Weekend Preview: ACC Begins Conference Play

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Four conferences begin league play with full slates this weekend: the Colonial Athletic Association and the Atlantic Coast, Southern and Southland conferences. Week Four also features a number of fantastic nonconference, inter-regional showdowns, and we'll touch on those below. Marquee nonconference games are great fun and can have implications for postseason positioning come Selection Monday, but conference play is when the games really matter, so let's focus this week on the ACC by spotlighting three hot teams in the state of North Carolina.

Top 25 Series
Florida Gulf Coast at (1) Florida
(5) Rice at (2) Stanford
Princeton at (3) South Carolina
Binghamton at (4) Arkansas
(19) Cal State Fullerton at (6) Texas A&M
Eastern Michigan at (7) Arizona
(8) North Carolina at (20) Clemson
(16) UCLA at (9) Georgia
(10) Georgia Tech at North Carolina State
(11) Arizona State at Long Beach State
(12) Florida State at Duke
Houston at (14) Mississippi
Boston College at (15) Miami
Massachusetts at (18) Central Florida
(21) Texas State at Texas-Arlington
Mercer at (23) Mississippi State
(25) Maryland at Wake Forest

Top 25 Tournaments
LSU Tournament 2, Baton Rouge:
(13) Louisiana State, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame

Nike College Showcase, Eugene, Ore.:
(17) Oregon, (22) Oklahoma, Connecticut, Illinois, West Virginia

Alabama Baseball Tournament, Tuscaloosa, Ala.:
(24) Louisville, Alabama, East Carolina, Oral Roberts
The league's premier series this week is No. 8 North Carolina's trip to No. 20 Clemson. We wrote plenty about the Tigers last week before their annual donnybrook with South Carolina, so today we'll put the Tar Heels under the microscope.

UNC carries a 10-2 record into the weekend, but its bats have been rather quiet over the last four games, averaging just 2.75 runs per game during that stretch. North Carolina has a good enough pitching staff to win without scoring a ton—it won three out of those four games—but coach Mike Fox is hoping his team can get its bats going again this weekend. On the whole, there are plenty of reasons for Fox to feel good about his offense, starting with its 73-66 walk-strikeout mark.

"We have more walks than strikeouts, which is always one of our goals," Fox said. "I think our guys look at the ball pretty well, which is very important. We have a little power in there. The last three or four games we haven't swung the bats well at all. I don't know what that's attributable to—you give the other pitchers credit. We're going to face lefthanded pitching out the wazoo, that's just the kind of team we are. Our lefties have to hang in there against good lefties."

North Carolina's lineup, as usual, is built around strong lefthanded hitters, with Colin Moran and Cody Stubbs leading the way. That's one reason Clemson seems like a good matchup for the Tar Heels: The Tigers do not have any lefties who have pitched for them yet this season.

"I heard somebody else say, 'This is a good matchup for you.'" Fox said. "I said, 'Yeah, well you didn't see (righthander Ben) Mount throw against us Saturday against Southern California—he just mowed right through us.' So you have to be very careful about that. We all know a good righthander with a good changeup can give you trouble."

Cody Stubbs (Photo by Carl Kline)
The addition of Stubbs and the continued progression of Jacob Stallings have been critical for UNC, giving Moran protection in the middle of the lineup. Stallings has replaced Jesse Wierzbicki as a righthanded-hitting cleanup man in between the two lefties, and he is off to a strong start, hitting .349/.472/.465 with nine RBIs, five doubles and an 8-8 strikeout-walk mark. Fox said his senior catcher has very good hand-eye coordination and the ability to make adjustments from pitch to pitch. "He's just improved tremendously since his freshman year," Fox said.

Stubbs, a transfer from Walters (Tenn.) State JC, has been even more dangerous at the plate than Moran, a second-team preseason All-American. Not that Moran has been a slouch, hitting .400/.448/.620 with two homers and 16 RBIs, but Stubbs has been a dynamo with a knack for the big hit. He's batting .426/.509/.723 with a team-best 11 doubles, one homer and 14 RBIs.

