Stanford-Vanderbilt Highlights Strong Opening Weekend Schedule

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(25) Cal State Fullerton at (1) Florida
(10) Vanderbilt at (2) Stanford
Virginia Military Institute at (3) South Carolina
Villanova at (4) Arkansas
North Dakota State at (5) Arizona
Florida International at (6) Rice
Illinois-Chicago at (7) Texas A&M
Xavier at (9) North Carolina
Presbyterian at (11) Georgia
Duke at (13) Texas
Maryland at (14) UCLA
(22) Mississippi at (15) Texas Christian
Alabama-Birmingham at (16) Clemson
Western Michigan at (17) Arizona State
Rutgers at (18) Miami
(19) Oklahoma at Pepperdine
Hofstra at (20) Florida State
Long Island-Brooklyn at (21) Central Florida
(23) Oregon State at UC Santa Barbara


LSU Tournament, Baton Rouge:
(8) Louisiana State, Air Force, Alcorn State

Coca-Cola Classic, Rock Hill, S.C.
(12) Georgia Tech, Kent State, Winthrop

Big Ten/Big East Challenge, St. Petersburg/Clearwater area
(24) Louisville vs. Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan State
Editor's Note: Regular readers of Weekend Preview over the last five years will notice some different things this year. Our "Under The Radar" feature will move out of Weekend Preview and into Wednesday's College Blog. Other categories like "Streakin'" or "Scouting Report" might lead the Blog on Tuesdays. Our "In The Dugout" Q&A with a player will become a video feature every Friday.

As for Weekend Preview, we plan to focus more directly on the approaching weekend, with more of a free-flowing format. We hope you enjoy it.

Our first Weekend Preview of the year will have a distinct pitching flavor, as we look at some of the mound questions facing Stanford, Vanderbilt and Cal State Fullerton heading into their intriguing Week One showdowns. We'll also take a look at the Big East/Big Ten Challenge and look at some of the weekend's best head-to-head pitching matchups.

Talented But Unproven Arms Key For Cardinal, Commodores

Stanford and Vanderbilt carry top 10 rankings and Omaha hopes into the spring. These are two of the nation's most talent-laden rosters, but both teams need enigmatic or inexperienced arms to emerge in the weekend rotation in order to reach their CWS ceilings.

Last February, when Stanford and Vandy met in Nashville, the Commodores had one of the nation's most proven weekend rotations, with a pair of junior All-Americans (Sonny Gray and Grayson Garvin) and a rock-solid senior (Taylor Hill). Stanford, meanwhile, had an ace in the making in sophomore righty Mark Appel and a steady junior in Jordan Pries.

Vanderbilt Stanford
Friday LHP Kevin Ziomek RHP Mark Appel
  (3-0, 1.59) (6-7, 3.02)
Saturday RHP Tyler Beede LHP Brett Mooneyham
  (Freshman) (3-7, 5.07)*
Sunday LHP Sam Selman RHP A.J. Vanegas
  (0-0, 1.42) (1-0, 3.35)
*Mooneyham's stats for 2010, all others are 2011 statistics

This weekend's three-game series between the two clubs at Sunken Diamond will have a different feel. Vanderbilt's entire weekend rotation headed to pro ball after last season, leaving the pillars of its last three recruiting classes to take over: sophomore lefty Kevin Ziomek, freshman righty Tyler Beede and junior lefty Sam Selman. All three have impressive pedigrees, but they also have just five career collegiate starts between them (all of them belonging to Ziomek).

Appel, meanwhile, is back to anchor Stanford's rotation—a first-team preseason All-American and a front-runner to be the No. 1 overall pick in June. But for all his talent, Appel is a .500 pitcher in his career thus far: he's 8-8. Behind him in the rotation, redshirt junior lefthander Brett Mooneyham is healthy again after missing all of last year with a finger injury. He has two seasons of valuable experience, but he also has 116 walks in 154 career innings. And sophomore righty A.J. Vanegas, the Sunday starter, struggled a bit with his command as a freshman, when he made three starts in 23 appearances.

Selman and Vanegas are critical for these teams. Both players carried huge expectations with them to college, but neither has been able to realize his potential so far in his collegiate career. If they can harness their stuff this spring, the Cardinal and Commodores could be very good.

