College Weekend Preview: Feb. 23-25

UCLA vs. Cal State Fullerton

There are not many fascinating series on the slate this weekend, but there is a very good one in Los Angeles. UCLA will visit Cal State Fullerton on Friday and then host the Titans on Saturday and Sunday in a series rife with West Coast intrigue.

Fullerton has been the best program in Southern California for the last decade, the model for all others to emulate. The Titans have set the bar high, winning the 2004 national title and making five trips to the College World Series in the 64-team NCAA tournament era, tied for the most in the nation with Texas, Miami and Stanford. UCLA is building plenty of momentum of its own under third-year coach John Savage, who has infused life into the Bruins with his energy, knowledge and consecutive outstanding recruiting classes. Fullerton and UCLA figure to be two of the best teams on the West Coast in 2007 and beyond, but the Bruins haven’t caught up with the Titans yet. For one thing, Cal State Fullerton is off to another strong start at 7-3 and has won each of its last 14 regular-season series. UCLA started well enough, taking two of three against Winthrop, then went across the country to Miami and got swept before returning home and sweeping East Carolina.

25 Schedule
Stony Brook at (1) North
Pacific at (2) Clemson
Eastern Michigan at
(4) South Carolina
Illinois State at (5)
Bucknell at (7) Virginia
Appalachian State
at (8) Florida State
(10) Cal State Fullerton vs./at/at (15)
Elon at (11) Miami
(12) Wichita State at
Washington State at (13)
Alabama-Birmingham at (14) Arizona
Duquesne at (16) Georgia Tech
(17) Oklahoma
State at Cal State Northridge
Wake Forest at (18) San
Fresno State at (20) Pepperdine
(21) Tulane at
Southern California
Miami (Ohio) at (23)
Wright State at (24)
Top 25
Music City


(3) Vanderbilt, Ball State, Boston
College, Pittsburgh

Coca-Cola Classic,

(6) Rice, (19) Nebraska, Florida Atlantic, Texas
A&M-Corpus Christi

River City Classic,
Davis/Sacramento, Calif.:

(9) Oregon State, UC Davis, St.
Mary’s Sacramento State, San Francisco

Baseball at
the Beach, Myrtle Beach, S.C.:

(22) Texas Christian, Coastal
Carolina, UNC Wilmington, North Carolina State, Notre

Dunn Hospitality Classic,

(25) Evansville, Chicago State, Eastern Illinois,

“I think they’re trying to get into that phase where they can compete with the big boys,” Fullerton coach George Horton said of UCLA. “They tried the Miami deal and it didn’t work so well. They’re probably very well pointed toward this series as opposed to in years past when we played them midweek, that’s not as big of a deal as when you play a three-game series. I know they’re really looking forward to it, I know they have good personnel, and they have been very competitive against us. We think it’ll be a very challenging series with their ability to play baseball. We hope they play very good baseball. Win or lose, it gives us a chance to find out more about ourselves.”

One thing the Titans do better than anyone is get the most out of their reserves when their starters go down. They lost starting third baseman Evan McArthur with a broken hamate bone, but senior Bryan Harris has filled in well at the hot corner, though his bat has yet to really come around. They lost freshman shortstop Nate Bridges to academic woes before the season started, but redshirt sophomore Joe Scott overcame a displaced knuckle and has been more than adequate as a replacement, hitting .368 and playing terrific defense, according to assistant coach Jason Gill. They’ve gotten more production than they expected out of scrappy, 5-foot-9 second baseman Joel Weeks, who is hitting .368 and making all the necessary plays in the field. They shifted senior catcher/DH John Curtis from the bottom of the lineup last year to the heart of the order, and he’s blossomed into a legitimate power bat, hitting .417 and slugging .694 through 36 at-bats.

“Guys wait their turn here,” Horton said. “They’re ready to function and play the game at a certain level. Might not be spectacular, but good enough collectively to be successful. That’s kind of been our M.O. over the years–the names may change, but we hope to still be competitive year in and year out at the national level. The picture looked pretty bleak in the fall and in January, those same kids were not playing the game well. Something’s happened since the beginning of practice.”

That ability to adapt to adversity and win with other players after losing stars sets Fullerton apart. UCLA needs to develop the same resilience; the Bruins have struggled to find an effective Saturday starter since freshman righthander Charles Brewer went down with mononucleosis. The Bruins are off next weekend and hope that will allow Brewer to get healthy in time for the Mississippi series in two weeks, but they’re likely to start freshman lefty Matthew Drummond this Saturday. Drummond was shut down in January with arm tenderness but was effective in his first start earlier this week against Long Beach State, allowing just three hits over four shutout innings. He’s not overpowering with a fastball in the 84-88 mph range, but he has good command of a four-pitch mix.

