|Hawaii at Fresno State|
"Big weekend. We've had this one circled on our calendar all year long," Fresno coach Mike Batesole said. "I think this has got a good chance of deciding the first and second seed in our tournament. As it stands now, I think it's going to come down to us and Hawaii for the first two seeds."
Fresno State, of course, is the team to beat in the WAC, with a 28-7 overall record and a No. 13 national ranking. But at 8-2 in conference play, the Bulldogs find themselves looking up at first-place Hawaii (7-1) in the standings.
"We've had consistent pitching all year, but we've struggled with injuries to some really key spots, and we're kind of doing it with smoke and mirrors," Hawaii coach Mike Trapasso said. "Smoke, mirrors and Kolten Wong."
Wong, a first-team preseason All-America second baseman, has five of the team's 10 home runs and is one of just two Rainbows hitting above .288. Wong enters the weekend hitting .400/.497/.600 with 33 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. It's even more impressive that he's done it without any real protection in the lineup. Though he's getting pitched around plenty (he has 25 walks and 13 strikeouts), Wong has not altered his disciplined approach. Batesole called Wong "probably the best player in the league," and one American League scout went even further than that.
"He's probably the best hitter in the draft," the scout said. "The kid's a great hitter, with great bat speed, and for his size, he's got pop. It's a plus bat, he can use the whole field, and he's going to have average power. He's got a chance to be pretty freakin' good."
Wong started his Hawaii career as a catcher/outfielder before moving to second base as a sophomore, and he's made great strides at the position. But Hawaii has had problems at shortstop this year—projected starter Matt Harrison lost the job after struggling defensively, prompting the Rainbows to play Wong at short for a few games, but he strained his throwing shoulder and moved back to second to put less burden on it. Jessie Moore stepped in and stabilized the defense, but he has struggled on offense (.171), and he has twice separated his shoulder this spring. That forced the Rainbows to move Pi'ikea Kitamura from third to short for the past five games. Kitamura began the year as the backup catcher, and when starting backstop David Peterson went down to injury after 15 games, Kitamura stepped in. But the Rainbows have needed him more in the infield, so walk-on Garrett Champion became the starting catcher.
Solid pitching has kept Hawaii afloat, but now even ace Matt Sisto is banged up—he tweaked his elbow last Friday, and Trapasso said he wasn't sure if Sisto would be able to go this weekend.
Trapasso said the strength of his club has been his bullpen, where closer Lenny Linsky (1.11 ERA, eight saves) and lefthander Blair Walters (4-1, 3.16) have formed a dynamite duo. Walters has a crossfire delivery that gives his 88-92 mph fastball extra movement. Linsky's power arm makes him a true weapon at the back of the bullpen, and he has improved as the season has progressed.
"It's funny, he struggled through much of the first half of the season, still showing the same velocity—91-94—but was flying open and really getting underneath a lot of balls, and didn't have the power sink we saw from him last year," Trapasso said. "He made a couple of adjustments the last two or three weeks, and we're starting to see the sink come back like it was last year. His second pitch is a cut slider, and when that's on, it's a dominating pitch—a mid-to-high 80s slider. He's got great makeup for a closer—he really does have a closer's mentality."
"It's been amazing. When Garrison went down in the first inning of the first game, that was a tremendous blow to us, but Austin has picked up the pieces," Batesole said. "He's always been an outstanding catch-and-throw guy, an outstanding blocker. We brought him in as a defensive guy. We hoped to teach to hit a little bit, but where he picks us up is on the defensive end: handling pitchers, receiving, blocking, throwing, all of that has been fantastic."
Wynns' emergence has kept Fresno State rock-solid up the middle. The Bulldogs have very steady veteran defenders at shortstop (Garrett Weber, the team's MVP to this point according to Batesole), center field (Brennan Gowens) and second base (Pat Hutcheson, the likely shortstop next year). They have seniors who played for the 2008 national title team on the infield corners in Danny Muno and Jordan Ribera. The infield features three shortstops, and the outfield boasts three center fielders.
