Weekend Preview: March 15-17
1. SEC West focus: playing 20 questions with LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Arkansas.
2. Scouting Report: Texas Tech righthander Trey Masek, who carries a 0.00 ERA into Big 12 play against Texas.
3.New Mexico tries to fix pitching and defense heading into MWC opener against red-hot UNLV .
4. Notes from other big series around the nation.
With seven teams ranked in the nation's top 15, the Southeastern Conference sure looks like college baseball's predominant league once again in 2013. Those seven teams have a composite record of 110-15 (.880) heading into the SEC's opening weekend. Four of those seven reside in the SEC's rugged Western Division, which is where the most compelling action will take place this weekend. West powers Louisiana State and Mississippi State will square off in Starkville, while fellow West heavyweights Mississippi and Arkansas will do battle in Fayetteville.
|Top 25 Series
|Miami at (1) North Carolina
(2) Vanderbilt at Auburn
(3) Oregon State at (20) Arizona
Xavier at (4) Louisville
(5) South Carolina at Missouri
(6) Mississippi at (15) Arkansas
(7) Louisiana State at (13) Mississippi State
(8) Cal State Fullerton at Oral Roberts
Boston College at (9) Georgia Tech
(10) Kentucky at Florida
Washington at (11) UCLA
(12) Florida State at Maryland
Washington State at (14) Arizona State
(16) Oregon at Southern California
(17) Notre Dame at Cal Poly
(18) North Carolina State at Wake Forest
Harvard at (19) Rice
(22) Virginia at Clemson
Northwestern State at (23) Oklahoma
Ave Maria (Fla.) at (25) Florida Gulf Coast
Top 25 TournamentsRussMatt Invitational, Winter Haven, Fla.:
(24) Indiana, Alabama-Birmingham, Army, Bucknell, Dartmouth, Long Island, Miami (Ohio), Navy, North Dakota State, Valparaiso, Yale.
All four of those teams are talented and deep, and all of them are capable of winning the SEC title and making deep Omaha runs. But there is no flawless team in college baseball, and each of these SEC West contenders needed to prove themselves in different areas. So let's look at some preseason questions that faced each team, and try to evaluate how well each team has answered them during the preconference portion of the schedule.
Preseason Question No. 1:
Who will serve as the Sunday starter?
Cody Glenn looks well suited for the job.
The Tigers began the year with lefthander Brett Bonvillain in the No. 3 starter role, but they turned to another lefty—Glenn—in Week Three against Nicholls State. Glenn responded with seven shutout innings in that 2-0 win, then allowed just a pair of runs over 5 2/3 innings last week against Washington, cementing him as the Sunday starter. A 6-foot-4, 195-pound sophomore, Glenn hasn't yet emerged as the power pitcher the Tigers thought he would when they recruited him, but he has learned to pitch down in the zone with an 85-87 fastball that bumps 88-89, and his style is a nice contrast with LSU's first two starters—power righties Aaron Nola (who touched 95 mph last week, according to coach Paul Mainieri) and Ryan Eades.
"When we recruited him, we thought he was going to be a power pitcher, a hard-throwing lefty, but that really wasn't working for him," Mainieri said. "I don't know why or how, but he kind of dropped his arm slot a little bit to kind of a low three-quarters, which increases the movement, and in his case it's also increased the control. He has good command of his changeup and his breaking ball, and he controls the running game pretty good to keep the double play in order. You've got to play good defense behind him; if you do, he can be pretty effective."
Preseason Question No. 2:
Who will anchor the back of the bullpen?
Chris Cotton's got it covered.
In Nick Goody, LSU was fortunate to have a prototypical hard-throwing closer with wipeout stuff last year, and replacing Goody was one of Mainieri's major concerns heading into the season. Righty Nick Rumbelow fits the mold of the power closer, but a strained oblique in late January got him off to a slow start. Another candidate, Kurt McCune, developed a stress fracture in his back that will sideline him for another few weeks. Joey Bourgeois gives the bullpen another power righty with a much-improved curveball, but he has settled nicely into the setup man role.
Cotton, a senior lefty, seized the closer job during LSU's opening-weekend sweep of Maryland, and he hasn't let it go. In 10 appearances, Cotton is 1-0, 0.84 with five saves and a 15-0 strikeout-walk mark over 11 innings. He lacks a true putaway pitch and his fastball tops out around 88, but his ability to locate all three of his offerings in any count allows him to dominate.
"I tell people, from the day Chris Cotton walked on campus, he demonstrated to me that he has the best pitch in baseball: He can throw a strike any day of the week in any situation," Mainieri said. "His velocity has picked up enough to keep people honest, and it's allowed his secondary stuff to be more effective. I think he strikes out an equal amount of batters with his fastball, curveball and changeup. I wouldn't say that any one of them is outstanding, but he mixes them up and keeps them off balance."
