Building Something New

Here at Baseball America, we’re always looking for ways to ensure our college baseball coverage is the best on the Internet. In that spirit, we’re excited to roll out our newest feature, the BA blogs. Here on the College Blog, you can expect to find up-to-the-minute news and notes, spot analysis and predictions, and my quick take on the weekend that was every Monday in Three Strikes. I hope to update the blog frequently with tidbits gleaned from coaches and scouts, as well as discussion of some of the most interesting midweek games in the nation. Some days a post might be two sentences of news and a quick thought, other days it might be a small feature story. I know us Baseball Americans tend to harp a lot on prospects and rankings, but I hope to use this blog to show some of the lighter side of college baseball, as well.

There are many terrific people in and around college baseball, and I like to think the sport brings out the best in many of them. The other day, I got a call from a scout in southern California who wanted me to know about something special going on at UC Riverside. Longtime big league closer Troy Percival, a UC Riverside product, was helping to build the Highlanders a new clubhouse. He wasn’t just helping to finance the project–he was doing the heavy lifting, the actual construction.

“A lot of people would not even know this was going on, but he was putting his own money in and breaking his back,” the scout said. “He’s doing everything–wiring it, putting in all the lockers.”

The Highlanders play at 2,500-seat Riverside Sports Complex, the former California League home of Padres and Mariners affiliates. UC Riverside has been trying to upgrade the facility every year to keep pace with improved facilities at conference foes Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, UC Irvine, Cal Poly and Pacific. Percival, who still lives in Riverside, volunteered to help with the project, which should be completed this week. UCR coach Doug Smith said Percival has really thrown himself into the project.

“I came in early one morning to get some stuff done–6:45 a.m. on a Sunday morning–and I hear something in the other room, and there Troy is patching and painting,” Smith said. “You don’t see a lot of guys do that who have had the career that Troy has had. They may be very generous with their money, but maybe less so with their time. His time is so valuable to us–it really overshadows everything. It’s good for our players for him to hang around, so they can be accustomed to being around a big league guy and see how he goes about his business.”

Riverside’s fine pitching staff figures to do Percival proud. You might be familiar with righthander James Simmons, UCR’s ace and a potential top-two-rounds draft pick. The rest of the staff is also very solid, with senior lefty Marc Rzepczynski (the “R” is silent, in case you’re wondering) going on Saturdays and junior lefty Dan Runzler on Sundays. Rzepczynski has been the Highlanders’ best pitcher in the fall and winter, sitting at 90 mph with his fastball and mixing in a low-80s curveball, a mid-80s slider and a very good changeup. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Runzler has been up to 92 mph with his fastball and has a quality breaking ball.

The bullpen should be a strength as well, although Smith said the Highlanders haven’t quite decided who will close. Senior righthander Taylor Bills will move from a starting role to the back of the pen, and he could share closing duties with junior righty Adam Reifer. With a fastball that sits at 92-93 and touches 96-97, Reifer has been moving up draft boards, though he pitched just 24 innings a year ago. He also throws a curveball, changeup and is developing a slider, giving him a starter’s repertoire that could ticket him for the midweek starter role.

Winning those midweek games is critical for the Highlanders–they’ll see UCLA twice, Southern California twice, San Diego twice and San Diego State twice. Those teams could be in for a rude surprise if they run into Reifer on Tuesdays.