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The most important weekend of the college baseball season to-date lies ahead. Though many teams around the country will remain out of conference this weekend, plenty of others have huge series on the schedule with conference play beginning for the SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12, while the ACC continues league play.
With these important series typically come some big-time pitching matchups. And it’s easy to say college baseball fans won’t be disappointed with what’s on the docket for the weekend. For instance, Ole Miss right-handed pitcher Chris Ellis and his unblemished earned-run average hit the road to take on unbeaten Jordan Montgomery and South Carolina, while in Conference USA, hard-throwing Rice right-handed pitcher Zech Lemond hopes to tame a Florida International lineup that has put together some impressive numbers so far this spring.
There are many other series and pitching matchups to follow this weekend, but most of the nation’s attention will be on the series between No. 9 LSU and No. 4 Vanderbilt and No. 6 North Carolina State and No. 2 Florida State, specifically the Friday night pitching matchups between LSU right-hander Aaron Nola and Vandy right-hander Tyler Beede, along with N.C. State left-hander Carlos Rodon opposite Florida State right-hander Luke Weaver.
All four were Perfect Game Preseason College All-Americans and are virtual locks to be first-round picks in the Major League Baseball draft in June barring a major surprise.
Going outside the box a little in the latest weekend preview, we spoke with LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn, Vanderbilt pitching coach Scott Brown, N.C. State pitching coach Tom Holliday and Florida State pitching coach Mike Bell about their respective aces.
INSIDE THE ELITE PITCHING MATCHUPS
Vanderbilt’s Scott Brown on RHP Tyler Beede
“For Tyler, I think it all starts off the mound. His leadership qualities have really started to come out, not only in the dugout, but also in the locker room and at out practices. That’s the biggest difference with Tyler right now. He’s engaged much more than he was last season and he’s really immersed in his teammates, not worrying about himself. It’s been important for Tyler in the sense that he has stopped worrying about the outside influences. He’s not worrying about that. He’s just worried about winning and the culture of this program.”
“I think Tyler has learned a lot from some of his failures last season. He started to get in his own way a little bit, and he had a hard time repeating things. He’s taken a lot of ownership in that, and there were some things in his delivery that weren’t allowing him to repeat things. We took some time in the offseason to really dissect his delivery, and he’s really revamped some things. He understands his body and he’s repeating his delivery better now. He’s got a better feel for things.”
“As for the things we worked on delivery-wise, there were just some problems with him being stable through the ground. His back side initiation was really early and he wasn’t staying through the ground well during his delivery. There was some head displacement there and an inconsistent release point. That really affected his fastball command. It didn’t affect the changeup too much because of the arm speed associated with the pitch, but he’s worked really hard on his timing. He’s kind of like the mad scientist out there. You give him some information and he’s going to process it. It’s important to him, and he’s really invested in his own improvement.”
“The one thing that really impresses me about Tyler is he realizes he doesn’t have to make the perfect pitch every time. He can challenge guys more often and not be afraid of more contact. He’s not taking himself too seriously right now. He’s having fun and enjoying the process, and he’s not really a guy who looks forward too much. He’s going to go out there and compete on Friday, win or lose, and just start everything all over again the next week.”
“Something that has really helped Tyler is that he’s learning a lot from guys like David Price and Sonny Gray. He’s learning and talking to those guys, and he’s realizing that you don’t have to throw 45-55 pitch bullpens. He learned a lot from those guys from a mental standpoint during the fall. Both Price and Gray are guys who have a lot of fun playing this game, so they’ve really rubbed off on him.”
“I certainly think Tyler has three above-average Major League pitches right now. The breaking ball is good and the changeup, to me, is still a plus pitch. He has the ability to command both sides of the plate and he commands the glove side well now, something he struggled with last season. Nothing has really changed when you look at his overall stuff, but it’s just the command. The command of all his pitches is infinitely better.”
