College Weekend Preview: April 30

Meaningful Matchup
Arizona State at UCLA
On the West Coast, it’s an easy choice for Series of the Year.

As Arizona State and UCLA raced out to respective 24-0 and 22-0 starts to the season, college baseball fans everywhere circled this weekend on their calendars. All season long a healthy debate has percolated: Which is the best team in the Pacific-10 Conference?

Is it UCLA, whose pitching staff has been perhaps the most dominant in the nation in 2010? Through 10 weeks, the Bruins led the nation in strikeouts per nine innings (11.0) while ranking second in ERA (2.80) and fewest hits allowed per nine innings (7.04)

Top 25 Schedule
(1) Virginia at Duke

Baylor vs./at/at (2) Texas

(3) Arizona State at (5) UCLA

Le Moyne at (4) Florida State

(15) Louisiana State at (6) Florida

Alabama at (7) South Carolina

(8) Georgia Tech at North Carolina State

Auburn at (9) Arkansas

UNC Asheville at (10) Coastal Carolina

(11) Texas Christian at Utah

Rutgers at (12) Louisville

(13) Cal State Fullerton at Pacific

(14) Mississippi at Mississippi State

Maryland at (16) Miami

Washington State at (17) Oregon

Boston College at (18) Virginia Tech

(19) Arizona at Southern California

(20) Connecticut at Pittsburgh

(21) Stanford at Washington

Kansas State at (22) Oklahoma

Oregon State at (23) California

(24) San Diego at San Francisco

Or is it Arizona State, whose pitching staff contains fewer marquee names but has performed at a similar level? Through 10 weeks, the Sun Devils ranked fifth nationally in ERA (3.21), 16th in strikeouts per nine (8.7) and seventh in hits per nine (8.04).

“I think Arizona State is as good as it’s ever been; its pitching is as good as it’s ever been,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “It’s been as consistent as any staff out there. They throw a ton of strikes, they have good stuff, they have middle guys and setup guys and starters and closers. They have their roles.

“I think everybody’s excited. Whenever you have one of the best teams in the country coming in with their record and the tradition they have, it’s exciting for our fans (and) exciting for our players to have that challenge.”

If the Sun Devils have a statistical advantage on the mound, it is their ability to pound the strike zone, as Savage suggested. ASU ranks 11th nationally in fewest walks allowed per nine innings (2.73), while UCLA ranks 41st (3.1).

After Oregon became the first team to win a series against UCLA two weeks ago, Ducks coach George Horton said the key to beating Bruins co-aces Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer was to be patient and drive up their pitch counts. In recent history, very few teams in college baseball have done that better than Arizona State, and unsurprisingly the Devils lead the Pac-10 in walks (212) by a wide margin again this year.

“I think that’s just an overall team philosophy, whether you’re facing UCLA or San Francisco,” ASU coach Tim Esmay said. “The more pitches you see, the more stress you put on the other team on the mound, the better shot you have that day. We’ve always been that way, our guys understand that, and they haven’t deviated from that.”

That means Cole and Bauer must be efficient. Both of them, as well as Sunday starter Rob Rasmussen, are strikeout pitchers, but it might behoove them to pitch to contact more often this weekend. Both Cole and Bauer bounced back from losses to Oregon with strong starts last weekend at Arizona, working deep into the games.

“Gerrit really got on track against Arizona—he pounded the strike zone and didn’t walk any in eight innings,” Savage said. “Trevor only walked one in nine innings. We need to pound the zone against whoever we play, or else people will grind you down and run up pitch counts and turn it into a bullpen game. We like our bullpen as much as our starters, to be honest, but there’s no question Gerrit and Trevor are big keys to this series.”

Cole and Bauer are potential first-round picks next year and Rasmussen is a potential top-two-rounds pick this June, but Arizona State has had to replace its big names. Mike Leake and Josh Spence were All-Americans for ASU last year, but now Leake is pitching in the big leagues with the Reds, and Spence has been sidelined all year with a nerve issue in his elbow.

