College Weekend Preview: March 9-11




Meaningful Matchups
Inter-regional showdowns

If the first month of the season is largely an exploratory exercise where teams can tinker with their lineups and find things out about themselves, this weekend is when we finally start to get a few answers. Going into the year, Texas thought Randy Boone would be its Friday starter and Austin Wood its closer; by March, Boone has settled into the closer role and Wood is in the weekend rotation. Similarly, Pepperdine had its best arm, sophomore Brett Hunter, penciled in as closer heading into 2007, but now it's clear he's a great fit as the Waves' Saturday starter. Roles have largely taken shape all around the country, and it's time to see how teams really stack up with each other.

Top 25 Schedule
(11) Miami at (1) North Carolina
Illinois-Chicago at (2) Vanderbilt
Brown at (3) South Carolina
(4) Virginia at Wake Forest
Indiana at (5) Florida State
Memphis at (6) Clemson
(7) Cal State Fullerton at East Carolina
(25) Evansville at (9) Oregon State
Kansas at (10) Arkansas
Miami (Ohio) at (12) Texas
(13) Pepperdine at (16) Oklahoma State
Penn State at (14) Wichita State
(19) Long Beach State at (15) Arizona State
Florida at (18) Texas A&M
(20) Southern California at Stanford
Virginia Tech at (21) Georgia Tech
(23) UCLA at Mississippi
Purdue at (24) Auburn

Top 25 Tournaments
Whataburger College Classic, Corpus Christi, Texas
(8) Rice, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Texas Christian, Texas Tech

Myrtle Beach Hyundai-Isuzu Classic, Conway, S.C.
(17) Coastal Carolina, Ball State, Bethune-Cookman, Georgia Southern

Tony Gwynn Classic, San Diego.
(22) San Diego, Michigan, Oklahoma, San Diego State
Just how good is Pepperdine's touted pitching staff or Oklahoma State's vaunted offense? We'll get an idea this weekend, when the Waves and Cowboys square off in Stillwater, Okla. It's one of several inter-sectional matchups that pit strength vs. strength: offense-oriented teams vs. pitching-dominated teams.

Pepperdine has a sparkling 2.94 team ERA, led by ace Barry Enright (4-1, 1.46) and Hunter (2-1, 1.93), while the Waves' offense averages 6.38 runs per game. That's not bad production, and given Pepperdine's strong pitching staff it's certainly enough to win games (the Waves are 14-4). But how will that West Coast style hold up in the hitter haven of Allie P. Reynolds Stadium against a Cowboys team that scores 9.4 runs per game (14th in the nation)? Finding the answer to that question is a big reason Pepperdine schedules trips like this one and last week's trip to the Keith LeClair Classic at East Carolina.

"It's a hostile environment, it's a regional environment, and that's why we're here," Waves coach Steve Rodriguez said in Greenville, N.C., last weekend. "It's good baseball, and that's one of reasons I wanted to come out here. We play West Coast teams all the time, but that's what makes this great is you have a chance to see other people play and what they can do, and you measure yourself up against other teams."

Cal State Fullerton assistant coach Jason Gill said that's the same reason the Titans are traveling to East Carolina this weekend to take on the Pirates in a three-game series. Not only is it an opportunity to get players accustomed to traveling and playing in unfriendly atmospheres, it also exposes them to a completely different style of baseball. That's the same logic UCLA used when scheduling trips to Miami earlier this year and to Mississippi this weekend.

Of course, you don't always have to travel 3,000 miles to experience a different playing style. No. 19 Long Beach State will put its pretty 3.17 team ERA in jeopardy this weekend when it travels to No. 15 Arizona State, which has scored 10.9 runs per game (seventh in the nation). The Sun Devils are batting .370 on the year (compared with Long Beach's .266 average), but the Dirtbags have held opponents to a .235 average through 12 games. Something is clearly going to give; Baseball America's Matt Meyers will have a report on the College Blog from Tempe on Friday.

Then there's No. 25 Evansville, which makes the trip to the Pacific Northwest to take on defending national champion Oregon State in the Beavers' home-opening series. That series, which got underway yesterday with Oregon State's 9-2 victory, features a pair of teams with similar styles--pitching, defense and timely hitting. The Purple Aces scored just eight runs in a three-game sweep of Miami (Ohio) last weekend, but as the Beavers proved in Omaha last year, it's not always necessary to put up football scores to win. But for good measure, Evansville put up 19 runs in a midweek game against Murray State.

