College Weekend Preview: April 23-25

Meaningful Matchup
East Carolina at Rice
East Carolina’s trip to Rice was supposed to be a battle for Conference USA supremacy, and that’s exactly what it is. The Pirates (6-3) and Owls (8-4) have identical .667 CUSA winning percentages, making them tied atop the league’s standings heading into this weekend.

But Conference USA supremacy isn’t what it used to be. Rice is the only team in the league that ranks inside the top 50 teams in the Ratings Percentage Index, and thus the only team in good standing to earn an at-large regional bid at this point in the season. The Owls rank 30th, according to, Tulane is next at No. 59, and the Pirates are CUSA’s third team at No. 67. That gives this weekend added significance. Rather than a showdown between two teams that were in super regionals last year and have their sights set on Omaha this year, this is a battle between two teams that need to win to shore up their postseason credentials.

Rice is just 23-16 but has played a strong schedule and is most likely safe for an at-large spot, barring a late collapse. The Owls must get hot to salvage any hopes of hosting a regional, however. The Pirates, meanwhile, are 24-14 against a weaker schedule, and they are hanging their regional resume on a series win against South Carolina back in Week Two. Since then, ECU has lost series against Pepperdine and Tulane and won RPI-killing series against Monmouth and North Carolina Central. With a series win this weekend, the Pirates will be on much firmer ground for a regional bid.

Top 25 Schedule
Washington at (1) Arizona State

(2) Virginia at Maryland

Oklahoma State at (3) Texas

(20) Virginia Tech at (4) Georgia Tech

(5) UCLA at (17) Arizona

(14) Miami at (6) Florida State

(9) Arkansas at (7) Florida

(8) Louisiana State at (19) Mississippi

(10) South Carolina at Georgia

Nevada-Las Vegas at (11) Texas Christian

(12) Coastal Carolina at Virginia Military Institute

Seton Hall at (13) Louisville

(15) California at (22) Stanford

Cal Poly at (16) Cal State Fullerton

Southern California at (18) Oregon

Rutgers at (21) Connecticut

(23) Vanderbilt at Tennessee

(24) Oklahoma at Texas A&M

(25) Southeastern Louisiana at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

“It’s a big series,” ECU coach Billy Godwin said. “We’re still 6-3, they’re still 8-4, regardless of what has happened. This series can separate one team or the other and put them in the lead of the Conference USA race. Any time you play Rice, you’ve got to play at a high level.”

Both of these teams have shown signs recently of becoming more consistent, but both have also had setbacks just when it appears they are on the verge of taking off.

The Pirates responded from their home series loss against Tulane by winning back-to-back series against Memphis and Alabama-Birmingham, part of a six-game winning streak. And then this week they lost two midweek games to Campbell and North Carolina State, as their defense fell apart. East Carolina has committed 19 errors over its past four games, including six against the Wolfpack, and 40 in their last 13 games. That stretch—each of the last 13 games has included at least one error—dropped the team’s fielding percentage to .950.

“The game’s so much about confidence, offensive confidence, pitching confidence, and I’ve never been around a team that defensively didn’t have the confidence like this,” Godwin said. “Right now they’re on their heels every pitch. I’ve been pleased with where we are offensively, but when you’re fielding .950, you’ve got to do some serious hitting to overcome that.”

Some of ECU’s defensive inadequacy can be chalked up to the loss of starting shortstop Dustin Harrington, who was also the team’s leading hitter (.443). Harrington was dismissed from the team on April 1 for an undisclosed disciplinary reason, and the Pirates have tried moving third baseman Corey Thompson and first baseman John Wooten to short, with mixed results. It doesn’t help that freshman middle infielder Bryan Bass is still serving an indefinite suspension for another undisclosed reason. Right now, ECU is stuck with Wooten at short. He’s a promising freshman, but he’s out of position.

“He’s not a prototypical shortstop. We realize that, he realizes that,” Godwin said. “But his makeup, he’ll do anything you ask him to do. He’s going to go out there and not make excuses, he’s going to play the game as hard as he can possibly play it. We just got caught without middle infielders.”

