|ACC vs. SEC Showdowns|
|Bragging rights in the Southeast are on the line this weekend, as six ranked teams from the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences will square off in three series. No. 5 Florida visits No. 16 Miami, No. 25 Georgia travels to No. 6 Florida State, and No. 13 Clemson takes on No. 15 South Carolina in a home-and-home series, with the middle game played at a neutral site in Greenville, S.C.
"The conference pride is on the line this weekend," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. "We pull for our brethren."
Conference pride is nice, but it's not the only thing on the line in these three series.
So that's what is at stake in the long term. In the short term, this weekend will help establish who are the teams to beat in this ever-competitive region of the country.
"That's three great series, no question," Miami coach Jim Morris said. "All three of those SEC clubs are outstanding, and those are three really good teams in the ACC. Both conferences are so tough, and every weekend is a battle. It's good for all of us to face good competition to get ready for conference play, and it should answer some questions. Sometimes those intrasquad games don't really answer the questions until the bell rings."
Here is a rundown of major questions facing each of these six teams heading into this weekend and beyond.
Florida: The Gators have one of the nation's deepest, most talented rosters, but Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan is still trying to figure out how his pieces fit together. In the opening weekend, O'Sullivan used a rotation of sophomore righthander Tommy Toledo, freshman lefty Brian Johnson and sophomore righty Anthony DeSclafani. The Gators did not play last weekend because visiting La Salle was unable to travel due to inclement weather, and DeSclafani was hit hard Tuesday in a loss to Florida State at the Florida Four event at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, allowing five runs in the first without recording an out. This weekend, sophomore lefty Alex Panteliodis will get the start Friday, followed by Johnson on Saturday. O'Sullivan has yet to decide who will start Sunday, but he mentioned Toledo, sophomore lefty Nick Maronde and freshman righty Hudson Randall as candidates.
"We've got so much depth on our pitching staff, we just have to figure out roles," O'Sullivan said. "The worst-case scenario would be not to have the pieces of the puzzle. We have the pieces, we just have to figure out how to put them in the right spot—which we'll do. The last couple of years we've been historically a slow starting club. But I know we'll get it together."
Florida is relying heavily upon its 2009 recruiting class, which ranked as the best in the nation. In addition to Johnson, Randall and reliever Paco Rodriguez on the mound, the Gators have employed a number of freshmen in the everyday lineup—most notably catcher Mike Zunino, DH Austin Maddox and shortstop Nolan Fontana. How those freshmen handle the ups and downs of the long season will be critical.
"I was cautiously optimistic about our team, and I think we're going to be really good, but I was also aware of the fact that we do have a lot of young players, and there are going to be some growing pains going through this thing," O'Sullivan said. "I think the challenge for us is playing nine solid innings. Playing on the road is a challenge. We haven't been on the road other than (Tuesday) night, so we need to learn to play on the road. This will be a really good challenge for our young players. (Miami starters Chris) Hernandez and (Eric) Erickson are veteran guys that can pitch, so we need to shorten our swings. If our approach improves, then I think we'll be OK. If we don't improve our approach, it could be a tough weekend for us."
Miami: Like Florida, the Hurricanes are leaning on newcomers at a number of key spots. Junior-college transfer Chris Pelaez has hit the ground running—and, more importantly, hitting, to the tune of .650/.731/1.050 with two homers and seven RBIs through 20 at-bats. Freshmen Stephen Perez and Zeke DeVoss have shown flashes offensively while playing very well at shortstop and center field (Perez has just one error through seven games, while DeVoss is fielding 1.000).
"We've got a young club," Morris said. "Our young guys are very athletic, and they can run—Zeke can fly, he's the fastest runner on our team, and Stephen is the best baserunner on our team. It's just a matter of learning to play the game. Time will tell; we're getting into the tough part of our schedule."
Morris has the luxury of rolling out two proven veterans on Friday and Saturday in Erickson and Hernandez, and he's been pleased with the early performance of senior closer David Gutierrez. But the Hurricanes need to settle the Sunday starter role. Senior righty Jason Santana has struggled in that spot the last two weeks, going 0-1, 10.80. Morris said he has not yet decided who will start this Sunday, but freshmen Steven Ewing, Eric Whaley and Jerad Grundy figure to have chances to earn the job as the season progresses. Ewing looks like the favorite after allowing two runs on six hits over 6 1/3 innings in Tuesday's win against South Florida.
