|Florida State at Virginia|
Last year, Virginia scored six runs in the ninth inning to steal a 9-8 win in Tallahassee on Saturday to clinch the series. FSU proceeded to address its bullpen problems by moving two-way star Mike McGee to the closer role—where he became an All-American.
"The Virginia series probably contributed to the biggest move that we made last year, putting Mike McGee in a closing role, and two years ago they exposed us," Seminoles coach Mike Martin said. "So the Virginia series has been one that's been rough on us, but yet, when you play them, they will expose your weaknesses."
It has benefited Florida State to have its vulnerabilities exposed early in the season, when there is still time to make corrections. FSU enters this weekend with no obvious weakness, aside from perhaps some unsteady play at shortstop by Justin Gonzalez. The sixth-ranked Seminoles are 15-2, and their veteran roster is performing well in all facets. But No. 7 Virginia is 17-1 and playing just as well or better, coming off its first-ever road sweep against Clemson and a midweek win against hard-hitting James Madison.
That highly anticipated showdown between junior lefthanders is slated for Friday. Hultzen and Gilmartin have locked horns on Fridays each of the last two years, and Hultzen has gotten the better of both meetings. Last year he held Florida State to two hits over six shutout innings, while Gilmartin gave up four runs on 11 hits over six innings.
Hultzen, a first-team preseason All-American as a two-way player, has a strong case as the nation's best player after four weeks. He's 4-0, 0.66 with an absurd 50-4 strikeout-walk mark in 27 innings on the mound, and he's hitting .348/.439/.478 with 16 RBIs. He gives Virginia an advantage every Friday, even this week against the talented Gilmartin.
"He's been fantastic—those numbers are unheard of," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said of Hultzen. "I don't know if they're going to continue, but I'd like to think that they are. He's just matured. Not that he wasn't mature as a freshman—I mean, jeez, the guy started two games in Omaha as a freshman. It's hard to be better than last year, when he was the ACC pitcher of the year, but he's a better pitcher now. He's stronger physically, he holds his velocity until late in the game, his command of his fastball is better, his offspeed pitches are sharper and more consistent. He just looks like a very, very determined guy who's going to do his job every time out there."
Gilmartin is better, too. After his 12-3, 3.49 freshman year, Gilmartin struggled to put hitters away as a sophomore, when he went 9-8, 5.24. But as a junior, he's been a dynamo, going 4-0, 1.24 with 35 strikeouts and three walks in 29 innings.
"I think the slider has really helped him," Martin said. "He's not throwing the curveball—gosh, he threw it twice against Georgia. The slider is becoming his pitch along with the changeup. On top of that, I think it's his ability to locate in, because that's what seemed to be his bread and butter as a freshman, and last year he just got away from it. Blame that on me; I should have demanded that more. And in the offseason when he played with the USA team, he just realized he has to have that pitch."
Both of these teams have gotten strong work from the rest of their staffs, too. Righthander Scott Sitz (2-0, 2.35) and lefty Brian Busch (1-0, 5.82) are strike-throwing bulldogs on Saturday and Sunday for Florida State. Senior righty Tyler Wilson (3-0, 1.82) has made a successful conversion from bullpen dynamo to Saturday stalwart for Virginia, and Cody Winiarski (2-1, 3.05) is a solid Sunday guy with a four-pitch mix.
Both bullpens have quality anchors—McGee for FSU, and sophomore righty Branden Kline for UVa. Both bullpens have deep supporting casts that offer a variety of different looks from both sides. For Virginia, lefthander Scott Silverstein (0.00 ERA through four appearances) has finally gotten a chance to pitch after shoulder surgery cost him all of the last two seasons. While he doesn't show the 93-94 mph heat he did in high school, Silverstein is having success working in the mid-to-upper 80s thanks to his solid command. And righty Justin Thompson (1.46) has filled Wilson's shoes as the main setup guy.
