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This just might be the year the University of Mississippi gets it done.
For years since the coach Mike Bianco era began in Oxford, Miss., the Rebels, who have been transformed into one of college baseball's elite programs with arguably one of the top two or three fan bases in college baseball, they've lacked one thing -- a trip to the College World Series.
Sure, if you're a diehard historian you'll know the Rebels have been to Omaha on four occasions, with the last trip in 1972. But to the fans who enter Oxford-University Stadium each weekend, that might as well be ancient history.
If there's one thing that can be said about Bianco during his tenure at Ole Miss, it's that he speaks the truth when it comes to his program's status on the national stage. So, allow me to pause for a second when Bianco strongly believes this team has Omaha traits with no hesitation.
"I do think this is an Omaha type of team. The SEC is a long grind and what not, but we return Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers in our weekend rotation, and we haven't returned an SEC weekend starter the next season since Drew Pomeranz in 2010. This year, we have two guys returning from last year's rotation."
-- Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco
"I do think this is an Omaha type of team," Bianco said. "The SEC is a long grind and what not, but we return Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers in our weekend rotation, and we haven't returned an SEC weekend starter the next season since Drew Pomeranz in 2010. This year, we have two guys returning from last year's rotation."
Those two guys -- right-handers Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers -- are pretty good, too.
Wahl served primarily as a reliever two seasons ago as a raw freshman with a big arm, making 18 appearances with a 4.80 ERA in 30 innings of work. But he took a significant step forward as a player and prospect last season with 2.55 ERA in 99 innings. He also struck out 104 and walked 32, while teams hit him at a .211 clip.
Wahl also flashes stuff that has him tabbed as an elite prospect for the upcoming MLB draft. The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder, works 90-95 with his fastball, and can get higher than that at times. He also has a hard breaking ball and changeup, with a split-finger that he picked up as a go-to pitch last summer.
Though not quite the prospect of Wahl, Mayers isn't far behind in the pecking order. The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder, had a 3.50 ERA in 92 2/3 innings last season, and has an 89-94 fastball with a good three-pitch mix. Mayer's changeup was devastating in an NCAA postseason performance against Texas A&M last June. Should he carry that type of stuff into the 2013 campaign, there's little doubt opposing hitters are in some trouble.
"Bobby gets most of the spotlight because of who he is, and deservedly so, but Mike could pitch on Friday night for almost anyone out there," Bianco said. "He's got outstanding stuff and he's the epitome of a pitcher. He's a guy that's going to locate the fastball in and out of the zone, and also flash a very good breaking ball and outstanding changeup. He's a great athlete and competitor who controls the running game and just continues to get better."
As if having Wahl and Mayers in your chamber isn't enough, the Rebels are very excited about the progressions made by sophomore right-handed pitcher Chris Ellis. Ellis served primarily as a reliever last season, tallying a 2.84 ERA in 19 appearances (one start) in 31 2/3 innings of work. The sophomore moves to the No. 3 spot -- a trouble area for Ole Miss last season -- in the rotation after an incredibly strong fall and spring workouts.
"Chris is one of those freshmen who was a high profile guy coming in. Like Bobby two years ago, you're not sure when they're going to take that next step. They're the star in high school, then come here, and they're the seventh best pitcher in the SEC. It's a humbling experience," Bianco said. "The way he walks around now, he's just a different guy. He now knows what he's going to be in this league."
To say Ellis flashed big-time stuff in the fall and early this spring might be an understatement. The 6-foot-5, 205-pounder, is a fast-rising prospect who will explode as a prospect for the 2014 MLB draft if he can harness his stuff in SEC play. The righty sits in the low-to-mid 90s with his fastball with a plus curveball and changeup.
The Rebels have a full stable of big-time arms outside of the starting trio. Freshman Jacob Waguespack is a 6-foot-5, athletic, right-hander who was up to 94 during the fall, while sophomore right-hander Josh Laxer finally is making necessary strides with his secondary stuff to go with his already impressive big-time fastball. There's also junior college transfers Jeremy Massie and Austin Blunt, whom Bianco believes will be impact arms this spring, and others such as Aaron Greenwood and Tanner Bailey. Sophomore righty Hawtin Buchanan is another big-time arm to watch if he can develop his secondary stuff.
