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Tony Gwynn has never been a fan of jumping to conclusions.
So, immediately following his San Diego State Aztecs' huge road series win over crosstown rival San Diego last weekend, it shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone that Gwynn was excited, but downplayed the long-term significance of the series triumph.
At least short-term, the series win over the Toreros is a big one. For starters, the Aztecs have struggled the past few seasons, compiling overall records of 26-34, 22-36 and 28-28 the last three seasons, while the Toreros have competed for NCAA postseason berths. Second, the Toreros opened their sparkling new ballpark with a home series against the Aztecs, and Gwynn's club spoiled the party in the sweetest way possible, a series sweep.
Now, with Oregon State at home the rest of the weekend, the Aztecs transform from a program of obscurity to one with a giant target on its back. That newfound publicity won't be any easier the rest of non-conference play either, as the Aztecs murderer's row continues after OSU with a four-game road series against No. 2 Arkansas in a couple of weeks.
"We all kind of sense something completely different about this club. We are playing really well right now," Gwynn said. "We had a setback with losing Ryan Muno to an injury, but it's a hurdle I think we're going to get over. We have a pretty good group now."
Sophomore outfielder Greg Allen has been a spark plug for the Aztecs.
The Aztecs likely are without Muno for at least four-to-six weeks because of a broken hand, which won't require surgery. But in the meantime, they expect several talented bats to rise to the occasion.
Sophomore outfielder Greg Allen stepped up against the Toreros, flashing a consistent and quick bat, with good athleticism and speed. Meanwhile, the Aztecs also got a productive weekend from second baseman Tim Zier and designated hitter Brad Haynal, while freshman Tyler France also had a productive weekend with a .333 batting average.
"With the freshmen we have in right now and other players back, we feel like we have a lot more depth than we've had in a while," Gwynn said. "It's a combination of leadership, too. We got rid of some guys who honestly weren't making it very fun to be in the clubhouse. They were being knuckleheads and just doing things the coaches didn't want them to do. We had some attrition and now we have leaders like Greg Allen stepping up for us. They're helping us believe."
While the Aztecs certainly have improved from an offensive standpoint in key situations, as evidenced against San Diego, their pitching staff truly has a chance to be special this spring.
The Aztecs have an outstanding young sophomore arm in right-handed hurler Michael Cederoth. Cederoth certainly could improve his command, but has a fastball that can get into the upper 90s, sometimes even touching 100, while the pitch typically sits in the mid 90s come the middle innings.
SDSU also has an intriguing No. 2 starting pitcher in junior right-hander Philip Walby. Walby was called into Gwynn's office at one point last season and was told that he was the No. 34 player on the team out of 35 players. In other words, if he didn't improve, he likely was going to be shown the door. Walby responded by working hard during the summer and fall, and now has developed into one of the club's most talented arms with a fastball up to 94.
"I told him when I brought him into my office that I thought he could be a dude for us. So we threw him out there on a Tuesday night, and he started to get better and better," Gwynn said. "He came into the fall with a completely different mindset. He decided he wanted to be one of those guys. He still has issues with command sometimes, but he's on the fast track."
The Aztecs round out the rotation each week with senior right-hander Ryan Doran. Doran certainly doesn't have the power arm of Cederoth and Walby, but can consistently command four quality pitches.
"He's really come a long way for us," Gwynn said about Doran. "He's a strike thrower, but he's not going to overpower anyone. He just goes out there and throws a ton of strikes, and that's the perfect guy to throw on Sundays during the season."
San Diego State also has a special bullpen in the works with senior right-hander Ethan Miller, junior right-hander Justin Hepner and electric and bulldog freshman Bubba Derby leading the charge.
Hepner is an intriguing arm to watch. He made two appearances against the Toreros last weekend and didn't allow a run, but struck out six batters. He sat 88-92 with his fastball.
Derby is the most intriguing arm to watch out of this group. Derby is a 5-foot-10, 185-pounder, who really caught Gwynn and the coaching staff's attention during fall workouts.
"We saw it from Derby at the very beginning of the fall. He just has a different kind of moxie out there. He wasn't afraid, and he definitely wasn't afraid to go inside on hitters. For a freshman, he's very composed," Gwynn said. "We argued throughout the fall about whether to start him or put him in the bullpen, but with our team this year, we felt closer was the best fit."
