College Weekend Preview: Feb. 22-24

Meaningful Matchup
Long Beach vs. Rice

By Feb. 22, 2007, Long Beach State already had played three-game series against Southern California, Texas and Rice as well as single games against Pepperdine and UCLA. So while playing zero games before Feb. 22 is unusual, playing elite competition right out of the gate is nothing new for the Dirtbags, and neither is playing Rice.

Last year, an upstart Long Beach club went to Rice’s Reckling Park and split a pair of competitive one-run games, sandwiched around an Owls blowout on Saturday. In 2006, the Dirtbags beat the Owls 4-1 in the Coca-Cola Classic in Houston. So there’s plenty of familiarity between these teams. The most notable change this year is the setting: Long Beach State’s Blair Field.

“I’m glad to finally get Coach (Wayne) Graham back here—we’ve gone out there two years in a row,” LBSU coach Mike Weathers said. “Last year was a close, well-fought series. It’ll be interesting to see with them coming West finally—they don’t leave Texas very often—to see how they compete out here.”

Oklahoma at (1) UCLA
(2) Arizona at Georgia
Minnesota at (4) Mississippi
(5) North Carolina at Florida Atlantic
(8) Michigan vs. Villanova @ Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Cincinnati at (10) Miami
(11) San Diego at/at/vs./vs. San Diego State
(24) East Carolina at (12) South Carolina
(14) Rice at (13) Long Beach State
Purdue at (15) Baylor
Virginia Commonwealth at (16) Texas
Lehigh at (17) Virginia
UC Davis at (18) Fresno State
Fordham at (20) Wichita State
Northern Colorado at (21) Texas A&M
Illinois-Chicago at (22) Tulane
Mercer at (23) Clemson
Rutgers at (25) Old Dominion
Top 25 Tournaments

Demarini Invitational, Tempe, Ariz.
(3) Vanderbilt, (7) Oregon State, (9) Arizona State, Miami (Ohio)
Stetson Tournament, DeLand, Fla.
(6) Missouri, Connecticut, Michigan State, Stetson
UTSA Baseball Classic, San Antonio
(19) Louisiana-Lafayette, Army, Oral Roberts, Texas-San Antonio, Texas Tech

Graham knows the Dirtbags are constructed to thrive in pitcher-friendly Blair Field, and he hopes his team can adjust its style of play accordingly.

“You know that they’re going to play the game right—we played them four times in the last two years and we split,” Graham said. “They had good talent last year, I thought they had a good chance to go to Omaha last year, and they’ll probably be even better this year. We know their pitchers will throw strikes, and they’re not going to beat themselves. I think if either team doesn’t play good defense, you’re in trouble. You’re going to have to pitch and play defense in that park. And you’re going to have to play small ball and defend small ball.”

Weathers, too, knows what to expect from Rice. He’s seen even more of ace righthander Ryan Berry, who pitched for Weathers with Team USA last summer.

“Their pitching is pretty deep, their three weekend starters are supposed to be exceptional. I do know Berry very well from USA—we have our hands full Friday with his knuckle-curve and fastball,” Weathers said. “They’ve got a couple two-way guys who have pitched against us the last couple of years. They compete as well as anybody in the country; (Graham) makes them play real hard.”

The biggest question facing Rice over the offseason was how to replace three crucial losses up the middle, as well as the bat and left arm of three-year stalwart Joe Savery. Center fielder Tyler Henley, shortstop Brian Friday and catcher Danny Lehmann were all standout defenders at key positions as well as mainstays in the offense, but their replacements are promising.

Catcher Adam Zornes has been around the last two years, backing up Lehmann and DHing, and now he’ll finally get a chance to show off his above-average arm and good hands behind the plate, as well as his power bat. The key will be staying healthy—Graham said Zornes has a tendency to get banged up sometimes, and a nagging arm issue hindered his throwing in the fall. Freshmen—Rick Hague and Chad Mozingo—will fill the holes at shortstop and center field.

“They’re as good-looking freshmen as we’ve ever had,” Graham said. “Hague has a chance to be great, and Mozingo can run. He’s a good hitter; he hit well this spring. In the fall he was up and down, but he was consistent this spring, using the whole field better. Hague has hit beyond anything we dreamed of for a freshman shortstop. But you go to Long Beach, that’s a tough park to hit in, and you’re going to see good pitching.”