As icing on the cake, the Rebels will finish contests with senior right-handed closer Brett Huber, who made 20 appearances, recorded 10 saves and had a 2.84 ERA last season. The Rebels likely wouldn't have Huber back for his senior season if not for elbow surgery last summer to remove some bone chips.
Bianco is very confident for a very good reason entering this weekend's series against TCU.
Series showdown: Stanford, Rice jockey for position
Few programs, if any, are in pristine shape this time of year. In most instances, programs will enter the first weekend of the season looking to experiment with different pitchers and position players.
Stanford and Rice are no different.
The Cardinal welcomes back one of the nation's elite prospects and right-handed pitchers in Mark Appel, who spurned the Pittsburgh Pirates as a first-round pick in last summer's MLB draft. But even with the big-time righty back in the fold, the other two spots in the Stanford rotation seemingly are up for grabs.
This weekend, at least, the Cardinal will send sophomore left-handed hurler John Hochstatter to the mound as the No. 2 starting pitcher, while they'll go with veteran right-hander Dean McArdle in the series finale unless they have a change of heart. Highly touted freshman right-hander Freddy Avis originally was expected to start on Sunday in the series, but was scratched from the rotation because of a minor injury that should only sideline him this weekend.
"Depth will be a strength of this club," Stanford pitching coach Rusty Filter said. "We've got a lot of guys throughout this pitching staff that we can fit into different roles."
Hochstatter is a rather interesting pitcher to watch this weekend. Though he doesn't possess the power stuff of Appel, he's no slouch, either. The sophomore lefty pitched well for the Cardinal the first few games last season, but struggled as the year progressed, finishing the campaign with a 4.53 ERA in 43 2/3 innings of work.
From a stuff standpoint, Hochstatter really showed vast improvements during fall workouts and so far this spring. He has been sitting 85-90 with his fastball, being effective with both his four-seam and two-seam fastballs. Hochstatter is considered to be a left-handed pitcher with some movement and deception, having a special ability to attack hitters early in counts.
Should the Cardinal decide to shake up the rotation after Hochstatter this weekend, some names to keep an eye on include redshirt junior left-hander Garrett Hughes, freshman right-hander Daniel Starwalt, freshman right-hander Bobby Zarubin and freshman left-hander Logan James.
Fans attending the series also will notice Stanford junior right-handed pitcher A.J. Vanegas won't pitch this weekend. Vanegas, too, is on the shelf because of an injury, but is expected to return to the mound when the Cardinal faces Washington State the final weekend of March.
The Owls know exactly how Stanford feels in the injury department. In the weeks leading up to opening weekend, the Owls were ecstatic about their weekend rotation. They'd go Austin Kubitza, sophomore Jordan Stephenson and freshman Kevin McCanna in that order. Well, McCanna, as announced by Rice coach Wayne Graham earlier this week, is on the shelf for a while because of an undiagnosed injury, and forces the Owls to shift things around.
As a result, the Owls may very well be forced to make junior right-hander John Simms do some double duty. Simms is expected to pitch one inning in relief on Friday if the Owls have a lead, while he's also expected to come back and start the series finale against the Cardinal.
Simms is one of several Owls Graham feels will take a significant step forward.
"There was something in the structure of his nasal passages [Simms], and he's gotten that fixed. It really worked," Graham said. "He's sleeping all night for the first time in a long time, a couple of years to be exact. Now, he's able to train much harder and get rest. He's a lean machine."
As for McCanna, his status is still very much up in the air going into the weekend from a health standpoint. The Owls say they've run plenty of tests on him, and the team doctors can't seem to find anything. However, there's still some lingering discomfort. Stay tuned to that situation.
With the Owls scrambling a bit on the mound, sophomore right-hander Zech Lemond will be an important arm to watch this weekend and beyond. Lemond had a solid 2012 campaign and showed big-time stuff during spring workouts. He changed his breaking ball in a good way, and has improved his curveball to go with a slider. He continues to throw his FB up to 93-94 with a good changeup to complement that pitch.