"He's been huge for us," Fox said. "He started off really, really hot. We needed that guy, losing a few of those guys from lsat year, it was important we had somebody to protect Moran and Stallings. He's been that guy, and he's played terrific at first base for us. He's been an unbelievable fit in our program."

Freshman outfielder Michael Russell (.300/.440/.450) has been another key addition. Russell gives the Tar Heels another physical righthanded presence, and his athleticism and toughness are assets on the basepaths as well as in right field, a position he is learning quickly after arriving as an infielder.

Fox said he has been pleased with his team's defense so far, as Tommy Coyle has successfully made the transition from second base to short, and the team has been generally solid at every position, as evidenced by its .978 fielding percentage. The strong defense has made it easier for the pitchers to feel confident they can pound the strike zone, and that's just what they have done, by and large.

Sophomore lefthander Kent Emanuel (3-0, 1.00, 16-4 K-BB in 18 IP) has picked up where he left off after his freshman All-America campaign a year ago, and junior righty Chris Munnelly (1-0, 1.15) has been stellar in the Saturday starter role the last two weeks, earning back a weekend role after pitching out of the bullpen in the season-opening series against Xavier. Freshman lefthander Chris O'Brien (0-2, 5.54) is still finding his way as the Sunday starter, but Munnelly's improvement has given the rotation more stability.

"Since we've given Chris the opportunity, he's been great," Fox said of Munnelly. "Against USC, he had really good command of his fastball, which is the most important thing as we know. He's throwing all three of his pitches for strikes and getting ahead of almost every hitter . . . He's been a guy that, if he goes into the fifth for us, maybe the sixth, and we're in the game, that's all we've asked for him."

That's because UNC's bullpen is a significant strength once again. The Tar Heels have great confidence in junior righty Michael Morin (0.00 ERA, four saves, 7-0 K-BB in 8 IP) at the back of the 'pen, and Fox said his improved slider has given him another weapon against righthanded hitters to go with his filthy changeup, which is effective against both righties and lefties.

The other anchor of UNC's deep bullpen is junior lefthander R.C. Orlan (3-0, 0.00, 14-1 K-BB in 13 IP), who has proven that he is much more than just a left-on-left specialist, even without using a changeup.

"He's still mostly a two-pitch buy, but he's pitching with a lot of confidence right now," Fox said. "He's got that good live fastball that gets on hitters sometimes quicker than they think. He has been able to pitch in to righties, to keep them from diving out over the plate. His curveball has gotten better and he has been able to command it more. He throws all the time—he might be one of the most prepared guys we have because he really works on his delivery every day, and he never seems to not have his velocity when he goes out there, which I think is a credit to him."

North Carolina's pitching staff is performing at a high level, which gives the team plenty of confidence even without its offense running at peak efficiency heading into this weekend. But this series will be UNC's greatest challenge to date this season—its first road series, against a conference foe that always plays it tough.

"We've had some great games with Clemson; I really enjoy playing them," said Fox, who likes the series with good reason—the Tar Heels have won each of the last four series meetings, including a pair of sweeps, one last year in Chapel Hill. "I have such great respect for their program. It's a fun series, a very, very competitive series. You have to play at a high level on the road, and most importantly you have to play all 27 outs. We've learned that the hard way a couple games down there, when we've let some get away late. We'll certainly have our hands full down there."

Meanwhile, On The Other Side Of The Triangle . . .

North Carolina State also opens its ACC schedule with a major test, hosting No. 10 Georgia Tech. The big story so far for the Wolfpack has been the way its fourth-ranked recruiting class has thus far lived up to its billing, gelling nicely with the veterans to help N.C. State get off to a 9-2 start.

"Things are going really well," Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent said. "This is a good club. Now, I say that, when I take everything into consideration I think they're going to continue to get better and play well. We've got about 50/50 incoming/returning players. Our upperclassmen did a really good job managing these younger guys and showing them the ropes. Our younger guys play hard, they're real respectful of the game and the older guys."

