What we learned in February
Special to ESPN.com
We're heading into the third weekend of the college baseball season. Way too early to tell what is going to happen between now and June, right? It's true. Think of it this way: After this weekend, we're still looking at 85 days before the NCAA selection committee announces the lucky 64.
But there is a lot we can glean from the first two weeks of the season. In fact, a quick synopsis of what has already happened is a good place to start this weekend's preview.
It's way too early to get too concerned or too geeked about any one team or player. Some will improve, some will suffer injuries and some will get worse. That's how it goes in a 14-week season. But here's a look at what we can take away from the first two weeks of the season:
1. The new bats are fine. Home runs are still hit. Smokin' line drives are still hit. Warning track shots are still hit. It's still baseball, and the game still seems to look good to me. Next.
2. The pitch clock has been a nonfactor. Just as I suspected.
3. Hit streaks that carry over eight months later are nearly impossible to maintain. Garrett Wittels saw his 56-game streak broken the first night of the season. Back in 2002, Damian Costantino of Division III Salve Regina had his 60-game hit streak come to an end four games into a new season. Just not easy to carry over.
4. There is no clear-cut national favorite. This one's pretty obvious. Everyone is vulnerable, as witnessed by last week's results, in which so many top-15 teams took on a loss or two.
5. It looks like most of the national powers have two dominating pitchers and that can win you a title in Omaha. But it still doesn't look like anyone has an unbeatable rotation. So June could be fun.
6. The best baseball player in the country has been Danny Hultzen. Virginia's two-way dynamo is .333 with 10 ribs at the dish, and is 2-0 with a 1.32 ERA and is holding opposing batters to a 1.36 batting average on the hill. I'm sold.
7. The best pitcher in college baseball has been Taylor Jungmann. For pure pitching sake, the Texas ace has two complete games, two wins, no runs allowed, 18 K's and a .148 opponent average.
8. Stanford has the most guts of anyone in the country. Playing at Rice, versus Cal and at Vanderbilt in the first 10 days of the season is enough to make every other ranked team shake with fear like Ichabod Crane.
9. Karsten Whitson is the real deal. Two appearances into his career, and his numbers are already head-scratching (2-0, 0.87 ERA, .167 opponent average). Just wait until he starts to figure things out.
10. Cal, UC Irvine, North Carolina and Fresno State are all way better than we thought. So far.
11. Coastal Carolina, Connecticut, Miami, Louisville, Auburn and Alabama aren't as good as we thought. Again, so far.
12. San Jose State, Southeastern Louisiana, Stony Brook, Dallas Baptist and Hawaii are the best "out of nowhere" teams. Although watch out for their RPIs being hurt by the anchor effect of their conferences.
13. February shows us once again how thankful we are that polls and rankings don't determine national champions in our sport. The early season rankings are always easy fodder for scrutiny, but it's off the hook again.
Huskies ride home-grown talent
Special to ESPN.com
Coming off a school-record 48 wins and their first NCAA regionals appearance since 1994, the UConn Huskies are adjusting to a new reality.
"We're used to fighting like the Viet Cong," Huskies coach Jim Penders said. "Now it's like we're the British army walking onto Lexington Green. We're a much bigger target."
Opponents have been hitting the bull's-eye so far, resulting in the Huskies' 2-4 record. Playing in Florida and Texas, UConn has lost to Purdue, Minnesota, Oregon State and Indiana.
The Huskies don't play in Storrs until March 22, but even all those games away from home don't figure to stop the momentum they've built the past couple of years. That's especially true when you consider the talent on the team, including a pair of projected high-first-round picks in outfielder George Springer and pitcher Matt Barnes.
Springer had 18 homers, 33 steals, 60 walks, 84 runs and a .491 on-base percentage last season. Barnes was 8-3 with a 3.92 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 82 2/3 innings.
How did the Huskies get those two standout juniors?
"The first time we saw George, he was a skinny freshman, and he didn't really impress us," Penders said. "But we continued to follow him.
"By his junior year, [UConn associate head coach and recruiting coordinator] Justin Blood had fallen in love with him."
