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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Mid-major spotlight

Kendall Rogers        
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Nothing quite grabs national attention like sweeping Florida on the road.

What a difference a couple of weeks make. Just two weeks ago, Florida Gulf Coast entered the 2013 college baseball season just hoping to do enough in Atlantic Sun play to warrant at-large consideration. That probably wasn't likely, so in all reality, their only hope to reach the NCAA postseason, as with most mid-majors, seemed firmly hinged on winning the conference tournament in May.

That was FGCU's situation two weeks ago. Now, its situation appears to be dramatically different. The Eagles are knocking on the door of the Perfect Game College Top 25, and this suddenly is a team that will need to create doubters, not one automatically with them.

"I think it does put us on the map, so to speak," FGCU coach Dave Tollett said about the Florida series win. "Anytime you go on the road and beat an ACC or SEC team, it definitely gets you noticed. This is really big for us."

Brooks Beisner and the FGCU offense take pressure off the elite pitching.

Tollett can say that again. FGCU, though, isn't the first Atlantic Sun club to make a statement on the national stage. Mercer, which Tollett said he saw a couple of weeks ago and was very impressed with, jumped on the scene opening weekend with a 3-0 weekend that included impressive wins over Ohio State, St. John's and now-ranked Notre Dame.

Much like the Bears opening weekend, the Eagles used a fresh combination of offense and pitching to make their statement against the Gators this past weekend.

Offensively, several players rose to the occasion throughout the weekend, including first baseman Brooks Beisner, third baseman Zack Tillery, outfielder Michael Suchy and of course, left fielder Sean Dwyer, whose three-run home run in extra innings on Sunday essentially granted the Eagles the monumental sweep over the Gators.

But as impressive as the offense was against UF's talented arms at times, the pitching staff was even more impressive with seniors Ricky Knapp, Brandon Bixler and R.J. Brown, and junior right-handed pitcher Harrison Cooney leading the way.

Knapp was absolutely brilliant in the series opener against the Gators, striking out four batters, walking none and allowing just two runs on six hits in a complete game performance. He also threw 92 pitches, 70 for strikes.

"He's just a quality pitcher. He might not be quite as electric as someone like Chris Sale in the past, but he's a quality pitcher who can pitch backwards, or just start you off with a changeup," Tollett said about Knapp. "He's just the type of guy you can never get a good swing off of."

Though Knapp may not have Sale type of velocity, he certainly isn't chopped liver, as he has a fastball that sits anywhere between 88-92, along with good secondary offerings.

"He never throws the same fastball twice. If he throws one at 91, he may throw the next fastball at 86 and completely on the other side of the plate," he continued. "He just goes out there and speeds you up, then slows you down. He's very effective that way."

Bixler is another intriguing arm to watch the rest of the season. Though he's only 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, the junior left-handed hurler has a big-time arm with a fastball that sat anywhere between 91-93 against the Gators last weekend. Bixler started the second game of the series, striking out four batters and allowing just one run on four hits in five innings of work.

"His stuff is just really, really good right now when he's on," Tollett said. "He also has a good breaking ball, and he has the ability to go out there and get many strikeouts."

Freshman right-hander Michael Murray and senior left-hander R.J. Brown also logged some good innings for FGCU over the weekend against Florida, but no one garnered as much attention as junior right-handed pitcher Harrison Cooney.

Cooney was a shortstop in high school, but suddenly has developed into one of the nation's fastest rising prospects for the upcoming MLB draft. Cooney was masterful in the series finale against UF, keeping the offense off balance while striking out five batters and allowing just two hits in five shutout innings of relief work.

"Harrison has been a great surprise for us," Tollett said. "We saw it coming, though. He was going to be our No. 2 starting pitcher before Brady Anderson had an ACL injury. Now he's our closer and he's doing a very good job back there."

Cooney's evolution as a pitcher is interesting to say the least. Tollett said he only threw 90-92 out of high school, and given he primarily was a shortstop, was only a thrower, not a true pitcher. Things obviously have changed, as Cooney flourished against the Gators, sitting 95-96 with his fastball the first three innings, while he still was 93-94 in his fourth inning of work.

Mercer has earned some recognition for the Atlantic Sun primarily because of its offense with first baseman Nick Backlund leading the charge. Now, the Eagles are earning even more recognition with a high-powered stable of arms.

The Atlantic Sun regular season title race just got a whole lot more interesting. 

Middle Tennessee State making a move

Middle Tennessee State should be glad it went with the sensible and obvious choice for head coach in Jim McGuire.

When long-time head coach Steve Peterson retired at the end of the 2012 college baseball season, the Blue Raiders attempted to do a national search for head coach. However, the locals around Murfreesboro, Tenn., were determined to make sure McGuire got a fair shake.

Though it didn't look good for McGuire for a while, the coaching search eventually went full circle and ended up in McGuire's hands. Ask anyone around Blue Raider athletics and they'll tell you that's where the search should've started and ended to begin with.

Hunter Adkins and the MTSU pitching staff are performing at a high level.

Those staunch supporters, for the time being, look like geniuses, as the Blue Raiders are coming off a fantastic weekend at the Auburn tournament, and are sitting in good shape with a 5-2 overall record.

The fact the Blue Raiders are off to an impressive start this spring shouldn't be a big surprise. After all, with the personnel this team had coming back this spring, the Raiders were picked by us to finish near the top of the Sun Belt Conference.

What indeed is surprising is that the Blue Raiders have taken care of business in impressive fashion the first two weekends with the offense struggling, hitting at a dismal .239 clip. The reason? The answer is clear, it has been all about the pitching staff.

