College Weekend Preview: April 6-8

Southern California at Oregon

A number of
series across the nation got started Thursday to accommodate the
holiday weekend, but there’s still plenty of action to look forward
to. One of the weekend’s biggest series got started early in
Corvallis, Ore., where the two-time defending Pacific-10 Conference
champion Beavers sought their first conference win of the season
against a USC team in search of its first conference series

25 Schedule
at (1) Vanderbilt
(2) Florida State at North
Carolina State
Duke at (3) Virginia
North Carolina at Boston College
(5) South
Carolina at Florida
Mississippi State at (6)
(7) Texas at Kansas
Rice at (22) East Carolina
(25) Southern
California at (9) Oregon State
Creighton at (10)
Wichita State
Loyola Marymount at (11)
(23) UC Irvine at (12) Cal State
(13) Oklahoma State at
(14) Coastal Carolina at
Stanford at (15) Arizona
(16) Texas A&M at Texas
California at (17) Arizona
Clemson at Virginia Tech
(19) Oklahoma at
Georgia at (20)
Memphis at (21)
Tennessee at (24)

when it seemed like the Beavers could do no wrong, their 12-game
winning streak came to an unceremonious end in their Pac-10-opening
series at Arizona last weekend, as the upstart Wildcats swept OSU
right out of town. Oregon State’s weekend rotation of Mike Stutes,
Joe Paterson and Daniel Turpen, which had been so strong through
OSU’s first 26 games, came out flat, as none of the three starters
lasted through the fifth inning. It all might have turned out
differently had the Beavers held onto a 3-1 lead in Friday’s series
opener, but Arizona capitalized on an Oregon State defensive blunder,
of all things, to score four runs in the fifth. Usually reliable
center fielder Chris Hopkins misplayed a Brad Glenn fly ball into a
two-run triple, and things spiraled out of control from that point
on. We’re not accustomed to seeing pitching and defense fail the
defending national champions, who built their reputation on their
ability to excel in those very facets of the game.

didn’™t play any part of the game as well as we’ve been playing all
year long,” Oregon State coach Pat Casey said. “We didn’™t
defend or pitch or hit near as well as we had the previous 26 games.
Part of it was us, part of it was them. We basically were flat,
didn’t play well all weekend. You win the first game Friday night, I
think it changes a lot of the momentum, how we do things. But we

USC, meanwhile, had two weeks to
think about its conference-opening series loss to Arizona State and
get ready for the Beavers, with only a midweek game at UC Riverside
in between. The Trojans had been on a roll before dropping two of
three at home to the Sun Devils, winning their previous five series
against quality opponents (Stanford, Georgia, Tulane, San Diego State
and San Diego). The young Trojans have matured ahead of schedule,
especially on the mound, where freshman righthander Brad Boxberger
(1-2, 2.27) had emerged as the best starter on the staff and freshmen
Robert Stock (2-0, 3.27), Hector Rabago (2-0, 4.86) and Kevin Couture
(2-1, 5.14) fit seamlessly into a bullpen that has become one of the
best in the nation. The offense hasn’t been as strong, but freshmen
have provided significant boosts there as well, led by catcher Stock
(.312 with three homers) and shortstop Grant Green (.302 with six

Even after losing their series opener
against Arizona State by a 10-0 count and falling behind 3-1 in
Saturday’s game, the precocious Trojans battled back to tie the score
in the seventh inning before the Sun Devils pushed across the winning
run in the eighth. Had a few breaks gone the other way Saturday, the
Trojans might have taken the series against one of the preseason
favorites to win the conference, putting themselves squarely in the
forefront of the Pac-10 race in the process.

both USC and OSU entered this weekend in need of a series win to
avoid falling into a deep conference ditch.

think we need to play well,” Casey said. “We need to
understand that this is a long, long season, a long, long conference
season; we’ve got to play well. We have to worry about playing the
game and not anything else. We’ve got to find a way to win a series
against USC. We just can’t get caught up in what other expectations
are or anything else, because this league is dynamite.”

