As we noted on Monday, ACC play began last weekend, and with it, we learned some truths about the best teams on the East Coast. Maybe Virginia and Clemson aren’t quite what we thought they were, maybe NC State and Wake Forest are better. Georgia Tech is definitely a lot better, with their best pitching staff in years. Most of all, we learned that while non-conference play can bring some fun matchups, it can also bring a lot of easy wins. Thus, maybe we can say that until conference play begins, we don’t really know anything.

Luckily, as we inch a little closer to June, both the SEC and Big 12 open up their doors to conference play this weekend, giving us a few matchups that promise to help separate fact from fiction. The top series on my list is South Carolina’s travels up to Nashville to play Tim Corbin’s Alvarez-less Vanderbilt squad. The Gamecocks lost a mid-week game to Yale this week, one week after the University of Charlotte had beat down SC at home, 11-2. However, the team is still 7-1 on weekends, including two wins over East Carolina and Clemson.

Vanderbilt has some losses of their own to talk about, most notably weekend losses to two Midwest programs, UIC and Iowa. But we can’t talk about Vanderbilt and not think about the thrashing they took against Arizona State in the opening weekend invitational in Tempe, losing 18-6. Even with that beating, the pitching staff has a 3.72 ERA this season, certainly aided by three good starters in Mike Minor, Caleb Cotham, and Nick Christiani. Beyond that, depth has been a concern; Cape Cod League star Brett Jacobsen looks like an entirely different pitcher, and not in a good way, as the right-hander has allowed 27 baserunners in 11 1/3 innings.

So, rather than attempting to compare Charlotte and Yale to UIC and Iowa, this weekend, these two teams will show us which is best. On Friday, a red-hot Mike Cisco will face talented Commodores sophomore Mike Minor, who lost 2-1 to UIC a week ago. Facing the lefty, this will be a good opportunity for third baseman James Darnell to break out of his slump, as he’s hitting just .236/.338/.327 this season. Sunday should also be very interesting, as veteran junior Nick Christiani faces Blake Cooper, who has proven South Carolina’s saving grace on the mound this season. Beyond perhaps sorting out who has the better shortstop-Reese Havens or Ryan Flaherty-the biggest question will be how each bullpen handles itself. South Carolina’s has been better, so I’m guessing they win the series.

Moving over to the Big 12, for me the pre-eminent weekend series is Baylor playing host to Oklahoma State. If nothing else, I’m excited for the Friday matchup of the series, as we’ll see two of the best pitchers from the 2009 draft class face off: Kendal Volz of Baylor against Andy Oliver of Oklahoma State. Oliver was better in the Cape Cod League, but Volz has been fantastic on Friday nights for the Bears this season. Baylor has been undefeated on weekends this season, but is coming off two straight losses to Oral Roberts. The Cowboys look to have a good team this year, but they have yet to have a substantial victory. Losses to both San Diego teams and a Saturday loss in extra innings to Northwestern certainly cuts into their credentials. But star lefty Oliver leads a pretty good pitching staff, sporting a 0.96 ERA through three starts. The offense has been, as usual, very good, generating a team-wide .551 slugging percentage. Look out for Dylan Brown, the brother of former Cowboys star (and subsequent A’s draft pick) Corey Brown, continuing the family tradition as he sports a .906 slugging through 32 at-bats. While I expect Friday to be low-scoring, this series looks like one that could be decided on Saturday and Sunday by shoot-outs. Give the home team, Baylor, the edge there.

Elsewhere in the conference, look for Roger Kieschnick as he travels to College Station to play a Texas A&M squad that looks far better than the team that lost to Northern Colorado on opening weekend. Scott Green will look to continue his season-long command streak of not allowing a walk at home against Alabama. Finally, in the already-mentioned ACC, watch out for how Georgia Tech does against Florida State, because there’s a chance they could be this weekend’s Big Winner.

Weekend Preview Notes

  • It’s now official: Arizona State closer Jason Jarvis will not pitch again in 2008. The loss, anticipated since an investigation of Arizona State’s program began, is significant if only for how it affects the depth of a Sun Devils pitching staff that we have always had questions about. Jarvis may have been the second-best closer of the 2009 draft class (behind only Arizona’s Jason Stoffel), but now questions about his character will surely plague him next season. So now the question becomes who will close out games for Arizona State; the Arizona Republic speculates about transfer Reyes Dorado and freshman Seth Blair as possibilities, but I think that it’s noteworthy that Tommy Rafferty and Stephen Sauer are the two latest arms to garner saves from Pat Murphy.
  • One big question for the weekend: Which Cal State Fullerton team will show up? At this point, it appears the best chance that Dave Serrano’s initial group of Titans have to win in 2008 revolves around what their offense does. On opening weekend, Fullerton beat TCU in Texas while averaging nearly seven runs a game. The next weekend they were swept by Stanford, not because the offense let them down, but because of a pitching staff that allowed 29 runs in three days. Whether beating UCLA or losing to San Diego, the Titans’ better fortunes have proven to be a product of their offense. So, perhaps, the question will be whether Arizona can continue their 27-inning streak of shutout baseball. Preston Guilmet will need to be better than he was on Opening Day, and Ryan Perry will need to show his Cape stuff to shut down the likes of transfer Erik Komatsu and Josh Fellhauer.
  • One matchup to watch for: Zach Putnam against Coastal Carolina on Sunday. Putnam is now two weeks removed from the shoulder soreness that cost him his first start, and last week he seemed himself. The Chanticleers, meanwhile, are one of college baseball’s best-kept secrets. Or, at least they were, before a mid-week thrashing of North Carolina gave them their ninth straight victory. In all but one of those games, CCU’s offense has scored more than five runs, so Putnam will certainly have his work cut out for him.

