For a while now, the Mountain West Conference has been a one-team show. Jim Schlossnagle and TCU began their reign seamlessly when San Diego State began a program-wide decline about five years ago. TCU has been dominant in the conference until this season, as Tony Gwynn has finally brought the Aztecs back. With the two teams battling for conference supremacy in San Diego this weekend, I’m still having trouble deciding who the better story is.

“It will be a rebuilding season for TCU this year, as only Clemson can relate to the ridiculous amount of talent that has left this program since last year,” I wrote before the season during my round of team previews. It was hard not to believe that, given the losses the team had suffered from their solid, top 25 team from last season: Austin Adams, OF; Jake Arrieta, SP; Keith Conlon, CF; Chance Corgan, SP; Sam Demel, CL; Chris Johnson, SP; Steven Trout, 3B; and Andrew Walker, C

That’s one of the nation’s best weekend rotations and closers right there, in addition to two-thirds of last year’s power. I doubted TCU’s ability to do much this season, indicating there were only four real factors that could turn the season around: freshmen (namely Greg Holle), transfers (especially Andrew Cashner), health (Seth Garrison), and “the development of sinker-balling sophomore Tyler Lockwood.” I also failed to take into account that Jim Schlossnagle has built TCU into a legitimate program for no other reason than he’s one of the nation’s best coaches. Since the Horned Frogs stand 27-14, atop the Mountain West Conference yet again with an 11-4 record, I think we might just be seeing Schlossnagle’s best coaching yet. Let’s hit my checklist:

1. Freshmen: Lose Jake Arrieta? Gain Sean Hoelscher. Lose Chance Corgan? Gain Greg Holle. Lose Sam Demel? Gain Trent Appleby. Yes, that’s oversimplifying things, but Hoelscher, Holle, and Appleby are three freshmen who are as responsible for TCU’s success as anyone else on the team. Holle has been the worst of the three, but he was known to be a bit raw, even if reputed as TCU’s best freshman recruit ever. The only extra-base hits he’s allowed are six doubles; his 6’8″ frame allows for excellent tilt on the mound. The TCU team has also allowed just 12 homers in 41 games. But the beauty of this season has been Hoelscher, a prime recruit from Corpus Christi who has transitioned very quickly.

2. Transfers: As good as Trent Appleby has been in the set-up role, he isn’t the one who has replaced Sam Demel–that honor belongs to transfer Andrew Cashner. The team’s best and only real prospect for this year’s draft, Cashner has been a revelation in relief: seven wins, five saves, 3.2 H/9 and 13.1 K/9. Cashner delivers big-time velocity from his 6’6″ frame, and should go in the first five rounds in what will be his fourth selection in the amateur draft. Other prominent transfers: outfielder Chris Ellington, the team’s only real power source with a .645 slugging, and catcher Bryan Holaday, ably replacing Andrew Walker at .315/.384/.392.

3. Returning from injury: Maybe not so much a check. In this spot, I mentioned Seth Garrison, who is still returning from Tommy John surgery. Garrison has started nine games on the season and he’s yet to win one, but he hasn’t pitched that badly. He’s been very important for the team’s success, so they deserve credit for that rehabilitation. Matt McGuirk, however, was supposed to be the team’s largest power source. One month from the postseason, McGuirk has just five at-bats, all pinch-hit appearances of late. His return in time dictates how much success there is on this particular bullet point.

4. “The development of sinker-balling sophomore Tyler Lockwood.”: Jackpot. Now the team’s Friday night pitcher, Lockwood has been a jack-of-all trades on the season, with five starts (two complete games) and six relief appearances. He’s kept the ball in the strike zone and on the ground, issuing just eight walks and two home runs on the season, leading to a 1.80 ERA. Without Lockwood’s stable performance and 60 innings, TCU is not 27-14.

Lockwood has his hands full this week, traveling to San Diego to face the nation’s most dominant ace in Steven Strasburg. We’ve talked about Strasburg before, but it’s worth repeating–he commands his fastball as well as Lockwood, but at 100 mph, and supplements that gas with a knockout slider to keep hitters honest. Without much question in my mind, he’s the best pitcher in the nation. Without him, the Aztecs’ team ERA rises up to 5.33.

