Weekend Preview: April 19-21

The Week 10 schedule is loaded with key showdowns across the country, from the Pac-12 to the Southeastern Conference to the Big West to Conference USA. We’ll touch on some of those key matchups below, but let’s focus on some ACC matchups with major postseason ramifications.

Virginia Hosts Florida State In Clash Of ACC Titans

For decades, Florida State has been a model of consistency, racking up 40- and 50-win seasons year after year, regardless of roster turnover. Whenever the Seminoles enter a season with modest national expectations because of inexperience, they consistently out-perform those expectations.

Duke at (1) North Carolina
(2) Vanderbilt at Georgia
(3) Louisiana State at Alabama
(4) Cal State Fullerton at (23) Cal Poly
(5) Oregon State at Washington
(6) Florida State at (7) Virginia
(8) Louisville at St. John’s
Valparaiso at (9) Arizona State
(13) UCLA at (10) Oregon
New Orleans at (11) Oklahoma
Texas A&M at (12) Arkansas
(15) North Carolina State at (14) Georgia Tech
Auburn at (16) Mississippi State
(17) Kentucky at (18) South Carolina
(19) Indiana vs./vs./at Butler
(20) Clemson at Miami
(21) Mississippi at Tennessee
(22) Rice at Houston
(24) Gonzaga at Pepperdine
(25) UNC Wilmington at George Mason

During Brian O’Connor’s regime, Virginia has reached that same level. The Cavaliers entered each of the last two seasons unranked because of inexperience in the lineup (heading into 2012) and on the mound (heading into this season). Last year, the Cavaliers won 39 games and hosted a regional. This year, they are 32-6 overall, 13-5 in the ACC, and jockeying for a national seed.

“I’ll just tell you, if Virginia’s not one of the top five teams in the country, I don’t know who is,” Florida State coach Mike Martin said. “What they’ve accomplished over the years, they’re very, very good. It’s a credit to Brian O’Connor and Mac (assistant coach Kevin McMullan), (pitching coach) Karl Kuhn and the great job that they do at Virginia. Their weather is not the greatest but yet it does not deter them at all from being at the level they’re at, year after year after year. That’s a credit to them.”

Naturally, Florida State—which entered the season ranked No. 20 for the second straight year after losing its entire infield, its best player (James Ramsey), its closer (Robert Benincasa) and its No. 2 starter (Mike Compton) from last year—is also putting together a strong national seed resume, with a 31-6 overall record, a matching 13-5 conference mark, and a Ratings Percentage Index ranking in the top eight, just like Virginia’s. Maybe the Atlantic Coast Conference can produce three national seeds, with the Cavs and Seminoles joining top-ranked North Carolina, but whichever team wins the series this weekend in Charlottesville will be in the driver’s seat.

Both the Seminoles (2.60 staff ERA) and Cavaliers (2.76) have gotten outstanding work from their pitchers, especially in the bullpen. In Kyle Crockett, Austin Young, Whit Mayberry, David Rosenberger and Josh Sborz, Virginia has five relievers who have logged at least 10 appearances and have ERAs below 2.00. Crockett, a junior lefthander, has been a sensation at the back of the bullpen, going 3-0, 0.62 with seven saves and an incredible 37-1 strikeout-walk mark in 29 innings. He was slowed by a back injury entering the season, and the Cavs eased him into action in the bullpen while considering whether or not to eventually move him into the rotation. His lights-out work in relief wound up making that decision easy.

“I knew with having a relatively inexperienced team, I wanted somebody at the end of the game who had experience, as well as good stuff,” O’Connor said. “He had the most experience on our pitching staff. He seems to have grabbed hold of the role and is excelling. His stuff is a lot better than you will have seen the last two years. He’s pretty much 90-92, will touch 93. He has a really good slider, a good changeup, and his command is so good. The guy’s got one walk on the year and it’s an intentional walk. So you’ve got to beat him. He’s not going to beat himself.”

Likewise, Florida State has gotten rock-solid work from a deep bullpen group, with six pitchers—Robby Coles, Gage Smith, Billy Strode, Brandon Johnson, Jameis Winston and Bryant Holtmann—logging ERAs of 3.08 or lower in double-digit appearances. Coles (2-1, 0.79, eight saves, 27-9 strikeout-walk mark in 23 innings) has been the anchor, but Martin made a point to highlight the strong work of lefthander Strode (1-0, 1.93), who has made three midweek starts and seven relief appearances.

