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May 1, 2008

Wait 'Til Next Year

College Weekend Preview

by Bryan Smith

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You can bet the Pepperdine/San Diego series was bookmarked by scouts a long time ago, as it could be the opportunity to see Brian Matusz go up against Brett Hunter just one month before the draft. Matchups like that can happen in February, where non-conference games can pit a few of the best in the nation against each other, but in May, they're few and far between. I know I was looking forward to it.

Now, that's not going to happen this weekend, but don't turn away yet. This Pepperdine team has turned out to be more than a one-man band, with the team nevertheless doing OK during Hunter's extended absence with forearm problems. Whether Hunter pitches or not this weekend--and that still seems up in the air--we have the makings of a conference-defining series. Should San Diego come into Malibu and dominate the Waves, the Toreros become a near lock to host a regional. Should Pepperdine win on their home turf and grab a lead in the WCC, both teams will be staring at two seeds.

So no, you don't have Matusz vs. Hunter. But maybe even better Eric Thames' emergence gives us the Thames-Matusz, batter-pitcher matchup between two of the nation's hottest players. While Thames' play was profiled here last week, Matusz has been inexplicably absent from this space, probably because he's just so consistent. For the season, the southpaw now has a 1.59 ERA and a 99/18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 73 2/3 innings. Because no pitcher in college baseball has three pitches to mix that are as good as Matusz's are, it's pretty easy to assume Fridays are a win for San Diego.

Saturday promises to be an interesting day, when two southpaws will take the hill to battle each other: for Pepperdine, it will be highly acclaimed freshman Scott Alexander, who has battled command issues to turn in a solid first season; for San Diego, it's Josh Romanski, who entered the year with an outside shot at earning a first-round selection, but whose inconsistency has tarnished his draft stock. Both players have shown signs of brilliance this season and in the recent past, but don't be surprised if Saturday is the highest-scoring game of the series.

Both of these teams have one prominent slugger. For Pepperdine, it's Thames, who has outstanding patience and good athleticism, and who also has been in the zone in April. He will, however, have to face left-handed pitching on all three days, as freshman lefty Sammy Solis will pitch on Sunday. San Diego's slugger is freshman Victor Sanchez, who has been every bit as good as advertised, though with just 12 walks in 46 games, he could stand to be a little more patient.

The combination of Solis and the team's other über-freshman Kyle Blair on Sunday is a truuly unfair combination. The two have opposite styles: Solis is a command lefty who relies on movement and accuracy, while Blair, as evidenced by 77 strikeouts and 28 walks in 55 1/3 innings, throws hard and hopes the batter swings. If a team is hitting one, the other usually is the perfect antidote. And unless Hunter is able to go Sunday, the Waves simply don't have an answer.

With three lefties up for the weekend, the key to this series for Pepperdine may not Thames, but rather the team's other, right-handed hitters, particularly Chase d'Arnaud. The Waves also need to utilize one of their biggest strengths, basestealing, where they're 58-for-72 on the season. In the end, a team that beats San Diego needs to have an offense that can survive when they're not drawing bases on balls and not hitting home runs, because the Toreros allow neither. Pepperdine does not have the requisite depth or talent to do that, so expect San Diego to be hosting a regional fresh off their conference victory in four weeks.

Weekend Notes

  • Not just the WCC is approaching a huge weekend on the left coast, as the Big West has two huge series between the conference's first- and second-tier teams. The more intriguing of the two for me is Long Beach State's weekend series in Davis, California, against the Aggies. If anything, the weekend promises to be powerless, as LBSU enters with a .132 ISO while Davis has a .123 ISO. Long Beach has an edge with a much better pitching staff, as Rex Peters' moundsmen at Davis has struggled for the first time during his coaching tenure, posting a 4.64 ERA. Like Long Beach, however, they don't walk anybody, so the key to this series will be which team can put together more singles and doubles. While the Dirtbags have been horrible on the road this season, I'll predict they ride their current hot streak to a series victory, two games to one. The other big series is Cal State Fullerton against UC Santa Barbara, one of the season's surprises. However, UCSB has a pretty lousy RPI, and I'm guessing this is the weekend we see why. I predict Fullerton continues their hot streak to a weekend sweep, taking control in the Big West.
  • I'm also watching a pair of very intriguing non-conference matchups that very well could be tournament games next month. After beating TCU 3-2 on Tuesday, Texas A&M won their eighth straight game, and are now winners in 21 of their last 22. However, we talked about Dallas Baptist last week, and the Patriots are no slouches. Look for Victor Black to win on Saturday to end the Aggies' win streak, but for A&M to come back and win the series on Sunday. The most intriguing series of the weekend might be Coastal Carolina's opportunity to prove themselves better than an ACC team on the road. Georgia Tech is back to their old ways, with a fantastic offense led by star freshman Derek Dietrich (.327/.423/.642) but an inconsistent pitching staff. The difference in this series is simple--Coastal Carolina walks nobody, Georgia Tech walks too many. Look for that to be the difference-maker in a CCU series win.

