College Weekend Preview: March 2-4

Clemson at South Carolina

Ray Tanner didn’t need reminding just how big the Clemson-South Carolina battle is, but the Gamecocks coach got it anyway this week.

“The fact that both of us right now are in the top five I think adds to it, and we’re extremely proud of that. It makes a ticket hard to come by this weekend,” Tanner said Wednesday. “I’ve spent about an hour trying to sort that out this morning, and I don’™t have to do that the rest of the year.”

South Carolina hosts Sunday’s game in the annual home-and-home two-game series, but Clemson assistant coach Kevin O’Sullivan reported a similar ticket crunch for Saturday’s game in Clemson.

“It’s a nightmare. It really is,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve got people asking for tickets at home, and they want tickets down there, and obviously we can’t get tickets down there. It starts up Monday and goes all through the week–you get calls Friday night looking for tickets the next day. You can’t please everybody. Everybody in the state looks forward to this game.”

25 Schedule
State at (1) North Carolina
(2) Clemson vs./at (4) South
Xavier at (3) Vanderbilt
(6) Rice at (10)
Cal State Fullerton
Delaware at (7) Virginia
Siena at
(8) Florida State
Richmond at (11) Wichita
Fordham at (12) Miami
Oral Roberts at (13)
(14) Arizona State at Auburn
Rutgers at (15)
Georgia Tech
(16) San Diego at Fresno State
(20) UC
Riverside at Oklahoma
Nicholls State at (21) Oklahoma

Dairy Queen Classic,

(5) Arkansas, Minnesota,
Mississippi, The Citadel

Domino’s Pizza Aggie
Baseball Classic, College Station,

(9) Oregon State, (25) Texas
A&M, New Mexico, St. Louis

Keith LeClair Classic, Greenville,

(17) Pepperdine, (24) North
Carolina State, East Carolina, Western

Invitational, Deland, Fla.

Nebraska, Iowa, Notre Dame, Stetson

Coastal Carolina Tournament, Conway,

(22) Coastal Carolina, Rhode
Island, Marist, West

That statewide frenzy of anticipation is why the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry is one of the best in the nation. When you factor in how high expectations are for both teams this year (Clemson is ranked second in the nation and South Carolina is No. 4), and a strong case can be made that this rivalry trumps all others, this year at least. Sure, the Tulane-Louisiana State game earlier this week drew 8,000-plus as usual, and the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State “Bedlam Series,” Texas-Texas A&M and Miami-Florida State are always entertaining matchups, but nothing matches Clemson-South Carolina in 2007.

“I think it’s great for college baseball,” Tanner said. “There’s no doubt in my mind, (Clemson) Coach (Jack) Leggett and I had visited on the phone yesterday about some scheduling, and we like to think we have the best rivalry in college baseball. The quality of teams, the fans, the whole thing. It’s electric. You know baseball is a sport that sometimes you have great fans that appreciate it and it moves slow. This atmosphere is more like being on the gridiron. Everyone is hanging on every pitch, it’s really special.”

Both teams enter this showdown with just one loss, but the Gamecocks are in slightly better shape. The Tigers will be without junior shortstop Stan Widmann, who had gotten off to a hot start this year (.409/.458/.682 through six games) but is sidelined with a neck injury. A three-year starter at shortstop, Widmann has been a stabilizing force in the Clemson infield. In his place, junior second baseman Taylor Harbin slides over to shortstop, where he played in high school, and freshman J.D. Burgess takes over the second-base duties. That leaves a bit of an offensive void, as the hard-nosed Burgess is off to a 1-for-9 start.

Clemson is relying on other freshmen elsewhere, with mixed results so far. True freshman Addison Johnson continues to bat leadoff despite starting the season in a 6-for-32 slump (.188). He and redshirt freshman Wilson Boyd have gone through some defensive growing pains in the corner outfield spots, and fellow freshman Ben Paulsen is pushing for at-bats thanks to his 5-for-11 start. Paulsen could still see time at DH or in the outfield, but the Tigers have begun working him out at third base as well.

Despite all of that uncertainty, Clemson has been encouraged by the early play of redshirt junior catcher Doug Hogan, who has turned the unsettled backstop situation into a strength. Hogan’s four home runs account for nearly half of Clemson’s team total, and he’s hitting .433 through his first 30 at-bats, but his biggest impact might not even be his bat.

“For two years he played behind probably the best defensive catcher we’ve had here in Adrian Casanova,” said O’Sullivan, a former all-Atlantic Coast Conference catcher himself at Virginia. “Now he’s getting a chance to play every day. He’s an extremely hard worker, he’s doing a great job calling the game, handling the staff. Offensively he’s been a great addition to the lineup, but really anything he does offensively is a plus. He’s back there because he’s our best defensive catcher, he knows our staff, he’s been here two or three years.”