“I really like the way Billy Strode is pitching out of the bullpen,” Martin said. “He’s a very good fielding pitcher, a good athlete, former football player. He pitched at indian River (Fla., JC) last year, decided to transfer after his first year. (Pitching coach) Mike Bell took him in the fall program, he wasn’t very impressive. Then as the season started, he got better and better and better. He’s not an overpowering guy, but he’s about a three-quarter guy and he’s been very effective for us. Good slider, developing change.”

Each team has had a weekend starter take a major step forward. For Virginia, fifth-year senior lefthander Scott Silverstein (6-0, 3.42 with 42 strikeouts and 13 walks in 50 innings) has become a rock on Saturdays, pitching much deeper into games than he did last year, when he was still working his way back to full strength after multiple shoulder surgeries.

“His velocity is better consistently,” O’Connor said. “He’s pretty much 88-92, might flash you a 93, and he’s doing a much better job of throwing downhill. Last year was really his first full season pitching in our uniform, and I think he ran out of gas in the back half of the year, because he’s never been in that situation before. Overall, I just think his stuff is better, and he’s more consistent, because he’s 100 percent healthy. His secondary stuff is good—he’s got a slider and a changeup. The slider’s a good pitch, occasional change. He’s a guy that’s going to come after you.”

For Florida State, sophomore righthander Luke Weaver (4-0, 1.40 with 51 strikeouts and six walks in 45 innings) has learned to harness his electric stuff, and he has found a home in the Friday starter role after beginning the season as the midweek starter. Martin said Weaver pitches at 92 mph with good life on his fastball, which can reach 96. He’s developed a very good slider, and his changeup is still a work in progress. Now Florida State’s rotation presents opposing hitters with three very distinct looks, as the power-armed Weaver is followed by a finesse lefty (Brandon Leibrandt) on Saturdays and a bulldog righty slider specialist (Scott Sitz) on Sundays.

The Florida State pitching staff will face a formidable challenge this weekend. Through nine weeks, Virginia’s offense ranked seventh in the nation in scoring and walks, second in triples and 12th in slugging. The Cavaliers have a deep, athletic, explosive lineup with a patient, dynamic catalyst in sophomore shortstop Branden Cogswell (.364/.486/.462 with four triples and a 32-15 walk-strikeout mark), a wily senior with good bat-handling skills in the No. 2 hole (Jared King) followed by a powerful heart of the order.

Scott Silverstein

Scott Silverstein (Photo by Carl Kline)

Freshman Joe McCarthy (.309/.467/.441 with three homers and 30 RBIs) is an on-base machine with a disciplined approach and a pretty swing, and he has been a revelation as the No. 3 hitter. Three dangerous sophomores hit behind him: Brandon Downes (.309/.402/.544, 5 HR, and 36 RBI), Mike Papi (.393/.535/.702, 5 HR, 30 RBI) and Derek Fisher (.321/.434/.554, 4 HR, 32 RBI). It is natural to compare this Virginia lineup to the standout offenses of the 2009-11 Cavaliers, and O’Connor doesn’t shy away from that comparison.

“They were really good athletes that could run, and hit the ball out of the ballpark too,” he said, referring to those past UVa. teams. “I think this is a very similar offensive club. I think we’ve got the ability to score runs from anywhere in the lineup. You look at our guys 3-7, with McCarthy, Downes, Papi, Fisher, (Nick)Howard—those are big, physical guys that are also really athletic. We have a guy at the top in Cogswell who can handle the bat and run, get on base a lot. King’s a battler, (senior second baseman Reed) Gragnani’s having a nice year. So you feel like your run production doesn’t have to just come from one group of guys in the middle of the lineup.”

The Cavs have a more potent offense than the Seminoles, and they also have a defensive edge. UVa.’s infield is more experienced and features a slick double-play tandem in Cogswell and Gragnani, plus an outstanding defensive catcher in Nate Irving. FSU also has a fine catcher in Stephen McGee, but the infield defense has been up and down. Jose Brizuela is fielding .875 at third base, and middle infielders Giovanny Alfonzo and John Sansone are improving but are not at the same level as last year’s double-play tandem, Justin Gonzalez and Devon Travis.

