Weekend Preview: April 12-14

1. Red-hot Delaware travels to UNC Wilmington in CAA showdown.
2. Mercer hosts Florida Gulf Coast in clash of A-Sun powers.
3. Quick takes on top series from around the nation.

Colonial Uprising

The Colonial Athletic Association has sent multiple teams to regionals before—in 2008 and 2009. It has been a one-bid league in each of the last three years, but the CAA is enjoying a revival in 2013. It ranks eighth in the conference Ratings Percentage Index rankings at boydsworld.com, and the top three teams in the CAA standings—UNC Wilmington, Delaware and William & Mary—all rank inside the top 40 of the RPI.

Top 25 Schedule
(1) North Carolina at Virginia Tech
Missouri at (2) Vanderbilt
(3) Louisiana State at (10) Arkansas
UC Santa Barbara at (4) Cal State Fullerton
(5) Virginia at (20) Georgia Tech
Utah at (6) Oregon State
Duke at (7) Florida State
Elon at (8) Louisville
(9) Oklahoma at Baylor
(11) South Carolina at Florida
(12) Indiana at Michigan State
Tennessee at (13) Kentucky
Central Florida at (14) Rice
(15) Arizona State at Southern California
(16) Oregon at California
Loyola Marymount at (17) UCLA
(18) Notre Dame at Pittsburgh
(19) North Carolina State at Boston College
(21) Mississippi State at Texas A&M
Wake Forest at (22) Clemson
Alabama at (23) Mississippi
Seton Hall at (24) Houston
Longwood at (25) Campbell

Each of those three teams has a legitimate chance to earn an at-large bid if it fails to win the CAA tournament, but this weekend’s showdown between the Blue Hens (23-8 overall, 9-3 CAA) and the Seahawks (24-10, 7-1) in Wilmington will provide a significant boost to the winner’s at-large resume.

“You kind of come out being the king dog, from that standpoint,” said Delaware coach Jim Sherman, whose program hasn’t earned a regional bid since 2001. “They’re first place, we’re second place. If we win two of three, we take over first. If they take two out of three, they remain first.

“I’d be lying if I said we’re not thinking (about building an at-large resume). You’re trying to win at all cost midweek. Sometimes you may give some opportunities down on your pitching staff midweek, but now we’ve got to win. Because if we continue that progress right now, by the end of the year, we may be in good position for an at-large if we don’t win our conference.”

These two teams faced off three times in the conference tournament last year, splitting the first two meetings before UNCW slugged its way to a 10-8 win in the decisive final game. The Blue Hens returned their entire lineup intact from that team, making them an experienced, dangerous offensive club in 2013. Through eight weeks of the season, Delaware ranked second in the nation in batting (.335), eighth in scoring (7.7 runs per game), first in doubles per game (2.7), first in slugging (.500) and 20th in homers per game (0.8). The Blue Hens have ridden their explosive offense and an improved pitching staff to a 13-game winning streak, one shy of the nation’s longest active streak.

The centerpiece of the lineup is junior first baseman Jimmy Yezzo, the most dangerous hitter in the CAA. Yezzo had a strong sophomore year, hitting .358/.401/.567 with eight homers and 46 RBIs, but he has taken his game to new heights as a junior, hitting .450/.482/.791 with seven homers and 42 RBIs in just 31 games. He also leads the nation with 19 doubles.

Delaware's Jimmy Yezzo (photo by Mark Campbell, Henshots.com)

Delaware’s Jimmy Yezzo (photo by Mark Campbell, Henshots.com)

“He just picked right up where he left off last year,” Sherman said. “He had a really good summer down there in the Valley League, and he’s keeping it going throughout the spring. He’s got that streak of 43 straight games reaching base. He’s one of those special kids who just knows how to center the ball up on the barrel; he’s put a lot of hard work in to reap the benefits of what he’s doing now. He’s really learned how to hit. He’ll throw some head when he needs to and pull the ball, or he can stay behind it and go to the left-center gap—he’s a lefthanded hitter. He can go power as easily to left-center as he can to to right-center.”

Senior outfielder Nick Ferdinand (.397/.467/.690, 6 HR, 36 RBI) and senior second baseman D.J. Long (.276/.350/.480, 5 HR, 23 RBI) provide excellent protection behind Yezzo in the order. Long, who has started 193 consecutive games (believed to be the nation’s longest such streak), hit a walk-off, three-run homer to beat George Mason last Friday.

