Weekend Preview: March 18-20Weekend Preview
• Fitt on Arizona State’s big test at Oregon State
• Fitt on Miami’s top-10 showdown against Louisville
• Rogers on Michigan’s big weekend at Oklahoma State
• Top 25 in action
Fitt: Scrappy Sun Devils Keep Finding A Way
As Pacific-12 Conference play begins this weekend, perhaps the most fascinating series in the West Coast pits Arizona State against league favorite Oregon State in Corvallis. At 12-2, the Beavers appear to be exactly who we thought they were — a bona fide national title contender. Oregon State is one of the best offensive teams in the country (ranking seventh nationally in batting and 14th in slugging), and its pitching and defense look solid, though this OSU staff isn’t as overpowering as many of staff in the program’s recent history.
But what to make of Arizona State? This weekend will tell us a lot about the Sun Devils, who have managed to get out to a 13-3 start despite playing most of the first month without their projected ace (Hever Bueno, forearm strain) and projected closer (Andrew Shaps, who is playing center field but hasn’t been pitching due to elbow tenderness).
“We’re finding ways to win,” ASU coach Tracy Smith said. “We’re thin, we kind of knew that going into this season. Then when you’re smacked with being without Bueno, then the guy you expected to be your closer, Andrew Shaps — to be 13-3 without those guys is a credit to other guys stepping up.”
Smith knows some outsiders will question the strength of Arizona State’s schedule, which has included weekend series sweeps against Xavier, Eastern Michigan and UC Davis. It also featured a road series at Long Beach State (which the Devils lost) and a two-game midweek series at Fullerton (which the Devils swept). So it’s hard to know just how good this team is, but Smith is simply encouraged that his team is learning how to grind out wins, regardless of the opponent. The bullpen hasn’t always been able to hold leads, but ASU has shown plenty of resilience in the late innings. Last weekend, ASU won all three games against Davis in walk-off fashion.
“It’s unconventional. You look at our games, you say, ‘Oh, you guys are doing great, winning all these close games.’ But we’re looking at it like, ‘Well, yeah, we’re giving up leads late but finding a way in extra innings.’ We just don’t have the luxury of a lot of depth, but that’s not going to keep us from winning, because these guys have embraced the ‘whatever it takes’ mentality,” Smith said. “That’s kind of funny at a place like ASU. We’re not loaded with a bunch of top, top-round draft picks. It’s a little bit different makeup of a team — I actually kind of enjoy it.”
That isn’t to say ASU is completely devoid of high-end talent. As Smith pointed out, shortstop Colby Woodmansee has a chance to be a premium pick this spring, and catcher Brian Serven is a potential top three-to-five-rounds pick too. Woodmansee’s offensive improvement as a junior has made a big difference for the Sun Devils. Through 57 at-bats, he’s hitting .386/.500/.632 with two homers, eight doubles and 18 RBIs. Perhaps most tellingly, he has controlled the strike zone, posting 15 walks and nine strikeouts. Last year he had nearly twice as many strikeouts (39) as walks (20).
“I think he’s becoming a better hitter. He’s always been real steady defensively, he’s starting to hit at a high level,” Smith said. “People always asked, ‘Will he hit?’ He’s starting to make a believer out of me. He’s gotten stronger, for one. He’s just really trusting, staying back and not trying to pull everything. If guys are trying to get him away, before he would jump and regardless of what they were trying to do, try to pull everything. Now he has a better approach and that’s helped him a lot.”
Like Woodmansee, first baseman David Greer was a very solid offensive player last year, but he’s taken a big step forward as a junior. Greer leads the team in batting at .415, teaming with Woodmansee to give ASU a very dangerous duo in the heart of the order.
“Greer has just a very simple approach that you wish everybody had, but he’s stronger now, driving balls to the gaps,” Smith said. He’s just a really, really good hitter.”
Serven hasn’t made as much noise with his bat but has provided solid offensive production, hitting .286/.338/.381. But he really stands out for his defense behind the plate, where he has controlled opposing running games with remarkable proficiency. Serven has thrown out 13 of 24 basestealers (64 percent).
“We rolled in there in that Fullerton series, I don’t know that they attempted to steal a base,” Smith said. “But he’s been throwing everybody out … You just don’t see the premium catchers like that — he’s kind of the whole deal. He swings the bat too. He’s bigger and stronger, and I think he’ll be very appealing to some (pro) organization.”
