College Weekend Preview: March 29-31

Top 25 Schedule
Clemson at (1) North Carolina
(2) Oregon State at San Diego
Tennessee at (3) Vanderbilt
(4) Louisiana State at Missouri
Pacific at (5) Cal State Fullerton
(6) Florida State at Virginia Tech
(7) UCLA at Arizona State
Georgia at (8) Kentucky
Miami at (9) Virginia
(16) Notre Dame at (10) Louisville
(11) Mississippi at Florida
Washington at (12) Oregon
Wake Forest at (13) Georgia Tech
Kansas at (14) Oklahoma
(25) Mississippi State at (15) Arkansas
Texas A&M at (17) South Carolina
Tulane at (18) Rice
(19) Indiana at Iowa
(20) Houston at Memphis
(21) Gonzaga at Loyola Marymount
(22) Georgia Southern at UNC Greensboro
UC Davis at (23) Cal Poly
(24) South Alabama at Florida Atlantic

1. Oklahoma State-Texas matchup will be good barometer for both teams.
2. Louisville tries to rebound in Big East showdown against Notre Dame
3. Marquee Mound Matchup: Indiana State’s Sean Manaea vs. Missouri State’s Nick Petree

Texas Visits Oklahoma State In Important Test For Both Teams

There is a new energy around Oklahoma State’s program this spring, as a new coaching staff and the return of several key players from injury have gotten the Cowboys off to a 19-5 start. The Cowboys haven’t played the strongest schedule, but they did open the season with a nice series win at preseason No. 21 New Mexico, and two weeks ago they won a home series against a talented but snake-bitten Loyola Marymount club.

Still, Oklahoma State is still trying to establish itself as a legitimate contender in head coach Josh Holliday’s first season, and a series win against Texas this weekend in Stillwater would make a loud statement. Even if Texas hasn’t really been Texas over the last two seasons.

The Longhorns missed regionals last year, one season after winning 49 games and making the College World Series. They headed into 2013 outside the preseason Top 25, nowhere near their customary perch inside the top 10, and they have yet to crank the rankings this season. The Longhorns are 15-9, with series losses at Stanford and home against Texas Tech, and it’s fair to say they are still trying to recapture the mojo that has traditionally been such a fixture of their program.

“It isn’t like we’re getting blown out and things are falling apart, that kind of stuff,” Texas coach Augie Garrido said. “We certainly haven’t been the team of consistency like, let’s say, the top 15 or 20 teams where they’re 22-1 or 19-4 or whatever it is. We have a lot of new faces, like all teams, but we haven’t really found the consistency, primarily on offense. Our games are 1-0, 2-1, 4-3, so we’re not that far off. From the beginning, we knew that our season was going to be controlled by how we handled our adversities, because we have a lot of new people in a lot of new places, both offensively and defensively, and it’s a challenging environment. The expectations are high.”

So high, in fact, that Garrido felt the need to say that he doesn’t see UT’s season as “a total failure.” That should seem obvious—Texas is 15-9, not 9-15—but the bar has been set very high in Austin, of course. The Longhorns have been good at run prevention, posting a 2.63 staff ERA and fielding at a strong .978 clip. The lineup has struggled aside from established veterans Mark Payton (.430/.505/.593) and Erich Weiss (.333/.448/.414), and a lack of timely hits has caused Texas to struggle in games decided by two runs or less, going 9-7 (including a 2-4 mark in two-run games). Because of its pitching-and-defense blueprint, Texas is accustomed to playing many close games, but it is also accustomed to winning a considerably higher percentage of them.

“I know what I’m seeing: I’m seeing us being off by one run, but I see us being able to settle down and improve, because some of the players are playing inconsistently by trying too hard,” Garrido said. “That in itself throws off your rhythm, your timing, creates inconsistency. It’s all coming from the offense.”

Texas isn’t built to be an offensive juggernaut, but the lineup does have good overall athleticism and speed, thanks in part to newcomers Weston Hall, Matt Moynihan, Ben Johnson and C.J Hinojosa. The ‘Horns have not gotten production out of the catcher and first base positions, and Garrido said the offensive struggles at those two positions has bled over into the defense. So Alex Silver found his way into the lineup last week against Minnesota and has provided a spark. Second baseman Brooks Marlowe also showed signs of emerging from his season-long slump, recording three hits Sunday.

Hinojosa, one of the nation’s most celebrated recruits, has stepped into the everyday shortstop job as a freshman and handled it ably, making the Longhorns significantly better than they were a year ago at that vital position. He has also delivered some key hits and established himself as the No. 5 hitter in the lineup. It has taken him some time to round into shape after recovering from a shoulder injury, but his maturity and presence are major assets.