Beavers are still the class of that league, even after being swept
last weekend. And anyone who saw what happened after Oregon State
lost its 2006 CWS opener to Miami by an 11-1 score wasn’t surprised
to see the Beavers bounce back with a 9-5 win against Southern Cal
last night, behind 6 2/3 strong innings from Stutes. This is still
Oregon State, even without Kevin Gunderson, Jonah Nickerson, Dallas
Buck and seven departed position-player regulars.

think we’ve been real, real consistent with what we’ve done (until
the Arizona series),” Casey said. “If someone said,
‘Listen, seven of your starters are going to leave and your three
arms will be gone and you’ll be 23-6,’ we’d say, ‘Awesome. We’ll take

Marquee Mound
Hyde vs. Andrew

State will face its stiffest challenge to date this season when it
visits red-hot North Carolina State in a series with major Atlantic
Coast Conference ramifications. It’s still early in the conference
season, but the Wolfpack has a chance to blow the Atlantic Division
race wide open; right now the Seminoles sit atop the standings with
an 8-1 conference mark, while second-place N.C. State is 8-4. The
‘Pack has won six straight, including a sweep at Boston College last
weekend and a midweek win over No. 22 East Carolina. Interestingly,
NCSU’s hot streak has been largely independent of its potential
top-three pick in the draft, 6-foot-11 righthander Brackman. Though
his fastball velocity has been in the mid- to upper 90s all season,
Brackman has been rather pedestrian of late, suffering N.C. State’s
lone loss against Wake Forest two weeks ago, when he allowed six runs
(five earned) on nine hits and five walks in four innings of work. He
lasted just five innings against Virginia Tech the week before that
and gave up six runs (five earned) in a loss to Maryland before that.
He was better last week against BC, striking out seven and allowing
just one run over seven innings of work in a 10-1 win, but this will
be his first game against an elite opponent this year.

Brackman will face his foil in Hyde, a senior
righthander who lacks overpowering stuff but really knows how to
pitch and rack up wins. Heading into last Saturday’s start against
Duke, Hyde had lost just one of his previous 20 starts. He proceeded
to suffer his first loss of the season against the Blue Devils,
allowing six earned runs over 1 1/3 innings of work, but even after
that his career record at FSU sits at 24-4, and his career ACC record
at 8-1. This big series between the Seminoles and Wolfpack is likely
to turn on the middle game of the series, when Brackman takes his
world-beating stuff against the wily Hyde, and both pitchers look to
rebound from rough outings.

Carolina over Rice

N.C., will be in a frenzy over this weekend’s visit from Conference
USA favorite Rice, especially since the Pirates have a legitimate
chance to make a run at the league title this season. ECU is a very
good home team, as the Pirates draw upon the energy of the boisterous
fans at Clark-Leclair Stadium, which will now play host to the CUSA
tournament. Tulane was to be the host site, but the rebuilt Turchin
Stadium won’t be ready for the event, which shifts to Greenville.

Nobody feeds off ECU’s home atmosphere more
than junior righthander T.J. Hose, who has emerged as a true big-game
pitcher on Fridays this year, having beaten Pepperdine’s Barry
Enright, Cal State Fullerton’s Wes Roemer and Michigan’s Zach Putnam
and nearly adding Tulane’s Sean Morgan to that list last week (he
lost 2-1). Hose shows plenty of emotion on the mound and loves
pitching in front of the home crowd; he’s got the advantage over
talented but still inexperienced freshman Ryan Berry of Rice. The
Pirates have an experience edge on Saturday as well, when junior
lefthander Dustin Sasser faces another newcomer, junior college
transfer Matt Langwell. Look for the Pirates to give Berry and
Langwell all they can handle in their first taste of

Under The

Big East is wide open, as preseason conference favorites Notre Dame
(13-14, 1-4 in conference) and St. John’s (12-11, 3-3) both stumbled
out of the gates while South Florida (23-9, 6-3) and Louisville
(20-8, 5-1) got off to strong starts. West Virginia looked to be in
that mix as well heading into last weekend’s showdown with the
Cardinals. The Mountaineers were 15-5 on the strength of a solid
offense, but Louisville promptly swept the three-game series to
remain atop the Big East standings. First-year coach Dan McDonnell
has done an excellent job making Louisville a legitimate contender
for the conference title, but it helps to inherit veterans like
senior outfielders Boomer Whiting (.450/.537/.470 with 38 stolen
bases in 46 attempts) and Isaiah Howes (.421/.475/.738 with eight
homers) and senior infielders Logan Johnson (.388/.526/.806 with nine
homers) and 5-foot-3 sparkplug Chris Cates (.347/.402/.416). The
experienced pitching staff has also been strong, led by junior righty
Zack Pitts (5-1, 1.15).

