College Weekend Preview: May 20

Meaningful Matchup
Florida at South Carolina

The Southeastern Conference is always one of the nation’s most offensive leagues, renowned in college baseball for its power bats and slugfests.

But entering the final weekend of the regular season, the two teams tied atop the SEC standings—three games ahead of every other team in the league at 20-7—rank in the middle of the conference pack in most offensive categories. Instead, Florida and South Carolina both win with pitching and defense.

Top 25 Schedule
(1) Virginia at (14) Miami

(2) Texas at Missouri

Oregon State at (3) Arizona State

(4) Florida at (6) South Carolina

(5) Coastal Carolina at Radford

(7) Florida State at Clemson

Cal State Bakersfield at (8) Texas Christian

Santa Clara at (9) Cal State Fullerton

(10) UCLA at California

(11) Louisville at Notre Dame

(12) Virginia Tech at North Carolina

(13) Georgia Tech at Boston College

(15) Oklahoma at Kansas

(16) Auburn at (18) Mississippi

(17) Arkansas at (23) Vanderbilt

(19) San Diego at Pepperdine

Seton Hall at (20) Connecticut

Alabama-Birmingham at (21) Rice

(22) Oregon at Washington

Southern California at (24) Washington State

UC Riverside at (25) UC Irvine

The Gamecocks lead the conference with a 3.65 ERA, and the Gators are fourth at 3.89. Florida leads the SEC with a .978 fielding percentage, and South Carolina is not far behind at .974.

“We both feel like we can swing it a little bit, but that being said we’re both hitting just around .300,” South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said of his team and the Gators. “The reason, more than likely, that both of us are in this situation is pitching and defense. One coach told me Florida is great defensively, and they’ll make great plays. Their fielding percentage is a little better than ours, and ours is pretty good. (Center fielder Matt) den Dekker runs down balls in the alleys and over his head, and (freshman Nolan) Fontana at short—there’s no question that he’s an outstanding freshman, and one of the better ones in the country. But can Jimmy Rollins go through an entire college season with only one error? I mean, come on. Who can do that?”

Florida is an elite defensive team largely because it has premium defenders up the middle. Den Dekker has a reputation as the nation’s best defensive center fielder, and Fontana has put together a freshman season for the ages. He has started every one of Florida’s 50 games at shortstop, and he has committed only one error—that’s a .995 fielding percentage. Florida is also very strong defensively at second base, where Josh Adams is fielding at a .984 clip, and behind the plate, where freshman Mike Zunino has stellar catch-and-throw skills. Zunino left last Saturday’s game and sat out Sunday after jamming his thumb catching a Paco Rodriguez cutter, but Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said he expects Zunino to be ready to play this weekend. Florida has a talented backup catcher in Ben McMahan, but a healthy Zunino is still a key.

“Zunino has been really consistent, he understands the position, never takes his bat out on defense,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s got a really good mind for this game, and he just brings a really good attitude every day. And I can’t tell you how many runs den Dekker has saved in the last three years here. His defense, sometimes you take it for granted, but his defense is really special, and his offense is improved. Adams could probably play short for most teams, but Fontana is the best young shortstop we’ve coached. He separates the catch and the throw, he’s very accurate with his arm, he never rushes it on defense. He catches it, then he takes care of his footwork and his throws. He keeps it really simple, and he makes all the plays he’s supposed to make. He’s got the spectacular play in him, too, but a lot of good infielders make the great play but kick the routine play. He just makes the everyday routine play on a routine basis.”

On the corners, Preston Tucker is a strong defender at first base, and converted catcher Austin Maddox has learned the hot corner quickly. But that duo is known more for offense—they provide much of the thump in the middle of the order. Tucker (.339/.446/.566 with nine homers and 38 RBIs) has demonstrated impressive patience at the plate, drawing 36 walks and striking out just 21 times, but he also has massive raw power. Maddox (.353/.387/.671 with 17 homers and 63 RBIs) has even more power, and he has emerged as a leading contender for national Freshman of the Year honors.