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.

3/7-9 Winner: LHP Tim Murphy, UCLA
2/29-3/2 Winner: SS Reese Havens, South Carolina
2/22-24 Winner: RHP Tanner Scheppers, Fresno State

If Tim Murphy hadn’t been so committed to attending UCLA, he certainly would have been drafted higher than the 11th round in the 2005 draft. He also would have joined professional baseball as an outfielder, where his sweet left-handed swing and athleticism were both highly touted. If that had happened, of course, UCLA would be without an ace. In the second inning of Murphy’s season-opening start against Oklahoma, he allowed a home run to Sooners DH Spencer Selby. In the fourth inning, a throwing error by Brandon Crawford led to an unearned second run. And that-just that-has been it. For the last inning and a third of that game, Murphy was perfect, and he’s been close ever since, allowing just seven hits in a complete-game shutout of Bethune-Cookman, and a hit and three walks in seven shutout innings of St. Mary’s. Thus, Murphy enters this weekend’s battle against a tough Cal Poly team with a 17 1/3 inning scoreless streak.

Outside of his one earned run and just 13 hits allowed in 24 innings, Murphy has continued striking out batters at a torrid pace, with 28 in 24 innings. That was certainly never the problem for Murphy before; he struck out 96 in 76 innings last year, but he allowed 11 home runs and 33 walks to lead to a 5.68 ERA. Murphy has shown much better command of his fastball this season, and the results have followed, including just eight walks.

Despite a history with nothing special, scouts had big expectations for Murphy this spring after good reports from fall ball. Murphy’s hammer curve has always been among the best on the West Coast, and Murphy’s athleticism makes him a natural scouting favorite. If Murphy continues along this path, he will force scouts to answer one especially tough question: Christian Friedrich, or Tim Murphy? Friedrich has the advantage, with a cleaner delivery and a better body, while Murphy gets good marks for his athleticism and a more consistent fastball. Both have great curveballs, and while scouts will most likely favor picking Friedrich, the difference isn’t significant. If Murphy can show a better third pitch, it’s possible he becomes the second college lefty taken, after Brian Matusz, which would have been a blasphemous prediction a mere six months ago.

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.

3/7-9 Winner: California
2/29-3/2 Winner: Stanford
2/22-24 Winner: Long Beach State

It appears as if I’m going to be accused of West Coast Bias, as two of the Player Editions have been California players in addition to all three Team winners. Apparently, we greatly underestimated too many of the teams in California this year, including the Golden Bears themselves, who were an elite team disguised as a fringe top 25 program.

The Bears won their seventh consecutive game on Tuesday by beating San Francisco, but the streak has included victories over San Diego, San Diego State, Stanford, and a solid Minnesota program. In two weeks, the Bears will play host to Long Beach State in a matchup that we can now bill as a clash between California’s top two programs. It’s an unexpected development, to be sure, and perhaps even more unexpected has been California’s ability to win seven straight games without the help of Tyson Ross. With their ace sidelined with a lat muscle injury (but due to return this weekend against Loyola Marymount), the remainder of the pitching staff has come up huge, allowing just two runs per game over the stretch of the winning streak. Closer Matt Gorgen (brother to UC Irvine ace Scott) has been fantastic in six appearances, but the best work has come from the starters, including freshman Kevin Miller (yet to allow an earned run in 15 2/3 innings) and junior southpaw Craig Benningson.

Offensively, a team .431 on-base percentage certainly should be credited for playing a critical part of the Bears’ wins. The team has walked 65 times and been hit 21 times in just 12 games. The team .495 slugging is a product of two hitters with six home runs, as no one other than junior David Cooper and senior Josh Satin have more than one. While Cooper’s story has already been told on, Satin might be the more interesting player. Tagged as a potential early-round sleeper a year ago (with a 913 OPS as a freshman), Satin failed to recover from enough from a horrible sophomore season (.222/.311/.299) to draw interest. After a good summer in the Cape Cod League, and now playing as an everyday second baseman, Satin is hitting better than he ever has, clubbing .423/.483/.788 in the heart of Cal’s lineup in 52 at-bats. Like Jackson Williams a year ago, Satin could rise on draft board as an early-round cheap alternative if his middle-infield play is as good as advertised. To call him California’s MVP through 12 games would be an understatement, and he might just be the most important player in California in terms of determining his team’s ultimate success.