"Defensively, this is probably the best club I've ever had," Batesole said. "Routine plays are routine, and we make the tough plays. Our pitchers know if they make a good pitch and they put the ball in play, they're going to be OK. If we get Ribera and Gowens going offensively, that will give our pitchers a little room to breathe once in a while."
Ribera, last year's national home run champion, is hitting just .206 with three long balls in 131 at-bats this year, while Gowens cooled off after a solid start, hitting .227 with four home runs. The numbers don't tell the whole story—Batesole said Ribera has hit a lot of balls hard, and he's confident his slugger will come up with his share of big hits down the stretch.
In the meantime, junior outfielder Dusty Robinson (10 homers) leads an offense that is potent enough, especially with Frenso's pitching. The Bulldogs rank eighth in the nation with a 2.41 ERA, and the staff's depth has allowed the coaches to experiment and find the best roles for all of their arms. Senior righthander Greg Gonzalez (7-0, 1.31 with 77 strikeouts and 16 walks in 69 innings) has been the rock at the top of the rotation. Batesole credited first-year pitching coach Steve Rousey with helping Gonzalez make the leap to bona fide Friday ace as a senior.
"He's always had an outstanding changeup and enough of a fastball to make that work," Batesole said. "But his breaking ball, it was always so big that even when it was a strike it was tough for an umpire to call it a strike. Rousey gave him a cutter about a week before the season started, and it's a strike every time. Now he has four pitches, and only has to throw the breaking ball about 10 times a game instead of 20 or 30 times a game. The cutter has really changed his game."
Gonzalez leads a rock-solid group of upperclassmen that gives Fresno hope that it can follow in the footsteps of the similarly experienced 2008 team. That team, of course, played its way into the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 seed after winning the WAC's automatic bid, and it would not have received an at-large bid otherwise.
This team is in considerably better position, with a legitimate chance to host a regional. But this weekend is critical to those hopes.
"That's been a goal of ours from the beginning this year, and we haven't been afraid to talk about it," Batesole said. "That's a big goal at the top of our list. It's been 20 years since there's been a regional at Beiden Field, and we're doing everything we can to get one this year. A lot of teams are hush-hush, don't want to get out front with their goals, but I think that's OK. We want to host a regional and return to Omaha. Who doesn't?"
|Marquee Mound Showdown|
|Oklahoma's Michael Rocha vs. Texas' Taylor Jungmann|
College pitching matchups don't get much better. Jungmann leads the Big 12 in wins (he's 9-0) and ERA (1.00). Rocha ranks second in wins (8-1) and third in ERA (1.19). Both righthanders pound the strike zone: Jungmann has 72 strikeouts and 13 walks in 81 innings, while Rocha has 61 strikeouts and 11 walks in 75 innings. Their pedigrees differ—Jungmann is an elite prospect with a chance to be drafted in the top 10 picks this June, while Rocha is a senior who lacks overpowering stuff—but their results are very similar.
Coming into the season, Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway compared Rocha to Blake Cooper, South Carolina's senior ace a year ago. Like Cooper, Rocha does not look the part of an elite ace, (he's just 5-11, 209 pounds), and like Cooper, he relies on moxie and competitiveness more than stuff. But Cooper went 13-2, 2.76 to lead South Carolina to the national title last year, and Rocha is a similar stalwart for the Sooners.
"If you're in the other dugout, you'd look at Cooper last year and go, 'Come on,' " Golloway said. "Every team would be like, 'Hey, we're going to get this guy.' Then you look up in the sixth inning and you haven't gotten that guy. We have tremendous respect for him, and that's what Rocha is. The fastball's pretty good, the sinker's pretty good, the slider's pretty good, and they just don't hit him. He's not 6-foot-3, he's not the flavor of the month, he's not pretty standing on the mound, he just gets it done."
