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April 3, 2008

Wait 'Til Next Year

Weekend Preview

by Bryan Smith

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Last year's college baseball postseason was jam-packed with a greater number of fantastic subplots than most years. While numerous teams made storybook runs to the College World Series, none was more interesting than the upstart veteran Louisville Cardinals team. The Cardinals lost a double header last May 25 to St. John's to drop the Big East title, and were then assigned to the University of Missouri regional, and scheduled against Miami in the first round.

Perhaps more than any story you'll find in March Madness, last year's Louisville team was the perfect example of a band of teammates that simply did not want to stop playing. When Missouri beat Louisville in the second game of the regional, the Cardinals came back with three straight wins-one more against Miami, and two over the Tigers. The next stop was hosting Oklahoma State, and in a decisive third game, the Cardinals dropped 20 runs on them. The Big East runner-up went as far to win a game in the loser's bracket in Omaha before finally ending their season.

With much turnover between last year's team and this year's, maintaining last June's momentum has proven difficult for the Cards. Already, this is a team that has losses to Cleveland State, The Citadel, Xavier, Kent State, Connecticut, and Western Kentucky. They lost their Big East road opening series to Pittsburgh. Overall, the team has just been unable to get much going, and as I wrote on Monday, they are much in need of a big weekend soon to re-enter the postseason picture. Perhaps that is what makes this weekend so symbolic for me, because the Cardinals are playing St. John's, the Big East club that Louisville woke up against a year ago.

The Red Storm enter the weekend in stark contrast to wallowing Louisville-winners of 12 of their last 13 games, including a 5-1 start in conference play. However, outside of a two-game invitational pairing against the UNC Tar Heels, a trip to Louisville should be the largest challenge of St. John's season. However, even though St. John's has a five-game advantage in overall record on Louisville, they have not yet proven to be the definitively better team. St. John's isn't going to outslug very many teams, sporting only a .426 team mark, with the team leader in home runs having hit only four. Their best offensive player has been sophomore outfielder Brian Kemp, who has a .445 OBP and 13 steals, but just six extra-base hits in 102 at-bats. Well, that's not entirely true-while Kemp has been there every day, their best hitter has been upstart freshman infielder Greg Hopkins, hitting an impressive .389/.494/.597. But St. John's has a few holes in their lineup, to be sure-two players with more than 80 at-bats are slugging below .350, and one prominent hitter has an OBP of .273. So St. John's lineup is certainly beatable.

That will be important for Louisville, as part of the difficulties of 2008 can be blamed on a lack of depth in the pitching staff. The team knew coming into the season that Justin Marks and Zack Pitts would be their best, but they probably also hoped that the discrepancy between these two and the performance of the rest of the team wouldn't be so overt. Marks has allowed just six earned runs and no homers in 33 1/3 innings, and Pitts has four wins, a team-high 33 strikeouts, and a 3.62 ERA. Eliminate these two from the equation, and Louisville's team ERA jumps from 4.35 to 5.06. Part of the problem has been the team has struggled to see junior Gavin Logsdon (4.85 ERA) return to his fantastic 2007 form, and freshman closer Gabriel Shaw (5.29 ERA) has yet to find his groove. If both have a good weekend against the Red Storm bats, the games might be low-scoring affairs.

The other side of the coin puts St. John's pair of prized left-handers against a right-leaning Louisville lineup. On Friday, Red Storm star Scott Barnes will take the mound; he's a left-hander with stuff who has battled command problems this season, as 24 walks allowed in 33 innings has helped generate a 4.64 ERA. On Saturdays, senior George Brown offers a more controlled repertoire, walking just five in 37 innings, and is delivering results (5-0, 2.92). Both will look to handle redshirt sophomore third baseman Chris Dominguez, who has huge power (.710 SLG) and is striking out less this season. They also must contain senior second baseman Justin McClanahan (.417/.457/.657) and sophomore catcher Jeff Arnold (.338/.382/.529), both of whom also hit from the right side.

This season, St. John's boasts a better record than Louisville because, in just about the same amount of innings, the Red Storm have allowed 38 fewer runs. However, in Louisville, with a left-leaning staff and an offense that doesn't hit home runs, I wonder if St. John's won't key a Louisville resurgence yet again.

Weekend Notes

  • While the Louisville-St. John's series interests me most this weekend, the biggest battle between ranked opponents is undeniably the one where top-ranked Arizona State travels to Palo Alto to play the Stanford Cardinal. The Sun Devils have been a machine this season, but Stanford has dealt with that before. Cal State Fullerton was hot coming into their series against Stanford in the season's second week, and the Stanford swept them. The next week, they traveled to Austin and beat the Longhorns. Last weekend, Stanford came back to take a weekend series from a tough Washington State team. How will Arizona State fare? Well, some believe the Stanford pitching staff has been a mirage this season, and if that's the case, the Sun Devils' offense is the perfect outfit to expose the staff's true colors.
  • Another big weekend series in a smaller conference is the battle between East Carolina and Southern Miss in Conference USA. ECU scored a big win last weekend against Central Florida after losing previously to Houston, while Southern Miss has series wins against both Central Florida and Rice. In fact, last weekend's win against Rice-two one-run games-was almost enough to make them the weekend's Big Winner (more on that below). So, this weekend's matchup in Mississippi will mean a lot in determining how we arrange these C-USA teams. ECU has a fantastic pitching staff given the resurgence of junior transfer Justin Bristow, while Southern Miss offers one of the nation's nastiest starters in Barry Bowden, who has pitched 43 innings and allowed just seven earned runs in six starts this season. If USM can slug in their own park-and that has been a problem at times-a third straight series win will put them one step closer towards a regional.
  • A few pitching matchups to look out for this weekend: tomorrow, Georgia Tech will look to ride the left arm of 6'8" ace David Duncan in an important matchup against North Carolina ace Alex White. Another junior-sophomore battle will be Lance Lynn looking to bring Ole Miss out of their seemingly season-long slump against Mike Minor of Vanderbilt. Finally, don't miss the bevy of good pitching matchups between UCLA and USC, one of the weekend's most intriguing series. UCLA got back on the horse with a big series win over Arizona last weekend, and they'll need a lot out of Tim Murphy against a USC team that looks primed to play spoiler.

