College Weekend Preview: May 14-16

Meaningful Matchup
Coastal Carolina at Liberty
Shortly after noontime on Wednesday, Liberty coach Jim Toman was on his way back from lunch. He was not sitting at his computer, staring at Coastal Carolina’s stats. It just sounded like he was.

“We know they’re good, their catcher’s good, they can hit and play defense and run and pitch,” Toman said. “I know (Cody) Wheeler will be up to 92, I know (Anthony) Meo’s going to be 93-94, and (Austin) Fleet will be 92-94. I know they’re hitting .325 and they have 123 bags and 81 home runs and a 3.06 ERA. I know what we’re up against. But we’re going to show up, that’s for sure.”

North Carolina at (1) Virginia
Louisiana Tech at (2) Texas
(3) Arizona State at Arizona
Georgia at (4) Florida
North Carolina State at (5) Florida State
(6) Coastal Carolina at Liberty
Air Force at (7) Texas Christian
(8) South Carolina at (12) Arkansas
St. John’s at (9) Louisville
(10) Cal State Fullerton at Long Beach State
Southern California at (11) UCLA
(13) Miami at (16) Georgia Tech
(14) Mississippi at Alabama
Duke at (15) Virginia Tech
Memphis at (17) Oklahoma
Tennessee at (18) Auburn
(19) San Diego at Pepperdine
(20) Connecticut at South Florida
Southern Mississippi at (21) Rice
East Tennessee State at (22) Oregon
(23) Vanderbilt at Mississippi State
(24) Pittsburgh at Cincinnati
Washington State at (25) Stanford

At the risk of stating the obvious, what the Flames are up against is a Big South behemoth. The last time Coastal Carolina lost a regular-season conference game was April 25—of 2009. Since that Saturday game against Presbyterian, the Chanticleers have won 29 straight regular-season games against Big South opponents, including a three-game sweep of Liberty last May.

Few teams in the nation are more complete than the sixth-ranked Chanticleers, who enter this weekend’s showdown at Liberty with a 42-6 overall record and a 20-0 mark in conference.

“I think that’s what’s made this team good: One game, the top three or four guys in the lineup beat you, the next game the bottom three or four guys beat you,” Coastal Carolina coach Gary Gilmore said. “If you shut down our athleticism, we hit with power. We have quite a bit of ability to score runs that way. On the other hand, when we’ve been completely throttled by good pitching, our pitching has risen to the occasion for the most part.”

Meo and Wheeler are interchangeable co-aces, one a hard-throwing sophomore righty, the other a quick-armed junior lefty. Both have mean competitive streaks, helping explain their combined 19-1 record this season.

Fleet (4-1, 2.17 with six saves), a power-armed senior righty, has made three Sunday starts when Gilmore hasn’t had to call upon him in relief earlier in the weekend. The Chanticleers are deep and versatile enough on the mound to mix and match on Sundays, especially since Meo and Wheeler are safe bets to pitch deep into games most weeks, taking some strain off the rest of the pitching staff. Gilmore can start Fleet or junior lefty Jim Birmingham or freshman righty Josh Conway, depending on matchups, and he only needs his starter to keep the game close for three to five innings before handing off to the pen, where there are dependable lefties (Matt Laney, Matt Rein, Keith Hessler) and righties (Ryan Connolly, Fleet) who all present different looks.

“The bullpen, where I had grave issues in my mind entering the season, has wound up being one of our strong suits,” Gilmore said. “This group has matured together. There are still things I see as a coach that we’ve got to get better at, so we’ve got to continue to strive to get better and better and better. But whatever’s worked for us to this point, it’s been an awful fun bunch to coach—probably more of a throwback to my generation than any group I’ve ever coached. They talk the game, they live it, they show up early, they communicate with each other. It’s like I took a step back in time 20 years to when I played. All the guys I played with, that’s how we were. It’s really been fun to watch the personalities emerge.”