To replace Savery at first base, the Owls will turn to senior J.P. Padron to finally live up to the soaring expectations that have followed him from high school to Louisiana State to San Jacinto (Texas) Junior College to Rice last year. Graham said he looked good late in the spring, smacking three home runs in the final week of intrasquad games.

As for replacing Savery (and departed Conference USA pitcher of the Year Ryne Tacker) in the weekend rotation, the Owls will call upon junior righty Matt Langwell and senior lefthander Cole St.Clair. Langwell spent much of last season as a midweek starter but pitched well in some big postseason starts after Tacker was lost to injury. Graham said he’s added a split-finger fastball that he needed to combat dangerous lefthanded hitters, and he’s improved his slider and fastball command.

Langwell will start Sunday, and St.Clair will move into the Saturday starter slot after serving as a closer for most of the past three years. St.Clair was a first-team All-American in 2006 after going 7-2, 1.82 with 11 saves and 100 strikeouts in 74 innings, and he pitched well in a start at the College World Series that June. His junior year was marred by a shoulder strain that limited him to 28 innings, but he still posted a 1.91 ERA and racked up nine saves. He did not pitch last summer or fall while the Owls tried to nurse him back to full strength, and he has reported feeling no pain in practices this spring. His velocity topped out at 90 mph, and Graham said he hoped the regular schedule offered by a starting role would help St.Clair regain the 92-93 mph fastball he owned as a sophomore. He’ll be limited to four innings this weekend and backed up by senior righty Chris Kelley, who made 14 starts a year ago.

“I think this is the safest way to bring him back, rather than try to pitch him out of pen one night for an inning or two, then bring him back two nights later—this is safer,” Graham said. “Giving Cole regularity in the early part of the season, he knows exactly when he’s going to pitch. There wouldn’t be any inconsistencies. Getting him back 100 percent could be unbelievable. We think we got him the right kind of rehabilitation. It was always some sort of ‘-itis,’ and we had someone working with deep tissue massage, working the joints, and evidently, if you can believe him, there’s no pain.”

The pitching matchup Saturday will be a good one, as Long Beach will counter with junior righthander Vance Worley. Weathers said the battle for the Friday spot between Worley and senior righty Andrew Liebel was a good one.

“Worley this year is better than he’s ever been—he’s had the injury bug as a freshman and a sophomore,” Weathers said. “He’s very healthy, his body is in as good of shape as it’s ever been. He’s throwing the fastball back up to where he was coming out of high school, 90-92 mph. Him and Liebel, they’re very equal. Liebel is a little more efficient with his number of pitches and his changeup. I think he’s the guy who maybe won’t make us go into the bullpen as early Friday.”

That bullpen will feature twin closers, as Weathers said he doesn’t think one closer will be enough with the compacted schedule. So hard-throwing junior righty Bryan Shaw will be joined by righty Nick Vincent, a transfer from Palomar (Calif.) CC.

The other interesting development out of Long Beach is the Sunday starter: freshman righthander Jake Thompson, who skipped his senior year of high school to enroll early at LBSU, beat out senior righty Manny McElroy, who will start Tuesday against San Diego instead. Thompson’s reward is the challenge of making his collegiate debut in the Rice series finale.

“His feel for the changeup was unexpected,” Weathers said. “He’s got a great changeup, he’s got a changeup that some sophomores and juniors would like. His fastball is 90-92, he has a curveball—it’s not a great one by any means, but it’s there. At our school, you need three pitches, we really want our starters to have a change, and he has that. The key for him will be how he acts under pressure when the season starts. He’s competed against better kids on the showcase circuits, but this is his first Division I start, so his nerves and emotions and how he keeps it under control will be a major factor on Sunday. If he does what he’s been doing for us, I don’t have any worries.”

It helps that Thompson will have a talented, experienced lineup behind him, though Weathers said the shortened spring practice period meant less time to work on fundamentals.

“One of my concerns with these lack of practice days is defense,” he said. “We’ve always prided ourselves on pitching and defense, and I really hope we can keep the defensive part of it up. I worry with the lack of groundballs in practice.”

But every team in the nation has had the same amount of time to practice, though not everyone has gotten outside. Now, at last, it’s time to see which teams made the best use of their practice time. Few teams are as well-coached as Long Beach State and Rice, which is just one more reason why this series should be a very good one.

