A decade ago, Kentucky and Vanderbilt were Southeastern Conference doormats. They remain the only two programs in the SEC that have never been to the College World Series, but nowadays they also number among the most talented teams in the conference and the nation. It seems only a matter of time before both programs break through to Omaha, and both teams have the power arms and versatile lineups to make deep postseason runs in 2010.
But before either team gets carried away thinking about such lofty aspirations, there is the small matter of the SEC schedule to attend to. One of these teams will have to start its conference season with two straight series losses, because both are coming off losing weekends and only one can win the scheduled three-game series between the two clubs in Nashville this weekend.
Vanderbilt lost two of three at Alabama last weekend, but Commodores coach Tim Corbin said there's no shame in that. Winning road series against quality SEC teams is very difficult, but avoiding sweeps is crucial, and Vandy did that. Kentucky wasn't swept either, but it did lose two out of three at home to Mississippi and now must try to get back on track on the road.
"Is it a big series? You bet," Wildcats coach Gary Henderson said. "You've got 10 of them [in conference play], and certainly you don't want to fall too far down the list. You do the best you can, and if you win it, great, and if not, you get ready for the next one."
It is a testament to Kentucky's toughness that the Wildcats have been focused each weekend and have not been sunk by the major distraction of the James Paxton situation. Paxton, Kentucky's expected ace after opting to return to school for his senior year rather than sign with the Blue Jays as a supplemental first-round pick last year, sued the school this offseason in an attempt to avoid meeting with NCAA investigators regarding potential violations of the "no agent" rule. The Wildcats hoped the case would be resolved in time for him to join the team this year, but on Feb. 26 -- the second Friday of the season -- Paxton announced he was leaving Kentucky after a state court denied his appeal.
In the face of that high-profile tug-of-war between Paxton and the NCAA, Kentucky went 3-0 in its opening weekend in Myrtle Beach, S.C., earning quality wins against Virginia Tech and Coastal Carolina, then swept Bowling Green State immediately after Paxton officially announced his departure. The Wildcats kept on winning after that, and they carry a 16-5 record into this weekend.
"You see a lot of things when you go through something like that," Henderson said. "That's a short-term blow -- I'd be lying if I said something different. But the kids handled it well. There's a resolve there."
In Paxton's place, senior lefthander Logan Darnell has emerged as the staff ace, going 3-1, 3.09 with 29 strikeouts and nine walks in 35 innings. Darnell has always had a quality arm -- in 2008 he ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the New York Collegiate League, flashing 93-95 mph velocity at times -- but he has improved his curveball and changeup, as well as his poise.
"What he does a pretty good job of is attacking the strike zone," Henderson said. "For the most part, he has really reduced the walks from his first two years here. He's learned to pitch -- he's much more of a pitcher than he was his first two years here. He's really worked hard, he's gotten a lot better at fastball command, he's been able to stay out of predictable pitch patterns, he fields his position well. He's matured as a competitor and done all the things to be a Friday night guy in our league."
This series features three straight intriguing pitching matchups. Darnell will face off with flame-throwing sophomore righthander Sonny Gray (3-2, 2.73 with 33 strikeouts and 13 walks in 33 innings) on Friday. Gray has one of the nastiest repertoires in the nation, with a mid-90s fastball and a devastating hard breaking ball, and he is learning how to succeed as a starter after spending most of last spring and all of last summer with Team USA working in relief. Corbin said Gray "was too amped up" in his showdown against UCLA's Gerrit Cole in Week Two, causing him to run out of gas after about four innings. Since then he's done a much better job maintaining his stuff deeper into games, and Corbin said his start last Friday against Alabama (5.2 IP, 3 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 4 SO) was his best outing yet, though he took the loss.
On Saturday, Kentucky freshman lefthander Taylor Rogers (3-1, 4.75) takes on Vandy junior righty Taylor Hill (3-1, 2.90) in a matchup of competitive strike-throwers with solid stuff. Sunday's matchup features a pair of potential 2011 first-round picks: Kentucky sophomore righty Alex Meyer (4-2, 6.51) against Vandy sophomore righty Jack Armstrong (3-0, 3.16). Both are big and physical, both have shown premium velocity at times, and both are still working to harness their command and repeat their mechanics.