Two of Coastal’s biggest personalities are also the two players who make the offense go. Center fielder/leadoff man Rico Noel has 44 stolen bases in 54 attempts. Third baseman/No. 2 hitter Scott Woodward is one steal behind him, with 43 of them in 48 tries. Gilmore said there is an open competition to see which will wind up with the most stolen bases.

“They’re talking crap to each other every day,” he said. “It’s fun to watch, it is. Both of them have great pride in that whole thing. You talk about our success, you have two guys like that that are so dynamic and athletic. A two-out single, heck, nine out of 10 times they’re able to get to second base. Talk about pressure on the infield—they’re running all over the place. You’ve got to control the running game plus throw strikes, and I know it’s helped Jose Iglesias and Tommy La Stella (in the middle of the lineup), because you can’t afford to bury a lot of breaking balls, you’ve got to be ultra-quick to the plate. They’re game-changers. To have both of them in the lineup back-to-back—man alive.”

So yes, Liberty has its hands full this weekend. But as Toman said, his team will compete.

The Flames carry their own Big South winning streak into this weekend. Liberty has won 15 straight conference games, having swept five straight series, and enters this weekend at 37-12 overall, 18-3 in the conference. The 18 conference wins are a school record, and the 37 victories overall are just two shy of the school record. Liberty, ranked 41st in the Ratings Percentage Index according to, is 17-6 on the road; only Connecticut has more road victories.

“We’ve got a shot. I think right now we’re right on the bubble,” Toman said. “We’ve just got to figure out a way to beat Coastal and get into a regional. Because we play pretty good defense, we’ve got timely hitting, a couple good pitchers, a good bullpen. We’ve got seven or eight guys on the mound that are usable.”

Meo and Wheeler are bigger names, but Liberty has its own quality one-two punch atop the rotation in veteran lefthanders Steven Evans (7-1, 3.33) and Shawn Teufel (10-1, 2.10). Teufel, the son of former big league infielder Tim Teufel, has a solid four-pitch mix and can run his fastball up to 90-91 at times. A fifth-year senior whom Toman converted to the mound from first base when he took over the program two years ago, Teufel has a fresh arm and could be drafted between the 10th and 20th round. The strike-throwing Evans relies on his location, but he can also reach 90 at times. The same goes for Sunday starter Dustin Umberger, who has made a successful recovery from Tommy John surgery.

Like the Chanticleers, the Flames have multiple reliable options in the bullpen. Righthander J.J. McLeod (2.70 ERA, five saves) is Liberty’s version of Connolly—sidearmers with sink who have been bullpen anchors. McLeod is another Tommy John survivor who missed three weeks with elbow discomfort but is back now. Freshman righty Josh Richardson (3.70 ERA, six saves) also missed three weeks with a strained ribcage muscle, but he returned last week and touched 90 mph, close to the 92 he showed earlier this season.

Then there’s senior righty Dane Beaker (4-2, 3.66 with 48 strikeouts and five walks in 47 innings), whom Toman says has been the team’s best reliever all season. Beakler works at 87-90 with a good slider and a split-finger.

In the lineup, the Flames are very strong up the middle, helping account for their strong .975 fielding percentage—best in the conference and 18th-best in the nation. Their up-the-middle players have also performed offensively: Catcher Nathan Thompson (.333/.440/.583 with nine homers and 49 RBIs), shortstop Matt Williams (.371/.420/.538), second baseman Curran Redal (.375/.460/.481) and second baseman P.J. Jimenez (.397/.463/.513) are four key cogs in the offense, along with third baseman Tyler Bream (.353/.390/.518, five homers) and right fielder Michael Robertson (.360/.446/.567).

Liberty has regional-caliber talent, but it probably needs at least one win this weekend to shore up its at-large credentials, because its record against the top 50 in the RPI is just 0-1. A series win would all but lock up a trip to regionals, but avoiding a sweep is paramount.

