Weekend Preview: March 14-16


1. Scouts break down two marquee pitching matchups.

2. Ole Miss and FIU face big road tests as conference play gets rolling.

3. Notes from other series around nation.

(21) Mississippi at (1) South Carolina
(5) North Carolina State at (2) Florida State
Boston College at (3) Virginia
(4) Oregon State at Utah
(6) Louisiana-Lafayette at Louisiana-Monroe
(8) Louisiana State at (7) Vanderbilt
St. Mary’s at (9) Cal State Fullerton
Kansas at (10) Texas
Wagner at (11) Cal Poly
Southern California at (12) Oregon
(13) Miami at Georgia Tech
(14) Clemson at Wake Forest
(15) Rice at Florida International
(16) Indiana at Long Beach State
Samford at (17) Louisville
(18) Sam Houston State at New Orleans
(19) North Carolina at Maryland
(20) Kentucky at Alabama
(22) Tennessee at Missouri
Wichita State at (23) UC Santa Barbara
(24) Mississippi State at Georgia
(25) UCLA at California

The two best pitching matchups of the 2014 season will take place on the same day: call it Fantastic Friday.

In Tallahassee, first-team preseason All-Americans Carlos Rodon and Luke Weaver face off, as No. 5 North Carolina State visits No. 2 Florida State. In Nashville, Aaron Nola (the lone 2013 postseason first-team All-American of the four) takes on first-team preseason All-American Tyler Beede, as No. 8 LSU takes on No. 7 Vanderbilt.

All four of them have performed well early on, but the two SEC pitchers have gotten off to sterling starts, while the two ACC pitchers have not yet reached peak form.

There are plenty of fascinating dimensions to these series in addition to the Friday pitching matchups, and we’ll touch on a few of them below. But pitching matchups like these--featuring a quartet of potential top-10 overall picks--don’t come around often, so let’s focus on those. Both will be very popular scouting destinations this weekend. Vanderbilt has received more than 100 requests for seats from scouts and executives, including major league general managers. Accommodating that demand will be very difficult, considering both games will draw huge fan interest as well.

“There’s a lot of challenges to the actual practice of scouting these guys when you’re in those settings, because the ballparks are crowded, there’s people in the seats, guys walking in front of you all the time,” one scouting director said. “The fact that we persist in doing it shows you how much we get out of it, because of that head-to-head, playoff-type atmosphere. The guys know there’s a lot of eyes on them, and maybe it’s somebody they know from the summer with Team USA, somebody they want to out-duel.”

The expected seating crunch in Nashville couldn’t temper an AL crosschecker’s enthusiasm for the matchup, either.

“I know if I had a chance to go there even if I had to sit down the side, they have a radar gun, which is fine,” he said. “It’s like when Drew Brees is going up against Peyton Manning or whatever--any time you’re going against a guy people are saying is better than you, or you’re facing another ace, you want to outdo him. That brings out the best in guys. That’s why we love these matchups; it’s just really to see them compete. Going in there, you’re just assuming this other guy’s not going to give up but one or two, so you’ve got to step up. This is a competitive game, I want to see who can compete on the big stage. You’re not just scouting performance, but I do scout competitive edge.”

Player Record ERA SO-BB H IP
Nola 4-0 0.00 36-2 11 27
Beede 4-0 1.08 33-5 11 25
Rodon 2-2 2.40 30-7 22 30
Weaver 3-1 2.25 24-6 18 24

We asked five scouts--one scouting director, three crosscheckers and an area scout--to break down what they have seen from the four pitchers one month into the season, and look ahead to Friday’s showdowns.


