|North Carolina at Georgia Tech|
Competition for national seeds and regional hosting spots is thick among Atlantic Coast Conference teams. Top-ranked Virginia (43-5 overall, 20-4 in the ACC) has a stranglehold on the conference and on a national seed spot, but Florida State (37-12, 16-8), Georgia Tech (35-14, 18-6), North Carolina (39-10, 16-8) and Clemson (34-15, 13-11) all rank in the nation's top nine in the Ratings Percentage Index, and Miami (31-16, 16-7) isn't too far back. The ACC is likely to produce two national seeds (with a chance for three) and four hosts (with a chance for five), but it remains unclear how it's all going to shake out.
Which means there's a lot on the line this weekend when the Tar Heels visit the Yellow Jackets.
"Oh, definitely—I think whoever wins this series is going to increase their chances of hosting," Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said. "That's just the way it is, being quite honest about it."
But the Tar Heels have their own advantages. They have more experience in the lineup, and they have standout veteran defenders up the middle in catcher Jacob Stallings, shortstop Levi Michael, second baseman Tommy Coyle and center fielder Ben Bunting. North Carolina owns a pretty .979 fielding percentage, while the Jackets are fielding .969.
On the mound, UNC's staff has solidified as the season has progressed. Righthander Patrick Johnson (8-1, 3.10) has blossomed into a legitimate Friday anchor as a senior, taking a leap forward thanks to improved fastball command.
"We were hoping that he could do that. I think he's extremely underrated," said UNC associate head coach Scott Forbes, who oversees the team's pitching staff. "He's punched out a boatload of guys. He's proven what he can do, and he's given us a chance. He's evolved into that guy—he leads by example. He busts his tail every day. He's a small kid, he's just an old-school, get-after-you bulldog."
Behind him, freshman lefthander Kent Emanuel (6-1, 2.73) is cut from the same competitive cloth, helping him thrive in the Saturday starter role. The unflappable Emanuel pounds the strike zone (he has just 13 walks in 66 innings) with his fastball and has made progress with a sharper slider in recent weeks, Forbes said.
Sophomore righthander Chris Munnelly (5-3, 3.91) has come on strong recently in the Sunday role. Munnelly went through a funk earlier this spring when he suffered a stress reaction in his rib cage, but he returned to full strength and Forbes said he has gotten on track in the last four weeks thanks to improved fastball command and good feel for his secondary stuff. The Sunday spot was a concern for UNC early in the year, but Munnelly's emergence alleviated that problem.
"We've changed a lot of roles, especially on the pitching staff," Forbes said. "It's taken a while for them to figure out what their roles are. This group is not caught up in individual numbers, they concentrate on trying to win the game."
The Tar Heels have a much deeper bullpen than they have had in the past, and they often mix and match their way through the late innings. Rubber-armed senior righty Greg Holt (6-0, 2.89) fills the long relief/moment of truth role, and sophomore righty Michael Morin (4-2, 5.44 with four saves) has emerged as the closer, pitching particularly well of late.
Likewise, Georgia Tech has found its own closer in a sophomore righthander: Luke Bard (2-2, 3.58 with six saves), the younger brother of former UNC star Daniel Bard. While Morin is a changeup specialist with an 89-92 mph fastball, Bard is more of a prototypical power closer, with a 92-94 heater and a hard slider.
Georgia Tech's three starters tend to work so deep into games that there is less pressure on the bullpen, but Hall said he's very pleased with the way his 'pen has fallen into shape. Taylor Wood and Devin Stanton give Hall a pair of quality options from the left side, while freshman Dusty Isaacs and senior Kevin Jacob complement Bard from the right side. A preseason All-American a year ago, Jacob was derailed by a shoulder injury as a junior, but the one-time flame-thrower is starting to regain his form.
"Kevin Jacob is healthy and throwing the best he's thrown," Hall said. "I wouldn't say he's totally back, but he's getting closer. He's been up to 94 but mostly 90-92, and his slider's been pretty good. I think he's getting much closer to what we've seen and what we hope we can get out of him going forward down the stretch."
