College Weekend Preview: April 26

Follow me on Twitter

1. Improved pitching helps New Mexico State break through into bona fide at-large territory.
2. After clinching Patriot League regular-season title, Army sets its sights on 40 wins.
3. Heading into big series at UCLA, new weapons have emerged to help Stanford snap out of its offensive funk.
4. Quick takes on some of the weekend's other top storylines.

As we look ahead to Week 11, let's focus on a pair of mid-major upstarts—New Mexico State and Army—before we get to the week's premier showdown between Pac-12 powers UCLA and Stanford. We'll focus on the Cardinal, which has emerged from a midseason lull after being forced to do some lineup tinkering recently.

Rocky Road

There isn't a college coach in America who loves talking baseball more than New Mexico State's Rocky Ward.

A conversation with Ward can go in any number of directions. He is a staunch believer that college baseball is being played in the wrong season, and he'll gladly tell you how much the game would prosper by a switch to an April through August calendar. He argues compellingly that the Ratings Percentage Index is inherently, seriously flawed and should not be such a heavily valued tool by the selection committee. He is a fountain of knowledge about the way weather impacts baseball (a valuable base of information for a coach who makes his living in Las Cruces, N.M.).

Top 25 Schedule
Rhode Island at (1) Florida State
(2) Kentucky at Vanderbilt
(25) New Mexico State at (3) Baylor
Georgia at (4) Louisiana State
(21) Arkansas at (5) Florida
Alabama at (7) South Carolina
Loyola Marymount at (8) Cal State Fullerton
(9) Texas A&M vs./@/@ (20) Texas
California at (10) Oregon
East Tennessee State at (11) Arizona
(13) Stanford at (12) UCLA
Memphis at (14) Central Florida
Michigan State at (15) Purdue
(17) San Diego at Portland
Duke at (18) North Carolina State
(19) Mississippi at Mississippi State
Virginia at (22) Miami
(23) Arizona State at Washington State
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at (24) Sam Houston State
When Ward is on the road, he returns to his hotel room after the Aggies are finished playing and monitors live stats for "20 different games at once," as he puts it. He knows which college programs are having banner years and why.

So Ward knows just how special Baylor's season has been, and what kind of challenge awaits his Aggies in Waco this weekend.

"Baylor's a good baseball program, but did you ever think they'd open 18-0 in the Big 12?" he asked. "Never. Never, never, never, never. When they started 9-0, I thought, 'Has anyone ever done that? They're in a league with Texas A&M, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State."

But because Ward is so plugged in to the national college baseball scene, he also can put his own team's standout season in proper perspective. The Aggies enter their two-game set at Baylor with a 30-11 record, including three wins against Wake Forest and two midweek wins at Arizona. They also have three midweek wins against a solid New Mexico team and a series win against Nevada (No. 66 in the RPI, per the updated rankings at Boyd's World). Those signature wins have helped New Mexico State construct a No. 21 ranking in the RPI and earn a spot in the Baseball America Top 25 for the first time ever.

"This has been kind of a breakthrough year for us," Ward said. "We've had a good record before, we've won 30 or more games six of the last (10) years. We're a mid-major program, we don't have great facilities. But we've had success—we just haven't been able to do that with a high enough power rating like this year."

If the Aggies had better facilities, they would be right in the mix to host a regional, with a chance to bolster their case this weekend at Baylor. Ward said his team won't host, but it is in very strong position to earn an at-large bid to regionals even if it fails to win the Western Athletic Conference's automatic bid. This weekend will provide a nice introduction to an intense regional setting, as the Bears have been drawing school-record crowds during their recent 24-game winning streak (which ended Tuesday).

"That's the most exciting thing about it is my ballclub hasn't had enough experience with big crowds," Ward said. "It'll have a super regional type atmosphere, and I think my club needs to experience that. They experienced it a little with Arizona, but it's not the same. Until you've played in the South or Texas with quality opponents, you don't really know what it's like.

"But we think we're pretty good, regardless of what happens at Baylor."