Scout No. 1:

“Nola’s been very good, but he hasn’t really been tested, not to take anything away from him. Vanderbilt’s the best team he’ll have faced; they’re not a great offensive club, but they’re going to grind it out and steal bases; it’ll be a great test for him. But Nola, to his credit, some of the teams he’s faced haven’t been that good, but you’re supposed to dominate lesser competition, and that’s what he’s done. If there’s a better strike-thrower with command that’s got a big arm, tell me who he is, because I’m calling (BS). He’s the best strike-thrower with command. Beede hasn’t walked a lot of guys but there’s a lot of deep counts, and to me, the command still isn’t as good as the line. Nola’s command is every bit as good as the line, and he’s got the track record to prove it. That’s the key to me: in that matchup, do they keep their emotions in check and stick with the game plan? Nola’s got poise beyond the college level. I expect him to be very focused, and focus on quality strikes. He’ll be anywhere from 88-94, but he’ll use both sides of the plate, get ahead in the count and expand a little bit for a purpose. Beede, I still think he’s just hoping to throw strikes. Nola’s like, ‘OK, I’m going to go two inches off the plate here with purpose.’ I still don’t think Beede can do that. If Nola’s got a guy in a 1-2 hole, and he sees him leaning on a slider away, he’ll purposely go an inch in with a two-seamer and run it in, start at the black and run it in.

“I think the big key with Beede is his changeup’s been really good for me this year, from the reports and from my look. But the big key is can he throw inside to righties, or will it be all fastballs away? And the consistency of the curveball. It’s still not as consistent as you’d like it. To me it might flash plus on occasion, but to me there’s more misses than hits; I don’t walk away from it going, ‘That’s a non-contact strikeout curveball.’ I see it more as a landable, good-quality cuvebaall, but not a knockout curveball. He’ll have to beat you with power, like 94-95, but it’s mostly all away from righthanded hitters. He doesn’t go in very well; when he does he’ll flatten out a little bit. But he has plenty of velocity, that’s his strength. His strength is pure power. And he is throwing strikes, but it’s strikes over command. His changeup’s been good, really good arm speed, throwing it in multiple counts. To me it’s been his most consistent weapon. It’s got some late sink to it, got good arm speed, it’s even a strikeout weapon. He will throw the changeup to righties too, not just exclusively to lefthanded hitters. You’re having to gear up for 93, 94, 95, then he throws that in there and college hitters aren’t that good this year, they’re having to cheat to get to it and then that comes in, that’s how he’s been effective. And he’s limited his walks, he’s found a way to stay in counts. But it’s not pound-pound-pound, it’s strike, ball, ball, strike. There’s a lot to like on the guy, but to me it’s a power approach, and the curveball is fighting for consistency.

Aaron Nola

Aaron Nola (Photo by Andrew Woolley)

“They’re two different styles. One’s power. Nola’s not a finesse guy, but he can really dissect the plate, and he can manipulate the baseball with purpose. Intent. With pitcher’s savvy. I’ve seen 96 in the past, in adrenaline, in a regional-type setting. He’s got plenty in the tank when he wants to let loose and keep a hitter honest. It’s not like he’s flipping it up there 89-91; he’ll go up there to 93, 94, or even 95 when he wants. I’ve read some clips here and there about some guys concerned about his arm slot. Everybody’s got their own cup of tea, but when you can command the ball with life, that’s a starter for me. It’s a low three-quarters whippy type of arm slot, but he stays tall in his delivery, the arm comes out late and it’s deceptive, he gets good angle. Beede is so far to the left side of the rubber, there’s not a lot of angle, but it’s power.

“Nola’s changeup, I’ve seen better in the past. The breaking ball to me is solid-average. It’s a sweeping three-quarter type with some length and tilt to it. The changeup, the more he uses it, the better it gets. He’s got really good hand speed and it stays out of the hitter’s view. The curveball’s going to be more average, the slurve, three-quarter breaking. The changeup is solid-average to plus. He went to the East Coast Showcase as a senior and it was basically fastball-changeup and dominated for three innings. But it’s probably backed up a tad because he doesn’t use it as much, just because he has such advanced fastball command. But he holds runners, fields his position. He’s a complete guy, just from a deceptive arm slot.

