Arkansas at Louisiana State
There's nothing in college baseball quite like the meat-grinder that is the Southeastern Conference schedule, which begins this weekend.
"This is the first of 10 straight weekends of donnybrooks," said Louisiana State coach Paul Mainieri, whose team opens SEC play against another 2009 College World Series participant and a fierce rival -- Arkansas. "Anytime LSU and Arkansas get together, it's going to be a great competition. It's going to be exciting, but we have to remember it's the first weekend of 10."
Last year, Arkansas and LSU tangled in Week Eight in Fayetteville, and the Razorbacks took a half-game lead in the SEC West after winning the opener. But the Tigers stormed back to win the next two, sending the Hogs into a funk that lasted until the postseason. Arkansas lost its final eight conference games, while LSU went on to win the SEC's regular-season and tournament titles, and eventually the national title.
The LSU series was an undeniable momentum shifter for Arkansas, but it's important to remember that the Hogs regrouped in regionals and made it to Omaha. So while it will be important to both teams to get off to a strong start in conference play, both Mainieri and Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn are viewing this weekend with the proper perspective.
This series is particularly compelling because these two teams are mirror images of each other in many ways.
"I think it's going to be a very good series," Van Horn said. "We know how good they are -- they have so many players back from last year, and they have all that experience. I don't think anything will bother them. If our younger guys just stay calm and play the game, it'll be a good series. I think we match up well against each other: We both like to run a little bit, we both have power, and hopefully we both have enough pitching."
Mainieri said he was pleased to hear that Van Horn regarded the two teams similarly.
"His style of play that he likes, I think, is very similar to mine," Mainieri said. "I told him that when I first came into the league -- I said, 'I feel like I'm coaching an intrasquad game when I coach against you.' He likes to put pressure on the defense, play fundamentally sound defense, has power and speed. It's a good comparison, I think. I'd like to have our big guy going for us, but we don't have him, so we'll just have to go with what we have."
That big guy is 6-foot-7 junior righthander Anthony Ranaudo, a first-team preseason All-American and the top-rated college pitcher for the 2010 draft. Ranaudo has been sidelined since throwing five innings on Opening Day because of a stress reaction in his throwing elbow, and he will not pitch this weekend, though Mainieri said he hopes his ace will return in time for LSU's series against Tennessee next weekend.
Ranaudo's absence changes the entire complexion of LSU's pitching staff. Junior righthander Austin Ross, who has been the temporary No. 1 starter two of the last three weeks and will start this Friday against the Hogs, has pitched quite well at times. In fact, he has not allowed a run in 18 of the 22 innings he has pitched this year. But he has surrendered 11 runs in the other four innings, giving him a 4.57 ERA overall.
"His stuff is good, but his M.O. is he'll just hang that one bad pitch, hang a 1-2 breaking ball or something," Mainieri said. "But he's doing it less frequently than he used to do it, is my point. He's not all the way there yet, but he's getting closer to that point, and he'll start Friday night, so hopefully he'll be up for that challenge and continue to grow."
Last week against Kansas, LSU went with sophomore righthander Joey Bourgeois on Friday, and he was shelled, allowing six runs in just 1 2/3 innings. His short outing taxed the rest of the pitching staff, and the Tigers wound up losing the series. Bourgeois, a junior-college transfer, has been very good in two of his four starts this year. With a fastball that reaches 92-93 mph, a good changeup and curveball, Bourgeois has the stuff to be a front-line starter, but like Ross he's still learning to minimize big innings and make big pitches even when he doesn't have his best stuff.
"Most times, pitchers are going to have struggles at some point in a game, and you've just got to find a way to pitch out of it," Mainieri said. "That's the difference between being a consistent winner and being up and down."
Last year, the Tigers had two of those consistent winners atop their rotation in Ranaudo and senior Louis Coleman, which took a lot of pressure off the rest of the staff. The pitching staff is deeper this year, particularly in the bullpen, where the Tigers have the makings of a fine setup man for dominant closer Matty Ott in JC transfer Mitch Mormann. Ideally, Mainieri said, freshman lefty Jordan Rittiner would further bolster that bullpen, but LSU has needed to use the crafty, soft-tossing Rittiner as the Sunday starter with Ranaudo out. Sophomore lefty Chris Matulis, who is back in action after missing last weekend with forearm soreness, gives Mainieri another option for the rotation or the bullpen, though he has not taken the leap forward that Mainieri was hoping for.