And there is reason to believe both players could be on the verge of major breakout years.

Selman has ranked among the top five prospects in the Northwoods League in each of the last two summers, but he has logged just 12 career innings over 11 appearances in two years at Vandy.

"A lot of it is there were other guys ahead of him for the couple of years prior," Vanderbilt pitching coach Derek Johnson said. "When he first got to us, he really had no idea where the ball was going. As he's been here longer, he's been able to control the ball a little better, but the command on both sides of the plate has not been really his strong suit. He's been trying to figure out his body, make the parts move together, and he's done a nice job with that in the winter. His breaking ball is as consistent as I've seen it."

When Selman first arrived at Vandy out of high school in Texas, he featured a big-breaking power curveball, but Johnson said it was an "uncontrollable pitch" for him. Johnson thought his arm action would be better suited for a slider, so they scrapped the curve in favor of a 79-81 mph slider that he commands better.

"There are times it's unhittable, just exploding, and really  hard for hitters to lay off of," Johnson said. "It has late tilt, and he throws it with some hate. It looks like a fastball when it's right."

Selman threw the fastball in the 91-94 range last summer. This fall and spring, Johnson said he has seen Selman's heater touch 94-95 at times, and other days it sits at 89-90. Some of the variance is due to mechanical inconsistencies, but he is getting better at repeating his delivery, and as a result he's getting better at repeating the quality of his stuff. He has also made progress with his changeup, and while it's still not his strength, it gives him another pitch to feature against righthanded hitters.

"He's turned the corner," Johnson said. "It's his time, and I think he's excited, and we're excited about giving him the opportunity."

Vanegas was the fourth-highest ranked prep pitcher in BA's Top 200 Prospects list for the 2010 draft who showed up on a college campus, behind only first-rounders Karsten Whitson (Florida) and Dylan Covey (San Diego) and third-rounder Ryne Stanek (Arkansas). He stood out for his polish and command in high school, and scouts expected him to make a major impact as a freshman. He did contribute last year, going 1-0, 3.35 with 30 strikeouts and 21 walks in 40 innings, but he did not dominate as expected, and he struggled in the Cape Cod League last summer.

A.J. Vanegas (Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode)
"It's a pretty big jump from high school to a competitive D-I environment. I think he had pretty high expectations, and he knew he could have made a bigger impact," Stanford pitching coach Rusty Filter said. "A.J.'s had a really good fall. He's gotten more comfortable and is in great shape. He's definitely a guy that has to step forward and pitch well, and not only that but win games. Seeing guys like Jordan Pries last year and Dean McArdle, with their bulldog mentality, I think is good for him."

Like Selman, Vanegas has been more consistent with his velocity this offseason. He has also touched 94 at times, but he has also settled in around 90 so far this spring. And like Selman, Vanegas threw a curveball in high school but has found a wipeout slider in college.

"The breaking ball is nasty—that's his pitch," Filter said of the slider.

Vanegas has also added a cut fastball with more lateral movement than his slider, which has more vertical depth. And he has incorporated a changeup against lefties.

"His repeatability's gotten better, his understanding of pitching's gotten better," Filter said.

The same can be said for Appel and Mooneyham over the course of their careers. Appel's 6-7 record last year was deceiving; two of his losses were in close games against All-Americans Gray and Taylor Jungmann, and he registered wins against Rice and UCLA's Gerrit Cole. Appel lowered his ERA from 5.92 in 2010 to 3.02 last year, as he made the transition from thrower to pitcher.

"His freshman year he was a one-pitch guy; it was a good pitch, the fastball, but he realized he needed more," Filter said. "The slider, at times it's 86-87, at times it's 84. I like him better, believe it or not, when the velos are down a little bit, because his pitchability's better. He has the same issue as a lot of guys with great fastballs: He tends to get the ball up. He has better down angle when he's 93-94 (than high 90s and elevated)."

In that respect, Appel is a lot like Cole, last year's No. 1 overall pick. Cole went 6-8, 3.31 as a junior, getting hit more than a pitcher with a 96-100 mph fastball and the makings of two plus to plus-plus secondary offerings should. For Appel to dominate this spring as Stanford hopes he will, he must be able to pitch down in the zone, Filter said.