But junior righty Seth Blair (7-0, 3.08) has emerged as a capable Friday starter, and fellow righties Merrill Kelly (8-0, 3.75) and Jake Borup (8-1, 3.58) have been rock-solid behind him in the rotation all season. Blair has the biggest prospect pedigree of the trio, but Esmay said Borup also reaches the low 90s to go with a good slider and decent changeup. Kelly is a competitor who throws three pitches for strikes and excels thanks to the movement on his stuff more than his fastball velocity.

Esmay said Borup and Kelly have become more efficient as the season has progressed, allowing them to pitch deeper into games and taking pressure of ASU’s exceptional bullpen, which has two premium power arms in righties Jordan Swagerty and Jake Barrett, as well as a proven lefthander in Mitchell Lambson. Freshman righty Brady Rodgers (2-2, 1.80 with 42 strikeouts and nine walks in 45 innings) gives the staff more quality depth.

Barrett, Lambson and Rodgers all have at least two saves, illustrating the versatility of the ASU pen, but the “closer” is Swagerty, who has 10 saves. But one of the special things about Arizona State is the way every player on the roster seems to accept his role, and none seems hung up on labels.

The Sun Devils have a deep lineup, and 12 different players have received double-digit starts. A 13th, catcher Xorge Carrillo, returned to the lineup as a DH this week after missing most of the season with a forearm strain. Esmay has a number of quality athletes who can play multiple positions, and he slides his pieces all over the field from game to game. Drew Maggi and Deven Marrero have split the shortstop duties, with Maggi playing the outfield when Marrero is at short, and Marrero playing second or third when Maggi is at short. Johnny Ruettiger and Andrew Aplin have both been productive when they have gotten playing time in the outfield. With Carrillo out, freshman Austin Barnes and Swagerty have split duties behind the plate. As a testament to the special makeup of the team, Esmay has managed to keep everybody happy.

“That’s really been kind of the fun part of this whole year, just making sure that guys are getting their looks, getting their ABs, staying fresh, but not ever feeling like there’s any dropoff,” Esmay said. “You don’t just talk to guys and tell them that they’re not in there; I think you’ve also got to communicate that it’s not because they’re not playing well. But other guys are playing well too, so when you get your shot, be ready. And they have been.”

UCLA’s roster, like Arizona State’s, is filled with freshmen and sophomores, and the Bruins have plenty of depth and versatility in their own right. Last year’s recruiting class has completely reshaped the team, as freshmen Beau Amaral, Cody Keefer and Cody Regis plus sohomore transfer Dean Espy have become key parts of the lineup. Another freshman, Jeff Gelalich, gives UCLA another valuable moving part.

“We do have more depth, and we seem to be a little tougher to figure out, is the best way to put it,” Savage said. “We’re much more lefthanded, we run better, we have enough good righthanded hitters to offset all those lefthanders. It’s just a little tougher puzzle to figure out. Last year we were a dominant righthanded-hitting team, and if you had a good slider and were righthanded, we had problems. This is more of a versatile team, and it’s tougher to match up against.”

Watching these two elite pitching staffs match up against these two deep, versatile lineups—anchored by stars like ASU’s Zack MacPhee and UCLA’s Tyler Rahmatulla—will be fun for everyone at Jackie Robinson Stadium this weekend. And by Sunday, maybe we’ll finally know which is the team to beat in the Pac-10.

“A lot of people have been talking about this thing all year because of how both teams started,” Esmay said. “So the hype was already there, and now we’ve just got to make sure that it’s not just hype, that it’s good baseball.”

Marquee Mound Matchup
Jimmy Nelson vs. Blake Cooper
South Carolina sits atop the Southeastern Conference with a 14-4 record, but unlike typical a Gamecocks team, the big bats are not the biggest reason.

