Weekend Preview: Feb. 27-March 1

Houston College Classic

For one year, another tournament stole the spotlight from the Houston College Classic, as the 2008 USD Tournament attracted flocks of scouts to see top-flight pitchers such as Brian Matusz, Aaron Crow, Tanner Scheppers and Tyson Ross. Undoubtedly Minute Maid Park still had the better crowds and the more intense atmosphere, and this year the Houston tournament has reclaimed the best field, as well. Five of the nation’s top 10 teams, plus a good Houston Cougars club, will face off over three days at the home of the Astros.

“For fans and for scouts, this is probably as good as it can get,” said Baylor coach Steve Smith, whose team also played in this tournament in 2005 and 2007. “There are a lot of outstanding clubs and players from all over the country. When it’s this loaded, coaches can scratch their heads about whether they should be in it or not this early in the year. But when players go to college to play college baseball, they want to play the best. They want to play great teams in great venues in front of great fans, and this event offers all of that.”

Rice and Houston have played in the Classic every year since its inception in 2004 (when it was called the Minute Maid Classic). Owls coach Wayne Graham has seen some awfully good teams come through the event—2007 sticks out, when the top-ranked Owls opened up against David Price and a loaded Vanderbilt club, and Arizona State and Texas A&M also finished the season ranked among the nation’s top 12 teams—but he’s never seen a field like this.

“It looks like the best Minute Maid tournament ever,” Graham said. “The kids, they’re playing in a major league venue, and it’s exciting for them. It’s always exciting to play good competition. In my old age, I don’t want to go to the field and play a team we’re going to beat 20-0. I want to go to the field and play good competition. It may not be good for job security, but it sure is a lot more fun.”

Here’s a look at a few of the Classic matchups that figure to be the most fun:

No. 1 Texas A&M vs. No. 5 UC Irvine

The first game of the weekend (at 1 p.m. Friday) is a dandy, as the top-ranked Aggies take on the fifth-ranked Anteaters. This game features two of the nation’s fiercest lefthanders in A&M’s Brooks Raley (1-0, 1.50) and UCI’s Daniel Bibona (1-0, 1.17) the latter of whom carried a no-hitter into the eighth in the season-opener against Hawaii. Both teams also use pressure offenses, though the Aggies have considerably more explosive bats, while the ‘Eaters out-execute just about everyone. This will be the first-ever meeting between these two programs, and it should be a treat.

No. 6 Baylor vs. No. 9 UCLA

This Saturday game pits Baylor sophomore righthander Shawn Tolleson (1-1, 7.50) against UCLA freshman sensation Gerrit Cole (1-0, 0.00). Tolleson has a great arm and could be a top-two-rounds draft pick as a redshirt sophomore this June, but Cole is something else altogether. Cole, an unsigned first-round pick of the Yankees and the nation’s No. 1 ranked freshman, used a 94-97 mph fastball that touched 98, an 85-88 slider and an 81 mph changeup to dominate UC Davis in his collegiate debut.

“We get Gerrit Cole—and I like our chances against that better than against the guy throwing 84,” Smith said. “We hit in our intrasquads all the time—we knock our guys pretty good. Then we get in games and nobody’s throwing like Kendal (Volz), so I think it’s an adjustment. I think some of our guys will be a little more comfortable playing some of these power arms.”

Central Florida at (2) Louisiana State

Seton Hall at (3) North Carolina

Penn State at (4) Texas

(14) Stanford at (7) Cal State Fullerton

(12) Georgia at Arizona

(23) Texas Christian at (13) Mississippi

(16) Oklahoma at Washington State

(17) Pepperdine at UC Davis

(19) Clemson vs./at South Carolina

Rutgers at (20) Georgia Tech

Western Illinois at (21) Arkansas

(22) Florida State vs./vs./at/at Auburn

Miami at (24) Florida

Top 25 Tournaments

Houston College Classic

(1) Texas A&M, (5) UC Irvine, (6) Baylor, (9) UCLA, (10) Rice, Houston

DeMarini Classic (Tempe, Ariz.)

(8) Arizona State, (15) Missouri, Northern Illinois, Oregon State

USD Tournament (San Diego)

(11) San Diego, Kansas State, Nevada, Pacific

Coca-Cola Classic (Rock Hill, S.C.)

