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Talk to college baseball head coaches from around the country and most will say their offenses aren't on par, at least not yet, with opposing pitching. Much the opposite is being said at Georgia Tech right now.
Perhaps it's something in the water around Atlanta, but whatever it is, it's obvious at this point the Yellow Jackets never got the memo about the whole pitching ahead of the offense early in the season theory.
As Georgia Tech heads to Virginia Tech, also a hot-hitting club, for its first Atlantic Coast Conference series of the season, it does so with by far the nation's most potent offensive lineup. The Jackets are hitting .350 as a team, tops in the country, with Texas-San Antonio at No. 2, a whopping 12 points back. As for the Hokies, they enter this weekend's series with a .319 average, good for 20th nationally.
"We have pretty good balance and a lot of good hitters in our offensive lineup, but we also know we're going to face some very good pitching in the ACC," Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said. "As we get into conference, we know runs are going to be harder to come by, and we know we're going to go through a rut. But we have a lot of older guys who have been through this league, and they'll know how to handle that when the time comes."
For now, we'll just revel in the fact the Yellow Jackets are off to an incredible start from an offensive standpoint. To put this start into perspective, the Jackets, who are 12-1 overall, have scored double-digit runs in nine contests this season. Most impressive, they've scored double-digit runs in seven-straight games, dating back to the lone loss of the season, a setback to St. John's two weekends ago.
Daniel Palka is off to a powerful start for the Jackets. (GT photo)
The Yellow Jackets' pop at the plate shouldn't come as a revelation to anyone, but the overall improvement one thru nine in the lineup is rather impressive. Take A.J. Murray for instance. Murray, as a freshman last season, only had 12 at bats and possessed an .083 batting average.
This season, some of the veterans that were ahead of Murray in the pecking order are long gone, and that's given Murray a chance to shine, an opportunity he obviously hasn't taken lightly with a team-leading .455 batting average, two homers, 14 RBIs and fantastic .571 on-base percentage.
"He was just in a situation last year where he was behind some guys. We decided to move him to first base in the fall, and he's been pretty good there, along with an impressive hitter," Hall said. "He's a very good athlete who has worked very hard at shortening his swing. He's a fierce competitor and we saw his potential in the fall, as he was our most improved player. He's showing that this spring."
Murray isn't the only youngster on this team making a statement early this season. The same can be said for freshman infielder Matt Gonzalez. Gonzales was a shortstop/third baseman in high school, but is playing second base for Hall's club. Beyond his attributes as a defender, Gonzalez is showing to be mature beyond his age at the plate, tallying a .373 batting average with a home run and 21 RBIs so far this season.
Though some might be surprised at Gonzalez's fast start, Hall and others aren't. After all, Gonzalez was a heralded prospect out of high school, ranked No. 175 nationally and getting selected in the 11th round of the MLB draft by Oakland.
"He was one of the best hitters in the East Cobb Baseball program, and I thought he was one of the best hitters in our state last season. I can't say that I'm surprised that he's doing well, but this well? No I didn't see that," he said. "I thought he'd be a really good hitter for us, though."
In terms of the returning hitters, the Yellow Jackets are very pleased with the progressions made by senior outfielder Brandon Thomas and junior outfielder Daniel Palka. Thomas turned down Pittsburgh as a fourth-round pick last summer, while Palka has displayed more consistency so far this spring.
Palka entered the season as the No. 102 prospect on the national stage, but surely will rise with the campaign he's already putting together, consistently showing off his brute raw power. He's hitting .449 with five triples, three homers and 20 RBIs. Meanwhile, Thomas is hitting .426 with four triples and 10 RBIs, and surely will be a relatively high senior sign pick for someone.
"Daniel is much more mature. He doesn't chase as many bad pitches as he did last year, and again, he just has ridiculous power," Hall said. "He's a much better overall hitter, and he's doing a good job of taking what pitchers give him.
"Brandon continues to impress me. And to be honest, he and Buck Farmer coming back completely change the complexion of this team. It's been huge," he said. "I told everyone after last summer we really lucked out. Most years getting guys like that back never happens. We lucked out, and we're benefiting from it."
While Thomas, Palka and Murray are spearheading the offensive lineup's incredible surge, Farmer, who was a 15th-round pick to the Brewers last summer, also is off to a great start and leading the pitching staff.
Farmer is consistently sitting 90-93 with his fastball, also throwing plenty of 94s and 95s on the radar gun with good arm action. He also is flashing a plus 79-81 changeup to go with a 79-82 mph slider. Additionally, the talented right-hander has essentially been flawless from a statistical standpoint, having not allowed a run yet, while also striking out 30 and walking just one.
