College Weekend Preview: April 1-4

Meaningful Matchup
Texas at Oklahoma

When Oklahoma visited Texas last April, Sooners coach Sunny Golloway was among those who billed it as a battle of strength vs. strength—a showdown between Texas’ Big 12-best pitching staff and Oklahoma’s Big 12-best offense. The Longhorns won that showdown, allowing just 10 total runs in a three-game sweep.

This weekend, Texas visits Oklahoma for a Thursday-to-Saturday series, and the Longhorns still have the conference’s best pitching staff; their 2.78 ERA ranks second in the nation. But while the Sooners still have a dangerous offense, it is no longer their calling card.

Top 25 Schedule
(1) Virginia at North Carolina State
(2) Arizona State at Oregon
Duke at (3) Georgia Tech
Virginia Tech at (4) Florida State
Georgia at (5) Louisiana State
(19) Stanford at (6) UCLA
(7) Texas at (17) Oklahoma
(20) Vanderbilt at (8) Florida
Villanova at (9) Louisville
Kentucky at (10) Arkansas
Tennessee at (11) Mississippi
Mississippi State at (12) South Carolina
San Diego State at (13) Texas Christian
Presbyterian at (14) Coastal Carolina
Wake Forest at (15) Miami
Boston College at (16) Clemson
(18) Western Kentucky at Arkansas State
(21) Oregon State at Southern California
(22) Arizona at California
(23) Texas A&M at Kansas
(24) UC Irvine at Cal State Northridge
Auburn at (25) Alabama

“The strength of our team is our pitching, absolutely, there’s no question,” Golloway said. “I like the fact that we’re rolling out three former junior college All-Americans on the weekend. We thought we had recruited well, but we didn’t know for sure. The way they’ve come out and competed has been excellent . . . We hope to try to match (Texas’) arms, and if we can do that, our offense has a chance to be the difference makers, and I like our chances at home.”

It’s a bold suggestion; realistically, the only college baseball team in the country with a chance to match Texas’ arms is UCLA. But in a three-game series, all Oklahoma has to do is keep the Longhorns’ offense at bay and scratch across a few runs when possible. And OU’s trio of former junior college All-Americans—junior righthanders Zach Neal and Bobby Shore, plus senior lefty J.R. Robinson—are good enough to keep the Sooners in games this weekend against an inconsistent Texas offense.

Golloway said the Sooners recently made a small adjustment with Neal, the No. 1 starter, to quicken up his delivery. He was slow and methodical before, especially during the stretch, making him vulnerable to opposing running games. The coaches believed they could also quicken his arm speed by making his delivery smoother. He worked on the adjustment, and indeed, Golloway said his fastball was firmer last week against Nebraska, touching 92-93 mph and still reaching 91 in the seventh inning.

The 6-foot-1, 174-pound Shore is less physical than the 6-2, 209-pound Neal, but he has the confidence to throw his fastball, changeup or slider in any count, and like Neal he’s a fierce competitor. Robinson has similar feel for pitching from the left side, though he does not have power stuff and relies on his deception and savvy.

In the bullpen, Oklahoma has a one-two punch that rivals any in the country. Junior righthander Ryan Duke (0.96 ERA, eight saves) is about as steady and proven as closers get, having recorded 14 saves as a sophomore last year. But this year, the Sooners have a lights-out bridge to Duke in senior righthander Jeremy Erben, who carries a 22-inning scoreless streak into this weekend. The national ERA leader, Erben is 5-0, 0.35 with 29 strikeouts and five walks in 26 innings.

“Our team feels like when we put him on the mound, they’re not scoring,” Golloway said of Erben. “He’s a 5-foot-11 guy that has really done a good job shaping his body up a little bit—he’d probably be the first one to tell you he needed to be in better shape. Right now he has fastball command in and away; that and his slider are terrific pitches. He can put the slider inside on the corner, he can put the slider away, or he can bury it in the dirt. He’s been right there about 90, 92 mph.”

Duke, meanwhile, is similar in demeanor and approach to Texas closer Chance Ruffin (4-1, 0.68 with six saves and a 34-10 K-BB ratio in 26 innings).