“Beede will grade out better because you can put a higher number on the fastball. But when it’s all said and done, the one who can really pitch will often win the battle. If you asked 30 guys, you’d have a lot of different debates, but I’d say 20 would say they’ll take Beede over Nola. I’m still trying to figure it out, to be honest with you. Obviously we all gravitate toward stuff, but I might be willing to make an exception here, because there’s enough stuff with intent and purpose, I just think Nola’s got a chance to get there quick. That league up there on TV, they call a lot of balls. Those high fastballs are balls. So when you can get ahead, stay ahead--it’s a fastball league. That’s why they both have a chance to have a lot of success. Beede’s strength is his fastball. I just don’t see the great breaking ball people are talking about. I think Beede goes higher, but it wouldn’t shock me at all if Nola ends up being the better pitcher, if they both stay healthy.”

Scout No. 2:

“With the Beede-Nola matchup, I think Beede’s answered a lot of questions from last summer, where the stuff was there but he couldn’t control it. This year I thought he made some good corrections with his delivery to simplify it a little more. He cut out probably a half-step in his windup. It’s almost like he’s starting from a stretch position, his right foot is already up against the rubber, there’s no turn anymore, there’s basically a little side step and he lifts his leg up. Before it was almost a full windup, the foot turns and goes into the well; now he’s already there. He’s simplified it to where he’s been able to repeat it, throw consistent strikes, able to repeat the breaking ball. Last summer, you remember the misfires, missing the catcher and hitting the backstops. This year, I don’t know if you saw one ball do what he did last summer; he’s been around the zone with everything. It’s been very encouraging. He’s made some tremendous strides and answered some questions for a lot of people. We wanted Beede to be that upper-echelon guy to go along with his stuff. Now I think he’s starting to separate himself. The stuff is still there, he’s throwing better strikes. Before you might have been like, ‘He’s on the outside looking in for that top five (picks).’ Now he’s becoming a really legitimate guy who is starting to separate himself a little bit.

“With Beede’s breaking ball, I put a 6 on it (on the 2-8 scouting scale). It was a swing-and-miss type--it was hard, good downer action to it, and for me it kind of got better as the game went on. Early in the outing, he was overthrowing it a little bit and cutting out some of the break. But from the third to the sixth, the hitters had no chance, and he got probably three quarters of his strikeouts on the breaking ball. Some guys will throw the chase breaking ball where it’s always in the dirt; he was throwing his in the zone for a strike and still getting the swing-and-miss.

“Nola kind of gets knocked because he’s not the biggest guy to begin with. It’s not 95, 96. He’ll pitch with a 55, maybe 60 fastball, but it plays like a 70 fastball because of the life and command. It’s mix three pitches, throw strikes, not afraid to pitch to contact. He will throw a strike to get a ground ball rather than be like, ‘OK, I’ve got to strike that guy out.’ Maybe it’s not that ‘Wow!’ type stuff, but at the end he just beats you again. You hate to say it, but he’s almost that college Greg Maddux. If you need to win a big game, give him the ball and trust him with it. He gets knocked for not being that power-type pitcher, but in the end all he does is win, and we talk about command and control of the fastball, and this guy probably has the best command/control in the country.”


Scout No. 3:

“Everybody’s comparing all these guys to what they’ve done last year and last summer. With Weaver, the delivery early in the season was--not out of sync, but he was doing a little bit extra in his delivery. I know it was early, it could have been some jitters, but the ball wasn’t coming out of his hand the same way it was last summer. Same with Rodon. It’s not like last year with Jonathan Gray--this time last year he went out to UCLA and just dominated and put his stamp on it and said, ‘I’m the guy.’ I don’t think Weaver or Rodon have done that yet. People want to see Rodon go out there and just shut them down--show me what you did against Cuba. Players are always going to have a little bit of a rough start, but you just want somebody to take those reins and show that separation.