Penders said that after Springer had committed to UConn, ACC and SEC schools started offering scholarships. Springer, though, stayed true to the Huskies, who got a player who fits his name.
"He has a spring in his step," Penders said of the New Britain, Conn., native, who has grown into a 6-foot-3, 200-pound man.
Penders said the recruitment of Barnes, a native of Bethel, Conn., was similar to that of Springer. Both are home-state kids whom the Huskies watched for years, building relationships and watching the development.
"Baseball is not like other sports," Penders said. "A track coach can probably recruit from his computer, just looking at who has the fastest times. But you can't recruit in baseball just on tools. We want to see the intangibles, who handles failure well and who doesn't. That takes seeing a prospect multiple times."
Penders said his recruiting base is New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and, of course, Connecticut.
"High school baseball in Connecticut is excellent," he said. "If we can get the best eight to 12 kids from our state every year, we can compete for national championships."
That, of course, would be a huge story, given some daunting trends:
- No northeastern team has made the College World Series in a quarter of a century, since Maine in 1986.
- No northeastern team has played in the championship game since Penn State in 1957.
- A northeastern team has won only one CWS title, by Holy Cross in 1952.
Could this be the year that at least some of that history will be rewritten?
The Huskies, who last went to the CWS in 1979, have a legitimate chance -- especially if they can develop a few more players like Springer and Barnes.
Places to be this weekend
Special to ESPN.com
If you're in the area, check out these matchups. If you're not, buy a plane ticket and make your way to one of these locales.
1. No. 7 Clemson at/vs. No. 4 South Carolina
First question: Is it possible for a hate-fueled rivalry to get even angrier? Last year, it was obvious the Tigers couldn't handle the Carolina lefties on the mound (special raise of the mug to Michael Roth), as the Gamecocks won two straight to eliminate the Tigers from the national title race in Omaha. That amounts to the ultimate rivalry pain for CU. So look for this one to be even more intense as the Palmetto State ups the ante on neighborly hate. (Watch Saturday's game on ESPN3.com at 4 p.m. ET.)
Key matchup: The left-handers of Carolina versus Clemson's order. The Gamecocks' all-southpaw starting rotation of Michael Roth, Tyler Webb and Adam Westmoreland will take on the Tigers' bats, which are hitting .373 so far, led by Spencer Kieboom's .579 average.
2. The USD Tournament
Teams involved: San Diego, San Diego State, No. 22 California, No. 3 Oklahoma, Connecticut
Great collection of teams that have already provided a lot of storylines for 2011. Last year, after seeing OU take down both SDSU and USD on opening weekend, I made the statement that the Sooners were a legit Omaha contender. Now the Big Red return to their proving grounds with tougher assignments ahead. I mean, really, is anyone else in college baseball hotter than Cal? And look for UConn to start playing a little better as it gets more reps in the warm weather.
Key matchup: Cal versus Oklahoma. Still not sure how the Bears are ranked so low, comparatively speaking, but after holding Coastal Carolina, NC State and Kansas State to one run in 27 innings, this will be a great pitching versus hitting matchup with the torrid Sooners bats.
3. No. 15 Stanford at No. 12 Texas
It's Week 3 in the Cardinal death march to start the 2011 season. So far, after weekends at Rice and Vanderbilt and a midweek game versus Cal, SU stands at 4-3. That's pretty remarkable for the slate the Cardinal have faced. This will be their most formidable test, facing both Taylor Jungmann and Cole Green, along with what looks like a solid bullpen for the Horns.
Key matchup: Mark Appel versus Taylor Jungmann. If these two talents are on their game, this Friday night matchup will probably last just more than an hour and a half. But the problem for the Cardinal is that Appel hasn't been on lockdown mode yet, although he's faced high-octane competition. However, Texas doesn't quite have the bats Rice or Vanderbilt had.
4. Miami at No. 1 Florida
This might not be the best combination here. I saw both teams play in the first week of the season; Miami lost to Rutgers, and the Gators obliterated a solid Florida Atlantic team. Do the math on this one. The Gators, playing at home, will be big favorites with their experience and nearly unstoppable 1-through-9 batting order. Also, the Canes' pitching is still a little hither and yon and in need of seasoning. Believe me, Gainesville is no place to get more seasoning.
