Matt Thaiss, Virginia

Weekend Preview: April 22-24

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What’s Covered

• Kendall Rogers on Virginia as stretch run arrives
• Fitt on the surprisingly huge Creighton-BYU series
• Fitt on surging Notre Dame on the road
• Top 25 schedule

Virginia Looking To Repeat History

by Kendall Rogers

There’s no such thing as being too high or low in Brian O’Connor and Virginia’s world. It’s all about finding a perfect balance.

The Cavaliers, of course, found this out in perfect fashion last season. About this time last year, the Cavaliers were 10-14 in the ACC following a road series loss to NC State, and O’Connor and his coaching staff had some stern words for their players. The Cavaliers, in essence, needed to go on a ferocious run to make the NCAA postseason, and it wasn’t until a road series sweep over North Carolina to finish the regular season that they truly felt confident about playing some June baseball.

University of Virginia logoWe all know what the Cavaliers accomplished when the postseason arrived, and that lesson is one that Virginia once again is tapping into as it hits the road this weekend to face No. 1 Miami with a respectable 24-16 overall record, and also a .500 (9-9) mark in league play. The Cavaliers aren’t nearly as in danger of missing the postseason as they were at this time last year, but the lesson is clear – it’s all about putting all the pieces together for a postseason run.

“There’s definitely a sense of urgency with this group, they want to win every game. But, these guys also know that we’re judged on how well we finish the season. After all, no one from the outside remembers anything else about the season.”

As one might suspect, the Cavaliers have been a work in progress this spring. They lost a few key cogs from last year’s national title team, including some key leaders, namely Kenny Towns, Josh Sborz and others. By default, they’ve had to rush some young players into the mix and it hasn’t always produced the greatest results. For instance, the Cavaliers played 11 position players much of the weekend against North Carolina, and of those, nine were underclassmen, with three of them true freshmen. The only two upperclassmen? Shortstop Danny Pinero and rising catcher Matt Thaiss.

“Knowing that half the team was going to be freshmen or underclassmen and not having a proven weekend starter outside of Connor Jones, we knew this season could certainly have some ups and downs,” O’Connor said. “That’s what we’ve experienced so far, and I think this group is working toward a point of being pretty consistent at the most important time of the year. We’re 9-9 in the league, and that’s fine, and it’s going to come down to how we finish.”

The weekend rotation was one of the biggest concerns for the Cavaliers entering the season, but O’Connor feels like his team is nearing a stable, set three-man rotation with Jones, lefthanded two-way standout Adam Haseley and righthander Alec Bettinger, who was in the bullpen earlier this season, but is now back in the rotation with fellow righty Tommy Doyle moving back to the bullpen as the stopper. Bettinger, who has only made two starts this season, hopes to flourish in his new role after accumulating an ERA over five, while O’Connor feels like Doyle’s personality and stuff will flourish on the back-end, with his fastball sitting 90-94, along with a quality slider. Meanwhile, Haseley has built off his showing in Omaha last year, and carries a 1.60 ERA in 45 innings, with teams hitting him at a .199 clip. The lefty sits in the upper-80s with his fastball, along with good pitchability.

Brian O'Connor hopes Alec Bettinger finishes the season strong in the rotation. (Aaron Fitt)Brian O’Connor hopes Alec Bettinger finishes the season strong in the rotation. (Aaron Fitt)

“We moved Doyle from our No. 3 starting job to the end of the game, and I think the role reversals with him and Bettinger will really help. When Doyle has had shorter stints, his stuff is good, he’s up to 94 and his stuff is good. We just wanted him in the rotation earlier this season to mix things up a bit. But Doyle has legitimate closer type of stuff,” he said. “As for Haseley, he was pitching in the midweek for us, and we decided to move him into the rotation, and he’s been very solid. He’s given us a chance to win and he’s got good pitchability. Just like he did in Omaha, he’s all about throwing strikes.”

While the pitching staff continues to get their bearings straight, the Cavaliers have to like their situation as the postseason nears. Matt Thaiss has evolved into an All-American type of player and rising prospect with a .382 average, six homers and 39 RBIs, while Pavin Smith (.331/4/39) has been a force behind him in the lineup, and Pinero is being that role player and quality hitter he was expected to be coming into the season. Ernie Clement is also having a quality campaign, while the use of the younger players in the lineup has been very much a revolving door with each player kind of going into spurts, including Jack Gerstenmaier, Ryan Karstetter, Nate Eikhoff, Justin Novak, Doak Dozier and Cameron Simmons, among others.