Derby has electric stuff. He consistently sits 92-93 with his fastball and works the first-base side of the rubber. He can locate his pitches on both sides of the plate, sometimes using a quality changeup to complement his fastball.
"You can see him working right in front of you. I see him play catch with our guys everyday, and you can just see him thinking and experimenting," Gwynn said about Derby. "I notice when the game starts, he's at the edge of the dugout watching what each hitter is doing. He really pays attention to detail, and it shows when he's on the mound."
Time will tell if the Aztecs can sustain the level of play they performed with against the Toreros, but everything with this team points to a potential breakout campaign for Gwynn's club.
In the past, Gwynn has had to worry about his players in the clubhouse. Now, as he said, it's significantly different. Earlier this week, Gwynn asked his players in a huddle what they thought about the Aztecs suddenly getting all sorts of headlines on the national stage.
Their answer validated his thinking.
"We really have to look at the big picture, we still have a lot of improvements to make," he said. "But when I asked our guys about the newfound recognition, they all said it means nothing at this point. That kind of attitude tells me these guys understand what we're trying to do."
Southern Miss fighting through adversity
Southern Mississippi may or may not finish the season at the College World Series, but this program will know how to handle adversity.
Coach Scott Berry and the Golden Eagles truly have gone through a whirlwind the past two weeks. Earlier last week before opening day, residents of Hattiesburg, Miss., had a tornado rip through the middle of town, hitting the opposite end of USM's campus from the baseball facility, but still causing widespread destruction across the city.
Though certainly not as important in the grand scheme of things, the Golden Eagles entered opening weekend with several injuries on the diamond. Shortstop Michael Sterling was out because of a tweaked back, catcher Jared Bales missed opening weekend and probably won't be back until Conference USA play, and junior right-handed pitcher Conor Fisk, who was expected to be the squad's No. 3 starting pitcher, has missed time because of some mild shoulder soreness.
Despite these setbacks, the Golden Eagles still managed to put together an outstanding weekend against SEC foe Missouri, sweeping the series and using stellar pitching in the process.
USM senior right-hander Andrew Pierce has added some velocity on his FB.
"We got some outstanding starting pitching over the weekend, and that was the difference in the series." Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. "I was really impressed with our pitching in that series, as we were really able to keep Missouri's offense down, in turn, giving our offense a chance to seize some momentum."
With Fisk still on the shelf, the Golden Eagles have looked to sophomore two-way player Mason Robbins to provide a punch on the backside of the weekend rotation. Robbins, like outstanding closer Bradley Roney, is an everyday player in the field. However, he's making a smooth transition to the starting rotation.
Robbins impressed in his first start against Missouri, striking out two and allowing just one run on two hits in six innings of work. He also was up to 90-91 with his fastball, but primarily sat 87-88 from the left side.
"He has a really effortless and quick arm out there, and the ball just seems to really get on top of hitters," Berry said. "I like his ability to command both sides of the plate. That makes him very special, outside of just being a talented left-handed pitcher."
Roney, who helps stabilize things out of the bullpen, has flashed a fastball up to 93, with that pitch typically sitting in the 89-91 range. Meanwhile, he also has a good, hard slider, with a bulldog-like attitude.
"There are plenty of teams out there that don't have one player who can effectively play both ways, but we have two of those guys," Berry said. "We just try to teach those two guys not to practice too hard out there to avoid getting tired at the end of the season. With that said, they're both really physical guys who should be ready each weekend."
The rest of the pitching staff also continues to perform at a high level. Sophomore left-handed pitcher Jake Drehoff is back in the weekend rotation and typically does a fantastic job of moving his mid-to-upper 80s fastball around the strike zone, while senior right-handed pitcher Andrew Pierce, who somehow didn't get drafted last summer, already is increasing his stock.
Pierce was fantastic in his first start against Missouri, striking out nine batters and allowing a run on six hits in seven innings of work. He also threw 99 pitches, 66 for strikes. In addition, he flashed elite stuff against the Tigers, sitting upper 80s, and up to 91 with his fastball. Last season, Pierce usually sat 84-88 with that fastball.
