Weekend Preview: May 14-17

Louisville and South Florida face off for Big East title




Meaningful Matchup
South Florida at Louisville
With conference tournaments looming next week for most leagues, many of this weekend's series get underway Thursday, and many conference races remain up in the air. In the Sun Belt, Missouri Valley, West Coast and Big East conferences, the top two teams will go head to head for the regular-season title. Let's focus on the Big East, where South Florida leads Louisville by a 1 1/2 games and needs just one win at Jim Patterson Stadium to clinch the crown.

Top 25 Schedule
UC Davis at (1) UC Irvine
(2) Louisiana State at Mississippi State
Oregon at (3) Arizona State
(4) Rice at Alabama-Birmingham
(5) Cal State Fullerton vs./at/at UCLA
Alabama A&M at (6) Texas
(7) Georgia Tech at Duke
(8) North Carolina at Boston College
(9) Mississippi at Arkansas
(10) Virginia at Virginia Tech
(11) Kansas State vs./at/at Kansas
(12) Alabama at Auburn
Kentucky at (13) Florida
(14) Texas Christian at Nevada-Las Vegas
(16) Texas A&M at (15) Oklahoma
Grambling State at (17) Florida State
(18) Cal Poly at Long Beach State
(19) Clemson at North Carolina State
Memphis at (20) East Carolina
(21) Minnesota at Penn State
South Florida at (23) Louisville
(24) Miami at Wake Forest
Cal State Bakersfield at (25) Missouri
This series has huge NCAA Tournament ramifications for both teams. Louisville is virtually assured of an at-large bid thanks to its solid nonconference resume and good standing in the Ratings Percentage Index (34th, according to the NCAA), but the Cardinals can make a real run at hosting a regional with a strong finish. South Florida, meanwhile, needs a regular-season title to buttress its at-large hopes, because it ranks just 67 in the RPI. History will be on USF's side if it can win at least one game this weekend; since the Big East added West Virginia, Notre Dame and Rutgers in 1996, the league's regular-season champion has made the NCAA Tournament every year, either as the tournament champion or an at-large team.

"I'll be honest with you, I think if we win our conference with Louisville, St. John's, Notre Dame and people in it, I think we've earned the right," Bulls coach Lelo Prado said. "I think this league should have two or three teams in it. We can't go to our conference (tournament) and lose the first two games—there's no way. We just have to win as many games as we can."

South Florida has already won 18 games in conference play (against six losses), and the key to its consistency has been its starting pitching. Sophomore righthander Randy Fontanez (6-3, 3.03) thrives on command and competitiveness, and he won't back down from Louisville's big bats or from a matchup against the league's best pitcher, lefthander Justin Marks (8-2, 3.81). Behind Fontanez in the rotation, the Bulls have a future star in freshman righty Derrick Stultz (5-3, 4.21), the best power arm on the staff. Junior righty Shawn Sanford (5-2, 4.99) gives USF another power arm in the No. 3 starter slot.

South Florida's bullpen was its Achilles' heel a year ago, but it has improved somewhat this year behind twin closers Kevin Quackenbush (six saves) and Joe Cole (3.06). It's not a deep pen, but USF's starters have done a good job working deep into games to spare the bullpen.

The Bulls lack South Florida's firepower offensively, but they do a good job getting on base and using the gaps. But just because the Bulls and Cardinals play different styles doesn't mean Prado would keep that approach if he had different personnel.

"I would love to have (Louisville slugger Chris) Dominguez in the middle of my lineup too, and the other guys they have," Prado said. "I could change my philosophy real fast and hit some three-run homers—I'm not that stupid. Those guys have a good offense, they're older and experienced."

Indeed, Louisville's 66 homers are tied with Cincinnati for most in the Big East, while USF ranks near the bottom of the league with 33 long balls.

"They pitch, they play defense, and they just manufacture runs," Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said of the Bulls. "They've got some young players, they do a really nice job on the weekend, they play clean baseball. They don't wow you with a three-run homer or try to steal 20 bases in a game. They do a little bit of everything, they're well rounded, and you've got to give them credit: They've played very consistent baseball on the weekends."

