Weekend Preview: April 29-May 1Weekend Preview
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• Kendall Rogers on South Carolina’s valiant return
• Kendall Rogers on Florida’s youthful contributions
• Aaron Fitt on surprising Washington
• Aaron Fitt on Coastal Carolina’s surge
• Top 25 schedule
South Carolina’s Pitchers Leading By Example
by Kendall Rogers
What a difference a year makes for South Carolina.
As the Gamecocks ready for a weekend series against top-ranked Florida, they do so as one of the nation’s top teams themselves, while also having legitimate national seed hopes with only a few weeks separating us from Selection Monday. That, of course, is a stark contrast to where this program was this time a year ago. At this moment last year? The Gamecocks were coming off a series loss to Auburn and were sitting at 27-21 overall, 10-14 in the Southeastern Conference. They wound up not making the NCAA postseason.
This season, there’s a championship feeling with this club. There’s no drama on or off the field, Holbrook isn’t having to plead for someone to step up and lead with only a few weeks left to the regular season, and this team has a plethora of guys who simply lead by example even if they aren’t the most vocal people in the clubhouse.
It’s a good feeling to have for Holbrook and the Gamecocks, and it’s the chief reason why they’re 33-8 and leading the SEC with a 14-4 record.
“I don’t think we’re some juggernaut with across the board elite talent, but we are a talented team and we have kids who want to win, and want to do it with great character,” Holbrook said. “We have very, very good comradery right now, and that’s ultimately the difference with this team.
“We’ve just had some good leadership, and the players have been out in front of those types of things,” he continued. “I haven’t had issues with this team on or off the field, and they’re taking care of their responsibilities. They’ve all really leaned on one another and they all approach the game the right way. It’s just a very professional approach.”
Though Holbrook admits that he’s not the most boisterous guy in the clubhouse, the tone is set each weekend by one of those “leading by example” guys in sophomore righthander Clarke Schmidt. As with his brother down the highway at Clemson, Clarke is an incredibly hard-nosed competitor who simply doesn’t expect anything but greatness. And he’s developed into arguably the nation’s best starting pitcher, sitting with an outstanding 2.04 ERA in 70.2 innings, along with 85 strikeouts and 12 walks, while teams are hitting him at a .235 clip. Schmidt also displays electric swing and miss stuff, sitting in the low-to-mid 90s with his fastball, while also showcasing a low-80s slider with the ability to attack with a changeup and curveball as well.
“I think he does just give everyone some confidence. I think when he started doing what he’s doing, everyone kind of took a step back and said ‘Okay, we’ve got a legitimate big-time SEC ace’, that was kind of the feeling,” he said. “From the way he carries himself from a business and work ethic standpoint to the way he’s just always dialed on, sure, a lot of our guys have fed off that. That type of approach is pretty contagious.”
It’s so contagious that a pair of freshmen – righthanders Braden Webb and Adam Hill – are mainstays in the weekend rotation. Webb has been in the rotation since the start of the season, and though he’s had some freshman moments, he continues to show electric stuff at times with a fastball in the low-to-mid 90s, along with a true wipeout mid-70s 12-6 curveball, along with a low-80s changeup. Webb, a draft-eligible freshman, continues to get some serious buzz for the early rounds. Meanwhile, Hill, a 6-foot-5, 180-pounder, wasn’t starting on the weekend earlier in the year, but shifted into that role after the Clemson series. He, too, is another power-armed righty with good extension and a good spin rate on his pitches. The two have ERA’s of 3.28 and 2.57, respectively.
“He’s [Webb] getting more consistent. His command is getting a lot better, and when he’s on, he just dominates. He just gives us a chance to win,” he said. “Hill has great projection. He locates his fastball and he’s very very difficult to handle at times. He’s a guy that turned down about 350K to come to school, and could end up a first or second rounder if he continues on the current path. People seem to swing and miss a lot with him, and he’s a guy that will sit anywhere from 90-92 to touching 93-94 mph at times. His release point is just really consistent, and that makes him a good pitcher.”
Several other key arms lead by example, too. For instance, closer Josh Reagan doesn’t have overwhelming stuff, but he just finds ways to get outs, while Tyler Johnson has been the big surprise over the past few weeks. Johnson, a 6-foot-2, 180-pounder, sophomore righthander, continues to throw strikes with premium velocity, while Holbrook said the rise of someone like Taylor Widener, Reed Scott or Brandon Murray will determine if this team can reach their ultimate goal at the end of the season.
