College Weekend Preview: March 16-18

Meaningful Matchups
Mississippi at Vanderbilt

Ever since Vanderbilt made a loud splash in early February by sweeping through the Houston College Classic, the Commodores have been able to pile up wins against lesser competition, biding their time until the start of Southeastern Conference play this weekend. As teams ahead of them in the rankings fell, the ‘Dores climbed from their preseason No. 8 ranking up to No. 2, the highest they’ve ever been. But even though Vandy’s school-record 19-0 start has been padded by series wins against the likes of Ohio and Xavier, it’s still awfully hard to win 19 games in a row. Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin took exception to the suggestion that his team has been cruising along until Mississippi comes to town this weekend, pointing out a couple of one-run wins against Illinois-Chicago last weekend, but he did seem to acknowledge the favorable schedule.

Top 25 Schedule
(7) Virginia at (1) North Carolina
(23) Mississippi at (2) Vanderbilt
Louisiana State at (3) South Carolina
Wake Forest at (4) Florida State
San Francisco at (5) Oregon State
Duke at (6) Clemson
Cal Poly at (8) Rice
(9) Arkansas at (24) Kentucky
(10) Texas vs./at/at Baylor
Minnesota at (11) Pepperdine
(17) Long Beach State at (12) Wichita State
Hartford at (14) Oklahoma State
Eastern Michigan at (15) Coastal Carolina
Kansas at (16) Texas A&M
Maine at (18) Arizona State
(20) Auburn at Georgia
Michigan State at (21) Oklahoma
Houston at (22) San Diego
Michigan at (25) East Carolina

“Since (Houston), we’ve basically been in the comfort zone,” Corbin said. “We’ve been at home, traveled a couple of times. We almost got stung this past weekend. We got shut down a little bit, but our pitching was solid. I thought Illinois-Chicago was a very good baseball team that can pitch very well.”

Corbin didn’t express any concern that his team would have difficulty snapping out of its comfort zone this weekend. Even more than most teams, Vanderbilt emphasizes focusing on improving itself and not worrying about the opponent. Corbin certainly didn’t express any regret about his team’s schedule.

“I think when you’re an SEC ballclub, you take advantage of the fact that you’ve got a good facility, you can put people in the seats and earn some money,” Corbin said. “I don’™t think anyone should apologize for that, either.”

Mississippi has taken a different approach this year, playing its most competitive non-conference schedule in coach Mike Bianco’s seven-year tenure. The Rebels have already won series against ranked opponents Evansville and UCLA, though both series were at home. Now the 14-5 Rebels will open conference play with a bang.

“We’re excited to play the No. 1 (in some rankings) team in the country on the road,” Bianco said. “We also realize there’s like six teams in the top 14 in the SEC, so every weekend is like this. Every game is as important as the last game, but no more important than the game the day before. When you play in this league, you’ve got to get up and play every day, and if you don’™t bring your ‘A’ game, you’re going to be in trouble.”

Pitching has been the biggest strength for both of these teams, as anticipated, but Vandy has gotten more consistent production from its offense (the three runs over the first two games against Illinois-Chicago notwithstanding). Ole Miss has gotten a spark from freshman outfielder Jordan Henry, who has moved from low in the lineup to the leadoff spot, ahead of his brother Justin. Bianco said he had some reservations about having those two lefthanded hitters batting back-to-back atop the order, but both players hold their own against lefthanded pitching. Still, they’ll be tested Friday against the nation’s best lefthander, Vandy junior David Price, who will oppose Mississippi junior righty Will Kline in one of the weekend’s best pitching matchups.

“We’ve faced him, like most of the teams, the last two years,” Bianco said of Price. “David, I think it was his first SEC start (in 2005), Tim had just moved him into one of the SEC starters, he just manhandled us. We looked like a junior high school team against him. Last year wasn’t as bad, we were more prepared for him, but although we lost, we did as well as you could do, scored four or five runs. That’s about all you can do against a David Price, the best you can do, put an inning together, a walk and an error, get a timely hit. You’re certainly not going to get a ton of hits against him, he’s so good. Probably the biggest key is you need your ace to pitch well–I think the big key is Will Kline. If he can shut down Vanderbilt and keep the game tight, it’ll give us a shot.”