So LSU has plenty of options, but without Ranaudo it does not have an ace.
"Depth is a little bit overrated, especially when you're playing one game in the middle of the week and three on the weekend," Mainieri said. "Last year, we won the national championship because we were really good at the top -- we had two aces. I'd rather have two studs at the top. We just need to hold the rope as long as we can until we get the big fella back. Once he gets back, it changes the whole dynamics of the staff."
Arkansas also has more depth on its pitching staff than it did a year ago, and that depth has allowed Van Horn to move senior righthander Mike Bolsinger from the bullpen into the Friday starter role. Bolsinger is a bulldog who was well suited for the bullpen stopper role, but his fearlessness also makes him a good fit for the tough job of Friday starter in the SEC.
Even without Bolsinger, the bullpen is in good hands with freshman lefthander D.J. Baxendale (2.08 ERA, four saves), sophomore lefty Geoffrey Davenport (2-1, 2.25 with 17 strikeouts and one walk in 16 innings), and senior righty Jeremy Heatley (2-0, 1.32 with 15 strikeouts and one walk in 14 innings). Davenport is a competitive strike-thrower in the Bolsinger mold, with an 87-90 mph fastball and good command of a three-pitch mix. Heatley and Baxendale are power pitchers who have reached 92 mph this spring and shown good sliders.
And Arkansas' rotation is very stable. Lefthander Drew Smyly (2-0, 1.80 with 31 strikeouts and eight walks in 20 innings) has come on strong after a slow start, and junior righty Brett Eibner (2-1, 1.23) has pitched well when healthy, though he left last week's start early with a blister problem. Van Horn hopes Eibner can pitch Sunday.
Even the Hogs' biggest injury issue appears to have been resolved ahead of schedule. Sophomore second baseman Bo Bigham, an athletic, high-energy sparkplug, tore the labrum in his left shoulder on Opening Day, but he returned to action as a pinch-runner just two weeks later against California and felt good enough to stay in the game and have an at-bat. He was back in the starting lineup last week, and he is hitting .381 through seven games.
Bigham is not the only Razorback hitter off to a good start. First-team preseason All-American Zack Cox is hitting .410 with 10 walks and just six strikeouts through 61 at-bats, after striking out 65 times and drawing just 20 walks as a freshman last year. As a team, the Hogs struck out 518 times last year and walked 279 times, but this year they have drawn 84 walks and struck out just 67 times.
"That's been a point of emphasis for us, and those guys have really bought into it," Van Horn said. "We have a lot more walks than strikeouts, and that's rare. People are trying to pitch us in, and we're getting hit by a lot of pitches. As far as driving in runs and taking walks and getting on base, we've been real good."
Indeed, Arkansas looks like a more complete, mature team than it was a year ago -- a team capable of going into the frenzied atmosphere of the new Alex Box Stadium and winning a series. And if LSU holds serve and wins the series at home, don't expect Arkansas to go into a tailspin like it did after losing the LSU series a year ago. This is just the first of many donnybrooks to come, and both these teams are built for the long haul.
Marquee Mound Matchup
Chad Arnold vs. Jordan Cooper
Arnold and Cooper will square off Friday in the opener of an intriguing three-game series between Washington State and Wichita State.
Coming into the year, Cougars coach Donnie Marbut expected his weekend rotation to be a strength of his team, but projected starters David Stilley and Travis Cook have been sidelined with injuries, forcing Marbut to cobble together his pitching staff. But Arnold, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior righthander, has provided stability on Fridays, going 2-1, 3.86 with 20 strikeouts and nine walks in 26 innings. He allowed just one run in a complete-game victory against Utah two weeks ago, and he carried a 2-1 lead into the seventh inning against Texas A&M last week before allowing a go-ahead home run to Kevin Gonzalez.
"He's given us a chance to win. That's what you're looking for on Friday, no matter what conference you're in," Marbut said. "He pitched really well at A&M, and I think he missed one pitch against Gonzalez. If you look at his numbers, he was good last year, but he's just taken his game up to the next level. If you look at his career progression, he just keeps getting better and better. He's just more mature."
