|Stanford at Rice|
For the second straight season, the most compelling opening weekend series on the schedule pits perennial powers Stanford and Rice against each other. These programs never back down from challenging themselves right out of the gate, and they typically benefit from the experience. Last year Stanford swept the fifth-ranked Owls at Sunken Diamond, giving the young Cardinal some early confidence and helping the Owls realize they had some work to do.
Of course, there are pitfalls to rigorous scheduling. If Stanford survives its first three weeks—which also include three-game series at No. 4 Vanderbilt and No. 6 Texas, plus midweek games against No. 17 California and West Coast Conference contender Santa Clara—it will be as battle-tested and confident as any team in college baseball. Or it could find itself in a deep hole.
"The thing that makes it insane is Texas was scheduled to come here this year, and Augie (Garrido) got stuck in a scheduling situation where he really couldn't change it," Stanford coach Mark Marquess said. "It's a crazy schedule anyway, but to play three in a row on the road . . . We're always going to play that type of schedule anyway. It does hurt our overall record, but it serves us well. You find out where you need to improve. You run the risk as a coach—we can start out 1-8 or 0-9, you know? We have a fairly young team, but we have a couple of seniors and some junior pitchers that have been through it, so I don't think it'll happen to us."
"He's been our most impressive pitcher—nasty," Marquess said. "He's throwing 94-95 with a good slider and a changeup. Can he pitch five or six innings? We'll find out. If he can, he'll be a starter. If he's effective for one or two innings but can't be effective for five or six, we'll move him to the bullpen."
The rest of Stanford's pitching is up in the air heading into this weekend. Marquess said he plans to use this weekend to start sorting out roles on the pitching staff, but since all his starters will be on pitch limits anyway, he might use a starter in a relief role Friday if Stanford is in position to win. Junior bulldog Jordan Pries is a likely starting candidate who could pitch in relief Friday. Other potential starters who will see action in some capacity this weekend are sophomore righty Dean McArdle (a smallish strike-thrower in the Pries mold) and hulking, hard-throwing lefties Scott Snodgress and Chris Reed (who have "really come into their own" this offseason, according to Marquess). The presumptive ace, junior lefty and Team USA veteran Brett Mooneyham, did a much better job throwing strikes in the fall and made great strides with his changeup, but he cut the middle finger on his left hand in January and just had the stitches removed in the last couple of weeks, so he will be limited this weekend to an inning or two, at most.
Other talented Cardinal returnees have a chance to show just how much progress they've made since last spring. Marquess said speedy sophomore outfielders Jake Stewart and Tyler Gaffney have matured considerably in the last year, and sophomore Kenny Diekroeger—a first-team preseason All-American—is much more comfortable at his natural shortstop after spending last year at third base.
As for the freshmen, Wilson figures to start all weekend in right field, and it will be interesting to see how long it takes him to harness the tremendous potential that caused scouting directors to make him a third-team preseason All-American. Ragira will split time at first base with sophomore Justin Ringo, at least at first, while sophomore Stephen Piscotty shifts across the diamond to third. Soon enough, Stanford will know just what it has with its youngsters, and so will Rice.
"Rice is trying to find out some of the things we're trying to find out with these young guys," Marquess said. "Rice has some talented freshmen players, but how will they play when the lights go on? How soon will they make that adjustment? We need to play and find out where we are, what we need to improve upon."
Rice brought in a top-10 recruiting class of its own, and the two pillars of that haul—freshman righthanders John Simms and Austin Kubitza—will open the year in the weekend rotation. Simms will start Friday's opener, while Kubitza will go Sunday, with junior righty Matthew Reckling getting the nod Saturday. It's not the first time the Owls have leaned on freshmen pitchers early and often—in 1997 they started two freshmen in the rotation en route to their first College World Series trip, and in the last decade freshmen like Philip Humber, Jeff Niemann, Joe Savery and Ryan Berry played prominent roles in the rotation.
"It's been a long time since we've had a couple of power arms like that," Graham said. "It's about command, getting the breaking ball over, but they've got enough arm strength to win, and they're big and strong. You don't know what's going to happen with them this weekend, but you want to develop that talent, because if they're as good as we think they are, in May they're going to be better."
