Weekend Preview: March 21-23


1. Cougars vs. Cougars

2. Cougars on the prowl out West

3. Welcoming Washington

Cougar Town

In Monte Lee’s six years as College of Charleston’s head coach, his team has never boarded a plane before this weekend. The Cougars bused to all their road games in the Southern Conference, but this year they will fly twice during Colonial Athletic Association play (to Towson and Northeastern). So Lee wanted to get them a little air travel experience in the nonconference portion of the schedule.

(1) South Carolina at Kentucky
(2) Florida State at (13) Clemson
(3) Virginia at (25) Miami
Arizona State at (4) Oregon State
Georgia State at (5) Louisiana-Lafayette
(6) Vanderbilt at (21) Mississippi State
California at (7) Cal Poly
Georgia at (8) Louisiana State
Long Beach State at (9) Cal State Fullerton
(10) North Carolina State at Maryland
Florida Atlantic at (11) Rice
Utah at (12) Oregon
Rutgers at (14) Louisville
Columbia at (15) Texas
(16) Sam Houston State at Central Arkansas
Georgia Tech at (17) North Carolina
Auburn at (18) Tennessee
Wagner at (19) UC Santa Barbara
Missouri at (20) Mississippi
Washington State at (22) UCLA
College of Charleston at (23) Houston
Loyola Marymount at (24) San Diego

But this weekend will be more than just a novel road trip for the Cougars, who will go up against one of the nation’s stingiest pitching staffs when they visit the Cougars of Houston. Both teams have been among the top mid-major upstarts in the first half of the season, as Houston (16-4) broke into the Top 25 this week, while Charleston (15-4) claimed an opening-weekend series against North Carolina and has won every weekend since.

“If you look at Houston, they’ve got a heck of a ballclub. I don’t know if anybody’s got better pitching numbers in the country,” Lee said. “We’ve got a huge test going to their stadium. But we’re excited about it; I wanted to make sure we challenge our ballclub as much as possible before conference play.”

Houston and College of Charleston played their share of freshmen a year ago, making both teams chock full of experienced sophomores and upperclassmen this year. For CofC, corner infielder Carl Wise (.323), second baseman Blake Butler (.354) and outfielder Alex Pastorius (.278) have emerged as three of the team’s top four hitters as sophomores. Senior Brandon Murray (.270 with four homers and 17 RBIs), redshirt junior Brandon Glazer (two homers) and Wise (20 RBIs) form a physical trio of run producers in the heart of the lineup, while junior shortstop Gunnar Heidt brings plus-plus speed and occasional pop to the No. 2 hole. He and patient leadoff man Butler make the Cougars go.

“I wouldn’t say this team is loaded with a lot of stars as far as pro guys,” Lee said. “It’s just a good, solid ballclub. One through nine in the order is a solid lineup. We’ve got some power, and a little bit of speed. Blake and Gunnar can steal bases.”

Houston’s lineup is built around four talented sophomores: second baseman Josh Vidales, third baseman Justin Montemayor and outfielders Kyle Survance and Ashford Fulmer. Montemayor has been limited to DH duties by a shoulder strain, and freshman Jordan Stading (.294) has filled in admirably at the hot corner, entrenching himself in the everyday lineup. Upperclassmen Frankie Ratcliff (.364), Michael Pyeatt (.314), Caleb Barker (.293) and Casey Grayson (.292 with two homers after missing last season due to injury) make it a deep lineup with no easy outs.

“I think it’s a team that 1-to-9, it’s real balanced,” Houston coach Todd Whitting said, echoing Lee’s evaluation of his own lineup. “There’s not a heavy dose of superstars in there, just good, solid college baseball players. Offensively it’s the same team, just a year older. Then you add Casey Grayson back in the mix every day, he’s been big for us. It’s just a veteran team, they don’t get intimidated. Last year we were just trying to hang on for dear life. All that comes with experience.”