The Bruins have also been affected by the loss of sophomore third baseman Jermaine Curtis, who is academically ineligible for at least the rest of the quarter. UCLA coach John Savage said he hopes to have Curtis back for the Stanford series beginning March 30, but until then the Bruins will play senior Nolan Rouse and sophomore Eddie Murray at the hot corner. Rouse and Murray are a combined 3-for-24 (.125) this year.

“The Curtis factor is obviously really, really big,” Savage said. “We’ve played well at home and not well on the road, basically. But everybody has to play well on the road. We need to get tougher on the road.”

That won’t be easy Friday, when UCLA will be up against All-American righthander Wes Roemer at Fullerton. But the Bruins counter with senior righty Tyson Brummett, who is 2-1, 1.09 with 23 strikeouts and five walks in 25 innings this year. Brummett has a similar package to Arizona righty Preston Guilmet, who shut down the Titans last Friday.

“He’s very good, what I would call a Joe College righthander,” Horton said of Brummett. “He doesn’t wow you with stuff, there’ll be some scouts there with guns probably more for Wes than for him, but those kind of guys are tough to beat, those three- or four-pitch guys who can throw any pitch at any time. It will be a similar challenge to what we faced with Guilmet, and we didn’t handle that real well.”

The Titans still won that series against Arizona thanks to outstanding pitching performances from junior righty Jeff Kaplan on Saturday and freshman righty Sean Urena on Sunday. Of course, the long outings by the starters meant the Titans only used four pitchers all weekend, leaving their bullpen situation unresolved. That’s unusual for a Fullerton program that became accustomed over the last decade to premium closers such as Kirk Saarloos and Chad Cordero.

Getting good outings from Kaplan and Urena allows Fullerton to leave junior righthander Adam Jorgenson in the bullpen, where he can enter the game whenever the Titans need him most. But CSF is still looking for answers in the late innings. Harris has power stuff that would seem to make him a good candidate for the closer job, but he’s got his hands full as the everyday third baseman until McArthur gets back. Nolan Bruyninckx and Justin Klipp have been throwing well, but freshman righty Travis Kelly might wind up the closer thanks to a low-90s fastball and a good 12-to-6 curveball.

“One thing for us early in the season is to get the roles settled in the bullpen,” Horton said. “It doesn’t look like this will be one of our most effective bullpens, so that makes matchups more important. That’s our challenge, to figure out roles. We need to do that quickly, because I don’t think we can go on a winning streak and have success on a national level without solidifying our bullpen.”

Marquee Mound
James Simmons vs. Donnie Hume

UC Riverside is off to its second-best start (7-3) through 10 games since joining Division I in 2002, and pitching has a lot to do with it. Simmons, the Highlanders’ ace righthander, is coming off a 15-strikeout, four-hit, complete-game shutout against San Francisco. It’s clear the pulled glute muscle that affected his first few starts is behind him, as he commanded all three of his offerings very well last week, including a fastball that he ran into the 90-92 mph range, a very good changeup and a quality slider. He’s off to a 3-0, 0.45 start with an impeccable 25-2 strikeout-walk ratio in 20 innings, and opponents are hitting just .147 off him, the best mark in the Big West.

Simmons outpitched a terrific prospect last week in USF lefthander Aaron Poreda, and this week he’ll go up against another of the top arms on the West Coast in San Diego State’s Hume. The top newcomer in the Mountain West Conference after going a combined 4-5, 3.73 over the past two seasons at Long Beach State, Hume has solidified the Aztecs’ rotation since transferring in for his junior year. The 6-foot-1 lefthander can just about match Simmons for command; he has 14 strikeouts and just one walk through his first 17 innings, helping him go 2-1, 3.63. Like Simmons, Hume can run his fastball into the 90-92 mph range, and like Simmons he can throw any pitch in any count. Hume is coming off his worst outing of the year, allowing five earned runs over five innings in a loss to Southern California last Friday, and he’ll look to get back on the right track in this matchup against a pitcher with a similar style.

“Last Friday, he didn’t have his command early,” Aztecs coach Tony Gwynn said. “Usually he’s fastball-curveball-changeup-slider, and he can command all of them. He mixes it up, goes in and out, changes speeds, has great composure and does a really good job. Every start he’s had for us in the fall and the spring and early in the season, he’s been really sharp. He’s been everything we’d hoped he would be.”

