College Weekend Preview: March 29

Looking at key freshman for top teams




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With five series between ranked opponents on the docket, Week Seven should be fun for college baseball fans. The week's marquee series pits a pair of top 10 clubs against each other, as No. 2 Stanford visits No. 8 Arizona.

Like the Wildcats, Georgia and Southern Mississippi face big tests this weekend against conference opponents ranked in the top 10: Kentucky and Rice, respectively.

One other thing Arizona, Georgia and Southern Miss have in common: each brought in a strong recruiting class that ranked among our Top 25 classes last fall, and each is relying upon precocious freshmen in key spots this spring. So we checked in with each program to see how their youngsters have adapted to Division I competition, and how each team has dealt with other key issues.

Arizona

Freshmen under the microscope: C Riley Moore, RHP Mathew Troupe, 2B Trent Gilbert.

Arizona's recruiting class ranked No. 18 in our survey in October, and that was with the expectation that freshmen Moore and David Schuknecht would be splitting the catching duties. But Schuknecht tore his labrum over the winter, ending his 2012 season before it began. That put a considerable burden on Moore, a lanky switch-hitter from San Marcos (Calif.), to be the everyday catcher for a team with Omaha aspirations.

TOP 25 SCHEDULE
(1) Florida at (16) Mississippi
(2) Stanford at (8) Arizona
(3) Arkansas at (15) Louisiana State
Virginia Tech at (4) Florida State
Wake Forest at (5) North Carolina
UCLA at Utah
Missouri at (7) Texas A&M
Southern Mississippi at (9) Rice
(10) Kentucky at (25) Georgia
(11) South Carolina at Vanderbilt
(12) Miami at Clemson
Cal State Northridge at (13) Cal State Fullerton
(14) Arizona State at (23) Oregon
(17) Central Florida at Houston
California vs. (18) Texas in Round Rock, Texas
Penn State at (19) Purdue
Virginia at (20) North Carolina State
Oklahoma State at (21) Baylor
Washington at (22) Oregon State
(24) San Diego at San Francisco
Moore has generally held his own with the bat (.273/.381/.377, 18 RBI, 16-16 BB-SO) and behind the plate, though he remains a work in progress. Arizona coach Andy Lopez is wary of overtaxing his freshman backstop, so this week he gave Moore essentially three days off—he's hitting but is not catching or throwing in practice.

"I don't think a high school guy really understands what he's getting into until he gets into it," said Lopez, who's in his 30th year as a college head coach. "He's being used like a junior. Thank God we're done with our marathon march of five games a week for four weeks. There was a stretch there where that guy was catching five games a week sometimes. He's done a good job, but think of it this way: Riley Moore has just now completed his high school season, playing 25, 30 games—it's over. But get ready, Riley: You're right in the heart of it now."

Moore's arm strength is a major asset, and he has thrown out 35 percent of basestealers so far this spring. But Lopez said he has a tendency to let balls get by him occasionally—not breaking balls in the dirt, but fastballs he should catch. If the Wildcats are to make a College World Series run, Moore's continued development as a receiver will be a major key.

Gilbert gives the Wildcats a second freshman starter up the middle. He's hitting just .258 but has shown a knack for delivering big hits, helping him accrue 17 RBIs in 25 games. Lopez said Gilbert has played solid defense at second and makes about one sparkling defensive play per weekend.

Troupe, a third Southern California product, initially figured into Lopez's plans as the potential No. 3 starter last fall. But Lopez nearly always builds his pitching staffs around strong bullpens, and he decided to use Troupe to strengthen his pen during the spring preseason. Junior righty Nick Cunningham got the first crack at the closer job, but when he struggled to get the ball down in the zone and then developed some arm tenderness, Lopez called upon Troupe to close.

"I went to Matt 10 days in and said, 'I'm going to use you where we need you for the program; are you OK closing?' He didn't bat an eye," Lopez said.