“He’s an old soul,” Garrido said. “He knows the game. He’s played it somewhere before, maybe in the sky. He’s really worked hard. He needs to improve his range, which he is on a weekly basis, a step here and a step there. His glove usage is more consistent now. He’s becoming more consistent rather than flashy.”

Oh the mound, Texas has had stability in the rotation from sophomores Parker French (3-1, 1.31) and Dillon Peters (1-1, 2.45) plus junior Nathan Thornhill (2-2, 3.31). French missed his start last week with tendinitis in his forearm, but he is slated to start the series opener in Stillwater, where he’ll match up with one of college baseball’s most talented pitchers, redshirt righthander Jason Hursh.

While French relies on his outstanding command of the zone and ability to induce ground balls, Hursh is a classic power pitcher with wipeout stuff. He flashed premium velocity last summer in the California Collegiate League after working his way back from Tommy John surgery, and he has taken off this spring, going 3-0, 1.23 with 36 strikeouts and six walks in 44 innings.

“He’s pitched really well, and the most encouraging thing is he continues to get better,” Holliday said. “His mound presence is strong, he’s making adjustments. His feel for his secondary pitches has really, really gotten better as the season has gone along. He’s probably pitched in the 92-96 range all year, at times he’s shot a few balls up there 97, 98. His slider has really come on, anywhere from 85-88 now at times, it’s more of a wipeout power pitch—the last couple weeks it’s really come on. He’s starting to throw that pitch with a lot of confidence and aggressiveness, and swings and misses on that continue to come up. The changeup is very much a part of his repertoire. He’s developing into a very, very nice pitcher.”

Hursh vs. UC Davis 3

Oklahoma State’s Jason Hursh will test Texas’ inconsistent offense

Oklahoma State’s entire rotation is composed of pitchers who missed last year due to surgeries. Saturday starter Mark Robinette (1-0, 3.38) is another Tommy John surgery survivor, while Sunday starter Tyler Nyrdin (0-0, 1.50) is coming off shoulder surgery. Robinette is a classic 6-foot college righty with an 88-91 fastball and the ability to mix four pitches. Nagging injuries have caused Nurdin’s velocity to drop into the 82-84 range lately after he worked at 88-90 in the fall, and Holliday said he might rest the sophomore lefty this weekend, though he has been able to have success by commanding his changeup and slider.

Another key piece of the staff, junior-college transfer Nick Dolsky, has yet to throw a pitch this spring because of a shoulder impingement, but Holliday said he could return to action in 10 days to a week, giving the Cowboys another righty with a fastball that can reach 92 and the ability to get swings and misses.

OSU’s bullpen isn’t uncommonly deep, but it has a tough-as-nails moment-of-truth reliever in junior righty Vince Wheeland (5-0, 1.96), a polished strike thrower with a high-80s fastball, feel for his slider and changeup. Brothers Randy McCurry and Brendon McCurry are both two-way players who have been key parts of the bullpen, but Randy could make the start Sunday if Nurdin doesn’t go. Holliday said McCurry doesn’t show the 92-94 mph heat he flashed before he had Tommy John surgery, but he has become a better pitcher who locates his stuff better, and he still has an out pitch in his slider.

Randy McCurry has also slid into OSU’s starting shortstop job as a senior, fielding .952 and providing solid offense (.316/.368/.442). Holliday knows his team is asking a lot out of the McCurry brothers, but they have handled their responsibilities with aplomb.

“These kids have both been gamers for us,” Holliday said. “We certainly wouldn’t be in the position we’re in right now without those guys doing what they have. I think both have sacrificed a little of their pitching training time that would help them make that jump, but it’s kind of fun, a little old fashioned, like American Legion ball. We’re enjoying it, kind of embracing that—a little bit of who we are this year.”

While Texas has hit just four home runs on the season, OSU has hit 18, though OSU plays at a much more hitter-friendly home park. Like Texas, Oklahoma State has a quality duo in the middle of the lineup, as junior-college transfer Tanner Krietemeier (.391/.443/.565, three homers, 23 RBIs) has made a huge impact, and sophomore right fielder Zach Fish (.351/.394/.628, 5 HR, 27 RBIs) has emerged as a force in the cleanup spot. Fish hit just .248 a year ago with four home runs all season, in 141 at-bats.