A big reason Rocha has steadily improved at Oklahoma (his ERA has dropped from 5.70 to 4.84 to 3.53 to 1.19 over the last four years) is the development of his slider. When Rocha arrived at Oklahoma as a freshman, he threw a slow, loopy breaking ball, but the Sooners don't favor that pitch because the wind is often blowing out in Norman.
"We like to control the break and know where it's going to finish," Golloway said. "There's got to be a defining moment where the slider is different from a hard curve, and instead of the round loop, you're getting that late break—there it was and now it's gone. I've seen him tighten it up. And he's got a good changeup that you've got to respect. He'll be right there anywhere from 88-91 with his fastball, and when he tries to throw really hard, the ball flattens out and it's not good for him. He lives off the ball moving and sinking. He's got as much movement as anybody out there."
Jungmann, of course, was a heralded recruit who will leave Austin this June as one of the most accomplished pitchers in school history. He went 11-3, 2.00 as a freshman to help Texas reach the CWS Finals, then went 8-3, 2.03 as a sophomore. Strikingly, his strikeout rate has actually dropped as a junior—he struck out 9.6 batters per nine innings as a freshman, 9.7 per nine as a sophomore, and has 8.0 strikeouts per nine this spring. But that's a sign of Jungmann's maturity. He has been remarkably efficient, allowing him to average just more than eight innings per start.
"(Pitching coach Skip Johnson)'s philosophy: hit the mitt, don't be afraid to challenge, let the hitter do what he's going to do," Texas coach Augie Garrido said. "Throw the ball to the catcher's glove and pitch to contact. He's better now because he's more consistent in his fastball, he has better command of his fastball, he uses it more effectively inside the strike zone when he chooses to and outside the zone when he chooses to. One of the big things is he has a much better breaking ball than he had. It's two-directional, it's later, and it's smaller, but he has better command of it because it's later and smaller."
The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Jungmann also has a plus fastball, of course, and the ability to command four pitches that rate as average or better on the major league scouting scale. That package makes Jungmann a premium prospect, where Rocha is more of a 10th-to-15th-round senior sign, as Cooper was (the Diamondbacks took him in the 12th round).
"There's a world of difference between the two guys on the mound as far as draft and projectability," Golloway said of Rocha and Jungmann, "but what they're doing right now, it's a pretty even deal: competing in college, pitching to win on Friday nights."
|Under The Radar|
It isn't easy picking a favorite in the Big Ten Conference. Three teams are tied for first place at 7-5, five others are a game back at 6-6, and no team is more than three games out of first place. But Penn State might have the most impressive full-season resume of any of them.
The Nittany Lions won road series in March against North Carolina State and Wichita State. They have won three of their first four conference series, including a set against Ohio State last weekend, to climb into that three-way tie for first place. This weekend, Penn State will go head-to-head with another team tied for the lead, Michigan State, in Lansing. The Lions (25-13 overall) have already proven they are up to tough challenges on the road with their trips to Raleigh and Wichita.
"Every year we try and put together a good schedule—we don't want to bury ourselves, but I think the guys get better when you challenge them," Penn State coach Robbie Wine said. "If I were to ask the guys, they'd want to play at N.C. State and Wichita and not some of the others, but the reality is winning percentage is important, so you have to have the wins."
Penn State has already won more games than it did a year ago, when it finished 22-30 overall and 9-15 in the Big Ten, landing it in last place. The Nittany Lions are almost assured to post a winning overall record for the first time since 2007. The difference, Wine said, has been pitching, under the leadership of assistant coach Jason Bell. Penn State leads the Big Ten with a 3.45 ERA, nearly three runs better than last year's 6.34 staff ERA.
"I know we went hard after a lot of young pitching, we have a lot of young arms, and they've developed so we're in games now," Wine said. "The last two years we had no pitching at all, the guys we counted on dropped off. I learned, especially at a Penn State, you have to develop guys—I don't care if it's a junior-college guy or what, they're not going to be ready, you have to develop them."
