled that void rather admirably since taking over as a freshman. He's 3-0, 3.67 this year after a 9-3, 3.07 campaign last year to earn first-team all-conference honors. He fires low-90s fastballs and shows strong command of both a slider and curveball, also mixing in a changeup.
"We think Holliman has earned as much respect in college baseball as any starter," McDonnell said. "He's a proven guy. He's a model of consistency. Every Friday night you know what you're going to get on the mound."
Horne is working to get back to that position, to be a reliable weekend starter. He's glad to be back in the SEC, reveling in its level of competition. He's 21 months out from his elbow surgery, and his velocity rests in the low 90s, still a few ticks from the occasional 96s and 97s he showed four years ago in high school.
"It was four years ago, but we're starting to get there," Horne said. "I have flashes of it right now. I'm just trying to find consistency day to day and year to year. It's starting to get back there. The arm is getting there, slowly. My biggest goal is just to stay healthy for an entire year."
AROUND THE NATION
No. 17 Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin suspended junior lefthander Ryan Mullins (2-0, 3.93) indefinitely prior to the team's series against Baylor. The (Nashville) Tennessean reported that Mullins was charged March 6 with a DUI after recording a .09 blood-alcohol content. The legal limit is .09. He wasn't listed among the team's probable starters for the first Southeastern Conference series at Mississippi State, and Corbin would not list a timetable for his Friday starter's return.
"I think it's one of those things I have to take in as a coach and see the circumstances and swallow it and then come up with something that I think is fitting," Corbin told the Tennessean. "He's human so he feels bad about it, but he didn't feel bad about it enough that particular night to stop himself from making that decision. That is where the youth comes in that he's got to correct."
Mullins apologized publicly for the incident, tales of which were making the rounds in the scouting community. No one was pleased with the preseason second-team All-American's actions, though few scouts expected the event to dent Mullins' draft stock much in a draft thin on polished college pitchers, especially lefthanders.
"I don't think this kid has any prior baggage or issues. He's a pretty solid kid," an American League scouting director said. "It's a lapse in judgment, a bad decision at a very bad time in his career, but we're still pretty comfortable that he's a solid kid."
Georgia has posted losing records the last two weekends and lost again Tuesday at Georgia Southern to drop its overall record to 10-6. "I hope we hit rock-bottom tonight," Georgia coach David Perno said after the loss. "It's very frustrating because I know we are capable of playing a lot better and we are not right now. We need better leadership. We have guys on this team that are capable of doing it, they have done it but they are not doing it right now."
Last year, things turned around for Perno and Co. on a trip to Louisiana State, where Georgia began an 11-game winning streak that helped it go 16-3 in the second half of the SEC season. Maybe the No.5 Tigers are just the elixir the Bulldogs need to hold on to their No. 21 ranking. As expected, junior righty Mitchell Boggs will replace sophomore Brooks Brown in the rotation this weekend, getting the Friday start.
LSU seems to be swinging the sticks well now following a few lineup adjustments. Senior Ryan Patterson has moved to center field (Bruce Sprowl broke a finger and is out for at least two weeks), where coach Smoke Laval feels he reads the ball better defensively, and Patterson drilled four home runs last weekend against Arizona State and Western Illinois. Junior catcher Matt Liuzza regained full-time duties behind the plate after splitting time with senior Dustin Weaver early in the year. "It will help out," said Liuzza, who was batting less than .200 before going 5-for-12 with his second homer of the year last weekend. "I'm used to it. The last two years, I've played over 60 games a year. It gets me in a rhythm, which is good. I think it will help out the next few games and I'll get better."
No. 15 Arkansas and No. 4 South Carolina each are 16-1 and begin their conference slates in Columbia, S.C. This will be the first major test for each club as neither has faced a ranked team this year. Both teams are coming off College World Series trips, though things have changed for each. Ray Tanner likes his Gamecocks a little better defensively, but his rotation no longer boasts a first- and second-round draft pick as the 2004 version did. "We dont have any high draft picks in our rotation like Stephen Head or Luke Hochevar, but we throw strikes and well stay in it there in the SEC. I'm interested to see how we fare in the SEC when maybe people have some better pitching than we do."
Dave Van Horn calls his 2005 Razorbacks one of the deepest clubs he's ever coached. He's certain there's more overall talent on the roster in his third season at the helm. "Sometimes it's tough for me to write out a lineup and not write some kids in there because we have so many kids doing a good job," he said. "Sometimes in the past you wish you had one or two more guys to put in there, and this year it's not the case."
Baylor buckles down for another weekend of tough pitching. The No. 16 Bears have faced Long Beach State and Vanderbilt the last two weekends, losing to the Dirtbags before sweeping the Commodores in impressive fashion. The prize is getting No. 1 Texas to open the Big 12 season with one on the road and then two at home in Waco.