“We’ve got a pretty good lineup, but the thing that’s set us apart is the depth on our pitching staff—I don’t think there’s any question about it,” South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. “When you talk about our pitching, you’ve got to talk about Blake Cooper out front.”

Cooper, a senior righthander, has been a rock atop the South Carolina weekend rotation, going 8-0, 2.67 with 66 strikeouts and 22 walks in 71 innings. Cooper has been an innings-eater for four years, but he has blossomed into one of the top pitchers in the SEC as a senior. He leads the league in wins heading into this weekend’s series against Alabama.

“He’s been an integral part of the program since he was a freshman,” Tanner said. “He’s always been able to log some innings and had some success at times, but he’s never been able to set himself apart until this year. He made a tremendous commitment physically in the summer. He was 20-25 pounds overweight, and he’s not a big guy. He worked hard to get himself into the best shape he could be in, and he made a commitment to elevate his game. His velocity is better than it ever has been, and his pitchability is as good for a consistent period of time as any pitcher that’s been in the program since Kip Bouknight. Consistent pitchability, that’s what all pitchers strive to get to, and he’s had a pretty good run.”

Tanner said Cooper has worked in the 88-92 mph range with his fastball, and he can throw his two-seamer with good sink, his curveball, his slider or his changeup in any count. Most importantly, he locates to both sides of the plate and seldom leaves anything over the middle of the plate.

Alabama will counter on Friday with Nelson, a junior righthander whose draft stock is on the rise. The physical, 6-foot-6, 235-pound Nelson ranked as the No. 3 prospect in the Texas Collegiate League in 2008, but he was up and down in the bullpen in 2009, going 2-3, 4.54. Nelson has found a home in the weekend rotation this spring, and Alabama moved him into the Friday starter role last week against Mississippi State. In 10 starts, Nelson is 5-1, 3.86 with 56 strikeouts and 15 walks in 61 innings.

“Jimmy Nelson is having a terrific year and is really maturing as a pitcher,” Crimson Tide coach Mitch Gaspard wrote in an e-mail. “He is certainly turning the corner with each start—his velocity has remained 90-94 with a developing slider and change. Last start vs. Mississippi State he hit a couple of 96s in the first inning. He is a big durable pitcher that has a bright future in front of him.”

Multiple talent evaluators have good things to say about Nelson’s heavy fastball, and one said his slider has some depth when he throws it at 78-80 mph, but it tends to flatten out when he overthrows it at 83-84. Infielders Josh Rutledge and Ross Wilson might be the biggest names on Alabama’s roster, but Nelson has a chance to be the first Tide player drafted in June, likely in the second-to-fourth-round range.

Under The Radar
New Mexico State
The Aggies are determined to take care of some unfinished business.

A year ago, New Mexico State won 44 games and reached the very brink of the Western Athletic Conference title. The Aggies ran unbeaten to the finals of the double-elimination WAC tournament, where they needed just one win against perennial league power Fresno State to reach regionals for the first time since 2003. The Bulldogs, who needed to sweep a doubleheader against NMSU to keep their hopes of repeating as national champions alive, overcame a three-run eighth-inning deficit in the first game, then broke a 3-3 tie with a walk-off homer in the ninth in the second game.

Now the Aggies are trying again to end Fresno’s reign as WAC champion. The Bulldogs are the premier program in the league, having made 31 trips to regionals, including each of the last four years. New Mexico State has been to regionals twice, in 2002 and 2003, but coach Rocky Ward and his assistant coach/father Gary Ward know how to get to the postseason. Rocky was a player on the last two of his father’s seven straight College World Series teams at Oklahoma State in the 1980s and ’90s.

“I grew up around huge, overwhelming tradition, and I understand how difficult it is to break through that,” Rocky Ward said, referring to Fresno’s stranglehold on the WAC. “We were an eyelash away from getting that done, and the only difference in those two games in the conference championship was the experience that that team had. But I think this club can do it, and I thought last year’s club could do it. We’re not there yet, but right now we’re 9-2 in the league, and that’s better than being 6-5.”