The Cardinals have been awfully consistent lately, too; they've won eight of their last nine games to climb to 37-14 overall and 16-7 in the Big East. McDonnell is quick to identify his team's strength as its No. 2 through No. 6 hitters. For the third year in a row, Louisville has a very offensive second baseman in Adam Duvall (.349/.445/.585 with nine homers, 46 RBIs and 12 stolen bases), who does a little bit of everything in the No. 2 hole. Behind him, junior first baseman Andrew Clark (.348/.484/.557 with eight homers and 46 RBIs) has shown power and remarkable patience, drawing 48 walks while striking out just 22 times. Those walk numbers stand out even more considering he's protected by perhaps the nation's most feared hitter in Dominguez (.367/.459/.710 with 19 homers, 71 RBIs and 17 steals), a first-team preseason All-American with enormous power.

Of course, everyone expected Dominguez to have a monster junior season. Sophomore outfielder and No. 5 hitter Phil Wunderlich (.369/.445/.672 with 14 homers and 60 RBIs) has exploded into an offensive force after batting .265 with one home run as a freshman. Wunderlich is a key player for Louisville not just for his numbers but for his presence and toughness. Case in point: On April 7 against Indiana, Wunderlich was hit in the face with a pitch and broke his nose. The swelling was so bad that doctors could not reset his nose before the Cardinals played two days later against Pittsburgh, so he played DH in the opener with a facemask attached to his helmet. Wouldn't you know Wunderlich cranked a game-winning, three-run homer in the seventh inning. He played three more games before getting his nose reset.

"He's the wise one in our lineup—it's amazing to say that about a sophomore," McDonnel said. "He's the extra coach, leaning on the cage, walking up and down the dugout. He's like the coach of the hitters; he can talk to everybody, he sees what's happening."

Then there's freshman outfielder Ryan Wright (.335/.366/.471 with 53 RBIs), a mature run-producer in the No. 6 spot. McDonnell believes that is a critical slot in the order and points out that Dominguez was Louisville's No. 6 hitter when the Cardinals made their amazing run to the College World Series in 2007.

"You have to work so hard to get through Duvall and Clark and Dominguez and Wunderlich, then you've got this freshman Wright you don't know much about, then he hits the game-winning home run Saturday night against St. John's," McDonnell said.

There is no question Louisville has the offensive talent to make a deep postseason run. The Cardinals have had to move parts around on the mound all season, but for now they seem to have found a recipe for success in an all-lefty rotation of Marks, Dean Kiekhefer (5-4, 5.16) and Bob Revesz (3-1, 4.44). There are plenty of other good arms behind that trio, and if Louisville's pitching holds up over the next two weeks, it stands a good chance to host a regional.

The Cardinals figure to be vying for a host spot against Big Ten hopefuls Ohio State and Minnesota, and their 6-1 record against Big Ten opponents (including two dominating wins against the Buckeyes last week) will be a major asset in that conversation. They also are unbeaten against current first-place teams from the Mid-American (3-0 vs. Bowling Green State), Ohio Valley (1-0 vs. Eastern Illinois), and Sun Belt (2-0 vs. Western Kentucky) conferences.

"Every team within our radius that's winning their league, we've beat, and we don't have a loss," McDonnell said. "I think that makes a huge statement who's the best team in our part of the country, and that team should probably be the host.

"There's a lot on the line (this weekend). Everybody knows, our kids know, if you sweep, you win the regular season Big East. That is so hard to do, and I have so much respect for South Florida, their players and coaches, it's hard to go into a weekend talking about sweeping. Could it happen? Yeah, but we're just going to take it one game at a time."

For the Bulls, who entertained notions of competing for the conference title heading into the year but knew they would have to overcome their youth, this weekend is just as important, if not moreso.

"It's big for the program," said Prado, who recruited Dominguez and several other veterans to Louisville before leaving for South Florida after the 2006 season. "We're taking one step forward. I don't think this club's even close to as good as it's going to be the next couple years—we're basically a freshman and sophomore team. I just want them to experience a little success so next year they'll be even hungrier."