“I hope even if we don’t win one, people still look at us,” Toman said. “A lot of people haven’t beaten Coastal; they’re 42-6. I wish we’d played Coastal early in the year, because if they’d have swept us and then we’d won 15 in a row, we’d be in. We’ve played UNC Wilmington, Virginia Tech, Duke, Kennesaw State, Elon. We’ve played a lot of teams that have been pretty good that might be down a little bit this year. You do the nonconference schedule about two years out, and we’ve tried to pick the schedule up.”

Coastal, meanwhile, has its eyes set on a national seed and staying home in nearby Myrtle Beach through regionals and, potentially, super regionals. Gilmore said he knows this weekend is critical for his team’s national seed hopes.

“I don’t want to sit here and tell my guys if they don’t get something done up there, that dream’s over,” he said. “But it might be. In my mind it’s as big as it is for them. I’m selling that to my guys: This is a super regional. Let’s say we weren’t lucky enough to be a national seed, but we were lucky enough to win a regional, and then we’ve got to go to a very tough place to play, it’s going to be jam-packed with 4,000 or 5,000 people, and every one of them hates Coastal. That’s not easy.

“But we’re going up there to compete and try to win a regular-season title in our league, and to do that we’ve got to go through Liberty. And man, what a great challenge it will be.”

It’s a testament to Liberty’s progress in Toman’s third year as head coach that this weekend will be a challenge for the Chanticleers as well as for the Flames.

Marquee Mound Matchup
Shawn Tolleson vs. Bobby Doran
When last we saw junior righthanders Tolleson and Doran, they were having career days on May 1, before Baylor and Texas Tech went into exam breaks. Doran struck out 16 in a win against Missouri that day, while Tolleson struck out 11 and allowed just one run over eight innings in a no-decision against Texas.

“It’s maybe the best I’ve seen Tolleson,” Baylor coach Steve Smith said afterward. “It’s really good to see that back to back. Last week, he was really good and I think this one was maybe a little bit better.”

The previous week against Nebraska, Tolleson allowed one run in 7 1/3 innings, his longest start in nearly two years. A Tommy John surgery survivor who went undrafted as a draft-eligible sophomore last year, Tolleson has pitched his best recently, improving to 2-5, 4.09 with 75 strikeouts and 26 walks in 62 innings. Scouts are scared off by his violent delivery, but when he’s on his game, Tolleson throws 88-92 with good life and racks up strikeouts with his slider.

But for Tolleson minimizing walks is more important than getting strikeouts. He did not issue a walk against Texas.

“(Not throwing a) walk was the most important thing to me,” he said after the game. “I would have to look back at the record books, but I don’t think I have ever had a start without a walk in my career.”

Doran, a physical 6-foot-6, 240-pound righty, has been solid in Texas Tech’s weekend rotation since transferring from Seward County (Kan.) CC. He enters this weekend 4-2, 4.70 with 73 strikeouts and 18 walks in 69 innings. Like Tolleson, he’s pitching his best down the stretch.

“The thing that Bobby’s done the last four or five weeks, especially against Missouri, is he’s been able to throw his fastball to both sides of the plate,” Red Raiders coach Dan Spencer said. “Once the scouting report came out early that he’s got a big-time breaking ball, hitters started making box adjustments, moving up in the box and closer to the plate to try to take that breaking ball away—especially lefthanders. So he made the adjustment about a month ago to go hard in on righties and lefthanders, and he’s become a very dominant guy. Now he’s got 60 command of the fastball (on the 20-80 scouting scale), he can throw it to both sides of the plate, he throws the breaking ball wherever he wants to. He doesn’t throw the changeup much because the other two are so good, but he’ll throw five or six a game to keep people honest. He’s really turned into a stopper for us on the weekends.”

Spencer said Doran works in the 90-93 mph range most weeks and has touched 94. His 77-78 power curveball has good depth and late break.