"I've told people this, but I think Farmer will be in the big leagues in two years. He's throwing the ball really well, but the biggest thing to me is that he's commanding all three of his pitches," he said. "He's kind of the guy that you can use at any time, and you have the confidence to put him out there. His breaking ball has really improved, and he's just a great overall pitcher."
The Jackets also are impressed with the progressions made by sophomore right-handed pitcher Cole Pitts and junior Dusty Isaacs. Pitts' rise perhaps isn't so much of a surprise after he put together a solid 2012 campaign, while Isaacs has taken a significant step forward.
Pitts has been sitting 89-90 with his fastball and has a fantastic 1.59 ERA in 17 innings of work. He also has struck out 15 and walked three, while teams only are hitting him at a .158 clip. Meanwhile, Isaacs is sitting 90-92 with his fastball, and has a 3.72 ERA in 19 1/3 innings. He has struck out 20 and walked seven, with teams hitting him at a .224 clip.
"The big thing about Dusty is that he's commanding all of his pitches," Hall said. "Pitts, too, is just a consistent guy out there. I think the biggest thing with him, is he throws a lot of strikes. They've both done pretty well for us, and that has to continue with our midweek pitching kind of up in the air right now."
Georgia Tech is by no means flawless entering this weekend's series against Virginia Tech, but at least offensively, and from a starting pitching standpoint, this team is very advanced as compared to most teams.
Hall just hopes that trend continues against the Hokies.
Pitching prowess: Vandy's tower over Tennessee
Vanderbilt first-year pitching coach Scott Brown has been well aware of left-handed pitcher Kevin Ziomek's abilities for quite some time. He knows what makes the heralded pitcher click.
So, when Brown took over for former pitching coach Derek Johnson, who now is with the Chicago Cubs organization, it presented a seamless transition and an immediate ability to work with Ziomek toward his ultimate goal -- to continue his rise as one of college baseball's elite pitchers, and as a potential first-round prospect.
It's a relationship that already is bringing about impressive results.
"Before I got here, I had heard that Kevin struggled with giving up the big inning on occasion," Brown said. "But fortunately, I knew his track record. I recruited him out of high school to St. John's, so I kind of already knew what he was all about. He certainly had the physical abilities then, and he still does now."
Kevin Ziomek is finding his way as a starter for the 'Dores. (VU photo)
Success has followed Ziomek throughout his baseball career. He was one of the nation's elite pitchers out of high school, ranked as the No. 46 overall player overall with a fastball, then, that touched 91. He also earned All-American honors by Rawlings out of high school.
In his first season with the Commodores, he served primarily as a reliever, and a good one at that. Ziomek had a 1.59 ERA in 45 1/3 innings of work, making 27 total appearances, only five of them starts.
Things changed for Ziomek last season when the Commodores moved him from reliever to the starting rotation. Though Ziomek had his great games for the 'Dores, he also had those games where he was susceptible to the big inning, effectively putting himself in a hole before he could get into a groove.
Last season, the left-handed pitcher had a 5.22 ERA in 79 1/3 innings of work. He also recorded 79 strikeouts and walked 39 walks.
"We've really stressed, after last season, the fact I want him to trust his stuff, while staying after every pitch. No matter what happens, such as the umpire squeezing you or what not, we need to have that mentality established," Brown said. "We like to minimize damage and not let things get to us. He has really taken that attitude and kind of run with it this season. He's a pretty good pitcher, and he's really starting to get into a consistent rhythm."
Though consistency was an issue in the past, Ziomek has essentially been a brand new, and much more dominant, man on the mound for the Commodores.
For the season, Ziomek has a fantastic 0.82 ERA in 22 innings of work. He also has struck out 33 and walked six, while teams only are hitting him at a. 137 clip. Ziomek made his strongest impression of the season thus far last weekend against a solid Illinois-Chicago squad.
In that contest, the lefty struck out 15 batters, walked three, and allowed just one hit in a complete game shutout performance played in mid-30s temperatures. Ziomek also threw 114 pitches, 74 for strikes.
"I think what he's done, is he's going through a routine that works for him. I think the biggest thing, as mentioned, is that he's trusting his stuff this season. That stuff has always been there, that's for sure," Brown continued. "He has that going for him, and as long as he's consistent, he's just going to continue to fly.
"I have to give Kevin a lot of credit, he has taken ownership. He's worked and improved on everything that he hasn't done in the past."
From a stuff standpoint, Ziomek continues to flash big-time overall stuff, particularly a three-pitch mix with a fastball, slider and curveball. Ziomek, a 6-foot-3, 200-pounder, consistently sits anywhere from 88-92 with his fastball.
The lefty also flashes a 76-77 slider that continues to develop as a legitimate wipeout pitch, while the curveball is a rather interesting part of his arsenal. Though Brown said it's not a curveball with a lot of depth, or intense break, it continues to be an effective pitch that Ziomek is willing to use early in counts.