Maddox was the biggest name in Florida’s No. 1 ranked recruiting class last fall, and he has lived up to all of the expectations that accompanied him to Gainesville. So have Fontana and Zunino, the son of a scout, as well as lefthander/DH Brian Johnson (5-2, 3.53; .360/.441/.580) and righthander Hudson Randall (6-3, 2.96), who comprise two-thirds of Florida’s weekend rotation. That quintet alone would give Florida’s recruiting class a chance to go down as one of the best in recent years. But the Gators have also gotten contributions from Rodriguez (2.53 ERA in 21 innings, mostly in relief) and outfielder Kamm Washington (.308/.416/.400 before sustaining a season-ending hamstring tear), and flame-throwing righthander Michael Heller figures to be an impact arm over the next two years, though he’s pitched just four innings as a freshman due to tendinitis.

Florida’s watershed recruiting class, filled with instant-impact talents, made the Gators one of the nation’s deepest teams and insulated them against injuries. In addition to the injuries to Washington and Heller, Johnson missed time with a pulled lat muscle; weekend starter Tommy Toledo was sidelined after being hit in the face with a line drive; Rodriguez and third baseman Bryson Smith missed time with broken fingers. But Florida did not miss a beat, dropping just one weekend series all season en route to a 38-12 overall record.

Rodriguez, Toledo, Smith and Johnson are all back now, making Florida mostly healthy and very dangerous at the most important time of the year. O’Sullivan said Toledo was throwing in the 91-93 mph range in his two scoreless innings Tuesday against North Florida, giving a deep staff another gun.

South Carolina also stands out for the depth and versatility of its pitching staff. The Gamecocks have the SEC’s most reliable one-two punch atop the rotation in righthanders Blake Cooper (10-0, 3.01) and Sam Dyson (5-4, 3.79), but lately they have not gotten deep outings from their Sunday starter, as senior righty Jay Brown (2-0, 4.65) has struggled. But Tanner is not concerned with finding a traditional Sunday starter; he has had too much success mixing and matching with his outstanding bullpen. South Carolina has 14 pitchers on the staff who have thrown double-digit innings, and they have righthanded and lefthanded options who present hitters with different looks and different arm angles. The anchor is closer Matt Price (3-0, 2.80 with seven saves), whom O’Sullivan called “underrated.”

“They’ve been good for us all year,” Tanner said of his relievers. “One of the keys for us has been what we’ve been able to do from the fifth or sixth inning on. We mix and match, we have a couple of different righties and lefties. That’s been a big key for us. But we’ve been a solid team, we don’t scare anybody, we try to get the double play and throw to the right bases, so we have a chance to win. We win a lot of close games, we don’t blow anybody out. We’re not going to throw up a 10-spot or an 8-spot.”

That’s a change for a South Carolina program that is traditionally very well stocked with sluggers. The Gamecocks still have power in the lineup—particularly at the top, where athletic outfielders Whit Merrifield (12 homers) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (eight homers) can beat opponents with the long ball as well as with their speed. Freshman Christian Walker has re-established himself as a force in the middle of the lineup, and behind him in the order Tanner is not afraid to play matchups, starting Nick Ebert and Kyle Enders against lefties, and Jeffery Jones and Brady Thomas against righties.

Tanner has done a masterful job of deploying his deep roster effectively, and his team enters this weekend with plenty of confidence after sweeping a road series at Arkansas. That series pushed the Gamecocks to 42-11 overall and gave them the inside track at a national seed. Both teams are in strong position to earn national seeds regardless of what happens this weekend, but there is something to be said for winning the SEC’s regular-season title.

“It’s an exciting weekend,” Tanner said. “The fact that both of us are tied and we get to play the last weekend—I don’t know how often that’s happened, but I know there’s a buzz here in Columbia. We’re expecting three sellouts, it’s going to be a great weekend.”

Marquee Mound Matchup
Robert Morey vs. Chris Hernandez
Top-ranked Virginia can clinch the ACC’s regular-season title with one win at No. 14 Miami this weekend. With a sweep of the nation’s No. 1 team, coupled with a Georgia Tech loss to Boston College, the Hurricanes can steal the conference crown. But more importantly, this weekend offers Miami an opportunity to lock up its status as a regional host with a series win. The Hurricanes have built a 19-8 conference record and a 38-13 overall mark by taking care of business against the softer parts of their schedule, but they are 0-4 in series against Top 25 teams.

Miami’s chances to upset Virginia—and ultimately to make a deep postseason run—will hinge largely upon its starting pitching, and particularly upon Hernandez’s ability to pitch like an ace. The 2008 national Freshman of the Year, Hernandez slumped as a sophomore, going 7-5, 4.76, and it took him some time to find his rhythm as a junior this spring. But the lefthander has come on strong down the stretch, and he enters this weekend 8-2, 3.04 with 82 strikeouts and 23 walks in 77 innings.