That Clemson pitching staff has been good so far. The Tigers called upon usual Friday starter P.J. Zocchi against Winthrop on Wednesday, so they’ll go with junior righthander David Kopp on Saturday and sophomore lefty Ryan Hinson on Sunday. That duo has allowed only one earned run in 19 innings this year.

South Carolina is best known for its high-powered offense, but its pitching staff has excelled in the early going. Ace lefty Arik Hempy’s recovery from Tommy John surgery is nearly complete, and he’s been pushing to make his first appearance of the year this weekend, though Tanner said that possibility remains unlikely. In his absence, junior righty Harris Honeycutt has emerged as a very reliable Friday starter. He’ll take the mound Saturday in Clemson.

“As a coach you’re always excited about a young man who comes into your program, puts in his time, continues to get better, and develops into a better pitcher,” Tanner said. “Last year when we started he was pitching midweek, then he was pitching on weekends, then he ended up pitching the first game of a regional, then a super-regional, and he got wins. He’ll throw as many four pitches for strikes. His fastball is up in the upper 80s and will bump some 90s, he throws a very good slider, a curveball in there and his changeup is a plus pitch. He keeps you honest up there, really makes a hitter make some adjustments.”

The Gamecocks will bypass normal Saturday starter Jay Brown–a junior transfer–in favor of sophomore righthander Mike Cisco on Sunday. One reason for that decision is simply that Cisco, like Honeycutt, has faced Clemson before.”I don’™t think there’s any doubt about it, if you’ve been through it a couple of times you have an idea what the intensity, the atmosphere is like,” Tanner said. “The fact that you’ve been through it helps, and those two guys have.”

But then, so have Kopp and Hinson, who each earned wins against the Gamecocks a year ago. It’s another example of how these two teams and programs are so evenly matched, and why this is the game’s top rivalry series at this time.

Marquee Mound
Hunter Moody vs. Ryan Belanger

Louisiana-Lafayette and Southern Mississippi have cruised through the first few weeks of the season against lesser opponents, but both teams will be tested this weekend in Hattiesburg, Miss. The Ragin’ Cajuns (10-0) swept through their first week of competition without the services of Moody, their ace junior lefthander, who was battling elbow soreness. But Moody, a 12-game winner a year ago, returned to action last Friday against Illinois, allowing one hit over five shutout innings to pick up the win. More importantly, he was economical with his 62 pitches and he didn’t report any pain. Moody isn’t overpowering, but he’s a proven winner who knows how to pitch and won’t be intimidated by a potent Golden Eagles offense.

Southern Miss (8-1) counters with Belanger, who last week shut down a Georgia Southern offense that was hitting .363 as a team entering the weekend. Belanger, a senior righthander, allowed just one run on four hits while striking out seven in that one, bringing his season line to 2-0, 0.60 with a 14-2 strikeout-walk ratio in 15 innings. Belanger, who tied for the Southern Miss lead with eight wins a year ago, relies on an above-average curveball and an improved changeup, and he’s done a better job locating his fastball early this spring.

Auburn over Arizona State

Auburn brings an eight-game winning streak and an 11-1 start into this weekend’s series against the high-powered Sun Devils, who are 11-3 against a considerably tougher schedule. Arizona State might be a little more battle-hardened to this point in the season, but it also must travel halfway across the country to play in one of the nation’s most hostile environments against a talented Tigers team that is itching to prove itself against the first ranked opponent it has faced this season. Coming off a 22-8 throttling of rival Arizona earlier this week, there is a slight possibility of a letdown for the Sun Devils.

With a young team whose best win so far has come against a solid but unranked Troy team, Auburn has not garnered much attention this season. But the Tigers might hold a pitching advantage over ASU. Auburn sports three talented sophomores who have a chance to keep ASU’s potent offense in check. Righthander Justin Woodall (2-0, 0.00), a sinker-slider pitcher who is a groundball machine, gets the Friday start for Auburn against junior lefthander Josh Satow (3-1, 2.03), a savvy command-control guy. Auburn’s Saturday and Sunday starters might have the best arms in the whole series. Righty Paul Burnside (3-0, 1.72) has a projectable 6-foot-4 frame and runs his fastball up to 93 mph, to go along with a promising slider and a changeup. Lefty Evan Crawford (2-0, 3.00), Sunday’s starter, works in the 88-92 range with a cut fastball, and has done a good job developing his curveball and changeup.

Throw in freshmen Scott Shuman and Taylor Thompson and sophomores Luke Greinke and Justin Bristow in the bullpen, and Auburn’s pitching staff is brimming with quality arms.

“Shuman’s been lights out,” Auburn coach Tom Slater said. “He’s low three-quarters, 88-92 with heavy sink and a really good slider to go with it. He’s a very aggressive strike thrower, a late-inning guy for us.”