Marquee Mound Matchup
Georgia Tech's Deck McGuire vs. Duke's Christopher Manno
Arguably the hottest pitcher in the Atlantic Coast Conference (Manno) will face off with the front-runner for the league's pitcher of the year honors (McGuire) in Durham this weekend.

2009 STATS
Player W L ERA IP H BB K AVGA
Manno 5 4 4.31
63 51
28 59
.224
McGuire 9
0 2.67
78
59
34
94 .213
Manno, a junior lefthander, is the ACC's reigning pitcher of the week after striking out eight and allowing just one run over six innings in a win at Virginia last Friday. Over his last seven starts, Manno is 4-1, 2.35 with 41 strikeouts in 38 innings. That surge has improved his overall numbers to 5-4, 4.31 with 59 strikeouts and 28 walks in 63 innings. Opponents are hitting just .224 against him.

Scouts have mixed opinions of Manno, who loses points for his lack of physicality (he's just 6-foot-2, 160 pounds) but wins points for his fastball command. Some scouts speculate he could go as high as the third or fourth round in June, while others like him more in the 7-10-round range. He has not shown overwhelming velocity this spring, working mostly in the 87-89 range, but he made a strong impression in the Cape Cod League last summer, often working in the 89-91 range.

"He is still very young and I expect him to fill out," one area scout said. "He is not a junk pitcher—he comes at you with his fastball 90 percent of the time. Some teams will buy his upside. He has a plus changeup and a good slider, but it needs work."

McGuire has built on his strong freshman year in a midweek starter role and his dominant summer in the Coastal Plain League, where he ranked as the No. 1 prospect. In 12 starts as a sophomore this spring, he is 9-0, 2.67 with 94 strikeouts and 34 walks in 78 innings.

"Deck is probably our best prospect at this point," Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said. "He's got great makeup and good talent, and he will go 92-to-94 at times, and he's really throwing four pitches consistently for strikes. I was talking to a crosschecker about him, and he had a good line about how he's seen a lot of guys pitching at 94, but you wouldn't believe how many of them can't pitch. Deck can pitch."
Under The Radar
Gary Helmick, ss/2b, Towson
Helmick has been a four-year starter in Towson's infield, but he did not make much of a name for himself in his first three, never posting an OPS above .812. It's time to learn his name now.

Through 213 at-bats in 50 games, Helmick leads the Colonial Athletic Association in batting (.432), runs (68), hits (92), triples (eight) and total bases (171). He ranks second in on-base percentage (.502), slugging (.803) and home runs (17), and he has 14 steals in 17 tries to boot. It's quite an explosion for a 5-foot-11, 185-pound senior middle infielder who entered the season with 13 career homers and three triples in 537 at-bats.

"He's a scrappy college second baseman type," a National League scout said. "From the looks of it he doesn't have a plus tool but plays hard and is having a good season."

Helmick played second base the last two years before sliding to shortstop in February when Nick Natoli suffered a season-ending knee injury. He doesn't profile as a shortstop at the next level, but he's filled in admirably.

"For a second baseman he's outstanding defensively," Towson assistant Scott Roane said. "He's very athletic with good hands. Defensively he makes the plays that you shake your head at. His arm strength won't play at shortstop but it's not a bad arm."

The Tigers hope Helmick gets at least one more weekend to rack up big numbers after this weekend. They're currently 11-10 in CAA play, tied for the sixth and final spot in the conference tournament with Northeastern. Incidentally, they'll face the Huskies at home this weekend.

Streakin'
Indiana State
Lindsay Meggs had a plan when he took over the reigns as Indiana State's head coach following the Sycamores' last-place (5-19) finish in the Missouri Valley Conference in 2006: By year four, he wanted to be among the top four teams in the league.

It's only year three, but the Sycamores are way ahead of schedule. They tied for eighth place (7-17) in Meggs' first year, then moved up to seventh (9-15) in 2008. But with one weekend remaining in 2009, Indiana State sits atop the Valley standings with a 15-4 mark. They've compiled a 33-15 overall record, already a 15-win improvement from a year ago.

