Weekend Preview: April 25-27

1. No. 1 Virginia visits No. 4 Florida State in one of the marquee series of the season.
2. Rather than rebuild, New Mexico reloaded, and the Lobos sit atop the Mountain West again heading into a showdown series at UNLV.
3. Notes from the five other Top 25 series around the nation, plus a scout’s take on No. 3 Louisiana-Lafayette.

(1) Virginia at (4) Florida State
(2) Cal Poly at Long Beach State
Texas State at (3) Louisiana-Lafayette
(19) Oregon at (5) Oregon State
Missouri at (6) Florida
Washington State at (7) Washington
(8) Alabama at (11) South Carolina
Tennessee at (9) Louisiana State
(21) Oklahoma State at (10) Texas
(12) Rice at Southern Mississippi
Connecticut at (13) Louisville
(14) Houston at Cincinnati
(15) Miami at (22) Clemson
(16) Mississippi at (17) Kentucky
(18) Indiana at Illinois
Texas A&M at (20) Mississippi State
Cal State Northridge at (23) Texas Christian
Auburn at (24) Arkansas
Georgia at (25) Vanderbilt

In a weekend chock full of Top 25 showdowns—six of them, to be precise—the highlight of the schedule matches up two of the three teams that have spent time at No. 1 in the BA rankings this year: Virginia and Florida State. It might be the series of the year in college baseball.

The No. 1 Cavaliers and No. 4 Seminoles have lived up to their lofty preseason billings, ranking third and fourth in the nation in winning percentage. The Seminoles rank third nationally in scoring margin (+3.7 runs per game), and the Cavs rank seventh (+3.4). Of course, Virginia has managed to do that despite underachieving significantly on offense; the Cavs make up for it by allowing just 2.3 runs per game, best in the nation.

Heading into the season, the Cavaliers ranked No. 1 based largely upon an ultra-talented lineup that produced four preseason All-Americans, as voted on by major league scouting directors. First-team outfielder Derek Fisher missed 25 games with a broken hamate before returning to action this past Sunday against North Carolina.

Second-team outfielder Brandon Downes (.239/.349/.415, 6 HR, 28 RBI) has struggled to produce consistent at-bats but has flashed some power despite a wrist injury. Fellow second-teamer Mike Papi (.296/.465/.496, 7 HR, 35 RBI) has been the team’s top power threat and continued to be an on-base machine, drawing 40 walks. And third-team infielder Branden Cogswell (.301/.412/.340) is the team’s lone .300 hitter, of players with more than 80 at-bats.

No Cavalier hitter is having an exceptionally loud season, and Downes isn’t the only key upperclassman struggling. Nick Howard (.248/.295/.316) and Kenny Towns (.229/.341/.324) have also seen their numbers plummet from a year ago.

Derek Fisher

Derek Fisher is back in action after missing 25 games. (Photo by Tony Farlow)

“As good as we thought our lineup was coming into the season—and I still think it’s a good lineup—I’m encouraged that we are where we are, and we haven’t played offensively the way we thought we could,” UVa. coach Brian O’Connor said. “It will be really exciting when we swing the bats a little better, and that will come.”

Fisher’s return seems to have provided a spark. He delivered two hits in a 5-4 win Tuesday against Virginia Commonwealth, then two more Wednesday in a 13-0 victory against Richmond, during which the Cavs blasted four home runs by four different players. Fisher homered in both midweek games. The one silver lining to his injury was that it allowed sophomore John La Prise to get more playing time, and he responded by hitting .390 in 77 at-bats. Now the Cavs have more trusted options off the bench.

Maybe Virginia won’t ever be the elite offensive club we expected it to be, but don’t be surprised if its bats still find a way to catch fire down the stretch. Whether they do or not, UVa. has proven it can score enough to rack up wins at an impressive clip. The Cavs are 35-7 overall, and tied with FSU and Miami atop the ACC standings (16-5). They lead the nation in fewest hits allowed per nine innings and rank second in fielding percentage (.984).

“It’s been the pitching,” O’Connor said. “To have an ERA around 2, and then the fielding percentage. That’s what’s been so consistent for us, the defense and the pitching. We have a lot of veteran guys in the pen, then (Connor) Jones and (Nick) Howard and (Whit) Mayberry have been really excellent.”

Florida State’s bullpen, led by Jameis Winston and Gage Smith, has been a major strength too, as we wrote earlier this season. It has remained strong enough, though the Seminoles have had to move lefthander Bryant Holtmann (5-0, 3.24) from the ‘pen into the Sunday starter role, while junior lefthander Brandon Leibrandt is out with a severe bone bruise in his tibia. He was originally expected to miss just one start, but he has been sidelined four weeks now, and FSU coach Mike Martin said he could miss another three.

