Weekend Preview: March 7-9

Meaningful Matchup
Stanford at Texas

A half-decade ago, it would have been hard to imagine a series with more cachet than Stanford-Texas. Annual national championship contenders and seemingly annual participants in the College World Series, the Cardinal and Longhorns were on top of the college baseball world. In 2002, the two clubs met twice in Omaha, with Texas winning both games by a combined two runs and going on to win the national championship. The next year, both teams were back in Omaha, with Stanford advancing to the championship series before falling to Rice in three games.

(2) Mississippi at Texas Christian

St. Mary’s at (3) UCLA
Massachusetts at (4) Arizona State

(5) North Carolina at Duke

Indiana State at (6) Missouri
Illinois-Chicago at (7) Vanderbilt
Boston College at (8) Miami
Duquesne at (9) South Carolina
(10) Long Beach State at Hawaii
(11) Baylor at Mississippi State
(14) Virginia at North Carolina State
Stanford at (16) Texas
(19) UC Irvine at (22) Tulane
Maryland at (20) Florida State
(23) Clemson at Wake Forest
Purdue at (24) Kentucky
Harvard at (25) Wichita State
Top 25 Tournaments
Whataburger Classic, Corpus Christi, Texas:
(1) Arizona, Notre Dame, South Alabama, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
San Diego State Tournament, San Diego:
(12) Oregon State, (17) San Diego, (21) Oklahoma State, Loyola Marymount, San Diego State, Santa Clara
Rice Classic, Houston:
(13) Rice, Creighton, Michigan State, Western Carolina
Keith LeClair Classic, Greenville, N.C.:
(15) Michigan, East Carolina, Georgia Southern, Pittsburgh
Metrodome Tournament:
(18) California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Northern Iowa

Since then, Stanford’s program has been in a state of flux. The Cardinal hasn’t been back to Omaha since and missed regionals in 2007 for the first time since 1993. Texas, meanwhile, has continued to compete at a high national level, but the Longhorns haven’t been to Omaha since winning the 2005 national title. It’s only a two-year drought, but it feels like an eternity in Texas terms.

But this annual three-game series, established in 1998, is always competitive, and with two of the game’s great coaches at the helm, it’s no wonder. Stanford’s Mark Marquess holds a 21-19-1 edge against Augie Garrido since he arrived at Texas, though the Longhorns took two out of three against the Cardinal last year.

“It’s a great series, something we look forward to,” Marquess said. “Coach Garrido and I have done it for a number of years. It’s really a measuring stick, especially for us the last couple of years because they’ve been so strong and we haven’t been as strong. If we have a weakness, Texas will exploit those and show them to us. Augie’s teams are always well coached. He’s the best coach in college baseball, he does a phenomenal job, and I have a great deal of respect for what he’s accomplished. We compete and have a good time, but I’m not always happy when I go there.”

This year, the Stanford-Texas series has a chance to recapture some of its luster. Texas is characteristically strong—despite losing two games at the Houston College Classic last weekend—and Stanford is off to a 6-3 start, having won series against Nebraska and Cal State Fullerton, the latter a sweep. The Cardinal has a potentially strong weekend rotation, anchored by junior lefthander Jeremy Bleich, who has built on a strong summer in the Cape Cod League, going 2-0, 2.19 through two starts (12 innings).

“He’s always had a good fastball, but now he’s really gotten there,” Marquess said. “His fastball’s as good as it’s been as far as location and velocity. His curve has much more bite to it, and his changeup is much more deceptive. And he’s around the strike zone. He’s never been wild, but he has much more command around the zone. Last year just got off to a poor start but could never get in synch. This is the best he’s been.”

Marquess said senior righty Erik Davis has also turned a corner as the Saturday starter, showing three quality pitches, and sophomore righty Jeff Inman has recovered from a tired arm that limited him in the fall and is now commanding his power repertoire. Freshman Drew Storen has emerged as the closer thanks to an aggressive approach and an impressive fastball-slider repertoire, though Marquess thinks he could still wind up in the rotation at some point.

Stanford also has athleticism and power in the lineup. Joey August and Sean Ratliff are multi-tooled outfielders with speed, and freshman Jeff Whitlow has been an able fill-in while sophomore two-sport star Toby Gerhart recovers from a football knee injury. Gerhart’s back now, bringing more power to the mix.

