College Weekend Preview: April 27-29

Meaningful Matchup
Pepperdine at San Diego

Pepperdine and San Diego are tied atop the West Coast Conference standings at 10-2 heading into their showdown this weekend in San Diego. Clearly, this is a big series. But just a few years ago, it would have been even bigger.

The WCC has received multiple NCAA tournament bids just six times ever. Prior to last year’s three-team bonanza, it was a one-bid league five of the previous six seasons and 13 of the previous 15. In eight of those years, Pepperdine was the lone representative. That meant that beating Pepperdine and going on to win the WCC’s automatic bid in the league’s three-game championship series was often the difference between making a regional and sitting home in June.

Florida at (1)
(2) Florida State at
Maryland at (3)
(4) Rice at
(5) Texas at (12) Oklahoma
(6) North Carolina at North Carolina
(7) Arkansas at
(8) Oregon State at
(9) South Carolina at
Evansville at (10) Wichita
(11) Arizona State at
(13) Pepperdine at (17) San
(14) Arizona at (25)
(15) Cal State Fullerton at UC
UC Davis at (17) UC
Baylor vs./at/at (18) Texas
(24) Georgia Tech at (19)
(20) Michigan at/vs./vs./at Michigan
Liberty at (21) Coastal
(22) Mississippi State at (23)

“We’ve been a perennial bubble team for the last few years,” USD coach Rich Hill said. “In our conference that’s just a way of life. If you don’t win it, you’re going to be sitting on the bubble. We had that in mind when we started scheduling a few years ago. Our administration has been extremely supportive of us with our travel account so we can be aggressive.”

That aggressive scheduling has included trips to Texas and Fresno State in addition to hosting quality intersectional series against Virginia Commonwealth, Wake Forest and Houston. As a result, San Diego is a bubble team no longer. When the Ratings Percentage Index was released earlier this week, the Toreros ranked 20th and Pepperdine 21st, a reflection that this is a series between two NCAA tournament locks.

“I think it really does help when we have a lot of teams in our conference playing good schedules and really doing well in the loss column,” said Pepperdine coach Steve Rodriguez, whose team has played the likes of Wichta State and Minnesota with road trips to East Carolina (tournament) and Oklahoma State. “The truth is if you play good teams and you win, that puts you in pretty good position for regionals. We can’t play bad teams and expect to be good. San Diego’s in an amazing spot, they’re going to get what they deserve (from the selection committee), and hopefully we get the same.”

So the Waves and Toreros aren’t fighting for their postseason lives, but they are jostling for a No. 1 seed in a regional. The winner of this series will be on the fast track to the WCC’s regular season title, thus earning home-field advantage for the best-of-three WCC championship series in late May. The conference champion will be in very good position for a No. 1 seed.

San Diego might have an edge this weekend, not only because it’s at home but because the Waves could be a little rusty. Pepperdine has not played or practiced all week because of final exams (the teams will not play Saturday because of Pepperdine’s graduation, instead playing Friday, Sunday, and Monday in a nationally televised game on CSTV).

“It could be huge,” Rodriguez said of the finals-week layoff. “It’s one of those things where you look at it and think it could be really good for our guys to step away for a bit and come back rejuvenated. Or it could be devastating because the guys who have been hot for us could take three or four days off and take a while to get back into the swing of it. You just don’™t know how they’re going to react.”

Regardless, this will be a fun weekend between two very evenly matched teams. Both have dominant weekend rotations and deep bullpens, both play solid defense and both have a knack for timely hitting. Friday’s matchup between Pepperdine junior righty Barry Enright (10-1, 1.58) and USD sophomore lefty Brian Matusz (8-2, 2.57, 127 strikeouts in 88 innings) is one of the most anticipated pitching duels of the year.

“It’s pretty simple–I think it’s going to be a 2-1, 3-2 ballgame,” Rodriguez said. “I don’™t know really what to expect. We haven’t seen Matusz this year, but his numbers are ridiculous. Hopefully Enright can get us a lot of ground balls and let the defense play catch for him, because he’s not a big strikeout guy like Matusz is. So our defense is key as well.”

Sunday’s game features a pair of under-the-radar lefties in Pepperdine sophomore Robert Dickmann (5-2, 3.79) and San Diego sophomore two-way standout Josh Romanski (7-1, 2.33). Dickmann, a transfer from UCLA, is not overpowering but has a knack for making the big pitch whenever he runs into trouble. Romanski, one of the nation’s best two-way players thanks to his prowess in center field and ability to get on base (.386 OBP), has emerged as a rock behind Matusz in the USD rotation.