“I could clearly see Ruffin pitching for us and Duke pitching for them,” Golloway said. “Chance is like a gunslinger, he’s got that hand cocked to the side before his delivery, like on his holster, ready to go. With both those guys, if you don’t get their fastball early, now you’ve got to face their breaking ball. Let’s face it—they’re both trouble. Their mentality and makeup is what makes them special.”

A year ago, Texas was still trying to figure out how all of its premium pitching parts fit together. Now, roles are firmly established: Ruffin is the closer, and the rotation consists of power righthanders Taylor Jungmann (2-1, 3.43), Cole Green (5-0, 3.19) and Brandon Workman (4-1, 3.03). Texas coach Augie Garrido said he had no concerns about Jungmann, who has given up 13 runs in 13 innings over the last two weeks since striking out 17 against Iowa.

“He’s like every other young player: He came off a 17-strikeout game, and in the last two outings he hasn’t pitched to contact as aggressively,” Garrido said. “Things get in their heads, they lose their rhythm, timing and aggressiveness a little bit, then it all comes back. He did this last year a little bit too. He’s healthy and doing fine, and so is Green and Ruffin and Workman, and we’ve got our setup guys in place. The staff is pretty much set, we pretty much know where we are.”

The offense is still a work in progress. For a while, Garrido was riding the hot hands of freshmen Jonathan Walsh and Cohl Walla, but Walsh cooled off and Texas re-inserted Connor Rowe into the lineup in Walsh’s place, though Walla is expected to remain in the starting lineup this weekend.

“I think the ups and downs in our offense can continue to smooth out,” Garrido said. “We’ve had some very productive offensive days. We pitched all right, we played defense OK, and I think the hitting’s all in there, it’s just been very inconsistent. These kids are warm-weather kids, and they’re used to playing in the summers, and as it heats up they do better, and as they get their timing down they do well. We’ve usually been able to finish strong with the hitting.”

Golloway knows exactly what to expect from the Longhorns.

“I know that Augie is going to come in with the power arms, playing small ball,” he said. “You kind of live by the sword, you die by the sword. I saw (Tuesday) night where my old Oral Roberts club got him 3-2. He bunted a couple guys up but they couldn’t get the key hit, and that’s the key against Texas. You’ve just got to try to minimize the damage and keep that leadoff hitter off base.”

Oklahoma’s offense, meanwhile, is less explosive this year without departed mainstays J.T. Wise, Jamie Johnson and Brian Hernandez. But two emerging sophomores have done an admirable job stepping in for Johnson and Hernandez in center field and at shortstop, respectively. Chris Ellison (.338/.435/.563 with 11 steals in 12 tries) provides some of the speed and defense that Johnson delivered in the leadoff spot, and Caleb Bushyhead (.330/.374/.505) has played solid defense at short while handling the bat well in the No. 2 hole. Heralded freshman Chad Kettler was originally slated to play shortstop, but he has been sidelined with a back injury, and Bushyhead has run with his opportunity.

And two sophomore corner infielders who are both sons of big leaguers have done the heavy lifting in the middle of the lineup. Cameron Seitzer (.416/.511/.831 with seven homers and 26 RBIs) and Garrett Buechele (.359/.455/.598 with six homers and 26 RBIs) give the Sooners power threats that opponents have to plan for, and they also act as calming presences in the young Oklahoma clubhouse.

Garrido knows that his eighth-ranked Longhorns have their work cut out for them in Norman.

“I think it’ll be just a dogfight from beginning to end in the series,” Garrido said. “They’ve been one of the most consistent teams in the Big 12 this season. I think they’re better balanced than they have been, and they were very difficult to deal with last year. Sunny’s got a good program working for him there, and this series is always exciting.”

Marquee Mound Matchup
Jake Brown vs. Christian Powell
College of Charleston and Georgia Southern have reputations as offensive programs, and justifiably so. Both teams are usually among the scoring leaders in the hitter-happy Southern Conference (both have ranked in the top five nationally in scoring each of the last two years), and Charleston is up to its old tricks in 2010, ranking eighth in the nation in runs through last weekend. But the Cougars and Eagles both recognize that the key to their seasons could be how they perform on the mound.

“The SoCon’s an offensive league, so it will boil down to the development of our pitching staff,” CofC coach Monte Lee said. “If our pitching settles in, we could be a pretty good club.”