Rice has had its own problems at shortstop, which has been one of the season’s major surprises. The Owls thought they were all set at short, where they had a preseason All-American in Rick Hague. But Hague has made 22 errors this year, including four in Tuesday’s loss to Texas A&M, prompting Owls coach Wayne Graham to make a change. Senior first baseman Jimmy Comerota, who played error-free ball at shortstop during fall intrasquads, will slide over to short this weekend.

“Comerota actually does have the range and the arm, but we had what was perceived to be a big talent at short,” Graham said. “I would imagine we’re going to DH Hague. We still consider him to be one of our top eight bats, easily, and he brings some speed, so we need him in there. If he can focus on just hitting, he might be better. At least other teams have the same problem; East Carolina lost a guy who was extremely productive at short.”

Graham compares Hague’s situation to Texas’ dilemma with Michael Hollimon in 2002-2003. A highly recruited player, Hollimon battled defensive struggles similar to what Hague has gone through and lost his starting job. In 2002, the move stabilized the Longhorns infield en route to a national championship, and Hollimon went on to have a solid professional career after transferring to Oral Roberts for his senior year.

If this infield shakeup provides the Owls with similar stability, they could make a run. Certainly Rice lacks dominating front-line pitching, but Graham said he has been pleased by the way lefthander Taylor Wall and righties Mike Ojala and Jared Rogers have progressed in the weekend rotation. Ojala has regained the stuff he showed last spring before having Tommy John surgery; he is working at 87-90 mph, touching 91, and showing the hard biting curveball that Graham calls “as good a curveball as there is in college baseball.” He’s still working on rediscovering his command, but he’s coming along.

“We have been pitching a lot better lately,” Graham said. “Even though it didn’t show in the stats, Jared Rogers has been real good lately—he’s been up to 92 with a good slider, pitching at 87-91, but he doesn’t walk anybody, his movement is good, and he’s got a good slider. He’s just been a whole lot better. And Ojala’s getting better each week, and Wall’s been good.”

Graham thinks he’s also finally found a closer in freshman righty Tyler Duffey, who reached 94 mph last week against Central Florida. Pitching coach David Pierce has worked with Duffey on his changeup, and lately the pitch has been much tighter and more effective.

Still, for the first time since Rice joined Conference USA, East Carolina can match the Owls on the mound this weekend. The Pirates have discovered a steady Friday starter in funky righthander Zach Woods (5-1, 2.96), who “can pitch with his fastball as good as anybody I’ve ever coached,” Godwin said. Righty Seth Maness and lefty Kevin Brandt are competitive veterans the next two days, and the bullpen has a quality anchor in junior closer Seth Simmons (2.84 ERA, seven saves) as well as two power-armed setup men in Shawn Armstrong and Mike Wright, who both can run their fastballs up to 93.

“If there’s any reason we’re winning right now, it’s because we’re pitching and our guys are showing some poise when we make mistakes behind them,” Godwin said.

And that’s why East Carolina, like Rice, is still in position to seize control of Conference USA this weekend, even for all of its troubles.

“I told our guys last night after the (N.C. State) game, I said, ‘Nothing’s changed. We’re still technically in a percentage-point tie with Rice,’ ” Godwin said. “We can go in there and do some good things. But we need to get some amnesia and go out and play a good game.”

Marquee Mound Matchup
Anthony Ranaudo vs. Drew Pomeranz
Louisiana State coach Paul Mainieri has had Friday’s game at Mississippi circled on his calendar for some time. Ranaudo, LSU’s junior righthander, will take on Pomeranz, Mississippi’s junior lefty, in the most anticipated college pitching matchup of the season. But for a while it looked like the dream matchup would not materialize, as Ranaudo missed four weeks early in the year with a stress reaction in his arm.

