College Weekend Preview: March 15

Limping Mississippi State faces tough test in LSU

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When Mississippi State and Louisiana State take the field for their Southeastern Conference opener on Friday, the Tigers will be able to play seven position players who started a combined 184 SEC games a year ago. Infielders Austin Nola and Tyler Hanover also started all 30 games in 2010 and most of LSU's games in 2009.

Mississippi State will counter with a lineup that features two players with a grand total of 17 SEC starts between them. That experience gap adds a fascinating wrinkle to this weekend's showdown between two SEC West powers with loaded pitching staffs.

The Bulldogs have plenty of experience and talent on the mound, but they lost their entire starting infield from a year ago, which kept them out of the preseason Top 25 rankings. MSU answered most of the questions about its young infield in the first month of the season, as Daryl Norris, Adam Frazier and Wes Rea all got off to strong starts offensively and defensively. Norris and Rea stabilized the corners, while Frazier has settled in at shortstop after starting the season at second base, then flip-flopping with Matthew Britton (who has eight errors in 14 games).

So if the Bulldogs were at full strength, coach John Cohen would feel awfully good about his team heading into conference play. But they're not at full strength—not even close.

Top 25 Schedule
Vanderbilt at (1) Florida
(3) South Carolina at Kentucky
Alabama at (4) Arkansas
(5) North Carolina at Maryland
Washington State at (6) Arizona
Virginia at (7) Florida State
Grambling State at (8) Rice
(11) Arizona State at (9) UCLA
Kansas State at (10) Texas A&M
Auburn at (12) Mississippi
(21) Mississippi State at (13) Louisiana State
(14) Miami at Duke
Long Beach State at (15) Cal State Fullerton
Virginia Tech at (16) Georgia Tech
(17) Oregon at Washington
Tennessee at (18) Georgia
Harvard at (19) Central Florida
Stephen F. Austin State at (20) Texas State
Texas at (22) Oklahoma
Wake Forest at (23) North Carolina State
(24) Purdue at Wichita State
(25) Oregon State at California
"I love our club, I just wish we had the use of all of our players," Cohen said. "We're playing right now without five of the nine guys we put out there on opening day. I feel like we can really pitch, but now all of a sudden you feel like you're going to struggle to score runs, and the defensive part is more shaky than you want it to be."

Norris (.375/.435/.482) "had really come into his own as a third baseman," Cohen said, but he dislocated his kneecap on a swing last week and will be sidelined four to six weeks. Outfielder Brent Brownlee, the lone senior position player on the roster, had knee surgery last week that will sideline him at least six weeks. Opening day starter Ben Bracewell has been sidelined with "elbow issues" that will keep him out again this weekend, though Cohen said there is a chance he could pitch next weekend.

Two of MSU's dynamic two-way players are also hurt, and that's almost like losing four players. Leadoff man/center fielder/lefthanded pitcher C.T. Bradford dislocated his shoulder sliding into second base last week and is at least two more weeks away from returning. Taylor Stark, one of the SEC's premier athletes, would have been a strong candidate to fill in for him in center while also serving as a power reliever, but he shredded his hamstring on Sunday and will be out four to six weeks.

"(Losing) C.T. Bradford really hurts badly—he's an anchor leadoff guy, you have to throw him six pitches every time he comes to the plate," Cohen said. "He's already made about six fantastic diving plays, and he also made a start for us and bumped 92 on the mound. Just a dynamic athlete. Taylor Stark is a 6.4 runner and is one of our closers—88-92 with a hammer. But you can't be whiny, bitchy, complainy. We're not going to give any excuses to our players, but it's going to be a challenge."

Mississippi State has been forced to find creative solutions. Sophomore Hunter Renfroe—a catcher and righthanded pitcher by trade—has filled in admirably in center field since Bradford went down. Cohen says his quick-twitch athleticism suits him well in center, and his swing is coming along, though he is still learning to harness his huge raw power potential.

The Bulldogs also have had to press a pair of freshmen they were planning to redshirt into duty. Phillip Casey has taken over the third base job, and the early returns have been encouraging. After MSU lost Stark, Cohen called freshman Tyler Fullerton—who was home in Murfreesboro, Tenn., for spring break—to return to the team and play left field. Fullerton is a good athlete who can really run, but SEC pitching will be a major challenge for him and the other young Bulldogs.