(18) Kent State, Wagner, Winthrop

Keith LeClair Classic (Greenville, N.C.)

(25) Oklahoma State, College of Charleston, East Carolina, St. John’s

No. 10 Rice vs. No. 1 Texas A&M

The Saturday night game traditionally draws the biggest crowds at
Minute Maid, largely because it usually pits Rice against either Texas
or Texas A&M. This year it’ll be the Aggies, who figure to throw junior righthander Alex Wilson against Rice ace Ryan
Berry (0-0, 9.64). Graham said he’s leaning toward flipping his top two
starters so Mike Ojala (0-0, 1.42) goes Friday night against UCLA and
Berry goes Saturday. The reason is because he wants catcher Diego
Seastrunk to have a day off from catching in the middle of the series,
and he wants freshman Craig Manuel to catch Berry. The junior
righthander was hit hard in his 2009 debut, but he has experience
pitching on a big stage and against Texas A&M, whom he faced in
super regionals each of the last two years.

“They should have a huge crowd for that A&M game Saturday night,”
Graham said. “We could have over 20,000 fans Saturday night.”

One talent evaluator who was at
Wilson’s A&M debut against Wright State last weekend reported,
“Alex Wilson is the real deal. He was 94-95 with a wipeout slider and
good command.” Wilson struck out 14 and allowed just one walk and three
hits over 6 2/3 shutout innings.

“The Aggies, of course, are really loaded, especially now that it
appears Wilson will be everything they hoped,” Graham said. “They were
already good without him, and they’ve got a real chance to do something
if they’ve got enough offense.”

Marquee Mound
Seton Hall’s Sean Black vs. North Carolina’s Alex White

There are a number of dynamite pitching matchups around the country this week: Two of the nation’s top seniors will duke it out in Tucson as Georgia’s Trevor Holder takes on Arizona’s Preston Guilmet; two first-team All-Americans are likely to lock horns in Tempe, as Missouri’s Kyle Gibson duels Arizona State’s Mike Leake; and there are too many good mound matchups at the Houston College Classic to single out one.


1 0 0.00 6 4 3 2

White 1 0 5.40 5 8 1 9 .348

3 3 3.44 65 48 30 59

White 13 3 2.83 102 78 42 113 .215

But I’m going with Black vs. White for personal reasons. When Seton Hall visited UNC in 2007, I was planning for weeks to single out the Black-White duel in this space (not just because of the obvious color pun, but because White ranked as the nation’s No. 2 freshman, and Black ranked fifth). Alas, the matchup never materialized, as White started Saturday and Black went Sunday.

This weekend I won’t be cheated, as both junior righthanders will start Friday night in Chapel Hill (though I’ll be in Houston). Both pitched very well in their season debuts last Friday, as White reached the mid-90s and racked up nine strikeouts in five innings against Virginia Military Institute, while Black topped out at 93 and allowed just one unearned run on four hits over six innings against Minnesota. Both have made huge strides with their secondary stuff in the last two years, as White now commands a plus slider and a plus split-finger, while Black has learned to throw strikes with a 75-78 mph curveball. Black will have to be at his best to beat the nation’s No. 3 team on Friday afternoon.

Under The
Jose Iglesias, Coastal Carolina

Heading into 2009, Iglesias had started just 29 games in two years—10 at St John’s as a freshman, then 19 after transferring to Coastal last year. The 6-foot-5, 220-pounder flashed big raw power in batting practice, but he was stuck behind star catcher Dock Doyle on the depth chart.

“He’s a guy that could hit last year, there just really wasn’t a spot for him,” Chanticleers coach Gary Gilmore said. “He just continues to get better, and he’s a guy I really thought could hit. With the lineup we had last year, he got to catch a little bit and play behind a Johnny Bench Award nominee guy, so it’s been hard to get on the field, but he’s been impressive so far.”

Through five games, Iglesias is batting .368/.364/1.053 with four homers and 13 RBIs. Now that Doyle, Tommy Baldridge and David Sappelt are in pro ball, the Chanticleers are counting on Iglesias to fill the power void in the cleanup spot. Iglesias missed time last summer after breaking his jaw in a freak accident in the Coastal Plain League—he was walking to the dugout when an errant throw hit him in the face—but he worked extra hard in the fall and got himself into position to step into the middle of the CCU lineup.

