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College : : Story
College Baseball Weekend Preview
Published: Thursday, April 26, 2012

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MORE: PG Top 50 rankings | PG Postseason Projections | CB TICKET: NCAA postseason snapshot


Ask coach Rocky Ward and there's no doubt in his mind New Mexico State is for real.

As the Aggies from the Western Athletic Conference gear up for their huge series this weekend at Baylor, Ward has continuously been asked about the series, and whether or not a win or two over the Bears in a two-game series would legitimize his club.

"No", is the routine answer that Ward gives. In his eyes, his program was legitimized a long time ago when they took a series from Wake Forest to begin the season before hitting the road and sweeping a pair of midweek games from Arizona.

In Ward's eyes, this weekend's two-game bout with Baylor isn't about gaining respect or showing the college baseball community that NMSU is for real. It's about gearing up for the postseason and putting on a dress rehearsal for an NCAA Super Regional with his two best starting pitchers against Baylor starters Josh Turley and Trent Blank.

It's a challenge that Ward believes his Aggies are more than ready to face.

"Having an opportunity to go on the road this weekend to play a top-ranked team in their park just for two games, it's a unique situation for us," he said. "I'm looking forward to it. I think it's going to help give us some perspective on the postseason ahead. I have experience in that situation, but our players don't. So this is going to be good for them."

At no time has there been more excitement surrounding this New Mexico State program than now. The Aggies have a 30-11 overall record, are ranked No. 23 in the latest Perfect Game Top 50 rankings, and are well on their way to reaching the NCAA postseason -- an uncommon feat for a WAC team this early in the season -- with an RPI of 21, and a good resume, sitting 5-3 vs. RPI Top 50 teams and 12-7 vs. RPI Top 100 teams.

Being in this good of shape this early in the season postseason bid-wise is uncharted waters for the Aggies. The Aggies went 34-24 in 2011, won 36 games in '10 and finished the '09 campaign with 44 wins. In all those years, the end result was the same -- they failed to reach the NCAA postseason.

Interestingly, in the last two seasons, the Aggies have had one of the nation's best offensive lineups. However, their pitching staff certainly didn't hold up its end of the bargain. For instance, the Aggies had one of the nation's worst pitching staffs the last two seasons, finishing the seasons with earned-run averages of 7.48 and 7.46, respectively.

The pitching staff has been a different story this spring, and it's the chief reason why the Aggies have taken such a giant leap forward -- especially in the respect category. NMSU enters the Baylor two-game set with a 5.06 ERA. Not good by the standards of most, but considering the conditions the Aggies face in hitter-friendly Las Cruces, N.M., on a daily basis, it's not too bad.

"I think we've finally got the right mix with this team. We won a lot of games the last few years, but the big difference this year is we're winning more games against much better competition," Ward said. "What we've done the last two or three years is we've gotten more pitchers that are athletes.

"I know in most instances, I'm not going to get many arms that throw 95 mph, so my big goal here is to get guys that know how to throw a breaking ball for strikes," he said. "Overall, when you look at our pitching staff, we've got some guys who can sit 86-90, but for the most part, all of them can throw a breaking ball for a strike at any point in the count."

The Aggies enter the weekend with a quality one-two punch in junior left-handed pitcher Ryan Beck and junior right-handed pitcher Adam Mott. Beck is an imposing 6-foot-3, 220 pounder, and has a 3.98 ERA in 63 1/3 innings. He's 87-89 mph with his fastball and throws a straight change that Ward said is a nasty pitch most of the time. Meanwhile, Matt is a cut of the same mold. He has a 4.47 ERA in 52 1/3 innings, and has a fastball that typically sits 87-89, occasionally touching 90. Mott, as with Beck, can throw a good straight change and his other breaking pitches for strikes.

Also keep an eye on senior right-handed pitcher, Scott Coffman, who serves as a stud closer for the Aggies. Coffman has a 2.36 ERA in 26 2/3 innings with six saves. He also has struck out 38 and walked nine , while opponents are hitting him at a .178 clip.

Coffman is only 82-85 mph with his fastball, but does a tremendous job of spinning his slider, a pitch that Ward said is almost unhittable at night. His slider sits at 76-78. Coffman also has recently developed a splitter that he often throws against left-handed hitters.