“The top half of the lineup, Pinero has a ton of experience, Smith and Thaiss are really good, and there are some others out there that we’re looking to be a bit more consistent,” he said. “We’ve had young players who are kind of going into spurts, so we’ve tried different guys at different times. None of those guys have been tremendously consistent, so we’re just approaching it with trying to play the hot hand.

“As for Thaiss, he’s been tremendous,” he said. “I thought he was really good at the back half of last year, too, and he’s taken his game to a completely different level this season. He’s been really consistent offensively, and he’s been solid behind the plate. Offensively, he’s just locked in with a great approach, and he’s got power.”

Seeing how the Cavaliers progress down the stretch will be fascinating to watch. As LSU has shown the past few weeks, playing with a hefty crop of newcomers can often lead to see-saw results, but also carry a set of circumstances that often become more consistent as the season continues.

The hope for this team is that those guys and others get sufficient experience and at bats, and thus will be ready for the postseason run.

Virginia, which has an RPI of 46 entering the Miami series, would like to be more consistent during the regular season. But, they also know what truly matters at the end of this season.

It’s all about finding that right balance in June.

Creighton-BYU Meet For Unlikely Huge Series

by Aaron Fitt

This time of year, most teams are right in the thick of conference play. Those conference matchups are important, of course — but now and then a nonconference foray in April takes on a lot of significance for postseason positioning. St. Mary’s travels to Washington in one battle between at-large hopefuls this week, and next weekend Coastal Carolina visits Georgia Tech in another neat nonconference matchup.

But let’s focus on the battle between Creighton and BYU in Provo this weekend. It’s an important series for both teams, who are trying to shore up their at-large credentials and perhaps even make runs at hosting regionals. BYU enters the weekend ranked 32nd in the RPI, while Creighton is 42nd. It’s something of a happy accident that these two teams are facing off at this point in the season — they both had a scheduling gap to fill at the right time, and it happens that both teams are having outstanding seasons. The Cougars are 27-7, and the Bluejays are 25-8.

“When we scheduled this, nobody had any idea that both teams would be headed in this direction,” Creighton coach Ed Servais said. “You’re at the mercy of whoever’s available sometimes. It’s good for us to go on the road, we’ve played so many home games. You just never know about the weather out here either, so it looks like everything’s lined up, a very interesting three-game set.”

Creighton BlueJays logoIt’s an important series for both teams, but it’s particularly important for the Bluejays, given the RPI reality of the Big East. The West Coast Conference is having a strong year, ranking eighth in conference RPI, so BYU has a chance to sustain its strong RPI going forward. But the Big East is No. 19 in conference RPI, and after this weekend Creighton doesn’t play another series against a team in the top 150. So this is really Creighton’s last chance to make some hay in the RPI.

“We haven’t talked much about that, I don’t like to talk much about RPIs and all that,” Servais said. “And it very well could be that we still have to win our conference tournament no matter what happens out here. But I just want to see how we match up with what I believe will be a regional team. Do we match up with them, or do we still have work to do? I look at it more from that standpoint. This team needs to get challenged. It’s a veteran group, and we’ll see. This is a very dangerous weekend — it goes against everything we do. We like to bunt, play for a run, we’re probably not going to do that this weekend, knowing it’s probably not going to be a 3-2 game, it’ll be 6-4 or whatever.”

That’s the other reason this series is so fascinating — it presents an incredible contrast in styles. Creighton leads all of Division I in ERA (2.29), ranks second in fewest allowed per nine innings (6.43), and ninth in fielding percentage (.980). The Bluejays almost always specialize in pitching and defense (they regularly rank among the nation’s leaders in fielding percentage, in particular), but this year they have pitched even better than usual. Of course, it’s a lot easier to pitch at high level when you play your home games at TD Ameritrade Park — and Servais said the wind has blown in there even more this spring than usual.

Incidentally, scoring runs has been a challenge for Creighton, which ranks 189th nationally in batting (.261) and 253rd in scoring (4.4 runs per game). But BYU ranks fourth nationally in both batting (.331) and scoring (8.8), and BYU’s home park plays much more offensive than Creighton’s. Can Creighton’s style of play adapt to this dramatically different environment?

