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College Weekend Preview: Feb. 26-28

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Weekend Preview Topics

• Louisville-Ole Miss Series — by Aaron Fitt
• Rise of North Dakota’s Zach Muckenhirn — by Kendall Rogers
• News and notes
Shriners College Classic Primer
Tony Gwynn Classic Primer
College Prospect Notebook

The First Great Test: Louisville vs. Ole Miss

ALSO SEE: Feature on Ole Miss’ Tate Blackman, J.B. Woodman

Even great teams don’t usually perform at peak levels right out of the chute, but that’s just what No. 2 Louisville did last weekend. The Cardinals utterly dismantled an overmatched SIU Edwardsville club, outscoring the Cougars 43-5 in a three-game sweep. Then they pummeled Eastern Kentucky 14-2 in a midweek game to improve to 4-0 on the season. It wasn’t elite competition, certainly, but it is nonetheless impressive how well the Cards played in every facet of the game.

olemiss90x90LouisvilleLogo2015“I had a text from a crosschecker who said, ‘I’ve been scouting 16 years, and never been to a game where the players all played that well. You have a special thing going on, my man,’” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. “Balls in the dirt, the first to thirds, when to tag, when not to tag, what to do with the bases loaded. we’re not perfect, but yesterday’s game, you just go, man. these guys know how to play. And they’re older. It’s a product of the system, I’m fortunate we have a lot of older guys.

“There’s so much parity in college baseball, you don’t ever take it for granted. I’ve got no reason to not feel really good about the way we played in all facets. We got quality starts, and when we went to the bullpen, the games weren’t necessarily close, it can sometimes be hard to play clean in those games.”

McDonnell knows his team will face a much stronger test this weekend in Oxford, Miss., where the Cardinals will take on McDonnell’s old mentor, Mike Bianco and his Ole Miss Rebels. McDonnell said he knows Bianco really likes his team, which features three older righthanders in the rotation with power stuff and a veteran lineup. Ace Brady Bramlett was stellar opening day against Florida International, allowing just one hit over five shutout innings. Behind him in the rotation, righties Chad Smith and Sean Johnson weren’t as crisp.

Smith worked at 91-93 and touched 94 but didn’t have his good command and lost his mechanics after getting into trouble int he second inning, according to Bianco. And Johnson battled his way through five innings to get the win even though he was far from his best.

“The stuff wasn’t really that good, no command, fastball was kind of dead—he just struggled,” Bianco said of Johnson. “Could’ve made it easier, really good slider, but no fastball today. He’s better than that in three weeks.”

Ole Miss will need both righties to be better than that this weekend to have a chance against a loaded Louisville club that is playing at a high level. The Cards have a pair of All-Americans atop the rotation in Kyle Funkhouser and Brendan McKay, who were both solid in their debuts. McDonnell said McKay was throwing as hard as he’d ever seen, sitting comfortably at 92-93 mph and touching 94 after working mostly in the 88-92 range last year. The Cards have opted to start him exclusively at DH so he can focus on his pitching and to minimize the risk of injury given how valuable he is off the mound, so senior Danny Rosenbaum played first base. But McKay will still make an impact with the bat too — he hit his first home run of the year and already has six RBIs.

The newcomer to the rotation is lefthander Drew Harrington, who was a bullpen whiz last year before a strain in his arm derailed him down the stretch. Harrington turned in the best start of the three last weekend, allowing just three hits and no walks over six shutout innings, striking out nine. He looks primed to have a big season and might wind up being the best Sunday starter in the ACC.

“Just consistent. He’s throwing a 90 mph fastball, it’s one of those heavy fastballs,” McDonnell said. “He’s throwing the slider, his changeup has developed. I thought Harrington threw some great changeups, and just really attacked the zone, he was in attack mode. You’re gonna see a 90 just about every time on the board, somewhere in the 88-91 range—just a lot of 90s. And an 82 mph slider. He’s a bulldog type of kid, matured as a junior now.”

Another notable development for Louisville was the reemergence of righthander Anthony Kidston, who went a combined 14-1 in his first two college seasons before struggling mightily as a junior last year, when he posted a 6.48 ERA and lost his rotation spot. A big part of the problem was that Kidston struggled to command his trademark 12-to-6 curveball, or as McDonnell calls it, his big “yakball.” So in the offseason, he worked with pitching coach Roger Williams to develop a shorter slider in lieu of the curve, and it’s made a huge difference. Heading into the season, McDonnell called Kidston the X-factor on his pitching staff, just as last year he dubbed Harrington the X-factor.

So far, so good: Kidston struck out five over two scoreless innings of relief in his season debut, strengthening a stellar bullpen that already features two of the dozen top relievers in the country in closer Zack Burdi and sophomore righty Lincoln Henzman.

“He looked good, he was a bright spot of the weekend,” McDonnell said. “Just a great kid, voted team captain, likable kid. He’s striking guys out with the fastball, and maybe with the slider. But that fastball’s got some downward life to it. And he’s just gonna compete. He’s always had the great changeup.”

