College Weekend Preview: Feb. 22-24

1. Indiana takes on Georgia Southern in a compelling mid-major showdown.
2. Tulane’s power arms generate scouting buzz.
3. Struggling East Carolina tries to get on track at Keith LeClair Classic.
4. Pepperdine’s Scott Frazier takes on Texas A&M’s Kyle Martin in Marquee Mound Showdown.
5. Baseball powers from California and Texas clash again.
6. Urban Invitational returns to Minute Maid Park.

Hot Hoosiers Face High-Flying Eagles In Statesboro

A year ago, Georgia Southern had a pair of first-team preseason All-Americans and looked like a real threat to win a regional heading into the season. But one of those All-Americans, slugging outfielder Victor Roache, broke his hand in Week Two and missed the rest of the season. The Eagles lost nine of their next 11 games and wound up finishing in the middle of the Southern Conference pack, and missing out on regionals.

Expectations were more modest for the Eagles heading into this season, as they were picked to finish fifth in the preseason SoCon coaches’ poll. Indiana, meanwhile, headed into 2013 as the favorite to win the Big Ten. An experienced team with a trio of front-line stars in Kyle Schwarber, Sam Travis and Joey DeNato, the Hoosiers had the look of a team that could make some noise in the postseason this time.


Stony Brook at (1) North Carolina
Monmouth at (2) Vanderbilt
Evansville at (3) Arkansas
Akron at (4) Louisville
(6) Oregon State at San Diego State
Albany at (7) South Carolina
Rhode Island at (8) Mississippi
(12) UCLA at Baylor
(13) Rice at Hawaii
Loyola Marymount at (14) Oregon
Fresno State at (15) Stanford
St. John’s at (16) Georgia Tech
Florida Gulf Coast at (17) Florida
South Florida at (19) Florida State
(20) Cal State Fullerton at (22) Texas Christian
San Jose State at (23) Arizona
California at (25) UC Irvine

Diamond Classic, Starkville, Miss.:

(5) Mississippi State, Purdue, Samford

LSU Tournament, Baton Rouge, La.:
(9) Louisiana State, Brigham Young, Southeastern Louisiana

N.C. State Tournament, Raleigh:
(10) North Carolina State, La Salle, Villanova, Wagner

Caravelle Resort Baseball at the Beach, Myrtle Beach, S.C.:
(11) Kentucky, Elon, Coastal Carolina, Kansas State

Kleberg Bank College Classic, Corpus Christi, Texas:
(18) Oklahoma, Iowa, New Mexico, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

Southern Miss Invitational, Hattiesburg, Miss.:
(21) Southern Miss, Alcorn State, Eastern Illinois, Missouri State

Virginia Tech Tournament, Blacksburg, Va.:
(24) Virginia Tech, Holy Cross, Temple

After a week of play, though, this series has become much more intriguing, as both teams look very dangerous. Indiana came out of the gate with a strong showing at the Big East/Big Ten Challenge, knocking off No. 4 Louisville and blowing out South Florida, sandwiched around a 15-inning loss to Connecticut. And Georgia Southern opened the season by winning a three-game series against Georgia for the first time since 1986, then toppling No. 17 Florida 8-7 in 12 innings Wednesday in Gainesville.

“It was definitely a good start for us, and hopefully it will give us a little confidence,” GSU coach Rodney Hennon said. “We felt like during the offseason, seeing some of these guys in fall practice and preseason practice, some of these guys coming back had really made some improvements.”

Foremost among the players who made strides since 2012 is junior third baseman Ben Morgan, who spent his freshman year as the everyday second baseman, then had his sophomore season derailed when he was hit in the head by a pitch, suffering a concussion. He never got on track last year, finishing the year at .243/.323/.299 in 45 games, but Hennon said he was the Eagles’ most consistent hitter in the fall and spring. He has carried that progress over into the season, going 8-for-18 (.444) out of the No. 2 hole in the lineup.

Morgan started last season at shortstop, but he has found a home at third base as a junior. At 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, Morgan isn’t a prototypical third baseman, but he has a strong arm, and he teams with freshman Cole Watson to form a very athletic left side of the infield. Georgia Southern has a history of putting up big power numbers, but athleticism is the hallmark of this club—though it still has a couple of dangerous bats in the middle of the lineup in senior first baseman T.D. Davis and sophomore catcher Chase Griffin.

