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March 17, 2008
Wait 'Til Next Year
The SEC and Big 12 joined the ranks of conferences battling within this weekend, and as a result, the power structure and NCAA tournament contenders in each conference are beginning to sort themselves out. As you'll see below, two weeks into ACC play, we're beginning to know the best of the bunch (Florida State) from those that masked weaknesses in non-conference play (Virginia). This week, the West Coast eased off being the place to find exciting baseball play, allowing me to finally spend some time on the better programs on the East Coast. Also, as you'll read in the last note, this was also an exciting weekend for scouts in a half-dozen locales, as they were privy to some big-time pitching performances. On to the six most interesting points from the weekend:
Make That Three Premier Teams in Florida: A few weeks ago, we declared the Florida State Seminoles officially for real after a four-game dismantling of the Auburn Tigers. Flash forward a couple weeks, and there's a similar story: Auburn got swept, and there's a Florida team on the map. This time, though, it's the Florida Gators, who sure look like a revived program under first-year coach Kevin O'Sullivan. The former Clemson assistant has done wonders with a Gator club that finished just 29-30 a year ago, as a three-game sweep of Auburn has Florida out to an impressive 14-3 record. They had previously lost a weekend series in Miami against the Hurricanes, but top freshman Tommy Toledo pitched an important Sunday victory to salvage something from that annual series. Surely, we'll know more about the Gators after a three-game trip to Oxford next weekend to play Ole Miss, but Florida can officially be labeled a tournament contender. The Rebels will have their work cut out or them by stopping sophomore shortstop Cole Figueroa (.361/.456/.556), a revived pitching staff with a team 3.26 ERA, and the nation's best baserunning team-they're currently 39-for-41 on stolen base attempts. There's a long way to go before NCAA Regionals at the end of May, but the Gators just might be back, and Kevin O'Sullivan might just be a Coach of the Year contender.
No Pedro, No Price, No Problem: Yeah, I've been worried about Vanderbilt once or twice this season. I worried about the Commodores after Arizona State put up 18 against them on the season's first Saturday. I worried about them still more the next week, when Pedro Alvarez was injured and ruled out for as many as six weeks. My worries weren't assuaged at all the next Saturday, as Brett Jacobsen continued to struggle and Vanderbilt lost to the Iowa Hawkeyes. Throw in a Friday loss to UIC, and I had my doubts about Vanderbilt's potential success hosting the SEC opener against South Carolina. Now, though, I'm wondering if I worried too much, as Vanderbilt took two of three from the Gamecocks. Mike Minor continued his fine season replacing David Price as the Friday starter, striking out 10 in 8 2/3 innings of a game that would go to 13. (Luckily, Vanderbilt shortstop Ryan Flaherty hit five hits, including a home run and the walk-off single.) Saturday continued to be the Commodores' bugaboo, as seven Gamecocks would register two hits in a 16-7 South Carolina victory. But Vanderbilt continued their undefeated Sunday record, as Caleb Cotham struck out nine in the start and the Commodores' one through five scored and drove in eight runs in a series-clinching 10-4 victory. With Alvarez getting back soon, I can promise that there will be no more worrying about Vandy from me.
Virginia Duked Out of North Carolina: When I profiled Virginia on March 6, they were an unstoppable force, a team with an unheard-of run differential. However, as I warned, they were also a team touting a midweek game against Old Dominion as the best on their schedule, with nothing even close in second place. A week ago, I wrote about that after a disappointing opening weekend in North Carolina against the N.C. State Wolfpack. A week later told the same story: Virginia traveled to North Carolina and lost a series they have no business losing, this time to Duke. The Blue Devils baseball program has a pretty bad recent history, but while it's a program on the rise, it's still a team that the Cavaliers need to beat. Instead, on Friday ace Jake Thompson was battered around for eight hits and six earned runs in just three innings, and the offense struggled to keep pace. Saturday starter Pat McAnaney threw a complete game on Saturday as the Cavaliers cruised behind 16 hits for a 10-1 victory, but the bats went quiet again in the series' deciding game yesterday, as Virginia slipped to 2-4 in the ACC. To cement the state of Virginia's newfound hatred of all things North Carolina, the Virginia Tech Hokies were swept by North Carolina.
Someone in the ACC Does Meet Expectations: The weekend series most interesting to me last Thursday was to see how Georgia Tech's revived pitching staff would handle the dangerous Florida State Seminoles offense. As usually seems to be the case for teams coming to Tallahassee, the answer was 'not well,' as Florida State plated 36 runs in their three-game sweep of the Yellow Jackets. The Georgia Tech offense did what it could, scoring 17 runs, but it wasn't enough to keep up with the Seminoles, who had suffered their first loss to Georgia just two days before. Tech would have stolen the first game if not for a two-run ninth-inning rally capped by Ohmed Danesh, who delivered a walk-off single coming off of the bench. But the weekend belonged to sophomore Jason Stidham-an unheralded recruit who hit .366/.448/.540 as a freshman-delivering two hits Friday, a three-run home run on Saturday, and four more hits on Sunday. He also managed a move to second base. While midweek games against Florida and Stetson loom large as important matchups in the coming weeks, not until hosting Miami on April 18 or traveling to face the Tar Heels the following weekend do the Seminoles have a weekend opponent that should scare them.
Meanwhile, Out West: Top-ranked Arizona State went 5-0 on the week, taking a pair of midweek games from Arkansas and sweeping a good Troy team to remain undefeated. The Arizona Wildcats lost on Sunday for the first time since Opening Day, but still took a weekend series from Cal State Fullerton in Tucson. The Titans continue to be among the nation's most unpredictable clubs. On the positive side, they won their season-opening series against Texas Christian on the road-something Ole Miss couldn't do-and stole a pair of midweek games against UCLA, outscoring them 20-3. On the negative side, Fullerton was manhandled by Stanford in Palo Alto, and while they salvaged that Sunday victory against the Wildcats, they were decisively beaten in the first two games. Elsewhere, Long Beach State dominated USC as their offense woke up, putting up a season-high of nine runs on Saturday before putting up 16 on Sunday; USC struggled all weekend, especially with catcher Robert Stock having a hard time getting his bat going. The Dirtbags needed that kind of big weekend after a shocking loss during the week to previous winless Western Illinois. Finally, the Cal Bears are looking a lot like they might enter their March-ending series against Long Beach State in Berkeley with a 15-game winning streak.
The Cream Separates from the Crop: If there was any noteworthy subplot from the weekend, it might have been the dominance shown by the nation's best pitchers. As a result, every weekend has provided a bit more clarity into how the June draft board might shape up. In San Diego, Brian Matusz did nothing on Saturday to change his status as college baseball's top dog, throwing a seven-inning complete-game shutout while striking out nine and walking one. As Kevin Goldstein further profiles in today's Ten Pack, Missouri ace Aaron Crow struck out a career-high 15 in a fascinating start. Shooter Hunt is looking more and more like the third-best pitcher in college baseball, struck out 10 in eight innings against lowly Oakland University. Tanner Scheppers continued to dominate for Fresno State, notching another double-digit strikeout game while just allowing two hits in seven innings. Lance Lynn, conveniently ranked fifth among college starters on my board, threw six shutout innings against Mississippi State, striking out seven. But the weekend's best start might just belong to potential first-rounder Zach Putnam, who struck out 10 without allowing an earned run in 6 1/3 innings pitching for the Michigan Wolverines. Overall, these six starters, among the most heralded six in college baseball, pitched 43 1/3 innings without allowing an earned run this weekend while striking out 61. Score a validation point for the scouts.
The BP College 12