As usual, New Mexico State has one of the nation's most potent offenses. The Aggies lead the nation in scoring (9.4 runs per game), rank 10th in batting (.318), fourth in doubles (99) and eighth in slugging (.473). New Mexico State plays in one of the nation's most hitter-friendly settings, but its gaudy offensive numbers are not just a product of the high winds and low humidity of Las Cruces. Ward and his staff really know how to teach hitting, and the Aggies are among the national leaders in walks every year. This year, they lead the nation in walks (271) and on-base percentage (.438).

Leadoff man Tanner Waite sets the tone—he leads college baseball with 52 walks. Ward said Waite and No. 2 hitter Bryan Karraker (31 walks) are just hard-nosed "grit guys" who battle through every at-bat.

Parker Hipp
Second baseman Parker Hipp (.340/.487/.465, 42 walks), shortstop Zach Voight (.323/.423/.513, six homers, 50 RBIs, 25 walks) and catcher Zac Fisher (.377/.448/.543, 4 homers, 50 RBIs, 23 walks) form a very productive 3-4-5. Fisher, the team's top prospect, hits in the 5-hole because he is more comfortable in that spot.

The Aggies have more pop and plenty more patience in the last four slots in the lineup, where Kurt Snowley (.344/.417/.467), Kyle Phillips (.333/.461/.523, 25 walks), Cody Edwards (.318/.414/.565, five homers) and Robert Lecount (.289/.376/.524, team-leading eight homers) ensure there is no let-up. Lecount has been hampered a bit by a pulled rib cage and still isn't completely finishing his swings, Ward said, but he has continued to provide power production. And former football player Tanner Rust (.303/.438/.416) has shown a knack for delivering timely hits. He and the powerful Edwards have started 23 games apiece.

"The guys hitting in the bottom half of our lineup, I'd match those guys with anybody else in the country in those spots," Ward said. "Our strength is we're better than anybody else in the bottom of the lineup."

But New Mexico State is an offensive juggernaut annually. A dramatically improved pitching staff is the real difference for the Aggies this year.

In Ward's first nine seasons as the head coach, the Aggies posted a sub-7.00 ERA just twice: in their 43-win 2003 campaign (6.17) and their 44-win 2009 season (6.28). Those were also two of the three 40-win seasons in program history (the first came in 1990 in Elliott Avent's second year as head coach). The Aggies won 36 games in 2010 and 34 games in 2011, with ERAs of 7.46 and 7.48, respectively.

This year, New Mexico State has a 5.06 ERA.

Because Las Cruces is so unforgiving for pitchers, the Aggies are never going to attract marquee arms. But they have built a competitive staff that misses a lot of bats, ranking 24th in the nation with 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings.

"One of the things I look for in the recruiting process is I look for guys with good breaking balls," Ward said. "Do I want my guys to throw 90? Yeah, but I want them to have good breaking balls, because those are strikeout pitches, and there's a certain amount of college hitters who can't hit breaking balls. That's what we have."

Staff ace Ryan Beck (4-2, 3.98, 71-26 K-BB in 63 IP) is a physical lefthander with an 88-90 mph fastball and the ability to throw strikes with a solid breaking ball. Six-foot-5, 240-pound junior righty Adam Mott (5-0, 4.47) works in the 87-88 range and owns a "real, quality, deep slider," as Ward puts it. Junior righty Michael Ormseth (7-0, 5.24) owns two breaking balls he can throw for strikes. Reigning WAC closer of the year Scott Coffman (2-1, 2.36, six saves, 38-9 K-BB in 27 IP) tops out at 84 mph with his fastball but owns a late-breaking, deceptive slider that Ward says makes it "dadgum near impossible for righthanded hitters to make any contact, particularly under the lights at night. They just can't see it."

Because NMSU's nearest opponent—New Mexico—is three and a half hours away, the Aggies don't have the luxury of playing one midweek game per week throughout the course of the season. Instead, they have to load up on four-game series and two-game midweek sets.

"You build some pitching depth doing that," Ward said. "Our pitching staff depth is better than it ever has been."

Ward said the depth of his staff gave the Aggies a distinct advantage in their three midweek wins against the rival Lobos. Arizona isn't exactly blessed with pitching depth, either.

But this weekend, the Aggies will be at a distinct disadvantage on the mound against Baylor's top two pitchers, Josh Turley (6-0, 1.94) and Trent Blank (9-0, 2.18). At least, they'll be at a disadvantage on paper. But Ward knows the numbers don't tell the whole story.

