Weekend preview: First NCAA bid on the line
The winner of the Penn-Brown Ivy League playoff series will be the first team to qualify for the NCAA baseball tournament.
A huge Mid-American Conference series kicks off Friday when Eastern Michigan's Fischer, the reigning MAC pitcher of the year, goes head-to-head with the frontrunner to wrest that honor away from him this year, Central Michigan's Collmenter. The Chippewas (29-13, 16-2) and Eagles (22-17, 14-2) are tied in the loss column atop the Western Division, and the winner of this series has the inside track at the No. 1 seed in the MAC tournament. That's particularly important because the top seed hosts the event. Winning the conference tournament will be essential, because the MAC is traditionally a one-bid league, and that isn't likely to change this year, though Central Michigan might have an outside shot at an at-large bid should it fail to win the MAC tournament.
Fischer, a 6-foot-5 junior right-hander, went 9-4, 1.97 with a 103-24 K-BB ratio in 110 innings a year ago, and he's been solid this year, though not quite as spectacular. He's 5-3, 2.67 with 70 strikeouts and 27 walks in 67 innings. Eastern Michigan coach Roger Coryell said Fischer's even temperament is the key to the converted shortstop's success.
"He never gets too excited or too down," Coryell said. "He really is able to make adjustments on the mound based on pitch-by-pitch performance and hitter-by-hitter performance. He just deals with the situations very professionally. He's in the low 90s, his slider's in the low 80s, and he has an outstanding changeup as well. He holds runners well, really a great athlete on the mound."
Fischer will be up against a Chippewa offense that leads the MAC in batting average (.307, 62nd in the nation), runs per game (8.3, ninth-best in the nation) and stolen bases per game (1.86, 24th in the nation). Leading the way is junior outfielder Tyler Stovall, who ranks second in the country with a .457 batting average.
Collmenter, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound junior right-hander, has dominated from wire to wire, going 7-2, 1.72 with an 82-20 K-BB ratio in 84 innings. He is a perfect 6-0, 0.71 in MAC play and is coming off a season-high 13-strikeout performance in a three-hit complete game last Friday against Toledo. He retired 16 batters in a row at one point, on his way to his fourth complete game of the season. Collmenter enters the showdown against Fischer with a 16-2 career record in conference play. Collmenter has some funk in his straight over-the-top delivery, but he commands a four-pitch mix, including a fastball, a very good changeup, a cutter and a curveball that can be a weapon at times, though it's inconsistent.
"He's a 90-92 kid, and the thing that scouts talk about is he stays there, whether it's the first pitch, or the 50th pitch, or the 100th pitch, he stays there," Chippewas coach Steve Jaksa said. "He throws that straight changeup, and even if he throws multiple changeups in a row or a couple of breaking balls, when he comes back to the fastball, he's right back to 90--not everybody can do that. He's able to locate, and against left-handed hitters he's able to throw that little cutter right on their hands, so all of a sudden a ball that's very hittable becomes a fist shot, even with aluminum. He's a warrior out there, and he's looking forward to the matchup on Friday."
Abruzzo has hit ever since his freshman year at USD, when he batted .375 with nine home runs. His problem was his body--at 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, scouts worried about his mobility behind the plate and his professional projection, so he slipped to the Red Sox in the 39th round after his 2006 junior season. That motivated Abruzzo to get serious about his nutrition, and he has since lost 20 pounds and dramatically improved his draft stock (he's hitting .333/.396/.525 with eight homers and 52 RBIs in 204 at-bats). The extra year in school has also allowed the Abruzzo to plaster his name all over the San Diego record books--he now owns the school's career marks for hits and RBIs, and he is fourth on the home run list with 35. By staying for his senior year, Abruzzo got one more fringe benefit: the opportunity to catch star sophomore left-handers Brian Matusz and Josh Romanski for another season. In The Dugout, Abruzzo talked about that dynamic pair, the emergence of the USD offense and the wakeup call he received last June.
Q: Early in the year, we wondered about your offense. Obviously you have the arms, but you and Justin Snyder and Shane Buschini have really gelled recently. Do you feel your confidence growing and growing?
Jordan Abruzzo: It seemed like during the year, one guy was hitting, one guy wasn't. Two guys were hitting, three guys werent. Now we're all hitting together. When you start getting more ABs later in the season, maybe some of the pitchers get tired for the other team, and hitting comes around later in the season all the time. We knew it would, we just kept working, we have those cages down there, we work hours during the day, and it came around for us.