The other big key to Arizona State’s offense has been the emergence of Shaps as an energizing table setter. Shaps logged just six at-bats as a freshman a year ago, and he was expected to contribute primarily on the mound this year (and he still will be a key piece in the bullpen soon — he is slated to start his pitching throwing program this week). But the Sun Devils did not expect him to win the center field job and hit .299/.347/.448 while playing strong defense at a crucial up-the-middle position.
“We did not have any idea — we really looked at him more as a pitcher,” Smith said. “Because of our lack of depth this year, we ran him out there in center field in intrasquads, and he’s played an unbelievable center field. Swinging the bat too, athletic, he can run, but he has not played positionally the last couple years. I’ve been really surprised and pleased with his learning curve. You look at him, it’s like that Kole Calhoun, looks a little similar and reminds me of him.”
Until Shaps returns to the mound, junior righthander Eder Erives (2-0, 2.60 in 17.1 IP over seven appearances) is the clear anchor of the bullpen. Smith said because the Sun Devils have had to lean on him more heavily than they’d like, his stuff hasn’t always been as electric as it can be, but he’s competed with his 88-91 fastball and good slider, and shown the ability to throw multiple pitches for strikes.
Freshman James Ryan (1.93) has also given the bullpen a boost, attacking the zone with a quality fastball that plays up because of his deceptive delivery. Smith said he’s waiting for another freshman, 6-foot-9 righthander Fitz Stadler (6.75), to blossom into a key bullpen option as well. The younger brother of a pair of players Smith recruited to Indiana (Walker and Sully Stadler), Fitz Stadler strikes an imposing figure on the mound and boasts an 89-93 fastball and developing breaking ball. “He has a chance to be really good,” Smith said.
Bueno has a chance to be really good too, if he can get healthy. Smith said the righthander sat 95-97 mph with three good pitches on opening night before his injury. He’s back to throwing off a mound, and he’ll likely get another bullpen session after this weekend, but the Sun Devils didn’t want to break him back in on the road in a hostile conference setting.
Without Bueno, ASU still has one proven veteran starter in Seth Martinez (3-0, 1.61), who will start Friday in Corvallis. Behind him, the Sun Devils are leaning on a pair of lesser-known sophomore lefthanders who have performed very well — Eli Lingos (2-1, 2.21) and Reagan Todd (1-1, 1.16).
“They’re just solid lefties, able to locate a couple pitches in the zone. They weren’t real high profile guys, but they’ve done a good job,” Smith said. “Eli pitched a little out of the pen last year with moderate success. He’s competing in the zone — it’s not overpowering or electric stuff, but he’s giving us a chance to win. Reagan Todd, we didn’t know what to expect from him. He’ll work in the 88-91 range and able to throw a couple pitches over as well. He’s doing a really good job of doing what we ask. Todd has a decent changeup and he’s working on a slider. Last year we didn’t pitch him at all, it was more he just didn’t find the strike zone, but now he’s able to locate a little better.”
Smith said the Sun Devils will pull out all the stops to win on Friday, and then deal with Saturday and Sunday later on — so if one of those lefties needs to come out of the bullpen to win the Friday game, he will.
The reality is the Sun Devils can’t match Oregon State’s front-line talent or depth, but they can still compete. Smith, now in his second year at ASU, has never been to Corvallis, and he said he’s looking forward to experiencing the Goss Stadium atmosphere, where fans feel like they’re right on top of the field. He knows this weekend will be a good barometer for his club.
“I’m curious to see where we stand because Pat’s done a really good job with this squad,” Smith said, referring to OSU coach Pat Casey. “They’ve got veterans and some really talented young guys who seem like they do everything. We’re going to hit a little bit too. I think it’ll probably just come down to the arms at the back end.”
Fitt: ‘Canes Prepare For Showdown Vs. Louisville
A pair of preseason top-5 clubs will square off in the second week of the ACC schedule, as Louisville travels to Miami. Both teams enter the series a big lower in the rankings than they were in the preseason after losing one nonconference series apiece to top-10 SEC foes (Miami dropped two of three to No. 1 Florida, while Louisville lost two of three on the road to Ole Miss, now ranked No. 9). Still, the Cardinals head into this showdown series ranked No. 5, and the Cardinals are No. 10 — so this looks like a matchup between potential Omaha teams.
“We’re facing one of the best teams in the country this weekend — offensively, defensively and on the mound,” Miami coach Jim Morris said. “We’re seeming to find a way to win, wherever it is or what the score is or who we’re playing. We’ll find out more this weekend. It’s a big weekend for us — they’ve got a very talented team, and they can really run.”
