|Creighton at Wichita State|
Pleasantries have become less pleasant lately for Gene Stephenson.
"Somebody asked me the other day how I'm doing," said Stephenson, Wichita State's long-time head coach. "I said, 'I feel like I'm on the back of a Ford pickup going 50 miles an hour down a dusty country road, just hangin' on for dear life.' God almighty."
"We still have enough quality people to play well on certain days, we're just not consistent at all," Stephenson said. "I've never had a team—ever—that didn't put a winning streak together at some point during the season. No matter how disappointing a team was, they always put together a streak. We haven't won more than two straight since the beginning of February. We started the season 7-0, they weren't very good teams. Since that time, what are we, 21-21? It's hard to imagine, but it is.
"As far as physical tools, we may have more talent than we've had in the past. But we don't have any ballplayers. We don't have any guys who understand being in the right place at the right time doing the right things. They don't have any instincts, any feel for it. I watch these guys—I talk about passion, I talk about mental toughness, I talk about commitment. I think I'm talking a foreign language. One of the things we've always been able to do better than most people is get more out of players than they thought they could get out of themselves. But I don't think that anymore. You feel like you've done a terrible job coaching. We can't get people to play the way we want them to play. There's just not that many ballplayers anymore. There's talent, but they don't understand baseball. And it's really tough."
Two of Wichita's best "ballplayers" have been lost to injury: Garrett Bayliff played just six games before going down with a dislocated ankle and a broken leg, and Erik Harbutz made just eight starts before being shut down to have shoulder surgery. On the mound, two of Wichita's top four starters are also out for the season with elbow injuries: ace Tim Kelley (3-1, 1.69) and flame-throwing No. 4 starter Tobin Mateychick.
Still, the Shockers have enough pitching to compete. Hulking lefthanders Charlie Lowell (8-4, 3.25) and Brian Flynn (4-2, 4.11) own quality arms and have been solid in the first two rotation spots.
"But we're only as good as our starting pitching carries us right now," Stephenson said. "If we can stop making silly mistakes behind those guys, and they keep throwing the way they've been throwing the way they've been throwing, we've got a chance in every game."
Chris O'Brien (.401/.473/.630 with seven homers and 58 RBIs) has been a force in the middle of the lineup, and the Shockers have seen flashes from Preston Springer (.303 with six homers) and Johnny Coy (.291 with five homers and 48 RBIs). But Stephenson said they are very inconsistent, and the table-setters have not gotten on base with enough regularity.
Wichita has speed, as usual, but other things the program prides itself on—consistent defense (it has a .958 fielding percentage and a habit of botching routine plays in big spots), toughness and savvy—haven't been there.
"Just because you put the uniform on, it doesn't make you that way," Stephenson said. "I don't know whether they don't hear or they don't understand, or it's simply the fact that maybe they think they know all they need to know about baseball, and they're satisfied being where they are. I know I'm not satisfied, by any means.
"And Creighton's on a high right now, obviously. They're playing great, we're playing (lousy). We stink it up beyond belief."
As you might expect, Creighton coach Ed Servais was considerably more optimistic about his club. The Bluejays are 31-10 overall and find themselves in position to make a serious run at an at-large NCAA tournament berth if they fail to win the MVC tournament—which will be played on their sparkling new home ballpark, TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, also the new home of the College World Series. Creighton sits comfortably atop the MVC standings at 9-3, two games ahead of Wichita, Illinois State and Southern Illinois.
"It's a very interesting team, a very resilient team," Servais said of his Bluejays. "I'm not sure I've been around a group of guys this resilient. We get behind, there's no flinching, no panicking—they just keep playing."
