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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Weekend preview: Sizzling Seminoles

Kendall Rogers        
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Florida State head coach Mike Martin and his coaching staff have done some impressive coaching jobs over the years, but what the Seminoles have accomplished so far this season considering the adversity they've gone through might just best them all.

After reaching the College World Series last season, the Seminoles certainly entered this season with high hopes even without outfielder James Ramsey, third baseman Sherman Johnson and other key cogs. However, that was without knowing the two things we know now -- starting pitcher Mike Compton is out for the season and had Tommy John surgery and shortstop Justin Gonzalez, a key offensive cog and tremendous leader, is out the rest of the season because of hip surgery.

Despite those significant setbacks, the Seminoles still have an outstanding 20-1 overall record entering this weekend's home series against hard-hitting Georgia Tech, much credit, of course, going to a much improved pitching staff.

"Well, Mike Bell has done a tremendous job with our pitching staff," Martin said. "He has people in good roles, and they understand what they need to do. He's meticulous with his organization and a lot of credit goes to him for that. I'm just very pleased with our starting pitchers giving us quality starts.

Jameis Winston has been an electric addition for the Seminoles this spring. (FSU photo)

"I like the way this team understands things. Some clubs have success and start getting inward turned eyeballs. This club doesn't. This club knows we're going to be playing a very competitive schedule," he continued. "I'll tell you this much, we ain't going to win the next 19 out of 20. I can almost promise you that. We just have to continue to scrap."

While the pitching staff certainly headlines this team moving through the meat of its rigorous ACC schedule, the offense also has been serviceable. The Seminoles are hitting .286 as a team with Jose Brizuela and much improved catcher Stephen McGee leading the charge with batting averages of .377 and .333, respectively.

JUCO transfer outfielder Marcus Davis has shown flashes of greatness so far this season, while freshman DJ Stewart has some serious pop, but is still making the transition to Division I Baseball with a .262 average, a home run and 15 RBIs.

"Brizuela is just a much different player this year because he played so much last year, he gained some really valuable experience," Martin said. "As for McGee, I don't know if I should start talking about him. I might just bore you. He's just a coaches player. He comes to the ballpark and does whatever it takes to win. He's literally a rock behind the plate and he brings the winning to himself. I can't say enough about Stephen McGee."

While the offense will undoubtedly improve as the season progresses, the pitching has been a significant surprise, especially considering the loss of Compton for the season. The Seminoles, entering this weekend's series against the Yellow Jackets, have a very impressive staff earned-run average of 1.77.

As Martin alluded to, several pitchers throughout the staff are taking care of business in their respective roles, but it's the confidence and momentum gained by the starting pitchers that's allowing the Seminoles to really settle into a groove.

Sophomore left-handed pitcher Brandon Leibrandt isn't going to blow pitches past opponents on a consistent basis, but he's typically efficient and has a 3.64 ERA in 29 2/3 innings with 24 strikeouts and 10 walks..

Junior right-handed pitcher Peter Miller has taken a step forward so far this season with a 1.88 ERA in 24 innings, along with 26 strikeouts and 12 walks, while husky 5-foot-10, 210-pound, senior right-handed pitcher Scott Sitz has been terrific in the rotation.

Sitz, whom Martin calls a bulldog and someone who "fights for foul balls in the dugout" exudes confidence and toughness on the mound. It shows in his results, as he has a fantastic 0.60 ERA in 30 innings, along with 27 strikeouts and eight walks.

"The thing that has really helped Scott is that he has another year under his belt," pitching coach Mike Bell said. "He has just really settled into that Saturday role. Stuff-wise, he's still the same guy, but he's just more understanding of the game."

There's also power-armed right-handed pitcher Luke Weaver, who put together a great midweek start this week against Stetson to preserve some bullpen arms for this weekend's series against the Jackets.

"Last year, there were a number of times when by the seventh inning we were thinking of what to do the next night because of the relievers we were using," Martin said. "As for the starters, Miller has been much improved. He's never been one of those cerebral pitchers for us, but again, that's something pitching coach Mike Bell has worked hard to develop. It's still a work in progress, but I'm pleased with his progress."

Beyond the starting rotation, the Seminoles continue to get clutch outings from their relievers, specifically newcomers Robby Coles and Jameis Winston, along with others such as Gage Smith, Brandon Johnson and Bryant Holtmann.

Coles, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound, right-handed pitcher, has a 0.77 ERA in 10 appearances and 11 2/3 innings of work, while he has struck out 19 and walked six. As for Winston, the former high school All-American and two-sport star, is a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder, with a 1.86 ERA in 9 2/3 innings of work.

"The key to our bullpen … we just have some deep Alabama and deep Florida type of guys that just like to fish and hunt," Martin said. "They're not in the least bit intimidated by anything. They just enjoy going out there and competing."

Coles is a sinker, slider type of pitcher who throws from a low arm angle and has a fastball sitting 88-91, while Winston is more of the prospect with a fastball sitting 89-91 with the potential to get up to 93-94 at times. He's also utilizing a two-seam fastball and slider.

