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April 10, 2008

Wait 'Til Next Year

College Weekend Preview

by Bryan Smith

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I could tell you a lot of things that would make you believe the Kentucky Wildcats should be the favorite in every series they play. They are hitting .351/.452/.579 as a team. Their team ERA is 3.16, K/BB 3.12, and K/9 8.54. They have three regulars hitting above .400, five regulars slugging above .450 and two players getting on base above a 50 percent clip. Overall, the 26-5 Wildcats have scored 298 runs and allowed 116. Yet they enter this weekend in Athens, Georgia as the underdogs.

The simplest explanation for that is that Georgia coach Dave Perno put together a schedule that would test his team. The Bulldogs opened the season hosting Arizona, then traveled to Portland to play #12 Oregon State. Two weeks later, they played #3 Florida State on the road, and the next weekend they were in Fayetteville against #21 Arkansas. Finally, last weekend they swept a very good South Carolina team, allowing just five runs in three games. So, as you can see, the prospect of hosting a Kentucky team that boasts Alabama as its most impressive series win (and sweep) is not that daunting.

After Kentucky swept Alabama, it beat Xavier 12-1 the following Thursday to move to 19-0. Since then, though, the Wildcats are just 7-5, a record that also mirrors what they have done so far in the Southeastern Conference. Because of a schedule heavy on Xavier, Butler and a host of other northern schools, Kentucky's numbers are more impressive than its team. What has been revealed in the last 12 games--including series losses to Auburn and South Carolina on the road--is that Kentucky is not without weaknesses.

Yes, the Wildcats can hit. The middle of their order, with Sawyer Carroll (.447/.536/.781) and Colin Cowgill (.402/.527/.829, 14 SB) is among the best in the nation. Given the patience, power and speed throughout Kentucky's order, I don't think Georgia will have another weekend in which it allows just five runs. However, it's also likely the Bulldogs will score more than the 11 runs they have scored in their last four games, which includes a 5-1 loss to Winthrop on Tuesday, because one thing that has been revealed in the last 12 games is that the Kentucky pitching staff isn't quite as good as we thought it was four weeks ago.

Since beating Xavier and moving to 19-0, the Kentucky bullpen has been very shaky. It has thrown 45 1/3 innings in 12 games, allowing 52 hits, 22 walks and 25 earned runs, good for a 4.96 ERA. In the nine conference games the Wildcats have played since then, the bullpen has gotten worse, as 20 of those earned runs came in 27 conference innings (6.67 ERA). Not only has the team's pen been bad, but the Kentucky aces have been inconsistent, as well. The leader of that pack is Scott Green, the Wildcat slated for the highest draft position in June. Look what the 6'8" Saturday starter has done in his seven starts this season, four in the SEC, three outside of it:

GAME  IP     H    ER    K   BB   ERA
SEC   18.2   23   16   12   11   7.71
NON   18.0   12    3   28    0   1.50
Gordon Beckham is no stranger to this column, so I won't re-hash the importance his .422/.507/.859 line has had to Georgia's success, and how important he will be against Green and the other Kentucky starters this weekend. It isn't the Beckham-led offense that keyed the seven-game Georgia win streak that I mentioned on Monday, however, and subsequently jinxed before the team's loss to Winthrop. It has been the development of the Bulldogs' pitching staff, including what has become the nation's deepest bullpen, that has turned Georgia into an SEC championship contender.

Dave Perno's staff made a big decision last year when it told Josh Fields he should sit out during the summer, perhaps thinking he might sign with the Atlanta Braves. When he opted not to sign in mid-August, Georgia re-inherited one of the nation's best--and most rested--arms. In the fall, the focus became teaching Fields to command his fastball. This season, Fields is better than he has ever been, which is saying something considering his 1.80 ERA as a sophomore and his 13.75 K/9 in the 2006 Cape Cod League. In 16 appearances this spring, Fields has yet to allow an earned run in 15 1/3 innings, striking out 32 against six walks and five hits allowed. It's not just Fields in the bullpen, as we saw last weekend. It's Justin Earls (2.49 ERA), as well as Dean Weaver (3.00, 23 K/18 IP), Nick Montgomery (3.20, 25/19.2) and Alex McRee (3.42, 29/23.2). Georgia is making a season out of making their games six-inning contests.

This is why I think Georgia will beat Kentucky and win another SEC series at home. It'll win on Friday on the back of Trevor Holder (1.98 ERA), who started his ascent with 10 strikeouts in the championship game of last summer's Cape Cod League, and hasn't looked back since. Scott Green will turn things around some against the Georgia offense on Saturday, matching up with Bulldogs starter Stephen Dodson, whose nine homers allowed in 40 2/3 innings don't bode well for facing this Kentucky offense. But with Nathan Moreau going for Georgia on Sunday, and Kentucky's Sunday starter Greg Dombrowski also prone to home runs (six in 36 IP), I'll say Gordon Beckham leads Georgia to another series win, and helps build the Bulldogs' case to be an NCAA tournament regional host.

