Weekend Preview (May 1-3): UK, Cal And More
• Kentucky takes on another Goliath — BY AARON FITT
• Battle-tested California ready for tough finish — BY KENDALL ROGERS
• Freshman Faces focusing on Rhode Island’s Tyler Wilson — BY AARON FITT
• Which teams need wins the most? — BY KENDALL ROGERS
Giant-Killer Kentucky Takes On Another Goliath
BY AARON FITT
You don’t replace A.J. Reed. The two-way sensation had one of the best individual seasons in college baseball history in 2014, and then he went on to pro ball. Life After Reed figured to be a challenge for Kentucky — particularly because the Wildcats also had to move on without mainstays Austin Cousino, Michael Thomas, Max Kuhn, Matt Reida and Chandler Shepherd.
It sure seemed like Kentucky was due for a dreaded Rebuilding Year. In their preseason poll, SEC coaches picked the Wildcats to finish sixth in the seven-team Eastern Division, and 11th out of 14 overall. Kentucky opened SEC play by getting swept at South Carolina, but then they stopped following the script. They took a series from Mississippi State, then they went to Baton Rouge and took two of three from mighty LSU. This past weekend, Kentucky won a road series at powerhouse Florida, giving UK two of the most impressive road series wins of any team in college baseball this season. Suddenly, Kentucky finds itself in great shape for an at-large bid, with a 10-10 record in the rugged SEC, a No. 32 ranking in the RPI and a No. 13 strength of schedule.
So stop waiting for the Wildcats to fade; they may not be as deep as they were last year, but they have proven that they are good enough to win series against anyone. They won’t be intimidated when defending national champion Vanderbilt comes to Lexington for another big series this weekend. It turns out, this is no Rebuilding Year.
“I don’t know that I would use that phrase, for the obvious reasons,” Kentucky coach Gary Henderson said. “But I certainly thought it would be a new group. And the things that come with a new group, to a large extent you’re starting over. Catcher, third base, short, two starting pitchers — we had a pretty good chunk move on to pro baseball, so you knew there’d be a transition while these guys got some experience. I thought we’d be competitive, yeah, with a chance to be good. Once we started playing, I was really convinced we had the type of group that would get better as the season progressed, based upon the skills and personalities of our players.
“We have a really good group of kids. That probably sounds trite, but it’s really important, really important. They like each other. And we’ve got two really good starting pitchers.”
Those two starters — sophomore righthander Zack Brown (4-4, 2.81) and junior righty Dustin Beggs (6-2, 2.84) — are a big reason the Wildcats were able to go into Florida and take down the dangerous Gators, a week after the UK staff allowed just four runs combined in a three-game sweep of Tennessee. Brown threw 7 1/3 shutout innings against the Vols, then followed it up with seven shutout frames against the Gators, allowing five hits in each start. Brown’s control and command are still works in progress, as evidenced by his 53-32 strikeout-walk mark in 67.1 innings this year, but Henderson said he has done a better job getting ahead in counts and cutting down his walks lately. He has good enough stuff to be a top-three-to-four-rounds draft pick in 2016, with a fastball that sits comfortable at 90-93 mph, a power breaking ball at 80 mph and good feel for a changeup. The key to his development has been making progress with the mental part of the game.
“He’s just gotten comfortable. He’s learned to manage his emotions, he’s really competitive. He’s a bright kid,” Henderson said. “He’s had to do what a lot of guys do, which is manage the frustration of baseball, learn to be more efficient, learn to get ahead in the count. The stuff has been there; he’s just become a better pitcher.”
Beggs can’t match Brown’s raw stuff, but he’s an accomplished strike-thrower with a good four-pitch mix. He has above-average command of his 88-89 fastball and mixes in his 78 mph breaking ball and quality changeup. He’s more of a senior sign for next year than a front-line prospect, but he knows how to win against tough SEC competition.
The Sunday starter spot has been an issue for the Wildcats, as potential first-round pick Kyle Cody (3-4, 6.34) has had a disappointing season and was recently pushed to the bullpen. Cody’s control is fine — he has only issued 12 walks in 45.1 innings — but his command has been poor, as he is too often leaving his 92-96 fastball up over the heart of the strike zone. He flashes a good slider and changeup, but both have been inconsistent. The 6-foot-7, 245-pounder will still be a very good draft pick, and his best baseball is clearly ahead of him. But Henderson hopes he can start to turn that corner down the stretch this year to give the Wildcats a boost.