Maybe these teams aren’t sexy, but they appear to have the right formula to win in the BBCOR era: They throw strikes, they play solid defense, and they are well-stocked with veterans in the lineup. CofC has a versatile infield with a few movable pieces; Champ Rowland gives Lee a second strong defender at shortstop, allowing him to slide Heidt to second, Butler to third and Wise from third to first on occasion. Ben Boykin gives the team a steady senior behind the plate, and Lee calls freshman Nick Pappas the best defensive first baseman he’s ever coached. Charleston is fielding .976 as a team.

Bailey Ober

Bailey Ober has struck out 26 in his first 27 collegiate innings.

“The key for us so far, as simple as it sounds, is we’ve thrown a lot of strikes and played about as consistently defensively as we have since I’ve been here,” Lee said. “We haven’t given the opposition extra outs, that’s been the big key for us. We don’t walk a lot of guys to give them extra baserunners. We don’t make a lot of errors to give them four or five outs in an inning. We don’t beat ourselves a lot.”

Houston is also a sound defensive team, especially up the middle. Ratcliff is very steady at short, and Whitting calls Vidales a “web gem per game guy” at second base, especially on balls up the middle. Fulmer was Houston’s best player in the fall, Whitting said, complementing his gap-to-gap bat with superb range in center field and the strongest outfield arm of any player Whitting has ever coached. And behind the plate, Barker has “come leaps and bounds defensively from last year in terms of receiving ability,” Whitting said. “That’s allowed our pitching staff to get a little more comfortable, and not worry about throwing balls in the dirt.”

Like CofC, Houston doesn’t give opposing offenses many free opportunities. Houston’s pitchers pound the strike zone better than just about anybody, walking just 1.58 batters per nine innings (second-fewest in the nation) through five weeks. Heading into this week, Houston also ranked third nationally in ERA (1.52) and second in WHIP (0.89). Righthander Aaron Garza (5-0, 0.97, 23-2 K-BB in 37 IP) has emerged as a legitimate ace as a junior, attacking hitters with an 88-90 fastball, a good breaking ball and a good changeup.

“He pounds the strike zone but doesn’t make mistakes in the strike zone,” Whitting said. “The last two years he just threw it in the strike zone, rather than throwing every pitch with a purpose. His stuff won’t wow you, but he can just really pitch . . . He’s really taken that leadership role, which is what we challenged him to do.”

Sophomore righty Jake Lemoine (3-1, 1.07) has the best stuff on the staff, with a lively fastball that reaches 95-96 and a slider that has more depth than it did a year ago. As he continues to improve his feel for that pitch and his solid changeup, he could make himself into a 2015 first-round candidate. He is already capable of dominating primarily with his fastball.

Aaron Garza

Aaron Garza has emerged as a legitimate ace for Houston.

The Sunday starter is sophomore lefty Jared West (1-1, 3.48), who has been less consistent but has shown promise. At 6-foot-6, he has good angle on his 88-91 fastball, and his breaking ball has improved. The staff is also deeper than it was a year ago, with solid setup options from the left and right sides, and a bulldog closer in veteran Chase Wellbrock (0-0, 0.00, 5 SV, 16-1 K-BB in 12 IP). “Wellbrock has been really good the last two years, and we’re able to get from the front to the back a little easier this year,” Whitting said.

Two of Charleston’s key arms are sidelined--talented freshman Hayden McCutcheon and sophomore lefty Eric Bauer--but the rotation remains solid. Sophomore righthander Nathan Helvey has been up and down, so CofC will move him from the Friday starter role to Sunday this week, sliding redshirt sophomore righthander Taylor Clarke to Friday and freshman Bailey Ober to Saturday. Clarke (4-1, 2.00) works in the 88-91 range, bumping 92-93 on occasion, and can throw his slider and changeup for strikes.

The 6-foot-8 Ober (4-0, 1.00) sits at 88-90, but his fastball jumps on hitters because of the extension in his delivery, and he has an excellent changeup. In the first 27 innings of his career, Ober has struck out 26 and has yet to issue a walk. He threw five shutout, two-hit innings in CofC’s season opener and never looked back. In the rubber game of a series against crosstown rival The Citadel, Ober threw a complete-game, two-hit shutout.

