Weekend Preview: May 13-15

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The Unexpected Desert Showdown

by Aaron Fitt

It’s rivalry weekend in the Pac-12 — the weekend college baseball fans in the West circled on their calendars when the schedules came out. But back then, nobody would have predicted that the Arizona State-Arizona series in Tucson would be far more relevant to the national picture than series between UCLA-USC or Oregon State-Oregon.

Heck, even a month ago, no one would have predicted this series would be important — including the people in the Arizona State dugout. When I spent a weekend in the Grand Canyon State for the Cal/ASU and Stanford/Arizona Series from April 15-17, the Wildcats were No. 63 in the RPI and fighting to get on the good side of the bubble. The Sun Devils were going nowhere, with a No. 116 RPI and a 4-8 record in the Pac-12. I wrote after the Sun Devils won Friday’s series opener that weekend that “the inescapable truth is that regionals are a real long shot for this undermanned club, which just has too deep of a hole to dig out of, and not enough shovels to pull it off.”

ASUOfficialLogo90X90But that weekend turned out to be a turning point for both clubs. The Wildcats won that Stanford series, then swept Cal on the road. They dropped two of three at USC, then swept Oregon State this past weekend. Suddenly Arizona has a top-25 RPI and is in the driver’s seat to host a regional. Meanwhile, Arizona State took two of three from Cal, swept Stanford on the road, swept New Mexico at home, and then won its fourth straight series last weekend against Oregon. The Sun Devils, improbably, have climbed into the top 50 in the RPI and above .500 in the Pac, putting them on the right side of the at-large bubble.

“In truth, I don’t know how we’re doing it,” Sun Devils coach Tracy Smith said. “Last weekend, for example, you look at the end of the weekend and you’ve got a 9 ERA for the weekend, we made more errors than they did, and we came out of it winning two out of three. I think the guys truly have embraced the idea of it doesn’t matter how we do it, as long as we win.”

There were plenty of reasons to write off Arizona State a month ago — most notably a pitching staff that included just one reliable weekend starter, Seth Martinez. And that hasn’t really changed. Martinez starts every Friday and gives the Devils a chance to win, and if the Devils need to use righty Eder Erives or lefty Eli Lingos behind him in the bullpen to win that Friday game, they do it. Otherwise, they’ll plan to start Erives or Lingos in one of the other games of the series. Against Cal, lefty Zach Dixon — the 27th and final man added to the roster for that series — made his first career start and threw a three-hit shutout in Sunday’s rubber game.

That was an example of the Sun Devils getting contributions from different guys at unexpected times; but Dixon has not been able to repeat that success in his three subsequent starts, and he failed to get out of the second inning Sunday against Oregon. But the point is, Arizona State has had to use every player on its roster to find ways to win — and that might be one reason this team has come together so well. Every player knows he’s got a shot to get into the game when he shows up at the park.

“Maybe things just fall in order, guys come together,” Smith said. “You think about that, we’ve done it without (projected ace Hever) Bueno on the mound, we’ve done it really without (Ryan) Hingst, who threw that no-hitter early, he’s been out that entire stretch. Just some guys stepping up … I don’t know how we’re doing it, but I love it. I’m not going to complain. Because we’re not deep. I wish I could say we’ve been playing great defense, but we’re not — our defense has not been good. Call it luck, call it whatever, I don’t know.”

It’s not like ASU has an explosive offense to carry it either — it ranks 172nd in the nation in scoring (5.2 runs per game) and 173rd in batting (.267). But it does have a couple of very dangerous hitters in the heart of the order in shortstop Colby Woodmansee (.305/.389/.500, 7 HR) and corner infielder David Greer (.335/.418/.564, 22 doubles, 5 HR). Greer has quietly put together a monstrous season, and that’s a huge reason for this team’s success.

Arizona State's David Greer (Aaron Fitt)Arizona State’s David Greer (Aaron Fitt)

“I’ve coached some really good hitters. He may not have some of the power that an Alex Dickerson or a (Josh) Phegly or certainly a (Kyle) Schwarber or a (Sam) Travis, but I will tell you, he is in the top five hitters that I’ve ever coached,” Smith said of Greer. “I do think that guy will make it to the big leagues because of his bat, he’s one of the most advanced hitters I’ve ever had. In terms of that kind of approach at the college level, I’d put him third or fourth behind Schwarber, Travis, maybe Dickerson. It’s real, it’s not a fluke. He hits everything. He hits the 95-97. He hits the thumber, righthanded, lefthanded — it doesn’t matter. He can hit.”