The Owls, like the Cardinal, have plenty of options on the mound, as returnees Reckling, Tony Cingrani and Chase McDowell all made velocity jumps and mechanical advancements over the offseason. Junior lefthander Taylor Wall is the most experienced starter on the staff, but he figures to work in middle relief this weekend against the righthanded-leaning Cardinal, though his best pitch is a changeup that is effective against righties. The bullpen also looks improved thanks to the continued development of power-armed righties Tyler Duffey and J.T. Chargois, who figure to share the closing duties.
Chargois also will start at first base, and Graham expressed excitement about his athleticism and his switch-hitting prowess. He'll be one of at least five new starters in the Owls' lineup, which might be without junior outfielder Michael Fuda, who is questionable with an ankle sprain. But Rice has only one freshman slated for an everyday job (shortstop Derek Hamilton, a defensive whiz) and another (DH/infielder Sean Hoelscher) slated to see significant at-bats. Like Stanford, returnees have taken steps forward for Rice, led by outfielder Jeremy Rathjen, second baseman Michael Ratterree and Chargois. That gives reigning Player of the Year Anthony Rendon a solid supporting cast.
Rice, like Stanford, should be one of the most exciting teams to watch in college baseball this season, as its young talent matures. That these two teams cross paths in the opening weekend will be a nice treat for fans in Houston.
"I think this is unusual—they've had those great recruiting classes and we've had interesting talent too," Graham said. "I wouldn't be surprised if there are a ton of scouts there. Rathjen has evolved into a real good player, a plus runner, and of course you've got Rendon. Then you've got these freshman arms, and other arms that are at least interesting to the scouts. Nobody knows exactly where Reckling or Cingrani are going, but they're throwing hard. They both touch 94, and average over 90 on every fastball, so they're interesting arms as well as the young guys. And Stanford's got all those guys, one prospect after another. I'd be out here if I was a baseball fan."
|Marquee Mound Showdown|
|Kent State's Kyle Hallock vs. Georgia Tech's Mark Pope|
Initially, this space was reserved for a scouts' dream matchup for a Saturday in February between premium lefty prospects Jed Bradley of Georgia Tech and Andrew Chafin of Kent State. Bradley, a second-team preseason All-American, has looked strong this preseason, sitting at 93-95 mph and showing a much-improved changeup according to Tech coach Danny Hall, and he will remain in the Saturday starter role so the Jackets can split up power righties Mark Pope and Buck Farmer.
"His elbow's clean, his shoulder's clean, everything's good—just a little stiffness," Stricklin said. "At this point early in the year, we'll err on the side of caution. He wants to pitch, and I think he very well could pitch, but we need to be smart."
Fortunately, the Golden Flashes and Yellow Jackets will give us a fine fallback option for the Marquee Mound Showdown on Friday. Kent State senior lefty Kyle Hallock did not post the prettiest numbers last year, going 8-5, 5.64 with 69 strikeouts in 83 innings, but he's an experienced, polished competitor, and he's primed for a big senior campaign.
"He throws four pitches for strikes, and he's a great athlete—he was the all-time leading scorer in basketball at his high school," Stricklin said. "He fields his position, holds runners, he's very intelligent, he just knows how to pitch. He gets up to 90 mph, but has a power slider and a good changeup. He has all the traits you want in a Friday starter—he's been here three years and pitched in big games. He won't back down; as good as his stuff is, he's even a better competitor. I'm looking forward to Friday, letting him pitch against a really talented Georgia Tech team."
It's also an extremely young Georgia Tech team in the lineup, which might give the veteran Golden Flashes a chance to steal the series, despite their weather-related preparation disadvantages. But Tech is extremely strong on the mound, and plenty experienced. Pope is tasked with replacing Friday starter Deck McGuire, the No. 11 overall pick by the Blue Jays last June. As a sophomore last year, Pope went 8-1, 3.78 with 73 strikeouts and 13 walks in 79 innings, working mostly as the midweek starter. He beat rival Georgia three times in midweek action, then beat Mercer in the opening game of the Atlanta Regional. So clearly, Georgia Tech trusts him in big games.