The Cardinal has a number of versatile moving parts to occupy the corner positions and catcher. Freshman Zach Jones has a strong arm behind the plate and plays an able third base or corner outfield spot; he’s slugged two homers and four doubles in nine games. Jason Castro, coming off a fine summer in the Cape, has gotten off to a hot start, leading Stanford’s regulars in the triple crown categories (.406-3-10). He’s involved in a rotation at catcher, first base and DH with Randy Molina (who has followed his standout summer in the Northwoods League by hitting .364 through nine games) and Brent Milleville (.333).

“We’re more athletic than we’ve been the last three or four years. We run better, we’ve got a little more power, and defensively we’re much better,” Marquess said. “We’re a better team. There’s no question we’re a better team than last year. We may even be a lot better than last year and be seventh or eighth in the league. The league is as good as it’s been since I’ve been here, and that’s 30-something years. The league is just dominant. But we’ll play better defense and I think be a little better offensively.”

Texas, meanwhile, has leaned heavily upon newcomers in its 8-2 start. Freshmen Cameron Rupp (.458/.500/.792) and Kevin Keyes (.412/.545/.471) have been shining lights in the offense, as have transfers David Hernandez (.367/.472/.533) and Brandon Belt (.442/.469/.767). Belt, an import from San Jacinto (Texas) Junior College, went 4-for-6 with eight RBIs in a midweek clobbering of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, giving him a team-best nine doubles and 18 RBIs through 10 games.

“Unfortunately, they already did his autobiography,” Texas coach Augie Garrido said of Belt after the game, according to the Austin American-Statesman. “It’s ‘Forrest Gump.’ Seriously, he’s magical. He keeps the game real simple.”

Belt, a premium pitching prospect in high school, also made his debut on the mound against the Islanders, working a scoreless ninth. He figures to be part of a revamped bullpen that has gotten outstanding contributions from newcomers thus far. Belt, fellow transfers Marcus Tackett (Oral Roberts) and Garrett Clyde (San Jac), and freshmen Chance Ruffin and Stayton Thomas have yet to allow an earned run in 16 relief appearances spanning 19 innings. (Clyde is the nephew of David Clyde, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1973 draft.)

As of Wednesday, Marquess knew little about all the newcomers, because a pair of midweek games had kept him from turning his attention to the Longhorns.

“I talked to (Garrido) three or four weeks ago and he was excited about his team, so that scares me,” Marques said. “I wish they’d been undefeated, so maybe they’d let up on us a little, but they’ve lost a couple. And he likes his team, so that scares me.”

This year, though, Stanford has more experience than Texas and a talent level that might be comparable to what Garrido has collected in Austin. And upsetting the Longhorns in Austin could thrust the Cardinal right back into the national spotlight

Marquee Mound Matchup
Jacob Thompson vs. Eric Surkamp

League play begins this weekend in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Virginia’s visit to North Carolina State looks like the most compelling series on the docket. Each team will send a junior ace with Team USA experience to the mound in the opener, which looks likely to be pushed back to Saturday thanks to a wet Friday forecast. Thompson and Surkamp are both extreme competitors with excellent command and track records.

At 10-0, the Cavaliers are off to the best start in school history, and Thompson has been his usual dominating self. The 6-foot-6 righthander is 2-0, 0.00 with 16 strikeouts and five walks through 12 innings, and opposing hitters are batting just .186 against him. He commands his solid-average fastball at 88-92 mph, gets strikeouts with a plus curveball with 11-to-5 break and can locate his solid changeup and slider.

Surkamp, a 6-foot-5 lefthander, pitched well in a 3-1 loss against Louisville last week, and he enters the ACC season with a 1-1, 1.86 mark, with 12 strikeouts and five walks in 10 innings. He’s been even tougher to hit than Thompson, holding opponents to a .129 average. Six members of Virginia’s starting lineup—including stars Jeremy Farrell, David Adams, Tyler Cannon and Greg Miclat—are righthanded or switch-hitters, but Surkamp’s well-above-average changeup gives him an effective weapon against righties. He also has excellent command of an average fastball.

In case you’re wondering, these two pitchers have matched up each of the last two years. Last year, Thompson allowed two runs over 6 1/3 innings in a no-decision, and Surkamp took a tough-luck loss after allowing three runs (two earned) over seven. When both were freshmen in 2006, both allowed four earned runs in no-decisions, but N.C. State won the game 10-9, the middle contest of a three-game sweep in Raleigh.

