Ohio State at Michigan State
The two teams tied atop the Big Ten standings will square off in a three-game series this weekend. Ohio State, a perennial Big Ten contender and the preseason favorite to win the league, is accustomed to these kinds of showdowns. Though the Buckeyes have had their struggles in 2010 -- most strikingly on March 24-25, when they lost back-to-back games to Division II Rollins (Fla.) and NAIA Webber International (Fla.) -- they are still 19-9 overall and they remain the team to beat in the conference, a solid veteran unit built around ace righty Alex Wimmers and catcher Dan Burkhart.
Michigan State, though, is an upstart -- one of the top surprises of 2010 thus far. The Spartans have not been to regionals since 1979, and they were not expected to end that drought in 2010, having been picked to finish fifth in the league in Baseball America's preseason poll of coaches.
But after winning series against Iowa and at Minnesota over the last two weekends, Michigan State finds itself 22-7 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten. It's time to start taking the Spartans seriously as a postseason contender.
Give second-year coach Jake Boss and his staff plenty of credit for Michigan State's emergence. Boss, a former Michigan assistant under Rich Maloney, proved his head coaching mettle in his first year at the helm of Eastern Michigan in 2008, guiding a remarkable second-half surge after an 0-17 start to help the Eagles reach regionals for the first time since 2003. When former Spartans coach David Grewe left for an assistant job at Louisiana State that summer, MSU wisely scooped up Boss.
"I don't think we really knew what to expect, to be honest, when we came in here," Boss said. "I knew there was some talent here, and more importantly I knew it was a good group of kids. We just wanted to have them having fun playing the game, going out and playing fearlessly, and they're getting there. We put a lot of responsibility on them and expect a lot of them, but it's a quality group of kids. A week ago, the main thing I told them was, 'If you work hard for us, good things will happen. We'll treat you like men.' "
As one sign of how well coached and fundamentally sound the Spartans are, they lead the nation with a .984 fielding percentage. That's also a testament to their athleticism up the middle. Junior shortstop Jonathan Roof (.986 fielding percentage) has outstanding range and a strong arm, and he makes players around him better. He teams with redshirt freshman Ryan Jones (.981) to form a slick double-play tandem. And junior Brandon Eckerle (1.000) has blazing speed and excellent instincts that help him cover abundant ground in center field.
"Defense is extremely important," Boss said. "We talk with our guys all the time about just making the routine play. There are some very athletic guys here that we inherited. Sometimes those guys get caught up in making the highlight-reel play a little too much. The focus has been all year on making the routine play, and if we get a great play, that's great, but if we make more routine plays than not, then we'll have some success. We don't do anything spectacular in our drills -- I'm not a big gimmick guy. We just try to work on the fundamentals and repeat it, and our guys have bought into it. We do the same thing over and over in practice, but we do it the right way."
Having such a sound defense takes pressure off the pitchers, who can concentrate on throwing strikes and letting hitters put the ball in play. Weekend starters A.J. Achter (4-1, 2.44), Kurt Wunderlich (6-1, 3.49) and Tony Bucciferro (4-3, 4.47) have been very efficient all season, averaging nearly 6 2/3 innings per outing and making life easier on the bullpen.
Boss said Achter and Buccifero have both found success by ignoring the radar gun and focusing on throwing quality strikes, though Achter can still touch 92-93 mph at times. With a solid three-pitch mix that includes a slider and changuep, Achter gives MSU a chance Friday against the dominating Wimmers (7-0, 1.80 with 60 strikeouts and 13 walks in 50 innings).
The Spartans also have a chance to win this series because a good argument can be made that their offense has been more productive than OSU's in 2010. In 28 games, Ohio State is hitting .336/.407/.469 with 213 runs, 23 homers and 15 steals. In 29 games against a stronger schedule (Boyd's World ranks MSU's schedule 146th in the nation and Ohio State's 198th), Michigan State is hitting .335/.417/.479 with 258 runs, 17 homers and 66 steals. The Spartans make things happen with their speed and ability to get on base, from leadoff man Eli Boike (.409/.473/.638 with five steals) to junior first baseman Jeff Holm (.411/.500/.570 with 19 steals in 20 tries) to Eckerle (.385/.461/.467 with 17 steals in 18 tries) and Roof (.328/.407/.467 with 11 steals).