Jameis Winston

Jameis Winston anchors a solid FSU bullpen. (Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode)

“This is really baffling everybody,” Martin said. “He has an injury that is literally just making some of the best doctors—in my opinion in the world; we have a great medical staff—and they’re just baffled. They’re consulting with others. The poor guy has just been in excruciating pain because of blood being in the bone. Inside the bone. He’s tried like crazy to rehab it and get it well, and the pain is just tough. But doctors say it could be where he comes out here one day and says, ‘Holy smokes, I feel great.’ But until that time, he’s just not able to do what he wants to do to rehab it, because of the severe pain.”

Martin said he and the rest of the coaching staff has been encouraged by the way the Seminoles have continued to battle without Leibrandt. Holtmann pitched six innings in each of his first two starts and earned the win in both, but he failed to get out of the first inning two weeks ago at Georgia Tech. He pitched into the fifth last week at Wake Forest. He is not as accomplished as Leibrandt, of course, but he gives Florida State a chance when he’s on the mound, and the common wisdom suggests that lefties are a good matchup against Virginia’s lefthanded-heavy lineup.

“He’s getting better with each outing,” Martin said of Holtmann. “He’s throwing the fastball, cutter, curveball, change. With this opportunity, you’re seeing improvement in everything from location to more movement on his breaking ball, and the maturation of the change.”

FSU’s top two starters, righties Luke Weaver (6-3, 2.83) and Mike Compton (3-1, 3.70), really stand out for their maturity and composure, Martin said. Weaver has been able to succeed even though his stuff has generally been a bit less electric than it was last spring and summer. He’ll still be drafted in the top 50 picks, and maybe in the first round. “That’s the sign of the great ones, all through the major leagues and college: when they don’t have their best stuff, they keep battling,” Martin said.

D.J. Stewart (Photo by Tony Farlow).

D.J. Stewart is one of the ‘Noles power threats. (Photo by Tony Farlow).

Florida State’s staff ERA (3.06) is a full run higher than Virginia’s (2.03), but pitching remains FSU’s greatest strength, as well. It should be fascinating to see how these two offenses perform against top-flight pitching.

The Seminoles are less powerful than usual; they actually have fewer home runs than the Cavs, 22-21, despite playing in a much more homer-friendly park. D.J. Stewart (.359/.467/.618, 7 HR, 35 RBI) and John Nogowski (.310/.452/.486, 4 HR, 39 RBI) have been Florida State’s two primary power threats, but the Seminoles have produced quality at-bats up and down their lineup, as usual. They lead the nation in walks (243), which is nothing unusual for Florida State, which is one of the most patient, disciplined teams in the country every year. So the Seminoles might not have a gaudy team batting average (.283), and they might have fewer home runs than usual, but they remain very good at scoring runs, ranking 11th in the nation with 7.2 runs per game.

“This group is not concerned with anything but just having good at-bats,” Martin said. “That’s a credit to Meat (Mike Martin Jr.), who is of course in charge of the hitting. He stresses that, and I’m very, very pleased with the way the guys have continued to work at having good at-bats. It’s just a team that really and truly loves to compete.”

The last time Florida State hosted Virginia in 2012, the Seminoles swept the series. But the Cavaliers swept it last year in Charlottesville, and they won two of three against FSU in 2011 and 2010, making them one of the few teams in the ACC that has given Florida State trouble in recent years.

“Virginia is undoubtedly a good baseball club,” Martin said. “We’ve gotten our ears pinned back the last couple of years. They’ve just been very impressive. We know it’s going to be a great challenge, but we’re anxious to play.”

Reloaded Lobos Prepare For MWC Showdown

New Mexico lost its three leading hitters and RBI men from last year’s Mountain West juggernaut—D.J. Peterson, Mitch Garver and Luke Campbell. The Lobos also had to replace two other key up-the-middle mainstays (Josh Melendez and Alex Allbritton) in addition to catcher Garver, and they had to replace hard-throwing ace Sam Wolff. Still, MWC coaches voted for the Lobos to finish first in the preseason.

“I thought they were trying to trick us,” New Mexico coach Ray Birmingham said of that coaches poll. “I go, ‘What are these guys doing?’ I would have thought San Diego State, UNLV and Fresno State would be the three. I said, ‘Well, they’re just playing a head game, that’s what they’re doing there.'”

That might sound like typical baseball coach sandbagging, but Birmingham sounds genuine. And the fact is, the Lobos had a lot of questions to answer. But coming off four straight trips to regionals, they had earned the respect of their peers, and the benefit of the doubt.

Through 10 weeks of play, it’s safe to say New Mexico has answered those questions. The Lobos are 31-11-1 overall, and 14-4 in the Mountain West, giving them a four-game cushion in the loss column over second-place UNLV and Nevada (13-8) heading into this weekend’s showdown between the Lobos and Rebels in Las Vegas. After a big midweek win against Texas Tech, UNM shot up to No. 42 in the RPI, putting them in prime position to make a fifth straight regional.

