Weekend Preview: April 8-10




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We have arrived at the midpoint of the college baseball season—seven weekends down, seven weekends to go before Selection Monday. On Tuesday, we presented our midseason field of 64 projection, and Wednesday we unveiled our midseason Player of the Year and All-America team. Today we present our Midseason Report in lieu of our standard Weekend Preview. We'll look back at some of the top performers and performances of the first half, and take a look at some of Week Eight's major storylines.

Let's begin with a rundown of some of the top award candidates, along with some notable quotes from the first half.

TOP HITTER
Candidates

Garrett Buechele, 3b, Oklahoma

By The Numbers: .430/.486/.636 with seven homers and 41 RBIs in 121 at-bats.
The Skinny: Buechele leads the Big 12 Conference in batting and RBIs and is tied for the lead in home runs. He is the centerpiece of a lineup that is tied for third in the nation in OPS.

Notable Quote: "He's matured a lot more. One game he was 4-for-5, all singles the other way. Last year he got a little frustrated, saw some good pitching in the regional and the super regional at Virginia—they pitched him away, away, away, and he tried to pull it. Now he's staying within himself, going away, not trying to do too much. If you hit your spots, it's got to be away, he'll hit a single or double away. If you miss your spot, he'll hurt you."

—Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway

C.J. Cron, 1b, Utah

By The Numbers: .476/.496/.780 with five homers and 25 RBIs in 82 at-bats.

The Skinny: Though a shoulder injury has kept him from catching, it hasn't kept Cron from mashing. Utah has played a tough schedule, but Cron ranks second nationally in OPS (1.316) and third in batting. He's a big, physical power hitter with a disciplined approach, prompting Houston coach Todd Whitting to say he is the best college hitter he's ever seen—better even than Kevin Youkilis and Anthony Rendon.

Notable Quote: "C.J. is, for me, the best hitter that I've been around, and I've been around some good ones. He's got great hands, great power, and just knows how to hit."

—Utah coach Bill Kinneberg

Mikie Mahtook, of, Louisiana State

By The Numbers: .392/.492/.804 with 10 homers and 33 RBIs in 102 at-bats. 18 stolen bases in 22 tries.

The Skinny: After two strong college seasons and a decent summer with Team USA last year, Mahtook has taken the leap to superstardom as a junior this spring.

Notable Quote: "He's on the rise. He might be the second college position player off the board (after Anthony Rendon). He's a gamer, a center fielder with solid-average tools across the board. I don't know if he has a plus carrying tool, but when you can do five things solid-average, you have a chance to be pretty good. All things put together, it's a good package. Someone's going to get a real good player there."

—A National League scouting director

And The Winner Is: Mahtook. It's hard to beat Mahtook's all-around package: an elite defensive center fielder at the college level who ranks third in the nation in slugging and has 18 stolen bases to boot.

Honorable Mention: James Madison catcher Jake Lowery; James Madison shortstop David Herbek; Memphis shortstop Chad Zurcher.


TOP PITCHER
Candidates

Danny Hultzen, lhp, Virginia

By The Numbers: 6-0, 1.36 with 78 strikeouts and nine walks in 46 innings.

The Skinny: The dominant ace for the nation's winningest team, Hultzen leads the nation with 15.16 strikeouts per nine innings, to go along with a boffo 8.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The only question is which was his best outing: the day he struck out 14 over 6 2/3 scoreless frames at Clemson, or the day he struck out 15 over seven innings against East Carolina?

Notable Quote: "I really mean this: Is there a better pitcher than Danny? The guy shuts out Clemson at Clemson? I'd pay to see that one, when he and (FSU ace Sean Gilmartin) match up." (Hultzen struck out 12 in that one.)

—Florida State coach Mike Martin

Taylor Jungmann, rhp, Texas

By The Numbers: 6-0, 0.94 with 45 strikeouts and eight walks in 58 innings.

The Skinny: A silent assassin, Jungmann strikes with cold-blooded efficiency. He pitched eight or more innings in each of his first six starts, allowing just four runs (three earned) over his first 51 2/3 innings. He threw complete-game shutouts in his first two outings, against Maryland and Hawaii.

Notable Quote: "Jungmann's got that thing you can't teach: When he gets in a game and gets zoned in, the bigger the game is, the better he pitches. He always steps up in a big game, finds something extra, hits his spots. He's just a prototypical top-of-the-rotation starter. He goes out and gets it done—he's unflappable. He's a really good athlete. I'd heard the velocity was up into the mid-90s, but I didn't see that; I saw him sitting at 92-93. The slider's pretty good, and he's got a hard curveball that's plus, the changeup's average to maybe solid-average, 50-55. And he pitches with all four of them, and he pitches to contact."