Weekend Notes

  • This weekend has a slate of fantastic games besides the Kentucky-Georgia tilts. In the ACC, the Hurricanes travel to Georgia Tech for their hardest series of the season in what should be a telling test for both teams. North Carolina's trip to Clemson should be the same, and do much to clear the air about how the ACC will eventually sit. We'll see similar things in the Big 12, as the conference's four best teams do battle with each other. First, Nebraska travels to Stillwater to play Oklahoma State, an interesting matchup that pits the Huskers' arms against the Cowboys' bats. Watch out especially for Nebraska's Thad Weber, a senior who has been fantastic in three consecutive outings. If Nebraska can get an upstart Weber to keep pitching well alongside ace Johnny Dorn, it'll have among the best 1-2 combos in the nation. Missouri will play host to Texas, as Aaron Crow looks to continue his scoreless streak against a powerful Longhorns offense. Both the Texas pitching staff and Missouri bats have the tendency to falter, so it will be interesting to see which side wins out.
  • On the West Coast, watch out for two huge series this weekend: California travels to L.A. to play Chad Kreuter's USC Trojans, and the marquee Big West match-up between UC Irvine and Long Beach State plays out at Blair Field. Both could be low-scoring series dependent on how well each team pitches--Scott Gorgen against Andrew Liebel and Tyson Ross against an upstart Tommy Milone of USC are two of the weekend's best pitching matchups. Don't sleep on the Saturday contest between Irvine and LBSU, either: Bryce Stowell and Vance Worley both promise to be drafted in the first five rounds. The team with the most on the line is unquestionably USC, which has beaten UCLA and Arizona recently, and would all but secure a tournament bid if it could upset the Bears.

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.

4/4-6 Winner: OF/LHP Ike Davis, Arizona State 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

Slugging first basemen are, as you've probably heard, a dime a dozen in this draft class. You have Justin Smoak and Yonder Alonso at the top. Arizona State's Brett Wallace is a potential first rounder, and Kevin Goldstein introduced you to David Cooper in a Ten Pack in early March. To get noticed in this draft class, players are trying to show some versatility. Wallace has moved to third base, as has Wake Forest's Allan Dykstra.

Ike Davis has moved positions too, proving he can play the outfield. He's also replaced the void left by Jason Jarvis' exit from the university by stepping in to become one of the nation's most feared closers. With low-90s velocity and a good slider from the left side, Davis has allowed just one earned run in 13 1/3 innings this spring, striking out 20, walking three, and allowing six hits. He has solved one of Arizona State's largest weaknesses, and he's hitting .410/.476/.828, to boot. While Gordon Beckham and Aaron Crow have dominated the Golden Spikes discussion, Davis has a very good argument for having earned the award through half a season.

Davis is also creating a pretty good argument in favor of his getting drafted in the first two rounds this June. In his first two years at Arizona State, Davis was very good, hitting .339/.397/.544. He hit just 17 home runs in almost 500 at-bats, and struck out 97 times. The book was that he only had gap power, that he would struggle against left-handed pitching, and that his swing was too long. This season, the reports are completely different. Davis has shown his best contact abilities yet--just 15 strikeouts in 122 at-bats. Balls are flying out like never before, and Davis seems to find the screws with every swing. Plus, with his arm and decent athleticism, he looks like a pretty good fit in an outfield corner. And with Dennis Raben and Roger Kieschnick pretty much all there is in terms of corner outfielders in this college class, Davis has found a much better position for himself in terms of a prospective professional career.

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.

4/4-6 Winner: Georgia, Ole Miss 3/28-30 Winner: Nebraska 3/21-23 Winner: Florida 3/14-16 Winner: Florida State 3/7-9 Winner: California

So, to clear this up: after sweeping South Carolina, Georgia is clearly last weekend's big winner. No single series this season has legitimized a program like the one in which the Bulldogs shut down Reese Havens, Justin Smoak and James Darnell. For the sake of diversity in this week's article, we'll write up Ole Miss' resurgent weekend as an honorable mention in this space.

Things could not have been getting worse than they were for Ole Miss before hosting Vanderbilt last weekend, as the Rebels dropped consecutive conference series to Alabama and Florida, interspersed by a five-game losing streak. Ole Miss lost to Central Arkansas on Tuesday, Western Kentucky on Wednesday and Arkansas State the prior Wednesday, and had a 4-6 record away from Oxford.

But were things really as bad as they looked? Outside of a 10-2 thrashing by the Gators on March 23, Ole Miss has lost 10 games this season by a total of 17 runs. Two one-run losses to TCU, one to Central Arkansas, another to Central Miss (in 10 innings), and one more to Alabama...while the bats have too often gone silent in the late innings, Ole Miss is a few bad breaks from a very good record, a record deserving of the preseason #1 ranking I gave them.

Clearly, the offense got the memo, for the urgency was there for Ole Miss this weekend against Vanderbilt. On Friday, despite a bad outing from Lance Lynn, the Rebels hammered Mike Minor for nine hits in 6.2 innings, including four doubles and a home run. First baseman Matt Smith and right fielder Jeremy Travis each reached base three times, proving this team isn't all Cody Overbeck. Of course, Overbeck wouldn't be outdone, hitting a home run on Saturday (Matt Smith hit another) as the Rebels cruised to an 8-0 victory behind Drew Pomeranz. Sunday featured an 11-run output headlined by leadoff man Fuller Smith (4-for-5, HR) as well as a monster effort from center fielder Michael Guerrero, who reached base four times.

This weekend also saw the bullpen pitch 9 1/3 innings and allow just one run, proving the team is far more than a combination of Lynn and Satterwhite, as neither electric arm did much. Ole Miss might not be able to bounce back and host a regional--though it's not totally outside the realm of possibility--but my, they might still be the toughest possible two seed in the nation.

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:  The Streak,  USC,  A's,  Gordon Beckham,  Ike Davis,  Aaron Crow,  The Who,  Ten Pack

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