“The side work is all good, he’s completely healthy. Everything is in place for him to get back going,” Henderson said. “The secondary stuff has not shown up consistently. We certainly see flashes of tremendous pitches. You see flashes of big league secondary stuff, then it doesn’t show up in the games consistently. The stuff on the side is better.”
Kentucky also lacks a shut-down closer in the bullpen, where Spencer Jack leads the team with five saves but also has a 4.61 ERA and has thrown just 13.2 innings. It’s a committee approach in the ’pen, and if you had to point to Kentucky’s biggest flaw, that’s probably it.
The Wildcats also have a poor fielding percentage (.965), but Henderson said the infield defense has been a lot better recently, as shortstop Connor Heady and second baseman JaVon Shelby have started to settle in. Shelby, at least, has taken a big leap forward offensively, hitting .338/.472/.516 with a team-best five home runs. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Shelby is an exciting quick-twitch athlete with real bat speed, and Henderson said he also has a charismatic personality and valuable leadership skills. He has been a real key for the Wildcats, and so have veteran outfielders Ka’ai Tom (.368/.425/.506) and Kyle Barrett (.346/.392/.436), who both have advanced feel for their barrels and are the team’s two leading hitters. Freshman first baseman Evan White (.325/.371/.414) has also been a pleasant surprise, and Henderson thinks he has serious star potential as he adds strength to his lean frame. But he already has a good feel for the strike zone and a nice, flat stroke.
UK has a lot less power in the lineup than they did a year ago, but it’s hitting .296 as a team, and they have four very tough outs in Tom, Barrett, Shelby and White. The rest of the lineup is less dangerous, but players like Thomas Bernal, Storm Wilson and Zach Arnold at least bring veteran presences.
“It’s a lot less power, but the offense has become a strength, and it’s gotten better as the season’s gone on,” Henderson said. “We’ve got guys who are really competitive in the box, but we do not have a lot of home run power. I think if you talk to the guys that play us, they’ll say, ‘Hey, they’re pretty competitive.’ For the most part we do a good job with the at-bats. I don’t want to oversell it or overplay it, but our first four or five guys are pretty competitive. A lot of guys in college baseball don’t have a really good third starter, and a lot of teams the bottom for our five guys aren’t as good as the top four. But we have a really good group that like each other, and they’re competitive.”
As the Wildcats have shown, they are competitive with any team in college baseball.
Battle-tested Cal Ready For Tough Run
BY KENDALL ROGERS
The California Golden Bears are 27-14 overall, 13-8 and third place in the Pac-12. But with an RPI of 50 entering this weekend’s home series against Arizona State, they still remain just on the good side of the NCAA tournament bubble. Take this weekend’s ASU series and finish the regular-season strong, and chances are very good Cal will be making a trip somewhere for the postseason. But getting to that point won’t be easy at all for the soon-to-be very battle-hardened Golden Bears.
“I think we’re pretty capable of being a really good team, but we’re just up and down a lot,” Esquer said. “If we can play some good, solid baseball here down the stretch and get some wins, I think we’re in good shape because we play some good RPI teams on the schedule. We’ve got four weekends left, and we’ve got a chance to make it where we don’t have to worry so much about the postseason.
“With that, I think our league is very much solid enough to get several postseason bids,” he continued. “I would think five teams would be the minimum number for the Pac-12 this year.”
In most years, Esquer probably would be right. But the Pac-12 might not be guaranteed that many bids this spring. UCLA, Arizona State and USC are givens at this point, with California and Oregon State in for now, but obviously not in a position to where they can stumble down the stretch and still make the field of 64.
The Golden Bears, with a little consistency, would be in good shape. This team started Pac-12 play with a trio of series wins over Oregon, Washington and Utah, but soon after, not having sophomore righthander Daulton Jefferies because of an injury caught up with them against Washington State. And even with his return for the Stanford and UCLA series, the Bears proceeded to drop both three-game sets. In all, the Bears haven’t won a conference series since the end of March, and they desperately need one this weekend against an ASU club that has shown an impressive ability to win games late.
