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May 15, 2008

Wait 'Til Next Year

College Weekend Preview

by Bryan Smith

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At the end of this weekend, just five teams in the 12-school ACC will have conference records above .500. It's an astounding development for a loaded conference that, while usually containing a few bottom feeders, has been known for its parity. However, when Georgia Tech held Clemson to just two runs over the first two games in last weekend's series, the Yellow Jackets assured the ACC just six spots in the post-season tournament. Six spots, and it's not as if Virginia has the strongest resume in the world. I last wrote about the Cavaliers in March, when Virginia had the nation's most impressive numbers and a perfect 10-0 record. The ACC looked like it could be theirs for the taking, though it also seemed like Virginia really wasn't that good. Now, let's trace Virginia's weekends since the ACC slate opened:

At NC State: 1-2
At Duke: 1-2
Boston College: 3-0
Virginia Tech: 3-0
At FSU: 0-3
At Maryland: 3-0
Wake Forest: 2-1
At Miami: 0-3
North Carolina: 1-2

The hard thing about playing in the ACC this season is that it means three series against three of the four hardest schools in the nation. Against Miami, North Carolina, and Florida State, Virginia is 1-8. Against the conference's bottom-feeders-VT, BC, Maryland-the Cavaliers are 9-0. Beyond that, they have an embarrassing weekend loss to Duke, an understandable loss to NC State, and a much-needed weekend win against Wake Forest. Virginia has yet to win a series they were supposed to lose, and they've once (Duke) lost a series they were supposed to win.

It would be hyperbole to call Virginia on the bubble for the post-season tournament. For the most part, they're in, because one way or the other the ACC is going to get rewarded; Boyd Nation has them ranked 26th in the RPI. Virginia still needs a series win this weekend as Georgia Tech comes into town with two consecutive big weekends under their belt, but the Cavaliers are 30-7 at home this season, negotiating the deep fences at Davenport Field better than anybody else. As usual, the result has been an offense not founded on power (.114 ISO), but on walks and stolen bases. Virginia is a rather astounding 120-for-149 on the bases this spring, and five players have at least 10 stolen bases.

The real strength of this team is, as we would have guessed four months ago, the pitching staff. The Cavaliers have a 3.49 team ERA, and that's despite a rough year for ace Jake Thompson, who stands at 4.21 thanks to some problems with walks and extra-base hits. Thompson was once bookmarked for the first round, but he's slid as much as anyone this spring. In his place, the stars for this Virginia team have been Thompson's supporting cast-Pat McAnaney could be the ACC's best Saturday starter, sporting a 85-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 75 innings, while closer Michael Schwimer has allowed just two earned runs in 22 innings, and hitters have a composite line of just .160/.222/.160 off of him. Throw in three fantastic relievers in Matt Packer (1.13 ERA in 47 2/3 IP), Neal Davis (1.16 ERA in 38 2/3 IP) and prized recruit Jake Cowan (3.56 ERA in 30 1/3 IP), and Virginia is going to give the Yellow Jackets some fits.

That's just part of the beauty of the ACC in this final weekend, as the highlight is not just the fifth and sixth teams battling for postseason seeding. Outside of Virginia's matchup with Georgia Tech, the third and fourth teams are battling as well, as Florida State travels to Raleigh to play NC State, while headlining the weekend is North Carolina's trip to Miami in a confrontation between the conference's top two teams. Despite the rankings, the Florida State/NC State series has more intrigue to me that the class of titans, but that's because the post-season implications are substantial-the Seminoles are no lock to land a national top-eight seed. You have to figure Miami and North Carolina are locks, and the committee will all-but-definitely give spots to Rice, Arizona State, Georgia, and Texas A&M. This puts the Seminoles in a fight with Nebraska, Cal State Fullerton, Stanford, and San Diego for the remaining two spots. If Florida State falters at NC State and then again at the ACC Tournament, it would be within the realm of possibility for the Huskers and Titans to swoop in. For NC State, the weekend offers the potential of hosting a regional, because the Pack stands at 12th in the RPI, and would presumably enter the top ten with a weekend win over the number three team.

Like the clash between Virginia and Georgia Tech, the series between NC State and Florida State features a tough home pitching staff going up against an imposing group of road bats. The Wolfpack have a 3.32 team ERA this season, and like Virginia, it's despite some bad starts from their scouts' favorite, lefty Eric Surkamp (4.81 ERA). NC State can shorten any game to seven innings with set-up man Jake Buchanan (2.18 ERA in 41 1/3 IP) and closer Jimmy Gillheeney (1.20 ERA in 30 IP) as two of the team in the business. The true star this season, though, has been junior Clayton Shunick, who has a low-90s sinker that's led to a 82-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 2.48 ERA. If he can beat Matt Fairel on Friday, NC State has a chance.

Finally, we come to the highly-acclaimed series between North Carolina and Miami, a series which holds some promise of a rematch in Omaha. Yet again, we find a fantastic pitching staff, this time North Carolina's, looking to cool off a good lineup. The difference is that UNC's pitching staff isn't just fantastic, they're historically great: the Tar Heels' team ERA is 2.28 this season. The team has allowed just 119 walks, 385 hits, and 15 home runs in 470 innings. Alex White is as good as anybody on Fridays, Matt Harvey is better than anybody on Sundays, and the bullpen has a five-headed monster that's unbeatable. Oddly enough, the pitcher with the highest ERA is Saturday starter Adam Warren's 4.50 mark.

