Weekend Preview: March 28-30

UCLA at Arizona

This is not the way it was supposed to go for UCLA. The Bruins returned talent at every position from their 2007 super-regional team, and every talent evaluator on the West Coast proclaimed them “loaded” and poised for an Omaha run.

Yet since beginning the season ranked No. 1 for the first time ever, UCLA has scuffled and now sits at No. 23. The Bruins are just 10-9, riding a four-game losing skid heading into their Pacific-10 Conference opener this weekend against Arizona.

TOP 25
California at (1) Arizona State
(2) Missouri at Texas
Carolina State at (3) North Carolina
(4) Miami at Duke
(5) Long Beach State at (11)
UCLA at (6) Arizona
(7) UC Irvine at Cal
(8) Florida
State at Wake Forest
Arkansas at (9)
Kentucky at (10) South Carolina
Southern Mississippi at (12)
Nebraska at (13) Texas
Santa Clara at (14) San
Mississippi at Alabama
North Dakota State at (16) Wichita
State at (17) Stanford
(20) Baylor at
Tech at (21) Virginia
(22) Coastal Carolina at
State at (24) Florida
Iowa at (25)

“The expectations clearly were set high in the program, but we just have not played well,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “We’ve lost one series, but it feels like we’ve lost five series. If I had the answer, we’d all start hitting and we’d start pitching better.

“We thought we were going to be offensive, and we haven’t been at all. We’re last in the league in hitting, by a lot, and it’s time for us to step up. It really is. It’s been disappointing and grueling that we have not been able to put long stretches together and play well.”

The Bruins have shown flashes of their significant potential, following up a convincing midweek win against Pepperdine with a series win at Cal Poly. But the next weekend, they were swept by Long Beach State.

“We did get offensive up at Cal Poly, then we got totally outplayed at Long Beach,” Savage said. “We just have not swung the bats too well—I think guys were pressing and trying to do too much. We need to relax and be ourselves.”

With the exception of senior second baseman Alden Carrithers (hitting .405/.478/.582, all tops amongst UCLA’s regulars), the offense has produced few timely hits, few extra-base hits, and far too many strikeouts. The Bruins are hitting just .255 as a team with 169 strikeouts and 94 walks. Preseason All-American shortstop Brandon Crawford has raised his average to .297 but has a 21-6 strikeout-walk ratio. Outfielder Gabe Cohen has followed his Freshman All-America 2007 campaign by hitting .222 with a 25-9 K-BB rate, though he leads the team with five homers. Junior third baseman Jermaine Curtis has not been the catalyst the Bruins have come to expect, batting .224/.359/.329.

The Bruins haven’t been much better on the mound, posting a 5.01 team ERA. They anticipated having one of the nation’s best weekend rotations backed up by a deep stable of young pitchers, but only junior lefthander Tim Murphy (2-1, 3.79 with a 41-12 K-BB ratio in 36 innings) has truly performed, and even he ran into trouble against Long Beach. Sophomore righty Charles Brewer (2-2, 4.23) has been strong at times and will start Saturday against Arizona. Sophomore lefty Gavin Brooks (1-1, 7.11, 19-18 K-BB in 19 IP), the projected ace, was sidelined early in the season by a blister on his throwing hand, and since returning he has struggled with his control and command.

The pitching depth has evaporated thanks to injuries. Freshman lefthander Rob Rasmussen took a line drive off his foot in his first collegiate start that broke a bone; he has at least six weeks left on the shelf. Fellow heralded freshman Dan Klein has missed a couple of weeks with a sprained rotator cuff that figures to keep him out until the Southern California series next weekend. Projected closer Jason Novak missed the first four weeks of the season with a shoulder injury and did not make his first appearance until a loss to San Diego State on Tuesday. But his return coincided with an elbow injury to sophomore lefthander/outfielder Justin Uribe (2-0, 1.35), who is likely to miss the remainder of the season.