Florida State has its own breakout reliever in righty Robert Benincasa (0.00 through five outings), who has significantly improved his slider and found a home in the 'pen after struggling a bit last year, when he started and relieved. He bolstes a bullpen that also leans heavily on veterans Daniel Bennett (3.14 in a team-high 11 appearances) and Tye Buckley (2.25), plus emerging righthander Mack Waugh (1.08).
"I don't think there's any question that our pitching is better this year than it was last year," Martin said.
That makes Florida State very dangerous, because its offense is one of the best in college baseball, as usual. Coming into the season, FSU needed to replace Cardullo and All-America leadoff man/center fielder Tyler Holt. McGee has shifted from left field to center, where he has played solid defense. And sophomore second baseman Devon Travis (.354/.442/.585) has taken a major step forward to become the pesky catalyst atop the order.
"Travis is definitely coming into his own in that spot," Martin said. "He is a tremendous part of our team. He's got power, he's got speed, he's just a solid defensive baseball player. I've only had one other guy to play second base that I could talk about in the same breath, and that's Luis Alicea. This guy's got a chance to really be something. He's darn good."
Virginia's offense had more questions to answer heading into the spring, after the departures of mainstays Jarrett Parker, Tyler Cannon, Dan Grovatt, Phil Gosselin and Franco Valdes. The Cavaliers were confident they had talented players waiting in the wings ready to take on everyday roles, and they have not been disappointed. Even though starting shortstop Stephen Bruno has been limited to four games by a pulled hamstring, fellow sophomore Chris Taylor (.342/.435/.438) has filled in admirably at short while also providing a spark out of the leadoff spot. Another sophomore, Reed Gragnani, has taken over the center-field job, and seniors David Coleman, John Barr and Kenny Swab have moved from reserve roles into everyday jobs at the corners.
"Those guys had 40, 50 at-bats under their belts last year got a chance to see what it takes to succeed at this level, now they're stepping into everyday jobs and doing a nice job," O'Connor said. "And seniors who were not everyday players like Barr, Swab and Coleman have done a nice job of being everyday players this year.
"We've pitched well, played really good defense, executed offensively, and we're getting timely hits. We're not striking out much, putting the ball in play, and putting pressure on teams."
The one thing Virginia wasn't doing until the last two games was going deep. But junior third baseman Steven Proscia delivered the team's first home run of the season Sunday at Clemson, then went deep again Wednesday at James Madison—when the team's other projected slugger, junior catcher John Hicks, homered twice. So Virginia does have a bit of power, but it will not challenge the school home run record it broke each of the last two seasons—especially with the new bats.
Florida State has hit for more power, with 16 homers on the year, but the Seminoles are really more built to wear out the gaps this year, just as Virginia is.
"I used to be the three-run homer guy," Martin said. "I kind of came away from it because of our personnel, then I came back to it a little. Now I don't know what I am."
But Martin thinks he knows what his team is, and maybe this year he won't need the Virginia series to help him put the pieces together.
"This team is special," he said. "I don't know what the future holds—I have no idea, obviously. But this club is a fun club, a fun baseball team. They play hard."
|Marquee Mound Showdown|
|Sam Houston State's Matt Shelton vs. Texas State's Carson Smith|
A strong year is shaping up for the Southland Conference, which is loaded with viable contenders for the league title. Two of them, Sam Houston State and Texas State, cross paths in San Marcos this weekend, and the series will kick off with a fine pitching matchup.
As a starter this spring, he's gone 3-0, 2.59 with 22 strikeouts and 11 walks in 24 innings. He opened the season with five hitless innings against Tulane.
"He's good—I really like him," Johnson said. "He throws a little bit three-quarters and can drop down a little more than that. He's got a late breaking ball with some bite on it, and he's got a good two-seamer that will sink pretty good and get in on the hands because of his arm angle. He'll work around 88-89, get up to 90, and get after it pretty good."
Texas State (12-4) counters with Smith, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound junior righthander with a chance to be drafted in the top two rounds this June. The Bobcats built him up slowly out of the gate because he was feeling some arm discomfort, but coach Ty Harrington said his arm "feels like a million bucks" now, and the Bobcats are ready to stretch him out to 105 or 110 pitches this week.