"The big thing you'll notice with our pitchers is that we have guys that spin it and don't give up walks," Ward said. "Looking at our arms, we're the type of team where our breaking pitchers are going to be our strikeout pitches most of the time."

Prospect-wise, it's important to remember the name of right-handed pitcher Tyler Mack. Mack only has a 4.91 ERA in 18 1/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 17 and walked 13, but has much upside.

"Mack didn't have enough command to be a starter for us. He's definitely got the biggest arm on the team with the ability to get to 93-94 with his fastball. It's really rare, at least this year, but he can get there," he said. "He had a tendency to lose command after eight to 10 pitches, but he has reestablished himself in the setup role, and he's doing well there."

While the pitching staff is a pleasant surprise, the offense is continuing where it has left off each of the past few seasons. The Aggies again are one of the nation's best hitting teams with a .318 batting average. They're led at the plate by a tremendous trio in Zac Fisher, Parker Hipp and Zach Voight.

Fisher and Voight are tied in the RBI department with 50 each, while Hipp is having a great campaign, hitting .340 with 40 RBIs. He also has a .487 on-base percentage. Also keep an eye on Kurt Snowley, who's hitting .344 with 22 RBIs and a .417 OBP, and talented prospect Tanner Waite, who has induced a nation-leading 52 walks this spring.

"The big strength with this offense is that we're pretty good up and down the lineup," he said. "I'm pretty sure I'd put some of our top hitters against some of the best around the country right now."

Good thing for the Aggies, they'll have a chance to prove their worth both offensively and from a pitching standpoint, both this weekend against Baylor and in the NCAA postseason.

"We're good enough, that's for sure," he said. "The big thing we just don't have compared to some other teams out there is playoff experience. But you know what, we're going to have to get that at some point. It might as well be now."


DUGOUT CHAT: Baylor C Josh Ludy


You've made some significant strides offensively since last season. What has been the big key to your surge?

LUDY: Honestly, I don't feel like I've made a lot of offensive adjustments. For me, I think it's just focusing a little bit more on what the pitcher is trying to do, and figuring out how to approach him. Being a catcher kind of helps me out because I tend to outthink those guys sometimes.

You guys obviously lost a heartbreaker to California in the Houston Regional title game last season. Is that something that fuels your fire, and something that has been a rallying point?

LUDY: Without a doubt, yes. We have a lot of guys back from last season, and even with the new guys, that's all we talked about during the entire fall. Once you go through something like that with your brothers, you don't forget about it. You just learn from it and get better from it.

Offensively, it seems like you guys seem to always get it done no matter what. Your thoughts on the unit?

LUDY: Oh yeah, one through nine in the batting order, we're always picking each other up no matter the situation. If someone doesn't get it done, there's always someone there waiting to pick you up. We just trust each other and find ways to get it done. That has been a big reason for our offensive success thus far.

That 24-game winning streak. Can you even really explain it?

LUDY: Ah man, you have to give the beaver all the credit. We didn't start winning all of those games until he showed up. But honestly, we just have a lot of swagger throughout this team. Whether it's the offense or pitching staff, we're always confident that someone out there will somehow get the job done.

With the way BU has played this season, it almost seems like you're somewhat of a team of destiny. Does it feel like that to you guys at times?

LUDY: Yeah, we were just thinking about that the other night. You know, we go to Texas A&M and don't play particularly well, but we still somehow found a way to win. At some point you just sit back and say all right, you don't ever feel like you're out of a game. That's our team right now.

Being the catcher, how do you assess the pitching staff? You guys don't have a lot of flamethrowers, but each arm seems to get it done?

LUDY: Yeah, we don't really have a lot of flamethrowers, but we've got a lot of guys that just go out there and find ways to execute the game plan. Our pitchers are extremely though and very competitive. I think that combination will take us a long way as the season progresses. Those guys just love to go out there and take care of business.


WHO'S HOT

Utah Valley (26-11) -- The Wolverines played a tough schedule earlier in the season with bouts against Cal State Fullerton, Arizona and Arizona State. Apparently that prepared them for the rest of their schedule, because since that point, they've won 19-straight ballgames entering this weekend's series against New Jersey Tech, which by the way, has an RPI of 253 and 17-15 overall record.

