Weekend Preview: Opening Weekend
• North Carolina, UCLA Series Preview
• Feature on Oregon State RHP Drew Rasmussen
• New era begins at College of Charleston
• National notebook
Showdown Series: No. 16 UNC at No. 11 UCLA
by Aaron Fitt
There is just one series on the Division I calendar this weekend that pits a pair of Top 25 teams against each other: No. 16 North Carolina at No. 11 UCLA. The Bruins were supposed to visit UNC in Week Two last season, but winter weather forced the series to be moved to Orlando, where UCLA took two out of three games. Naturally, the weather in North Carolina is expected to be beautiful this weekend, and it was pouring rain when the Tar Heels landed at LAX on Wednesday night — but the forecast calls for sunny skies and warm temperatures this weekend at Jackie Robinson Stadium. So for once, the weather won’t be the big story, and we can focus on the intriguing matchup.
A major storyline this weekend will center around how UCLA’s freshman catchers handle the Bruin pitching staff, and the UNC running game. The Bruins suffered a big blow in January when veteran catcher Darrell Miller hurt his shoulder on the follow-through of a swing, resulting in a tear to his non-throwing shoulder and ending his season before it even started. The transfer of senior backup catcher Justin Hazard to Nevada (where he’ll play for former UCLA assistant T.J. Bruce) and the defection of talented freshman Michael Benson for the junior-college ranks back in October left UCLA in a lurch at the crucial backstop position. So the Bruins will go forward with redshirt freshman Daniel Rosica and true freshman Jake Hirabayashi.
Rosica is an elite student who would have fit right in at an Ivy League school, but the Bruins initially expected he’d serve primarily as a bullpen catcher in Westwood. And Hirabayashi was a high school infielder who just converted to catcher in October. He’s athletic and has shown some aptitude for catching and throwing, but there will be growing pains.
UCLA coach John Savage admitted he was concerned about his catching situation, but there may be a silver lining.
“I think our clubhouse has kind of embraced this whole deal, and I like our chemistry. Everybody’s kind of behind those two guys who didn’t think they’d ever be playing,” Savage said. “I think it might surprise some people.”
Don’t underestimate the power of a clubhouse rallying behind hard-working young players in the face of adversity. But UCLA will have its hands full this weekend against a very athletic UNC team that is well stocked with basestealers, led by outfielders Tyler Ramirez, Tyler Lynn, Adam Pate and Brian Miller. Expect the Tar Heels to test the UCLA catchers often.
“We’ll see how that goes. We’ve talked a lot about that, working hard on that part of our game, but also just dropping some bunts down and trying to advance on balls in the dirt, first to third. We’ve really put a big emphasis on that, putting some pressure on the defense,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “We stole like 80 bases last year, we weren’t very good offensively, so we’re thinking, ‘Gosh, if we’re better offensively, maybe we can steal 100.’ But it’s all relative. It’s hard to run now in college baseball with the balk move that so many guys have. So many guys know how to control the running game.”
And you can always count on Savage’s pitchers to be well trained in holding runners and fielding their position. UCLA’s weekend rotation is very athletic: sophomore righthanders Grant Dyer and Griffin Canning plus blue-chip freshman Kyle Molnar. They’re all strike-throwers with swing-and-miss stuff, but it will be interesting to see how UCLA’s catchers handle their quality breaking balls — especially Dyer’s wipeout downer curveball.
North Carolina will also be relying on a pair of freshman catchers in Cody Roberts and Brendan Illies, but they both have strong pedigrees and a lot more experience behind the plate. A third freshman catcher, Wyatt Cross, has fallen back in the depth chart, while Roberts has surged to the top — he’ll start Friday’s season opener. Roberts has a plus arm that really plays behind the plate and also generates 92 mph heat off the mound.
The Tar Heels have three legitimate two-way players for the first time in Fox’s memory, giving the roster some nice extra flexibility. Freshman Kyle Datres will start right away at second base, where his athleticism is a huge asset and his bat is very promising. UNC also expects him to be a vital contributor in the bullpen thanks to his fearlessness and advanced feel for a quality three-pitch mix, but he isn’t expected to pitch this weekend due to some arm tenderness. The third two-way player is first baseman/righty Ryder Ryan, who provides a power bat and a power arm. But he won’t start at first base Friday against a tough righty; instead, UNC will use the lefthanded-hitting Miller there.