“I really have to tip my hat to these kids,” Birmingham said. “After we beat Texas Tech in a really good college baseball game on Monday, (pitching coach) Dan (Spencer) and I were in the locker room, and Dan looked at me and goes, ‘It’s amazing, isn’t it?’ I said, ‘I don’t know how it’s happening, but it’s happening.’ Truly, it’s a rebuilding year you would think, with everybody we’ve lost and all the newcomers. But these kids have bought in and they’re fighting, scratching and clawing.”

Chase Harris

Chase Harris leads the Lobos in hitting at .369.

The personnel turnover left the Lobos bereft of home run power (they have just 12 long balls, 150th in the nation). But they continue to be an elite offensive club, ranking fifth in batting, first in hits and 15th in scoring. This is a line-drive hitting club, built to take advantage of the spacious alleys at Lobo Field. Alex Real leads the team with 18 doubles, fourth in the nation.

“This team is perfectly suited for where we play, because we’ve got guys who can really run, 6.5s and 6.6s in the outfield,” Birmingham said. “It gives them lots of room to do what they do. You take away a lot of hits.”

Junior-college transfer Aaron Siple brought very good speed to center field, and Chase Harris is a good runner in right. Harris has always tantalized with his raw tools, but he has learned to harness them as a senior, emerging as New Mexico’s best overall player. He leads the team in batting (.369), slugging (.545), homers (six), triples (four) and stolen bases (10, tied with Sam Haggerty).

“His swing mechanics weren’t very good when he came in,” Birmingham said. “He’s worked really hard on getting those better. And his pitch selection wasn’t very good. Now he’s letting the ball travel, picking pitches to hit. He can take over a game, and if you make a mistake, he can hit it out of the yard.”

Haggerty (.324/.403/.396, 2 HR, 33 RBI) has built upon last year’s strong freshman campaign to emerge as the catalyst atop the lineup this year, and he has filled in admirably at shortstop while Jared Holley has been out with a pulled hamstring. Haggerty slid over from second base, and the Lobos have two more underclassmen capable of playing either second or third in sophomore Jered Meek and freshman Andre Vigil (.323). Birmingham points out that Meek was the 2012 high school state player of the year in New Mexico, and Vigil followed him by winning the same honor in 2013. Another freshman, first baseman Jack Zoellner (.338), led Arizona high schoolers in home runs last year. And freshman Danny Collier (.342) is another plus runner who has been a pleasant surprise with the bat.

Sam Haggerty

Sam Haggerty has emerged as a catalyst.

Birmingham said there are days the Lobos have eight underclassmen on the field, but they have emerged as the MWC front-runner ahead of veteran-laden UNLV and SDSU. The Rebels did take two of three in Albuquerque in early March, and UNLV spent three weeks in the Top 25 before getting swept at Air Force last weekend, so New Mexico knows this won’t be an easy series. UNLV has a starting pitching advantage with Erick Fedde and John Richy, but finesse righty Jonathan Cuellar, juco transfer lefthander Colton Thomson and wily senior righty Josh Walker generally pitch deep enough into games to keep New Mexico in games before the strong bullpen takes over. The relief corps is the strength of the UNM pitching staff, led by redshirt sophomore closer Victor Sanchez (3-0, 0.98, 7 SV), an upper-80s righty with a swing-and-miss curveball.

“If we get to the sixth inning with the lead, we’ve won,” said Birmingham, whose Lobos are 27-0 when leading after six. “Our bullpen has been very good, with Victor Sanchez, Jake Cole, Taylor Duree, and Carson Schneider the lefthander. Dan (Spencer) has done a great job with the staff. The one thing that he’s been scared about is the starting pitching, but if they do their job, we’ve had a good enough offense to scratch some runs here and there.

“We haven’t played our best baseball yet, but we’re getting closer.”

Around The Nation

• No. 8 Alabama suspended junior Jon Keller, its No. 3 starter, for its showdown series against No. 11 South Carolina due to a violation of team rules. Keller (5-1, 1.94) has been a steady workhorse for the Crimson Tide, pitching at least 5 1/3 inning in each of his SEC starts. Keller will be reinstated Monday, and the Crimson Tide said the Sunday starter this weekend is TBD. South Carolina, meanwhile, continues to deal with a parade of injuries. The latest occurred in Wednesday’s win against USC-Upstate, when Grayson Greiner left the game after sliding into third base in the fifth inning. He jammed his neck and hit his head, but he passed his concussion tests and is expected to play this weekend. With Conner Bright sidelined, freshman Gene Cone has made the most of his playing time in right field. He delivered a game-tying RBI double in the middle game at Auburn last week, then hit a game-winning sacrifice fly in the finale. He had three hits Wednesday, and coach Chad Holbrook told reporters he will stay in the lineup going forward, even when other players return to action. “Gene Cone isn’t filling in for anybody,” he said.