LSU’s Alan Dunn on RHP Aaron Nola
“We’ve become accustomed to seeing the things he’s doing right now all the time. He’s been doing those things since he was a freshman and it’s why he is who he is. Aaron is such a competitor and his ability to command the fastball is really what separates him from the others. He’s another guy who has poise and such a mound presence about him. You watch the way he reacts out there and you don’t know who’s winning the game. That’s how dialed in to the game he is. He’s going to stay calm no matter what, and he’s only worried about executing his pitches. He knows what he can and can’t do, and he’s going to go out there and stay within myself. All those things make him pretty special.”
“His stuff and breaking ball really have gotten better. He has always had the fastball command, but his breaking ball has become a very good pitch. He’s also doing a good job with his changeup, and he’s just a three-pitch guy with command, mound presence and an attacking mentality out there.”
“I think his breaking pitch has gotten really good over the past few weeks. It’s a solid, solid breaking ball. For Aaron, it’s just a matter of staying within what he does. Obviously, when you look at his future, he’ll have to make some adjustments at the next level, but he’s already good enough. I’ll go to battle with a guy like Aaron any night.”
“For me, one of the most impressive games he’s ever thrown was against Sam Houston State in last year’s NCAA Regional. He gave up five runs in the first inning because we didn’t make some plays in the field and some balls fell in just right for them. Before you know it, he’s in a jam and already has thrown 42 pitches. Then, you look up later in the game and he’s suddenly thrown seven innings despite the slow start. That’s the sign of a winner. That was probably our season right there, because if you lose, it’s a tough road to overcome. That’s just the type of stuff you’re going to get from Aaron Nola. You know he’s going to go out there and give it all against every hitter he faces.”
“I’ll tell you this, and I told someone this a while back. But I had this pitcher in the professional ranks right out of college. It was former USC pitcher Mark Prior. Nola doesn’t remind me of him from a mechanical standpoint, but their approaches were similar. When Prior got to Double-A, I thought he was one of the more polished pitchers I had ever seen because of his fastball command. You could tell Prior to throw 20 fastballs down and away, and he’d throw 19 of them down and away. He had such an impressive ability to move his pitches around the strike zone with such ease. That’s why I compare Aaron Nola to him. The mentality and ability to use their stuff to their advantage are very similar. With the arm angle Aaron has, he pitches so much to the bottom of the strike zone. As long as you can do that and command your pitches, you’ve got a great chance at success. Aaron has that and he’s a terrific leader. I’ve always told our pitches, you can have the best stuff in the game, but if you don’t have leadership and mound presence, it hurts. That’s what really helps those special arms at the next level. And that’s what Aaron Nola is all about.”
Florida State’s Mike Bell on RHP Luke Weaver
“I think things have been pretty good and right on schedule so far this season. Anytime you can get a guy who can take the ball on Friday and do what Weaver has done, you’re in good shape. Luke has had some really quality starts so far this season and has allowed the offense to do what it needs to do early in the game to take the lead. He’s been typical Luke thus far. He’s had a quality three-pitch mix and is commanding his fastball on both sides of the plate. He’s mixing in his breaking ball and changeup in there. After spending last summer with Team USA, I think Luke has come back a bit more seasoned than last year.”
“I think he’s always had a live arm. I think the having a good fastball is one thing, but he has good command of that pitch now. He’s also trusting his stuff and attacking hitters. I think early on his freshman year, he struggled with those things. He now understands how to breakdown hitters and counts, and he understands when the scoreboard allows you to pound the zone. He’s careful and he’s able to pitch out of jams. Those are things he learned over the past couple of seasons.”
“The thing about Luke is he’s a free-spirited guy for six days a week. He’s the leader of our fungo group at practices and he’s always a guy with a smile on his face. But on his day to pitch, he’s a completely different animal, and that’s a good trait to have. I think the ultimate thing for him this year is that he has a team first mentality, and he understands some of the outside pressures on guys with arms like his, but he’s a guy who enjoys being a leader and one of the key guys in the clubhouse.”