UNCW’s Brooks Field is generally less offensive than Delaware’s home park, though the ball can still fly when the wind is blowing out. But Delaware isn’t just a home run-hitting team. The Blue Hens have experienced players up and down the lineup, and they know how to execute.

“I’d probably characterize us as grinders,” Sherman said. “We’ve had better groups up and down with power numbers. This group just battles you, they’ll slap the ball from chalk line to chalk line. We’ll bunt more than we ever have, base-hit bunt, sac bunt. Delaware baseball’s never been known for small ball, but we’ve got some guys who can base hit bunt and run a little bit. We don’t really steal a lot of bases, but we’re kind of a grinding group offensively.”

In that respect, Delaware is similar to Wilmington, which actually leads the CAA with 27 homers but still considers itself more of a small ball-oriented team.

“We’ve hit a few home runs early in the year, and some of them were hit well, some probably got out thanks to some wind blowing,” Seahawks coach Mark Scalf said. “But we are more of a gap-to-gap, line-drive, doubles-type team that’s got occasional home run power. We have to be able to execute the short game. If you look at our  numbers, you’ll see a lot of sac bunts (39, most in the CAA). We’ve done a pretty reasonable job of moving runners, and done a better job this year of driving in runners from third with less than two outs than we did a year ago.”

One advantage Delaware has this weekend is that UNCW’s best hitter, senior second baseman Michael Bass (.406/.508/.623, 4 HR, 20 RBI), rolled his ankle two weeks ago against Old Dominion and is not expected to return in time for this weekend. Wilmington’s other key veteran mashers—senior first baseman Hunter Ridge (.236/.291/.315, 2 HR, 28 RBI) and senior outfielder Tyler Molinaro (.257/.377/.468, 6 HR, 18 RBI)—haven’t been able to carry over their outstanding production from last year as well as Yezzo and Ferdinand have for Delaware. A third key piece, sophomore Corey Dick (.276/.384/.440, 4 HR, 23 RBI), also got off to a slow start but has shown signs recently of returning to top form, according to Scalf.

But other players have stepped forward to shoulder more of the offensive load. Sophomore outfielder Luke Dunlap (.349/.450/.509, 3 HR, 18 RBI) has emerged as a viable No. 3 hole hitter, and junior third baseman Ryan LaGrange (.347/.407/.495, 3 HR, 21 RBI) has taken advantage of his first opportunity to be an everyday player, providing good production in the middle of the lineup. Catcher Drew Farber (.275/.336/.394) leads the team with 30 RBIs while also playing strong defense behind the plate.

UNC Wilmington's Mat Batts

UNC Wilmington’s Mat Batts

Wilmington’s greatest advantage is its pitching depth, but the Blue Hens can match up in the weekend rotation. Friday’s matchup features a pair of competitive, seasoned juniors in Delaware righthander Chad Kuhl (5-1, 3.59) and UNCW lefty Mat Batts (4-2, 2.44). Kuhl is more of a power pitcher, attacking hitters with an 89-92 mph fastball, a hard slider and a solid changeup. Batts is a cerebral pitcher who knows how to keep hitters off balance with his three-pitch mix, but he also has 54 strikeouts in 55 innings.

UNCW sends a power arm to the mound Saturday in sophomore righty Jordan Ramsey (5-2, 1.60), a 6-foot-4, 205-pounder with a 90-94 fastball, improved command of his slider and much better feel for his changeup than he had last year. Delaware counters with junior righty Adam Davis (4-3, 4.21), a bulldog with an 86-88 fastball and solid slider.

Delaware’s strongest arm belongs to Sunday starter Matt Soren (2-1, 1.69), who threw seven shutout innings last week against George Mason. A senior righthander, Soren sits at 92-93 and has an out pitch in his hard slurve, according to Sherman. UNCW will go with junior lefthander Christian MacDonald (4-0, 2.91) on Sunday. MacDonald spots up his 86-889 fastball and uses his changeup as an out pitch.

The Seahawks offer hitters a variety of different looks in the bullpen. Kelly Secrest (2.96 ERA, three saves) is a quality three-pitch lefty, and freshman William Shepley offers a second option from the left side. Righty Justin Livengood (3.24) has a nice three-pitch mix from a high three-quarters slot, while Ricky Holden (3-1, 2.14) has a deceptive low three-quarters slot and 6-foot-10 righty Jack Lane (4.91) is a submariner.