“The bullpen has been pretty solid, and Tyler Johnson has really come on for us,” he said. “He’s a strike thrower and has big-time stuff, too. All of a sudden we’re talking about a guy who will be a very high draft pick at some point.
“I think we just need one more guy to kind of come in the game and to kind of bridge the gap a bit,” he said. “But, they’ve kept in some games and kind of have been the backbone.”
Shaking up a clubhouse and dugout with sketchy chemistry can sometimes be a risky proposition, but the Gamecocks escaped last season looking to turn the tide this spring.
They’ve accomplished that goal, with chemistry and much more.
Most importantly, everything seems to be right on track.
Florida’s Got The Fab Freshmen
by Kendall Rogers
Everyone knows about Florida’s talent-rich pitching staff, and in particular, its star-studded freshman arms in Jackson Kowar and Brady Singer. But, how about the young players in the field? UF has plenty of those, too.
As the Gators trudged through fall workouts and prepared for the 2016 campaign, they had some holes to fill in the field. Third baseman Josh Tobias was an elite defender and was gone, second baseman Dalton Guthrie moved to shortstop with Richie Martin’s departure and left fielder Harrison Bader, too, was no longer with the program.
No matter how good the pitching staff was expected to be, or how potent the top of the offensive lineup might be, those three positions, especially third and second base, were incredibly important to stabilize before the season began.
And the Gators found their guys in 6-foot, 195-pound, Jonathan India at third and 5-foot-10, 190-pounder, Deacon Liput at second, along with Nelson Maldonado, who now has replaced Bader in left field.
India is the cream of the crop in this group thus far. In addition to displaying good defensive skills at the hot corner, he’s been a very commanding hitter, too. In addition to his .323 overall batting average, India is hitting a team-best .358 in SEC play, with hard-hitting first baseman Peter Alonso well behind him with a .314 average. India’s mature approach has helped him make a quick and impressive transition to college baseball.
“To be honest, I think the thing with India and others, when they went against the guys they went against on the mound in the fall, that helps,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “When you’re playing a scrimmage and you’re hitting against AJ Puk and Logan Shore, or guys like Jackson Kowar, Brady Singer or Kirby Snead, it tends to prepare you a little bit. You know, we can go about 10 deep with our arms, and when you can see that many good arms, you kind of speed up that learning curve a little bit.
“The biggest thing Jonathan [India] has learned is just how to divide things up offensively and defensively,” he continued. “He got off to a really nice start in conference and really hasn’t slowed down. And he’s been doing that against some really good conference arms.”
Liput hasn’t been quite as commanding as India from an offensive standpoint, but both have impressed the coaching staff from a defensive perspective. Both India and Liput played shortstop in high school, and both have made smooth transitions to their respective positions, especially Liput, who seems natural at second and has made just two errors (.987).
“Well, the thing with both of those guys is that they were starting shortstops in high school, and the move to second for Deacon was probably a little easier than Jonathan’s move to third,” O’Sullivan said. “I think they’ve both done very well, and I’m really impressed with Jonathan’s ability to do everything good. I’ll say this, too, they’ve both gotten so much better defensively since high school.”
Maldonado deserves some positive vibes, too. Despite struggling at times out of conference, the talented outfielder is actually hitting better in SEC play (.271) than he is overall (.232), while also smacking a pair of homers in league play thus far.
“It’s one of those things where Nelson just plays really, really hard,” he said. “He’s just one of those guys who is always going to give maximum effort, and everything he does is full tilt. He gets down the line pretty fast, and he’s just a guy that brings some real energy to the team.”
Remember Florida’s under-heralded freshmen during this final stretch run toward an SEC regular season title and the College World Series.
Surprising Washington Carries Momentum
by Aaron Fitt
Heading into the season, Pac-12 coaches picked Washington to finish eighth in the 11-team conference. Certainly nobody would have expected that the Huskies would head into May tied for first place — with Utah, the team that was picked by coaches to finish last.
Even Washington’s coaches couldn’t have seen this coming. The Huskies have some talent, but they’re young, and young teams typically have their share of ups and downs over a long season, particularly in a power conference like the Pac. But this group of Huskies has mostly just had ups. They have lost just one series in 10 weekends (and split a four-game set, back in Week Two), and they head into a crucial series at preseason No. 9 California with a strong at-large NCAA tournament resume, ranking No. 41 in the RPI and sporting a 9-6 record in Pac-12 play.