"We've given up 19 runs the last two Sundays," Morris said. "We've just got to figure out who our No. 3 and No. 4 is before the NCAA tournament."
Georgia: The Bulldogs' biggest problem right now is simple. "We don't have any middle infielders," Perno said.
Starting second baseman Levi Hyams—who won the job after freshman Chance Veazey was paralyzed last fall in a motor vehicle crash—is out for at least another week with a stress fracture in his back, and Georgia lost starting shortstop Kyle Farmer for three to six weeks when he broke the hamate bone in his left wrist last weekend. Freshman Todd Hankins has filled in at second, batting .300/.323/.400, though he's fielding at just a .902 clip. The Bulldogs have shifted third baseman Colby May to shortstop and plan to use catcher Christian Glisson and natural outfielder Kevin Ruiz at the hot corner.
"You'd rather it now than April or May, obviously," Perno said. "It's been tough, there's no doubt."
Fortunately, highly touted sophomores Zach Cone (.441/.457/.706), Peter Verdin (.324/.316/.649) and Johnathan Taylor (.355/.487/.452) have provided offense, speed and outstanding outfield defense.
"I'll match our outfield up with anybody; they're a lot of fun to watch," Perno said. "You have to be proud of them with all the setbacks we've had—they haven't skipped a beat. They believe they can win, play well, and match up with anybody."
And the Bulldogs are strong on the mound. Flamethrower Justin Grimm (1-0, 1.69) gives Georgia one of the SEC's top Friday starters, and righties Jeff Walters and Michael Palazzone have shown Perno that they are ready to hold down weekend spots. When the Bulldogs went to the College World Series Finals in 2008, the strength of their club—aside from Gordon Beckham—was a deep, talented, versatile bullpen, and they've got the makings of a similar unit this year. Senior lefthander Alex McRee has flashed dominating stuff in the closer role, and Georgia has a pair of hard-throwing setup men in Cecil Tanner and Justin Earls.
With that cast of arms, Perno believes his team can weather the injuries it has suffered early on. His goal this weekend against Florida State is straightforward.
"We want to pitch," he said. "I'm really looking for Grimm and Palazzone and Walters to do a lot of the things they've done the last two weekends: be competitive in the strike zone, get tough outs. They've really competed and done a good job. They've given the ball to the bullpen with leads. When you've got the pitching that we've had, I think that's reassuring. Our guys know if they take care of the baseball, we'll have a chance, because we've got some pitching depth and a closer that could be one of the best in the country."
Florida State: Out of these six teams, the Seminoles have the fewest questions to answer. Through its 7-0 start, Florida State has played well in all facets of the game, hitting .383, posting a 2.80 ERA and fielding at a solid .969 clip.
"We've got a pretty good baseball team," coach Mike Martin said. "So does the rest of this league and so does the SEC and the Big 12. We just can't get too far ahead of ourselves. If we start thinking we've got everything under control, and here comes somebody to sweep us on a weekend."
Florida State did run into some adversity just before the start of the season, losing starting first baseman Mike Meschke and projected starting second baseman Devon Travis to hamate injuries. But that has opened the door for freshmen to shine, and so far they have. The jewel of FSU's '09 recruiting class, Jayce Boyd (.333/.333/.481), has played well at first, and Justin Gonzalez (.471/.571/1.000) has been a dynamo at second.
"We're playing a backup infielder at second base, Justin Gonzalez, and he's playing extremely well," Martin said. "He's making a real statement. We planned on him being our starting shortstop next year, but he's saying, 'Y'all better notice me now.' And Boyd, we've got a lot of plans for that young man. I'm very excited about the direction he's headed in."
Meanwhile, sophomore third baseman Sherman Johnson (.440/.545/.800 with two homers and 14 RBIs) and sophomore outfielder James Ramsey (.435/.581/.696) have taken huge leaps forward with regular playing time. Martin said he planned to platoon both of them heading into the season, but he gave both the opportunity to prove they could hit lefthanded pitching, and "up to this point they have passed the test."
Like Miami, the Seminoles have a pair of veteran lefthanders fronting their weekend rotation in Sean Gilmartin and John Gast. Gilmartin is a proven commodity after winning 10 games last season, and his 2-0, 1.38 start is no surprise. But Gast has been a revelation in his move from the bullpen to the Saturday starter role, going 2-0, 1.64 with 11 walks and two strikeouts in 11 innings. Martin said Gast is finally fully recovered from the Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for most of his 2008 freshman year, and it shows.