UNC Wilmington (25-16) -- Apparently that series loss on the road to TCU a few weeks ago was a turning point for the Seahawks. Since that series setback to the Horned Frogs, coach Mark Scalf's club has played a tremendous brand of baseball, winning nine of 10 and taking control of the Colonial Athletic Association title race.

Rice (30-12) -- The Owls are one of those teams playing a tremendous brand of baseball these days. They've won eight of their last nine games, including a pair of solid midweek wins over Texas State and Texas A&M in addition to a huge home series win over East Carolina. The Owls should only continue their consistent ways in two weekends against Houston.

Baylor (36-8) -- The Bears might've had their 24-game winning streak ended by Texas-San Antonio on Tuesday night, but they've more than shown their worth the past few weeks, assembling an amazing 18-0 record in Big 12 play with Oklahoma and Texas still on the docket in the coming weeks. BU is putting together an amazing campaign.

South Carolina (30-11) -- It's still funny to think about those that jumped off the bandwagon when the Gamecocks went through a lull in the middle of the season. The Gamecocks have recovered nicely since a tough stretch against Kentucky and Florida. As a matter of fact, they've won four-straight SEC series over Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Mississippi State and Auburn since that point.


WHO'S NOT

Kansas State (19-23) -- Wildcats coach Brad Hill has done a tremendous job in the past, but this just isn't KSU's season unless it can somehow win the Big 12 tournament by getting to Oklahoma City. KSU has lost eight of its last 10 contests and five-straight games with a series at home against Oklahoma State coming up this weekend. K-State is tied with Texas Tech for eighth place.

Louisiana Tech (18-22) -- The Bulldogs were expected to compete for the WAC regular season title this season, but that's not going to happen. The Bulldogs are dead last in the WAC entering the final few weeks with a 1-8 conference mark. On top of that, they're 2-8 in their last 10 games and have a dismal overall record. What a disappointing campaign it has been for Tech.

Portland (21-15) -- It was just a few weeks ago the Pilots appeared to be in good shape to reach the NCAA postseason. Now they're in huge trouble with some crucial weekends ahead. The Pilots are 2-8 in their last 10 games, but have a chance to turn things around a bit this weekend with a home series against San Diego. Portland must finish very strong to have any chance at an at-large bid.

Tennessee (22-19) -- It was just a couple of weeks ago the Volunteers seemed to be in good shape for an NCAA postseason berth. Strangely, that now seems like ancient history. The Volunteers have lost eight of their last 10 games and have lost four-straight contests, including getting swept on the road by Mississippi State last weekend in a heartbreaking series setback.

UAB (23-20) -- The Keydets made some strides earlier in the season with some nice wins, but have since taken a step back. With just a few weeks remaining of the regular season, UAB is just 4-8 in C-USA play, losers of six of its last 10 games and losers of three-straight contests. Fortunately, the Blazers have a very winnable home series against Houston coming up this weekend.


PITCHING MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Georgia RHP Alex Wood vs. LSU RHP Kevin Gausman

This should be a tremendous pitching matchup between two of college baseball's elite arms and prospect. Wood has a fastball that sits in the lower 90s, while Gausman also has elite stuff with a mid-to-upper 90s fastball and good secondary offerings. Wood has started 10 games this season and has a 2.57 ERA in 66 2/3 innings. He also has struck out 69 and walked 14, while teams are hitting him at a .255 clip. Meanwhile, Gausman has started 10 games and has a 3.00 ERA in 69 innings. He has struck out 88 and walked 20, while teams are hitting him at a .231 clip.

Stanford RHP Mark Appel vs. UCLA RHP Adam Plutko
Both the Cardinal and Bruins hope to get off to a hot start this weekend with their respective staff aces leading the charge. Appel is one of the nation's elite prospects with a fastball that can consistently sit in the 93-96 range, and occasionally touch 97 and 98. Meanwhile, Plutko is a very good all-around pitcher with a fastball that sits in the 88-91 range. Appel has started nine games and thrown three complete games and has a 2.88 ERA in 72 innings of work. He also has struck out 71 and walked 20, while teams are hitting him at a .211 clip. Meanwhile, Plutko has started 10 games and has a 2.98 ERA in 63 1/3 innings of work. He has struck out 59 and walked 27, while teams are hitting him at a .224 clip.

