College Weekend Preview: April 19

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1. Streakin' Baylor readies for Battle of the Brazos.
2. Erstad turns Nebraska into Big Ten contender, heading into showdown with Purdue.
3. Mainieri's moves give LSU a lift, with a trip to Lexington looming.
4. With O'Brien sidelined, Miami searches for offensive answers.

Streakin' Baylor Readies For Battle Of The Brazos

Baylor coach Steve Smith sounds genuine when he insists the Bears aren't really talking about their school-record 21-game winning streak. He sounds just as convincing when he insists he's not thinking about the big picture—the race to secure a national seed. He knows this weekend's series against Texas A&M is big, but he's not concerned about how it will impact his team's chances to secure one of those coveted top-eight seeds.

Top 25 Schedule
(18) Miami at (1) Florida State
(2) Texas A&M vs./@/@ (6) Baylor
(4) Louisiana State at (3) Kentucky
Georgia at (5) Florida
East Carolina at (7) Rice
Washington State at (8) Oregon
(9) South Carolina at Auburn
Georgia Tech at (10) North Carolina
(11) UCLA at Oregon State
Cal Poly at (12) Cal State Fullerton
(13) Arizona at Washington
(20) Arizona State at (14) Stanford
(15) Central Florida at Tulane
(16) Purdue at Nebraska
(17) Arkansas at (22) Mississippi
St. Mary's at (19) San Diego
Boston College at (21) North Carolina State
Kansas at (23) Texas
(24) Sam Houston State at McNeese State
Louisiana Tech at (25) New Mexico State
"I haven't looked at the big picture, I really haven't, and I don't think any of our guys have," he said. "Matter of fact, I think they're just thinking about being good today. But I understand, if I were in your position I would ask that question. And if I were you, I would know how big I thought the series was."

OK, fair enough. I'll say it: the series is huge. But just because the Bears aren't talking about that, don't expect them to shy away from the moment.

"They didn't go to college to play little series—they went there to play big ones," Smith said. "There are no big games in A-ball."

As impressive as Baylor's winning streak is—it is the longest by a Big 12 team since the conference's inception in 1997—and as gaudy as Baylor's unprecedented 15-0 start to the conference season is, this weekend offers the Bears a rare chance to make some noise against a marquee opponent. As we have repeated for weeks now, the Big 12 as a whole is down in 2012; the Aggies and Bears have played just seven games apiece against teams in the top 50 of the RPI, fewer than any team in the RPI top 30 except Purdue, which has also played seven (and won five, while Baylor and A&M have each won four). By comparison, Florida has played 25 such games; North Carolina has played 23.

Whichever team wins the Big 12 is very likely to earn a national seed, but will a three- or four-bid conference land two national seeds? It's possible, but those teams in the SEC, ACC and Pac-12 will have much more opportunity to put together sparkling resumes against better competition.

A&M enters the weekend tied for second place with Texas at 9-3, so a series win against Baylor seems a necessity for it to have a chance to win the league title. Baylor, meanwhile, can take a stranglehold on the Big 12 race with a series win this weekend.

But those are big-picture concerns. The whole key to Baylor's success this year has been its unwavering focus on the very small things. That hasn't always been the case at Baylor.

"This group has done what every coach is trying to get their teams to do, which is play it one pitch at a time, one game at a time," Smith said. "I just think this particular group is doing that better than most, better than any team we've ever had."

That grind-it-out approach was the key to beating Oklahoma State when ace Andrew Heaney took the mound on March 30. Baylor's hitters took plenty of pitches, fouled off plenty of pitches, and drove Heaney's pitch count up to 94 by the sixth inning, when it knocked him from the game. Smith said heading into that game, he expected to learn a lot about his lefthanded-laden lineup by how it dealt with Heaney, perhaps the nation's premier southpaw.

