College : : Story
Thursday, February 27, 2014

College weekend preview: Week 3

Kendall Rogers        
ALSO SEE: PG College Top 25 | Weekly chat transcript | Features: UW's Jeff Brigham -- Vandy's Tyler Ferguson

South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook must somehow convince his players and fans the annual baseball series against heated rival Clemson is just another early season series on the schedule.

The reality of the series as it pertains only to college baseball certainly rings that to be true, but let’s face it, the Palmetto State rivalry is never just “another” series. Clemson leads the overall series record, while the Gamecocks have gotten the best of Jack Leggett’s club over the last four seasons, going 11-5 since 2009, with two of those contests coming at the College World Series, where the Gamecocks defeated the Tigers twice to advance to the CWS Championship Series. They won the national title that year.

The series between the Gamecocks and Tigers is intense, and as fans again will see this weekend, it always seems to be played at a remarkably high level.

“You know, we’ve got a really exciting weekend coming up against Clemson,” Holbrook said. “But at the end of the day, you also can’t make too much of it. I remember when we lost 19-6 in the series finale and lost the regular season series in 2010. We ended the year as national champions.”

South Carolina expects outfielder Tanner English to get rolling offensively. (South Carolina photo)
Even though Holbrook likes to put series such as these into perspective, he’s excited about the weekend, and he’s especially pumped about his pitching staff.

The Gamecocks were expected to have a potent offense this spring, but the pitching staff was somewhat of a question mark. They were in good shape from a weekend rotation standpoint with the return of left-handers Jordan Montgomery and Jack Wynkoop, but there was a sizable void on the back end of the bullpen without consistent Tyler Webb, last year’s closer.

Though competition hasn’t been great with the Gamecocks’ two opponents being Bucknell and Eastern Kentucky thus far, the pitching staff has been excellent, entering this weekend’s series with a stellar 0.86 ERA.

Montgomery, as expected, again took the lead of this pitching staff to start the year. The talented left-hander got stronger during the offseason and can now get into the low-90s with his fastball, while his changeup has been a great pitch the first two weeks.

Wynkoop also has been dominant for the Gamecocks, carrying a 1.46 ERA in 12 1/3 innings of work into the Clemson series.

“The results have been very good with the weekend rotation so far. Wynkoop and Montgomery are pretty much two veteran guys now. They’ve hit the weight room hard and it’s showing out there with improved velocities,” Holbrook said. “They both have improved off speed pitches, while the fastballs are better. Montgomery can get into the low-90s now, and Wynkoop has gone from an 87-88 type of guy who can get to 90-91 at times in games.”

Freshman right-handed pitcher Wil Crowe, who has a power arm with a fastball in the low-to-mid 90s, has impressed the coaching staff with a pair of stellar starts (More on Crowe in this story), while Holbrook is most encouraged by the strides the bullpen has made thus far. The Gamecocks have found a way to flourish without Webb, and that’s due to several pitchers stepping up, including sophomore righty Joel Seddon.

Seddon, along with junior college transfer Cody Mincey, has yet to allow a run in eight innings this season.

“I don’t think we have just one bona-fide All-American type of arm out in the bullpen right now, but as a group, that’s a really strong bullpen right now,” he said. “We can really mix and match with those guys, and it’s showing to be a formidable group.”

Offensively, the Gamecocks have been good and not so consistent at times. For instance, outfielder Tanner English is hitting just .280, while second baseman Max Schrock, who’s expected to take an even bigger step forward this spring, is hitting just .227. Rising prospect and catcher Grayson Greiner is off to a respectable start at the plate, while the most impressive start has come from imposing first baseman Kyle Martin.

Martin had a strong fall for the Gamecocks, and only has continued where he left off, hitting .500 with a pair of homers and eight RBIs

“Martin has really hit the ball hard. He’s got a strong, physical presence out there, and he’s a big-time threat. We’ve got a lot of confidence in him now,” he said. “Offensively, we still feel good about the direction we’re headed. We’ve been fine so far, but as with anything, there’s always room to get better.”

Much like South Carolina, Clemson, has a lot of potential offensively with the return of hot hitting Tyler Krieger, while right-handed pitcher Daniel Gossett leads a pitching staff, like the Gamecocks, loaded with some young talented arms.