"To put up the numbers we have in conference has surprised me a little bit," Meggs admitted, "but we've caught lightning in a bottle . . . We have some guys that weren't considered big-time recruits out of high school or junior college. I wouldn't necessarily say they were overlooked, but they didn't get a lot of play from bigger Division I majors. It's a group that really plays with a chip on their shoulders. The energy we have is really what our strength is. We do have some talented players, no question, but we just have a group of guys that is committed to showing people not only around the conference but around the country that we can play with anybody."

The Sycamores served notice right out of the gate that they are not to be taken lightly. They opened by winning three out of four at warm-weather The Citadel and won nine of their first 10 games, capped by an 11-2 win over preseason Big Ten favorite Indiana on March 3.

That was followed by a lull—four straight series losses (at Kentucky, at Memphis, against Creighton and in a weather-shortened one-game series at Illinois State). But the Sycamores did not roll over. On the contrary, they have lost just one conference game in 16 tries since, and they carry a five-game MVC winning streak into this weekend's showdown at preseason conference favorite Missouri State, which trails Indiana State by a game in the standings.

"To be honest with you, I don't think we match up very well with them," Meggs said of the Bears. "There are certainly other teams I'd rather be playing at this point in the year because I know how talented they are. We're going to have to be virtually perfect for three games to win the two we need to win. It's a great challenge for us, and I told our team, that's why you play the game at this level, you just hope to be in the mix at this point. I really don't think we feel too much pressure, because I don't think too many people expected us to be here, and they expected those guys to win the league, if not dominate it."

The Bears might well be the favorites, but Indiana State matches up better than Meggs lets on. The Sycamores are the most offensive team in the league, and they lead it by wide margins in batting (.320), scoring (8.2 runs per game) and slugging (.476). The offense features three fearsome bats in the middle of the lineup in senior outfielder Brady Shoemaker (.404/.526/.725 with 13 homers and 46 RBIs), junior outfielder Nick Ciolli (.401/.427/.579 with 48 RBIs) and senior catcher Bronco Lafrenz (.333/.400/.607 with 10 homers and 49 RBIs). The Sycamores also have a fleet-footed catalyst atop the order in junior center fielder/second baseman Ryan Strausborger (.344/.409/.478 with five homers and 21 steals in 24 attempts).

Ciolli, who ranked as the No. 6 prospect in the Alaska League last summer, is Indiana State's top prospect, a physical athlete with good speed, a strong arm and plenty of raw power that he's still learning to tap into. But the undersized Shoemaker is the best player on the team.

"I think he's the best hitter in our league and probably the best hitter I've ever coached," said Meggs, who coached Chico (Calif.) State from 1994-2006, winning two Division II national titles along the way. "He just has quality at-bat after quality at-bat, and he squares the ball up consistently and hits to all fields with authority. He's just got surprising power for his size, with the ability to line a ball out to right field or center field that just takes your breath away, because he's not a very big guy."

The offensive numbers stand out, but Meggs said steady defense has been just as critical to his team's success. Indiana State is fielding .975 as a team and has one of the best defensive catchers in the Midwest in Lafrenz, who has a cannon for an arm.

Lafrenz also has done a good job handling ISU's staff. The Sycamores have been consistent in the weekend rotation with righthanders Eric Valdez (5-3, 4.52) and Jacob Petricka (7-1, 3.39) and lefty Joe Rodriguez (7-1, 4.50). Valdez is a fierce competitor on Friday nights who owns a solid but not overpowering three-pitch mix, and Petricka has flashed power stuff since recovering from Tommy John surgery two years ago at Iowa Western CC, running his fastball up to 94 mph this spring. Rodriguez, a changeup specialist from the left side, presents a different look on Sundays.

The sum of all the parts is a team that hungry team that has a chance to earn at at-large regional bid even if it fails to win the MVC tournament. Indiana State has the Valley's best RPI (67th), and a regular-season title would be a nice feather in its cap.

The program has come a long way in a short time under Meggs, and the future looks even brighter. Woefully subpar facilities have held the Sycamores back in the past, but as soon as this season is done they will break ground on a new 2,500-seat stadium.