Key matchup: The Hurricanes' speed versus Mike Zunino. One thing the Canes can do is run and run and run. At the top of the order, Zeke DeVoss and Nathan Melendres will have to challenge the cannon-armed Gators catcher, although few have ventured to do so this season. If they can put some pressure on the Florida pitching staff, the Canes have a chance here. If not, it's curtains.
5. The Houston College Classic
Teams involved: No. 20 Rice, No. 13 Texas A&M, Utah, Kentucky, Baylor, Houston
Always one of the better pre-conference tournaments in college baseball, the College Classic is played at the home of the Astros and gives the college guys a sense of playing in a big league environment against some great competition. Well, maybe this year it's just "good" competition, but you get my drift. Lots of pro prospects will grace the field in H-town, making this a scout's dream.
Key matchup: Texas A&M pitching versus Rice's Anthony Rendon. The Aggies' arms, led by John Stilson and Michael Wacha, have yielded an ERA of 0.80 through the first six games of the season. Rendon is the main force for the Owls, almost being able to name his average. But if he's not on, Rice is in trouble. True, there are some potent bats besides Rendon, but he's definitely the key.
For the full list, check out ESPN.com's college baseball blog.
Top 25 matchups
Miami at No. 1 Florida
Brown at No. 2 Vanderbilt
San Diego/No. 22 Cal/San Diego State vs. No. 3 Oklahoma
No. 4 South Carolina at No. 7 Clemson*
No. 5 UCLA at Nebraska
No. 6 Florida State at Georgia
No. 8 TCU at Texas Tech
Princeton at No. 9 LSU
Cornell/Rider at No. 10 Virginia NIU/Kansas/UC Riverside at No. 11 Arizona State
No. 15 Stanford at No. 12 Texas
Utah/No. 20 Rice/Houston vs. No. 13 Texas A&M
USC at No. 14 Cal State Fullerton
UW-Milwaukee at No. 16 Arkansas
Utah Valley at No. 17 Arizona
Stony Brook at No. 18 UNC
No. 19 UC Irvine at St. Mary's
No. 21 Oregon at Long Beach State
Rutgers at No. 23 Georgia Tech
Kent State at No. 24 Louisville
Youngstown State at No. 25 College of Charleston
Q&A: Mervyl Melendez
I've always been fascinated at how much Bethune-Cookman has been able dominate the HBCUs and the MEAC, going to 10 NCAA tournaments in the past 12 years. So I jumped at the chance to talk with 12-year Wildcats coach Mervyl Melendez while at the Urban Invitational last weekend in Compton, Calif. -- Eric Sorenson
ES: First off, what does taking part in the Urban Invitational mean to you?
MM: Being part of a Major League Baseball-sponsored event is huge. Having the MLB and our guys being a part of this for all four years is something special. It gives our guys a chance at getting some exposure from the MLB Network and playing on TV. It doesn't get any bigger than that for our guys.
ES: Just looking at your team, I saw that there are fewer black players; is that a change in your recruiting or is it just harder to get black players to play baseball?
MM: Absolutely, it's harder. Without question. If we just go after the black players to play Division I baseball, we probably wouldn't be able to field a team. It's very tough to do that because the numbers just aren't there. Most of the good black athletes in our country are going to play football and basketball.
ES: Is the decreasing number of black players in high school baseball the reason you have a lot of Hispanic kids in your program now?
MM: The bottom line is that good black baseball players don't want to play for an HBCU school. If they are an elite player, they either want to sign with a pro team, or go play in the ACC, SEC, Pac-10 or Big West. But the kids from Puerto Rico are the complete opposite. They just want the exposure of playing baseball in America, so they view coming to Bethune-Cookman as a step in that direction. They don't know any better about the SEC or ACC or those major conferences.
ES: You've gotten out to a slow start this year; any concerns over that?
MM: It doesn't concern me. It's disappointing. But it's surprised me a little that we've struggled offensively and that was our strength last year. We hit .340 as a team, so not having a good start at the plate so far has been really disappointing. But it's a long season, so I think we'll come around.