“Clemson is very good and very talented up front with Gossett leading the way,” he said. “Crownover is really throwing the ball well and Clemson has a lot of bullpen experience, along with some dynamic position players, including Steven Duggar, a guy I think has a chance to be a big leaguer in the future.”

South Carolina and Clemson are off to great starts, setting the stage for yet another epic Palmetto State series between the two rivals.

SERIES SHOWCASE: Florida State has that feeling again

Leave it to legendary Florida State head coach Mike Martin to put things into perspective.

Martin’s Seminoles have been clicking on all cylinders through the first two weeks of the season, and their 6-0 overall displays that. But while the ‘Noles might be ranked No. 2 nationally with everything going their way thus far, Martin and his players are well aware that could change in an instant.

Luke Weaver is off to a terrific, but not surprising, start for FSU. (Larry Novey)
“We’ve been playing pretty solid baseball. I’m just very pleased with the progress of this club,” Martin said. “With this all said, our players have to understand that we’re only six games into the season, and there’s a lot that lies ahead.”

The first two weeks is a rather small sample size in the grand scheme of a 56-game season, but the Seminoles are showing some championship-caliber traits.

For starters, the FSU pitching staff is off to an impressive start. The Seminoles have tallied a 2.72 staff earned-run average thus far, and the weekend rotation has been fantastic with right-handers Luke Weaver and Mike Compton, and lefty Brandon Leibrandt leading the charge.

Weaver is one of the nation’s elite junior prospects with a loose and big-time arm, sitting anywhere from 90 to the mid-90s, while he’s been showing off an improved set of secondary offerings. Meanwhile, Leibrandt has a 2.45 ERA in 11 innings, and Compton has been terrific in returning from an injury getting the start opposite of Miami’s Andrew Suarez on Sunday. Compton has an unblemished ERA in five innings of work.

“I feel very comfortable with what we’re putting out there on the mound. We’re trotting guys out there on Friday, Saturday and Sunday who have been around for a while and know what it takes to be good,” Martin said. “I’ve been really pleased with Mike Compton since his return. He’s been very, very good so far this year.

“I also think Coach [Mike] Bell has been terrific with Luke Weaver,” he continued. “Luke has been developing a harder breaking ball and the changeup continues to improve. With that said, the same with Luke as the rest of our pitchers, we can’t just expect to go out there every time out, especially this weekend against Miami, and just expect to have success.”

While the pitching staff’s expected rise was a big reason we had the Seminoles ranked so high in the preseason, it’s also no surprise the offense hasn’t skipped a beat, sitting pretty with a .328 batting average entering the weekend.

Quality of competition certainly has inflated FSU’s offensive numbers a bit, but this unit still oozes potential with super talented sophomore outfielder D.J. Stewart and fellow outfielder Brett Knief leading the way, each with batting averages over .400. The Seminoles also like freshman Ben DeLuzio’s progressions. DeLuzio raised plenty of eyebrows with an incredibly strong fall, and he’s hitting .304 through two weeks.

“Offense, I think the offense is just about where we thought it would be. We’ve got some guys who obviously need to get a lot better, and we’ve got some guys who are off to good starts,” Martin said. “The good thing about this lineup, we had an instance against Georgia where the 7-8-9 hitters had five hits and drove in six runs. That type of thing is huge as you go through a season.”

FSU will get a significant test this weekend with the Hurricanes coming to town.

Though the Hurricanes struggled their way through the 2013 campaign, this team is playing with a lot of confidence. Tyler Palmer and Dale Carey have recorded some key hits already this season, and the offensive lineup for the ‘Canes has seven homers already this season – they had 14 all of last year.

Additionally, the Hurricanes will provide a stiff challenge to FSU’s offense with an excellent weekend rotation, which includes lefty specialist Bryan Radziewski, Chris Diaz, and rising power-armed lefty Andrew Suarez, who has a 3.75 ERA in 12 innings.

“Miami has a lot of experience, and when you can return as many guys as it did this year, including the starting rotation, that’s pretty impressive,” Martin said. “They’ve done a good job of holding teams down and they’ve done a good job of getting key hits at the plate.

“This series has two very good clubs. It’ll be a great series.”

MARQUEE MOUND MATCHUP: Texas A&M RHP Daniel Mengden vs. Fresno State RHP Jordan Brink

Are you in the mood for an elite pitching matchup between a catcher and outfielder? Well, sort of, in the case of Texas A&M right-handed pitcher Daniel Mengden and Fresno State right-hander Jordan Brink Friday night in Fresno, Calif.