The Bears passed that test, and Smith said the way to beat A&M co-aces Michael Wacha and Ross Stripling is to take that same offensive approach: battle through every at-bat and drive their pitch counts up.

Another key to beating the Aggies is to control their hyper-aggressive running game. Texas A&M is loaded with speed and likes to use it—it ranks fourth in the nation in stolen bases (87). Smith said his team generally does a decent job handling opposing running games, though Kansas State's baserunners gave the Bears some trouble last weekend. In Josh Ludy, Baylor has a very experienced senior catcher who does a nice job blocking and receiving, and though he doesn't have a cannon arm, he throws well enough, nabbing 28 percent of opposing basestealers.

Ludy really made a difference last weekend with his bat, hitting four homers and driving in 11 against the Wildcats. He leads the team with six homers and 46 RBIs while compiling a .370/.457/.572 slash line. He entered the season with five career homers in three seasons, and he hit just .278/.352/.380 as a junior. His emergence as a threat in the middle of the order has made a huge impact on Baylor's season.

"I thought going into the year that whoever hit behind (Max) Muncy was going to be the real key to the deal," Smith said. "That's who it's been. And he's catching virtually every inning."

Another player who has taken a leap forward is sophomore second baseman Lawton Langford, who leads the team in hitting (.393/.500/.433). After he redshirted in 2010, Langford had a strong summer, and Smith said he expected him to take a big step forward last year. It wound up taking a year longer—he hit just .222 in 45 at-bats in 2011—but the breakout finally came.

"He's really just very consistent," Smith said. "He's comfortable with his approach, he knows his swing. He's a very good hitter, and he's tough to pitch to because you want to blow him up inside. He's not a big, physical guy, but he stays inside the ball so well. If you miss at all he's going to get the barrel to it."

Ludy and Langford help lead a very complete Baylor lineup with no real holes. It's just a bunch of grinders, one through nine. The pitching staff is similar—Josh Turley (5-0, 2.08) and Trent Blank (8-0, 2.48) are having fantastic seasons to lead a deep staff, but they don't overpower hitters. Nobody on the staff does, in fact. They just get outs, and win.

Heading into the season, Smith fielded questions from reporters and supporters of the program about what to expect from the Bears. They asked the usual questions—what are the team's strengths, what are its weaknesses?

"I remember answering that question then, saying, 'Well, I don't think we have anything real weak,' " he said. "I don't think we have anything that's real strong, either. I know this: We don't send anybody to the mound that puts a bunch of fear and trembling to the other side. We have a bunch of good arms, no great arm. We're competing—we've thrown 19 different guys, which is more than any team I've ever been around.

"If there's anything about us that's above-average, it's just the offense. It's the balance in the lineup one through nine. We're just a baseball team. Baseball teams have speed at the top, speed at the bottom, power in the middle. And that's really kind of what we are."

Just a baseball team—a very successful baseball team.

Speaking Of Grit . . .

During his big league playing days, Darin Erstad was renowned for his full-throttle approach to the game. It should come as no surprise, then, that he wants to instill that same ethic in his players now that he's the head coach at his alma mater, Nebraska.

"Our foundation is putting pressure on the defense, pedal to the metal," Erstad said. "Everything starts with our baserunning. Not just stolen bases, but putting the ball in play, making things happen.

"I think when you have a whole new coaching staff and philosophy, there's going to be some inconsistencies. We want guys to be aggressive on the basepaths; at times guys grasp that, and at times they're still learning."

Erstad knew he was inheriting a rebuilding project, but he and his staff have largely succeeded in getting the Cornhuskers to play hard and focus on the fundamentals. As a result, they are a very competitive club. At 25-12, Nebraska is just five wins from matching last season's win total, with 18 games still to play in the regular season. At No. 71 in the RPI, the 'Huskers are within striking range of an at-large bid.

This weekend's home series against No. 16 Purdue provides Nebraska a golden opportunity to make serious headway toward that goal. In their first season in the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers are 7-5 in conference play, three games behind the first-place Boilermakers. Erstad knows what his team is up against this weekend.