“He’s growing into a really, really good hitter,” Holliday said. “He uses the whole field better and better as we go. His power to all fields is evident—he’s hit two balls out of the park to right field, one to straightaway center, two to left center. He’s becoming a more dangerous at-bat, where people know if you make a mistake, he’ll hurt you. His growth is certainly a key piece of it as we get into the conference schedule.”

After splitting two games with Baylor last weekend, the Cowboys get into the meat of their conference schedule this weekend. Holliday said he is looking forward to seeing how his team performs against “a big-time program” like Texas. The Cowboys have certainly caught Garrido’s attention.

“Right now the two Oklahoma teams appear to be the best teams in our league,” Garrido said. “We’re still going through a growth period. The magic of college baseball is in the unexpected, when teams like Fresno State, or 2004 Cal State Fullerton—a lot of times teams come from the position we’re in now and get better in the end. If we get our confidence and get committed to the inning-by-inning approach and not get frustrated by what appears to be the failures, then we can play with anybody.”

Louisville Tries To Rebound In Big East Showdown Vs. Notre Dame

BLOOMINGTON, Ind.—Louisville coach Dan McDonnell gave his team a good tongue-lashing in the post-game meeting on the field following Wednesday’s 6-2 loss at Indiana. It wasn’t just that the Cardinals lost—McDonnell knows there is no shame in losing to a club as good as Indiana—but the manner in which they lost that upset McDonnell.

Louisville pitchers issued six walks and hit three batters, the defense made two errors and a couple of other misplays, and the offense failed to get a timely hit with runners on base. After playing at a high level during an 18-2 start, Louisville has suddenly found itself playing its worst baseball of the season, during one of its most important stretches.

Wednesday was the first of five straight games against ranked opponents for the Cardinals, who host No. 16 Notre Dame in a Thursday through Saturday series, then host No. 8 Kentucky on Tuesday. All four of those teams figure to be strong regional hosting contenders in the Midwest, so the head-to-head results could have particularly important ramifications.

Louisville’s little funk began with a surprising home series loss against Rutgers last weekend, during which the Cardinals came out uncharacteristically flat.

“The reason we have played so well is because we have really stuffed on the mound and we’ve stuffed defensively,” McDonnell said. “What I like to say is our goal is to suffocate teams. Good teams make it very hard to score, and we were the opposite (Wednesday). We were not picking up the bunts, even when they were wanting to bunt, we were putting them on base, we balked them into scoring position. We were just giving away runs too easily, which is just not Louisville baseball.”

Less than 24 hours after Wednesday’s loss, the Cardinals will try to respond in the the marquee series of the year in the Big East, a showdown between the league’s two preseason favorites, and its two best teams through six weeks of the season. This matchup offers a compelling contrast in styles, pitting Louisville’s speed (70 stolen bases, third in the nation) against Notre Dame’s physicality, and matching up power-armed Louisville starters Chad Green and Jeff Thompson against finesse-oriented Irish starters Sean Fitzgerald and Adam Norton.

One thing both teams have in common is outstanding pitching; the Cardinals ranked sixth in the nation with a 2.07 through six weeks, while Notre Dame was 22nd (2.63). As a testament to the quality of their arms, the Cardinals miss more bats, ranking sixth in the country with 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings, while the Irish are 179th with 6.4 strikeouts per nine. But Notre Dame excels at pounding the strike zone, ranking fifth with just 2.1 walks per nine innings.

“Their starting pitching has done a fabulous job,” McDonnell said. “They’re playing very good team defense, and you knew their offense, they’re similar to Indiana—they’ve got the two big guys in the middle of the lineup (Trey Mancini and Eric Jagielo). But they’ve got momentum, they’re playing good baseball right now. It doesn’t surprise us at all; we’re in for a good test this weekend.”

The Cardinals will make a change in the No. 3 starter spot this weekend, replacing sophomore righty Jared Ruxer with freshman righty Anthony Kidston. Ruxer is winless in seven starts, sporting a 4.45 ERA on the season, so the Cardinals will use him in the bullpen for the time being to help him clear his mind and get back on track. He was solid in a scoreless 1 1/3 inning Wednesday, working at 88-91 mph and mixing in a nice slider and changeup.

Kidston, though, has been more effective overall this season, going 3-0, 1.83 in 20 innings over eight appearances (one start). McDonnell said Kidston works in the upper 80s with good downward angle and a quality curveball and changeup. He is an athletic two-way player who fields his position well off the mound and competes hard.

Other than that, don’t expect major changes from Louisville this weekend—the Cardinals are still 19-5, after all. McDonnell said he challenged the trio of players (Matt Helms, Jeff Gardner and Mike White) who have filled in for injured left fielder Coco Johnson to elevate their games. Louisville remains a very talented, very deep team, and it is playing at home this weekend in an important conference series. Don’t expect the Cardinals to turn in another lackluster weekend, especially after McDonnell’s spirited postgame huddle.