“Thank goodness that Anthony is back to full strength,” Mainieri said. “Obviously when we saw the schedule, then I saw that ESPNU is going to televise the game, I thought, ‘My goodness, what a made-for-TV matchup that is, Pomeranz vs. Ranaudo.’ Then when Anthony had his issue early, I thought, ‘It’s too bad we won’t have that matchup.’ But really it’s turned out that he’s at 100 percent full strength now. Last week was probably his last little hurdle to get over. Now it’s no restrictions. I’ll watch his pitch count and decide when the right time to take him out is, but it’s not some artificial pitch count while he works back into full strength. Now he’s sharp and has knocked the rust off.”

Ranaudo threw 99 pitches over six innings last week against Alabama, and he pitched well except for Alabama’s four-run second inning. He finished with eight strikeouts and three walks and earned the win to improve to 2-0, 3.00 with 22 strikeouts and 10 walks in 21 innings over five outings.

“Last year, he worked down and then elevated up to get strikeouts,” said one talent evaluator who saw him last week. “He was not able to locate down (against Alabama). He used to elevate at 94-95, but it was pretty steady at 90-92 whether it was up or not, but it was mostly up. Looks like he was still laboring a bit, but I was impressed with him anyway. He has mound presence to spare, and his team definitely feeds off it.”

One National League scout said Ranaudo has worked at 90-93 mph with a plus breaking ball and a feel for a changeup. Two evaluators admit that Ranaudo was not as sharp two weeks ago at Auburn, where he survived five innings and threw 86 pitches with just 49 strikes. “He made pitches when he had to,” one evaluator said. “He flashed it. He wasn’t the Ranaudo we saw last year but he showed flashes of it.”

But Mainieri said he thinks Ranaudo is back to being Ranaudo now, which means the fans in Oxford and the television viewers could be in for a treat. Pomeranz, of course, has been the best pitcher in college baseball in 2010, going 6-0, 1.38 with 90 strikeouts and 24 walks in 59 innings.

Ranaudo entered the season as the No. 2 prospect for the 2010 draft, trailing only phenom Bryce Harper, and Pomeranz ranked fourth on BA’s preseason list. Nine weeks into the season, Pomeranz has secured his status as a lock to be drafted in the top five picks, and Ranaudo could be drafted in the same range if he pitches well down the stretch.

Seldom do two pitchers with such high profiles and so much draft hype go head-to-head. Here at Baseball America, we often term these matchups “Oscar Games,” because it’s like seeing all the stars come out for the Oscars, except in this case it’s all the big stars of the scouting world converging upon one site.

Last year, there were two pitching matchups between eventual first-round picks. One of them was back in February, when Arizona State’s Mike Leake struck out 10 and allowed just one hit over eight innings in a win against Missouri’s Kyle Gibson.

The other was more unlikely, an April 3 matchup between Lipscomb and Kennesaw State that attracted bushels of scouting heavyweights. Kennesaw’s Kyle Heckathorn struck out nine over 8 2/3 innings in that one, to beat Lipscomb’s Rex Brothers 2-1. Brothers was just as good or better in defeat, striking out 12 and allowing just two unearned runs over eight innings. Both pitchers wound up being drafted in the supplemental first round.

The premier pitching matchup between draft darlings in 2008 was another February nonconference game. On Feb. 29, San Diego’s Brian Matusz beat Fresno State’s Tanner Scheppers in a memorable duel in front of numerous scouting directors at the USD tournament.

The best matchup of 2007 pitted Vanderbilt’s David Price, the future No. 1 overall pick, against Arkansas’ Nick Schmidt, another first-rounder. Both pitchers gave up five runs in that one, and neither factored in the decision.

But to find another matchup this late in the season between two pitchers with legitimate shots to be drafted in the first picks, you have to go back to May 12, 2006. Washington’s Tim Lincecum took the loss that day, against Stanford’s Greg Reynolds, who struck out nine in a complete-game shutout. Reynolds wound up being drafted second overall by the Rockies, while Lincecum slipped to the Giants at No. 10.