Preseason Question No. 3:
Can Alex Bregman replace Austin Nola's defense at shortstop?
Nola was a four-year stalwart at shortstop for LSU, a model of consistency and reliability. The Tigers expected an offensive upgrade at shortstop from heralded freshman Bregman, and he has certainly delivered, hitting .391/.463/.580 out of the No. 3 hole to team with Mason Katz and Raph Rhymes in the most formidable heart of the order LSU has had in a few years. The coaches also were hopeful Bregman would be able to handle the defensive responsibilities of his demanding position, but he has exceeded their most ambitious hopes, making no errors through 13 games and just two errors through 16 games.
"Everybody knew about Bregman, and I didn't do anything to squelch the promotion of him. Whenever anyone asked me about him I spoke in raving terms because I knew he could handle it," Mainieri said. "He hasn't done anything to disappoint us, and he's probably been even better defensively than we anticipated. There hasn't been one game yet where I thought, 'Nola would have made that play.' He's just been remarkable on defense."
Preseason Question No. 4:
Will the Tigers get the offensive production they need out of freshmen and junior-college transfers?
Bregman's impact has been huge, but he isn't the only newcomer making waves in Baton Rouge. Freshman outfielder Mark Laird has emerged as a dynamic catalyst atop the lineup, leading the team with a .410 average and a .474 OBP, drawing eight walks and striking out just twice in 15 games. He also has put his exceptional speed to good use defensively, sliding from right field over to center field, bumping Chris Sciambra to a corner.
Laird showed up at LSU intending to walk on to the football team, but when the Tigers unexpectedly lost outfielder Hayden Jennings as a sixth-round pick to the Nationals, it opened up a spot for Laird, who decided to focus exclusively on baseball.
"I thought pretty quickly in the fall that we had a pretty special player on our hands," Mainieri said. "He's just one of those kids who's got that something extra about him. He's very calm, poised, doesn't get flustered about anything. And he's got skill—very good hand-eye coordination, he's got that short swing, he's a very good bunter. If it bounces a couple of times in the infield, he's going to beat it out."
LSU's two preseason All-Americans in the lineup—second baseman JaCoby Jones (.235/.429/.373) and catcher Ty Ross (.213/.283/.340)—have yet to get their bats going, though Jones has made great strides with his plate discipline and both of them have hit into their share of hard outs. But with that pair scuffling, the newcomers have picked up the slack. Third baseman Christian Ibarra, a transfer from Rio Hondo (Calif.) JC, has been the other big addition, hitting .358/.453/.491. Mainieri called him "an extremely skilled defensive player" who could also handle shortstop easily, and he does a great job staying back on offspeed pitches, allowing him to hit for average despite his exaggerated leg kick.
Preseason Question No. 5:
Is the talented Ryan Eades ready to become a consistent, elite SEC starter?
Early signs are very encouraging.
Eades, a junior righthander, has always had electric stuff, with a mid-90s fastball and a wipeout power curve. He showed flashes of excellence as a sophomore but was inconsistent with his command and finished 5-3, 3.83. He's off to a strong start against LSU's mediocre nonconference schedule, going 3-0, 1.80 with 28 strikeouts and just five walks in 25 innings.
"I think it's just a matter of maturity and experience," Mainieri said. "His velocity's been really good, his curveball's good, his changeup is still a work in progress. The big thing for Ryan is he's not hurting himself by not executing pitches at key times. Old Ryan Eades would hang a curveball with two strikes, that kind of thing. I see him now being more focused and making the big pitch when he needs it. Let's hope it continues; he's made great pitches at times and struggled at times."
Nola has gotten even better after earning freshman All-America honors a year ago, showing more velocity and a better breaking ball. Nola is as reliable as college pitchers come. If Eades and Glenn can maintain their high level of performance, LSU could find itself celebrating in Omaha come June, because so far, the Tigers have answered all of their question marks with flying colors. This looks like a complete ballclub.
"We're going to face arguably the best starting pitching in college baseball this weekend," Mississippi State coach John Cohen said. "I think LSU's playing really well in all phases of the game. It'll be a tremendous challenge for us."
Preseason Question No. 1:
Will the Bulldogs be able to find a suitable replacement for Chris Stratton atop the weekend rotation?
It looks like Jacob Lindgren is up to the task.