Miller is a burner who defends exceptionally well in the outfield, but he’s also a former high school shortstop who has taken well to playing first base, which works well for the roster, because Lynn, Ramirez and Pate are exclusively outfielders and all need to be in the lineup. No matter what combination of those four players UNC uses in the outfield, the Tar Heels should have outstanding range.
UCLA also has a strong outfield mix with Christoph Bono in center and veterans Brett Stephens and Eric Filia flanking him, with Kort Peterson also in the mix.
“We love our outfield,” Savage said. “They can go get it, they can run, they can throw, they’ve got some power. All our sophomores are much better.”
But North Carolina figures to have an advantage in the infield, because UCLA’s projected starting shortstop, sophomore Nick Valaika, is out until March 1 with a broken hamate bone. Trent Chatterton will slide from second to short (where he’s capable but not particularly rangy), and veteran Justin Urabe will play second. Luke Persico is a major breakout candidate at third base. Persico played mostly on the right side of the infield last year, but he has looked strong at the hot corner.
UNC has a very instinctive playmaker with a strong arm at shortstop in sophomore Logan Warmoth, who really impressed Savage in last year’s series. And fellow sophomore Zack Gahagan has made big strides with his defense at third.
The pitching matchups will be outstanding all weekend. Dyer has tons of talent and was outstanding in the bullpen last year, but he’s new to the Friday role, where he’ll have to replace first-round pick James Kaprielian (one of seven very substantial losses from last year’s club for the Bruins). UNC has a proven ace on Friday in junior righty Zac Gallen, and a rising star with high-first-round upside in sophomore righty J.B. Bukauskas on Saturday. The Tar Heels will go with sophomore sinkerballer Jason Morgan on Sunday, and he looks ready to break out after battling illness for much of last season.
“Jason’s taken a step forward,” Fox said. “Of course, we thought Jason was going to be a bigger impact for us last year coming in, and he got sick and spent so much time in the hospital early in the season. That really, really put him behind. He just kind of started getting back and recovering the last half of the season, went off and pitched well in the summer. He’s a strike-thrower. He kind of gets a little stronger as the game goes on, we’ve noticed in scrimmages in that starter role. He can groundball you, he can strike guys out when he needs to, but his breaking ball has gotten better. He holds runners very well. He’s not going to hurt himself walking guys, but you’ve got to play good defense behind him.”
Both teams look strong in the bullpen. Even without All-American closer David Berg, UCLA feels good about its relief corps, which will be anchored by another sidewinder in Brian Gadsby, who is similar to Berg in style but has more velocity. Savage always likes to structure his bullpen in a way that gives his relievers a firm role; this year, hulking power sinkerballer Tucker Forbes looks like the eighth-inning setup man, with quick-armed righties Nathan Hadley and Jake Bird serving as the key options in the sixth and seventh.
By contrast, Fox likes to use his go-to reliever earlier when the game is on the line. His stopper this year will be righty Hansen Butler, who can run his heater up to 95 with a putaway curveball. But the supporting cast around him is loaded with other big arms, led by Spencer Trayner, Ryan and exciting freshmen Cole Aker and Datres from the right side, and fireballer Hunter Williams plus seasoned veteran Zach Rice from the left side.
“Hansen Butler’s probably the guy that we would get in the game first,” Fox said. “We’ve gone into a lot of seasons and not had a “closer”. If you read all this stuff now that’s coming out about Sabermetrics and where to hit your best players and where to put your best hitters, a lot of teams are saying, ‘Hey, who’s the guy we’re going to put in the game when the game’s on the line?’ Sixth inning, seventh inning, whatever. Then you figure out the end of the game if you get to that point.”
So both of these teams have plenty of quality arms, but those arms will get a real test this weekend, because both of these teams have real talent offensively too. “We’ve banged it around pretty good, I think we’re going to be pretty offensive too,” Savage said.