"We had a great series last weekend for our pitching coach, but I don't know if our hitting coach got much sleep; they out-hit us," Evansville coach David Seifert said. "But it was great to get a sweep against a very good team. Our hitters were pretty excited against Murray State that it was warm, and they looked a lot better that day. They were all telling me, 'See, we can do it.' So now we'll take that and measure ourselves here against Oregon State."

That's what these intriguing non-conference series are about: taking a measure of where teams stand. But conference series have a way of doing that even more demonstrably. No. 1 North Carolina will get its first true test of the season this weekend when No. 11 Miami comes to Chapel Hill for a three-game series in the opening weekend of Atlantic Coast Conference play. The Tar Heels have cruised to an 11-1 start against mostly cold-weather teams getting outside for the first time. Now we'll get a chance to see how they measure up against an elite conference foe.

Marquee Mound Matchup
Zach Putnam vs. Brian Matusz

The Tony Gwynn Classic in San Diego will be one of the best places for college baseball this weekend, with a strong field including San Diego State, Oklahoma, Michigan and San Diego. The Wolverines and Toreros will meet Friday in a showdown between two of the top prospects in the sophomore class, Putnam and Matusz. Both have legitimate power stuff that could carry them into the first round of the 2008 draft; Matusz ranked as the No. 8 prospect in the class entering the year, and Putnam No. 16. If that list was updated a month into the season, Matusz would likely rank in the top five. The 6-foot-4 lefty has flashed three plus pitches at times, including a fastball that reaches 94 mph, helping him rack up a ridiculous 63-13 strikeout-walk ratio in 37 innings this year. Matusz is coming off his first loss of the year last Friday against Fresno State, allowing six earned runs on seven hits over five innings of work, but even in a loss he struck out nine.

Putnam, a 6-foot-3 righty who also bats cleanup for the Wolverines and splits time between left field, first base and DH when he's not pitching, picked up his second win of the year at Mississippi State last week. Putnam allowed one run on three hits while matching his career high with six strikeouts over seven innings of work. Putnam has always has power stuff, but the positive sign for the Wolverines is that he has been able to sustain it despite assuming a much more prominent role in the offense than a year ago. He already has 12 hits in seven games (.375 average), doubling his hit total from all of 2006. Not coincidentally, the Wolverines are off to a 5-2 start, with wins coming against quality warm-weather teams Bethune-Cookman, Troy and Mississippi State.


Upset City
Miami (Ohio) over Texas

On paper, this one looks foolish, and maybe we're getting a little too big for our britches after pegging our last two Upset City picks. These two teams have met twice before, both in NCAA regionals, with Texas winning 11-1 in the 2000 Tempe, Ariz., regional and 12-5 in the 2005 Austin regional. All three members of the RedHawks' 2007 weekend rotation pitched in the 2005 loss, with John Ely getting the start and taking the loss after surrendering eight runs over seven innings. It's not just history on Texas' side; after a 2-4 start, the Longhorns have gotten hot, winning their last four games and 10 of their last 12. Miami, meanwhile, followed up its season-opening series win at Winthrop by scoring just four total runs in a three-game sweep at the hands of Evansville last weekend. So why take the RedHawks? Because Ely and Saturday starter Connor Graham aren't freshmen anymore like they were in the 2005 loss. They're experienced juniors with good stuff who are both capable of shutting down Texas' quality lineup, particularly Graham, who can dominate with his low-90s fastball and good changeup, both of which have good tailing action away from righthanded hitters. And the RedHawk bats figure to benefit from a dose of warm weather, much like Evansville's did in a 19-1 win earlier this week. Shortstop Jordan Petraitis and outfielder Chris Nadeau lead a decent lineup due for a breakout weekend.

Under The Radar
Duke

Long the doormats of the ACC, the Blue Devils are making major progress in coach Sean McNally's second year at the helm. Even in his first year, Duke's 15-41 overall record and 6-24 conference record were improvements from the previous season. But just a month into 2007, the Devils have already matched last year's win total. At 15-1, Duke hasn't exactly played the toughest of schedules, but it's winning the soft non-conference games it hasn't won in years past. Even if Duke struggles in ACC play (which it opens this weekend at home against Boston College), this team has shown huge progress for a program that is trying to create a culture of winning after years of destitution.