Boss credits assistant coach Billy Gernon, formerly the head coach at IPFW, with bringing an aggressive baserunning approach to Michigan State.
"Our stolen base numbers for several guys are way up," Boss said. "Our philosophy is to stay aggressive. There's speed from top to bottom in the order, we're trying to stay aggressive at the plate, trying not to get caught up in a lot of home runs. We don't have a whole lot of power, our guys realize that, so they try to stay in the middle of the field and hit the ball where it's pitched. I thought we'd be better offensively than we were a year ago, but not like we're swinging it right now. The cliche is hitting is contagious, and it's been like that.
"I can't tell you enough how good a group of kids this is. They don't ever feel like they're out of a ballgame."
Marquee Mound Matchup
Andrew Kittredge vs. Justin Jones
The prime pitching matchup when Washington visits California this weekend will be Saturday's showdown between underclassmen Kittredge and Jones.
Jones, a freshman lefthander for Cal, is on the short list of top contenders for national Freshman of the Year honors. An unsigned seventh-round pick by the White Sox out of Oakdale (Calif.) High last year, Jones carried high expectations into his collegiate career, and if anything he has been even better than expected, going 7-2, 2.83 with 56 strikeouts and 19 walks in 64 innings.
"I don't know if you can ever expect anybody to take the world by storm the way he has, but I did expect him to be extremely good," Cal pitching coach Dan Hubbs said. "He has three pitches that can get anybody out. He can command the strike zone, he has incredible poise and touch, and he has big-time makeup as a kid. He won't blow people away with his fastball, but he has the ability to make his fastball pretty good with not only his command of it but with how good his changeup and his breaking ball are."
Jones is plenty projectable at 6-foot-3, 175 pounds, but he sits at 86-88 mph currently, touching 90 occasionally. He cuts, adds and subtracts from his four-seamer and mixes in a two-seamer with good run. But Jones was a seventh-round pick because of his stellar secondary stuff. His 12-to-6 curveball and changeup can both be out pitches.
"The thing that separates him a little bit is his ability to win games in different ways," Hubbs said. "He may have thrown two changeups in the Rice game [in Week Four], and the next week he throws a complete game against Cal Poly and throws maybe 30 changeups. One game he was not able to command his fastball in, so he won with his breaking ball and fastball away. He doesn't get fazed in big spots, he doesn't care who's hitting, and he has a knack for getting big strikeouts."
Jones is a great change of pace in Cal's talented weekend rotation, which is bookended by power righthanders Erik Johnson and Dixon Anderson. Hubbs said Johnson has worked in the 90-94 mph range and owns a changeup that "has a chance to be a plus-plus pitch." Anderson, a draft-eligible sophomore who is the only piece of the rotation Cal might lose after this season if a club is willing to open its checkbook, was up to 94-95 mph early in the year but has settled in at 88-92 lately, to go along with a good curveball and split-finger.
Washington, meanwhile, has been hit hard by injuries in the pitching staff, leaving Kittredge as the best arm on the staff. A sophomore righthander, Kittredge was dominant at times in the New England Collegiate League last summer, showing an ability to command a quality three-pitch repertoire. He has been more hittable this spring, going 5-2, 6.10 and allowing a .316 opponents' batting average, but he has still missed plenty of bats, racking up 55 strikeouts while walking 12 in 52 innings. He is also coming off a strong start in a win last week against Arizona, allowing just two runs over seven strong innings.
"I like Kitt because he's so aggressive, he goes right after people, and he really competes," first-year Washington coach Lindsay Meggs said. "He's got good stuff, but even on the days he doesn't have his best stuff, he keeps you in the game because he wills you to win and he's a great competitor. He's like a position player on the mound -- he's such a great athlete and he makes adjustments.
Meggs said Kittredge has worked consistently in the high 80s and reached 91-92 mph this spring. He has developed a hard slider that Meggs calls a separator pitch.