“He’s just a blue-collar guy with phenomenal numbers, great stuff, works quick and can really carve it up,” Hill said. “He also is kind of unheralded, as much as an under-the-radar guy as you can probably get across the country. We kind of like it that way, and so does Josh. He just is very, very efficient, he pitches down in the zone to both sides of the plate, really mixes well. His fastball, slider and changeup are all plus pitches, I don’™t think any one is better than the other.”

On Monday, Pepperdine sophomore righty Brett Hunter (6-3, 3.67) takes on steady USD junior righty Matt Couch (6-2, 3.81). Hunter might be the key for Pepperdine to end its string of losing in the final game of regionals three years in a row. A freshman All-American as a closer a year ago, Hunter has the best stuff on the Waves’ staff, and Rodriguez decided to move him to the rotation early this season partly to prepare him to take over for Enright as the staff ace next year. He’s proved very capable of starting, maintaining his 95 mph fastball velocity in the sixth and seventh innings, but as Rodriguez put it, he’s been a bit of “head-scratcher” at times this year. He had his fastball, slider and changeup all working last weekend against Santa Clara, when he allowed just two hits over seven shutout innings, but he was hit hard in his two previous abbreviated outings. The key for him is throwing strikes low in the zone and building confidence early in a game.

Of course, Pepperdine has the luxury of a strong bullpen in case one of its starters struggles; junior righty Adam Olbrychowski has been outstanding recently in a swing role. Come regional time, when pitching depth is so important, Olbrychowski could give Pepperdine a quality fourth starter. The pen behind him is also strong, anchored by junior righty Jason Dominguez (4.10 ERA, 11 saves), who moved from the rotation to the closer spot when Hunter became a starter. Dominguez is a strike-thrower with an 88-92 mph fastball and a good slider.

San Diego’s bullpen doesn’t get much attention, but 6-foot-5 freshman righthander A.J. Griffin (5-1, 3.14 with seven saves) has been outstanding in the closer role thanks to his excellent poise and ability to throw four pitches for strikes. Then there’s sophomore lefty Ricardo Pecina (4-4, 4.26 in 14 appearances, eight starts), who admirably fills a role comparable to Olbrychowski’s with Pepperdine.

If these teams seem like mirror images, it’s because they really do match up very well with each other. Both teams have solid lineups as well, but it will be a real treat to see these two outstanding pitching staffs go head to head.

“Our guys are definitely aware of it,” Hill said of the buildup to the Pepperdine series. “They come to USD to play on this type of stage, in this type of spotlight. If you’re a fan, if you’re a college baseball fan, this is just a great weekend to be in San Diego.”

Marquee Mound Matchups
Wes Roemer vs. James Simmons

Most scouts regard the crop of college righthanders in this year’s draft to be weaker than usual. North Carolina State’s Andrew Brackman is the only one likely to go in the top 10 picks of the draft, and even he has had a down season. After Brackman, it’s uncertain who will be the next righthanded starter from the college ranks selected. Texas Christian’s Jake Arrieta has good stuff but has been erratic. Enright, Roemer and Simmons are generally grouped together as the “command and control” righthanders on the West Coast–they could compete with Arrieta to be the second college righthanded starter off the board.

Cal State Fullerton’s Roemer, the reigning Big West Conference pitcher of the year, will battle UC Riverside’s Simmons, the favorite to capture conference pitcher of the year honors this season, in the opening game of a huge Big West series this weekend. It has become fashionable to bag on Roemer for his “down year,” and it’s easy to forget that he’s still 6-4, 3.18 with an 87-14 strikeout-walk ratio in 79 innings. Roemer’s control remains his calling card–he walked just seven batters in 155 innings a year ago and has issued just 36 free passes in 324 career innings–but one National League scout said Simmons actually has better command in the strike zone, though he doesn’t have Roemer’s control.

Simmons also intrigues scouts with his more projectable 6-foot-3 frame, though he isn’t likely to add too much velocity at this point. Simmons has been dominant for most of this season, going 8-2, 2.06 with 79 strikeouts and just 11 walks in 79 innings. The NL scout said he prefers Simmons, but he likes Roemer quite a bit as well, though not quite as much as he liked him during his All-America sophomore campaign.