“I think Luke’s slider has been very good the past couple of weeks. He’ll throw it for a strike when he needs to in any count, and that keeps hitters from thinking he’s always going to throw a fastball in fastball counts. That’s helping his confidence across the board. He’s not just throwing it 92-95, he’s spotting it up when he needs to, and also throwing his breaking pitches for strikes. The slider has been about 80-82 and the changeup around 78-80. The changeup in particular has had some good action on it so far this season.”
N.C. State’s Tom Holliday on LHP Carlos Rodon
“He’s probably been about the same he usually is this time of year. He’s not a real cold weather pitcher type of guy. With that said, it’s kind of hard to say he doesn’t get off to a good start, but he just seems to be a much better warm weather pitcher. This past Saturday was the first time this year he’s pitched with the temperature near 60. I’d say he’s just about to the point where he’s coming into his own. But he’s had to pitch through more tough situations and luck than I’ve seen from anyone. One game earlier this year, he gave up five bloop singles, while another team got a few hits from some softly hit ground balls up the middle.”
“I think so many people try to put him into play that when you’re out there mishitting you have a chance to get on base. He’s really had to pitch around stuff like that. He’s walked a few more guys that we’d like to see so far this year, but when you have 100 radar guns, scouting directors and so on there early in the season to see you, it can be tough. I think he and his stuff have been good, but he hasn’t been great just yet this season.”
“His stuff is still the same right now. His slider is the one pitch that is unhittable a lot of the times. Then there’s the pitch he refers to as a cutter, but it’s more of a power curveball. I told him during the fall if you’re going to throw four pitches, let’s put some definition on those things. Here’s what a slider, curve and so on looks like. What he was calling a cutter was really a late-biting curveball. I didn’t care what he called it, though because it was so good. He was throwing balls changing planes at 13-14 inches at 89-90 mph. That’s a pretty high velocity curveball, and when you’re pitching 94 already, I didn’t see a big need for it in the spring. I think he was confused with four pitches. I kind of compare it to kids at Christmas. They get toys every Christmas and aren’t real sure which ones they want to play with, then they end up getting cranky. I saw that a little bit from Carlos in the fall. He’ll eventually get to spring training at the next level and the pitching coach will ask him if he’s ever thrown a curveball, and he’ll say he didn’t really need it.”
“One thing about Carlos, I think the one day a week he gets to pitch is very, very special to him. If he had his way, he’d pitch about three days a week. He loves to pitch and there aren’t many guys out there like him. He gets up for everyone. In the opener against Canisius, he was so up about the game I had to tell him I haven’t seen him like that since his freshman year. This game is a big deal to him and pitches every game like it’s the College World Series. That’s the No. 1 thing for him moving forward is just controlling that adrenaline. The good thing is we know each time out, we’re always going to get 100-percent out of him.”
“There aren’t a lot of guys I compare Rodon, too, but he kind of reminds me, mentally and approach-wise, of Dennis Livingston back in the 1980s during my time as an assistant at Oklahoma State. That guy could just pitch. Then, there was J.P. Howell during my time at Texas. He was another guy who just knew how to pitch, and his approach was so good. He had four pitches and he was going to find out what you couldn’t hit, and when he did, he loaded you up with that pitch. Him and Carlos had kind of the same impact. Both get swings and misses more than anyone I’ve ever seen during my years of coaching pitchers.”
MARQUEE SERIES ABOUND
No. 24 Ole Miss at No. 3 South Carolina: The Rebels were expected to finish near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference Western Division this season, but coach Mike Bianco’s club obviously has something else in mind. Rebels right-handed pitcher Chris Ellis has been terrific so far this season with an unblemished ERA in 27 2/3 innings, while offensively, versatile Auston Bousfield has risen to the occasion with a .413 batting average, two homers and 13 RBIs … As for the Gamecocks, there’s not much more that could be said about the pitching staff other than they have an ERA of 1.12 this season. The Gamecocks have tossed four-straight shutouts and have an excellent weekend rotation with Jordan Montgomery (1.99), Jack Wynkoop (1.37) and Wil Crowe (0.99) leading the charge. The Gamecocks certainly have the edge at home in this series, but the Rebels are feeling good.