Fox is excited for his team to be tested in the first two weekends, with series at UCLA and then home against No. 8 Oklahoma State. The Tar Heels will rely on a decent number of young players, but they have much better veteran leadership this year, and they should be able to hold their own against their tough schedule. The disappointment of missing the NCAA tournament last year is a distant memory, but the players who were around for that experience grew from it. Now they’ll finally get a chance to play games that matter again, and prove that this year’s team is not last year’s team.
“There was a lot of media out, everybody was talking about last year, last year. I said, ‘If you want to quit talking about last year, give them some reason to talk about this year.’ We haven’t talked too much about that, but if you’ve got any salt at all, you’ve got to know, ‘Hey I’m a junior, I haven’t won a regional,’” Fox said. “I think I heard Zac Gallen make that comment to somebody, that he didn’t want that to be his legacy here — ‘I don’t want to come in here my three years and not accomplish some things as a team.’ You hear about playing with a chip on your shoulder and all that, that’s all well and good, but I don’t know how long that lasts. You’ve still got to go out and play.
“We’ve got a good, tough schedule, a young team, hungry, so we’ll mix all that together and see how it comes out. I know I’ve had a blast with this team, probably as much fun as I’ve had in a long time. In the fall, we had them up at 6 a.m. probably the first three weeks, I’ve got to test to find out who wants to be here, who’s disciplined, who’s soft and who’s not, do we have any toxic players? And we didn’t have one player miss or one player late the whole time. I told my locker room yesterday before we left, ‘You guys are all here for a reason. You passed the test, if you will.’ I don’t think they knew they were being tested, but we did that by design. They all responded. That’s obviously a good sign.”
OSU’s Rasmussen Ready For Showtime
by Kendall Rogers
Drew Rasmussen is ready to put his stamp in Oregon State’s baseball history books.
Over the past decade or so, the Beavers have consistently had a premier arm leading the weekend rotation. From the days of Dallas Buck and Jonah Nickerson, Mike Stutes and Jorge Reyes, to most recently, Matt Boyd, Ben Wetzler and Andrew Moore, Pat Casey’s program has always placed a heavy emphasis on finding the perfect pitcher to showcase the weekend rotation.
Rasmussen is that guy now. He learned from one of the best in OSU history last season in Andrew Moore. Moore was primarily an upper-80s pitcher for much of his career, and evolved into more a power arm last season. But for the most part, Moore was one of those cerebral pitchers who seemed to pick up something new and improved each season.
That’s the plan with Rasmussen, too.
Last season, Rasmussen quickly established himself as a pitcher with a lot of upside. He was built like a bull rider with a strong lower half and had a hard-nosed approach, Additionally, his stuff certainly looked the part. He consistently sat mid-90s out of the bullpen, and sat more of a 90-94 as a starting pitcher, along with a quality mid-80s changeup and 82-84 mph slider. Rasmussen had his moments where he looked like one of the nation’s elite pitchers, but also had instances where things seemed to slip away.
So the plan this season is pretty simple: Continuity.
“He’s been made more aware of the expectations around here from a leadership standpoint. You have to evolve and you have to lead by example. You have to speak up and not necessarily be liked all the time,” Oregon State pitching coach Nate Yeskie said. “Furthermore, he looks pretty good right now. There’s not a player out there that will work harder than him in the weight room, and he’s gone from a guy who looks a little bit like a bull to someone who has trimmed up a bit and is paying attention to their nutritional needs as a pitcher.
“The big thing with Drew is just refining his overall attack and approach a bit. He has to make his breaking ball go down more consistently,” he continued. “He throws strikes, and always has, but can get into little situations at times and get out of character. He needs to manage those types of innings a little better this season, so he’s not getting so geared up to go after hitters.”
Should the early reports on Rasmussen from spring workouts pan out, the Beavers should have an even better and scarier staff ace at their disposal. While Rasmussen was more 90-93, up to 94 the last time we saw him last spring, he’s showing more velocity so far this spring, sitting 92-95, and up to 96 mph at times, while also having some scrimmages where he sat 94-96 with his fastball. He’s also continuing to flash that impressive mid-80s changeup, while he’s also working in a cutter up to 87-88 mph. The key? Rasmussen has to get his mid-80s slider showing more downward tilt.