Savage isn’t using the injuries as an excuse—far from it. The bottom line is, he is as baffled by UCLA’s slow start as anyone else. A year ago, the Bruins got off to an 8-14 start and then rallied to make a regional once Curtis returned from academic ineligibility. But just because UCLA did it before doesn’t mean Savage is drawing upon the 2007 as a model for 2008.

“I’m trying to stay away from that. I don’t want them to think we can just sit back and win 20 of our next 23. You just don’t turn the switch on and off like that,” he said. “We have to play better baseball, we have to be tougher at the plate, we have to be better on the mound.

“I think it’s really critical that we go out there and be competitive and play up to our abilities this weekend. We’ve had a lot of soul searching and team meetings and trying to unravel what we’ve made. We are stressing that this is the weekend to turn it around. In college baseball, you can turn things around rather quickly, or you can go the other way. We haven’t destroyed our chances, that’s for sure, but we have played poorly, and this weekend against Arizona’s just a great opportunity for us to play against a top team who we’ve had some great series with the last several years.”

This series pits preseason No. 1 UCLA against preseason No. 2 Arizona, but both teams are in desperate need of a series win to avoid falling behind the pack in the ultra-competitive Pac-10. The Wildcats were cruising right along, ranked No. 1 and sporting a 12-1 record, before dropping the final game of their series against Cal State Fullerton on March 16. Since then, Arizona has dropped six of its last seven, including a midweek loss at Arizona State and a conference series at Southern California that saw the ‘Cats shut out in back to back games for the first time since 1969. They followed that up by dropping two midweek games at Oklahoma State.

As usual, Arizona is a much better club at home than on the road. Last year, the Wildcats were 28-4 at Jerry Kindall Field and 11-13 on the road. That trend has continued, as Arizona is 7-1 in Tucson and 4-6 on the road. Just in the nick of time, Arizona returns home this weekend.

“It’s an offensive park,” Savage said. “It’s a pretty fast track, it’s a big ballpark, it’s a ballpark where you can get a lot of hits. I think they’ve done a great job of having ownership of their ballpark. Them and Arizona State, both those teams have really dominated their home field for a long, long time.”

Arizona has a reputation as one of the nation’s best pitching staffs, and most of its stars have continued to perform on the mound. Ace righthander Preston Guilmet (3-1, 2.67) and senior lefty David Coulon (4-1, 2.60) have been a solid 1-2 punch atop the rotation, and sophomore righty Jason Stoffel (1-0, 1.59 with five saves) and junior lefty Daniel Schlereth (1-0, 0.96, one save) have been the dominant bullpen anchors the Wildcats expected. First-team Preseason All-American Ryan Perry (1-2, 5.40) has been supplanted as the Sunday starter despite a fastball that has sat in the 94-96 mph range all season, and junior lefty Eric Berger (1-1, 4.32) will start in his place Sunday against UCLA. Berger has made a strong recovery from Tommy John surgery and works in the 90-92 range.

The lineup has been streaky. At times, outfielder Diallo Fon, DH Dillon Baird and first baseman C.J. Ziegler have gotten hot and carried the offense, but mainstay Brad Glenn has struggled all year, batting .220 with one homer. The Wildcats have scored just four total runs during their current four-game losing streak, and coach Andy Lopez mixed up the lineup against Oklahoma State in search of a spark. Robert Abel, who had lost his starting shortstop job because of defensive struggles, was inserted into the leadoff spot as a second baseman, with freshman Bobby Coyle getting the start in right field and Glenn playing left. Arizona is still looking for the right combination, but the good news is the lineup has plenty of depth, so Lopez has plenty of permutations at his disposal.

The most pleasant surprise has been the bat of freshman Bryce Ortega, a recruited walk-on who supplanted Abel at shortstop on the merit of his slick defense. Through 13 games, Ortega has hit .381.

“We put him in the lineup because we were struggling defensively in that spot,” Lopez said. “He’s been superb—he’s executed well, he understands his role. We weren’t looking for a lot of offensive execution. Abel was just really struggling with the routine play. With the staff that we have, we feel like if we can get them to hit it on the ground, we’ll be in pretty good shape. Ortega has had every chance you can imagine, a lot of tough plays, routine plays, and he’s handling it pretty well.”

