Bubble Watch: Long Beach State
Bubble Watch: Stanford
Bubble Watch: Western Carolina
Most series around college baseball start Thursday, to give teams an extra day of rest before conference tournaments next week. The top-five showdown between Washington and Oregon State in Corvallis, which runs Friday through Sunday, is the main event on the calendar this weekend, and will go a long way toward deciding the Pac-12 title.
|TOP 25 SERIES|
|(1) Virginia at Wake Forest|
|(5) Washington at (2) Oregon State|
|Louisiana-Monroe at (3) Louisiana-Lafayette|
|Duke at (4) Florida State|
|(6) Cal Poly at Cal State Northridge|
|North Carolina at (7) Miami|
|(8) Florida at Tennessee|
|Minnesota at (9) Indiana|
|Cincinnati at (10) Louisville|
|(11) Mississippi at Texas A&M|
|(12) Oklahoma State vs. Oklahoma|
|(13) Texas Christian at Baylor|
|Louisiana Tech at (14) Rice|
|(15) Louisiana State at Auburn|
|(16) Houston at Temple|
|(17) South Carolina at (18) Vanderbilt|
|(20) Mississippi State at (19) Alabama|
|(21) Liberty at Radford|
|(22) Kansas at Michigan|
|(23) Pepperdine at Gonzaga|
|Cal State Fullerton at (24) UC Irvine|
|(25) Texas at Kansas State|
We've written about both teams recently, having visited Corvallis and Seattle two weeks ago. There are other big series on the schedule in the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Big 12 conferences, but we've covered those power conferences in plenty of depth as well. So this week we'll focus instead on three bubble teams we have not written much about: Long Beach State, Stanford and Western Carolina. For a breakdown of what's at stake this week in potential multi-bid leagues around the country, check Wednesday's Stock Report.
Bubble Watch: Long Beach State
A handful of West Coast programs have a history of putting together daunting nonconference schedules every year. Long Beach State, Stanford and Cal State Fullerton have made it clear that they will take on all comers. For the Dirtbags and Cardinal, that means it can sometimes be a challenge to finish above .500 overall, a requirement to be eligible for an at-large NCAA tournament bid. The Dirtbags finished one or two games above .500 in each of the last three years, falling just short of the 30-win plateau all three seasons. For a while, this year looked like a carbon copy.
The Dirtbags were 16-18 after losing a series at UC Davis in mid-April, but they haven't lost a series since. After winning three straight home series against UC Santa Barbara, Cal Poly and Cal State Fullerton, the Dirtbags swept a road set at Hawaii, then beat San Diego on Tuesday to improve to 27-23. With six games left—series at UC Riverside this weekend and home against UC Irvine next weekend—the Dirtbags are 12-6 in the Big West, inside the top 50 in the RPI, and on track to make a regional for the first time since 2008.
If LBSU can win three more games to reach that elusive 30-win mark, they should be in fine shape. And with two more wins, they won't have to worry about finishing with a winning record.
"I think the .500 mark is a residue of our schedule," Long Beach coach Troy Buckley said. "That's why what Cal Poly has done out here, to win over 40 games on the West Coast, is remarkable. This is the schedule that we play, and we need to take care of what we need to take care of. The .500 mark has always been one of those things where you're like, God man, let's just get over the hump. But you're not going to win 45 games playing the teams that we play."
The Dirtbags opened up against Southeastern Conference power Vanderbilt and got swept. Two weeks later, they traveled to Wichita State and split two games, but their flight out of Wichita was canceled due to bad weather, so the team bused all the way to Tucson for a pair of midweek games against Arizona two days later. Buckley said that was a bonding experience for his team.
In Week Five, Long Beach State hosted preseason No. 3 Indiana and took two out of three. That series win stands as a huge resume booster for the Dirtbags now that the Hoosiers are on track to earn a national seed, having won 27 of 31 games since. The Dirtbags aren't nearly as physical as the Hoosiers, of course—LBSU is hitting .255 with six home runs as a team, while Indiana has two players with 10 homers apiece. But they held Indiana to six runs in those three games back in April.