Southern California over Tulane

Tulane righted the ship after dropping its season-opening series against Southeastern Louisiana, outscoring North Florida 30-7 in a three-game sweep. This weekend figures to be a much stiffer test, as the Green Wave travels across the country to face a dangerous Southern California team. Tulane ace Sean Morgan has been pitching very well (he struck out 11 last Friday), and he gives the Green Wave an advantage on Friday night. But USC sophomore righthander Ryan Cook has a power arm too, and he’s off to a strong start at 2-0, 2.05. Cook and freshman Brad Boxberger (0-1, 1.02 in 17 innings) are a strong one-two punch, but the Sunday starter spot has been a revolving door. Sophomore righty Tommy Milone will likely get his shot at the job this week, but he’ll have to improve upon his 6.52 ERA if he wants to keep it. USC’s real advantage is in the bullpen, where Paul Koss, Hector Rabago and Robert Stock make for an impressive trio of power arms. The Trojans could take this series thanks to their strong pen and the simple fact that they don’t have to travel across the country to play on the road–never an easy proposition. USC might be just 7-6, but the Trojans are already battle-hardened, having played series against quality foes Long Beach State, San Diego and San Diego State. By contrast, this will be Tulane’s first real test of the season.

Under The
UC Santa Barbara pitching staff

Cal State Fullerton and UC Riverside have been getting most of the attention in the Big West this year, but the league should be competitive from top to bottom. UC Santa Barbara has the quality arms to surprise some people, led by senior righthander Steve Morlock, who struck out nine and walked one while allowing just a run in a complete-game win against a good Hawaii club last weekend. Morlock has a good four-pitch mix, topping out in the 89-92 mph range with his fastball, and his changeup is a legitimate out pitch. The Gauchos also have a very intriguing freshman in 6-foot-3 righthander Mike Ford, who has used his 91-94 mph fastball to rack up nine strikeouts (and six walks) through four innings this year. Also keep an eye on junior lefty Chuck Huggins, who works in the 87-90 range with his fastball and has shown a plus curveball at times. Huggins and senior closer Justin Segal anchor a solid Gauchos bullpen.

Greg Miclat, ss, Virginia

Miclat is on an incredible tear against the soft part of Virginia’s schedule. In three games against George Washington and one against William & Mary, Miclat went 15-for-17, at one point ripping off hits in 11 consecutive at-bats. On the year, he’s 18-for-28 (.643), with four triples and two doubles for a slugging percentage of 1.000. On top of that, he’s 6-for-6 on stolen base attempts, he has 11 RBIs and just one strikeout. Look for more big numbers this weekend with Bucknell in town.

Dennis Raben, of, Miami

The Hurricanes have had already had a topsy-turvy season, and they need Raben’s bat to come around and become the middle-of-the-order force they expected. Raben is just 6-for-33 (.182) through his first eight games, and he’s still seeking his first RBI. To Raben’s credit, he’s been very solid out of the bullpen, already matching his 2006 total of three innings pitched. Last year he posted a 15.00 ERA in that limited action, but this year he has emerged as a key member of the Miami bullpen, posting a 0.00 ERA and a 4-0 strikeout-walk ratio. Cut him some slack while he adjusts to the two-way role, but he needs to settle in and start hitting or he could lose at-bats to sophomore Dave DiNatale, a transfer from Central Florida.

Stat of the

Series between top 25 teams on the schedule this weekend. If you’ve noticed a distinct West Coast feel to this Weekend Preview, it’s because those are the teams playing challenging schedules right now. The early-season scene might be a little different in coming years, when the later start date might force some Southeastern power brokers to play more competitive series early on, because some Northern schools that have traditionally offered themselves up for slaughter in Southern road trips might choose instead to stay home and play each other in the early going. Even if they do make the Southern swings, they should be more competitive with a few weeks of outdoor practice under their belts.

There might not be many interesting series this weekend, but there are a couple of tournaments worth mentioning. Baseball at the Beach figures to tell us a little something about North Carolina State and Coastal Carolina, each of which is off to an undefeated start. The Chanticleers have a few quality wins over Elon, Virginia and UNC Wilmington, but this will be the first legitimate test for the Wolfpack. Both teams will face a very good Texas Christian team as well as each other, and the Chanticleers have the toughest weekend, facing TCU ace Jake Arrieta on Friday, N.C. State on Saturday and Notre Dame on Sunday. TCU will squeeze four games into the weekend, playing a doubleheader Saturday against the Seahawks and Irish.