“Looking at this group coming in, you kind of worried about maybe the punch there in the middle of the lineup, but one thing we felt good about is we felt we really have an athletic team, some guys that can run and do some different things,” Hennon said. “Our outfield defense was really good (last weekend); we made some plays our there that maybe in the past we may not have made, because we have more speed out there this year.”

Senior Scooter Williams brings good speed to right field and to the top of the lineup. He’s joined in the outfield by a pair of players who got more playing time than expected last year due to Roache’s injury: center fielder Kyle Streicher and left fielder Hunter Thomas.

“As devastating as the injury was to Roache last year, you try to find something positive in anything, and if there was one positive to it, some of these guys that are playing now are a little more seasoned than they would have been,” Hennon said. “And if you look at our bench, the guys we can bring in off the bench are guys that have experience in our program—we’re not asking freshmen to come in off the bench and pinch-hit or play defense. The same in our bullpen—we’ve got some older guys in our bullpen.”

The bullpen is built around a trio of savvy seniors in closer Kyle Rowe, sidearmer Chris Myers and lefthander Drew Johnson. Another senior, righty Justin Hess, anchors the weekend rotation. Though he uncharacteristically struggled with his fastball command in a poor outing last week, Hess is a proven competitor with an outstanding breaking ball and good feel for a changeup, and the Eagles are counting on him to lead the staff. Sophomore Sam Howard and freshman Jason Richman round out the rotation, and both were able to pound the zone against Georgia, issuing no walks in a combined 13 2/3 innings.

It’s not a flashy pitching staff—there’s no Chris Beck to light up radar guns—but it should be good enough to give the Eagles a chance to win series.

“Right now this team, they really feed off each other,” Hennon said. “I don’t think there’s any superstars, but we’ve got a bunch of guys that love playing the game and understand their roles.”

Indiana does have star power in sophomores Schwarber and Travis, who combined to hit 17 homers as freshmen. Travis has gotten off to a torrid start, going 7-for-12 (.583) with four doubles and a homer last weekend, while Schwarber is second on the team in hitting at .286.

“It’s funny, (Indiana native) Scott Rolen, a buddy of mine, he was at the games this weekend down there in Florida,” Indiana coach Tracy Smith said. “He was like, ‘Boy, I love that Travis kid.’ Not only are they power guys, they’re just good hitters—they don’t strike out a lot, they have good plate discipline. They’re two of the better hitters in the country.”

Schwarber is also making progress as a catcher, though he profiles better as a left fielder in pro ball. His blocking has improved, and he has arm strength, but his long arm action has kept him from controlling opposing running games. He allowed nine stolen bases last weekend and threw out one basestealer.

Indiana’s defense is Smith’s greatest concern, especially because the Hoosiers fielded just .955 as a team last year. But IU has a heady four-year starter at shortstop in Michael Basil, a solid junior third baseman in Dustin DeMuth, and a pair of decent options at second base in sophomore Chad Clark and freshman Nick Ramos. Experience leads to consistency, and the Hoosiers have holdovers all over the diamond, leading Smith to feel cautiously optimistic about his defense. Older players are also more physically mature than freshmen, and Indiana’s power potential is a rare luxury in the BBCOR bat era.

“This is the first time in a long time we’re starting a lineup where we don’t have a freshman out there; it’s guys who have played, and I’ve never had that,” Smith said. “What I like about this team is we’re physical . . . I like our balance. We’ve got some guys who can steal some bases, but also some guys who can hit some home runs. It’s nice to have power, because if you get down in today’s game, you’ve got to scratch and claw, unless you’ve got some guys who can pound the gaps and even get it out of the park.”

Indiana’s pitching staff looks deeper than any in Smith’s eight-year Hoosiers tenure, and it has a rock-solid anchor in DeNato, a fearless 5-foot-10 junior lefthander.

“He can throw any pitch in any count—I think that’s what makes him successful,” Smith said. “He’s developing better with the slider now. When you watch him pitch, it’s everything else he does besides pitching: He controls the running game, he’s good at fielding. He just keeps a very, very even-keeled demeanor, always gives us a chance to win.”

Saturday starter Aaron Slegers, a redshirt sophomore righty, is the wild card. He’s pitched just eight innings in his collegiate career, but he has created a buzz amongst scouts for his 6-foot-10, 250-pound frame and a fastball that has reached 93 this spring and touched 95 last summer, according to Smith.

“He’s getting all this attention, but we still want to see him compete, and he does,” Smith said. “He’s got great plane to his fastball.”

Last year’s staff ERA leader, lanky lefty Kyle Hart, pitches on Sundays. He succeeds by pounding the strike zone with his below-average fastball and good changeup.

