College Weekend Preview: April 6-8

Meaningful Matchup
Southern California at Oregon State

A number of series across the nation got started Thursday to accommodate the holiday weekend, but there's still plenty of action to look forward to. One of the weekend's biggest series got started early in Corvallis, Ore., where the two-time defending Pacific-10 Conference champion Beavers sought their first conference win of the season against a USC team in search of its first conference series win.

Top 25 Schedule
Alabama at (1) Vanderbilt
(2) Florida State at North Carolina State
Duke at (3) Virginia
(4) North Carolina at Boston College
(5) South Carolina at Florida
Mississippi State at (6) Arkansas
(7) Texas at Kansas
(8) Rice at (22) East Carolina
(25) Southern California at (9) Oregon State
Creighton at (10) Wichita State
Loyola Marymount at (11) Pepperdine
(23) UC Irvine at (12) Cal State Fullerton
(13) Oklahoma State at Nebraska
(14) Coastal Carolina at Troy
Stanford at (15) Arizona State
(16) Texas A&M at Texas Tech
California at (17) Arizona
(18) Clemson at Virginia Tech
(19) Oklahoma at Baylor
Georgia at (20) Mississippi
Memphis at (21) Tulane
Tennessee at (24) Kentucky
Just when it seemed like the Beavers could do no wrong, their 12-game winning streak came to an unceremonious end in their Pac-10-opening series at Arizona last weekend, as the upstart Wildcats swept OSU right out of town. Oregon State's weekend rotation of Mike Stutes, Joe Paterson and Daniel Turpen, which had been so strong through OSU's first 26 games, came out flat, as none of the three starters lasted through the fifth inning. It all might have turned out differently had the Beavers held onto a 3-1 lead in Friday's series opener, but Arizona capitalized on an Oregon State defensive blunder, of all things, to score four runs in the fifth. Usually reliable center fielder Chris Hopkins misplayed a Brad Glenn fly ball into a two-run triple, and things spiraled out of control from that point on. We're not accustomed to seeing pitching and defense fail the defending national champions, who built their reputation on their ability to excel in those very facets of the game.

"We didn’t play any part of the game as well as we've been playing all year long," Oregon State coach Pat Casey said. "We didn’t defend or pitch or hit near as well as we had the previous 26 games. Part of it was us, part of it was them. We basically were flat, didn't play well all weekend. You win the first game Friday night, I think it changes a lot of the momentum, how we do things. But we didn’t."

USC, meanwhile, had two weeks to think about its conference-opening series loss to Arizona State and get ready for the Beavers, with only a midweek game at UC Riverside in between. The Trojans had been on a roll before dropping two of three at home to the Sun Devils, winning their previous five series against quality opponents (Stanford, Georgia, Tulane, San Diego State and San Diego). The young Trojans have matured ahead of schedule, especially on the mound, where freshman righthander Brad Boxberger (1-2, 2.27) had emerged as the best starter on the staff and freshmen Robert Stock (2-0, 3.27), Hector Rabago (2-0, 4.86) and Kevin Couture (2-1, 5.14) fit seamlessly into a bullpen that has become one of the best in the nation. The offense hasn't been as strong, but freshmen have provided significant boosts there as well, led by catcher Stock (.312 with three homers) and shortstop Grant Green (.302 with six triples).

Even after losing their series opener against Arizona State by a 10-0 count and falling behind 3-1 in Saturday's game, the precocious Trojans battled back to tie the score in the seventh inning before the Sun Devils pushed across the winning run in the eighth. Had a few breaks gone the other way Saturday, the Trojans might have taken the series against one of the preseason favorites to win the conference, putting themselves squarely in the forefront of the Pac-10 race in the process.

Instead, both USC and OSU entered this weekend in need of a series win to avoid falling into a deep conference ditch.

"I think we need to play well," Casey said. "We need to understand that this is a long, long season, a long, long conference season; we've got to play well. We have to worry about playing the game and not anything else. We've got to find a way to win a series against USC. We just can't get caught up in what other expectations are or anything else, because this league is dynamite."

The Beavers are still the class of that league, even after being swept last weekend. And anyone who saw what happened after Oregon State lost its 2006 CWS opener to Miami by an 11-1 score wasn't surprised to see the Beavers bounce back with a 9-5 win against Southern Cal last night, behind 6 2/3 strong innings from Stutes. This is still Oregon State, even without Kevin Gunderson, Jonah Nickerson, Dallas Buck and seven departed position-player regulars.