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 Ten Pack, we'll go with the backup choice.

4/25-27 Winner: RHP Andrew Cashner, Texas Christian
4/18-20 Winner: OF Eric Thames, Pepperdine
4/11-13 Winner: RHP Steven Strasburg, San Diego State
4/4-6 Winner: OF/LHP Ike Davis, Arizona State
3/28-30 Winner: RHP Aaron Crow, Missouri

It's very rare that an 0-2 week is enough to get in here, but with a weak batch of entries this week, I opted to turn this section into Last Month's Big Winner. In that vein, no player has been as important for his team while also improving his own draft stock as Andrew Cashner, closer at Texas Christian. Cashner transferred from Angelina Junior College this year, and in two short months, has arrived as the nation's second-best closer behind Georgia's Josh Fields.

Originally, however, Cashner was recruited by TCU to be a starting pitcher, to replace Jake Arrieta on Friday nights. Cashner's 6'6" frame held up well during a start, and he had dominated the JuCo ranks. "He was 90 mph; he'd show you some 93s," said TCU head coach Jim Schlossnagle. "We didn't have a pitcher who we felt could come in and dominate like Sam Demel, so Cashner became that guy. And once he's been able to come in and blow it out, he's been pretty special."

In April, Cashner appeared in 12 games, pitching 18 innings; to start the month, he had four appearances without allowing a hit. Overall, he had 33 strikeouts in the month. If anything, his lone bugaboo is his control, as Cashner had 12 walks in 18 innings as he still learns to command new velocity on his fastball--now 96-98 mph in every outing. "He's been the most power arm that we've had [at TCU] in terms of pure velocity," Schlossnagle said.

The last two weeks, during which time TCU has risen to the top of the Mountain West Conference, Cashner has started to be used differently. In each of his last five appearances, Cashner has pitched more than one inning; in four of his last five, he's pitched at least two. While the results haven't been quite as dominating, multi-inning appearances have made Cashner even more desirable to scouts, and also far more valuable to the Horned Frogs.

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.

4/25-27 Winner: Louisiana State
4/18-20 Winner: Texas A&M
4/11-13 Winner: Georgia
4/4-6 Winner: Georgia, Ole Miss
3/28-30 Winner: Nebraska

When I spoke to Paul Manieri before this season, he was excited for good reason--for the first time, he felt his team really carried his stamp. The team had the nation's best freshman class, with shortstop D.J. LeMahieu, outfielders Chad Jones and Leon Landry, and pitcher Anthony Ranaudo. Manieri also had the nation's best collection of transfers, with slugger Matt Clark and two dynamic arms in Ryan Verdugo and Jordan Brown. Manieri's influence on this team was palpable, and the Tigers now have their best collection of talent in years.

The talent on the field produced quickly, as LSU entered SEC play with an 11-3 record. However, Stetson and Indiana represented LSU's most difficult opponents, they had yet to play a game away from Alex Box Stadium, and it quickly became clear that LSU could have been more prepared. Yes, there were injuries to deal with, particularly to Ranaudo as well as Jared Mitchell (one of the team's most talented players). And yes, the schedule was a nightmare, facing Tennessee, Florida, and Ole Miss on the road. But in the five weeks after SEC play began, the Tigers stumbled to a 12-13-1 record. As far as I can tell, the pitching was the problem; only once this season did the pitching staff allow five or fewer runs in a loss, and that was against Ole Miss ace Lance Lynn.

This creates a pretty simple way for LSU to pile victories--ride a bend-don't-break approach to pitching and let the offense do its work. For the last six games, this seems to have been the philosophy; five times in the last week, LSU allowed fewer than five runs, and all five were victories. Only once did they allow more than five, on Saturday to South Carolina. However, the offense took care of that game, too, and LSU won 11-10 in 11 innings en route to their sweep of the highly-ranked Gamecocks. As the Tigers re-enter the picture in the post-season tournament race, things are looking good as long as their offense continues to produce 7.8 runs per game.

That's a possibility, to be honest, given the talent on this team. In the last six games, there have been three names in particular that have been fantastic. The first, in the middle of the order, is Blake Dean, who might have the prettiest left-handed swing in college baseball. Matt Clark has 16 home runs in the sixth slot, and Manieri's lucky to have him, because Pittsburgh offered the slugger some serious money after drafting him last season. Finally, there's Jared Mitchell, healthy but still hitting ninth. Mitchell is among the most talented all-around players in college baseball, both as a runner and a defender, but until the last six games, his skills with the bat have been lagging. Taken as a group, here's what the trio has been doing in that time:


Player     AB   H   HR    SLG
Dean       24  12    2   .875
Clark      22   8    3   .864
Mitchell   20   7    2   .750

Add in the talented LaMahieu and the accomplished Michael Hollander, and you have the best lineup in the SEC. There is enough talent on this pitching staff to win, and with a series victory in Lexington, Kentucky this weekend, the Tigers will get a chance to slug in a NCAA regional.

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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