"They can flat-out hit and pitch and play defense," he said. "Their record speaks for itself. Obviously they have an unbelievable amount of experience. The bottom line is they know how to win, they've been winning, and when you gain that feeling, it's easy to keep it going."

Of course, Nebraska can also flat-out hit—it is among the national leaders in batting (10th at .317), scoring (seventh at 7.7 runs per game), home runs (15th with 33) and slugging (14th at .458).

Erstad said DH Michael Pritchard (.391/.456/.451) and center fielder Rich Sanguinetti (.336/.389/.464) set the tone in the top two spots in the order. Like Purdue, the Cornhuskers have a group of mature veterans with pop in junior outfielder Kash Kalkowski (.315/.356/.450, 4 HR), junior shortstop Chad Christensen (.331/.403/.522, 6 HR), junior third baseman Josh Scheffert (.379/.413/.670, 7 HR) and senior outfielder Kale Kiser (.237/.452/.462, 5 HR). Christensen, the cleanup hitter, has made a smooth transition from the outfield to shortstop, where he is not flashy but makes all the routine plays. Christensen sounds like Erstad's kind of player.

"The best part is he's just an unbelievable teammate," Erstad said. "A quiet kid that works his tail off, just stands for everything that's right in college baseball. He can drive one out, but also base-hit bunt, hit-and-run, hit behind runners. It's a pleasure to have him on the team."

Christensen teams with talented freshman Pat Kelly (.358/.409/.605, 4 HR) to form a nice middle-infield tandem. Adding to Nebraska's strength up the middle is catcher Cory Burleson, who has thrown out 16 of 27 basestealers (59 percent).

Like Kelly, junior first baseman Richard Stock (.357/.391/.481), who started his career at Southern California before spending last season in the junior-college ranks, has made a big impact on the lineup.

"He's using the whole field," Erstad said. "His MO is he's got ridiculous power. He can put on a show in BP. But he's learned how to hit line drives the other way, and he's reaping the benefits right now."

Nebraska's power separates it from a lot of college teams, just as Purdue's does. But Erstad preaches an opposite-field-gap approach—"and if you stick to that approach, you're going to run into a few and just by accident hit them out of the park."

Despite his team's offensive prowess, Erstad doesn't expect his team to regularly slug its way to victories against quality pitching. He emphasizes that it all starts on the mound—where the Cornhuskers actually have more power arms than Purdue, though they can't match the polish and pitchability of Joe Haase and Lance Breedlove, the Boilermakers' formidable one-two punch atop the rotation.

Nebraska is still searching for an ace atop the rotation, and this weekend it will move sophomore righthander Jon Keller (4-1, 3.94) into the Friday starter role. Keller, coming off eight strong innings in his last start against Creighton on April 10, has the biggest arm on the staff, with a low-to-mid-90s fastball and improving secondary stuff, Erstad said. The key is command; just as he preaches the importance of being aggressive to his hitters, Erstad wants his pitchers to aggressively attack the strike zone and pitch to contact. Keller is still maturing in that regard, but he's making progress.

"He's got his best pitching ahead of him—you can see it coming," Erstad said. "It all comes with preparation, and we're starting to see signs of it showing up on the field."

Saturday starter Brandon Pierce (4-1, 2.83) is similar, Erstad said: great stuff, still learning how to pitch and to control his emotions. Pierce also showed plus fastball velocity in the bullpen last year, but he has settled comfortably into the 89-91 range as a starter, with a changeup that has come a long way under the tutelage of new pitching coach Ted Silva. Crafty lefthander Zach Hirsch (4-2, 4.53) goes on Sunday.

Nebraska has another big arm at the back of the bullpen in righthander Travis Huber (2.89 ERA, six saves), who attacks the zone with a plus fastball, Erstad said. Dylan Vogt (2-1, 1.72) has flourished as the stop-gap guy, while Tyler King and Kyle Kubat give the 'Huskers a pair of solid options against lefties.

