dspics.comDevin Thomas has the new single season RBIs mark for Brown.
Pennsylvania at Brown
Six members of the Top 25 are off this week for exams and three others get a break from conference action to play nonconference series, but there are still some significant league matchups on the slate, none more so than Penn-Brown. The best-of-three series will determine the Ivy League champion and the first member of the 64-team NCAA Tournament field.
Both teams took somewhat unlikely paths to the Ivy championship series. Penn, which went 12-27 a year ago in coach John Cole's first year at the helm and finished last in the Gehrig Division at 7-13, won its first division title since taking a share of it in 1997. The Quakers needed only one more win to clinch the division after sweeping Princeton in an April 21 doubleheader. Instead, the Tigers swept a doubleheader from the Quakers the next day to stay alive. After Penn closed its regular season by splitting two games against Cornell, Princeton needed to sweep a four-game series against the Big Red to tie the Quakers for first place. The Tigers proceeded to win the first three games of the series, then went to 12 innings in the finale before finally succumbing despite a strong 11 1/3 inning, 142-pitch performance by Eric Walz.
Brown won its first-ever Rolfe Division title after starting the season 1-8. The Bears, who tied for the division title in 2001 and 2002 but lost in tiebreaker playoff games both times, were tied with Harvard atop the Rolfe with a 7-3 league record heading into a crucial four-game series April 21-22. The Crimson won the first game and carried an 8-4 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning in the second game, but Brown exploded for eight runs in the frame en route to a 12-8 win.
"Our season was riding on the line, we put up an eight-spot in the eighth, and we've been on a roll since then," Brown coach Marek Drabinski said. "That was big, it kind of catapulted us a bit."
Brown and Harvard wound up splitting the series, but the Bears went on a six-game winning streak after that and clinched the division the next weekend against Yale.
The Bears got a tuneup for the Ivy championship series with a doubleheader sweep against Central Connecticut State on Tuesday. The sweep turned out to be more of a personal showcase for Brown senior catcher Devin Thomas, who went 6-for-7, blasted three homers to tie the school's single-season home run record at 14, and drove in nine runs to set the school's new single-season RBIs record (54). The previous record was 48. Thomas' season is even more impressive when you consider that the Bears lost eight games in April due to rain.
A switch-hitter, Thomas has power from both sides of the plate but has torched left-handed pitching at a .424 clip this season. Drabinski said he has learned to hit the ball to the opposite field much better, particularly from the left side, making him very difficult to pitch to. He's also an outstanding athlete who can run the 60-yard dash in 6.75 seconds and has good mobility behind the plate. Drabinski recalls the first impression Thomas made on first-year assistant coach Bill Cilento (who joined the Bears from New Orleans) in the fall.
"After about a week in the fall, [Cilento] looked at me and said, 'How the hell is Devin Thomas still here?' Because he's that good," Drabinski said. "He's really come on and had an unbelievable year."
Thomas is almost a lock to win Ivy player of the year honors, and he could be drafted in the first 10 rounds in June, but he's not the only Bear with a chance to play professionally. Junior Jeff Dietz has been a two-way star for Brown this year (.352/.425/.606 with seven homers and 48 RBIs; 6-3, 3.57 with 54 strikeouts and 13 walks in 63 innings), and the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder intrigues some scouts with a fastball with his good velocity from a sidearm slot. He throws an 86-88 mph fastball from the side, but he can also run his fastball up to 92 mph from over the top to change things up. He is very tough on right-handed hitters because of his delivery, and he commands his slider well.
Dietz will meet his match in Saturday's opener, when he faces Penn freshman right-hander Todd Roth. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound Roth has thrown four consecutive complete games and is 6-1, 2.24 overall with 56 strikeouts and 11 walks in 60 innings. Roth and 6-foot-5 freshman left-hander Jim Birmingham (4-1, 3.30) make for a formidable one-two punch that gives Penn an edge on the mound, though the Quakers lack Brown's offensive firepower.
"Roth doesn't walk anybody -- he has five walks in 38 (conference) innings, so he's going to be around the plate," Drabinski said. "He's a fastball-curveball-changeup guy, three pitches for strikes, and he keeps hitters off balance. Our only advantage is we've seen him. They haven't faced Dietz in two years, and I don't know if they've ever seen him. We always face them and Columbia at the same time, so we threw Dietz first against Columbia.
"[Penn is] a good club, scrappy, tough, they put the ball in play, they battle with two strikes. When they left here--after a quick two-game series against them -- we had talked about how we wouldn't be surprised if Penn won that half [of the Ivy League]. We're relaxed, I think the guys are ready, but we understand there's more work to do. It should be fun. It will come down to who plays it better."
MARQUEE MOUND MATCHUP
Josh Collmenter vs. Jeff Fischer
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."
IN THE DUGOUT
Jordan Abruzzo, C, San Diego
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.