Troupe has thrived in the role, going 2-0, 2.81 with five saves, 24 strikeouts and six walks in 16 innings over 12 appearances. His curveball can be a knee-buckler, but Lopez said he also gets a surprising number of strikeouts on his 88-92 mph fastball because of its life. He also has the makings of a very promising changeup, and Lopez believes he could have a future as Arizona's Friday starter in future seasons—but right now he is invaluable as the bullpen anchor.

Other storyline to watch this weekend: Stanford and Arizona are two of the most talented offensive teams in the country, but the Cardinal has gotten more consistent work from its one-two pitching punch (Mark Appel and Brett Mooneyham) than Arizona has gotten from its top two starters, righthanders Kurt Heyer and Konner Wade. Though Heyer is 4-1, 2.09 on the season, he has struggled a bit in Arizona losses over the past two Fridays.

"Two weeks in a row, we've stubbed our toe a little bit Friday night. Who are we kidding? You can't do that," Lopez said. "Kurt has developed his secondary pitches, but he's lost the location of his fastball. It's starting to hurt him a little bit with good hitters in the Pac. All of a sudden he starts to land on his heel a little bit; he's not on his front toe like he was. It's a small thing, but that can get you away from your location a little bit. He threw a good 'pen (Tuesday), and I think he'll be fine."

Wade is 3-0, 3.80 with 45 strikeouts but a team-leading 22 walks in 45 innings. Lopez said Wade was trying too hard to sink his ball five inches instead of the normal inch or so of sink he had been pitching with, and his command suffered. Lopez used him for an inning of relief in a loss to New Mexico State last Wednesday, and Wade allowed four runs on four walks and no hits.

"I said, 'Konner, you can work on that in the Cape—no more working on things here,' " Lopez said. "He wants that Kyle Simon sink. He saw Kyle sink the ball and sink the ball (for Arizona last year). Well, son of a buck, Konner, throw strikes. I wasn't too happy about it Wednesday, but we laughed about it in Corvallis."

Wade stayed within himself this past weekend at Oregon State, allowing two runs over six strong innings in a 5-4 win. Arizona will need another strong performance from him to hang with the Cardinal this weekend.

"I'm excited, I really am," Lopez said about the Stanford series. "I made this statement to our team: college baseball's a marathon. But don't fool yourself, this is a big weekend, and that's good. You want big weekends in your life. You'd rather have this than just another weekend and who cares?"

Georgia

Freshmen under the microscope: RHP Pete Nagel, OF Hunter Cole, IF/OF Nelson Ward, RHP David Sosebee, RHP Luke Crumley, LHP Jarrett Brown, RHP Ben Ancheff.

Cole was the centerpiece of Georgia's No. 21 recruiting class last fall, and he has recovered from a slow start to emerge as a force in the cleanup spot, hitting .320/.400/.505 with a team-best four homers and 13 RBIs. His righthanded power potential is tantalizing, and Georgia coach David Perno said he has similar ability to Clemson slugger Richie Shaffer—one of the top righthanded sluggers available in the 2012 draft class.

"Hunter Cole's everything we thought he was," Perno said. "He got off to a bad start, pressed early—typical freshman stuff. He's really turned it around, very confident. He's going to be a big leaguer. He's got everything."

The versatile Ward (.298/.389/.362) has given the Bulldogs a spark near the top of the lineup, playing some center field, DH and second base to spell veteran Levi Hyams while he worked through a nasty slump.

But Georgia's lineup is largely filled with veterans. Whether the Bulldogs can make a deep postseason run will ultimately depend on whether those veterans get their bats going (Perno is confident they are starting to come around) and whether a host of freshmen can handle key roles on the pitching staff.

Heading into the season, Perno hoped to use lefthander Blake Dieterich in the weekend rotation, but an injury to closer Tyler Maloof meant he needed Dieterich in the 'pen. Nagel (0-0, 2.81, 22-8 K-BB in 26 IP) has taken over the No. 3 starter job behind stalwarts Alex Wood and Michael Palazzone, and Perno likes what he's seen from the young righthander.