Offensively, both of these teams have gotten huge contributions from freshmen. North Carolina third baseman Colin Moran (.354/.463/.601 with eight homers and 60 RBIs) has been the team's best hitter this spring, anchoring the middle of the lineup along with the All-American Michael. And center fielder Kyle Wren (.376/.440/.483 with 13 steals) is Georgia Tech's leading hitter, sparking the lineup out of the leadoff spot.
"He's been a very consistent performer and player," Hall said of Wren. "People have changed the way they've pitched him, and he's still getting on base very regularly and doing a good job setting the table at the top of our lineup.
"It sounds like their freshman Moran will probably be freshman of the year in the league, him or Kyle Wren maybe. I think they're similar to us: They have a lot of depth in their pitching. Levi Michael's probably one of the best players in our league and one of the best players in the country. Stallings and (Jesse) Wierzbicki have been right in there playing well. I think they're one of the better teams in the country."
Forbes had similar praise for the Yellow Jackets.
"They're really good," he said. "They're always extremely well coached. They've got Pope and Bradley, two juniors anchoring their rotation, who pound the strike zone and get after you. I think there are a lot of similarities between us: We're both playing some young guys, both have some speed at the top and some power in the middle. They have more extra-base hits than us, we probably walk a bit more and strike out a bit less. So it's going to be a huge challenge for us, but this is a team that enjoys playing on the road. I think it's a great matchup—I think it's two really good teams. Usually in a series like this, it's a play here or a play there that makes the difference."
|Marquee Mound Showdown|
|Long Beach State's Andrew Gagnon vs. Cal State Fullerton's Noe Ramirez|
Outside the two big arms at UCLA, Gagnon and Ramirez are the top two pitching prospects in Southern California for the 2011 draft—both could be taken in the top two rounds this June. The two junior righthanders will go head-to-head Friday night in the opener of a Big West rivalry series at Fullerton.
Ramirez has the longer track record of success, compiling a 28-5 career record in three seasons, while Gagnon has never had a winning season and is just 12-21 in his Long Beach career. Gagnon is having his best season this spring, though, posting a 2.73 ERA and the highest strikeout rate of his career (he has 74 in 79 innings). The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Gagnon is more physical than Ramirez and throws a tick harder, giving him a good chance to be drafted first of the two.
"He's a big, strong guy who did it in the Cape and has good stuff across the board," a National League area scout said of Gagnon. "It's a pro development style there at Long Beach. These guys pitch off their fastball, so he'll go three innings at least without throwing a changeup or a breaking ball sometimes, just really trying to establish that fastball early. He'll pitch at 90-92 and touch a 93-94, and he's always around the strike zone. He's shown me a hammer curveball, a slider and a change. Sometimes it looks like he's dominating the game, but you look up and he's losing."
Ramirez, by contrast, has always won, though it should be pointed out that he has benefited from a considerably more potent offense at Fullerton over the last three years. Ramirez was slowed a bit by some elbow soreness earlier this spring, then he missed two weeks with a freak ankle sprain. He returned strong last week, allowing just an unearned run on one hits over six innings in a win at UC Riverside.
Ramirez is lean and wiry at 6-foot-3, 180 pounds, and he pitches at 88-91 with his fastball, topping out at 92-93 early in games. He also throws a 78-81 slider and an 83-84 mph changeup that he sells very well, throwing it with the same arm speed as his fastball.
"He's a pretty good pitcher—he's a strike machine," an AL scout said. "His fastball is average, maybe fringe-average, but he locates it, throws the breaking ball for strikes, and he's got a devastating changeup—no question a plus changeup."
|Under The Radar|
|South Dakota State|
The Jackrabbits have made significant strides in the Summit League in each of their three seasons under head coach Ritchie Price. After going 9-11 in their first season in the league in 2008, the Jackrabbits went 17-10 in Price's first year in 2009, then improved to 19-9 last year, tied for first place with Oral Roberts. That team also went 39-21 overall.