“It’s an unusual year in our conference, and when I say that, I don’t mean because of who’s on top and who’s not, because it’s so close right now that you can be in first or second place heading into the weekend and fifth place when the weekend’s over with,” Washington coach Lindsay Meggs said. “So I’m not surprised with the way we’re playing, but I’m surprised we’ve been as consistent as we have week in and week out. We have some balance, and that’s shown in a three-game series — we’ve done just enough to be in all three games. So I’m pleasantly surprised maybe, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
A key to Washington’s success has been keeping an even keel. Meggs said the Huskies have done a good job resetting every Monday and striving to make each upcoming week better than the last. For a while, UW’s pitching was a bit inconsistent, but it seems to be gelling now after allowing just two runs total in three wins against WCC contender St. Mary’s last weekend. The Huskies won three of four in that huge series, and their pitching staff gained confidence heading into a tough matchup against one of the conference’s most talented lineups.
The Huskies figured they could count on sophomore righthander Noah Bremer to lead their staff after he put together a very strong freshman year in 2015, and he has proven up to the task of serving as a Friday night bell cow, going 4-3, 2.34 in 65.1 innings. Bremer’s always had feel for pitching, but strength gains have helped him maintain his 88-91 fastball velocity deeper into games this year.
“Noah’s put on 25 pounds since he got here his freshman year,” Meggs said. “Last year at this time we couldn’t get him past the fifth inning, he was just running on fumes. Now he’s bigger and stronger, wants to be out there until the eighth inning every week, and he’s a legitimate Friday night guy. He’s such a hard worker that last year, he kind of ran himself down a little bit and like all freshmen, just didn’t know what it would be like and how tired he’d be down the stretch. This year with a little bigger body and more gas in the tank, he’s been able to hang on and get himself in games later.”
No. 2 starter Joe DeMers (3-2, 5.23) has the most electric stuff on the staff, with a heavy low-90s fastball that has bumped the mid-90s in the past and a swing-and-miss changeup. Meggs said his slider isn’t where he wants it to be right now due to an arm angle issue, “but once he straightens that out, that’s gonna be a plus pitch for him.” DeMers has faced some adversity this year for the first time in his life, but he seems to be peaking at the right time — Meggs said he logged his best start of the year last week against the Gaels, allowing just one run over six strong innings of work.
Sunday’s starter is TBA, as the Huskies have been searching all season for another reliable arm in the rotation — which helps explain why they haven’t swept a series yet, despite their eight series victories. Sinkerballer Ryan Schmitten and tall lefty Greg Minier both started last weekend and are options to start Sunday, depending how the first two games of the series go.
And the Huskies have a solid bullpen behind them, anchored by one of the nation’s best closers in Troy Rallings (3-1, 0.76, 47.1 IP, 12 saves). Rallings has some funk in his delivery that makes his low-90s fastball tough to pick up, and he complements it with a swing-and-miss slider.
“We love having Troy back there, and that’s exactly the mindset in our dugout — if we can get one or get one more and really put the pressure on them, we can roll Troy out there and let him do his thing,” Meggs said. “He has great makeup and great stuff, exactly what you want at this level to finish a game.”
Washington’s offense lacks premier star power, but the sum is greater than the parts. The Huskies excel at grinding out at-bats up and down the lineup, and their biggest strength is their disciplined approach.
“We talked to our guys earlier in the week about the fact that we really don’t have one guy that people are talking about in terms of a plus-plus runner or major league power, or somebody who everybody’s gonna pitch around. That being said, we have to be unselfish, we have to be willing to take some pitches, use the middle of the field, and that’s what our guys have done,” Meggs said. “They’ve been really consistent and special in terms of trying to just get the next guy up. that’s turned into some big innings for us late innings. We’ve just worn people down with our approach. That approach has really been a plus for us.”
Jack Meggs (.293/.381/.357), son of Lindsay, embodies that mentality. He leads the team with seven hit-by-pitches and helps make the offense go out of the No. 2 hole.
“He’s been in the middle of everything that’s happened to us offensively, in terms of getting us started,” Lindsay Meggs said of his son. “He plays with a lot of energy. For him it’s all about winning. It’s been fun to watch him get a little bit stronger and more offensive, but also take a leadership role.”
Versatile infielder Chris Baker has been another key. The coaching staff said in the offseason that Baker had taken the next step physically and looked primed for a breakout year, and he has responded by hitting .301/.358/.536 while playing sound defense at second base, third base and shortstop — wherever the Huskies need him. He also leads the team with six homers, and usual third baseman Josh Cushing (.309/.385/.536) adds some additional pop with five homers. Cushing has missed some time with a bone bruise after getting spiked a couple weeks ago, but he should be healthy enough to DH this weekend and isn’t far from being back to 100 percent. Washington certainly needs him, because he’s been a big reason for the team’s success — thanks to his contributions in the lineup and in the dugout.