And SEC pitching doesn't get much better than LSU's. The Tigers have a pair of flame-throwing righthanders who regularly reach the mid-90s in Friday starter Kevin Gausman (4-0, 1.32) and Saturday starter Ryan Eades (3-1, 2.13). Fellow sophomore righty Kurt McCune (1-2, 5.40) has struggled to repeat the success he experienced early in his freshman year, so LSU coach Paul Mainieri made the decision this week to move him into the bullpen, where he think McCune might be better equipped to succeed.

"I looked at his starts in the SEC last year and his four starts this year, and he was very effective in the first or second inning in his outings," Mainieri said. "They started to get to him in the third or fourth. We feel like he'll be effective in this role until his secondary pitches get more effective."

In McCune's place, the Tigers will turn to heralded freshman righty Aaron Nola (3-0, 1.80). Because of his low three-quarters arm slot and ability to pound the strike zone, Nola has garnered comparisons to former LSU star Louis Coleman in the past, but Mainieri said he reminds him more of big leaguer Aaron Heilman, whom Mainieri coached at Notre Dame. He said Nola throws a little harder than Coleman did, sitting in the 90-92 range while Coleman worked mostly at 88-91. His changeup is also more advanced at this stage than Coleman's was.

"He's a unique talent: it's three pitches for strikes in any count, a good arm, a strike-throwing machine," Mainieri said of Nola. "There's no question he'll be an outstanding pitcher in the SEC. With Gausman, Eades and now Nola, I think that's a pretty formidable rotation."

It's a rotation that has produced 79 strikeouts to just seven walks through 73 innings. The Tigers don't give away bases via walks or errors, as their athletic, experienced defense has fielded at a .978 clip. Their lineup lacks the power and explosiveness to come back from big early deficits, which is why getting strong outings from their starting pitchers is critical.

And LSU is plenty capable of scoring enough runs to win close games, because its savvy veterans know how to hit situationally, execute small ball and use the gaps. Cleanup man Raph Rhymes (.460/.486/.540) embodies that approach, and catcher Ty Ross (.362/.404/.426) has taken a big step forward offensively as a sophomore, helping to complement the Rhymes/Nola/Hanover/JaCoby Jones/Mason Katz core.

"I think it's become more important than ever to get off to a good start in games, because it allows you to be more aggressive on the bases, bunt where you want, hit-and-run when you want, steal bases when you want," Mainieri said. "When you get in a hole, it exacerbates the problem. You look at teams like South Carolina, that's how they're winning. They're not knocking the cover off the ball, but they're shutting everybody out the first five innings."

Interestingly, Mississippi State has used a rather upside-down approach, with three of its best arms coming out of the bullpen for extended stints. Last week, the Bulldogs started soft-tossing lefthanded sinkerballer Ross Mitchell on Friday with the intention of using him once or twice through the order, then handing the ball off to electric righthander Chris Stratton. Mitchell wound up going two innings, and Stratton worked the next five for the win. With a low 90s fastball that reaches 94-95 whenever he needs it to, a power slider at 84-86 and an improving changeup, Stratton has overpowering stuff, but Cohen said he seems most comfortable coming out of the bullpen, where he can just attack hitters without worrying about pacing himself.

Cohen said he was considering using shut-down closer Caleb Reed as the Friday starter this week, but the coaches still hadn't made a decision as of Wednesday afternoon. Reed (1.15 ERA, 5 saves, 25-4 K-BB in 16 innings) is a security blanket at the end of games, a fearless bulldog with a heavy sinker, a wipeout slider and the ability to pitch multiple innings. Cohen likes using Reed as a closer, a role that allows him to influence the outcome of multiple games over the course of a weekend, but he also appreciates the importance of getting off to a good start on Fridays.

On Saturdays, Cohen said he likes to start senior lefthander Nick Routt (1-1, 3.31) and follow him up with another explosive arm, sophomore righty Evan Mitchell (1-0, 3.00). Routt's velocity has climbed into the 90-92 range, his breaking ball has improved, and his once-devastating changeup is finally starting to return to form now that he is a year and a half removed from ulnar nerve displacement surgery in his elbow. But Mitchell is electric, with a fastball that reaches 92-93 and a dramatically improved breaking ball.

"We feel like it's such a diverse look when you go from Routt to Mitchell," Cohen said. "Evan might have the best arm on our club—just a dominant type of breaking ball, gives you a different look after Routt."