“I think they’re
really good,” West Virginia coach Greg Van Zant said after the
Cardinals completed their sweep of the Mountaineers. “They pitch
really well, they play defense, they swing the bats well, they run
the bases. Of their nine starters, six are seniors. Boomer Whiting in
center field leading off already has 37 stolen bases. Logan Johnson
hitting second has a bunch of extra-base hits. They’ve got Chris
Dominguez at third, he’s a stud. And their catcher (Derrick) Alfonso,
he hit a home run to tie it up out of the eight-hole of the

“Based on what I’ve seen,
Louisville might be the best team in the conference.”

Mills, rhp, UNC Charlotte

pitcher has performed better this season than Mills–not even
Vanderbilt lefthander David Price, who earned recognition as the top
pitcher at the midway point in the year in our midseason report based
on his combination of elite prospect status and performance against
Southeastern Conference competition. But for sheer numbers, it’s hard
to compete with Mills, who fired his third shutout of the season in a
14-strikeout, two-hit gem against St. Joseph’s yesterday. It was
Mills’ third consecutive complete game and fifth of the season; he
has now racked up 99 strikeouts in 77 innings of work. The 6-foot,
190-pound Mills, now 8-1, 1.06, is a major reason why the 49ers are
off to the best start in school history at 24-5.

Fields, rhp, Georgia

has traditionally been a second-half team, and with a number of
freshmen playing prominent roles this season it’s not too surprising
that the Bulldogs would take their lumps early on. But nobody would
have expected Georgia to be swept four times in the first two months.
After opening the year with a three-game sweep at the hands of Oregon
State, Georgia was also swept at home by Southern California and
Florida and swept on the road by Tennessee. The Bulldogs are
currently riding a five-game losing streak, and preseason
All-American closer Fields has taken the loss in two of them–last
Sunday against Florida and Wednesday against Clemson.

hard-throwing righthander, who blew a save against Oregon State in
his first outing of the year, is just 1-5, 5.91 in 13 appearances
this year. He’s failed to throw with the consistent mid-90s velocity
he showed last summer on the Cape, and an early experiment with a
curveball (instead of the plus slider he showed last summer) didn’t
work out. He has since gone back to the slider.

in the year, I think Joshua Fields was just a little out of whack
mechanically,” Georgia coach David Perno said. “I think his
last two, Sunday and (Wednesday) at Clemson, he threw the ball
extremely well, it’s just been unfortunate. We were out of position
on one play and we just didn’t make another play. It’s been bouncing
all over the place.”

As Perno pointed out,
Georgia is not struggling because it is playing a lot of freshmen.
The Bulldogs are 10-19 because largely because their veterans have
stumbled, and Fields is the most prominent player on the team. He’s
started to throw better of late; if he keeps it up, sooner or later
he’ll start getting breaks as well. Fields and Georgia will try to
reverse their skid this weekend at Mississippi.

Stat of the

allowed by Mercer closer Cory Gearrin in 30 innings this year. The
junior righthander, a transfer from Young-Harris (Ga.) Junior
College, has seen his fastball velocity jump from the high 80s to the
low 90s, making his stuff all the more impossible to hit from his low
three-quarters arm slot. Gearrin finally allowed his first run of the
season March 20 against Georgia, but his numbers remain eye-popping:
through 17 relief appearances, Gearrin is 3-0, 0.30 with 48
strikeouts and 17 walks in 30 innings of work.


Highlanders have rebounded since dropping consecutive series against
Oklahoma and Portland in early March, taking their last two sets
against Santa Clara and UC Davis. At 18-11, Riverside is in position
to make an NCAA tournament run, and its deep pitching staff could
make UCR a very difficult out in regionals. Scouts have been
salivating over Riverside’s collection of prized arms all year long,
but the bats haven’t always provided much support. Junior righthander
James Simmons (7-1, 1.81, 64-7 K-BB ratio in 65 innings) has
continued to lead the way, striking out 10 and allowing just two hits
against UC Santa Barbara last night. Senior lefthander Marc Rzepczynski
(5-0, 2.27), hard-throwing junior righty Adam Reifer (2.45 ERA in six
relief appearances) and junior lefty Dan Runzler (2-5, 5.93) also
have outstanding arms. Here’s what a National League scouting
director had to say about the Highlanders, who take on the Gauchos in Big West play this weekend:

an interesting squad. They have, in my opinion, the best pitching
staff in the country. If they had any depth in their position
players, I would guess that they’d go a long way in the postseason.
They’re fun to watch, all their pitchers. I’ve seen them all except
for Reifer–he was on the shelf for a while. But their other guys,
everybody from Simmons to Rzepczynski to Runzler, they’re all legit.
Those are all prospects. Rzepczynski is a little different, a senior
lefty, I don’™t believe he got drafted last year. He was their No. 1
to start the season over Simmons and Runzler. I certainly think he’s
the lowest prospect grade of all those guys, but still a prospect. If
I ranked them, I’d go with Simmons as the top guy. For me, Runzler’s
a little more advanced than Rzepczynski, a little more upside,
deceptive three-quarters delivery, and when his slider’s on and his
velocity’s up, he’s pretty tough to hit. But he seems to run out of
gas after four or five innings. He profiles nicely as a lefty
specialist. Rzepczynski, with his body, frame and consistency, could
profile as a starter. Not a front-end type, but a nice solid lefty to
have in the rotation. He will be a good senior sign for somebody. And
Simmons, he’s one of the top pitchers on the West Coast, if not the
top. Precision command over there; there are not many guys out there
with that kind of command. He doesn’t quite have (Wes) Roemer’s
control, but his command in the zone is better.”

In The
LaPorta, 1b, Florida

leading Division I with 26 home runs as a sophomore in 2005, LaPorta
strained his oblique muscle early in 2006 and never got back on
track, finishing with a .259 average and just 14 homers. But LaPorta
has been healthy this year, and he’s hitting better than ever. He
smashed a pair of three-run homers in Florida’s midweek win against
No. 1 Florida State, his sixth game with at least one homer in the
Gators’ last seven. Overall, LaPorta is hitting .433/.587/.942 with
15 homers and 35 RBIs in 104 at-bats. As LaPorta has surged, so too
have the Gators. After starting the year 11-13, Florida ripped off an
eight-game winning streak (including sweeps at Auburn and at Georgia)
to raise its record to 19-13 heading into this weekend’s big series
against No. 5 South Carolina. Friday’s game features a great pitching
matchup between Florida junior righthander Bryan Augenstein and USC
junior righty Harris Honeycutt, and Sunday’s game will be televised
on ESPN. LaPorta discussed his big first half, his rough 2006 and his
role as a leader on the young Gators In The Dugout:

are a lot of freshman on this team–how much has their confidence
grown since the start of the season? Do you try to provide them
guidance and leadership?

Yeah, definitely. I
see when guys are struggling and a little too tense, because I’ve
been there and I’ve done that. Really to see the guys develop the way
they have is great, I’m really proud of our guys. We’ve come a long
way, just the way we’ve really gelled on the baseball field, stepping
up is huge.

You are just crushing the ball
right now. Does this feel like your sophomore year all over again, or
do you feel even better now than you did two years ago?

feel a lot better than I did two years ago. Two years ago I had
60-something strikeouts, this year I have eight strikeouts. My plate
discipline is very good right now, and I feel very confident at the

How much did that oblique strain
affect your performance last year?

I don’™t
think I was ever completely healthy. I look now, and I really wasn’™t.
It was always there in the back of my mind. It was almost like I was
playing catch-up ball the whole season last year. I never had a
chance to get in a groove.

You said that you
can identify with the young players on the team when they get too
tense. Did you find yourself pressing last year?

put a lot of pressure on myself last year, trying to reproduce what I
did my sophomore year in half a season, and you just can’t do that. I
definitely was pressing last year a little too much, with the injury
coming back, and a lot of people expected great things out of me, and
I didn’™t want to let them down.

Did you
consider signing with the Red Sox (as a 14th-round pick) last

Not really. We did come close a couple
of times, but in the back of my mind I knew that I wanted to finish
school, and I knew I had some unfinished business here at the
University of Florida. Last year was kind of a let-down, and I wanted
to come back and prove people wrong about me.

wanted to prove people wrong this year–did you think people started
to overlook you, maybe to forget about you a little, in last year’s

It seemed like they forgot about the
power numbers and how good of a hitter I really was from my sophomore
year, but that’s fine, that’s how baseball goes.

well as you’re hitting right now, are there any areas where you need
to improve?

You can always get better. I
still can have even better pitch selection, sometimes I still come
out of the zone. But right now I feel really good about my approach
at the plate. I don’t swing at hardly any bad pitches right

It seems like there’s just no way to get
you out right now. If you were trying to pitch to Matt LaPorta, how
would you go about it?

I don’t know. Walk

How much fun has this season

It’s been great, especially watching
young guys grow and the way we build as a team, and the way we win
ballgames. We play every game like we’re in the last game of the
College World Series. There’s no quit in this team.