Earlier that season, on March 3, Reynolds went head-to-head with another pitcher who actually was drafted in the top five picks, California’s Brandon Morrow, but that was before Reynolds’ draft stock skyrocketed, so it was not nearly as anticipated a showdown. Both pitchers earned no-decisions that day, but Morrow had the more impressive outing.

But in the last five years, and really in the last decade, no college pitching matchup has featured two names bigger than Ranaudo and Pomeranz.

“This is as good as it gets,” Mainieri said. “It’s going to be an electric atmosphere, I’m sure, in Ole Miss’s ballpark. If I was just sitting in the stands watching that game, I’m sure I’d really enjoy it, but we have to figure out a way to get to this kid (Pomeranz). He’s really outstanding—the guy’s certainly a top-five pick and a major leaguer in short time. But our players are excited about that challenge.”

Under The Radar
Coming off a 2009 season in which the Scarlet Knights finished 11th in the 12-team Big East at 8-19, it shouldn’t be any real surprise that the league’s coaches voted them eighth in the preseason poll.

It is, therefore, a surprise that Rutgers is tied with Connecticut atop the Big East four weeks into the season. Both teams are 10-2 heading into this weekend’s big series between the two in Storrs, Conn.

Rutgers is 21-13 overall, and its record is not inflated—far from it. The Scarlet Knights paid their dues early in the season, getting swept in three-game series at Miami and Georgia Tech over the first two weekends as part of a 1-8 start. But the next weekend the light flicked on. The Knights swept a three-game series at previously hot Florida International, then split two games at Florida Atlantic. Then they won another series against a warmer-weather team, Old Dominion. In conference play, Rutgers has won all four of its series, including two of three against a Pittsburgh team that is challenging for a regional bid, and a sweep against a fairly talented South Florida team last weekend.

“We’ve been playing pretty good,” Rutgers coach Fred Hill said. “We got off to a bad start—well, I shouldn’t say a bad start for us. We’re always under .500 in our preconference schedule because we think we play some pretty good teams. So we were 1-8, and now we’re 21-13. Our pitchers and hitters have done a good job.”

Certainly, the offense is the strength of the team, as the pitching staff sports a 6.06 ERA. But the Scarlet Knights pitched very well against South Florida, getting eight innings of one-run ball from senior righty Casey Gaynor on Saturday, and seven innings of one-run ball from freshman lefty Dan O’Neill on Sunday. O’Neill and Friday starter Jerry Elsing, another freshman, began the season in the bullpen but have helped solidify the weekend rotation in recent weeks. Elsing has the best arm on the staff, with a fastball that reaches the low 90s.

A third freshman, Tyler Gebler, has been a rock in the bullpen. Through 20 innings over 17 appearances, Gebler is 1-1, 1.35 with seven saves. Hill said he throws in the high 80s and has a good breaking ball, and the Knights have a quality lefthanded setup man in freshman Rob Smorol (4-0, 2.18).

The emergence of that core group of young arms has been the key to Rutgers’ success. The Knights figured their offense would be steady, and it has been, even though veterans Jared Matthews, Jayson Hernandez and Dan Betteridge really haven’t hit their strides yet.

But junior outfielders Pat Biserta (.362/.428/.766 with 15 homers and 41 RBIs) and Michael Lang (.347/.424/.653 with nine homers), plus freshman second baseman Steve Nyisztor (.391/.448/.551 with seven steals) have picked up the slack. Lang has been a sparkplus atop the lineup, and Nyisztor has delivered numerous key hits; he is batting .524 with runners in scoring position, Hill said.

Biserta, though, has been a revelation. He led Rutgers with 18 doubles last year while hitting five home runs, and this year he is turning his doubles power into home run power. He’s still hitting doubles, too—he has 10 of them.

“I think the big thing for him right now is he’s hitting strikes. He’s not chasing bad pitches, which he had a tendency to do in the past,” Hill said. “Right now he’s very disciplined at the plate, and most of the time he’s getting his pitches.”