Given that TCU is hitting just .288/.372/.390 as a team, it’s hard to imagine they’ll find much relief against the Aztecs’ other starting pitchers. Sophomore lefty Nate Solow is frustratingly inconsistent, but with 68 strikeouts in 58 innings, he’s been very dominant at times, and could give TCU fits. On Sunday, the Horned Frogs will get a “relief” in 6’6″ righty J.R. Murphy and his 52 whiffs in 56 innings. The battle between TCU’s contact-first hitting philosophy and SDSU’s propensity for strikeouts is surely one of the most interesting elements of the confrontation between the two teams.

The other thing worth watching, at least as far as Gwynn and company are concerned, is how well the San Diego State offense will hit against the Horned Frog freshmen. SDSU takes a very patient approach to the plate, with more than four walks per game as a team, led by Nick Romero and his .423 OBP. Greg Holle will not be able to get away with some of the command problems he has had this season, and Lockwood and Hoelscher will need to be as perfect as they’ve been. If there’s a free swinger to be careful of, it’s senior shortstop Troy Hanzawa, hitting .379/.439/.548 with 11 steals in 13 attempts. Keeping Hanzawa off the basepaths ahead of Nick Romero, and not letting the Aztecs take free passes will both be essential.

At this juncture, both these teams look headed to the NCAA Tournament, especially if San Diego State finishes second, given some impressive non-conference victories. However, I do expect them to take this series at home, winning with Strasburg on Friday and then beating Greg Holle on Sunday. No matter the turnout of the series, though, it’s just good to see another conference where first is a fight.

Weekend Notes

  • On a normal weekend, the biggest stories would be a few of the marquee matchups: Florida State’s visit to North Carolina, Missouri’s trip to College Station, or the Cal Bears venturing down to face the Sun Devils. But in the vein of widening the scope of our previews to all the teams, I decided to reduce the presence of the top ten to start. However, these series should not be ignored, as we could be talking about six regional teams vying for seedings. I think Florida State bounces back from last weekend’s loss to Miami and takes it to the Tar Heels, despite Mike Fox’s sure attempt to walk the Hurricane’s Buster Posey as much as possible. We’ll talk a bit about the Missouri series below, but as good as A&M is playing, it’s hard to pick against Crow and Gibson on any weekend. Lastly, the home team will prevail, as Arizona State rebounds by beating a Cal team soundly with a resurgence from their bats.
  • Four small-school teams you might not have expected would crack Boyd Nation’s Top 40 in Pseudo (but very well-correlated)-RPI’s: North Carolina-Wilmington (#25), Dallas Baptist (#27), Oral Roberts (#28), and Elon (#38). Wilmington’s rise is especially interesting, given that they started their season 1-4 with losses to The Citadel, Elon, Jacksonville, and Richmond. However, they are the only team this season to look clearly better than Coastal Carolina, and their .533 team slugging is the result of a middle of the order filled with double-digit home run sluggers. Dallas Baptist seems the most balanced of the teams, with a very deep pitching staff (the team’s averaging 7.2 K/9) and .327/.403/.492 batting line. The ORU Golden Eagles have had a better year this season than last year, when expectations were high. They’ve beaten Texas Tech, Baylor, Baptist, Pepperdine, and Arkansas. While pitching has been a struggle, Brian Van Kirk (.393/.503/.676) is having the best season that you’ve yet to hear about. Combine Elon’s games against East Carolina, Coastal Carolina, and College of Charleston, and the Phoenix run differential is 86-32, and not in favor of themselves. That’s five games, and in the rest, Elon has outscored their opponents 331 to 187, which includes a win over North Carolina. Elon is 101-for-124 on the basepaths in 44 games, and possess a true college ace in Steven Hensley (8-0, 2.83, 71 K in 60 1/3 IP).

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.

4/18-20 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
3/21-23 Winner: SS Gordon Beckham, Georgia

This is perhaps overdue, and probably the wrong week to award it, but for lack of a better option, I need to begin calling attention to Eric Thames. While we’ve talked about a host of players in this space who have cemented their status as prospects, Thames is the best example of a player who has risen from the depths of college baseball to become a likely pick in the first two rounds in June. Actually, like many of these players, Thames’ journey began last summer, but it was not as heralded as Crow’s or Beckham’s, who shined on the Broadway stage of the Cape Cod League. Thames was somewhere west of Broadway, showing five-tool talent in a .301/.383/.455 fifty-game stretch with the La Crosse Loggers of the Northwoods League.