Upset City
Mississippi State over Baylor

Bulldogs coach Ron Polk is bound to have a little something up his sleeve against protégé Steve Smith, his one-time assistant and Baylor’s current head coach. In fact, both of Smith’s assistants—Mitch Thompson and Steve Johnigan—also served as assistants on Polk’s staff at Mississippi State before heading to Waco. Smith has faced Polk just once, with the Bulldogs winning 8-6 last year at Baylor Ballpark. This time around, the Bears enter as road favorites, having gotten off to an 8-1 start (their best since 1990) while Mississippi State has scuffled to a 5-4 start. The Bulldogs dropped their season-opening series at North Florida, then lost a game against lowly Air Force in a series in Starkville this past weekend, then split with Arkansas-Little Rock in a pair of midweek games.

Baylor is the more talented team by far, but Mississippi State is more experienced on the mound, and that could be a factor at rowdy Dudy Noble Field this weekend. As good as Baylor ace sophomore Kendal Volz has been (2-0, 1.93), MSU senior lefty Justin Pigott has been just as good (2-0, 2.25, 18 strikeouts and five walks in 12 innings). Mississippi State will need better outings from the other two members of its weekend rotation, as Chad Crosswhite and Ricky Bowen carry respective ERAs of 10.61 and 12.00 into this weekend. But both of those guys are much better than their numbers indicate, and here’s betting they rebound this weekend. Offensively, the Bears will need to contain MSU redshirt freshman outfielder Jason Nappi, who is off to a 17-for-35 start (.486) with three homers, four doubles and nine RBIs.

Under The Radar

Sean Black, rhp, Seton Hall

Black sure wasn’t under the radar last year, when he was the highest-drafted player to attend a four-year college. A second-round pick of the Nationals out of high school, expectations soared for Black’s freshman year, and though he showed good stuff at times (as evidenced by his 53 strikeouts in 49 innings), there was a definite learning curve. He finished 3-3, 5.47 in 10 starts.

People seemed to forget about Black heading into his sophomore year, but he opened eyes with his second start of the year against Richmond, allowing just one hit and no walks while striking out 13 in a seven-inning complete game shutout.

“Black was downright filthy against us,” Spiders coach Mark McQueen wrote in an e-mail to BA’s John Manuel. “Great command of his curve and threw it in any count. Had a real good fastball that day also. He reminded me of Verlander when he was in college.”

Comparing any college pitcher to Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander, an Old Dominion product, is high praise, indeed. But Black has that kind of loose arm and projectable frame (6-foot-5, 195 pounds), and it looks like he’s starting to translate his enormous potential into results. He’ll try to keep it going this weekend against Radford.

UC Irvine

Not only are the No. 19 Anteaters off to an 8-0, but they’re doing it in style. Irvine has now shut out its opponent in its last four games and five times overall. The first came on Opening Day, when ace righthander Scott Gorgen and two relievers combined to shut out Nevada. Gorgen threw a complete-game, one-hit shutout of San Francisco in his next start, and righthanders Bryce Stowell and Christian Bergman followed with seven shutout innings the next two days before handing off to the stellar Irvine bullpen. Then, in a midweek game against San Diego, sophomore lefty Daniel Bibona struck out 12 over six scoreless innings before the pen finished off the shutout.

“We’re happy with our start,” UC Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said. “I’m not delusional about what the schedule has been, but we’ll get a little better measuring stick in here this week.”

Irvine will get its staunchest test of the season this weekend, when it plays a three-game series at No. 22 Tulane. Gillespie said the experience of going on the road to win regionals and super-regionals last year and then playing on a national stage in Omaha will help the Anteaters perform in a hostile environment against a national power.

“Fortunately there are guys in this program who were in big places last year, they’ve been to Texas and Wichita State and Omaha, so while it’s going to be a great atmosphere, I’m sure they’re looking forward to it,” Gillespie said. “Certainly I think one of those speeches we’ve got to give is about everything but baseball, because I’m sure they’re going to want to see the French quarter, right? So we’ll have to deal with that part of it.”

In addition to the anticipated dominance of Gorgen (an All-American last year with probably the nation’s best changeup) and Stowell (who sat out last season after transferring from Pepperdine but touched 93 mph against San Francisco and showed with two good offspeed pitches), the Anteaters have seen maturation from key members of their 2006 recruiting class, which ranked as the 14th-best in the nation. Bergman is an aggressive strike-thrower who generates sink on his 87 mph fastball using a low arm slot. Bibona works in that same velocity range but throws strikes with a good changeup and hard-breaking slider. Sophomore righty Eric Pettis has stabilized the back of the bullpen, going 1-0, 0.00 with two saves in five appearances.