Arnold had a chance to be drafted in the top 10 rounds out of high school but instead had Tommy John surgery and slipped to the 36th round. He redshirted in 2007, eased his way back in 2008 and won eight games in 2009, then dominated in the New England Collegiate League last summer, ranking as the circuit's No. 8 prospect. (As an aside, the No. 7 prospect on that list was Washington State lefthander Adam Conley, who worked at 86-88 last summer but earned plaudits for his projectable frame and easy arm action. His velocity has since jumped, and Marbut says he's working at 90-94 in Wazzu's closer role this spring).
Arnold attacks hitters with an 88-90 mph fastball with heavy sink and run.
"He can throw four pitches, he knows how to pitch and really knows how to compete," Marbut said. "He can really break off the slider when he has to, so he can really make righthanded hitters swing at that, and when he's got it going he can make lefthanded hitters swing and miss at his changeup."
The Shockers used normal Friday starter Tim Kelley on Wednesday in a 19-0 loss to Arizona, so they'll call upon Cooper to start Friday against Washington State. A draft-eligible sophomore righthander, Cooper is Wichita State's best prospect for the 2010 draft, and the Shockers realize there is a strong chance they might not get him back for his junior season.
"The scouts are going to like him because he just has great makeup," Shockers pitching coach Brent Kemnitz said. "I hate it that he's sophomore eligible, but when we were trying to keep him coming to school, we were well aware of that."
Cooper has gotten off to a strong start in 2010, going 2-0, 1.77 with 17 strikeouts and five walks in 21 innings. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder has a clean arm action, good athleticism and plenty of polish.
"He's been very consistent. He's made three starts, all of them good," Kemnitz said. "He's a three-pitch guy with great command and great makeup. He's been 88-92, and his slider's gotten a lot better -- it's really tight, it's an out pitch. And he has an outstanding changeup. He has a two- and a four-seam fastball, and he has great command with them.
"He's a guy that, as a coach you just love him because he just takes care of business."
Under The Radar
The first Big West team to reach the 10-win mark in 2010 was not Cal State Fullerton or UC Irvine or Cal Poly or Long Beach State. It was Pacific. Granted, three of Pacific's wins were against first-year Division I program Seattle, but the Tigers have also won quality series against San Francisco and Nevada, and they went 3-1 at the Irish Baseball Classic in San Antonio last weekend, with two wins against Notre Dame and one against Gonzaga. At 10-6 overall heading into this weekend's series against Southern California, it is clear that Pacific is continuing to make progress under seventh-year head coach Ed Sprague.
The Tigers have never made a regional, but they posted back-to-back 30-win seasons for the first time in school history in 2005 and 2006. Last year they won games against ranked opponents Baylor, San Diego and Cal Poly, as well as a series against Cal State Fullerton for the first time ever to improve to 10-73 all-time against the Titans. Certainly, narrowing the gap between the perennial Big West powers and his program has been an uphill battle for Sprague, a former star at Stanford who spent 11 years in the major leagues.
"It is a lot like the AL East," he said. "Baltimore can make a number of improvements, and every year the Yankees and Red Sox are getting better too, so you've just got to keep your nose to the grindstone. I think our guys feel that we can compete in the Big West. Last year was a big year for us. We won some games, and I think we surprised some people. We got some guys back and I think we're a stronger club this year. But the Big West gets stronger every year, and until you can knock those big boys off the top -- Fullerton and Irvine and Long Beach, and Cal Poly and Riverside and Santa Barbara -- they're going to look at you like a middle of the pack to bottom of the pack team in the conference. It's up to us to change that."
Pacific looks like one of the stronger offensive teams in the conference this year, with as many as eight upperclassmen in the everyday lineup. Toolsy junior outfielder Nick Longmire is the most high-profile name on the roster, but he hasn't gotten off to a particularly loud start, hitting .293/.425/.431. Instead, Pacific's infield has done much of the heavy lifting. First baseman Brian Martin (.448/.493/.612 with 14 RBIs), second baseman J.B. Brown (.410/.429/.525) and third baseman Mike Walker (.369/.400/.631 with four homers and 18 RBIs) are mature, confident hitters who have swung hot bats in the early going.