With so many freshmen playing key roles and most or all of the team’s top juniors likely to return for their season seasons, 2011 looks bright for the Scarlet Knights. That’s not to dismiss their chances in 2010, but the next two weeks will reveal just how legitimate those chances are. After the UConn series, Rutgers faces Louisville next week.

“UConn is very good, I think,” Hill said. “They do a great job coaching and they have a couple of very, very good arms. We want to play the best we can, that’s all I can expect from our kids. Right now both of us are tied for first place. We’ve got to keep winning; we have Louisville next week, so we’ve got our hands full. Those are certainly two of the most talented teams in the league, no question.”

Garrett Wittels, 2b, Florida International
After fall practice, Florida International did not even project Wittels as an everyday starter. Instead, the Panthers anticipated his greatest impact to come on the mound, where his power arm was capable of generating 90-93 mph fastballs.

Nine weeks into the season, however, Wittels has thrown just two innings for the FIU bullpen. But he has emerged as the Panthers’ leading hitter while filling the No. 2 or No. 5 spot in the lineup, and he carries a 31-game hitting streak into this weekend’s series at Western Kentucky. That is the longest active hitting streak in the nation. Through 31 games, Wittels is hitting a team-best .406 and has a .463 on-base percentage.

“Garrett is an extremely talented and hard-working sophomore,” Florida International coach Turtle Thomas said in an e-mail. “He is typically a line-drive hitter who hits a lot of singles and doubles. He hits very well to all fields and has a great concept of the strike zone. His plate discipline, plan for each at-bat, and overall work ethic are the keys to his success at the plate this season. He knows what is a strike and what is a ball and which pitches he can handle. He has a plan for each at-bat and tries not to deviate from it. He is also one of those players that is constantly working, during practice and on his own, to get better. Many times we have to tell him to slow down and take a break.”

Wake Forest
Tom Walter is candid about what he expected coming into this year. Wake Forest’s first-year coach knew the team he inherited was going to struggle in the ACC, but he figured they’d have a few more wins by this point in the season. Heading into this weekend’s series against Duke, the Demon Deacons have lost nine straight games to fall to 10-30 overall. They have lost 10 straight ACC games to fall into the league’s basement at 2-16.

“There have been seasons where I’ve used the term, ‘The world is conspiring in my favor,’ and this season it’s like it all kind of hit us at once,” Walter said. “It doesn’t make us feel any better about it, but coming into the year, we’re a few wins short of where we thought we should be right now, but we’re not talented enough.

“We don’t hit for a lot of power, we steal a fair amount of bases for college baseball but we’re not a great running team. So we don’t have a great offensive identity, and we don’t have a staff that can beat people 3-2, and we need to make plays behind our pitching staff. So if we don’t do that, it puts too many runners on base.”

Defense has been one of Wake’s many problems. In addition to ranking last in the ACC in ERA (6.58) and second to last in batting (.264), the Demon Deacons rank last with a .951 fielding percentage.

“Being short on athletes, the other team hits doubles that turn into triples and singles that turn into doubles because we’re not as athletic as we need to be,” Walter said. “We give up a lot of extra bases because we’re not athletic enough.”

Depth is another problem. As an expensive private school, Wake has trouble building quality depth even in the best of times. This year, the lack of depth has been exacerbated by injuries to two of the team’s four best hitters—Carlos Lopez (who has battled a hamstring injury) and Austin Stadler (who has played through a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder). Stadler is a two-way player who has also been affected on the mound. Two other big-scholarship players, righthanders Mac Williamson and Daniel Marrs, haven’t pitched at all while working their way back from labrum injuries. Another, freshman lefty Niko Spezial, has missed time with a broken hand.

“We have some big-scholarship guys that haven’t been on the field at all, and others guys on 50 or 60 percent who have not contributed much,” Walter said. “That just can’t happen. The reality is the guys on big scholarship have to produce for us. At a state school, an LSU, they’ve got some depth and some guys on small scholarships or no scholarships who can step in and be a good player. We’re not going to have that depth, that guy waiting in the wings that can step in and get us where we want to go.”