“There’s a lot to like, especially the toughness and resilience he’s shown the last month or two,” Spencer said. “He’s gone from a big ol’ guy with good stuff to a big ol’ guy who’s tough and has good stuff.”

This weekend has major postseason ramifications for both Texas Tech and Baylor. The Red Raiders have won five straight conference series to climb to second place in the Big 12 at 12-9, but they are still just 26-22 overall and 40th in the RPI, so they need this series to shore up their resume. Baylor, meanwhile, is fighting for its postseason life. The Bears are just 7-12 in the conference, 25-20 overall and 48th in the RPI.

Under The Radar
Illinois State
It was only a matter of time before Mark Kingston got Illinois State going. After all, he established a reputation as a top-flight recruiter during his time at Tulane, and he took over an Illinois State program that just received a much-needed facility upgrade.

South Carolina at Arkansas
Southeastern Conference supremacy is on the line this weekend in Fayetteville, Ark. South Carolina is tied for the Eastern Division lead at 17-7, while Arkansas leads the Western Division at 16-8. Both teams are jockeying for national seeds, and the RPI gives Arkansas the inside track, making this series particularly important for the Gamecocks. But Arkansas needs to win also, to avoid losing its third series in the last four weeks.

Oral Roberts at Centenary
The Golden Eagles have won the Summit League 12 years in a row, and every time a challenger emerges, they crush it. But ORU (14-6 in the league) does look more vulnerable than usual, and Centenary (11-4) enters this weekend in a dead heat with the Eagles. The Gents have two primary advantages: the home field, and ace righthander Boone Whiting (5-1, 3.38 with 86 strikeouts and 25 walks in 64 innings).

Kansas vs. Kansas State
These Sunflower State rivals will square off in a home-and-home series, with the Jayhawks hosting the opener and the Wildcats hosting the next two. The Big 12 is bunched tightly together after Texas, and K-State (11-9) and Kansas (10-10) are right in the middle of the pack. The Jayhawks, in particular, are right on the at-large bubble and need this series badly. But it’s big for Kansas State, too. The Wildcats have lost three straight series (Missouri, at Oklahoma, Texas) and have to travel to Texas A&M in the regular season’s last weekend. The prospect of five straight series losses would doom Kansas State’s at-large hopes.

North Carolina at Virginia
The Tar Heels have played well over the last two weeks and carry an eight-game winning streak into a huge series at Virginia. The Tar Heels are currently tied with North Carolina State for eighth place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and snagging one of the eight ACC tournament spots is critical to their at-large hopes. That will likely mean winning at least one series over the next two weeks against Virginia and Virginia Tech. Friday’s matchup between UNC ace Matt Harvey and UVa.’s Danny Hultzen is one of the nation’s best this weekend.

Patriot League tournament
The Patriot League playoffs open this weekend, as Army and Bucknell face off, and Lehigh takes on Holy Cross. The winners of those two series will face off for the league title next week. Army, the regular-season champion, is the heavy favorite.

But no one expected the Redbirds to be sitting atop the Missouri Valley Conference with two weeks left in the regular season of Kingston’s first year as head coach. Illinois State swept its third conference series of the year (at Missouri State) last weekend to climb to 12-3 in the MVC, a half-game ahead of perennial juggernaut Wichita State.

“I think we’ve surprised a lot of people,” said Kingston, who left Tulane to become associate head coach and heir to Jim Brownlee after the 2008 season. “I don’t think anybody thought we’d be where we are in the standings this early in our tenure. You look at where we are in the conference, we’re not leading it in pitching or hitting or defense. We’re just a solid ballclub. It’s been a good recipe for us.”

Illinois State is one of those sum-is-greater-than-the-parts teams, but it does have a couple of very nice parts. Leading the way is redshirt sophomore second baseman Kevin Tokarski, the nation’s batting leader, who is hitting .469/.583/.782 with six homers, 39 RBIs and 24 stolen bases in 28 tries. Tokarski is an average runner whose speed plays up because of his instincts. He doesn’t profile as an impact hitter in pro ball, but he has a very mature, selective approach, excellent hand-eye coordination and a knack for making solid contact.