Last Weekend's Big Winner, Player Edition
Each week, I will attempt to pinpoint one performance that should be noted by draft nuts. Side note: if Kevin Goldstein beats me to it in the Monday Morning Ten Pack, we'll go with the backup choice.

3/28-30 Winner: RHP Aaron Crow, Missouri
3/21-23 Winner: SS Gordon Beckham, Georgia
3/14-16 Winner: RHP Zach Putnam, Michigan
3/7-9 Winner: LHP Tim Murphy, UCLA
2/29-3/2 Winner: SS Reese Havens, South Carolina

At some point, you just need to give the guy his props. If I had wanted, this really could have been the sixth straight week of honoring Crow, who, like Beckham last week, has been the best at his position on a pretty consistent basis this spring. On March 15, he struck out 15 batters in a start against Toledo, amazingly while throwing just 3.45 pitches per batter. The next weekend, in the Tigers Big 12 opener, Crow threw a complete-game shutout against Baylor, striking out 10. I could have given it to Crow either of those weekends, but I didn't.

However, when Crow increased his scoreless innings streak to 33 2/3 innings with eight more shutout frames against Texas Tech last Friday, I knew I couldn't wait any longer. As silly as Gordon Beckham's numbers were a week ago, Crow's are the most eye-popping in the nation. He has allowed just four runs in 43 innings, and no unearned runs, either. He has struck out an amazing 60 batters in that time, walked just 10 and allowed 28 hits, which translates into 12.6 K/9, 5.45 K/BB, and a 0.91 WHIP.

Of course, he has done this with big-time stuff. Every week, Crow touches 96 mph on the radar gun, and continues to show a plus slider that he is throwing in the high 80s. I've heard reports that his changeup has been inconsistent, but Crow hasn't needed it much, and two months out, has to be considered the favorite to be drafted first overall by Tampa Bay. This is a big turnaround from a year ago, when Crow walked eight batters and allowed four runs in 6 2/3 innings to Kansas, rarely pitching above 90 mph. Crow's gaining velocity last summer and to continue to show it this spring has been responsible for one of the single largest draft leaps in recent memory.

The Crow-Beckham battle for the Golden Spikes trophy is one of the most intriguing races we have had in a long time for the award. Whatever advantage I thought Beckham had a week ago was overshadowed by Crow's shutting down Texas Tech, and whatever advantage I thought Pedro Alvarez had on Crow in the draft two months ago has also been eliminated. Right now, the best player in the country without a major league affiliation-outside of Barry Bonds-is Aaron Crow.

Last Weekend's Big Winner, Team Edition
Similarly, each week I will point out one team that proved itself worthy with a big weekend series win. Hint: you might read about them first in Monday's Weekend Review.

3/28-30 Winner: Nebraska
3/21-23 Winner: Florida
3/14-16 Winner: Florida State
3/7-9 Winner: California
2/29-3/2 Winner: Stanford

We are starting to develop a theme here. I preview Florida, I question their legitimacy, and they become the Big Winner. Last week, I preview the Nebraska-Texas series, I predict the Huskers will come back to earth-and then they don't. By defying my prediction, Nebraska find themselves here, and they are now a legitimate contender with Missouri for the Big 12 title.

One concern I noted a week ago was how Nebraska would hit in Austin against a Longhorn staff that was long on talent and short on results. For the first three innings, as 6'10" Kenn Kasparek shut them down and Texas took a 4-0 lead, I looked like a soothsayer. Then Nebraska got a run in the fourth on a D.J. Belfonte double; then they would score four in the fifth as the wheels came off for Kasparek. And then Nebraska kept pouring on runs: one in the sixth, then four in both the seventh and eighth made it 14. Johnny Dorn had looked overmatched in those first three innings, but he settled in, and then Dan Jennings pitched four innings of hitless relief for the win.

Saturday was a different story as Texas pitcher Austin Wood would hold the Nebraska offense to just two runs, which came in a four-hit sixth inning triggered by prized slugger Mitch Abeita. However, two runs was enough, as Nebraska finally got the big start they had been anticipating from Thad Weber: two hits in a complete-game shutout that took just 108 pitches. Nebraska has long known that Weber had the potential to shut down the best lineups in the Big 12, but he could not have chosen a better time to come out of his shell and prove it.

Nebraska would lose its attempt at a sweep on Sunday thanks to four errors and some shaky relief help, as the offense was held to just six hits the last time out. However, even without that cherry on top, Nebraska had one of their best weekends in recent memory, beating one of their biggest rivals in a difficult place to win ballgames, and they did it without the best outing from Johnny Dorn, who had previously looked like the team's one constant.

For Nebraska to maintain its newfound standing in the Big 12, two things are going to need to happen: they'll need one great start every weekend from one of Dorn's sidekicks, either Weber or Aaron Pribanic, and this offense will need to continue to bang out hits the way they did Friday. The weaknesses on this team are just as evident as they were a week ago, but expect another series win at home against Texas Tech this weekend.

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

Related Content:  Aaron Crow,  The Who,  Stanford,  10 Runs To A Win

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