The Lions have developed a quality strike-throwing Friday starter in sophomore righty Steven Hill (4-3, 2.56 with 43 strikeouts and seven walks in 70 innings), who mixes speeds and locations with four pitches. Sophomore righty John Walter (5-3, 2.26) has better stuff but is less efficient with his pitches (he has 33 walks in 56 innings). Wine said Walter matured significantly over the summer and fall; he has a much better plan of attack now, and he's been able to pitch out of jams. Junior lefthander Mike Franklin (2-0, 4.62) has improved his breaking ball and his fastball velocity to take over the Sunday starter job recently.
In the bullpen, Ryan Ignas (2-3, 3.04 with five saves) had settled into the closer role, but he missed last week with a forearm strain, allowing other young pitchers (Geoff Boylston and Greg Welsh) to gain experience in key spots against Ohio State.
"They grew up real fast in situations against Ohio State," Wine said. "We got them a couple of innings, so going into this weekend we feel good."
Offensively, Penn State has some pop—its 20 home runs are tied for the most in the Big Ten. Junior third baseman Jordan Steranka (.340/.399/.564 with six homers and 46 RBIs) has built on his strong summer in the Northwoods League to become the centerpiece of the lineup. Mario Eramo also has six homers, while Sean Deegan has five and Ryan Clark has three. While no other Lions have any long balls, Wine likes his lineup's balance.
"It's just a solid lineup, and the guys complement each other and just make things happen," Wine said. "(Luis) Montesinos is one of the biggest hitters in our lineup because he's a line-drive, short-swing type guy who can hit 2, 6 or 7. But Steranka and Deegan are two of the best hitters in the league—they hit for average and get on base. Then Blake Lynd, he doesn't scare anybody, just a little scrappy guy, but we've moved him into the leadoff spot and it's really worked for us."
Wine was an assistant coach on Oklahoma State's 1999 College World Series team, and thinks this club has a similar blue-collar mentality.
"I keep telling them, this team reminds me of '99, the Oklahoma State team that went to Omaha—just a bunch of guys that gelled, came together, played hard and got hot at the right time," Wine said. "I like being under the radar, by the way. At this time of year, when you start looking at everything, it's obvious that we are a team to contend with. But so is Michigan State. I know it's their football weekend, they'll have great crowds, a great atmosphere. You're going to win some and lose some, but last week against Ohio State was critical for us, and this weekend's another one. It's just important to keep it moving in the right direction."
|Andrew Rash, of, Virginia Tech|
When Virginia Tech was recruiting Rash, Hokies coach Pete Hughes knew he had power, but wasn't sure he'd ever be able to unlock it.
"Sometimes, when I evaluate guys, if you're a swing-and-miss guy in high school, I don't know if you can ever change that," Hughes said. "It takes a heck of a lot of work to change a bat path because you've been doing it your whole life. I think he got two hits his whole freshman fall here—honestly, I think he punched out once every two times up."
But Rash wasn't afraid of a little hard work. When he redshirted in 2009, Rash would go to Virginia Tech's hitting facility for an hour and a half after every game to make up for lost repetitions. He started to make major strides a year ago, earning significant playing time down the stretch for Virginia Tech's regionals team and finishing with a .344 average and six homers in 90 at-bats.
But this year, Rash has blossomed into perhaps the ACC's premier power hitter. In his last seven games, Rash has five multi-hit games, four home runs and five RBIs to raise his average by 47 points. He's up to .356/.444/.795 on the year, and he leads the ACC in home runs (16), total bases (116) and slugging percentage.