"He's definitely going to be our stopper out of the pen in a lot of situations," Graham said about Lemond. "His stuff plays well out there and he doesn't walk people. That changeup of his is very nasty on left-handed hitters."
While the pitching duels between the Cardinal and Owls serves as the primary backdrop for this series, also keep an eye on Rice's revamped offense, at least in the words of Wayne Graham.
Graham spent much time at last summer's College Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony picking the brain of long-time Arizona head coach Andy Lopez about the Wildcats' offensive philosophy. With that change, Graham looks for junior third baseman Shane Hoelscher to have a much improve campaign after a strong offensive showing in the fall and early this spring.
Both of these squads should be a treat to watch this weekend, as the two look to have a springboard for the rest of the season.
Pitching prowess: Minnesota's Tom Windle vs. UCLA's Adam Plutko
Outstanding former UCLA starting pitchers Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer have been away from the program for two seasons, but their impact is still being felt way of junior right-handed starting pitcher Adam Plutko.
Plutko had a solid freshman season alongside Cole and Bauer. But more than anything in that one season with the duo, Plutko learned how to handle success, adversity, and just the glitz and glamour of college baseball's spotlight.
Now, as the Bruins prepare for another campaign that is expected to end with a College World Series appearance, Plutko hopes to put together yet another banner season with the MLB draft right around the corner.
Plutko hasn't been considered an elite prospect since joining the Bruins. Despite a good, physical, frame, he's never had that blow-away fastball that scouts oh so love. However, he has always displayed good command and the ability to pinpoint the ball around the strike zone, at least making him an attractive prospect in the eyes of many.
Along with that, toughness is one of Plutko's greatest traits. The talented right-hander made 18 starts last season, had a 12-3 record and tallied a 2.48 ERA in 119 2/3 innings of work. He also struck out 99 and walked 47, while teams hit him at a .215 clip.
All that was done with bone chips in his knee.
"He injured that knee last year and that really caused a lot of problems, especially down the stretch," UCLA coach John Savage said. "We took him out of everything once he returned from USA Baseball and he didn't throw in the fall. He came back this spring and had gained 15 pounds of muscle. He's much, much stronger now."
Savage said that while Plutko typically, in past years, has only gotten up to 91 with his fastball, his increased strength has allowed him to get up to 92 at times. He also is showing a more consistent, easy, delivery, mainly living off his fastball and changeup. His breaking pitches remain a work in progress.
"He pitches so much with his fastball and changeup, his slider is his best secondary pitch, but it still doesn't have that knockout punch he wants," Savage said. "That will get better, though. The good thing right now is that he's not having to compensate for that knee like last season."
While Plutko toes the rubber for the Bruins Friday night in Los Angeles, Minnesota counters with one of the fast-rising 2013 MLB draft prospects, junior left-hander Tom Windle.
To anyone that watches video or scouts Windle, his physicality is the first thing that strikes attention. Windle has a pro body at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, and should flourish as a starting pitcher. The lefty made 18 appearances (four starts) last season and had a 3.27 ERA in 41 1/3 innings of work. He also struck out 37 and walked 17, while teams hit .243 against him.
"Windle is a long, physical and athletic looking guy, and he's that way from the left side. It's impressive," Savage said. "He looks like he throws a good breaking ball, and he looks loose doing it. I like him on video. He's a strong-looking left-hander who really attacks hitters."
Windle is the No. 44 overall prospect for this summer's MLB draft. He has a fastball typically sitting 89-93 with a hard, biting, 82-84 slider.
Look for scouts and others to flock to Los Angeles for Friday's bout. Perfect Game's Todd Gold will be in attendance.
Series to watch
* No. 14 TCU at No. 19 Mississippi -- It was heartache for the Rebels the last time these two programs met on the baseball diamond last June. Ole Miss just needed to beat TCU once to advance to the NCAA Super Regional, but the Horned Frogs double dipped Ole Miss to advance to the Los Angeles Super Regional. Now, the Rebels want revenge. TCU unveils its new-look offense this weekend, while lots of eyeballs are on the progressions of big-time right-handed closer Andrew Mitchell, who has a fastball up to 96. For the Rebels, lots of eyes are on Sunday starter Chris Ellis, who was 92-94 with a good CB and CH during fall workouts. Also huge for Ole Miss is the return of scrappy center fielder Tanner Mathis and senior closer Brett Huber.