With a roster loaded with veterans from last year's club, South Dakota State is in position to make the next leap—into regionals. SDSU is 31-13 overall and sits atop the Summit at 16-4, two games ahead of perennial power ORU, heading into this weekend's showdown between the two clubs in Tulsa.
"We feel like we're coming along, and obviously it is a big weekend with the top two teams in the league this late in the season," Price said. "I think any team would be excited to go out and have a chance at this point in the season. I think our players believe they've already made that statement that we're a good college program with some of the wins we've had over the last two years.
"We've been on this roll lately, but we haven't been blowing out a lot of teams. We're winning a lot of close games, and I think that's a credit to having a lot of older guys in key spots."
Price is quick to highlight the importance of his senior closer, sidewinding righthander Trever Vermeulen (2-2, 2.54 with eight saves, 45 strikeouts and 16 walks in 39 innings). Vermeulen has been a stabilizing force, giving the Jackrabbits confidence late in those close games.
"He's a submarine righty who throws strikes and is really good," Price said. "He throws strikes, his ball moves a lot, and for where his arm slot is, his velocity is really hard. He sits at 85 and touches 87-88 at times. Most guys from that slot are 82 mph in the major leagues. That velocity with the movement and the deception—he's effective. He also has a slider and a changeup."
Another senior, and the team's best prospect, anchors the weekend rotation: 6-foot-4, 220-pound righthander Blake Treinen (5-2, 3.06 with 62 strikeouts and 18 walks in 65 innings). A 23rd-round pick by the Marlins a year ago, Treinen has learned to harness his power stuff, and he could be drafted in the top five rounds this June.
"He sits at 92-94, and he's made a lot of progress as a pitcher this year," Price said. "His velocity has gone up, and his command of all his pitches has improved. Last year was the first time he'd ever pitched in college, so I think the experience of the year has helped him, limiting the big inning. He has a slider about 80 mph, and he also has a changeup as well that he doesn't throw a whole lot, because in our league his fastball usually beats most of the hitters."
But first and foremost, South Dakota State is an offensive club. Its .322 average ranks sixth in the nation, and it averages 7.3 runs per game (17th in the nation).
"You look at our numbers, we have to score runs to win games—that's just the way our team's built, so we have to be hitting at that level," Price said. "The big thing I've been most happy with over the last month is we've gotten to the point we're getting contributions one through nine in our lineup. With a lot of teams you can kind of relax at the bottom of the order. With us, even our bottom guys are swinging the bats well."
Illustrative of the lineup's depth, the team's biggest power threat—senior third baseman Jesse Sawyer (11 home runs)—ranks 10th on the team in batting (.265) among players who have started at least 25 games. Junior DH Zach Rhodes (.338 with six homers) and junior outfielder/leadoff man Beau Hanowski (.375) have taken huge steps forward from last year, helping to lead the offense. But senior first baseman/catcher Joel Blake (.399 with 12 doubles) really makes the team go.
"He's our best player, and he's been our best player for several years," Price said. "He led the country in doubles last year, he's hitting right around .400. he's a great college baseball player. He's just one of those guys that, he's not tall enough, he's not fast enough, but he's our best player. He's gap to gap, and he doesn't have quite as many doubles this year just because he's so slow that the ball hasn't gone far enough into the gaps for him to stretch singles into doubles. But he always hits it hard."
Blake epitomizes the grind-it-out approach that has helped South Dakota State become a Summit League power in a short period of time.
"It's a compliment to our players," Price said. "We have good players that have talent and play hard, and they win close games."
The Chanticleers carry multiple streaks into this weekend's series against Winthrop. Sure, they've won eight straight games. Even more impressive, their pitching staff has thrown 37 consecutive scoreless innings, spanning four shutouts and the ninth inning of a fifth game. This is the first time in Coastal history it has thrown four straight shutouts.