"The mound presence Drehoff and Pierce have already shown this spring, it's a drastic improvement," Berry said. "We have three guys out there on the weekends that simply don't get flustered when they pitch. They believe in their stuff and the team believes in them."
Adversity or not, this USM team, particularly the pitching staff, looks great moving forward.
Pitching prowess: Pepperdine's Scott Frazier vs. Texas A&M's Kyle Martin
Pepperdine junior right-handed pitcher Scott Frazier and Texas A&M senior right-handed pitcher Kyle Martin come from vastly different backgrounds, but both are intriguing prospects to watch as the 2013 campaign progresses.
Frazier was ranked No. 41 nationally out of high school, spurning the Phillies as a fifth-round pick to attend college. Meanwhile, Martin was ranked No. 465 nationally. Interestingly, Frazier had a fastball up to 91 out of high school, while Martin had a fastball up to 89.
As the season progresses, both guys are interesting arms to watch for different reasons. Frazier is one of the nation's top prospects for the 2013 MLB draft this summer, while Martin turned down the White Sox as a 35th-round pick last summer to return to Texas A&M with hopes of not only getting to Omaha, but also increasing his stock for this year's draft.
Pepperdine's Scott Frazier continues to increase his stock with improved secondary stuff.
Martin is an interesting case to say the least. The 6-foot-7, 220-pounder, has spent the past few seasons as a reliever for the Aggies, working his way up to the main closer role last season. All this was done with a sidearm motion, which from a body that size, was tough on right-handed hitters.
But things changed for Martin last summer. With the Aggies losing Michael Wacha and Ross Stripling, both starting pitchers, to the MLB draft, and looking for some experience, they pointed to Martin as a guy they thought could be effective as a starter -- not as a sidearm pitcher, but as someone with an overhand motion.
"It's something we talked about at the end of last season. We made that suggestion to him as a senior, and we just said we wanted to take him back over the top. He was pretty excited about it," Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said. "I knew he had pretty good stuff overhand the first few semesters he was on campus. He just had trouble controlling his body with that size of his. He's gained a lot better control of his body since his first couple of seasons."
While Martin will face a much tougher opponent this weekend than he did last weekend against Illinois-Chicago, the righty couldn't have been much more impressive in his debut with an overhanded arm motion.
Martin struck out 10 batters, walked no one, and allowed just two runs (none earned) on five hits in 6 2/3 innings of work. Stuff-wise, the righty was consistently 89-93 with his fastball, 80-82 with the changeup and 76-78 with the curveball.
"I was certainly proud of him, as he worked really hard all summer long to perfect his game," Childress said. "He's gone from a short stint guy to a starter, and he couldn't have performed better than he did [against UIC}. Pretty special performance for the firs time out."
The more heralded Frazier will toe the rubber for the Waves when the two teams meet on Friday night. And in a way, Frazier will be looking for a little redemption after allowing seven runs on 11 hits in 5 2/3 innings of work last seasons against A&M.
Frazier has had a rather interesting baseball career. He shined as a high school player, both as a pitcher and an elite hitter. Some thought Frazier was good enough to hit at the next level, but with his massive 6-foot-7, 230-pound frame, it was obvious his future was a pitcher.
Frazier had some injury issues as a freshman and made just four appearances. But last season, he blossomed as a starting pitcher, tallying a 3.93 ERA in 103 innings of work. He also struck out 69 and walked 31, while teams hit him at a .264 clip.
The talented right-hander had a big-time fastball up to 95 as a sophomore last season, but the biggest difference between then and now is the continued development of his secondary offerings.
"His secondary stuff has really improved. He's moved from a slider to a curveball, and he's been successful doing that," Pepperdine coach Steve Rodriguez said. "Last week, he had the changeup and curveball working pretty good. He'll be even more effective as he continues to figure things out with the secondary stuff."
From a simple stuff standpoint, Frazier has a fastball that sits in the lower to mid 90s, topping out at 95. He also uses a hard changeup up to 84 and a curveball, also hard, that can get up to 79. With his frame and stuff, Frazier has drawn at least some comparisons to former Notre Dame pitcher and Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija.