—An American League area scout

Mark Pope, rhp, Georgia Tech

By The Numbers: 7-0, 0.66 with 48 strikeouts and eight walks in 55 innings.

The Skinny: Like Jungmann, Pope threw back-to-back complete-game shutouts, against Rutgers and Maryland, as part of a stretch where he did not allow an earned run in 37 innings. Georgia Tech's elite pitching has carried it to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference standings, and Pope's emergence as a true ace has been huge.

Notable Quote: "He's a guy that can throw four pitches for strikes in any count, and he will throw them in any count. 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'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."

—Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall

And The Winner Is: Hultzen. His contributions with the bat also helped him take BA's Midseason Player of the Year honors, but his pitching alone might have been enough. He sets the tone for the nation's No. 2 team, and his strikeout-to-walk numbers are just absurd.

Honorable Mention: It's the year of the pitcher, so there are a lot of names that bear mentioning: Oregon LHP Tyler Anderson; UCLA RHP Trevor Bauer; Kent State LHP Andrew Chafin; Oregon State RHP Sam Gaviglio; Vanderbilt RHP Sonny Gray; Florida RHP Hudson Randall; Oklahoma RHP Michael Rocha; South Carolina LHP Michael Roth; Texas Christian RHP Kyle Winkler.

TOP FRESHMAN
Candidates

Daniel Aldrich, of, College of Charleston

By The Numbers: .389/.438/.800 with nine homers and 30 RBIs in 90 at-bats.

The Skinny: The Cougars were hoping for big things from Aldrich, who blasted four homers to win MVP honors at the Perfect Game World Wood Bat Association national championship in July of 2008. He followed that up by hitting .461 with 13 homers as a high school senior, capturing second-team BA All-America honors. Aldrich redshirted in 2010 due to an arm injury that required surgery, but he was worth the wait for the Cougars, as he currently ranks fourth in the nation in slugging and 10th in OPS (1.238).

Notable Quote: "He has tremendous power—more raw power than anyone I've had here."

—College of Charleston coach Monte Lee

Kurt McCune, rhp, Louisiana State

By The Numbers: 5-0, 1.90 with 35 strikeouts and 12 walks in 47 innings.

The Skinny: McCune was an under-the-radar member of LSU's second-ranked recruiting class last fall, but he has out-performed all the bigger names in the first half. When LSU's schedule got tough, McCune didn't bend, lasting six or more innings and allowing three or fewer runs in four straight starts against Cal State Fullerton, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi.

Notable Quote: "I hate to use the word 'surprise,' because when you recruit a player you never want to say you're surprised they've done well. But even among our program, he was not necessarily the one we expected to evolve into one of our main guys. But he has an aura about him; he believes he can get the job done. He pounds the zone. He's not a tall pitcher, but he has a very high delivery, so he can get that plane working down in the zone, and it's deceptive. He's handled some adversity, and always seemed to pitch out of those situations."

—LSU coach Paul Mainieri

Colin Moran, 3b, North Carolina

By The Numbers: .348/.471/.598 with five homers and 42 RBIs in 112 at-bats.

The Skinny: The younger brother of former UNC star reliever Brian Moran and nephew of B.J. Surhoff, Colin has exceeded expectations as a freshman, emerging as the top run producer in North Carolina's surprisingly potent offense.

Notable Quote: "Colin really looks at the ball. That's a trait he had when he got here, we could tell right out of the gate. His pitch recognition—he's not just going up there wailing away at the ball like a lot of freshmen do. He doesn't get himself out like a lot of freshmen do. The biggest key is he works himself into good counts—and he takes a hack at it, now, he doesn't get cheated. He lets the bat go every round in (batting practice). It reminds us a lot of (former UNC outfielder) Tim Fedroff: He just doesn't give any at-bats away, he's just locked in. He's got a great deal of pride in the way he performs, you can tell that. He's very quiet, very mild-mannered, and I think he understands the game well beyond a freshman."

—North Carolina coach Mike Fox

And The Winner Is: McCune. It takes a special kind of personality to thrive on the mound in front of 10,000 fans as LSU's Friday night starter, and McCune has it. Pitching was the Tigers' primary question mark entering the season, and McCune has been an essential stabilizing force.