The last three shutouts came in a sweep of a solid Radford club that entered the weekend with a 25-18 overall record. After getting off to a modest 15-10 start, Coastal has gotten hot, winning 18 of its next 23 games to assume its customary position atop the Big South standings (17-4).
"We've been waiting all year to string a few together, just never could seem to get over the hump," Chanticleers coach Gary Gilmore said. "Now we're just playing a little bit better, throwing strikes a little better, swinging the bats a little better as a group . . . I think one of the other things that helped the last two weekends is we didn't have any midweek games, so we were able to really structure and put every single piece of the puzzle together for a three-game series. It makes it way easier when the guy you need on the weekend hasn't been out there for 50 pitches on Tuesday or Wednesday."
The bullpen has contributed mightily to Coastal's scoreless streak. The Chanticleers got five strong innings Saturday and Sunday from starters Josh Conway and Matt Rein, and seven different relievers followed with scoreless work of their own during the two games. It helped that Friday ace Anthony Meo went eight innings Friday to keep the bullpen fresh, but the Chanticleers also have more pitching depth than they had even a year ago, when they earned a national seed and went to a super regional.
"You've got three or four lefthanded guys, each one's a little different, a little different velocity and arm slot and pace to the plate," Gilmore said. "One guy throws a great curveball, another throws a good slider. There aren't that many outstanding lefthanded pitchers in college baseball, and there sure are not a lot at the back of many bullpens. That's helped a lot. Then we have righthanded guys: Tyler Herb has really come on and given us another piece. Jordan Coons, a junior-college transfer, we used him in back end of bullpen early, then used him as a No. 3 or 4 starter, gotten him some innings—he's really made a leap forward for us as well. (Ryan) Connolly and (Aaron) Burke, the two sidewinder guys, have been very, very good for us as well. Depending on who starts, looking at people's lineups, trying to figure out who and where you can mix and match, we can give them different looks."
The starters, of course, have been outstanding. Meo (7-3, 2.41) has a premium fastball, but Gilmore said he's done a better job throwing quality strikes lately, especially with his slider. He's becoming more efficient as he continues the transition from power-armed thrower to refined pitcher.
Conway (7-1, 2.01), a sophomore righthander, has been even better at times than Meo, especially in the first half of the season. He has outstanding command of his 89-93 mph fastball, a better slider than Meo owns, and a much better changeup. He got out of sync a bit during the middle of the season, when the injury-plagued Chanticleers asked him to ramp up his two-way duties, but he's gotten closer to his early-season form lately.
Rein (7-2, 1.64), a senior lefty, gives hitters a much different look on Sundays after back-to-back power righthanders.
"He's kind of the polar opposite of those first two guys," Gilmore said. "He's an 83-86 lefthanded guy with a plus changeup and a pretty good breaking ball. After seeing those first two guys those first two days, he's a tough pill to swallow, The majority of time he's pitching backwards, dumping in offspeed early, locating fastballs in and out on you. Not many guys get great swings on him."
Of course, Coastal has pitched well all season, but it hasn't translated into wins all season. Gilmore points out that his team posted a 2.01 ERA in the month of March, but the Chanticleers went out like a lamb that month, losing five of their last seven. It took some time for Coastal to get its bats going, but now veterans like Tommy La Stella (.406 with 11 homers and 53 RBIs), Scott Woodward (.370) and Daniel Bowman (.281 with 11 homers and 47 RBIs) have found their grooves, and Coastal's offense is giving its fine pitching staff some support. Suddenly, this team looks capable of another postseason run.
"That was the other piece too: You win 55 games and come within a pitch or two of going to Omaha, then having a little adversity—across the board, it was a long time since we'd had adversity," Gilmore said. "So that's played its role too. We've put pressure on ourselves trying to duplicate what we've done before, but it's impossible. Different team, different circumstances. This team has more pitching pieces than last year's team did. We've got to continue to move forward, but we've kind of gained some momentum each of the last few weekends, and if we can keep that going into a regional, I think this team can beat a lot of people."