"Baylor has two guys that are almost identical to my two guys," Ward said. "They're both undefeated, but they're both 86-88 guys, they're not blazers. I'll almost guarantee you they throw the straight change any time they need to.

"I'm looking forward to the test. I don't have any idea what the results are going to be, but I do know one thing about my ballclub: There's not anybody in the country that's going to dominate us. We can play with anybody."

Army Dominates Patriot League

With a four-game series left against second-place Holy Cross, Army has already clinched the Patriot League's regular-season title. The Black Knights carry a perfect 16-0 league record into this weekend's showdown against 11-5 Holy Cross. The Black Knights are 33-10 overall, so the first 40-win campaign in school history is in their cross-hairs (they won 39 in 2005, 37 in '04 and 36 in '09, when they reached the finals of the Austin Regional).

Army coach Joe Sottolano said he doesn't want to give away too much against the Crusaders this weekend, because there's a good chance they'll meet again in the league playoffs, with a trip to regionals on the line. But that doesn't mean Army is going to roll over this weekend—that's just not in the team's DNA.

The Patriot League plays four-game series, and as Sottolano pointed out, it takes particular mental toughness and unwavering focus to sweep any four-game series, let alone five in a row (Army swept four games against Harvard the weekend before league play began). Those characteristics, more than any physical traits, have led to Army's dominance of the Patriot League.

"You'd watch us at first and go, 'All right.' Then if you watched the game, they just methodically beat you up," Sottolano said of his players. "They're very, very consistent, and that's the key. We practice very hard, and we always have. They're baseball rats. The more you watch them, the more you watch them methodically beat you up."

Many of the nation's most successful teams are constructed similarly. Just last week in this space, we wrote about a pair of teams that are ranked inside the top five, Baylor and Louisiana State. Like Army, those teams are collections of hard-nosed players who just grind down their opponents.

Kevin McKague
Army made an effort to recruit more athletes and win more with speed in the BBCOR era, but the lineup still has a pair of physically mature, dangerous veterans in seniors Kevin McKague (.382/.487/.539 with four homers and 36 RBIs) and J.T. Watkins (.328/.402/.483, 3 HR, 20 RBI). McKague, a very talented two-way player, was limited by injury to just 12 games a year ago, and Army had to ease him back into mound duty this spring. Before he got hurt, McKague worked in the 94-96 range with an 88 mph slider out of the bullpen, Sottolano said. This spring he has worked in the 88-91 range, though he still has been effective in his 11 relief appearances, going 1-0, 1.46 with five saves and 15 strikeouts in 12 innings.

McKague has a professional future as a pitcher, but his primary value for Army this year is as the centerpiece of the lineup.

"He's a big, strong, physical guy," Sottolano said. "A lot of teams really try to pitch around him, throw him breaking balls, keep the ball away. He's a physical presence in the middle of the lineup, followed by some guys around him that can run. But if Devin's hitting well, he can hit a fastball, curveball, changeup. He can hit it to all fields, and he's strong—he can hit it hard to all fields."

Fellow seniors Watkins (a standout defender behind the plate who excels at receiving, blocking and controlling the running game) and second baseman Zach Price (.331/.437/.393) have provided excellent leadership for an Army lineup that usually starts four freshmen.

The pitching staff has more experience. Junior righthander Chris Rowley (9-0, 0.95 with 53 strikeouts and nine walks in 67 innings) and senior lefty Logan Lee (5-1, 3.53) give the Black Knights an experienced, savvy one-two punch, and sophomore lefty Nick Dignacco (5-2, 3.53) has emerged as a third very reliable starter. Rowley is a groundball machine who works very quickly and fields his position exceptionally well. He threw a seven-inning, complete-game, one-hitter in just one hour, 18 minutes last week against Bucknell—and needed just 65 pitches to do it.

Lee, a mid-80s southpaw whom Sottolano describes as "a craftsman," outdid him the next day, throwing a seven-inning no-hitter. He carried a perfect game into the final inning in that one—the second straight week he did so.

And Dignacco allowed just one run in a nine-inning complete game last week. Dignacco works in the 84-87 range but projects to add more velocity as he fills out, and he has developed good feel for his changeup and a solid slider.