Coming into the season, the Bulldogs did not have a slam-dunk ace to replace Stratton, a first-team All-American and first-round pick last year. Sinkerballer Kendall Graveman is the team's most experienced starter, but Lindgren has more electric stuff. A stocky 5-foot-11, 206-pound lefthander, Lindgren pitched just 28 innings (mostly out of the bullpen) as a freshman last year, but he was a key member of MSU's highly rated 2010 recruiting class, and the Bulldogs were not surprised that he emerged as a potential front-line starter during the fall and early spring. Through four starts, Lindgren is 2-0, 0.96 with 22 strikeouts and four walks in 19 innings.
Lindgren exited last Friday's start against Central Arkansas in the first inning after taking a line drive off his knee, but he an X-ray and an MRI were negative, and Cohen said he threw a very good bullpen session on Tuesday. He is in line to make the start Friday against Nola. Like Nola, his stuff is live.
"He'll pitch at 88-92, and he's got a power breaking ball," Cohen said. "He's really done a better job of filling up the strike zone. He's got a delivery that's a little more difficult to figure out, a lot of deception. He'll cut across his fastball and then two-seam his fastball. He's really become a pretty high-level guy."
Preseason Question No. 2:
Who will join Lindgren and Graveman in the rotation?
Evan Mitchell—for now, at least.
There might not be a deeper pitching staff in college baseball, and the Bulldogs have no shortage of able candidates for starting roles. This winter, MSU penciled in sophomore righty Brandon Woodruff for a weekend starter job, but inconsistent command has held him back so far. Cohen said Woodruff "has shown glimpses of being phenomenal," with a 93-95 mph fastball, a swing-and-miss breaking ball and a dramatically improved changeup, and he could wind up forcing his way into the rotation down the road. Another sophomore righthander, Will Cox, has made three weekend starts because the Bulldogs opened the season with three straight four-game weekends. Cox can run his power sinker into the low 90s and has perhaps the best changeup on the club, making him effective against lefties as well as righties.
But the Bulldogs will stick with Mitchell, a junior righty, as the Saturday starter between Lindgren and Graveman. Mitchell hasn't worked deep into games, but he has shown electric stuff over four or five innings, reaching 95-96 with a nasty power breaking ball. MSU likes to piggyback him with another Mitchell—sophomore lefty Ross Mitchell, who pounds the zone with an effective sinker.
"He's so much different from what you just saw from Evan Mitchell—we think they complement each other well," Cohen said.
This staff isn't a finished product, and the Bulldogs are insured against injury and underperformance by their incredible depth. The bullpen is one of college baseball's best, as expected, but if they need to move pieces around during SEC play, they can.
"We have so many pieces out of the bullpen," Cohen said. "What's crazy is the amount of appearances that our staff has. I think going into last weekend, in our first 15 games or so, we had 15 guys with three appearances or more, which I think is a little incredible statistic. Whereas a lot of people are trying to hide the arms they're afraid of, we're going to keep throwing 15 guys out there. It's going to be tough in our league because you can only use 27 players, and we've been using 15 arms in a weekend, at times."
Preseason Question No. 3:
Is Hunter Renfroe ready to make the leap to stardom?
The numbers say it all.
Renfroe is one of college baseball's most talented players, with plus-plus raw power, plus-plus arm strength from the outfield, plus speed and excellent defensive skills. But questions lingered about his hitting ability after his pedestrian .252/.328/.374 sophomore season last spring. He set a new single-season home run record last summer in the Cal Ripken League, but that was against softer competition in smaller ballparks.
But so far as a junior, Renfroe has put it all together. Even after sustaining a slight fracture in his right hand when he was hit by a pitch in Week Two, Renfroe has continued to mash, leading the team in batting (.436), slugging (.873), RBIs (23) and home runs (five—more than his entire 2012 total).
"Hunter has really turned a corner that we felt like he was very capable of," Cohen said. "He's one of the most gifted athletes in all of college baseball; he can do so many different things. He's really doing a nice job of staying on breaking balls and understanding counts, being a student of hitting. If he can continue to do that, the sky is the limit with him."
Preseason Question No. 4:
Can MSU avoid the injury bug that made 2012 such a trying season?
The Bulldogs have been mostly healthy, but still haven't been immune to injury.
Mississippi State caught breaks when the injuries to Lindgren and Renfroe wound up not being serious. Mainstays C.T. Bradford and Daryl Norris missed significant time with injuries last year, and both have been healthy this spring. The only missing piece has been sophomore first baseman Wes Rea, who has been limited to eight at-bats with a pulled quad. The 6-foot-5, 272-pound Rea has been swinging the bat every day and will return to action as soon as he can run at 75 percent or so, Cohen said.
"He seems to think he can go this weekend, but I don't know," Cohen said. "He's a tremendous leader for us, an amazing defender at first base, and he just turned a corner offensively too. Hopefully we get him back, because he's a difference maker for us."