“He’s throwing the hell out of his slider, you’ve got to think his arm will take some wear and tear because of it,” the scout said. “I have noticed a little drop-off from last year, but not much. I haven’t seen his velocity that low, I’ve seen him touching 90 every time, pitching 88-89, pretty good endurance all game. He’s got that one-two punch, with a nasty three-quarters slider. In terms of ceiling, will he throw harder? No. But put him on mound today and he’ll get some major leaguers out, probably. He knows how to pitch and compete. Somebody’s going to be pretty happy. The question is how high are you willing to take a guy without a huge ceiling. But look at the free agent market, see what a back of the rotation starter’s worth.

“I think you can get someone who likes them fringe first round, and someone who thinks they’re more like fourth-round-type arms. For me, I’m more inclined to say higher than fourth round.”

Upset City
Miami over Florida State

The Hurricanes found themselves in a tough spot after dropping a series against North Carolina State two weeks ago. After entering the season with a No. 2 national ranking, Miami found itself in danger of missing the NCAA tournament; at 8-10 in conference play, they were in jeopardy of missing the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, which only takes the top eight teams in the 12-team league. The Hurricanes responded with a three-game sweep at Virginia Tech to put themselves back in position to make a run at the postseason. They still have work to do, but the remaining schedule after this weekend gets easier, as Miami closes with series against Wright State, Wake Forest and Duke. The ‘Canes appear to be getting healthy just in time for the stretch run; star second baseman Jemile Weeks has returned from a groin strain to DH Miami’s last four games, providing an energy boost in the lineup. Freshman lefthander Eric Erickson, who is fifth in the ACC with a 2.29 ERA, is also back after missing some time when he was hit by a foul ball during batting practice.

The healthy, hungry Hurricanes will host a Florida State team that is fresh off a big series win over then-No. 2 North Carolina. Don’t expect any letdown effect–this is still Miami-Florida State, after all–but this is the most significant road test yet for FSU, which has played just eight road games this year, the most difficult being a three-game series at North Carolina State. It’s time for one of Miami’s patented late-season runs, just like we saw last year, and it begins this weekend.

Under The Radar
Michael Richard, ss, Prairie View A&M

It’s a big weekend in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, as the top two teams in each of the SWAC’s two divisions will square off. In the Eastern Division, Jackson State (16-5 in conference) will visit second-place Alcorn State (10-8). In the Western Division, Prairie View (14-4) will host second-place Southern (14-7).

Prairie View’s speed will undoubtedly be a factor this weekend, as usual. The Panthers led Division I with 218 stolen bases in 2006, and they’re first in the nation this year with 2.75 stolen bases per game, according to the NCAA’s most recent statistical report released earlier this week. Leading the way is Richard, who ranks ninth in the country with 0.73 stolen bases per game. Richard, a senior middle infielder, stole 41 bases in 53 attempts last year and has 32 steals in 38 attempts this season. More importantly, he’s been an on-base machine thanks to an improved approach at the plate; he has increased his batting average from .333 last year to .447 this season in 150 at-bats.

“He’s a consistent contact hitter, one of those guys who’s got to get the short game going to be effective and play at the next level,” Panthers coach Michael Robertson said. “We concentrate with him on trying to stay back as long as he can and dump some hits over second base. But he’s got the ability to get on base and steal 40 or 50 bases. Every once in a while he’ll try to muscle up when the wind’s blowing and try to hit the ball out of the park, we tell him that’s the worst thing to do is hit the ball in the air. He’s very smart and he makes adjustments throughout his game on defense and offense. He’s a very intelligent kid, just a pleasure to coach.”

Justin Jenkins, of, West Virginia

Jenkins, a senior left fielder, has done nothing but hit since transferring to West Virginia after his freshman year at Potomac (Md.) State Junior College. He’s no stranger to hitting streaks, having recorded a 21-game streak last season, but he extended his current hitting streak to 36 games after going 3-for-5 in a midweek win against Maryland this week. He broke the Mountaineers’ school record (30 games) two weeks ago, and he’s showed no signs of slowing down. On the season, Jenkins is batting .434/.489/.717 with six homers and 40 RBIs. A disciplined hitter, he doesn’t swing at many bad pitches and generates plenty of bat speed with his compact swing, allowing him to rack up 21 doubles this season. Jenkins played third base for West Virginia a year ago but handled shortstop for Waynesboro in the Valley League this summer. He also demonstrated a flair for timely hitting last summer that has helped him make the most of RBI opportunities this spring as well.