Delaware’s bullpen is anchored by a pair of senior righthanders, Stephen Richter (4-0, 2.45) and Eric Buckland (3-1, 4.38). Richter, Delaware’s all-time saves leader (19), attacks hitters with a 90-91 fastball and a slider. Buckland varies his arm slot from three-quarters to submarine and excels at getting groundball outs with his 85-88 sinker.

In sum, both of these teams have regional-caliber talent and experience, and this series should be compelling. Sherman said “Wilmington’s always been the thorn in our side,” and Scalf knows the Blue Hens present his team a formidable challenge.

“I expect an unbelievably competitive weekend,” Scalf said. “They’re playing extremely well. They have virtually everybody back from last year’s club that played us in the conference championship. Just looking at numbers, apparently they’re pitching it better than they did a year ago, so those guys have made some progress offensively, they can swing it from top to bottom, and they’ve got some guys in the middle of the lineup that can hurt you with one swing. So we’re going to have to pitch it well and find a way to score some runs. I’m glad we’re playing them at home.”

Mercer Prepares For Big Test

Like the CAA, the Atlantic Sun Conference is shaping up as a potential multiple-bid conference, and the team’s top two RPI teams face off this weekend when Mercer (No. 26) hosts Florida Gulf Coast (No. 32), which is tied atop the conference standings (6-3) with North Florida.

The Bears dropped a series at UNF last weekend, but they built a strong postseason resume in nonconference play, starting with wins against Ohio State, St. John’s and Notre Dame during the opening weekend. Mercer is also 1-1 against Georgia Tech this season and has gone 1-1 against two potential top-10 overall picks, Indiana State’s Sean Manaea and Jacksonville’s Chris Anderson. The Bears pounded Anderson two weeks ago, scoring nine runs (eight earned) on 11 hits against him in six innings. That game provided a glimpse of why Mercer is so dangerous, especially at home. Mercer’s 2-3-4 hitters, Chesny Young, Derrick Workman and Nick Backlund, went a combined 7-for-13 with eight runs, six RBIs, a double and two homers.

“We do have some guys in the middle who can change the game,” Mercer coach Craig Gibson said. “I think you need those guys in the middle, those game-changers. Our park is sort of hitter-friendly too, so it helps to have those guys.”

As we’ve written about already this season, FGCU has plenty of physicality in its own lineup between Brooks Beisner, Sean Dwyer and Michael Suchy. But Mercer’s lineup presents a great challenge to FGCU’s talented pitching staff, as the Bears lead the nation with 37 home runs, rank seventh in doubles and sixth in scoring.

Mercer's Derrick Workman

Mercer’s Derrick Workman

Workman, a junior outfielder, is having a huge year, hitting .403/.486/.739 with eight homers and 40 RBIs, leading the team in each category. He has been a consistent producer for three years, hitting 16 long balls over his first two seasons, but he has taken off this year as his plate discipline has improved. After posting a 40-148 walk-strikeout mark over his first two seasons, he has 18 walks and 27 strikeouts through 33 games this year.

“This has been a breakout year for him,” Gibson said. “What he’s really done is cut the strikeouts down, and when he puts the ball in play he’s special. (Workman and Backlund) both can put the ball in play to all parts of the field. Derrick’s a little more of a running threat. Both have plate discipline, so you generally get those mature, consistent at-bats with both guys every day.”

Backlund hit .381 with 16 homers after transferring in from junior-college ball last year, but he has been pitched carefully this spring, and his numbers have dipped a bit to .302/.382/.544 with seven homers. But he’s still a fearsome run producer, with 42 RBIs, putting him ahead of last year’s 58-RBI pace.

Young (.357/.417/.478), the A-Sun freshman of the year last year, is a prototypical No. 2 hitter who can hit behind runners, handle the bat and put balls in play. And two junior-college transfers have emerged as key pieces in the lineup. Center fielder Sasha LaGarde (.316/.426/.449, 5 HR, eight stolen bases in 10 tries) has a varied skill set, bringing speed, bunting ability, good defense and pop. Michael Massi (.311/.433/.410, 15 steals in 15 tries) has added even more speed, although he might not play this weekend after pulling his hamstring last week.

Mercer cannot match FGCU’s collection of power arms on the mound, but Brandon Barker (4-0, 1.93), David Randall (0-0, 2.45) and D.J. Johnson (5-2, 2.05) give the Bears a trio of competitive strike-throwers in the rotation. Barker’s calling card is his outstanding command of his 86-88 fastball, as well as his sink and run on the pitch. Randall, who broke his finger on opening day and is just returning to the rotation this weekend, generally works at 84-87 with a swing-and-miss breaking ball. He’s a fifth-year senior with poise and maturity in spades. Johnson is an undersized, athletic righty who pounds the zone with a four-pitch mix.

