College Weekend Preview: Feb. 19-21

Previewing the first week of the college baseball season

Meaningful Matchup
Rice at Stanford
Just one series this opening weekend features two teams ranked in Baseball America's preseason Top 25, but we'll devote plenty of words to the Virginia-East Carolina series on the College Blog this weekend, as we'll be on hand for the action in Greenville, N.C. So let's turn our attention to the biggest series on the opposite coast: Rice at Stanford.

The Owls and Cardinal are no strangers to big, inter-regional nonconference series. Stanford plays an early-season series against Texas every year, while Rice opened its season on the West Coast last year as well, dropping a three-game series at Cal Poly. But this is the first meeting between these two storied programs since the 2003 College World Series Finals(when Rice won two out of three meetings en route to its first national title). The only other time Rice and Stanford faced off was in 1991, when the Cardinal swept a three-game set.

Top 25 Series
New Mexico at (1) Texas
(3) Virginia at (18) East Carolina
Centenary at (3) Louisiana State
(5) Rice at Stanford
Missouri State at (6) Georgia Tech
South Florida at (7) Florida
Loyola Marymount at/vs./at (8) UC Irvine
Georgia State at (9) Florida State
Duquesne at (10) South Carolina
Sam Houston State at (11) Texas Christian
Bowling Green State at (13) Louisville
Northern Illinois at (14) Arizona State
Rutgers at (16) Miami
Ball State at (17) Arkansas
George Washington at (20) North Carolina
Northwestern State at (21) Southern Mississippi
Louisiana-Monroe at (24) Mississippi
(25) Oregon State at Hawaii
Top 25 Tournaments
Round robin, three sites in Southern California:
(4) Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, Oregon, Pepperdine
Caravelle Resort Tournament, Conway, S.C.:
(12) Coastal Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia Tech, West Virginia
Round robin, two sites in South Carolina:
15) Clemson, Furman, Miami (Ohio), Michigan State
San Diego State Tournament:
19) San Diego, Indiana, Oklahoma, San Diego State
QTI Apparel Opening Weekend Classic, Waco, Texas:
(22) Georgia, Baylor, Duke
MLB Urban Invitational, Los Angeles/Compton, Calif.:
(23) UCLA, Bethune-Cookman, Cal State Northridge, Southern
Fifth-ranked Rice enters this series as the favorite against unranked Stanford, but the Owls won't be taking the Cardinal lightly—especially not after last year's season-opening series loss to Poly.

"I think part of that whole thing last year was my mistake," Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "I was determined that my kids would enjoy the ride down Highway 1—all those steep inclines and everything. I'm not sure I didn't throw them off. Hopefully they'll be ready this year because of what happened last year. It wasn't a disgrace to lose to Cal Poly—they had a good team—but we just didn't play well."

Stanford coach Mark Marquess said he always likes to schedule top competition early in the season, but there are risks to that kind of scheduling, particularly with a young team like the 2010 Cardinal.

"Last year we went in and played Fullerton early and got swept," Marquess said. "The problem that creates for you is it kind of puts you out of the picture nationally, which is unfortunate. Then you've got to dig yourself out of that hole. The other thing to be concerned about if you have some young guys like we do, you can mentally get them down a little bit. You could potentially be 0-6 after playing Rice and Texas, and what does that do for your confidence level? This is the most number of younger players we've had that really have a chance to play. We have four or five freshmen position players that could be starting in the first 15, 20 games, and four or five pitchers."

Certainly Rice has an experience edge in the lineup against a Stanford team that will count on significant contributions from touted freshmen Kenny Diekroeger, Jake Stewart and Stephen Piscotty. But Rice is more unsettled on the mound, and as of late last week Graham was still uncertain how his weekend rotation would shake out, though he has since made his decision.

Sophomore lefty Taylor Wall, who started 15 games a year ago, will start Friday's opener, with senior righty Jared Rogers going Saturday. Graham said junior college transfer Tony Cingrani has done a better job throwing strikes this spring than he did in the fall, making him the choice to start Sunday. A 6-foot-4 lefthander, Cingrani has a long arm action that gives him deception and makes his 87-91 mph fastball play up—"sort of like (Andy) Pettitte," said Graham, who coached Pettitte at San Jacinto (Texas) JC.