"Every time you put Jack out there, he seems to get better and better," Corbin said of Armstrong. "Last year at this time it was all or nothing for him, and usually nothing. In just a short amount of time, just a year, he's evolved into a kid who looks like a pitcher. He handles himself better, he's more composed on the mound, and I just think he's made great strides on the year."
Henderson said much the same about the 6-foot-9 Meyer, who recently has done a better job commanding his slider and working down in the strike zone.
Both teams have solid bullpens anchored by fearless, aggressive bulldogs in righties Russell Brewer (1-0, 0.00 with three saves and a 14-1 strikeout-walk ratio in 12 innings for Vanderbilt) and Matt Little (1-0, 0.48 with four saves and 27-5 K-BB in 19 innings).
These teams are mirror images of each other in other ways, too. Both have an athletic, versatile sparkplug in the middle infield -- Corbin calls shortstop Brian Harris (.387/.608/.548) his team's MVP thus far, and Henderson said second baseman Chris Bisson (.390/.478/.559) really makes his team go. Bisson missed five games after being hit in the face by a pitch and breaking his nose against Monmouth on March 6, and although Henderson said he has not been tentative since returning to the lineup last week, he hasn't quite found his rhythm yet.
"He's a hard-nosed kid, loves playing, kind of your typical Canadian kid," a National League area scout said of Bisson. "He just goes out there and gets after it and works hard."
Vanderbilt has had to deal with its own injury issues. Corbin said he hopes first baseman Curt Casali will return to the lineup this weekend after being sidelined with a hamstring injury, and DH/first baseman Aaron Westlake is still recovering from a thumb injury, though he's been playing through it.
Both teams are now close to full strength again, and neither has completely hit its stride yet. While sophomore third baseman Jason Esposito (.391/.608/.548) has been a force in the middle of Vanderbilt's lineup, the Commodores will be more dangerous when Casali, Westlake and Andrew Giobbi find their strokes. Kentucky, too, has had a sophomore step forward and anchor the heart of its lineup -- outfielder Cory Farris (.333/.404/.800 with six homers) -- but is still waiting for talented sophomore third baseman Andy Burns to get in a groove.
This would be a good weekend for both teams to start firing on all cylinders.
"I just want to play well," Corbin said. "After you come off a weekend where you won one of three, you just want to play well and hopefully have a chance to win a series. But I know they're good, I know they can pitch, and offensively they've got some very good players. I've always felt in this conference, the best team you play is the next team you play."
Marquee Mound Matchup
Deck McGuire vs. Matt Harvey
Expect some serious scouting heat to descend on Chapel Hill on Friday for this duel between Georgia Tech junior righthander McGuire and North Carolina junior righty Matt Harvey. McGuire has a chance to be the first college pitcher drafted in June, and Harvey appears to be moving back up into first-round consideration with a strong start to his season.
McGuire is about as polished as college pitchers come. He has excellent command of a true four-pitch mix, highlighted by a 91-94 mph fastball with good downhill plane. Even after taking his first loss of the season last week at Maryland, McGuire enters this weekend 3-1, 1.15 with 39 strikeouts and eight walks in 39 innings. After throwing his first career complete game March 12 against Wake Forest, McGuire said he has learned to keep his pitch count down by pitching to contact more this season, and Yellow Jackets coach Danny Hall agrees.
"There were many times last year where by the fifth inning he would already be at 90-100 pitches, and it's been very rare this year that his pitch count has gotten up that high early in games, so I think he's definitely been more efficient," Hall said.
Efficiency is critical for Harvey, who has dynamite stuff but often struggled in the first two years of his college career with his command, causing his pitch counts to elevate. He dominated last Friday against an offensive Florida State team, striking out 11 while allowing just two hits and four walks over seven shutout innings. While he held the 92-95 mph velocity on his four-seam fastball deep into the game, Harvey also incorporated a two-seamer in an effort to get more ground balls and keep his pitch count down.