"There's only maybe one guy on every team that these new bats don't really affect because they're strong enough to get the bats through the zone at a high speed," Hughes said. "This kid's one of them—he's just got that special tool, the power tool. Once he got the path right and put the barrel on it more, the power numbers started to show. That was the problem early on: He was raw with the bat path. He would hook around the ball, swing over the top of everything on the inside and wouldn't have any plate coverage on the outside. Anything with spin he would miss because the bat was gone already. Then he started to let the ball travel, which only guys with unbelievable bat speed can do. So he got inside the baseball more, the balls started being in play more. Even his misses are going out of the park or getting driven to the allies.
"He's got special power. I've never coached a kid with more power."
Rash has also led Virginia Tech's second-half turnaround. The Hokies were swept in three of their first four conference series (by Miami, North Carolina and Virginia), but they have gone 6-3 in ACC play over the last three weekends, including a sweep at Maryland last weekend. At 24-19 overall and 7-14 in the ACC, the Hokies remain a long shot for regionals, but the remaining schedule affords them opportunities to make a statement. After a road series against Duke this weekend, Virginia Tech hosts Clemson and Georgia Tech to close the year, and the RPI Needs Report at Boyd's World says they can climb into the top 45 by season's end with a 12-2 finish. That will be a tall order, but at least there is something to shoot for.
"We dug ourselves a hole, but I think we're playing better here lately," Hughes said. "I think if we were to win our last three series, it would be hard not to talk about us as an at-large team. I think we're a national tournament team, no doubt about it—we just dug ourselves a hole with a lot of close losses early."
Entering the season, uncertainty about LSU's pitching kept the Tigers from earning a top-10 preseason ranking. LSU had to replace its entire weekend rotation, after all, and it would be leaning heavily on freshmen on the mound. But the Tigers still ranked 22nd in the preseason and still came into the spring as the favorites to win the SEC West. And when they jumped out to a 16-1 start, punctuated by a sweep of Cal State Fullerton, the Tigers looked like they would be a contender to get back to Omaha.
That's when the wheels fell off. LSU has lost five of its first six conference series to fall to 4-14 in the SEC, last place in the West. The Tigers have been swept three times—by Florida, Arkansas and Vanderbilt. As they enter a critical home series against Kentucky (also 4-14) this weekend, the Tigers find themselves on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble, with a lot of work to do just to reach the SEC tournament. LSU has struggled on both sides during its cold stretch—it allowed double-digit runs in all three losses at Vandy this past weekend, and its offense is averaging just 3.1 runs per game in its 14 SEC losses.
"I am a little ashamed that I haven't done a better job of having them in a better position," LSU coach Paul Mainieri told media earlier this week, as reported by the Shreveport (La.) Times. "I'm not embarrassed. I promised them if they would do their best, I wouldn't use that word."
But Mainieri did address his club bluntly this week, the paper reported.
"He definitely sent it into us," junior shortstop Austin Nola said. "He put it right there. He didn't beat around the bush. He came right out with it and right at guys. He told us that we need to step up."
LSU under Mainieri has a history of following midseason doldrums with stretch-run hot streaks. Two years ago, the Tigers were 11-7 in the SEC on April 19, then won nine of their next 12 conference games to win the West. That team lost its SEC tournament opener, then won its next 14 games en route to the CWS Finals, where it captured the national title.
Last year, the Tigers lost 13 of 15 games from April 24 to May 18, then caught fire in the SEC tournament, running undefeated to the tournament title and a No. 2 seed in the Irvine Regional.
But facing dire straits, LSU knows it needs to embrace a sense of urgency. Its remaining four conference series are winnable—Kentucky, at Alabama, Tennessee, at Mississippi State—but there is no longer any margin for error.
"We can't say it's a long season," junior center fielder Mikie Mahtook told the Shreveport paper. "And we can't say all this stuff like, 'We still have time.' We don't have any time. The time is now."
|Stat of the Week|
Doubles for Dallas Baptist senior outfielder Jason Krizan, most in the nation. No other player has more than 20 doubles. Krizan is averaging 0.63 doubles per game, and if he keeps up that pace, it will be the most since 1985, when Drexel's Jim Browne averaged 0.63. The single-season record is 0.68 doubles per game, set by Georgetown's Joe Niciforo in 1982.