“He’s going to hold the velocity with his fastball and he’s always had a good changeup, but now we’re just focusing on that slider going down in the zone,” Yeskie said. “At times, he throws his slider more as a cutter, and we need him to get that breaking down a bit more. There are times when it’s nice to have that little of separation between the breaking ball and fastball, but there also are times when it’s beneficial to make the ball go down. I look at the St. Louis Cardinals, and that is kind of their M.O., getting to the bottom of the zone and getting that zone extended.”
Rasmussen and the Beavers begin the season with quite an interesting matchup on Friday afternoon in Surprise, Ariz. The 6-foot-1, 226-pound, righty and No. 8 prospect in the 2017 draft class will need to be on his game with Ball State righty Zach Plesac, No. 133 in the 2016 draft class, on the mound. Plesac is a rising arm and athlete who sits anywhere from 88-92, and up to 93-94 at times with his fastball, while also showing good feel for a changeup and slider. Ball State coach Rich Maloney said this winter that Plesac has made major strides with his feel for his secondary stuff, as he showcased during the Cardinals’ fall trip to the Dominican Republic.
“When we went to the dominican, he really, really looked good,” Maloney said. “Last year he pitched decent and had five complete games, but didn’t really have an out pitch that was a separator. He’s been working hard on that, making progress. He’s throwing a slider now. Before he was kind of caught in the middle, wasn’t consistent with it and didn’t throw it hard enough. It was an in-between pitch, not a true out pitch. He’s been working real hard on it. It’s not a 60 or something now, but it was better than it’s been and it should help make him really competitive. For him to raise himself up to the top echelon of the draft, he’s going to have to have that pitch. Realistically, he’s going to have to face Oregon State, Ole Miss, Kent State and LSU all at the beginning. There can’t be too many guys that are better athletes that are pitching — he’s a freak athlete.”
Some would call a mound matchup of that magnitude a tough mental test for a hard-nosed, but still young, competitor like Rasmussen. But, as has been the case for the last decade, the righty looks ready to take the reins like every other OSU ace of the past.
Oregon State’s “Bull” is ready.
A New Era Begins: Matt Heath And C of C
by Kendall Rogers
Matt Heath looks forward to making the best of his opportunity at College of Charleston.
Heath has spent the better part of the last decade deeply entrenched in the game of baseball. He played for one of the most tradition-rich programs in the country at LSU, while also serving as a scout, and of course, having a pair of stints as an assistant for the Cougars, the last coming the past five seasons on Monte Lee’s staff.
While Heath was more than happy with his role as an assistant for the Cougars, as with any coach, he’s always dreamt of becoming a head coach. The chances of that finally occurring rose exponentially last summer when Lee accepted the head coaching job at Clemson. Finally, some potential light at the end of the tunnel.
Those of us on the national stage weren’t real sure if the Cougars would cast a wide net and have a nationwide search for a new head coach, or if they would simply promote Heath. With Lee’s and the blessing of others around the program, the Cougars chose to promote Heath to head coach, thus providing some continuity in the program instead of an entirely new look.
Life has been much more hectic and tiresome for the 36-year-old Florida native since last summer, but he’s learning new things everyday, and he’s getting his program in order with hopes of making yet another deep postseason run.
“The transition has been pretty easy, but as with any transition, there are some challenges and differences,” Heath said. “The biggest thing and change for me with the new position has given me a whole new respect for this profession, and particularly being an assistant.”
“Assistants are just incredibly important,” he continued. “As a head coach, if I’m working with the hitters or pitchers, there are always guys to work with the other players. Those are things you kind of take for granted as an assistant, but have a newfound respect for as a head coach. The biggest transition is just realizing there are things I can’t do, so I need to delegate those things to assistants at times.
“My team is very excited, and for the first time in a long time I’ve been able to work with all aspects of the team. We’ve definitely got an athletic club with some speed, and we’ve got some power in the lineup, too. We’re going to be able to grind out some at bats as well. On the pitching staff side of things, we’ve got the most depth we’ve had in a long time, and the starting rotation sets up pretty well.”
Though the Cougars welcome back plenty of key cogs to make another strong run this spring, this team isn’t without question marks, particularly on the offensive side with the departures of big bats such as Blake Butler, Nick Pappas and Carl Wise. How important are their departures? The hard-hitting trio combined for 37 homers and 190 RBIs last season.