“He’s an older guy, there’s a calmness about him, he’s able to slow things down and help us maintain some perspective, because he’s been through some injuries,” Meggs said. “He has been here through the good times and bad times, has really helped our young guys try to figure things out.”
Another breakout player has been sophomore catcher Joey Morgan, the team’s leading hitter (.321/.415/.500). Morgan got his feet wet last year when star catcher Austin Rei missed time with a broken thumb. Meggs said he wasn’t quite ready to play every day at that point, but the experience benefitted him, and now he is blossoming into one of the Pac-12’s best catchers.
“I think Joey Morgan is as important as anybody we’ve had all year long behind the plate. He’s picked up right where Austin Rei left off last year,” Meggs said. “In my opinion he is as good at the catch-and-throw part as anybody in this league and is hitting .320 and driven in some key runs. He’s just gotten better and better, and you’ll look up at the end of the year and he’s liable to be hitting .335 with six home runs — it kind of sneaks up on you. But this guy can really, really play.”
That’s a good way to describe the Huskies as a whole — they kind of sneak up on you, but they can really play.
Chants Have Chance To Be Special
by Aaron Fitt
Coastal Carolina is good just about every year — but its last truly great team was in 2010, when it won 55 games behind an offense that had six double-digit home run hitters and a pair of 50-plus stolen base guys. This year’s Chanticleers don’t have that kind of game-changing speed, but they can rival the 2010 Chants for offensive depth. Like that group, this is a veteran team that can score runs by the bushel. And like that group, these Chanticleers have serious power, ranking third in the nation with 55 home runs.
“This position player group, outside of 2010, is probably the best all-around group, and they rival that group with studying the game, understanding the game, they’re constantly talking and sharing information,” Coastal coach Gary Gilmore said. “It doesn’t happen every year. I’ve done this a long time, and it doesn’t happen but a handful of times where the coaching part for the majority of it is easy.”
Back in the fall, the feeling around the program was that the Chanticleers had a real chance to host a regional and make a serious run at their elusive first College World Series appearance. After 10 weeks, those goals are starting to look attainable.
After an up and down first month, the Chants have now won 18 of their last 20 games to climb to 31-11 overall and No. 10 in the RPI. Three midweek wins against College of Charleston (twice) and North Carolina have helped bolster their hosting case over the last two weeks. They’re coming off a series win against their closest Big South challenger, High Point. Now they head to Georgia Tech for a monster road series that gives them an opportunity to effectively sew up a home regional. Gilmore knows it’s an important weekend, but he’s not concerning himself with the big picture.
“I’m not worried about what happens if we don’t win any, and if it means we play on the road at the end of the year, so be it. I’ve got enough problems to worry about RPI things,” he said. “This team would love to play in our ballpark, our new stadium, in a regional. We’re going to do everything we can to do it. I’m smart enough to know without looking at it, if we win enough we’ll control our destiny. If we don’t, we won’t.”
Russ Chandler Stadium is an offensive yard, so the Chanticleers should feel right at home this weekend. They have four players with nine or more homers — veterans Connor Owings (11), G.K. Young and Michael Paez (10 apiece) and Zach Remillard (nine). As good as all of those players has been, Owings’ emergence as a real star has been the biggest surprise — and he’s been the best offensive player of the bunch, also leading the team in the triple slash categories (.399/.491/.734), RBIs (38) and tying for the team lead in doubles (11).
After hitting .270 with nine homers as a junior last year, Owings went undrafted. The younger brother of big leaguer Chris Owings, Connor realized he needed to refocus if he wanted to follow in those footsteps.
“I think you can tie a lot of him back into last year, with his brother in the big leagues and his family lineage, he wanted to be a pro guy but it just wasn’t in the cards, and rightfully so,” Gilmore said. “He’s evolved as a hitter. There’s no doubt in my mind he’s a better all-around hitter now. One of the greatest changes he’s made, we had a talk at the end of last year, ‘You’re a .275, .280 hitter, but that’s just the numbers. You’re a .375, maybe .400 hitter if you just wouldn’t give at-bats away. You go up there and you’re not truly mentally into it. You give away so many at-bats.’ And he agreed. He said, ‘Coach, I’m not going to give one single at-bat away next year.’ And I can honestly say he hasn’t given one away this year, not once. There were times last year I was like, ‘What are you thinking?’ I haven’t said that once this year. He’s been mentally locked in to what he wants to do.”