Luke Weaver

Luke Weaver (Photo by Mike Janes)

“Weaver’s slider wasn’t as crisp as it was last summer, the fastball didn’t have the type of life that it normally had. It almost looked like I was getting three-quarters of Weaver, I wasn’t getting the whole thing. He touched 94 but basically pitched at 91. He threw strikes but didn’t miss a whole lot of bats with his fastball. He didn’t give up a ton of hits either, but with a guy like that, it shouldn’t have been that much of a competition. You want to see him come out and dominate more. I guess last weekend I heard he was up to 95 and it sounded like maybe he’s starting to figure it out a little more. We had a couple looks first, second, third starts of the year, and everybody came back and said it’s not like it was over the summer. You still like the athleticism and everything, but you still want to see him put it all together. He did have the changeup, he didn’t use it as much because he was behind in the count a lot, he had to battle there and probably throw more fastballs than he’d like. That was his best pitch that day for me. The slider was fringy, to be honest with you. He’d show you a good one, then come back with two well below-average ones. He’s always been one of those fast-paced delivery guys. It looked like he was even faster than normal, wasn’t staying over the rubber long enough, was quick to the plate. Hopefully some of these guys now, getting two to three outings under their belt, they’ll start to settle down and get locked in.”

Scout No. 4:

“Weaver looked good when I saw him last week. I’d heard that his stock was falling a little bit this spring. Over the summer time with Team USA, he had a reputation as a top half of the first-round guy, then that quickly seemed to evaporate. But he got up to 94, he can really pitch, an athletic kid, spotted his fastball well, got a little tail to it. The breaking ball was just OK, kind of an average pitch. I think people were hoping to see better. You could maybe call it a curveball. The axis is very vertical for a slider. I don’t know what it is exactly, if he calls it a slider. I guess I’d call it fringy. I think you’d project it as average, but he threw a lot of below-average ones and some above-average ones. When you even it out, it was near that 50 range for me. And his changeup was good, a better changeup than I saw over the summer. I think you could call the changeup plus if you wanted to--he mixed it in, spotted it up, real smooth release of it. I’d say a pretty advanced pitch. He’s more a mid-rotation pick for me, but the track record is superb and I think people are very comfortable with him. He’s just not very physical, that’s the knock on him. He seemed to reach back here and there and get that 55, 60 fastball, but there were also a lot of upper-80s offerings. But he went deep into the game, he’s been having a good year. The class itself has been proven to be pretty strong, there might be some guys passing him up as scouts look at his physicality and wonder about ceiling and durability.”

Scout No. 5:

Carlos Rodon

Carlos Rodon (Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode)

“Rodon has shown it to you. You go in there and see him that first start, it’s like, ‘Well, there’s got to be better.’ The next time I saw him, he went through a stretch where it was like automatic 0-2 for three or four innings. He showed you the slider, he showed you the fastball, showed you more velocity--it was more like 93-95 the next time out. It was there when he needs it, later in the game. It took him a couple innings to get going; the velocity was there, but it took a couple innings to feel his way through. From what I can tell, he gets out of sync pretty easy and it’s a matter of trying to find himself again. The delivery gets out of sync, the lower half and upper half and timing. But then you can tell, the confidence will kick in, and all of a sudden he starts throwing hammers around the fifth inning, and it’s like, ‘That’s a plus pitch too.’

“He rarely used the changeup, but he’s going to need it. The hammer (curveball) helps, but even the hammer’s power--it’s 82-83. But that’s just another look to change eye level. He’s going to need the changeup, he didn’t use it much in the two games I saw. But the ones he threw were pretty good. I saw like four curveballs in that second start that were like 82-83. Then I saw the slider was up to 88-89. I mean, it was filthy. Then he throws like a two-seamer around 89-90, it looks like. At times the slider acts more like a cutter, at times it’s just a wipeout dirty 7 of a pitch (on the 2-8 scale). It’s unhittable, when it’s right. But at times it just sort of cuts, doesn’t get that real true tilt and depth to it. I don’t know if it’s by design or what. I don’t know if sometimes he gets caught between that high three-quarters and three-quarters slot, when he’s trying to get angle with it.