“He’s been throwing strikes again, getting ahead, getting back to his freshman year form, really,” Miami pitching coach J.D. Arteaga said. “When he was struggling, he had been trying to make the perfect pitch every time out instead of letting his movement work for him, and he wasn’t able to work deep into games. Now he’s going six or more innings every time out.”

Arteaga said the emergence of Hernandez’s changeup has been critical to his turnaround. His best pitch is a low-to-mid-80s cutter, and in the past he would relentlessly pound that pitch inside against righthanded hitters. Scouts believe he got too cutter happy, costing him some velocity on his upper-80s four-seam fastball, and hitters eventually adjusted.

“Now you can’t really cheat on the cutter or wait for something on the inner half, because he can throw the changeup away,” Arteaga said. “The changeup has made a big difference for him.”

With the series running from Thursday through Saturday due to next week’s ACC tournament, Miami will throw Jason Santana in the opener, Hernandez on Friday and David Gutierrez on Saturday. Virginia counters with freshman righty Branden Kline on Thursday, Morey on Friday and ace lefty Danny Hultzen on Saturday.

Hultzen is a leading candidate for national Player of the Year honors, but Morey has been Virginia’s hottest pitcher of late. Last week against North Carolina, Morey became the first Cavalier since Andrew Dobies in 2004 to throw back-to-back complete games. He held the Tar Heels hitless through five innings and allowed just a run on three hits in the game while striking out eight. Morey improved to 8-2, 3.30 with 61 strikeouts and 29 walks in 79 innings on the season.

“For him to have back-to-back complete games is really outstanding,” UVa. coach Brian O’Connor told the (Charlottesville, Va.) Daily Progress. “He is really starting to pitch his best baseball of late. We are going to need him to pitch like that the rest of the way.”

Morey was just as good in his previous outing against Duke, allowing one run on five hits while striking out eight. He sat in the 89-92 range most of the game and touched 93-94 in the early innings, and as usual he racked up most of his strikeouts with his 83-85 slider. But he also mixed in an effective curveball in the mid-70s, giving hitters another look.

“His command of the slow curve was so much better, and when the command is good, it’s an impressive pitch,” O’Connor told BA after the Duke game. “I thought he’s really turned the corner the last two or three outings too. To throw a complete game under 120 pitches is impressive. That’s throwing strikes and commanding the strike zone.”

Under The Radar
Doug Shribman, 1b, Bucknell
Last weekend, Shribman helped power fourth-seeded Bucknell to an upset over top-seeded Army in the first round of the Patriot League playoffs. Shribman hit four home runs and drove in nine in the best-of-three series, leading Bucknell to an 11-9 win in the opener and an 11-7 victory in the decisive third game. Shribman slugged two home runs in the opener, another in the middle game (a 6-4 Army victory), then went 3-for-4 with a grand slam in the all-important rubber game.

“Doug’s weekend was as impressive as any I’ve seen—he was just on,” Bucknell coach Gene DePew said. “The numbers he put up speak for themselves, and a couple of his outs were near-misses. He has a wide stance and takes a big cut, and when he doesn’t hit it out he pops it up sometimes. When you do that, you are close to hitting them solid.”

The big weekend was a continuation of a huge season for the 6-foot-4,
220-pound junior, who is hitting .372/.437/.724 with a Patriot
League-record 17 home runs, 16 doubles and 53 RBIs. Twelve of his
homers have come against Patriot League opponents.

Power is Bucknell’s calling card. Senior outfielder Andrew Brouse (.370/.479/.682 with 15 homers and 49 RBIs), the team’s best all-around player, and senior second baseman Ben Yoder (.388/.443/.675 with 10 homers and 43 RBIs) give the Bison two other power sources.

“Doug and Andy Brouse had been trading home runs all season, and Andy had managed to stay just ahead of him until this weekend,” DePew said. “But Doug has just come on very strong here in the second half of the season. He had some good numbers for us last year, and he was kind of overshadowed by some of the other guys. Andy has been our guy here for two years, basically. He’s a complete player; he hits the ball for power as well, obviously, but also hits for average, a lot of line drives, and he will go with a pitch. He’s the fastest guy on our team, he leads us in stolen bases, he has the best throwing arm from the outfield. Right now, he’s hitting in front of Doug in the order, and that’s protected him a little bit. They used to try to pitch around Andy some with Doug behind him. That’s a good combination we have going there.”