Looking ahead is nice, but the future is now for Indiana State. And that's a refreshing, exciting change.
Slumpin'
Georgia and Arkansas
Over the last three weeks, the Bulldogs and Razorbacks have seen their seemingly solid chances to host regionals slip through their fingers, and both have fallen out of the top 25 after being in the top 12. Georgia has lost its last three weekend series (at Mississippi, home against Florida and Vanderbilt), and the Dawgs dropped eight games in a row overall before salvaging the finale against Vandy and earning a midweek win at Georgia Tech.

Georgia coach David Perno said his team just hasn't been consistent offensively in conference play, where it's batting just .268 as a team. The Bulldogs figured to lean on senior righty Trevor Holder and junior lefty Alex McRee down the stretch, but Perno said Holder has had some trouble harnessing his command since his velocity jumped 3-4 mph, and McRee hasn't been himself since missing three weeks with mononucleosis.

"We've got to be a little more consistent offensively if we're going to be OK this weekend. And hopefully our No. 1 and 2, Holder and McRee, will get it going again," Perno said. "That's kind of stalemated us a little bit is they haven't pitched like they're capable of the last couple of weekends.

"We're still OK. We're a good team. I don't think we're as good as our start indicated, but I don't think we're as bad as the last few weeks."

Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn seemed even more unconcerned about his team's recent swoon, which includes losses in three of its last four series and five of its last six games overall. After finding ways to win close games in the first half of the season, Arkansas is struggling late in games now. In the last four weekends, the Hogs are 0-6 in one-run games.

"We've been playing good baseball, we just haven't been winning," Van Horn said. "We've just had trouble making the big play, getting the big pitch and obviously getting that big hit. It's been frustrating."

Arkansas fell out of contention for the SEC West title when it was swept in three tight games at Alabama last weekend. But the Hogs got back on track with a 3-2 win against Oral Roberts on Tuesday, and Van Horn said he hopes that momentum carries over to this weekend against Mississippi.

"It's just big for the morale of the team (to beat ORU)," he said. "Just losing those games against Alabama, they were all nail-biters that went down to the wire. For us to get a win last night—we hadn't won in so long—now we can just get after Ole Miss and play great baseball."
Bubble Watch
Baylor
A month ago, it would have been hard to believe Baylor would be on the NCAA tournament bubble heading into the final weekend of the regular season. The Bears had been very consistent through nine weeks and had not dropped out of the top 10 in the rankings at any point.

Then the wheels fell off. Baylor was swept at home by Oklahoma, then swept again the next weekend by Texas, part of a seven-game conference losing streak and nine losses in 10 games overall. All of a sudden, the Bears were 26-20 overall and 10-13 in Big 12 play, and they had to wait nine days to play again thanks to a break for exams. While they were off, Texas clinched its second straight conference title, and Baylor sank to eighth place in the standings.

"This is the equivalent of a football team getting blown out the week before their open date, and then finding out during their open date that the conference has been decided and you've still got a week to play," Baylor coach Steve Smith said. "It has not been easy—I've hated it, and I hope they have too. But we're not in that situation yet where you're ready to say wait 'til next year. We're not in the wait 'til next year mode yet. We've still got an opportunity to redefine ourselves. This group of guys is extremely motivated—they have been since Day One. So I have no doubt at all that they'll be highly motivated and ready to play."

The Bears were crisp in their return to action, breezing to a 12-2 win Tuesday against Stephen F. Austin behind five strong innings from embattled righthander Shawn Tolleson and a four-hit, five-RBI performance from DH Dustin Dickerson. Now Baylor must build on that momentum this weekend at last-place Nebraska. It's a must-win series if Baylor is to earn an at-large bid, a prospect that is still in the realm of possibility despite Baylor's stumbles down the stretch and unimpressive overall record. That's because the Bears still rank 22nd in the RPI and have quality series wins against Kansas State, Missouri and Kansas. A series win against Nebraska and a solid showing in the Big 12 tournament (where Baylor is assured of playing at least three games thanks to the round-robin format) will likely land the Bears back in regionals.