"I feel like I started to settle in, use my fastball and keep it down," Harvey said. "I was able to use get some ground balls when I needed them, and that really helped."
Harvey still flashes a hammer curveball at 78-79 and a good changeup in the low 80s, but he has also started throwing a mid-80s slider. His improving polish is reflected in his numbers: through five starts, Harvey is 3-0, 1.97 with 37 strikeouts and 14 walks in 32 innings.
"I just think it's a great challenge," Hall said of facing Harvey. "You're seeing two very, very talented guys that are trying to help their teams win, and you hope that the game lives up to the billing and both of them do what they're capable of doing."
Under The Radar
Mario Hollands, lhp, UC Santa Barbara
Hollands has shown flashes of his significant potential over the last two years, going 13-9, 4.25 with 110 strikeouts and 63 walks in 172 innings, but inconsistent command and underdeveloped secondary stuff caused him to slip to the 24th round as a draft-eligible sophomore last June. But the junior has turned a corner in 2010, going 2-0, 1.93 with 36 strikeouts and 11 walks in 28 innings through his first four starts.
Hollands was utterly dominant two weeks ago against Northern Illinois, tying a school record with 16 strikeouts in a complete game victory, while allowing just one run on five hits and two walks. Then last week against New Mexico State, the nation's highest-scoring team, Hollands struck out 13 over six strong innings, allowing just a run on four hits and three walks. As soon as Hollands left the game, the Aggies rallied for eight runs over the final three innings, but the Gauchos pulled out a 10-9 victory.
"The last two weeks at home he's been 90-93, sitting at 90, and he threw a nine-inning game against Northern Illinois and pitch No. 130 was 91," UCSB pitching coach Tom Myers said. "His slider has been 84-85, there's late life on the ball and it's jumping out of the strike zone. He has a changeup, and he uses it, but because his velocity is up—the one thing he does very, very well is he pitches extremely well in on righthanded hitters. He keeps righthanded hitters very honest. He can put his slider on the back foot, and it's usually an out pitch to lefties.
"Before his big velocity increase, he pitched a lot with his changeup the last couple of years. I foresee that being a great equalizer as we get into Big West competition."
Improved secondary stuff is a big reason for Hollands' early success this year, but he also has worked hard to get stronger and improve his stamina. In the past, Hollands lacked physicality and struggled to hold his velocity. But he is beginning to fill out his 6-foot-5 frame; though he's still listed at 205 pounds, Myers says he now weighs 220. Some mechanical adjustments also helped.
"He's worked hard in the weight room," Myers said. "His experience in the Cape Cod League the past two summers-- he didn't flash the same velocity up there, but he showed the ability to pitch. He was pitching anywhere from 85-88, but I think he learned mentality-wise that he was as good as anybody out there when he located his stuff.
"He's come back and ironed out some things in his delivery -- he's shortened his arm stroke. Scouts in our area were always concerned because he had a wrap in the back, and the wrap is for the most part no longer there now, and I think it's quickened up his arm. The strength, mentality and minor mechanical adjustments, now you're seeing a kid who's hitting his stride as a college pitcher."
Hollands will try to keep his hot streak going Friday against San Francisco.
The two unbeaten teams left standing in Division I baseball, Arizona State and UCLA, have garnered plenty of attention for their current winning streaks (20 and 17 games, respectively). But those aren't the only active streaks in the Pacific-10 Conference. Oregon State has won nine in a row, upstart Oregon has won five straight and 12 out of 13, and Arizona is riding a 13-game winning streak, its longest since 2007.
The Wildcats started their streak on March 7 with a win against Cal State Fullerton, giving them a series victory against the much more heavily hyped Titans. They followed up that series with three-game weekend sweeps of Northern Colorado and Sacramento State and two-game midweek sweeps of St. Joseph's, Wichita State and, this week, New Mexico. Since starting the season 3-3, Arizona has won 15 of its last 16 to improve to 18-4 overall heading into this weekend's conference-opening series against Oregon.