Krizan is having a special senior season, hitting .413/.508/.729 with seven homers, 51 RBIs and 11 steals in 14 tries. He delivered a walk-off two-run homer in DBU's win against Texas Christian earlier this week, and DBU coach Dan Heefner said Krizan is anything but a bottom-feeder—he seems to have his best games against the best competition. Krizan has been a very productive player for three years at Dallas Baptist, hitting 20 doubles each of the past two seasons and slugging 25 homers over those two years. Heefner said it's even more impressive that Krizan has been able to sustain his success over three years even when everybody knows how dangerous he is.
"He's had a phenomenal year so far, but he's done it for a while," Heefner said. "He saw considerable time for us as a freshman, but from his sophomore year on, he's just been lights-out. The fact that he's leading the nation in doubles right now, he's definitely taken a step up as a hitter, but it's not a surprise. He's not a real big guy—he doesn't do it just by overpowering the baseball. He's kind of a Will Clark-type guy; he has real good rhythm as a hitter. He's got a great eye, just a real mature, professional approach to his at-bats. He had that when he came in, but all the at-bats he's had through his career playing every day and every summer, it almost seems he's on another level with how he approaches at-bats compared with other college hitters. He definitely uses the whole field, and he's a great two-strike hitter. Early in counts he'll look for a pitch he can drive to try to pull the ball for a home run, but if a pitcher's pitching him a certain way, he'll go to the opposite field. He does a great job using the whole plate. A spray chart of his doubles, they'd be from the left-field line to the right-field line."
At 6 feet, 186 pounds, Krizan lacks the size of a prototypical big league corner outfielder, and he hasn't generated loads of draft buzz, but a statistic-oriented club could find him very attractive. In his career, Krizan has more walks (102) and extra-base hits (116) than strikeouts (86).
"He's not the tools guy, he's not big physically, he doesn't run great—he's just a really, really good baseball player," Heefner said. "He's just good at everything—he's got a good arm, he's a good runner. On a pro scale, his power would be average. So the knock is he doesn't have the tools, but the most important tool is hitting, and he's got that as good as anybody I know."
The Anteaters got off to a strong 15-2 start before getting swept at Gonzaga in late March and losing a series at Cal State Fullerton two weeks later. They rebounded to win their next two Big West series and are tied for second place in the conference at 8-4, to go along with a 26-11 mark overall. Still, Irvine finds itself on the NCAA tournament bubble heading into the stretch run thanks to an RPI of 62nd (in the most recent official RPI report, released Tuesday). The next two weeks are critical for the 'Eaters to bolster their regional resume, as they'll play a big nonconference series at Cal State Bakersfield this weekend, then host Cal Poly (also 8-4 in the Big West) next weekend.
Irvine has just 10 home runs as a team, but its lineup is filled with quality veterans who are tough outs, like Jordan Fox (.354), Brian Hernandez (.353), Drew Hillman (.333), Sean Madigan (.325) and D.J. Crumlich (.293). The pitching staff was the greatest question facing the team heading into the spring, as it lost mainstays Daniel Bibona, Christian Bergman and Eric Pettis. But junior righthander Matt Summers (6-2, 2.15) has emerged as a solid Friday ace, and a bevy of young pitchers like Matt Whitehouse, Jimmy Litchfield, Phllip Ferragamo and Andrew Thurman has given the staff quality depth. An area scout offered his take on the Anteaters.
"I like their club. I think their best asset is (head coach) Mike Gillespie. The old skipper knows what he's doing. They play as a team, they're an intelligent team, they're obviously not built with superstars, but they play very well together, they're very well skilled, very well coached.