The first two games of the series feature fine pitching matchups: Bama’s Spencer Turnbull (5-2, 2.14) against Jordan Montgomery (5-3, 3.62) on Friday, then Justin Kamplain (3-2, 3.54) vs. Jack Wynkoop (5-2, 2.07) on Saturday. Both teams are vying for national seed position, and a series win this weekend would be huge for either.

• I’ll be in Corvallis this weekend, covering the Civil War showdown between Oregon State and Oregon. The Ducks have kept on winning despite season-ending injuries to their two most talented pitchers, lefties Cole Irvin and Matt Krook, both of whom went down with Tommy John surgery. Krook, one of the top-rated freshmen to set foot on a college campus last fall, was 2-1, 1.79 and led the Pac-12 in strikeouts before having surgery Tuesday. Regardless, the Ducks are red-hot, riding a nine-game winning streak into this weekend, including back-to-back series sweeps against UC Riverside and Washington State. Oregon State was off last weekend and returned to action with a pair of games Monday and Tuesday at Sacramento State. The Beavers squandered a 6-1 lead Monday, earning a tongue-lashing from senior ace Ben Wetzler, per the Oregonian. The paper reported that players acknowledged they have struggled to maintain sharp focus through nine innings at times this year; they responded with an 8-1 win Tuesday. Doubtless, both teams will be focused this weekend in an emotional rivalry series.

• In the Big 12, first-place Oklahoma State travels to Texas, which is looking to rebound after getting swept at home by Texas Christian last weekend. The Cowboys have won four straight series, including back-to-back sweeps against Kansas and at West Virginia. A big key to OSU’s surge has been the emergence of junior righty Jon Perrin as a bona fide ace atop the rotation. He threw a complete-game shutout last week against Kansas and has a 0.92 ERA over his last four starts. His velocity is up—he topped out at 93 last week—and he has matured mentally.

“That’s part of that growth of learning different roles and the mindset it takes to be a Friday night pitcher,” OSU coach Josh Holliday told the Daily O’Collegian in a profile piece on Perrin. “It does take a little more persona or presence out there, to rise to that challenge. I’m proud of him. That’s really rewarding in coaching, to see your kids kind of feel good about themselves.”

• The two other series between ranked teams this weekend pit No. 15 Miami against No. 22 Clemson, and No. 16 Mississippi against No. 17 Kentucky. Both series have major regional hosting implications; Clemson, in particular, can’t afford to lose another series and remain in the hosting race, thanks to a No. 33 RPI and a 5-7 record in its last 12 games. Miami, on the other hand, is on fire, with 16 wins in its past 17 games to surge into a three-way tie atop the ACC standings and bolster its hosting hopes. Ole Miss, meanwhile, is looking to rebound from a home series loss to LSU. The Rebels and Wildcats both reside inside the top 10 in the RPI, making them bona fide national seed contenders, but the SEC is so bunched together that either team could wind up as a top eight seed or on the road for regionals. This could be a high-scoring series in Lexington, as the Wildcats and Rebels rank first and second in the SEC in batting, and first and third in home runs.

• Louisiana-Lafayette continues to dominate the Sun Belt, which it leads by three games over second-place Arkansas State. This weekend, third-place Texas State visits Lafayette in one of ULL’s stiffest challenges of the conference season. The Sun Belt is the No. 10 RPI league, leading to questions about whether Louisiana-Lafayette is really as good as its 37-5 record. One scout who has seen plenty of the Cajuns weighed in on them:

Blake Trahan

Blake Trahan

“They have three pitchers who can really pitch, it’s a really deep lineup and a relentless lineup. Most pro guys will tell you they don’t like their approach, and neither do I. But I will give them credit for turning it loose. They are really, really aggressive with the bat. Despite that, they do walk a lot. These guys are up there trying to strike the baseball hard. If a pitch is around the middle of the plate, they’re hacking. They’re like the Oakland Raiders of college baseball. They have a bit of a wild approach. It is fair to call it almost a softball approach; there’s not a lot of shortening up for them. But they have three pitchers on the weekend who can compete and they can hit. A lot of college baseball teams just can’t impact the ball, just don’t hit and frankly are boring to watch. Lafayette is not like that.

“(Carson) Baranik is kind of vanilla but he can sequence it and get outs. I have some concerns about (Austin) Robichaux’s durability long-term but he can pitch with solid stuff. The guy who really makes them go is the little shortstop, (Blake) Trahan. He’s got an ‘it’ factor. He’s the best prospect on the team and he’s headed to the Cape, he’ll be a good draft in 2015. He’s a plus defender, 60 runner, grinds through at-bats and handles the bat well.”