In Rea's absence, junior-college transfer Alex Detz has emerged as yet another threat in Mississippi State's deep lineup. Detz is hitting .418/.560/.564 in 55 at-bats, and Cohen said he's likely to stay in the lineup—perhaps at third base—when Rea returns.
Preseason Question No. 5:
Which returning veterans will take steps forward to fill key supporting roles and make the offense better?
Demarcus Henderson, Mitch Slauter and Nick Ammirati.
Cohen said he is very pleased with his catching combination of Slauter and Ammirati, who both struggled after transferring in as juniors a year ago. Cohen said Slauter is a much better offensive player than he was last year, and he is hitting .309/.409/.491 through 55 at-bats, after he hit .232/.354/.327 in 220 at-bats last year. The switch-hitting Ammiriti is a defense-oriented backstop who also has held his own with the bat, and Cohen said he'll likely catch every other day going forward.
Henderson arrived at MSU as an infielder, but he has found a home in the outfield as a junior, and he has become a spark plug offensively, hitting .319/.429/.340 in 17 games (15 starts). Cohen said this is the most team speed he has had at Mississippi State, and Henderson's emergence has played a big part.
"Demarcus Henderson is really starting to turn the corner for us," Cohen said. "He's a very athletic kid, he can run. He's just not making average flyball outs—everything's line drives, ground balls, and everything at first base is bang-bang. He just pressures defenses, really good short game. He's just become a really nice college player—not a superstar, but another guy that can do something against you."
Preseason Question No. 1:
The Rebels are relying heavily on junior-college transfer Stuart Turner behind the plate. Is he as good as advertised?
Back in September, Ole Miss recruiting coordinator Carl Lafferty was overflowing with excitement that his prized recruit, junior-college catcher Stuart Turner, had slipped through the draft and arrived in Oxford.
"Some scouts really missed him. I guarantee he won't make it out of the top three rounds next year," Lafferty said then. "He's an animal. His flexibility, catch-and-throw, ability to receive, hit for power—I think he'll be a monster. I think he could be the best catcher that ever rolled through these doors."
Maybe it sounded like hyperbole, but four weeks into the 2013 season, a lot of Ole Miss fans are probably thinking the exact same thing. Turner has been a force of nature in the middle of the Mississippi lineup, hitting .492/.527/.762 with nine doubles, two homers and 28 RBIs (most in the nation). He has clamped down opposing running games by throwing out 11 of 15 basestealers (73 percent).
"I haven't seen anything like it," Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said of Turner's success against basestealers. "Not only does he have a very strong arm, but he really can get rid of the ball; he's got a great release. In the games that he's caught, I think we've only had one ball past the catcher. He's got no passed balls, and I think only one wild pitch. He's great blocking the ball, he's a great receiver, he's smart, knows all the signals. He gets it. He's really elevated himself as far as the draft—I think he's a first-rounder. It's only 20 games into the season, but you watch people catch and throw and hit in this league—what else could he do at this point? Now it's, can he maintain it, be consistent and maintain it for 60 games? He's certainly in that superstar category as far as a pro prospect. He's got it all, and that's why he's flown up the ladder."
Preseason Question No. 2:
Can Auston Bousfield and Austin Anderson have breakout seasons to help make up for the loss of Alex Yarbrough and Matt Smith?
So far, so good.
Bousfield, a sophomore center fielder, generated all kinds of buzz from coaches and scouts in the fall, and he's off to a solid start this spring, hitting .333/.404/.449. But Anderson has been a revelation as a junior. After hitting .235 as a freshman and .239 as a sophomore, Anderson is off to a .397/.476/.515 start, with 18 RBIs.
"He's always had a great stroke, always barreled up balls," Bianco said. "Last year he just had a really tough year, but anybody that watched us play last year would say he really can swing, and he barreled up balls. He'll pull some balls and get some extra-base hits, but he's a tough out, he handles lefthanders well, he's our best bunter. He can do a lot of things offensively. I think most people would consider him a gap-to-gap guy, but he's got some pull-side power. He's not going to strike out, a tough out."
In fact, Anderson has yet to strike out in 68 at-bats this season, while drawing 10 walks. He has made nine errors at shortstop (.911 fielding percentage), but Bianco said about half of them were "super-tough plays" where Anderson just tried to do too much, and the coach said he is really happy with his shortstop's defense so far.
Preseason Question No. 3:
Can Chris Ellis thrive as the Sunday starter after standing out last summer and fall?
Ask again in a month.
Ellis made a big jump with his velocity and secondary stuff last summer and fall, and the Rebels were excited to see what the sophomore righty could do in the Sunday starter role this spring. But he strained an abdominal muscle in the preseason, then aggravated it in his opening-weekend start against Texas Christian, and he hasn't pitched since.