While the Shockers have underachieved, the Bluejays have played up to their potential. Servais anticipated his top two starters—sophomore lefthander Ty Blach (7-0, 2.31) and senior righty Jonas Dufek (7-1, 2.33)—would give his team a chance every weekend, and that's just what they've done. Blach works in the 88-91 range and tops out at 93 from the left side, he owns a good changeup, and he does an excellent job attacking the inner half of the plate, preventing righties from getting too comfortable. Dufek also works around 88-91 and owns a swing-and-miss slider, making him more of a strikeout pitcher than Blach. Both of those guys have given the Bluejays quality starts most every time out, which keeps the bullpen fresh for Sunday, giving Creighton an added edge.
But the bullpen has also been a strength, led by Kurt Spomer (2.31 ERA, five saves) and Reese McGraw (5-1, 2.55, four saves).
"We have five options in the bullpen—two lefties, three righties, different slots, makeup is different," Servais said. "It gives us the ability to match up. We don't ask our pitchers to go eight or nine innings, we ask them to go six or seven, and we mix and match."
The Bluejays are annually among the nation's top defensive teams, but Servais was concerned about his defense in the fall. In the final week of the fall practice season, he moved standout defensive third baseman Jimmy Swift to shortstop in an effort to make the Jays strong up the middle. Swift isn't flashy, but he's a steady defender who makes the routine plays, and he has solidified the infield defense alongside second baseman Alex Staehely. Creighton's .978 fielding percentage ranks seventh in the nation.
Creighton is a pitching-and-defense operation that aims to score five runs per game by any means necessary. So far this year, the Bluejays have averaged six runs per game. The lineup is filled with scrappy college players who grind out at-bats and can hit situationally—plus one big star in senior outfielder Trever Adams (.411/.459/.755 with 12 homers and 50 RBIs).
"He's a good player," Servais said. "To hit 12 home runs with the new bat—and this stadium plays very big, and Trever's already hit three home runs in the new stadium. He's got power, he's hitting for average, and he can run. He leads our team in stolen bases (11), he's got four triples, 12 doubles, so he can beat you in a couple different ways. He's done a much better job with two strikes this year. He's kind of the student of the game. He likes to talk and learn about hitting. You don't see that in enough young people these days. He's been fun to be around, and really sets our whole offense."
It is striking, indeed, to hear Servais praise his team's resilience and willingness to learn the nuances of the game, then to hear Stephenson vent about his team's shortcomings in those areas. On paper, the Shockers might look like they have the advantage this weekend. But the game is not played on paper.
"They have a little more speed, especially at the top with (Tyler) Grimes and (Kevin) Hall," Servais said of the Shockers. "Those guys are dangerous on the basepaths, so we'll have to control those guys the best we can. Then they have more power in the middle with O'Brien, Coy and Springer—three legit guys that can drive the baseball. So they have a little more power, a little more speed; it will come down to us trying to out-execute them. They're a very dangerous team, no doubt about it, and when they figure it out, they have as much talent or more than anybody else in the league."
But they're running out of time to figure it out.
"Twenty games in, I thought we were going to fix it, going to keep growing as a team, getting better and better and better," Stephenson said. "Now, we are what we are. We are what you see and read about. These guys have shown no great ability to change. It's taken me down—I know that.
"But we're not done. I'm going to keep preaching, but I don't know if there's any choir there."
|Marquee Mound Showdown|
|UNLV's Tanner Peters vs. Washington State's Adam Conley|
If you're a prospect junkie, you might not know as much about Tanner Peters. Nevada-Las Vegas' junior righthander has generated some interest from scouts, but at 6 feet, 150 pounds, he lacks the size professional clubs are always looking for, giving the Rebels a chance to get him back for his senior year.
And they'd love to have him. After posting a 4.90 ERA as a freshman and a 5.54 ERA as a sophomore, Peters has blossomed into a dominant ace during his junior year, going 7-3, 1.45 with 83 strikeouts and 17 walks in 87 innings.