With a staff full of strike-throwers and a defense that is fielding at a strong .977 clip, Army is built to win in the BBCOR era.

"You have to make guys beat you with three swings of the bat now, because it's single, single, single," Sottolano said. "If you get a pitching staff that works down in the zone, it's very difficult to get extra-base hits.

Sottolano knows his team isn't as physically talented as others it will face—and he includes Holy Cross in that group. But his team's dogged makeup gives it a chance to make noise in a regional once again, just as it did in 2009.

"It's probably the hardest-working club that I've coached, right from day one," Sottolano said. "They're fun to be around, and they really like each other. They respect one another. We say—and we have to subscribe to this—good teams can beat great players. We'll face some great players that might be more physical or better, but I don't know if it's a better team we're playing."

New Weapons Emerge For Stanford

Two of the Pac-12's most potent offenses will collide at Jackie Robinson Stadium this weekend. UCLA (second in the conference in batting at .314, third in scoring at 6.7 runs per game) has had a very consistent lineup nearly all season, with eight regulars that have started at least 34 games, and four that have started all 37 games.

Stanford (third in batting at .297, first in scoring at 7.3 runs per game) has its share of mainstays as well, but the Cardinal has gotten a major spark recently from a lineup shakeup. After bashing its way through the first four weeks of the season, Stanford's offense struggled to get back in sync after its nearly two-week break for exams from March 11-24. Conference play began when the Cardinal returned to action, and Stanford's high-powered offense averaged just 3.75 runs per game through its first four conference weekends.

Then the Cardinal broke out last weekend against Arizona State, scoring 34 runs in a three-game sweep against one of the nation's top pitching staffs

"We just haven't really hit since our finals break in March, until last weekend," Stanford coach Mark Marquess said. "We didn't do anything differently, it's just one of those things that's kind of contagious."

Injuries forced Stanford to shake up its lineup two weeks ago in a home series loss to Oregon. Shortstop Lonnie Kauppila suffered a season-ending knee injury in that series, while center fielder Jake Stewart hasn't played since the Oregon series due to a badly sprained right foot (though he could return this weekend).

With Kauppila out, Kenny Diekroeger slid back to shortstop from second base, where sophomore Brett Michael Doran took over. Doran has thrived in the leadoff spot over the last four games, going 7-for-15. He's not a flashy defender like Kauppila, but he has good quickness and does a nice job turning the double play.

"He DH'd a couple games last year, but he didn't play defense," Marquess said. "He just needs to play. The good thing is he's held his own so far, and he should get better the more he plays. He can swing the bat—he's tough to strike out, he handles the bat well. He's been one of our best hitters the last four or five games."

With Stewart sidelined, left fielder Tyler Gaffney has slid to center field, and the Cardinal has moved third baseman Stephen Piscotty to left, where he played as a freshman. That has created an opportunity for freshman Alex Blandino to start every day at third base, where the high school shortstop has more than held his own defensively. He has just one error and is fielding .955 so far; Piscotty is fielding at an .867 clip.

More notably, he has emerged as The Great Blandino at the plate. He went 9-for-16 with eight runs, four homers and 11 RBIs in four games last week. On the season, Blandino has started just six games and accrued 64 at-bats, but he leads the team with six home runs. He's just 6-foot, 190 pounds, but Blandino has one of the best swings on the West Coast according to scouts, who are already tabbing him a first-rounder-to-be in 2014.

"He's not very big, he doesn't look like it, but he's got really good power, really good power," Marquess said. "And we've got some guys with some power. (Austin) Wilson and (Brian) Ragira, those guys can hit it a long way. But he can match those guys. That's a nice, pleasant surprise."

With Blandino no longer getting at-bats at DH, Danny Diekroeger, younger brother of Kenny, has seen more playing time, and he has provided another spark—he's 12-for-28 (.429) on the season. He gives the righthanded-dominant Cardinal a key lefthanded bat, so expect him to see plenty more playing time this weekend against a UCLA pitching staff that features just one lefty, Grant Watson.

Another key development for Stanford since the first month of the season is the maturation of sophomore righthander A.J. Vanegas. One of the most heralded prospects on the team, Vanegas struggled out of the chute and lost his job as the Sunday starter by Week Two, as freshman lefty John Hochstatter established himself.