Carlos Rondon (Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode)
The three pillars of N.C. State's freshmen class have played well above their experience level. Lefthander Carlos Rodon (2-0, 1.35, 25-6 K-BB in 20 IP) has been simply overpowering and quickly worked his way into the weekend rotation. Catcher/DH Brett Austin (.381/.431/.429) has proven as advanced with the bat as one would expect from an unsigned supplemental first-round pick, and his defense behind the plate has improved dramatically. And athletic third baseman Trea Turner (.350/.509/.400, 13 steals in 13 tries) has been an on-base machine atop the lineup and handled the move from shortstop to third base easily.

Rodon, who ranked No. 2 in BA's preseason Top 50 Freshmen list, has peaked at 98 mph this year, regularly hitting 95-96. He holds his velocity deep into games—Avent said his last pitch against UNC Wilmington in the seventh inning last week was 93 mph. He also mixes in a good cutter, slider and changeup. The only problem is his high strikeout rate has led to some elevated pitch counts, cutting some of his outings short.

"I've never seen a guy command as many pitches he does at his age," Avent said. "He's a big, strong guy who loves to compete and loves the game. He's a two-way guy, and I'd love to use him in the lineup more, but all he wants to do is play and all I want to do is protect him. He's the kind of guy that dives head-first into first in a scrimmage."

Avent calls Turner "as complete a freshman as we've had here." Like Rodon, he plays with abundant confidence, quickly alleviating any reservations the coaches had about putting too much pressure on him by leading him off as a freshman. His speed is a true weapon on the basepaths, and he has an advanced feel for stealing bases.

Austin hits right behind Turner in the No. 2 hole. A switch-hitter who will undoubtedly start to produce more power before long, Austin has impressed Avent with his ability to handle the bat from both sides of the plate. His improved defense also allows the 'Pack to keep fellow catcher Danny Canela fresh. Canela (.386/.426/.545) has been a difference-maker on both sides of the ball.

"He's done a great job. He's called games well and hit well," Avent said. "He's made us a different team in the middle of the lineup. He likes to play so much, sometimes he speeds up the game. His ability to slow the game down has really helped him a lot. When he slows the game down, he's as good a hitter as there is in this league. His hand-eye coordination is really good."

The hot starts by the freshmen and the improvements by juniors Canela, Tarran Senay (.379/.514/.448) and Chris Diaz (.426/.460/.553) have helped the Wolfpack survive the loss of No. 3 hole hitter Brett Williams to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. And freshman Jake Fincher has filled in admirably for the defensively gifted Williams in center field.

Generating offense and playing sound defense shouldn't be problems for N.C. State this spring. The biggest question is whether its pitching can maintain its early high level of performance. Redshirt sophomore righthander Anthony Tzamtzis has returned from Tommy John surgery to hold down the Friday starter spot, and while he has shown flashes of dominance, he is still searching for consistency, Avent said. And the Sunday starter is another freshman, righthander Logan Jernigan. Like Rodon, Jernigan has strikeout stuff but needs to be more efficient to work deeper into games.

The bullpen has been brilliant so far, led by closer Chris Overman (0.00 ERA in six innings) and the versatile Ethan Ogburn (0.64 ERA, 20-2 K-BB in 14 IP), who has been used in tandem with Rodon thus far, gives the Wolfpack a veteran weekend option if needed. As a staff, N.C. State has a 1.80 ERA, though it will be tested this weekend by Georgia Tech's potent offense.

"I know Georgia Tech's pretty much got the same offensive ballclub with the exception of a couple players," Avent said. "It's going to be quite a challenge this weekend . . . But if you have too much respect for any opponent, that's a mistake, and if you have too little respect for any opponent, that's a mistake too. I think these guys are going to go out and hopefully just play the game."

Wake Up

Has there ever been such an intriguing matchup between Wake Forest and Maryland? The Demon Deacons have had some success over the last two decades, but Maryland hasn't been a real factor in college baseball since at least 1996, when future big leaguer Eric Milton led the staff. And Wake had fallen upon hard times in recent years, as well.

