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College Weekend Preview: Mar. 25-27
by Will Kimmey
Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall has enjoyed offensive luxury plenty of times during his 12 years at Georgia Tech. His lineups have included Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Varitek, Mark Teixeira, Jay Payton, Richard Lewis, Mark Fischer, Jason Basil and Jason Perry.
"We've had a lot of guys swing the bat and score a lot of runs, but I don't know if we've had a 1 through 9 as consistent as this year," Hall said.
If freshman Michael Fisher starts at second base, Georgia Tech's entire lineup this weekend against No. 6 Miami will boast batting averages of .328 or better along with at least three doubles and two home runs. Even with junior Mike Trapani at second, his solid .411 on-base percentage will rank as the lineup's lowest.
It makes Hall's job of filling out the lineup card easy, except maybe when he feels bad about batting senior right fielder Jeff Kindell seventh despite a .397 average. Kindell, a converted pitcher with six career at-bats entering 2005, is one example of how the attack comes from all over. He wasn't expected to contribute much, but he earned the right field job while Jeremy Slayden eases back from shoulder surgery.
Freshmen Danny Payne (.389 with a team-best 42 runs from the leadoff spot) and Matt Wieters (.391) have stepped right into everyday duty--and success. Third baseman Wes Hodges has developed from a solid freshman into an impact sophomore, leading the team with a .451 average, seven home runs and a .769 slugging percentage. Left fielder Stephen Blackwood has continued to display one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's best swings, resulting in a .373 average.
And the two juniors expected to become first-round picks this June haven't struggled through any slumps. Slayden was batting .378 with a team-best 33 RBIs and was tied with Hodges in homers, while Greene is batting .344-4-29 after missing the first three games with a broken jaw.
Heck, even catcher Andy Hawranick, known more for his strong defensive efforts, was contributing with .328-2-13 numbers. It all adds up to 11.5 runs per game, a .357 team average, 36 home runs and a 19-3 record.
"It's nice to know you have several options," Hall said. "We have different guys step up on different days."
So it's probably easy to guess what Hall thinks will prove the key when his No. 5 Yellow Jackets put their 25-game ACC winning streak on the line against the Hurricanes, right?
"Pitching and defense," he said. Huh? "A good pitcher can shut anyone down," Hall said.
He's right. And Miami features at least two starters throwing as well as anyone in the nation. Junior righthander Cesar Carrillo has gone 5-0, 1.10 with 49 strikeouts and six walks in 41 innings. Sophomore righty Ricky Orta has won all four starts he's made in replacing the suspended Chris Perez, posting a 0.73 ERA with 19 strikeouts, 10 walks and 12 hits allowed in 25 innings.
"We saw Carrillo last year, and he was one of the best guys we saw all year," Hall said. "And now he's a year older and off to a great start. The Orta kid has been throwing really well, too.
"All told, any time you face Miami, they're going to pitch well."
Georgia Tech will need to do the same. Jason Neighborall (5-0, 2.65) and Blake Wood (4-0, 3.26) have been strong weekend bookends all year, while Lee Hyde (3-0, 5.52) showed improvement last weekend against North Carolina State, allowing four hits and no runs in a career-high seven innings. "Our pitching staff is a work in progress," Hall said, meaning it in a positive way.
It's still plenty early, but these appear to be the two favorites for the league title, and a series win would offer an edge in the conference race. Then again, Georgia Tech got swept by Virginia to open its 2004 ACC slate and at one point needed to sweep its final five conference series to overtake the Cavaliers for first place. The Yellow Jackets did that and more, winning their last 16 games to finish 18-5 in the ACC--a half-game better than Virginia's 18-6 mark.
AROUND THE NATION
• No. 21 Texas Tech checks into Austin this weekend to oppose No. 4 Texas. It's weird to see Texas sitting on the bottom of the Big 12 Conference standings, even if it's only one week into the season. The 0-3 week against Baylor means the Longhorns have some work to do, but it doesn't mean they still aren't the conference favorite. It that idea seems misguided, go ahead and re-read the paragraph above this one.
The Red Raiders aren't hitting as many longballs as they did last year, but senior center fielder Cody Fuller is running wild. His 16 steals lead the Big 12, and he's two away from reaching third place on the school's all-time list. Those could be difficult to come by with Texas junior Taylor Teagarden behind the plate. He rates as one of the nation's premier defensive catchers, and also has produced at the plate, with a .380 average, .510 on-base percentage, two home runs and 13 RBIs.