On the other side of the ball, Louisville carries a .395 team batting average into the weekend. There are no holes in this lineup, which features a nice blend of extremely seasoned upperclassmen and emerging sophomores like Blake Tiberi and Devin Hairston.

“If you look at our lineup, your leadoff hitter (Corey Ray) and 4-hole hitter (McKay) played for Team USA,” McDonnell said. “Your 3-hole hitter (Nick Solak), 6-hole hitter (Tiberi) and 9-hole hitter (Colin Lyman) started in the Cape Cod all-star game. And your 8-hole hitter was the MVP of our regional, Devin Hairston. Your 7-hole hitter (Will Smith) hits the two home runs (Tuesday) … I thought that was a breakout day for him. And in the 5-hole, I’ve got a senior in Danny Rosenbaum, he’s played in three straight super regionals, played a lot of baseball.”

But the superstar is Ray, a first-team preseason All-American who is hotter than any player in the country after four games. Ray is 11-for-15 on the season, giving him a cool .733 average to go along with a .750 OBP, a 1.533 slugging percentage, three home runs, nine RBIs and six stolen bases in six tries. It’s a ridiculous line, of course, but Ray is the nation’s premier power/speed player — and maybe the nation’s premier player, period. McDonnell made the decision to move him from the No. 3 hole to the leadoff spot after seeing Ray thrive in that role for Team USA, and Ray certainly seems right at home at the top of the lineup early this spring.

“An alarming statistic for me was finding out from Sean Moth, our radio guy, that we actually lost the first inning last year. With the talent we had and all the success, the ACC record for wins — everything we did, to lose the first inning was concerning for me,” McDonnell said. “So I got to see Corey lead off with USA Baseball this summer, and he really thrived in that role. So the combination of, we’ve got to be special on defense and we’ve got to get off to a good start, let’s be locked and ready to make plays, throw strikes, try to win the first inning. We did it in four straight games. When you think of Corey Ray, his versatility stands out to me as much as anything. He hit sixth as a freshman, was very productive in that postseason. He hit third as as sophomore, put up the great numbers. Now he hits first. (Tuesday) he started in left, then moved to right, then he moved to center field. That’s his game, his versatility. He can bunt for a hit. He can hit a back-side two-strike base hit, then he can launch one to right — he has all those tools in him. He can steal a base. He’s just versatile and obviously super talented.”

The same could be said of Louisville as a whole. Good luck to any team in the Cardinals’ path, starting with Ole Miss this weekend.

On The Rise: North Dakota’s Zach Muckenhirn

NorthDakota90X90North Dakota and junior lefthander Zach Muckenhirn are the talk of college baseball. Sure the Fighting Hawks might’ve been picked to finish near the bottom of the Western Athletic Conference standings coming into the season, but this team and Muckenhirn clearly have something to prove, as evidenced by last week’s showing against Southern California.

The Hawks not only won two of three from the highly-ranked Trojans, but Muckenhirn put together a stellar performance that has elevated him from just a guy at UND to a name to watch on the national stage. Scouts and the Cape Cod League have called head coach Jeff Dodson over the past week about Muckenhirn, and his stock appears to be rising heading into this weekend’s series at Alabama. It’s yet another difficult test for Muckenhirn, but it’s a challenge he’s willing to embrace.

“The first thing about Zach is that he’s a phenomenal student. He’s one of the hardest working kids I’ve ever coached and he’s a wonderful player,” Dodson said.  “He was kind of overshadowed last year [by Andrew Thome], but he’s now marking his own mark, and what he did the other night was phenomenal.”

Zack Muckenhirn, North DakotaZack Muckenhirn has been a true infusion for North Dakota. (Shotgun Spratling)

Against the Trojans, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound, lefty struck out nine, walked just one and allowed just three hits in a complete game shutout performance. Stuff-wise, Muckenhirn showed the ability to throw four pitches for strikes, including a quality changeup and a slider that continues to develop. The Minnesota native also is beginning to show feel for a curveball, a pitch that Dodson says he likes to use to change up the pace of at bats a bit. Muckenhirn typically sits in the 89-91 range with his fastball, though showed the ability to get up to 92-93 against the Trojans, while Dodson added there’s more in the tank, too, if he comes out of the bullpen.

“He had really good life on his fastball that night and his secondary stuff was so good it made that fastball really play up,” he said. “He’s developed a nice slider and his changeup is a really nice pitch. He developed that pitch last year and he’s really gotten a lot better with it.

“His intangibles are what is going to set him a part,” he continued. “He’s so driven, and he’s arguably the best and strongest athletes on our campus. He tests so well from an athletic standpoint and that’s really impressive.”

Muckenhirn, who shined at times at the Northwoods League last summer, has the ability to take yet another step from a prospect standpoint as the season moves along. It’s an incredible story, really. Dodson said Muckenhirn showed up as a freshman throwing 82-83 mph with his fastball and with a skinny physique. However, he gained about 27 pounds of muscle his freshman year, and as a result, saw a major climb with his velocity.