Perhaps last weekend’s road series against Arizona was a sign of things to come for Cal. Arizona might not have much in way of pitching, but the Wildcats possess one of the nation’s elite offenses with Scott Kingery and Kevin Newman leading the way. And guess what? The Golden Bears silenced that lineup, allowing just four runs in three games in one of the more hitter-friendly parks in the country.
That’s impressive, and a lot had to do with Jefferies setting the tone in the series opener, striking out four, walking just one and allowing eight hits in seven shutout innings. Jefferies bumped 94-95 mph against the Wildcats, consistently sat in the 90s with his fastball and also showed a good slider and good overall secondary stuff.
“Daulton has been really good coming back from that injury. It seems like he’s a little better each time he pitches, and that’s encouraging,” he said. “Having him back has stabilized things a bit on Fridays, and if you want to beat quality teams on Fridays, you have to have a guy like him who’s going to execute his pitches.”
Both Ryan Mason (8 shutout innings) and freshman lefthander Matt Ladrech (1 R in 5 IP) threw well at Arizona last weekend, and both hope to provide another boost against the Sun Devils. But even if those guys get into a little trouble, the Golden Bears have one of the better arms in the Pac-12 waiting in the wings in the middle innings in sophomore righthander Alex Schick. Schick made just seven appearances as a freshman last season, but the skinny 6-foot-7, 200-pounder, has been a stalwart this year with 37 strikeouts in 30 innings, and a power arm to boot with a fastball ranging 92-94 mph coming downhill at hitters.
“You know, Alex has really turned the corner this year. He has really come on and been a big force for us out of the pen,” Esquer said. “He’s been impressive, and though he occasionally overthrows a bit and it results in a few walks here and there, he’s got his stuff on a downward tilt, and he’s tough when he’s throwing strikes.”
California certainly prides itself in pitching and defense this spring, but moving forward, this is an interesting team to watch from an offensive standpoint. Sure, the Golden Bears are only hitting .272, but go ahead and compare that with the .241 mark this club had last year, and that’s pretty impressive.
Veteran first baseman Chris Paul continues to be a force in the lineup with a .327 average, seven homers and 30 RBIs, while leadoff hitter Aaron Knapp is hitting .321 and much improved third baseman Lucas Erceg is hitting .309 with big-time pop with nine homers and 32 RBIs.
All the pieces will need to come together if this team wants to make the postseason. But if they can just get there, then Esquer starts to really like their chances.
Freshman Faces: Rhode Island’s Tyler Wilson
BY AARON FITT
And sure, Wilson has a long way to go before he’s Lester, a three-time big league all-star and a World Series MVP. But his collegiate career could not have gotten off to a better start. He’s a big reason the Rams are right in the thick of the Atlantic 10 Conference race heading into a huge series against George Washington. Through 62.1 innings, Wilson ranks sixth in the nation and leads all freshmen with a 1.01 ERA. And he leads all of Division I with just 3.9 hits allowed per nine innings. Wilson is 6-0 with a sparkling .130 opponents’ batting average and a 49-20 K-BB mark.
“It’s unbelievable. I watch him sometimes and I just don’t know how he never gets hit,” said Raphael Cerrato, who took over as URI’s head coach last summer. “Basically every game he gives up two hits, three hits, four hits. His stuff is very good and he competes, but the fact he can throw three pitches for strikes in any count, guys are on their heels. People just don’t get good swings off him at all.”
At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, Wilson is already similar physically to the 6-4, 240-pound Lester. And he’s just scratching the surface of his potential. Wilson can run his fastball up to 92-93 at times, or steal a strike with a mid-80s heater, but mostly he works at 88-90 and bumps 91. He pitches in with his fastball well, but that’s not the only way he combats righthanded hitters.
“He’s got a really good breaking ball, it’s sharp, and he can throw it back-foot to righties, and lefties have no chance against it,” Cerrato said. “The difference maker is he’s been able to have a very effective changeup. He didn’t really need it in high school, but he can throw it in any count. We’ve faced a couple teams that are very aggressive, and he’s started off with changeup and gotten early weak outs. He’s really throwing three pitches for strikes any time he wants.”