Marquee Mound Matchup
Brian Matusz vs. Stephen Strasburg
How’s this for an Opening Day duel: the favorite to go No. 1 overall in the 2008 draft against a top early candidate to go No. 1 overall in the 2009 draft? And to make things even more interesting, Matusz and Strasburg pitch for crosstown rivals.

Sure, Vanderbilt’s Pedro Alvarez is the preseason front-runner for national Player of the Year honors and the nation’s top prospect, but Matusz, a junior lefthander for San Diego, looks like a better fit for the Rays, who pick first in June and already have their third baseman of the future in Evan Longoria. Matusz is the entire package: a 6-foot-4 lefty with a chance for three above-average pitches and an impeccable track record. He’s a proven winner (he went 10-3, 2.85 as a sophomore) and a true power pitcher with very good command (163 strikeouts and just 37 walks in 123 innings a year ago).

Strasburg, meanwhile, thrived as San Diego State’s closer as a freshman, posting a 2.43 ERA and racking up seven saves and 47 strikeouts in 37 innings, and he continued to dominate out of the bullpen last summer in the New England Collegiate League, where he ranked as the No. 1 prospect. But he’ll make the transition to Friday starter as a sophomore, and by all accounts he’s ready for the role. A hulking 6-foot-4, 220-pound righthander, Strasburg is another true power pitcher who ran his fastball up to 100 mph in the fall to go along with an average to plus slider and promising changeup.

“San Diego State has done a tremendous job with this kid,” said a West Coast-based area scout. “You have to understand, this kid out of high school would throw 93, touch 94, but he was extremely immature, he couldn’t last in games, because his body language and demeanor, his lack of poise and presence was unbelievably bad. San Diego State just came in and broke him down, their weight training guy spent a ton of time with him, he dropped a bunch of weight, got himself in shape and worked his (read end) off for the pitching coaches. Give them a ton of credit on this guy. (San Diego State coach) Tony (Gwynn) will tell you, he was as immature as anybody ever, that’s why he wasn’t drafted out of high school. He’s got a Mark Prior kind of body, and now he’s throwing 98 mph—it’s a big arm on a big, physical, durable kid. He’s figuring it out, give the kid credit, and give San Diego State more credit, because they could have easily had an immature idiot. It was a nice marriage—he picked a school that believed in him, and Tony and his guys just did a remarkable job with the kid.”

Upset City
Wright State over Arkansas
Don’t expect Wright State to be intimidated by a hostile SEC environment. The Raiders opened 2007 by going to Mississippi and winning two out of three games, and they return enough offensive firepower to take advantage of an Arkansas rotation that will feature two freshmen (righthanders James Mahler on Friday and Kendall Korbal on Sunday) and a pitcher just 11 months removed from Tommy John surgery (Shaun Seibert on Saturday). Wright State’s dangerous lineup is anchored by junior first baseman Jeremy Hamilton, who hit .374 with nine homers and 22 doubles a year ago before earning a spot on Team USA in the summer. Junior shortstop Justin Parker (.379 with a school-record 26 doubles in 2007) and junior third baseman Jeff Mercer (who hit nine homers last year at Dayton before transferring to Wright State) add other power threats.

Granted, like Arkansas, Wright State will start two freshmen on the mound this weekend (in addition to sophomore lefty Bryce DeWeese), but the Razorbacks are banged up on offense. Projected starting center fielder Sean Jones was hit by a pitch in practice and will miss the first four weeks of the season, and other regulars Casey Coon and Tim Smalling are day-to-day with minor shoulder ailments. The Hogs figure to start five true freshmen this weekend in the lineup, while the Raiders could field a freshman-free starting lineup. Wright State, the preseason favorite in the Horizon League, could very well steal another series against a perennial SEC power.

Under The Radar
Louisiana State
For college baseball fans who remember the 1990s, it’s strange to think of LSU as “under the radar”. But the program that won five College World Series and went to 17 consecutive regionals from 1989 to 2005 has missed the NCAA tournament the last two seasons and was picked by Southeastern Conference coaches to finish fifth in the SEC’s Western Division in 2008.

But in his second season in Baton Rouge, coach Paul Mainieri is making it clear that this is a new ERA for the Tigers. The disappointment of the last two years is in the past, but so are the ’90s and the “Gorilla Ball” style popularized and perfected by coach Skip Bertman, now Mainieri’s boss as LSU’s athletic director.