As usual, pitching is Long Beach State's strength, as it must be in cavernous Blair Field. Buckley said the Dirtbags are hoping to move the fences in sometime in the next year or two, in addition to building a hitting facility similar to what UCLA has behind its right-field fence. Long Beach alum Troy Tulowitzki donated $1 million in November for ballpark improvements.
"The lines and gaps have to come in, for sure," Buckley said. "You're still going to get that stigma of Blair Field and Yellowstone Park. We want to recruit to our highest ability, and we get some negative connotations about our park."
Junior outfielder Richard Prigatano, the team's best prospect, has a strong frame and a good swing, causing scouts to project him to hit for at least average power down the road. But he has just one home runs and a .388 slugging percentage this spring, though he has dramatically improved his plate discipline, posting a 30-32 walk-strikeout mark and hitting .297 with a .421 OBP.
"He has better pitch recognition, the ability to take a better at-bat," Buckley said. "He's not getting out the same way. More balance, quality at-bats. His strikeouts are down, his walks are up. His power numbers and extra-base hits are not up, but he does have raw power, which is hard to find from the right side. I think his better days are ahead of him."
The Dirtbags also have a nice core of seniors in the lineup. Third baseman/outfielder Michael Hill has provided some punch, hitting 10 doubles and a team-best seven triples. First baseman Ino Patron is hitting .300 for the second straight year, and is tied for the team lead with 12 doubles and two homers. Colby Brenner has taken a big step forward, providing strong defense in center field and speed atop the lineup.
But freshman shortstop Garrett Hampson (.315/.350/.409) has been the biggest difference maker. The No. 84 prospect in the BA 500 heading into last year's draft, Hampson looks like the next great one in Long Beach State's rich shortstop lineage, which includes Tulowitzki, Evan Longoria and Bobby Crosby. He is just scratching the surface of his offensive potential, and he has provided strong defense at short.
"One player doesn't make or break your team, but the one thing he's done is solidify a position that has not been solidified here for some time," Buckley said. "He's taken it on with no entitlement, and he's embraced it. He certainly has an instinctual clock off the chart, I mean, well above-average. From a tools standpoint, not one time this year has it been, oh boy, that arm's not going to work. His positioning, his ability to understand who's running, is really at an advanced level. And he has done a nice job in the 2-hole. At times works under the ball and gets a little busy, but always finds a way to take a quality at-bat somewhere along the line."
On the mound, redshirt sophomore righthander Andrew Rohrbach (6-1, 1.92) and senior righty Josh Frye (6-0, 1.61) have been wonderful success stories for the Dirtbags. Rohrbach, the Friday starter and a potential top-10-rounds draft pick next month, had almost no pitching experience at JC of the Canyons before arriving in Long Beach—he threw just four innings last year. A Tommy John surgery survivor, Rohrbach has caught scouts attention at LBSU by running his fastball up to 94-95, though he pitches at 89-91. He flashes an average changeup, but his breaking ball needs a lot of work. Rohrbach threw a complete-game gem last week at Hawaii, and he has been a good tone-setter atop the rotation.
"If he continues down the path that he's going, he's got a legitimate chance to pitch in the big leagues," Buckley said. "What a fantastic story to be thrown into this and highly succeed. He's a freak athlete, and he's got a lot of arm speed, and he's smart."
Frye worked exclusively as a reliever over his first three seasons, throwing between 15 and 20 innings each year. Injuries helped thrust him into the rotation this spring, and he has thrived as a starter, posting 61 valuable innings. Buckley said the 6-foot-7 Frye has done a better job this year of throwing consistent strikes down in the zone with his 85-90 mph fastball, which has good movement.
"He was a successful high school pitcher, but was not very mature, not very aware, not very strong," Buckley said. "Over the course of time, he took the information that was handed to him, shoved down his throat, and has really, really gained trust with himself, with his teammates, and has gained trust with me. He's been awesome—what a great senior and what a great story."
Six-foot-5 junior lefthander Nick Sabo (3-5, 3.50) gives Long Beach a quality third starter with command of a below-average fastball, good feel for a changeup and an improved breaking ball. Closer Kyle Friedrichs (six saves) has returned from Tommy John surgery and re-established himself as an effective bulldog at the back of the bullpen, battling with three pitches.