“He’s going to be as competitive and as good as he wants to be. If he’s not going to be able to turn it on from start to start in the big leagues, what are you going to get? That’s just something to keep in the back of your mind. But it’s big league stuff. It’s kind of concerning that he is having this kind of trouble, and I know he has had it in the past, too. Then in Cary (in his third start against UCLA), a huge crowd to see him, and he lost. To me, you can throw the first week out, but if you’re supposed to be the first pick or the second pick in the draft--which is what everybody’s been saying and what he believes--and you come out the way he came out, looking at times lost, at times frustrated. There’s all that emotional stuff he has trouble keeping in check too. Is there emotional maturity to be that dude every time he takes the ball? That’s what I want to see.”


• The Seminoles have dominated the Wolfpack over the years, owning a 58-28 edge in the all-time series, including a 25-7 advantage in Tallahassee. N.C. State has never won a series at FSU.

• Rodon is still the top prospect in amateur baseball, but as former N.C. State sports information director Bruce Winkworth points out on his blog, junior righthander Logan Jernigan (3-0, 0.73) has been the Wolfpack’s best pitcher through the season’s first month. Jernigan has always had big-time stuff, and it appears he is learning to harness his command. After a rocky season debut, he has come on strong over his last three starts, capped by 7 1/3 shutout innings in last week’s 1-0 win against Notre Dame. He struck out eight and walked just two in that outing, and it was a key moment for his development because he won without his best stuff.

“Logan didn’t have his usual stuff, but he dominated the game with his breaking ball and his changeup,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said afterward, per Winkworth’s blog. “I was so proud of him for the way he pitched. That’s the first time Logan Jernigan’s ever pitched without a great fastball for five innings and still dominated.”

The key in that blog post: Jernigan is throwing 61.3 percent of his pitches for strikes, up from 55.6 percent last year. He averaged nearly 18 pitches per inning in 2013, but he is averaging fewer than 13 per inning over his last three starts.

• Sometimes it takes some time for pitchers to return to form after Tommy John surgery, but Mike Compton has picked up right where he left off before surgery for FSU. The redshirt sophomore righthander is 2-0, 1.42 with 17 strikeouts and four walks in 19 innings as FSU’s Sunday starter. Last week against Maryland, he threw the first nine-inning, complete-game shutout by a Florida State pitcher since 2004. A sinkerballer whose calling card is his ability to command his lively fastball and slider, Compton hit all his spots in his two-hit shutout.

“I definitely had it all going today,” Compton told reporters afterward. “I felt like I had pinpoint control; everywhere I wanted it to go, it went. It was mainly fastball, slider, just mixing those up. I had good movement on the ball today.”

Now that Jernigan and Compton are in peak form, this series should feature three straight compelling matchups. Jernigan will face a very accomplished junior lefthander Saturday in Brandon Leibrandt. Compton takes on a quality sophomore lefty in Brad Stone.

• Vanderbilt has clearly settled upon a rotation of Beede, Jared Miller and Tyler Ferguson, all of whom have been dominant so far this year. LSU is still searching for stability in its rotation, but this week the Tigers will go with junior-college transfer Kyle Bouman (3-0, 1.46) on Saturday and freshman lefthander Jared Poche (4-0, 0.90) on Sunday. The odd man out is junior lefty Cody Glenn, last year’s No. 2 starter. Glenn (1-1, 4.74) will head to the bullpen.

“I explained to Cody, ‘You can look at this two ways: You lost the battle for the starting job. Or you can look at it as you’re still going to be a vital pitcher on our staff,'” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said, per the Baton Rouge Advocate. “He’s a team guy, and he assured me his attitude would be great.

“I think it’s imperative that you throw strikes against Vanderbilt, the type of offensive team that they have. That’s the one thing that Kyle is. He’s a strike-throwing machine.”

