Weekend brings conference battles
We're halfway to Omaha -- eight weeks into the season -- so we're presenting our midseason report in lieu of the standard weekend preview. But to whet your appetite, here's a mini-weekend preview with a quick look at some key matchups, as well as a bonus "In The Dugout" with East Carolina's Stephen Batts.
The Owls and Pirates will battle for Conference USA supremacy on the Pirates' home field. Rice, the perennial C-USA juggernaut, trails ECU (8-1 in conference play) by a game in the league standings, and the Owls (7-2) will once again be without their top two pitchers: right-handers Ryan Berry and Mike Ojala. Expect a high-scoring series between two of the nation's deepest, most dangerous lineups. See "In The Dugout" below for more on the Pirates.
Clemson is talented enough to make a deep postseason run, but would love to start by hosting a regional. The Tigers sit atop the ACC's Atlantic Division at 9-6, but lack a signature series win against a top contender. Miami, Georgia Tech and North Carolina all rank in the top five in the NCAA's Ratings Percentage Index, according to Boyd's World, and Virginia is 11th. So if Clemson (20th in the RPI) wants to snag one of the three or four host sites from the ACC, winning a home series against the Hurricanes is critical.
Like Clemson, Virginia has been competitive against the rest of the ACC's elite but has yet to win a series against a top contender. Georgia Tech must avoid losing a second consecutive home series after dropping two of three against North Carolina last week. This matchup pits the ACC's top pitching staff (Virginia, whose 2.68 ERA leads the conference) against the league's most powerful offense (Georgia Tech, an ACC-best 50 home runs).
Preseason No. 1 Texas A&M has struggled recently, going 7-8 over its past 15 games, including road series losses to Missouri and Texas Tech. To have a shot at hosting a regional, the Aggies must capture their first road series victory of the year this weekend at a rejuvenated Kansas State. The Wildcats are coming off their first series sweep at Nebraska since 1974. At 24-8 overall and 5-4 in the loaded Big 12, Kansas State is in great position to make its first regional appearance, and a series win this weekend would further solidify its case. Friday's duel between A&M lefty Brooks Raley and K-State righty A.J. Morris is the best mound matchup of the weekend.
The Toreros and Bulldogs each beat up on struggling West Coast Conference power Pepperdine over the past two weeks and have emerged as the favorites to meet in the best-of-three WCC championship series. USD has gone 6-0 in league play despite losing ace lefty Sammy Solis and leadoff man Kevin Muno to season-ending injuries. Gonzaga is 4-2 in the league and 21-9 overall, but the Zags are just 72nd in the RPI, so a series win against the league favorites would be a huge boost to their at-large credentials.
In the ultimate Bubble Watch matchup, UCLA and Stanford will clash at Sunken Diamond. Both teams opened the year ranked in the top 15 and limped out of the gate, as Stanford got off to a 4-10 start and UCLA went 2-10. They've tried to battle their way back to .500 since: The Bruins won three straight series (at East Carolina and Southern California, and home against Arizona) before losing at Washington State last weekend, while the Cardinal won its past two series, against Washington and at Oregon. Both teams are 5-4 in the Pac-10, but UCLA is just 12-17 overall and Stanford is 11-12. The team that loses this series can probably kiss its long-shot regional hopes goodbye.
In The DugoutStephen Batts | East Carolina | Senior | OF/1B/2B
Stephen Batts is a key cog in East Carolina's potent offense, batting .358 BA/.433 OBP/.634 SLG with eight homers, 31 RBIs and 10 stolen bases through 134 at-bats. Versatility has always been an asset for Batts, who has played all over the field in his four-year career. An outstanding athlete, he arrived at ECU as a soccer goalkeeper before making the switch to baseball after redshirting his freshman year. It worked out well for many reasons, not least because ECU cut its men's soccer program the following year. Batts and the Pirates can bolster their chances to host a regional by winning a huge series at home against Rice this weekend.
Q: You guys have swung the bats awfully well this year. Is this the best offense you've been a part of at ECU?
A: Since I've been here, we've been known to have all offense, but top to bottom, we've got 14 guys -- we've got guys coming off the bench. We've had big guys having bad games, but then we've got guys in the eight and nine spots hitting a bomb here and there. It feels good to have everyone going because, you know, hitting is contagious.
How much does it help you as a hitter to be in the middle of a lineup like this with all these other guys around you?
Oh, my confidence is huge. You've got guys picking you up. You're in a good spot to hit. You've got guys on base all the time.
How do you think you've improved most since you got here?
I would say discipline. I was a free-swinger -- and I still kind of am -- but I'm learning the game here and there and I seem to have a lot more balance in everything.
Do you feel like, as a senior, you have a leadership role on this team?
Oh yes, Coach [Billy Godwin] is real big on the seniors coaching. Coaches can only do so much, so it's big for us to go deep into the playoffs to have that leadership.
Your story is pretty interesting, being a soccer guy when you arrived at ECU. How did you wind up playing baseball, anyway?
I was invited to be on the team, and after my first year of being here with the crowd and the new field and everything, I thought that's where I needed to be. So I kind of plugged in there and kept trying, and it's paid off big-time for our team.
Has soccer always been your first sport growing up?
I always asked myself that, but I played them both the same amount of time, and I'd say that helped me in both sports. I would say baseball was my favorite, but I always had soccer to go on, too.
How did playing soccer help you in baseball? Did some of the skills translate over?
I was a goalie, so I came in here playing third and it helped fielding ground balls. I've bounced around to left, second and first, but it's just helped with footwork, eyes, instincts, running, getting in shape. It was fun to play, and it's helped me.
You mentioned bouncing around. Do you think your versatility is an asset for you going forward into pro ball?
I think it's up in the air. Sometimes I think staying in one spot would be better, but I'm here trying to enjoy college. For our team, it's very good for me to bounce around. I can play left, first and second, so we'll see at the end.
Do you feel like your power has taken a step forward this year?
Yeah, I work hard and our coaching staff is big into the weight room. I came in weighing 165, and now I'm like 205, so it's helped a lot.
I understand you got married in November to Brooke. A lot of married guys I talk to say it affects their outlook in baseball, too. How has it affected you?
It really does. It kind of makes you open your eyes a lot and makes you put life into perspective. You're not a college kid any more. It's helped me calm down a lot on the field and off. It's been great for me.
Your little sister, Brittany, is coming to play soccer here next year, right?
Yes, she is. She's a great soccer player. She plays softball as well, but girls' softball is in the same season in high school, so she had to pick, and she picked soccer. She's a great athlete, a very physical girl, and she's going to do a great job at East Carolina. Midfielder's her spot, but they might put her in the back or up front; she's very versatile, too.
So who's the best athlete in the family, anyway?
I would say me because I played two big-time sports. But she's coming really close. We'll see how it goes. I came to college not being a very good athlete, some people would say, but it's changed.
For more on college baseball, check out Baseball America.
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