With three conference series remaining, starting with a home set against Louisiana Tech this weekend, the Aggies sit atop the WAC standings, 2 1/2 games ahead of Fresno. Neither team is likely to earn an at-large bid because of mediocre RPIs, so the conference tournament will be paramount again. But this New Mexico State team is making the case that perhaps it should be regarded as the favorite in the WAC tourney.

The Wards excel at teaching hitting, so New Mexico State is a great fit for them, because Las Cruces, N.M., is one of college baseball’s best hitting environments. The Aggies are among the national offense leaders most years, but they have proven they can win on the road as well as at home.

New Mexico State swept a four-game series at Sacramento State last weekend and went 3-1 at San Jose State the week before. They also won a series in March at UC Santa Barbara, scoring 33 runs in three games in a very pitcher-friendly setting. The Aggies are 27-12-1 overall this year, and they are 10-3 on the road, after going 12-6 on the road last year.

“I think sometimes your field gets more credit than it deserves,” Ward said. “I think over the last three years we’ve been a really good road club, and our talent has been better than it was in the early history of the program.”

As usual, New Mexico State hits like crazy, ranking in the nation’s top five in scoring (10.8 runs per game), batting (.356), home runs (87), doubles (116), walks (303) and slugging (.600). The numbers are particularly impressive considering injuries have sidelined some of the Aggies’ best players.

The biggest offensive threat on the team, senior second baseman Mike Sodders (.380/.492/.733 with 15 homers and 46 RBIs), has missed the last two weeks with a partial ligament tear in the arch of his foot, and the Aggies are uncertain when he’ll be able to return. Senior first baseman Ben Harty (.422/.508/.843 with 12 homers and 40 RBIs) had hamate surgery two and a half weeks ago and might be back in the lineup in time for next weekend’s series against Fresno.

“We’re basically missing our No. 3 and No. 4 hitters,” Ward said. “It’s not something you expect, but teams either become better overall teams and more supportive of each other and get a bunch of big hits, or they go the other way. This club has decided they’re going to be pretty good.”

One player who has taken advantage of his opportunity is junior Chace Perkins (.387/.490/.832 with 14 homers and 46 RBIs), who went from fourth outfielder to starting every day in the middle of the lineup. Another is freshman second baseman Parker Hipp (.356/.456/.414), who has filled in admirably for Sodders.

Seniors like Leo Aguirre (.410/.488/.667) and Nate Shaver (.381/.506/.582) have been very steady, and junior-college transfers Ryan Aguayo (.391/.480/.677) and Wesley Starkes (.371/.449/.483) have filled key roles up the middle.

The sum of the parts is a patient, powerful offense that gives the Aggies a chance in every game despite their 7.65 team ERA. Ward has seen things he likes in his pitching staff, but he also doesn’t expect it to do the heavy lifting.

“What it comes down to is my offense against another team’s No. 3 and No. 4 starter, they’re going to have a heck of a hard time getting us out,” Ward said. “I don’t expect my guys to give me shutouts, they only have to go out there and throw five innings and give up five runs or less. So do you expect them to have a 9.00 ERA? Well, yeah, if they only score five runs in five innings, we’re going to score more than that.”

Ryan LaMarre, of, Michigan
Just three games into the 2010 season, Michigan found itself without its best player. LaMarre, a preseason All-America outfielder, broke his thumb diving for a ball in the outfield at Texas Tech.

“Think of the blow when your best player, your three-hole hitter, the player of the year in the Big Ten—you don’t have him for 20 games,” Michigan coach Rich Maloney said. “What do you think that does to your team? And we were playing the toughest early schedule we’ve played, and they were all in a row.”

The Wolverines dropped a number of close games—where LaMarre could have made a difference—during their 6-9 start, before getting back on track with sweeps of Fordham and IPFW. LaMarre returned after an 18-game absence on April 7, and since then he has been red hot—and so have the Wolverines, for the most part.