Mississippi RHP Bobby Wahl vs. Mississippi State RHP Chris Stratton
It doesn't get much better than this pitching matchup in a big-time rivalry series. Wahl has taken a big step forward in terms of consistency this season and has good offerings, particularly worth noting that his fastball can sit in the low-to-mid 90s. Meanwhile, Stratton is coming off a terrific showing against Tennessee last weekend, where he hit 94-95 on a few occasions. Both pitchers are elite prospects, Stratton for this year's MLB draft, Wahl for next year's draft. Wahl has started 10 games and has a 2.15 ERA in 54 1/3 innings. He has struck out 60 and walked 21, while teams are hitting him at a .213 clip. Meanwhile, Stratton has started six games and has a 2.71 ERA in 66 1/3 innings. He has struck out 88 and walked 16, while teams are hitting him at a .205 clip.

Clemson RHP Kevin Brady vs. Georgia Tech RHP Buck Farmer
Two of the nation's top pitchers and prospects will showdown on Friday in a huge ACC series. Brady has been very consistent this season and has a fastball in the low-to-mid 90s, while Farmer is a four-pitch guy with a fastball that can touch 94-95 on a good day. Brady has started 10 games and has a 2.58 ERA in 52 1/3 innings of work. He has struck out 52 and walked 21, while teams are hitting him at a .229 clip. Meanwhile, Farmer has started 10 games and has a 3.26 ERA in 66 1/3 innings of work. He has struck out 75 and walked 21, while teams are hitting him at a .252 clip.

Coastal Carolina RHP Josh Conway vs. Liberty RHP Brooks Roy
With Big South supremacy on the line this weekend, it doesn't get much better than the pitching matchup between Conway and Roy. Conway is an intriguing arm to watch down the stretch, as he has a fastball that typically sits 90-94 with a good slider and changeup. Conway has started eight games (one complete game) and has a 1.78 ERA in 50 2/3 innings. He has struck out 47 and walked 17, while teams are hitting him at a .215 clip. Meanwhile, Roy has started just three games, but has compiled some impressive numbers this spring. He has a 1.21 ERA in 22 1/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 13 and walked five, while teams are hitting him at just a .211 clip.


TEN SERIES TO WATCH

No. 20 Arkansas at No. 4 Florida -- The Hogs, as with many SEC teams, aspires to be an NCAA Regional host at the end of the regular season. Well, the Hogs have some work to do beginning this weekend on the road against the Gators. Thy took a step back last weekend with a road series loss to Ole Miss, and they now head into the series against UF with a good Friday starter in Ryne Stanek and a good Sunday starter in DJ Baxendale. However, the Hogs still aren't sure who they'll start in the second game of the series. Either way, they'll have their hands full on the road against a Gators team with a solid weekend rotation led by Hudson Randall and Brian Johnson, both solid prospects.
PG Pick:
Florida

No. 23 New Mexico State at No. 3 Baylor -- This definitely isn't the New Mexico State of the past hitting the road this weekend to face red-hot Baylor. The Aggies have had solid offensive teams in the past, but this unit, which is hitting .318, is proven against much better competition. Meanwhile, the Aggies finally have a respectable pitching staff with starters Ryan Beck and Adam Mott, and impressive closer Scott Coffman leading the charge. One thing is for sure in this series, you're going to see a lot of strike-throwers, but not a lot of flamethrowers.
PG Pick: Baylor, NMSU split series (two-game set)

No. 29 Georgia at No. 5 LSU -- This is an important series for both clubs. The Bulldogs are in good shape to reach the NCAA postseason right now, but things could change should they finish the season on an incredibly slow note. Meanwhile, LSU took a step back in its quest for a national seed last weekend with a tough road series loss to Kentucky. For the Bulldogs, this weekend is all about consistency. Georgia has a tendency to look good in one game, then rough the next. For LSU, it's imperative outfielder Raph Rhymes continues his outstanding offensive production. Rhymes has been amazing this season, hitting .497 with two homers and 45 RBIs.
PG Pick:
LSU

No. 12 Stanford at No. 10 UCLA -- Though there are some other solid series this weekend, this one should take the cake in terms of the best and most important. Both teams have incredibly high aspirations, and both need to take care of business. The Cardinal appeared to be out of the mix for a national seed a couple of weeks ago, but their situation is now different after sweeping Arizona State at home. Meanwhile, the Bruins are still in good shape for a national seed, but took a step back last weekend with a close road series loss to Oregon State. Both teams have good starting rotations with Mark Appel and Brett Mooneyham leading the way for the Cardinal, and Adam Plutko doing the honors for the Bruins. Should be a fun series.
PG Pick:
UCLA

