Weekend Preview: April 11-13

Meaningful Matchup
Nebraska at Oklahoma State

Nebraska coach Mike Anderson doesn’t blame the prognosticators for doubting his team in the preseason. He knows very well there was a lot of reason to doubt, and very little reason to expect Nebraska to be sitting atop the Big 12 with a 10-1 mark and holding a No. 6 national ranking at the season’s halfway point.

“I keep saying I don’t think we’re the most talented team by any stretch of the imagination, but we perform well together,” said Anderson, whose team was picked to finish sixth in the Big 12 preseason coaches poll. “Our starting pitching has been good, and from that point on we just play well together. If you see our team, we’re not overpowering, we don’t have the power numbers. I think we’ve got starting pitching that’s been very productive, we’ve gotten clutch hitting, and we play solid defense. We’ve gotten key hits when we needed them.

(1) Miami at Georgia Tech
(2) Arizona State at Washington State
(3) Florida State at Boston College
(4) North Carolina at Clemson
(5) California at Southern California
(6) Nebraska at (21) Oklahoma State
(7) UC Irvine at (20) Long Beach State
(12) Texas at (8) Missouri
(9) Wichita State at Creighton
(10) Stanford at Oregon State
Alabama-Birmingham at (11) Rice
(13) San Diego at Portland
(17) Kentucky at (14) Georgia
(15) South Carolina at Auburn
Cal State Northridge at (16) Cal State Fullerton
Louisiana State at (18) Mississippi
(19) Vanderbilt at Mississippi State
Georgia State at (22) UNC Wilmington
(23) Michigan at Illinois
(24) Coastal Carolina at Charleston Southern
Arkansas at (25) Florida

“I’ve had a chance to see some Big 12 teams on TV. You look at the 3-4-5 hitters and some of the starting pitching and think, ‘Wow, they’re a talented group.’ You just look at the numbers, and I’m not demeaning our kids at all, our kids have exceeded our expectations for them. I don’t know that we’re going to have any first-round, second-round, third-round draft picks. They’re good hard-nosed kids that are doing some fundamental things right.”

The Cornhuskers will get a big road test this weekend against a talented Oklahoma State club that is always tough at home and is coming off a series win at then-No. 4 Missouri. But the ‘Huskers have already proven themselves on the road twice, sweeping a series at Kansas State and winning two out of three at Texas. Longhorns coach Augie Garrido came away plenty impressed with Nebraska.

“The reality of their success is they’re playing the most consistent team baseball that we’ve seen so far,” Garrido said. “Their pitching staff really competes to the target without fear. They’re hustling, running everything out. They’re very well coached and very on the money and together with what they’re doing. They’re not giving away outs defensively in the field and getting the most out of their three outs. In my opinion what separates them from the rest of us is their teamwork. Certainly there’s talent involved too, but they’re on top of the game.”

Nebraska’s most talented player is junior righthander Aaron Pribanic (3-1, 2.70), a transfer from Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College with a 94-96 mph fastball. But Nebraska’s senior leaders really set the tone, both on the mound and in the lineup.

Senior righthanders Johnny Dorn (4-0, 2.12) and Thad Weber (6-1, 3.06) have pitched deep into ballgames to take pressure off a solid bullpen anchored by junior lefthander Dan Jennings (3-0, 1.85, 3 saves). None of those guys are overwhelming, but they all compete and throw strikes, and Dorn can make a strong case for best pitcher in the Big 12 (non-Aaron Crow category).

“Dorn is a proven guy who, pitching on Fridays for the first time in his career, has been effective,” Anderson said. “He’s really the key. His composure, poise, he’s shown those other guys the way to approach their starts. He finds ways to get out of jams. Above all, he’s been the key for our staff, he’s been an incredible leader.”

The lineup isn’t flashy but has a knack for coming up with timely hits, led by seniors Craig Corriston (.313/.378/.488), Jake Opitz (.336/.425/.518), Bryce Nimmo (.333/.440/.396) and Mitch Abeita (.360/.513/.628 with a team-leading six homers).