USC at No. 10 Oregon: After such a fast start this spring, the Trojans have come back down to Earth a little bit since once being undefeated a couple of weeks into the season. With that said, I was impressed with the Trojans responding from a 0-3 weekend with a nice midweek win over Loyola Marymount. Talented right-handed pitcher Wyatt Strahan (4.74) needs to have a strong start this weekend, while the offense has a lot of potential with Kevin Swick (.415) and Jake Hernandez (.400) leading the way … The Ducks had a tough series against Cal State Fullerton two weekends ago, but responded in impressive fashion last weekend by taking two of three from Ohio State with the offensive leading the way. Tyler Baumgartner (.391) is having a good year at the plate thus far, while Tommy Thorpe (2.84), Jeff Gold (2.52) and Matt Krook (2.19) make up a solid rotation.
No. 21 UCLA at California: Things haven’t been so easy for the defending national champions so far this season, as they have a 9-7 overall record entering this weekend’s series against the Golden Bears. With that said, the weekend rotation is in good shape with Grant Watson (2.16), Cody Poteet (2.42) and James Kaprielian (3.20) leading the way, while the offense has gotten a boost here lately from catcher Shane Zeile, who’s hitting an impressive .400 with a home run and 11 RBIs … As for the Bears, freshman Daulton Jefferies has shown advanced feel early this season with a 3.80 ERA in 21 1/3 innings, while Kyle Porter has been fantastic with a 0.95 ERA in 19 innings, along with 12 strikeouts and four walks. The big concern for the Bears entering the weekend is the offense, which has a .239 batting average. Devon Rodriguez (.269) and Devin Pearson (.269) both are guys who have the ability to breakout, while Derek Campbell is hitting .246.
No. 15 Rice at Florida International: The Panthers have gotten off to a terrific 16-1 start this season, but it’s safe to say their schedule hasn’t been the greatest. With that said, they’ve got a chance to make a real statement this weekend against the Owls. FIU has a potent offensive lineup, hitting .336, with veterans Aramis Garcia (.431) and Josh Anderson (.431) leading the way, while the pitching staff, thus far, has been a big surprise with Mike Franco (1.07) and Mike Ellis (1.93) off to good starts, while freshman Cody Crouse (1.04) has met expectations in 17 1/3 innings of work … The Owls suffered some tough news last week when right-handed pitcher Jordan Stephens went down with a season-ending injury, but hard-throwing righty Zech Lemond, who moved from the closer role to starting rotation, struck out 10, walked three and allowed just a run on two hits in 6 2/3 innings in his first start against Old Dominion last weekend. Offensively, the Owls need a big weekend from hard-hitting Skyler Ewing (.361/3/21), while Leon Byrd and Ford Stainback are guys who have the ability to breakout this weekend.
No. 20 Mississippi State at Georgia: After having a tough trip out to Arizona last weekend, the Bulldogs hit the road this weekend to begin SEC play at Georgia. While the maroon bulldogs haven’t played particularly great so far this season, the feeling around the program is they’re due for a big weekend. Pitching-wise, right-handers Ben Bracewell (1.74) and Trevor Fitts (3.92) will occupy two of the weekend rotation spots, while Brandon Woodruff, who started on Fridays the last few weeks, isn’t listed as a starter, but the potential is still there with TBA listed for Sunday. Offensively, C.T. Bradford (.333) is off to a decent start, while Alex Detz (.192) is the guy State really needs to get on track this weekend … Georgia has a chance to make a big statement this weekend. The Bulldogs started very slow out of the gate, but seemingly have been better the past couple of weeks. Talented prospect and outfielder Hunter Cole (.377) is off to a nice start, while Zack Bowers (.317) earned National Player of the Day honors over the weekend. Pitching-wise, it’ll be very interesting to see how right-handed pitcher Robert Tyler, a freshman, factors into the equation moving forward. Tyler is coming off a very good start and has a 0.93 ERA in 19 1/3 innings, while the pitching staff as a whole must be better with a 4.78 ERA.