"There's a lot of movement involved when it comes to Winston. He's coming at you from a big frame and from a tough angle. He's kind of an old school pitcher with lots of legs and arms coming at you. It's tough to pick up," Bell said. "Coles is just a tough guy who wants to pitch everyday, whether it's 45 or 85 degrees. I'd call him an old school gunslinger."

With gunslingers, hunters and fishermen, among other things, the Seminoles move forward with an intriguing club that should compete for another CWS berth.

It's not a surprise the Seminoles have that potential. But it certainly is one that they're doing it this early in the season.

Pitching prowess: Arizona State's Trevor Williams vs. Oregon State's Matt Boyd

Arizona State junior right-handed pitcher Trevor Williams and Oregon State senior left-handed pitcher Matt Boyd might project much differently at the next level, but both have found their rightful spots as two of college baseball's elite starting pitchers.

The two stalwarts will go head-to-head Friday night as the Sun Devils hit the road to take on the Beavers, who enter the series with an excellent pitching staff, sporting a 1.59 ERA.

Williams undoubtedly is the more heralded arm entering this weekend's series in Corvallis, Ore. Williams, so far in his career, has followed the same trajectory as former ASU starting pitchers Jake Barrett and Brady Rodgers, both highly touted arms, in the sense that he began his career as a reliever, making 32 relief appearances as a freshman with a 2.50 ERA before evolving into a weekend starter last season. It was there that Williams evolved into a highly touted prospect.

Trevor Williams looks to flash his elite stuff this weekend. (ASU photo)

"It's impressive to follow the evolution of where Trevor was as a freshman and where is now," Arizona State coach Tim Esmay said. "He's a great kid, worker and leader, and he's someone that everyone trusts. Trevor is one of those guys who won't accept a bad performance, and will come back the next week ready to go.

"He's truly one of the special guys I've ever coached."

We'll get a first-hand look at just how well Williams bounces back from bad performances against the Beavers after last weekend's performance against Washington State. It what was a rather uncharacteristic performance from the talented right-hander, Williams allowed nine runs on 13 hits in just seven innings against the Cougars.

But while his start against Washington State certainly was disappointing, it doesn't overshadow the 2013 campaign Williams has put together thus far. Through five starts, he has a 1.95 ERA in 37 innings. He also has struck out 30 and showed almost impeccable command with just five walks, while teams are hitting him at a .209 clip.

"I think the big thing with Trevor is with another year of maturity, like a lot of guys, he's just a lot better. We forget sometimes that these kids come in at 19, and now, by 21, you're starting to grow into your body a bit," Esmay said. "As a result, you're stronger and you're understanding the pace of the game a bit better. Trevor has gotten more efficient as he's gotten older."

From a stuff standpoint, Williams takes an impressive repertoire to the mound. The 6-foot-3, 228-pound, righty, has a fastball that consistently sits anywhere from 91-95, while he utilizes a plus slider that sits 83-85 on the radar gun. Meanwhile, he continues his true four-pitch mix with an always-evolving 78-81 changeup and 73-75 curveball.

Williams should be a first-round pick in the upcoming MLB draft.

While Boyd might lack Williams' sheer star power, he makes up for it in his consistency, efficiency and ability to throw pitches for strikes to all sides of the plate.

Much like Williams, Boyd began his Oregon State career as a reliever. He made 20 appearances and two starts as a freshman and tallied an impressive 1.90 ERA in the process, while as a sophomore, he had a 1.57 ERA in 30 appearances. He also had a 3.41 ERA last season, prompting the Cincinnati Reds to draft him in the 13th round.

Boyd obviously turned down overtures from the Reds, and now appears to be a much better pitcher, and prospect, as a result of that decision.

"In the past, Matt has had a serviceable breaking ball at times, and it has played out well out of the bullpen. But he's had a transformation," Oregon State pitching coach Nate Yeskie said. "He's gotten stronger and has raised his arm slot. That kind of allows him to throw a true slider with more aggressiveness, while also making his curveball go more downhill.

"With that, too, has come sustained velocity more than ever," he continued. "He's always had it in short stints, but now with the development of his changeup, he has a constant four-pitch mix with the ability to spot his pitches all over the plate. That really disrupts things for hitters."

Boyd's improvements are evident in his overall numbers this season. He has a 1.59 ERA in 34 innings of work. He also has struck out 31 and walked six, while teams only are hitting him at a .214 clip. Boyd has yet to give up a home run this season, too.

"He's very comfortable at what he is right now," Yeskie said. "You look at the big leagues and a guy like maybe Kyle Lohse comes to mind when you look at Matt Boyd. He's comfortable with his surroundings and he's never overwhelmed by the moment. Matt is great when it comes to the mental side of things."

From a stuff standpoint, the 6-foot-3, 217-pounder, consistently sits 87-91 with his fastball, but touches 92, and has even touched a couple of 93s on the radar gun so far this spring. He also flashes a 78-82 slider, 77-79 changeup and 72-74 curveball.

This should be yet another epic Pac-12 pitching showdown.