Redshirt freshman righty Anthony Fazio and juco transfer Boogie Anagnostou could wind up in the rotation eventually, but Anagnostou figures to start the season in the closer role, as junior lefty Matt Evers continues to struggle with his control.

Rice will get contributions from other inexperienced but promising arms—one sleeper is Doug Simmons, a converted outfielder who had great success this fall after dropping his arm slot—but it is clear that this staff is still very much a work in progress. Fortunately, Rice's stacked lineup means it doesn't need as much out of its pitchers as it has in the past.

"We've got a lot of moving parts, so we think we can put it together," Graham said of his staff. "It's formed a little more now than it was at the start of spring practice. I've told everybody that's asked me, 'We don't have to have great pitching to do well, but nobody's going to Omaha without good pitching.' Good pitching for us means throwing strikes and keeping the ball in the ballpark. We're pitching more to contact than we ever have, and pitching more with moving fastballs as opposed to power fastballs than we ever have. We're trying to get ground balls because we have faith that we're going to be good defensively. We do have an offensive team and some mobility in the field."

Stanford is one of the few teams in the nation that can compete with Rice from an athleticism standpoint. The Cardinal has standout athletes with excellent defensive skills up the middle in catcher Zach Jones, second baseman Colin Walsh, shortstop Jake Schlander and center fielder Stewart. Diekroeger, another premium athlete, can play anywhere in the infield but will start at third base, where there is an opening. Piscotty, a high school shortstop, has swung the bat so well in practice that he will force his way into immediate playing time, whether at first base, DH or a corner outfield spot. He'll also get some playing time on the mound as a righthanded reliever.

Stewart, though, is the X-factor. He might be the nation's best pure athlete, but he gained little experience against top competition while playing his high school ball in Colorado, so his bat remains raw.

"We don't really have a true center fielder coming back, so Stewart has a good chance to play right away, because he has a speed tool, he's got arm strength, he can play defense," Marquess said. "How much is he going to hit? I don't know. With the speed, if he touches it, you've almost got to play him. You may hit him ninth, but you've got to play him."

The power arms in Stanford's second-ranked recruiting class—righties Mark Appel and Chris Jenkins plus lefty Garrett Hughes—will also contribute as freshmen, though Marquess indicated he'll ease them in to make sure their confidence doesn't get destroyed against top 10 competition the first two weeks. The weekend rotation will feature three talented sophomores: righty Jordan Pries and lefties Scott Snodgress and Brett Mooneyham—in that order, at least this weekend.

Pries and Mooneyham spent most of last season in the weekend rotation, so Stanford actually enters this weekend with an edge over Rice in pitching experience. Pries keeps hitters off balance by throwing any pitch in any count. He attacks hitters with an 87-88 mph fastball, a slider, a curveball and even a knuckle ball, which he uses about 10 times per game. Mooneyham and Snodgress are big, physical power pitchers who work in the low 90s. The three of them have a chance to form a very good weekend rotation.

But the biggest concern facing Stanford is replacing Drew Storen in the closer role. Eventually one of the hard-throwing freshmen could slide into that job, but for now junior righty Danny Sandbrink is the favorite.

"The problem is—and this was unique about Storen—the high school pitchers you recruit are all starters," Marquess said. "They don't pitch in relief in high school. So who can be a closer? Not everybody can do that. So we're very leery of a freshman being a closer because a lot of times they don't know their arm and we don't know their arm.

"If you're an average pitcher when we play Rice and Texas, you're going to find out who's an average pitcher. That's another thing about good competition, whereas you can be deceived if you play somebody that's not as tough. You always want to play the best competition. It's a challenge, but I know it's the best thing for the guys as far as getting better."
Marquee Mound Matchup
Aaron Meade vs. Deck McGuire
There are some fine pitching matchups on the West Coast this weekend—Pepperdine's Cole Cook vs. Long Beach State's Jake Thompson, and Loyola Marymount's Martin Viramontes vs. UC Irvine's Daniel Bibona come to mind—but most intriguing of all might be this intersectional matchup between the aces of Missouri State and Georgia Tech.

