WeePre: Florida, Coastal Carolina And More

Weekend Preview

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Florida Trying To Solidify Bullpen Roles

by Kendall Rogers

Prior to last week’s season-opening series against William & Mary, Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan felt the need to pull his freshmen pitchers aside.

He needed everyone on the same page.

Contrary to popular belief, not everything inside the Florida program is perfected a week into the season. The Gators still have much work to do from an offensive standpoint, while if there’s a constant, it’s the starting pitching. UF has a trio of elite starters in Alex Faedo, Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar. Faedo was just okay last weekend against the Tribe, while reports on Singer and Kowar were dazzling. Singer showed electric stuff in his start and was up to 96-97, while Kowar finished off the weekend in style with a fastball up to 97 and strong secondary offerings. Faedo, too, will be fine. His stuff, we’re told, was good, but he tended to overthrow, and it’s expected that was caused by opening day jitters.

While the starting rotation is locked down and O’Sullivan is confident the offense will be productive as the season progresses, the bullpen is an area of concern. It’s not a concern because the Gators don’t think they have the talent to get the job done. But it’s a concern that many roles still need to be filled with a cornucopia of elite-talented, but also inexperienced arms.

“I thought we got better as the weekend went on. Early on, I thought we were a little tight, but we loosened up and things got better,” O’Sullivan said. “The bullpen, I thought, was really good the first weekend, too.

“I pulled a few freshmen to the side before the series and basically kind of spelled it out to them,” he continued. “We’re going to need some help from those guys. The good news? I think they’re all capable of getting job done. The bad news? We’re going to have to take the training wheels off some guys a little earlier than expected.”

The Gators have a different situation than last season. Last year, the Gators had one of the nation’s elite closers in righty Shaun Anderson. And while they’ve had big-time relievers like Paco Rodriguez and Austin Maddox, among others, in the recent past, O’Sullivan has plenty of experience mixing and matching relievers. It’s what led to the rise of guys such as Bobby Poyner and Kirby Snead, among others, over the years.

He’s employing that same strategy this season.

“We’re working out those bullpen roles right now. We’re trying to find someone at the end of the game, and we need those freshmen to develop over the next three-to-four weeks before we get into SEC play,” he said. “They all have good arms. We have one guy who doesn’t throw 90-plus out of that bunch, and he’s good, too. It’s just a matter of getting them out there and seeing what they’ve got.”

For now, the Gators would like to use some of their younger arms on the back-end of games. Veteran sidearmer Frank Rubio is a specialist who O’Sullivan loves to use against righthanded hitters late in games, while the Gators like to go to Nick Horvath against lefty hitters. In terms of non-freshmen, sophomore Michael Byrne, a 6-foot-2, 205-pounder, has performed well thus far. He’s appeared in two games and struck out 12 in 10 innings. Byrne pitches 89-91 and up to 92 mph with his fastball, while also showing a good slider and changeup.

“All Michael did was throw a ton of strikes, and we like that. He changes speeds well and has a really good slider and changeup,” he said. “He faced 22 hitters and I think 20 of them had first pitch strikes. He has multiple pitches he can go to early in the count and he didn’t get to a three-ball count his first outing. That was with six lefthanded hitters in the lineup, so that gives you an indicator of his effectiveness.

Michael Byrne, FloridaMichael Byrne has been a surprise for the Gators so far. (Tim Casey)

“I have to figure it out, though,” he continued. “What I’d love to do is be able to develop one or two of these young arms and start them in midweek, to give Michael the flexibility to be able to throw more on the weekend. Or, at the least, we could find a way to keep his pitch count low during the midweek.”

UF’s options at the back-end are intriguing. For instance, 5-foot-9, 185-pound, lefthander Andrew Baker entered the season as the projected closer. Baker had a minor hiccup on Tuesday in a loss to Jacksonville, but should be fine. He sits 90-92 with his fastball and has feel for his secondary stuff. Meanwhile, 6-foot-2, 230-pounder, Tyler Dyson created some buzz by getting up to 97 over the weekend, while righties Nick Long and Nate Brown have major upside. Brown sits 90-93 with his fastball and O’Sullivan said he had a promising bullpen session earlier this week, while Long is another 90-plus arm who can get up to 94. Meanwhile, the Gators have other options, such as righties Kirby McMullen and Garrett Milchin. McMullen will sit 89-91 with his fastball and throws a lot of strikes, while Milchin is another strike-thrower, who can touch 92 at times.

The most likely candidate to take on the closer role might be 5-foot-9, 190-pound, lefty Austin Langworthy. Langworthy doesn’t have an overpowering fastball, as he sits in the mid-80s with the offering. But his intangibles are off the charts, he pounds the strike zone and the secondary stuff impressed the UF staff last week.