THE PICK: Ole Miss
* Oklahoma State at New Mexico -- What better way for the Josh Holliday era at Oklahoma State to begin than with a series against rising New Mexico. The Cowboys have many holes to fill, and this will be a tough series right out of the gate. However, keep a close eye on starting pitcher Jason Hursh, a sophomore right-hander, who's finally healthy and ready to roll with a mid 90s type of arm. Meanwhile, New Mexico has two of the nation's elite hitters/position players in catcher Mitchell Garver and third baseman DJ Peterson, while right-handed pitchers Sam Wolff and Josh Walker are intriguing arms to watch. Both could improve, but both also have premier arms with Wolff having a FB up to 97 and Walker a 90 mph FB with a plus slider and changeup.
THE PICK: New Mexico
* Virginia at East Carolina -- It's not everyday that a freshman gets an opportunity to start the season opener, but that's precisely the opportunity handed to Virginia freshman left-handed pitcher Brandon Waddell. The talented left-hander, who has a FB near 90, will start opening day, while East Carolina will counter with one of the nation's rising sophomore right-handed arms in Jeff Hoffman, who has a big-time arm with a fastball sitting in the low to mid 90s. Both the Cavaliers and Pirates are expected to have solid clubs this spring, but both also begin the season with some key holes to fill.
THE PICK: East Carolina
* Baylor at UC Irvine -- The Bears had one of the nation's most experienced teams last season with a talented crop of veterans leading the charge, specifically on the mound in the way of Trent Blank and Josh Turley, among others. Now, the Bears move forward with Max Garner and Dillon Newman leading the way. Newman has a fastball sitting 88-91, also with a plus change, cutter and curveball. Meanwhile, Garner is a bulldog-type of pitcher who can get his fastball up to 91-92 on good days. As for the Anteaters, they welcome back quite an impressive weekend rotation with Andrew Thurman and Matt Whitehouse leading the way. Whitehouse had a 4.15 ERA in 13 innings of work last season because of an injury, while Thurman only improved his stock as a prospect with a strong summer, showcasing big-time stuff and velocity.
THE PICK: UC Irvine
* USC at No. 23 Cal State Fullerton -- The Trojans haven't exactly had the best of weeks with the suspension then firing of second-year head coach Frank Cruz. But with associate head coach Dan Hubbs now in charge, USC hopes to create some sense of normalcy this weekend against Cal State Fullerton. Keep an eye on Trojans starting pitcher Nigel Nootbaar, who sits 89-93 with his FB, along with a power 79-83 CB and CH part of his repertoire. Meanwhile, the Titans have a rather interesting situation on their hands this weekend with a pair of talented freshmen -- right-handers Justin Garza and Thomas Eshelman -- leading the charge. Garza really made a splash during fall workouts with a fastball touching the mid 90s, while Eshelman has excellent command and grabs the opening day start for Rick Vanderhook's club.
THE PICK: Cal State Fullerton
* San Diego State at No. 18 San Diego -- What an exciting weekend it is for the City of San Diego, and particularly, the University of San Diego. The Toreros officially are christening the new Fowler Park as part of a multi-million dollar renovation projection. On top of that, the series features two teams looking to take a step forward in vastly different ways. The Toreros have a national title-caliber club with the return of Dylan Covey and others, including reliever turned starting pitcher Michael Wagner, while the Aztecs should be improved with big-time arms such as Michael Cederoth and Phil Walby leading the way. Cederoth, as well-chronicled, has a fastball touching 100, while Walby is a recent bloomed with a fastball sitting low-to-mid 90s.
THE PICK: San Diego
* No. 4 Stanford at No. 21 Rice -- This series is very important to the Owls, and it hasn't been illustrated as much as it was when coach Wayne Graham said projected closer John Simms would close, if needed, on Friday, then start on Sunday. Simms is being forced to the Sunday role because of an unknown injury to freshman right-handed pitcher Kevin McCanna. The Owls have an Arizona-inspired, rejuvenated offense, while starting pitchers Austin Kubitza and Jordan Stephens are primed to have solid campaigns. Stephens is the most interesting arm of the two, as he hopes to rebound from what was an injury-induced average freshman campaign. For the Cardinal, senior right-handed pitcher Mark Appel is the headliner for obvious reasons, while Friday also marks the return of talented infielder Lonnie Kauppila, who missed much of last season because of an injury.