Shribman, Brouse and the Bison are now just two wins away from their second trip to regionals in the last three years, and their fourth in the last decade. Standing in their way is third-seeded Holy Cross, which upended second-seeded Lehigh in three games last weekend. The Crusaders, who are seeking their first regionals appearance since 1978, will host the best-of-three championship series this weekend. The first game is Friday, and a doubleheader will be played Saturday if the teams split the first two contests.

Holy Cross won three of four against Bucknell on April 10-11, so DePew knows what his team is up against—a team with a .319/.399/.477 hitting line.

“We had the four-game series all the way back in early April, and we know from that that they have very solid pitching,” he said. “The two lefties they’ll be starting are very solid guys—that will be a challenge for us. I was very impressed with the discipline they have; they rarely swing at a pitch that’s not in the zone. We understand it’s going to be a challenge for us. Hopefully our deal is we’re a lot better team right now than we were in early April when we played them.”

The Wildcats have dominated the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference over the last decade, having won the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament 10 of the last 11 years. But they had never gone 18-0 in the conference schedule until this year.

Bethune-Cookman completed its undefeated run through the regular season by scoring 57 runs in a three-game sweep at Delaware State last weekend. That was a fairly typical weekend for the B-CU offense, which has scored in double digits in its last six conference games and 13 of its 18 MEAC contests on the season.

“I believe offensively we are much better team than any team that I’ve coached here,” Bethune-Cookman coach Mervyl Melendez said. “This is the first year that we’ve had this much power. We kind of changed the way that we recruit a little bit, and of course we’ve gotten better players because of the exposure we’ve had out there making it to regionals and being on national TV (at the MLB Urban Invitational in Compton, Calif.). Overall, you recruit a better overall player. But you just want to get two or three guys that can flat-out swing it, and they’re going to have that power. Before, we concentrated a lot on the speed and put the power to the side. Now we try to get that balance. You can only have probably two guys that can put up numbers like this. But we try to get more guys like this because we see the trends in college baseball, and if you’ve got power you can break open some close games.”

Bethune-Cookman’s lineup has two huge power threats in the middle of the lineup: sophomore catcher Peter O’Brien (.385/.447/.764 with 19 home runs and 53 RBIs) and junior first baseman Ryan Durrence (.366/.431/.717 with 17 homers and 63 RBIs). Melendez expressed disappointment that O’Brien was not named a semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award, and it’s easy to see why. O’Brien’s raw power is huge, and Melendez raves about his defense behind the plate.

“At one point we were joking around saying, ‘You should hit more than 20 home runs this year.’ Now he’s pretty darn close to that,” Melendez said. “He’s got as much power or maybe more power than anybody that I’ve coached in the 11 years I’ve been the head coach here. And defensively he’s been amazing—he’s got a great, great arm, and he’s thrown out right around 30 percent of baserunners. He’s really the complete package, an offensive catcher and he can control the running game as well.”

The Wildcats play in a pitcher-friendly High Class A stadium in Daytona Beach, which is one reason they usually build their clubs around speed. This year’s team can still run—particularly outfielders Justin Hoyte and Matt Wright—but the power presence in the middle of the lineup makes B-CU a bit more conservative on the basepaths.

And the lineup is stocked with disciplined hitters who work counts and make good contact. Two key pieces are junior college transfers D.J. Leonard (.438/.458/.723 with nine homers) and Juan Perez (.359/.429/.474). Leonard, an outfielder, has shouldered an even bigger offensive load since the best pure hitter on the team, C.J. Lauriello, tore his labrum and rotator cuff, ending his season after just 28 games.

“That’s a big blow,” Melendez said. “The only positive for our ballclub is we were deep enough at every position and we could withstand something like this. This team’s togetherness—they just get along. When someone goes down, they just rally and someone else steps up.”

Perez, in addition to playing a solid second base and hitting in the No. 2 hole, has emerged as a power-armed closer, racking up nine saves and 35 strikeouts in 30 innings. He anchors a solid bullpen that has three reliable middle men in Chris Anselmo, Jordan Dailey and Joey Munoz. But Perez is a difference maker.

“He throws anywhere from 90-94 with a good slider and will have a chance to play at the next level,” Melendez said. “That’s something that we have missed in the past. You need a guy that can light up the radar guns and challenge everyone. If you’re going to beat us, you’re going to have to go through that guy.”