"He can throw that at any time -- he can throw it in to lefthanders and can backdoor it as well," Meggs said of Kittredge's slider. "It's a very effective pitch against righthanders -- he can bury it in the dirt, and it's very tough for them to lay off it. He can throw his change also and has developed a pretty good overhand breaking ball. He really is a four-pitch guy, and depending on the day he's out there, he usually has three of the pitches working for him."
Under The Radar
When Tommy Raffo took over as head coach at Arkansas State in July of 2008, he had a simple plan to turn the Red Wolves into Sun Belt Conference contenders in a hurry.
"When I got here, we made it a higher priority to recruit players who could compete at the Sun Belt level or above and wanted to be at ASU," said Raffo, a former assistant at Mississippi State under Ron Polk and Pat McMahon. "When we found that combination, there was no looking back. These guys want to be here, they want to compete for a championship. I don't want a guy who just wants to be a D-I guy. I want a guy who wants to be here.
"Secondly, when you look at what we recruited, we brought in 21 guys with that first class. It was 11 high school guys and 10 transfers, so about 50-50. But we went with a lot of youth in the position players, because I really felt with my background we could develop them. And we went with more immediate help on the mound because that's what we needed right away. We needed guys who could challenge guys in the strike zone and compete."
That formula has worked perfectly. Raffo has developed his young hitters very quickly, and Arkansas State's two leading hitters are freshmen: center fielder/leadoff man Michael Faulkner (.376/.455/.429) and DH Ryan Emery (.374/.475/.465). The presence of quality veterans like first baseman Murray Watts (.357/.478/.532), second baseman Giovanni Garcia (.368/.424/.526) and outfielder Todd Baumgartner (.331/.407/.453) has taken pressure off the freshmen, and Raffo said that has allowed them to succeed.
And lefthanders Ross Humes (4-1, 2.66) and Andres Caceres (1-1, 2.84) have made immediate impacts on the mound after transferring from Washington State and Palomar (Calif.) JC, respectively. Humes secured an academic waiver from the NCAA to transfer to Arkansas State and attend graduate school classes in global history. He's a wily strike-thrower who has stabilized the weekend rotation.
That rotation has been a real strength for ASU, thanks also to the emergence of sophomore righty Jacob Lee (5-2, 2.66) and junior righty Andy Ferguson (3-2, 4.94).
"Ferguson and Lee were puppies last year, and we said, 'Now we've got to go with them, they've got to learn and make themselves better,' " Raffo said. "Those deposits are paying off because they have improved. They have made themselves better. Andy does a good job; we've been starting him on Friday nights. He's upper 80s to low 90s, and he's able to spin the baseball and he's got a changeup, too. So he's got some things that add a dimension and help his fastball. Lee is up to 91 with a good slider. We're pleased with him being the Sunday starter -- he's done a great job for us."
Add in John Koch (1-2, 1.33 with four saves, 23 strikeouts and five walks in 20 innings), who has been more than a pleasant surprise in the closer role, and you have the key ingredients for a staff that ranks second in the Sun Belt Conference with a 3.82 ERA. Considering the Red Wolves are also tied for second in batting (.328), it should be no surprise they are tied atop the Sun Belt standings with an 11-4 record. Arkansas State has won four of its five conference series, including a set against No. 19 Western Kentucky, and eight of its last nine conference games. The Wolves are 22-11 overall and 57th in the Ratings Percentage Index according to Boyd's World, giving them a real chance at a regional bid for the first time since 1994.
"Our goal is to establish ourselves in Sun Belt play, to compete for a championship, to win a championship," Raffo said. "Obviously if you do that, you put yourself in NCAA consideration. Is this all new? Sure it is. Are we going to have ups and downs? We all are. I've liked how our team has competed, but this conference is so good, and things can change both ways."
For Arkansas State, things already have changed.
Nick Martini, of, Kansas State
Martini went 6-for-12 in a series win against Nebraska last weekend to extend his hitting streak to 26 games, at the time the longest active streak in the nation and the longest in school history, breaking a 15-year-old school record. It was also the fourth-longest streak in Big 12 history. His streak ended Tuesday at Brigham Young, but he got back on track Wednesday against the Cougars, going 3-for-3 with two RBIs.