That leaves the Cougars with some significant voids to fill, but there’s reason for hope. The Cougars welcome back first baseman Bradley Jones and outfielder Morgan Phillips, who each hit for power and consistency last season, while versatile outfielder Ryan Brown is one of the better bats in the Southeast and can impact his team in a variety of ways as well. Charleston also feels good about third baseman Bradley Dixon, who missed last season with an injury, while one of the more intriguing newcomers is shortstop/outfielder Dupree Hart, an ultra-athletic player who has a chance to leadoff for the Cougars. Also keep an eye on catcher Erven Roper and second baseman Tommy Richter, both guys who showed real potential last season, but also were inconsistent at times.
“If you were to come out and watch Bradley Jones for a weekend, watch him in batting practice, and such, you’d see how special he can be. He’s got SEC type of bat speed and he touches the ball in a way that it just flies out of this ballpark. He can be a truly elite hitter if he can put all the pieces together,” Heath said. “For us to be very good offensively, Roper needs to be dangerous in the middle of the lineup, and an athletic guy like Bradley Dixon needs to make a strong impact. I also feel like Richter has a chance to take a big step forward.
“There’s also Hart. He’s a special player and we’re lucky to have a kid like that in the program,” he continued. “He’s an ACC or SEC type of guy, and I feel like with him, we’ve got a guy who can step in and play and contribute immediately. He has a football background and he’s very mentally tough, but he’s like every freshman, he will have some things he needs to adapt to.”
The pitching staff has some quality options to work with, too. For instance, Evan Sisk, sidearmer Will Detwiler and closer Justin Baker are all talented arms, with Detwiler able to get into the upper-80s with his sidearm delivery, while Baker is a talented closer who can command three pitches and gets up to 90-91 with his fastball.
But, the most intriguing aspect of this staff? The Cougars welcome back redshirt sophomore righthander Bailey Ober and a talented, veteran arm in righty Nathan Helvey. Ober and his impressive frame caught the nation by storm two seasons ago when he earned Freshman All-American honors. However, Tommy John surgery sidelined him last season. Ober’s velocity is finally back, and Heath said he’s already touching 90 with his fastball, with the ability for more in the tank. He also continues to possess an impressive go-to changeup. Meanwhile, Helvey has the potential to be a Clarke-ian type of pitcher this season. Helvey’s stuff has gotten better since last season, and he’s throwing impressive sliders and changeups to go with a fastball that will sit anywhere from 88-91, with the ability to now get up to 94.
“Right now, Bailey is at about 11 1/2 months removed from Tommy John, and I couldn’t have asked for him to be in better shape,” he said. “His velocity is starting to climb and he was already the type of pitcher you could go out there and watch and he’d be throwing 84-87, but also be sinking the ball really well and throwing that changeup for strikes. I think he’ll be in the low-90s by the middle of the season.
“Nathan is the one guy, who at least from some people, goes kind of unnoticed in this program. I’ve never really seen a pitcher as mentally tough as him,” he continued. “His slider has been up to 86-87, though it doesn’t stay there, and his stuff is just more crisp. He’s versatile, and he’s our team captain going into the season.”
Nothing is for certain when a new situation and challenge arises, but Heath has a team ready to make a statement in his first season as head coach.
The Cougars aren’t void of issues, but Heath couldn’t ask for a better way to start his coaching career.
He’s been waiting for this moment for a while.
• No. 3 Vanderbilt welcomes perennial West Coast Conference power San Diego to Nashville for an intriguing opening series, but the Commodores won’t be close to full strength. Preseason All-America righthander Kyle Wright, talented junior lefthander John Kilichowski and blue-chip freshman Donny Everett will all miss the series with injuries.
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said Wright injured his oblique while lifting weights during the winter break, an injury that figures to keep him sidelined for a few more weeks. Kilichowski, another potential weekend starter, has been dealing with some bruising in his arm, and it’s taken some time to build up his strength. He threw well last weekend and shouldn’t be far from being ready for game action. And Everett is recovering from what Corbin called “a little bit of a lat issue. He should be fine, just needs to build strength back again.”