“When you don’t have guys who can hit the ball out of the ballpark, hitting a 300-foot fly out doesn’t do you a lot of good,” Mainieri said on LSU’s media day. “We try to get the guys to hit the ball on the ground, do hit-and-run, bunt and all those things . . . the goal was to have a very balanced lineup with speed, guys who could handle the bat, clutch, line-drive hitters and power. I think our lineup this year will demonstrate that much more. We’ve got some guys who can steal bases, some who can hit the ball out of the ballpark and then, some who are good line-drive hitters.”

Make no mistake: by turning the page, Mainieri is not forgetting LSU’s tradition. He expects to get back to the postseason in 2008 and hopes to host one final regional at Alex Box Stadium before the Tigers move into their sparkling new facility next year. And that goal is hardly a pipe dream, because LSU’s talent has improved dramatically thanks to the nation’s second-ranked recruiting class.

“There was only a part of the lineup that was strong last year, and, as far as depth, we didn’t have any,” sophomore outfielder Jared Mitchell said. “We have both of those this year so it’s a big help . . . From A to Z, all up and down our roster there’s a lot more talent. When you have a lot of talent on your team, it helps you practice better to get better and it also helps you prepare for games.”

Mitchell and Chad Jones, football players who won a national championship on the gridiron in the fall and will throw out the first pitches in Sunday’s series finale against Indiana, bring athleticism and explosiveness to the Tigers’ lineup. Mitchell garnered significant support from major league scouting directors in Baseball America’s preseason All-America voting, and Mainieri said he has shown “remarkable improvement” in practice this spring.

Jones is still trying to make the transition from football and might start one game in right field this weekend, but freshman Leon Landry, another excellent athlete with a strong lefthanded bat, will start the opener. Other newcomers who will start Friday against the Hoosiers include shortstop D.J. Lemahieu, who had a torrid fall with the bat, and powerful junior college transfers Matt Clark and Matt Gaudet at first base and DH, respectively.

The Tigers also have talented sophomores who have made strides since last season ended. Left fielder Blake Dean is a gifted hitter who has added muscle and could be in for a power surge. Ditto catcher Sean Ochinko, who hit .315 with eight homers in the Cape Cod League last summer. And second baseman Ryan Schimpf, who will lead off, has greatly improved his barrel awareness, according to LSU hitting coach Cliff Godwin.

Louisiana State’s pitching staff also looks promising. Friday starter Jared Bradford and Sunday starter Ryan Byrd both control the strike zone very well and have experience pitching in the SEC. Junior college transfer Jordan Brown, who will start Saturday, is a power righthander with a 90-94 mph fastball and power curve. Fellow transfer Ryan Verdugo, who will start Tuesday against Southern, is a gangly lefthander with an 88-92 mph fastball and a pair of good offspeed offerings. And freshman righty Daniel Bradshaw has been the biggest surprise in this class; he showed enough command and poise in practice to earn the closer role.

The only setback for LSU was some elbow tendinitis that will sideline freshman righty Anthony Ranaudo for two or three weeks, but the Tigers have more than enough depth to withstand his absence. And that’s a refreshing change.

“I describe it to a lot of people that I feel like last year everything had to go perfect for us to win a game in the SEC, and somehow we were able to win some pretty big games, and I think we won four series against top-25 teams in the league,” Mainieri said. “It was very difficult for us to maintain the consistency just because there were so many weaknesses on our team. Now I feel like this is normal for us. We have the talent to jump into the fight. I don’t think there will be a lot of teams in the SEC significantly more talented than us. I think we are going to be right in there fighting every step of the way.”

Oregon State
The Beavers have several streaks going. They’ve won 10 consecutive games, dating back to a June 4 win against Rutgers in the Charlottesville regional. They’ve won five consecutive season-opening contests, including a combined no-hitter against Hawaii-Hilo last year. They’ve made three consecutive appearances in the College World Series, the longest active Omaha streak in the nation. And they’ve won two straight national championships, making them the first team to win consecutive titles since Louisiana State in 1996-97.