But Walter does have a plan to get the Demon Deacons where they want to go, and he has a track record of successfully executing similar plans at George Washington and New Orleans. Because of Wake’s $50,000-plus price tag, Walter and his staff are focusing their recruiting efforts on big cities where they are more likely to find players who won’t be scared off by the cost of the school.

“We’re giving fewer scholarships to fewer kids—we did that at GW and UNO and it worked there, so there’s no reason to think it won’t work here,” Walter said. “But still, if we’re giving 60 or 70 percent, it’s still a $15,000 or $20,000 cost, which isn’t cheap. We want to have eight hitters on money, eight pitchers on money, and four two-way players on money. That’s 20 players on considerable scholarships, with 12 of those players able to pitch, and 12 able to hit. The only downside of that plan is it doesn’t leave us a lot of margin for error if we miss on a couple of kids. So we need to identify the right players and also develop them.”

Walter said the Deacons are targeting big-bodied, physical athletes who can run a little bit. Wake Forest Ballpark is a hitter’s park, and it’s especially kind to lefthanded power hitters, so the Deacons are seeking lefthanded hitters and lefthanded pitchers, in particular. That formula will also play well in many other ACC ballparks, such as those at Florida State and North Carolina.

Walter said he likes his incoming recruiting class, and he is optimistic about the future of his program. Wake Forest is spending more than $3 million this summer to upgrade Wake Forest Ballpark, the former high Class A park that the Deacons moved into last year. The facelift will include a new artificial playing surface, new chairback seats and netting, and other aesthetic improvements.

“We’ve got the facility renovation this summer, so we’re certainly hopeful for a big turnaround next year, but we haven’t given up on making some strides this year,” Walter said. “The reality of our program is we’ve just got that losing mentality right now. We expect bad things to happen. When we get in those tight situations late in ballgames, we’re just holding our breath and hoping things will go our way instead of expecting things to do our way. It’s nothing different than we experienced our first year at GW or at New Orleans our first year. We just have to change the culture.”

Stat of the Week
Runs per game allowed by Texas, fewest in the nation this season. To put that in perspective, UCLA ranks second at 3.5 runs allowed per game, and just five other teams have given up fewer than four runs per game.

After seeing Texas at the Houston College Classic back in Week Three, we wrote in Three Strikes, “No team will be better at run prevention than Texas, whose pitching and defense are both top notch.”

Indeed, no team has been better at run prevention. The Longhorns lead the nation with a miniscule 2.38 ERA, and they rank second with a .980 fielding percentage. Is it any wonder they have allowed 51 fewer runs than any other team in the Big 12? Is it any wonder that they have won 13 straight games, and 11 straight conference games to race out to a 2 1/2-game lead in the league standings? Last Saturday against rival Texas A&M, the Longhorns shut out the Aggies for the first time since 2003, as Cole Green allowed just one hit in a complete-game masterpiece.

The next day, Brandon Workman shut out the Aggies again, allowing just four hits.

Is there any doubt the Longhorns are going to run away with the Big 12? Their inexorable march to the conference crown continues this weekend against Oklahoma State.

Scouting Report
Arkansas at Florida
The biggest showdown of the weekend between strong College World Series contenders is happening in Gainesville, Fla., where the No. 7 Gators will host the No. 9 Razorbacks. Arkansas is the hotter team, having won 12 straight games to improve to 32-6 and take over first place in the Southeastern Conference at 12-3. Florida is two games back in the conference at 10-5, but the Gators have won three straight weekend series—the last two on the road. This is a matchup between the SEC’s highest scoring offense (through Week Nine, Arkansas has averaged 9.1 runs per game, 13th in the nation) and its best defensive team (Florida’s .978 fielding percentage through nine weeks is sixth-best in the nation). Both teams also have pitching staffs that pound the strike zone; Florida has issued the third-fewest walks per nine innings in the nation, and Arkansas ranks second in the SEC and 26th in the nation in that category.