“He had a broken thumb where he had four pins put in it, and he was in a cast for five and a half weeks,” Maloney said. “Well, his wrist because of the atrophy was stiff when he came back. The thumb was healed, it was not bothering him, but his wrist was stiff and he didn’t have the pop he was used to. But he came back and immediately hit one out, and hit two off the wall, and was the Big Ten player of the week. And he wasn’t even really healthy. Now, each week he’s getting stronger.”

After racking up seven hits in his last eight at-bats last weekend against Iowa, LaMarre pushed his season average to .500/.521/.765 in 68 at-bats. In nine conference games, he’s hitting an absurd .632. Maloney said LaMarre has gotten “a lot better” than he was last year, when he hit .344 with 12 homers and 13 stolen bases. He has had success lowering his elbow in his setup, shortening his swing, and driving the ball the other way.

LaMarre’s return has helped Michigan win 19 of its last 24 games heading into this weekend’s showdown against Ohio State.

“When Ryan came back—there’s no question who our leader is,” Maloney said. “Chris Berset and Mike Dufek are captains along with Ryan, but what Ryan is—he is the emotion. He plays like Kirk Gibson played, with a passion and an energy that not many guys have. That’s why he has a legitimate chance to play the game a long time, because he has a different gear.”

While LaMarre was sidelined, freshman speedster Patrick Biondi took over in center field and did a fine job, so Maloney eased LaMarre back in left. That’s also because the thumb injury affected LaMarre’s throwing. But Maloney said LaMarre should be back in center field soon, perhaps even this weekend.

LaMarre’s return to center should give his rising draft stock another boost. There are few players in this college draft class who can match LaMarre’s five-tool potential, giving him a real chance to be drafted in the first two rounds, and maybe higher.

“He’s thrown himself into the limelight—he’s had a lot of people out there to see him,” Maloney said. “He can run, he can throw—he throws average, not below, and he’ll throw better when his thumb continues to heal, because that’s his throwing thumb. He’s such a great hitter, and he has the big league look when he runs. He’s strong, and when he slides, he’s fierce. He’s one of those primetime players.”

Oregon State
A month ago, the Beavers looked well on their way to hosting a regional. Now they must fight just to get into a regional.

Oregon State has lost eight of its last nine games, capped by a 9-4 loss at upstart rival Oregon on Tuesday. The Beavers have lost four of their last five weekend series, going 6-11 over that stretch. At 4-8, they are in ninth place in the Pac-10, 5 1/2 games out of first place.

“I wish I had a better answer for it—I just think we really haven’t played well,” OSU coach Pat Casey said. “We haven’t pitched as well in the last coupe of weeks, but the main thing is the little things that we usually do well—getting bunts down, executing—we just haven’t been sharp at doing those things. Part of it has to do with inexperience playing, some of it is the young guys have never experienced going through a bad spell. The opponents have been good, there’s no question, but our biggest enemy has been ourselves.”

But how much better is Oregon State than the way it has played? The Beavers do have talent on the mound, and in general they have pitched well in 2010. Their 3.71 ERA through 10 weeks ranks 17th in the nation.

But the staff is not dominant enough to overcome Oregon State’s offensive ineptitude. The Beavers’ dreadful .256 batting average ranks 287th out of 301 Division I teams. They rank 204th in scoring (6.2 runs per game) and 222nd in home runs (22). They don’t make things happen on the basepaths, ranking 239th in stolen bases (28).

“We only had one returner up the middle back, and that was John Tommasini, and he played in about eight games and he’s out for the season,” Casey said. “That hasn’t helped us, because we certainly are struggling offensively with our position players up the middle. But we certainly expected to hit more. We just haven’t gotten any production out of our corner outfielders, and we’re having trouble finding a consistent guy in right field. The main thing is we have been getting ourselves in position to put a crooked number on the board and we haven’t gotten a hit. That has been frustrating.”