Other Week Seven Storylines
• Pacific-10 Conference play begins in earnest this weekend with a full slate of games. UCLA (21-0) will try to stay unbeaten against No. 19 Stanford, and Arizona State (23-0) attempts to stay perfect in a trip to Oregon. The Sun Devils and No. 22 Arizona have combined to play just two of their 48 games outside the Grand Canyon State heading into this weekend, when both face road tests. Arizona leaves Tucson for the first time this spring with a trip to Berkeley to face California.
• A number of series this weekend run from Thurdsay through Saturday because of the Easter holiday on Sunday. The Big West also opens its conference slate this weekend, and like the Pac-10 its series will be Thursday-Friday-Saturday series this weekend. Upstarts Pacific (16-7) and Cal State Northridge (16-7) will try to carry their solid play into the league schedule with series against Long Beach State and UC Irvine, respectively.
• As always, the Southeastern Conference schedule is chock full of interesting matchups. Underachieving Georgia (9-15), loser of nine of its last 10 games, will try to get back on the right track at Louisiana State; the Friday game in that series will be televised on ESPNU. Vanderbilt will visit Florida in a big SEC East showdown. Kentucky will try to avoid losing its third straight series to start conference play with another big road test, at Arkansas. And Auburn visits Alabama in one of the nation’s best rivalries.

At minimum, Charleston’s staff has a pair of quality bookends in Powell, a freshman righthander, and junior righthander Heath Hembree, who Lee said is garnering top-five-rounds draft buzz thanks to a 94-96 mph fastball and a mid-80s cutter. Powell will go head-to-head with Brown, a senior lefthander, on Friday in the opener of a pivotal series between College of Charleston (20-7, 5-4 in the SoCon) and Georgia Southern (15-11, 7-2) in Charleston.

The 6-foot-4, 205-pound Powell was a high school quarterback who has added 20 pounds since arriving on campus last fall, and Lee said he envisions the freshman throwing in the mid-90s as he continues to fill out and add strength. As it is, he throws strikes with an 88-92 mph fastball, a promising changeup and a decent slider. Powell’s ERA ballooned to 5.40 after he gave up six earned runs in 5 2/3 innings against Western Carolina last week, but he is 4-1 with 31 strikeouts and 16 walks in 33 innings this year, showing his ability to miss bats.

“Christian Powell is a name to really take a look at—he’s going to be a high pick in three years,” Lee said. “I’ve got to think he’s one of the top 50 freshmen in the country. He is a very good athlete, and he’s gotten so much bigger and stronger just in the half year he’s been here; I think he’s going to be a man.”

Brown lacks Powell’s projectability, but he’s a competitor and a winner, and he has been a rock for Georgia Southern in the Friday starter role. He enters this weekend 4-2, 3.11 with 41 strikeouts and nine walks in 46 innings.

“Jake Brown has become our go-to guy on the pitching staff,” Eagles coach Rodney Hennon said in an e-mail. “He really came on the second half of last season and has been our most consistent guy this year. He loves to pitch and compete, and that is his greatest asset. Jake has a knack of finding ways to win even when he lacks his best stuff. He throws a lot of strikes and usually does a good job of keeping the ball down in the zone. He throws a curveball, changeup, and cutter to complement his fastball. He changes speeds well and gets good movement on all his pitches. It should be a good matchup in Charleston this weekend.”

Under The Radar
The Panthers are off to their best start in eight years. After sweeping a dangerous St. John’s team last weekend, Pitt ran its winning streak to a school-record 11 games and improved to 18-4 overall.

“No question, I like our club,” Pitt coach Joe Jordano said. “They’re playing hard. We had a very clear, simple plan to start the year, and we’ve stuck to it. My assistants have done a great job preparing these guys, and it’s been kind of fun. But at this stage of the game, some of the recognition we’ve received has been great, but it’s like being on the lead horse after the first furlong at the Kentucky Derby—you don’t even acknowledge it. We’re just going to keep playing blue-collar baseball.”