"This is a chance just for us to start over again, and really, one way or the other, our season will be defined by the games that we have remaining," Smith said. "I still think we're a very, very capable team. We had two bad weekends in conference this year. The conference is very, very good. We could have survived one bad weekend because just about everybody in the league had one, but we had two, and the conference is not that forgiving . . .

"So you've got a seven-game season. You don't have to look back at all, because nothing in the past will have anything to do with the next seven, and the next seven will pretty much determine what happens after that."

Stat Of The Week
42
Stolen bases for Alabama-Birmingham right fielder Brint Hardy, tops in the nation. Not bad for a guy who spent his prep career as a catcher for Homewood (Ala.) High.

Hardy moved to the outfield after enrolling at Birmingham-Southern to take advantage of his above-average speed. After redshirting in 2005, he hit .346 with 18 steals in 19 tries for the Panthers in 2006, before following coach Brian Shoop to UAB when the B-SC program was demoted to Division III that summer.

Intelligence on the basepaths has always been Hardy's calling card, and he's proven a very efficient basestealer, swiping 102 bases in 112 attempts during his four-year career.

"Brint is a good runner with great instincts and risk-taking mentality," Shoop said. "We expect him to get a chance at the next level. He can play center field but has been better in right."

At 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, Hardy profiles better in center than he does on a corner, but he does have some pop to the gaps. He also has proven he can handle a wood bat, as he led the Alaska League in batting (.410) last summer while earning the circuit's MVP award and ranking as its No. 7 prospect.

Hardy also scores points with scouts for his maturity and makeup.

"He just graduated and is as good a kid as you will ever meet," Shoop said.

Scouting Report
Victor Black, rhp, Dallas Baptist
Black has been on the prospect radar since flashing 95-96 mph heat as a freshman and making a brief but impressive cameo with Team USA that summer. A former catcher who didn't start pitching until his senior year of high school, Black has struggled with his control during much of his Dallas Baptist career, walking 103 batters in 158 innings over his first two collegiate seasons. But he's made marked strides as a junior, going 6-3, 3.80 with 91 strikeouts and 36 walks in 85 innings. With an athletic 6-foot-4, 204-pound frame and an electric arm, Black has shot up draft boards in the last month, particularly after holding Texas A&M to three runs over 7 1/3 innings on April 30. Two scouts offered their takes on Black.

"He could go first among the college players in Texas. I've seen him 95 every time I've gone to see him. It's straight, and the command does waver, but it's 95. As a freshman, he had a very good curveball. Now he has a slider that's inconsistent, but it's OK as a second pitch."

"The top college pick in Texas might be Victor Black. I saw him pitch against Texas A&M, and he out-pitched Brooks Raley and Alex Wilson. I saw him hit 96 and his slider was good at times. It has some tilt and funk to it when he stays over the rubber."

In The Dugout
Josh Fellhauer, of, Cal State Fullerton
Fellhauer has had a big season as the No. 3 hitter and center fielder for Cal State Fullerton, which sits atop the RPI rankings and can essentially wrap up a national seed with a series win against UCLA this weekend. Fellhauer leads the Titans and ranks second in the Big West in batting (.397) and on-base percentage (.479). He is slugging .520 with four homers, 40 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. He's also one of the nation's best defensive center fielders, with excellent range and instincts and a strong arm.



Congratulations on a fine season, Josh. I imagine you have to like where the team is at right now, especially after winning a series last weekend against a good Cal Poly team.

We love where we're at. It's been a season of ups and downs. We had a huge funk in the middle of the season where we lost a series to Pacific and weren't playing good baseball against Davis, but we still sneaked out a few wins. I think maybe it was just a little funk, and guys were trying a little too hard and thinking they have to do too much. We made a commitment to playing good team baseball, and since then we've been good.

What did you learn about yourselves on that long road trip early this season through Mississippi, Texas and Oklahoma?

We learned that we were as good as we thought we were. We went into some hostile crowds, we were the only 30 people there (on our side), and we beat up on some very good teams. It showed us we can be a very good team if we play well.

