College Baseball Notebook
Every other week, Bryan Smith will check in with a look at the college baseball landscape.
1. Vanderbilt (34-8) -- The Commodores bounced back from two embarrassing midweek losses to sweep Tennessee last weekend, their second weekend sweep in as many weeks. Vanderbilt gives its fans reasons to sweat -- 13 of its last 16 games have been decided by three runs or less -- making the nation's best closer (Casey Weathers) their MVP.
2. Florida State (37-6) -- FSU passed its toughest test by taking two of three from North Carolina, leaving the Seminoles as the ACC favorite. The team finds a new weapon on offense each week, and while the pitching staff can't seem to beat the in-state rival Gators, the veteran staff has met every other challenge.
3. Virginia (34-9) -- The ACC's other big weekend series saw the Cavaliers beat Clemson, almost coming back on Sunday to take the sweep. Virginia pitches with anyone, but lost in the discussion of their 2.49 ERA is praise for their sophomore table setter, shortstop Greg Miclat, who has gotten on-base at a .503 clip and stolen 32 bases.
4. Texas (33-12) -- Neither Texas's .312 team batting average nor its 3.55 ERA deserve particular recognition, but the Longhorns keeping winning weekend series in the Big 12. While Kyle Russell has been the Barry Bonds of the club, coach Augie Garrido deserves praise for a .977 fielding percentage and a 2.71 walk-per-nine innings mark.
5. South Carolina (31-10) -- Eight unearned runs opened the door for Mississippi to upset South Carolina last weekend, with a late-inning Sunday rally needed to avoid the sweep. Still in search of an identity, the Gamecocks have been liftedby a great return from Tommy John surgery by Arik Hempy, and hope shortstop Reese Havens' two home runs on Sunday are a sign of good things to come.
6. Oregon State (31-8) -- Catcher Mitch Canham is among the nation's most valuable players, with his three-home-run weekend leading to a sweep of UNLV. If Canham can bring any consistency to the offense, the Beavers are a threat to repeat, as no team in the nation can match their pitching depth.
7. Rice (33-11) -- Just when you count Wayne Graham's boys out, the Owls always seem to find their groove by late April. Star southpaw Cole St. Clair has looked good returning from injury, giving Graham numerous options behind starters Ryan Berry and team MVP Joe Savery.
8. North Carolina (33-9) -- The Tar Heels have been great at beating teams worse than them this season, but series losses to Florida State and Virginia put their status as an elite team in question. While UNC doesn't offer power bats or power arms, it boasts seven starters with a .300 average and its top three relievers have a 1.37 ERA in more than 80 innings.
Four that just missed: Arizona State, Arkansas, Pepperdine, Wichita State.
This section will highlight four 2007 draft-eligible college players who have recently made waves in draft circles.
Bull: Brian Friday, SS, Rice. An ankle injury limited Friday in the Owls' biggest conference test at East Carolina three weeks ago, but since returning he has led the struggling offense. Normally most impressive to scouts for his good defense and quick feet, Friday is 13 for 33 with four doubles in his last eight games. In a draft year with limited options from the shortstop position, Friday is rising at just the right time.
Bull: Tony Watson, LHP, Nebraska. A draft-eligible sophomore last year, Watson turned down a six-figure bonus to return to Nebraska for his junior season. The decision seems to be paying off, as Watson has two complete games in his last three outings against dangerous opponents in Texas and Oklahoma State. While lacking the upside of some other college southpaws, Watson's command is near the top, and he surely won't make it far past the supplemental first round.
Bull: Zack Cozart, SS, Ole Miss. Cozart would be a top-three-round choice for his glove alone -- no player in college baseball offers such range up the middle. The only thing holding him back in the eyes of scouts is a consistent bat, but Cozart has improved his stroke at the perfect time. He's now hitting .438 in conference with nine extra-base hits, six steals and just five strikeouts in 18 games.
After watching Dave Serrano win perennial Big West titles with rival Cal State Fullerton as an assistant coach, UC Irvine hired the former pitching coach and recruiting coordinator following Fullerton's national championship in 2004, and in 2006, Serrano's Anteaters won more games (36) than the program had in 25 years. This season, armed with the return of NCAA all-time career saves leader Blair Erickson and freshman All-American Scott Gorgen, Irvine is 28-11 and in good position to make a late run at a conference championship.
On the team's success this season:
"They're committing to the right things and it's paying off. This is our second class of recruits in this season, and we had some special men returning, so we anticipated it could be a good season. Things were up in the air with a lot of inexperienced players, but our veterans have stepped in and really impressed. It's been fun so far."
On two-headed monster of Erickson and Dylan Axelrod closing out games:
"The years I've been able to spend here and at Cal State Fullerton I know that it's a very important commodity to have. Dylan started the year out as our Sunday starter, but didn't adapt to it like he has the bullpen. It's a nice thing to have there, and we're excited for more, because we have Tommy Callahan, a big left-handed junior college transfer, coming back to add to the end of games. It's been a pleasure to have, and while I don't look at stats very often, I know we have had Blair or Dylan close out 15 of our 28 wins, and that's a testament to them."
Whether 92 steals is product of personnel or philosophy:
"It's a mixture of both. It goes back to bringing in two classes of good athletes we know our system will develop, and our position coaches believe in playing an up-tempo, aggressive style. You can't expect a three-run home run in our ballpark so we're going to need speed to win games. Our approach is to be aggressive, to put pressure on the base paths, and I think we have the lineup top-to-bottom to be able to do that."
Coaching in the crowded climate of California:
"You have to be consistently good to succeed because there's so many good programs here. We're lucky enough to have some good players here that realize we're building good tradition everyday. For recruits, we're also in the position to offer very good academics, a good college atmosphere, a beautiful stadium and a great community just minutes from Newport Beach. It's not just the baseball attracting kids to this place. If we were the only game in town, it would be a lot easier to recruit, but we're competing against, within a 50-mile radius, 3-4 other top 25 programs and a lot other good programs, so we need to be able to sell everything else."
Goals for the rest of the season:
"Our first goal is to win the Big West. We think we've put ourselves in position that if we can take care of business, the teams in front of us are going to start beating up on each other and we've given ourselves a good opportunity. Then we're going to want to go on to regionals and hopefully get this program it's first regional win. We got there last year, but I don't think the program was quite at the level to make that step, and we're confident that we can get to that next level now."
Bryan Smith is a freelance writer and a weekly contributor to Baseball Prospectus. His work has also appeared at Baseball America, Baseball Analysts and the Hardball Times.