But new coaches have breathed new life into both programs. Hired within two weeks of each other in June of 2009, Maryland's Erik Bakich and Wake Forest's Tom Walter inherited programs in need of major makeovers. We detailed Maryland's rising fortunes in Three Strikes after the Terrapins won a road series at UCLA to open the season, and since then they have climbed into the BA Top 25 for the first time ever. They head into ACC play riding a 10-game winning streak and bearing an 11-1 record.

Wake Forest has quietly put together its own 10-game winning streak, albeit against lesser competition than Maryland has faced. The Demon Deacons started the year 1-4, dropping three of four games at New Mexico State and a midweek contest against High Point. They haven't lost since, but they also haven't faced a likely regionals team. They might be facing one this weekend in Winston-Salem.

"We are excited. It's going to be a great atmosphere this weekend," Walter said. "They're playing really well. You look at their pitching numbers and you just have to be amazed. It's going to be a tough-as-nails series. Both teams are ready to play, and I expect three close ballgames."

Tim Cooney (Photo by Brian Westerholt)
Expect three low-scoring ballgames, too. Wake's 3.89 ERA looks bloated compared with Maryland's 0.96 mark, but pitching is certainly the Deacons' biggest strength. Lefthander Brian Holmes (3-0, 0.45, 22-5 K-BB in 20 IP) is coming off a no-hitter against Marshall, and fellow lefthander Tim Cooney (2-1, 1.31, 30-7 K-BB in 21 IP) has been similarly dominant. Those two weekend starters have similar approaches.

"Cooney and Holmes both are legitimate four-pitch guys. They have four pitches they can throw for strikes, and they throw them at any time in the count," Walter said. "Both of those guys beat you with pretty good velocity too. Both those guys can win with their fastball, and they have really good secondary stuff."

Wake's other weekend starter, righty Justin Van Grouw (1-1, 4.42), has pitched very well with the exception of one bad inning against Eastern Michigan, Walter said. At 6-foot-7, his downhill angle makes his ordinary fastball velocity play up, and he can throw all three of his pitches for strikes.

The bullpen is anchored by senior righthander Michael Dimock, a closer who employs three quality pitches in his 90-91 fastball, good slider and much-improved changeup. Sinkerballer Jack Fischer and lefthander John McLeod are counted on to bridge the gap from the starters to Dimock.

"Our pitching's really the backbone of our club," Walter said. "I don't think we have the kind of club that's going to score 10-12 runs against good pitching. We're going to have to win a lot of games 5-3."

For the first time in Walter's Wake Forest tenure, he has a mature pitching staff that is well-stocked with veterans, allowing him to ease in his promising freshmen gradually rather than having to throw them into the fire before they are ready. The same is true of the lineup, where junior Pat Blair (.318/.423/.455) and sophomore Conor Keniry (.346/.397/.442) set the table for senior Carlos Lopez (.389/.471/.741, 4 HR, 25 RBI) and fourth-year junior Mac Williamson (.341/.492/.591) in the top half of the order.

That veteran core puts less pressure on talented outfielder Kevin Jordan (.233/.298/.326), for instance, to have to carry the load. A redshirt freshman who missed all of last season after receiving a kidney transplant from Walter, Jordan is one of the most physically gifted players in the ACC. After getting off to a slow start, he began to turn the corner about a week ago.

"It's really coming fast for him," Walter said. "Early on he was chasing out of the zone and pressing. The last week he's eliminated a lot of that and really done a nice job."

Being more selective has also been the key to Lopez's red-hot start. A career .257 hitter with a 65-152 walk-strikeout mark over his first three seasons, Lopez has seven walks and seven strikeouts through 15 games this year.

"He's got a great swing, he's got a good approach, he stays inside the baseball, he has tremendous bat speed and power to all fields," Walter said. "He is a complete hitter."

Soon, we'll find out if Wake Forest is a complete team.