Auburn has some punch on offense too, led by two players who could both go high in the 2007 draft–junior catcher/third baseman Josh Donaldson (.452 with four homers) and left fielder Mike Bianucci (.477 with five homers), an eligible sophomore. But pitching will be key if the Tigers are to pull off the upset this weekend. The Sun Devils have averaged 11.6 runs per game this year, so Auburn’s young power arms will have to be at their best. Here’s betting Slater will have his guys ready.

Under The
Adam Mills, rhp, Charlotte

Having moved from Conference USA to the Atlantic-10 did nothing to raise Charlotte’s profile as a program, and being without an on-campus ballpark hasn’t helped either. The 49ers are having renovations done on campus that have forced them to be nomads when at home the last year-plus.

But coach Loren Hibbs has been able to count on Mills, a 6-foot, 195-pound righthander, each of the last three seasons. He made 33 starts in 2005-2006 and made steady improvement. Now he’s bidding to become the program’s best pitcher since John Maine, now with the Mets.

Like Maine, Mills thrives on control. He walked just 19 last season in 114 innings and had handed out just five free passes in three starts this year, covering 20 innings. More impressively, Mills has double-digit K’s in each of his first three starts’"12, 14 and then 13 in a complete-game three-hitter last time out, a 1-0 win against Campbell. He’s 2-0, 1.35 so far as the 49ers play host to All-America slugger Kellen Kulbacki and James Madison at Kannapolis’ Fieldcrest-Cannon Stadium, home of the Class A Intimidators.

“He can really pitch’"his fastball was short early in his career, so he had to really develop a feel for both his breaking balls and his change,” Hibbs said. “He’s got a compact delivery and repeats it.

“Now his fastball touches 90, but it sits upper 80s. He has a feel for both his slider and curveball; he’s just the prototypical upper-echelon college pitcher. He doesn’t light up radar guns, but he really, really competes.”

The 49ers, 7-3, haven’t earned a regional bid since 1998. If Mills stays hot, they have a chance against a navigable A-10 schedule.

James McOwen, of, Florida International

McOwen tied a Florida International record by recording hits in eight consecutive at-bats last weekend against Rhode Island. The junior is now riding a 12-game hitting streak and leads the Sun Belt Conference with a .608 batting average through 12 games. He went 11-for-15 (.733) in the four-game series against URI. McOwen showed athleticism and a smooth, lefthanded stroke last summer in the Valley League, where he ranked as the No. 6 prospect. He led the Valley with 17 doubles, and he’s already got six for the Golden Panthers this spring. McOwen also has above-average speed, a strong outfield arm and good defensive instincts.

Wes Roemer, rhp, Cal State Fullerton

OK, “slumpin'” might be a relative term, considering Roemer struck out 12 over seven innings of work last Friday against UCLA, but he also allowed four runs (three earned) and took the loss. Roemer’s a victim of his own high standards. The first-team preseason All-American has now lost back-to-back starts (he also took the “L” against Arizona two weeks ago, when he allowed two runs over eight innings while striking out nine). At 2-2, 3.41, he has now matched his loss total from all of 2007, when he went 13-2, 2.38. Granted, Roemer’s strikeout-walk ratio is impeccable (36-1 in 29 innings), but we’ve come to expect that from him. Losses we don’t expect.

Roemer will have his hands full ensuring his losing streak doesn’t stretch to three games this weekend against Rice. Since stumbling to a 3-4 start, the Owls have gotten hot, running off seven consecutive wins, including a sweep of last weekend’s Rice Invitational. Still, it seems foolish to bet against Roemer. The Fullerton players have been anticipating this series against Rice all season, and Roemer is the fiercest competitor the Titans have.

“I think when they look at the schedule before the season starts, they circle that Rice series,” Fullerton coach Jason Gill said of his players.

So do we.

Stat of the

Georgia’s fielding percentage. The Bulldogs, who posted the three highest fielding percentages in school history the last three years under coach David Perno (including a .968 mark a year ago), already have committed 18 errors in eight games. Part of that can be attributed to a young lineup that features as many as four freshmen. Georgia switched its corner infielders last week, moving senior Ryan Peisel from first to third and sliding freshman Luke Stewart from third to first, and neither has made an error in the four games since. Stewart, by the way, is the son of Padres scout Jeff Stewart. When the younger Stewart smacked a home run for his first collegiate hit in Georgia’s second game of the year against Oregon State, his father was on hand–and they got the ball back.

The Bulldogs host Southern California this weekend in a fun three-game series, with Georgia hoping for better manners from its latest Pacific-10 Conference guest; Oregon State rudely swept the Bulldogs three weekends ago. The young Trojans have weathered their grueling early-season schedule and have won their last two series against San Diego State and Tulane. The Trojans and Bulldogs have a little bit of history; the Trojans beat the Bulldogs 11-5 in the 2001 College World Series behind future big leaguer Mark Prior.