Setup man Ty Provencher is like a righthanded version of Sabo, as Buckley put it; both succeed in part due to good angles to the plate, and neither is afraid of pitching to contact. And veteran righty Ryan Millison fills a variety of roles, from long relief to short relief to spot starting. The Dirtbags aren't loaded with star power, but they are seasoned and tough, and they have found ways to win against good teams. And they stand a good chance to be rewarded for their success by making a regional.
"It's a great position to be in. The guys have done a fantastic job putting us here," Buckley said. "I like where they're at emotionally and mentally; I like the way they're playing baseball. I'm proud of this team, because we've been through a lot of adversity."
Bubble Watch: Stanford
The Cardinal, like Long Beach State, is fighting to finish above .500 overall, and if it does, it stands a decent chance to snag an at-large berth. No team played a more daunting nonconference schedule than Stanford, which faced Rice, Texas, Vanderbilt and Kansas in the first four weeks of the season. All four of those teams are headed to regionals, and the first three rank inside the top 15 in the RPI.
Stanford's strength of schedule ranks No. 1 in the nation, according to boydsworld.com, and the Division I Baseball Committee has made it clear in recent years that it will reward teams that play rigorous schedules. Last year, for instance, Florida earned an at-large bid with a 29-28 overall record, thanks largely to its strength of schedule. Stanford's problem is it lost each of its first three series, going 2-7 against Rice, Texas and Vandy (with the latter two series coming on the road).
After losing three of its first four conference series (including back-to-back series at Oregon State and Washington), Stanford was just 12-16 overall, 4-8 in the Pac-12, and its regional hopes looked dim. Even Stanford coach Mark Marquess wondered if his brutal schedule dug his young team too deep a hole to climb out of. In the first couple of weekends, Stanford started three freshmen in the weekend rotation (Cal Quantrill, Brett Hanewich and Chris Viall), and they took their lumps.
"I've always done that because I figured if it didn't demoralize them, it would make them stronger," Marquess said of his aggressive scheduling. "It was a little risky this year, and maybe I wish I had started just one of those freshmen, maybe Cal who's pitched on the Canadian national team. I was very concerned about that, and there were some ups and downs. In the long run it really benefitted us, and it gives us a chance to go to the postseason. But of all the years I've done it, this was the most concerning because we were so young pitching-wise."
The Cardinal has won three of its last four conference series, including road sets in the last two weeks at UCLA and Arizona. Quantrill is the lone freshman left in the rotation, as junior lefthander John Hochstatter and sophomore lefty Logan James have stabilized the rotation behind him. Stanford has climbed to 24-22 overall (11-13 in the Pac-12) with seven games left, including a home series this weekend against Washington State and a road trip to Utah.
"We're playing better. We're pitching better," Marquess said. "It's deceiving too. We played Oregon, Oregon State and Washington the first four or five weekends—we played the better teams. And we're better now than we were then. Hochstatter's starting to really pitch, and James, two older guys as opposed to the freshmen."
Hochstatter made 22 starts over his first two seasons, and his ERA has dropped from 4.53 as a freshman to 3.88 last year to 1.96 this year. Marquess said his fastball velocity has jumped a bit, from 84-85 to 87-88, and he has done a much better job locating it down in the zone than he used to. His changeup has always been his best offspeed pitch, but he has developed another weapon in his cutter, whereas he used to use a slow curveball. James throws harder, working at 90-92 mph, and Marquess said his command and control have improved dramatically since he has settled into a starting role. He has 23 walks and 26 strikeouts in 42 innings on the year, but he has issued just four walks in 15 innings in his three starts.
"A lot of teams see his numbers so they take on him, that's benefited him," Marquess said. "He's got a good curveball, and he can get ahead in the count, then they'll chase his offspeed. He's got great velocity, so he can get away with it when he leaves the fastball up a little bit."
But Quantrill, the No. 90 prospect in the BA 500 prospects list for the 2013 draft, has the highest ceiling of the bunch. He is 3-5, 3.42 in 13 starts, but he has given Stanford a chance just about every Friday.