On the other side of the coin, Oklahoma State has been winning (they’re 21-9 overall and 6-6 in the Big 12) with fewer veterans. Shortstop/closer Jordy Mercer (.352/.408/.560 with six homers and 30 RBIs) and first baseman Rebel Ridling (.315/.374/.581 with seven homers and 27 RBIs) are the lone holdovers among last year’s regulars in the lineup, and the Cowboys have settled into an all-sophomore weekend rotation: lefthanders Andrew Oliver (2-2, 3.00) and Tyler Lyons (5-2, 3.12) and righty Tyler Blandford (3-2, 6.03).

“Those three guys right now, they’re all sophomores, they’ve all made a step up as far as maturity,” Cowboys coach Frank Anderson said. “Are we going to string together a bunch of shutouts? I don’t think so; we’re still a work in progress. We’ll still have some ups and downs. Other than Andy, this is the first year for those other two to start. Blandford’s a great talent that on any given day can string it together, but command-wise we’re still working on it. He’ll continue to be our Sunday guy

“Oklahoma State over the years has been known as an offensive juggernaut, but to win at the highest level you need to be able to pitch, obviously . . . I think it’s a good group that will continue to get better.”

The Cowboys aren’t quite the offensive juggernaut they were a year ago, but they still rank second in the Big 12 in batting (.315) and scoring (8.1 runs per game) while leading the league in homers (37). Two high-impact transfers have helped solidify the lineup, as third baseman Matt Hague (.355/.433/.554 with four homers and 32 RBIs) arrived from Washington and catcher Luis Flores (.307/.450/.455 with three homers and 19 RBIs) jumped from Houston.

“They’ve been huge parts,” Frank Anderson said. “We had Jordy Mercer and Rebel Ridling coming back and then really a cast of guys that are new and haven’t really played much at this level. When you get Hague and Flores who have played 80-120 games between them at the Division I level, it makes a huge difference.”

Still, the Cowboys have been shut out three times in 12 conference games, and their coach knows his team needs to be more consistent offensively and sound in the other phases to topple Nebraska.

“From what everybody tells me, they just don’t make any mistakes,” Frank Anderson said of the ‘Huskers. “We need to pitch well and not make any big mistakes. Errors, not make bad pitches in situations. You get in there and look at what they’ve done and they don’t have an Alex Gordon or a guy like that sitting in their lineup, but they just have a really good college baseball team.”

Marquee Mound Matchup
Chris Rusin vs. Trevor Holder

Perhaps this matchup lacks the glitz of the Scott Gorgen-Andrew Liebel showdown on the West Coast, but the working-class Rusin and Holder are major reasons for the first-half success of Kentucky and Georgia. The spotlight in this series figures to shine on stars like Gordon Beckham, Joshua Fields, Sawyer Carroll and Collin Cowgill, but don’t be surprised if Rusin or Holder steals the show on Friday night.

Rusin, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound junior lefthander, has been the rock on Kentucky’s staff, going 4-1, 2.59 with a dazzling 38-4 strikeout-walk ratio in 42 innings.

“He’s been a little better than we expected,” said a National League area scout who’s seen Rusin. “He’s a finesse lefty with a decent breaking ball and a decent changeup. He throws a lot of strikes, keeps the ball down, and he’s got some life on his fastball. He tops out at 89-90, and pitches around 87.”

Rusin has shown he can pitch very well in hostile environments, working into the ninth in a 15-3 win at South Carolina and striking out 10 over eight innings in a 2-0 loss at Auburn. He’ll need to be sharp to get the Wildcats off on a good foot against Georgia, which has won five straight weekend series to seize control of the SEC, though the Dawgs dropped a pair of games this week against Winthrop and Georgia Tech.

The Bulldogs have been winning without scoring in bushels; they scored just 10 runs in three games against South Carolina last weekend, but they allowed just five and swept the series. Georgia’s real advantage over nearly every other team in the SEC is its depth and experience on the mound. The Bulldogs returned three junior weekend starters this spring, led by Holder, a 6-foot-3 righthander. Holder entered the season with a career 7-4, 4.61 mark in 41 appearances (18 starts). He’s been even better through seven starts this year, going 3-2, 1.98 with 28 strikeouts and 14 walks in 41 innings. His stuff is not overpowering, but he mixes an average fastball with a decent curveball and changeup, and his stuff plays up because of his deception and aggressiveness. Holder attacks the strike zone with his fastball and competes hard.