The Hurricanes are no slouches themselves on the mound. Freshman Chris Hernandez would argue with White's standing as to who's best on Friday nights, as few can match his 9-0 record or 80-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio. On Sunday, Harvey will have veteran Eric Erickson to worry about, and he's been very good since returning from injury. Miami also has the nation's best reliever in sidearmer Kyle Bellamy, who has allowed just 18 hits and four walks in 42 1/3 innings. They also have a team OPS of 983, 84 points better than North Carolina's, and they also have home-field advantage.

Something tells me that this weekend home-field advantage is going to mean something in the ACC, as Virginia proves it belongs, NC State strengthens their hosting resume, and Miami ensures themselves an invitation to the dance as the tournament's top seed.

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.

5/9-11 Winner: 3B Logan Forsythe, Arkansas
5/2-4 Winner: LHP Christian Friedrich, Eastern Kentucky
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

The construction of the USA Baseball team-whose 2008 invitees were announced this week-is not merely the conglomeration of the most talented players in the country. Team USA needs to find the right blend of players that will fit on a team together. While a guy like Pedro Alvarez or Jemile Weeks would always have a spot, Logan Forsythe is not the first guy that would come to mind. But USA Baseball took Logan because he was versatile, and he quickly became one of the team's best players. Forsythe drew 22 walks against 94 at-bats in 30 games with Team USA, leading the team with a .463 on-base percentage. For the most part, Forsythe was the team's left fielder, but Mike Weathers used him in right field, at third base, and at second base.

If the summer campaign with Team USA was Forsythe's launching pad into early-round territory, this spring, he's turning it on at the right time. Forsythe's power has been down this season, but he's still hitting .335/.447/.533, with 11 steals in 12 chances. It's not exactly the type of spring that pushed Matt Antonelli to the first round, but it was good enough to hold his position in the second- or third-round range. In the last week, however, Forsythe is beginning his ascent, going 9-for-16. Last Friday, Forysthe nearly single-handedly got the Razorbacks off to the start they needed against South Carolina, belting four hits including a double and two home runs. On Saturday, he went 2-for-4 with a run and RBI, and in the completion of the sweep on Sunday, Forsythe went 0-for-3, but scored after drawing a walk. Throw in a 3-for-5 game on Monday, and Forsythe's has only helped him.

Scouts know that with a wood bat Forsythe will not hit for very much power; he has a little juice in his bat, but not much. However, he's among the nation's most patient hitters, and he's very athletic. He's a dream leadoff hitter, but now the question becomes whether or not he can he play second base in the pros. Look for a team that believes he can to grab him in the second round.

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.

5/9-11 Winner: Tulane
5/2-4 Winner: UC Davis
4/25-27 Winner: Louisiana State
4/18-20 Winner: Texas A&M
4/11-13 Winner: Georgia

Just five weeks ago it looked like Tulane might again be on the outside looking in as a reflection of a deep Conference USA. Even after losing the weekend series to Houston on April 13, Tulane's record wasn't bad at 24-11-1, but their wins had come against fairly bad teams, and their resume was beginning to not read very well: they went just 1-2 at the Dairy Queen Classic in Minnesota, suffered a weekend series loss to UC Irvine at home and mid-week losses to LSU and Southeastern Louisiana, achieved only a series split with Marshall at home, and then came the Houston series loss.

Then it seemed that a light went on, because since that Houston series the Green Wave are now 12-4, and with a weekend series win over Southern Miss, they have a legitimate argument to be Conference USA's second-best team. They looked to lock in that position last weekend against East Carolina, sweeping the Pirates in Greenville. Shooter Hunt was his usual brilliant self on Friday, but the bullpen barely held on; Anthony Scelfo hit his 11th home run of the season. Saturday and Sunday were all about the offense as Tulane swept ECU with a pair of 10-8 victories. Second baseman Seth Henry grabbed four hits on Saturday, and shortstop Josh Prince had his first double and home run of the season Sunday.

This weekend's series pits Tulane against red-hot Rice; they're 20-2 since April began. With a series win, the Green Wave would lock themselves into a two-seed for the post-season tournament, and then pray that the committee finds it in their hearts to assign them to LSU's regional not far from home. It's certainly within the realm of possibility, because you have to like Shooter Hunt's chances at grabbing the first win for Tulane on Friday against Rice's Ryan Berry. Hunt has been otherworldly this season, with just 38 hits allowed in 77 2/3 innings, while striking out 105.

It's a testament to Tulane's coaching staff that the Green Wave have been so good this season despite a few disappointments. Highly-regarded transfers Josh Prince and Josh Zeid have been terrible, with Prince only offering some speed off the bench at this point. In the outfield, the team expected big things from Warren McFadden (.281/.389/.406) and Aja Barto (.288/.422/.432), but neither has turned the corner. Thanks to Rob Segedin, Henry, and Scelfo, Tulane has put together just enough offense to go with a top-heavy pitching staff.

You have to give Tulane the edge in Friday's game with Hunt on the mound, so the question becomes whether they prove they have the depth to hang with the big boys. If they do, a trip to Baton Rouge in a couple of weeks is within their reach.

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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