Smith spent some time in a closer role last year, and one scout who has seen a lot of him said he was a "beast" in the bullpen, attacking hitters with a 95-98 mph fastball. As a starter this year, he sits at 91-93 and might touch 94, the scout said.
Which isn't to say Smith isn't thriving as a starter. On the contrary, he enters this weekend 2-1, 2.18 with 28 strikeouts and six walks in 21 innings.
"I think he's really started to come into his own," Harrington said. "I think he's really starting to find where his arm slot was a year ago, and being able to find where his changeup was again. Early in the year he didn't have it, but it was a really plus pitch for him last year. One thing that doesn't change is he's one of the most competitive people I've ever been around. That's one thing that is constant with him—he is a tremendous, tremendous competitor."
Harrington said Smith has another gear he can shift into in big spots. If he needs to reach back for 95 mph to strike out a dangerous hitter, he can do it. "But he understands how to pitch efficiently sometimes where he doesn't have to exert the maximum velocity," Harrington said.
In addition to his changeup, Smith developed a really good slider last summer, Harrington said, and he still throws a curveball for strikes.
"He's getting better every day," Harington said. "The bigger the moment, he usually responds in a tremendously big way."
|Under The Radar|
You might have heard about a program in the Northwest that recently brought back its baseball program after a three-decade-or-so hiatus. Oregon has been a great—and well-publicized—story, jumping from 14 wins in its first season back in Division I in 2009 to 40 wins and a regional berth in 2010.
Seattle's reinstatement has received considerably less fanfare. Thirty years after its last Division I game, and 26 years after its final game as a D-II program, Seattle brought back its program last season under former Washington and Oregon State assistant Donny Harrel. Seattle's baseball tradition included 19 players who went on to pro ball, most notably former Pirates middle infielders Ed and John O'Brien, the first identical twins to play in the major leagues.
Harrel scheduled aggressively right away, and the Redhawks took their lumps in their first season, going 11-39 last spring. It would be overly bold to suggest they are going to follow in Oregon's footsteps and make a run at a regional in their second season, but the Redhawks have shown dramatic improvement this spring. After opening the season with a four-game split at Cal State Northridge, Seattle won back-to-back series against Notre Dame and a good, experienced Portland team, which returned numerous key players from a club that finished second in the West Coast Conference in 2010. Then the Redhawks beat Washington midweek to snap a 19-game losing streak against the Huskies, dating back to 1979. Seattle enters its four-game set against San Jose State this weekend with a 7-4 record.
"Our schedule last year really set us up for this year, because we got kicked around, but we learned to compete at this level," Harrel said. "We've been very fortunate early with good pitching and good defense. We've got to win games with our pitching and defense, and hopefully mix in some situational hitting."
Harrel paused a beat, then continued, "Smoke and mirrors, too. Not sure how you can put that into a gameplan."
Certainly, Seattle's strong start is even more impressive given its resources. An education at Seattle—a private Jesuit school (and former member of the WCC, though there is no room for the school to rejoin the league)—does not come with a small pricetag, yet the Redhawks have just 6.25 scholarships to spread across their roster. The small campus comprises just 47 acres, so Harrel said there will never be an on-campus baseball field. The team practices at different local fields run by the city, then plays its games at Bannerwood Park in Bellevue.
"We never practice on it—we go in there on game days and call it a home field," Harrel said. "So there's been some challenges. But Seattle's a very strong academic school, and the opportunity for players to write a history book in bringing this program back is appealing. The limitations that we do have are basically ignored by them."
Seattle has built a competitive pitching staff by mining the ranks of the quality baseball programs in the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges. Harrel said it helps that the top D-I powers in the region typically focus more on developing high school players, giving Seattle a chance to scoop up junior-college talent.