That’s no knock on the Northwoods League, one of college baseball’s best summer leagues west of the Cape. But as good as Thames was with the Loggers, he still was a long way from the early rounds having spent his freshman season at West Valley Community College and his sophomore season hitting a very mediocre .320/381/.415, showing neither patience nor power nor baserunning ability (only five SB in 53 games). All seemed better in the Northwoods League, and all have been off the charts this season. Take, for example, last weekend’s series against Loyola Marymount:

Game 1: 1-for-3, 2B, 3 BB
Game 2: 4-for-6, 2 HR, HBP
Game 3: 1-for-3, 2 BB

In all, Thames hit a combined 6-for-12 on the weekend, with 13 total bases, and he reached base 12 times in 18 plate appearances. While Thames wasn’t given a green light on the basepaths, his 10-for-11 mark for the season suggests a skill. In all, we’re looking at a fabulous athlete that seems to have made a conscious adjustment to his plate approach. The result is a batting line of .414/.525/.829, and interest in the bottom of the first round, and all through the supplemental selections. While Waves fans have waited all season to be dazzled by Brett Hunter’s brilliance, Thames has provided another reason to make it to the park (besides, you know, their 25-13 record).

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.

4/18-20 Winner: Texas A&M
4/11-13 Winner: Georgia
4/4-6 Winner: Georgia, Ole Miss
3/28-30 Winner: Nebraska
3/21-23 Winner: Florida

It’s difficult to pick a point in the season when Texas A&M turned around. Yes, they lost two games and a series to Oklahoma State one month ago, but the Cowboys are a good team, and Stillwater is a difficult place to win a series. The Aggies have lost single games to Rutgers, Texas Tech, and Rice, but they’ve been spread out and inconsequential. Reviewing the course of the Aggies season, it seems like their wake-up call was rung very early: the double header from hell on February 23, two losses and three runs scored against Northern Colorado.

Since that series, A&M is 32-5, and their pitching staff has indeed been that good, with a 3.57 ERA and team-wide mark of 8.5 K/9. I did overestimate the importance of Stouffer, who is still hitting just .279/.413/.401, a drag on the team’s batting line of .330/.421/.514. The offense has been able to rally around Stouffer, though, as six other veterans in the lineup boast slugging percentages north of .500, led by Dane Carter, who has been Mr. Everything with 23 extra-base hits, 24 walks, and 10 steals in 166 at-bats.

The pitching staff, on the other hand, has been the real asset of coach Rob Childress’ squad. This was a team that started the season with Kirkland Rivers and Scott Migl atop their weekend rotation; the two of them combined to allow 48 runs in 52 2/3 innings, allowing 66 hits. Childress has improvised, and suddenly thrust two freshmen–highly-regarded Barret Loux and Brooks Raley–as well as sophomore Clayton Ehlert (coming off 23 nondescript freshman innings) into his weekend rotation. Sophomore Travis Starling, who pitched just 20 1/3 innings last year, is closing games brilliantly. Kyle Thebeau, who has spent his career being as frustratingly inconsistent as anyone in college baseball, has a 1.91 ERA in a middle relief/set-up role. And you know what? Remove Rivers and Migl, and this team has a 3.14 ERA.

The Aggies are also expecting the return of transfer Alex Wilson before the tournament. Wilson entered last summer as one of the 2008 draft’s best arms, but he was abused at Winthrop (249 1/3 innings in two springs), and his arm didn’t make it through much action in the Cape Cod League. If Wilson can revert to form quickly post-surgery, the Aggies will have some of the nation’s best depth on both sides of the ball.

However, this team is not without fault. Most noticeably, they have 51 errors, over one per game. Shortstop transfer Jose Duran is hitting a fabulous .398/.446/.585, but has made 14 errors, and Stouffer has made another seven. Ehlert especially is a ground-ball artist, and the team will not be able to afford errors in June. Also, Childress’ coaching regarding baserunning has been shaky, as the Aggies are just 60-for-88 on steal attempts, getting caught far too often for the juice to be worth the squeeze.

This weekend, Missouri comes in to town, looking to humble the Aggies’ offense like Northern Colorado did back in February. Kyle Gibson against Barret Loux on Saturday presents one of the best matchups available in college baseball this weekend, and don’t expect Brooks Raley to back down against Aaron Crow. The Aggies have a bigger offense, and given the way Ian Berger has pitched on Sundays, I’ll predict another A&M series victory.

Thank you for reading

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