Sprague says Martin is a Dave Magadan type with outstanding hand-eye coordination, and Walker is having a breakout year after spending the summer working on improving his strength. Brown is simply a hitting machine; he hit safely in 49 of Pacific's 53 games last year, and he has put together a 14-game hitting streak since going hitless in the 2010 season opener.
Pacific also has solid college defenders all over the field, led by steady senior shortstop Ben Gorang. But the biggest reason that Pacific harbors hopes of making a run in the Big West this year is that it has improved pitching to go with its good lineup. Righthander Marcus Pointer (4-0, 1.91) and lefty David Rowse (3-0, 2.57) are not overpowering, but they give the Tigers a pair of savvy, strike-throwing veterans atop the weekend rotation.
"It's nice because offensively we have a lot of returning guys. So when we can have a guy get us in the sixth or seventh inning and keep us in the game, we feel like eventually we're going to score runs," Sprague said. "So we feel like we're in every game.
"I think the mentality here has changed quite a bit, and we think we can play with anybody. It's college baseball, and anybody can beat anybody on any given day. We're starting to get some guys that believe in themselves. We are making progress, and it hasn't happened as quickly as we like, but we're getting there. We've got to stay healthy, and the good guys we've got have to play well."
Chris Duffy, OF, Central Florida
Duffy is on some kind of tear for the Knights. In Wednesday's win against Stetson, Duffy went 5-for-6 with two home runs, becoming the first player in the nation and the fastest player in UCF history to reach the double-digit home run mark. Heading into this weekend's series against Presbyterian, Duffy leads the nation in homers (11), RBIs (35), slugging (1.186), OPS (1.793) hits (37) and total bases (83). He ranks third in doubles (11) and fourth in batting (.529).
It should be noted that the Knights haven't exactly faced top-notch competition, playing series against Savannah State, Siena, Central Michigan and Hartford. But Duffy's numbers are too insane to ignore, and so is his obvious maturation as a senior.
Duffy was a heralded recruit for UCF and was drafted by the White Sox in the ninth round out of high school in 2006. He was a starter each of his first three years at Central Florida, and while he was very steady -- hitting .283 with eight homers as a freshman, .282 with eight homers as a sophomore and .285 with six homers last year-- he had never quite lived up to expectations until this spring.
"This year he's taken it to the next level," UCF coach Terry Rooney said. "There are two reasons for that. One is our hitting coach, Cliff Godwin, has worked with this guy day in and day out. And two, the biggest difference is pitch recognition. He had been kind of a streaky hitter, and he couldn't recognize the pitches that he'd miss. He's just become much more aware of the strike zone, much more patient, and aware of the pitches he could drive and the pitches he should lay off. Now he's laying off the pitches out of the zone, and he's hitting the mistakes, which as anybody will tell you, to be a great power hitter, you've got to hit the mistakes.
"But he's a complete hitter, he's not just hitting home runs -- the guy's hitting .529. Last night against Stetson was a perfect example: He had a pulled home run, an opposite-field home run, and two base hits the other way. He's just been unbelievable."
Through four weeks, the Mustangs have already had more losing weekends than they did all of last season, when they won 11 of their 14 weekends. This year, they dropped home series against Southern California and San Francisco the first two weekends, then went 1-2 at the Coca-Cola Classic in Arizona, then were swept at home by Houston last weekend. Poly, with a number of key players back from last year's regional team, is just 6-9 heading into this weekend's series against California.
"We've just been scuffling in all facets of the game," Cal Poly coach Larry Lee said. "Offensively, we're just not gelling, and not performing like we're capable of. Our defense has been pretty adequate up to this point, and the pitching is still a work in progress. We still haven't found the right combination, and I'm not sure we have the quality or depth to make an impact in this season. The schedule is challenging, and it just gets tougher with Cal, Fresno State and UCLA immediately ahead. We're in finals right now, and maybe getting away from the field will help us a little bit."
There have been a few bright spots. Freshman outfielder Mitch Haniger (.389/.476/.574) looks like he will be an impact player for three years, and senior catcher Ross Brayton (.355/.388/.452 with 16 RBIs) has gotten off to a good start. But sophomore second baseman Matt Jensen has not yet been the dynamo he was as a freshman, and other veterans have been disappointing.