“I was hoping for (the cleanup job), and I was happy to have that spot,” Iglesias said. “Hopefully I can provide a little more protection for (senior first baseman) David Anderson.”

The biggest home run of Iglesias’ young career came Tuesday evening at North Carolina. The Chanticleers trailed the third-ranked Tar Heels 3-1 in the top of the eighth when Iglesias hit a towering two-run homer to left-center field, halfway up the protective screen to the right of the scoreboard. Coastal went on to the 7-3 upset.

“I think in any comeback like that you either have to have a lot of help—and you’re not going to get that from North Carolina—or you need to have someone step up and have a heroic swing of the bat like Iglesias did,” Gilmore said. “That swing gave us the opportunity to hang in there for another inning and get an opportunity to do some things.”

Iglesias will get the opportunity to do a few more things this weekend at Coastal’s Baseball at the Beach tournament. The Chanticleers will face West Virginia, Tennessee and Florida International.

Sam Dyson, South Carolina

Dyson, the Gamecocks’ redshirt sophomore ace, has never lost in his collegiate career. He improved to 9-0 lifetime with five scoreless innings against Duquesne last week, allowing just one hit while striking out six. South Carolina associate head coach Chad Holbrook reports Dyson’s fastball sat between 92-96 mph and touched 97, and he showed better feel for his offspeed stuff than he has in the past.

Dyson’s unbeaten streak will be on the line Saturday in the first game of South Carolina’s annual home-and-home series against arch-rival Clemson, at Doug Kingsmore Stadium. Sunday’s game will shift to Carolina Stadium in Columbia. Both teams head into this weekend undefeated, but the Tigers have been more tested, having swept a strong Charlotte club to open the season, while South Carolina played Duquesne. Clemson will counter with senior righthander Trey Delk on Saturday and standout freshman righty Chris Dwyer on Sunday, with either junior righty Blake Cooper or freshman lefty Nolan Belcher to go Sunday for the Gamecocks (they’re still undecided as of Thursday).

Raynor Campbell, ss/2b, Baylor

Campbell has played second base and third base over the first two years of his Baylor career, but he struggled in his first shot at shortstop over opening weekend. Campbell made six errors and hit just .176 (3-for-17), prompting coach Steve Smith to slide Campbell to second base and freshman Joey Hainsfurther to short for this weekend’s Houston College Classic. Junior third baseman Shaver Hansen has some experience at short, but Smith said he’s playing so well at the hot corner, he didn’t “want to mess with that.”

“We’ve got to make routine plays,” Smith said. “We struggled at shortstop through these first four games, and a few other places too, just making plays. Obviously a few of our veteran guys, everybody’s made such a big to-do about this junior group, I think some of them are just tight as a pick. Fortunately we’ve got some young players that are really talented that are not tight at all, they’re just out there playing. I think as time goes on, it’ll be a nice blend of young guys with some ability and veteran guys with some experience who will loosen up.

“Joey played shortstop well in the fall, and he’s one guy right now that’s just not pressing, a freshman out playing well, just out there playing. We want to kind of get the monkey off Raynor’s back a little bit, let him go out and enjoy the game and play without pressure. He’s just carrying a load right now.”

Stat Of The

Number of players on Arizona State’s roster. While many coaches in power conferences bemoaned the institution of the 35-man roster cap last year, the Sun Devils don’t even approach the limit. Their roster was even smaller before they added walk-on lefthander Tony Annino (a transfer from Massachusetts) right before the season started.

“This team for us, it’s a ‘few good men’ concept,” ASU assistant coach Josh Holliday said. “We want everybody positively involved and engaged in what we’re doing. I think Coach (Pat) Murphy feels it helps us have good chemistry, if we keep everybody involved. Coach Murphy was able to get everybody involved this weekend, so that was a good thing.”

Indeed, 17 different position players have gotten playing time in at least three of ASU’s five games so far, and 13 different pitchers have thrown at least an inning. Mike Leake, Matt Newman, Kole Calhoun and Jordan Swagerty have played both ways.