"We think we're close, but we've waited so long to get to this point, we don't want to rush it," Bianco said. "Certainly he won't start this weekend, and it's kind of 50-50 if he'd even be available. I doubt it; he's just kind of day-to-day."
In his place, sophomore righty Sam Smith has had one very good start and two mediocre outings. Bianco said Smith pitches a lot like Saturday starter Mike Mayers, commanding four solid pitches to both sides of the plate and reaching the low 90s. "When he's down in the zone, he's really tough," Bianco said.
Preseason Question No. 4:
Pitching depth was Mississippi's Achilles' heel last year; is it better in 2013?
In our Week One preview, we detailed Mississippi's struggles on the mound a year ago, which caused the Rebels to move Sunday starter R.J. Hively from Sunday starter into a relief role to stabilize the bullpen—but created a gaping hole at the end of the weekend rotation. Bianco said before that opening series against TCU that his staff is much deeper this year, and here's the evidence: Even with two key pieces sidelined, Ole Miss hasn't missed a beat. The Rebels were hoping that sophomore righty Hawtin Buchanan would be a key late-innings power arm and that freshman righty Jacob Waguespack would be another important power arm from the right side. But Buchanan has pitched only one inning due to tendinitis in his shoulder, and Waguespack has not yet pitched because of tendinitis in his elbow. Bianco said he doesn't expect either to be available this weekend, but both could return soon, making this strong bullpen even better.
"It's amazing, we're pitching with a lot of guys who were here last year," Bianco said. "The biggest addition is probably Matt Denny, the freshman, a lefthander who's given us a little different look. The other guys, (Tanner) Bailey, (Aaron) Greenwood, (Brett) Huber—a lot of guys who've been here. They've just gotten better."
Preseason Question No. 5:
Can Bobby Wahl continue his ascent to the ranks of elite Friday starters?
That's a solid bet, now that a blister issue is behind him.
After he threw 6 1/3 shutout innings in the season opener against Texas Christian, Wahl's control and stuff weren't as good over the next two weeks—he walked six over five innings against Rhode Island, then allowed four runs on nine hits and three walks over 5 1/3 against Florida International. But Wahl was dealing with a nasty blister and a cracked nail on his middle finger, and it had a real effect on him.
"Pitching's all about touch and feel, and if you've got a cracked nail or a blister, it's tough to do," Bianco said. "Because he relies so much on that middle finger for the feel and extension, it was a frustrating couple of weeks. He's so good that he can get by with it. He hadn't pitched consistently up to his standards, and he's 4-0, so we're happy. For those two outings, he wasn't typical Bobby Wahl, but he gets through it and we win."
That's the mark of a true ace. But the even better news for the Rebels is that Wahl's velocity was back up last week against Lipscomb (Bianco said he touched some 95s and 96s), and his command was much better. He allowed just three hits and no walks over six shutout innings in that one, and it looks like he's back to peak form heading into the Arkansas series.
Preseason Question No. 1:
Are key sophomores and redshirt freshmen—Joe Serrano, Brian Anderson and Tyler Spoon—ready to assume leading roles in the offense?
Spoon and Anderson have carried the offense so far, and Serrano has shown flashes.
Spoon, a redshirt sophomore outfielder, has been the Hogs' most dangerous hitter, leading the team in batting (.388), slugging (.537), home runs (three) and RBIs (22). He has entrenched himself in the No. 3 hole in the lineup and delivered a number of big hits in late-innings situations, endearing himself to Arkansas fans.
"Tyler Spoon is really good," an American League area scout said. "He's swinging it, he's aggressive, looks confident to me. The fans have taken a liking to him because of his name too—they'll bring giant spoons to the game and wave them around."
Anderson has also been a productive middle-of-the-order bat, hitting .364/.463/.485. Fellow sophomore Serrano hasn't posted big numbers (.278/.323/.309), but his bat-handling skills make him a good fit in the No. 2 hole. The Hogs needed those three players to take major steps forward in order to contend for a national championship this year, and they have.
Preseason Question No. 2:
Can Dominic Ficociello handle a move to second base, and is this the year he maximizes his tantalizing offensive potential?
We don't know—he hasn't been healthy.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn doesn't mince words when he talks about the impact Ficociello's strained oblique has had on his lineup. "Not having Ficociello messes it up," Van Horn said.
Ficociello was supposed to be the switch-hitting centerpiece of the lineup as a junior this spring, but the injury has limited him to five games. The strain is underneath his right arm, and Van Horn said it bothers him when he hits lefthanded, so he hasn't been available against righthanded pitching. He feels OK when he hits righthanded, and he can run, field and throw without pain. But the Hogs are going to err on the side of caution with him, and he doesn't figure to play much this weekend, if at all.