"The medicine hasn't killed him; he's survived it, and gotten better each time," Marquess said. "He knows how to pitch, and he's smart, he picks it up. He had more of a fastball-changeup when he came here, now he's developed a slider or curve to go with it. He's in the low 90s, and easy. He's had to work on not worrying about throwing it too hard, but getting his fastball down. And the changeup is real good, unusual for a freshman."
Another key has been the return to health of hard-throwing closer A.J. Vanegas (2-3, 2.00, 5 SV), who battled a back injury last year, then came down with some tendinitis in his arm. The Cardinal has been very cautious with him, but he has gotten stronger down the stretch, flashing mid-90s heat and a wipeout slider. Vanegas and third baseman Alex Blandino are Stanford's highest-profile players, and both have performed. Blandino is hitting .299/.387/.517 with nine homers (second in the Pac-12) and 29 RBIs.
Fellow junior Austin Slater (.345/.398/.488) has blossomed into the team's leading hitter, and football/baseball talent Zach Hoffpauir (.327/.383/.478, 3 HR) has been a pleasant surprise, the latest in Stanford's long line of two-spot contributors.
"You never know what to expect with Hoffpauir, being a football player—he's been to two Rose Bowls," Marquess said. "He started out in right, and he's one of our better hitters right now. Initially they were throwing him breaking balls, he had to learn to hit those. Now he can hit those, hit them the other way. He's got a little pop. He's really come on faster than we thought."
The Cardinal as a whole has come on just in the nick of time, but there is little margin for error in the final two weeks. A loss to San Jose State on Tuesday dropped Stanford nine spots to No. 41 in the RPI, and the RPI Needs Report at Boyd's World says the Cardinal must win six of its final seven games to finish inside the top 45. Finishing in the top 55 could be good enough for a West Coast team, as the committee (chaired by Big West commissioner Dennis Farrell) awarded at-large bids to No. 50 San Francisco, No. 51 New Mexico and No. 56 UC Santa Barbara last year. And none of those teams played as rugged a schedule as Stanford has this year.
The bottom line is Stanford needs to continue to play at the higher level it has over the last month, and it will find itself back in a regional.
Bubble Watch: Western Carolina
Western Carolina players and coaches alike remember the pain of being left out of regionals last year. It's been a driving force as they try to get WCU back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007. The 2013 Catamounts won a school-record 23 Southern Conference games, were runaway winners of the SoCon regular-season title by 4 ½ games, and went 39-20 overall.
Yet they were left at home on Selection Monday after a 1-2 showing at the league tournament. "We feel like we had a team that could've really done some damage in a regional last year, no question about it," WCU coach Bobby Moranda said.
"If you look at our numbers, we were top five in most offensive categories. We were top 10 in strikeouts-per-nine from our pitching staff. We had the national pitcher of the week twice last year. We had a good team.
"For (the SoCon) to be a one-bid league, I thought, was a crime. I think that this league is a lot better than that. I think it's a tough league. I was in the ACC for 18 years and went to a lot of regionals and went to Omaha a couple times and I'm telling you, SoCon teams can play baseball."
Moranda points to the performance of SoCon teams in regionals—a SoCon team has reached a regional final in three of the last four years—as evidence the league deserves a better shake in the postseason.
However, his Catamounts once again find themselves as the SoCon's only hope for an at-large bid, and once again they're squarely on the bubble as they enter this week's three-game series with upstart Davidson that will decide the SoCon regular-season title. Davidson carries a half-game lead over WCU into the weekend. (For more on Davidson, see Aaron Fitt's piece from back in April.)
The Catamounts were left out of last year's tournament with an RPI of 57 (one spot behind at-large team UC Santa Barbara, from committee chairman Dennis Farrell's Big West Conference).
A year later, they're in almost the exact same position. They entered this week at No. 57 in the NCAA's official RPI released on Monday, though a Tuesday win against previously red-hot Kennesaw State bumped them up to No. 55 on boydsworld.com's pseudo-RPI. Moranda and company have tried not to get caught up in the numbers. Still, it's hard not to at least give them a glance.