The real difference with this staff is its depth in the bullpen, thanks in part to the additions of freshmen Evan Bell, Scott Effross and Will Coursen-Carr. Those talented young pitchers will help build a bridge to closer Ryan Halstead. So when DeNato exited after four shutout innings last Friday against Louisville because of his early-season pitch count limit, the Hoosiers handed the ball to Bell and then to Halstead, and they preserved the shutout.

“Where we’ve made the biggest jump is those middle-inning guys are legitimate arms that give us a chance,” Smith said. “I think back to ’09 when we had (Matt) Bashore and (Eric) Arnett, we had the top-end guys, and there were plenty of interviews about extending those guys because we didn’t have the depth. That’s the one thing we feel like we’ll be able to do a little better with this group: We’ve got quality guys that I’d have no hesitation about handing it over to if we’re struggling in the fourth or fifth. That’s something we haven’t had here.”

That 2009 team won the Big Ten tournament to send the Hoosiers to the second regional in program history. This team might just be even better.

Scouts’ View: Tulane Pitching

Expect Turchin Stadium to be crawling with scouts this weekend, and not just because Notre Dame is in town with its pair of potential top-two-rounds picks, Eric Jagielo and Dan Slania. Scouts were lukewarm on Tulane’s talent heading into the season, but their eyes were opened last weekend in San Marcos, Texas, where the Green Wave’s pitching sparkled in a tournament against Texas State, Missouri State and Sam Houston State.

“Tulane has some arms and velocity this year—they are the talk of the scouting world in Louisiana and Texas right now,” a National League area scout said.

Redshirt sophomore Tony Rizzotti started off the weekend with a bang, throwing a one-hit shutout against Sam Houston State in a 2-0 win. Rizzotti began his collegiate career at Texas Christian, where he was a big-name recruit who never got going. He had knee surgery in the fall of his freshman year, and his velocity plummeted into the 85-87 range that spring, when he made just six relief appearances. He transferred to Grayson County (Texas) JC for 2012 but did not pitch after having another knee surgery.

But he regained his premium velocity at Tulane this fall, and also picked up a quality split-finger from pitching coach Chad Sutter, whose dad Bruce made the Hall of Fame on the strength of his splitter. The pitch complements Rizzotti’s late-breaking slider, and when he’s working in the 92-96 range, as he did in his season debut, he’s tough to beat.

“He threw the ball really good—pretty firm, lots of 93s and 4s all the way through the game,” a National League scouting director said. “The breaking ball was a little inconsistent but had some velocity. He was good. I guess he’s back on the map now.”

Fourth-year junior righthander Kyle McKenzie was another blue-chip recruit whose collegiate career was sidetracked by injuries. He had Tommy John surgery in 2011, and returned to go 4-2, 2.86 in 44 innings—mostly in relief—last year. But his stuff has come all the way back this year, and he worked in the 90-94 mph range Sunday against Missouri State, when he allowed two runs over five innings to pick up the win.

Senior righty Alex Byo got the start Saturday and threw seven innings of four-hit, shutout ball, striking out seven without issuing a walk. Another senior, lefthander David Napoli, was an all-Conference USA starter last year, but he has shifted to the bullpen this year, and he threw 2 1/3 innings of scoreless relief Sunday. Byo and Napoli both caught scouts’ attention by showing better stuff this weekend.

“Napoli’s a guy that pitched Friday nights for them last year; he pitched anywhere from 87-91 last year,” the area scout said. “He came in in a relief role Sunday in a close game in the fifth, he gets them through the eighth and he’s 90-94. So there’s definitely a jump in velo with several of their guys.”

“Our area scout was scratching his head, like, ‘Where’s all this velocity coming from?’ ” the scouting director said of Byo. “He had three pitches—the breaking ball was fringy, but the changeup was good and he spotted his fastball. He was 88-92, and he was more like 84-87 or 88 in the past. So he’s gained some velocity. He mostly pitched around 90; interesting guy.”

Freshman closer Ian Gibaut, who garnered little interest from scouts out of high school in Houston last year, also showed good stuff in his two outings over the weekend, though he surrendered a pair of runs Sunday.

“He hit some 92s and 93s, and it was heavy at times,” the scouting director said. “They’ve done a good job with their arms.”

Slumpin’: East Carolina

For the first time since 1994—and just the third time in program history—East Carolina has started the season 0-3. ECU pitching was blitzed in two losses to Virginia, allowing 27 runs in the two games before getting a reprieve when bad weather cut the series short.