Pitching and defense has been a winning formula for Oregon State for years, but its pitching and defense are just good this year, not elite. And its offense simply needs to be much more productive.

This weekend’s series at California—desperate itself after being swept by Stanford last week—is a must-win for the Beavers, who cannot afford to fall farther back in the conference standings. They still rank in the top 30 in the RPI, so their at-large chances are certainly still in decent shape if they can finish in the middle of the Pac-10, but that turnaround must start this weekend. It will have to start without Casey on Friday, who will miss the series’ first game to attend to a family medical matter. Assistant Marty Lees will serve as acting head coach.

Stat of the Week
Appalachian State’s record in nonconference games. The problem is, none of those wins came against opponents that rank in the top 200 of the RPI.

The Mountaineers are 31-8 overall, and they rank 40th in the RPI, according to On its face, that seems like a solid at-large resume.

But the Mountaineers are just 2-6 against teams in the top 50 of the RPI, and they have played 17 games against opponents outside the top 200, as well as 12 games against teams No. 101-200. Appalachian State’s best series win came last weekend at Samford (No. 75). They need to win series at Elon and at home against College of Charleston over the next two weeks to give their resume more meat. Those won’t be easy tasks, but coaches whose teams have faced the Mountaineers say they are significantly improved in recent years, if not to the point of being the class of the Southern Conference.

Appalachian State puts pressure on opponents with its speed—it has five players in double figures in stolen bases, led by freshman third baseman Hector Crespo’s 22 and freshman outfielder Tyler Zupcic’s 17 (Zupcic is the son of former big leaguer Bob Zupcic). Leading hitter Wes Hobson has 11 steals, to go along with 11 home runs, 46 RBIs and a .415/.484/.701 line.

The pitching staff has been solid but not spectacular, aside from closer Chris Patterson (2-1, 0.58 with 13 saves and a 42-6 strikeout-walk mark in 31 innings). Over the next two weeks, we’ll find out if the staff is good enough to keep quality offenses at bay and get the Mountainers into a regional.

Scouting Report
Mike Kvasnicka and Seth Rosin
At 17-24 overall, Minnesota has been one of the nation’s most disappointing teams in 2010. The Gophers’ chances for an at-large bid were shattered weeks ago, but they still have a chance to make the conference tournament and compete for the automatic bid in the wide-open Big Ten. Heading into this weekend’s series at Iowa, Minnesota is 6-6 in league play—one of seven teams within one game of first place.

Despite Minnesota’s struggles, juniors Kvasnicka and Rosin have put together solid seasons, and both are candidates to be drafted in the first two rounds in June. Kvasnicka, a switch-hitting right fielder/catcher who ranked as the No. 3 prospect in the Northwoods League last summer, is hitting .353/.464/.609 with six home runs, 33 RBIs and a 33-14 walk-strikeout mark in 156 at-bats. Rosin, a hulking 6-foot-6, 245-pound righthander, is 4-3, 3.66 with 56 strikeouts and just two walks in 64 innings. He leads the nation in fewest walks allowed per nine innings (0.28).

A National League area scout broke down Minnesota’s two stars.

“(Kvasnicka) has got an interesting set of skills. On a lot of teams he’s the number one catcher, but I think if you talk to the Minnesota coaches, they might say he’s their number three catcher. I think he probably is the number three catcher as they see it, but it’s because he has the option to go play the outfield, and I’m thinking probably the other two catchers don’t. As a college coach, you’re trying to put a team together and use their talents as best you can. Behind the plate, he’s athletic. That’s something that everybody sees. He wasn’t the most polished defender I’ve ever seen, but his skill set lends itself to development back there and that certainly gives him more value if he can play back there. When I saw him back there, I thought he led the team. I can’t tell you what the coaches at Minnesota thought about the way he called the game or anything like that, but I didn’t see any glaring defects. I think kids look to Mike because they see he has that personality, and I think it really helps behind the plate if you’re that kind of guy.