No. 21 Texas vs. No. 14 Texas A&M -- For what could be the last time the Longhorns and Aggies do battle on the diamond for a few years, this series has a lot of importance to folks in the Lone Star State. Texas suddenly seems to have things going its way from a pitching standpoint. UT has always had premium arms this season, but youth kept them from fulfilling their potential. That pitching staff is rolling. Meanwhile, the same can't be said about the UT offense, which was stymied for much of the weekend against a bad Kansas team last weekend. Meanwhile, A&M went on the road and dropped all three to Baylor last weekend, but showed spunk in midweek action with a road win over TCU. This series could go either way.
PG Pick:
Texas

Michigan State at No. 8 Purdue -- The Boilermakers just always seem to silence their doubters. Earlier in the season, it seemed like many thought the Boilermakers weren't tested enough. Now, after continuing to roll along, people thought they'd lose a series at Nebraska last weekend. Didn't happen. Purdue has a stout offensive lineup and is aiming for a national seed. The Boilermakers must avoid looking ahead to next weekend's road showdown with UCLA. Meanwhile, the Spartans desperately need a road series win over Purdue this weekend to get strongly in the NCAA postseason mix. MSU has three of the nation's premier offensive players in outfielders Jordan Keur and Torsten Boss and second baseman Ryan Jones. The trio must be productive.
PG Pick: Purdue

No. 36 California at No. 17 Oregon -- The Ducks certainly have had some injury issues this season, but it's time for them to buckle down as they aim for an NCA Regional host, and best-case scenario, perhaps even a national seed. The Ducks were in good shape for both if not for a home hiccup against Washington State last weekend. Meanwhile, the Golden Bears really need to put together an impressive weekend in the Pac-12. Cal took care of business in easy fashion against Utah last weekend, but consider the opponent. California still is looking for a marquee series win inside the conference. To accomplish that, starting pitchers Justin Jones and Matt Flemer must rise to the occasion.
PG Pick:
Oregon

No. 22 Oregon State at No. 49 Southern California -- Here's yet another very important series. The Beavers took a huge step forward in their quest for an NCAA Regional host site last weekend with a home series win over UCLA. Now, after starting pitcher Taylor Starr helped them grab a midweek win over rival Oregon, the Beavers are sizzling hot entering this weekend's series against the Trojans. USC desperately needs a good weekend. The Trojans have won just five Pac-12 games this spring and finish the season with a gauntlet of a schedule. USC must take care of business to stay clearly in the NCAA postseason hunt. If not, it'll take an amazing finish to the regular season to even have a chance at an at-large bid.
PG Pick: Oregon State

No. 16 Mississippi at No. 44 Mississippi State -- I have to admit, it's tough to go against the Bulldogs in this one -- especially at home. But overall, I think the Rebels are a better team at this point in the season. Mississippi State, though, took a huge step forward last weekend with a home series win over Tennessee with right-handed pitcher Chris Stratton leading the charge. Fellow starting pitcher Kendall Graveman also pitched well against the Volunteers. State needs both of those guys to pitch at a high level this weekend. Meanwhile, the Rebels are aiming for an NCAA Regional host site and could better their situation with a series win over the Bulldogs. It all starts with hard-throwing right-handed pitcher Bobby Wahl beginning the weekend on a positive note.
PG Pick:
Mississippi

No. 46 Coastal Carolina at No. 47 Liberty -- These two teams may not strike a chord with some fans in college baseball, but this definitely is a huge series for these two programs. The winner of the series will head to the final few weeks of the regular season feeling fantastic about their at-large bid chances while the loser must hope the NCAA committee is perhaps willing to give the Big South a pair of bids. Of course, there's also the conference tournament. Josh Conway is having a tremendous season on the mound for the Chanticleers, while the Flames have a trio of solid starting pitchers in John Niggli, Jacob Kemmerer and Patrick Eckelbarger. All three of those guys must step up in a big way against the surging Chants.
PG Pick: Liberty



Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game and can be reached at kendall@perfectgame.org



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