The pitching staff is young—especially in the rotation—and the defense can be shaky at times, but the Wildcats can score runs by the bushel and can count on their bullpen when it matters. And as usual, they are the class of the MEAC and the overwhelming favorites to win the conference tournament, which starts today in Daytona Beach.

Southern California
It has been a banner year for the Pacific-10 Conference, which has had eight different teams appear in the Top 25 rankings. One of the two teams that has not been ranked is Southern California, the most storied program in college baseball history.

USC has won 12 national titles—twice as many as any other Division I program (Texas is second with six). The Trojans have been to the College World Series 21 times and have been to regionals 36 times. But remarkably for a program with so much tradition and one of the best facilities on the West Coast, USC has not reached regionals since 2005.

That drought is not going to end in 2010. The Trojans were swept at rival UCLA last weekend to fall to 24-28 overall and 5-16 in the Pac-10. With two weeks left in the regular season, USC is in last place in the conference, four games behind Oregon State and Washington, who are tied for eighth. Barring a frantic run over the next two weeks, the Trojans are going to finish in last place for the second time in coach Chad Kreuter’s four seasons at the helm.

Last year was the best of the Kreuter era, as USC finished just 28-28 overall and 13-14 in conference play. That team featured two first-round picks in shortstop Grant Green and righthander Brad Boxberger, as well as third-round catcher/pitcher Robert Stock.

This year’s team is not as talented and has taken a predictable step back. The biggest culprit: a meager offense that ranks 262nd in the nation in scoring (5.5 runs per game). The Trojans also have the worst defense in the Pac-10, with a .962 fielding percentage that ranks 140th in the nation.

The biggest reason for USC’s run of futility has been misguided recruiting. Just about every year, the Trojans make the biggest splash in the early recruiting period, but they secure commitments from numerous high-profile talents with almost no shot at showing up on campus (such as Mike Stanton, Mike Moustakas, Tim Beckham, Aaron Hicks, Jiovanni Mier, Brooks Pounders, et al). The Trojans would be better off pursuing fewer players with first-round talent and more solid, college-caliber players who are safer bets to go to school.

Perhaps the Trojans have finally learned that lesson. They signed just two members of the BA high school top 100 prospects last fall, and none inside the top 40. The two headliners of the class—Joc Pederson and Angelo Gumbs—at least have a chance to show up on campus; nobody ever said the same about Stanton, Moustakas, Beckham or Hicks.

But that won’t help the 2010 Trojans, and it won’t ease the sting of a sixth straight season without a trip to regionals.

Stat of the Week
Bryant’s winning percentage in Northeast Conference play. In their second season in Division I and first season in the NEC, the Bulldogs are 23-5 in the league and 31-21 overall. Their final series of the season—against second-place Sacred Heart—started Wednesday, and Bryant’s 9-0 win clinched its regular-season title. But Bryant is not eligible for postseason play until it completes its four-year reclassification from Division II, where it had success in the wood-bat Northeast-10 Conference and reached the Northeast Regional final two years in a row.

Bryant coach Jamie Pinzino teaches an aggressive, fundamentally sound style of play, and the Bulldogs do not give away outs. Bryant’s top prospect for the 2010 draft is catcher Jeff Vigurs (.325/.375/.455 with four homers and 39 RBIs), who will be a quality senior sign thanks to his strong catch-and-throw skills. Vigurs has a strong arm, a quick release and good footwork behind the plate. Offensively, he is a lefthanded hitter with a disciplined approach and the ability to use all fields.

Vigurs manages a solid pitching staff anchored by the one-two punch of senior righthanders Brent Almeida (6-0, 1.94) and Eric Polvani (6-5, 3.28 with 85 strikeouts and 24 walks in 91 innings).

With that kind of veteran core, the Bulldogs might have been able to pull off an upset or two in a regional. But they’ll have to wait two more years to try their hand at giant killing. For now, they can take pride in dominating the NEC in their first tour of the conference.

Scouting Report
Oklahoma at Kansas
Texas wrapped up the Big 12 title weeks ago, but there’s still plenty on the line in the conference this weekend. One of the most important series will take place in Lawrence, Kan., where Kansas will host Oklahoma. The Sooners (38-14 overall, 12-10 in the Big 12), fresh off a huge midweek win against Arkansas, are trying to make a push to host a regional, while the Jayhawks (31-21, 11-12-1) hope to regroup from a series loss to Kansas State and boost their at-large credentials. One coach who has seen both teams offered his thoughts on Oklahoma and Kansas.