Georgia’s other weekend starters, lefthander Nathan Moreau (1-0, 3.27) and righty Stephen Dodson (4-1, 4.20) have been solid, but the bullpen has been lights-out. Senior righthander Joshua Fields (1-1, 0.00 with eight saves and a 32-6 K-BB ratio in 15 innings) has re-emerged as the nation’s best closer after a rough junior season. Bulldogs coach David Perno said one key has been to use Fields exclusively for one-inning stints, allowing him to pump 95-97 mph fastballs and 82 mph power curveballs.

“He hasn’t thrown a lot of innings, but the numbers are Little League-ish, and it’s amazing to me,” Perno said. “First and foremost was the fastball command, which has gotten back to form.”

Georgia has been able to get by without using Fields in the eighth inning thanks to a loaded corps of middle relievers that includes two quality lefthanders and two quality righties. Sophomore lefty Alex McRee (5-1, 3.42, 29-9 K-BB ratio in 24 IP) has emerged as an intriguing arm for the 2009 draft thanks to his 92-95 mph fastball and 6-foot-6 frame. Fellow sophomore lefty Justin Earls (1-1, 2.49) works in the 88-91 range, as does senior righty Nick Montgomery (1-0, 3.20). Righthander Dean Weaver (0-1, 3.00) works in the 91-93 range.

“They’re all power guys, they all have very good pitchability, throw strikes and know how to get outs,” Perno said. “We expected our pitching depth to be our strength heading into the year, and we were shocked that first weekend because Arizona had as many arms as we did. But there’s not a lot of teams that have that.”

Upset City
Clemson over North Carolina

Due to an Atlantic Coast Conference scheduling quirk, North Carolina and Clemson haven’t met in the regular season since 2005. But the long-awaited showdown this weekend has lost some of its luster thanks to Clemson’s struggles, making UNC a heavy favorite.

North Carolina hasn’t lost a series all year and carries a No. 4 ranking into this weekend. Clemson has lost six games in a row and limps into the weekend with an 18-14 mark (6-9 in the ACC). Sophomore center fielder Addison Johnson, who was expected to be Clemson’s most dynamic player, still has yet to play a game this season because of a stress fracture in his right hand, and he is doubtful for this weekend. If he does not return soon, Clemson might hold Johnson out for the remainder of the season to secure a medical redshirt.

So why take the Tigers? First of all, Clemson is returning to Doug Kingsmore Stadium, where it is 14-5, compared to a 4-9 mark on the road. For the most part, Clemson has been competitive during its recent skid, losing three games to Miami and Georgia by a combined five runs. The Tigers still have one of the more talented pitching staffs in the ACC, and junior righthander D.J. Mitchell (3-2, 2.98) has come on strong of late, giving Clemson an answer for UNC ace Alex White on Friday. Redshirt sophomore righthander Graham Stoneburner (4-0, 3.43) gave up five runs over 3 1/3 innings last Saturday at Miami, but he’s been very solid on the whole, showing the plus fastball and power breaking ball that made him an elite prospect in high school. Junior lefthander Ryan Hinson (2-4, 5.04) has not lived up to his significant potential this year but is still capable of turning in a strong performance on any given Sunday.

Mostly, Clemson needs its bats to get hot; coach Jack Leggett has said his team has simply been out of sync recently. Freshman sensation Kyle Parker has cooled off considerably, as has steady junior shortstop Stan Widmann (.252/.301/.319), who has been slowed by some tendinitis in his shoulder. But sophomore first baseman Ben Paulsen (.354/.460/.708 with 10 homers and 28 RBIs) has blossomed into one of the league’s better sluggers, and senior catcher Doug Hogan (.282 with nine homers) is dangerous. A highly anticipated series back in Doug Kingsmore could help the rest of the bats get going.

Under The Radar
UC Santa Barbara

After two weeks of play in the Big West, it’s not Cal State Fullerton or UC Irvine or Long Beach State sitting atop the conference standings. All of those big-name teams are chasing 5-1 UC Santa Barbara and 3-0 UC Davis, who just so happen to play each other this weekend. Granted, the Gauchos and Aggies have yet to face any of the traditional conference power brokers, but getting off to a strong start against the Pacifics and Cal State Northridges of the league gives UCSB and UCD a shot to run with the heavyweights.