Command has always been the issue for Mooneyham, too. The hulking lefthander has flashed premium stuff over the course of his career, but throwing quality strikes has been an issue. Filter said his arm slot would vary quite a bit, which made it difficult for him to manipulate the run and sink on his fastball the way he wanted to. But his command has made very encouraging progress this offseason.

"His last outing was phenomenal: He threw a super-high percentage of strikes, he worked ahead in the counts and was able to dictate what he wanted to do with batters," Filter said.

Mooneyham has yet to regain his former plus fastball velocity, working in the 88-92 range, but Filter said pitching with less velocity has helped him refine his command, and he expects the velocity to jump as the season progresses. His slider is also not as hard or as sharp as it was before his injury, but he has been able to command it better, as well. And he has learned to put hitters away with his changeup as well as his slider.

"He's maturing right before our eyes," Filter said. "I think getting that extra year to watch a little bit will help him. A lot of people used to wonder if he was going to throw strikes, and I don't think that's going to be an issue this year."

Throwing strikes has never been an issue for Ziomek, who has pounded the zone since his high school days in Massachusetts. Ziomek was a vital piece of Vanderbilt's bullpen a year ago, going 3-0, 1.59 with 47 strikeouts and 16 walks in 45 innings. But the rigors of a long season that ended in Omaha wore Ziomek down by the summer, and his stuff was much less crisp in the Cape Cod League, where he worked as a starter.

But Johnson said Ziomek settled in nicely as a starter in the fall, showing consistent stuff: an 89-92 mph fastball with good life, a good slider and an improved changeup.

"Last year he was mostly fastball-slider—he didn't have to throw the changeup much, so he's a little more complete now," Johnson said. "But our (hitters) say he's not easy to see. If you look at what he does, it's not exactly textbook, but it does work for him pretty well. He's worked in the offseason to clean part of that up without taking the deception away. We were just trying to make him a little more compact so there weren't as many misfires with the fastball and the changeup. He's done a nice job with that."

The Saturday starter, Beede, enters his freshman season with even higher expectations than Vanegas dealt with a year ago. An unsigned first-round pick by the Blue Jays, Beede showed advanced command of an 89-95 mph fastball and three quality secondary pitches during his high school days. Johnson said he has not seen mid-90s velocity from Beede since he showed up on campus; he has sat mostly 89-91, topping out at 93 here and there.

"His bread and butter is his changeup, and he's getting used to pitching with his fastball more," Johnson said. "Once he does that, his velocity will spike. I'm not worried about his velocity. I thought the breaking ball was just a very average third pitch when he got to us, but I think it's a much more usable pitch now. It's a true curveball; he's worked hard on it.

"He's got everything but experience. No matter how good a lot of these guys are coming in, it's still a new thing for them. The adjustment to college, the adjustment to even things behind baseball, are things guys have to get accustomed to. He's obviously very talented, and he'll have to learn on the fly a little bit. We'll put him in that position right away because we think he's that type of kid that can handle it."

Titans Vs. Goliaths

Cal State Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook knows what his team is up against this weekend, when it travels across country to face top-ranked Florida.

The Gators, who reached the CWS Finals last year, landed a record seven players on Baseball America's preseason All-America teams, voted on by major league scouting directors. Their entire weekend rotation is composed of preseason All-Americans (juniors Hudson Randall and Brian Johnson plus Whitson).

Friday RHP Hudson Randall RHP Dylan Floro
  (11-3, 2.17) (4-2, 4.23)
Saturday RHP Karsten Whitson RHP Grahamm Wiest
  (8-1, 2.40) (Redshirt Freshman)
Sunday LHP Brian Johnson RHP Koby Gauna or
LHP Kenny Mathews
  (8-3, 3.62) TBA
All statistics are from 2011
The Titans have a quality, experienced junior ace in Dylan Floro. None of their other starting pitchers has ever thrown a Division I inning, and none of them has particularly impressive stuff. Redshirt freshman righty Grahamm Wiest will start Saturday, and Vanderhook said he was still deciding between freshman righty Koby Gauna and freshman lefty Kenny Mathews for Sunday's start.