“He played like Roy Hobbs to us,” said Waynesboro coach Lawrence Nesselrodt, referencing Robert Redford’s character in the film “The Natural.”

“He had a three-run homer in the eighth inning to clinch the regular season title for us. He hit it off the light pole in left field–everything happened except the lights exploding.”

Jenkins now has 76 career multi-hit games in 150 contests at West Virginia. He’ll try to extend his hitting streak this weekend against St. John’s.

J.P. Arencibia, c, Tennessee

A strained back muscle forced Arencibia out of the lineup early in the season, and since returning he hasn’t much resembled the player who smacked 25 home runs over his first two collegiate seasons and clubbed nine more in 121 at-bats for Team USA last summer. The junior is 4-for-30 (.133) over his last eight games dating back to a three-hit game against Kentucky on April 8. On the season he’s batting just .274/.438/.470 with four homers and 26 RBIs in 117 at-bats. One can’t help but wonder if his back injury is still affecting him, though it’s unlikely the classy Arencibia would blame his performance on injury. One thing’s for sure: the Volunteers need Arencibia to produce this weekend at Louisiana State if they want any chance of making a regional. After being swept by Vanderbilt last weekend, the Vols are just 6-10 in the SEC and 23-18 overall, and their 85 RPI won’t help them secure an at-large bid.

Stat of the Week

Batting average of NAIA Azusa (Calif.) Pacific senior catcher Stephen Vogt, who is riding a school-record 22-game hitting streak for a Cougars team ranked second in the NAIA. He had a career game Wednesday against Concordia, going 4-for-4 with a grand slam, three doubles and six RBIs. The big game came the day after Vogt proposed to his girlfriend, Azusa Pacific women’s basketball player Alyssa Ferdaszewski.

Scouting Report
Seton Hall pitchers

Seton Hall entered 2007 with some expectations in the Big East thanks to a pitching staff that figured to be one of the strongest in the conference. Junior lefthander Dan Merklinger was coming off an excellent summer in the Cape Cod League, where he ranked as the No. 17 prospect in the league, and he was expected to compete for Big East pitcher of the year honors. Instead, he has struggled, going 4-5, 5.74 in 53 innings. Junior righty Dan McDonald, another heralded veteran, has been better, going 2-2, 3.38 with six saves in 19 relief appearances, but freshman righty Sean Black, the highest-drafted player to attend college last fall, has taken his lumps, going 3-3, 5.27. An American League scout broke down the three arms.

“(Merklinger)’s a mess, his delivery’s a mess right now. In the Cape it was pretty good, a lot smoother. Right now, his delivery has been very inconsistent, he crouches, then he’s got a jab kick before he comes to the plate, which doesn’™t allow his arm to get back up. His fastball velocity is down–he’s 86-90 in the first inning, then he’ll pitch at 85-86. He’s got some movement, enough to be effective, but he doesn’™t command real well, especially to his arm side. He will show you a plus slider, but he doesn’t throw that pitch in the zone at all. One out of every six he will throw it for a strike. For guys at the next level, that’s not really a good sign. For the delivery, I’m not sure if you’ll be able to really work it out, because he’s such a hyper kid. I would see him in the future as a situational reliever if you can ever straighten the guy out. But how much money do you want to give him? I think he still goes before the 12th round, but a tough guy to put your name on right there. He’s had a really bad season. He’s had a lot of games where he hasn’t pitched more than four innings.

“(McDonald is) not for me, not this year. I think he’ll still be drafted because there were enough guys on board with him out of high school. His body type doesn’t project for me. He is what he is–I saw him up to 92, in high school he was up to 94. Across the body, average slider at times, but this isn’t a guy who’s going to get much better, and I wouldn’t put a lot of money into him.

“I think eventually (Black) has got a chance to be all right, which is what I thought of him coming out of high school, but he’s not mature. Guys have caught up to his fastball, and he’s not able to throw his curveball consistently and get it over consistently. His arm slot has dropped a little for me, and that’s affecting his curveball. With guys not catching up to his fastball, he can rattle because guys are hitting it. He’ll have to figure out how to change speeds to become a pitcher, right now he’s more of a thrower. Last year I looked in his eyes and I could tell he wasn’t ready to sign, he was like a deer caught in headlights–his makeup at that point wasn’™t ready. I think he needs college, some time to develop mentally and mature.”