“He’s coming off three wrist surgeries, so he really is symbolic of a bunch of guys who have had to work extremely hard to maximize their ability,” Kingston said. “His most recent surgery was in December; at one point, we didn’t even know if he was going to play again. The first two surgeries didn’t get it done, and he felt there was still something wrong. The third one, he knew right away it finally solved the problem. He’s been a sparkplug for us all year.”

The pitching staff lacks overpowering arms but has some competitive strike-throwers who give the Redbirds a shot in most games. And redshirt sophomore lefty Kenny Long (4-2, 1.24 with seven saves and a 56-13 strikeout-walk mark in 44 innings) has come out of nowhere to emerge as a shut-down closer.

“Kenny Long has totally reinvented himself with the hope of pitching coach Billy Mohl,” Kingston said. “He weighs about 150 pounds, but this year Coach Mohl has given him about two different arm angles and three different breaking balls. He’s just very deceptive—never throws harder than 81-82, but he’s so deceptive that he’s a hard guy to make contact against. He throws multiple breaking balls from multiple arm slots.”

Kingston also singles out catcher Matt Mirabal (.341/.362/.478) and first baseman Anthony Ruffolo (.333/.482/.592 with seven homers and 41 RBIs) for taking steps forward to lead the offense. Both players have had plenty of mature at-bats and clutch hits, emblematic of the team as a whole.

“We’re just a grind-it-out team,” Kingston said.

Southern Mississippi
Just four weeks ago, Southern Miss occupied the “Slumpin'” space below—and that wasn’t even rock bottom. The Golden Eagles lost a series to Marshall that weekend, falling to 18-17 overall and 2-7 in Conference USA, good enough for last place in a disappointing league.

They haven’t lost a game since.

Southern Miss has won 11 straight games, including sweeps of Houston, Tulane and East Carolina, to climb to second place in CUSA heading into a huge series at first-place Rice this weekend. The Owls are just two games ahead, and the red-hot Eagles are suddenly looking like the team that rode a wave of momentum and veteran leadership all the way to the College World Series last year.

“I think the expectations coming off Omaha might have created a little pressure on our team early on,” said first-year coach Scott Berry, who took the helm after Corky Palmer retired last year. “I could tell we weren’t having fun, and I guess that frustrated me more than anything, because 18-to-21-year-old kids in college getting an education and playing baseball, you’re supposed to have fun, and we weren’t. Winning helps, but you’ve got to create an environment to win and make it fun. We realized we had finally hit rock bottom, and the only place to go was up. I really think we just released, started relaxing, and having fun. In practice now, you can see we’re having fun. We have that focus now we hadn’t seen before.”

During the rocky first half, Berry said his team was suffering from a lack of leadership. Now he says veterans Taylor Walker, Travis Graves and Todd McInnis have filled that void.

Walker (.374/.473/.535 with seven homers and 48 RBIs), a senior second baseman, has also helped anchor the lineup, along with sophomore shortstop B.A. Vollmuth (.363/.473/.609 with eight homers and 46 RBIs), a third-team preseason All-American. Vollmuth’s upside is tremendous, and he’s still learning to become more patient at the plate and drive the pitches he should, but on the whole he has done a solid job in the No. 3 hole in the lineup.

But Walker and Vollmuth were expected to help carry the offensive load. The emergence of freshman center fielder Dillon Day (.415/.500/.573 in 82 at-bats) has been a pleasant surprise that has helped spark USM’s hot streak. The Golden Eagles recruited Day as a two-way player and expected him to make more of a contribution on the mound early in his career.