McGuire, of course, is one of college baseball's elite pitchers—a first-team preseason All-American and a potential top 10 overall draft pick. The 6-foot-6 righthander was the Atlantic Coast Conference pitcher of the year as a sophomore last spring thanks to a 91-94 mph fastball, a downer curve, a hard slider and an effective changeup.

"Hitters don't seem to get a ton of clean cuts off his fastball," a National League scout said in our All-America team breakdown. "Both his slider and curveball have good shape and out-pitch potential, just depending on which day you see him. You're buying a solid package of pitches and a frame you'd like to think will log lots of innings in the middle of your rotation."

Meade, a junior lefthander, played second fiddle to ace Buddy Baumann (11-1, 3.23) a year ago, but Meade was awfully good in his own right, going 9-2, 3.39 with 89 strikeouts and 31 walks in 90 innings. He followed that up with an all-star turn in the Cape Cod League, going 3-1, 1.91 with 47 strikeouts and 18 walks in 42 innings. Scouts and coaches in the Cape lauded Meade's deceptiveness, smooth mechanics and feel for pitching. His deception and life make his 88-91 mph fastball play up, and he mixes in an excellent changeup and a good slider.

The 6-foot-2, 175-pound Meade was a 28th-round pick by the Yankees as a draft-eligible sophomore last year, but he could be drafted in the top three to five rounds as a junior this year. More importantly for Missouri State, he gives the Bears a bona fide ace for the fifth straight year, following in the impressive footsteps of Baumann, Tim Clubb, Ross Detwiler and Brett Sinkbeil.
Under The Radar
There's a reason Oregon is under the radar. The Ducks carry a 13-game losing streak into 2010, and they lost 27 of their last 29 games in 2009. The biggest culprit was an offense that ranked 298th out of 299 Division I teams in batting (.227) and dead last in scoring (2.8 runs per game).

So it would be a mighty leap to suggest Oregon can make a regional in its second year after resuscitating its long-dormant program, and that is not a leap we are going to make in this space. But the Ducks will be improved in 2010.

"I don't know how physically gifted we are, but the younger kids have gotten more experience, and we like our incoming athletes," Oregon coach George Horton said. "Our biggest demise last year was just our feeble offense, not getting any run production. Stephen Kaupang in the middle of our lineup is big and strong, Marcus Piazzisi is a quality junior college transfer, and Jack Marder, I think, is going to be a spectacular player."

The Ducks will be relying on newcomers like that trio plus athletic outfielder Andrew Mendenhall and corner infielders J.J. Altobelli, Steven Packard and Ryan Hambright to bolster their offense, but health is a bit of a concern heading into opening weekend. Marder, a sparkplug second baseman, is still recovering from a high ankle sprain suffered in the fall, and Kaupang has been out since the fall after bruising his tibia on a slide. Horton said he hopes those two will be ready to play by opening day, but Packard turned his ankle while running the bases in practice last week and could miss a bit of time.

If the offense can perform merely at an adequate level, the Ducks will be competitive, because their pitching staff is well stocked with good arms. Sophomore lefty Tyler Anderson doesn't have electric stuff but makes up for it with his confidence, command, polish and competitiveness. Horton said that highly touted freshman lefty Christian Jones is following Anderson's lead from a preparation standpoint, but Jones has a higher ceiling, thanks to an extremely lively fastball that reaches 91 mph and command of a quality three-pitch mix.

Two power righthanders will join that duo in Oregon's four-man rotation (the Ducks will play four games in each of their five nonconference weekends). Senior Justin LaTempa was a key member of Oregon's first recruiting class, but he was derailed by injuries each of the last two seasons, dating back to his days at Golden West (Calif.) JC. But he's healthy now and showing a 94-96 mph fastball, as well as an improved breaking ball and changeup. And slender sophomore Scott McGough has been "spectacular" in practice, according to Horton. His velocity fluctuates as he continues to work on building strength, but he has been up to 94 mph and has a good slider.