“Let’s just say it this way: Of late we have played better,” Martin said. “We have played very good defense of late, and we know that we have to play solid defense every night to be successful. For a guy like me, it’s been very, very challenging from a mental standpoint. Because you expect things to be done because of what you’ve seen, but yet you’ve got four new guys out there. Not three, but four. I’m very pleased, though, with the way they’re playing.”

The bullpens match up well against each other, but give Florida State the edge in the rotation, because freshman lefthander Brandon Waddell and sophomore righty Howard have not pitched as well in the last month as they did in the first half of the season—although Waddell was solid in defeat last week at Georgia Tech, allowing just two runs over 5 2/3 innings.

“The big thing is our starting pitching needs to go deeper in ballgames like we were in the first half of the season,” O’Connor said. “We’ve just got to get it more consistent. But you know what? A lot of people have the same problem. How many people out there, all three of their starters on the weekend are going out there and giving you seven innings? So I don’t want to be too critical of it. But our team has unbelievable fight. We’ve fallen behind in games and crawled back in every ballgame and had a chance to win. So from an offensive standpoint, you feel like your’e never out of a ballgame.

“Overall, I think it’s a team that is still growing even though we’re 32-6 or whatever. I still think that we can get better. Any coach would say that about any team, but there are certainly areas that we can improve on. But overall, I think we’ve got a pretty darn good club.”

So does Florida State. But in both cases, what else is new?

Miami Seeks Signature Series Win Against Clemson

It hasn’t been a typical year for Miami, one of the most successful and consistent programs in college baseball history. Sure, the Hurricanes are in good shape for an at-large bid (unlike fellow traditional power Texas, which finds itself in precarious footing again), but the Hurricanes have lost five of their last seven weekend series, and they have struggled to generate offense all season long. Through nine weeks, they ranked next to last in the ACC in scoring (4.4 runs per game, 226th in the nation), batting (.254, 231st in the nation) and slugging (.327, 239th).

“We play a lot of low-scoring games and don’t score a lot of runs every single game,” Miami coach Jim Morris said. “It’s an interesting scenario coming from where Miami used to be, scoring a bunch of runs.

“We’re starting four rookie infielders. Dale Carey has struggled—we expected him to hit closer to .390, not .190. And we haven’t had a solid starter every day in left field. So our lineup has changed a lot. I think the young guys are starting to make adjustments, but we’re starting a lot of young guys. We’ve done it before, and I keep going to bed thinking, ‘In ’06 we started four or five freshman too.’ ”

That 2006 Miami team went on to win a regional and a super regional on the road to reach Omaha. Of course, that team was loaded with future big leaguers—Jemile Weeks, Yonder Alonso, Jon Jay, Danny Valencia and Blake Tekotte. A number of those players were freshmen who came on strong down the stretch, and Miami hopes its talented young players can make a similar second-half run this year. This weekend’s series against Clemson provides Miami with a chance to earn a much-needed series win against a ranked opponent—and a red-hot opponent at that, with a 10-game winning streak.

Freshman third baseman David Thompson was a centerpiece of Miami’s strong recruiting class in the fall, and he has begun to emerge as the centerpiece of the lineup. The Hurricanes had to ease Thompson into action this spring as he worked his way back from shoulder surgery, and he missed some time after pushing his recovery too quickly. But since he has returned to action, Thompson has gotten hot, and he leads the team with three homers and 27 RBIs.

“To me he’s just a clutch player, a good athlete,” Morris said. “He’s started playing third base for the first time for the last two weeks. That’s his natural position and future position. He’s doing a pretty good job. But his strength is hitting. He’s leading the team in RBis, and he missed a lot of games.”

Fellow heralded freshman Grant Heyman, a three-sport athlete during his prep days in New York, has struggled to harness his tantalizing raw tools, hitting .189/.333/.270. Morris said the ball jumps off his bat, but he just hasn’t played as much baseball as most Miami recruits, and it shows. Morris said he hopes Heyman can get hot and provide a spark down the stretch.

Miami’s other big-name newcomers, juco transfer Alex Hernandez and freshman Brandon Lopez, have formed a slick-fielding duo in the middle infield, but neither has provided much offensive punch. They are hitting .269 and .234, respectively.