"He's a guy that can throw four pitches for strikes in any count, and he will throw them in any count," Hall said. "He's a great athlete—he probably would be good enough to start in our infield or start in our outfield if we chose to let him play a position. He's an extremely hard worker and a good, good competitor. He's got a good arm, but his pitchability really makes him good.
"He throws two different kinds of fastballs: a four-seam fastball that straightens out, stays on the same plane, and a two-seamer that really runs and sinks. He'll sit upper 80s to 92, right in that range. He has a curve and a slider, and the pitch he has really thrown well is his straight changeup. That's probably the one thing he's got this year that maybe he didn't have all the time last year."
This series is also compelling because of all the connections between the coaching staffs. Hall and his volunteer assistant, former Wake Forest coach Rick Rembielak, have both served as head coaches at Kent State, where Hall coached Stricklin, and current Kent State pitching coach Kent Birkbeck served as pitching coach under Rembielak. Stricklin also spent time as an assistant under Hall at Georgia Tech.
"It's kind of like old home week," Hall said. "But that being said, we're trying to get our season started off on the right foot. You want to be as nice as you can, it's great to see them, but at the end of the day you're competing against them. And to quote Scott Stricklin, it's the best team he's ever had there."
|Under The Radar|
|Liberty at Mercer|
Looking for a Week One showdown between a pair of unheralded mid-major regionals contenders? This is your four-game series.
Liberty won 42 games a year ago, finishing second in the Big South Conference and narrowly missing its first NCAA tournament berth since 2000. Mercer, meanwhile, returns six everyday starters and 36 of 38 wins on the mound from a team that made its first regionals trip in 2010. This series will be a good measuring stick for both teams.
"Looking back on it, I told coach (Garrett) Quinn who helps me do the schedule, I said, 'Man, did you have to open up with a team that was in a regional last year? Great job of scheduling opening weekend,'" Liberty coach Jim Toman said. "I like our squad, but we lost nine seniors last year, so we're still trying to figure out a lineup and a rotation at this point."
The Flames plugged some of those holes with a strong group of junior-college transfers, four of whom should start immediately: catcher Casey Rasmus (younger brother of Cardinals outfielder Colby), second baseman Zach Haley and outfielders Ian Parmley and Joshua Thompson. Those players should be solid contributors, but they don't have to carry the load because Liberty welcomes back key players like cousins Tyler and Doug Bream at the infield corners, multi-talented shortstop Matt Williams and speedy outfielder Michael Robertson.
But Liberty has a chance to be very good if its pitching lives up to Toman's hopes. Senior lefthander Steven Evans (9-2, 3.01 in 2010) is a quality ace who can reach the low 90s and also has good command of a nice curveball. Sophomore righty Blake Forslund, a transfer from Virginia, could join with Evans to give Liberty a dynamite one-two punch atop the rotation if he can throw strikes and keep his pitch count down, because he showed 97 mph velocity in the fall.
"We're starting to get more depth on the mound," Toman said. "I don't know if we have enough power arms, but Evans is a quality guy and Forslund can throw, and we've got some JC guys who have stepped in pretty good. We have six or seven guys who can throw pretty hard, I just don't know how they'll pitch when we start the season. Early on, they've all been down two or three mph from where they were at the end of the fall, when it was warmer. I'm hoping in nice weather down there against the opponents we're playing, they'll get a couple notches back up on the radar gun."
Mercer can't match Liberty for power arms, but the Bears make up for it with experience and poise on the mound. Ace Matt McCall, a sophomore righty, works mostly in the 86-88 range but can carve up opponents by effectively mixing in his cutter, breaking ball and changeup. Junior lefthander Brandon Love is the best arm on the staff, with a fastball that reaches the low 90s, but like Forslund he must become more efficient and consistent. And Mercer has two reliable sidearmers in the bullpen in J.T. Odom and David Teasley. Mercer coach Craig Gibson said Odom reminds him of former Bears star and current Braves farmhand Cory Gearrin, with less velocity.