"With his stuff, there's no question he's the type who just gets better as the game progresses," Brown said. "You better get him early if you have a chance, because if you don't, he just settles in and his stuff takes over."
Ziomek entered the season as the No. 30 overall prospect for this year's MLB draft, but his stock continues to rise, with of course, the help of Brown.
The Ziomek show hits the road this weekend as the Commodores take on Oregon in a huge showdown between the SEC and Pac-12.
Series to watch
1 North Carolina at Wake Forest: The Tar Heels passed their first big test of the season this past weekend with an impressive 3-0 weekend at the Astros Foundation Classic with wins over Rice, Texas A&M and California. Now, they hit the road again to face Wake Forest to begin ACC play. UNC welcomed back starting pitcher Hobbs Johnson last weekend, and he should be good to go again this weekend. Meanwhile, Wake Forest is an intriguing club. Sitting at 9-5, the Demon Deacons have a pair of very impressive starting pitchers in right-hander Matt Pirro and left-hander Austin Stadler. Pirro has a 2.40 ERA in 15 innings of work, while Stadler has been red hot with a 0.86 ERA in 21 innings, allowing opponents to hit for just a .206 clip. Offensively, keep an eye on leadoff hitter and outfielder Evan Stephens, who's hitting an impressive .512 with six RBIs.
THE PICK: North Carolina
2 Vanderbilt at 17 Oregon: The Commodores, to no surprise, have been fantastic so far this season. Junior left-handed pitcher Kevin Ziomek continues to flash excellent staff with his 90-plus fastball leading the charge, while sophomore righty Tyler Beede has taken as step forward and Philip Pfeifer has blossomed. Meanwhile, keep an eye on Vince Conde, Tony Kemp and Connor Harrell at the plate. Conde leads the team with a .413 batting average, Kemp is hitting .388 with eight stolen bases and Harrell is hitting .362 with four homers and 25 RBIs. As for Oregon, there's no doubt hard-nosed sophomore right-handed pitcher Jake Reed leads the charge on the mound, but also keep an eye on freshman left-handed hurler Cole Irvin. Irvin is showing a lot of maturity and poise with his fast start, and the lanky youngster can get up to the upper-80s, sometimes touching 90 out of high school.
THE PICK: Vanderbilt
Clemson at 8 North Carolina State: The Tigers dropped a tough series to rival South Carolina last weekend, but if there's a way to get over it, it's by starting ACC play with a tough opponent in N.C. State. Clemson freshman pitcher Clate Schmidt and sophomore Daniel Gossett are both off to fantastic starts this spring, while Scott Firth also has pitched well after converting from reliever to starter. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack could be a bit more consistent, but have one of the elite players in the game in shortstop Trea Turner, who's hitting an outstanding .490 with five doubles, three triples, four homers and 17 RBIs. Also keep an eye on Brett Williams, who like Turner, is 8-for-8 in stolen bases, and is hitting .395 with three homers and 15 RBIs.
THE PICK: N.C. State
Texas A&M at 11 Cal State Fullerton: With a grueling Southeastern Conference schedule coming up beginning next weekend at home against Georgia, the Aggies desperately need to finish their non-conference weekends on a high note against the Titans. That certainly won't be easy, but the Aggies are encouraged by the play of long and athletic freshman outfielder Jonathan Moroney, who performed at a high level at the Astros Foundation Classic last weekend. Meanwhile, they need right-handed pitcher Rafael Pineda, who had major control issues against North Carolina last week, to step up this weekend. As for the Titans, they dropped their first game of the season last weekend to Oregon, but still won the series. Freshmen starting pitchers Thomas Eshelman and Justin Garza continue to perform at a high level, while versatile outfielder Michael Lorenzen continues to impress with a .347 average, two homers and 12 RBIs.
THE PICK: Cal State Fullerton
San Diego State at 16 Arkansas: The upcoming weekend is very important for the Razorbacks. They hit the road last weekend and went 0-4 in the Coca-Cola Classic in Surprise, Ariz. Now, suddenly, the Hogs have a rather unimpressive 7-5 overall record with conference play just a week away. The Hogs' rotation will have some freshman flavor with left-hander Colin Poche (1-0, 0.00) and right-hander Trey Killian (1-1, 1.29), while the offense must be much better with Tyler Spoon (.391/2/15) and Brian Anderson (.357/0/7) the lone bright spots. As for the Aztecs, they have a real chance to make a big statement this weekend. Other than getting bested by Oregon State in a hard-fought four-game series, the Aztecs are playing pretty well this season with heralded starting pitchers Michael Cederoth and Philip Walby, and freshman closer Bubba Derby leading the charge. Also keep an eye on electric offensive contributor Greg Allen.