"We were a little shocked at our strength of schedule, and I don't know how they came up with that," Moranda said. "I mean, (we played) three at Mississippi State. We went to Washington State, who has beaten some really good people. They're a team that I think is extremely talented.
“We're at Clemson, we're at Georgia Tech, we're at Georgia, we're at Tennessee (in midweek games). And I think our strength of schedule the one time we looked at it was like 177 (it is currently 180th, per Boyd's World). We're playing Wake (Forest) midweek, who at the time had like a 45 RPI or something. So, it's interesting, I will say that. It's an interesting deal, but that's out of our control. We just have to play the games and try to win as many as we can and, it sounds cliché or whatever, but take it one day at a time and at the end of the deal, hopefully our resume is good enough."
Winning the series against the Wildcats would go a long way. The Catamounts are again a very offensive club. Through last weekend's games, they ranked among the top 10 nationally in scoring (7.2 runs/game), homers (46) and slugging percentage (.439).
Junior first baseman Jacob Hoyle was tied for sixth in the country in homers with 14, and not far behind him was senior catcher Adam Martin with 12. Teams that embrace the home run have become a rare breed in the BBCOR era, but not in the Southern Conference. Six SoCon schools rank among the top 20 nationally in home runs (Davidson is also among them along with WCU), and Elon, which ranks 39th, gives the league a seventh team (out of its 10) inside the top 50. Moranda acknowledges that the SoCon has its share of parks that favor the long ball, but at the same time, he and his staff have kept power as an important part of Western's offensive identity despite the home run's de-emphasis around the country.
"A home run in the BBCOR era is a really good thing," Moranda said. "You hit a home run, you got a really good chance to win the baseball game. That's kind of our philosophy, if you're fortunate enough to do it. If you don't, then you've got to find other ways. We don't want to be dinosaurs. We don't want to have like one way of scoring runs, but hitting with power is a good thing."
Hoyle and Martin anchor a veteran lineup—seven of the eight players with at least 100 at-bats for WCU this year are juniors or seniors. Likewise, Davidson's everyday lineup features six juniors or seniors, and Moranda believes that that kind of experience level is an important asset that can give mid-majors like Davidson and Western a better shot at competing with the big schools.
"(The BBCOR bat) just kind of evens the playing field to where, that bat, you've got to really be technically sound to hit with it . . . so the older you get, the more you learn how to hit with that. It's like hitting with wood the first time in summer baseball—difficult, and the more you do it, the better you get at it. I think by the time guys are juniors and seniors, they've figured a way to barrel the ball and drive it with the BBCOR bat. I think that's where we're at, and a team like Davidson, and those teams across the country with older players."
On the mound, the Catamounts have had to shuffle their rotation. Ace righty Jeremy Null had been pitching through pain from a knot in his back for about a month, diminishing his velocity and stuff, and finally reached a breaking point two weeks ago against Appalachian State, coming out after just two innings.
A visit to the Atlanta Braves' physician got the issue cleared up and, given a couple extra days to rest, Null pitched well on Sunday against Georgia Southern, allowing three earned runs in 6 1/3 innings, albeit in a loss. Null will go on Friday in the second game against Davidson, bumping senior righty Jordan Smith, who'd been the Sunday starter most of the year, into the No. 1 spot for Thursday's opener.
Smith, the school's career leader in starts, mixes four pitches and reaches 92 mph with his fastball, according to Moranda. But more than that, he's a dogged competitor who the coaches can count on to give the team a chance every time out. Smith was the SoCon's pitcher of the month in April, going 3-1, 1.64 in four starts, and leads the team with eight wins on the year.
While Null on Fridays and Smith on Sundays have been fixtures, the Saturday spot has been a bit of a revolving door. However, the Catamounts are ready to settle on freshman lefty Bryan Sammons as their third starter this weekend and going into the postseason. Sammons, who tops out around 89-90 mph and pitches more in the mid-80s, has both started and relieved over the course of the season but has managed to rack up a 7-2 record along with a 4.50 ERA.
— Jim Shonerd