The Wildcats, as well as the Bruins, will take offense from anywhere they can get it right now. If that means Ortega and Carrithers keep leading their respective teams in hitting (among regulars), so be it. But sooner or later, both teams will need their heavy artillery to get into a groove if they want to live up to their preseason billing.

Marquee Mound
Wes Musick vs. Stephen Strasburg

If you’ve been reading Baseball America this year, you probably know who Strasburg is by now. One of the leading early candidates for the No. 1 overall pick in 2009, the sophomore righthander has been stellar for San Diego State, going 2-1, 2.97 with a 38-6 K-BB ratio in 33 innings. With a fastball that reaches the high-90s, a devastating breaking ball and good command, Strasburg is the complete package.

You might not know as much about Musick, a redshirt sophomore lefthander for Houston. After missing 2006 with Tommy John and knee surgeries, Musick was Houston’s best starter in 2007, going 6-5, 3.00 in 93 innings. He’s been even better so far in 2008, going 5-0, 1.75 with a 31-10 K-BB rate in 36 innings.

“(Musick has) outstanding stuff and command,” said one coach whose team has faced Musick. “He sat at 88 using both sides of the plate, good 12-to-6 curveball, great changeup. Total command of all three pitches in any count. Great feel for the running game with his pickoff move.”

Though Musick is undersized at 6-foot, 185 pounds, one National League scout likes his thick, durable frame. Another NL scout lauded Musick’s ability to throw his breaking ball over the plate and hit his spots with his changeup.

At 16-7, Houston is on a roll, having won its Conference USA-opening series at East Carolina last weekend and beaten crosstown rival Rice in a midweek game. The Cougars have already won three series against West Coast teams—Pacific, UC Santa Barbara and San Francisco—but this will be their first trip out West this year. The Cougars should feel right at home at Tony Gwynn Stadium, which closely resembles Cougar Field. Padres owner John Moores, a Houston alumnus, donated the funds to build Tony Gwynn Stadium shortly after the Padres played an exhibition game at Cougar Field in 1996.

At 14-10, the Aztecs need this series to strengthen their resume for a potential at-large bid in case they don’t win the Mountain West Conference. They’ve gotten off to a strong 5-1 start in conference and might have passed Texas Christian as the favorite to win the league’s automatic bid, but a series win against a quality intersectional opponent would help provide a security blanket in case they falter in the MWC tournament.

Nebraska over Texas

Nebraska has something Texas can only envy: a bona fide ace pitching every Friday night. You could make a case that Cornhuskers senior righty Johnny Dorn is the best Friday starter in the Big 12, non-Aaron Crow category. Through five starts, Dorn is 2-0, 1.57 with a 37-8 K-BB ratio in 34 innings.

Texas, meanwhile, has gotten decent but inconsistent performance from its ace, junior lefthander Austin Wood (2-1, 4.01, 19-7 K-BB in 25 IP).

“You never know what you’re getting with him,” said an NL area scout. “He’ll come out and mow for five, then all of a sudden he’s in Frankenstein’s lab, and he’s got somebody else’s mind in there. He’s not your prototypical Friday night guy, get you off on that right foot for the weekend, give you seven, go to the pen and close it off. And they don’t have a Huston Street there either. (Freshman righty Brandon) Workman has been a workhorse for them. But it hasn’t clicked for them yet.

“I think some guys they thought would come through pitching-wise have not. (Sophomore righty Casey) Whitmer for sure. He hasn’t done it for them. He’s always deep in the count, always behind. He goes slider, slider, slider—you don’t see his fastball. He’s supposed to be a nice kid, but he’s scuffling. I think any time you’re at a program like Texas, there’s an expectation to win, you start pressing, and they’ll let you know it.”

Added a second scout: “I think their pitching is somewhat of a concern. It’s always nice to have that dominant No. 1 you can go into Friday night with, and they don’t have it.”