No. 18 Kentucky at Alabama: The Wildcats are off to a very nice start this season with a 13-4 overall record, and would love to hit the road and take a series from talented Alabama this weekend. Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide has yet to make a statement this season, but that could change against the Wildcats. UK junior outfielder Austin Cousino has been much better this season with a .432 batting average, a home run and 11 RBIs, while two-way star A.J. Reed, who will start on Friday, also is having a huge year at the plate with a .414 average, eight homers and 28 RBIs. On the mound, talented Chandler Shepherd has only continued where he left off last summer, tallying a 2.42 ERA in 26 innings, along with 21 strikeouts and six walks … For the Crimson Tide, the offense needs to get going this weekend with a .267 batting average. Veteran Ben Moore is hitting .300 with a home run and 10 RBIs and could make a big statement this weekend, while Austen Smith leads the way with a .362 batting average. On the mound, the Crimson Tide will have a very solid one-two-three punch with Spencer Turnbull (0.42), Justin Kamplain (2.45) and Jon Keller (0.83) leading the way.
No. 13 North Carolina at Maryland: The Terrapins fell short of a huge series win last weekend at Florida State, but have yet another chance to shine this weekend with the Tar Heels coming to College Park, Md. The Tar Heels haven’t been great offensively so far this season with a .264 batting average, but you have to believe Skye Bolt (.239) and Landon Lassiter (.231) will breakout at some point. Perhaps this is the weekend it happens. With that said, the Tar Heels still have a very solid pitching with Benton Moss (2.20), Trent Thornton (2.33) and Zac Gallen (3.16) leading the charge. Meanwhile, reliever Reilly Hovis (2.13) has been very solid in 12 2/3 innings … For Maryland, it all starts with right-handed pitcher Jake Stinnett on Fridays. Stinnett has a 2.25 ERA in 28 innings, while freshman right-handed pitcher Mike Shawaryn earned a lot of recognition last week by shutting down Florida State’s potent lineup. Shawaryn has a 0.75 ERA in 24 innings, along with 18 strikeouts and six walks. Offensively, the Terps need a big weekend from Anthony Papio (.293). Papio was hitting over .400 a week ago, but has seen his batting average since decline.
No. 14 Clemson at Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons are off to a surprisingly good start this season, and are coming off a road series win over Georgia Tech to begin ACC play. The Deacs could absolutely get into PG Top 25 contention this weekend, too, with a home series win over the Tigers. Wake Forest has some potential offensively, though it’s only hitting .264 on the season. Will Craig has a special ability for key hits and is hitting .382 with three homers and 13 RBIs, while Evan Stephens is hitting .313 and leads the team in stolen bases with six … Pitching-wise, veteran left-hander John McLeod is off to a good start with a 1.09 ERA in 24 2/3 innings, along with 24 strikeouts and 13 walks, while righty Jack Fischer has a 3.67 ERA in 27 innings, along with 16 strikeouts and six walks. Wake’s go-to guy out of the pen is righty Aaron Fossas, who has appeared in 10 games, recorded three saves and has a 1.56 ERA in 17 1/3 innings … For the Tigers, getting Jon McGibbon (.095) is a huge key to the season, while Tyler Krieger (.386) and Tyler Slaton (.369) have been very solid. Meanwhile, the Tigers always feel confident with sure-handed Daniel Gossett (2.78) and Matthew Crownover (2.41) leading the charge in the weekend rotation.