The season hasn't been pretty for the Volunteers. Tennessee has been swept in back-to-back SEC series by Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, part of an eight-game losing streak that ended with a win against Middle Tennessee State on Tuesday. But the Vols fell back below .500 (23-24) with a 12-3 loss to MTSU on Wednesday. At 5-19 in Southeastern Conference play, Tennessee is tied for last place with Kentucky, heading into this weekend's series at Louisiana State—which sits in the basement of the SEC West at 8-16.
The Volunteers were outscored 78-23 during their eight-game losing streak, but fourth-year coach Todd Raleigh still looked for positives after his team was more competitive in the last two losses against MSU.
"It's not like they're not trying," Raleigh told GoVolsXtra.com after the Bulldogs completed the sweep. "If they didn't come out and play, then I would be angry. But they played hard. Khayyan (Norfork) was diving all over the place, our pitchers were battling hard, and we never gave up. We had a chance even at the end with the tying run up in the ninth. You just have to keep battling and hopefully it will happen for us."
Norfork has been Tennessee's biggest bright spot this year, leading the team in batting (.360), OBP (.458), stolen bases (25) doubles (14) and RBIs (37). But the Vols have struggled to get timely hits, and they left 32 men on base in last weekend's sweep.
"We need somebody to step up, just as simple as that," Norfork told the website. "It's a broken record, every game it's the same thing. We just have to have somebody step up.
"Sometimes it seems like it's a confidence thing. It's just not happening so much, the confidence of most guys is down. We just need some confidence. I don't know how, we just have to find some way to do it."
It's too late to salvage this season, of course. Tennessee would need to win its last six conference games and would need Mississippi and Auburn to lose each of their last six just to make the conference tournament, and that's not happening. The Volunteers will miss the NCAA tournament for the sixth consecutive year; the question is, will they fight to the end?
"The bottom line is, if you're a human being, if I was out 100 games out with one to go, I'm still going to play as hard as I can," Raleigh told the site. "You represent this university and you're always playing for pride. It has to mean something. If it doesn't mean something, I'd be really disappointed."
|Stat of the Week|
Home runs through 48 games for East Tennessee State—the most in the nation. For the record, the Buccaneers had had 76 homers through 48 games a year ago, good enough for 11th in the nation—24 long balls behind the national leader. But this note isn't about the new bats. It's about ETSU's ability to keep on mashing even while power numbers are down dramatically across college baseball.
Five Bucs have hit nine or more home runs this season, led by senior first baseman Paul Hoilman (17), who won home run derbies against some of the nation's other top sluggers at Rosenblatt Stadium and Fenway Park last summer. Hoilman got off to a slow start as teams pitched around him, but he has settled in nicely, and he has plenty of protection in the lineup. Junior third baseman/righthander Bo Reeder, who mashed 35 homers in his first two seasons, is still hitting for plenty of power (13 homers), while also emerging as one of the nation's premier two-way players (he's tied for the national lead with 15 saves, while posting a 2.16 ERA).
The team's leading hitter, senior catcher Derek Trent (.367 with 12 homers and 50 RBIs), is also the team's best draft prospect. After striking out 132 times and drawing just 82 walks in his first three seasons at ETSU, Trent has more walks (21) than strikeouts (18) as a senior.
But most of the Bucs maintain a feast-or-famine approach, and they're not afraid to strike out. Four of ETSU's top power hitters (Dylan Pratt and Matthew Scruggs are the other two) have struck out 48 or more times, and the Bucs have 361 strikeouts as a team.
"We've studied it, and we're at our best with these guys when we strike out seven to eight times a game. That's when we're most productive," ETSU coach Tony Skole said. "When we strike out more than that or less than that, we're not as good. A contact approach is not as productive for us."
The approach is working. East Tennessee State carries a 31-17 record into this weekend's series against Campbell, and it stands a legitimate chance to break a long postseason drought thanks to another number: 32. That's ETSU's rank in the NCAA's latest official RPI report after the Bucs won two of three at North Carolina State last weekend. We've joked a few times this spring about how inexplicably high that number is—after all, East Tennessee State is just 4-6 against the top 50 in the RPI and 10-13 against the top 100. But the fact is, it puts ETSU on the at-large bubble even though it sits in fifth place in the Atlantic Sun Conference at 12-10, seven games out of first place.