Freshmen powered the Wildcats to both victories against the Lobos, as center fielder Joey Rickard delivered a grand slam in Tuesday's 10-4 win and shortstop Alex Mejia hit another grand slam in Wednesday's 11-7 affair. Of course, freshmen carrying the load is nothing new for Arizona, which returned just 12 lettermen from last year's 30-25 club. There are 17 freshmen (including redshirts) on the current roster, and just two seniors. The Wildcats count on four freshmen in their everyday lineup (Rickard, Mejia, outfielder Robert Refsnyder and third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean), another as their Friday Starter (righthander Kurt Heyer), and four more in key bullpen roles (righties Tyler Hale, Nick Cunningham, Stephen Manthei and Cory Bernard).
With so many youngsters -- many of them unheralded -- on the field, the Wildcats faced smaller expectations heading into 2010, but perhaps the roster turnover was just what they needed.
"We've got some guys doing some pretty special things in terms of freshmen," Arizona coach Andy Lopez said. "This is without a doubt the youngest team I've ever put on the field -- it's not even close. They've played as I thought they would play in many respects -- I thought they'd be a pretty good group coming in here.
"Last year's group was maybe the worst group I've ever coached in 34 years as a head coach. I say that because some people need to hear that at times. We had a lot of academic issues, guys not going to class and study hall, which meant they couldn't practice or play. I can count the days we had full practices on one hand. But those guys are no longer here, and now we have a bunch of young guys now that I don't have any issues with off the field. I thought they'd be OK physically, but I'm really very, very shocked but pleasantly surprised at the cohesiveness, competitiveness, intangibles. The intangibles of the group right now are pretty unique, pretty special."
There are a few notable holdovers from last year's team who are playing a significant part in Arizona's hot streak. Sophomore catcher Jett Bandy (.471/.555/.736 with four homers and 23 RBIs) is the biggest bat in the lineup, and Lopez said he has also improved his defense behind the plate. Sophomore outfielder Steve Selsky (.427/.500/.563, six stolen bases) is a multi-tooled athlete who has given Bandy good protection in the lineup. Rafael Valenzuela and Bryce Ortega have played good defense on the right side of the infield while delivering a combined 18 steals in 19 attempts.
Ortega was the shortstop last year, but he shifted to second as a junior this spring to accommodate the slick-fielding Mejia -- an instinctive player who has taken charge of the infield. Mejia is a flashy defender at short, and Lopez said he is a deceptively good athlete, though not as good as Rickard or Mejias-Brean. Rickard, in particular, has been a catalyst atop the lineup, hitting .398/.454/.612 with four homers, 33 RBIs and 11 stolen bases. And Refsnyder adds another offensive presence in the middle of the lineup, hitting .475/.543/.588 and adding five steals of his own.
Speed and athleticism are hallmarks of this Arizona team, which is 55-for-69 in stolen base attempts through 22 games. Lopez said his personnel will cause him to return to his coaching roots a bit.
"We're not going to be a power group-- we made that decision early," he said. "We're kind of back to where we were in our Pepperdine days [in the early 1990s]. We push it, constantly push it right now with this group."
Pitching is still a work in progress for Arizona, but Heyer is an ace in the making. Originally ticketed for the Sunday starter role, Heyer was thrust into the Friday job when projected ace Kyle Simon hurt his back a week before opening day. Heyer responded with 13 strikeouts in a win against Utah Valley, allowing one run on three hits and a walk over six innings. When Simon returned to action, the Wildcats decided to keep Heyer in the Friday role. He has the best stuff on the staff anyway, with a fastball that touches 92 mph and a promising slider and changeup. So far he is 3-0, 2.10 with 43 strikeouts and four walks in 34 innings.
"An old idiot like me needs a break every now and then, and we feel like we caught a break with him," Lopez said.
There are, of course, pitfalls that face a team dominated by freshmen. For one thing, the young Wildcats have yet to prove themselves on the road, as every one of their games so far has been played in Tucson. They don't make their first road trip until next weekend at California.