Despite a 22-9 overall record, it might be tempting for to dismiss the Gauchos because they have yet to win a series against a likely regional team (their best win was a 14-0 midweek dismantling of Pepperdine, but they lost 14-3 the next day). But that kind of thinking doesn’t bother UCSB coach Bob Brontsema.

“Hopefully that will be an advantage for us as we head into the more traditional powers in the conference,” he said. “I think people are still not really looking at either (Santa Barbara or Davis), I don’t think anybody’s really worried about us, but that’s fine. I kind of hope that’s the case when people play us as well. If we win this series, that’s going to get us a good, good head start into that traditional tough part of the schedule, and if Davis does, well, it’s the same thing for them.”

The Gauchos have the talent to sneak up on anyone who regards them lightly, particularly on the mound. Sophomore righthander Mike Ford (3-2, 2.64) has power stuff on Friday nights, with an 88-92 mph fastball and a good split-finger. Redshirt freshman lefthander Mario Hollands (3-1, 2.70) was the No. 5 prospect in the Alaska League last summer and has parlayed his momentum into a strong spring as the Saturday starter. He has a deceptive delivery and throws strikes with a quality three-pitch mix, including an 87-89 mph fastball, good curveball and changeup. And senior lefthander Chuck Huggins (6-1, 3.38 with a 49-13 K-BB ratio in 43 IP) has dramatically improved his command of an 88-91 mph fastball and very good breaking ball after taking last summer off to recharge his batteries. Like Hollands, he has some funk in his delivery that causes the ball to jump on hitters.

“Those guys have been huge for us,” Brontsema said. “Those three guys not only know how to pitch but know how to compete. They’re keeping us in games, and if they make a mistake, they’re pitching us out of it.”

The lineup is solid at the top, led by junior center fielder Brian Gump, who hit just .228 last year after batting .275 as a freshman. Brontsema said Gump worked hard in UCSB’s strength and conditioning program in the offseason and has added strength, but he also has improved his approach and has learned to make better use of his excellent speed. Through 31 games, he’s batting .381/.455/.532 with 17 stolen bases in 19 attempts as Santa Barbara’s leadoff man. Senior outfielder/DH Chris Fox (.376/.434/.581 with four homers and 27 RBIs) is seeing a lot more fastballs this year now that Gump is causing havoc on the basepaths in front of him. He can punish anything middle-in. And senior left fielder Mike Zuanich has filled out his 6-foot-4 frame (.321/.401/.509 with five homers and 31 RBIs) and begun to tap into his massive raw power potential. He’s an intriguing sleeper for the 2008 draft.

With one win this weekend, the Gauchos can match their win total from all of last year. After two Big West series, they’re already more than halfway to their conference win total from each of the last two years (nine).

“We don’t put a lot of emphasis on the wins, although it’s nice,” Brontsema said. “What you’re looking for in the preseason is the effort and competitiveness, and that’s what we focus on. We did a lot of things in the fall to change things that have been disappointing here the last couple of years. Mostly, that’s our competitive nature.

“We brought in a lot of guys. Normally we haven’t done the mass recruiting. We had 44 guys on the roster at the beginning of the year, so from the get-go we increased the competitive nature of practices and trying to make the team. That was the start of it. Then we had a lot of discussions in the beginning of the year about what we’re expecting. And the guys have taken it; we have some key guys in our program that are the hardest workers.”

Kevin Weidenbacher, ss, UNC Asheville

You might have heard by now that Missouri’s Aaron Crow has a 42 2/3 inning scoreless streak heading into this weekend. There won’t be a more impressive streak than that one in 2008, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other noteworthy streaks.

Weidenbacher, a junior shortstop, is riding a 30-game hitting streak into UNC Asheville’s series against Virginia Military Institute this weekend. By extending his streak to 29 games last Sunday against Liberty, Weidenbacher broke the Big South record set by Charleston Southern’s Jason Corrigale in 1999.

The Bulldogs aren’t a very good offensive team, but Weidenbacher has certainly done his part, batting .383/.449/.550 with 13 doubles—all team bests.