Q: Did beating Pepperdine seem like a signature weekend for you guys? You jump into the top 10, you sweep a quality conference rival -- did you get that extra special feeling of accomplishment?
Abruzzo: We knew coming into this weekend, the last three weekends we had to sweep after that tough Gonzaga series, and we knew that this would be the challenge to see where we're at, to see if we deserve that ranking, to see if this thing is for real, and it is. The pitching's come together and our defense has been great. Matusz and Romanski have been horses with us, so it's good fortune, but we're just going to go back and work, and we can't deal with the cheese. We can't listen to all these fans coming and telling us we're top 10, we've just got to keep fighting to get in there.
Q: You mentioned Matusz and Romanski -- I want to know what it's like to catch those two guys on back to back nights. I heard a story about how you had something going on with your thumb, and you took off your glove and your thumb was all swollen from catching Matusz.
Abruzzo: I jammed my thumb going into second base, and then Matusz beat it up all year and just made it worse. He throws a hard slider, a curveball, a fastball--his velo is just great. And Romanski is just unbelievable. Those two guys could be the best Friday-Saturday combo in the country. The best thing about them is they just keep getting better and maturing. Since last year, they've stepped it up another level this year and been great for us.
Q: How do you compare the two of them, their stuff, and the way they pitch?
Abruzzo: Oh, man, I think they're two different pitches. Matusz is a power guy, he comes after you with a fastball, slider, and he throws a good changeup too. Romanski, he uses corners more, gets more ground balls, less strikeouts, and more getting contact like a crafty lefty, while Matusz is more a power arm. So they complement each other well, it's a great combo.
Q: As a catcher, how do you approach each pitcher differently?
Abruzzo: I know which guy I have to get on and which guy I can kind of let go. Matusz and Romanski, maybe I'll just go out there and give them a breather, but there are some guys that I need to go out there and get on, pump them up a little bit. You've got to know your guys, their talent. It's been great with Matusz and Romanski, I don't really need to tell them much, just set up and catch it.
Q: You're all over the record book here at San Diego now and you've produced for such a long time, but I know you were disappointed where you were drafted last year. I understand that motivated you to change your eating habits and get into better shape?
Abruzzo: This offseason, I hooked up with a nutritionist when I was out here -- I took the summer off from baseball and worked out hard-core with conditioning, and just kind of turned my body around for the scouts. That's what they told me I needed to do. I produced here for four years, and hopefully I've improved my body and they see that and I can get a chance to play every day. That's all I want.
• No. 1 Vanderbilt at Georgia
• No. 2 Florida State at Maryland
• Missouri at No. 5 Texas
• LSU at No. 7 Arkansas
• No. 8 Oregon State at Washington
• San Francisco at No. 9 San Diego
• No. 10 Wichita St. at Northern Iowa
• Dallas Baptist at No. 13 Texas A&M
• Kentucky at No. 14 South Carolina
• Liberty at No. 15 Arizona
• Illinois at No. 16 Michigan
• Boston College at No. 18 Clemson
• No. 19 Mississippi at Tennessee
• No. 20 Oklahoma St. vs. Oklahoma
• No. 21 Coastal Carolina at Nebraska
• California at No. 22 UCLA
• No. 23 TCU at Utah
• Cal Poly at No. 24 Long Beach State
• Pacific at No. 25 UC Riverside
Steven Hill, 1B, Stephen F. Austin State
You've probably heard of most of the names near the top of the national home run leaderboard: Kyle Russell of Texas (24), Brian Rike of Louisiana Tech (20), Kellen Kulbacki of James Madison (18), even Brandon Waring of Wofford (18) if you read Under The Radar two weeks ago. But chances are you've never heard of the name tied with Rike for second place -- Steven Hill. The senior catcher/first baseman actually slugged 14 homers a year ago for Stephen F. Austin, good enough for second place on the school's single-season list, but he has obliterated that mark in 2007. In 182 at-bats, Hill is hitting .379/.466/.819 with 20 bombs and 62 RBIs. He ranks sixth in the nation in slugging and tied for fourth in RBIs, just two behind leader Brett Wallace of Arizona State. The power numbers are nothing new for the 6-foot, 195-pound Hill; he mashed 31 home runs as a sophomore at Eastfield (Texas) Junior College.