“I don’t want to take anything away from our pitchers, but it’s a different game away from TD Ameritrade,” Servais said. “We’re going up against an offense that’s scoring nine runs per game, and we’re giving up a little under three runs per game. So we’ll find out if pitching can conquer hitting or hitting will conquer pitching.”

Creighton has lost just one series all year — it was swept in its season-opening series at Fresno State, a more offensive team that plays in an offensive environment. But it’s not like the Bluejays were knocked around in Fresno; they first two games were both 2-1 affairs. So maybe the Bluejays can hold the BYU offense at bay this weekend, too.

But Servais knows his team’s probably going to have to score more runs this weekend than it has been to have a real shot to win the series.

“I think it’s getting better,” Creighton hitting coach Rich Wallace said of the offense. “It’s not where we want it to be, obviously. But Reagan Fowler’s swinging the bat better, Nicky Lopez is doing what he’s been doing all year. We’ve gotta get (Harrison) Crawford and (Ryan) Fitzgerald going. That park (TD Ameritrade) will beat you up, and we were in there for 21, 22 games in a row. There’s a certain way you’ve got to play that park. Coach (Servais) does a good way of trying to handle the game there, run, hit and run, etc. The outfielders can play so tight, it’s hard to score on a base hit. You’ve got to try to get guys home from third with less than two outs. The Bluejay home run is a triple in the gap, and the next guy grounds out to second base.”

More specifically, 23 of Creighton’s last 25 games have come at home, so this weekend could be a liberating experience for Creighton’s beleaguered hitters. Fowler and Crawford, the 4- and 5-hole hitters, do have power potential, but the whole team has just five homers this year thanks to that home-baked schedule. Don’t be surprised if they hit a few out this weekend in Provo. Servais said Fowler has really heated up over the last two weeks.

“Sometimes these seniors put so much pressure on themselves, they want the team to have a big year, they want to do well,” Servais said. “He was striking out more than he ever had his first three years with us, and was a little too pull conscious. Now he’s back to using the whole field, he’s probably doubled his RBI total over the last two weeks. He’s realized, ‘Hey, I’m going to be who I am.’ And we need that.”

But the top two hitters in the lineup really make the Bluejays go. Shortstop Nicky Lopez stands out most for his smooth defense, but he also ranks second on the team with a .289 average and has twice as many walks (16) ad strikeouts (eight). His contact ability makes him a great fit in the No. 2 hole.

But leadoff man Daniel Woodrow is the biggest threat. After hitting a quiet .281 last year, Woodrow is batting .373/.425/.440 with 20 stolen bases in 25 attempts as a junior this year. He’s a legitimate plus-plus runner, and he knows how to put his speed to good use.

Creighton spark plug Daniel Woodrow (Creighton Athletics)Creighton spark plug Daniel Woodrow (Creighton Athletics)

“He puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the defense,” Servais said. “We haven’t had anybody quite like this in my time here. Every ground ball, it’s a chance for him to end up at first base. You can just tell the infielders are starting to play a little shallower, they’re quickening up their pace. And we all know about his ability to steal bases. When Woody scores, we win, that’s the bottom line. We’ve gotta have him on base, gotta keep him healthy — he’s not a very big player, about 155 pounds. But he’s also a lot more comfortable in the outfield than he was last year. He’s been our best player, from day one to now, he’s been consistent.”

Woodrow and Lopez also are the leaders of Creighton’s strong defense, which takes a lot of pressure off the pitching staff. The Bluejays don’t try to miss a lot of bats — they rank just 236th in the nation with 6.4 strikeouts per game. Instead, they pitch to contact. Ace righty Rollie Lacy (6-1, 1.99) is a sinkerballer who should be a good fit at BYU, but Servais admitted he was anxious to see how his other two starters fare in Provo, because both Jeff Albrecht (4-0, 1.34) and Keith Rogalla (3-2, 4.10) are flyball pitchers. That approach works great at TD Ameritrade — as UCLA showed on its way to the 2013 national title — but it could be a little dicier at a place where the ball carries better.

Albrecht, a lefty who stepped into the rotation after Matt Warren went down with a season-ending elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, reminds Servais a bit of former big leaguer Sid Fernandez for his ability to get swings and misses with a fastball that has below-average velocity, thanks to his outstanding deception.

