May 8, 2008
Wait 'Til Next Year
College Weekend Preview
Let's begin today with a look at the five teams in the SEC with in-conference winning records, as ranked by their RPI:
School RPI Remaining South Carolina 11 @ARK, TEN Georgia 14 @VAN, ALA Florida 17 @ALA, VAN Vanderbilt 21 UGA, @FLA Louisiana State 22 MSU, @AUB
What we know, or at least are pretty sure of, is that the SEC will have three regional hosts in the NCAA Tournament. Looking at the remaining schedules, shortened above, there are two teams on the list that do not have a series left against the top five: South Carolina and Louisiana State. The easier road is certainly LSU's, as Mississippi State and Auburn are two of the three worst teams in the conference. The catch-22 for the Tigers is neither series will help their RPI, currently the worst of the top five, but at least they have a legitimate chance to go 6-0 or 5-1. South Carolina's series in Fayetteville has positive RPI ramifications, because even though the Razorbacks are on the bubble, they are ranked 27th in RPI. Should the Gamecocks win that series, they should be assured of hosting a regional.
What remains is an odd threesome of teams that cross paths in the coming weeks. There's no question that in the SEC, Vanderbilt has the hardest remaining schedule, because first Gordon Beckham comes to Nashville this weekend, and next week the Commodores travel to Gainesville to play the Gators. Two weekend series wins assures Vandy a regional, but never has two series wins been as daunting. Georgia, on the other hand, just needs to take two of three games against Vanderbilt, and they'll join the Gamecocks in planning their regionals early.
It should be said that the SEC tournament is May 21-25 in Alabama, but I think only truly disastrous results will have significant ramifications. Most of this, if I had to guess, will be fleshed out in the next two weeks, with LSU perhaps the lone exception.
This, of course, is a long way to lead us to the Vanderbilt-Georgia series, which pits the two best college sluggers in the country against each other: Pedro Alvarez and Gordon Beckham. Both teams also have elite closers, as Vanderbilt has moved Brett Jacobsen to the bullpen, where he's allowed just eight hits in 16 1/3 innings. Of course, that pales in comparison to Josh Fields' 2.2 H/9, but the future first-rounder comes into the series after allowing his first earned run of the season. The Commodores are 20-7 at home on the year, while the Bulldogs are 10-6-1 on the road. Let's look at this one day by day:
Friday: Mike Minor (Vandy) vs. Trevor Holder (UGA). It's been a full month since the Commodores lost on a Friday, and while Minor's numbers leave a bit to be desired, he eats innings and wins games. Of course, Georgia leans heavily right-handed, which means merely walking Beckham might not be enough. Holder has been better this season than Minor, but he has some platoon issues to worry about as well with Alvarez and Ryan Flaherty. This one could go to the bullpen, and every time that happen, Georgia has a distinct advantage.
Saturday: Caleb Cotham (Vandy) vs. Stephen Dodson (UGA). If the Bulldogs have a weakness, it's on Saturday, as Dodson is rarely better than the average SEC Saturday guy. This is true this week, although Cotham has been outclassed at times this year as well. However, Cotham's stuff is much better, and I think he's a good match against Georgia. Pedro goes yard in a Vandy win.
Sunday: Nick Christiani (Vandy) vs. Nathan Moreau (UGA). This should be a good matchup, but I'm going to give the series to Vanderbilt because Moreau's command issues seem to be flaring up. Commodores head coach Tim Corbin has put together a disciplined offense, and if Moreau is off target, Vandy will accumulate baserunners fast. Christiani doesn't make the same mistakes, and while this game might not be low-scoring, expect it to go to Vanderbilt.
Last Weekend's Big Winner, Player Edition
5/2-4 Winner: LHP Christian Friedrich, Eastern Kentucky
If nothing else, you have to credit Christian Friedrich for his timing. There are, I think, only four college pitchers that have a legitimate argument to be better prospects for the 2008 draft than Friedrich: Brian Matusz, Aaron Crow, Shooter Hunt, and Tanner Scheppers. Here's that foursome's cumulative line from last week:
Not terrible, but certainly an off weekend for "college's best." Now try Christian Friedrich's line: 8 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 9 K, 0 BB. If the kid wanted to stand out, he picked his spot well, clearly outperforming the rest of the 2008 draft class while beating one of the Ohio Valley Conference's best in Samford. That start was undeniably Friedrich's most dominant of the season, as just six of 25 batters managed a ball to the outfield. "I've felt better and I've had better stuff this year, but I had both off-speed pitches working," Friedrich said. "I think I had the best command I've had all year."