In The Dugout
Ben Norton, rhp, Evansville

Wichita State against Evansville has become a marquee event on the calendar every year. The Shockers have a four-game lead on the Purple Aces heading into this weekend’s showdown in Wichita, but WSU got some bad news this week when it was discovered that sophomore righthander Aaron Shafer will miss his Saturday start because of elbow stiffness. Meanwhile, the Shockers have lost back-to-back midweek games, scoring just three total runs against Kansas State and Arkansas.

“We just need to pick it up a little bit,” Wichita State coach Gene Stephenson said. “I’m a little frustrated right now because we haven’t been hitting like we can. I mean, there’s been a few days where we have, but we have a better offensive team this year than we had last year. We just haven’t clicked yet.”

Norton, Evansville’s senior ace, certainly has clicked, allowing just one earned run in his last 40 innings since giving up a three-run homer to Louisville’s Logan Johnson on March 14. He’s now 8-2, 1.84 overall with 67 strikeouts and 27 walks in 73 innings. Norton, who pitched well against the Shockers a year ago but lost to Shafer, will face off with WSU righthander Travis Banwart in Friday’s series opener. Norton talked about facing Wichita State, his own transformation as a pitcher and his admiration for Roger Clemens In The Dugout.

You had a couple of hiccups early in the season against Mississippi and Oregon State, but since then you’ve been just about unhittable. What’s been the key to your success?

Going out on the mound and having a lot of confidence, I’ve been having that control of every pitch I throw lately. Also the ability to repeat my mechanics. At the beginning of the season I was trying to work on my mechanics. My first game against Lipscomb good, then a rough game against Ole Miss. It seemed like every other week I was losing my mechanics against the good teams. Basically I open up my front side and my arm drags a little bit and my pitches aren’t as sharp and I don’™t have the control that I usually have.

Can you describe your repertoire and your approach to pitching?

My out pitch is my slider. Pitching inside, I do the old-school Roger Clemens–pitch inside, stay inside, get them going with something else, which is my slider. Fastball, slider and changeup are my three pitches. I throw my slider at 82-83 (mph), a hard, sweeping slider or it can also be a slurve and break down sharper. My fastball velocity has been very consistent–each series it seems to get better and better. It’s consistent around 90 to touching 93.

You mentioned Clemens–do you try to model yourself after him?

I met him back in my senior year of high school, got to meet him down in Arizona at a camp, he was a great guy. I studied his mechanics, how he pitches people. Whenever he steps on the mound, if I have an opportunity to watch him, I watch how he approaches the game and each batter. He gave a speech while I was there, just talking about the ability to have control of at least three pitches. Ever since then I’ve been trying to get control of all three, and this year it’s really been coming around.

You’ve pitched in some pretty tough places this year and last–which was the toughest road trip for you?

Probably Oregon state, just going out there playing the national champs in their home opener. They’re a good team, a lot of depth with their pitching staff and hitters. I had one bad inning in that trip. That was a rough time, I was expecting to do well. I felt going out there I was in a groove and pitching well after beating Miami (Ohio).

Who’s the toughest hitter you’ve faced in your time at Evansville?

(Evansville first baseman) Kasey Wahl is pretty tough to get out. He’s a very well-balanced guy. He doesn’t have many weaknesses to his game. He just puts the ball in play and tries to just pop it anywhere to get on base. He’s the only guy I haven’t struck out since I’ve been here.

You’ve got a big series against Wichita State this weekend. How do you go about attacking those guys, especially with all of their good lefthanded hitters?

Stay away. Keep away from their bats, try to keep them off balance. I need to establish my fastball on the inside and outside corners, and you have to get that changeup working against the lefties to get the ball to dive away from their bats. I know there are a lot of power guys on their team who hit a lot of home runs, and their ballpark is a launching pad, so you have to keep the ball down in the zone.

Here at Baseball America, we’ve had this series circled on our calendars all year long. Have you anticipated this series the same way? Can you describe the Evansville-Wichita rivalry?

This is one that we circle also. This is one that we look for too. There’s a lot of hatred between these two teams. Ever since, I don’™t know how many years ago it was, a relief pitcher was coming in for Wichita, and he hit our guy in the on-deck circle about 30 feet away. Ever since that, it can be a great year just to beat them alone. To take three of four against them last year was great.

(Editor’s note: It was 1999, and it was Wichita State ace starter Ben Christensen who hit Anthony Molina with a ball.)

You pitched well against these guys last year, but they ended up beating you. Are you excited about getting another crack at them?

Yeah, I am. I’ve been looking forward to getting some payback.