"He can throw four pitches for strikes—that's a big part of it," UNLV coach Tim Chambers said. "His changeup's really good, his breaking ball's good, he's developed a pretty good cutter, too. He can get it up to 93; he pitches at 88-91, but if he needs to reach back for a little extra, he can. Last week against New Mexico, the wind was howling, kind of swirling around. He came in in the second or third inning and said, 'I get to the top of my delivery and the wind is blowing me down the hill.' He didn't really have have his changeup that night, so he was pounding a lot of fastballs. When he has his changeup, he's almost unhittable. I haven't seen a better guy all year. He's just good."
Even without his good changeup, Peters threw a complete-game shutout against the Lobos. His changeup was so good against TCU back in March that Horned Frogs coach Jim Schlossnagle had to ask him how he threw it, Chambers said.
"It's basically just a circle change—it's just better than everybody else's," Chambers said.
Peters' stuff is good, but his makeup is special. Chambers and his coaching staff recognized that right away when they took over the program last fall.
"We were trying to get to know our players. Tanner walked in and talked and I looked at our coaches and said, 'That's our guy,' " Chambers recalled. "He's kind of beyond his years as far as understanding how to pitch, and what pitches aren't working for him, doing it fast, going with what's working and repeating it. His mound presence is as good as I've coached in 22 years. He's almost another coach for us too, with the rest of our guys."
Peters and the new coaching staff—which talked about changing the culture when it arrived, while also delivering tangible changes in the form of $250,000 in immediate stadium upgrades—have led the Rebels to a 28-18 record, and they can equal last season's wins mark with one more victory. They'll have their work cut out for them on Friday against Conley, who is 5-5, 3.08 with 70 strikeouts and 15 walks in 79 innings.
"He has a plus fastball and a plus change," a Pac-10 coach said of Conley. "I would foresee him coming out of the 'pen in the big leagues because I just don't see that third pitch. But he has two good ones and he really competes. He commands those two pitches real good and really controls the running game."
|Under The Radar|
|Bryson Myles, of, Stephen F. Austin State|
Good luck finding a newcomer to Division I baseball that has made a bigger impact than Myles, who transferred to Stephen F. Austin for his junior year this spring after two strong seasons at Weatherford (Texas) JC. In his first D-I season, Myles' name is plastered all over the national leaderboards; not only does he lead the nation in stolen bases (40, which is seven more than anyone else in D-I), but he ranks eighth in batting (.436), fourth in runs (56) and second in hits (78).
"He's unbelievable; he is unbelievable," Lumberjacks coach Johnny Cardenas said. "He's the best athlete we've ever had here at this school as far as baseball. He's really set our offense up really well. He started the year hitting three-hole because we thought he could drive in some runs, then once we put him in leadoff, our offense really took off."
That's not to say Bryson couldn't handle hitting in the middle of the order. In fact, he leads the team in home runs (six) and slugging (.609) in addition to on-base percentage (.502). But he's even more valuable as a table-setter for Stephen F. Austin, which heads into a big series against Sam Houston State with a 30-13 overall record and a 17-7 mark in Southland Conference play, tying the Lumberjacks for first place with Texas State.
"Once he gets on base, he does create so much havoc for opposing pitchers, so maybe we get a little better pitch to hit," Cardenas said. "So that's really helped us out scoring runs. He's extremely fast. A lot of people think that because he's big—he's probably 225 pounds—people think there's no way he's going to be that fast, but he's very surprising how fast he is, and once he gets going he can really fly."
A standout linebacker at Arlington (Texas) Grace Prep, Myles was originally slated to play football at Texas Christian before winding up at Weatherford, where he showed off his outstanding speed by stealing 53 bases in 59 tries last year. He has been on scouts' radars since his high school days but has never been drafted—but that will change this June. Some scouts think he could go as high as the third round. He has four quality tools, though his arm lags behind. One league coach compared his overall ability favorably to 2010 first-rounder Michael Choice, though he's less polished.