Honorable Mention: Texas RHP Corey Knebel; Gonzaga LHP Marco Gonzalez; Rice RHP Austin Kubitza; Texas Christian RHP Andrew Mitchell; Florida RHP Karsten Whitson.

TOP SENIOR
Candidates

David Herbek, ss, James Madison

By The Numbers: .385/.486/.812 with 12 homers and 42 RBIs in 117 at-bats.

The Skinny: Herbek smacked five homers during James Madison's opening-weekend dismantling of Bucknell, and he has kept on mashing. His 12 homers are tied for second in the nation behind teammate Jake Lowery's 16, and his .812 slugging percentage is second to Lowery's .911.

Notable Quote: "My mindset is don't get caught up in home runs. If you hit a ball hard, it's got a chance. Just find the barrel, try to drive something in the gaps, be satisfied with that. Don't get greedy and try to do too much . . . I don't consider myself to be a power hitter, by any means. I rarely, if ever, go up there and think about hitting a home run . . . I just make a conscious effort to stay within myself and be the hitter I know I am—a line-drive, gap-to-gap kind of guy."

—David Herbek

Kevin Miller, rhp, California

Stats: 3-2, 0.63 with 53 strikeouts and seven walks in 43 innings.

The Skinny: After a strong freshman year, Miller struggled a bit over the next two years, but he is pitching better than ever as a senior on Cal's loaded pitching staff. The highlight of his season so far was a win against Coastal Carolina and All-American Anthony Meo, as Miller carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning and finished with 10 strikeouts over 7 1/3 frames.

Notable Quote: "Miller's just kind of been the guy we know he can be—a three-pitch mix guy, but his fastball velocity has peaked a little bit, and he's fearless. He thinks he's going to get everybody out. He's a little deceptive, tough to pick up. His velocity's crept up into that 91-92 range. He had hip surgery after his sophomore year, and he was fighting that last year. His freshman year he had a special year. It took some time to come back from that torn labrum in his hip. The kid can pitch."

—Cal pitching coach Dan Hubbs

Michael Rocha, rhp, Oklahoma

By The Numbers: 7-0, 0.97 with 47 strikeouts and six walks in 56 innings.

The Skinny: After blossoming into a key part of Oklahoma's staff in the second half last year, Rocha has made the leap to elite Friday ace as a senior. Rocha was transcendent in a win against Texas A&M (13 strikeouts, no walks, just three hits allowed over 8 2/3 shutout innings), and he threw a shutout at San Diego State and a complete game against Texas Tech.

Notable Quote: "He's been really good—he just hits his spots. He doesn't try to overpitch, he's right there about 88-90, he's got tremendous sink. Velocity's not the key for him, it's just location, location, location. I think our team's really starting to believe when he's on the mound."

—Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway

And The Winner Is: Rocha. Oklahoma got off to a torrid start, winning its first 16 games, then slumped for about three weeks, and has warmed up again over the last week, winning five straight. Through it all, Rocha was a rock-solid, dependable Friday ace.

Honorable Mention: East Carolina RHP Seth Maness; Gonzaga RHP Cody Martin; Florida State OF/RHP Mike McGee; Southern Mississippi RHP Todd Mcinnis; Virginia RHP Tyler Wilson.


TOP COACH


David Esquer, California

The Golden Bears have had the ultimate sword of Damocles hanging over their heads this season, as the administration announced last fall that it intends to cut the program after this season. Supporters of the program are still scrambling to raise enough funds to rescue baseball from the chopping block, but all the while Esquer has kept his team focused on the task at hand. The 13th-ranked Bears are 19-7 overall and 5-1 in the Pac-10.

"I can't speak any more highly about my staff and players and how they've been throughout the whole process," Esquer said in February, when the administration opted to reinstate three other sports but not baseball. "We have not had anybody feeling sorry for themselves or felt any lack of energy—not for one practice during this whole time."

Esquer deserves loads of credit for his steady hand on the tiller.

Honorable Mention: North Carolina's Mike Fox, Alabama's Mitch Gaspard, Georgia Tech's Danny Hall, Cal State Bakersfield's Bill Kernen.


TOP INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE

Virginia junior righthander Will Roberts threw just the eighth nine-inning perfect game in Division I history (in records dating back to 1957) in a 2-0 midweek win against George Washington on March 29. He needed just 98 pitches to record the first perfect game in D-I since 2002. He struck out 10 and got 14 groundball outs. Roberts was indisputably the best midweek starter in the first half, going 6-0, 0.96 with 47 strikeouts and three walks in 47 innings.