“Sometimes it’s healthy to get punched in the mouth, and you get backed into a corner, and you get an opportunity to respond,” McDonnell said. “It’s baseball, and it happens, but you don’t just want to take it lightly. You want to get pissed off, and you want to be able to respond.

“Our goal is, let’s just play good baseball against Notre Dame, and whatever the outcome is, the outcome is. This is a growing process. The ’07 team went to Omaha and grew a lot throughout the year. So you want to be tough, you want to compete, you want to get better as the year goes on. I’m just hoping we go out there tomorrow and compete, because Notre Dame’s got a good club.”

Marquee Mound Matchup: Sean Manaea vs. Nick Petree

Indiana State junior lefthander Sean Manaea might be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft this June—he’s at least in the discussion, thanks to his 6-foot-5, 235-pound frame and the explosive stuff he showed in the Cape Cod League last summer and so far this spring.

Sean Manaea

Sean Manaea (Photo by Tony Campbell)

Missouri State fourth-year junior righty Nick Petree is a 6-foot-1 righty with an 85-88 fastball. He doesn’t doesn’t get the scouts excited, but he might be the best college pitcher in the country. Last year’s national ERA leader after going 10-4, 1.01 and going 72.1 consecutive innings without giving up an earned run, Petree has picked up this spring right where he left off, going 3-0, 1.09 with 34 strikeouts and 12 walks in 33 innings.

Last year, Petree pitched through a herniated muscle in his right forearm that limited how much he could throw between starts. “He’s a tough-minded kid, one hell of a competitor, and he wasn’t going to be denied taking the ball every Friday,” Missouri State pitching coach Paul Evans said. “He was just doing it with guile and smarts and competitiveness, basically.”

Now Petree is back to full strength physically.

“Does that mean he’s throwing 93? No. He’s still the same pitcher he was last year, in my mind,” Evans said. “Maybe there’s a tick better with the fastball, maybe he keeps the velocity better in games. But he never has been the guy who’s going to be 89-92. Then you look at Manaea, he had a great summer in the Cape, he’s lefthanded, a big dude, he’s got velocity. It’s kind of unique as far as a matchup’s concerned. It’s intriguing because of the different styles.”

Petree hits all of his spots with his fastball, which peaks at 89 on occasion. He throws four pitches for strikes, highlighted by a plus changeup, and Evans said his best asset is his uncanny knack for being able to pick hitters apart.

“It’s fun to stand next to him when it’s not his day to pitch; he and I are debating what pitch to call. That’s who he is,” Evans said.

Manaea has lived up to the massive expectations that he carried into the season after ranking as the Cape Cod League’s top prospect last summer. Through five starts, he is 3-1, 0.84 with 41 strikeouts and 10 walks in 32 innings. His stuff hasn’t been as it was in the Cape, when he worked at 94-96 mph and flashed a nasty split-change and a tight slider, but his stuff has been plenty good enough.

Manaea helped his cause by throwing a complete-game gem in the Metrodome two weeks ago against Minnesota ace Tom Windle, with loads of scouting heavyweights on hand. He struck out nine in that 2-1 win, allowing just one unearned run on six hits and a walk over nine innings.

“I thought he started to gain better feel to command his fastball, and he had really, really good angle to righthanded hitters,” said an American League crosschecker who saw him at the Metrodome. “The breaking ball is still not where it was in the Cape, but I feel it’s going to come back. It just didn’t have that devastating, late, two-plane finish that it had. Up in the Cape it was just a wipeout slider.”

Of course, Manaea peaked last summer after improving gradually over the course of his sophomore year. He has sustained that progress, and it stands to reason he will get even better as the weather improves.

“It’s hard to hold these cold-weather guys to such a high standard early,” the scout said. “You just want to make sure, ‘Is this guy going to command his stuff?’ He had good poise, attacks hitters really well. What I was looking for is, how is he going to compete on the big stage, how was the fastball command, and was he beating hitters? He was sitting 92-94 with really deceptive angle. He’s got such long levers, it’s a good distance from his body—he’s got that whip finish and deceptive delivery. It’ll be interesting to see how he does as (the weather) warms up. The split-change, it was just OK.

“Basically he pitched off his fastball, and the secondary stuff was not up to par yet from where it was last summer. And I don’t expect it from a cold-weather guy out of the chute, but it’s about time for him to start flashing that stuff.”