“He’s just a consistent player,” UNCA coach Willie Stewart said. “He comes and works hard every day. He doesn’t get too high up or too far down, just does a great job of keeping a great mentality and working hard every day. He does a great job of putting the ball in play, spraying it around the field a little bit, hitting it where they’re not and using the whole field.”

Asheville senior righthander Alan DeRatt is riding a streak of his own: he’s the first Bulldogs pitcher ever to start a season 6-0, and he’s done it for a team that is just 13-22 overall. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound DeRatt has a miniscule 0.73 ERA and a .182 opposing batting average to go along with his record. He works in the 87-89 mph range with his heavy fastball and touches 90-92 when he needs it, and he will be a solid senior sign for some club in June.

“He’s always been pretty good, but he’s really turned the corner this year as far as his aggression, the way he’s pitching, and things of that nature,” Stewart said. “But he’s always had pretty good stuff, and he’s improved his stuff a little bit over the year as well. He works mostly with fastballs and sink and movement on his pitches—cutters, sinkers, things like that. He does a real good job of moving the baseball around in the zone to make his fastball very effective. He locates very, very well, and throws three, four pitches for a strike. There’s a few strikeouts in there, but he pitches more to contact and allows himself to work deep into games.”

Long Beach State

On March 24, the Dirtbags were 17-3 and ranked fifth in the nation after winning series against Rice, Wichita State, Hawaii, Southern California and UCLA. Fifteen of those first 20 games were at home in spacious Blair Field, where the pitching-and-defense-first Dirtbags transform into supermen.

On March 25, Long Beach embarked upon a 10-game road swing to Pepperdine, California, Stanford, Fresno State, UC Riverside and Loyola Marymount. On Tuesday, the Dirtbags finished that stretch with a 1-9 record, dropping them to 18-12 overall. What went wrong?

For starters, the bats went cold, as LBSU scored three or fewer runs in five of the 10 games on the trip. The arms struggled, as Saturday starter Vance Worley allowed 14 runs (11 earned) in 12 innings in losses to Cal and Riverside. Sunday starter Jake Thompson pitched well in a loss to the Golden Bears but struggled against the Highlanders, allowing six earned runs in 2 1/3 innings. The gloves became unreliable, as LBSU made 14 errors in the nine losses.

In short, the Dirtbags fell into a good, old-fashioned funk in all phases.

“We’re a bad team right now,” coach Mike Weathers told the Long Beach Press-Telegram after the UCR series. “I don’t normally blow my teams up, but we’re not playing Dirtbag baseball.

“We came out so good and so fast to start the season and we found ways to win. We’re not doing that anymore. I don’t know exactly what it is, the road trip, the schedule . . . that could be a factor for some of the guys.

“We haven’t had much practice time, the development time that you need to get better.”

The good news: Long Beach will send its stopper to the mound tonight in the opener of a crucial three-game series against UC Irvine. Senior righthander Andrew Liebel accounted for LBSU’s lone win on the road trip, throwing a complete game against Riverside, and he should be up for the challenge of matching Anteaters ace Scott Gorgen in one of the nation’s premier pitching matchups.

The other good news: this series is at home, and there’s no place like Blair for the Dirtbags.

Stat Of The Week

Career hit-by-pitches for Notre Dame shortstop Brett Lilley, a new Division I record. The previous record was set by San Francisco’s Tony Hurtado from 1997-2000. Lilley broke it in the second inning of Notre Dame’s 13-8 win against Manchester (Ind.) College on Wednesday. Lilley set the mark in 203 games, 18 fewer than Hurtado. Manchester’s Matt Holycross became the 66th different pitcher to hit Lilley, and Manchester became the 38th different team.

“It feels pretty good. It is a record,” Lilley told Notre Dame’s student newspaper, the Observer. “A lot of people are like, ‘Oh my God, it’s the hit-by-pitch record.’ Well, I’ll take it.”

Lilley still needs to be plunked five more times to tie the overall NCAA record, held by Nick Crawford of Division III Millsaps (Miss.).

And oh by the way, Lilley is a four-year starter with a career .346 batting average.