Miami junior catcher Zack Collins has done a solid job against the running game this year, throwing out 31 percent of basestealers, but he’ll have his work cut out for him against a Louisville team that ranks second in the nation with 42 stolen bases (led by national leader Corey Ray, who has 20). Morris said Collins has worked hard to improve his defense behind the plate, and he’s continued to be a force of nature in the batter’s box. In fact, for the first time in his three years at Miami, he’s gotten off to a hot start, batting .417/.592/.720 with five homers and 20 RBIs in 17 games. He’s not getting a ton to hit either — he’s got 21 walks and 10 strikeouts — but he’s staying disciplined.
Second baseman Johnny Ruiz has stepped up as a run producer behind Collins in the order, hitting .361 with 19 RBIs. With higher-profile sluggers Jacob Heyward and Willie Abreu off to slow starts, Ruiz’s emergence has been vital to Miami’s success during its 14-3 start. He also filled in very well at shortstop when Brandon Lopez was out for academic reasons during the first six games of the year, but now that Lopez is back, the Hurricanes feel very good about their middle-infield defense. They’re fielding .980 as a team.
“Johnny Ruiz is playing really well, he’s gotten some big hits for us. The first two weeks, Ruiz was actually swinging it even better than Zack, knocking in a lot of runs too,” Morris said. “He’s hit fourth or fifth in the lineup, he’s done good. He’s a solid player. He’s a guy that catches the ball, throws the ball, hits the ball — not real flashy, but he can catch the ball, throw it to first. He runs a 6.7 60, and he can hit, a line drive-type hitter, occasional power. Just a very solid player.”
Meanwhile, sophomore outfielder Carl Chester has elevated his offensive game to make better use of his premium speed. Chester ranks second on the team in batting (.371) and OBP (.453), and he has five stolen bases in eight tries — though Miami as a whole is just 14-for-28 in stolen base attempts.
The major story to monitor going forward for Miami is the bullpen, where the Hurricanes are not particularly deep. The loss of invaluable sidewinder Cooper Hammond for four to six weeks with a flexor mass strain at the top of his forearm is a big blow in the short term. Ideally, Morris wanted to leave lefthander Michael Mediavilla in the bullpen too, but he was needed too badly in the rotation (especially after Enrique Sosa’s season-ending surgery), and he has shined in the Saturday starter role, going 3-0, 2.57. Combine that with the dismissal of righty Derik Beauprez before the season began, and the Hurricanes are just a little short in the pen.
But they still have a dynamite closer in Bryan Garcia, who has been one of the nation’s best relievers through the first month of the season, posting a 0.87 ERA, six saves and a 19-4 strikeout-walk mark in 10.1 innings. A pair of freshmen are now serving as bridges to Garcia at the back of the bullpen — righties Andrew Cabezas and Frankie Bartow. Cabezas hasn’t shown the 91-92 mph velocity he showed as a high school senior last year, but he has done a good job locating his 88-89 fastball in his last two relief outings, and he seems to be finding his stride. Like Cabezas, Bartow has very good, late sink on his upper-80s heater, helping him get a lot of ground balls — which is a winning approach with Miami’s outstanding infield defense behind him.
Ace Thomas Woodrey has been up and down, and he was rocked last Friday at Virginia Tech, so the Hurricanes need him to bounce back strong. But lefty Danny Garcia (3-1, 1.07) has run with the Sunday job, showing good control (just six walks in 25.1 innings) and movement. Miami needs its three starters to consistently work deep into games to reduce the strain on the bullpen, and it looks like its starters have a chance to be nice workhorses.
Miami knows what it’s up against this weekend, and it probably helps that the Hurricanes have already played a series against the nation’s other most talented team — Florida. They’ll be ready for the Cardinals. It should be a fun weekend in Coral Gables.
Rogers: Michigan right on schedule
Erik Bakich and Michigan embrace the idea of being called road warriors. As with many teams in the northern half of the country, the Wolverines began the season on the road and have yet to play a home game following road trips to California and Hawaii, and now, this weekend to Oklahoma State.
Sure, Bakich would love to be able to play some home games early in the season. But, for a team that appears to be the class of the Big Ten Conference in the early-going this spring, a lengthy road trip could be what brings this team together and builds immaculate chemistry after a loud and somewhat expected 11-3 start.
“It’s been fun [going on road trips], and I feel like we’ve managed it well. We’ve been fortunate enough to have an academic advisor with us on the road trips and we’ve been able to stay in the academic routine while also getting adequate sleep,” Bakich said. “For sure, though, this is big from a team building standpoint. We’ve been fortunate enough to play a lot of games, but also go out and do some things as a team.