"We're not going to hurt him—he says he's not ready. We're just waiting," Van Horn said. "I don't know how long it's going to be. When he hits lefthanded, it bothers him, and he's scared of it. I don't blame him. We haven't been able to put our lineup on the field all year that we feel real comfortable with."
Preseason Question No. 3:
Can Ryne Stanek avoid his annual slow start?
It took Stanek some time to round into top shape in each of his first two seasons at Arkansas, and it's been the same story this year. The first-team preseason All-American has still shown quality stuff—the scout said he's seen Stanek touch 98 mph and show a good power slider at around 88 mph, to go along with an adequate changeup—but he has worked too many deep counts and left too many balls up. Through four starts, Stanek is 1-1, 3.71 with 16 strikeouts and 10 walks in 17 innings, and the Hogs will move him out of his Friday starter job this week. Freshman Trey Killian will get the nod Friday against Wahl, while Stanek will go Sunday.
"Stanek's been a slow starter every year, that's why I'm not starting him Friday night," Van Horn said. "The problem is his pitch count gets up there too fast—we can't live with that right now. He's got to command the fastball better."
Preseason Question No. 4:
Is Trey Killian ready to hold down a weekend starter job as a freshman?
No question about it.
Killian has been a sensation for Arkansas, going 2-1, 0.86 with 22 strikeouts in 21 innings and leading the nation in WHIP—he has allowed just one walk and six hits so far. The Razorbacks have supreme confidence in him, which is why they'll start him Friday.
"He should be the Friday night guy—he's been their best pitcher. He and (Barrett) Astin," the scout said. "He gets up to 93 and throws strikes. He isn't intimidated, he's out there in control, confident."
Killian complements his heater with a very good slider and a solid change, and he does a good job pitching at the knees. He's also a good athlete who fields his position well. In short, he's very polished for a freshman, and he has front-line ability.
Preseason Question No. 5:
Will Barrett Astin and Colby Suggs make Arkansas' bullpen unbeatable?
It's taken a little while for that dynamic duo to materialize, but it's coming.
With senior lefthander Randall Fant banged up early in the season, Astin spent three weeks in the rotation and thrived. Now Fant is back—Van Horn said he'll throw about 80 pitches in his start Saturday—and Astin is back in the bullpen, where he is a fearsome presence.
Astin served as the closer last year, posting 11 saves and a 1.99 ERA, but fellow junior righty Suggs earned first-team preseason All-America honors heading into this season, based largely on his dominance in the Cape Cod League. But Suggs got off to a slow start himself after tweaking his right oblique in January. He's back to 100 percent now, and Van Horn said he showed his best stuff of the year Wednesday against Alabama A&M, working in the 93-95 range.
"The breaking ball is what was good (Wednesday)—he struck a few guys out on that breaking ball," Van Horn said. "When he's going good, that breaking ball is in the zone, and he'll bounce it when he needs to."
Another midweek development could give the bullpen another boost. Sophomore righthander Chris Oliver pitched sparingly last year, due to immaturity more than lack of ability. He was on a short leash in his start Wednesday against Alabama A&M, and the Hogs wound up pulling him after three innings—not because he was struggling, but because he was so good that the Hogs wanted him available on the weekend. Oliver struck out five over three innings of one-hit, shutout ball, pitching at 92-93 and bumping 95 in the first inning.
With veteran lefty Cade Lynch sidelined again with the headaches that have plagued him throughout his career, Oliver gives the Hogs another quality arm. And sophomore Jalen Beeks has emerged as another quality option from the left side, alongside senior Trent Daniel. Beeks, who spent last year at Crowder CC, has made great strides since his high school days, when the Hogs liked him but didn't think he was ready for the SEC.
"He's a tough kid, and he's gotten stronger and bigger," Van Horn said. "He's a 90 mph lefty with a nasty slider and a really good changeup. He's done a tremendous job for us, and he's a real competitor. We're liking him at the back of the bullpen too—him and Astin, and hopefully Suggs here shortly."
Scouting Report: Texas Tech's Trey Masek
Masek, a junior righthander, is the only pitcher in Division I who has thrown at least 17 innings and maintained a 0.00 ERA. In fact, Masek hasn't allowed a run—earned or otherwise—through 32 innings this year. He is 3-0 with 34 strikeouts and six walks through 32 innings as Texas Tech's Saturday starter. After splitting time between the bullpen and a starting role over his last two seasons, Masek had a breakout summer in the Cape Cod League, where he ranked as the No. 16 prospect. He's a bit undersized at 6 feet, 185 pounds, but his quick arm makes up for it, and so does his mound demeanor.