The sophomore center fielder ranks third in the Big 12 in batting (.420) and second in on-base percentage (.517), but he's been even better in conference-only games, leading the league in batting (.563) and OBP (.659).
"First of all, he's a very mature hitter, he does not swing at a lot of bad pitches -- that's probably first and foremost," Kansas State coach Brad Hill said. "He's not like a lot of other kids at this age; a lot of them will get themselves out, but he's very patient at the plate. He's been very mature throughout this process. He's taken his walks, too, through this streak, he's had a few bunts in there, he's just gone about his business very professionally."
Plate discipline and pitch recognition is not easy to teach, but Hill said Martini has it instinctively. As a sign of his maturity, he started right away as a freshman last year and moved into the No. 3 hole in Kansas State's lineup 15 or so games into the season.
The Wildcats lost a number of key veterans from a 2009 team that reached regionals for the first time ever, and their weekend rotation lacks even one arm they can count on for even five innings every start, but they have remained competitive in 2010 thanks largely to the play of veterans Martini, shortstop Carter Jurica (.371/.468/.597) and third baseman Adam Muenster (.383/.474/.519).
Given their shaky starting pitching, the Wildcats have certainly exceeded expectations in their 23-8 start. They enter a big series against Baylor in second place in the Big 12 at 6-3, having swept Oklahoma State and won a series against Nebraska but lost a series to Texas Tech.
"There's a lot of the season to play," Hill said. "We're sitting there with Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Texas A&M the last four series, and those are the four teams that were picked to finish at the top of the league in the preseason. So we have a lot of work ahead of ourselves, but we're very pleased where we're at."
While LSU, Texas, Virginia and Arizona State have picked up right where they left off last year, the other half of the 2009 College World Series field battled adversity in the first half of the 2010 season. But it appears Rice, Cal State Fullerton and North Carolina might be turning corners after all three teams won big series last weekend. Preseason No. 21 Southern Miss, though, sunk to rock bottom last weekend against Central Florida. The Golden Eagles were swept at home in a Conference USA series for the first time since 2001, falling to last place in CUSA (1-5). They are just 17-14 overall and have lost 10 of their last 15 games since starting the season 12-4.
"The frustration is definitely starting to show," first-year Eagles coach Scott Berry told the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American on Sunday. "I've always said there are three phases to this game: pitching, hitting and fielding. To win, you have to do at least two of those well, and right now we're not doing any of them."
Last year's Omaha team had special chemistry. Led by seniors James Ewing, Bo Davis, Brian Dozier, Corey Stephens and Michael Ewing, that team rallied around retiring coach Corky Palmer and caught fire in the postseason. Leadership and savvy were that team's greatest assets. Which is why it's striking that the 2010 Eagles are still waiting for their veterans to take charge.
"We don't have a leader," Berry told the paper on Saturday. "We've got to have big-time players, and we don't have them. We just don't compete. We're not a team of focus. We don't finish games. I'm dumbfounded on the whole thing.
"[I'm] as low as I've ever been probably."
If the Golden Eagles are to turn their season around, it is imperative that they start the process now. The next two weekends present winnable series at Marshall and home against Houston. Southern Miss needs to build some momentum over those two weeks, because the following three weeks will be grueling: at Tulane, home against East Carolina, at Rice.
A lack of late-inning heroics has been a major problem for the Eagles this year, but at least they broke a 2-2 tie with a run in the ninth Tuesday against New Orleans on Taylor Walker's bases-loaded walk.
Walker (.385/.493/.549), a senior second baseman, is part of a veteran core that actually has performed pretty well. Third-team preseason All-America shortstop B.A. Vollmuth (.380/.472/.669 with seven homers and 36 RBIs) has been even better than he was after taking over the starting shortstop job down the stretch a year ago, and reigning CUSA pitcher of the year Jeff McInnis (2-3, 3.04 with 61 strikeouts and 17 walks in 53 innings) has been very solid. Junior first baseman Adam Doleac (.381/.496/.667) has also put together a nice first half, as has reliable closer Collin Cargill (3-2, 1.74 with three saves).