All told, Nebraska has a solid, balanced club. Whether or not the Cornhuskers slow down the freight train that is Purdue—which has won nine straight and is 29-5 overall—they have shown they are a major factor in the Big Ten. Under Erstad's leadership, expect even bigger things from Nebraska in the years to come.

Mainieri Pushes Right Buttons For LSU—Again

The weekend's marquee series in the Southeastern Conference features a pair of top-five teams in third-ranked Kentucky and fourth-ranked Louisiana State. The series presents a fascinating contrast in styles.

Kentucky is a powerful offensive team, with 44 home runs (second in the SEC) and a conference-leading .316 batting average. LSU has just 19 homers and succeeds by hitting situationally and manufacturing runs throughout the lineup, which has a strong core in national batting leader Raph Rhymes (.484) and Mason Katz, who has seven of the team's home runs—the only Tiger with more than two.

LSU coach Paul Mainieri describes his lineup in similar terms as those used by Smith when talking about his Baylor club.

"I think we've been playing pretty good, sound baseball in every aspect—nothing overly spectacular, which is kind of our story this year," Mainieri said. "We don't have a lot of power or speed. But we've had some guys battle at the plate, and hit with guys in scoring position."

Every year about this time, Mainieri seems to strike gold by shaking up his lineup or unearthing a key contributor from his bench. This year, that midseason spark has been provided by junior switch-hitter Arby Fields, who has seized the everyday job in center field.

A transfer from Cypress (Calif.) JC, Fields is a standout athlete with speed and power potential in his compact 5-foot-9 frame, but he had a poor fall and was in danger of not making the spring roster. He did wind up making the team despite a lackluster preseason, and a combination of injuries thrust him into the lineup in the series finale at Florida on April 7. Since then, Fields has gone 11-for-25 (.440) and played stellar defense in center.

"It's an amazing story, really," Mainieri said. "When we recruited Arby, we thought he'd come in and really be a difference maker for us. He can run like a deer, he hits the ball as hard as anybody and can hit from both sides of the plate. He just was not performing at a level that would put him in the mix . . . Sometimes kids have to wait their turn, and sometimes they have to experience failure to appreciate what they have. I like to give different kids an opportunity, because you never know who will emerge."

Fields isn't LSU's only midseason surprise. Junior lefthander Brett Bonvillain, another junior-college transfer, had made little impact in the first half of the season. But when Ryan Eades posted his shortest outing of the season at Florida two weeks ago, Mainieri turned to Bonvillain, who responded by throwing four scoreless innings of one-hit relief against the Gators. Now he is a trusted member of an LSU bullpen that has improved dramatically from a year ago. Mainieri calls the bullpen "probably the story of our season."

Bonvillain and Chris Cotton give the LSU 'pen a pair of solid lefthanders—they don't have overpowering stuff, but they throw strikes. Bonvillain works around 88 mph and has a solid breaking ball. Cotton's velocity has jumped from the 78-80 range when he was a walk-on as a freshman, into the 85-87 range now, and he has a very good changeup and improved breaking ball to go with it.

Righthander Joey Bourgeois has also developed a much better breaking ball to go with his 91-93 mph fastball. Former weekend starter Kurt McCune has seen his stuff play up in short relief stints, and Mainieri trusts him as the setup man for hard-throwing Nick Goody, whose bulldog mentality and fastball-slider attack have helped him emerge as a "bona fide closer," as Mainieri put it.

We wrote about how Kentucky's strong bullpen has been critical to its success in Monday's Three Strikes, so it will be interesting to see which team gets better work out of its relief core.

"This weekend's series obviously is going to be an exciting weekend of college baseball. Really the bullpens could decide it," Mainieri said.