Then the Pirates dropped a home game to Campbell on Tuesday, though at least their pitching issued just two walks in that 6-4 loss. Through three games, the staff ERA stands at 9.33, and ECU pitchers have issued 19 walks and hit 10 batters.

No. 1 starter Jeff Hoffman, one of the top sophomore prospects in college baseball, struggled in the opener, allowing four runs on four hits and four walks in 4 2/3 innings, and the Cavs broke the game wide open with an eight-run seventh en route to a 14-4 win. A day later, six ECU pitchers issued a combined 10 walks in a 13-9 loss.

“It’s disappointing whether you lose 3-2 or 14-4,” Pirates coach Billy Godwin told reporters over the weekend. “One of the keys to the game is the freebie, and we had 12 (in the opener—seven walks, five hit batsmen). You do that against a good offensive club like Virginia . . . it bodes for a lot of runs being put on the board.”

The Pirates will try to get back on track this weekend at the annual Keith LeClair Classic in Greenville. They’ll face Illinois, New Mexico State and Boston College. The Aggies rank among the nation’s leaders in walks every year, so if they Pirates don’t throw more strikes, things could get worse for them this weekend. But it’s far too early for panic, even if the notoriously impatient Pirate faithful are gnashing their teeth.

“Slow starts are slow starts, and it would be a great story if we turned this thing around,” Godwin told after Tuesday’s loss. “And we are going to do that.”

Marquee Mound Matchup: Scott Frazier vs. Kyle Martin

As usual, there are plenty of quality pitching matchups around college baseball this weekend, but let’s focus on this battle between two improved righthanders.

Pepperdine’s Scott Frazier got knocked around by the Aggies last year in Malibu, allowing seven runs (six earned) on 11 hits and three walks over 5 2/3 innings. It was part of an up-and-down sophomore season for the 6-foot-7, 230-pound righthander, who finished the year 7-5, 3.93 with just 69 strikeouts and 31 walks in 103 innings. That’s a particularly low strikeout rate (just six per nine innings) for someone with Frazier’s arm strength.

Scouts who saw Frazier (pictured at right) in the fall said he cleaned up his arm action, eliminating a stab in the back and making it shorter. That mechanical adjustment helped his breaking ball improve. In his season debut last Friday against Western Michigan, Frazier struggled with his feel for his curveball in the first inning, casting it to his arm-side a few times, but he quickly settled down and started throwing sharp downer curveballs in the 73-77 range. He used it as the putaway pitch on four of his six strikeouts over seven innings of three-hit ball, allowing just an unearned run in the first. His fastball sat at 92-94 mph early and bumped 95 a few times, and he still pitched at 91-92 and touched 93 in the seventh. He also threw a few quality changeups in the low 80s.

The next step in Frazier’s development comes Friday, when he gets a chance to prove he can handle pitching in front of a hostile crowd in College Station. In his first two collegiate seasons, the biggest crowd Frazier has pitched in front of was 2,277 at the Palo Alto Regional, in a game where he pitched into the eighth but allowed five runs and took the loss against Stanford. Texas A&M averaged 5,131 fans per game last weekend against Illinois-Chicago.

While Frazier was regarded as a blue-chip prospect even before he showed up on campus, Texas A&M’s Kyle Martin’s career has taken twists and turns. Martin (pictured at right) arrived in College Station weighing a skinny 185 pounds, but he has gradually filled out his 6-foot-7 frame, and Aggies coach Rob Childress said he now weighs 235 as a senior. As a freshman, he struggled to repeat his delivery and command his stuff successfully, so the Aggies dropped him to a sidearm slot heading into his sophomore year, and he became a key contributor out of the A&M bullpen over the last two years, making 33 appearances as a sophomore and 38 as a junior.

But heading into this season, the Aggies decided to move his arm slot back up over the top, envisioning him as a power-armed weekend starter.

“He’s just so much more physical, so much more in control of his body, I felt like it would be an easier transition just because of his strength,” Childress said. “When he was a sidearmer he was probably 85-88. Now he’s going to be 88-94. He throws all four pitches, gets ahead with the breaker, uses the slider and change for outs. He’s got outstanding movement on his fastball—he’s going to be a groundball/strikeout guy.”

Martin pitched very well last Friday against UIC, allowing just a pair of unearned runs on five hits and no walks while striking out 10 over 6 2/3 innings. He was the hard-luck loser as the Aggies were shut out on four hits, but Childress was rewarded for his faith that Martin was ready to anchor the staff, even though he had never before started a game at A&M.