A bigger concern is how the freshmen will handle the rigors of their first full season in Division I baseball.
"I've done it long enough to know that freshmen get tired at the end of the year," Lopez said. "But right now, they're playing very well for young guys. We're hanging in there, but we're young, and I'll tell you, I sleep pretty well at night knowing this group will be here for two or three years."
After going 40-19 and finishing as the runner-up in the Baton Rouge Regional last year, the Golden Gophers entered 2010 as strong contenders to win the Big Ten Conference and perhaps make a deeper postseason run. But the first five weeks of the season have not gone according to plan. Minnesota has lost seven of its last nine games, including a series loss at Samford and a loss at home Tuesday against North Dakota State. Overall, the Gophers are just 7-14 heading into a series against Louisiana Tech this weekend.
"All I can do is keep working with the kids and try to keep their confidence up, which is difficult at times," Minnesota coach John Anderson told the Minnesota Daily after Tuesday's loss. "We're trying to get this thing turning around, but we're having a real hard time. We can't seem to string enough hits together to get a big inning."
There have been a few bright spots for Minnesota. Shortstop A.J. Pettersen has followed up his freshman All-America 2009 season with a strong start to his sophomore year, hitting .391/.433/.529. Junior slugger Michael Kvasnicka (.338/.443/.650 with a team-leading four home runs) has continued to mature as a hitter, drawing 16 walks while striking out just twice in 80 at-bats. Freshman righthander T.J. Oakes (1-0, 1.96) has been good in the rotation, and righty Scott Matyas (2.35 ERA) has been solid at the back of the bullpen.
But earlier in the spring, Anderson said his team was having difficulty replacing departed mainstays Derek McCallum, Matt Nohelty and Eric Decker in the lineup. That group provided athleticism and leadership, and seniors Tom Buske and Chauncy Handran were rock-steady if not overpowering on the mound.
Injuries have also played a role in Minnesota's scuffles, but the Gophers are mostly healthy now and will need to show more consistency heading into the conference schedule next weekend.
"We're 6-13 because we haven't been able to put three phases of the game together consistently," Anderson told the paper after Sunday's loss to Samford. "We need better execution to be able to play at a high level and win."
Stat of the Week
UCLA's team ERA -- lowest in the nation. The Bruins have racked up 217 strikeouts and walked just 46 in 153 innings, and they are holding opponents to a .186 average. Is it any wonder UCLA is 17-0?
The weekend rotation gets most of the attention, and certainly sophomore righties Gerrit Cole (5-0, 2.20 with 49 strikeouts and seven walks in 33 innings) and Trevor Bauer (4-0, 2.05 with 47 strikeouts and seven walks in 31 innings), plus junior lefty Rob Rasmussen (2-0, 2.52) deserve all the accolades they've gotten. But this has been a staff effort for the Bruins. Of the eight UCLA pitchers who have logged more than two innings this year, none has an ERA higher than Rasmussen's 2.52.
This week against UC Santa Barbara, senior righthander Garrett Claypool struck out 10 over seven innings, allowing just an unearned run on three hits. Righties Erik Goeddel -- at last completely recovered from Tommy John surgery -- and Dan Klein followed with one perfect inning apiece, combining to strike out four. Myers, UCSB's pitching coach, came away impressed.
"Claypool struggled early on with his command, then settled in and commanded both sides of the plate with his fastball and gave us some trouble," Myers said. "Not a lot of teams pitch in with fastballs, and those guys all do. Then they brought in Goeddel -- who looks healthy, flashing a great breaking ball late in counts -- and then Klein was throwing 93. They have all the pieces. Those are front-line arms at the back of the bullpen."
The Huskies have one of the most talented rosters in the Northeast, and entering the season Baseball America pegged them to make a regional for the first time since 1994. They have handled a fairly challenging nonconference schedule, getting off to an 12-5 start with wins over Minnesota, Southern California, Ohio State and Boston College, plus a series win at warm-weather Cal State Northridge. This weekend, UConn opens Big East Conference play with a showdown at league juggernaut Louisville.