Then on Sundays, the Bulldogs call upon righthander Kendall Graveman (1-0, 2.82), whose calling card is the incredible sink on his 89-91 mph fastball.

The Bulldogs have used 17 different pitchers so far, and Cohen says 13 of them have thrown a fastball 91 mph or better in a game this spring. That depth of quality arms will keep MSU competitive, regardless of the injuries to its lineup.

"That's how we tried to build it, around our ballpark and what our conference demands," Cohen said. "In the SEC, if you can't make people swing and miss, you can't compete at the highest level. I think we've averaged nine or 10 strikeouts a ballgame; that's something the Vanderbilts, Floridas and South Carolinas have been able to do.

"I know our kids will compete their hearts out, I love the depth of our pitching, I love the way we receive behind the plate. We're going to have to play a defensive brand of baseball and scratch and compete."

Oregon State's Youth Movement

Conference play also begins in the Pacific-12 this weekend. One of the league's more interesting storylines is the exciting new look of the Oregon State Beavers, who kick off their Pac-12 schedule with a trip to California.

While the Golden Bears have a lineup built around veterans of last year's Omaha run, Oregon State's lineup is anchored by a pair of freshmen from its seventh-ranked recruiting class.

Teammates at Redmond (Wash.) High a year ago, Michael Conforto and Dylan Davis have settled into the No. 3 and No. 4 spots in Oregon State's lineup. The duo combined for 17 RBIs during OSU's 3-1 showing in the Nike College Showcase last weekend. On the season, Conforto leads the Beavers in batting (.447), slugging (.723), homers (three) and RBIs (19). Davis has made a similar impact, hitting .345/.391/.569 with two homers and 17 RBIs.

No Beaver hit more than five homers during last year's 41-win campaign, but the lefthanded-hitting Conforto and the righthanded Davis add legitimate power threats to the middle of the lineup and change the complexion of the offense.

"They've really played well," Oregon State coach Pat Casey said. "I don't ever remember putting freshmen in the 3-4-5 holes consistently and feeling like they can handle it. They have shown us they can handle it. You're going to go through growing pains as freshmen, no matter how good you are, but they've both handled themselves very well. The adjustments that Conforto has made since the fall are huge."

Casey said Conforto had a tendency in the fall to "dive into balls," which negatively affected his pitch recognition. He has improved his posture, his pitch selection and his ability to go the other way. Davis had a better fall than Conforto and has carried his momentum into the spring.

Of course, players at Oregon State are expected to grind out at-bats, not just swing for the fences. So far, Conforto and Davis have done everything the Beavers have asked of them.

"Both of them have committed to doing things other than sit back and play smash mouth baseball like they did in high school," Casey said. "We expect them to be able to sac bunt when they need to, make contact in a running situation. Dylan has learned to go the other way too. It's nice to have power there, but it's also nice to know they can be a threat in the things that we like to do."

Davis also has one of the best arms on the team, and he has a bright future on the mound, though he has struggled in his first two appearances this spring. OSU's exciting young core isn't limited to Davis and Conforto; the weekend rotation features a pair of live-armed sophomores (lefthander Ben Wetzler and righty Dan Child) and an electric freshman (lefty Jace Fry).

Wetzler, the presumed staff ace, did not get off to a great start, and Casey speculated that he was putting too much pressure on himself to carry the young staff. He turned in a seven-inning, complete-game, one-hit shutout in his last outing against West Virginia—an encouraging sign heading conference play.

Fry missed the first three weeks while recovering from back surgery, but he pitched into the fifth inning in his debut last weekend, showing the ability to command an 89-93 fastball and a pair of quality secondary offerings. Fry is very competitive and confident, and Casey seems comfortable with him in the rotation going forward.

Child seized the third starter job by surprising the coaches with his ability to command his changeup and slider. He's always had big arm, and Casey said he did not throw a single fastball under 90 mph in seven innings last week, topping out at 95 mph. Child threw just five innings a year ago, so he is inexperienced for a sophomore, but he is learning fast. So far, these Beavers have proven precocious, getting off to an 11-5 start despite opening their season with three straight four-game weekends on the road.