"They're all just Joe College pitchers—that's all they are," Vanderhook said. "Besides Dylan, who has good stuff, we don't have anybody that's lights-out, which is unique. But when you lose eight drafted guys, it's hard to have guys that are lights-out. (Pitching coach Kirk Saarloos) was saying, last year we'd have 40 (scouts) come for every intrasquad, but this year we've been having only two. And if Floro's not throwing we have none. I guess we're not good enough."

Hudson Randall (Photo by Danny Parker)
Of course, the Titans typically play well as the underdogs with a chip on their shoulders. And all Vanderhook is asking his pitchers to do is throw strikes and let the athletic defense make plays. Wiest won his job based on his strike-throwing ability; Vanderhook compares him to Randall—"minus probably 7 or 8 mph on the fastball." Wiest does have a decent out pitch in a splitter with good finish, and he mixes in a slider and a curveball.

Neither Mathews nor Gauna has a go-to pitch, Vanderhook said. They will attempt to keep hitters off balance by mixing speeds and locations with three pitches.

The two biggest arms on the staff will occupy critical roles in the everyday lineup. Sophomore center fielder Michael Lorenzen, who had a minor hamstring injury last week but will not be limited this weekend, has run his fastball up to 94-95 mph off the mound, though he's sat more at 91-92 in the last couple of weeks. The Titans will use him as a one-inning closer, like they did a year ago with Nick Ramirez.

Freshman J.D. Davis also has a bright future as a pitcher, but Fullerton will use him primarily as the DH from the outset. "The power is sick, and he's a good hitter," Vanderhook said.

Dylan Floro (Photo by Larry Goren)
Despite its youth on the mound, Fullerton is fairly battle tested. Its starting lineup is mostly filled with veterans who made trips to Texas Christian and Louisiana State early last year. And the Titans benefited from a two-game fall exhibition series at Vanderbilt, winning both games. So don't expect Fullerton to be intimidated.

"We're just going to play baseball," Vanderhook said. "I've been on the other side of the fence before. I've coached teams that have been preseason No. 1. They need to come out and play and on our side we need to come out and play. These guys have played LSU and Stanford, they've seen Cole and (Trevor) Bauer on the mound. I know Florida's pitching is good, but Cole and Bauer were pretty good. They've seen (LSU's Kevin) Gausman.

"Sure, their names are bigger than ours and they have more big names. We're in a situation we're not in often, but you've just got to deal with it. We're just going to go play baseball, and make the adjustments we need to make on Saturday and Sunday. If we get our brains beat in, we'll come home and evaluate it, and if we play well we'll still come home and evaluate it. It's the first series of the year."

One Last Big Field For Big Ten/Big East Challenge

For the last three years, the Big Ten/Big East Challenge has been a sprawling event, with 20 teams playing 30 games over three days at various sites in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Dunedin, Fla. The event ran more smoothly each year as the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Sports Commission addressed coaches' logistical concerns.

The idea of two comparable cold-weather conferences facing off in a warm climate in February makes perfect sense. Rather than have to travel south to face teams that have been practicing outside all spring, Northern teams get a chance to open their seasons against teams that face the same weather disadvantages they do. And the event is a can't-miss stop for Northeast and Midwest scouts, as well as crosscheckers and scouting directors, who get to see dozens of prospects in one stop.

But Big Ten coaches voted to make this the final year for the Challenge in its current format. Angel Natal of the Sports Commission said three or four teams from each conference will continue to meet up for a smaller version of the event starting next year (he said he hopes to have the field finalized after this weekend).

But why did Big Ten coaches decide to discontinue the larger event? There are several reasons.

"I think the concept is great; I love the concept," Minnesota coach John Anderson said. "Unfortunately I don't think we've been able to play at the level of facility consistently that we had hoped to. And in my opinion, we haven't been able to secure the quality of umpiring across the field that we wanted. That's done by the organizing committee; they only wanted to put so many dollars into that . . . These games count in the RPI, and some of the umpiring has been a little bit shaky. To shortchange ourselves with the umpiring, sometimes it makes a difference who wins and loses—that doesn't make sense to me."

Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said he thought the quality of the umpiring has been upgraded since the first year of the event. He also said he thought all of the coaches liked the event, but he cited two other reasons they voted to end it. One is financial, and the other has to do with the new Ratings Percentage Index formula that will reward 1.3 wins for a road victory, starting next year.

"Number one, we thought maybe along the line we could get some sponsorship money to defray the cost, and that's never happened, so everybody goes down there without any guarantee money and it gets expensive," he said. "Number two, with the new RPI, you can go on the road and get 1.3 wins. But at the time we made the decision, we did not know how neutral site games would be handled. So we wanted to maximize our RPI points."

Michigan is one team that plans to continue playing in the scaled-down event. Wolverines coach Rich Maloney, who said he has always felt good about the Challenge, said fewer teams might actually make it better.

"When you have so many teams, you have to scramble a little bit with some of the fields," Maloney said. "Having a little smaller field, I think it will be a great, great tournament, because you'll play at some of the nice big league spring training facilities. When you have so many teams, logistically, you may have to take batting practice earlier, or take it in the cages, just because there are so many teams. So a little bit smaller tournament might be a good thing."

In the meantime, all of the coaches are looking forward to this weekend. Something to watch for each of those three Big Ten teams this weekend:

• Anderson refers to 2011 as "the season that never was" for the Gophers. The collapse of the Metrodome limited the Gophers to just 49 games, including just 14 at home. With the dome repaired, Minnesota is looking forward to a 27-game homestand after this weekend. That will allow the Gophers to get comfortable and build confidence heading into the Big Ten schedule, during which they should make plenty of noise thanks to perhaps the league's best weekend rotation.

T.J. Oakes (Photo by Carl Kline)
Ace righthander T.J. Oakes has worked hard to improve his changeup, giving him a third weapon to complement his sinker and slider. His fastball velocity has also climbed a bit, sitting comfortably in the 88-91 range. Sophomore lefty Tom Windle has also improved his changeup significantly. His 88-93 fastball and hard slider are already quality offerings, and the development of his changeup makes him one of the nation's top breakout candidates. And senior righty Austin Lubinsky has made an adjustment with his breaking ball, making him a more complete pitcher, as well.

Overall, Anderson said the Golden Gophers have more 90 mph arms than they've had in his tenure, which began 30 years ago.

• Michigan had its own lost season in 2011, going 17-37 overall and 7-16 in conference play to finish in the basement. Season-ending injuries to talented righthanders Kolby Wood and Travis Smith in the first week of last season helped torpedo Michigan's high hopes. Wood and Smith are both close to game-ready and bumping 92 on the gun, though neither will pitch this weekend.

But another comeback candidate will play this weekend, and he may be the biggest key to Michigan's season. Junior shortstop Derek Dennis was an elite recruit who has struggled with nagging injuries and inconsistency in his first two seasons. He bottomed out last year, hitting .216/.329/.250 with no homers and just 10 RBIs in 148 at-bats. Maloney said Dennis has begun to come out of his shell and take on more of a vocal role in the clubhouse, and he is becoming more confident on the diamond as well.

Dennis has flashy infield actions that Maloney said are more common amongst Dominican shortstops than young American players. He is capable of making dazzling plays, and he is making the routine plays more consistently. He also has made progress shortening up his swing and making better contact at the plate.

"I think it's maturing. He's showing signs, so we're optimistic that this is his year," Maloney said. "That would really help this team. I know he desperately wants to be the player that we recruited him to be. It bothers him that he hasn't performed as well as everybody would have liked. I think he's committed to getting the job done, and he's got something to prove."

• Unlike Michigan and Minnesota, Illinois is coming off a banner season. The Illini caught fire down the stretch last year, finishing tied atop the conference standings and winning the conference tournament to make their first regional since 2000. Illinois then eliminated Cal State Fullerton from the Fullerton Regional, finishing as runner-up to Stanford.

But the Illini lost a number of key contributors from that club. Junior righthander Kevin Johnson is back to anchor the weekend rotation, but the rotation behind him includes a couple of pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery—redshirt freshman Rob McDonnell and fifth-year senior Nick Chmielewski.