"In terms of developing the overall aspect of his game, once you get to the next level and the higher classes in the minor leagues, you have to be able to mix your pitches and throw your breaking pitchers where you want to," Rodriguez said. "The higher up he goes in someone's farm system, the better he needs to be at throwing all his pitches for strikes."
Series to watch
No. 8 Oregon State at San Diego State: In arguably the biggest surprise of opening weekend, the Aztecs did a clean sweep of crosstown rival San Diego. Now, the Aztecs hope to build off that series win this weekend when they face the Beavers. SDSU has a stout starting rotation with Michael Cederoth and Philip Walby leading the way, and both premier arms with fastballs in the 90s, or close to 100 in the case of Cederoth, while freshman right-handed pitcher Bubba Derby has been a spark plug of the bullpen. Meanwhile, OSU is off to a hot start both at the plate and on the mound, and could have left-handed pitcher Ben Wetzler back this weekend in a limited role. Wetzler was out opening weekend with a minor injury.
THE PICK: Oregon State
Stony Brook at No. 1 North Carolina: After going 0-3 last weekend against Florida International, things don't get easier for the Seawolves this weekend as they face the top-ranked Tar Heels. UNC will be without usual starting pitcher Hobbs Johnson, who continues to nurse a minor injury, while the Seawolves need some offensive production to help support starting pitchers Daniel Zamora, a freshman, and Frankie Vanderka, who each pitched well against the Panthers. Zamora and Vanderka both are arms that can get their fastballs into the 90s.
THE PICK: North Carolina
Loyola Marymount at No. 9 Oregon: After taking two of three from Utah in what was a rather competitive series last weekend, the Lions hit the road to take on the Ducks. Oregon left-handed starting pitcher Christian Jones missed last season because of an injury, but came back strong opening weekend against Hawaii with a fastball up to 93. Meanwhile, LMU enters the weekend with a pair of seasoned starting pitchers in Colin Welmon and Trevor Megill. Megill has a big-time arm with a fastball sitting 86-89, tops 90 last week (usually is 90-plus) in addition to a 74-77 curveball, 79-81 changeup and 80-84 slider.
THE PICK: Oregon
No. 5 UCLA at Baylor: The Bruins were stymied in their season opener against Minnesota, but bounced back from an offensive standpoint in Games 2 and 3, respectively. Now, UCLA hits the road this weekend to face a Baylor squad that struggled mightily at UC Irvine last weekend. We all knew the Bears had some rebuilding to do, but this much? We'll find out a lot about BU this weekend, as the Bears need strong starts from bulldog Max Garner and Dillon Newman. It'll be good to see UCLA ace right-handed pitcher Adam Plutko this weekend, who topped out at 92 last weekend against Minnesota. Also keep an eye on freshman closer James Kaprielian, who has a fastball sitting 90-94.
THE PICK: UCLA
Florida Gulf Coast at No. 7 Florida: It's not everyday that a program is completely built from scratch, but coach Dave Tollett and his coaching staff have done a terrific job of turning the Eagles into a contender sooner rather than later. The Eagles had a very solid opening weekend, going 2-1, and head to Gainesville, Fla., with one of the state's best ace pitchers in veteran right-hander Ricky Knapp, who struck out five, walked one, and allowed just two hits in six innings against St. John's last weekend. UF is loaded with talent as usual, but will have a young rotation this weekend with freshmen Tucker Simpson and Eric Hanhold starting.
THE PICK: Florida
No. 19 Cal State Fullerton at No. 20 TCU: The Titans couldn't have gotten off to a hotter start. They went 4-0 opening weekend with a pair of outstanding young arms leading the charge in Thomas Eshelman and fireballer Justin Garza. Eshelman showed pinpoint command in an opening day start, while Garza was up to 96 with his fastball. Meanwhile, TCU is coming off a tough 0-3 weekend at Mississippi. Keep an eye on sophomore left-handed pitcher Brandon Finnegan, who was consistently 94-97 against the Rebels last weekend.