The Longhorns are 21-1 because of a 2.28 team ERA, and it's hard to find someone on the staff not pitching well. For whatever talk there was about the staff's depth following the loss of Sam LeCure, seven players have thrown all but nine innings for the Longhorns this year. Sophomore righthanders Kyle McCulloch and Randy Boone and freshman righthander Adrian Alaniz make the weekend starts with freshman righty Kenn Kasparek taking midweek turns. Junior J. Brent Cox closes two times per week and seniors Clayton Stewart and Buck Cody form a righty-lefty relief duo. The skill of this super seven isn't in question, but what might happen should one sustain an injury or two get knocked out early in a weekend series is worth pondering.
No. 8 Texas A&M makes the most dangerous road trip in the Big 12 Conference this week, heading to Dan Law Field to face the always dangerous offense of Texas Tech. The Red Raiders lost three of four games last week to drop out of the rankings and also lost their first-place ranking in conference batting average. Still, Texas Tech is hitting .343 as a club, good for second behind Kansas State's .364 mark, and will score plenty of runs at home, especially if the wind starts blowing. A&M is a pitching-dominated club faced with the task of stopping all that offense if it is to win a series at Dan Law for the first time in eight years. Sophomore lefty Jason Meyer and senior righthander Kyle Marlatt earn the first two starts for the Aggies, with Sunday's spot a TBA, probably between righthanders Robert Ray and Clayton Turner.
Conference USA opens league play with last year's top four teams playing against one another. No. 25 East Carolina, the defending champion, visits No. 3 Tulane, this year's favorite. Southern Mississippi travels to No. 24 Texas Christian. The favorites here are the home teams as both ECU and USM lost great amounts of talent to the draft. However, each can still swing the sticks a little. That poses the most trouble for TCU, which has struggled some with its relief pitching after generally receiving excellent efforts from its starters thus far. The Golden Eagles gain an edge if they can get into the Horned Frogs' bullpen early and make the series a slugfest.
East Carolina hits New Orleans having won 12 of its last 13 games and is an ever-improving club. It's probably fortunate for Tulane to face ECU now, because the Pirates should close the experience gap by later in the season when their seven new position players have enjoyed nearly a full year of adjustment. Still, it won't be an easy weekend for the Green Wave. Lefthander Brian Bogusevic won't take the mound until Sunday, giving him more time to rest after tweaking his hamstring last Sunday trying to beat out a throw to first base. Micah Owings and Brandon Gomes each move up a day, and Bogusevic the batter is no certainty to be in the lineup early in the series if the hammy is still cranky.
Miami takes its first trip into cold weather as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference this weekend, visiting Wake Forest. The weekend forecast for Winston Salem, N.C., accurate and dependable from Baseball America, calls for highs around 60. That's an improvement after Thursday saw a struggle to reach the 40s. Still, it's doubtful that a Wake pitching staff with a 6.72 ERA can cool off No. 7 Miami, led by the ridiculously productive tandem of third baseman Ryan Braun (.457-7-32) and left fielder Jon Jay (.512-0-29).
Georgia Tech rose to No. 10 this week behind its bludgeoning offensive attack. The Yellow Jackets have scored 15 or more runs in each of their last six games and are batting .362 as a team with 32 home runs in 18 games. Hand some of that credit to first-year assistant Josh Holliday, the hitting coach who came to Tech this summer from North Carolina State. The Wolfpack happen to be Tech's opponent this weekend, and they're looking to stop the record 22-game winning streak in ACC play.
To win 22 games in a row in this league, thats phenomenal, N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said of the Yellow Jackets. Thats always a tough trip, but they are playing really well; they are just pounding the ball right now.
The rest of the kudos clearly go to the offensive players, especially Tyler Greene, Wes Hodges and Jeremy Slayden. Slayden has totaled four home runs and 17 RBIs over his last four games and has six homers and 31 RBIs on the year. He's spent most of his time at DH as he recovers from a partially torn rotator cuff and partially torn labrum in his right shoulder that cut his 2004 season short. "I don't really feel like it affects my hitting at all," Slayden said. "I just feel like throwing, I don't have quite the jump on my ball that I'd like to have, but some days it is great."
Florida State has returned from its lengthy trip to Hawaii, one in which it opened with five victories to run its win streak to 13 games before getting sent home on a broom by Hawaii. The No. 20 Seminoles hope to end their three-game losing skid as they open Atlantic Coast Conference play against Virginia Tech. "The key is to just forget about what happened," senior catcher Aaron Cheesman said. "We have 30 more regular season games left that we have to be ready for. With the ACC starting now, our season really starts this weekend. We have to be focused on getting off to a good start in ACC play."
Credit Winthrop for its two-game sweep at Hawaii this week. The Rainbows swept a home series against Florida State a week ago and were the only team to win a league series against Rice last year. Hawaii always plays well against visitors to the island, who seem to drag some with the jet-lag and distractions from the tropical surroundings. Also remember 12-10 Hawaii is no slouch.