"He's very competitive," Perno said. "He's usually got good feel in the strike zone. He's got four pitches, but his bread and butter is fastball command and the slider. You'll probably see him at 87-88 now that he's got a full week's rest. He can pitch on both sides really well."

Sosebee has settled into the midweek starter job, while Crumley and Brown are becoming increasingly important pieces in the bullpen. A 6-foot-6 righty, Crumley has loads of upside, and he ran his fastball up to 94 last weekend, consistently pitching at 91-92 with a good slider and an even better changeup. The athletic Brown gives Georgia another option from the left side along with senior Chase Hawkins.

Like Crumley and Nagel, Brown looks the part of a promising pitching prospect. The 6-foot-2, 300-pound Ancheff does not—but Perno is excited about the impact he can have on the Georgia bullpen.

"It's a heavy ball—no pun intended," Perno said of Ancheff's fastball. "He's got a good split-finger and slider. My worry with him is can he endure the heckling on the road? It's going to be brutal. But he said he's been having it his whole life. It's amazing how athletic he is—he's pretty neat. He's only thrown a couple innings, but when we pitch him at home, it's a standing ovation. It's probably 90-91, but he has like a catcher's arm action; it comes from his ear and just sneaks up on you."

Other storyline to watch this weekend: Thanks in large part to its pitching-rich freshman class, Georgia has the depth to withstand the loss of Maloof, who saved 18 games a year ago. A lateral muscle strain under his arm has sidelined Maloof for the first six weeks, and Perno said the righthander has an appointment with Dr. James Andrews on Monday. Perno said he is not counting on Maloof making a return to the mound at all this spring.

Lefties Dieterich and Hawkins plus junior righties Bryan Benzor and Earl Daniels  make for a solid veteran bullpen core, so Georgia won't have to use a freshman to anchor its bullpen like Arizona does. But Georgia's bullpen has been stretched because weather delays have cut ace Alex Wood's outings short after four innings on each of the last two Fridays. Instead of Wood pitching deep into Fridays to keep most of the bullpen fresh, Georgia has had to dip into its 'pen earlier than expected two weeks in a row, which has had negative repercussions later in the weekend. Vanderbilt won the final two games of last weekend's series against Georgia by getting to the Dogs' bullpen late.

So if the weather holds up this weekend, Wood should be fresh and ready to pitch deep into Friday's game against the Wildcats, who carry a 25-1 overall record and a 5-1 SEC mark into the series. Georgia is 3-3 in the conference, and Perno knows how important this series against a red-hot SEC East foe could be.

"It's huge, there's no question," he said. "Not just because Kentucky's tied for first in our division and they're coming here. But No. 2 is how are we going to respond to the meltdowns that happened last weekend? We've just got to stay in the race. In our league, you've just got to fight through attrition, ups and downs, be standing at the end. It's a big test for us. The one thing you've always got to do is protect home field. The next month after this, the majority of it's on the road against really great teams—LSU, Arkansas and Florida. So we've really got to take care of business this weekend."

Southern Mississippi

Freshmen under the microscope: 2B/DH Connor Barron, OF/LHP Mason Robbins, LHP Jake Drehoff, RHP Taylor Nunez, RHP Brad Roney, LHP Cody Livingston

Southern Mississippi's recruiting class ranked highest of these three schools—third in the nation—but the Golden Eagles also have fewer experienced veterans than Arizona and Georgia, so they are leaning most heavily of all on newcomers.

"We're a young and new club, for the most part," USM coach Scott Berry said. "We've got a lot of young faces out there that have barely started shaving. At times they play really good and are fun to watch. We're 15-10; it's kind of been a roller coaster. We'll hit a little valley here and there that we stumble upon, but we'll turn around and play a really good game. It's part of being young and inexperienced, going through some growing pains."

