March 10, 2008
West Coast Bias
Anyone concerned about disparity in college baseball--are any of you left now?--were surely quieted this weekend, as it proved a difficult one for many of the nation's top teams. Former top-ranked Ole Miss and Texas lost a pair of tough series in the Lone Star State, as the Rebels lost a road battle to TCU and the Longhorns were unable to hold off red-hot Stanford in Austin. Oregon State's trip to the San Diego State Tournament started horribly, as the Beavers opened the weekend with losses to Loyola Marymount and San Diego. Michigan had a similar fall in the Keith Leclair Classic, losing to Georgia Southern and East Carolina before salvaging a Sunday win.
I could go on, and hopefully the six points below work well enough as a continuation of this general point, but it's increasingly clear that no college baseball team is safe. As Rice found out--dropping midweek games to Sam Houston State and Dallas Baptist as well as Friday's game against Michigan State--there is talent to be found in a lot of places in college baseball right now. Here were the six most noteworthy showings:
Ole Miss Loses: All right, Sun Devils fans, I'll save you the trouble--yes, I had the wrong team atop my rankings last week. But like Rice's loss to Long Beach State in the season's opening weekend, I don't want to make too much of the Rebels' weekend series loss. Why? Because they were on the road, and each team scored eight runs on the weekend. Ole Miss did nothing to disprove they are going to pitch with any team in the nation, but developing an offense outside of Cody Overbeck is proving to be a problem. More important is the big weekend for TCU. Coach Jim Schlossnagle did his team no favors with the Horned Frogs' opening schedule--a road series to Cal State Fullerton, up to Minnesota for a tough invitational, and then hosting Ole Miss before traveling up to Wichita next weekend. But after two consecutive two-loss weekends, TCU proved a dangerous team when they pitch. Blue-chip freshman Greg Holle was fantastic in Sunday's series-clinching 2-1 win, allowing one run over 6 2/3 innings for his first college win. Like Ole Miss, the key for TCU will be to generate consistent offense, because a very deep pitching staff is going to keep the Horned Frogs in games all season long.
Cardinal Continuity: Some time after Stanford's 8-3 loss in Berkeley on Tuesday and their 5-2 loss in the series opener at Texas, I began to wonder if the highlight of Stanford's season would indeed be the sweep of Cal State Fullerton a week ago. Losing with Jeremy Bleich on the mound Friday did a team with questions on the mound no favors, but Stanford can now add resilience to their list of team adjectives. Again, catcher Jason Castro is proving to be one of the nation's most dangerous hitters, blasting the two-run, go-ahead home run in the seventh inning in Saturday's 6-5 victory. On Sunday, they turned to their other offensive star, Sean Ratliff, as the center fielder would collect four hits and club two home runs as the Cardinal scored 12 times. They needed it, as the bullpen would allow eight runs in five innings of work--a bullpen that had been perfect in the two prior games. In fact, Saturday was Drew Storen's day as much as Jason Castro's, as the heralded freshman pitched 3 2/3 scoreless innings in relief of Erik Davis. We learned this week that when Stanford is held to just two or three runs, they are going to lose. But, to the other teams of the Pac-10: good luck with that.
But the Hottest Team in Northern California is... : The California Golden Bears, who decisively won the University of Minnesota's weekend tournament by outscoring the competition 27-6. For two weekends now, California has dominated tournaments despite not having one of the nation's best pitchers, Tyson Ross, setting the tone for them on Friday nights. Ross is still out with a lat injury, but Chris Petrini is doing a fine job in his place, allowing just three hits in seven innings in the weekend's opener against Northern Iowa. The key for California has been the emergence of Josh Satin, who is hitting .447/.509/.787 through 47 at-bats. Both Satin and first baseman David Cooper--profiled by Kevin Goldstein in last week's Ten Pack--homered in Sunday's 12-2 win over New Mexico. Those two, with sophomore star Brett Jackson, give the Bears a fantastic middle of the order, and the pitching staff has been dominant with 99 strikeouts in 98 innings, including ten by Craig Benningson in Saturday's victory over Minnesota. With wins now over Fresno State, San Diego State, San Diego, and Stanford, the Bears have the look and the resume of a CWS contender.
Yet Another Red-Hot California Team: I promise this week's West Coast bias will head East in a minute, but when a team allows six total runs in seven games, they deserve to be written about. Especially a 2007 College World Series team working with a new coach. When Mike Gillespie took over at UC Irvine, he inherited one of the nation's best pitching staffs. Coming into the weekend, the Anteaters had gone 36 innings without allowing a run. The streak only ran two more innings on Friday, as Scott Gorgen proved human and allowed his first two runs of the season in the third inning against Tulane. It turned out to be two more than Green Wave ace Shooter Hunt would allow, as Gorgen would be the hard-luck loser in a game where his team would collect only three hits. However, Irvine came back and won the final two games, putting some runs on the board while allowing just four. The question for Irvine, as it was a year ago, is if they will generate consistent enough offense, and if their small-ball tendencies will win games in June. However, even with Dylan Axelrod and Blair Erickson and Wes Etheridge gone from the pitching staff, the Anteaters might have their best group of arms yet.
Wolf Pack Wins Mound Battle: On Thursday, I contradicted myself in talking about the Virginia Cavaliers; I said they weren't as good as their ridiculous numbers would suggest, but I still predicted a weekend sweep on the road against NC State. The reasons for worry that I pointed out came true, as the Cavaliers scored just two runs in the series final two games to lose their first ACC series of 2008. As usual, the pitching was great, highlighted by three fantastic starts that yielded just five earned runs in 19 1/3 innings. It just was not enough, however, as Virginia managed just seven hits in the series final 18 innings. On Saturday, it was NC State's Clayton Shunick that would shut out Virginia for eight innings, striking out a career-best nine. On Sunday, Eryk McConnell pitched a solid six innings before the Wolfpack bullpen would close it out with three hitless innings. Second baseman David Adams had a team-best four hits on the weekend, but that's just a nice way of saying that no Cavalier managed five hits on the weekend. Basically, Virginia played a series against a team with the same skill set as them, and got the wrong end of the stick. Before we anoint them as a CWS contender, Virginia is going to have to hit, and they're going to have to outpitch even the N.C. States of the NCAA.
The Rest of the ACC's Opening Weekend: While the beginning of ACC season is cause enough for celebration, the weekend's slate of games wasn't exactly awe-inspiring: North Carolina-Duke, Miami-Boston College, Florida State-Maryland, Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech. The Virginia series proved to us the Cavaliers aren't quite as good as we thought they were, and the Clemson-Wake Forest series proved that the Tigers aren't either. While NC State and the Demon Deacons established themselves as potential ACC dark horses with big home series wins, I'm most excited with what I'm seeing from Georgia Tech. Sure, a sweep of Virginia Tech isn't too noteworthy, but then again I do think that the Yellow Jackets can pitch well in the first place. The Hokies managed just six runs on the weekend, and the four runs they scored on Saturday was the second-highest total Georgia Tech has allowed this season. Eight times this season they have allowed less than two runs. It's been a long time since Georgia Tech has had a legitimate weekend rotation, but they do. The question now, for perhaps the first time in the program's history, will be whether they hit enough to succeed in the ACC and the postseason. Freshman shortstop Derek Dietrich looks like an early favorite for Freshman of the Year, hitting .304/.407/.609 through 13 games, but there's not a lot going on outside of that. I'm excited by the possibilities of this team, but like Virginia on Thursday, I'll hold off my excitement until they travel to Tallahassee next weekend.
The BP College 12