"I'm not sure anybody's got the RPI figured out," Skole said. "We felt like our nonconference strength of schedule could pan out. Dan McDonnell told me the other day that the year Louisville went to Omaha, their non-league schedule, all those teams had really good years. That seems to be the case for us this year. We haven't been to a regional since 1981, and that's been a huge goal ever since I got here.
"We want to do all we can to stay off that bubble, because you might lose out to a ninth- or 10th-place team in the SEC."
The Bucs will need to keep on mashing in their last two series—against Campbell and at Mercer—to finally break that NCAA tournament drought.
|Florida at Vanderbilt|
Perhaps the most anticipated weekend series of the season, the Gators and Commodores will face off in Nashville this weekend, pitting perhaps the nation's two most talent-stacked rosters against each other. Vanderbilt (19-5) leads the SEC by a game over Florida and South Carolina, so SEC supremacy is at stake this weekend. Both teams entered the season ranked in the nation's top four (Florida was No. 1, Vandy No. 4), and both have proven to be truly elite teams over the course of the spring. Scouts have heaped superlatives on both teams all year—one national crosschecker said earlier this year that Vanderbilt had the best college pitching staff he had ever seen, while another crosschecker said early in the season that Florida was the best college team he had seen in a long time. Plenty of scouts and opposing coaches weighed in on both teams heading into this weekend's showdown, and we conflated all of their thoughts into this breakdown.
"Vanderbilt's the best team in my area and it's not even close. They will have to try to mess it up to not get to Omaha. The only negative you can really think of is . . . (Tim Corbin) is a tremendous coach and knows what he's doing, don't get me wrong, but they do get tight. I know that has been said of (Jack) Leggett and all the guys who coached with him, and it gets said because it happens, those teams get tight.
"I think Aaron Westlake is their top draft (hitter) because he's really got the present strength to hit for power. He can hit good fastballs. I think Josh Holliday has helped his hitting approach with his hands; he reminds me of Hunter Morris. He's not a donkey at first base either, he's a big guy but he's OK defensively. (Jason) Esposito is a good defender, he's a better defender than he is a hitter, but he's an outstanding defender at third base. I do wonder about his bat; he hasn't done much against top pitching when I see him. (Editor's note: Esposito is hitting .376 in SEC play.) Curt Casali is a nice piece of their lineup, though I'm not sure how he'll go in the draft because he doesn't throw well. He calls pitches for them and does a pretty decent job of it.
"Their pitching is amazing. Start with Sonny (Gray) because he's just so good, makeup is plus-plus and you're talking about a 70 curveball. He's really become more of a pitcher in his time there, and less of a thrower. That staff has done a good job with him. There's probably not a program in the country that is doing a better job developing pitchers, at least from the pro standpoint, than Vanderbilt. Navery Moore was a guy out of high school and he's really come on this year as their closer, 92-96, though his slider is just OK. Grayson Garvin was a fifth- or sixth-round guy to me coming in, but he'll go better than that now. He's touching 94, he'll sit solid-average and can really pitch off the fastball because he locates it well and gets a good angle. Taylor Hill's a good senior, competes, four-pitch guy. They have so many quality arms in the bullpen, and they will mix and match with guys like (Mark) Lamm and (Will) Clinard, then go with (Kevin) Ziomek and (Corey) Williams from the left side to get to Moore. They've got similar arms in terms of depth, but it seems like their guys are maybe more satisfied with their roles than at Florida. (Jack) Armstrong was a preseason All-American and he hardly pitches, but it doesn't seem like it has been disruptive.