Scouting Report
Southern California

One of the nation’s most difficult teams to get a read on is Southern California, which enters this weekend’s series against No. 5 California at 16-15 overall (4-5 in the Pac-10). The Trojans have flown across the country and swept series at Florida International and Winthrop, and they’ve won series against talented underachievers Arizona and UCLA, but they’ve also had losing streaks of four and five games. Of course, USC has played one of the nation’s most difficult schedules: after an 11-inning win against No. 16 Cal State Fullerton on Tuesday, the Trojans improved to 6-10 against ranked teams. Junior righthander Tommy Milone (4-2, 2.44) has been very good on Friday nights, junior righty Ryan Cook (4-2, 4.22) has been solid as a weekend starter and sophomore righty Brad Boxberger (1-1, 3.18) is finally healthy and back in the rotation. The offense has been led by senior third baseman Roberto Lopez (.385/.430/.574 with 13 doubles) and sophomore shortstop Grant Green (.356/.384/.529), though the Trojans have also gotten good contributions from senior first baseman Derek Perren (.351/.384/.500) and sophomore catcher/closer Robert Stock (.333/.433/.444; 1-0, 0.00 with two saves and a 15-0 K-BB ratio in 8 IP). One coach whose team has played the Trojans broke them down:

“They’ve got good starting pitching. Milone, Cook and Boxberger are very experienced. Milone is real good, he can really pitch—he’s fastball-changeup, 85-87 with the fastball, not at all heavy velocity, but he can really pitch and locate his changeup and fastball. Boxberger, if he really picks it up and pitches well then they’re going to win some series. Boxberger is 90-94 with a good slider. He was good. He was at one time their Friday guy and then had some injuries, but he’s a legit Sunday guy. Cook’s by far their third guy—not really much of a secondary pitch. He’s 89-90 (with his fastball).

“Offensively, they’re OK. Grant Green’s a superstar, (second baseman Hector) Rabago’s really scuffling. (Nick) Buss is a good player, an athletic center fielder who can go get the ball. Between Stock, Lopez, Green, Buss, Rabago is a good player but he’s in a funk right now. Those four or five players are upper-end Pac-10 everyday players. They’re getting a lot out of Perren, but he’s not a typical middle of the lineup Pac-10 hitter, but he’s doing a good job. (DH Mike) Roskopf has a long swing; he can hit 86, he can’t hit 90. You can beat him with fastballs. Lopez is not a prospect, just kind of a hot, streaky hitter, and he’s very good against lefthanded pitching. He’s a contact guy, a good college player, not a prospect. He’s doing well, but he’s not in that Grant Green category. I really like Green. He uses the right-center gap, he’s got some leverage power. He’s a taller-framed guy, he’s 6-4—I wouldn’t say Bobby Crosby, but bigger, between a Troy Glaus and a Bobby Crosby. Obviously he doesn’t have that Glaus power. But he’s a good defender, good arm, solid runner. I think he’s pretty darn good, he’s cutting down on his strikeouts, he’s a tougher out. I think he’s going to be a pretty good draft next year.

“Stock is 92-94 off the mound, with a hard breaking ball. He shocked us. I thought he was lightning. I think he’s pretty good behind the plate too. I question the bat. I like the bat, but for whatever darn reason he just gets himself out. He’s got power, but you look at his numbers and he doesn’t have power. He’s kind of a funny player, but he can pick and throw it. I like Robert, I really do, and he’s still young, but the jury’s still out on him. I thought he was going to be more of a position player—a lefthanded bat, and he plays the right position. But now, I might say on the mound.

“At the end of the day, it’s a tough conference, we’ll see where they fall. They’re an average club that has some experience and good starting pitching, but we’ll see how they play on the road. I like their team, but it’s a difficult conference. They’re up and down. I don’t love their bullpen, it’s average at best. I don’t think at the end of the day they’ll be in the upper end of that conference. They don’t play enough defense, their bullpen is light, and you can pitch to them. I just don’t think they have enough depth offensively, and I don’t think they play enough catch defensively.”

In The Dugout
Sean Ratliff, of/lhp, Stanford

Ratliff, a junior center fielder and reliever, has played a major role in the Cardinal’s ascent to No. 10 in the rankings. After spending most of his freshman year on the mound (going 2-0, 6.75 in 19 relief appearances) and all of his sophomore year in the outfield (hitting .339/.396/.584 with 12 homers and 45 RBIs), Ratliff has done it all as a junior, hitting .310/.391/.690 with eight homers and 26 RBIs and going 2-0, 6.00 in three relief appearances. Ratliff and the Cardinal will go for their 10th straight series victory this weekend at Oregon State, but they’re just 15-10 overall thanks to a 1-5 record in midweek games. One of the nation’s best athletes, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Ratliff talked about his development as a baseball player and Stanford’s strong first half, In The Dugout.