“But he’s my everyday center fielder now, and will continue to do that,” Berry said. “He’s had numerous big-time hits for us, and he has not played like a freshman. We’ve had a lot of freshman All-Americans here—we’re not afraid to play those freshmen. They bring that energy, just like he does. He’s brought a new dimension to our club, for sure.”

Another key has been the return of senior righthander Scott Copeland (7-0, 4.48) from a forearm strain that cost him three weeks. Before he was injured, Copeland was pitching very well, working at 88-89 mph with heavy sink. He still has not returned to 100 percent and is working around 87-88 without as much sharpness to his breaking ball and without the feel for his changeup he had early on. But he has learned to pitch without his best stuff and has earned the win in three of his four starts since returning to action.

Copeland slid into the Friday spot because Berry wanted to give McInnis extra rest when Copeland returned. That configuration has worked, so the Eagles are sticking with it. McInnis is 5-4, 2.78 with 81 strikeouts in 81 innings, and he hasn’t felt as much pressure to carry the pitching staff since Copeland’s return, Berry said. If Southern Miss has an advantage against Rice this weekend, it is the reliability and tenacity of McInnis and closer Collin Cargill (3-2, 1.57 with eight saves). The Owls lack a single veteran it can count on to the same degree in the rotation or the bullpen.

“McInnis has got a complete game—he throws four pitches for strikes,” Berry said. “He would be a Gold Glover on the mound. He’s not very big, but whatever he is—155, 158 pounds—I’ll tell you something, he’s got every bit of it coming at you.

“And Cargill has been lights-out for us at the end of the game if we can get him the ball. We’ve had a rich tradition in closers the last decade here, and it’s always good to know if you can get it to their hands, you have a very good chance of winning.”

Big Ten
Does any team want to win the Big Ten? With two weeks left in the regular season, all 10 teams in the league have a realistic shot at it, as all 10 are within two games of first place. Michigan, Purdue, Minnesota and Northwestern are stuck in a four-game tie for first at 10-8.

Early in the season, Ohio State and Michigan State raced out to a tie for first place heading into a mid-April series between the two. The Buckeyes won it, and the Spartans went into a tailspin two weeks later, losing five of six games at Penn State and Purdue. But Ohio State did not exactly use the Michigan State series as a springboard. On the contrary, the Buckeyes (the league’s preseason favorite) proceeded to drop three straight series against Penn State, Michigan and Illinois. Throw in three midweek losses against Akron and Louisville, and Ohio State has lost 10 of its last 15 games.

“I know for sure we had a chance to kind of take over the Big Ten, but we kind of just dropped the ball on one or two weekends,” Ohio State co-captain Cory Kovanda told the student newspaper, The Lantern.

Michigan looked to be in the driver’s seat after taking two of three from the Buckeyes two weeks ago. Then the Wolverines lost a series at Minnesota, which has suddenly won three straight series after a very disappointing first half.

“There’s not that one team in the Big Ten who just wants to bury everyone else,” OSU center fielder Eric Stephens told the paper.

Cumulatively, the Big Ten is just 26 games over .500. To put that into context, the Big East (which has a similar baseball profile) is 79 gave over .500.

The Big Ten is clearly going to be a one-bid league, but it’s anyone’s guess who that one team will be. The top six teams make the double-elimination conference tournament in Columbus, where the automatic bid will be decided.

Ohio State has had a disappointing season, but the Buckeyes are still experienced and dangerous, and there is a chance they could get ace righty Alex Wimmers back from his hamstring injury for their series at Iowa this weekend, though retiring OSU coach Bob Todd said Sunday would be the earliest return date.

In terms of talent, Michigan and Minnesota are right there with Ohio State. The Wolverines host Northwestern this weekend, while the Gophers welcome Penn State.

Stat of the Week
Players drafted out of Long Beach State in the last decade, tied with Miami for fourth-most in college baseball. Only Cal State Fullerton (80), Rice (78) and Arizona State (77) had more. Of those 69 drafted players, 59 of them signed, which is tied for fifth-most in college baseball.