Arizona, of course, will have the edge on offense, leading the Pac-12 in batting (.293) and scoring (6.5 runs per game). But that’s nothing new for the Devils.

“I would say from a personnel standpoint, if I’m looking at it on paper, I’d definitely give them the advantage going in. They’re playing great, they’re mature,” Smith said. “But it’s been like that pretty much all the weekends; if I were to look on it on paper, most of our opponents would have the advantage. So our guys are looking forward to it, but realistically our guys know this weekend you could either keep yourselves in the mix for the championship or knock yourselves out a little bit.”

Arizona Wildcats logoAt 14-10 in the Pac-12, Arizona is in much better position to make a run at the conference title, just a half-game out of first place. The Wildcats looked like a wild card heading into the season; even first-year coach Jay Johnson didn’t know quite what to expect from his team, which looked even more questionable on the mound than the Sun Devils. At the end of the fall, Johnson was cautiously optimistic, but he certainly wasn’t making any bold predictions that his team would have a chance to host a regional. And realistically, he probably didn’t expect that, himself.

“It’s been, to this point, one of the most enjoyable coaching experiences I’ve ever had, and one of the most rewarding,” said Johnson, who also led one of the nation’s most surprising teams last year at Nevada. “I will always be very fond or appreciative of this group of players. We had a major overhaul, major transition in terms of the program. The fall was a little bit bumpy in terms of building some relationships and building trust, and those kinds of things take time. But I felt like we got some good work done. I felt like really a turning point for us was when we got back to school, our roster was set. Our guys did a good job over the breaking doing the things we gave them to do from an improvement standpoint.”

Johnson said the Wildcats really emphasized strength and conditioning work. A core group of four seniors made particularly significant gains in the weight room, and that has helped them blossom into stars this year — a huge reason for Arizona’s success.

The first of those seniors, righthander Nathan Bannister, made the biggest physical transformation, and as a result he has become one of the Pac’s best aces. That Friday matchup between Bannister (7-1, 2.74) and ASU’s Martinez (7-3, 1.99) will be a battle between two of the top candidates for Pac-12 pitcher of the year honors. Bannister’s ERA has improved more than a run from 3.98 a year ago thanks to his improved ability to mix four pitches at any time and locate down in the strike zone.

“It’s a really good improvement story, and it starts with his commitment to what he did with his body. He’s lost 35 pounds since august, totally overhauled his commitment and approach to his strength and conditioning, which has allowed him to be more athletic, which in my opinion has allowed him to repeat his delivery and allowed him to throw all his pitches for strikes,” Johnson said. “As a program, we put a heavy emphasis on the strength and conditioning element and really made it important. several guys have really benefited from that — Cody Ramer, Ryan Aguilar and Zach Gibbons on the position player side. I think that’s a big part of the turnaround, if you want to call it that.”

Ramer has not only played sterling defense at both middle infield spots, but he ranks second on the team in batting at .360 — up from .178 in 45 at-bats a year ago. Aguilar, a wiry-strong first baseman, has made a similar jump, from .190 last year to .317 this year, along with a team-best six homers and 37 RBIs.

Gibbons, a gritty outfielder, has a longer track record of success — he’s been a steady contributor for four years — but he has become a star as a senior. Gibbons hit .286 last year, but now he leads the Pac-12 in batting (.390) and ranks second in OBP (.478).

Arizona outfielder Zach Gibbons (Stan Liu/Arizona Athletics)Arizona outfielder Zach Gibbons (Stan Liu/Arizona Athletics)

“Zach has always had some natural ability,” Johnson said. “We did some things to get him a little more balanced, a little bit more into his legs, because he’s got a quick bat, and he’s got great hand-eye. His ability to be a good hitter with some fine tuning, I think, has really helped him. Mentally he’s as solid as they come. His ability to take each pitch, each at-bat at a time, is impressive.”