“We went to Alcatraz, a Warriors game and also were able to get to Pearl Harbor when we were out in Hawaii, so those were incredible experiences,” he continued. “I just trust this group. As talented as we are on the mound or offensively, or with our balance, the strength of this team is truly what goes on inside the locker room because of the chemistry that we have. As you know, that’s a big deal in college baseball and can lead to a lot of wins, and we’ve got that.”
The Wolverines will put all that to a test this weekend on the road against an Oklahoma State club that has had some tough luck, but one that is still very dangerous on the national stage. Michigan is looking for its first marquee series win. The Wolverines captured a midweek win over California a couple of weeks ago, while also sweeping Hawaii on the road. However, a series win over the Pokes would be a definite feather in their cap.
There’s some real balance on this club, but the offensive surge has been somewhat surprising. The Wolverines were expected to be better offensively coming into the spring, but this team has progressed from a .296 average last season to a .308 mark after a testy road trip. That includes the rise of several, including Harrison Wenson, hitting .404 with three homers and 14 RBIs, while outfielder Cody Bruder and third baseman Jake Bivens have taken significant steps forward, Bruder hitting .393 and tied with the team-lead in RBIs with 14, while Bivens is hitting at a .373 clip. There’s also much improved talent Drew Lugbauer at .313 with 11 RBIs, and of course, graduate transfer Matt Ramsay, who came to Michigan from Wofford and is providing a big spark with a .333 average and three RBIs thus far.
“I think the quality of our at bats have been pretty good. It’s been pretty challenging on our road trip because we’ve been playing in some big parks and in situations where the wind was blowing in at home plate, so that can be difficult. But, overall, this is a lineup that isn’t trying to do too much, they are staying within themselves,” he said. “They are staying in the middle of the field and taking what the opposing pitchers will give to them. The top of the order is doing a good job of getting on base and the bottom of the order is doing a good job of executing our game plan, such as the short game.
“Wenson has been really patient in our program and he’s emerged and been very consistent, and Ramsay has been extremely valuable in the maturity and experience he brings. Honestly, I might look into taking more grad transfers moving forward for that reason,” he said. “Overall, teams have circled Benedetti in the lineup, so it’s been crucial that Bivens, Ramsay, Wenson, Lugbauer and Bruder are being productive to kind of open things up for him.”
The production from the offense could set this Michigan team up for something special the remainder of the season given how well it has pitched. Granted, the Wolverines, as Bakich indicated earlier, have played in some large ballparks, but they’ve pitched consistent and well thus far.
The preseason projected weekend rotation with lefties Brett Adcock (1.15, 15.2 IP) and Evan Hill (3.21, 14 IP) and righty Ryan Nutof (2.04, 17.2) continues to perform at a high level, while Bakich is particularly pleased with the job now Friday starter Oliver Jaskie has done thus far. Jaskie, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound, lefty, has yet to allow an earned run in 16.2 innings, along with 18 strikeouts and seven walks, and continues to flourish in the front-line role.
“We were fortunate enough to return some weekend experience, and we knew Oliver was going to be in the mix for a starting spot of some sort, whether it was midweek or weekend,” he said. “His success so far is just a by-product of a kid who invested a lot of time in the weight room. He just has tremendous work ethic on and off the field.”
Moving forward, Bakich looks to nail down a closer in the near future. Right now, the race is open between Carmen Benedetti, Bryan Pall and Mac Lozer – all three very solid options, while the Wolverines would like to get a bit better from a defensive standpoint.
Overall, the past few weeks have been a grueling, but beneficial set of road trips. Now, the Wolverines get a stiff test against OSU before finally being able to look at a home contest on the horizon.
Top 25 Weekend Schedule
Missouri at No. 1 Florida
No. 15 Mississippi State at No. 2 Vanderbilt
No. 3 Texas A&M at Auburn
Arizona State at No. 4 Oregon State
No. 5 Louisville at No. 10 Miami
No. 6 North Carolina at Duke
Alabama at No. 7 LSU
West Virginia at No. 8 TCU
No. 9 Ole Miss at Tennessee
No. 11 Florida State at Pittsburgh
No. 12 California at Southern California
Notre Dame at No. 13 NC State
No. 14 Arkansas at No. 16 South Carolina
Monmouth at No. 17 East Carolina
Wake Forest at No. 18 Virginia
Boston College at No. 18 Clemson
Washington State at No. 20 UCLA
Utah at No. 21 Oregon
Columbia at No. 22 Long Beach State
Maryland at No. 23 Cal State Fullerton
Little Rock at No. 24 Louisiana-Lafayette
Michigan at No. 25 Oklahoma State