“At the plate, he’s got some power from both sides and the bat generally stays in the zone for a while too. He’s not an early-exit guy, so he’s got a chance to stay on some balls where maybe some other hitters can’t. He’s an average runner underway. He’s below-average out of the box, but I think he runs about 6.9 (seconds) in the 60 and he moves well. He’s got a good-looking frame, too. It’s an interesting package, and he’s one of those kids where everybody’s got an opinion and I’m sure there’s quite a variance. Some clubs are probably extremely high and others are probably scratching their heads trying to figure out where he fits for them.

“I think a lot of people like Seth. He’s a big strong arm, a big-bodied, power-type guy. You’ve got to love the fact that he’s a strike-thrower, but it’s almost that he throws so many that hitters get too comfortable. It could be advisable for him to move players off the plate a little bit, but those are things that can be learned. When you look at the raw tools, there’s no question he has arm strength. The secondary stuff needs to come on, but he’s an interesting kid, for sure. The first time I saw him, he was up to 94 and then the second time there were a bunch of 92s and 3s. I don’t think he hit a 94 that day, but he’s definitely got a plus fastball in him, for sure.

“He throws a breaking ball and I’m not sure what he calls it, but at times it has the shape and velocity of a curveball and other times it’s more of a slider. Maybe it’s a hybrid, something in between. His changeup is the other pitch he’s been working on. I actually saw him throw his secondary stuff pretty well in a game; he blended it pretty well. I think the big thing for Seth is to live on the edges of the plate. You can have a great arm and you can have good secondary stuff, but I think the pitchability factor for any young man and the ability to locate to areas of the plate that expand the strike zone are what’s most important. Like any other kid, there are days he does and days he doesn’t, but he’s very intriguing because of the body and the power in his arm.”

In The Dugout
Hunter Morris, 1b, Auburn
Morris has been an elite slugger since his high school days, when the Red Sox drafted him in the second round. He was a freshman All-American in 2008 who struggled along with the rest of the Tigers in 2009, but he is having his best season yet as a junior, hitting .403/.473/.761 with 13 home runs and 53 RBIs in 176 at-bats. Last week, he capped an 8-for-13 week with a walk-off, series-clinching RBI single Sunday against Kentucky, helping Auburn improve to 10-8 in the league. The Tigers will try to continue their solid play this weekend in a challenging series at Arkansas.

“He’s always given us quality, professional at-bats,” Auburn coach John Pawlowski said of Morris. “I think the key with Hunter this year is I think he uses the field more—I see him driving the ball the other way more. That, to me, is the toughest thing in baseball to do. As a kid, you put a ball on a tee and you want to see how far you can hit it to the pull side. Your dad pitches you BP, and you want to yank it. You don’t want to hit it the other way because it doesn’t go as far. The hardest thing is to learn to go the other way, and he’s starting to figure that out. It’s tough for a pitcher when you’re standing out there and a guy can command gap to gap.”

In a draft short on impact college bats, Morris has a good chance to be drafted higher than he was out of high school, when he went 84th overall.

“He can hit. He is an advanced college hitter,” a National League area scout said. “He’s got a real easy, simple approach to hitting—not much movement in his swing. He’s got power to all fields and he’s got some kind of discipline and pitch recognition at the plate. Very rarely will he swing at a pitch outside the zone. He definitely knows how to hit and he worked his (tail) off this offseason too. He lost about 25 pounds and he looks like a new man. We got there on their scout day and it was almost like you couldn’t recognize the kid.”

Morris talked about his physical transformation, his development as a hitter and Auburn’s improvement In The Dugout.

Congratulations on all your success this season, Hunter. There has been plenty of talent in the program since you arrived at Auburn, but this year it seems like you guys are ready to get over hump and get back to regionals. What is different about this year’s team?