• It’s imperative to throw strikes against any team, but LSU also appears to be a particularly patient offensive club, with 77 walks and just 60 strikeouts during its 16-2 start. But Vanderbilt’s staff is loaded with strikeout pitchers, as evidenced by its 178-50 strikeout-walk mark in 162 innings. In a similar amount of innings (158), LSU pitchers have issued half as many walks (25) and struck out 46 fewer hitters (132). Vandy hitters have also struck out 50 percent more times (90) but drawn nearly as many walks (73) as LSU’s hitters. It’s worth noting that Vandy has faced the tougher schedule, so those statistics were not compiled in a vacuum, but this series still presents an interesting contrast in styles between two 16-2 clubs.


• The ACC schedule opened last weekend, and this weekend the Southeastern and Pac-12 conferences open play, while the Big 12 features a pair of conference matchups (Kansas at Texas and Texas Tech at Baylor). The third series between ranked teams this weekend is in the SEC, where top-ranked South Carolina puts its undefeated record on the line against No. 21 Mississippi (16-2). The Gamecocks also own the nation’s longest active home winning streak (22), so the Rebels have their work cut out for them at Carolina Stadium this weekend. Two of South Carolina’s key bats, Max Schrock and Joey Pankake, have been banged up, but The Big Spur’s John Whittle reported that Pankake is expected to play this weekend, while Schrock is doubtful for Friday’s game due to an ankle injury. With or without that duo, runs could be hard to come by this weekend, as South Carolina has allowed just 1.2 runs per game (fewest of any team in the nation, excluding 1-0 Central Connecticut State) while Ole Miss has given up 2.3 runs per game (ninth in the nation).

Ole Miss ace Chris Ellis has given up just one unearned run in 28 innings during his 2-0, 0.00 start. But junior college transfer Christian Trent (2-0, 3.96) and junior righthander Sam Smith (3-0, 1.61) have also been strong, giving the Rebels a quality rotation even without last year’s stalwarts Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers. Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said Trent has worked in the 88-92 range from the left side, spotting his fastball to both sides of the plate and mixing in a solid 80 mph slider and an excellent changeup. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Smith has gotten stronger since last year, and his velocity has climbed as a result, sitting consistently in the 90-93 range.

“And he’s a four-pitch guy, with a curveball, slider that’s hard--81-84--and a good changeup,” Bianco said. “His ball’s got a lot of sink on it, it’s really heavy. He’s a prototypical big righthander that will throw to both sides of the plate. He always gives us an opportunity. Sam can hang in there and weather the blows; that’s why he’s been so valuable for us on Sundays.”

The other key development for Mississippi’s staff has been the long-awaited emergence of junior righthander Josh Laxer. A key recruit three years ago, Laxer showed flashes of promise during his first two years but has really put it together in a relief role this year, going 1-0, 0.00 with 17 strikeouts and two walks in 12 innings over six appearances.

The Rebels have been much more potent offensively as well early this year, hitting .323 as a team with 12 home runs. They have speed up and down the lineup--led by Auston Bousfield (8-for-8 in steals) and Braxton Lee (6-for-7)--and veterans Will Allen and Sikes Orvis have blossomed into power threats in the heart of the order. And their defense has been rock-solid, led by freshman shortstop Errol Robinson, who has just one error (.985 fielding percentage) and is also contributing offensively more than expected (.304). Shortstop has been a trouble spot for Ole Miss in recent years, and early in his career, Robinson looks like he has the potential to be the team’s best since Zack Cozart.

“He’s been terrific,” Bianco said of Robinson. “We knew he’d be able to play shortstop. It doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes they’re just not ready to do it as a freshman. But defensively, from day one when he stepped on field in the fall, he has shown great hands, a really good arm, great range, and he plays with a lot of confidence. And I think he’s just going to get better.”

Ole Miss has played a decent schedule, but it hasn’t faced any ranked teams, or any teams we projected as regional clubs heading into the year. So we’ll get a better idea how good the Rebels are after this weekend.