All three of Seattle's weekend starters—righthander Brandon Kizer (3-0, 1.35), Max Whieldon (0-2, 1.59) and Seafth Howe (2-0, 2.45)—came from the JC ranks. None of them have premium velocity, but they all throw strikes and compete. Kizer is a sinkerballer who has excelled as the Friday starter thanks in part to the addition of a changeup to his repertoire. Like Kizer, Whieldon works in the 86-87 range, but his 6-foot-10 frame gives him excellent downward angle. Howe, listed at 6-foot-2, 160 pounds, gives a completely different look, working in the 80-83 range with his fastball but baffling hitters with a changeup that is 13-15 mph off his fastball.
"It's a Bugs Bunny pitch, with the same hand speed, and he just sucks it into his hand and really turns it over," Harrel said. "He drives guys crazy."
Harrel said the Redhawks are also fortunate to have a double punch at the back of the bullpen in Blaine Jones (0.00 ERA, three saves) and Bryan Dalton (1.69, 1 save), plus a reliable lefthanded reliever in Conor Spink (2-0, 2.70).
The offense is not a juggernaut, but it has a good catalyst atop the order in Trent Oleszczuk (.350/.435/.400). Outfielder Doug Kincaid (.345/.394/.586) has been a nice find after transferring in from Lower Columbia (Wash.) CC. But the Redhaws are hitting just .236 as a team.
"We need the right guy at the right time to get the right pitch," Harrel said. "We need a lot of things working for us to create those crooked numbers in an inning, but there's no question the guys get after it. They're pretty relentless about getting after it, digging in.
"Smoke and mirrors—I told ya."
|Nick Martini, of Kansas State|
Remarkably, Martini has a .506 on-base percentage during his streak, and he has extended it via a hit 66 times. He has reached safely in 126 of his 136 career starts, recording at least one hit in 109 of those games.
All of which is a long way of saying Nick Martini is a model of consistency.
"He's been on a roll—it's pretty incredible," Kansas State coach Brad Hill said. "It's just an amazing streak, particularly if you look at the league we play in. To be able to go through that league one time getting on base every game is incredible. He has great patience at the plate, does not chase pitches very much at all, and he's willing to take a walk. That's something a lot of young guys don't like to do—they don't like to walk because it doesn't add to your hit total and your batting average."
But Hill points out that by being disciplined and not swinging at pitches out of the zone, Martini is a tougher out, and his batting average benefits. As a sophomore, he drew 41 walks and struck out just 21 times, helping him hit .416/.509/.576 with 59 RBIs. This year, he has 14 walks and six strikeouts, and he's hitting a team-best .400/.521/.545 with 11 RBIs.
"He's not trying to do more or do too much," Hill said. "Talk about a sophomore being Big 12 player of the year last year, that's pretty incredible. Coming back this year, there might be some tendencies to try too hard, some pressure to live up to what he's done in the past, but he really has not tried to do too much, he's stayed within himself. He's got a middle-of-the-field approach. He's got lightning-fast hands, and he'll hit the ball where it's pitched."
The Red Storm opened the season ranked No. 23 in the nation, coming off last year's run to the Charlottesville Regional finals. But St. John's has not played like a Top 25 team—or a regionals team—through the fist month of the season. Even after beating Fairfield and Albany in midweek action this week, St. John's heads into this weekend with a sub-.500 record (7-8). The Johnnies lost four straight games before beating Fairfield, including two losses at Gardner-Webb last weekend (Sunday's series finale was canceled in the wake of an altercation between fans in the stands Saturday).
"We have some guys who are struggling," St. John's coach Ed Blankmeyer said last week. "We use the expression 'keep the line moving, don't break the chain,' and it just seems some guys are going and the other guys aren't. We just can't really get started yet. Obviously we started the season swinging the bats very well. It's either feast or famine. We swing them one day and then the next its 'whoa, where is it?' We're still trying to find ourselves. It's still early in the season."
Star shortstop Joe Panik (.433/.553/.550) seems to have found himself just fine, and RBI machine Jeremy Baltz has a team-high 20 RBIs through 15 games. In fact, St. John's is hitting a respectable .285 as a team, it just needs to be more consistent offensively.