For us, it’s basically the same group of guys has been playing together for three years now. To have that type of chemistry and the leadership that we have has been huge. We definitely do have the talent, and for guys to step up the way they have—guys came into the season thinking, ‘OK, I may not be playing much this season,’ but the next thing you know somebody’s out and they step up and take full advantage of it.

How frustrating were the last two years? Is the team stronger for having gone through hard times?

It was a struggle, but at the same time it was a learning experience. With every blow we took, we learned something from it. Now it’s finally coming together, and we figured out how to overcome any kind of struggle. It goes back to the maturity factor this team has really showed throughout the season. The work ethic has really paid off. Everybody’s really paid their dues over the last two or three years. To see it all coming together for us is really exciting.

Let me ask you how you have developed personally in the last three years. I understand you lost a lot of weight last summer—I hear you’re a regular speed demon now.

I don’t know if I would claim the whole speed demon thing, but if you saw me run last year and you saw me run this year, you’d think it was two completely different people, and it almost is. I knew what I needed to do to help this team and this program, and that was part of it. I really wanted to not be pigeonholed to only being able to play first base. I love playing first base, but coming into this season if I needed to play third base or a corner spot in the outfield, I could have done that. It was having that option, giving the coaches that option, that if somebody was better suited for first base and move me somewhere else, whatever I could have done to help the team. And the way it’s paid off is the little things, turning a single into a double, being able to bunt every once in a while, the little things like that add up and make a big difference for this program.

How much weight did you lose, exactly?

From the end of last season to the day I set foot in campus back in August, about 30 pounds. I got down as low as about 195, 198, which is almost a little small for a corner guy at 6-2, 6-3. I ended up putting about five to 10 pounds of muscle back on, back to around 205.

A lot of it had to do with your diet, right?

It was being smart about what I ate, when I ate, and what kind of portions. It was a lot of vegetables, a lot of white meat, just being smarter about snacking. There’s a lot of things you learn as you’re trying to figure out what to accomplish with your body. They’ve got it down to a science. For me it was just smaller meals spread out through the day, and kind of jumpstart that metabolism, be able to work out at a high intensity. It just came flooding off.

You have played for Team USA and also in the Cape Cod League. How do you compare the experiences?

After my freshman year, playing for Team USA, it was awesome. We were the only USA team that had ever gone undefeated—it was just an awesome summer. But in the Cape last summer, that was probably the most fun I’ve had in a long time. You go out and face a Friday guy every time you step on the field. For me as a hitter, I felt like facing that kind of competition would really prepare me for this season. You face some really good competition with Team USA, but then you also face some teams that are not quite up to that caliber. I was a lot better for it, to be able to do that day in and day out for a full summer. It’s just an awesome place to play.

Coach (John) Pawlowski says you have adopted more of an all-field approach than in years past. Is that something you worked on last summer?

I tried to work on it a little bit in the Cape. I started hitting some home runs up there and got a little pull-happy at times, but when I got back here in August, that’s what I focused my entire offseason on: being able to use all fields, and hitting for power to all fields. It’s done everything to my game at the plate, it opens up a lot more options. It helps prevent pitchers from being able to dictate your at-bats and your swings, so it’s benefited me a lot to focus on what I was trying to do.

You arrived at Auburn as part of a heralded recruiting class, and of course you were an unsigned second-round pick. Not a lot of second-rounders wind up going to school, but it sounds like you are very comfortable with your decision.

I don’t regret the decision one bit. I don’t think there was a right or wrong decision out of high school, but to come to school, meet the people I have, play with the guys I’ve met in this program and the guys I played with in the summer, all of that really adds up. To look back on it and see what I would have missed out on would have been devastating. There’s a lot of guys that don’t get to experience what I have in the last three years, and I’m thankful for that every day. I’ve grown as a player and a person, and the important thing is being that much closer to having my degree.

Contributing: Conor Glassey.