But the one area where LSU has a decided advantage is in the weekend rotation. Kentucky has not gotten good starts in recent weeks from its top two starters, lefties Taylor Rogers and Jerad Grundy, and they need to go deeper into the games this weekend to reduce further strain on the bullpen. Meanwhile LSU's Kevin Gausman, Ryan Eades and Aaron Nola comprise one of the nation's premier trios. That is one area where LSU is "overly spectacular," to use Mainieri's words.

On top of that, LSU is fielding .979—tied for best in the SEC.  "Two aspects that have been pretty good for us are our pitching and our defense," Mainieri said.

Those are pretty important parts of the game. No wonder LSU is 31-7.

With O'Brien Sidelined, Miami Searches For Offensive Answers

Miami's lineup features just two players hitting better than .300, and just one player hitting better than .317 and with more than four home runs. Senior catcher Peter O'Brien (.354/.465/.677 with 10 homers and 38 RBIs) is very much the centerpiece of the Hurricanes' lineup, the player they could least afford to lose.

The Hurricanes' season might very well have flashed before their eyes when O'Brien was hit by a pitch on his wrist Sunday against Virginia Tech. The bad news is O'Brien has a hairline fracture and will not be available to play this weekend against No. 1 Florida State. The good news is the crack is small, and O'Brien might miss only a week or two, according to coach Jim Morris.

The Miami offense was already scuffling even with O'Brien in the lineup. Over the past three weeks, Miami is averaging just 3.3 runs per game. They lost road series at Clemson and Virginia Tech during that span, sandwiched around a sweep of North Carolina that included two shutouts rather than Hurricane offensive explosions.

"Our bats kind of went south, the whole team," Morris said. "The last two weeks we haven't been swinging the bat. Even against Carolina we didn't score a lot of runs except in one game. As a team offensively we've been struggling, trying to figure out a way."

It hasn't helped that senior Rony Rodriguez has been out since taking a fastball off his own hand against North Carolina. Rodriguez suffered a deep bruise and might be available this weekend.

But Rodriguez has not been able to repeat the success of his junior year in any case. After posting a 1.014 OPS and 13 homers in 2011, Rodriguez has a .779 OPS and just one homer this spring. Morris speculated that Rodriguez has perhaps put too much pressure on himself to have a huge season after he went undrafted despite his strong numbers as a junior.

Morris said the 'Canes just need to hope somebody can take advantage of the opportunity to play created by injuries and get hot, as Charlton Jimerson did back in 2001.

"We need somebody to step up and get it done, and I don't know who that's going to be," Morris said. "I think with hitting, one guy can start it up. If you get one or two guys going, it could be a contagious type thing."

One bright spot has been the improvement of outfielder Chantz Mack, who lost his starting job after struggling early in the year but has performed better recently since returning to the lineup. Mack replaced O'Brien in the No. 3 spot in the order Wednesday against Stetson, and he figures to be a key player for Miami down the stretch.

For all the offensive woes, Miami is still 26-11, and tied for the lead in the ACC's Coastal Division at 12-6. The Hurricanes' starting pitching is strong enough to keep them in every game, even against an offense as potent as Florida State's. Morris teams typically have strong bullpens, and this unit is generally solid, but he said he is not totally comfortable with the state of the bullpen after the 'Canes lost a pair of games in walk-off fashion at Virginia Tech.

The Miami-Florida State series is always a highlight of the college baseball calendar because of the fierce rivalry between the two programs; prior to Miami's entry into the ACC, the teams actually played back-to-back three-game series. This year, the series means even more for Miami, which is trying to stay in the hunt to host a regional.

"It's big. It's big for us," Morris said. "It gives you an opportunity to jump in the polls and the RPI. These guys are playing very, very well, dominating the conference with their record. If you can beat them, it moves your program up quickly.

"We were in great shape two weeks ago after the North Carolina series, then we got to Virginia Tech and lose a series you're supposed to win, and you can drop very quickly."