Offensively, Irvine has done just enough to win. Returning veterans Ollie Linton and Ben Orloff have been sparkplugs atop the lineup—especially Linton, who is hitting .414 with 11 stolen bases in 11 attempts—and calming presences in the middle of the field, with Linton playing a stellar center field and Orloff holding down shortstop. Gillespie said Orloff’s baseball IQ is among the best he’s come across in all his years of coaching. And redshirt freshman left fielder Ryan Fisher has been a revelation in the No. 3 hole, hitting .370 with team bests in homers (two, tied with Orloff) and RBIs (15).

“Coming into this year, I didn’t know one thing about him—I had never heard of him,” Gillespie said. “In the middle of the fall, from November to January, he dealt with a stress fracture that turned into a fracture in his foot, so he was shut down for 10 weeks or something, so we really still didn’t know what we were going to get . . . I think it’s clear now that he can hit, and he will hit. He’s a line-drive, gap power kind of guy, and he can go the other way, which is the real plus.”

One sophomore third baseman Casey Stevenson navigates his way through a clearinghouse issue that has kept him ineligible so far this season, Irvine will have another key threat in the middle of the lineup. Then the Anteaters could be really dangerous. For now, they’ll try to keep getting just enough offense for their dynamite pitching to hold up.

“First and foremost, what’s obvious is we’ve been good on the mound, we’ve been light with the bat,” Gillespie said. “We’ve played pretty good defense, but what I like is they didn’t have a rough time with the weather in Reno (during the opening weekend at Nevada). It was cold, it was miserable, and they dealt with it well. I like that a lot. The two games we got in, the weather was in the low 40s to start, but it turned difficult from seventh inning on both games—real snow. Everybody dealt with it pretty good, and that was encouraging. I like the makeup, they play hard, and if we lose, it won’t be because we’re soft.”

UCLA offense

The Bruins garnered a preseason No. 1 ranking on the strength of their balance. A deep, talented pitching staff was to be complemented by a dangerous lineup from top to bottom, but so far the arms have had to carry the load. UCLA has averaged a paltry 4.25 runs per game and is hitting just .209/.332/.331 through eight games—including two lopsided midweek losses against Cal State Fullerton this week. Key sophomores Gabe Cohen (.133/.235/.367) and Justin Uribe (.174/.367/.304) have struggled, but the tribulations of star juniors Brandon Crawford (.152/.216/.242, one extra-base hit) and Jermaine Curtis (.182/.308/.242, two extra-base hits) are most glaring. Crawford is failing to shift his weight forward to a balance point, causing him to point his front foot and leak out his front side too soon, according to one talent evaluator.

“Crawford was so talented, and right now he’s not equating it to any production,” said a National League scout who has seen the Bruins in the early going. “Curtis has a well-below-average arm, there’s no way he stays at third in pro ball. Both those guys are really fighting it right now.”

UCLA hosts St. Mary’s in a three-game series this weekend.

Stat Of The Week


Kentucky’s cumulative margin of victory through 10 games. The Wildcats have scored in double digits in all 10 games and have outscored opponents 136-22. Leading the onslaught is senior right fielder Sawyer Carroll, who is batting .618/.696/1.265 with five homers, five doubles and 25 RBIs in 10 games. He’s 21-for-34 on the season and carries a streak of four consecutive three-hit games into UK’s four-game weekend series against Purdue.

Junior center fielder Collin Cowgill is also off to a torrid start, batting .421/.542/.789 with three homers, three doubles and 14 RBIs. Four other regulars are hitting .342 or better, including senior first baseman Brian Spear (.368), sophomore DH Troy Frazier (.360), sophomore outfielder Keenan Wiley (.359) and redshirt freshman shortstop Chris Wade (.342).

But it hasn’t been all offense, as the Wildcats have gotten stellar work from starters Chris Rusin (2-0, 0.64, 13-0 K-BB ratio in 14 innings), Scott Green (2-0, 2.25, 19-0 K-BB in 12 innings), Greg Dombrowski (2-0, 0.90) and James Paxton (2-0, 0.90, 15-4 K-BB in 10 innings). It’s worth pointing out, of course, that seven of Kentucky’s wins have come against the likes of Fairfield, Oakland and Butler, but they’ve also dominated in wins against quality programs Evansville, South Alabama and Xavier. UK’s opponent this weekend, Purdue, is just 0-6, but the Boilermakers do have some quality arms in Matt Bischoff and closer Josh Lindblom that could test Kentucky at least a little bit.