"He's got some lightning-quick hands, and the thing that makes him such a great hitter for average is he'll hit it over your head for a single, but he also has enough power to drive the ball out of the park," Cardenas said. "Power and speed—that will make him attractive to pro teams."
In recent weeks, Florida International has begun to show why it was the preseason favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference. The Panthers own a nine-game winning streak, fourth-longest active streak in the nation, and have climbed into a tie for second place in the Sun Belt, two games behind first-place Troy.
The bats have done much of the heavy lifting during the winning streak—FIU is averaging 11 runs per game during its streak, which comprises series wins against Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas-Little Rock and South Alabama. Of course, this was supposed to be a good offensive team, just as it was a year ago, when it went to the Coral Gables Regional.
"Everybody we've got in the lineup played for us last year," FIU coach Turtle Thomas said. "Everybody, this is basically their second or third year starting. We do have a few big, strong guys, and Mike Martinez has kind of led the way. When we've done well, it's been a different guy stepping up in each game, not just one or two guys. The other night (Saturday against South Alabama) we were 9-for-13 with our No. 7-9 hitters. In some games, other hitters have carried us. That's what we thought would happen coming in, and it's definitely taken a lot of time to gel a little bit."
Martinez, a former walk-on, leads the team with 10 homers, and sophomores Jabari Henry (seven) and Rudy Flores (six) also bring power, though neither is hitting .270. Jeremy Patton, Jose Behar and T.J. Shantz have four homers apiece, a testament to the lineup's balance, while juniors Pablo Bermudez (.384 with 15 steals) and Garrett Wittels (.344 with eight steals) have done a good job setting the table out of the top two spots in the order.
It's an experienced, balanced, dangerous lineup, and it's buttressed by a very steady pitching staff that boasts a 3.50 ERA—second-best in the Sun Belt behind Troy (3.49). The weekend rotation features three pitchers with 11 starts apiece, between 63 and 66 innings each, and ERAs ranging from 3.22 to 3.71. All three starters—lefthanders Phil Haig and R.J. Fondon plus righty Daniel DeSimone—are upperclassmen who mix four pitches and throw strikes, though none of them is overpowering.
The starters usually keep the Panthers in games, and the bullpen—anchored by aggressive closer Bryan Garcia (1-0, 3.20 with four saves) and submariner Jose Velazquez (2-0, 1.62 in a league-high 24 appearances)—usually protects leads. The pen also boasts perhaps the team's top prospect in redshirt sophomore lefty Mason McVay (2.01 ERA, 30 SO/22 IP), a Tommy John surgery alumnus whose fastball at times sits in the 92-94 mph range. Overall, it's a winning formula.
"We've had a pretty solid bullpen all year long," Thomas said. "We've got four or five guys down there that can throw it pretty good. When we get to the sixth or seventh, we haven't let that many games get away from us."
FIU's surge has helped its RPI climb into the low 30s, putting it in position to earn an at-large bid to regionals if it fails to repeat as Sun Belt tournament champion. The Panthers play their final road series this weekend at Middle Tennessee State, followed by home sets against Arkansas State and Florida Atlantic.
"We've won nine in a row, but we really need to finish strong these last three weekends," Thomas said. "That's really, really important. I think we're maybe starting to gel a little bit hopefully, and playing more consistently and a little bit better."
The Hawks are riding a nine-game losing streak into this weekend's series against Northeast Conference power Stony Brook—their second nine-game losing streak this season. Hartford is just 3-34 on the season, and on Wednesday the school announced it had fired coach Jeff Calcaterra and promoted assistant Jerry Shank to interim head coach. A nationwide search will begin immediately.
It won't be easy to turn the program around. The Hawks went just 76-202 (.273 winning percentage) in nearly six seasons under Calcaterra, and posted a nearly identical .275 winning percentage in six seasons under predecessor Harvey Shapiro. They haven't had a winning season since 1992.