"I'm seeing a different Johnny Gast this year," Martin said. "He looks totally different this year. He seems to be looser, he's just more of a free-wheeling guy out there. He seemed to want to guide so many pitches last year. This year he's just loose, he's developed a harder curveball, his changeup is getting better with each outing. The last two times he's pitched for us, he's been close to dominating. That's fun to see. He's pitching in the low 90s, and he holds runners well. He's a heck of a lefty."
South Carolina: Two questions linger about South Carolina: How healthy is sophomore outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., and who will anchor the bullpen?
Bradley, a sophomore center fielder, is South Carolina's best player. He broke the hamate bone in his right wrist on Feb. 6, and the Gamecocks expected him to miss four to eight weeks. But he recovered amazingly quickly. Two weeks after the injury, on opening weekend, Bradley was called upon as a defensive replacement in the outfield.
"He told me last week at the two-week mark after his surgery, 'I'm ready,'" Tanner said. "I said, 'Jackie, you can't be ready.' He said, 'I'm ready.' With a hamate, the doctors say it becomes a pain tolerance issue. By Friday, he was taking BP with the team, and I was thinking, 'He's right, he could play.' On Sunday, I gave him an at-bat, and he promptly hit a single.
"It does vary. Most people are pain-free by six weeks, and most people can play by the four-week mark. There are some issues, some deep-tissue bruising. Sometimes they don't feel quite the same for a while, so you never can tell."
Three weeks and one day after his surgery, on Wednesday, Bradley was starting in center field, going 2-for-4 with a double and a walk in a 15-0 win against Presbyterian. Assuming Bradley is most of the way back to full strength already, South Carolina enters this weekend's series against rival Clemson with its anticipated formidable heart of the order intact. Senior first baseman Nick Ebert returned from his academics-related absence last weekend, and freshman third baseman Christian Walker has settled comfortably into the No. 3 hole in the lineup, batting .323/.364/.581 with two homers and 10 RBIs through seven games.
As for the bullpen, South Carolina is still looking for answers. Junior righty John Taylor, a groundball specialist, got the first crack at the closer job, and he induced four grounders in a save situation Saturday at East Carolina. However, three of them went for singles, as the Pirates rallied for a 4-3 win en route to capturing the series.
"John Taylor sort of ran away with the closer role because of his production in practice, but his first three outings haven't been real good, so we might have to re-evaluate that situation," Tanner said. "It could be Ethan Carter, it could be Colby Holmes. We're looking for a little more stability from Parker Bangs—he's got a good arm, a low-90s guy."
There was one other significant question facing the Gamecocks entering the season: How well would flame-throwing ace Sam Dyson recover from minor offseason arm surgery? But Dyson has answered that question, looking very sharp in two limited-pitch count outings.
"He's looked great, actually, to me," Tanner said. "We've been very careful with him. I know he wasn't happy being lifted at East Carolina—I think he was at 55 or 58 pitches, throwing extremely well. But it's a long season. He'll throw a few more pitches Saturday against Clemson. His velocity's been good, and his changeup is the best I've ever seen it, and a good slider. His first outing against Duquesne he was 97 a couple of times but was low to mid-90s quite often. He is one of those pitchers in college baseball, there's not that many, but on any given day he can dominate a team."
Clemson: Clemson, like Florida State, mostly has its pieces in place. The Tigers have gotten good hitting, especially from stars like Kyle Parker (.464/.531/.893 with four homers), Brad Miller (.423/.448/.615) and Jeff Schaus (.407/.455/.593), and their versatile pitching staff has posted a 2.67 ERA during their 7-0 start.
"We've played pretty well so far," Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. "I kind of like the way we're approaching every game, and the kids are focused on what they have to do. We're in a situation where now we have to bump it up a notch, with South Carolina coming up and then the conference schedule."
Clemson's star power is strong, but its depth might be even better. When its everyday starters scuffle—as Chris Epps, Jason Stolz and Wilson Boyd have out of the gate—the Tigers can call upon their strong bench, which includes talented two-way player Will Lamb, versatile infielder John Hinson and speedy veteran outfielder Addison Johnson.
"I think we've got some good experience on our team in the field, and some pretty good depth with our offensive players," Leggett said. "I think overall if two or three guys have a really good day, it's carrying us. If a couple guys are off a little bit, other guys can pick us up. So our depth is really helping us."