"I do think it's fair to say that the Vandy guys accept their roles a bit better than the Florida guys. Midweek you see Florida use the whole staff sometimes, or start (Alex) Panteliodis for four or five innings, and the rest of their guys just come out throwing fastballs—it's almost like they're pitching to the radar gun. It's good to see guys work off their fastball but you wonder how much of it is, 'This is my one inning,' and they kind of air it out.
"Their pitching staff is more impressive than their position players. Their position players are solid guys, good players. Josh Adams is a good college player having a solid year. (Mike) Zunino's having a great year, and he and (Nolan) Fontana are good defenders at key spots. But they don't really have a guy who stands out to me. (Preston) Tucker is famous but I haven't seen real improvement in his swing. It's power ahead of the hit tool, and he's a fringy defender in the outfield or at first. On the mound they really have arms. (Nick) Maronde was so good when I saw him, he worked us over and our hitters had no chance. (Anthony) DeSclafani seems to have a better feel for his slider but his fastball gets hit, even as hard as he throws. (Tommy) Toledo's breaking ball wasn't there, but he has a solid, firm fastball. It just goes on and on. And Hudson Randall, he's like Kevin Slowey. I'm not quite sure how he does it, but he locates the fastball, the curveball and the slider, and he's really cerebral.
"It's impressive, they've got DeSclafani going 96, Maronde, I've heard he's hit 96, but I've seen him 90-94. It's pretty easy. All those guys come out throwing heat—(Steven) Rodriguez is 93, (Justin) Poovey has hardly pitched, but he was 90-93 last year, Toledo can run it up into the low 90s. All those guys have good arms. Maronde is probably the best prospect. He had command issues last year, but he's throwing a lot more strikes and his breaking ball is better this year. It's short looks, but there aren't too many lefthanders throwing 90-94 with a good breaking ball and a good body.
"I've been doing this more than a decade, and honestly I don't remember seeing a team just run dude after dude out there where everyone threw 90 or more. Position-wise, they are solid, but their pitching sets them apart."
|In The Dugout|
|Casey McElroy, ss, Auburn|
McElroy, Auburn's third-year starting shortstop, is enjoying his finest season, hitting .360/.416/.530 with six homers and 46 RBIs through 200 at-bats. He is the offensive leader for a club that enters this weekend's series against Alabama with a 26-23 overall record and an 11-13 mark in SEC play. McElroy talked about Auburn's up-and-down season, the upcoming series with the Tigers' arch-rivals, his thriving broadcasting career and his short-lived career in the movie business.
Big series coming up for you guys this weekend, obviously. How do you feel this team is playing heading into it?
We're playing pretty well as a team, we've just had some bad luck lately.
I guess that Sunday game against Georgia had to be a bit of stunner, huh? To see them storm back from a 9-1 deficit?
Sunday especially was pretty surreal—everyone was in shock, we couldn't believe what just happened. With our record so close to .500, it was big.
It does seem like it's been a bit of a rollercoaster season for you guys. You've won five SEC series, but you've also been swept three times. Why do you think that is?
I really don't know; it's kind of hard to put a finger on it. Some weekends we go in and play so well, other weekends we just can't seem to put it together. Our pitching may be on but our batting is off one weekend. Other weekends we just put it all together.
Obviously you lost a lot of key pieces from last year's SEC West title team. How do you describe the identity of this year's team?
It pretty much took us all to really realize our identity. We had a ton of new people coming in, and we had the older group that was obviously really, really close, then the younger guys coming in and figuring everything out. It's been a completely different team with our whole game plan. Last year we relied heavily on the home run, but with the new bats and our personnel, we had to change our game plan. But I think we're a close team, and we're making adjustments.
The new bats haven't affected you at all; in fact, you're having your best season this spring. What has been your offensive approach?
I think to stay the same. Playing this summer with wood bats, you really have to be more patient at the plate. You can't hit one bad and still have it go over the fence, you have to choose your pitches and really try to barrel everything up. What's helped me is trying to be more patient at the plate, just try to make good solid contact with it.
You've had a really good career at Auburn. Do you think some people are surprised by your success? I know you're just 5-foot-8 and weren't the most heavily recruited player—did you want to prove some people wrong about you?