But Nebraska has gotten superb pitching from its entire rotation. The Cornhuskers have a 2.68 team ERA, compared with Texas’ 3.97. Hard-throwing junior righthander Aaron Pribanic (2-0, 1.44) has emerged as a top-five-rounds candidate for the draft in June, and senior righty Thad Weber (4-1, 4.15, 28-9 K-BB in 30 IP) has been steady.

The Longhorns certainly have more offensive firepower than the ‘Huskers, but Nebraska has the arms to neutralize that advantage. And NU seniors Jake Opitz and Craig Corriston have shown a knack for coming up with big hits in pressure situations. They’ll do just enough this weekend to pull off the upset in Austin.

The Radar

Matt Nohelty, of, Minnesota

All spring, scouts in the Midwest have been raving about Nohelty, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound redshirt junior who has hit ever since he’s been at Minnesota. After batting .389 with 11 stolen bases in 23 games as a freshman, Nohelty moved into a full-time role as a sophomore in 2007 and hit .367 with 24 steals. He’s been even better so far in 2008, batting .419/.433/.512 with nine stolen bases in 13 attempts. He’s a catalyst out of the leadoff spot for the young Golden Gophers, who snapped No. 2 Missouri’s 14-game winning streak with a 12-5 win on Wednesday.

Nohelty has a smooth, line-drive swing from the left side and a quick first step out of the batter’s box, and he’s a long-strider with above-average speed. That, along with excellent defensive instincts, help him cover plenty of ground in center field, though he lacks arm strength. He doesn’t hit for much power, but he can turn on inside fastballs on occasion and can use the gaps effectively. He figures to be drafted in the top 10 rounds, and maybe the top five.

At 10-9, Minnesota hopes to carry the momentum from its upset over the Tigers into the Big Ten Conference season, which begins this weekend with a four-game series against Indiana.

UNC Wilmington

The Seahawks enter this weekend’s series at Virginia Commonwealth riding a 17-game winning streak, which includes two midweek wins over No. 22 Coastal Carolina in the last two weeks. After starting the season 1-4, UNCW is now 18-4 and finds itself in its customary position atop the Colonial Athletic Association standings at 9-0.

“We feel like we’re playing fairly well right now,” Seahawks coach Mark Scalf said. “We’ve kind of cleaned some things up the last week and a half. We were winning some games early, but I didn’t think we were pitching exceptionally well or playing solid defensively. We were giving up too many free baserunners. The good thing was we were making plays when we had to after we got ourselves in trouble. The last five games we’ve played much cleaner. At the same time, offensively we’ve had different guys pick us up throughout this whole stretch.

The UNCW offense has been led by a pair of seniors: catcher Mark Carver (.376/.439/.720 with eight homers and 32 RBIs) and second baseman Daniel Hargrave (.360/.454/.685 with eight homers and 24 RBIs). Scalf said Carver has always had power, but he was a dead pull hitter his first couple of years at Wilmington. This year he’s using more of the field and has improved his pitch recognition significantly. Hargrave’s loose hands allow him to generate serious bat speed despite his 6-foot, 178-pound frame, and when he gets hot he is capable of carrying the offense nearly single-handedly.

Carver and Hargrave have gotten help from senior outfielder Jason Appel (.375 with eight stolen bases in eight attempts), senior third baseman Nate Hall (.358 with six homers) and senior first baseman Shane French (.416 with six homers in 41 at-bats). French missed eight games with a sprained ankle but has returned strong, adding depth to the lineup.

“You need (the depth); this day and time, I don’t think you can ride the same guys all year long,” Scalf said. “We thought this club had a chance to be a pretty good offensive club, but more of a doubles-type team. But we’ve almost hit more home runs (39) than doubles (41). We’ve played on some windy days—some days it’s been in our face, some days it’s been out—but I don’t think there are a whole lot of wind-aided balls. (The power surge is) hard to understand.”

The Seahawks are a balanced bunch, too, thanks to a pitching staff with quality arms at the front and back. Six-foot-5 sophomore righthander Seth Frankoff (4-0, 3.15, 28-7 K-BB in 35 IP) has been a revelation as the Friday starter, mixing a good changeup and breaking ball in with his 88-91 mph fastball. Six-foot-4 junior righty Bradley Holt (4-1, 3.04, 27-11 K-BB in 27 IP) has been just as good or better thanks to improved command of his breaking ball and feel for his changeup to complement his 88-93 mph heater.