Saturday’s matchup between Vandy’s Nick Christiani and Mississippi’s Lance Lynn is another good one, as is Sunday’s duel between Brett Jacobson and Brett Bukvich. It might come down to whose offense performs better. One advantage for Vanderbilt in that department is that its first-team All-American, Pedro Alvarez (.415/.484/.817 with seven homers) has far outperformed the Rebels’ first-teamer, Zack Cozart (.232/.291/.348 with two homers). Ole Miss desperately needs Cozart’s bat to come alive sooner rather than later. But even if his slump continues, the Rebels will present a big test for Vanderbilt.

“Spring training is over, and now the real season hits,” Corbin said.

Marquee Mound Matchup
Sean Doolittle vs. Robert Woodard

This weekend’s three-game series between Virginia and North Carolina figures to have plenty of ramifications in the long race for the ACC Coastal Division title. Both teams will send proven winners to the mound Friday in UVa. junior lefty Doolittle (18-5 career record) and UNC senior righty Woodard (27-3). These two have played prominent roles in this series over the past two years. In 2005’s meeting in Chapel Hill, both appeared in relief, as Woodard allowed two unearned runs on two hits over 5 2/3 innings of relief of Andrew Miller, and Doolittle allowed one run on three hits over 2 1/3 innings of relief of Matt Avery. Both pitchers struck out five and walked one, but neither factored in the decision, as the Tar Heels won 8-7 in 14 innings en route to a series sweep. Then last year in Charlottesville, Doolittle beat Miller on Friday night, tossing 6 2/3 scoreless innings in Virginia’s 4-1 win. Woodard fired back with a complete-game shutout in UNC’s 5-0 win Saturday, but the Cavaliers won the rubber game. Now, for the first time, Doolittle and Woodard will start against each other.

Both pitchers are coming off their worst outings of the year, as Doolittle allowed five runs over 6 1/3 innings in last Friday’s loss to Wake Forest, and Woodard surrendered four runs over five innings in a win over Miami.

“It’s not a good matchup with (Woodard) against Miami, I don’™t think,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “They have more lefthanded hitters, he hasn’t pitched well against Miami the last couple of years, but he’s pitched well against Virginia, so we’ll see if he can continue that trend. With him it’s control and command and being able to throw that changeup to the lefties. We’ve got to keep the ball in the ballpark against Doolittle and not let the long ball hurt us.

“Doolittle’s a great competitor–he’s not going to beat himself. He’s not going to walk anybody. What was amazing to me was he didn’t strike out anybody against Wake, but he didn’™t walk anybody, either. So he’ll do that, he’ll put his team in position to win.”

Still, there seems to be a growing consensus among scouts that Doolittle profiles better as a first baseman in professional ball. Before the season, scouts were very divided on his future.

“You’re going to find (scouts) who still like him on the mound, but I think the way he’s thrown early on, I’d have to lean toward the bat,” said a scout with an American League club. “It looks like his delivery is different, his stuff hasn’t been firm, and on the mound, I’m just seeing another lefthander without anything that separates himself.

“I think maybe he’s trying to tell us something.”

One other thing to keep in mind about this series: the home team has won the last two series between the Cavaliers and Tar Heels, but UNC’s home-field advantage might be neutralized this weekend with students on spring break.

“I was a little concerned about that, with no students here,” Fox said. “We’ll see what happens this weekend. It’s obviously basketball weekend, there were a lot of things where the focus was . . . but we don’t have any control over that. When it’s time to play at home, you play at home. When it’s time to play on the road, you play on the road. So our guys will be ready.”

Upset City
Kentucky over Arkansas

Kentucky’s 29-game home winning streak is the longest in the nation, but it will be put to the test this weekend against No. 9 Arkansas. The Razorbacks will be without the services of junior righthander Shaun Seibert, who injured his elbow in his best outing of the year last week against Kansas. Still, the Razorbacks have the edge Friday night, when junior lefthander Nick Schmidt brings a 16 2/3 inning scoreless streak to Lexington. Kentucky counters with Chris Rusin, who possesses one of the better breaking balls in the SEC and a 7-0 career record. He should keep the Wildcats in the game, but even if they lose Friday, UK coach John Cohen believes his team is tough enough to bounce back.