• After Oregon State and Oregon, the Pac-12 pecking order is murky heading into conference play. UCLA is the only other Pac-12 team in the Top 25 (No. 25), and the 9-7 Bruins have been very up and down. They’ll hit the road this weekend to face a team that has a chance to challenge them as the No. 3 team in the conference: California. The 10-5 Golden Bears have held their own against a tough schedule, which includes two wins against No. 10 Texas, two against Baylor (which just won a series against Cal State Fullerton), two against Arkansas, one against San Diego and one against Auburn. The Bears have done it with pitching, as they are hitting just .237 as a team and averaging 3.8 runs per game. But their staff is much deeper than it was last year and has posted a 2.73 ERA. UCLA, of course, is also a pitching-dominated club with inconsistent offense. Expect a low-scoring series.

• While preseason regional picks Washington State (4-8), Arizona State (8-6, coming off a home series loss to Tennessee) and Arizona (10-9) have not gotten off to great starts, Washington has joined Cal as an upstart. The Huskies are 10-4 and riding a seven-game winning streak into their conference opener at Arizona State--their longest winning streak since 2008. Washington went 4-0 last weekend against lesser competition in the Jack Gifford Tournament, beating host Santa Clara twice along with San Jose State and Pacific. They went 1-3 against better competition two weeks earlier at the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge, so this weekend is a chance to prove themselves in a tougher setting against a team hungry for a bounceback weekend. Braden Bishop (12-for-24), Andrew Ely (10-for-25) and Robert Pehl (10-for-28) have combined for 32 of Washington’s 66 hits during its current seven-game winning streak.

• After one weekend of Conference USA play, Florida International sits atop the standings as the lone 3-0 team, following a road sweep at Charlotte during which it outscored the 49ers 15-4, with shutouts Friday and Sunday. At 16-1, FIU looks like a real threat to Rice in C-USA, and the Golden Panthers have a chance to make a statement this weekend with a three-game home series against the 15th-ranked Owls. The two teams are familiar with each other, having met in a midweek game in 2011 and weekend series over the last two years. Rice is 6-1 in those meetings, with FIU’s lone win coming on the Sunday game last year in Miami.

“So we kind of know a little bit about Rice, not just by reputation,” FIU coach Turtle Thomas said. “And we know they’re the king of the league. We know they’ve been to regionals 19, 20 years in a row, and we know that’s the team that anybody’s got to beat to be able to win the league.”

But the Panthers are better this year than they have been since their last regional team in 2011. Thomas said he is confident in five potential starting options on the mound and three proven options in the bullpen. Ace Mike Franco (3-0, 1.07) didn’t need any help from the bullpen last week, allowing just five hits in a complete-game shutout. Thomas said he can work in the 88-93 range and mix in a short, tight slider and an occasional changeup. Mike Ellis (2-1, 1.93) and Robby Kalaf (2-0, 0.56) join him in a good rotation.

Aramis Garcia (Photo courtesy of Florida International).

Aramis Garcia (Photo courtesy of Florida International).

The bullpen has gotten a boost from the return of Mike Gomez from Tommy John surgery that cost him all of last season. Gomez, who had 13 saves to lead the Sun Belt Conference in 2012, has nine strikeouts and two walks in seven innings, compiling a pair of saves.

“He’s a nice lefthanded arm, upper 80s, touch 90, with a nice cut slider and a good changeup,” Thomas said. “He’s really got nerves of steel. If it’s a tough spot, he wants to be in the game.”

But FIU’s biggest strength is its thunder in the middle of the lineup. Junior catcher Aramis Garcia (.431/.519/.769, 5 HR, 21 RBI), has kept on mashing since we profiled him two weeks ago, and the Panthers have a strong supporting group of physical run producers in Josh Anderson (.431), Zach Sweety (.349), Edwin Rios (.342) and J.C. Escarra (.300).

“We’ve got a nice mix of left- and righthanded batters, which is good,” Thomas said. “We’ve got some speed, we’ve got some pop, some guys that can hit some doubles, high batting average.”

The Panthers have dominated softer competition. Now they’ll find out where they stand in the new-look C-USA.