Kellen Kulbacki, of, James Madison

The debate over Kulbacki in the scouting community is becoming less and less of a debate. Last year, many scouts wondered how legitimate Kulbacki’s insane offensive production was, due to the fact that he plays in a hitter-friendly park against mediocre competition at James Madison. But he showed some power with wood bats in the Cape Cod League, and he’s off to another quick start this spring, batting .611 with three homers through five games. Two of those long balls came against Kansas State in the Buckeye Baseball Classic in Tampa last weekend, and both were impressive. One talent evaluator who saw that game said Kulbacki is “ridiculously good.” Here’s what else he said about Kulbacki and about Ohio State, which opened its season going 1-3 against James Madison, Kansas State and Seton Hall in the Buckeye Classic:

“(Kulbacki’s) first home run was a pitch out over the plate and he crushed it over the left-center fence. However, the second one was off a changeup that was about three inches off the ground when he drove it on a line over the center-field fence. All this stuff about him being bow-legged, can only hit with aluminum, hits in a hitter friendly park–all this is irrelevant. That kid would put up numbers in any league with any home field, swinging any type of bat. Also, the wind was blowing out but both the home runs he hit . . . it wouldn’t have mattered.

“Ohio State looked like a team that was outside for the first time. I like their lineup, and it will continue to get better as they play more games. They have plus speed and skills at the top of the order with (Matt) Angle, Jacob Howell and Tony Kennedy, a three-hole (hitter) with power in (Eric) Fryer and I really liked their four-hole, J.B. Shuck, a lefthanded hitter with speed and power. He could be scary after he gets some at-bats under his belt. They have the makings of a regional type team for sure.

“Ohio State’™s lefty (Cory) Luebke looked like a polished college lefty with above-average stuff to me–mid- to upper-80s with three solid pitches. Maybe a fifth-10th round type guy from what I saw.”

The Dugout
David Cooper, 1b, California

The reigning Pac-10 player of the week, Cooper is riding a serious hot streak. He went 6-for-8 with a double, two home runs and five RBIs in Cal’s two-game sweep of UC Santa Barbara, giving him a .444 average on the year with a .759 slugging percentage and 17 RBIs. This weekend the sophomore will try to keep it going as the Bears travel to arch-rival Stanford. Cooper addressed his hot start, his decision to transfer from Cal State Fullerton and his thoughts about Stanford In The Dugout.

You’ve got Stanford coming up this weekend, and of course you’re familiar with them having played them when you were at Fullerton last year. How is it different preparing for the Cal-Stanford rivalry, as opposed to the Fullerton-Stanford rivalry?

It’s going to be interesting. I know Fullerton and Stanford is big, but Cal and Stanford is way bigger, being across the Bay. It’s going to be interesting to see the difference. Stanford’s a tough team. I’m interested to see how the weekend goes.

You’re really tearing it up right now, and I’ve got to ask you: does it help at all that you’ve played seven games against Big West teams, who you’ve seen before when you were with Fullerton? Or is this tear completely unrelated to that–are you just seeing the ball real well right now?

I’m seeing the ball well, getting some good pitches to hit right now. It really helped with Irvine. I had a lot of familiarity with those kids from Fullerton. The scouting reports, you remember from last year. (Scott) Gorgen was their Saturday guy last year, he moved up to Friday.

Are you as locked in now as you were in Omaha, when you had hits in seven straight at-bats?

I feel like I’m going really well right now, I’m as good as I’ve ever been right now.

What was it like to perform that well on such a huge stage like the College World Series in your freshman year?

That was very exhilarating. I was just happy to get the opportunity to go out there. Things just fell into place for us.

Why did you decide to transfer from Cal State Fullerton, where you had a very successful freshman year capped by a trip to the College World Series?

The biggest reason was classes at Cal better suited me, the academics. There are some classes offered here that weren’™t offered at Fullerton. I’m trying to get into the Haas School of Business, one of the best in the country.

It sounds like academics are pretty important to you.

I try. I’m not a rocket scientist by any means.

Time to put you on the spot: If you had to pick one pitcher to win a big game for you, would you take Wes Roemer or (Cal sophomore righthander) Tyson Ross?

Oh man. That’s a loaded question. Wow. Wes has got that bulldog mentality and that great stuff, and he’ll probably be a first-rounder this year, but Tyson will probably be a first-rounder next year. You can’t go wrong with either one of those two.

You’ve seen a lot of good pitchers between last season and the Cape Cod League. Who was the toughest?

Probably I thought Daniel Bard from North Carolina was the best pitcher I’ve faced. To that point, and still through now, that was the best fastball I’ve seen. Also when he threw the curveball for strikes, it made him that much tougher to hit.