Mercer's biggest strength is its lineup, anchored by slugging corner infielders Jacob Tanis and John Moreland, who combined for 43 homers last year. Gibson said he does not expect their power production to drop off significantly with the new BBCOR bats.
"It really hasn't changed a whole lot in the fall ball or preseason," Gibson said. "Our park plays a little smaller than a lot of ballparks, so it hasn't really affected Tanis or Moreland, and (sophomore shortstop Evan) Boyd's hit four or five homers in 10 intrasquad games. I've got two fifth-year guys, a fourth-year senior at first, and Tanis is special being a third-year starter, so we have a lot of maturity."
Boyd, like Williams, is one of the better all-around shortstops on the East Coast. He hit .312/.391/.403 as a freshman, and Gibson expects bigger things this spring.
"He's special; I had no idea he was going to be this good," Gibson said. "I signed him after watching him play basketball against my son—I didn't know he played baseball at first. We had a catcher leave last year, so we put our shortstop behind the plate, so put (Boyd) at shortstop. He's long, rangy, athletic. In pro baseball he might fall through because his foot speed's not great, but he's like another coach on the field, and he plays with a lot of confidence. He's fun to watch, makes all the plays."
The Bears are balanced and experienced enough to get back to regionals and make some noise. Their journey starts with a quality series against a Liberty team that looks poised to break through to regionals itself.
"I don't think we'll have to wait very long to find out how good we are," Gibson said.
|Garrett Wittels, ss, Florida International|
Wittels has been featured in this Streakin' space before—last April 23, when his hitting streak sat at a mere 31 games. It reached 56 games by the time Florida International's season ended in the Coral Gables Regional, and he had to wait more than seven months to try to extend it to 57.
"There have been many times when I've been sitting down thinking about what exactly is going to happen Friday night," Wittels said Wednesday. "No one really knows . . . The coaches have done a great job preparing me. There is going to be a lot of energy in the stands. My family and my friends are going to be there supporting me—they're my backbone."
Wittels has had to lean more on his support system after he was arrested in the Bahamas over the holiday break on a rape charge, which the Wittels family vehemently denies. He is not due back in court until an April 18 hearing, and FIU opted not to take disciplinary action against him in the meantime, so his pursuit of Ventura's hallowed streak will resume as scheduled in this weekend's three-game series against Southeastern Louisiana. (Baseball America contributor Walter Villa will be on hand with updates on the BA College Blog.)
Wittels had a succinct answer when asked Wednesday about the distractions swirling around him.
"I try not to think about it," he said. "I'm worried about balls and strikes and wins and losses."
|Northern teams on Opening Day|
Cold-weather schools are fighting an uphill battle on their early-season road trips to warmer climes. Most of the Northeast and upper Midwest are still buried under feet of snow as Opening Day approaches, so it's no wonder teams in those regions are typically less prepared when they face Sun Belt teams that have been practicing outside for weeks.
"We still haven't taken a pop-up outside—guys haven't even had their spikes on yet," Stricklin said. "We've got a great indoor facility, but being out there with wind and clouds and sun is different. It puts us behind some others."
On Opening Day in 2010, Northern teams went 18-42 against warm-weather teams from the South and California. For the purpose of this exercise, Kentucky and Virginia were considered Southern states since a number of teams in those states hosted games over opening weekend, but every state north of them—as well as every state north of Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona—was considered a cold-weather state. Of course, the weather in Louisville or Stillwater or Fayetteville or Charlottesville can be very dicey in February, but it's a far cry from the weather in Storrs, Conn., for instance.
|Stat of the Week|
Runs per game allowed by Texas in 2010, the fewest in the nation. Only one other team—UCLA (3.6)—allowed fewer than four runs per game.