Mengden arrived at A&M as a catcher and right-handed pitcher, while the trek Brink took to get to this point is much more recent, and unique. It’s not surprising Mengden has ended up as a front-line Friday night starting pitcher. He’s always had the arm strength, it was just a matter of harnessing his stuff.

Daniel Mengden's junior campaign is off to a roaring start. (TAMU photo)
Brink, though, has come full circle. Recruited as an outfielder out of high school, the junior spent 2012 as purely and outfielder for the Bulldogs, most recently hitting .216 with just two homers and 20 RBIs last season, while also getting significant work on the mound with a 3.92 ERA in 59 2/3 innings. In hindsight, Brink’s decision to become a pitcher is one that likely is to lead to millions in the near future.

Though Brink sat low-90s last season, with the ability to touch mid-90s at times, he dazzled scouts and his coaches, alike, during the fall with increased velocity, being able to get his fastball up to 97, consistently sitting 92-96 with command.

He’s continued that trend so far this spring with a pair of excellent starts against UC Irvine and Nevada. Brink was particularly special against the Anteaters to start the season, going 6 1/3 innings, striking out six, walking two and allowing just one hit in a shutout performance. Meanwhile, he allowed just a run on four hits in 8 1/3 innings against the Wolf Pack last weekend.

Beyond his electric fastball, Brink is utilizing a power curveball at 82-84 and low-80s changeup – both secondary offerings that have been effective.

“The thing I notice about Daniel and Jordan Brink is that they’re both similar. They’re converted position players who had bullpen roles, but now are front-line starting pitchers,” Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said. ”The thing that really stands out to me about Brink is that he’s very athletic and has a quick arm. He, along with Daniel, sets the stage for a special Friday night matchup.”

As with Brink, Mengden has enjoyed a pair of dominant Friday night starts to begin the season. He struck out 11, walked two and allowed just two runs on five hits in six innings against Northeastern to begin the season, while he struck out nine, walked two and allowed just a run (not earned) on three hits in seven innings against Sacramento State last weekend.

“I’d say his first performance was good, his second outing was very good,” Childress said. “I think he’s becoming more of a pitcher rather than just a guy with a good arm. He continues to improve his overall command, and he’s only going to get better from here on out.”

From a stuff standpoint, the hard-nosed 6-foot-1, 215-pounder, hasn’t deviated much off the plan that made him so successful last season Mengden continues to command an 89-93 mph fastball, which touches 94 at times. Meanwhile, his low-80s changeup continues to be a solid offering, with his 80-83 mph slider also improved from last season, particularly from a command standpoint.

“His changeup is much improved over last season, the command of it, that is,” Childress said. “He’s had good execution of his pitches thus far, and that changeup is a good offering against both right and left-handed hitters now.”

Mengden and Brink are ready for a heavyweight bout. Now, let’s just hope the forecasted rain gives the Bulldogs and Aggies a break.


* Sacramento State outfielder Rhys Hoskins is one of the rising outfielders in college baseball, and could be sidelined again this weekend when the Hornets face San Francisco in an important series this weekend. Hoskins sprained his ankle last weekend against Texas A&M, and the injury isn’t expected to linger much longer.

* Barring some major surprise, Oregon State left-handed pitcher Ben Wetzler will make his season debut this Sunday against Wright State. Wetzler, as detailed in this story, from last week, was suspended by the NCAA for 20-percent of the regular season. In 2013, Wetzler, a fifth-round pick to the Philadelphia Phillies last summer, had a 2.25 ERA in 96 innings, along with 83 strikeouts and 32 walks.

* Indiana hits the road this weekend to face Louisville in a game that suddenly has become important for the Hoosiers. The Hoosiers made their big statement last season with a trip to the College World Series. However, after beginning this season with a top-five ranking, the Hoosiers are off to a lackluster 2-5 start. The big reason? Besides the Hoosiers not showing great pitching depth outside of Christian Morris, Scott Effross and Ryan Halstead, the offense has immensely struggled, entering the weekend against the Cardinals with a shocking .228 batting average. IU’s Kyle Schwarber (.290) and Sam Travis (.276) also need to be better, while leading hitter Bard Hartong has been a pleasant surprise … As for the Cardinals, we’re interested to see how they handle what we perceive to be a very solid club when the dust settles. To no surprise, rising sophomore right-handed pitcher Kyle Funkhouser is off to a terrific start with a 2.13 ERA in 12 2/3 innings, while veteran outfielder Jeff Gardner couldn’t be more sizzling hot, hitting a team-high .429 with a home run and 11 RBIs.