A talent evaluator who has seen both teams this year broke down the matchup.

“I’d pay 20 bucks to be able to watch those games—it’ll be a great series. They’re opposite teams. They should just stop the game after six innings; I think Florida’s like undefeated if they have the lead after six innings (22-0), and they’re winless if they’re trailing after six (0-10). Florida’s starting pitching is very generic, but their bullpen is outstanding and so is their defense. If you can run a guy like (lefty Nick) Maronde out there as a middle reliever, that’s something else. I saw him throw strikes, but his walk numbers are high. Sully (Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan) is big on not walking guys, throwing strikes. If you look at (weekend starters Alex) Panteliodis, (Hudson) Randall and even (Anthony) DeSclafani, those guys are pretty generic but they throw a ton of strikes.

“(Closer Kevin) Chapman is really good—it’s low 90s and it’s an explosive fastball. He pretty much just throws all fastballs, and guys were swinging and missing at it. And then they’ve got (Jeff) Barfield, just a little righthander with a good breaking ball who throws it for strikes. He’s an older kid who’s learned how to pitch and he’s very effective. They use Maronde and him as a left-right deal.

“Their lineup is just OK. I think it’s getting better because (Austin) Maddox is starting to play like a sophomore. Maddox is special—he’s in that pool with (Pedro) Alvarez and (Justin) Smoak; he’s special. (Preston) Tucker is a great hitter. But they’re pretty generic at the bottom of the lineup. (Matt) den Dekker has always been a name, but you can pitch to him. If you can pitch to Tucker and Maddox with nobody on base, you can stay out of big innings. But with the way they’re playing defense and their bullpen, I think they’re just trying to score five runs per game.

“Defensively, what (shortstop) Nolan Fontana has done statistically is amazing for a freshman—I think he’s fielding like .980 (actually .994). He’s not super toolsy but he’s a really good player. Bryson Smith was a big name out of junior college last year, and I know he had a wrist deal at the end of his junior college season and he broke a finger this year. He’s a nice, good player, but he’s not the middle-of-the-order beast. He does fine at third base. I think that could change their team. (Second baseman Josh) Adams, he had a real good year last year and hasn’t been very good this year, but if he and Smith get going, it would change their team.

“Arkansas’ position players are outstanding. It’s a painful deal when you’re facing (Zack) Cox, (Brett) Eibner and (Andy) Wilkins. (Collin) Kuhn is the guy that gets it going at the top of the order. If Arkansas can bang around Florida’s starting pitching, they can win the game. But if Florida has the lead late, the game’s over.

“When you have three big, physical power guys in the middle of the lineup like Arkansas does, the threat of power is going to draw walks. Wilkins and Cox are power guys, but they have a feel to hit. You don’t feel like you can just thumb them all weekend and pitch them backwards. If you pitch them one particular way, they’ll figure you out. Eibner is older now, he has been playing for three years now and has figured some things out, but you feel like he’s got more holes than the other two guys. Eibner probably has the most raw power of the three.

“Kuhn is a good player, a good athlete. He’s got some juice, he can run. (Bo) Bigham and those guys are average college players, but if you make a mistake up, they’re going to hit it up the middle, and if you make a good pitch down, you can get them out.

“On the mound, (lefthander Drew) Smyly has been very good against everybody—he’s just a lefty with three pitches, he’s good. He doesn’t walk guys. He’s got three good pitches he can throw for strikes, he’s been their best guy. Eibner’s got a really good arm, low 90s with a good breaking ball, he’s a talented dude. They are pretty good defensively too.

“Those two teams have a legitimate chance to go to Omaha. It would take the right matchup to keep those two teams from going.”