Of course, the Bluejays don’t need their starters to carry too much of the load, because they have one of college baseball’s best bullpens. They can mix and match from the left side and the right, from different arm angles and deliveries. The emergence of 5-foot-10 senior righty Nick Highberger (1.11 ERA in 24.1 IP) has given the bullpen a legitimate power arm in the setup role — he works at 92-94 mph, up from 91-92 a year ago, and has developed a legitimate slider after being mostly a one-pitch guy in the past. Sidearmer Ethan DeCaster (1.37) offers a different look, and then closer David Gerber (2-1, 0.90, 8 SV in 20 IP) attacks hitters from a true submarine angle. Gerber has been one of the nation’s best relievers this year.

“When you see these guys in person, they don’t wow you with their stuff, but they have good arm slots, they create angle, create extra movement. Hitters don’t see those slots in BP, so there’s no way to prepare for that, so that’s an advantage to our side,” Servais said. “David’s underneath, scraping his knuckles pretty close to the ground — just a much different look. And right-on-right, he’s about as automatic as you can get in the college game. A lot of ground balls, and he gets close to a strikeout per inning for a guy that doesn’t have overpowering stuff.

“A lot of guys want power arms, power arms at the end of the game, they want strikeouts, because if you pitch to contact, you could get a ground ball in the six-hole and end up losing the game. We have an interesting stat we chart, make them get three hits per inning. We’re only giving up three hits per inning 3 percent of our innings this year. So our pitchers know, 97 percent of the time I’m going to get three outs before they get three hits, and most of the time it’s going to take three hits to score a run, when our defense is doing what it’s supposed to be doing. They know the odds are extremely in our favor of getting out of that inning.”

This weekend, that formula will be put to the test. It should be compelling.

Irish Face Big Road Test

by Aaron Fitt

Even the best Northern teams often tend to start off slow and heat up with the weather — it comes with the territory when you spend the first month to six weeks of the season on the road. Notre Dame followed that pattern this year struggling to an 8-11 start that included series losses at Santa Clara, Louisville and NC State. There’s no shame in losing to top-10 opponents like the Cardinals and Wolfpack, but there’s no question that Notre Dame’s first half was uneven.

Notre Dame logoSince then, the Irish have been red-hot, winning series against Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Boston College to climb to 23-12 overall, 9-7 in the ACC and No. 36 in the RPI. With an 11-10 record in games away from South Bend, Notre Dame is obviously battle-tested on the road, but this weekend presents its biggest challenge since those series at Louisville and NC State — a trip to Tallahassee to take on Florida State.

“Hopefully we can keep it up, especially against the fighting Mike Martins,” Notre Dame coach Mik Aoki said. “I’ve always enjoyed going there, I think the atmosphere’s really great. It’s kind of hostile in a friendly way. You don’t hear a lot of hooligan yahoo remarks coming out of the stands. You hear them, but it’s not like some other places. I’ve always kind of liked playing there, but it’s certainly wildly challenging. Everybody from our players to their players to the umpires sort of gets caught up in that 8,000 to 9,000 people, especially near the end of the game. So it’ll be a great test for us, a great little check on where we are.”

Notre Dame’s biggest strength appears to be its defense, which ranks 17th nationally in fielding percentage (.978). Lane Richards has been very streaky at the plate, but he is one of the most steady, reliable shortstops around, anchoring that infield defense along with second baseman Cavan Biggio, who continues to make big progress as a defender. Biggio is Notre Dame’s highest-profile player and its best player, and he’s put together a very solid year across the board, hitting .315/.488/.472 with three homers, 23 RBIs, 11 steals in 11 attempts and a .967 fielding percentage.

“The numbers don’t do justice to how good he’s been,” Aoki said. “Without any question, he’s gotten victimized by the at-’em balls. He’s been phenomenal, just unbelievably good. The numbers don’t do justice to it, because there have been times he hits four balls on the screws and has one hit to show for it. In every single thing that we track on, this has been his best year, hands-down.”

Notre Dame's Cavan Biggio (John Williamson/Notre Dame)Notre Dame’s Cavan Biggio (John Williamson/Notre Dame)

Notre Dame was counting on Biggio and third baseman Kyle Fiala to lead the offense this year, but Fiala got off to a slow start, then missed time after taking a Zack Burdi fastball off the hand in the Louisville series. He’s back now and trending in the right direction, according to Aoki — and the Irish need him to get hot and improve upon his .241/.319/.277 line in order to maximize the potential of this offense.