Mike Weathers, who this week announced he will retire at the end of the season and be succeeded by pitching coach Troy Buckley, was the Dirtbags’ head coach for eight of the 10 seasons last decade, and he was an assistant on Dave Snow’s staff before that. Clearly, Long Beach State under Weathers did a fine job identifying and developing talent. Perhaps no school produced more big league stars last decade than Weathers’ Dirtbags, who helped develop first-round picks like Troy Tulowitzki, Evan Longoria and Jered Weaver. Some fans will undoubtedly gripe that Weathers could not ever get the Dirtbags to Omaha with that collection of talent, but LBSU did come close, losing in super regionals in 2003 and ’04. The Dirtbags went to six regionals under Weathers, who had his first losing season at the Beach last year. Long Beach is 22-23 heading into Weathers’ final battle against archrival Cal State Fullerton at Blair Field this weekend.

Scouting Report
The Ragin’ Cajuns have surged into position to snag an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament with four straight Sun Belt Conference series sweeps (against Troy, Arkansas-Little Rock, Middle Tennessee State and New Orleans). Heading into a big series against Western Kentucky, UL-L is tied with South Alabama for second place in the league, and it has climbed to No. 34 in the RPI. Fueling Louisiana-Lafayette’s surge is its pitching, led by senior righthander Zach Osborne (8-2, 2.47 with 88 strikeouts and 15 walks in 91 innings), who is one of the most experienced and reliable Friday starters in the conference. In the typically offensive Sun Belt, the Cagins have put together a 3.36 staff ERA, seventh-best in the nation.

The offense relies on speed to make things happen; UL-L’s 87 stolen bases are second-most in the league. There are also two power threats in the lineup: senior catcher Chad Keefer (.335/.387/.578 with 11 home runs and 45 RBIs) and junior second baseman Jordan Poirrier (.322/.420/.633 with 11 homers and 48 RBIs), who has bounced back nicely after taking a medical redshirt in 2009.

An American League area scout offered his thoughts on the Ragin’ Cajuns.

“They’ve got Osborne as their Friday guy—he’s been very reliable. He wasn’t bad last year, but he’s been better this year. He’s throwing a lot of strikes, keeping the ball down. He’s kind of a sinkerball guy who throws 87-90 with a below-average slider, but it works in college. He’s been pitching really well, he’s been going deep into games. He’s a very good pitcher for the Sun Belt, and a senior sign, but probably a middle reliever down the road.

“They kind of mix it up on Saturdays. (Justin) Robichaux pitches some, he’s the son of the coach. Nothing’s very pretty, but he’s 86-89 with some sink, got a little funk, a little breaking ball, he gets the job done. Lately they’ve gone with T.J. Geith and Michael Cook on Saturdays and Sundays, and they’ve done a nice job. They’ve got a guy in the bullpen named Dayton Marze; he throws hard, 90-92, 93 with some sink on there, a good arm. He’s probably going to be drafted this year.

“They’ve got a shortstop, (Greg) Fontenot, who’s a slight-bodied guy but hits pretty well for average and can run a little bit. He’s a good little college shortstop. Their leadoff guy, (Kyle) Olasin, can run a little bit, and he can hit a little bit. Behind the plate they’ve got their senior, Keefer. He’s not a very good defensive catcher at the next level, but he’s getting the job done where he is now. The bat is OK, he’s got some power, he’ll hit some home runs for them. In terms of the draft, he is what he is, probably a first baseman in pro ball, but he’s a good college player.

“I would say their new turf is helping them defensively. It’s just like at Tulane: it can make you become a pretty good defensive player quickly. You get good hops, the ball is slowed down a bit by that stuff, you’ve got more range, it just makes you a little more confident. So they’re playing better defense and they’ve got good pitching.