Marquee Mound Showdown: St. Mary's Martin Agosta vs. San Diego State's Michael Cederoth

This is a matchup between two of the best arms on the West Coast—one who has matured into an ace and a potential top-two-rounds pick as a junior, and one who has flashed enormous potential as a freshman.

Martin Agosta
After going 3-6, 5.40 as a freshman in 2010, Agosta turned a corner as a sophomore last year, going 7-6, 2.81. After a strong summer in the Cal Ripken Collegiate League, the 6-foot-1, 178-pound Agosta ran his fastball up to 95 mph in the fall, generating a buzz amongst scouts in Northern California. He headed into this season as the No. 76 prospect on BA's Top 100 overall prospects list, and he has not disappointed early this spring, going 1-0, 2.14 with 20 strikeouts and four walks in 21 innings. Scouts have regularly reported seeing him sit in the 92-95 mph range this spring, to go along with a good 80-82 slider and a cutter that reaches 87-88. But Agosta is much more than just a hard thrower.

"He has always had a great feel for five pitches and exceptional command of the strike zone," St. Mary's coach Jedd Soto said. "He's really mature in how he attacks hitters and will use all his pitches to both left- and righthanded hitters . . . The good start has a lot to do with his willingness to establish his changeup earlier in the game, which is an above-average pitch. Everything he throws changes planes and is hard to square up for batters.

"With his delivery, he hides the ball well. Hitters can't pick it up early. With his velocity jump in the last two years, he has become more difficult to hit."

Michael Cederoth
Cederoth's velocity has also jumped in the last year. He showed an 88-91 mph fastball and a slow curveball at the MLB Urban Youth Invitational in February of his senior year of high school, but over the course of the spring he began sitting in the 90-94 range, topping out at 96. That raw arm strength caused him to rate as the No. 169 prospect on BA's Top 200 list for last year's draft, but his violent, unrefined delivery, inconsistent feel for pitching, and commitment to mature at San Diego State caused him to drop to the Diamondbacks in the 41st round. In that way, he is somewhat similar to former Aztecs great Stephen Strasburg, who evolved from undrafted, immature, overweight thrower into the national Player of the Year and the No. 1 overall pick.

"It's almost the same type of story a little bit," said San Diego State pitching coach Eric Valenzuela, who faced Strasburg plenty while Valenzuela was working across town at San Diego. "The conditioning I do with our guys is grueling, the first one was killer, and (Cederoth) couldn't get through it. But since the first day, he's really turned it on. He's fun to work with, and will be for the next three years . . . He was as raw as they come, and now is starting to figure out that he needs to pitch."

The Aztecs decided to ease Cederoth into his collegiate career, starting him off in the bullpen and using him for just one inning during the first weekend, then for three innings his second weekend. By Week Three, they decided it was time to see what he could do as a weekend starter; he responded by allowing three runs on six hits and two walks while striking out four over six innings against Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"He was 96-98 the entire game, and he didn't throw one fastball under 95," Valenzuela said. "He threw four pitches in the sixth inning—his last inning—at 98. His slider is like 85-86—it's nasty. We've just been totally concentrating on fastball command, making them hit the fastball. He's also developed a very good changeup he can throw to righties or lefties, but he throws so damn hard that sometimes the changeup goes right into their bat speeds, so we have to use it as an out pitch more than for strikes. He's got a get-me-over curveball too."

Ace sophomore lefthander Cole Swanson had an emergency appendectomy this week, sidelining him for four to six weeks, so the Aztecs decided to move Cederoth up to the Friday starter job this weekend, just in time for a stellar showdown against Agosta.

Quick Takes

• We called it the Golden State/Lone Star State Challenge two weeks ago, when Baylor, Texas Christian and Texas all went west to face UCLA, Cal State Fullerton and Stanford, respectively. The California teams won all three of those series at home, but the state of Texas will get a shot at redemption this weekend, as Rice takes its turn at Stanford and Fullerton visits Texas A&M.