With that kind of quality nucleus and a solid supporting cast, there is no reason USM can't make a run down the stretch, as it did in the postseason last year. It just needs the supporting cast to perform better and someone to step into the leadership void. Maybe Tuesday's win against UNO represents a turning point.
"I am very proud of the way we came out and competed tonight," Berry said after Tuesday's game. "I thought our pitchers did a great job controlling the game and pitching out of some jams. Now we have to take this momentum and build on it into the weekend when we get back into conference play."
Stat of the week
Dollars raised by North Carolina's "BaseBald for the Cure" fundraiser. The initiative was started by bullpen catcher Chase Jones, nephew of Tulane coach Rick Jones. Chase Jones is a brain cancer survivor who set out to raise $3,500 for the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and N.C. Children's Hospital by shaving one North Carolina player's head for each $100 raised.
The initiative blew past that goal, and after last Sunday's win against North Carolina State, more than 35 players and coaches had their heads shaved.
Georgia Tech is holding a similar fundraiser. The Yellow Jackets is trying to raise at least $5,000 for the St. Baldrick's Foundation, which raises money to find a cure for childhood cancer. For every $250 donated, one Georgia Tech player will have his head shaved after Sunday's game against Clemson.
Tyler Thornburg, rhp/of, Charleston Southern
One of the nation's top two-way players, Thornburg is hitting .277/.419/.515 with seven homers and 17 RBIs while also going 5-1, 3.21 with 53 strikeouts and 20 walks in 48 innings as a weekend starter. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound junior is generating interest among pro scouts for his exploits on the mound, where he allowed just two hits over eight shutout innings in a no-decision against Winthrop last week. He also allowed just three runs while striking out 11 in a complete-game victory against Florida earlier this season. A National League area scout broke down Thornburg the pitcher.
"He's pretty good. He's got a three-pitch mix, he's got some deception in his delivery -- he's got kind of a Tim Lincecum thing in his delivery. You know how Lincecum has that shoulder tilt and comes over the top? He's got that look to his delivery. For me, it's not a concern, as a whole. Overall, if that's how the kid throws, he can command the stuff, you don't need to mess with him.
"He's a smaller guy, but he's an athletic two-way guy. I saw his fastball up to 93, maybe 94, with a good changeup and a true curveball, 12-to-6. If you see him on the right day, I think he can show you at least an average curveball and an average changeup. The command was all right, but he's more control than command. He's small, so you don't know if you're getting a starter or a reliever, but he's athletic, he plays right field, and he hits three-hole. There's something to him. I'd probably say he'll go around or just after the top five rounds, but all it takes is one club to like the guy and take him earlier."
In The Dugout
Brodie Greene, ss, Texas A&M
Greene opted not to sign with the Phillies as a 37th-round pick last year, instead returning for his senior year at Texas A&M. The Aggies are awfully glad he did; he leads the team in batting (.383), slugging (.703), homers (seven), RBIs (28), stolen bases (11), runs (36) and triples (six). A second baseman last year, Greene was moved to center field for the start of 2010, but the Aggies moved him to shortstop right before the start of Big 12 Conference play with sophomore Adam Smith moving to second base, which has stabilized the infield. In short, Greene has done it all for the Aggies, who are 20-11 overall, 6-5 in the Big 12. Greene and Texas A&M will try to stop a three-game losing streak this weekend against rival Texas.
This is a big stretch for the Aggies, with Texas coming up this weekend followed by a midweek game against Rice and a series against Oklahoma. How important is this weekend?
This is crunch time now. It's big. We know it's Texas, we know their reputation, we know their history and what they're doing right now in the Big 12, but we've got to approach it one day at a time. The other teams in the Big 12 have shown that Texas can be beat. We know how they play, they like to score a run per inning with the small ball, so we have to work hard on defense and small ball and not giving up free bases.
You've been a part of this rivalry for four years now. Just how intense is it?
It's really intense. This is when the crowd comes out. Last year we fared well against them, we just didn't get our breaks at the right time, so we just have to take some confidence from that. We can't look at the record against them over the last few years.