“They’re similar to what Southern Miss had last year: a bunch of good college players, but they’re not quite as good. Southern Miss had two guys on the mound who could shove it last year with (Jeff) McInnis and (J.R.) Bollinger. This is just a scrappy college team. Nothing stands out about them, but they’ve got some good college players.”

In The Dugout
Derek Dietrich, ss, Georgia Tech
Dietrich, a midseason All-American as a junior this spring, is putting together the finest season of his standout career, hitting .360/.465/.688 with 14 home runs in 52 at-bats. An unsigned 2007 third-round pick by the Astros out of high school in Cleveland, Dietrich figures to be drafted higher than that this June thanks to his bat, his grinder mentality and his solid all-around game. Dietrich and the Yellow Jackets will host Miami this weekend in a series laden with postseason positioning implications. Georgia Tech (17-7) trails Miami and Virginia (18-6) by a game in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

You were an impact player from day one at Georgia Tech—you were a freshman All-American two years ago, and you had a good sophomore year—but it seems like this season you’ve taken it to a higher level. What’s been the difference?

I just wanted to lead this team on the field and off the field. I had to wait my turn until I was a junior, but I just wanted to help lead by example and play hard every day, grind at-bats out. I love playing baseball, and I love playing for Coach Hall and the Yellow Jackets. We’re looking to play deep into Omaha.

You have a reputation as an offensive player, but you’ve played strong defense at shortstop. How much pride do you take in your defense?

I love getting dirty and playing good for my pitchers; I know they appreciate everything we do for them. It’s just part of my game; I love to hit but I love playing defense as well.

The one thing about you that scouts sometimes wonder is, are you a shortstop in pro ball, or will you have to move to a corner or second base? How do you answer people who doubt your ability to stay at shortstop?

I always answer the question: I’ve played under coach Hall now for three years in the ACC, on one of the best teams in the country, and I’ve started every game at short in my career. I’ve played it in the Cape and with the USA team. I feel like I can make the plays, and I love doing it. Until the time comes where someone tells me I can’t do it or someone’s better than me, I want to stick at shortstop as long as possible.

Tell me about your sister, Dawn. She’s a former professional ice skater, is that right?

Yeah, athleticism just kind of runs in the family, from my grandfather through my sister. She skated professionally for about five or six years and competed before that up until she was 18. I tell everyone that I think I get some of the competitiveness from her, because she’s extremely competitive, very intellectual, and just a great sister. She supports me, and she’s always giving me calls and giving me pep talks here and there. She’s a great big sister to have.

You mentioned your grandfather (former big leaguer Steve Demeter); he was in pro baseball for more than 50 years, wasn’t he?

Yeah, it was 52 years in professional baseball from playing, scouting, coaching, you name it. He’s got a lot of wisdom to share with me, and again I’m lucky to have someone like that in my life. I really cherish the relationship that I have with him.

What’s the most valuable thing he’s ever told you in baseball?

Let it fly. Let the bat fly—that’s for sure. Just be aggressive, go up there and take a good hack.

It seems to work for you.

Yeah, it’s worked so far.

OK, I’ve got to ask you about your juggling talents. You juggled for two years with a circus company?

I learned how to juggle when I was about 8 years old and kept doing it. A group at my high school, St. Ignatius, had a circus company, and we would perform for children’s hospitals, nursing homes, schools. It was just kind of a way to keep juggling and work on my hand-eye coordination, which I think played a major factor in my baseball life. So I keep that up whenever I can, and I got to touch some kids’ lives in San Diego (at the Aflac All-American game) and all across the United States juggling. So it’s a two-for-one thing: make some smiles and keep my hands going.

So you still juggle a little bit?

Oh yeah, absolutely. My mom tries to bug me all the time, ‘Make sure you keep juggling!’ And now you’re 20 years old, and I’m in college and I’ve got stuff to do, but I’ve got to find some time to get the balls or the clubs out and juggle.

How many can you do?

I can do four or five balls and about three or four clubs, on a good day. When I was in high school, I could do a bunch of things.