Hochstatter ran into some adversity in recent weeks, and Vanegas returned to the rotation to make a pair of strong starts in early April. But last Saturday against ASU, the Cardinal decided it needed to call upon Vanegas out of the bullpen in a close game Saturday, and he worked two innings to earn the win. He bounced back with two shutout innings the next day to earn his first save.

Vanegas has become Stanford's most trusted bullpen arm, and the Cardinal will use him in relief if it needs to early in a weekend. Otherwise it will start him on Sunday. But ideally, Hochstatter can re-emerge as a quality Sunday starter and Vanegas can flourish as the bullpen anchor. He has the stuff to dominate in that role, and Stanford has struggled to find another stopper it trusts.

"A.J.'s really coming into his own, as (Mark) Appel did as a sophomore last year," Marquess said. "He's a bulldog on the mound, and the arm is really sound. He always had a good slider, then he lost it a little bit, now he's got it back, and he's developed a changeup. So they can't just sit on the fastball. And his fastball has improved. He was sitting 89-90, now he's 93-94 and getting the other stuff over. So that's the difference."

And it has turned Vanegas into yet another difference-maker on a Cardinal team that is brimming with them.

Quick Takes

• One of the weekend's most intriguing pitching matchups takes place in the West Coast Conference, where San Diego travels to Portland. The Toreros will move sophomore righthander Dylan Covey (6-2, 2.67) into the Friday starter job this week, and he'll take on one of the WCC's most accomplished pitchers in senior righthander Kyle Kraus (5-3, 1.43). Kraus is a very refined strike-thrower, with just 10 walks in 76 innings this year. His mid-to-upper-80s fastball isn't overpowering, but he has very good command of a solid four-pitch mix, he keeps hitters guessing and he fields his position very well. Covey, an unsigned first-round pick out of high school, has a bigger arm and more pedigree, and lately he has gotten results to match. Covey has pitched six or more innings in each of his last four starts, posting a 1.90 ERA during that stretch and winning his last three.

• Another marquee pitching matchup is Mississippi's Bobby Wahl (5-0, 2.15) against Mississippi State's Chris Stratton (7-0, 2.71). But while Covey has pitched his best over the last month, Wahl has failed to last more than four innings during any of his last three starts since throwing eight shutout innings against Florida on March 30 (though his start last week against Arkansas was cut short prematurely when bad weather suspended Friday's game). The showdown series between the Magnolia State rivals is always big, but this year there is even more on the line, as Ole Miss is fighting to enhance its regional hosting case, while MSU needs another series win to bolster its at-large hopes.

• Speaking of bubble teams, the ACC features two series between teams that need to firm up their postseason credentials. Maryland's eight wins against the top 25 in the RPI keeps its at-large case afloat despite its 7-14 conference record, but the Terrapins can ill afford to lose another series this weekend at Virginia Tech after getting swept by Clemson last week. The Terrapins (No. 32) and Hokies (No. 33) are back-to-back in the RPI and just a game apart in the race for the coveted final slot in the ACC tournament. At 8-13, Virginia Tech is one game behind Georgia Tech and Wake Forest (who are tied for the final two spots), while 7-14 Maryland is two games back. The Yellow Jackets, meanwhile, injected some real life into their at-large case with a series win at North Carolina last weekend and a midweek win against Georgia, and now they host Clemson, which has managed to build a solid 12-9 conference record despite its yo-yo season. But the Tigers still aren't an iron-clad lock for regionals, with an RPI of No. 37.

• There's a big series in the Big East, where Louisville (10-5 in the conference) hosts Connecticut (which is locked in a three-way tie for first place at 11-4). The Cardinals have climbed into solid at-large footing after completing a two-game season series sweep of Kentucky, but it would behoove them to finish near the top of their conference standings to further solidify their at-large chances. UConn, at No. 90 in the RPI, doesn't stand a realistic chance at earning an at-large spot (the RPI Needs Report at Boyd's World says the Huskies need to finish 14-0 to finish inside the top 45 at season's end). The last week was UConn's up-and-down season in a microcosm: after slugging their way to a pair of 9-8 wins in the first two games of their series against Rutgers, the Huskies were blasted 15-0 on Sunday, then came out flat in a 7-1 loss to Bryant on Tuesday.