"I think we have some good young kids," Casey said. "I know for a coach that can be a good thing or a bad thing. But I like our young guys; I think they can handle it well. Some of the older guys, (Ryan) Dunn and (Matt) Boyd and (John) Tommasini, they have to take those leadership roles. We are extremely youthful, but there is a good future for the club."

Marquee Mound Showdown: Arizona State's Brady Rodgers vs. UCLA's Adam Plutko

Perhaps the premier series of the weekend pits No. 11 Arizona State against No. 9 UCLA. I'll be on hand for that series and will have a report on Monday's blog, so we won't go overboard with a preview. But Friday's pitching matchup between righthanders Rodgers and Plutko is worth a little pregame hype.

This is a matchup between two of the best strike-throwers in the Pac-12, and indeed in the nation. Each pitcher's best asset is his ability to command his fastball, and both pitch in the high 80s with serious life.

Rodgers (3-0, 0.58, 31-5 K-BB in 31 IP) had a streak of 22 consecutive scoreless innings snapped last week at Long Beach State, when he allowed just two runs over nine innings in a no-decision. Our West Coast bird dog/intern Peter Wardell reported that Rodgers commanded both sides of the plate with an 88-90 heater with late arm-side run, and mixed in a tight 72-74 mph curveball, a solid 79-81 changeup and an 82-83 slider that showed sharp bite at times.

But Rodgers stands out most for his control and feel for pitching. He issued just 11 walks in 73 innings as a freshman and just nine walks in 98 innings as a sophomore last year.

Plutko walked just 24 in 108 innings as a freshman, and he has a 33-9 K-BB mark in 25 innings so far this year, going 2-1, 2.13. Plutko pitches heavily off a lively 86-89 mph fastball that bumps the low 90s at times, but like Rodgers he mixes in three different offspeed pitches, highlighted by his quality changeup.

Quick Takes

• Six of the nine baseball-playing teams in the Big 12 begin conference play this weekend, as Kansas State visits Texas A&M, Texas Tech travels to Baylor and Texas heads to Oklahoma. The Longhorns-Sooners series is usually a highlight of the college baseball calendar every spring, but so far neither team has the look of an elite national contender. The Sooners have gotten off to an 11-6 start against a decent schedule, while the 'Horns are 7-8 against a somewhat stronger schedule. Oklahoma is still searching for its identity on the mound, but the expected preseason rotation of Dillon Overton, Steven Okert and Jonathan Gray might work out after all, as all three have shown signs of coming together over the last couple of weeks. Texas has simply struggled to score runs—no Longhorn is hitting better than .289, and the team is hitting .221 overall, averaging just 3.5 runs per game. Oklahoma is considerably more physical and explosive offensively, though the Sooners haven't really found their stride yet either, hitting just .281. Still, Oklahoma looks like the more complete team than its rival this year, and the Sooners are at home, so they have to feel good about their chances. Whichever team does win this series could use it as a springboard heading into Big 12 play.

• We wrote about Wake Forest and North Carolina State in Weekend Preview last week, and both teams proceeded to win home series against ranked opponents, as the Demon Deacons swept upstart Maryland right out of the Top 25, and the Wolfpack took two of three from Georgia Tech. This week, Wake and N.C. State face off in Raleigh. The Deacons carry a 15-game winning streak into the series, and their offense has perked up in the last five games, averaging 9.8 runs per game. Still, Wake's strength is its pitching staff, while the 'Pack is an offensive club that is averaging 8.8 runs per game on the season. This weekend will be a good test for both pitching staffs.

• Texas Christian opens Mountain West Conference action with a trip to Nevada-Las Vegas. The Horned Frogs were beset by injuries early on but are gradually getting healthier, as outfielders Brance Rivera and Kyle Von Tungeln plus infielder Josh Gonzales returned to the lineup last weekend, and ace Andrew Mitchell is slated to return this weekend after missing a start with soreness. TCU has quietly put together a six-game winning streak since starting the season 2-6, and corner infielders Jantzen Witte and Kevin Cron aren't far from returning, either. UNLV, meanwhile, is coming off a quality series win against Washington State and a 22-run outburst in a midweek win against Southern Utah. The Rebels have gotten fine work in the rotation from senior Joe Robinson (2-1, 2.66) and freshmen Zak Qualls (2-0, 2.22) and Erick Fedde (1-1, 3.86). Qualls and Fedde were key pieces of UNLV's strong recruiting class last year, and they have already proven impactful.