"Our kids are very excited about how we're playing; they worked very hard and right now we're meeting our goal, which was to be better in all phases," McNally said. "We've played a lot of tight games in this last stretch, and we think that will help us in the ACC, because we know we're going to be in a lot of tight games against good teams. Our kids are believing in each other and believing that we can compete nine innings at a time, 27 outs at a time, and we know the game is not done until that 27th out."

That attitude was on display earlier this week against Xavier, when Duke trailed 3-2 heading into the ninth inning but won on a two-run, walk-off homer by shortstop Gabriel Saade, his second long ball of the game. Saade (.375 with a team-leading .643 slugging percentage) is one of a number of Blue Devils who have paced the offense with last year's shortstop (and this year's third baseman and No. 5 hole hitter) Brett Bartles sidelined for the last five games with a sprained ankle. Junior outfielder Jimmy Gallagher, the 2006 Coastal Plain League batting champion, has done a little of everything, batting .386 with nine extra-base hits, a team-leading 18 RBIs and eight stolen bases in nine attempts. Center fielder Jonathan Anderson (.417 with seven stolen bases) has been a good catalyst atop the order, and 6-foot-8 catcher/first baseman Nate Freiman has thrived in the cleanup spot, batting .412 with a .618 slugging percentage. That's right, a 6-foot-8 catcher. Eat your heart out, Matt Wieters.

Streakin'
Kentucky

The Wildcats lack the cachet of fellow unbeatens Florida State (17-0) and Vanderbilt (15-0), both of whom sit comfortably in the top five of the rankings. Kentucky, meanwhile, is off to a 13-0 start but remains unranked due to a soft early schedule. But like Duke, the Wildcats deserve credit for taking care of business against the likes of Furman, Tennessee Tech and Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Of course, there haven't been a lot of late-inning heroics necessary for Kentucky, which has outscored opponents 152-42.

"I think one of the indicators is when you play teams you're better than, you have to win those games," Kentucky coach John Cohen said. "When you look around our league, other teams have lost games to teams they're better than. One of the things we're proud of our team, we haven’t lost to a team we're better than."

Kentucky has averaged 11.7 runs per game despite the absence of junior outfielder Collin Cowgill, who hit 16 homers a year ago but has yet to play a game this year because of a hamate injury. Cowgill will have surgery early next week that could keep him out another two to four weeks.

More than the offense, though, pitching has carried the Wildcats. Cohen and assistant coaches Gary Henderson and Brad Bohanon (who share the bulk of the recruiting duties) have done a terrific job turning around the Kentucky program by targeting kids who play with a chip on their shoulders. That hard-nosed attitude helped UK win the Southeastern Conference last year for the first time in 102 years. Pitchers like sophomore righthander Greg Dombrowski embody that spirit. Dombrowski, UK's Friday starter, won 10 games as a freshman despite working with a fastball that tops out at 82 mph. The key is his determination, and his sink.

"What Gary Henderson and Brad Bohanon have done is, our ballpark can play small, so we've got to have guys who have either tremendous sink or a devastating breaking ball," Cohen said. "We have about five freshmen who we just feel can be stars in the SEC."

Slumpin'
Reese Havens, ss, South Carolina

Havens, the No. 20 prospect in the sophomore class entered the year, has played a flawless shortstop but has struggled mightily at the plate, going just 6-for-41 (.146) to start the season. For that matter, fellow sophomore uber prospect Justin Smoak hasn't exactly torn it up, hitting just .255, though he does have three homers. South Carolina looked to be an offensive team heading into the year, and despite the struggles of Havens and (to a lesser extent) Smoak, the Gamecocks are 10-2 and coming off a sweep of arch-rival Clemson. But pitching has really carried South Carolina, which has a 2.39 team ERA, led by junior righthander Harris Honeycutt (4-0, 1.11). Honeycutt won't pitch this weekend against Brown because of a bicep strain, though it's nothing too serious and he should be back next week. But junior lefty Arik Hempy will make his season debut on Sunday after wrapping up his rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery.

"It's going to be good to see him," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. "Regardless of what the results are, it's going to be good to see the big boy out there. So I'm kind of excited about that. And he'll certainly be on a low pitch count. His side work has been good, we've been in a couple of simulations and he's felt good, so we're going to get him out there."