The pitching has been a greater problem, as evidenced by the team's 5.47 ERA. Mainstays Kyle Hansen (2.66), Kyle Lobban (2.35) and Matt Carasiti (1.54) have pitched well, but the rest of the staff has struggled, especially sophomore lefthander Sean Hagan (10.43 in 15 innings), who was supposed to be a key part of the rotation.
But Blankmeyer is certainly not pushing the panic button.
"We've been down before and it's not how you start, it's how you finish," he said. "We have some young guys that have to mature and our core guys have to be more consistent. Otherwise we're not going to have the type of season we're capable of having."
|Stat of the Week|
Cumulative line for Florida's weekend rotation this season. The Gators' three starters—lefthander Brian Johnson (4-0, 1.12) plus righties Hudson Randall (2-0, 1.08) and Karsten Whitson (3-0, 2.21) also have 82 strikeouts and 13 walks in 86 innings.
The Gators will be tested this weekend by what might be the Southeastern Conference's premier offense. Louisiana State has a .325 team batting average and 14 home runs, and the Tigers are coming off a huge series sweep against another team with an elite pitching staff, Cal State Fullerton.
Here's a bonus stat of the week: Florida has won only one of its last 10 series in Baton Rouge, dating back to 1987. The Gators' lone series win came in 2007.
Florida-LSU is the main event of the SEC's opening weekend, pitting the East Division favorite against the West favorite. The Gators swept the Tigers in Gainesville a year ago, but eighth-seeded LSU knocked off top-seeded Florida in the conference tournament.
This round should be fun.
Pitching has been the key to Mississippi's 14-4 start. The Rebels boast a 2.71 staff ERA, and junior lefthanders Matt Crouse (4-0, 1.67) and Austin Wright (2-1, 2.66) have bracketed hard-throwing junior righty David Goforth (0-2, 2.42) to form a strong weekend rotation. Offensively, the Rebels are led by senior two-way player Matt Tracy (who leads the team with a .348 average in 12 starts—twice as many as he made all of last season) and shortstop Blake Newalu (.340/.421/.380), a junior-college transfer. A National League area scout broke down the Rebels heading into their Southeastern Conference-opening series against Alabama.
"They've got a couple of good arms, some power arms. The kid Goforth that's throwing on Saturdays is showing really big velocity. He's not a big guy, 5-11 maybe, but he was 97-99 opening weekend. He's throwing a cutter this year that's new from last year, anywhere from 88-91. When it's 88, it has more of a slider effect, but when it's 90-91 it straightens out a bit but has some cut to it. Last year he was just straight velocity but really got hit. I saw him early in the year last year when he was closing, and he was 95-96, and he still didn't have any secondary stuff but he was on the mound with some confidence—he said, 'I throw hard, I'm coming after those guys.' He became a starter out of necessity and he had nothing to get guys out with, he started dropping down, doing anything to get guys out. He threw a slider that wasn't very good. This year he's got that cutter, and he's pitching with confidence, and I think that's the biggest thing for him. He's confident that he has a little something else besides that fastball to keep guys honest, so they can't cheat on the fastball.
"Friday they've got a lefty, Crouse, kind of a pitchability guy, relies on some deception. He steps on the first-base side, comes from a high three-quarters slot that's 86-87, but beats guys. I don't think anything he has is average on a pro scale, but he throws all of them for strikes, he locates his fastball, and he throws them in any count. He kind of relies on some deception with his fastball because it's not overpowering by any means, but he'll run it in on righties, freeze guys with two strikes—the catcher sets up inside and he hits the mitt. So many college hitters are diving out over the plate, so any lefty that can run it inside will get guys out and jam guys.
"Sunday they come at you with the lefty, Wright, who was at Chipola last year. He's been 90-94—he's a big, physical lefthanded power arm with below-average secondary stuff. I think ultimately in pro ball he becomes a bullpen guy—probably him and Goforth both, bullpen guys with velocity. Wright can flip it over a little bit, but his fastball is much better than his feel for his slider. I think those guys are definitely good enough to win. They've gotten deep into ballgames so far this year, and they've got some other bullpen arms that can get outs. I would feel pretty confident if I was the guys at Ole Miss that the arms I'm running out there can win me two out of three most weekends. I think they've done a good job of acquiring arms over there. I think they're plenty deep enough on the staff to have the type of year they had last year.