WILDEST GAME

On March 26, Fresno State beat San Diego, 3-2, in 22 innings. It was the third-longest game in Division I history by innings, and it was believed to be the longest game in NCAA history by time (seven hours, 12 minutes). The 25-inning game between Texas and Boston College in 2009 lasted just seven hours, three minutes. The Fresno-USD game took longer to play because the two teams set an NCAA record with 50 runners left on base—25 per team. Pitchers for both teams got big strikeouts over and over with men on base—in fact, the 44 combined strikeouts in the game were also an NCAA record, as were the 28 strikeouts by San Diego pitchers.

In the end, shortstop Garrett Weber delivered a walk-off RBI single in the 22nd. There were some extremely unusual lines in the game. Fresno's Brennan Gowens sent the game to extra-innings with a two-run double in the ninth, but he finished the game 1-for-11. Fresno slugger Dusty Robinson had a three-hit game—and also struck out six times. USD's Zach Sullivan led both teams with five hits in nine at-bats—and he caught all 22 innings.

TOP STORY

The advent of new bat standards have dramatically changed the complexion of college baseball. The new BBCOR bats are far less potent than their predecessors, and offense is down across the board. According to CollegeSplits.com, Division I teams averaged 6.2 runs per game over the first 45 days of the season, down from 7.6 runs per game a year ago. And through that same period a year ago, 3 percent of batted balls resulted in home runs. Through 45 days this year, the home run rate is just more than half that: 1.7 percent of batted balls.

Contact hitters are seeing their numbers plummet. College Splits says the batting average on balls in play (BABIP) across D-I was .351 a year ago, but this year it's down to .334.

As we've detailed all spring, the new bats have placed a premium on defense and execution on offense. Every out is more valuable, every run is precious. But there is no clear-cut winning formula. Some of the nation's best pitching teams are still ranked among the top 10, but others (like UCLA and Oregon) have scuffled. So while a lot of coaches have said it is important to shift their recruiting emphasis to athletes and arms, there are others who aren't so certain.

"I might be a little different how I look at the new bats," Central Florida coach Terry Rooney said. "There's no question you've got to have guys who can run, to create things offensively. But I think of it as when guys go from swinging the metal to pro ball. The first thing that happens is you've got to be a strong, physical kid to succeed swinging a wood bat. That's kind of how I look at it. You've got to have strong, physical kids to still drive the ball. That's what we're still recruiting. Unless you're one of the top five, top 10 pitching staffs in the country with dominant arms, you've got to be able to drive it out."

But it's just not easy to drive the ball out of the park, or even to the wall in the gaps.

"You can still hit some doubles, but the ball that you hit into the gap that used to get through now gets cut off sometimes, and the ball that goes over an outfielder's head doesn't happen nearly as much," Florida State's Martin said. "When the ball goes in the air, many times in the past I've said, 'Uh-oh'. Now the ball goes in the air, I go, 'OK, who's the next hitter?' "


TOP WEEK EIGHT STORYLINES

• It's a huge weekend in the Atlantic Coast Conference, as Coastal Division heavyweights Virginia and Georgia Tech square off in Atlanta, while North Carolina travels to Florida State. The Cavaliers and Yellow Jackets are tied for the ACC's best record in league play (11-1), and they feature two of the nation's premier pitching staffs (UVa. ranks third in the nation with a 1.93 staff ERA, while Georgia Tech ranks seventh at 2.21). This is also the biggest test of the year so far for the Jackets, who have not lost a weekend series but have not faced a ranked opponent since St. John's in Week Two—and St. John's fell out of the rankings thereafter en route to a 14-12 first half. Friday's game pits two of our midseason All-Americans against each other on the mound: Virginia lefthander Danny Hultzen against Tech righty Mark Pope.