You guys haven’t lost a weekend series all year, but you’re still having a hard time getting those midweek wins, after getting a tie against California and a loss to UC Davis this week. Why do you think that is?

I’m just not really sure. We’ve just been pretty inconsistent so far—we’ve come out with fire on weekends, then we turn back around on Monday or Tuesday and can’t get a win.

You’ve played Cal twice now this year. Has that rivalry been ratcheted up a notch since both of you are ranked in the top 10?

It’s been a lot of fun since both of us are having good seasons and they’re playing as well as they’ve played in the three years that I’ve been here. It’s got a little extra on it now.

As a Colorado native, I imagine you probably didn’t have much exposure to the Stanford-Cal rivalry before you arrived at school. Has it been what you expected?

We didn’t even have college baseball for the most part where I was. I grew up watching college basketball and football. It’s been a lot of fun. Your first big Stanford-Cal football game when you’re here as a freshman, it’s pretty intense. It carries over into pretty much all sports. They put a lot of weight on beating Cal at everything.

How much have you developed as a player since you arrived at Stanford from Colorado?

I feel for the most part like I’ve become a little bit more polished. I don’t know that everyone would agree with me. I came in as a freshman a little bit more raw. I’ve kind of gotten to develop as a player and a pitcher, learn some ins and outs, being around some of the great baseball minds.

It says in your bio that you once threw out a kid at first base from left field in Little League. Now that’s something you don’t see everyday. Do you remember that well?

When I was a little kid, I still remember that. I’m not real sure how it happened, I just came up throwing and he never got there.

Do you prefer playing a position or pitching?

The answer I usually give is it depends on the day, it depends how I’m hitting, it depends how I’m pitching. I haven’t really been doing a lot of pitching lately, and I’ve come to realize I can probably live without pitching, but if I’m not playing every day, it’s kind of a strain on me. After last year, I kind of realized I like to be playing every day.

Why didn’t you pitch last year?

I’m not really sure. I had a little bit of arm soreness in the fall and they wanted to give me a little bit of time off. Once I started swinging the bat well, I started playing center field, they left me there.

How do you describe your game overall?

I’ve never been asked that question, actually. I don’t know. If you come see me for the first time, you’ll see someone who loves to play the game. It’s a joy for me to get up and go to the ballpark every day. I play with a lot of fire and passion, and sometimes it gets me in trouble a little bit. I like to play with a real high energy level.

What’s the strongest part of your game? Your power? Speed? Defense?

I think it’s probably a combination of all three of those things. I’ve always taken pride in my defense. No matter how I’m swinging the bat, if I’m not going to get a hit, I’m going to take one away from somebody else. The fact I can fall back on my defense and my speed makes more comfortable swinging the bat. Like my coach says, speed never slumps.

What kind of stuff do you have off the mound?

Right now, I’m throwing fastball-curveball-slider-changeup, and I’m working on a little bit of a split-change. I can throw them all in a game. I probably go with my curveball right now in two-strike counts. I’ve run my fastball up there probably 90-92, but it’s been a while since I’ve checked.

Has the strong first half this year been the most fun you’ve had playing baseball at Stanford?

The juniors and the seniors on this team, we’ve been through three or four years of what everybody thinks is a letdown in our program, and it has been. We kind of took it personally and looked around the locker room and realized we have the talent to play with everybody and be better than everybody. We wanted to prove we’re still an elite team in the Pac-10 and in the country.

You guys handed Arizona State its first series loss of the year last weekend. What was that series like?

I thought we played as good of baseball up and down as we played all year against those guys. They came in 27-1, and they came out swinging the bats like crazy. The first three pitches of the game, a guy hit a double and a guy hit a home run, and we were like, ‘Wow, they might beat us good.’ After that game we were talking in the huddle before we broke to go home, we realized we’re right there next to them. If they’re the No. 1 team in the country, we’re right there. It gave us the fire to go out and prove some people wrong.