THE PICK: Stanford
* Long Beach State at No. 3 Vanderbilt -- The Dirtbags aren't exactly off to a hot start this season with starting pitcher Ryan Strufing and top reliever Kyle Friedrichs already going down with season-ending injuries, but the Dirtbags still are ready to find a way to take a step forward. That means guys such as outfielder Richard Prigatano must rise to the occasion. Meanwhile, the Commodores welcome back a very experienced club with sophomore right-handed pitcher Tyler Beede an interesting guy to watch. Beede dazzled folks during fall workouts with a steady diet of mid 90s fastballs. And on top of that, he has greatly improved his command of the strike zone.
THE PICK: Vanderbilt
* Liberty at No. 11 South Carolina -- This is an interesting series for a variety of reasons. The Gamecocks will start the weekend festivities by honoring long-time head coach and now athletic director Ray Tanner. To make things cooler, Liberty is coached by former Tanner assistant Jim Toman, while Chad Holbrook takes over for the Gamecocks. South Carolina will start a very solid rotation this weekend with Jordan Montgomery, Colby Holmes and Nolan Belcher leading the charge, while Liberty hopes to start the weekend on the right foot with starting pitchers Brooks Roy and sophomore right-hander Carson Herndon leading the way. Also keep an eye on LU freshman pitcher Kyle McKelvey and junior hurler Josh Richardson. McKelvey flashed big-time stuff in the fall with a fastball sitting 90-95, while Richardson is another premium arm in this program with a 90-93 fastball.
THE PICK: South Carolina
* Minnesota at No. 6 UCLA -- This three-game set lost a little luster when Golden Gophers No. 2 starting pitcher D.J. Snelten went down with an injury, but it still has plenty of intriguing storylinse, including Friday night's matchup between Gophers junior left-handed pitcher Tom Windle and Bruins right-hander Adam Plutko. Windle's stock rose last summer with an 89-93 fastball, a hard 82-84 slider, all in a good frame, while Plutko has touched some 92s on the radar gun during spring workouts. This series also gives scouts and fans alike a first glimpse at UCLA freshman hurlers James Kaprielian and Hunter Virant. Kaprielian has a rather interesting arm with a fastball up to 94.
THE PICK: UCLA
Tournament games to watch
Indiana vs. Louisville (Big East/Big Ten Challenge)
Kent State vs. UNC Wilmington (UNCW tournament)
Kent State vs. Virginia Tech (UNCW tournament)
Miami (Ohio) vs. Michigan State (Greenville Drive tournament)
Connecticut vs. Purdue (Big Ten/Big East Challenge)
Gonzaga vs. UC Riverside (Palm Springs tournament)
Sam Houston State vs. Tulane (Bobcat Invitational)
Valparaiso vs. Belmont (Belmont tournament)
Missouri State vs. Texas State (Bobcat Invitational)
Gonzaga vs. Oregon State (Palm Springs tournament)
Louisville vs. South Florida (Big East/Big Ten tournament)
Kent State vs. Virginia Tech (UNCW tournament)
Virginia Tech vs. UNC Wilmington (UNCW tournament)
Connecticut vs. Indiana (Big East/Big Ten tournament)
Tulane vs. Texas State (Bobcat Invitational)
Missouri State vs. Sam Houston State (Bobcat Invitational)
Oregon State vs. UC Riverside (Palm Springs tournament)
Louisville vs. Purdue (Big East/Big Ten tournament)
Kent State vs. UNC Wilmington (UNCW tournament)
VCU vs. Elon (Elon Invitational)
Virginia Tech vs. UNC Wilmington (UNCW tournament)
Connecticut vs. Purdue (Big East/Big Ten tournament)
Missouri State vs. Tulane (Bobcat Invitational)
Sam Houston State vs. Texas State (Bobcat Invitational)