In The Dugout
Mark Canha, 1b, California
Canha, a junior first baseman, has been a major reason the Golden Bears have won 11 of their last 12 games and climbed to No. 15 in the rankings. A potential top-three-rounds pick in the upcoming draft, Canha is hitting .400/.490/.623 with six home runs and 43 RBIs in 130 at-bats, and he’s been even better in conference play, hitting .458/.519/.729. Canha will lead Cal (23-11 overall, 8-4 in the Pacific-10 Conference) into a crucial showdown at arch-rival Stanford (18-13, 7-5) this weekend.

Congratulations on your hot streak. You guys have had talent in the past, but it really seems like you’re putting it all together this year. What has made the difference?

We’re on a little bit of a roll. I think we bring a lot of energy to the field because we’re a pretty young team. Our freshmen this year have brought a lot of talent as well as some new life and new energy to this team.

When did you realize that this team might have something special?

In the fall, I think. We had a lot of really competitive fall intrasquads, and I think right from the start we knew we’d seen some pop off the bat from our young hitters, and we saw a lot of good pitching from our freshmen.

Personally, you had a great year last year, but you’ve taken it to another level right now—you’re hitting .458 in conference games. How have you developed as a hitter?

I think I’ve definitely developed an understanding of how to compete against good pitchers. I’ve learned how to hit situationally and learned how to have productive at-bats.

You got a taste of regionals as a freshman, when that Cal team got over the hump and returned to regionals. How much did that experience mean?

I didn’t really know what it was like getting over a hump because it was my first year. I was just kind of there enjoying the moment. I hadn’t experienced the adversity the team had experienced the couple years before me. Going to a regional was a special experience, and something we’re looking forward to this year.

Last year’s team might have been even more talented, with guys like Brett Jackson and Blake Smith who were high picks, but of course that team finished just 9-18 in the Pac-10. Why do you think you guys struggled to live up to your potential last year?

It’s a weird game, I guess. I guess I could say that this team this year has great chemistry, and we probably didn’t see as much of that last year. Other than that, we just had a bad year. We didn’t play well last year. This year we’re just going out there and playing. I think we enjoy each other a lot more this year and have more chemistry.

You talked about the energy that the freshmen have brought. Do you have any good goofy freshmen stories?

I call the freshmen goons. In the fall we had intrasquads and it was upperclassmen vs. freshmen, and they came out and beat us a few times. They come in and act like they own the place right when they come in. We didn’t see it as a negative thing—I actually see it as a great thing. The thing about being a freshman is sometimes you’re scared to let your emotions show or kind of intimidated by the older guys, but I didn’t see that with these guys. I think that was a big reason for our success right now: They’re not playing like freshmen, because I don’t think they feel like freshmen.

You’ve got an awfully good weekend rotation at Cal with Erik Johnson, Justin Jones and Dixon Anderson. You faced all of those guys in intrasquads; how do you compare them?

They’re all tough. Johnson will straight-up get you out with his great stuff, and Jones just knows how to pitch, and Dixon will ground you out in almost every at-bat, it seems like. Each pitcher has their own strengths, and they’re all tough in their own unique way.

You’ve got Stanford coming up this weekend, and of course that’s always a big series. You guys have had Stanford’s number lately, winning the series against them each of the last two years and shutting them out on a Monday a few weeks ago. How much do you guys get up to play Stanford?

I don’t think we get up any moreso than we do for all our other series. In the Pac-10, every series is crucial, and we know that. It’s not going to be anything special, and part of our success this weekend will be knowing that, not putting up this series on a pedestal.

So you don’t get into the rivalry, really?

I have my own personal motivation—I don’t share that with a whole lot of people, but I showed an interest in them coming out of high school and they didn’t really give me a shot to play for them. That’s my motivation right there, but there’s a bigger picture for me this year, and the bigger picture is getting my team to regionals. To win the series would be huge for me on a bigger picture as well as the personal level.

Did you grow up rooting for either Stanford or Cal?

When I was a kid I always wanted to go to Stanford; I always wanted to play for Stanford. I used to go to Sunken Diamond to see them play when I was a kid. Stanford was always the big school and the big baseball team for me—I always saw them in the College World Series. But it didn’t work out that way, and I like the way it turned out now.