“OU is very good. KU is hitting well in conference play and they have enough pitching. People say the Big 12’s down. I think the Big 12’s younger this year, aside from Texas. Everybody says it’s not as good, but I’m not buying that. I think it’s good.

“Kansas is very good at home. But man, I’m telling you, I think OU is always good offensively. I don’t care what the stats say or who’s on their team, that guy (head coach Sunny Golloway) does a great job developing the team offense aspect. The components change, a good freshman replaces a good senior. And I think their pitching is better than it was last year. Last year, their pitching was kind of shaky. But they’ve got some pretty good arms. (Zach) Neal and (Bobby) Shore are an upgrade in the rotation. They just really pitch. It seemed like before they had the guy who threw 100 (mph) and his ERA was 7. You’d see him and you’d say, ‘My god, how do you score off this guy?’ Then the next thing you know you’ve got five runs in three innings. Those two juco guys (Neal and Shore) are good. They have command, they’re in the upper 80s, and they both have a good second pitch. And they’ve got a good closer: (Ryan) Duke is an A-plus competitor, and he’s got a good slider, and he’s around 90 with good command. Just good karma—he’s that guy that sometimes you see him and you think he looks tired or something, but it doesn’t matter. And they’ve got a couple of lefties in the bullpen who are good, too. That ballpark is so offensive, it’s a tough place to pitch, a tough place to maintain confidence in your pitchers. But their pitching coach has done a real nice job.

“On offense, they have a freshman named Max White, he looks like Brett Favre, man. He is a big, strong athlete guy that has kind of got the NFL quarterback-type build going. He’s very aggressive. They’ve got little bits and pieces, little lefthanded guys, they get hit by pitches, they run and they hit-and-run. (Shortstop Caleb) Bushyhead’s a good player. I think he might have some errors, and he’s not the best shortstop in the league by any stretch of the imagination. He makes some errors, but he’s not killing them. Their catchers aren’t very good offensively, but they do a good job. That’s a good team—they can beat anybody. I think (Garrett) Buechele is real good. He’s just a tremendous competitor and team leader, and you just don’t want that guy up with the game on the line. He’s got power, he makes adjustments, you can’t get him out the same way. He’ll hit a home run on a fastball in, then the next at-bat you’ll throw him a slider and he hits a double to right-center. He’s a big leaguer’s son, he knows what he’s doing. And it’s an advantage in college baseball when you have that advanced feel for the game. And (Cameron) Seitzer’s good too; he probably has more holes in his swing, but if you make a mistake, you’ll pay.

“I just think they’re good. I think they’re going to take care of business to host, I really do. They’re at KU, then in the Big 12 tournament (in Oklahoma City), those are home games. I see them winning at least four (games over the next two weeks).

“Kansas has some experience. They’ve got the one pitcher, (T.J.) Walz, and then they’ve got (Cameron) Selik, he’s pretty god. They have two good lefties in the pen, and their closer (Colton) Murray has been pretty good. They have the prerequisite five or six guys on the mound. (Injured closer Brett) Bochy’s been replaced with a guy that throws 92 with a good slider—Colton Murray. The game ain’t over when he comes in, but the stuff is real good. Bochy, the game was kind of over when he got in the game.

Tony Thompson’s back to being dangerous. (Outfielder Brian) Heere is a fourth-year junior, he’s got 500 at-bats under his belt. (Senior Robby) Price is the coach’s son, the second baseman, he’s played his whole career. Price is not necessarily a prime athlete, but he’s a great player, and he just kind of makes those guys go. (Junior outfielder) Casey Lytle’s got a lot of experience, he’s played every day for two years in a row.

“I don’t know what to think of them, but that’s going to be an interesting series. To me, on a neutral site, OU would sweep them, or win two out of three. But at Lawrence, it’s a different deal up there—they swept Texas up there last year. It’s not a crowd issue, it’s not the obvious reasons for being home, they just have a lot of confidence at home, for whatever reason.”

