Keydets On The Warpath

In its first game since the Lonnie Chisenhall/Nick Fuller bombshell became public, South Carolina rolled over UNC Asheville 9-2 last night. Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner’s news conference earlier in the day was emotional, but his players were able to channel any emotion into a 12-hit, three-homer barrage (including Justin Smoak’s seventh of the year). This unfortunate situation could wind up galvanizing the Gamecocks as a team; I wouldn’t bet against them at Mississippi State this weekend.

Also yesterday, Texas A&M went to Rice and emerged with an ugly 10-9 win in 11 innings, and Western Carolina beat Clemson 6-3 behind six solid innings from lefthander Drew Saberhagen. We’ll talk more about the Aggies and the Catamounts in Friday’s weekend preview, but I wanted to note that junior righthander David Kopp threw very well for the Tigers and only allowed one run over the first five innings. He left with the bases loaded in the sixth, and senior righthander Stephen Clyne allowed the inherited runners to score, plus two more in WCU’s five-run sixth inning. That snapped Clyne’s consecutive scoreless innings streak at 31 1/3. On to the mailbag:

I have been wondering where you think some of the VMI pitchers will go in the draft if they get drafted. Pitchers like Michael Bowman, Travis Smink, Trey Barham and a couple others. Thanks and GO KEYDETS!

Doug Thomas
Lexington, Va.

Virginia Military Institute is off to a 16-4 start, the best in school history, and has won 11 of its past 12 games. That stretch includes a split at then-No. 20 Auburn and a sweep of Charleston Southern this past weekend, the Keydets’ first road sweep of a conference foe since joining the Big South four years ago. It doesn’t get any easier this weekend, as VMI travels to preseason conference favorite Winthrop in a big early-season series.

Pitching has been a major strength for the Keydets. Barham (pictured at right), a junior lefthander, is 5-1, 1.56 as the Friday starter. Barham earns plaudits from scouts for his excellent feel for pitching and three-pitch mix, which includes a sneaky fastball in the 83-86 mph range with arm-side run, a quality curveball that he can backdoor against righthanded hitters and a solid changeup. Barham dominated in the Valley League last summer before moving to Wareham in the Cape Cod League late in the summer, posting a 2.08 ERA in four innings. He lacks overpowering stuff, but lefthanders with Barham’s feel for pitching have a way of making it to pro ball. He could be a late-first-day draftee.

Bowman, a sophomore righthander, has been overpowering at times this year, going 4-0, 2.29 with a 43-7 strikeout-walk ratio in 35 innings. He’s an excellent athlete with an 87-90 mph fastball and a solid changeup. Smink has gotten shelled in just two appearances this year, but sophomore righthander Kevin Crum has been outstanding in the closer role. His loose, easy arm produces fastballs in the 87-89 range and a decent slider. Crum now has 12 saves, the most in the nation. And freshman righty Chris Duty (3-0, 1.80) has pitched very well on Sundays. Bowman and Crum, like Barham, have a chance to be drafted on the first day in June, though none of them are locks for the top 10 rounds. Most importantly, those arms all give VMI a chance to win any series.

“Bottom line, all their pitchers throw strikes with all their pitches, and they flat compete,” said one coach whose team has played the Keydets. “Their shortstop, Chad Rice, can really defend. Their center fielder, Thane Smith, can fly, and they have two good hitters in Jacoby Fields and Robert Crumpler. I also like their right fielder (Eddie) Van Es. Solid club that looks like it will be near the top of the Big South. They play hard and are well coached by Marlin Ikenberry.”

That Big South race should be fun to watch. Coastal Carolina has to be considered the favorite right now, but Winthrop and VMI are both very capable of winning the conference. All three look like regional-caliber teams (though Winthrop is just 13-12 against its tough schedule), but unfortunately only two are likely to make regionals.