The Omaha and championship streaks won’t be on the line this weekend, but the 10-game winning streak and the five-game Opening Day winning streak will. Oregon State will open at perhaps the nation’s fiercest early-season tournament: the DeMarini Invitational in Tempe, Ariz. First up for the No. 7 Beavers will be No. 3 Vanderbilt, a battle-tested bunch that returns a trio of preseason All-Americans in third baseman Pedro Alvarez, shortstop Ryan Flaherty and outfielder Dominic de la Osa. Oregon State will send senior righthander Mike Stutes to the mound against Vandy sophomore lefty Mike Minor, who gets the unenviable assignment of replacing Player of the Year David Price atop the Commodore rotation.

The Beavers face Miami (Ohio) on Saturday and No. 9 Arizona State on Sunday. The RedHawks could steal a game against one of the top-10 teams they’ll face this weekend if their pitching holds up. Like Oregon State has been during its three-year run, Miami is strong up the middle, with a pair of impact players in shortstop Jordan Petraitis and second baseman Evan Armitage and an outstanding defensive catcher in Josh Hula.

Arizona State got some bad news this week when power righthanders Jason Jarvis and Devin Fuller were declared academically ineligible, though there is some hope that Jarvis could return at some point this season. ASU’s best bet this weekend might just be to bludgeon its way through the tournament, anyway: the Sun Devils return three preseason All-Americans (Brett Wallace, Ike Davis and Petey Paramore) to a lineup that scored 9.4 runs per game in 2007, the second-most in the nation. And no team is better suited to exploit hitter-friendly Packard Stadium than the host Sun Devils.

Cal Poly
It’s been a rough couple of weeks for the Mustangs, though they won’t play their first game until opening a three-game set at Alabama on Friday. Poly got some bad news when it was learned that sophomore lefthander Matt Leonard, the team’s projected Saturday starter, and junior first baseman Adam Buschini will miss all of the 2008 season. Leonard had elbow surgery this week, while Buschini still has not fully recovered from Tommy John surgery last summer.

“Hopefully we will have both of them back for next year,” Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee said. “But we’re excited about the opportunity to go back and play an SEC team at their home ballpark. It’s a great way to kick off the season, and playing a school like Alabama and our other non-conference teams will help us prepare for Big West play.”

Poly’s challenging nonconference schedule includes games against No. 11 San Diego, No. 18 Fresno State and No. 6 Missouri at next week’s USD Tournament, followed by a trip to Washington, a home series against No. 1 UCLA and four other midweek games against Fresno. But that kind of rigorous slate is nothing new for the Mustangs, who played three-game series last year against San Diego, San Diego State, Loyola Marymount, Rice and Oregon State. Of course, they lost 14 of the 16 games against those teams, which kept them out of the NCAA tournament despite a fourth-place finish in the loaded Big West. They’ll need to do better in the early going this year, which means some unproven arms will have to emerge to replace Leonard.

Junior lefthander Derrick Saito, who struck out 56 batters in just 36 innings out of the bullpen last year, will move into the Saturday spot in place of Leonard, leaving some uncertainty in the bullpen. Poly hopes redshirt sophomore righthander Kevin Castner, who ran his fastball up to 97 mph last summer, can stabilize the back of the pen.

“The unknown this year is our bullpen,” Lee said. “It will make or break us this year. We need to have a number of pitchers give us quality innings throughout the course of the year out of the bullpen.”

Stat Of The Week

Combined career Division I innings for the pitching staffs of Arizona and Georgia, who will face off in a three-game series this weekend in Athens, Ga. Arizona’s experienced staff has logged 789 innings and Georgia’s has logged 771, but Bulldogs pitchers have actually made more starts than their Wildcat counterparts, 84-83. Georgia will keep last year’s weekend rotation intact, going with junior righty Trevor Holder on Friday, junior righty Stephen Dodson on Saturday and junior lefty Nathan Moreau on Sunday. The Wildcats will counter with returning ace righthander Preston Guilmet (whose 31 career starts are the most of either team) on Friday, senior lefty David Coulon on Saturday, and junior righthander Ryan Perry on Sunday. Perry is the lone first-team preseason All-American of the six (Guilmet cracked the third team), but injuries have limited him to just nine career starts. The other five pitchers who will start this weekend all made at least that many starts last year alone.