Freshman lefthander Cameron Roth (2-0, 0.00, 17-3 K-BB in 20 IP over 12 appearances) has been sensational in the bullpen thanks to his deception, competitiveness and ability to mix three pitches. Freshman righty Stephen Harrold (1-1, 2.08) is another strike-thrower with a competitive streak, and the performance of that duo has taken pressure off senior relievers Larry Salefsky (1-1, 2.61, four saves) and Allen Flood (2-0, 11.57), who were inconsistent early on.

Throw in improved a defense that has improved as sophomore shortstop Mike Rooney has gotten comfortable after playing mostly second base last year, and the Seahawks look formidable. Scalf knows his team’s hot start will put a bull’s-eye on its back, but that’s just fine with him.

“I’d rather have that than be rolling in at .500 every day,” he said.

Luke Burnett, rhp, Louisiana Tech

The 6-foot-8, 260-pound Burnett entered the season as the No. 13 prospect in the junior class after striking out 41 in 24 innings last summer in the Cape Cod League, where he ranked as the No. 8 prospect. His fastball sat at 96 mph last summer and topped out at 98, but scouts who have seen him this spring say he’s pitching around 89-90 mph and topping out at 91.

Through 22 innings, the second-team preseason All-American is 0-1, 8.72 with 17 strikeouts and 12 walks. One coach whose team faced Burnett this year said his velocity looked OK, but he had trouble getting the ball down in the zone and throwing strikes consistently.

“It looks like either something’s wrong with him or he’s not comfortable,” the coach said.

A projected first-round pick just a month ago, Burnett’s draft stock is sliding quickly. He will try to right the ship this weekend against San Jose State.

Of The Week


Total bases by Oklahoma City University in a 33-10 rout of Northwestern Oklahoma State last Thursday, a new NAIA single-game record. The previous record was 69 total bases, set by Bellevue (Neb.) in 2004. The Stars also bashed 14 home runs in the game, tying the NAIA record and equaling the NCAA record, which was set March 15 by Georgia Southern. Landon Camp and Brent Weaver blasted three homers apiece for OCU, and David Dennis and Caleb Annesley joined that pair with four hits in the game. Dennis and Weaver now have 15 homers each for the 33-3 Stars, who are batting .389 as a team with 82 homers (2.27 per game) and 400 runs (11.1 per game). Garrett Regan leads the team in batting at .496.


College of Charleston

The nation’s two highest scoring offenses, according to the official NCAA statistics report released this week, will square off in a three-game series this weekend as Georgia Southern visits College of Charleston in a big Southern Conference showdown. Through last weekend, the Cougars were averaging 12.5 runs per game, the most in the nation. The Eagles were second with 11.1 runs per game. Leading the way for Georgia Southern is red-hot junior outfielder Chris Shehan (.466/.577/.898 with nine homers and 37 RBIs through 88 at-bats), who went 9-for-14 with two doubles, a grand slam and nine RBIs in GSU’s three-game sweep of preseason SoCon favorite Western Carolina last weekend.

Charleston, meanwhile, has four players with eight homers or more and batting averages of at least .361: Gabe Marchant, Michael Harrington, Jeremie Tice and Michael Kohn. The Cougars also enter the weekend with a 3-0 mark in conference play, having swept Davidson on the road last weekend.

One coach who has played CofC broke the Cougars down as follows:

“Their park can play really small . . . it’s right on the water, and when the wind’s blowing out, it can really travel. This is their best offensive club they’ve had; actually, I think this is more the way they should have played the last few years, in my opinion. They are not playing as much small ball, and they have big strong guys who can swing it. They have some strong guys who can lift the ball and they are letting it go. They have some guys with some longer swings but you have to have the velocity to take advantage of it.

“They are pretty good in the lineup from 1-to-7. There’s not one guy that really stands out, but they are aggressive as a team. If you make a mistake, they have the ability to punish you and put three or four runs on the board really quickly.