Depth is also the strong point of the pitching staff, though junior lefthander Casey Harman (2-0, 0.84) appears to be blossoming into a rock-solid Friday ace. Sophomore righty Scott Weismann (1-0, 2.89) and Lamb (1-0, 1.42) will follow Harman in the rotation this weekend, and both are doing a good job harnessing their power stuff thus far this spring.
The lone question is who will anchor the bullpen. Leggett likes his group of relievers—he says righties Tomas Cruz, Alex Frederick, David Haseldon and Jonathan Meyer, in particular, have distinguished themselves through two weeks—but he is not yet sure who will seize the closer job. Not that he's particularly concerned about it at this point.
"I think it'll happen. It usually takes us about 15-20 games every year to try to figure out who exactly can do what in what roles," Legget said. "We're about seven games into it, so we're a half to a third of the way there to figure it out."
|Marquee Mound Matchup|
|Conrad Flynn vs. Drew Pomeranz|
There might not be a pitcher in college baseball with better control than Flynn, Tulane's junior ace. The righthander issued just seven walks in 87 innings last year—just 0.72 per nine innings, third fewest in the nation. Through two starts in 2010, it's been more of the same from Flynn: he has 17 strikeouts and one walk in 14 innings, while going 1-1, 2.57. He enters Friday's matchup against Mississippi coming off a dominant performance against Lipscomb, allowing three hits without issuing a walk and striking out eight over eight shutout innings.
"He's just a very consistent strike-thrower," Tulane coach Rick Jones said. "He had fewer walks than he had wins last year. He's a guy that pounds the strike zone, throws three pitches for strikes, doesn't overpower but spots up pretty well. He has a good mound presence. I think he's maybe gotten off to a quicker start because of his familiarity with his surroundings. He throws more of a 12-to-6 breaking ball and a good changeup. He'll touch 90, but will sit 87-89 usually."
Flynn will lock horns with a guy who does more than just touch 90. Pomeranz, Mississippi's junior lefthander, sits in the low 90s and tops out in the mid-90s when he's on, though one national crosschecker said he topped out at 93 in his season debut against Louisiana-Monroe. The crosschecker said Pomeranz also showed good feel for a changeup around 80 mph, and his breaking ball has morphed from a downer curve into more of a power slurve at 79-81 mph. A first-team preseason All-American, Pomeranz was overpowering last Friday against Oakland, allowing one run on four hits over seven innings while striking out 15 without issuing a walk.
Jones knows what his young lineup—which features six freshmen most days and has featured seven at times—is up against. He is plenty familiar with Pomeranz from last summer, when Jones coached the lefty with Team USA.
"He's one of the more talented guys in college baseball certainly," Jones said. "He has the ability to throw the fastball in the 90s down in the zone to both halves—he really works off that fastball. It bores on you, and it's down in the zone. You can see guys having uncomfortable at-bats."
|Under The Radar|
After Le Moyne won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title in 2007, the league voted to require each member of the conference to have every sport competing at the Division I level. Just one team was affected by the change: Le Moyne, which competes in D-II for every sport except baseball.
Without the opportunity to win an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, Le Moyne coach Steve Owens knew an at-large bid was the Dolphins' only path to regionals, and it was a very remote possibility for a cold-weather team based in upstate New York. But Owens did not shrink from the daunting challenge facing his program, instead putting together as rigorous a schedule as he could. This year's schedule includes trips to Conference USA foes Southern Mississippi (last weekend) and Marshall, Big East powerhouse Louisville (this weekend), Sun Belt contender Louisiana-Lafayette, and ACC juggernaut Florida State.
"I put this schedule together to give us the opportunity," Owens said. "If we just played a schedule that didn't have high RPI teams on it and we won those games, we still wouldn't have a chance. I think you have to be in the top 75 just to have a chance. We put it together that way knowing how hard it's going to be. I think it's unrealistic of us to assume we're going to win series against teams in the top 10. That's unrealistic, but we've always been able to be competitive against very good teams. This team has proven at least so far it can be competitive."
It certainly did that last weekend, stunning Southern Miss by taking two of three in Hattiesburg. The Dolphins beat reigning Conference USA pitcher of the year Todd McInnis on Friday, as Le Moyne junior righty Jeff Tardiff limited the Golden Eagles to one run over seven innings.