Cerrato said Wilson can throw a curveball as well as a hard slider at 80-82, but he primarily leans upon the slider. One key adjustment that has helped him thrive involved quickening his time to the plate with runners on base. Wilson was very slow to the plate from the stretch, allowing opponents to run all over him, and he was struggling to control his breaking ball from the stretch too. So the Rams had him go to a slide step, and he took to it. Now he works exclusively with a slide step with runners on base, and he’s quicker to the plate and able to throw all three of his pitches just as effectively.
The Rams figured Wilson would wind up in the weekend rotation as the season progressed, but they eased him in as a midweek starter early on. Then, on March 22, the Rams were in danger of getting swept at Saint Louis, so they called upon Wilson to make his first weekend start. He responded with seven innings of one-run ball, allowing just three hits to help URI avoid the sweep. Since then, he has dazzled in the rotation — but you’d never know it from his demeanor.
“The two most impressive things are his ability to handle pressure situations on the field, and how humble he is. You would never know, ever, what kind of season he’s having by talking to him,” Cerrato said. “He doesn’t know what his ERA is, or what he’s ranked in the country. Unless someone told him, he’d have no idea. And he doesn’t care. He just wants to win.
“He was a big-time recruit for us. We knew it. We were ecstatic getting him committed to us. We knew he was a difference maker type of pitcher. We thought he’d be a weekend starter for us … And he can get so much better. He’s still nowhere near how good he can be. He can be scary-good. He can still get a lot better, he can get stronger, he can still get in better shape, more consistent with his breaking ball. He’s got great stuff now, but he’s going to get better. It’s exciting to think about that.”
Five Teams Needing Wins
BY KENDALL ROGERS
Missouri: It’s hard to imagine the Tigers need wins considering they were squarely in the mix for the SEC East top spot a couple of weeks ago. But seven losses in their last nine games later, Missouri’s RPI is well into the 50s, and its stock is sliding ever so gradually. The Tigers return home this weekend to face an Ole Miss team coming off a home series win over Alabama, and Tim Jamieson’s club could create some real uncertainty, and perhaps put themselves squarely on the bubble with a series loss at home this weekend.
South Carolina: There’s pretty much no shot to get into the postseason at this point barring a miracle. That miracle, of course, being a series win over Auburn this weekend followed by series wins over excellent LSU and Texas A&M teams. The Gamecocks could take care of Auburn this weekend considering Sunny Golloway’s club will be without ace righthander Keegan Thompson, who’s out this weekend because of elbow discomfort. However, things get a little more tedious to say the least the next two weekends against LSU and A&M. Chad Holbrook said today the Gamecocks weren’t even putting together a weekend rotation. They’ll use whoever they need to win.
Oklahoma: The Sooners were in the good side of the bubble just a couple of weeks ago, but a series loss to Sam Houston State, which has an RPI in the 160s, will certainly set you back. Now, coach Pete Hughes and the Sooners have some work to do to give the Big 12 Conference three postseason bids. OU will have chances to turn the tide to get into the postseason with series remaining against high RPI teams such as Oklahoma, and of course, TCU, to end the regular-season — a series, by the way, which will be at home in Norman. OU might be down, but it’s far from out of the mix.
NC State: Elliott Avent’s club kind of became an afterthought after losing three-straight ACC series to Florida State, North Carolina and Notre Dame. However, they took a big step forward last weekend by taking a home series from Virginia, setting the stage to potentially make the postseason field with a strong finish. The Pack won’t get much of a boost this weekend with a home series against Longwood, but finish the regular season with Wake Forest and, most importantly, Louisville — both series that could swing the pendulum either direction.
Connecticut: Let’s be honest here, the races for the at-large bids from the American Athletic Conference probably will be determined in the conference tournament. The AAC has been surprisingly good this spring, and every team in the league seems to beating up on the other. Even last-place Cincinnati has some impressive series wins in league play. UConn needs to start turning the tide back its direction this weekend with a road series against East Carolina, which by the way, entered our field of 64 this week and is surging. The Huskies finish the regular-season with series against Cincinnati and Houston, so they still have plenty of time to get right back in the field.