We've spent the entire offseason writing about how runs will be harder to come by in 2011 because of the BBCOR bat standards that are going into effect this spring. Teams that pitch and play defense are best positioned to win in the new era of less potent bats, and no team excels at run prevention like Texas, which opens its season by hosting Maryland for four games this weekend. Everyone knows Texas has great pitching, led by co-aces Taylor Jungmann and Cole Green. But the other reason the Longhorns are so good at curtailing opposing offenses is their defense, which tied for the national lead in both fielding percentage and defensive efficiency a year ago.
Some other members of BA's preseason Top 25 that ranked among the nation's top 20 in run prevention last year: Oregon and Arizona State (4.0 runs per game); South Carolina (4.1); Texas Christian and Virginia (4.2); Oklahoma (4.3); Connecticut (4.4); Cal State Fullerton, Vanderbilt and Florida (4.5); Texas A&M (4.6) and Miami (4.8).
|Brian Goodwin, of, Miami Dade College|
While Division I begins play this weekend, junior-college teams have been playing meaningful games for weeks. The best prospect in JC ball is Goodwin, who transferred from North Carolina this winter after being suspended for the spring season for violating UNC school policy. Goodwin, the No. 6 prospect in the Cape Cod League last summer, was slowed a bit by a hamstring tweak but has not missed time during Miami Dade's 8-2 start. A National League scout who has seen Goodwin this spring broke him down.
"He's an above-average runner, 55 maybe (on the 20-80 scouting scale). He's got more than enough arm for center field—it's an average arm at least on good days. He definitely has enough speed and athleticism for the position. I think he has more to learn yet about breaks and routes, but I definitely think you can safely project him as a center field.
"You've got a guy who profiles, he is evocative of a lot of big league players. You want to give those physical tools a chance to play and see what happens. If he was perfect he probably wouldn't have even made it to college. I don't think he's come out like gangbusters (this spring), but nobody's giving up on him."
|In The Dugout|
|Scott Matyas, rhp, Minnesota|
But the Gophers just might have the veteran leadership to weather their road-heavy schedule. Fifth-year senior closer Scott Matyas is a key member of Minnesota's solid leadership core, as well as one of its best players. Matyas set a school record with 15 saves while posting a 2.22 ERA as a sophomore in 2009, then went 5-1, 2.19 with eight saves and a 60-14 strikeout-walk ratio in 37 innings last year. In three seasons, he has 138 strikeouts and 32 walks in 97 innings of relief.
Your team is fascinating this year, Scott. It looks like you've got the talent to get back to repeat as Big Ten champions, but a lot of people are curious to see how you will handle the adversity of losing the Metrodome.
Our team focuses a lot on the mental side of the game; we focus a lot on controlling the controlables. That's something we can't really control. We have a lot of seniors and upperclassmen on the team, and we're doing a good job keeping everyone focused on getting ready for the season, not worrying about the dome. Our motto this year has been, "road warriors." We're going to enjoy seeing different parts of the country. Obviously at first when the dome went down, we knew our season at home might be in jeopardy, but I think it's been a rallying cry more than anything. The coaches were worried about our morale, but we're going to embrace it.
Are you excited about the possibility of playing some games at Target Field, the new home of the Twins?
I think they just came out with a report that the dome will not be ready until August, so we're out of the dome until August. We're fortunate the Twins have been great to us, they've offered Target Field for us, so we're playing most of our home games there. We're looking forward to that as well—it's almost a blessing in disguise. The dome was a different kind of home-field advantage, with balls getting lost in the roof. We played the first game ever there (at Target Field), against Louisiana Tech, and we had about 36,000 people there. That was one of the neatest experiences I've had in my college career. Hopefully if we get a nice day outside, we'll get more support, rather than playing in a dome. Nobody wants to come sit inside and watch a game when it's 75 and sunny out. So playing in Target Field might help us out attendance-wise. Last year when our games were on the Big Ten Network and on TV in the regional against Fullerton, we had more support than I ever realized we had up here.
Of course, you almost won that regional at Fullerton as the No. 4 seed. I'm sure it was disappointing to fall short after getting off to a 2-0 start in the regional, but even so, did you feel like you made a statement with your strong showing out there?