"I think McInnis pitched very well," Owens said. "We just got a couple nice two-out hits with guys on second and executed pretty well, and were fortunate enough to get some hits in key situations. Defensively we made good plays all day long, and Jeff made some big pitches to get out of innings. He pitched very well. He's not overpowering but he mixes four or five different pitches, and he usually pitches deep into games. I think he's won eight or nine games in a row going back to last year. [Editor's note: Tardiff has won his last seven decisions.] He's competitive and poised."
So are the rest of the Dolphins. They showed their poise in Sunday's rubber game, holding off a late USM rally to win 12-11 behind five RBIs from junior outfielder Chris Edmondson and three runs from freshman second baseman Zach Wiley. Freshman righty Jerome Werniuk earned the win, battling through five innings. Wiley and Werniuk were key recruits for Le Moyne and give the Dolphins a strong nucleus to build around.
Wiley, a sparkplug whose older brother played for Tulane, came to Le Moyne from California prep power Crespi High, in part because of family connections in the Syracuse area. Werniuk, a Toronto native, signed with Le Moyne early and blossomed last summer with Team Canada, causing Owens to worry that the Rangers might sign him as a 20th-round pick. At 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, Werniuk has big-time projection, and Owens said he already runs his fastball up to 92 mph to go with a good breaking ball and a changeup.
"He's a big, strong, physical kid that you know is going to develop," Owens said. "He might be really special. He has the makings right now of somebody who could be as good as anybody we've ever had."
The Dolphins can get talent like that by selling recruits on their challenging schedule. They're still hoping to join a conference as an associate member, but that process was delayed until recently as the school evaluated its entire athletics program and mulled a complete move to Division I before deciding to maintain the status quo.
"That would be wonderful if we could get into a conference," Owens said. "Since 2007, the last year we won the conference, we're scheduled through next year with a really good schedule again. We've got two ACC teams and a Texas A&M weekend. That's allowed us to still get good players and say we're playing in regional-type settings five or six times, instead of just once."
The Dolphins loaded up the bus Thursday for the 11-hour trip Louisville, the first stop in an 11-day road trip over spring break that includes eight games. If they can pull off a couple more stunners like they did last weekend, they might just have a chance to play in a regional setting one more time—in June.
|In Turtle Thomas' second season as head coach last spring, Florida International orchestrated the biggest one-year improvement in school history, jumping from 20 wins to 34. The Panthers so far have succeeded in carrying last year's momentum into 2010, winning their first six games of the season by sweeping Maryland and perennial Summit League powerhouse Oral Roberts.
"Winning and success, no doubt, breeds confidence," Thomas said. "When we got here, we needed to instill a little better work ethic in the weight room and on the field, organize things a little bit, and try to improve the talent level. I'm glad the guys have gotten off to a good start, but we've got a tough schedule ahead."
The Panthers will be tested again this weekend at the Coca-Cola Classic in Arizona, facing Utah Valley, UC Riverside, Cal Poly and Arizona State, Thomas' most recent former employer. But FIU has showed toughness thus far in the young season, winning the last two games of the Oral Roberts series in walk-off fashion. Senior center fielder Lammar Guy, who had lost his starting job after a lackluster fall, was the hero in both cases. He delivered a pinch-hit, game-winning single Saturday, so Thomas rewarded him with a start Sunday. He went 2-for-5 with two doubles in the finale and came through with a game-winning sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 10th.
Of course, Guy hasn't been the only source of offense. The Panthers are hitting .360 as a team and have five regulars hitting .458 or better through six games, led by third baseman/reliever Garrett Wittels (.538/.571/.692).
"One thing is we've hit kind of throughout the lineup," Thomas said. "It's not just relying upon one or two guys. We've had a lot of games where seven or even eight guys have hit. We feel like we've got some capable offensive guys."
They're also solid on the mound, with a pair of strike-throwing seniors (righty Scott Rembisz and lefty Corey Polizzano) holding down the first two rotation spots and a power-armed sophomore (righty Aaron Arboleya) holding down the Sunday spot. Arboleya's sinking fastball sits at 90-91 and bumps 92-93, and he mixes in a slider and changeup effectively.
"We felt like the starting pitching the first two weekends has been doing well," Thomas said. "We've got four or five pretty capable guys in the bullpen. We felt all along that would be the strength of the club. They haven't disappointed—they've been OK."
|Generally, a cold-weather team from the Midwest starting 0-6 isn't that big of a deal. But Eastern Illinois' 0-6 start is more than a bit surprising.