Scouting Report

Wake Forest

Wake Forest’s tune-up for the grueling Atlantic Coast Conference schedule featured a cross-country trip to Pepperdine and games against Kennesaw State, Troy and Penn State at the Screentech Wireglass Classic in Dothan, Ala. There wasn’t a lot of breathing room in that schedule, but the Demon Deacons carry a 5-4 record into their ACC-opening series against Clemson this weekend. A National League crosschecker who was in Dothan broke the Deacons down:

“(First baseman/third baseman Allan) Dykstra can really hit. He was pitched around all weekend, but he was very disciplined, and he was very good the previous weekend when he went 3-for-3 against (Pepperdine’s Brett) Hunter. The guy they moved him to third base for (Evan Ocheltree) was the guy who jumped out to me. I really like this guy, he’s almost like Tyler Colvin part two. He’s 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, classic baseball body, blonde shaggy hair coming out from the back of his hat. He’s a sleeper for me—he’s very aggressive and swung the bat very well. That team can hit, with Dykstra, Ocheltree, and that little Willy Fox guy. That little guy can really hit. I don’t know why they played him in right field—he has a very well-below-average arm—but he stands out at the plate, he can really square balls up.

“On the mound, though, they’re short. (Righthander Ben) Hunter is their No. 1 guy, and he was 86-89 with his fastball. He locates his breaking ball, so he really had his way against Kennesaw State. But he’s really more about a funky arm slot. Their No. 2 pitcher, (Garrett) Bullock, was really a soft-tossing lefty, and I didn’t really see anything special out of their bullpen either, so they better hit.”

In The Dugout
T.J. Hose, rhp, East Carolina

East Carolina senior ace T.J. Hose is still looking for his first win in 2008 after getting pounded at South Carolina in ECU’s season-opener and taking a no-decision last week against Monmouth, when he allowed just one run on seven hits over 6 2/3 innings. Hose, who throws an 87-90 mph fastball and gets plenty of hitters to whiff at his hard-breaking slider, will look to get into the win column this weekend in the annual Keith LeClair Classic, which starts Friday in Greenville, N.C. (weather permitting). The Pirates will play Pittsburgh, Michigan and Georgia Southern. Hose talked about the impact of LeClair, the former ECU coach who died of ALS in 2006, and Hose’s reputation as a giant-killer In The Dugout.

So after your rough season debut, you bounced back with a strong outing against Monmouth in a no-decision last week. Do you feel like you’re back on track?

Oh yeah, without a doubt, that was a huge game for me personally just to get my confidence back.

Are you looking forward to the LeClair Classic this weekend? What kind of memories do you have of the event?

It’s just been a great experience from my past. Just getting to know what Coach LeClair was all about, what he meant to this program, it’s just a great story how he’s inspired so many people, not just around here but around the country. Just the competition we bring in for this tournament is outstanding, I can’t remember the last time there was a blowout in this tournament.

What did Coach LeClair mean to you personally?

He meant a tremendous deal to me. He was just such an inspiring guy, the way he carried himself. When he was diagnosed with that disease, he felt that God had a plan for him and just went on with it, and he encouraged a lot of other lives.

Last year you beat Pepperdine’s Barry Enright, Cal State Fullerton’s Wes Roemer and Michigan’s Zach Putnam in successive weeks, and you out-pitched Tulane’s Shooter Hunt in the Conference USA tournament. Do you get worked up for those games against elite competition?

Without a doubt. I try to take each game and each team we face the same, but when you’re facing top-round guys, it’s just a little more incentive for myself to show we can compete with the best.

You faced Michigan last year and will play them again this weekend; what do you remember about those guys?

They were a solid team up and down. They had a great pitching staff, a great defensive team, they didn’t beat themselves, they made all the routine plays. And they did whatever it took to put some runs on the board.

Does any one of those big wins from last year stick out to you the most?

I think the Cal State Fullerton game. I think the way we were able to bounce back after my sophomore year we went there and got swept—I don’t think we got our first run until the sixth inning of the third game. Being able to get some redemption and sweep Cal State Fullerton at our place was great.

You struggled a bit down the stretch last year. Were you worn out a little bit?

I think it was just the long haul of the season, and being not as big, it took a little toll on me. It was just a little wearing-down process, just not being able to go out there and make pitches at some points in the game.

Last year you were actually better against lefthanded hitters (who hit .236 against you) than righties (.294). Why do you think that is?

I think with the movement on my fastball, I get some late sinking action on my fastball, and I think my changeup when I’m on top of it at times is probably my out pitch. I like to start it off away and run it off the plate and let them get themselves out.

After the season, you had a good summer in the Cape Cod League and made the All-Star game. Who was the toughest hitter you saw in the Cape?

I’d probably have to say (Miami first baseman) Yonder Alonso. He just didn’t get himself out and was just a great hitter.