The Hurricanes’ offensive struggles—and the team’s lack of bullpen depth—has put a lot of pressure on the three weekend starters and closer Eric Nedeljkovic, and those four players have been the backbone of the club.

Nedeljkovic, a senior righthander, was a key piece of the bullpen last year after transferring in from the junior-college ranks, posting a 1.78 ERA in 29 appearances. But he’s even better than he was a year ago, and the numbers show it: He’s 2-1, 0.92 with eight saves, 22 strikeouts and two walks in 20 innings.

“He’s 90-92 on the gun, and what’s really improved is his breaking ball,” Morris said. “He’s got a hard slider that he’s throwing now, and a changeup. He’s locating and he’s very, very competitive. Nothing really affects him. He has no problem throwing a breaking ball 3-2 with two outs in a tie ballgame. Last year he did not have a breaking ball.”

Two key veterans in the bullpen got off to very rough starts, but Morris said lefthander A.J. Salcines (3-3, 7.52) and righty Eric Whaley (1-1, 6.75) have thrown better recently. Whaley spent the last two years as a starter, but a biceps injury hindered him out of the gate this year and relegated him to the bullpen. Salcines was Miami’s pitcher of the year in 2012 after going 3-0, 1.40 with seven saves, but he struggled to throw his offspeed stuff for strikes early in the season. Morris said both pitchers have been better in their last three outings, which is a big key for the Hurricanes.

Chris Diaz

Chris Diaz

The rotation consists of three lefthanders with good feel for pitching, led by sophomore Chris Diaz (3-2, 1.78), who has made a seamless transition from a bullpen role last year into the Friday starter job.

“He’s got good stuff, really good movement—that makes him effective,” Morris said. “He has a fastball that  moves away, also a very good natural cutter that moves down and in to righthanded hitters, along with a good curveball. He’s upper 80s to 90, very competitive, good makeup.”

Saturday starter Bryan Radziewski (5-1, 1.11 with 55 strikeouts and 10 walks in 41 innings) has been outstanding since returning from the shoulder surgery that cut his sophomore year short after five starts last year. He dazzled in a 2-0 win against Virginia Tech, allowing just two hits and no walks while striking out 16, the most by a Miami pitcher since 1989. Sunday starter Andrew Suarez (2-3, 2.86) is also coming off injury (Tommy John surgery), and while Morris said his stuff hasn’t completely returned to where it was before he got hurt, he has competed well.

“We’ve got three pretty good lefties back-to-back-to-back, and they can get lefties and righties out,” Morris said. “Against anybody, we’ve got a chance. But we’re not going to score a lot of runs, so there’s some pressure on our pitching and defense.”

Around The Nation

North Carolina State visits Georgia Tech in the ACC’s other big series this weekend. The Yellow Jackets have continued to struggle offensively in ACC play, scoring just nine runs over their last six conference games, but they scored enough to win a huge series against Virginia last week, because their pitching came up big. Buck Farmer made big pitch after big pitch last Friday, scattering 10 hits but allowing just one run in a complete game, striking out 10. The Wolfpack will counter on Friday with righthander Ryan Wilkins, who stepped into the weekend rotation last week at Boston College and delivered seven innings of two-run ball. First-team preseason All-America lefthander Carlos Rodon moves back to Saturday job after allowing five runs in just two innings last week. Rodon’s control has been an issue this year; he has issued 27 walks in 51 innings, after walking just 41 in 115 innings last year.

But N.C. State finally has stability in the rest of its rotation thanks to the addition of Wilkins, and the improvement of lefthander Brad Stone on Sundays. The more reliable starting pitching has helped the Wolfpack reel off 11 straight wins. But N.C. State has not won a series at Georgia Tech since 2001. These two teams have very similar postseason resumes; both teams are 11-7 in the ACC, and they are separated by two spots in the RPI. With North Carolina, Virginia and Florida State likely locked into regional hosting spots, the ‘Pack and the Jackets might wind up competing for one hosting spot, so this weekend has major postseason ramifications.