Charleston’s bullpen is anchored by a pair of seasoned upperclassmen with plenty of poise in tight spots: Chase Henry (2-0, 0.46, 23-3 K-BB in 20 IP) and Michael Hanzlik (2.25 ERA, 5 SV). Henry has good sink on his 88-92 fastball and can throw all three of his pitches for strikes, like most of the staff. Hanzlik is a sidearmer who works in the 84-87 range; he can mix in a slider, but like most of the staff he pitches heavily off his fastball.

“Matt Heath, our pitching coach, has done a good job developing our philosophy,” Lee said. “We pitch in with our fastball, we throw a ton of fastballs. We will hit guys. Our guys buy into that mentality, and we’ve had success with it.”

Both sets of Cougars have had plenty of success through five weeks, making this a fun matchup.

“This will be a great nonconference matchup for us,” Whitting said. “It’s something I’m looking forward to.”

More Cougars On The Prowl Out West

A third group of Cougars entered the season as one of our favorite sleepers. Washington State opened up by dropping a hard-fought series at Cal State Fullerton, then lost its next two weekend series against Western Carolina and Cal State Northridge to fall to 2-7. Since then, Wazzu has won six of seven games, including series wins against Texas State and at Arizona. The Cougars swept a two-game midweek series at No. 24 San Diego this week, climbing to 8-9 overall heading into a series this weekend at No. 22 UCLA.

Tanner Chleborad

Tanner Chleborad (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

“We’re starting to play kind of like we thought we would,” Washington State coach Donnie Marbut said. “I think you play better, so you’re more confident. And you’re more confident, so you play better. It feeds on itself.”

Marbut said he always thought his team had the pieces in place to get production from up and down the lineup, and now those pieces are starting to heat up. Leadoff man Trek Stemp got off to a very slow start but has started to take better at-bats. He and No. 2 hitter Collin Slaybaugh (.290) have a combined two walks and 18 strikeouts, and the Cougars are counting on both to get on base in front of sweet-swinging Nick Tanielu (.294, 1 HR, 9 RBI) and masher Yale Rosen (.356, 1 HR, 7 RBI). Senior two-way talent Jason Monda made a name for himself as a hitter, but he has struggled to get his bat going (.139) while battling leg and eye issues. When he gets fully healthy, he’ll be another key piece in the lineup.

Monda started pitching for the first time at WSU last year, posting a 1.57 ERA in 34 innings, mostly in relief. Now, as a senior, he is the Friday starter. He heads into the UCLA series 0-1, 3.27 with 19 strikeouts and 10 walks in 22 innings. Marbut describes him as a mixer who can throw strikes with an 86-90 fastball, a curveball, a slider and a changeup.

“He brings a calmness, a quiet confidence and a quiet competitiveness,” Marbut said. “You can’t be too high or too low on Friday night, and you can’t show a lot of emotion.”

The Phillies drafted Monda in the sixth round last year and accused him and Oregon State’s Ben Wetzler of NCAA rules violations in November, well after both players decided not to sign. Marbut says Monda has decided he does not want to sign after his senior season, either.

“He’s going to medical school,” Marbut said. “I think he enjoys pitching, but ever since him and I talked the other day, I see a great calmness about him. We’re proud of him for making a tough decision. A lot of guys feel like they want to do other things, but they feel like they have to keep playing.”

WSU’s Saturday starter, junior lefthander Joe Pistorese (1-0, 2.54), has a different demeanor. He’s an intense competitor whose best asset is his will to win, but his stuff is far from overpowering. Sunday starter Tanner Chleborad (1-2, 3.76) has the most long-term upside of the group, A 6-foot-5 junior righthander, Chleborad sits at 90-92 and touches 94 with his fastball, mixing in a promising changeup and curveball. He has ran too many deep counts this year, but he’s shown a knack for pitching out of jams.

