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March 3, 2008

College Prospectus

Breaking Down the Action

by Bryan Smith

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The first month of competely loaded series and invitationals is coming to an end, and we are beginning to see which programs were more hype than substance, and which programs we might have underrated. After combing through a weekend's worth of results, I see six subplots that bear repeating. Also, since we have turned what started as an Unfiltered post into a regular column, I thought it wise to unveil team rankings, created by myself, at the bottom of each week's article.

RETURN OF THE CARDINAL

A year ago, the Stanford Cardinal went 28-28 despite a miserable team ERA of 6.01. In a rarity for the program, they missed the postseason, finishing second-worst in the Pac-10 with a 9-15 conference record. However, the early returns on this season are positive, as the Cardinal swept Cal State Fullerton at home, outscoring the Titans 29-17 in three games. So, yes, you can reasonably expect Stanford to be this Thursday's "Weekend's Big Winner." Catcher Jason Castro hit just .167/.287/.225 in 102 at-bats last year, but has turned a positive summer in the Cape Cod League into a full-blown breakout campaign. The junior collected four hits on Saturday and a home run on Sunday, giving him eight extra-base hits in 28 at-bats on the season. Another Cape standout, Jeremy Bleich, has yet to allow an extra-base hit in 12 1/3 innings spread across two Friday night starts. Amazingly, coach Mark Marquess has already used 18 pitchers in eight games--including eight in Sunday's win--as he attempts to find a consistent core to lean on when Pac-10 play begins. After series wins over Nebraska and Fullerton to start the season, the Cardinal face their biggest test yet by traveling to Austin next weekend to face the Longhorns.

OWLS THE LONE STAR AT CLASSIC

Speaking of Texas, the hometown Rice Owls proved to be the best team in the state by going undefeated in three games to win the annual Minute Maid Park College Classic. After losing two one-run games in last weekend's season-opening series against Long Beach State--scoring just five runs in three games--the Owls proved they could hit, scoring 45 runs in five wins on the week. Most impressive was Saturday's 10-4 thumping of the Longhorns, as the Owls homered three times against Texas starter Kenn Kasparek. The weekend's biggest numbers were delivered by third baseman Diego Seastrunk, as the sophomore went 7-for-12 in three games, including home runs in his first time at the plate both Saturday and Sunday. The Owls have now allowed just fifteen runs in six weekend games, thanks to the weekend trio of Ryan Berry, Cole St. Clair, and Matt Langwell, as well as big bullpen performances from Bryan Price and Chris Kelley. Watch out for Price, by the way: the junior has used mid-90s velocity this season, and has 11 strikeouts and nary an extra-base hit in 8 1/3 innings. With consistency from the closer role to go with Rice's experienced starters, the Owls could be dangerous.

THEY CAN PITCH, TOO

Many readers objected last week when I called the Mississippi Rebels the nation's best team. I stand by that statement with Ole Miss already 8-0, but I'll acknowledge that the Arizona State Sun Devils are a clear number two. Now 7-0, Arizona State has wins over Vanderbilt, Oregon State, and two wins over Michigan. Those who have questioned Arizona State's pitching--myself among them--have been wowed as ASU has allowed just 16 runs in seven games, including three shutouts. Critical to that success has been a bullpen that has allowed just five earned runs in 27 1/3 innings, even without Devin Fuller and with limited contributions from Jason Jarvis. The team now has four formidable starters, and even with the potential loss of Jarvis, four or so good bullpen options, including juco transfer Reyes Dorado, who struck out nine in 3 2/3 innings in relief of freshman Seth Blair on Sunday. And, of course, the Sun Devils can still hit, including 23 runs in two games against Michigan. So far, it looks like sophomore transfer Jason Kipnis--with two steals, six walks, and four home runs in seven games--is the difference-maker for the offense. The makings of a potential championship team are coming together in Tempe, despite a program investigation that doesn't seem to be worrying anyone.