The Panthers went 36-14 a year ago and won the Ohio Valley Conference by 2 1/2 games. They started strong out of the gate, cruising to a 27-6 mark by mid-April, so they have proven that early-season cold weather is an obstacle they can overcome. EIU entered 2010 as the favorite to repeat as OVC champions, but it was swept at Southeastern Louisiana (against whom it took two out of three in opening weekend last year) and then swept again at Belmont. The latter series was particularly ugly, as the Panthers could not hold an early 4-0 lead Friday, then blew a 7-2 lead Saturday when Belmont scored six runs in the eighth. On Sunday, the Panthers committed seven errors in a 12-11 loss in 10 innings.
"It was the same script as last weekend," EIU head coach Jim Schmitz told the (Charleston, Ill.) Journal Gazette/Times-Courier after Sunday's loss. "Friday night, situational hitting really cost us the game. (Saturday), we're up 7-2 and can't hold a lead. So the guys are down and they have a right to be down. We're trying to keep their spirits up. Today we make seven errors and only lose 12-11. There were some bad swings and a couple of at-bats where you'd expect more. I was disappointed in veterans like (Richie) Derbak and (Zach) Borenstein for giving away some at-bats. Mentally we weren't really strong this weekend. And with UAB and South Florida up next, it's not going to get any easier. So we're going to have to be tougher."
The Panthers do not play their first home series until April 2 against Austin Peay State.
|Stat of the Week|
|Hits for Lane (Tenn.) College in an NAIA doubleheader against Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.) on Tuesday. Lions pitchers Gage Franklin and Adam Blackburn threw back-to-back no-hitters as Freed-Hardeman swept the doubleheader, 10-0 and 13-2 in six innings and five innings, respectively.
Interestingly, there have now been four no-hitters in Freed-Hardeman history, but just two last names are responsible for all of them. Franklin's older brother, Tyler, threw the first on April 28, 2006. Blackburn threw the second on April 7, 2008.
The younger Franklin nearly threw a perfect game Tuesday, issuing no walks and striking out 10 in six innings of work, but the Lions committed an error in the second inning. Blackburn walked one while striking out nine over his five-inning no-hitter, but he allowed two unearned runs as the Lions' defense made six errors behind him.
|San Diego State|
It's been a strange two weeks in Southern California college baseball. The region's pair of preseason top-10 teams, Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine, have faltered, the Titans posting two straight losing weekends, and the Anteaters losing four of their last five games heading into this weekend's series against St. Mary's. Another team ranked in the preseason, San Diego, has lost five of its last six, including a series against cross-town rival San Diego State—which was swept in a four-game series by Oklahoma in the opening weekend. The Aztecs are trying to overcome the loss not only of Stephen Strasburg to pro ball but also of pitching coach Rusty Filter to Stanford.
New assistant Eric Valenzuela, who came over from USD, already has made an impact on new No. 1 starter Addison Reed, as an American League area scout informs us. Reed, a junior righthander making the transition from closer to Friday starter, was masterful in a win against USD last week, allowing just two runs (one earned) on four hits and a walk while striking out 11 in a complete game. But SDSU is having to cope without starting shortstop/Saturday starter Ryan O'Sullivan, who left his first start against Oklahoma after just 15 pitches due to pain in his elbow.
"Addison Reed is legit. That's a powerful young man that is really going to be good, I think. He was only used to close last year, and he would come in and close at 93-95 with a real good slider. But (SDSU pitching coach) Eric (Valenzuela) brought along his changeup now, and his changeup is a plus pitch. He's stretched out now, so he's not giving you those 94s and 95s, he's giving you a lot more 91s and 92s, but he's pitching more. It's a pretty good move, because he seems to be a pretty durable young man. That move could have been questioned a little bit, but it might actually make that kid some money. He's a three-quarters slot guy, but he's a big old horse, he's probably 6-5, 230 [Editor's note: he's listed at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds]. For his size, the command is pretty good.