I think for sure we did. That's something we pride ourselves in—we don't get a lot of respect up here in the North from the Southern teams, but one of my favorite things is going into places and getting guys to say, "Wow, these guys really can play." We won't be arrogant, we'll just go in and do our business. Coming in as a No. 4 seed, we had no pressure, so we just played loose. When you play a team of Fullerton's caliber, you have to play a perfect game, and we couldn't put another one together. The year before that we had LSU down at LSU, so we haven't been too lucky with our draws, but I think it will only make us stronger. The coaches have gotten us ready for that; I think it has been a tremendous help if we can get back into a regional this year.
I remember watching on TV as you struck out eight straight batters over three hitless innings of relief to nail down one of those regional wins, against New Mexico. That was an incredible performance; was that the best you've ever pitched?
I think that whole postseason from the Big Ten tournament on, I was pitching my best. I always give a lot of credit to my former catcher, Kyle Knudson, who is in the minor leagues now—he did a great job not only for me but the whole pitching staff. New Mexico was, I think, the best hitting team in America, average-wise. I always just pitch to my strengths. That day was no different. I was just locked in and couldn't miss a spot. It was great not only for myself but the program as well to be in another regional championship.
Your career strikeout-walk ratio is pretty absurd. What makes you such a strikeout pitcher?
I've always wondered that myself. I'm not overpowering with my fastball—it sits about 89-91, which doesn't blow away the radar gun. But I pride myself on fastball command, go in and out, get ahead with the fastball and finish with the fastball. I've asked myself the same question: How do I get so many strikeouts when guys on our team are throwing 94-95? But my ability to throw four pitches for strikes, then go in and out with the fastball, that has helped out.
You were drafted each of the last two years—as a 29th-rounder in 2009 and a 40th-rounder last year—and had a chance to go play pro ball, but you chose to come back both times. Did you feel like you had unfinished business here?
A lot of people ask me that. For me it's the whole experience up here, not only academics-wise, but the baseball family really is a family. Talk to coach (John) Anderson or coach (Rob) Fornasiere, it's obvious they really care about the guys. Coach (Todd) Oakes and coach Anderson are looking into our future rather than the present moment. They watch out for our safety at all times. These guys are as much our friends as our coaches. If you go to our practices, there's a lot of joking around, but we still get our work done. With the dome going down, we're practicing in a football building to get ready for our season. It's not the most glamorous thing, but it's been fun, and the coaches have done a great job keeping us loose and playing the hand we're dealt. Pro ball really isn't the most glamorous lifestyle until you get higher in the ranks, and I had a little school to finish up as well. Hopefully I'll get a chance to play pro ball after this year. But the experience up here is second to none.
You were heavily involved in planning an event with Paul Molitor and Dave Winfield to raise funds for a new on-campus stadium. What was it like hanging around with Hall of Famers?
Paul Molitor's the chairman of our whole campaign; I met with him quite a bit throughout the whole process. Talk about a humble guy who doesn't let his ego get in the way of anything. The respect he has for me as a person and everyone in our program is remarkable. Dave Winfield is the same way; he hasn't been involved as much, but coming back to raise money for our program, it was really special. I worked over with development, we call it the Golden Gopher Fund. We put on a banquet to hopefully raise enough money for a new stadium here. We had about 450 people, and it was not cheap—it was a great, great night for Golden Gopher baseball. All the alumni, listening to their stories about coach Anderson and how much they want to get a new field for coach Anderson, it was something I'll cherish—a way for me to give something back for coach Anderson. Hopefully we'll raise enough funds to get a new stadium on campus, and keep up with the arms race.
You open up at the Big East/Big Ten Challenge, which is in its third year now. As a player, what do you think of that event?
I think it's a great event for college baseball. Usually we wouldn't get that much coverage in the early months, Northern teams. It's a fun event to showcase your talents down there. We didn't get the best draw playing those three top teams (No. 23 St. John's, No. 9 Connecticut and Louisville), but it's always a fun event. The Big Ten and Big East aren't known as power conferences in baseball, but if you go down there you'll see there is a lot of talent in both conferences. (The Big Ten) won it the first year, lost it last year. This year we've got to get back on top.