Also keep an eye on the Rice Invitational, where Rice, Nebraska and a solid Florida Atlantic team will square off, along with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, which lost its first game (after a 9-0 start) at Texas-Pan American on Tuesday. FAU ace Mickey Storey will be a handful for Rice on Friday, and Saturday’s Rice-Nebraska game should be a good one. That’ll be a big test for impressive Rice freshman righthander Ryan Berry, who is 2-0, 1.08 through his first three starts.

Tyson Ross, rhp, California

Ross and Long Beach State sophomore righty Vance Worley will face off in another of the fine pitching duels on the West Coast this weekend. Ross, a potential first-round pick in 2008, has flashed power stuff early this year, going 1-1, 1.77 through his first 20 innings, but his control sometimes falters, as evidenced by his rather pedestrian 13-7 strikeout-walk ratio. One coach who has seen Ross this year offers this assessment:

He is pretty good. He threw a lot of breaking balls the day I saw him. He’s a big 6-foot-5 righthander, and the ball’s coming straight down. He had a sharp slider that hitters couldn’t recognize at all. When he did throw the fastball, it was 92-93, I think he might have touched 94. But he threw a lot of breaking balls that day. Real easy delivery. I think he’ll end up being as good as advertised. On the West Coast, there’s only one guy with that kind of ceiling, (San Diego’s) Brian Matusz. Tyson’s definitely a guy people are going to be real interested in next year.

The Dugout
Andy Gerch, of, Nebraska

Gerch is one of the key players remaining from Nebraska’s 2005 College World Series team, along with infielders Ryan Wehrle and Jake Opitz, outfielder Bryce Nimmo and pitchers Johnny Dorn and Tony Watson. All of those players had roles on that 2005 team, but none bigger than Gerch, whose dramatic three-run home run against Arizona State in the ninth inning of a CWS elimination game gave the Cornhuskers the lead, before the Sun Devils stormed back to take the game in extra innings. Gerch talked about that game, discussed just how good Nebraska’s pitching staff is this year, and addressed the Cornhuskers’ showdown with Rice this weekend In The Dugout:

What did it do for your confidence to go 5-for-5 on Sunday?

It’s a big confidence booster. At that point in the game you just walk up there and know you’re going to get another hit. Nobody can get you out at that point.

You’ve played Rice three times over the past two years, beating them twice in 2005 and then losing 3-2 against Eddie Degerman last year. Do you get up for playing those guys early in the season?

We really enjoy playing Rice, they’re always highly ranked and always field a good team. For us, we’re kind of the same team, really good pitching staffs and we have a couple of guys who can really swing the stick well. This lets us know how we stack up. Last year they were a really talented team, we know they’ll be able to pitch. It seems right now they’re just not getting the hits, but last year once they clicked, they clicked hard.

How difficult is it to get into a rhythm early in the year when you haven’t been outside much?

We actually have not practiced outside yet. It definitely makes things a little difficult, we can still get our work done, only thing is some of the bounces are different on the field. But we have pretty good athletes who can make adjustments.

Just how good is that pitching staff over at Nebraska? Can you hit off those guys in intra-squads?

We get tired of hitting off those guys. They’re extremely good. We have a couple of what look like high draft picks. We definitely don’t look forward to it every day, but at the same time it prepares us, because if we can hit those guys, we’ve got a good chance to hit anybody else in the country

Have you ever hit Tony Watson’s circle changeup?

I may have stumbled across it once or twice on a lucky guess. It’s tough to see it coming out of his hand, he’s so smooth, he looks so different from a regular pitcher.

Last year you were limited to mostly DH duties after hurting your shoulder the previous summer. How much of a toll did that take on you?

It definitely was frustrating at times, just not being able to fully participate. At times you felt like you had minimal participation, you go out once every three innings and take an at-bat. It’s a lot better to go out there and be in the flow of the game.

You were a big part of Nebraska’s run to the CWS in 2005, hitting that three-run homer against Arizona State in the ninth inning in Omaha. I know you guys didn’t win that game, but that still had to be a pretty special moment for you, hitting a homer to give your team the lead in the ninth inning of a College World Series game, with all the Nebraska fans going nuts. Can you describe that moment?

It was basically going from an all-time low to an all-time high extremely quick. Because right before that I had swung through a slider to go down 0-2, and I just reacted real quick on the next pitch. Being in that College World Series environment, in front of all our fans, that’s something you were dreaming of that as a kid. It was really special.