In The Dugout
Seth Blair, rhp, Arizona State
Blair, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound junior, anchors an Arizona State staff that ranks third in the nation in ERA (3.03). A heralded recruit from Illinois, Blair gradually has developed into a bona fide ace, going 4-2, 6.96 as a freshman, then improving to 7-2, 3.39 as a sophomore, and finally going 9-0, 3.04 with 76 strikeouts and 17 walks in 77 innings this spring. He has admirably filled the shoes of two-time Pac-10 pitcher of the year Mike Leake and injured lefty Josh Spence, and he’s a big reason Arizona State is 43-6 overall and 16-5 in the conference heading into this weekend’s series against Oregon State.

Congratulations on another great series win this past week against Arizona. You guys just don’t let up, do you?

We’re playing real good baseball right now. That’s what we expect. We expect to win every game.

What do you think is the biggest reason this team is so good?

I think the thing that makes us so good is our desire to win, and our ability to make adjustments throughout the game. We’ve got a really good group of athletes, and we’re able to make adjustments at the plate, make adjustments on the mound. If something goes against us, we’re able to make adjustments. We know it’s a nine-inning game and you’ve got to play all nine whether you’re up or you’re down. We want to play all nine, and every single game, not just during the weekend. We’ve got a great group of core players. Our senior leadership has been just fantastic—you couldn’t ask for a better group of leaders. Every guy on this team wants to win so bad that it doesn’t matter what happens.

You guys have had to overcome some adversity and distractions this year, with the coaching change and the NCAA investigation and not having Josh Spence. But in the end, did that adversity make this team bond tighter together?

We had to, because the whole thing was up in the air. There were weeks when we didn’t know who our head coach was going to be. Everybody was stunned—it came out of nowhere. Coach (Pat) Murphy was such a great coach, and it was something that was completely unexpected, but we dealt with it and moved on. All we had was each other, and I think we really (thrived) off that. That’s when our senior leaders really took control, and it carried over to the season.

You talked about how much this team wants to win. Do you think that desire was intensified by making it to the College World Series last year and getting so close to the Finals but ultimately falling short?

Absolutely. Just getting to Omaha motivates you. You get there and you get a taste of it, but our goal isn’t just to get to Omaha. We want to win it all, and we’re not afraid to say that. That’s what the goal of this program is. We’ve got a great tradition here, and getting close to that championship series was huge, and not getting there was a huge disappointment.

You had a very solid sophomore year last year, but you did not get to start in Omaha, and instead Mike Leake and Josh Spence both came back on short rest. Was that surprising, or disappointing?

It wasn’t surprising to me, because Josh Spence and Mike Leake did what they did. They threw the heck out of the ball last year, and both of them dominated throughout the whole year and in the World Series.

Of course, this year Leake is gone and Spence has been hurt, and you have stepped into that Friday role and really flourished.

Being able to go out there and pitch on a Friday night is awesome. You’re the guy the team looks at to go out and shut the other team down on Friday night, when maybe we don’t know what the other team has on the mound or what they’re going to try to do to us. I really take pride in that.

You’ve always had an electric arm, but this year you have taken that leap to becoming one of the elite pitchers in college baseball. What has been the biggest key to your development?

I think just consistency. In the past, I’d throw good for two innings, then I’d have an inning where I didn’t throw well. I don’t know what that was due to—it might have been a lack of mental toughness, or something. This year I’ve done a good job of working out of jams and making one pitch at a time. I’ve learned that staying in the moment is the only way you can pitch.

Tell me about your repertoire. We’ve heard that you can run your fastball up into the mid-to-upper-90s, but how do you describe your stuff?

I’ve got a fastball, I throw a four-seamer and a sinker. I’ve got a slider or a curveball—I don’t really know what to call it, it’s a mix in between, like a slurve. Also I’ve got a change and a splitter. I use the split as a strikeout pitch and the changeup as more of a get-ahead pitch, but it depends on the hitter.

I suspect it makes your job easier to have such a strong defense, so you know that if you throw strikes and hitters put the ball in play, your guys will take care of it for you.

We’ve got great athletes in the infield, great athletes in the outfield. I like to get a lot of ground balls, and if a guy gets on first base, you start thinking double play automatically because of our great defenders in the infield.

And how much peace of mind do you get knowing you’ve got one of the best bullpens in college baseball behind you?

If you have to battle six or seven innings and then hand the ball off to the bullpen, you know there’s not going to be any dropoff; they’re going to pick you up. It is a huge luxury to have, because you can come out in the sixth or seventh, and the last three innings they’ll throw up zeroes.