"I think we've been real, real consistent with what we've done (until the Arizona series)," Casey said. "If someone said, 'Listen, seven of your starters are going to leave and your three arms will be gone and you'll be 23-6,' we'd say, 'Awesome. We'll take it.'"

Marquee Mound Matchup
Michael Hyde vs. Andrew Brackman

Florida State will face its stiffest challenge to date this season when it visits red-hot North Carolina State in a series with major Atlantic Coast Conference ramifications. It's still early in the conference season, but the Wolfpack has a chance to blow the Atlantic Division race wide open; right now the Seminoles sit atop the standings with an 8-1 conference mark, while second-place N.C. State is 8-4. The 'Pack has won six straight, including a sweep at Boston College last weekend and a midweek win over No. 22 East Carolina. Interestingly, NCSU's hot streak has been largely independent of its potential top-three pick in the draft, 6-foot-11 righthander Brackman. Though his fastball velocity has been in the mid- to upper 90s all season, Brackman has been rather pedestrian of late, suffering N.C. State's lone loss against Wake Forest two weeks ago, when he allowed six runs (five earned) on nine hits and five walks in four innings of work. He lasted just five innings against Virginia Tech the week before that and gave up six runs (five earned) in a loss to Maryland before that. He was better last week against BC, striking out seven and allowing just one run over seven innings of work in a 10-1 win, but this will be his first game against an elite opponent this year.

Brackman will face his foil in Hyde, a senior righthander who lacks overpowering stuff but really knows how to pitch and rack up wins. Heading into last Saturday's start against Duke, Hyde had lost just one of his previous 20 starts. He proceeded to suffer his first loss of the season against the Blue Devils, allowing six earned runs over 1 1/3 innings of work, but even after that his career record at FSU sits at 24-4, and his career ACC record at 8-1. This big series between the Seminoles and Wolfpack is likely to turn on the middle game of the series, when Brackman takes his world-beating stuff against the wily Hyde, and both pitchers look to rebound from rough outings.

Upset City
East Carolina over Rice

Greenville, N.C., will be in a frenzy over this weekend's visit from Conference USA favorite Rice, especially since the Pirates have a legitimate chance to make a run at the league title this season. ECU is a very good home team, as the Pirates draw upon the energy of the boisterous fans at Clark-Leclair Stadium, which will now play host to the CUSA tournament. Tulane was to be the host site, but the rebuilt Turchin Stadium won't be ready for the event, which shifts to Greenville.

Nobody feeds off ECU's home atmosphere more than junior righthander T.J. Hose, who has emerged as a true big-game pitcher on Fridays this year, having beaten Pepperdine's Barry Enright, Cal State Fullerton's Wes Roemer and Michigan's Zach Putnam and nearly adding Tulane's Sean Morgan to that list last week (he lost 2-1). Hose shows plenty of emotion on the mound and loves pitching in front of the home crowd; he's got the advantage over talented but still inexperienced freshman Ryan Berry of Rice. The Pirates have an experience edge on Saturday as well, when junior lefthander Dustin Sasser faces another newcomer, junior college transfer Matt Langwell. Look for the Pirates to give Berry and Langwell all they can handle in their first taste of Greenville.

Under The Radar

The Big East is wide open, as preseason conference favorites Notre Dame (13-14, 1-4 in conference) and St. John's (12-11, 3-3) both stumbled out of the gates while South Florida (23-9, 6-3) and Louisville (20-8, 5-1) got off to strong starts. West Virginia looked to be in that mix as well heading into last weekend's showdown with the Cardinals. The Mountaineers were 15-5 on the strength of a solid offense, but Louisville promptly swept the three-game series to remain atop the Big East standings. First-year coach Dan McDonnell has done an excellent job making Louisville a legitimate contender for the conference title, but it helps to inherit veterans like senior outfielders Boomer Whiting (.450/.537/.470 with 38 stolen bases in 46 attempts) and Isaiah Howes (.421/.475/.738 with eight homers) and senior infielders Logan Johnson (.388/.526/.806 with nine homers) and 5-foot-3 sparkplug Chris Cates (.347/.402/.416). The experienced pitching staff has also been strong, led by junior righty Zack Pitts (5-1, 1.15).