"Hitting's contagious, offense is contagious. When your main players are doing what they're supposed to do, a lot of times it allows a lot of your role players to hop on board, and that just hasn't been the case," Lee said. "Haniger and Brayton have been by far our two best hitters, they've hit in the clutch, they hit breaking balls. But the rest of the lineup has had their moments, but we haven't been able to have five or six guys each game contribute in a big way outside of one or two games. We went to Arizona State and faced four quality arms and swung the bats extremely well in a very offensive ballpark, but outside of that we really haven't been consistent. And to be honest we've only faced a handful of quality pitchers, so it's not that the pitching has been dominant. The problem is moreso on our end."
On the mound, the only bright spot has been sophomore righthander Mason Radeke (3-1, 2.96). The Mustangs have a 5.91 ERA as a team, and Friday starter Matt Leonard (0-3, 7.17) has really struggled. And Lee does not expect a boost from junior righty Steven Fischback, the best arm on the staff. Fischback redshirted last year after having labrum surgery, and while he is throwing in bullpen sessions, Lee said he's nowhere near where he needs to be and probably won't return this spring.
"Outside of Radeke, we haven't had a lot of consistency on the mound," Lee said. "Especially Leonard -- he needs to up his game a little bit and give us a chance to win when he's on the mound. We'll be another year without Fischback, our perceived No. 1. That's kind of been the M.O. of the last three years: We just haven't had all the pieces of the puzzle that we need to really be competitive."
Stat of the Week
Georgia State's school record for runs in a game heading into this season. The Panthers have eclipsed that mark four times already in 2010 and have scored more than 30 runs in three games this season. Of course, Georgia State padded its offensive numbers with four games against 0-15 North Carolina Central, which has surrendered 19.8 runs per game this season, and three games in the nation's best offensive environment at New Mexico State. But the Panthers took full advantage of those two series and also scored 31 total runs in two midweek home games against UNC Asheville last week. In those nine games, they scored 189 runs -- an average of 21 per game.
Heading into games against Centenary and Austin Peay State this weekend, Georgia State is hitting .386 as a team, led by redshirt sophomore outfielder Joey Wood (.523/.614/.932 with four homers and 17 RBIs). He has helped pick up the slack for a Georgia State team that lost 12 seniors off last year's regional team.
"Joey Wood is an outstanding hitter, that is for sure," Panthers coach Greg Frady said. "But Joey Wood is no surprise to us. The thing is he's been injured a lot since he's been here, so we could never get him going. Every time he's had an opportunity to play through a stretch of games, he's played very, very well. This boy can really run, and hit, and hit for some power. But to see what he's been through the last few years, the tears in his eyes after being hurt again and again, it's wonderful to see him off to a great start."
The New Mexico State series was high scoring on both sides, as the Lobos won the second game of the series 12-11, and the Panthers won the third game 30-24. That makes it especially impressive that Georgia State junior righthander David Buchanan was able to throw six shutout innings, striking out eight and allowing just three hits and three walks, in Friday's 13-2 win. Buchanan was a sixth-round pick by the Mets out of Chipola (Fla.) JC last spring thanks to his premium arm strength, but he arrived at Georgia State with a reputation as a thrower more than a pitcher. He has issued 13 walks in 14 innings this year, but he's also gone 2-1, 2.51 with 19 strikeouts.
"His development is fast-track -- it's amazing right now," Frady said. "His maturity has improved, his confidence has improved, his mindset has improved, his pitchability has improved. Everything has improved, and he is amazing to watch. He was 95 on Friday night with an excellent breaking ball and an excellent changeup, and all three pitches were in the strike zone. Before the question was always, will he have an inning and then blow up? When you put up six zeroes at New Mexico State, that is doing something, because every hitter in their lineup can hit, one through nine, and if you make good contact, it has a chance to get out of the park, because the ball carries. As a mid-major guy, he's as special an arm as you'll see."
The Chanticleers begin Big South Conference play this weekend at Charleston Southern. Ranked No. 7 in the nation, Coastal is 15-2 overall and playing well in all phases of the game -- especially on the mound, where the Chants have a 3.24 ERA. An American League area scout offered his thoughts on Coastal Carolina.