The best performer on the WSU pitching staff has been freshman closer Ian Hamilton (2-1, 1.38).

“We’re 8-9, and he’s got two wins and six saves--you do the math. He’s been in every victory,” Marbut said. “He’s a serious competitor, but he’s up to 94 with a serious breaking pitch, he’s a strike-thrower, he comes right at you. He’s in the perfect role for him.”

UCLA, of course, has more pitching firepower than Washington State, so the Cougars face a stiff test. But if they can follow up a road series win against the 2012 national champions with a road series win against the 2013 champs, they might well be on the road to justifying those preseason expectations.

Around The Nation

Jared Fisher (Photo by Bill Mitchell).

Jared Fisher (Photo by Bill Mitchell).

• The other Evergreen State team in the Pac-12 is home this weekend, opening up a newly renovated facility. Washington welcomes Arizona to sparkling Husky Ballpark this weekend, the grand opening of a park that just received a $19 million overhaul. The facility features the largest indoor hitting and pitching facility in the Pac-12, with five batting cages and three pitching rubbers. The playing surface is FieldTurf, which will be a huge addition in the rainy Northwest, where wet field conditions result in many rainouts on grass surfaces. The ballpark will house a reinvigorated Washington program, which carries a 13-5 record into this weekend. The Huskies are coming off a road series win at Arizona State, during which they got three strong outings from their talented weekend starters--Jared Fisher, Tyler Davis and Jeff Brigham. Arizona, meanwhile, is 11-12 and in desperate need of a series win, especially with series looming against Oregon State and UCLA in the coming three weeks.

• Elsewhere in the West, San Diego State visits UNLV in a big early-season showdown in the Mountain West Conference. The Aztecs (16-4) have a dangerous offensive club, ranking ninth in the nation in batting (.322), fifth in doubles (48) and 15th in scoring (7.7 runs per game). Speed merchant Greg Allen and gritty second baseman Tim Zier give the Aztecs a nice pair of table setters in front of No. 3 hitter Ty France, who has carried over the momentum from his torrid finish to last season by hitting .446 with four homers and 26 RBIs. But San Diego State hasn’t faced a pitching staff like UNLV’s, which ranks seventh nationally with a 1.94 ERA. The Rebels (14-6) made a case that they are the team to beat in the MWC by taking a road series at New Mexico two weeks ago, but San Diego State looks like the real deal, as well. This weekend could provide some clarity in a conference where four teams look like real regional contenders.

• Atlantic Coast Conference play features a pair of Top 25 showdowns, as No. 2 Florida State visits No. 13 Clemson, and No. 3 Virginia travels to No. 25 Miami. The Tigers have won back-to-back series against Virginia Tech and at Wake Forest since getting swept by South Carolina in brutal fashion, and their talented offense has heated up. The two teams are currently tied atop the Atlantic Division standings at 5-1, but the Seminoles made a clear statement that they remain the top dog by sweeping N.C. State last weekend. FSU’s pitching staff has been dominant this year, but Clemson’s offense will be the deepest it has faced yet.

• Miami, meanwhile, heads into the UVa. series at just 12-10, with five losses in its past seven games. This was supposed to be the year the ‘Canes re-established themselves as national title contenders, but they have been frightfully inconsistent offensively, and even their big-name weekend rotation was hit hard in last week’s series loss to a middling Georgia Tech team. Virginia (16-3) has not allowed more than three runs in a game since its opening day loss to Kentucky.

• No. 6 Vanderbilt visits No. 21 Mississippi State in the only SEC series between ranked teams this weekend. This is a matchup the two bullpens we rated as college baseball’s best heading into the season, and Vanderbilt’s pen has lived up to that billing. MSU’s has been a bit less consistent, but still very good with Jonathan Holder and Jacob Lindgren leading the way. The key for MSU, once again, is getting more consistent starting pitching. Moving lefty Ross Mitchell into the rotation paid off last week, and this week the Bulldogs will try sophomore righty Preston Brown (2-0, 0.75 in 24 innings) as the Friday starter.