This year's Hawks rank 288th out of 292 Division I teams in batting (.229) and scoring (3.1 runs per game); 284th in ERA (7.83); and 256th in fielding percentage (.952).
|Stat of the Week|
Teams that have earned at-large bids to the NCAA tournament with losing records in conference play, since 2002. The last two Division I Baseball Committees under the leadership of Tim Weiser have made it clear they do not emphasize conference records, taking five teams with sub-.500 conference records in 2009 and six in 2010. Over the previous seven years, an average of just about three teams per year got at-large bids with losing conference records.
From 2002-'07, only one team that finished five or more games below .500 in its conference earned an at-large spot (Mississippi State went 12-17 in the SEC in 2006). In the last three years, four teams have done it: Oklahoma went 9-17 in the Big 12 in 2008; Vanderbilt went 12-17 in the SEC in 2009; Baylor went 10-16 in the Big 12 in '09; and Oklahoma State went 9-16 in the Big 12 in '09.
All of which suggests that Louisiana State need not panic about its 7-14 SEC record, that Kansas State is still doing fine with an 8-12 mark in the Big 12, that North Carolina State is sitting pretty at 11-13 in the ACC, and that Central Florida is still very much alive at 7-11 in Conference USA. All those teams rank in the top 35 in the Ratings Percentage Index, and Weiser's committees have valued RPI more highly than conference records.
The topsy-turvy SEC West race took another turn this weekend, when co-leaders Arkansas, Auburn and Mississippi all lost series, and Alabama won a road series at Mississippi State to climb back into a tie for first with Arkansas at 10-11. While South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Florida continue to dominate in the East, the West remains wide open. Alabama doesn't overwhelm with its physicality, but it makes up for it with toughness—which was on full display last weekend, when it swept a Saturday doubleheader just days after a devastating tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa. The Tide returns home this weekend to host Louisiana State, which thrust itself back into the SEC West race with a sweep of Kentucky last weekend. Two evaluators offered their thoughts on the Tide; we condensed them into one scouting report.
"Alabama just doesn't strike you as an SEC team because they have a lot of little guys over there. Their best players are 5-6 (righty Nathan Kilcrease) and 5-7 (center fielder Taylor Dugas). But their whole team is pretty small. They just aren't very physical. It's just not a very good hitting team. Dugas was hitting third when I saw them, and he's a great college hitter, but I just didn't expect that he'd ever be a three-hole guy. He doesn't run plus but he plays with energy and makes their offense go. He's a clutch player, but he's their best guy. You're never thinking, 'Oh gosh, it's Dugas.' And Kilcrease, he's a great college pitcher and he's always done well when I've seen him, but he has to be the kind of guy coaches think, 'How did we not hit that guy?'
"(Lefthander Adam) Morgan will go good and is interesting, but he's one of their most physical guys. I think Mitch Gaspard wants to take them in a more small-ball, athletic direction, but maybe that's just what he has to do with the talent they have on hand. (Catcher) Brock Bennett is a little guy who can catch and throw, but he's not physical enough for pro ball, just a good college player. They've gotten nice years out of other guys like him, like (shortstop) Jared Reaves, and (lefthander Jonathan) Smart's been very useful for them out of their bullpen. But they just don't really impress you physically or in terms of talent. They play hard and they have to, and they have to execute to play well. They are not as talented as some of the other teams in that division, even when the division is down.
"Morgan is pretty good—I was surprised, really surprised. He has a decent changeup. His package for me was even better than (Florida State ace Sean) Gilmartin's. His stuff's a little firmer. You start talking about lefties in the big leagues, for some reason pitchability and stuff with lefties matters more than the actual stuff. He goes in that mix with Gilmartin and those guys. He developed a little rhythm later in the games, really pitched. He will go in the top three rounds. I saw 91, maybe 92. He pitched right there at average."
|In The Dugout|
|Brad Propst, rhp, Oklahoma State|
Propst arrived at OSU as a slick-fielding middle infielder after spending his freshman year at Frank Phillips (Texas) JC. Three years later, he has emerged as Oklahoma's senior ace. As the Saturday starter, Propst is 7-2, 2.01 with 40 strikeouts and just 12 walks in 76 innings. With a fastball that sits in the mid-80s, he lacks the prospect cachet of harder-throwing teammates like Chris Marlowe and Randy McCurry, but he's been the most consistent pitcher on the staff, and he's a big reason the Cowboys are 30-13 and competing to host a regional heading into a big series against Texas Christian this weekend. Propst is coming off his third complete game of the season last week against Kansas State.