ES: Talk about your star players Peter O'Brien and Ali Simpson. Are they as good as you've had since you've been at Bethune-Cookman?
MM: Absolutely, absolutely. What's impressive about both of them is that they have the work ethic behind the talent. They really work their butts off, and they're total team players. So you want them to succeed. Peter is as exceptional as a person as he is a player, so I'm glad he's getting the recognition that he deserves. And now he's gotta roll with it and has to perform in front of GMs and scouting directors out there.
ES: Do you think he's going to be able to handle it and make a career of it?
MM: Oh yeah, I think so. Coming from his background, I don't think anything bothers him. He's been in a little bit of a funk here lately, but that happens to every hitter. There's no doubt that he's going to break out of it, but I don't think the big stage is going to intimidate him.
In focus: Cal Poly
Pitching: 5.43 ERA, 41 K's, 21 BBs
Defense: .968 fielding percentage
Reason to watch: The hard-luck factor. A 1-6 team as a team to watch? Well, the Mustangs are a whole different story. Of their six losses, four have come by a single run to good teams, including tough-luck losses to No. 18 North Carolina, a rain-shortened one-run loss to Missouri and a pair of one-run losses at Oklahoma State last weekend. But the worst yet was the 5-2 loss at USC on opening weekend. In the sixth inning of that game, Poly actually plated six runs to take an 8-5 lead, but heavy rain ensued and the game was called. Unfortunately, since the sixth inning couldn't be completed, the game reverted back to the last full inning and USC was deemed the winner by a 5-2 count. On Tuesday, things turned around for the Mustangs as they handed unbeaten Fresno State its first loss with an 11-4 rout. -- Eric Sorenson
Under the radar: Jacksonville State
Kent State (5-2) at No. 24 Louisville (5-2)
Upset watch: Georgia Tech
Rutgers (4-2) at No. 23 Georgia Tech (5-3)
Tech probably has been the biggest Jekyll and Hyde team in college baseball so far, looking like world-beaters in shutout wins over St. John's last Friday and Saturday, but suffering a blowout to the Johnnies on Sunday as well as losses to Kent State and Georgia Southern. The Rutgers team I saw in Miami was solid, especially for a northern team with no outdoor practices in Week 1 of the season. After nearly winning that series in Coral Gables, the Knights went on to sweep a decent Michigan team last week in three games. The middle order of Steve Nyisztor, Russ Hopkins and Bill Hoermann is as imposing as they come and will be a huge test to the Tech rotation of Mark Pope, Jed Bradley and Buck Farmer. Depending on which Jackets team shows up, this could be interesting. -- Eric Sorenson
Watch out for: LSU
LSU's highly touted freshman class is living up to the hype so far. Of LSU's three starting pitchers, two are freshmen -- Kurt McCune (2-0, 0.75 ERA) and Kevin Gausman (1-0, 3.86). Other freshman starters are second baseman JaCoby Jones and catcher Ty Ross. After seven games, Jones had two homers and nine RBIs and was leading the team in batting average (.571) and steals (three). He was named the SEC freshman of the week on Monday. McCune had been named the SEC pitcher of the week after he tossed six shutout innings against Wake Forest in his debut.-- Walter Villa
What we're reading
• In this month's installment of Inside The Program, we check in on Oklahoma's player-parent-coach relationships -- specifically, looking at Garrett Buechele and Cameron Seitzer, whose fathers played in the pros and are now coaches.
• Each week, Jeremy Mills looks at the biggest numbers from the weekend. Check out ESPN.com's college baseball blog.
• Jeff Bradley looks at Cal, which is sticking together with the knowledge that this might be the last year the program plays at the Division 1 level. So far this season, they're off to a fast start.
• Jeff Sackmann of College Splits looks at five players who performed better than their stat lines indicated last year and who are poised for big seasons.
Capital One Cup
The Capital One Cup rewards the best Division I men's and women's programs in the country for their on-field performance throughout the year. For more information about the Cup, visit capitalonecup.com.