Heading into the season, you would have thought preseason All-American Bobby Dalbec would have to put up huge offensive numbers for Arizona to have a shot to host a regional. And remarkably, Arizona has the Pac’s best offense even though Dalbec is hitting just .231/.366/.391 with five homers and 59 strikeouts. He’s made a huge difference on the mound, going 8-3, 2.78 and serving as a crucial reliever or a starter capable of working seven-plus innings, as needed. But he missed last weekend’s series against Oregon State with an undisclosed injury, and Arizona swept the series anyway. Johnson said he’s “90 percent sure” Dalbec will be available this weekend after a good week of practice. He also said the numbers don’t reflect Dalbec’s value in the lineup.

“I think there’s something to be said for when a guy goes into a season with a target on his back. I think everybody in the country knows who he was, he had some power success and last year in the Cape Cod League,” Johnson said. “If you were looking at Arizona on paper coming into the season, that’s the guy you can’t let beat you. He still carries that same presence, and he’s had some really big hits for us. If you look at it from a numbers standpoint, that might get lost a little bit. So I’m pleased with his at-bats, helping us score runs. I thought he had a good weekend the previous weekend out at USC, a big hit in the ninth inning that helped us win out there. I think it can be a little misleading if you just look at the numbers.”

Getting Dalbec back on the mound will be particularly important this weekend. Arizona isn’t a whole lot deeper on the mound than ASU, and both teams head into the weekend with TBA-TBA listed for their Saturday and Sunday starters. But the Wildcats have gotten quality work out of lefties JC Cloney (4-3, 2.64) and Cameron Ming (2-1 4.56), both of whom are strong candidates to start this weekend. And hard-throwing righty Kevin Ginkel (2-0, 3.34) has joined Dalbec as a stable presence in the back of the bullpen — which was a major concern for Arizona heading into the season and through much of the first half. In fact, Arizona’s low point this season came in an early-April road series at Utah, during which the Wildcats led in 24 of 27 innings but still managed to get swept, revealing vulnerability in the ’pen.

But April is ancient history for these two teams, which are both excited to be where they are right now and eager to take advantage of the opportunity in front of them — regardless of whether or not they expected to be in this position. This is a huge series that is expected to draw record crowds in the vicinity of 6,000 fans per game at Hi Corbett Field. The Wildcats and Sun Devils will surely relish playing in a rivalry series that really matters, however improbably.

“I did not see this coming, particularly where we were a few months ago,” Smith said of the stakes this weekend. “But I think they’ve had kind of a similar (road) — all of a sudden it started clicking for them. I think they were wondering what their identity was for a while, then it clicked. This will be an interesting, fun series.”


Fullerton Rising At The Right Time

 by Kendall Rogers

You could call Cal State Fullerton experts on how to turn the tide of a season.

After losing a road series at Cal Poly the second weekend of April, coach Rick Vanderhook’s Titans looked like a team struggling to find an identity. They were just 18-13 overall, and though they were still 4-2 in the Big West, they had lost three of their last four series, namely to Maryland, Long Beach State (non-conference series) and the Mustangs.

Cal State Fullerton Titans logoFor all intents and purposes, this was looking like a year where the Titans might not run the Big West Conference for once. UC Santa Barbara was rolling along, Long Beach State was in good shape, and Cal Poly looked like a team on the rise. But, as always is the case, Vanderhook and his coaching staff didn’t panic and came to the conclusion that patience would be the best recipe for success with this team.

And that’s paid off. While the Titans have had some tumultuous moments at times this season, to be expected with the departures of Thomas Eshelman and a host of others, this team suddenly looks like the one that found their way to the College World Series last season. Sure, the Titans aren’t overly flashy, but they’ve got a huge crop of talented role players and are finding their strides at the right time, sitting at 30-16 overall, getting into the regional hosting discussion, and in not-so-shocking fashion, now lead the Big West standings by 2 1/2 games over rival Long Beach State.

“You know; this club is kind of similar to last year’s team. When the whole club is playing together and playing well, they’re similar,” Vanderhook said. “We’re playing a freshman at third base, second base and in the outfield, so in that regard we’re a little different, but we needed two freshmen to pitch last year, so it’s kind of similar, too.