“The biggest thing we’ve done with Zach is just increase his arm speed on his off speed pitches,” he said. “He sees things and understands everything, and he’s hard guy to tell what he’s about to throw. He’s fully committed to throwing everything.”

Though still in its infant stage, perhaps the legend of Muckenhirn is just getting started.

We’ll see what happens this weekend in Tuscaloosa.

Around The Nation

North Carolina logoOklahoma State University logoFor the second straight week, North Carolina will play in one of the nation’s marquee series. A week after traveling to the West Coast to play UCLA, the 10th-ranked Tar Heels will welcome No. 12 Oklahoma State, which needs to get on the right track after a disappointing 2-2 showing in week one. Talented junior lefthander Garrett Williams remains sidelined for the Cowboys — he returned from winter break with some shoulder soreness and was slated to start throwing this week. But even without Williams, OSU has no shortage of quality arms. Despite losing games to Texas-Arlington and Stephen F. Austin last weekend, Oklahoma State pitched well all weekend, allowing just two earned runs in its first 35 innings before surrendering four in the 10th inning of the last game against SFA. Trey Cobb, making the move from the bullpen to the Friday starter spot, was solid in his debut, and the Cowboys got excellent starts from Thomas Hatch (7 IP, 2 ER) and freshman Jensen Elliott (5 IP, 0 ER). Oklahoma State pitching coach Rob Walton said Hatch has returned strong after missing last season due to injury; he worked at 92-94 mph in his first start. Elliott also showed good velocity, sitting at 90-93. Meanwhile, UCLA coach John Savage raved about the quality of UNC’s arms after losing two of three to the Tar Heels. Expect a low-scoring series in Chapel Hill.

Alabama90X90• Several freshmen around the country are off to hot starts after the first week of the season, but how about the Alabama duo of outfielder Chandler Taylor and second baseman Cobie Vance? The two entered the season as instant impact type of players, and they’ve lived up to that billing in more ways than one. Taylor, who has a physical frame, has been a power infusion from the Crimson Tide and is hitting .533 with a home run and four RBIs, while Vance, who’s a sparkplug type of player, is hitting a team-best .563 with a home run and three RBIs. Clearly, freshmen will have their fair share of ups and downs, but Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard has to love what he’s seeing out of his pups right now. On a side note, Taylor and Vance will get to deal with the same North Dakota team this weekend that took two of three from USC last weekend.

ASUOfficialLogo90X90• Hard-throwing righthander Hever Bueno will need to have a strong spring for Arizona State to meet expectations. Bueno threw 5.1 solid innings in a home win over Xavier on Opening Day, but left the game abruptly with some discomfort. Bueno was expected to throw a bullpen on Wednesday, but will not start this weekend as the Devils head to Long Beach State for a series. ASU’s rotation this weekend includes RHP Seth Martinez, LHP Eli Lingos and LHP Reagan Todd. Meanwhile, Long Beach State is coming off a home series win over Holy Cross, along with a dominant win over scuffling UCLA. Keep close tabs on righthander Chris Mathewson, one of the nation’s best pitchers that few outside of Southern California are familiar with.

College of Charleston Cougars logoFloridaState• One of the more interesting series this weekend pit College of Charleston against a rather new-look Florida State in some ways. Like clockwork, the Seminoles, who entered Opening Weekend with some serious question marks, looked absolutely flawless against Rhode Island, scoring 50 runs in three games against the Rams. FSU will have a stiffer test this weekend as it faces College of Charleston, who’s coming off an impressive home series win over Nebraska. The story of the weekend is how Charleston’s Bailey Ober and Nathan Helvey matchup with FSU’s lineup. Ober made his valiant return from an injury last weekend, and allowed three runs on seven hits in 4.1 innings. Circle this series to watch throughout the weekend.

Top 25 In Action

(1) Florida at (6) Miami

(2) Louisville at Ole Miss

Illinois-Chicago at (3) Vanderbilt

(4) Texas A&M at Pepperdine

Sacramento State at (7) LSU

Wright State at (8) NC State

Illinois State at (9) Oregon

(12) Oklahoma State at (10) North Carolina

East Carolina at (11) Virginia

Purdue at (13) California

(14) UCLA at Cal Poly

Penn State at (15) South Carolina

College of Charleston at (18) Florida State

Wake Forest at (21) Southern California

Stanford at (23) Texas

Indiana at (25) Cal State Fullerton

Top 25 Tournaments

Big 12/Pac-12 Challenge, Surprise, Ariz.

(5) Oregon State, Kansas, Kansas State, Utah

Houston College Classic, Houston

(16) Louisiana-Lafayette, (17) TCU, (22) Houston, (24) Arkansas, Rice, Texas Tech

Caravelle Resort Baseball at the Beach, Conway, S.C.

(18) Coastal Carolina, Duke, Marshall, Ohio State

Mississippi State Tournament 2, Starkville, Miss.

(19) Mississippi State, UMass-Lowell, Nicholls State

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