That group of starters plus a solid bullpen anchored by hard-throwing junior righty Drew Gagnier could form one of the better pitching staffs in the Pacific-10 Conference.

Getting off to a decent start will be critical for the Ducks, whose confidence proved fragile a year ago. That won't be easy this weekend, as Oregon faces four warm-weather contenders in Southern California: Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount.

"I've got to re-evaluate my scheduling talents," Horton said. "We (at Fullerton) used to play Stanford out of the gates every year, and I always liked that. The worry I face on the road the opening weekend is whether or not it has an adverse effect on our mentality. We didn't withstand the negativism of our losing streaks last year very well. It maybe would have been smarter to schedule easier opponents and build some confidence early, but that's not in my personality. So if we have some struggles, we'll just have to handle it better than we did last year. Our teams at Fullerton got up off the mat, but that was a proven program. So I'm hoping if we don't do well out of the gate, it doesn't create a hangover effect like it did last year."

And oh by the way, Oregon opens up with the Titans in Horton's sure-to-be-emotional return to Fullerton and his reunion with one-time protégé Dave Serrano, now CSF's head coach.

"I've had that experience of playing against old colleagues or mentors or what have you," Horton said, referencing his matchups against former mentors Wally Kincaid, Dave Snow and Augie Garrido, as well as his epic five-hour showdown against Serrano's UC Irvine team in the 2007 College World Series. "On one hand it's almost like a non-win situation, because you want to impress your friend with the club you have, and you enjoy seeing him for that seven-hour period of time when you're there with him even if it's only one game. But it's also very difficult to beat them, because they know a lot about the way you coach and vice versa. And at the end only one of you can walk away happy. I chose to do it because they extended the season a week. When Augie left (for Texas) he didn't want to play us very often and I couldn't understand that. But now I kind of understand that."
UC Irvine
The Anteaters enter 2010 having won 17 consecutive regular-season weekend series. They last dropped a series April 18-20, 2008 against UC Riverside.

Winning weekend series is a lot easier when you've got a one-two pitching punch like Daniel Bibona and Christian Bergman, Irvine's outstanding senior duo. But the Anteaters went 22-2 in Big West Conference play last year, so it's not as if they were just taking two out of three every weekend. Righthander Crosby Slaught emerged as a solid Sunday starter, going 8-0, 4.62. He benefited from very good run support, particularly down the stretch, but he generally did a solid job eating innings and pounding the strike zone.

But Slaught will not pitch this weekend against Loyola Marymount—and probably not next weekend either—because of minor inflammation in his elbow, according to UCI associate head coach Pat Shine. Irvine has penciled senior Eric Pettis into the Sunday starter spot in his place. Pettis has saved 34 games over the last two years but has not started since the 2007 College World Series, when he pitched six solid innings against Arizona State.

"We are excited to have him as a starter, and he is resilient, so he may close on a Friday," Shine said. "Long term, we will see how it plays out."

Irvine has other solid options in the bullpen in fifth-year senior righty Kyle Necke (who emerged as a valuable bullpen option last year after developing an effective cutter) and hard-throwing sophomore righty Matt Summers. This is a deeper pitching staff than the Anteaters had a year ago, which means that 17-series winning streak might keep on going for a while.
The spring has gotten off to a rough start for the Tigers even before the first official pitch has been thrown. Two of Auburn's key players have suffered injuries in practice that will sideline them for the start of the season.

The first blow, announced last week, was center fielder Trent Mummey's severely sprained ankle, which could force him to miss at least a month, though no official timetable has been set for his return. Then Wednesday, the Tigers announced that shortstop Casey McElroy will be out for an indefinite period of time after being hit by a pitch and suffering a fractured finger on his right hand. McElroy started all 56 games at shortstop last year and played solid defense, fielding at a .968 clip. His offensive numbers weren't gaudy—he hit .286/.376/.471 with seven homers—but McElroy will be very difficult to replace.

"We're the thinnest in the middle—that's what we're working on," Auburn assistant coach Scott Foxhall said last month. "If Casey gets to it, he's catching it. He has great hands and an accurate arm."