Connecticut's top prospect for the 2010 draft, junior third baseman Mike Olt, is hitting .329/.378/.603 with five homers and 21 RBIs, but he's also struck out 20 times in 73 at-bats. Second baseman Pierre LePage, a 5-foot-7 junior, has just two strikeouts in 66 at-bats and is hitting .288/.364/.379. That duo has a chance to be drafted in the first dozen or so rounds, but the Huskies also have potential first-round picks for the 2011 draft in sophomore righthander Matt Barnes (3-0, 3.26 with 21 strikeouts and four walks in 19 innings) and outfielder George Springer (.259/.470/.603 with four homers, 20 RBIs and seven steals in seven tries).
A National League scout broke down Connecticut's top prospects and its other top contributors, including ace junior lefthander Elliot Glynn (2-1, 1.46), sophomore shortstop Nick Ahmed (.315/.354/.438 with eight steals), junior first baseman Mike Nemeth (.429/.544/.619) and freshman outfielder Billy Ferriter (.467/.544/.619 with seven steals).
"They absolutely are a good team. I haven't seen Louisville, but I don't see too many teams in the Big East being better than them. They're the best team in the Northeast by far. They do have a chance to get to a regional, in that they can go deep in the conference tournament, but I don't see them getting an at-large bid.
"Glynn can really pitch, and Barnes will just get better and better. Glynn kind of is what he is -- he can pitch like hell, but his stuff's gone way backwards since high school. He'll pitch at 82-83 and top out at 86, and he's got a slurvy breaking ball. He's a soft-tossing lefty that doesn't throw a changeup. He was 87-88 out of high school and didn't throw a changeup then either.
"Barnes is their best arm -- the best arm they've had in a freakin' decade. They've used him a bunch of different ways; he wasn't 100 percent starting the season. He has been legitimately up to 97, and he does it easily. He's got a hell of an arm. He was a prototype New England kid: He was 87-88 out of high school with no breaking ball. Now he's got a good feel. He's got a good arm so he can spin the ball well, and he's developed some pitchability, and he competes.
"[Junior lefty Greg] Nappo I liked the first time out of the chute, but he's gotten hammered a couple times since then. He's a lefthander who throws average, 89-90, but it's string straight. They've got enough guys to mix and match on the mound.
"Olt is striking out a lot. He's missing 82 mph fastballs down the middle, and guys are pitching around other guys to get to him. He has not helped himself [for the draft]. Everybody's talking first round next year for Springer. It's not a slam dunk, but we'll see. He's fast-twitch, a great athlete, but it will all come down to how he swings the bat. He hits a lot of balls in the air. He'll be OK, but I was amazed he did as well as he did last year. He doesn't throw like he did in high school -- he had a 60 arm in high school -- but he can run and he's got power.
"Guys are in love with LePage, the hustle and everything -- he's a pretty good player. He never strikes out, and he is a good, quality second baseman. Nick Ahmed can play; I like him. Ahmed is a good-body kid, he gets better every game he plays -- I like him a lot. When it's all said and done five years from now, he may be the best guy still playing out of all UConn's guys. [Freshman infielder L.J.] Mazzilli's really good. He's a solid contributor as a freshman; he hits the ball hard. He's got the big league bloodlines, he already is a good player and he's going to be a guy in two years. He could always play baseball, but he's really physically developed, he's a different guy now."
In The Dugout
Josh Rutledge, ss, Alabama
In three years at Alabama, Rutledge has established himself as one of the nation's best shortstops and has improved his chances of being selected in the first five rounds of the 2010 draft. He was a freshman All-American in 2008, but he's having his best season yet as a junior this spring, hitting .375/.416/.600 with three homers, 25 RBIs and six stolen bases in six tries. A consistent defender, Rutledge is a leader on the field and a linchpin of the lineup in the No. 2 hole, and he is a big reason the Crimson Tide is off to a 16-3 start heading into this weekend's series against Arkansas.
Congratulations on the strong start to the season. Winning that Vanderbilt series (last weekend) is an awfully nice way to start conference play.