How does this year's offense compare to last year's?

This year we don't bunt as much, because we have guys who can control the bat, hit and run, hit a ground ball to the right side with a runner on second, so we don't have to do that. Instead of just laying down a bunt and trying to sacrifice ourselves, we can try to get a hit too.

Individually, what do you think is your greatest strength as a player?

As a player, I hate to lose. I will do anything I can to make the team win. That includes sacrificing, laying myself on the line for the team. I don't think that's around all college baseball.

How have you developed offensively since you got to Fullerton?

I used to have a pretty long swing. I had a huge hitch in my swing last year that I kind of dealt with. This fall, me and coach (Greg) Bergeron got this contraption that shortens my hands, makes it quicker. I feel like it helped so much getting rid of my little hitch and coming straight to the ball. That's had a huge impact on my success this year.

Tell me about this contraption.

It's a rubber band type thing, attached just above my bicep below the shoulder, and also attaches to my wrist on my bottom hand. When I'm getting ready to swing, it won't allow my hands to go back any farther. So when I swing forward, it just releases. So the muscle memory keeps my swing the way it has been.

One thing that comes to mind when a lot of people think about you is the throw you made to nail Taylor Holiday at the plate in extra innings against UC Irvine at the 2007 College World Series. That must have been some kind of thrill for you.

That is my greatest baseball moment at this point. I just kind of saw it happen in front of me, and sure enough I got a ground ball hit right at me. I just threw as hard as I could, and lucky enough it was right online and didn't go over his head. It was just an amazing thrill, I couldn't tell you what I was thinking. My mind was a blank.

Just what is it like to be on the field at Rosenblatt Stadium as a player?

The energy is amazing. The fans are in it the whole game. It's almost like at the major league level, because there are so many fans, but even better because the fans are paying attention more than they are at a professional game. It's where every player wants to get back once you've been.

That must have made it harder to fall just short of getting back to Omaha last year. Did that super regional loss to Stanford just give you guys even more motivation?

Definitely. We were really down on our season last year because we didn't make it. This year all we've talked about is getting to Omaha and how bad we felt after we lost to Stanford last year. We knew we weren't going to do that to ourselves again this year.

You had a great summer with Team USA last year. I've been asking every player I talk to from that team this question: Which was your favorite stop on that Europe swing?

My favorite stop was Regensburg, Germany. I do have German in me, and I love bratwurst. I had about four after the game—just outstanding.

OK, the real question everyone wants an answer to is: Why did you shave your mustache early during Mustache March? All the players and even Coach Serrano were all rocking mustaches in March, but you got rid of yours five days too early.

Everybody thinks that I shaved my mustache because of my girlfriend, and I'll tell everybody that's not true. It was my 21st birthday that night, and I didn't want to go out having a mustache on my face. I wanted to show the team I wasn't scared of the coaches and what they would say. It was a fun thing. I don't think I should have (shaved) it; I think I regret it a lot.

Who had the best mustache on the team?

Joe Scott (scroll down the linked page to see it), by far. Him and this guy on the team had a bet that he wouldn't grow his out until April 1, but he grew his for probably two months longer than everybody else did. He had handlebars an inch off his face.

Before I let you go, let's talk about this weekend. You'll face UCLA, and you guys have sure had their number over the years. Why do you think that is?

I don't know. I think UCLA is kind of a professional team, they thrive off the long ball and the big hit. They don't do much to manufacture runs, and that's why we have the upper hand.

How intense was that regional last year, when they won the first game against you guys but you stormed back to sweep a doubleheader against them later?

We came out thinking we were playing pretty good, and they beat us pretty bad in Game Two. We went into the loser's bracket, and after we won the first game of that doubleheader, we knew we were going to win the second game because we had that momentum.

As for another of your rivals, UC Irvine got the better of you guys at Goodwin Field this year, and they've wrapped up the Big West. How badly do you want another crack at those guys this year?

The second that series was over, that's all anyone was talking about. They beat us, but we weren't really impressed by them, and we'd love to face them again in Omaha. We're hoping in Omaha we can get those guys. I'd like to beat them up hopefully.