McElroy does not have the range to play shortstop at the next level, but he's steady. Now Auburn has huge question marks at two critical up-the-middle positions. Foxhall said two candidates to fill in for McElroy at shortstop are freshman Jordan Neese and junior college transfer Justin Bryant, a two-way player the Tigers had been planning to utilize mostly on the mound until McElroy's injury. Another candidate could be sophomore junior-college transfer Creede Simpson, who had been battling for a job at third base or a corner outfield spot. A 45th-round pick by the Yankees in 2008, Simpson played shortstop in high school, and he does have some athleticism.

Whoever fills in at short will have to play high level early on for the Tigers to get off to a good start. They open with a three-game home series against Southeast Missouri State this weekend.
Stat of the Week
Miami enters 2010 looking to extend its streak of regional appearances in 37 consecutive seasons, the longest streak in history. Florida State is second with 32 straight entering this year.

To put Miami's remarkable streak into context, consider this: Even Texas, which has been to 52 regionals in its illustrious history, has never put together a streak longer than 18 consecutive regional appearances—or less than halfway to Miami's current streak. Besides Texas, Florida State, Miami and Oklahoma State, no other college baseball program—not Southern California, not Arizona State, not Cal State Fullerton—has been to 37 regionals at all, let alone consecutively.

Miami's streak even tops the longest postseason streaks in the other major men's sports. In men's basketball, North Carolina holds the record for most consecutive NCAA tournament appearances with 27 from 1975-2001. Arizona owns the longest active streak with 25 straight since 1985, although its 1999 appearance was later vacated by the NCAA.

In football, Nebraska holds the record for most consecutive bowl game appearances with 35 from 1968-2003. Florida State owns the longest current streak with 28, though its bowl games from 2006 and 2007 were vacated earlier this month.

Scouting Report
Hayden Simpson, rhp, Southern Arkansas
Simpson has made a name for himself in the Division II ranks, going 22-1, 2.73 over his first two seasons at Southern Arkansas. Last year he set a new school record and ranked second nationally among all Division II players with 132 strikeouts. He entered 2010 as Baseball America's preseason choice for D-II pitcher of the year and the No. 8 prospect in D-II, and so far he has lived up to that billing. In his Feb. 5 season debut, Simpson struck out 13 over 5 2/3 shutout innings, allowing just three hits in a 13-1 win against Missouri Southern State. He followed that up with seven strong innings in a win against perennial D-II powerhouse Tampa last weekend. An American League area scout who was on hand for Simpson's season debut broke down his outing.

"The weather was terrible—it was really cold, and it had rained the day before. It's the first game of the year, and it's cold. The kid is 6-foot, 175 pounds—a slight build. He comes out in the first inning, and the first pitch is 94. Then 94, 94, 93, 96. There were about 20 scouts there and a handful of crosscheckers—he's no secret. He's throwing two breaking balls: a slider that he throws about 80 mph, and a curveball he throws about 76 mph. They're very similar pitches; the curveball has a little more depth, the slider has a little more run, and they're both tight and sharp.

"He faced 16 batters and struck out 13. The guy was good last year—an all-American. He's good. The only knock on him is his size, whether or not he can be a starter and hold up for a whole season with his size. If not then you've got a reliever who can come out and pump it, and shut you down with the breaking ball. But the second, third, fourth inning, he sat more 90-93. The fastball is pretty straight, he was kind of leaving it up a little bit—he's going to have to get it down. And whenever he goes to the stretch he loses a little bit of his velocity. But he has the ability to pump it back up when he needs to. I know it's Division II, so it is what it is talent wise, but he was just mowing them down. He's going to go pretty good (in the draft)."
In The Dugout
Rafael Neda, c, New Mexico
In two years at New Mexico, Neda has established a reputation as one of the nation's best all-around catchers. As a sophomore last spring he led the prolific Lobos offense in batting (.415) and on-base percentage (.504) while slugging .629 and hitting seven home runs. This year, mainstays Mike Brownstein and Brian Cavazos-Galvez are gone, so Neda and Ryan Honeycutt (.406/.472/.579 a year ago) will anchor the lineup. Neda and the new-look Lobos will be tested immediately—they open the season with a three-game series at top-ranked Texas, home of the nation's premiere pitching staff. Neda talked about his expectations for this weekend and beyond, recounted facing 2009 College Player of the Year Stephen Strasburg and revealed what it's like to play for outspoken coach Ray Birmingham, In The Dugout.