Two other experienced Arizona starters, Eric Berger and Mike Colla, will be the first two guys out of the bullpen this weekend, because the Wildcats do not have any midweek games this week. All five starters will get a start next week, when the Wildcats play a three-game series against Cal State Sacramento and two midweek games against Nevada-Las Vegas. As for lefthander Daniel Schlereth, who toyed with starting in the fall, Arizona coaches said he will remain in the bullpen, either setting up closer Jason Stoffel or closing on days Stoffel does not.

Scouting Report
Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine

Last season was a special one for the Big West Conference, which sent four teams to regionals and two—Fullerton and Irvine—to the College World Series. But just one Big West team cracked our preseason top 25, and it was Long Beach State. For the first time since 1998, the Titans are unranked heading into the season, and for the first time since Baseball America began releasing preseason All-America teams in 1987, the Big West is unrepresented on all three teams. One National League area scout who has seen plenty of the Titans and Anteaters over the last few years as well as in the fall and spring practice periods said both teams have a lot of questions to answer. Both teams open on the road this weekend, as the Titans travel to Texas Christian and the Anteaters visit Nevada.

“(The Titans) are not a top 25 team. They’re very young this year. Their young guys will be good, but they’re very young. They’re going to have key guys that are freshmen and sophomores. Nothing jumped out at me about them (this fall or spring), really. They’re not going to be that good. The best team in that league is Long Beach, and second’s not close, really. Fullerton and Long Beach always seem to play each other tough. Dave (Serrano) will come up with pitching, but you’re liable to see him go three, four innings apiece with guys. Dave can teach pitching. That won’t be a huge issue. But there’s nothing stellar—you’re not going to see these big college arms. (Michael) Morrison, he’s OK, he needs to turn the corner and step up for them. Whether or not he’ll do that is anybody’s guess.

“Jared Clark has been pretty ginger on the knee all fall. He didn’t go hard, so I would think that the knee’s going to be a pretty large question. (Former Fullerton stars Justin) Turner and (Blake) Davis, those are not only scrappy guys but guys that ignite things, quality players. They’ve got those guys this year, but they’re freshmen. Gary Brown, he’s an exciting kid. I personally would put him at shortstop (in pro ball), and teach him to play there. I would put (Christian) Colon behind the plate. The kid plays his (rear end) off, he plays hard all the time, he competes, he likes to compete. He’s just not going to be your typical middle infield type, limited range. He’s not slow-footed, but he’s not going to give you much speed. The other guy that will probably hit is (Josh) Fellhauer, he’s a good hitter.

“Everybody was talking about how Irvine went to the World Series, but their parents over there are all excited—’We’ve got all these guys coming back’—but the guys they’ve got coming back didn’t play. (Scott) Gorgen will be their Friday guy; he’s an undersized righthander who competes his (rear end) off with a plus changeup. He’s going to give them pretty good innings and quality starts. Where their offense will come from is anybody’s guess. Their best player last year was Bryan Peterson, and they don’t have Peterson’s bat, they don’t have (Matt) Morris and (Taylor) Holiday’s speed, they don’t have (Tyler) Vaughn or (Cody) Cipriano in the infield. The (Luis) Tovar kid left for Riverside City (College). They’ve added the pitcher (Bryce) Stowell, who did himself a disservice by sitting out a year (after transferring from Pepperdine). He’s got a decent arm, but a very straight fastball, and he gets ripped. I would imagine he’ll be Mike (Gillespie)’s Saturday guy. I think (pitching coach) Teddy Silva’s got his curveball starting to come along, so we’ll see. He has improved since the early fall here lately. But he’s a bit of an enigma. Yes, he’s got a good arm, but sitting out a year, I can’t ever remember it helping a pitcher, I really can’t.”

In The Dugout
Alex Feinberg, 2b, Vanderbilt
In just five years, coach Tim Corbin has turned Vanderbilt into a national powerhouse, and Feinberg has been there for three of them. Now the third-ranked Commodores will open their season at the DeMarini Invitational against two other top-10 teams (Oregon State and Arizona State) as well as Miami (Ohio). Feinberg looked ahead to the big weekend, discussed the emergence of Vandy’s program, and talked about his Saturday Soldier project In The Dugout:

Like everyone else, you’ve had to wait to get started this year because of the uniform start date. Are you guys champing at the bit to get going?

We’re actually OK with it. We bypassed some 20-degree weather (by starting later). It’s not good when you’re scrimmaging and you can’t feel your hands.