Another redshirt freshman, second baseman Reid Roper, has a chance to be an impact two-way player, starting at second base and getting work in the bullpen. Roper is athletic and tough, with soft hands and good instincts at second, a nice lefthanded stroke and a disciplined approach.

And although Illinois lost mainstay Josh Parr at shortstop, it still has two other Parr brothers in the starting lineup. Junior Justin Parr moves from DH to left field, while redshirt sophomore Jordan Parr takes over at first base. Hartleb said Jordan is very athletic and strong, and he'll join returnees Brandon Hohl (.311/.415/.477, team-best 39 RBIs), Willie Argo (20 career homers, 76 career steals) and Davis Hendrickson in what should be an athletic lineup.

Marquee Mound Showdowns

Here's a quick look at three of the weekend's most intriguing pitching matchups.

Marcus Stroman, Duke, vs. Hoby Milner, Texas

Both Duke and Texas have been hit hard by the injury bug in the preseason. The Longhorns lost outfielder Cohl Walla (torn ACL) and senior ace Sam Stafford (shoulder injury) for the season, while the Blue Devils lost their best offensive player, Chris Marconcini, to a torn ACL this week. But at least both teams can take solace in knowing they have dependable rotation anchors taking the mound every Friday.

Marcus Stroman (Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode)
Duke junior righty Marcus Stroman, a first-team preseason All-American, stands just 5-foot-9 but generates premium velocity with minimal effort. I saw his first intrasquad outing of the spring three weeks ago, when he sat at 92-93 mph and topped out at 94 with a fastball that he spotted well. His 82-83 mph slider is one of the best in college baseball, and he mixed in a very good changeup and a cutter against lefties.

Junior lefthander Hoby Milner slides into the Friday role in place of Stafford for Texas. Milner can't match Stroman's pure stuff, but he has advanced feel for pitching. He pounds the bottom of the strike zone with a high-80s fastball that tops out at 92, a good changeup and solid curveball. Milner is very competitive and is as tough against righthanded hitters as he is against lefties.

Bobby Wahl, Mississippi, vs. Andrew Mitchell, TCU

This Friday matchup between two of the top power righties in the sophomore class is the highlight of No. 22 Mississippi's series at No. 15 Texas Christian.

Mitchell, who ranked as the No. 13 prospect in our recent list of the top 50 sophomores (subscribers only), started last year in the bullpen but wound up as the most reliable member of TCU's rotation down the stretch of his freshman year. His plus fastball and devastating power slider made him a serious weapon out of Team USA's bullpen over the summer, and some scouts believe he profiles best as a late-innings reliever in the big leagues. But TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said Mitchell has worked hard to develop his changeup, which should make him a more complete starter this spring.

Likewise, Wahl dominated in a relief role last summer, posting a 1.23 ERA and a 38-11 strikeout-walk mark in 22 innings in the Cape Cod League. His 93-95 mph fastball reached 97 in relief, and he flashed a promising breaking ball. As a freshman, Wahl threw both a slider and a curve, but he has condensed it into one pitch, an 80-82 power slurve with tight rotation. His changeup might be even more advanced than his breaking ball.

Wahl, No. 24 on our sophomores list, pitched exclusively out of the Ole Miss bullpen as a freshman, but coach Mike Bianco said he has had no trouble holding his low to mid-90s velocity as a starter. "Bobby usually doesn't have problems with velocity," he said.

Jonathan Gray, Oklahoma, vs. Scott Frazier, Pepperdine

This Saturday matchup is yet another duel between two of the top 25 prospects in the sophomore class. Gray (No. 20), who arrived at Oklahoma this fall as a junior-college transfer, has sat comfortably in the 92-94 mph range, running his fastball up to 97 at times. OU coach Sunny Golloway said he has been impressed with Gray's slider and changeup as well.

Frazier (No. 19) was one of the nation's top recruits a year ago, but arm tenderness limited him to 18 innings as a freshman, as Pepperdine exercised caution with him. Waves coach Steve Rodriguez said Frazier is completely healthy and has looked good in the preseason, working at 90-94 mph and "really improving" his power curveball and changeup.

I'll be on hand in Malibu on Saturday with a report on this one.