"Their pitching is actually pretty good. Summers has really stepped it up. This guy, they thought he'd be able to go seven or eight innings every time out, and that's exactly what he's done. He's got power stuff, a very highly competitive young man, and he just flat gets after it. I've seen the kid up to 96. He's really a two-pitch guy, but he's been up to 96. He sits 92, and commands it fine. He always works out of the stretch. He's pretty good; he's got that compact arm action that hitters don't see. The second pitch is a power curveball, I think it's average. He can put you away with it. It's a high-70s, low-80s pitch. He's a very athletic guy, probably their best athlete—he was a center fielder. I think ultimately he'll be a reliever, because then you'll see the mid-90s numbers in short stints.
"Summers is a good Friday night guy, and a couple of those young arms, I think are going to be very, very good. The Litchfield kid's a freshman, Thurman's a freshman, Whitehouse—they're getting some good quality guys that are going to be OK, I think. And they've got a number of arms. Their biggest asset is they throw strikes. There's nobody that will blow you away after Summers, but they throw strikes, throw breaking balls for strikes, and they play good defense. They certainly don't have the arms that Fullerton has, but I wouldn't count the old skipper out of anything. He just gets it done, and he's done it for years. He schools some of these other coaches.
"Irvine seems to be getting these good students who are going to be there for, in most cases, four years. They're senior sign guys who will get a chance to play in pro ball, but not impact guys, just steady guys. Hernandez is as steady as it gets. Hillman, Madigan, Hernandez are just senior signs if you want them—they're good college players. Crumlich and (Jordan) Leyland can go out there as juniors.
"Leyland's got tremendous raw power, he really does. I don't know that the college game has helped him. He's a guy that, if he clicks, you're going to have a big power bat. If he doesn't, he's going to be nothing. He's a high-risk guy. I think he's changed his approach, and it's not real good. He's not hitting like he did with wood last summer (in the Cape Cod League). His approach was better last year. If anything, he's too passive now.
"Crumlich is an average runner, but a steady-Eddie guy. He's more offensive than the guy they had, (Ben) Orloff, but Orloff was one of the smarter players there. Crumlich's bat will be questionable at the next level, he won't be a high guy, he's really a steady kind of guy. But those kind of guys you can't discount. Middle infielders are very lacking. Is he a true shortstop at our level? Probably not. But is he at the organizational level? Yes. He'll pick it up and get it across the diamond for those big pitching prospects. Give those guys an opportunity, they can surprise you—he could grind his way to the top."
|In The Dugout|
|Sean Gilmartin, lhp, Florida State|
"He is such a winner. He can hit, he can run, the only worry that I've ever had about Sean Gilmartin is keeping him off the field in batting practice," Seminoles coach Mike Martin said earlier this spring. "He is special. He just loves to play; he's a prototypical California young man that will play baseball as long as somebody will play with him. I love that kid because he's pitched three years as our Friday night guy. I think the slider has really helped him. He's not throwing the curveball, but 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."
Though he lacks an overpowering fastball, working in the 86-90 range, he's touched some 91s and 92s, and Gilmartin's draft stock has climbed this spring. Scouts say he doesn't figure to last longer than the supplemental first round this June. But Gilmartin is focused on getting Florida State back to Omaha. The Seminoles have a chance to solidify their position as a potential national seed with a series win at Miami this weekend.
It seems like you guys have been playing pretty well lately. Do you like where this team is right now, right there in position to host a regional and maybe be a national seed?
Yeah, everything's going well. That's what we try to do every year: basically the first half of the year we try to put ourselves in position, and we're right where we want to be. Obviously it would be nice to take care of Miami this weekend, then we have N.C. State and Clemson left in conference. Hosting in the postseason is really important.
Especially at Florida State, with that great fan base and ballpark, the atmosphere must be even better in the postseason, right?
There's times when you have the bases loaded and a guy comes up and hits a two-run double, and you can't even hear yourself think sometimes. It's definitely a fun atmosphere. Once football season's over with, nobody can wait until baseball season. The fans are excited, people come out to practice every single day, pretty much. The whole city gets wrapped up in it, and come postseason time, it gets bigger.