“Austin can disrupt a hitter’s timing as good as anyone I’ve seen. He changes speeds on his breaking ball, and he’s good. He also has a plus changeup and is a very good athlete” he said. “I wouldn’t hesitate to use a guy like him in that role. His makeup is terrific.”

The evolution of Langworthy and Baker, and others, as the season progresses is integral to Florida’s long-term. But short-term, UF will need the offense to step up to take some pressure off the young and inexperienced arms.

That plan will be put to the test this weekend against Miami.

O’Sullivan hopes the Gators are on the same page.


Coastal Carolina Off To Slow Start

by Aaron Fitt

Coastal Carolina opened its season by playing four games in a home tournament. After beating Richmond 8-5 in their opener, the Chants dropped three straight games to Western Carolina, James Madison and St. John’s, giving up 23 runs combined in those three losses. They got back on track with a 16-7 win against College of Charleston on Wednesday, but their staff ERA after five games stands at 5.48 — hardly what anyone expected from a CCU club loaded with accomplished Omaha veterans on the mound. It seemed clear that Coastal’s remade lineup would have some growing pains, but we all thought the pitching would carry this team early in the season.

Nobody could have forecasted second-team preseason All-American Andrew Beckwith giving up seven runs in two innings of relief in his second appearance. His ERA at this early juncture is an unsightly 15.75. Alex Cunningham was better, giving up four runs (two earned) in five innings to earn a win in his first start. And ultra-talented sophomore Jason Bilous struggled with his command in his debut, walking five and allowing four earned runs in four innings of work.

“It ain’t last year’s team, but in the end if we just keep grinding, I’ll just be interested to see how good we’ll be if the Big Three on the mound can just be the Big Three for six innings out there — I think that’ll take a lot of pressure off everybody,” Coastal coach Gary Gilmore said of the Beckwith-Cunningham-Holmes trio. “Cunningham threw the best of them. … Like I told them, when we start throwing strikes and pitching to location and doing the things we’re capable of, and we start functioning as an offense, there’s way more freedom to just play.”

Andrew Beckwith and Coastal look to rebound this weekend. (Mandy Sorenson)

Beckwith is invaluable in part because of his versatility. He has a resilient arm and can pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen more than once in a weekend series, but his move to the top of the rotation last May really keyed Coastal’s championship run, and we anticipated him sticking in that starting role this spring. But Gilmore wanted to get some help for Bobby Holmes in the bullpen, and he felt like he had other starting candidates, so he tried putting Beckwith back in the bullpen for Week One. It sounded Tuesday like he was reconsidering that decision.

“The decision that went into that was this: Our hope was to use Beckwith twice for approximately three, max four innings on Friday and Monday, and just try to maximize,” he said. “We started a freshman, (Rafi) Vazquez, on Sunday. Having people be able to come in if we only got three innings from a young guy … getting hung out in the fourth or fifth inning and not having a bullpen to go to outside of Bobby, who really had experience, we just gambled, and it didn’t work. Beckwith didn’t throw well. The first outing was decent, the second I’m sure was an outing he’d love to forget. He’s throwing 30 pitches with one day off, we hadn’t trained him like that, it was kind of a last-week decision because some other people had not stepped up to fill those voids, so how do we maximize those opportunities? Last year it worked like a million dollars, this year I got egg on my face. I just have to wear it.”

It appears the Chanticleers have found something in righthander Will Latcham, a juco transfer who showed 90-93 m ph heat and a sharp downer curveball in the fall. Coastal is counting on him to be a key piece toward the back of the bullpen, and so far he looks up to that challenge: he has thrown four shutout innings over his first two appearances, allowing two hits and a walk while striking out five. Between veterans Cole Schaefer, Zack Hopeck and Austin Kitchen plus freshmen Vazquez and lefty Anthony Veneziano, Coastal has a very capable supporting cast. This pitching staff will still be a major strength; but only if the Big Three perform up to expectations. They are certainly capable of having big seasons, despite their lackluster starts.

That CCU pitching staff will face some solid tests this weekend against Ball State and West Virginia (twice), both of whom have some real offensive upside. This is another four-game weekend that also includes a Sunday game against George Mason. Gilmore knows his team’s first-half schedule will be a grind, especially on the pitching staff.

“We play 23 games in 29 days,” he said. “Not sure what we’ll be after that.”