“We’re going to get punched in the nose this weekend, and that hasn’t happened to us all year,” Cohen said. “Nick Schmidt’s going to punch us in the nose. The question is do we punch him right back.”

Kentucky will rely upon junior lefty Andrew Albers on Saturday against Arkansas junior righthander Jess Todd, who made the switch from the closer role to the weekend rotation last week, leaving a hole in the bullpen. The Wildcats bullpen, meanwhile, has gotten a boost from the return of redshirt sophomore righty Scott Green from Tommy John surgery. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound Green has pitched in the 88-92 mph range with his fastball, touching 93-94 on occasion, along with a very good slider. Kentucky’s bullpen edge figures to be a factor this weekend, as does UK’s edge on Sunday, when sophomore righthander Greg Dombrowski opposes Arkansas’ Duke Welker. You’d be hard-pressed to find a matchup between two righthanders with more different styles than the soft-tossing, command-and-control specialist Dombrowski and the hard-throwing Welker, who has battled shaky command at times this year but is coming off his best outing of the year, tossing six strong innings in a midweek win against Oral Roberts. That was encouraging for Arkansas, but he still needs to prove he can do that consistently. Consistency is Dombrowski’s middle name, as his 15-2 lifetime record can attest.

Under The Radar
Brian Rike, of, Louisiana Tech

This isn’t the first time we’ve recognized a Louisiana Tech outfielder in this space; back in early February we singled out Bulldogs two-way star Jericho Jones. Rike has out-hit Jones this year, but that’s no slight to Jones, because Rike has out-hit just about everybody in the country. His 12 home runs lead the nation by three over the next closest slugger, and his 37 RBIs are just one off the national lead, held by Kentucky catcher Sean Coughlin. Rike has even pitched a little in relief, striking out five in three scoreless innings of work over two appearances. He’s starting to generate some draft buzz, as well, and he could climb into the first five rounds in June.

Ryan Littlejohn, of, Rogers (Okla.) State

Littlejohn, a 43rd-round pick of the Braves out of Oklahoma’s Verdigris High in 2005, spent last year at Allen County (Kan.) Community College before transferring to NAIA Rogers State, and he had a week for the ages. It started last Thursday, when Littlejohn hit for the cycle against Oklahoma Wesleyan. He went 3-for-3 the next day and fell just a double shy of hitting for the cycle for a second straight day, then homered again on Saturday. During one stretch on the week, Littlejohn was 14-for-15, and he doubled in seven consecutive consecutive at-bats. He also drove in 12 runs and scored nine more.

Georgia Tech

The Yellow Jackets, ranked No. 12 in the preseason, tumbled out of the Top 25 last week and have lost four of their last five games, including a loss to Kennesaw State this week. Tech sits at 9-9 overall and 1-2 in the conference, with Boston College coming to town this weekend, fresh off a weekend sweep at Duke. The Yellow Jackets have hit just fine, but pitching has been an even bigger problem than anticipated. Tech has a team ERA of 5.68, and closer Matt Wieters has an ERA of 9.00 through seven innings of work. Redshirt junior John Goodman will make his second start of the year Saturday after replacing the struggling Chris Hicks in the rotation.

Stat of the Week

Reader Bob Mitchell, a 1971 Long Beach State graduate, sends along this fun little tidbit: through 16 games, the Dirtbags scored 1.6 more runs per game than the average given up by their opponents, and they allowed 2.25 fewer runs per game than the average scored by their opponents. Thus, Long Beach has outperformed its opponents’ averages by 3.8 runs per game. That kind of performance has helped the Beach go 6-4 against top 25 teams. How tough has Long Beach’s schedule been? After the Dirtbags took two of three from Arizona State last weekend, their opponents had a cumulative 83-45 record, excluding games against Long Beach State. When you add in games against the Beach, that record falls to 88-55.