“We’ve got a lot of young players who play a lot, and they’re starting to settle in as the season progresses,” he continued. “They realize you can’t just sit back and wait for things to happen. But, really, I’m not sure how many teams are relying on three freshmen in the starting lineup at one time.”

While the Titans are utilizing the services of several first-year players, some returning hitters have also taken some of the pressure off as of late. For instance, Tanner Pinkston and Dalton Blaser are having strong seasons with a physical Pinkston hitting .320 with 15 doubles, while Blaser is having a very productive season with a .372 average, 11 doubles and four homers. Meanwhile, Vanderhook likes what shortstop Timmy Richards has brought to the table this spring, while he’s confident Jerrod Bravo, who’s hitting .226 with 15 RBIs, will finish the regular season on a high note.

“Pinkston and Blaser are seniors who have been through the grind, so they know what to do,” he said. “They’ve both been very consistent. The thing about this offense is that everyone just does their part. I feel like Bravo is having a mirror image of what Pinkston did last season. The first 15-20 games he really struggled, but now he’s starting to figure it out again.”

Rick Vanderhook has his Titans playing well at the right time.Rick Vanderhook has his Titans playing well at the right time.

As for the youngsters, Jake Pavletich has been a nice boost over at third base while Chris Hudgins continues to be sidelined with an injury, Coby Kauhaahaa and Hank LoForte have done some nice things in the field and at the plate, and 6-foot-2, 190-pound, outfielder Ruben Cardenas has been a nice infusion despite his batting average being hindered by a slow start.

“Cardenas started off pretty slow, but he’s picked it up and drives in some runs, and he’s an everyday talent for us now,” he said. “Jake played third for the first time the other day because Coby’s back stiffened up, and did really, really well there. He extends innings and played well at third base. And he’s a guy with absolutely no fear at all. He’s really given us a nice boost with Hudgins still on the shelf.”

While the Titans have some good pieces from an offensive standpoint, the pitching staff is what ultimately could lead this team back to Omaha. Righthander Connor Seabold is coming off a 12 strikeout performance last weekend and is showing good command of the zone with the ability to get up to 91 mph with his fastball, while freshman righthander Colton Eastman has been as advertised with a 2.09 ERA in 73.1 innings, along with 70 strikeouts and 13 walks. Stuff-wise, he’s been 91-92 and just pounds the zone, while John Gavin and Blake Quinn both give the Titans another solid option in the weekend rotation looking ahead to the postseason.

The bullpen is a real strength, though. Chad Hockin is a household name and rightfully so with a fastball sitting 94-96 mph with a quality slider, while keep an eye on junior righthanders Dylan Prohoroff and Scott Serigstad. Prohoroff, a 6-foot-3, 215-pounder, is beginning to get some serious draft buzz and sits 92-94, with the ability to bump 95 with his fastball, along with a good slider, while Serigstad is 90-92 with his fastball, along with a quality curveball and changeup.

“Seabold is throwing well and he watched Eshelman last year, so he just knows what to do out there,” he said. “Eastman is just a great competitor and throws strikes, while Prohoroff has good stuff, it’s powerful, and physically he looks like someone you would probably usually see in the SEC. Serigstad has been very good as well with ridiculous stuff at times.”

There are still a few weeks left before we get fully immersed into the postseason, but the Titans are starting to figure out how all of their pieces should fit together.

In other words, just Fullerton being Fullerton.

 


Top 25 In Action 

TD Ameritrade ParkTD Ameritrade Park, the Home of the College World Series. (Matthew DeBoer)

11 Vanderbilt at 1 Florida
2 Texas A&M at 9 South Carolina
Pittsburgh at 3 Miami
4 Mississippi State at Auburn
5 Florida State at Duke
10 NC State at 6 Louisville
Kentucky at 8 Ole Miss
19 Georgia Tech at 12 Virginia
23 Florida Atlantic at 13 Rice
14 TCU at Baylor
Memphis at 15 Tulane
16 LSU at Tennessee
Washington State at 17 Washington State
Oklahoma at 18 Oklahoma State
20 Coastal Carolina at Charleston Southern
South Florida at 21 East Carolina
Arizona State at 22 Arizona
Oregon at 24 Oregon State
25 Minnesota at Purdue

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