“The guys we’ve talked to think that their bullpen is going to be a weak spot, but they had some good arms out of the pen that we saw, some guys with some velocity. (Danny) Meszaros is their Friday guy; he missed last year with Tommy John but he’s a solid Friday guy, sat 90-91 all night and is undersized but has arm strength. Their Saturday guy was a lefty (Austin Garrett), a juco guy who throws three pitches for strikes. They weren’t overwhelming but they were OK on the mound.”

The Dugout
Mike McKenna, of, Florida Atlantic

At 6-1, Florida Atlantic sits atop the standings in the Sun Belt Conference, and McKenna is a big reason why. In the NCAA’s first official statistics report, the senior outfielder was No. 1 in the nation in RBIs (43) and tied for first in home runs (13), and he leads the Owls with a .424 batting average. There is no hotter player in the nation right now than McKenna, who blasted nine home runs in a 10-game span during FAU’s recent homestand, propelling the Owls to a seven-game winning streak. The highlight was a three-homer game last Friday against Middle Tennessee State.

Putting up numbers is nothing new for McKenna, who batted .413/.492/.716 with 16 homers and 60 RBIs as a junior last year. But the 6-foot, 195-pounder went undrafted in June and returned to terrorize the Sun Belt for another year. This weekend, he’ll have a crack at Louisiana-Monroe (7-2 in conference) away from the friendly confines of FAU Stadium. First, he discussed his hot streak, his New York roots and his determination to prove doubters wrong, In The Dugout.

So, you’re pretty hot right now, huh?

I’m feeling pretty hot right now, you can say that again.

You’ve put up big numbers before, but have you ever had a stretch like this?

This is something different, it came out of nowhere. I’m just taking the same approach every at-bat; I guess you could say I’m more locked in than ever right now.

You guys are scoring 10 runs per game, ninth-best in the country. How much fun is it to hit in the middle of that lineup?

Last year we had a pretty good offense too. At the beginning of this year, I’m telling guys from the old team, ‘I think this offense could eclipse the previous year,’ and everybody’s looking at me like that’s impossible.

You must enjoy hitting in FAU Stadium too, right?

I remember coming here, they said it was a park built for the lefthanded hitters. As a righty, a lot of pitches have been thrown to me outside, so I just take it that way. Everybody gets on me for going opposite field, but hey, that’s the way to go. It’s weird, your whole life they tell you to go opposite field, then when I do it they get on me.

Have you hit some homers to left field as well?

Most of the time they’ll throw offspeed, down and away, try to get me outside corner, but lately they’ve been trying to bust me in, so I think I hit two out to left field last week.

What did it feel like to hit three homers in one game?

I’ve never felt in the zone like that. The third at-bat, I wasn’t even thinking home run. Because I’ve never done it before, I think that’s why I hit the home run. It was a changeup down, and I hit it to right-center.

As good as you were last season, was it disappointing to go undrafted in June?

I thought with the season I had, I could be drafted, and draft day came, I wasn’t really talking to anybody. I’m glad I came back here and had this season, get my last year of school in. Everything seems to be working out right now. I’m pretty happy with it.

Do you think people underestimate you because of your size?

One of my friends was saying the other day that someone was asking about me. He told the guy, ‘You might not think he’s going to hit, but he’s going to hit.’ That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life, I’m just going to prove people wrong.

Delray Beach, Fla., is listed as your hometown, but you’re originally from New York. Why did you move to Florida during your senior year of high school?

I’m from Staten Island. Being from New York and being serious about baseball, you’ve got to get out of New York. It was always my dream to come down to Florida to play. FAU just seemed like the perfect fit. I had family in Delray Beach, just a perfect fit.

So you’ve got family right nearby. Do they come to a lot of your games?

Actually, I tell them not to come. There could be a thousand scouts there and I wouldn’t be nervous. Put a couple relatives there, I get a little nervous. I’ve kind of given in this year, let a couple relatives come. I’m doing all right—I’ve hit a couple homers.