"The best team I've seen this year is Virginia but Coastal Carolina is right up there with them, along with Clemson. Coastal is a very good team that does a little of everything. They've got speed, they've got some power, they play defense and they've got pitching. Right now [lefthander Jimmy] Birmingham is throwing well and might wind up being their Sunday guy; they'd be even more dangerous if [lefty Matt] Laney, who's been struggling on Sundays, comes around. They get tough kids, guys who were not always highly recruited, and sometimes have a chip on their shoulder. [Coach Gary] Gilmore does a good job of finding those guys, and his staff helps those kids get better. Look at [ace lefty] Cody Wheeler -- he wasn't a big-time recruit coming out of Virginia in high school, and now he's going to be drafted pretty good here as a junior. They do that with a lot of guys. They just have a real nice program going."
In The Dugout
Tyler Bream, 3B, Liberty
Liberty is off to a strong start in coach Jim Toman's third year at the helm. The Flames are 11-4 and are coming off a quality series win against St. John's. Bream, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound sophomore, has anchored the middle of the lineup, hitting .417/.471/.617 with two homers and 19 RBIs through 60 at-bats after hitting .337/.379/.572 with eight homers and 57 RBIs as a freshman. For Bream, Liberty baseball is a family affair: His father, former big leaguer Sid Bream, starred for the Flames from 1979-81, and uncles Sheldon and Dave also played at Liberty. Tyler's second cousin Doug Bream is his current Liberty teammate. Bream talked about his family ties and his strong start In The Dugout.
Congratulations on the strong start to the season. What kind of development and maturation have you seen in this Liberty team from last year to this year?
We definitely have a lot more depth in the bullpen, a lot more pitchers, a lot more arms to throw. We were a really young team last year, at some points starting an all-freshmen infield, so we're just getting a little bit stronger, having a little more wisdom about how to play the game.
Obviously you had a pretty good freshman year individually, but how do you think your game has developed since last year?
The college slider was the pitch that really fooled me last year. I worked on it over the summer, and I think I'm picking up the ball a little bit better and knowing what pitchers are going to throw me in certain situations. It's the whole wisdom part of the game, just thinking a little bit more instead of just getting up there and hacking.
You did not play summer ball last year; how come?
I was actually injured. I dislocated my shoulder with eight games left in the season, so I took the whole summer off and rehabbed it. Thankfully there was no surgery. I worked out over the summer and improved strength-wise, that's just the biggest part.
Tell me about the Liberty baseball experience. Coach Toman came in there and it seemed like he wanted to put his own stamp on the program right away, and it seems like it's working. It feels like you guys are really on the upswing.
Definitely. He's bringing in top-notch talent. The recruiting base is a little smaller because we're a private Christian school, so you've got to pick and choose your guys -- I mean, Liberty's not (a) fit for everybody. But he's definitely bringing in good talent, we've got a good coaching staff, and they're pouring a lot of money and supplies into the program.
I'm wondering if there's a statue or a building on campus named after the Bream family. You had two uncles and your dad all play there, right?
(Laughs) No, there's no building or anything named after any Breams so far. That could change, but not right now.
Did you grow up hearing all about Liberty and always have it in the back of your mind to want to come here?
Yeah, my dad and my two uncles played here, and my dad's sister played volleyball and basketball, my older brother went to Liberty before me. It's definitely a family school—we have a lot of connections here.
I've got to ask you about your dad. For people my age growing up in the early '90s, Sid Bream's slide in Game Seven of the 1992 NLCS was one of those iconic sports memories that people always talk about. I know you were very young when that happened and probably don't remember it, but I'm sure you've seen it dozens of times. How often do you hear about that, anyway?
Oh, I hear about it everywhere we go. In Pittsburgh, the fans hate him, and that's where we're from, so every time we go to a Pirates game we're getting hassled a little bit from every direction. Then we go to Atlanta and everybody throws flowers at him. So we hear about it quite a bit.
Does having a big leaguer for a dad give you a unique perspective on the game?
He pushes me to become better. Christ has given me the abilities, and then he's just formed to the player I am today. Not everybody can say they've had a big leaguer who's coached them their whole lives. So he's definitely been there for me and taught me how to play the game the right way.
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