The blue-collar approach is the key to Pitt’s simple plan. The Panthers concentrate on making sure every hitter in their lineup is capable of hitting situationally, with the goal of having every at-bat be productive. They are aggressive on the bases and fundamentally sound on defense. On the mound, Jordano and his staff emphasize four simple principles: throwing first-pitch strikes, throwing strikes in two of the first three pitches of every at-bat (winning the 1-and-1 counts), resolving at-bats within four pitches, and killing the opposing running game.

“And that’s what we do,” Jordano said. “We pound these principles every day, and it’s great to see a guy like (junior third baseman) Joe Leonard, who’s a top prospect, getting up to the plate and driving a ball to second base with a runner on third and two strikes. We want him to be our RBI guy, no doubt about it, but he like anybody else in the lineup knows it’s not just him. If we’re being productive with our at-bats, we’ll score runs.”

Leonard is the centerpiece of Pitt’s lineup, a 6-foot-5, 220-pounder whose father John was a first-round pick by the Orioles in 1982. Leonard has good power potential but stands out most for his pure hitting ability. He enters this weekend’s series at Rutgers hitting .443/.514/.680 with three homers and 37 RBIs in 97 at-bats. He has even recorded three saves off the mound, where he throws downhill with a 92-93 mph fastball, according to his coach. Jordano said Leonard has generated significant draft buzz among scouts.

“In my opinion he was the best player in this region out of high school, and we were very fortunate to land him,” Jordano said. “He has pretty much played every inning of every game with the exception of a few since he arrived. He’s a pro player, just the way he conducts himself on and off the field—he’s never too high, never too low, always has a very serious approach to the game. He’s just a dynamite player—great size, and he’s got a plus arm. He’s got power, but being as aggressive as we are with situational at-bats, I think at the next level they’ll tweak his swing a bit to get him to lift the ball a bit more, but we have him pretty flat through the zone. All the scouts that I’ve talked to really like him. I’ve had 50 or 60 kids sign professionally throughout my career, and without question he has to be considered one of the top. He fits the mold; he’s going to be great at the next level.”

But for now, he’s a standout at the Division I level, and he is surrounded by quality veterans in the Pitt lineup. Senior shortstop Danny Lopez (.388/.474/.612 with three homers, 31 RBIs and 16 steals in 17 tries) teams with Leonard to form a strong left side of the infield and brings energy to the top of the lineup. Junior outfielder Sean Toole (.508/.563/.590) has been on fire since returning from a hamstring injury. Other upperclassmen like outfielder John Schultz (.402/.491/.533), catcher Cory Brownsten (.368/.471/.491) and second baseman Travis Whitmore (.366/.398/.537) have been very consistent. As a team, the Panthers are hitting .373 and fielding .984.

The Panthers lack overpowering arms on the mound, especially since ace lefty Nate Reed opted to transfer to Division II Kutztown in the fall and a second member of last year’s rotation, junior righty David Kaye, had Tommy John surgery. But righties Nathan Hood (4-0, 2.44) and Corey Baker (6-0, 2.89) plus lefty Matt Iannazzo (4-0, 2.86) have thus far executed Pitt’s aggressive pitching plan very well, and the Panthers have played strong defense behind them.

Pitt hasn’t been to a regional since 1995, and Jordano said “it would be huge” for his program to clear that hurdle this spring, but he knows the Ratings Percentage Index is working against Pitt’s chances to earn an at-large bid, making the conference tournament imperative.

In the meantime, the Panthers will continue to play hard every day and enjoy the ride. Next year, Pitt moves into a brand new facility with 1,000 chairback seats, a good press box and a nice FieldTurf playing surface. The promise of the new facility has helped Jordano line up a banner recruiting class, he said.

“Our recruiting class this fall, these are all guys that I don’t even think we’re in the conversation without the new facility being built,” Jordano said. “I think it’s a pretty bright future for us.”

Jake Overstreet, 3b, South Alabama
Overstreet, a 6-foot, 200-pound junior, has caught fire recently to help the Jaguars surge to 18-10. He went 10-for-15 with 12 RBIs in a three-game series at Middle Tennessee State last weekend, leading South Alabama to a big road series win against the Sun Belt Conference’s preseason favorites. Overstreet smacked two homers in each game of Saturday’s doubleheader and drove in seven in a 15-0 win in the series-clinching finale.