“I was really proud of Kyle Martin,” Childress said. “I thought he had an outstanding start, got us into the seventh inning, punched out 10, didn’t give up an earned run and threw four pitches for strikes.”

California, Texas Powers Collide Again

Last year, we dubbed it the Golden State/Lone Star State Challenge. A number of prominent California teams played series against prominent Texas teams during the preconference portion of the college baseball calendar, and the California teams largely took care of business. Stanford won series against Texas and Rice; UCLA won a set against Baylor; Cal State Fullerton won series against Texas Christian and Texas A&M. The Aggies did go on to win a series at Pepperdine, and Sam Houston State won an early set against San Diego, but by and large the edge went to the Golden State.

This year, UC Irvine struck a significant blow with a sweep of Baylor in Week One, but Rice took two of three from Stanford. Now this battle of the baseball hotbeds really heats up, as Pepperdine pays a return visit to Texas A&M (as mentioned above), Fullerton goes back to TCU, and UCLA visits Baylor in three of the weekend’s best matchups.

Cal State Fullerton enters the weekend red-hot, coming off a 4-0 weekend and a midweek victory against Pepperdine. As expected, Fullerton’s veteran lineup has been very productive so far, hitting .309 as a team and showing the ability to score runs in bunches. J.D. Davis appears on the verge of a big-time breakout sophomore year, batting .429/.455/.762 with two homers and 12 RBIs through five games.

The question for the Titans coming into the season was how their young pitching would hold up, and so far the returns have been stellar. Fullerton started two freshmen last weekend, and righties Thomas Eshelman and Justin Garza (pictured at right) worked six shutout innings apiece, combining for 12 strikeouts and just one walk. As a staff, the Titans have fanned 46 and walked just five, picking up where they left off last year, when they led the nation in fewest walks allowed per nine innings.

“Eshelman threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of 23 hitters last week,” Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook said. “It was the same way with Garza and (Koby) Gauna and (Grahamm) Wiest—they just threw strikes.”

Vanderhook said Eshelman threw four pitches for strikes, and ran his fastball up to 91 mph with good life. Garza touched 96, and Gauna reached 94. The Titans will start Eshelman on Friday at TCU and Garza on Saturday, but Vanderhook said he hadn’t yet made a decision about Sunday. Gauna’s emergence as a sophomore means Wiest might wind up getting squeezed out of the rotation, even though he has also pitched well and even though he is the most experienced pitcher of this group after throwing 87 innings as a freshman last year. Suddenly, pitching isn’t looking like such a question mark for Fullerton after all.

Texas Christian has even more pitching depth, and its arms performed fine last weekend at Mississippi, even though the Horned Frogs were swept. One scout who was on hand said Friday starter Brandon Finnegan was particularly impressive, working at 92-98 with a plus breaking ball and feel for a changeup. The Frogs hoped Finnegan would take the leap to stardom as a sophomore, and it appears he is doing just that.

The TCU bats were very quiet in Week One, hitting just .194 and producing just four runs in three games, but Mississippi’s elite pitching staff deserves plenty of credit for that. The cold conditions were also a factor. But even though the Frogs left Oxford winless, they were competitive, and there is no reason for alarm.

“They got swept this weekend, but they were in the game Friday and they lose a 1-0 game,” the scout said. “Saturday they were up 2-1 in the eighth, then they kick a ball or two, and next thing you know Ole Miss goes up 5-2. So they got swept, but they’re going to be fine. Offensively, it’s a hard weekend to judge because it was so cold there, and both teams were facing really good arms. So TCU’s got arms, they’ll be fine; they’ll win games and have a good year.”

Like TCU, Baylor was swept on the road in the first weekend, but the Bears were not as competitive in defeat. Baylor was shut out on three hits Saturday, then got blown out 15-3 on Sunday, as Irvine put the game away with 11 runs in the fifth. But 10 of those 11 runs came with two outs, as did 22 of Irvine’s 26 runs on the weekend. Which means Baylor was one pitch away from getting out of trouble all series.

“The whole weekend was about scoring runs with two outs,” Baylor coach Steve Smith said in a postgame radio interview, per the Waco Tribune. “That’s baseball. Some of it was good hitting, some poor defense, but once you get the ball rolling like that, sometimes it’s hard to stop it. We ran a number of different guys out there and we weren’t able to stop it. It got away from us.”