The Eagles' youthfulness is most pronounced on the mound. Berry said he has been coaching for 27 years, and he never lost a player to academics until last year, when righthanders Geoffrey Thomas and Jonathan Thompson were both ruled academically ineligible shortly before the postseason. That duo comprised two-thirds of USM's weekend rotation, but they are spending this year at Belhaven (Miss.) instead of Southern Miss.

Junior-college transfer Andrew Pierce has stepped into the Friday starter role vacated by long-time ace Todd McInnis, and Pierce has handled the job ably, going 3-1, 1.83 with 36 strikeouts and four walks in 34 innings. He struck out 15 over seven shutout innings last week against Houston.

"He's a strike-thrower, a real competitor," Berry said. "He reminds me a lot of our Friday night guy from the last hundred years, it seems like—Todd McInnis. I didn't think I'd live to see the day Todd wasn't pitching for us every Friday, but I did."

Drehoff (3-0, 3.38), a redshirt freshman, is the Saturday starter. A tall, lanky lefty with plenty of projection left in his frame, Drehoff works downhill with an 86-90 mph fastball and a pair of decent offspeed pitches. Berry has been impressed with his mound presence, suggesting the redshirt year helped him mature, but he'd like Drehoff to cut down on his walk rate (17 in 38 innings).

Ask Berry who's going to pitch Sunday, and you can almost hear him throwing his arms up in the air.

"To be honest with you, hell, I don't know," Berry said. "We've lost all our starters and relievers from last year. We've started completely over on the mound."

Livingston has good stuff, including a deceptive 87-88 fastball that he can dial up to 92 on occasion, but he started last week and struggled, and Berry said he might fit better as a middle reliever than a starter for now. Another key freshman, Nunez, has good arm-side run on his fastball and a promising breaking ball, but he's still finding his confidence and learning to slow the game down, Berry said.

Roney was recruited as a two-way player, but Berry said his bat isn't ready for Division I ball yet. Fortunately, his aggressiveness and confidence on the mound has enabled him to seize the closer job—he has three saves and a 2.35 ERA through eight appearances. Roney can run his fastball up to 93 mph and has a quality breaking ball.

Of course, we haven't even mentioned the two biggest names in USM's freshman class. Unsigned third-round pick Barron and two-way talent Robbins have stepped into the everyday lineup right away and been the two best hitters on the team. Robbins (.394/.412/.596, 2 HR, 18 RBI) leads USM in hitting, while Barron (.357/.464/.414, 0 HR, 12 RBI) is second, though he has hit the ball with less authority than Robbins has.

Robbins will eventually be a key two-way contributor, but he has made just two appearances off the mound so far this year, instead focusing on anchoring the middle of the lineup and playing a good right field.

"(Robbins) has been very special so far," Berry said. "He has a great presence at the plate, handles the ball to all fields. That makes him so special at such a young age. When he barrels one up, now, it jumps off there pretty good. He's a pretty good runner. Once he gets in motion, he can go pretty good."

Barron's natural position is shortstop, but the Golden Eagles have a steady senior at that position in Ashley Graeter. They tried using Barron at second base, but he struggled, committing a team-high nine errors (.833 fielding percentage), so he has settled in at the DH spot for the time being.

"His bat has stood out, and he has to be in the lineup," Berry said. "He can slow the game down at the plate offensively, but I feel like he's got to make that adjustment defensively. Connor's ahead of his age in the box, having that understanding and presence. He takes his walks. He hasn't really backspinned the balls like Mason has . . . his swing right now hasn't produced much loft to it. It's pretty much a balanced, flat swing through the zone. He hits some hard, but more on the ground."

Other storyline to watch this weekend: Like Pierce, there is another key member of USM's recruiting class who is not a freshman. First baseman Blake Brown, a junior-college transfer, leads the team with six homers and 29 RBIs, teaming with Robbins to form a powerful duo in the heart of the order.

"Blake has really shortened some things up," Berry said. "He's got power, he's a big kid. You can tell the strength is there. But with these bats, it's not about strength anymore, it's about being able to use the bat. That's what he's been able to do. He's a kid who can use all fields, has a pretty good eye at the plate. Strikeouts are up a little bit early, but here of late he's done a pretty good job of putting the ball in play and not striking out a lot."