Top 25 Schedule
(21) Alabama at (1) Vanderbilt
(2) Virginia at (14) Georgia Tech
(3) South Carolina at Tennessee
(4) Florida at Mississippi State
(5) Arizona State at (19) Oregon State
(6) Texas A&M at Texas Tech
(16) North Carolina at (7) Florida State
(8) Texas at/at/vs. Baylor
(9) Fresno State at San Jose State
(10) Oklahoma at Kansas State
(11) Stanford at Southern California
UC Irvine at (12) Cal State Fullerton
(13) California at (22) Arizona
New Mexico at (15) Texas Christian
(17) Louisiana State at Arkansas
(18) Southern Mississippi at Memphis
Florida International at (20) Troy
Missouri at (23) Oklahoma State
(24) UCLA at Washington State
Kennesaw State at (25) Stetson
North Carolina, meanwhile, has been one of the nation's biggest surprises, getting off to a 27-4 start. The Tar Heels have aced their two biggest tests of the first half, going 4-0 on their season-opening trip to the West Coast and sweeping Clemson at home this past weekend, but they haven't faced a challenge yet that compares with traveling to Tallahassee, and UNC's lone hiccup this season (a series loss to Wake Forest) came on the road. Florida State is the more experienced team, but the Seminoles have been shut out 13-0 over their past two Saturdays (against ACC lightweights Wake Forest and Maryland), and they need No. 2 starter Scott Sitz to return to his early-season form. Of course, the Seminoles have a true ace on Fridays in Sean Gilmartin, and they have won 25 consecutive Sunday games, and Sunday pitching has been an issue for the Tar Heels this season. Chris Munnelly gave them five solid innings last Sunday, and UNC will need him to be on his game this week.

• With six teams ranked in the Top 25, every weekend is a showdown weekend in the Pac-10, and Week Eight is no exception. The conference's biggest series this week is Arizona State's trip to Oregon State. The fifth-ranked Sun Devils have allowed just five runs total in their five Pac-10 wins against Arizona and Oregon, while the Beavers have been getting it done with their bats of late, scoring 40 runs over their past four victories. Oregon State will be without catcher Andrew Susac, who has a broken hamate and may miss the rest of the season. It's an interesting juxtaposition, because coming into the season ASU figured to have one of the nation's top offenses, and Oregon State's strength was expected to be its pitching. The Beavers have pitched well, led by the one-two punch of Sam Gaviglio (5-1, 1.05) and Josh Osich (4-0, 3.00), and the Sun Devils have hit just fine, ranking 10th in the nation with a .324 batting average through last weekend. But the point is each team is more balanced than anticipated, and this should be a very competitive series.

• It's time to start finding out if Alabama is for real. At 7-2, the Crimson Tide leads the SEC West by three games, but the meat of its schedule begins this weekend with a trip to top-ranked Vanderbilt, which is tied for the SEC East lead at 7-2. Alabama's good pitching staff has been instrumental to its hot start, but Vanderbilt's pitching staff is truly elite, and the Commodores get the edge on offense. If Alabama can avoid getting swept—and its pitching and overall scrappiness give it a chance to do at least that—it will be a victory of sorts.

• Louisiana State-Arkansas is always one of the biggest series in the SEC West, and this weekend it might be bigger than ever, because both teams need it more than usual. The Tigers and Hogs have gotten off to disappointing starts in conference play, posting identical 3-6 SEC marks through three weekends, and neither can afford to fall farther behind. LSU has the momentum, having won a series against Mississippi this weekend and a midweek game at rival Tulane, while the Razorbacks have lost three straight series. But this will be just the second road trip this season for LSU, and it lost two of three on its first trip, to Georgia.

• This weekend marks the biggest series of the year in the Big West Conference, as the top two contenders for the league title will square off in Fullerton. The UC Irvine-Cal State Fullerton rivalry got ratcheted up a notch when former Anteaters coach Dave Serrano left for the Titans, but this series is not about Serrano. Both teams enter the weekend on winning streaks—the 'Eaters have won five straight including a Big West-opening sweep of Cal State Northridge last weekend, while the Titans have won nine in a row, including a road series at UC Davis in their conference opener. Unlike a year ago, when Irvine had senior stalwarts Daniel Bibona, Christian Bergman and Eric Pettis anchoring its pitching staff, the Titans should have a significant edge on the mound this weekend, but Irvine has the more experienced—and perhaps more dangerous—offense.

• Rice travels to East Carolina in a big Conference USA showdown. The Pirates lead the nation in ERA (1.86), while Rice is still trying to find itself on the mound after freshman ace Austin Kubitza, but the Owls have to be encouraged by the six scoreless innings they got from Matthew Reckling last weekend. Both offenses have been up and down, and East Carolina is certainly not as physical as it usually is. But its experienced pitching staff and home-field advantage gives ECU a real shot to take down the Owls this weekend, and that Pirates (3-3 in C-USA play) need to do just that if they want to make a run at the conference title. ECU junior lefthander Kevin Brandt (3-0, 0.77) returned from a team-issued suspension with three scoreless innings in Wednesday's win against Elon, and it stands to reason he'll be back in the Sunday starter role against Rice.