Overstreet continued his surge Tuesday against Southern Mississippi, going 3-for-5 with four RBIs. He delivered a game-winning solo homer in the bottom of the eighth to break a 13-13 tie.

“He really is on fire, and he’s an outstanding player,” USA coach Steve Kittrell said. “Jake’s been a key leader for us, and he’s the guy we want up in clutch situations. The homer (Tuesday) was huge, to take the lead for us with two out and none on in eighth.”

On the season, Overstreet is hitting .395/.452/.640 with a nation-leading 48 RBIs in 114 at-bats. Kittrell said he’ll be surprised if he doesn’t have to call South Alabama alumnus Luis Gonzalez at the end of the season and tell him his USA single-season RBI record (80, set in 1988) has been broken.

In just 28 games, Overstreet has already surpassed his previous career high for homers in a season: six, in 54 games in 2008. Last year he hit just four homers in 55 games.

“He’s worked hard in the weight room, and he’s learned to use the whole field better,” Kittrell said. “He’s become a better hitter—he has power to right-center and left-center. Jake’s a pure hitter, and he’s driving in a ton of runs.”

For the first time since the end of the 2000 season, the Owls are not ranked in the Baseball America Top 25. Rice has lost back-to-back weekend series at San Diego and Memphis and enters this wekeend’s series against Houston at just 14-12 overall. The Owls are still seeking their first weekend series victory of the season.

“Why in the world do you want to know anything about us?” Rice coach Wayne Graham asked jokingly when returning a phone call this week.

Answer: Because Rice is an elite program with elite talent (at least in the lineup), and when the Owls struggle, the college baseball world wants to know why.

“We just have a lot of guys who aren’t playing as good as expected,” Graham said. “We hoped to be superior defensively, and we’ve actually been below-average for one of our teams. And we haven’t hit as well overall as we expected, although it’s not bad. Our pitching hasn’t evolved as quickly as we hoped.”

That pretty much covers it. Rice was never expected to have a dominating pitching staff in 2010; Graham said in the preseason that this staff would rely more on movement than velocity, but he expected his defense to be athletic and reliable enough to take pressure off the staff, allowing the arms to pitch to contact. But Rice’s defense has been far from elite, fielding at a .969 clip and making simple mistakes at costly times.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt the defense has affected the pitching,” Graham said. “Certainly pitching to contact does no good if you don’t make plays. We’ll have to do some things about shortstop right now in the short run.”

Shortstop Rick Hague has struggled mightily on routine plays at a critical defensive position, fielding at a .908 clip and forcing Graham to take him out of a game against Lamar this week after he committed his 14th error of the season. Graham said first baseman Jimmy Comerota (a middle infielder by trade) or utilityman Abe Gonzalez will play shortstop this weekend.

“Comerota didn’t make any errors in the fall, and Ricky even in the fall made a ton of errors, so I don’t know if that was a prelude to this or what,” Graham said. “It’s unfortunate it’s happened right now—we all like Ricky, but clearly shortstop is a critical position and it’s wrecking us right now. We hope we can rehab Hague back to being what he’s supposed to be. He has no injury, he’s in great shape—it’s mental. He’s physically a very tough individual, he’s got a work ethic beyond anybody on the team, but he’s just pressing so hard. I wish I had some way of relaxing him, but ultimately we all have to come to grips with pressure.”

Hague’s problems might be emblematic of Rice’s scuffles as a whole, but certainly there is plenty of blame to go around. Offensively, only sophomore third baseman Anthony Rendon (.354/.558/.785 with 10 homers, 28 RBIs and a 37-12 BB-K ratio) has performed up to his potential. The rest of the team has combined for 174 strikeouts and 80 walks in 26 games.

The pitching staff has been inconsistent at best. Sophomore lefty Taylor Wall (0-4, 5.61) and senior righty Jared Rogers (3-1, 4.96) have shown signs of progress lately and will remain in the rotation, but the third starter spot is still up for grabs.

“A lot of guys have been so conscious of controlling runners that they were up in the zone with runners in scoring position,” Graham said. “Last weekend Jared Rogers corrected that, he really pitched better than his stats. I think Wall can make that adjustment too. The other thing, with our great pitching staffs we’d always want to throw a pitch with two strikes and no balls or two strikes and one ball that’s too close to take and too tough to hit. And we haven’t done that.”