It seems like this has been a fun year for you guys, you've probably surprised some people with how good you've been. Did you feel like the team had something to prove heading into this season—that this program is still a force to be reckoned with?
Definitely. Last year left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths. It didn't end up the way we wanted it to. You just have to realize it's a new season and forget about the last two years.
What do you think is the biggest reason for the turnaround from last year to this year?
We got off to a good start for the season. Our first weekend in the Big 12 was a little shaky, losing the doubleheader to Kansas. But we didn't let it get to us. I think last year's team, we kind of got down on ourselves. We didn't have the confidence this team has. Just rebounding from tough losses like the 15-inning game against Texas when they stole home on us, then to be able to win the series.
Was that series against Texas a statement weekend for you guys?
That Friday night game, when you can match (Taylor) Jungmann—Mike Strong went out there on Friday and matched Jungmann, which is incredible, because Jungmann's a great pitcher. Mike went nine scoreless innings also. Then coming out with a series win was good.
You've had an awfully good year, yourself. What has been the biggest key for you to be able to make this leap forward as a senior?
The name of the game is mixing speeds and hitting your spots. I'm not going to overpower anyone with my fastball, so I've got to throw the ball where I want it, and throw my changeup in any count. It's good to keep hitters off balance. I throw a slider every once in a while—I just learned it this year. It's coming along; it's been pretty good for me lately, but mostly it's fastball-change.
You arrived at Oklahoma State as a hitter. When did you realize your future was going to be on the mound?
We had the fall world series my first year there. I threw two innings in juco—we were getting killed, so they threw me out there to eat up some innings. Other than that, I hadn't really thrown since high school, and they threw me up there because we ran out of pitchers in the fall world series. I got some people out, so they started having me throw some bullpens to see what I could do. That first year there I still played shortstop, practiced there every day, and pitching was on the side. The next year I came back and said I wanted to concentrate more on pitching. I still hit a little bit then, and halfway through the season I quit hitting altogether.
Did you find your bat just wasn't up for facing Division I pitching?
In juco, people could throw fastballs pretty good, but offspeed pitches weren't there for most guys. You mostly get up there and look for a fastball and drive it. Coming to a D-I team, people would throw other pitches. I was like Serrano from Major League—I only hit the fastball.
I did hear a story about you surprising everybody with a big home run against Missouri last year, when you hadn't ever really even hit a homer in batting practice . . .
In BP, I think I hit my first homer a couple weeks earlier. Then (Mark) Ginther went down, so they told me I was going to third. Then I got up to the plate. I didn't even have a bat, I just borrowed everyone's stuff. I missed the first pitch by about three feet, just went up there swinging as hard as I could. Then the third pitch, I don't know if I hit the ball or the ball hit the bat. I didn't know it was gone, but everyone said it went over the bullpen, onto the football field. I was sprinting around the bases, I didn't know if it was out. Then I saw the umpires signal a home run, all my teammates were sitting there at home plate. It got pretty crazy. Probably one of my best baseball memories.
So this weekend you've got a big series against TCU, and both teams are in position to make a run at hosting a regional. Pretty big series, huh?
Sure, you want to host a regional, but we just want to get back into the postseason. The last couple of years haven't worked out. We've just got to concentrate on the weekend. It's a big series, but don't let it get too big. Just try to get a series win.