It's been going well, we've been playing good baseball here lately. Our whole team's playing well. We're putting everything together. We're playing great defense, and swinging the bats all the way through the order. I think probably the big difference is we have a great bullpen that comes in and pounds the strike zone.
Who are some of the players that have taken major steps forward for you guys this year?
Adam Morgan's been throwing great for us. He got hurt a little bit last year, but he's our Friday night guy, and he's our best competitor on the mound. Jimmy Nelson's been throwing outstanding -- he's beyond anything he's done the past couple of years. He's been outstanding on Saturdays. Tyler White's been closing games, he's been spotting up, throwing all his pitches for strikes, going after batters and shutting games down when we need him to.
And you're off to a good start with the bat. You've been a consistent player for your whole college career, but do you feel like you're playing at a higher level now than you have in the past?
I feel like each year I've learned different things. I've lost some weight from last year, because I felt like I gained too much last year and got a little too stiff to play short, so that's helped out with my range at short and my overall speed. Athleticism is one thing I feel like I kind of got away from a little bit last year. I'm a lot more flexible this year.
Let me ask you straight up: with you at short, Ross Wilson at second, Jake Smith at third and Clay Jones at first, does Alabama have the best infield in college baseball?
Absolutely, hands down. I think we can compete with any infield in the country, from first to third. All our guys are returners, who've been here the past couple of years and played. We've all worked together -- that really helps us a lot. Everybody on the team -- even the corner guys that have stepped in in the outfield, and our whole pitching staff -- has done a great job. And getting our new pitching coach, coach [Kyle] Bunn, he's been doing a great job with the pitchers. They have confidence in him, and that gives them confidence. It's a lot easier to play defense when your pitchers are throwing strikes like they are.
You mentioned Kyle Bunn coming in as part of the coaching change in the offseason. I know you were already familiar with Mitch Gaspard, since he was on the staff there before Jim Wells retired, but I'm curious how that transition has gone. How do their styles compare?
It's been a great transition; I don't think anybody's had trouble with it at all. The style of baseball has not been that different -- we play the same defensively, but we run the bases a lot better, and we're a little more aggressive with steals, hit and runs, things like that. The pitching side is where it's helped us the most, having a pitching coach who just deals with the pitchers.
I noticed you played with a bunch of players from other SEC schools -- including three LSU guys -- at Yarmouth-Dennis in the Cape Cod League last summer. There must have been some trash talk going on there, right?
We all got along pretty good, we like playing together when we're on summer teams. When we play each other in season, it's worth a little more, just wanting to beat up on them. Me and (LSU catcher) Micah Gibbs hung out a lot this summer. He was fun to play with. He did talk a little bit of smack though after they won the World Series. It was fun though.
This weekend, you make the trip to Arkansas, and I'm sure that will be a great atmosphere with a big crowd. You get to play in a lot of terrific settings in the SEC; which is your favorite as a visiting player?
I've been to the old Alex Box (at LSU), and that was great. I haven't been to the new one yet, but I've heard it's phenomenal. The best field I've been to before that would be Arkansas. Their whole setup is unbelievable -- it's like a professional field.
Your older brother, Michael, played at Mississippi State and then at Samford, and you got to face him when you were a freshman and he was at Samford, right?
I guess it was my freshman year, we had one game at home and one game at Samford. That was the first time we'd gotten to play any game with or against each other -- he's four years older. We won at home, they won at Samford, so we split.
(Alabama football coach) Nick Saban threw out the first pitch of your SEC opener against Vanderbilt. Was it a strike?
It was right down the middle. It was definitely fun -- it was a neat experience. We had a good crowd for that one.
It must have been fun as an Alabama student to see the football team win the national championship this year. I'm sure that made you even hungrier for some postseason glory in baseball. Having been to regionals the last two years, do you think this team is poised to get over that hump and get back to super regionals or Omaha?
Absolutely. I think this team's the best team that I've ever been on. From top to bottom, I think we're going to compete with anybody, and we can beat anybody.
For more information on college baseball, check out Baseball America.