Masek faces his biggest test of the season this weekend, as Texas Tech opens Big 12 Conference play at Texas. An American League area scout who has seen Masek this spring offered his thoughts about the righty.
"The idea is not to give up any runs, and he isn't. He can really pitch. His stuff is good. You wouldn't call it electric or outstanding, but just solid stuff across the board. He can really pitch, he has good command, he throws strikes. He's out there competing, a little bulldog. He was 90-93 for me when I saw him, and he held it all the way through the game. His slider was better than the curveball, I thought. Some other guys saw him and thought his curveball was better. They're both solid-average pitches. He mixed in some good changeups. It could be another solid-average pitch; he doesn't use it much. He really pitches off his fastball, but I saw a couple (of) good ones. He's a good pitcher."
Struggling Lobos Face Red-Hot UNLV
Nevada-Las Vegas is riding a 10-game winning streak and has earned a place in the Baseball America Top 25 for the first time in a decade. But after the Rebels completed a three-game sweep at Stanford last weekend, UNLV coach Tim Chambers tempered his excitement with caution.
"Our guys were happy, but they acted like, 'We haven't done anything yet,'" Chambers said. "We played San Diego State and New Mexico tough our first year, but they beat the heck out of us last year. So until we prove we can beat those guys . . . Ray (Birmingham) will have that club ready to come in here next weekend."
Birmingham's Lobos entered the season where UNLV is now—ranked No. 21 in the nation. But the first month has not gone as planned; New Mexico opened with three straight losing weekends followed by a four-game series split with UC Riverside. The Lobos head into conference play with a 6-9 record.
"I've been coaching a long time. I've seen hot and cold go on, and I'm hoping it's cold early and hot late," Birmingham said. "There's no panic going on, and we've played some good clubs."
New Mexico's strength was expected to be one of the nation's best offenses, and that part hasn't disappointed—the Lobos are hitting .327 as a team and scored in double figures in six straight games before dropping a 4-3 decision in extra innings at Arizona State on Wednesday. In preseason All-American D.J. Peterson, the Lobos might have the nation's most dangerous hitter. He's leading the way with a .476/.571/1.063 line, and he's tied for the national lead with eight home runs.
But UNM's pitching and defense have been very poor so far. The staff ERA is 5.32, and the Lobos are fielding at a .953 clip. Birmingham said the coaching staff had a conversation with Peterson (.897 fielding percentage) this week about the possibility of moving him from third base to first in order to strengthen the team's defense. At times this year, Birmingham said, "we couldn't catch a cold stark-naked in Alaska."
The erratic defense has hurt the pitching, but New Mexico's talented arms also have simply underperformed. Projected ace Sam Wolff has shown huge stuff but shaky control, leading to his 6.50 ERA. Fellow flame-thrower Jake McCasland, working his way back from a small hairline fracture in his elbow during the fall, has thrown just two innings so far, but he "has a chance to open a lot of doors for us" as he starts to pitch more, Birmingham said. Crafty Hobie McClain was a key bullpen piece last year, posting a 1.80 ERA, but has struggled with his location this year and owns a 6.48 ERA. Junior-college transfer Anthony Consiglio had a great fall and was good in the spring scrimmages, but when the games started to count, he has been lost, posting a 15.95 ERA in five outings.
"It's kind of bizarre," Birmingham said of his pitching staff's struggles. "Because one, (new pitching coach) Dan Spencer arrived, he looked at the arm strength and said, 'Wow.' Because Wolff has touched 98-99. McCasland's back now, he's in the mid-90s. I don't know. It's something we thought would be a strong suit, the back side of the bullpen, and it hasn't been. Then when we do have a chance to do something, you can't blame it just on that, because somebody will kick one at the wrong moment."
The Lobos will stick with junior righty A.J. Carman (1-0, 4.67) on Friday, and he has shown good command of a solid three-pitch mix. Wolff is a major key; his command has improved, and he has complemented his electric fastball with a plus breaking ball at times, but he needs to do a better job responding to adversity. And lefthander Josh Walker (1-0, 1.89 in nine relief appearances) will join that duo in the rotation this weekend after he pitched five shutout innings of relief in a 10-7 win against UCR last weekend. The Lobos hope he can bring some stability to the rotation.
Slow starts are nothing new for New Mexico, which began last year 2-9 before rallying to win 37 games and make its third straight regional. A year earlier, the Lobos began the season 3-15, and they were just 10-27 on April 17, but they still got hot at the right time, winning four straight games in the MWC tournament to make a regional.