Series to watch

TCU at 21 Oklahoma: The Horned Frogs entered the season with high expectations, but have had a tough time getting into a groove. Offensively, the Frogs are hitting just .245 as a club with imposing first baseman Kevin Cron struggling with a .185 average and no homers in 81 at bats. Getting going against OU starting pitchers Dillon Overton and Jonathan Gray will be incredibly difficult, but the Frogs hope to get a boost on the mound with heralded prospect Andrew Mitchell returning to the weekend rotation. THE PICK: Oklahoma

Auburn at 3 LSU: AU put together an impressive showing in non-conference play, but was brought back to reality a bit last weekend against Vanderbilt at home. Now, the Tigers hope to hit the road and take two of three from red-hot LSU. LSU is hitting .304 as a team with first baseman Mason Katz leading the way with a .351 average, nine homers and 32 RBIs. LSU also has an excellent weekend rotation with Aaron Nola, Ryan Eades and Cody Glenn leading the way. THE PICK: LSU

16 Arizona State at 5 Oregon State: The Sun Devils have one of the nation's elite starting pitchers in junior right-hander Trevor Williams, but will need more contributions from some younger plays to take care of business this weekend. Oregon State is incredibly deep this spring with a decent offense and outstanding pitching staff. OSU outfielder Michael Conforto is hitting .380 with six homers and 21 RBIs, while the Beavers have a phenomenal 1.59 staff earned-run average. THE PICK: Oregon State

6 Georgia Tech at 11 Florida State: This could very well be the series of the year in the ACC, though it's still early in the season. The Yellow Jackets aren't incredibly deep on the mound, but have an outstanding offense with a .352 batting average. Brandon Thomas leads the charge at the plate with a .487 average, a home run and 16 RBIs, while Daniel Palka is hitting .419 with seven doubles, four homers and 28 RBIs. THE PICK: Georgia Tech

22 Arkansas at 7 South Carolina: The Hogs played poor defense last weekend against Ole Miss, and that essentially helped cost them a huge home series against Ole Miss. The Hogs have some instability when it comes to their infield with second baseman Dominic Ficociello still recovering from a strained oblique. Arkansas does have the pitching, with a 1.81 ERA, to surprise this weekend. South Carolina still won't have sophomore left-handed pitcher Jordan Montgomery this weekend, but veteran lefty Nolan Belcher has very much stepped up so far this season. THE PICK: South Carolina

17 Mississippi State at 12 Kentucky: The Wildcats hit the road to begin SEC play last weekend and took a huge series from Kentucky. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have dropped two-straight series to Central Arkansas and LSU. State desperately needs a series win this weekend, but it won't be easy as the Wildcats possess an excellent weekend rotation with Jerad Grundy, Corey Littrell and A.J. Reed leading the way. Also keep an eye on right-handed closer Trevor Gott, who recently set the UK saves record and has an 0.79 ERA in 11 1/3 innings of work. THE PICK: Kentucky

Arizona at 16 Oregon: The Wildcats still are trying to find a groove in the thick of Pac-12 play. Arizona was swept at home by Oregon State last weekend, but hopes to rebound against the Ducks this weekend. Meanwhile, UO, even without left-handed pitcher Christian Jones still not in the rotation, continue to shine with Jake Reed, Tommy Thorpe and talented freshman Cole Irvine leading the way. Also keep an eye on right-handed reliever Jimmie Sherfy, who recently has been up to 95 with his fastball. THE PICK: Oregon

13 North Carolina State at 14 Virginia: The Wolfpack is as talented as anyone out there, but they still may be without third baseman Trea Turner the entire weekend. With that said, it's imperative that heralded sophomore left-handed pitcher Carlos Rodon start the weekend on a positive note. Rodon has a 5.04 ERA in 30 1/3 innings. Interestingly, he also has 54 strikeouts and teams only are hitting him at a .183 clip. For the Cavaliers, keep an eye on shortstop Branden Cogswell, who's hitting .405 with nine RBIs. THE PICK: Virginia

California at 4 UCLA: The Golden Bears weren't very consistent to begin the 2013 campaign, but were winners of eight-straight contests before dropping a tough midweek bout against Bay Area foe San Jose State. Now, they hit the road hoping to take a series from sizzling UCLA. For the Bruins, Adam Plutko, Nick Vander Tuig and Grant Watson lead the way in terms of the rotation, while freshman right-handed reliever James Kaprielian is expected back this weekend. He has a 3.00 ERA in three innings of work. THE PICK: UCLA

Texas A&M at 8 Mississippi: While the Rebels are fresh off a huge road series win over Arkansas, the Aggies hope to make another statement in the SEC after doing a clean sweep of Georgia at home last weekend. A&M senior shortstop Mikey Reynolds is hitting at a torrid pace so far this season, .458 with five doubles and 11 RBIs, while right-handed pitcher Daniel Mengden is a potential power arm to watch. For the Rebels, Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers lead the weekend rotation, while sophomore righty Chris Ellis, who has missed time because of a strained abdominal muscle, could return to the mound for at least an inning this weekend. THE PICK: Ole Miss

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