But he hope is that playing so many games early will help the lineup gel quickly. The Chants have gotten good starts from speedsters Billy Cooke (.438) and Cory Wood (.333) plus DH Peyton Isaacson (.417) and catcher Matt Beaird (.333). The new-look middle infield has performed well defensively, as shortstop Jordan Gore and second baseman Wood Myers have combined for one error in five games. The most proven hitter in the lineup, Seth Lancaster, is off to a sluggish start (.167), but he’ll surely come around soon.

Gilmore pointed out that Coastal could easily have won a couple of those games it lost early, because it had runners at third base with less than two outs and failed to score three times on Saturday and four times Monday.

“As far as guys having had at-bats at our school, you throw all the guys in our lineup together, add all the at-bats up, they don’t match what (Zach) Remillard had in his career,” Gilmore said. So we’re very immature, have to learn to do some things situationally … Last year’s team could overcome mistakes. We could hit a two-run or three-run home run pretty much anywhere in the lineup. This team’s not going to be this way; we might hit 50 home runs but we’re not going to hit 100. We’ve got to learn to play.”

And the Chants have to learn how to handle having a bull’s eye the size of Myrtle Beach on their backs every time they take the field. That’s uncharted territory for this program.

“I don’t think some of the older guys realized how big the target on their back was. We darn near got dog-piled on the three we lost,” Gilmore said. “That shows you what kind of effort went into it, which was great.

“But I’d rather have headaches today than the first of May. We’ve got a chance to grow as a team. We didn’t have ready-made draft pick guys sitting over there in the dugout. We’ll keep grinding, we’ll be all right. I have total faith that we’ll be all right down the line.”


Around The D1 Nation

• Minnesota showed some spunk from an offensive standpoint last weekend against UC Irvine, and the Golden Gophers return home this weekend to face an interesting Seattle club with some quality arms, including Nick Meservey, who struck out five in four shutout innings last week. Also keep an eye on rising arm Janson Junk, who has been 90-93 and up to 94 with good overall stuff for SU. As for the Gophers, they open a brand-new ballpark (well, sort of) this weekend: U.S. Bank Stadium. If you remember, the Gophers previously played some early-season games at the old Metrodome. Well, that is no more and now the new Vikings stadium is playing host to some college baseball. It looks … interesting, and purple.

• Texas has an interesting home series this weekend against Connecticut. The Huskies are 3-1 and have one of the nation’s elite arms in lefthander Tim Cate, who will start the series opener against the Longhorns. Cate struck out 13 and allowed no runs in 7.1 innings in his first start this season. Meanwhile, the Longhorns will start righty Morgan Cooper in the opener. Cooper was very good at times last week, sitting 92-94 and up to 95 with his fastball, along with feel for four pitches. UCONN is a potential postseason team, making this another stiff test for the upstart Longhorns.

Speaking of Texas, in Tuesday’s road win over Sam Houston State, center fielder Tyler Rand somehow called a strike, in sync, with the home plate umpire. You can check it out, here:

• Oregon State faces the Big Ten four time this weekend, with one of those games coming Thursday – a dominant 10-1 win over Nebraska. The Beavers continue to play an impressive brand of baseball, as lefty Luke Heimlich had his second-straight strong start, striking out four and allowed just a run in seven innings, while the duo of Nick Madrigal and K.J. Harrison combined for six hits. OSU improved to 5-0 and continues to look like a national title contender.

• It’s still early, but Maryland is a team with something to prove this weekend at LSU. The Terps entered the season with high expectations and are expected to have a strong spring. However, the Terps didn’t play particularly well last weekend as they went 1-2 with losses to Louisville and Ball State. While Brian Shaffer is coming off a strong start on the mound, the offense must get rolling. Last week, Marty Costes and Nick Dunn led the charge, hitting .500 and .357, respectively. However, the rest of the offense left something to be desired. LSU will be amped up at home this weekend, especially after senior lefty Jared Poche tossed a seven-inning no-hitter last weekend. This series is a terrific measuring stick for both clubs.

• Oklahoma is one of several Big 12 teams off to a promising start this season. The Sooners also received what should be a boost this week in Domenic DeRenzo, who returned to the lineup from an injury. DeRenzo went a combined 0-for-6 against the Tigers, but also knocked in three runs. OU faces Villanova, Northern Illinois and Boston College in tournament action this weekend. BC hopes to bounce back from an ugly series loss to Bethune-Cookman.

• Keep an eye on … Saint Louis. Darin Hendrickson has done a great job with this program, and the Billikens caught our attention last weekend by going 4-0 with two of those wins coming over a quality Notre Dame team. The Billikens will face Michigan, Santa Clara and Creighton this weekend in tournament action. Aaron Case is worth watching for SLU after he smacked a pair of homers, knocked in nine runs and finished opening weekend with a .474 average.

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