The Red Storm has reeled off a 12-game winning streak, the longest current streak in the nation, to take over first place in the Big East. Last weekend's sweep of a decent West Virginia club improved St. John's to 14-4 in the conference heading into this weekend's showdown at home against second-place Louisville (13-5). The sweep was the Red Storm's second in a row following a three-game sweep of Seton Hall; it's the first time since 1991 that St. John's has recorded back-to-back conference sweeps.
St. John's owes plenty of its recent success to its bullpen. A group of five relievers combined to go 3-0, 1.12 with a .148 opponents average in 16 innings last week. The Red Storm also have a couple of hot bats in freshman outfielder Brian Kemp (8-for-14 in the sweep of the Mountaineers with the game-winning run in an 8-7 win Friday) and senior first baseman Ryan Mahoney (two homers and a double on the weekend), a transfer from South Carolina whose 12 homers on the season leads the team.
The Green Wave has lost seven of its last eight and has now been swept in consecutive weeks by conference foes Houston and Central Florida. At 8-10 in Conference USA (tied for fifth place), Tulane needs to sweep Alabama-Birmingham this weekend and take a series from Rice next weekend to even earn consideration for an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament, and a season-ending three-game series against 3-39 Chicago State (293rd in the latest Ratings Percentage Index rankings) is going to kill Tulane's already mediocre RPI (63). The conference tournament in Greenville, N.C., might be the Green Wave's best ticket to a regional, and Tulane does have enough power arms to win the thing if it can get more production out of a struggling offense that ranks 161st in the nation and sixth in CUSA in scoring (six runs per game). One other major area of concern: ace right-hander Sean Morgan has allowed 23 earned runs over his last 23 2/3 innings of work during his last four starts.
Career wins amassed by Division III Eastern Connecticut State coach Bill Holowaty in his 39-year career. Holowaty reached the mark in an April 21 win against Rhode Island College. He is the winningest active coach in Division III and third on the all-time D-III wins list, and he is one of just three coaches in college baseball history to win four national championships at one school. More importantly, Holowaty -- the 2006 president of the American Baseball Coaches Association -- is a great baseball man and one of the nicest guys around.
Collin DeLome, OF, Lamar
Lamar has appeared in three regionals in the last five years, and the Cardinals appear poised to make another run at regionals this season in the crowded Southland Conference race. After taking two of three from Texas State last weekend, Lamar improved to 16-5 in the conference, opening up a 3 1/2 game lead over McNeese State in the East Division. Lamar has a .307 team batting average, and the team has different ways to score, from on-base machine Erik Kanaby (.414/.507/.481) to slugging catcher/DH Michael Ambort (.379/.428/.650). But scouts agree the team's top player is junior outfielder Collin DeLome (.340/.404/.613), the reigning conference player of the year. We caught up with a coach who's seen plenty of DeLome in his career and got this report:
"He's the best player in the league easy, and it sounds like he's going to go in the second or third round. He was a high school shortstop and he's got some athletic ability, and Jim Gilligan and the guys at Lamar have done a good job with him, which is no surprise because they are a real solid staff. They moved him to the outfield when he got there, and his bat really has come alive. He's got hitting ability and some real power, and he is at full speed in two steps. He runs well, he's got bat speed--he's a good offensive player. He's fine in the outfield. He's just a complete player."
Tennessee over Mississippi
The Volunteers kept alive their hopes to qualify for the eight-team Southeastern Conference tournament and the NCAA tournament by taking two of three from Louisiana State on the road last weekend. The stars who were expected to carry the Vols are doing just that; junior left-hander James Adkins was excellent in a three-hit, one-run, complete-game victory Friday, when junior catcher J.P. Arencibia provided some punch, going 2-for-5 with a pair of doubles and three RBIs. Then in Sunday's rubber game, junior center fielder Julio Borbon went 3-for-6 and delivered a game-winning two-run single in the 10th.
At 8-11, Tennessee is right in the thick of the dogfight for the final three spots in the SEC tournament, and chances are they can smell it. This is the part of the season where it's awfully nice to have veteran stars to lean on, and Tennessee has three very good ones. Ole Miss is a very good team that has won back-to-back home series against South Carolina and Mississippi State, but the Rebels are just 8-7 on the road. They'll get a big test this weekend in Knoxville against a hungry and suddenly rejuvenated Tennessee team.