Notre Dame and Louisville were the Big East headliners entering the 2013 campaign, but it's now time to keep an eye on coach Joe Jordano's Pittsburgh Panthers.
Picked to finish in the middle of the Big East before the season, the Panthers are on a roll this spring and made their biggest statement this past weekend by sweeping the Fighting Irish at home, outscoring them an impressive 20-5 in the process.
Jordano isn't taking anything for granted despite having a 25-9 overall record, but feels like this team, loaded with talent and experience, though not overly flashy, is ready for a strong stretch run with possibly an NCAA postseason appearance at the end of the tunnel.
"It's a combination of youth and experience with this group. I think the key for us is that we stress a very simple approach. We want to have good at bats, play can defense, be aggressive on the base paths and pound the strike zone on the mound," Jordano said. "That's basically what we've been doing the entire season. And from a position player standpoint, we're not spectacular, we just get the job done."
Sitting at 6-3 in Big East play with an improving RPI, the Panthers might not be overly flashy from an offensive standpoint, but the same can't be stated about the pitching staff, which possesses a very solid 1-2-3 punch in the weekend rotation with junior right-handed pitchers Ethan Mildren, Matt Wotherspoon and junior college transfer righty Rhys Aldenhoven leading the charge.
Wotherspoon has received his fair share of headlines over the past few weeks, but it was Mildren, a 6-foot-4, 215-pounder, that earned National Player of the Day honors over the weekend for his performance against Notre Dame, where he struck out three and allowed just three hits in a complete game shutout.
Mildren is an intriguing prospect to watch with his good frame, fastball sitting 89-92, and his ability to throw his secondary pitches for strikes, particularly his changeup, which is a plus pitch at times.
"Ethan is a big, strong kid and he commands three pitches well for strikes. He's a bulldog out there and he's really going to come at you," Jordano said. "He's always been pretty good at commanding his stuff, throwing 50 innings without a walk as a freshman a couple of seasons ago. He has good mound presence and he's a guy I feel like can be effective stuff-wise at the next level."
Wotherspoon hasn't commanded his stuff quite as well as Mildren at times this season, but he, too, is an interesting junior prospect to watch. Wotherspoon, for the most part, has been very consistent with a 2.98 ERA in 66 1/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 51, walked 17 and teams only are hitting him at a 233 clip.
Wotherspoon, a 6-foot-1, 175-pounder, has a big-time arm with the ability to get up to 93-94, though, he consistently pitches in the 89-92 range to be safe. The righty possesses a solid breaking ball, while his changeup has plus potential, but also can be erratic at times.
"Matt throws a little harder and has more depth on his breaking ball. But he can be a little erratic at times. Either way, both those guys really bring a great level of competitiveness to the mound and they're battlers," he said. "I really couldn't be more pleased with Matt, as pitching coach Jerry Oakes has done a terrific job with him and our rotation. Matt, though, is a legitimate three-pitch guy."
Thought he might not garner as many headlines as Mildren and Wotherspoon, Australian right-handed pitcher Rhys Aldenhoven is worth watching. Aldenhoven only sits in the 86-88 range with his fastball, but has pitchability and is a big-time competitor. He has a 2.23 ERA in 60 2/3 innings, along with 34 strikeouts and 18 walks.
"He's another type of guy we have that has a bulldog-like mentality," he said. "He has a plus breaking ball and really moves things around the plate quite a bit. He just competes his tail off, and like the other two starting pitchers, that's just a testament to the job they're doing out there on the mound.
"Overall, our starting pitching has been very good. Anytime you can get your starters through the the seventh inning, you've got a good chance to win," he continued. "That's basically where we've been at the entire season. We've been right there, and this club just continues to work hard."
Beyond the starting rotation, Jordano feels confident about his offensive lineup down the stretch with outfielders Casey Roche (.365/7/45) and Steven Shelinsky (.300/9/30), first baseman Eric Hess (.323/2/27), catcher Elvin Soto (.322/4/28) and designated hitter Boo Vazquez (.317/2/14) leading the charge. Meanwhile, the bullpen is the only potential cause for concern with a month remaining.
"For me, the only concern is the consistency of the bullpen. There is also a little concern about the fact there are times where we just have some poor at bats at the plate," he said. "We've been able to overcome those things so far, but as the season progresses, we have to get better in those areas. I've always had a very simplistic approach to baseball and I'd like to keep it that way. Overall, though, I'm very pleased with this team and the basic principles that we're using.
"Now, we just need to keep practicing those things and see where it takes us."
Mid-major hot board
Bryant: The Bulldogs continue to hold the nation's longest winning streak and crushed Stony Brook in midweek action. Kevin Brown is having a terrific offensive campaign for the Bulldogs, hitting an impressive .402 with 10 doubles, two triples, four homers and 29 RBIs.
Coastal Carolina: And here comes the Chanticleers this spring, as they're 9-1 in their last 10 games and have won nine-straight contests. Speedy outfielder Jacob May is having the offensive campaign he hopes to have, hitting .312 with 10 doubles, two triples, three homers and 18 RBIs. He's also 10-for-15 in stolen bases.
South Florida: Perhaps just perhaps the Bulls finally are ready to take a monumental step forward. USF starting pitcher Jimmy Herget is having an impressive campaign with a 1.55 ERA in 52 1/3 innings of work, while Alex Mendez leads the offense, hitting .321 with two homers and 24 RBIs.
Maine: The Black Bears continue to play at a high level and it's no surprise Tommy Lawrence, a former Winthrop pitcher, is having a big-time campaign. He has started nine games and has a 1.88 ERA in 62 1/3 innings of work.
Sacramento State: The Hornets went through a lull for a while, but now are back in business, having won eight of their last 10 contests. Sacramento State ace pitcher Brennan Leitao is having an impressive campaign, sitting at 4-2 with a 3.19 ERA in 62 innings of work.
Nebraska-Omaha: The Mavericks understandably got off to a slow start, but really are heating up with a 9-1 record in their last 10, including an eight-game winning streak. Keep an eye on starting pitcher Zach Williamsen, who has a 2.61 ERA in 31 innings of work.
Army: The Black Nights are starting to heat up with a 7-5 Patriot League mark, and winners of eight of their last 10 games. Keep an eye moving forward on leading hitter Patrick Mescher, who's hitting .340 with 23 RBIs.
Belmont: The Bruins are doing a terrific job this spring, and have now won eight of their last 10 contests. Veteran starting pitcher Chase Brookshire just continues to dominant on the mound, sitting pretty with a 1.15 ERA in 47 innings. He also has struck out 47 and walked five.
UNC Wilmington: The Seahawks entered the latest rankings for good reason. They had an outstanding weekend against Delaware and continue to impress with starting pitchers Mat Batts and Jordan Ramsey leading the charge.
Campbell: The Camels didn't have a tremendous amount of success last week, but are still winners of eight of their last 10. Campbell is getting a big-time campaign from Clayton Brown and Brent Graham, who are hitting .426 and .385, respectively.
Saint Louis: The Billikens continue to have their way with the Atlantic 10 Conference so far this season, sitting at an impressive 8-1 in league play. SLU starting pitcher Alex Alemann is having a terrific campaign with a 2.98 ERA in 60 1/3 innings.
North Florida: The Ospreys aren't talked about a lot, but what a season they're having. UNF is 8-2 in its last 10 games and is in the midst of a six-game winning streak. Keep an eye on Joe Wielbruda and Donnie Dewees, who are hitting an impressive .368 and .364, respectively.