The lefty was aided by estimated 30 mph blowing in from right field, which created a rather astounding statistic: six infield flies to Colonels first baseman Anthony Ottrando. For the game, against 25 batters, nine struck out and seven were retired with infield flies. You could also sense that the game still wasn't quite good enough for Friedrich, who noticed a problem in the hits allowed line: one. "I jammed the guy on his hands and it would have broken his bat if it was wood," Friedrich said. "Any time someone gets on base I turn it up a notch and get into a whole different mode."
Friedrich certainly did in the game, striking out the next four batters. The lefty was working 90-93 mph, and mixing in his highly-touted curveball as well as his newest weapon, a slider that has been clocked at speeds of up to 85 mph in the spring. In fact, Friedrich estimated just "two or three" strikeouts came on his slow curve, with the rest frozen on fastballs or swinging and missing on sliders.
If anything, the start should serve to draw attention to the season Friedrich is having. Say what you will about the quality of his opponents, but 32 hits allowed in 65 2/3 innings is amazing. No starter in college baseball has been as consistent, as two runs allowed has become a bad outing for Friedrich; he sports a 1.78 ERA. The end is near to Friedrich's historic career at EKU, but if he hadn't assured himself a spot in the first 18 picks before Saturday, he has now.
Last Weekend's Big Winner, Team Edition
5/2-4 Winner: UC Davis
The bottom of the eighth inning proved to be UC Davis' safe haven on the week, as they scored in the frame against Stanford at home Tuesday and Long Beach State on Sunday to overcome two-run deficits and, most likely, land a spot in the NCAA tournament. The pitchers the Aggies overcame weren't too shabby, either: blue-chip freshman Drew Storen and all-conference closer Bryan Shaw were the victims of the Aggies' resilience. Against Storen, UC Davis began the inning with four straight singles before a walk and another single sealed the Cardinal's fate. It proved a bit foreshadowing as well, as a run of singles against Shaw did the trick on Sunday: after a groundout to start the inning, the Aggies loaded the bases with a pair of singles and a walk. The inning seemed on its last leg after Shaw got his second out with a strikeout, but the Aggies would not be outdone. Kyle Mihaylo's clutch single (his third hit of the day) tied the game, and Kevin James would give Davis the lead with a run-scoring double. And with that, four hits, Davis took the series from LBSU and all but guaranteed the Big West a fourth regional team.
I spoke to head coach Rex Peters in late February following the Aggies' series split against Fresno State. Davis did it despite scoring just 10 runs in four games. Peters indicated that the team had the arms to compete, but would need the bats to continue to improve for the Aggies to be a contender. However, the Fresno State series signaled Davis as a team to be reckoned with, a team on the rise. Now in his sixth season in Davis, Peters is beginning to see tangible improvements with the program:
This season, the Aggies MVP must be Ryan Royster, the senior outfielder and leadoff man that has changed the narrative of his career in just the last two and a half months. Royster started 31 games back in 2005 as a freshman, putting together an OPS of just 629. The next year was worse, as Royster's playing time was cut back, and he hit just .164. Last year, the outfielder was an everyday player for Peters, but still managed just seven extra-base hits in 154 at-bats. Through three years, Royster hadn't homered, and he'd drawn just 25 walks. This year, Royster has eight home runs and 25 walks, and the result is the Big West's best leadoff man, one that's hitting .351/.437/.546.
On the pitching side, Davis has a top-heavy staff that isn't too shabby. Senior Eddie Gamboa has been good on Friday nights, with a 2.80 ERA and eight walks allowed in 70 2/3 innings. Brad McAtee has been a good complement to Gamboa on Saturdays; while his walks are up this season, he's keeping the ball on the ground and in the park, and it's led to a 3.34 ERA. The back end of the bullpen has become a strength, featuring electric set-up man Andy Suiter (who had a monster series against LBSU) and a control artist at closer, Justin Fitzgerald, who is sporting a 30/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
What's left on the docket for the Aggies is a trip to UC Riverside this weekend, where Davis should unseat the Highlanders, who are playing above their heads. The next weekend, UC Irvine comes to town, and a series win there could really put Davis ahead of LBSU in the committee's eyes. The season ends with a trip to Cal State Northridge, which should be a tune-up before their regional assignment.