Birmingham said he thinks the slow start likely doomed his team's at-large chances, but the Lobos are certainly talented enough to win the Mountain West again.
"We'll play well late, and that's the big thing," Birmingham said. "You'll see Florida get hot late, you'll see TCU get hot later on. There's a lot of clubs going through it, a lot of clubs that weren't expecting this kind of start going through it.
"I think your team has to have one mindset, one attitude to be successful. I've found a lot of distracted kids. I really don't know the mindset of these kids. The majority of them, other than (Mitch) Garver and D.J., really don't come from high-profile places with high-profile things happening to them, and that's what I kind of worry about is that mentality change. We're trying to get back to that blue-collar, us-against-the-world mentality that I think we lost."
Around The Nation
• North Carolina and Clemson are two of the Atlantic Coast Conference's pre-eminent powers every year, but both teams have had a nemesis in recent years, and both get to confront the thorn in their sides this weekend. The undefeated Tar Heels welcome struggling Miami to Chapel Hill. The Hurricanes have won 10 of the last 11 meetings between these teams over the last two years, including a sweep last year when North Carolina was ranked No. 3 in the nation. But Miami enters the weekend coming off back-to-back series losses to scuffling Florida and at home to Duke (its first series loss against the Blue Devils since 1966), followed by a midweek split against Illinois State. The Hurricanes were bombed 17-6 in Tuesday's loss, before rebounding with a 9-2 win Wednesday. Miami's quality lefthanded pitching has given UNC's lefty-leaning lineup fits in the past, and the Hurricanes have a trio of southpaws who have performed well so far this year: Chris Diaz (1-1, 1.44), Andrew Suarez (2-1, 3.20) and Bryan Radziewski (2-0, 0.71). But North Carolina has more balance this year thanks to the additions of switch-hitter Skye Bolt and righthanded-hitting Landon Lassiter.
Virginia's dominance of Clemson goes back further than that. The Cavaliers are 15-2 against Clemson since 2006, including a 7-0 mark over the last two years. Like UNC, Clemson tends to be lefthanded-leaning, and Virginia once again is well stocked with southpaws, led by Brandon Waddell and Scott Silverstein in the weekend rotation and Kyle Crockett in the bullpen. But like UNC, this Clemson club has good balance in the lineup, with a pair of switch-hitters (Steve Wilkerson and Tyler Krieger) and three solid righties (leading hitter Garrett Boulware, Jay Baum and Shane Kennedy).
• Pacific-12 Conference play beings this weekend, and the marquee series pits No. 3 Oregon State against defending national champ Arizona in Tucson. The Beavers look like one of college baseball's most complete teams, and they just sustained their first loss of the season Tuesday against San Francisco, before bouncing back with a win Wednesday. The Wildcats, meanwhile, have looked shaky at times against a soft schedule, losing a game to Columbia last weekend and winning two other games against the Lions in the late innings. Rotation veterans Konner Wade and James Farris have been workhorses, but both have given up their share of runs (Farris gave up six against Columbia, and Wade has allowed seven runs over his last two starts, although just five were earned). They'll need to be sharper this weekend, because Oregon State's stingy pitching staff (1.46 ERA) figures to prevent Arizona from slugging its way to victory.
• New Mexico isn't the only Mountain West power that has gotten off to a poor start. Fresno State has been even more disappointing, carrying a 3-12 record into its conference opener against San Diego State, following a four-game sweep at the hands of a mediocre California team last weekend. The Bulldogs are hitting .224 as a team, and the staff ERA is 5.36. Junior lefthander Tyler Linehan, who was supposed to be Fresno's top prospect for the 2013 draft, has been relegated to a relief role and has performed poorly, going 0-3, 9.82 in 11 innings over eight appearances.
"Fresno just has no pitching," an area scout said. "The kids that are getting on the mound, they're scared. They're just out-manned right now. They have one kid, Linehan, who was supposed to be good for them, and he's been awful, at best. He's just all over the place—I mean, 20 command."
Only one Bulldog is hitting .300 or better: first-team preseason All-American Aaron Judge, who leads the team in nearly every offensive category (.328/.388/.574, three home runs, 12 RBIs). But even Judge has struggled against good pitching, doing most of his damage on Sundays (.684/.700/1.421 with all three home runs and 10 of his 12 RBIs). According to our friends at CollegeSplits.com, Judge is hitting .059 on Fridays and .250 on Saturdays. It's a small sample size, but it's not a good trend.
"Everybody wants to like Judge just because it's body beautiful, but he only hits on Sundays," the scout said.
It won't get any easier this weekend, as the Aztecs have a pair of true front-line arms going Friday and Saturday in flame-throwers Michael Cederoth (2.49 ERA) and Philip Walby (2.01).