"It all starts with the pitching staff right now, that's for sure," McGuire said. "Our starting pitching has really been the difference so far this season. They give us the opportunity to save the bullpen a little bit the first couple of days of the weekend. In return, that puts us in position in the third game to use some fresh arms, or even bring some guys back, increasing our chances of winning that series finale and the series in general."

The Blue Raiders began the season with a home series win over Ball State, but took a huge step forward last weekend down at Auburn, where they went a perfect 3-0 with wins over host Auburn, Indiana State and College of Charleston.

Though the MTSU offense struggled in the first game against Auburn, Blue Raiders senior right-handed pitcher Hunter Adkins was terrific in a 2-1 triumph. Adkins, a 6-foot-4, 198-pounder, who turned down the Brewers as an 18th-round pick last summer, struck out five and allowed just one run on three hits in eight innings of work. He also threw 101 pitches, 58 for strikes.

"That's back-to-back weeks now that Hunter has been sharp. He wasn't sharp early on against Auburn, but he settled into a groove," McGuire said. "He's just one of those guys who is consistent in whatever he does out there."

Adkins, with his good frame, certainly is an interesting prospect to watch. He has a fastball that consistently sits 88-92 on the radar gun, while he does a good job of using a four-pitch mix, which includes a changeup, curveball and cutter.

"From the time I saw him in high school until now, he's always been a strike thrower," McGuire said. "He seems to have a lot more confidence now in throwing that changeup to left-handed hitters. He's just one of those guys who does all the little things right out there."

Though Adkins might lead the charge, the Blue Raiders also are excited about the continued improvements of outstanding sophomore left-handed hurler Johnathan Frebis. Frebis, an imposing 6-foot-3, 222-pounder, who will play at the Cape Cod League this summer, was fantastic against Indiana State this past weekend.

Frebis worked six innings in a victory over the Sycamores, allowing just a run on five hits, while striking out five batters and walking two. Frebis finished the contest with 96 total pitches, 63 thrown for strikes.

"You know, he kind of has a funky arm angle, I call it a lean, but he's effective out there," McGuire said. "He's just a tremendous competitor, and I think that's what kind of separates him from some other pitchers out there. He doesn't walk a lot of guys and he continues to just get tougher on left-handed hitters."

Frebis doesn't have quite the velocity of Adkins, but still is a very solid pitcher. He has a fastball in the upper 80s with a unique arm angle and command. Frebis also has a frame conducive to increased arm strength in the future.

As if Adkins and Frebis aren’t enough, the Blue Raiders also have an impressive No. 3 starting pitcher in junior left-handed pitcher Zac Curtis. Curtis only is 5-foot-9, 171 pounds, has a bulldog mentality and attacks hitters. He allowed three runs in five innings last week, but also only surrendered three hits.

Should the Blue Raiders’ starting rotation get in trouble, McGuire’s club is blessed with an outstanding bullpen with seasoned arms such as Paul Mittura and Daniel Palo leading the way. Mittura didn’t allow a run in 2 2/3 innings of work last weekend, while Palo stepped up in the Indiana State game with three shutout innings of relief work.

“The pitching staff overall has just been very good. Mittura and Palo were outstanding last week,” McGuire said. “Whatever situation we seem to put them in, they’re able to wiggle out of trouble with big pitches in big situations. I think it’s a real tribute to what Skylar (Meade) is doing with this pitching staff. We’re all working on the same page.”

Middle Tennessee State has already made a statement with just the pitching staff rising to the occasion, making us wonder what potential there is once the offense comes around.

Mid-major hot board

Appalachian State: New coach Billy Jones is doing a terrific job with this club. They had a 3-1 week that included a win over Canisius, and a weekend series win over Butler.

Georgia Southern: The Eagles could be the next mid-major type of club to enter the PG Top 25. The Eagles already made a statement by taking a weekend series over in-state foe Georgia, while they went 2-1 last week with a win over Florida, and a weekend split with Indiana.

Alabama State: Mervyl Melendez's club, to no surprise at all, is off to a solid start this season. They're coming off a 4-1 week that included an impressive midweek win over Mercer.

Austin Peay State: What a week Gary McClure's team had on the baseball diamond. McClure's Governors defeated red-hot Middle Tennessee State in midweek action before sweeping a weekend series from a solid Illinois State club.

Campbell: Here come Michael Felton and the Camels once again. The Camels are coming off a 5-0 week that included a series sweep over Hartford and midweek win over East Carolina.

East Tennessee State: Clinton Freeman and the Buccaneers are off to a great this season, going 4-0 last week with a midweek win over Wofford and weekend series sweep over a decent Seton Hall club.

Elon: As expected, Mike Kennedy's club is off to a nice start this spring. They went 3-1 last week with a pair of wins over Coastal Carolina and Kansas State.

Houston Baptist: The Huskies are still trying to build their brand and program, and they're coming off a successful weekend that included a pair of good wins over Bryant.

Maine: Steve Trimper's Black Bears had a very successful trip down to the Sunshine State with a pair of wins over Florida A&M and an impressive series win over Stetson.

Radford: This series kind of went under the radar over the weekend, but the Highlanders impressed with a road series sweep over a solid Kennesaw State club.

Temple: What a weekend it was for the Owls. In addition to beating red-hot Virginia Tech to begin the weekend, they also defeated a decent Holy Cross team.

Virginia Commonwealth: The Rams remain undefeated after another outstanding week that included a home series sweep over St. Joseph's, which should contend in the Atlantic 10.

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