The bullpen is anchored by senior sidewinder David Teasley (5-2, 5.94) and sophomore righty Dmitri Kourtis (1-0, 3.35, four saves). Kourtis varies his arm angles to keep hitters off balance with his mid-to-upper-80s fastball and three solid secondary pitches.

So FGCU has the edge on the mound this weekend, but Mercer’s pitching has been solid, and its offense is fearsome. Gibson thinks his club compares well with the Eagles.

“I think we’re very similar,” he said. “I saw them play in Sarasota; they’ve got some outstanding arms, they’ve probably got some more velocity on their staff. But they have a great defensive club, their shortstop can really defend, they’re good behind the plate and in the outfield. They have some game changers in the lineup with that first baseman (Beisner). I think our clubs are similar—it’ll be two evenly matched clubs when we square off this weekend.”

Around The Nation

arkansas• The marquee matchup of Week Nine takes place at Baum Stadium, where No. 10 Arkansas will host No. 3 Louisiana State. This rivalry series is always intense, and these also happen to be two of the most talented teams in college baseball. LSU’s offense has caught fire during its current 14-game winning streak, scoring 58 runs on 71 hits in its last five games. The Tigers feasted on a quality Kentucky pitching staff last weekend, but the righthanded-leaning LSU lineup matched up better against UK’s all-lefty rotation than it does against an Arkansas staff that is well stocked with power righties who own good breaking balls, like Barrett Astin, Ryne Stanek and Colby Suggs. Arkansas, meanwhile, has had an up and down year offensively, starting cold, then heating up, then cooling down again. The Hogs were shut out in back-to-back games Sunday and Tuesday, and they are averaging just 2.7 runs over their last nine games. They’ll have their work cut out for them against LSU’s dynamic duo of Aaron Nola and Ryan Eades. I’ll be in Fayetteville all weekend with updates.

georgiatech• The weekend’s only other matchup between ranked clubs pits No. 5 Virginia against No. 20 Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets boasted the nation’s most fearsome offense for most of the first half, but their bats went quiet in a series loss at Duke, mustering just two runs in three games. But that was without senior outfielder Brandon Thomas, the team’s leading hitter, who missed nine games with mononucleosis. Thomas (.439/.504/.592) returned for a midweek game at Georgia on Tuesday, and he had two hits to help spark the Jackets to a 7-5 win. The Cavs, meanwhile, are coming off a 9-8 midweek loss to Radford, one of the few hiccups this season for the 30-4 Cavaliers. Virginia has actually passed Georgia Tech in scoring (8.1 runs per game vs. 7.8 runs per game, both ranking in the nation’s top 10), and UVa.’s staff ERA (2.72) is nearly a full run better than Tech’s (3.68). The biggest difference has been in the bullpen, where Georgia Tech has been mediocre, while Kyle Crockett, Austin Young and Josh Sborz have formed a dominating trio for Virginia.

• Top-ranked North Carolina puts the nation’s longest road winning streak (14 games) on the line this weekend, traveling to Blacksburg to face Virginia Tech. The Hokies were swept last weekend at N.C. State, but they are a notably better team at home (10-5) than on the road (7-7). The Virginia Tech offense presents the biggest challenge of the season for UNC’s pitching staff, which ranks second in the nation in ERA. But the Tar Heels have started ACC play by winning series against five of the ACC’s six lowest-scoring offenses.

• The most compelling series in the West is the WCC rivalry series between Pepperdine and San Diego. The Toreros have had a rollercoaster season, alternating series wins and series losses over the last four weeks, and they enter this weekend in the middle pepperdineof the WCC pack at 5-4. At 6-3 in the league, Pepperdine is tied for first with Gonzaga. While the Toreros are the more explosive offensive team, the Waves have the edge in the rotation this weekend. Pepperdine ace Scott Frazier is coming off a strong outing against Washington (7 IP, 1 ER), and Saturday starter Corey Miller turned in one of the best pitching performances of the season, throwing 10 innings of shutout, three-hit ball against the Huskies, walking none and striking out 10. Aaron Brown followed with 6 2/3 strong innings Sunday, leading the Waves to the series win. When those three pitchers are sharp, Pepperdine has the best rotation in the league.