THE PICK: Arkansas
9 Georgia Tech at 25 Virginia Tech: What a start the Yellow Jackets are off to this season. They're hitting .356 as a team entering the weekend with A.J. Murray (.455/2/14), Daniel Palka (.449/3/20), Brandon Thomas (.426/0/10) and talented freshman Matt Gonzalez leading the charge. Meanwhile, on the mound, starting pitchers Buck Farmer, Dusty Isaacs and Cole Pitts continue to perform at a high level, while Alex Cruz and Zane Evans spearhead the bullpen. As for the Hokies, they're off to a terrific start this season with arguably the nation's second-best offensive lineup (behind the Yellow Jackets) leading the way. Tyler Horan is a big-time power potential hitter for the Hokies, while infielder Chad Pinder and catcher Mark Zagunis also are big-time hitters. From a pitching standpoint, the Hokies expect senior left-hander Joe Mantiply back in some form or fashion this weekend. Mantiply has missed the last couple of starts because of forearm tightness, but is expected to throw in relief later this weekend.
THE PICK: Georgia Tech
Alabama at 14 Louisville: The Crimson Tide was on a roll overall until last weekend's home series loss to Tulane. The Tide hits the road this weekend for what should be a telling series for both clubs. The Tide will find out where it stands in the national pecking order, while UL hopes to enter Big East play with an impressive series win over an SEC team under its belt. For the Crimson Tide, youngsters Mikey White and Georgie Salem are exciting players to watch, while the Cardinals have a trio of solid starting pitchers in Jeff Thompson, Chad Green and Jared Ruxer to go with hard-throwing closer Nick Burdi. Offensively, Sutton Whiting, the brother of former UL star Boomer Whiting, is hitting .500 with a home run and 12 RBIs.
THE PICK: Louisville
Indiana at Florida: The Hoosiers could do the Big Ten a lot of good this weekend as they hit the road to face a Florida team suddenly playing with some confidence, winning four of its last five games. IU is off to a solid 6-2 start with first baseman Sam Travis and Kyle Schwarber leading the way. Travis is hitting .448 with two homers and 10 RBIs, while Schwarber is hitting .378 with two homers and nine RBIs. Also keep an eye on Michael Basil, who is coming off a very productive weekend, and is now hitting .371 with a home run and 10 RBIs. As for the Gators, they'll be without freshman spark plug Richie Martin for a few weeks, while that puts much pressure on Justin Shafer, who's hitting .415 with a home run and seven RBIs, to consistently produce. Pitching-wise, talented junior right-hander Jonathon Crawford continues to lead the way with a 3.60 ERA in 15 innings. He has stuck out 11 and walked six thus far this spring.
THE PICK: Florida
Maryland at 24 Virginia: The Cavaliers have garnered plenty of attention, and rightfully so, with their impressive pitching so far this season, particularly with freshman left-handed pitcher Brandon Waddell leading the charge. But also keep an eye on Maryland starting pitchers Jimmy Reed and Brady Kirkpatrick. Reed, a senior left-hander, is having a tremendous campaign thus far, tallying a 1.50 ERA in 18 innings, while he has struck out 21 and walked six. Meanwhile, Kirkpatrick has a 1.47 ERA in 18 1/3 innings, and teams are hitting .121 against him. Also keep an eye on Terps leadoff hitter Charlie White, who's hitting .432 with 10 RBIs, a .611 on-base percentage, and an astonishing 15 stolen bases.
THE PICK: Virginia
Cal Poly at Kansas State: This should be a rather intriguing series this weekend to say the least. The Mustangs are off to a terrific 10-1 start this season and a big reason for that is the rise of starting pitchers Joey Wagman and Matt Imhof. Wagman has a 1.93 ERA in 18 2/3 innings of work, while Imhof has a 1.37 ERA in 19 2/3 innings of work. Meanwhile, leadoff hitter and second baseman Denver Chavez is who makes this lineup go with a .425 average, four doubles and five RBIs. As for the Wildcats, there's been plenty of talk about outfield Jared King, who's hitting .295 with a home run and eight RBIs, while first baseman Shane Conlon is off to a great start, hitting .465 with two homers and eight RBIs.
THE PICK: Cal Poly
Tournament action to watch
Notre Dame vs. UCLA (Dodgertown Classic)
Oklahoma vs. USC (Dodgertown Classic)
Michigan vs. Saint Louis (USD tournament)
Oklahoma vs. UCLA
Notre Dame vs. USC
Mercer vs. Indiana State
Saint Louis vs. San Diego
Michigan vs. San Diego
Creighton vs. Austin Peay State
USC vs. UCLA
Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma
Mercer vs. Indiana State
Michigan State vs. Saint Louis
Ohio State vs. Coastal Carolina