“Two-way players help too,” Holliday said. “Those kids serve both roles, and it gives our roster some flexibility and still provides us with—I hope—enough depth on the mound.

“I don’t know there’s a right or wrong way to do it. I think there’s a case to be made for a full 35-man roster. Each program has their own different development plans. Some of the cold-weather schools may have to bring in some redshirt kids and develop them—they’ll bring in a tall, skinny pitcher and develop him and next thing you know you’ve got a ringer.”

Arizona State’s depth will be tested a bit this weekend, as they’ll play four games in four days at the DeMarini Classic, starting tonight against No. 15 Missouri. The Sun Devils also have games against Northern Illinois, Oregon State and another with the Tigers.

St. John’s

St. John’s opened some eyes at the Big East/Big Ten Challenge, scoring 33 runs over two wins against Penn State and Iowa before dropping a 4-2 decision against Michigan on Sunday. Last year, the Red Storm won 42 games largely on the strength of a stellar pitching staff that ranked ninth in the nation with a 3.78 ERA. Mound mainstays Scott Barnes, George Brown, Jared Yecker, Matt Tosoni and Colin Lynch are gone, but St. John’s has reinvented itself as an offensive club. The Johnnies hit .391 at the Challenge, led by junior center fielder Brian Kemp (7-for-14), sophomore third baseman Greg Hopkins (7-for-13), junior right fielder Jimmy Parque (4-for-10) and freshman shortstop Joe Panik (4-for-11). Veterans Tim Morris (6-for-13) and Gino Matias (5-for-11) also got off to strong starts.

The Red Storm offense will face a major test this weekend at the Keith LeClair Classic. On Friday the Johnnies will face East Carolina ace Seth Maness, and Sunday they’ll face one of Oklahoma State’s power arms. In between, they’ll try to out-slug high-scoring College of Charleston. A veteran talent evaluator who saw St. John’s last weekend broke down some of their big bats.

“That center fielder for St. John’s, Kemp, he’s a really nice, gritty, tough player—I really liked him. Kemp can really fly, and he’s in the zone for a long time with his bat. He drives the ball—he looks for it up and out, looks for it away, away. He’s a righthanded Lenny Dykstra-type, that kind of approach to playing baseball. Just a really solid player—I like him. Kemp did chase some balls—he showed some bat speed but definitely had holes.

“Those guys swung the bats, man. They’ll roll in four or five lefties in that lineup, so if you can get another lefty with a good breaking ball, they’re done. Panik, the freshman shortstop, I think he’s going to be a really nice guy down the road to watch; he has good foot speed. The three-hole hitter, Parque, is really quick (with the bat) inside. That kid’s a prospect. Hopkins is a powerful presence. He is a good hitter, and he’s really strong. They’re a good club. They’re tough to beat.”

In The
Eric Decker, of, Minnesota

One of the premier athletes in the 2009 draft class, Decker has made more of a name for himself as a wide receiver on the football field, where he hauled in 84 catches (breaking his own school record) for 1,074 yards and seven touchdowns last fall despite missing two and a half games to injury. Decker did not play baseball his first two years at Minnesota, but he hit .329/.439/.478 with nine stolen bases last spring in his first year on the diamond, and the Brewers drafted him in the 38th round. He got off to a strong start in 2009, batting 7-for-13 (.538) at the Big East/Big Ten Challenge, though he went just 1-for-3 in stolen base attempts.

“He doesn’t have all the instincts yet because he hasn’t played very much,” Golden Gophers coach John Anderson said. “Sometimes because of his speed he forces some things. He’s still learning how to get jumps on his steals—he can outrun some of the guys, but some of the guys he can’t. He’s just a colt that hasn’t been broken yet, and all we can do is keep playing him, get him some experience and coach him as we go along.

“The thing about Eric Decker, we never get any teaching or coaching time with him because he’s with football in the fall, he doesn’t play summer baseball, last year was his first year playing baseball since high school, so we’re just coaching him on the run. But he’s a tremendous athlete, he’s trying to learn how to stay taller at home plate, get his feet set and have some balance. What he’s doing out there is all based on his athleticism; he does pick things up fairly quickly. The sky’s the limit with him.”