Wichita State at UC Santa Barbara: If you want to follow a series with Perfect Game College Top 25 implications, this one is right down your alley. The Gauchos were extremely close to joining the fray last weekend, but was edged out by Pepperdine. The Gauchos, though, beat the Waves in midweek action, giving them a good opportunity to jump with a good weekend against the Shockers. Electric UCSB outfielder Joey Epperson, who’s a 6.60 runner and has the ability to hit to all fields, is hitting .500 so far this year, while two-way talent Robby Nesovic is hitting .360 with 13 RBIs. First baseman Tyler Kuresa isn’t hitting for a strong average, but has very good raw power with four homers and 21 RBIs. On the mound, sophomore left-hander Justin Jacome has more than made up for the loss of righty Austin Pettibone to injury, tallying a 1.40 ERA in 19 1/3 innings, while Greg Mahle has been stable out of the bullpen with a 1.69 ERA in 16 innings … For the Shockers, it doesn’t get much better than All-American first baseman Casey Gillaspie, who’s hitting .420 with three homers and 17 RBIs, while on the mound, the Shockers love right-handed pitcher AJ Ladwig, who has advanced feel for his changeup and a 0.70 ERA in 25 2/3 innings, along with 21 strikeouts and three walks. The Shocks also have a talent young pitcher in Sam Tewes, who has made a quick transition with a 2.70 ERA in 20 innings. Tewes has shown advanced feel and good stuff thus far.
* South Carolina second baseman Max Schrock has been dealing with a sore back for the past week or so, and he’s likely to at least miss Fridays’ contest against Ole Miss, head coach Chad Holbrook told reporters Thursday afternoon. Schrock has some impressive pop in his bat, and is hitting .286 with a pair of homers and six RBIs.
* Virginia has one of the nation’s most talented offensive lineups with outfielder Derek Fisher and others leading the charge. Fisher, though, will be out at least four-to-six weeks because of a broken hamate bone, the Cavaliers announced. Fisher’s return only will be the beginning of the rehab process, though, as it’ll also take time for him to regain some power. Fisher was hitting .333 (second on the team) with seven RBIs.
* It’s sometimes very difficult to meet the high expectations placed on you, but that hasn’t been a huge issue for San Francisco outfielder Bradley Zimmer. Zimmer, ranked as one of the top position players for the Major League Baseball draft this summer, is off to an outstanding start as the Dons welcome struggling Gonzaga to the Bay Area this weekend to begin WCC play. Zimmer is hitting .393 with three homers and 12 RBIs. He also has a .439 OBP and five stolen bases.
* Florida had hoped right-handed pitcher Karsten Whitson would make a smooth transition back from an injury this spring, but things haven’t gone precisely as planned. Though Whitson’s velocity has been fine, touching the usual 93-94 at times this season, command has been an issue at times. Whitson has a 4.72 ERA in 13 1/3 innings, and has been moved to the bullpen this weekend. Interestingly, the Gators have moved talented freshman righty Logan Shore to the forefront. Shore has a 0.45 ERA in 20 innings, along with 16 strikeouts and two walks.
* Washington has been streaking as of late, winner of seven-straight contests, and will be tested in a big way this weekend on the road against Arizona State. Hard-throwing right-handed pitcher Jeff Brigham, who we profiled in this in-depth feature, has been terrific so far this year. He tops out at 96-97 and has displayed good command. Brigham has a 1.17 ERA in 23 innings, along with seven strikeouts and four walks.
* It’s not often we say the first couple of weekends of Conference USA play is hugely important, but that might really be the case when it comes to Tulane and East Carolina. The Green Wave has a 9-6 overall record, but hasn’t had a statement series so far this spring. Meanwhile, ECU is struggling mightily with an 8-9 overall record. ECU starting pitcher Jeff Hoffman has a 3.28 ERA in 24 2/3 innings, along with 32 strikeouts and 13 walks. Meanwhile, the Green Wave will start a solid pitcher of their own opposite of Hoffman in senior right-handed pitcher Tyler Mapes. Mapes has a big-time arm with a mid-90s fastball, along with a good slider and command. He has a 2.45 ERA in 14 2/3 innings.
* It should be an exciting weekend in the Big 12 with Kansas at Texas and Texas Tech at Baylor. The Longhorns have done a tremendous job of winning close games so far this season, while KU starting pitcher Wes Benjamin is earning rave reviews. Meanwhile, Baylor surprised everyone last weekend with a home series win over highly-ranked Cal State Fullerton after getting blasted in the series opener. BU has a solid starting rotation with Dillon Newman (4.19), Brad Kuntz (1.17) and Austin Stone (1.61).