Coastal Carolina’s other breakout star is sophomore outfielder Billy Cooke (.358/.441/.453, 18 SB), the starting center fielder and primary speed threat. Gilmore said Cooke is learning not to chase breaking balls out of the zone and is putting himself in much better hitting counts this year. He and second baseman Seth Lancaster give the Chants a pair of real threats in the second half of the lineup.
“He and Lancaster are kind of the new guys on the block, people don’t know them as well,” Gilmore said. “You get through those other six guys, you think you can take a deep breath, and those guys get you.”
When Coastal scuffled a bit early on, its starting pitching was the primary culprit. Junior righty Alex Cunningham (6-2, 4.10) actually lost his rotation spot for a few weeks after struggling with his mechanics and rhythm, but he’s done a much better job staying in sync lately and is back in the Friday spot, giving the Chanticleers a power-armed No. 1 starter who can reach the mid-90s. Coastal’s most consistent weekend starter, Tyler Poole (4-2, 2.93), is out with a disc issue in his back, but he is expected to return in the next two weeks. In the meantime, Coastal is using hard-throwing sophomore Bobby Holmes (4-1, 5.21) in the No. 2 spot. Ideally, Gilmore said he’d love to have Holmes in the bullpen, where he dominated as a freshman last year, but for now he’s needed in the rotation.
Last week the Chants also started wily righthander Andrew Beckwith (7-1, 1.57), a bulldog who can vary his slots and has been dominant in the bullpen for most of the season. He may start again this weekend, but the Sunday spot is TBA.
“It’s kind of hard not to want to start him, to be honest,” Gilmore said of Beckwith. “He just pounds the strike zone, and he pretty much eliminates the running game. The kid’s 1.1, 1.15 (seconds) to the plate. He’s arguably our most athletic pitcher on the mound, he fields his position. He gets the ball and he throws it, not a whole lot of body gyrations, just get the ball and let’s roll. Kids love to play behind him — shoot, I love to watch him out there. If we had nine guys like him, we’d go to Omaha.”
Fortunately, Coastal has somebody else to anchor the bullpen — senior righthander Mike Morrison, who has been one of the best closers in the country this year, going 5-0, 0.48 with 52 strikeouts and 13 walks in 37.2 innings. Morrison attacks hitters with a fastball that can reach 90, but his bread and butter are his pair of swing-and-miss breaking balls — a hard downer curve at 75-78 and a quality slider at 82-83.
“That kid’s been incredible. He’s been absolutely incredible for us all year long,” Gilmore said. “His greatest challenges in the past were consistently throwing strikes. Especially with his fastball he’s been really, really good. He’s gotten righties and lefties out with equal success. He’s really fast to the plate. Whatever you get off him, you’re gonna have to earn. Knock on wood, to this point, he’s had one of the better years of any closer we’ve had in recent memory.”
Coastal’s X-factor on the mound is heralded freshman Jason Bilous (5.71), who owns the best arm on the staff but has been inconsistent with his command in his first year back from Tommy John surgery. Gilmore said it hasn’t had anything to do with his health or his arm strength — he pitches at 92-96 every time out and has touched 97 — but the game was a little fast for him early on. Lately it has slowed down significantly, and he’s coming off a pair of scoreless innings against High Point.
“He made a couple mechanical adjustments that have helped him — got his pace to the plate and directionality going to the plate. He’s actually commanding the ball,” Gilmore said. “The kid’s got a chance to be really good. We’re hoping we can continue to sneak him out there and put him in situations where the game’s not on the line, give him a little bit of a leash, and hopefully he’ll be OK. By conference tournament time, there’s probably a very good chance he’ll have to start a game and go five or six innings for us.”
When Bilous gets going and Poole gets back, Coastal has a shot to do some really special things down the stretch.
Top 25 In Action
1 Florida at 7 South Carolina
2 Texas A&M at Arkansas
Florida A&M at 3 Miami
4 Mississippi State at Alabama
5 Florida State at Clemson
Duke at 6 NC State
Georgia at 8 Vanderbilt
St. John’s at 9 Louisville
Stanford at 10 Oregon State
11 LSU at 13 Ole Miss
14 Texas Tech at 12 TCU
15 Coastal Carolina at Georgia Tech
Charlotte at 16 Rice
Cincinnati at 17 East Carolina
18 Louisiana-Lafayette at UT Arlington
Hawaii at 20 UC Santa Barbara
21 Virginia at Pittsburgh
Houston at 22 Tulane
23 Oklahoma State at Texas
24 Arizona at Southern California
25 Southern Mississippi at Florida Atlantic