Their pitching staff gets a lot of attention, for good reason. You've faced all those guys; are they as good as advertised?
As hitters, we don't really like to tip our hat to guys, but they've shown the whole nation what they can do. But they are beatable. They're human, and we're going to take it one at-bat at a time and be as tough outs as we can be.
How would you assess the first half of the season for Texas A&M?
It's kind of been a rollercoaster ride. We've hit our stride at times and been down at times. Last year we hit our stride early and went downhill at the last minute. We've really talked about hitting our stride in May and June. Our best baseball has yet to be played.
You played second base last year and moved to center field to start this year, and now you're back in the infield at shortstop. How has the transition gone?
It's gone a lot better than I thought it would, going from second to center field, which I loved -- it's a lot of fun to roam and show your athleticism, running down balls. But I've actually settled in pretty well at shortstop now. At shortstop you need the guy being vocal and running the infield. Adam has started adapt to second base. The stats show we still have a lot of errors, but it's starting to gel.
You have had your best offensive season as a senior. What has been the key to your development with the bat?
I've worked on my stance a couple times -- coach (Matt) Deggs worked with me on seeing the ball and having some rhythm and flow. I think it's helped my power a lot, power I didn't even know I had. Guys are starting to figure out how to pitch to me, they're starting to go a lot of offspeed to me, so I just have to be patient and get balls up in the zone to hit. The extra-base hits have started to come for me.
You have been hit in the face by pitches twice in your career, right?
Twice: freshman year and last year. The first time I sat out about a week and a half, they slowly put me in to pinch-run here and there, but it kind of ended my season. Last year it was tough because it didn't knock me out, it was kind of bloody, the whole mouth and teeth, and I had to go do surgery. I didn't know if my mouth and teeth would come back to normal. I only missed four games, though, because there was nothing broke, luckily -- I had to get six root canals.
Six root canals? Is that as painful as it sounds?
They really do sound that painful, but it really wasn't until the last two that it got painful, the two teeth that took the blow -- that was painful. Now I've got the protective cage on my helmet, and it helps me be confident in the box and not worry about getting hit. I know it looks funny, and I get some jokes from guys about it, but until they've been in your shoes …
Did you get hit in the mouth the first time, too?
The first time it hit me in the dimpled-cheek area. I got lucky and just had nine stitches.
Only nine? Lucky. Shifting gears, this team entered the season with less hoopla than last year's team, which of course was preseason No. 1 in our rankings and didn't wind up living up to its potential. What did the team learn from that experience?
I think that team last year, we just thought with the talent we had and the names we had that we could just show up and beat anybody. That target last year on our back, everybody was gunning for us, I think that kind of shocked a lot of people on our team. I don't know if that was the omen of the No. 1 ranking before the season started, but it kind of bit us in the behind. This year we learned from that; we're a bunch of nobodies here, nobody has respect for us. We're underdogs pretty much everywhere we go -- that's what we have to be. A bunch of nobodies who play for each other. If we think our talent's just going to take over the game, it's not going to happen. This year we've had some two-out, late-inning heroics. We want to have that chip on our shoulder, that edge, just come out and put on a show for people.
You had the opportunity to play sign a pro contract last summer, but you decided to come back for your senior year. Did you feel like you had some unfinished business at Texas A&M?
The opportunity was there to play pro ball, and it was a great opportunity, but it wasn't the opportunity I was looking for. I'm really close with these coaches and the guys that are still here. I'm a big fan of going to Omaha every year -- I've been going every summer since I was in sixth grade (I've got some family in Iowa in that area). I want to be up there for the last year in Rosenblatt. To play with these guys and these coaches one more year was a big year for me.
If you've been going to Rosenblatt that long, you must have some mixed emotions about the end of the Rosenblatt era.
It's just a place that is extremely special. When teams get there, they can play up to their ability, play over their head. I think that's something we could do -- take advantage of that experience.
What's your favorite part of the fan experience at the CWS?
The fans, I think, that travel up there are great. Last year when LSU was up there, the tailgating and the scene that they put on, even when they're not even playing, it's just great stuff.
For more information on college baseball, check out Baseball America.