Is that one of the reasons you went all the way across country to go to FSU? You don't see a lot of California kids becoming Seminoles.
I had no clue anything about Florida State before I got here. My freshman, sophomore years in high school, I couldn't really tell you the difference between the Gators and the Seminoles. Coming all the way across the country has definitely been a big thing for me, and I made the right decision. I came out here for a camp just to get a different look. My dad was a big proponent of getting a different look throughout the country, and I kind of fought him on that a little bit. But I'm real glad he encouraged me to do that.
This weekend you've got a big series at Miami. Is this rivalry still as intense as ever?
Miami's got a good ballclub, and we also have a good ballclub, we understand that. We've played each other so many times over the past three years, we know what each side has, how each side plays in certain situations. Most of the time when we play Miami, it's almost like we're the same team playing against each other. Nobody wants to give up, nobody wants to lose. The intensity definitely is heightened a little bit. But most of our guys know how to handle that environment, so we don't really take it too seriously. We're going to do the same thing no matter where we go.
You've had a great career at Florida State, but you've really taken it to a higher level as a junior this year. What's been the biggest difference for you?
Just learning from everything that happened over the past two years—that is what's made me better from the previous two years. I looked at last year, and I basically decided midway through to learn from everything I do from here on out. Playing with Team USA last summer, I learned a lot there. That helped me not only as a pitcher but as an all around player. I tried to soak up as much as I could. Playing with Sonny Gray, Gerrit Cole, Matt Barnes, all those guys, it was pretty incredible seeing what made those guys so good. It's not just the plus-plus fastball—those guys know how to pitch as well. So I tried to learn eveything I could from those guys and from coach (Dave) Serrano of Cal State Fullerton, who was the pitching coach on that team.
After struggling in Omaha last year, you told my colleague John Manuel that you felt like you had struggled all season to put hitters away once you were in advantage counts. This year you've got plenty of strikeouts; how have you learned to finish hitters off?
In my opinion, the way I went about it this year, it's more a thought process than anything else. My pitches have gotten better without a doubt, but to me it's more a thought process to where I want to put the ball rather than a change in the pitch. With the slider to lefthanded hitters, say I'm in a 1-2 count or even an 0-2 count, most of the time it will be sliders back to back to get two strikes. Once they get that second strike with the slider, I'm going to throw the third one harder, off the plate and down, try to get them to chase. Most of the time that's what ends up happening. I'm throwing it harder and to a certain location as opposed to making it be a strike. So I want to make it look like a strike without being one. It goes the same thing with the changeup away to righthanders as well.
You've always had a really good changeup, and we hear it's even better now. But has the slider really made a big step forward this year?
The slider has definitely gotten better since I started throwing it at the beginning of last year. But at the same time, with me, it's always been being able to set up offspeed pitches with the fastball on both sides of the plate. I think you have to do that in order to be effective, especially at this level when you don't have the blow-it-by-you fastball at 94-95. A lot of the young guys don't understand—and I didn't understand it last year—if you throw a pitch inside corner against a righthanded hitter, it doesn't have to be a strike to be effective. It just has to move his feet and give him a different look.
You've gained momentum in the draft this year, and there is talk you could go in the sandwich round or even the late first round. How closely do you follow that stuff?
I've heard some things about it recently, but as far as I look at it, the way I've had my year going right now, I'm still not satisfied with anything I've done. Obviously I've had a good year to this point, but at the same time I know there's a lot of work to be done. Our goal is to get to Omaha, and not just to make it but to win the College World Series.
How much do you guys want to win one for coach Martin, to get the monkey off his back, so to speak?
It was a little frustrating last year, but at the same time, we just have to kind of learn from last year and forget about it. I don't want to know what that feels like from coach Martin's standpoint, being there as many times as he has without winning one. We want to be the team to do it this year—that would be a nice gift for him.