Stat of the Week
1

Hits allowed by Mercer junior closer Cory Gearrin in 13 innings. The transfer from Young Harris (Ga.) Junior College has issued 10 walks, but he's also struck 25 and has yet to allow a run while racking up five saves in 10 appearances. Gearrin struck out 41 in 27 innings in the Cape Cod League last summer with a fastball in the 88-89 range and a deceptive low three-quarters delivery, but his velocity has climbed this spring. His final pitch in a save against Samford last Friday was a 94 mph fastball for a game-ending strikeout.

Scouting Report
Ross Detwiler, lhp, Missouri State

Detwiler has won each of his first two starts this season against Dallas Baptist and Middle Tennessee State, and he'll look to keep it going Friday against Minnesota. Through 14 innings, the 6-foot-4, 175-pound junior is 1-0, 0.64 with a sparkling 20-4 strikeout-walk ratio. But the numbers don't tell the whole story. Here's what one talent evaluator had to say about Detwiler's start against MTSU:

"He was good but not as good as he was vs. Dallas Baptist. His fastball was 90-92 and touched 94. His command was just OK. He was behind a bunch of hitters. His breaking ball was very good at times. His change is definitely his third pitch. It was just OK. I think he has first-round stuff. The arm works and he is so thin that I think as he gains weight he can become even better."

In The Dugout
John Mariotti, rhp, Coastal Carolina

Coastal Carolina has pushed its way into the Top 25 by getting off to a 12-3 start and notching quality wins against Virginia, Texas Christian, Elon and Notre Dame. Mariotti deserves some of the credit for the wins against the Cavaliers and Irish; he started both games and pitched well, though he only factored in the decision against Notre Dame, against whom he threw a complete-game, five-hit shutout while striking out 10. A former two-way star who transferred to Coastal from Gulf Coast (Fla.) Community College, Mariotti is off to a hot start in his first year focusing on just pitching, going 1-0, 1.78, with 21 strikeouts and four walks in 25 innings. He'll have another challenge this Sunday against high-scoring Georgia Southern.

You've been a pretty big part of Coastal's hot start. So far you've beaten two ACC teams in Virginia and Virginia Tech and then you shut down Notre Dame. What's been the biggest win so far?

I think the first weekend when we swept (a tournament) and we beat Virginia, that really gave us a big boost and a lot of confidence. And we've just been going, man, and that was it, that was the biggest right there. I feel really strong, and really confident in this team. I've never felt more confident in any other team I've played for.

Do you think it's helped you as a pitcher to just concentrate on pitching and not worry about hitting anymore?

Definitely. Now I get to focus more on doing my pitching drills and not having to run from the cage to the bullpen.

How have you developed as a pitcher since last year?

I locate the ball a lot better. I throw three pitches, and I locate all three pitches more consistently than probably ever. This is the best I've ever pitched in my life.

You had some success as a hitter, you hit two grand slams in a game when you were at Gulf Coast Community College. What's a bigger thrill as a baseball player, hitting two grand slams in a game or shutting out Notre Dame and striking out 10 guys like you did last week?

I've got to say the pitching. I guess I felt a little more a part of the win. If I hit the two grand slams and we lost, it meant nothing. But throwing nine innings and getting the last out of the game, that was a much bigger thrill.

Do you miss hitting at all? There were a couple of times last year when you hit a late home run and then went out there and nailed down the save, but now you can only do it on the mound. Do you miss the hitting part?

The only time I missed the hitting part this year was when we faced (Andrew) Brackman from N.C. State. You want to get in there and hit one of the top prospects in the country, maybe the first pick overall. But other than that, I don't really miss it because our team is not struggling to hit whatsoever. We have a lot of strength at the dish, and I'm very happy about it.

There aren't many guys who'd like to stand in there against a 7-footer throwing 99 miles an hour.

Oh, I'd love it. I would have loved it if I could have gotten a chance to hit. But we did pretty well against him, I thought.

You're from Toronto originally, but you've been in the South for a while now. When it's all said and done and your playing career is over, do you see yourself settling back up there, or have you developed a taste for the Southern life?

I love it down here, but home's always going to be home for me. Maybe one day I'll move down here, I've got a girlfriend here so maybe that will be a factor. But as of right now I'll be going back to Canada.