PITCHERS LIVE UP TO PROMISE

On Thursday, I invoked hyperbole in previewing the University of San Diego tournament: "never before has such a collection of high-profile arms been brought together for one regular season tournament." On Thursday, I was worried I might be proven wrong, as California beat Fresno State 14-4, and San Diego State won a nail-biter against Cal Poly 9-8. However, for the rest of the weekend, pitching dominated; only three times in the remaining ten games did a team score over five runs. I went 7-5 picking the weekend, but 0-4 in picking games involving the Cal Golden Bears, who have to be considered the tournament's biggest winner. Cal went 3-1, losing only to Missouri and Aaron Crow in a game that saw ace Tyson Ross scratched and fill-in Todd Fitzgerald run out of the game in the first inning. Fresno State lost their first three games before salvaging a victory on Sunday, earning the title of the tournament's biggest loser. The top pitching performances from the weekend: Brian Matusz' 11 strikeouts in seven innings against Fresno; Tanner Scheppers' nine strikeouts in a six-inning loss against Matusz; and lefty Derrick Saito shutting down Fresno State over six innings, garnering nine strikeouts. With four one-run games in four days, surely everyone in attendance got their money's worth of good college baseball.

STRENGTH OR WEAKNESS?

We learned one of two things in South Carolina's two-game home-and-home sweep of Clemson this weekend: either the Gamecocks can pitch, or the Tigers can't hit. Clemson scored just one run in each of the two games, slugging an abysmal .294. If South Carolina can pitch, they became an immediate Omaha favorite, because pitching has been their weakness for years. On Friday, South Carolina used a pair of veteran juniors as Mike Cisco pitched one-run ball over 7 1/3 innings before turning it over to Will Atwood. On Saturday, sophomore Blake Cooper had a great second outing, pitching six scoreless innings before closer Curtis Johnson shut the door. Clemson knew their offense would be a problem when they lost 40 home runs after Andy D'Alessio, Marquez Smith, and Taylor Harbin all left via the draft. While South Carolina couldn't neutralize red-hot left fielder Wilson Boyd (he went 4-for-8), the rest of the lineup managed just 13 hits in 60 at-bats. To have success in June, Clemson is going to need seniors Doug Hogan and Stan Widmann to play much better, while South Carolina is going to need their weekend's pitching to be a sign of things to come.

DIRTBAGS CAN'T STOP PITCHING

Things only continue to look brighter in Long Beach, as the Dirtbags followed up a series win against Rice a week ago with a weekend sweep of Wichita State. The Shockers didn't get much baseball in the first weekend because of rain, but surely coach Gene Stephenson believed his bats would produce more than 10 runs in three games. Such run prevention continues to be the story for the Dirtbags, particularly on Friday nights. After making a name for himself a week ago, Long Beach State ace Andrew Liebel scattered four hits and a walk against 11 strikeouts in 7 1/3 shutout innings. Liebel went to two balls on just 11 of the 28 batters he faced, and just six of the first 21. I'm beginning to think Liebel could be on a similar meteoric rise in draft status akin to those of David Kopp and Will Kline last year--two right-handers short on stuff who had big seasons, leading to early second-round draft selections. Amazingly enough, Liebel could perhaps even go higher in the draft than Saturday's starters, LBSU's Vance Worley and Wichita's Aaron Shafer, two highly-regarded freshmen who combined to allow 20 hits in 11 2/3 innings in Saturday's 8-5 Dirtbags win. Sunday belonged to 18-year-old Jake Thompson, who struck out eight and walked nobody in seven innings. The Dirtbags certainly proved this weekend that if their offense produces, their pitching is good enough to win a lot of ballgames.

THE DEBUT EDITION OF THE BASEBALL PROSPECTUS COLLEGE 12

1. Ole Miss
2. Arizona State
3. Arizona
4. North Carolina
5. South Carolina
6. Missouri
7. Long Beach State
8. Miami
9. UCLA
10. Baylor
11. Rice
12. Florida State

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

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