The Owls and Cardinal is a battle between teams ranked in the top five, with a combined record of 23-3. Stanford's pitching staff and Rice's offense have both improved significantly since these teams met in Houston a year ago, but the most interesting part of this matchup will be how Rice's talented pitching staff handles Stanford's fearsome offense. Senior righty Matthew Reckling (2-0, 0.82) moves into the Friday starter job for Rice this week against Mark Appel (2-1, 3.68). Appel is originally from Houston and has several relatives who attended Rice where his uncle John Casbarian is the dean of the architecture school, so the series against the Owls has had plenty of meaning for him the last two years. He pitched 5 2/3 innings last year against the Owls in Houston, giving up two runs in a game the Cardinal won 5-3.

Reckling showed impressive maturity by winning without his best stuff last week against Texas Tech, but if he doesn't have his best stuff this week, the Cardinal could make him pay. The man Reckling replaces in the Friday role, sophomore righty Austin Kubitza (1-0, 4.40), has struggled with his location for two straight weeks, and his velocity was down in the 87-88 range last week, an indication that he was trying to place the ball instead of throwing through his target, according to coach Wayne Graham. Obviously, Kubitza needs to get back on track fast. Just how dangerous is Stanford? You can find all sorts of impressive stats about the Cardinal offense, but consider this via sports information director Niall Adler: Stanford is hitting .350 with runners in scoring position, and utility infielder Eric Smith has the most multi-RBI games (five) of anyone on the team.

• A&M, meanwhile, looks like a strong favorite against the Titans, who received a good tongue-lashing from coach Rick Vanderhook after Tuesday's loss to Southern California.

"We refused to hit the ball in the middle of the field, we refused to make two-strike adjustments . . . They stink," Vanderhook said of his offense on this video, which includes some salty language. "(We need to) find out who the nine toughest guys are that are going to compete, and they're going to play. And I don't even care what position they play. We'll put guys wherever we need to put them so they can at least go up and compete.

"They're just scared. And they'd better get over it or Texas A&M's going to beat the (expletive) out of them."

The Aggies, as we wrote in this week's Three Strikes, are playing well in all phases, and they have a marked advantage in pitching experience and quality of stuff, both in the weekend rotation and in the bullpen. Vanderhook is a master of instilling toughness in his teams—he did it for many years as an assistant at Fullerton, and he did it as an assistant at UCLA. His Titans showed plenty of toughness during opening weekend, when they gave a significantly more talented and experienced Florida team all it could handle in Gainesville. Expect them to respond to Vanderhook's critique with plenty of energy this weekend.

• The weekend's fourth Top 25 showdown pits No. 16 UCLA and No. 9 Georgia in Athens. This matchup has a significantly different complexion from last year's meeting between the two teams in Westwood, when UCLA had the pitching advantage on paper but Georgia lefthander Alex Wood had his coming-out party by beating Gerrit Cole on Friday night. Wood, like the Bulldogs as a whole, struggled with consistency over the course of the season, but he has been brilliant through three starts this year, going 3-0, 2.25 with 26 strikeouts and one walk in 20 innings. He and senior Michael Palazzone (0-0, 3.60) make for a potent one-two punch atop the rotation, if not a Cole-and-Bauer duo.

This time around, the teams seem pretty evenly matched on the mound, as UCLA's all-sophomore rotation of Adam Plutko, Nick Vander Tuig and Zack Weiss seems to be gelling, coming off a strong weekend against Sacramento State. And in another twist, UCLA's offense (which struggled for most of last season) has started to deliver on its potential, entering the weekend with a .308 batting average and averaging 6.8 runs per game. Georgia, meanwhile, is hitting just .274 and averaging 5.1 runs per game. But eight of UCLA's 12 games have come against the solid pitching staffs of Maryland, Baylor, Long Beach State and UC Riverside. Georgia's three weekend series have come against Presbyterian, Winthrop and Western Illinois, which have a combined record of 10-27. So this weekend will be Georgia's first real test, and it will need to play at a higher level to compete with a UCLA club riding a seven-game winning streak.