* After disposing of UCLA in rather easy fashion last weekend, Cal Poly heads to USC this weekend for what could be a program changer for the Trojans. USC has started the season in impressive fashion, sitting at 7-1 overall with youngsters such as AJ Ramirez (409/0/4) and Jeremy Martinez (.353/0/3) leading the way, while on the mound, right-handed pitcher Wyatt Strahan has flourished thus far in the Friday night role, and fellow hard-throwing righty Nigel Nootbaar has done well in the relief role … As for the Mustangs, freshman right-handed pitcher Slater Lee caught the nation’s attention last weekend with an absolute gem against UCLA, while outfielder Nick Torres makes the Mustangs go at the plate, entering the weekend with a .424 average and three homers. Also watch for hard-hitting Brian Mundell, who has been much more consistent so far this season with a .400 average, three homers and 11 RBIs.

* Alabama has just been OK through the first two weeks of the season, and with the potential it possesses, this weekend’s series at Louisiana-Lafayette ought to be a fantastic measuring stick. The Crimson Tide pitching staff could have their hands full with a hard-hitting Ragin’ Cajuns lineup, but starting pitchers Justin Kamplain and Spencer Turnbull are off to good starts. Kamplain has a 2.45 ERA in 11 innings and Turnbull sports a 1.12 ERA in eight innings. Shortstop Mikey White (.345/0/4), to no surprise, has been a fire-starter for the Tide … As for the Cajuns, hard-throwing right-handed pitcher Austin Robichaux (2.25 ERA) leads the way for this team, while fellow hard-throwing righty Carson Baranik has been fantastic as a JUCO transfer. In two starts, Baranik has a 1.10 ERA in 16.1 innings, along with 13 strikeouts and four walks. Offensively, it shouldn’t be a surprise that outfielder Caleb Adams leads the way, along with Ryan Wilson, while Seth Harrison is hitting .343 with a home run and four RBIs.

* North Florida, on paper, looks like one of those mid-major teams, similar to Mercer last season, which could make a huge statement on the national stage this spring. It all starts this weekend by potentially taking care of business on the road against North Carolina. UNF enters the weekend hitting .309 as a team with outfielders Drew Weeks (.483/1/4) and Donnie Dewees (.379/1/8) leading the charge. Meanwhile, for the Tar Heels, young freshman starting pitcher Zac Gallen is making a quick transition to Division I baseball with a 1.35 ERA in 13 1/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 11 and walked one.

* Michigan State was impressive at times at the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge last weekend, and has a golden opportunity to make a huge statement this weekend down in Starkville, Miss. The Spartans face No. 10 Mississippi State twice this weekend, and will need the offense, which is hitting .240, but has loads of potential, to rise to the occasion. The Spartans have several solid hitters, such as Blaise Salter (.333/1/5) and Jimmy Pickens (.217/0/4), among others. Joel Fisher is another talented hitter to watch for the Spartans after he showed legitimate pop last weekend, hitting a grand slam off Oregon State left-handed pitcher Jace Fry.

* Cal State Fullerton hits the road this weekend for the first time (for a series) this season. The Titans have taken care of business in their first two series, winning two of three against Washington State and San Francisco. However, Titans coach Rick Vanderhook still feels like his club could be playing exponentially better. Fullerton’s weekend rotation is terrific with Justin Garza, Thomas Eshelman and Grahamm Wiest leading the way, while quietly, third baseman Matt Chapman, a talented player and prospect, is heating up with a .344 average, a home run and six RBIs … For the Ducks, the offense has displayed noticeable improvements the first two weeks of the season, hitting .281 as a team with Kyle Garlick (.429) and A.J. Balta (.400) as the headliners. Meanwhile, the pitching staff hasn’t seemed to skip a beat without sophomore left-handed pitcher Cole Irvin, as freshman Matt Krook (2.03) and veteran lefty Tommy Thorpe (1.38) have held their own through two starts.
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