While veterans like Fiala, Richards and Ryan Lidge have scuffled, senior Ricky Sanchez (.341/.384/.496, 18 RBI) has put together his best season for Notre Dame, helping Biggio and Zak Kutsulis (.315/.366/.441) carry the offensive load. Sanchez has played left field and DH, and he also filled in ably for Lidge behind the plate when he missed a couple of stretches with a bone bruise. Sanchez’s emergence has been a key part of Notre Dame’s success.

“He’s a talented hitter, but his first three years, I think he’d kind of get down on himself in those stretches when things weren’t going his way,” Aoki said of Sanchez. “He’s really been mature at times when something wasn’t going great. But I think probably more than anything else, he’s become a much more disciplined hitter in the strike zone, and his two-strike approach has been night and day from previous years. There’s been times he’s put us on his back from time to time.”

Notre Dame hasn’t been quite as good on the mound as we expected coming off last season, but it has been solid enough, ranking 85th in the nation in ERA (3.95). Talented sophomore righthander Peter Solomon (3-3, 3.82) is blossoming into a quality Friday starter, and he’s coming off a very strong start against Boston College, allowing just a run on three hits over seven innings of work. He gives the Irish a chance to beat anyone when he’s really locked in.

Notre Dame RHP Peter Solomon (John Williamson/Notre Dame)Notre Dame RHP Peter Solomon (John Williamson/Notre Dame)

“He’s been pretty stinking electric at times,” Aoki said. “The fastball’s anywhere from 90 to, I think he topped out at 95 one day. Good curveball, good slider. The change is there from time to time, but probably more of a work in progress. It’s an easy arm, he’s kind of that long, lanky kid. But he’s a good athlete, able to repeat his delivery. When he’s in the strike zone, he’s really good. That was sort of his struggle early on, just wasn’t synced up right. And he has been the past four or five outings.”

Wily lefty Sean Guenther (3-3, 3.88) gives Notre Dame another dependable starter on Saturday. He’s not overpowering, but he fills up the strike zone, works fast and “just competes his rear end off,” as Aoki put it. The Sunday spot is TBD; veteran Ryan Smoyer has nine starts this year but struggled last Sunday, failing to get out of the first inning. Aoki said he has lost his ability to find the strike zone from time to time — which is never a good thing for an opposing pitcher in Tallahassee.

The Irish have two big arms anchoring the bullpen in Brandon Bielak (who works around 92-94) and Brad Bass (who sits about 92-93). Bass missed most of the first half with an inflamed elbow, but he has returned strong over the last couple of weeks, and he threw two hitless innings of relief to nail down last Friday’s win against BC. He’s yet to allow an earned run in five innings of work this year.

With Bass back in the fold, Notre Dame has the pitching to keep FSU’s potent offense in check this weekend. A series win would solidify Notre Dame’s at-large credentials and maybe even move the Irish into the hosting discussion. But even winning one game in Tallahassee to stay above .500 in the league would keep the Irish in good shape moving forward. Notre Dame has put itself on track to repeat the success of last season, when it earned a regional No. 2 seed.

“For the last month or so, I feel like we’ve played well, and win or lose, we’ve done what we needed to in terms of playing as well as we could,” Aoki said.

Top 25 In Action

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

Virginia at 1 Miami
Georgia at 2 Florida
Alabama at 3 Texas A&M
4 Vanderbilt at Tennessee
5 Louisville at Boston College
6 Mississippi State at 10 LSU
Notre Dame at 7 Florida State
8 NC State at North Carolina A&T
9 TCU at Oklahoma State
Texas at 11 Texas Tech
Missouri at 12 South Carolina
13 UC Santa Barbara at Cal Poly
15 Rice at Southern Miss
Auburn at 16 Ole Miss
17 North Carolina at Wake Forest
18 Long Beach State at UC Riverside
Arkansas at 19 Kentucky
Connecticut at 20 East Carolina
High Point at 21 Coastal Carolina
Georgia Tech at 22 Clemson
Arizona at 23 California
Texas State at 24 Louisiana-Lafayette
25 Minnesota at Northwestern

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