THE PICK: Cal State Fullerton
Pepperdine at Texas A&M: The Waves and Aggies do battle in what should be an interesting series between the two large state powers. The Waves are coming off a good series against Western Michigan, and a loss at Fullerton, with outstanding starting pitchers RHP Scott Frazier and LHP Aaron Brown leading the way. Frazier has a fastball up to 95 with improving secondary stuff, while Brown was consistently 91-93 last weekend. Meanwhile, the Aggies are a work in progress from an offensive standpoint, but have an intriguing ace right-handed pitcher in Kyle Martin, who moved from sidearmer to overhand with his arm motion in the offseason. Martin was up to 93 opening weekend.
THE PICK: Texas A&M
California at UC Irvine: The Golden Bears overcame some adversity to do a clean sweep of Michigan last weekend. Ace left-handed pitcher Justin Jones was lifted from the game after allowing four runs in just 3 1/3 innings of work, but the rest of the pitching staff took care of business to earn a home series sweep over Michigan. Meanwhile, UC Irvine had a terrific weekend in a series sweep over Baylor, using great starts from fireballer Andrew Thurman and crafty Matt Whitehouse to get the job done.
THE PICK: UC Irvine
Notre Dame at Tulane: If you're looking for a series this weekend loaded with big-time prospects, this is your ticket. The Fighting Irish have a big-time closer in Dan Slania, who has a fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s, while third baseman Eric Jagielo is a big-time prospect with outstanding raw power. Meanwhile, Tulane got an outstanding debut from right-handed pitcher Tony Rizzotti last weekend, who sat in the low-to-mid 90s with his fastball. This should be a tremendous series with potential postseason implications at the end of the year.
THE PICK: Tulane
Kent State at San Diego: Raise your hand if you thought this series would feature a pair of teams that struggled opening weekend. The Golden Flashes went 0-4 in the UNC Wilmington tournament last summer, as ace pitcher Tyler Skulina allowed seven runs on six hits in five innings of work. JUCO transfer pitcher Taylor Williams was a bright spot, but the Flashes otherwise struggled on the mound. The Toreros had chances to win a couple of games against rival SDSU last weekend, but couldn't get the job done. USD will need a good start from right-handed pitcher Michael Wagner this weekend. Wagner, making his first start since converting from the bullpen to starter, only was up to 91 with his fastball against the Aztecs.
THE PICK: San Diego
Indiana at Georgia Southern: The Hoosiers had a very solid opening weekend down in Florida with a 2-1 record, both quality wins over Louisville and South Florida. IU ace starting pitcher Joey DeNato is coming off a fantastic start, and he'll need to be sharp again this weekend against a sizzling hot Georgia Southern club. The Eagles opened the season with a series win over in-state power Georgia before beating Florida in midweek action. A series win by the Hoosiers would really help their road resume moving forward, while Rodney Hennon's club's fast start is opening some eyebrows.
THE PICK: Georgia Southern
Tournament games to watch
Kansas State vs. No. 13 Kentucky (Caravelle Classic)
Kansas State vs. Coastal Carolina (Caravelle Classic)
Southeastern Louisiana vs. No. 4 LSU (LSU tournament)
Elon vs. No. 13 Kentucky (Caravelle Classic)
Purdue vs. No. 17 Mississippi State (Diamond Classic)
Purdue vs. Samford (Diamond Classic)
Connecticut vs. UCF (UCF tournament)
College of Charleston vs. Indiana State (Auburn tournament)
No. 13 Kentucky vs. Coastal Carolina (Caravelle Classic)
Samford vs. No. 17 Mississippi State (Diamond Classic)
Purdue vs. No. 17 Mississippi State (Diamond Classic)
Missouri State vs. No. 23 Southern Mississippi (USM tournament)
Texas Tech vs. UCF (UCF tournament)
College of Charleston vs. Auburn (Auburn tournament)
New Mexico vs. No. 21 Oklahoma (Kleberg Bank Invitational)
Holy Cross vs. Virginia Tech (Virginia Tech tournament)
Connecticut vs. Texas Tech (UCF tournament)
Troy vs. UCF (UCF tournament)
Samford vs. No. 17 Mississippi State (Diamond Classic)
Indiana State vs. Auburn (Auburn tournament)
College of Charleston vs. Middle Tennessee State (Auburn tournament)