"I think they've got a couple of guys at the top of the order with (Tanner) Mathis and (Alex) Yarbrough that can hit a little bit, that are basically their table-setter guys. Then they've got a bunch of big donkeys in the middle with (Matt) Smith and (Matt) Snyder, and the combination of (Miles) Hamblin and (Taylor) Hightower, and (Preston) Overbey. They can score some runs. I think the way to beat Ole Miss is to keep Mathis and Yarbrough off base. Make Smith and Snyder and those guys hit with nobody on. Mathis and Yarbrough are good players. Mathis is a lefthanded hitter, plays left and center, a pesky leadoff guy that plays his game, uses the whole field, slaps it to the left side. Matt Tracy's interesting because he spent so much time as a pitcher the last couple years. I saw him play right field, and he did a fine job in right field, and he's got a couple of home runs. The shortstop, Newalu, he's a mature junior college kind of player. He's going to make his plays, he's not going to do anything flashy. The type of player that if you hit it to him, you're out, which is what you want at shortstop. Behind the plate, they're solid. Nothing spectacular prospect-wise, but they do a good job calling a game and handling a staff, controlling the game. They're both older guys, upperclassmen that do a fine job back there."
|In The Dugout|
|James McCann, c, Arkansas|
Coach Van Horn talks about how different the makeup of the team is this year because you don't have the Big Three stars anymore (Zack Cox, Brett Eibner, Andy Wilkins). Do you feel like this group has bonded together?
We've definitely bonded well together. We've got a core group of guys that have been to Omaha and know how to get there. I think there are a lot of guys who have jumped on board with us and are looking to make it back there. Anytime you've got that one common goal you're working toward as a group, that's something special.
How's your swing coming along?
I feel real good about it. I'm just trying to stay in the middle of the field and help the team win. I'm a gap-to-gap guy, a doubles guy. The home runs will come, but gap-to-gap, doubles.
Is your defense your main identity as a player, you think?
Defense is what I pride my game on. Every day I come to the ballpark, I want to lead the team from behind the plate—catching, receiving, blocking, throwing. And that's something I can do every day. No matter how good a hitter you are, you aren't going to be able to hit every day. As a catcher, you can lead the team every day from that position.
You seem like a classic hard-nosed guy—you've got the eye black smeared all over, look like you're ready to go to battle.
Definitely, I like to be the hard-working, blue-collar type player. As the catcher you're the general for the team. Anytime you've got a hard-working catcher, it sets the tone for the team each and every day, and it really brings the team up.
Tell me about some of these young arms you guys have that are so exciting; what do you see in Ryne Stanek and Nolan Sanburn?
You know, they're competitors. They work hard, they want to throw strikes, and they want to help the team win. They both come out with the passion for the game that not a lot of young guys have, and they know that they're going to pitch and help us early as freshmen. They both come after you with hard fastballs, but then they've got absolute hammers that can throw off the fastball. Anytime you can throw more than one pitch for strikes, you're going to be tough to hit.
Is this an exciting staff to work with?
It's a very exciting staff to work with. This is my third year, and I think we might have more depth than the past two. We may not have that one guy, but we've got some depth that's fun to play with. We can just bring guys out of the bullpen, left and right.
You're a catcher with a famous catcher's last name—but you're not related to Brian McCann, are you?
No, I'm not. I've got an uncle named Brian, but he's not the Braves catcher.
Do you have a favorite big league catcher that you kind of pattern yourself after?
He's not playing anymore, but Mike Matheny. I grew up watching him, and I loved the way he played the game. He led the pitching staff, led the team from behind the plate. He was one of the best blockers I've ever seen. Just the way he went about his business behind the plate—he was one heck of a ballplayer, and he had a great career.