• Texas A&M finishes a string of eight consecutive road games with a Big 12 series at Oklahoma. It's part of the first time in Mark Johnson's 21 seasons at A&M that the Aggies have played less than half of their games at Olsen Field, where 27 of their 56 games will be played this year.
Junior shortstop Cliff Pennington continues to abuse the baseball for the No. 14 Aggies. The leadoff man leads the team with 13 steals and 23 runs, and also ranks first in the triple crown categories (.416-5-23) after going 4-for-4 with a home run and career-high five RBIs Tuesday against Texas State in his first game as the No. 3 hitter.
• Washington opens Pacific-10 play at No. 13 Arizona this weekend. This is normally where some of Arizona's gaudy offensive statistics would follow, but this week is about junior righthander John Meloan. He held Cal State Fullerton scoreless on four hits over 7 2/3 innings in a 1-0 win last Friday by using his 88-91 mph fastball and spike curveball, which is his best pitch. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Meloan improved to 4-0, 2.97 with 54 strikeouts in 39 innings.
"The most impressive thing about Meloan is he has an unbelievable physique," an American League area scout said. "He might be too strong for his own good. There's some projection there if he gets more flexible on a less weight-intensive program."
• Florida added Alan Horne as a transfer to replace Justin Hoyman atop its rotation, but another junior righthander has earned that distinction. Bryan Ball made the Friday start two weeks ago when Horne was out with the flu, and he doesn't appear likely to give that spot back. Ball has built a 5-0, 1.54 record by relying on a sinking fastball at 86-89 mph, a slider and a splitter he uses as a changeup against lefthanders.
"For him, he wins with his movement and command," Florida pitching coach Ross Jones said. "He throws a fastball it's like a dry spitter. It really sinks."
Ball and the No. 11 Gators stay home to face No. 9 South Carolina this weekend.
• No. 23 Southern California opens Pac-10 play at home against Arizona State. Sun Devils senior first baseman/left fielder Jeff Larish ranks second in the nation with 10 home runs (one behind New Mexico State's Mark Aranda). Larish has hit two more home runs than the entire Trojans team, led by junior catcher Jeff Clement's four.
• The duo of Brian Pettway (.434-8-28) and Stephen Head (.357-7-27) has led Mississippi to a 17-4 start and No. 7 ranking. We'll find out exactly how well the Rebels swing the bats Friday night against Tennessee junior righthander Luke Hochevar. Auburn coach Tom Slater said Hochevar's 11-strikeout one-hitter against the Tigers last weekend was the best Southeastern Conference pitching performance he remembers since Louisiana State's Kurt Ainsworth mowed down Auburn in 1997. Speaking of that matchup, No. 4 Louisiana State opens its home SEC schedule with Auburn this weekend.
• No. 20 Nebraska (19-2) takes its 11-game win streak to Kansas (20-8), which has won seven games in a row. Nebraska leads the Big 12 with a 1.92 ERA, and its offense is also rolling behind Brandon Fusilier (team-best 30 RBIs), Alex Gordon (Big 12-best 1.406 on-base plus slugging percentage) and Joe Simonkaitis (18-game hit streak). Kansas' offense hasn't hurt for runs, either, scoring 8.5 per game behind outfielder A.J. Van Slyke's six home runs and 28 RBIs. The son of Andy Van Slyke leads the Jayhawks in both categories.
• Wake Forest visits No. 16 North Carolina in a series featuring contrasting styles. Led by sophomore DH Brendan Enick's .453 average, the Demon Deacons scored 15 runs against Virginia, 14 against Georgia Tech and 13 against Miami, but often have trouble preventing runs with a 6.99 team ERA and .326 opponents average. The Tar Heels boast a 1.74 team ERA and .197 opponents average but struggle to score runs against top competition, posting eight total runs in their five losses.
• Vanderbilt reinstated junior lefthander Ryan Mullins for this weekend's series against Alabama, but he's not listed among the probable starters and is expected to see work in relief.
• Oklahoma City senior righthander Mike Mlotkowski threw a seven-inning perfect game with 13 strikeouts Sunday against Hastings (Neb.) College. Mlotkowski threw two no-hitters for Oklahoma City last year, tying an NAIA record.