Prior to Tuesday’s 7-2 win at Lamar, the coaching staff implemented one more adjustment.

“We told them, ‘You guys need to go back to why you got into baseball in the first place. Everybody’s trying hard. What you need to do is get back to enjoying the game again,'” Graham said. “I tried to keep it very light (Tuesday) night, even though we had to take Hague out of the game, the rest of the team responded real well to what I would call a little more jocular attitude. Let it all hang out, have fun. We’re going to have to do it. There’s always pressure in this program—you’re supposed to embrace that, and you also have to have fun. It all sounds good; we’ll see if it works or not.”

Stat of the Week
Strikeouts for Iona’s Chris Griffin in 61 at-bats over 18 games, making him the nation’s toughest player to strike out, among players with at least 40 at-bats. Vanderbilt freshman Anthony Gomez is second on the toughest-to-strike-out list with one whiff in 56 at-bats.

That is the sort of information you can find on the NCAA’s first official baseball statistics report of the season, released this week. Some other fun tidbits (all stats are through Sunday):

• Virginia’s Dan Grovatt leads the nation in sacrifice flies with seven.

• Among qualifiers with at least 20 innings pitched and at least one inning pitched per team game, four of the nation’s six ERA leaders are relievers—three of them in the Big 12 conference. Leading the list is Oklahoma’s Erben (0.35), followed by Louisville closer Neil Holland (0.39). Ruffin (0.68) ranks fourth, and Texas A&M’s John Stilson (1.16) is sixth.

• Vanderbilt’s Brian Harris has been hit by pitches more than any player in the nation: 18 times.

• Texas A&M flame-throwers rank one-two in strikeouts per nine innings. Junior righty Barret Loux is averaging 14.91 strikeouts per nine, and Stilson has 14.23 strikeouts per nine. Mississippi’s Drew Pomeranz (14.22) is third.

• Holland has been the nation’s most unhittable pitcher. He has allowed just 1.93 hits per nine innings. No. 2 is Adam Izokovic of Gardner-Webb with 3.18 hits allowed per nine.

• The best control award so far goes to Hawaii’s Alex Capaul, who has issued just 0.36 walks per nine innings, fewest in the nation.

Scouting Report
Brooks Pinckard, rhp/of, Baylor
Pinckard spent most of his redshirt freshman season in 2009 as an outfielder, though he did work 21 innings of relief on the mound, going 3-0, 5.91. Last summer, he went to the Northwoods League and ranked as the circuit’s No. 7 prospect after flashing premium stuff on the mound. He has carried that success over into this spring, posting a 0.00 ERA with six saves in 11 innings over seven appearances. An exceptional athlete with plus-plus speed, Pinckard is also having a breakout season with the bat, hitting .359/.468/.516 with eight stolen bases in eight attempts as Baylor’s starting center fielder. Pinckard’s draft stock is on the rise; an American League area scout offered his thoughts on Pinckard and three other Baylor righthanders: Shawn Tolleson, Logan Verrett and Craig Fritsch.

“He’s got great stuff, great stuff. He’s got kind of a little different arm action, but he came in and was 90-95 with a good, hard slider. It was 78 mph on the slider, and he threw it for strikes. For being a position player, a two-way guy that hasn’t pitched a whole lot, I was pretty impressed with the way he pitched. His velocity dropped a little bit when he threw for a second day in a row, to like 88-91, but that was understandable and nothing to worry about for me. He has kind of a low elbow, short in the back (of his delivery). You see the arm action and wonder how he’s throwing that hard. It’s nothing bad, not an injury risk, just a little different. His slider was strong-average, I think it will be a 55 in the future. It was more of a location thing—he put it in some good spots. And he can run—I think he’s played himself into a little bit of a prospect as a hitter too. But he’s definitely a better prospect on the mound.

“Tolleson just kind of is what he is. He’s got that bad delivery, but he’s a great kid, though. You’d sign him as a senior, but you’d have to worry about the delivery. He throws across his body a little more than in the past, and he has some sink. He was up to 91-92, so the velocity was OK, you’ve just got to worry about that delivery and arm action. The slider was OK. He was more like his old self—the stuff was pretty similar to what it was in the past. I think it was a little down last year from what it was before. I’ve seen him throw 94 before, and he didn’t do that. He kind of is what he is.