That will be a key this weekend for Brown and the rest of the Eagles: putting the ball in play against a Rice pitching staff that ranks fifth in the nation in strikeouts per nine innings (9.0).

"When you face any Rice pitching staff, you're going to have to get in there and compete," Berry said. "It's about not getting yourself out. They're so good at getting you to get yourself out and always have been."

QUICK TAKES

Arkansas-LSU is always a highlight of the SEC schedule, and the two Western Division rivals will square off in Baton Rouge this weekend. The first two days feature superb pitching matchups: righthanders D.J. Baxendale and Kevin Gausman go it it Friday in a battle between former Team USA teamamtes. Ryne Stanek takes on Ryan Eades on Saturday, in a matchup between two of the top power righthanders in the sophomore class. Give LSU a slight edge Sunday, as Aaron Nola has out-pitched Randall Fant, but Arkansas has gotten the much stronger bullpen work and is the more consistent offensive team. Arkansas is a better club overall, but LSU's starting pitching gives it a chance to win every series—especially in Baton Rouge.

• It isn't easy for a Division I independent to earn an at-large bid, but Dallas Baptist did it a year ago and even advanced to super regionals. Midweek wins against teams like Rice, TCU, Oklahoma and Texas Tech helped the Patriots strengthen their RPI, as did a May series at Texas A&M, where they won the middle game. This year, Dallas Baptist plays a Missouri Valley Conference schedule (though it remains an independent and will not join the MVC in the future as planned). There aren't many MVC teams with strong RPIs, so this weekend is paramount for the Patriots to build their at-large case.  DBU hosts the Valley's top RPI team, Missouri State (No. 35 in Boyd's World's pseudo-RPI rankings), for three games, a crucial opportunity for the Patriots to boost their own 75th-ranked RPI. We've written about Missouri State's strong pitching (led by ace Pierce Johnson) over the last two weeks, but DBU has its own quality one-two pitching punch in Cy Sneed (4-2, 1.91) and Taylor Massey (4-1, 3.48), who each posted double-digit strikeout games last weekend against Louisiana Tech. Sneed, a freshman from Idaho, has tapped into his considerable upside earlier than expected, while Massey (a senior) has put a disappointing 2011 behind him to emerge as a rotation stalwart. And switch-hitting junior second baseman Austin Elkins (.343/.418/.612, 3 HR, 16 RBI) has stepped forward to replace Jason Krizan as DBU's offensive leader.

Clemson needs to carry a sense of urgency into its series against Miami this weekend. After getting swept for the second time in three conference series at Virginia last week, the Tigers fell to 3-6 in the ACC, and a midweek loss to Presbyterian dropped them to 12-12 overall. Clemson's hopes for an at-large regional bid could take a big hit with another series loss to the Hurricanes. A pedestrian offense has been the biggest reason for Clemson's struggles. The Tigers rank 175 in the nation in batting and 160th in scoring, and they averaged just 2.75 runs per game in their four losses over the last week. But coming the year, Clemson expected its pitching staff to be outstanding, and it has been rather ordinary, ranking 80th nationally in ERA. Miami should carry plenty of confidence into the series, having won its first three ACC series against teams that typically finish in the bottom third of the conference: Boston College, Duke and Maryland.

Baylor puts its perfect Big 12 record (6-0) on the line against Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have lost four of their six weekend series this year but present a major challenge every Friday night, when lefthander Andrew Heaney takes the mound. Heaney followed up his back-to-back shutouts with a 12-strikeout performance in a win against Missouri last week. But Baylor's offense is riding high, averaging nine runs per game during its current eight-game winning streak.

• One of the weekend's best pitching matchups is in the Big South, where Coastal Carolina's Josh Conway (2-1, 1.09) takes on Radford's Eddie Butler (2-1, 3.07) in a battle between power righthanders who could be drafted in the top two or three rounds this June.