Long Beach will have its work cut out for it again this weekend, when it faces yet another top 25 team on the road (No. 12 Wichita State). The Dirtbags have already gone to Rice and Arizona State, going a combined 3-3 on those trips. In fact, the Beach’s only games against teams outside the top 25 this year are three against Southern California to open the year (before the Trojans entered the rankings), a pair of wins against California, and this week’s 4-2 win against UCLA, which opened the season ranked 13th.

Scouting Report
Arizona State

The Sun Devils have dropped their last two weekend series, but they continue to impress people with their dynamic offense, which scores a lot of runs but does not simply rely on the long ball. One coach whose team has played ASU broke down the offense this way:

“Arizona State has the best lineup I’ve seen in a long time. Comparable to the (Louisiana State) teams in 1998-2000. The difference is LSU was swinging minus-5 bats and ASU just looks like they are swinging minus-5’s. Not only do they have a ton of talent, but they are very well coached. Not just a bunch of guys up there hacking with no plan–which you see sometimes with the better-hitting teams. They take pitches and build at-bats, and with all those great power numbers the most telling stats are their walk and strikeout numbers. They have more walks (131) than strikeouts (97), which shows great discipline at the plate. They also have very low strikeout numbers; normally big-time power guys also have high K totals, but ASU guys don’t at all, and that goes back to them having a plan. And that plan includes a lineup full of hitters committed to adjusting with two strikes and refusing to strike out. Whoever their hitting coach is–Tim Esmay I think–should get some of the credit, because he does a great job.

“Pitching wise, just look at the box scores over the last five games and it’s obvious they have confidence in very few pitchers. (Brian) Flores has the best chance to dominate a game.”

In The Dugout
Robert Rodebaugh, dh, Elon

Rodegaugh played a huge part in Elon’s school-record 45 wins in 2006, hitting .340 with 11 homers and 60 RBIs for a Phoenix team that went to the Clemson regional and beat Mississippi State before losing its final two games. As remarkable as the season was for Elon, it was even more amazing for Rodebaugh, a transfer from Division II Presbyterian (S.C.) getting his first taste of Division I competition. This year has been more of a struggle so far, both for Rodebaugh (.254 with three homers and 17 RBIs) and Elon (10-9). The senior talked about his Phoenix career and his slow start In The Dugout.

Coming from where you were in Division II, that’s a tough transition to make, and not a lot of guys make it. How were you able to do it so smoothly?

I’ve got a great supporting cast here, guys hitting around me, great coaches. Sometimes I take a look around me, I’m playing at Miami, North Carolina, and I was playing Division II ball a couple of years ago. It’s kind of surreal.

You’ve played some very good teams since arriving at Elon, between Miami, UNC, Clemson and others. Who’s the best team you’ve faced?

(UNC) right now is the best team we’ve played this year. I’m excited about how we played them, because we needed a good game today before we go into conference. They’re tough, they do a great job hitting the ball up the middle, they don’t miss their pitches when they get them, and they take advantage of mistakes. They pitch, they do it all. They’re a good team.

On that Miami trip that you guys made, going down there and winning on Friday night, your confidence had to be pretty high at that point. Did you feel like you had a chance to win that series?

We definitely thought we had a good chance. We went down there and thought they might take us for granted a little bit, and we jumped on them, got five in the first on Friday night, had a great game. We fell behind quick in the second game, but we played them tough Sunday. They’re a good team, too, it just didn’™t fall our way that day.

You haven’t posted quite the eye-popping numbers so far that you had last year. Have you noticed people pitching around you now?

I’ve gotten off to a little bit of a slow start, pressing a little bit. After last year, I felt like this year I needed to really step up and do more than I need to, and I’ve been pressing a little bit. I’ve felt good the last couple of games, and if I can get some hits to start falling, it would be nice.

Last year, I was always big on walks and not striking out much. I started off striking out a lot more than I’m used to this season, so I decided to slow things down. I had six walks last weekend (against North Carolina A&T); they were pitching around me a little bit. I think at the beginning of the year guys were pitching around me and I was chasing pitches, trying to do too much when I’m not getting the pitches to hit. Now I’ve relaxed a little bit and taken the walks when they’ve given them to me.