With those arms out, Vandy will go with flame-thrower Jordan Sheffield, power lefty Ben Bowden and TBA for its rotation this weekend. San Diego will counter with lefthander Troy Conyers (who has looked great coming off Tommy John surgery, according to Toreros coach Rich Hill), followed by righty senior righty Gary Cornish and electric freshman righty Nick Sprengel. The power-armed Sprengel has generated quite a bit of buzz early this spring. USD’s rotation is certainly capable of standing toe to toe with the Commodores. Hill calls his team a “work in progress,” but he dubbed junior outfielders Hunter Mercado-Hood and Ryan Kirby serious breakout candidates.
• Top-ranked Florida gets a nice opening test as well with a series against Atlantic Sun favorite Florida Gulf Coast. Unlike the Commodores, the Gators head into the season at full strength, and coach Kevin O’Sullivan said his big-name arms have looked fantastic during the preseason. Sophomore righthander Alex Faedo has continued to hold the big velocity he showed in the fall, sitting at 93-96 mph last weekend, according to O’Sullivan. Freshman Jackson Kowar threw very well against Florida’s starting position players last weekend, working at 92-95 mph and allowing just a run over four innings. Fellow standout freshman Brady Singer was 91-94, and lefthander Scott Moss was 92-94, though his command is still spotty as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery. O’Sullivan said to keep an eye on sophomore lefthander Nick Horvath, who has shown excellent command of his 86-90 fastball. As if the Gators needed another quality arm to emerge. Florida’s bullpen roles remain up for competition, but O’Sullivan said Kowar, Singer and power righty Shaun Anderson figure to anchor the unit, with Horvath, fellow southpaw Kirby Snead and strike-pumper Frank Rubio playing valuable roles as well.
• Indiana has parted ways with senior shortstop Nick Ramos. Ramos, the Hoosiers announced, is still a student at IU, but was dismissed from the baseball program. Ramos finished last season with a .262 batting average, a home run and 19 RBIs, along with nine doubles. And though the Hoosiers should be able to adequately replace the veteran, losing that type of experience certainly tends to hurt. Indiana opens the season this weekend at Middle Tennessee State before heading to Cal State Fullerton next weekend.
• Speaking of Cal State Fullerton, it will head to Stanford this weekend for a rivalry series and likely without middle infielders Timmy Richards and Taylor Bryant. Richards is suffering from a quad injury and will for sure not play, while there’s at least a shred of optimism surrounding Bryant, who has missed the past couple of weeks after a hamate bone injury (hand). Neither Richards or Bryant are big-time offensive threats, but both are steady defenders who provide some real stability.
• Houston enters its weekend series against Villanova with quite an exciting time, but the Cougars will be without sophomore lefthander Seth Romero for an unspecified amount of time. Romero, a 6-foot-3, 250-pounder, is one of the nation’s premier 2017 draft prospects, but has been suspended indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the team. Sources close to the situation have not ruled out Romero returning to the mound at the Shriners Hospitals College Classic (Houston College Classic) next weekend, though the lefty would have some serious work to do … In more tough UH news, senior second baseman Josh Vidales will miss three-to-five weeks to rehab a broken hamate bone.
• The D1Baseball staff will be spread around the country providing coverage of many of the weekend’s most interesting matchups. Aaron Fitt will be in Myrtle Beach and Conway, S.C., covering the Caravelle Resort Tournament. That event is headlined by defending national champion Virginia, preseason No. 10 NC State, and No. 24 Coastal Carolina. The first day features one of the country’s best pitching matchups: first-team preseason All-American Connor Jones of Virginia against Kent State premium lefthander Eric Lauer.
Kendall Rogers will be in Tuscaloosa for the grand opening of Alabama’s sparkling new stadium against Big Ten favorite Maryland, while finishing the weekend with a single game between Florida International and Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss. Michael Baumann will witness the beginning of the Jay Johnson era for Arizona, which travels to Rice. Shotgun Spratling and Eric Sorenson will both have coverage of the UNC-UCLA series, and Spratling will also take in a triple-header in Northern California on Saturday, highlighted by the Stanford-Cal State Fullerton rivalry series.
Stay tuned to D1Baseball.com all weekend for analysis from the action.