"I think they're really good," West Virginia coach Greg Van Zant said after the Cardinals completed their sweep of the Mountaineers. "They pitch really well, they play defense, they swing the bats well, they run the bases. Of their nine starters, six are seniors. Boomer Whiting in center field leading off already has 37 stolen bases. Logan Johnson hitting second has a bunch of extra-base hits. They've got Chris Dominguez at third, he's a stud. And their catcher (Derrick) Alfonso, he hit a home run to tie it up out of the eight-hole of the lineup.

"Based on what I've seen, Louisville might be the best team in the conference."

Adam Mills, rhp, UNC Charlotte

No pitcher has performed better this season than Mills--not even Vanderbilt lefthander David Price, who earned recognition as the top pitcher at the midway point in the year in our midseason report based on his combination of elite prospect status and performance against Southeastern Conference competition. But for sheer numbers, it's hard to compete with Mills, who fired his third shutout of the season in a 14-strikeout, two-hit gem against St. Joseph's yesterday. It was Mills' third consecutive complete game and fifth of the season; he has now racked up 99 strikeouts in 77 innings of work. The 6-foot, 190-pound Mills, now 8-1, 1.06, is a major reason why the 49ers are off to the best start in school history at 24-5.

Joshua Fields, rhp, Georgia

Georgia has traditionally been a second-half team, and with a number of freshmen playing prominent roles this season it's not too surprising that the Bulldogs would take their lumps early on. But nobody would have expected Georgia to be swept four times in the first two months. After opening the year with a three-game sweep at the hands of Oregon State, Georgia was also swept at home by Southern California and Florida and swept on the road by Tennessee. The Bulldogs are currently riding a five-game losing streak, and preseason All-American closer Fields has taken the loss in two of them--last Sunday against Florida and Wednesday against Clemson.

The hard-throwing righthander, who blew a save against Oregon State in his first outing of the year, is just 1-5, 5.91 in 13 appearances this year. He's failed to throw with the consistent mid-90s velocity he showed last summer on the Cape, and an early experiment with a curveball (instead of the plus slider he showed last summer) didn't work out. He has since gone back to the slider.

"Early in the year, I think Joshua Fields was just a little out of whack mechanically," Georgia coach David Perno said. "I think his last two, Sunday and (Wednesday) at Clemson, he threw the ball extremely well, it's just been unfortunate. We were out of position on one play and we just didn't make another play. It's been bouncing all over the place."

As Perno pointed out, Georgia is not struggling because it is playing a lot of freshmen. The Bulldogs are 10-19 because largely because their veterans have stumbled, and Fields is the most prominent player on the team. He's started to throw better of late; if he keeps it up, sooner or later he'll start getting breaks as well. Fields and Georgia will try to reverse their skid this weekend at Mississippi.

Stat of the Week

Hits allowed by Mercer closer Cory Gearrin in 30 innings this year. The junior righthander, a transfer from Young-Harris (Ga.) Junior College, has seen his fastball velocity jump from the high 80s to the low 90s, making his stuff all the more impossible to hit from his low three-quarters arm slot. Gearrin finally allowed his first run of the season March 20 against Georgia, but his numbers remain eye-popping: through 17 relief appearances, Gearrin is 3-0, 0.30 with 48 strikeouts and 17 walks in 30 innings of work.

Scouting Report
UC Riverside

The Highlanders have rebounded since dropping consecutive series against Oklahoma and Portland in early March, taking their last two sets against Santa Clara and UC Davis. At 18-11, Riverside is in position to make an NCAA tournament run, and its deep pitching staff could make UCR a very difficult out in regionals. Scouts have been salivating over Riverside's collection of prized arms all year long, but the bats haven't always provided much support. Junior righthander James Simmons (7-1, 1.81, 64-7 K-BB ratio in 65 innings) has continued to lead the way, striking out 10 and allowing just two hits against UC Santa Barbara last night. Senior lefthander Marc Rzepczynski (5-0, 2.27), hard-throwing junior righty Adam Reifer (2.45 ERA in six relief appearances) and junior lefty Dan Runzler (2-5, 5.93) also have outstanding arms. Here's what a National League scouting director had to say about the Highlanders, who take on the Gauchos in Big West play this weekend:

"They're an interesting squad. They have, in my opinion, the best pitching staff in the country. If they had any depth in their position players, I would guess that they'd go a long way in the postseason. They're fun to watch, all their pitchers. I've seen them all except for Reifer--he was on the shelf for a while. But their other guys, everybody from Simmons to Rzepczynski to Runzler, they're all legit. Those are all prospects. Rzepczynski is a little different, a senior lefty, I don’t believe he got drafted last year. He was their No. 1 to start the season over Simmons and Runzler. I certainly think he's the lowest prospect grade of all those guys, but still a prospect. If I ranked them, I'd go with Simmons as the top guy. For me, Runzler's a little more advanced than Rzepczynski, a little more upside, deceptive three-quarters delivery, and when his slider's on and his velocity's up, he's pretty tough to hit. But he seems to run out of gas after four or five innings. He profiles nicely as a lefty specialist. Rzepczynski, with his body, frame and consistency, could profile as a starter. Not a front-end type, but a nice solid lefty to have in the rotation. He will be a good senior sign for somebody. And Simmons, he's one of the top pitchers on the West Coast, if not the top. Precision command over there; there are not many guys out there with that kind of command. He doesn't quite have (Wes) Roemer's control, but his command in the zone is better."

In The Dugout
Matt LaPorta, 1b, Florida

After leading Division I with 26 home runs as a sophomore in 2005, LaPorta strained his oblique muscle early in 2006 and never got back on track, finishing with a .259 average and just 14 homers. But LaPorta has been healthy this year, and he's hitting better than ever. He smashed a pair of three-run homers in Florida's midweek win against No. 1 Florida State, his sixth game with at least one homer in the Gators' last seven. Overall, LaPorta is hitting .433/.587/.942 with 15 homers and 35 RBIs in 104 at-bats. As LaPorta has surged, so too have the Gators. After starting the year 11-13, Florida ripped off an eight-game winning streak (including sweeps at Auburn and at Georgia) to raise its record to 19-13 heading into this weekend's big series against No. 5 South Carolina. Friday's game features a great pitching matchup between Florida junior righthander Bryan Augenstein and USC junior righty Harris Honeycutt, and Sunday's game will be televised on ESPN. LaPorta discussed his big first half, his rough 2006 and his role as a leader on the young Gators In The Dugout:

There are a lot of freshman on this team--how much has their confidence grown since the start of the season? Do you try to provide them guidance and leadership?

Yeah, definitely. I see when guys are struggling and a little too tense, because I've been there and I've done that. Really to see the guys develop the way they have is great, I'm really proud of our guys. We've come a long way, just the way we've really gelled on the baseball field, stepping up is huge.

You are just crushing the ball right now. Does this feel like your sophomore year all over again, or do you feel even better now than you did two years ago?

I feel a lot better than I did two years ago. Two years ago I had 60-something strikeouts, this year I have eight strikeouts. My plate discipline is very good right now, and I feel very confident at the plate.

How much did that oblique strain affect your performance last year?

I don’t think I was ever completely healthy. I look now, and I really wasn’t. It was always there in the back of my mind. It was almost like I was playing catch-up ball the whole season last year. I never had a chance to get in a groove.

You said that you can identify with the young players on the team when they get too tense. Did you find yourself pressing last year?

I put a lot of pressure on myself last year, trying to reproduce what I did my sophomore year in half a season, and you just can't do that. I definitely was pressing last year a little too much, with the injury coming back, and a lot of people expected great things out of me, and I didn’t want to let them down.

Did you consider signing with the Red Sox (as a 14th-round pick) last year?

Not really. We did come close a couple of times, but in the back of my mind I knew that I wanted to finish school, and I knew I had some unfinished business here at the University of Florida. Last year was kind of a let-down, and I wanted to come back and prove people wrong about me.

You wanted to prove people wrong this year--did you think people started to overlook you, maybe to forget about you a little, in last year's draft?

It seemed like they forgot about the power numbers and how good of a hitter I really was from my sophomore year, but that's fine, that's how baseball goes.

As well as you're hitting right now, are there any areas where you need to improve?

You can always get better. I still can have even better pitch selection, sometimes I still come out of the zone. But right now I feel really good about my approach at the plate. I don't swing at hardly any bad pitches right now.

It seems like there's just no way to get you out right now. If you were trying to pitch to Matt LaPorta, how would you go about it?

I don't know. Walk me?

How much fun has this season been?

It's been great, especially watching young guys grow and the way we build as a team, and the way we win ballgames. We play every game like we're in the last game of the College World Series. There's no quit in this team.