You guys get the challenge of facing the No. 1 team in the nation right out of the gate. Are you ready for those guys?

It's exciting. Playing the best team in the nation your first weekend, it's always a lot of excitement. They're just the best. You're going to compare yourselves with the best. We've got nothing to lose and a lot to gain, so we're just going to go there and hopefully win two out of three, just go do our thing and play baseball. Facing the best pitchers in the nation the first weekend is going to help us a lot to be ready for later.

What can we expect from the Lobos this year? You have a reputation for usually being a very offensive team—will that be the case again this year?

Definitely, I think our offense is going to be there. Our lineup is going to be very good from top to bottom. We'll just try to put the ball in play and see what happen.

As the catcher, you get a better look at your pitching staff than anyone. I know you've got some arms to replace, but how does the UNM staff look this year?

I think our pitching staff looks better than the previous two years. We're certainly younger this year, but we have better arms and better stuff. I think with the talent we have, facing the best team in the nation the first weekend, we're going to gain a lot of experience from that.

What are your goals for 2010?

This year I want to win the conference. We've been so close the past two years, finishing in second place. And I think it's just time to win the conference. That's one of my goals: win the conference and make it to regionals. It's been a long, long time since New Mexico has been to regionals. That's been the goal since me and Coach B got here.

You mentioned coach Birmingham—what's it like to play for him? He certainly seems like a big personality.

He's a great coach. He's a very honest guy, and he always tries to get the best out of you by looking for the best things in you and the bad things. He's just a great guy, tries to push you all the time. He tries to have fun with everything. He makes baseball fun. We're in practice, and he's joking with the guys, like he's one of us, not just a coach.

Is he the one who gave you the nickname "El Gato"?

Yeah (laughs). I'm pretty sure it's because this whole year I've been working a lot on my defensive skills, my blocking and throwing to second. Lately he just tells me when I try to jump and block the ball, he calls me "El Gato".

Your coach is also very confident, almost cocky. He's not afraid to make bold predictions for you guys. Does the team feed off his confidence?

Yes, but every guy on the team is different. We try to have that confidence from our coaches and know that we can do it. Coach B tries to put that on the team—always have confidence in yourself no matter who you're facing.

That was the team's approach last year when you faced Stephen Strasburg twice, right? You had about as much success against him as anybody last year, with three hits in two games.

Before every game we played him, we were practicing different drills like hard pitches, hard sliders, simulating the type of pitcher Strasburg was. Then you just try to hit whatever was in the zone, just react. That's the main thing: just react. He throws too hard to try to guess what pitch is coming. The bad thing was we couldn't beat him, but we felt like we did good against him.

You were born in Mexico. When did you come to the U.S., and how much of an adjustment was the transition?

I came my junior year in high school. It was different. Sometimes it was kind of hard, being away from my hometown. But it was exciting because I wanted to practice my English because I wanted to get better at that, and I wanted to play baseball against great high school competition in Arizona.

You were recruited by Arizona also, but how did you wind up at New Mexico?

I signed with New Mexico with Rich Alday, then they hired Coach B after, and that's when Arizona started talking to me more seriously, but I decided to stay with Coach B and New Mexico. Coach B called me one time and really wanted me to come here, so I decided to stick with him. He had a reputation as a great hitting coach, and that's one of the things I wanted to do was get better at my hitting.

You've had two very good offensive seasons now. What has been the biggest key to your offensive development?

I've just tried to be more patient, more selective with pitches, and try to hit the ball to the right side—that was my approach my first year. Then through the years, try to work more counts and get into more hitters' counts, and hit the ball harder. Now it's just try to combine everything in the same swing, the same at-bat.