• The weekend’s most compelling series in the Southeastern Conference pits two teams that are licking their wounds, No. 17 Kentucky and No. 18 South Carolina. The Wildcats have lost five of their last six SEC games (and six of eight overall), while the Gamecocks were swept for the second time this season last week at Florida. Kentucky and South Carolina both carry 8-7 SEC marks into this weekend, and the loser of this series will find itself behind the eight-ball in the race to host a regional. This series will feature at least five lefthanders starting on the mound (South Carolina’s Sunday starter is TBA), as A.J. Reed takes on Nolan Belcher on Friday, Jerad Grundy faces Jordan Montgomery on Saturday, and Corey Littrell starts for UK on Sunday. Kentucky’s lineup has decent balance, but it’s worth noting that its four leading hitters (Kyle Barrett, A.J. Reed, J.T. Riddle and Austin Cousino) are all lefthanded. Aside from L.B. Dantzler, five of South Carolina’s top six hitters are rigthhanded (or switch-hitting), and that’s not counting Brison Celek, who has hit .333 in part-time action.

• The Pacific-12 Conference features two huge matchups this weekend. No. 13 UCLA visits No. 10 Oregon in a showdown between two teams jockeying for regional hosting position. Oregon needs to prove it can win a series against a top opponent, as the Ducks have lost all three series they have played against ranked teams (Vanderbilt, Cal State Fullerton and Arizona State). But the Ducks are sitting pretty in the RPI (No. 6) and the Pac-12 standings (12-3), so they have more margin for error than UCLA, which is No. 23 in the RPI and 7-5 in the Pac-12. Winning a road series at Oregon would give UCLA’s resume a huge boost. The Bruins have struggled offensively in their last two conference series (both of which they lost) against Arizona State and Oregon State. UCLA scored just six runs in three games against Loyola Marymount last weekend, but the Bruins’ pitching still led them to a series win, as it has so often this year. Expect a very low-scoring series between two very good pitching staffs.

• The other key Pac-12 matchup is Arizona at Stanford, in a matchup between bubble teams that need to boost their RPIs (Arizona is No. 58, Stanford is No. 112). Both teams struggled early in conference play but have gotten on track by winning their last three series against teams in the bottom half of the Pac-12 pecking order. The team that wins the series this weekend could find itself back in the Top 25, and on the path toward an at-large spot. The series is particularly huge for Stanford, which has a more difficult remaining schedule than Arizona, so the Cardinal needs to take care of business at home. Stanford’s offense has gotten a boost from the return of first-team preseason All-American Austin Wilson, who has hit safely in each of his last six games, including a 3-for-5 game at Pacific on Tuesday. Wilson was injured the first weekend of the season with a stress reaction in his elbow.

• No. 4 Cal State Fullerton travels to No. 23 Cal Poly in the biggest series of the year in the Big West. The Titans, of course, are the class of the Big West as usual, and they have reeled off three separate winning streaks of 10 games this year. At 8-1 in the league, Fullerton has a two-game lead over the Mustangs, who took a bad loss last Sunday against 8-24 Hawaii. The Titans and Mustangs are two of the three best offensive teams in the Big West, but they are also the two best pitching teams in the league, so runs won’t be easy to come by. The first two pitching matchups of the weekend are outstanding, as Thomas Eshelman (fresh off his first walk of his collegiate career) takes on Joey Wagman on Friday, and Justin Garza matches up with Matt Imhof on Saturday.

• Crosstown rivals Rice and Houston square off in the most intriguing series between the two teams in years. Both teams are on the at-large bubble—unfamiliar territory for Rice (which is used to contending for national seeds) and Houston (which has made just two regionals in the last decade). The Cougars (6-3 in Conference USA) actually enter this series ahead of the Owls (7-5) in the standings, but neither team has played particularly well of late. Houston fell out of the Top 25 after losing back-to-back series against Marshall and Seton Hall. Rice is coming off a home series loss to Central Florida, and the Owls have yet to go on their seemingly annual dominant run in C-USA play; they have not swept a series since March 15-17 against Harvard, and the only other series they have swept came in Week Two against lowly Hawaii. The Owls need a strong finish to boost their RPI (No. 66) into at-large range, because they still have series remaining against No. 171 Alabama-Birmingham and No. 221 Marshall. The Cougars are actually stronger in the RPI (No. 53), but their remaining schedule is more challenging, with road series at UCF and Tulane, plus a closing series against red-hot Southern Miss. So this weekend is a huge chance for both teams to bolster their postseason credentials. The Owls are the more talented and experienced team, and they have been the Conference USA bully for a long time, so it is hard to bet against them in a big series, even though the plucky Cougars are at home.