I definitely wanted to play with a chip on my shoulder. I know that if you first look at me, you're not going to really expect me to do much, but I was just really happy that Auburn had good faith in me and believed in me. I tried to play every game with a chip on my shoulder to show people what they missed. I just think that playing a lot as a freshman really helped me develop and mature as a college player. Getting thrown right into the mix as a freshman, playing in front of huge crowds at Arkansas and LSU, it can be overwhelming, but coach (John) Pawlowski had a lot of faith that I could be his guy at shortstop, out there every day, and that really helped my confidence and maturity.
OK, you've been through most of the rigors of the SEC season. There's a pretty good race going on for SEC pitcher of the year, with guys like Michael Roth, Grayson Garvin, Hudson Randall, Sonny Gray and D.J. Baxendale putting together such strong seasons. Who do you think is the toughest guy to face?
For me, I'd say Grayson Garvin. I faced him this summer quite a bit, and I think he struck me out almost every time. He's just so tough. He throws the ball really hard and can put the ball anywhere he wants and has good offspeed. He's the toughest pitcher to square anything up on—definitely the toughest for me to face.
And which player in the league is the most fun to watch, in your eyes?
I'd probably have to say Aaron Westlake. He just goes up to the plate really nonchalant, just goes up there and wags his bat, and it seems like everything he hits is just right on the nose, right on the barrel. He's a really laid-back player, seems he really enjoys the game, no pressure on him or anything. I like how he plays; I like watching him.
I've got to ask you about your burgeoning broadcast career. Tell me how you came to be the guy who interviews teammates on the video board during Auburn games?
It kind of just fell into my hands. My major is mass communications, radio, television and film. The baseball operations guy was looking for somebody to do this hot feet Saturday show, where every Saturday at home a player gets interviewed, and the fans get to know a player better. I volunteered for that, and it's kind of taken off. It's a really good way to help with my resume, because with baseball you're so busy, you don't really have time to get experience. And the fans get to see players they don't really know much about.
Which player has given you the best interview?
I'd say Caleb Bowen—he's one of our catchers. He sings a lot, and people give him a hard time for that. One time I was interviewing him and he sang Backstreet Boys. It was pretty embarrassing, but the crowd got a good kick out of it, so that was pretty entertaining.
Is it true you once auditioned for a part in the "Bad News Bears?" remake?
Yes. I think it was my freshman year in high school. They had an open call in Orlando, and I went to it. I was also on my high school golf team, and we made it to the state championship—it was the next day. I went to the open casting call, they said they really liked me and wanted me to come back for a callback the next day. I told them I couldn't—I had to go to a golf state championship the next day. So I had to come back later that night and do the callback. The casting director said he really liked me and would give me a call. But he never did, so that was the end of my acting career.
Did you audition for a specific part?
They had me read lines for Kelly Leak, kind of the bad boy guy. The guy that got the role for Kelly Leak, I played PONY baseball with my whole life. I wasn't really good friends with him—he probably thought I was bitter about it.
Before we wrap up, I suppose we should talk about this Alabama series, huh? How big is this weekend?
It's huge. They're playing well, we're playing well, we're both kind of fighting for tops in the West. I think it's a pretty big series for people in this area, and people in Tuscaloosa after all that's happened with the tornadoes and everything.
I know passions can run high in that rivalry, but when something devastating like that happens, does it put things into perspective a bit?
We kind of put all of our differences aside, and we're still Alabamians, as they say. They're doing something around here, I think it's called Toomer's for Tuscaloosa. Everybody's still trying to help out.
You're pretty familiar with their club, obviously. What are you expecting from them this weekend?
They're a great team. They always obviously get hyped up when they can play Auburn and have a chance to beat up on us. They're going to bring their "A" game, they have a good pitching staff with (Nathan) Kilcrease and (Adam) Morgan, and a good, experienced offense with (Taylor) Dugas and those guys. We're expecting a dogfight this weekend.