What are your impressions of your team after three weeks of spring practice?

I like what we have. Coming into scrimmages I was kind of unsure. I thought our hitting was going to be good and there was a question about the pitching. (Brett Jacobson, Mike Minor and Nick Christiani) have definitely been doing really good. I faced Christiani in a scrimmage three days ago, and his two-seamer was just disgusting, I thought I was facing a lefthanded slider. There was no way anyone could hit that, coming out of his hand on a windy day—I mean, it’s got enough movement on a calm day. Some of the freshmen we brought in, Kellen St. Luce has actually been pretty nasty the last couple of weeks, and redshirt freshmen Mark Lamm and Caleb Cotham are going to pitch a lot for us.

Playing against such high-profile competition so early in the season this weekend, are you excited, nervous, or both?

We’re excited about it. Our team’s experienced enough to understand the significance of the tournament, to not think it’s the absolute end-all, but at the same time understand the importance of it. I like facing top quality competition. I think that brings the best out of everyone. It’ll be like an SEC weekend.

You saw Arizona State last year in the Houston College Classic. What do you remember about those guys?

I just remember they had a lot of lefties who had really high batting averages and good power numbers. They had a lot of big guys who hit the ball really hard from the left side. I played with Brett Wallace on a summer team in high school. He’s a nice kid, he and his family are very nice people, very down to earth.

Your offense returns a lot of firepower from a year ago. Have there been any pleasant surprises offensively so far this spring?

Considering the time of year, we’re doing pretty well. David Macias, his swing has improved considerably. He has better bat speed, he’s staying in the zone, it’s flatter, he’s got more confidence. Out in left field, Jonathan White, when he puts the ball in play it’s really difficult to get that guy out because of how fast he is. Those two guys have really surprised me.

Last year was an amazing one for Vanderbilt, but I’m certain it did not end the way you’d want, losing a regional at home to Michigan. Has the team discussed that at all and tried to use it as motivation, or are you just putting it completely behind you?

It’s kind of funny, no one really talks about it at all. The only time we really talk about it is when people from the media ask questions about it. Coach Corbin might have said about two things about it the entire year, and that’s two more things than anyone else said about it.

How far has the talent level at this program come in the four years you’ve been there?

I was thinking the other day, just practicing with these guys, I have the sense that we’re a good team. Even last year, playing everyday, it’s kind of hard to keep things objectively. I look to my right, that’s just Flaherty, that’s just Pedro. But I missed one game with injury and watched us play and realized, ‘Wow, we’re really good.’ I see that now.

I think if you watched our batting practice, that will tell you everything you need to know about how our hitting has progressed. When I was a freshman, you’d have some guys who could drive the ball, but it was very sporadic. It was the exception rather than the rule. Now you have guys hitting missiles left and right, it’s a 180.

It’s a slow progression, it’s not like it changed overnight. It is interesting that maybe a couple years ago if you would have told us we’d play the defending national champs on the first game of the year, we’d be like, ‘Wow, we’ve got to be on point.’ Now it’s a game against ourselves, if we’ve got to just play our game.

Tell me about the Saturday Soldier project (, the rubber bracelets that you started selling to football players in the fall to raise money for the Fallen Soldiers Fund. How did you come up with the idea?

Just over the summer, I went to a Giants game with my dad, I was thinking with all the contacts I have in baseball, I can start something that could catch on with kids my age. I realized I have a lot of connections with football players, and as popular as college baseball is football is more popular and gets more media attention. To a man, every guy on our team is wearing them, and a lot of these top college football players love wearing them because it means something for them. It’s a great way to raise money for charity. It’s given me a great sense for how a business works.

How many college football programs are wearing the bracelets now?

It’s in the high 20s. A lot of these football players really like them. The idea is if these football players wear them in the field, then it’s going to catch on with the fans. After any college game, when it’s in the newspaper, I always get a couple hundred dollars in sales.

Has it spread to college baseball?

Our team wears them, my friends from other baseball teams do wear them. I got an e-mail the other day that said a college team out in California is wearing them, but my primary focus is on football.

How did you decide to donate the money raised to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq?

I felt strongly for the cause. I think no matter how you feel about the war, it’s essential that you help people who are injured because of it. After I started this, I started getting a lot of e-mails from soldiers saying how much it means to them.