Baylor didn’t exactly play crisp baseball in its first win of the year Tuesday at home against Texas State, as it committed five errors and issued nine walks. But this time Baylor made enough big pitches with two outs to mitigate the damage, stranding 14 baserunners.

But Baylor will need to play better to beat a dangerous UCLA team this weekend. The Bruins bounced back from an extra-inning loss to Minnesota on Friday to score 28 runs over the next two days and win the series. UCLA’s pitching is a known commodity, but the key to its season is how its talented sophomores handle prominent roles in the lineup. It’s early yet, but it certainly looks like Kevin Kramer and Eric Filia are ready to lead the offense, and that Shane Zeile (pictured at right) is up to the challenge of replacing Tyler Heineman behind the plate.

UCLA coach John Savage said this past weekend that Kramer is “a guy who’s arrived.” The athletic, sweet-swinging third baseman went 6-for-11 (.545) with seven RBIs in the first weekend, and made some nice plays at third base, though he also committed a costly error in Friday’s loss. Filia went 5-for-14 (.357) with six runs scored and a homer.

But Zeile’s play might have been the most encouraging development of all, even though he is 0-for-7 on the young season. Zeile arrived at UCLA as an infielder, but the Bruins decided to convert him to catcher, where his uncle Todd spent a good chunk of his time in the big leagues. Zeile didn’t get a chance to learn the position in the fall because he was sidelined with a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder. Yet he looked like a natural behind the plate this past weekend.

“Zeile, as you can tell, is going to be very good,” Savage said. “That conversion didn’t take place in the fall; it took place in January. He can really throw, and he’s athletic, and he’s going to be a very good player.”

Urban Youth Invitational Returns To Minute Maid

For the second year in a row, the Astros will host the MLB Urban Invitational at Minute Maid Park. This weekend marks the sixth edition of the tournament, which was played at the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., for the first four years of the event. But for the first time, this year’s field features exclusively Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs): Alabama State, Prairie View A&M, Southern and Texas Southern. In past years, the HBCU participants were joined by schools from power conferences, usually from the West Coast.

Southern coach Roger Cador and Alabama State coach Mervyl Melendez have participated in all six Urban Invitationals (Melendez’s Bethune-Cookman clubs played in the first four, and his Hornets played in last year’s). Both of them raved about the experience in Compton, but there is nothing like getting to play in a big league ballpark.

“It’s actually totally different,” Melendez said, comparing the feel of the tournament in the two venues. “The atmosphere in California was amazing, the fact that it was outdoors, seeing all the ex-big leaguers, how the media portrayed the teams that were participating. At Minute Maid, being a dome and a big league facility, the field was a more professional type of field where the players felt that they were actually professional athletes. Both were amazing for the players. One was kind of awestruck, playing in a big league facility they will cherish forever.”

When the event was in Compton, the atmosphere was enlivened by a Battle of the Bands between games. The bands are returning this year—Texas Southern’s band will go head-to-head with Prairie View’s band in between games Saturday.

“The first time, I thought there were earthquakes—when the USC band came out and the Southern band came out, there was so much energy, I thought the earth was shaking,” Cador recalled. “But it’s a whole different atmosphere. When you put a band in the stadium—Mervyl knows, down in Latin America, music is a part of the baseball down there. Young people in particular, that will be a great place for them to be in the dome with the bands.”

The Astros will also host a free college and career fair at MInute Maid on Friday for three hours leading up to the 3 p.m. CT first pitch between Southern and TSU.

But the most important component of the Urban Invitational is the exposure it brings to HBCU baseball programs.

“Years ago when we first started talking about doing things with MLB, I want to say we had probably eight symposiums, trying to make a connection with MLB, because we were dealing with so many different adversities, and we really needed help to promote HBCU baseball and give it exposure,” Texas Southern coach Michael Robertson said. “We work so hard with our kids and our programs to try to represent our universities, so this will give us an opportunity to give our kids some exposure. Last year was our first year playing in it, and it was a huge success for the city of Houston.”

As it has in the past, MLB Network will televise Saturday’s games—Alabama State against Southern, and Texas Southern against Prairie View. Appearing on TV in the Urban Invitational can provide a major recruiting boost for these schools.

“Kids want to be on national TV,” Cador said. “I know one place it’s helped us is in Puerto Rico—coach Melendez is from there and he’s got a huge contingent of players from there. That’s helped us a great deal to get kids out of Puerto Rico. So this thing is more than just within the United States, it’s international. I know when I go to other parts of Latin America and South America, people say, ‘I know you from watching that game on TV—you’re that coach.’

“It really has been a big, big hit.”