Decker and the Gophers face a nice challenge this weekend at the 25th annual Dairy Queen Classic at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. UC Santa Barbara, Washington and Hawaii will join Minnesota.

Eric, are you excited for the Dairy Queen Classic?

It’s the 25th anniversary this year, and our webpage has some kind of tribute thing to all the pro athletes that have played for our teams or other teams at this tournament. It’s good competition for us.

It’s kind of funny that you’ve got two West Coast teams and one Hawaii team coming to Minnesota to play baseball in February, don’t you think?

It really is funny. The weather report for tomorrow is six to eight inches, so it’ll be a big difference for them weather-wise.

It looks like you got off to a strong start down at the Big East/Big Ten Challenge. Were you just locked in?

There are still some things I’m trying to work on early this season. I’m happy with how things have started individually, but more as a team. Our pitching staff did a great job, we played some great defense, and we’re starting to come on.

You didn’t even start swinging until Jan. 15 because you were playing football. How difficult is it to catch up?

It’s very challenging to try to get the swing back—there are a lot of mechanical things you need to do. I know I’m going to see an offspeed pitch, so I just need to make sure I see the curveball and the changeup. I’ve done a lot better job preparing myself to see competition. We’ve got a great coaching staff. Those guys have been around over 30 years, and they know the game better than most people. It’s very nice to have that. To catch up, you need to put in some extra time, and I was able to do that the last month, month and a half. I’ve still got a lot of work and things to improve.

What are some of the specific things you’re focusing on improving?

I think as a hitter, the toughest pitch is a curveball or some offspeed pitch when a pitcher has good command with the fastball. Having balance with my stance, seeing the ball well, and also getting more experience at the plate, seeing more pitches. From a defensive standpoint, it’s the strength in my arm. That was a big concern going into this season. I’m comfortable right now. I struggled last season at the end of the season—I had a bum shoulder because I tried throwing too much. Now I’m on the throwing program, and I’m feeling good.

While Matt Nohelty is rehabbing his shoulder, you’re playing center field. Do you consider that your natural position?

I’ve played center field my entire life, so it’s nice to be back home, I like to say. It’s so much more comfortable for me—I see the field better, see the balls off the bat, and it’s more fun because you get to cover more ground. But if I need to move to left field, that’s OK too.

Why did it take you so long to start playing baseball in college?

I didn’t play baseball for my redshirt freshman year because I just wanted to concentrate on football at that time. Once I established myself in football, I wanted to give baseball an opportunity. I’m happy I did it—everything worked out great.

So which sport do you have more fun playing?

It’s funny because I’m still asking myself that question. They both have their own things that are fun to do. With football, you can’t beat Saturdays, game days, 100,000-plus people in the Big Ten, playing Ohio State and Michigan. Baseball is more fun day-to-day, hanging out with the guys—it’s a lot more laid-back sport and easier on your body. Football, there’s more glory and spotlight on you, because it’s fun to go out on game day and play in front of all those people.

So it sounds like you haven’t made up your mind yet.

Not at all, no. I was going to take this year as a test run, see how I do in both, see where my heart’s at, at the end of this year see how well I perform, how I feel, what kind of lifestyle I want, then make that decision.

I understand you live in a pretty athletic house at school.

I live with my quarterback, Adam Weber; Seth Rosin, a pitcher on our team; Blake Haudan, a backup punter; and then another roommate, so there’s four of us who play football or baseball.

So who’s the best athlete in the house?

I think you do it game by game, whatever kind of competition it is. Blake’s pretty good at the racquetball, it’s me and Seth in basketball . . . Adam’s pretty good at the smart, use-your-brain kind of games. Trivia games, games you use your brain.

Are you calling him a nerd?

Not at all. He’s athletic, but he’s got to use his brain playing football. We like to play a little hoops when we’ve got some free time. I’d say he’s probably the best yard game guy, bean-bag toss or any of those kind of games.

One more thing: How does a kid from Cold Spring, Minn., not wind up playing hockey?

You’d think I’m from Minnesota so I know how to skate, but I’m just starting to learn. I was a basketball guy my whole life. When I go back home, I’ll do a little ice fishing when there’s time, and I’m trying to pick up hockey.