"They got hit when O'Sullivan went down. O'Sullivan was playing extremely well. He was throwing well enough (in spring intrasquads) that he should have been a Team USA guy. I never thought I'd say this, but I saw O'Sullivan throw 95 miles an hour, with late life—he was throwing really well. They hope he'll be back in three to four weeks, but we'll see. He's got a whippy arm, and he was throwing the crap out of it, he really was. He's got a curveball, slider and changeup. He's legit. They're saying it's an elbow sprain or something; MRIs were negative, so we'll see. The best guy on Fullerton's staff is really Tyler Pill, and O'Sullivan has been better than Pill, to give you some perspective. The fact of the matter is if he were healthy, with Reed and O'Sullivan, that was two front-line guys, legit Friday and Saturday guys.
"I don't know where they'll get their offense though. (Brandon) Meredith's swinging it pretty good, but (Cory) Vaughn still does not recognize breaking balls. If somebody leaves him a hanger and he runs into one, he'll hit it a long way. He just doesn't recognize the slider at all, that's always been his Achilles' heel. He looks the part but doesn't seem to be throwing very well."
|In The Dugout|
|Alan Oaks, rhp, Michigan|
|Oaks will always be remembered in Ann Arbor for his pinch-hit, walk-off home run against College Player of the Year David Price to win the 2007 Nashville Regional for Michigan, but he's creating a new identity on the mound as a senior. Oaks moved into the Friday starter role last weekend at the Big Ten/Big East Challenge, using a 90-92 mph fastball, a low-80s slider and a high-70s changeup to hold an explosive Louisville offense to two runs over seven innings while striking out seven in a tough-luck loss. Through two starts, he's 1-1, 2.77 with nine strikeouts and three walks in 13 innings. This Friday he faces another marquee opponent in North Carolina and ace Matt Harvey. We caught up with Oaks after Michigan picked up a win against South Florida on Sunday.
Yeah, not only our pitching but our defense was good, too. That's one thing that Coach (Rich Maloney) talks about is pitching and defense. We knew from the start that we had some solid starters and our bullpen is good too, so it's just a matter of executing. I feel like we did that all three games.
It looked like you were really feeling it on Friday. You kept a really good offensive Louisville club at bay for seven innings. What did you have working?
Early on, I was just trying to spot up my fastball and use both sides of the plate with the two-seam and four-seam. I had the slider going early, and then as the game went on I started to find my changeup more to the lefties, so I started mixing that in more. Coach always says it doesn't matter who you're playing; as long as you make your pitch they're not going to hit it, so that's kind of what I go by.
It's pretty impressive that you have confidence in all three pitches considering you haven't really pitched a lot in college (making 10 career appearances). When was the last time you pitched regularly?
The last time I pitched regularly was probably high school. I was ace of my high school team, I guess you could say. I still threw bullpens my freshman and sophomore year here, and then junior year about halfway through they started using me a little bit more, and then I got three starts at the end of the year last year and got about 30 innings. This year I'm just concentrating on pitching only. I hit in BP every now and then, but it's a different mindset now that it's solely one focus.
What's that adjustment been like for you? Did you always think of yourself as a hitter first?
I never really thought of it that way, but when I got here, I could see I wasn't ready to pitch at the college level yet. But it really hasn't been that hard of a change; in fact, I like it better. It's less toll on your arm than doing both things, but at the same time, sometimes I do miss hitting in the games. But I get my fun in in batting practice.
Certainly it seems like your future down the road in pro ball is on the mound, with your arm strength and stuff, but you're always going to be remembered by Michigan fans for what you did with the bat. Are you sick of hearing about David Price yet?
You know, everyone has a different perspective of where they were or when they heard about it, so it's interesting to hear everyone's take on it. Every time they bring it up I get a little smile from it.
What's your take on it? When you look back on it, take me through that whole experience.
I was just a freshman and wasn't really expecting to be in the game. Then coach yelled at me because of the matchup we had—we had another freshman in who hadn't really hit much, so I pinch-hit for him. I got to a 3-1 count, and I was just sitting dead-red. I knew he was going to try and throw it by me—he throws 95. So I hit it and I didn't really know what happened at first, and then I saw it go out. I was just on cloud nine for about a week until we went to Oregon (for super regionals against Oregon State). I mean, it's something that I'll remember forever definitely, just that whole weekend and whole experience. Just the fact that I helped my team win is the biggest, most important thing.
The next October when you see Price getting the last outs to send the Rays to the World Series, you could say, "I beat that guy."
Yeah, and I pitched the night before, it was the first championship game. I'd only pitched two innings, and actually my first career strikeout was Pedro Alvarez. So someone said earlier today, "Man, you owned like $25 million that weekend." So that was kind of funny.