“Verrett has not looked as good as he was last year. I don’t know what the deal is. His velocity was down, and pretty straight. He was 88-90, touching 91 maybe. He wasn’t putting up 94s like he did last year. He’s in a little different role, too. His breaking ball was just OK.

“Fritsch was OK. He wasn’t throwing like he was at the end of the year last year, but he’s pretty much the same. Pitchability was always his problem, throwing strikes, and he did a little better with that.”

In The Dugout
Cody Wheeler, lhp, Coastal Carolina
Wheeler, the Chanticleer’s junior ace, has played a big part in Coastal Carolina’s 20-5 start, going 4-0, 4.15 with 38 strikeouts and 14 walks in 39 innings. Wheeler is not physically imposing at 6-foot, 170 pounds, but he is a fierce competitor with good stuff: a fastball that reaches the low 90s, a sharp three-quarters breaking ball and a good changeup. We caught up with Wheeler last weekend in Conway, S.C., a day after he allowed just two runs over six innings in a win against San Diego.

Congratulations on the big win against San Diego on Friday. It didn’t seem like you had your best control, but you battled and got the win. What did you think about the way you threw?

Friday was kind of a new start for me—I added a new pitch probably two days before, a new two-seamer that kind of looks like a changeup a little bit but I throw it a little bit harder. So that was definitely an effective pitch that I threw.

It looked like all your stuff had very good movement. Is that a key for you?

Definitely, I think that’s a benefit for a pitcher when nothing you throw is straight. It’s always got a little dive, a little life at the end of it.

How do you think you have grown as a pitcher just from last year to this year?

I’d say the mental aspect of pitching—it’s a lot of mound presence, not letting the other team know if you’re a little rattled or off tempo, not showing any emotion on the mound that could give them any emotion whatsoever. When I came in here as a freshman, every time somebody got on base I’d get too nervous, try to keep them from running. I do what I can, and if they’re going to run, that’s what they’re going to do. I have confidence in my catcher, so I do what I can do and can’t control anything else.

You’ve had some big highlights in your career, and the no-hitter you threw against Hawaii comes to mind. When you think back on that game, what sticks out?

A lot of outstanding defensive plays. Rico Noel saved me so many times in center field—he’s an outstanding athlete, he’s unbelievable. Other than that, I would say it just happened to be my day. All three pitches were working. I had a great defensive play by (shortstop Taylor) Motter in the second, which, I mean, that’s eight innings short if he doesn’t make that play right there. The no-hitter was an unbelievable moment, what a pitcher always dreams about. I’ve been close here and there, maybe in the sixth or the seventh and never really gotten there. It was kind of surreal: Is this really going to happen? And it did.

Tell me about your Team USA experience last summer. Traveling around the world, representing your country—what was it like for you?

It was definitely a very unique experience. Traveling over to Tokyo, up north to New Hampshire and Massachusetts and even to Canada at the end of the year, with that group of guys—some of the best guys in the country. Your Christian Colons, your Tyler Holts, some of those guys, it was just an unbelievable experience. You check your egos at the door, you’re playing for the name on the front more than the name on the back.

You split time starting and relieving last summer, and some scouts project you as a lefty out of the pen in pro ball; do you prefer one role or the other?

No, not really. I’ve obviously gotten used to starting here, but if they told me I had to come out of the bullpen one day, I’d have no problem with it. I feel like I’m comfortable enough out of the bullpen, and I feel like I have more of an advantage out of the bullpen. If I’m only coming in for an inning or two, seeing some lefties which helps me out tremendously, I feel like I could definitely benefit from coming out of the bullpen. I think people see me as a small-framed guy, but it’s not how big I am. It’s the fight I bring every time I step on the mound.

Coastal Carolina has arrived as a national power. Do you feel like this team is ready to make that last jump to Omaha?

I do believe so. I think we have the talent here and the ability. It’s all about the mental aspect for us. We have more talent than we’ve ever had—since I’ve been here, and my freshman year was that super regional team. I feel like we have a pretty good chance of getting there.

How bad do you guys want to get there?

Right now, I don’t think you can actually measure how bad we want to get there.