Suspect schedule strengths
Special to ESPN.com
This is always one of my most favorite and least favorite weeks of the season. We're on the verge of seeing conference play kick off in earnest around the country, most notably in the SEC and the Big 12, which begin their annual show-no-mercy battles. But it's also a time to look back at the past few weeks and realize that, sadly, college baseball is inching closer and closer to college football in a noticeable lack of high-quality nonconference matchups.
This scares me, of course.
Either way, it's always interesting to see who has played the toughest schedules up to this point and who has skated by without challenging themselves in pre-conference play. Using Boyd Nation's ISR (Iterative Strength Ratings) and the strength of schedule component, here are the 10 toughest schedules in the country so far:
1. Stanford (6-5)
2. Boston College (6-8)
3. Cal State Fullerton (8-7)
4. Sacred Heart (6-6)
5. Clemson (7-6)
6. Maine (5-12)
7. Georgia (8-8)
8. Seton Hall (5-8)
9. Rice (10-8)
10. Hofstra (1-11)
Here are the toughest schedules played by teams in the top 25:
1. Stanford (6-5)
3. Cal State Fullerton (8-7)
5. Clemson (7-6)
9. Rice (10-8)
35. Florida (15-2)
41. California (10-4)
And here are the teams in the top 25 that have played the easiest schedules:
264. UC Irvine (12-1) 254. Arkansas (14-2) 220. College of Charleston 201. Arizona (13-4) 212. Oklahoma (16-2)
A couple of extra points about this. First, there have been only five nonconference weekend series between top-25 teams so far. We have to thank the gutsy Stanford Cardinal for being brave enough to go on the road, allowing three of them to happen. The others were the Clemson-South Carolina soap opera and last weekend's Fullerton-LSU series in Baton Rouge. And for what it's worth, none of the top 10 teams in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll had a strength of schedule of 30th or better. Only Florida (35th) and Texas (46th) were in the 50 toughest schedules.
Rendon handles the pressure
Special to ESPN.com
Anthony Rendon grew up in Houston and was in the eighth grade in 2003 when Rice won its lone College World Series title.
Just don't ask Rendon whether he remembers watching Rice on television.
"I was never inside as a kid," Rendon said. "I was always playing baseball."
Perhaps that helps explains why Rendon, now Rice's star third baseman, is the consensus No. 1 prospect for the 2011 MLB draft. The righty-hitting Rendon is only a junior, but it's virtually certain this is his last year in college.
And considering that MLB's past two No. 1 picks -- Stephen Strasburg in 2009 and Bryce Harper in 2010 -- signed contracts totaling $25 million, Rendon was asked whether he preferred a Jaguar or a Mercedes for his first post-draft purchase.
"I'm a BMW guy," Rendon said with a laugh. "Mercedes is kind of girly."
Turning serious, Rendon said he is not afraid of the pressure that comes with being a No. 1 pick.
"I can't say there won't be pressure," he said, "because there will be. But I'm just going to play good baseball and have fun."
Rendon certainly has had fun the past two years. He won national freshman of the year honors in 2009, hitting .388 with 20 homers and 72 RBIs. Last year, he took home the Dick Howser Trophy as the national player of the year after hitting .394 with 26 homers and 85 RBIs.
Because the new, NCAA-mandated bats have taken much of the sting out of aluminum, Rendon might not put up such huge numbers this season. So far, he is leading 10-8 Rice in batting average (.358), homers (three) and on-base percentage (.500).
Teams also are reluctant to pitch to Rendon.
Such was the case in last week's 10-2 win over FIU. Rendon drew a pair of walks and finally got a pitch to hit when the bases were loaded. He promptly lined a shot to right field that cleared the bases. (Rice ruled it a triple; FIU called it an error.)
"What's impressive is that he can hit breaking balls as good as fastballs," FIU coach Turtle Thomas said. "He doesn't have a clear-cut weakness, which is different from nearly every other college player.
"Secondly, he has great range at the plate. He can handle the ball on the outside corner or a pitch off the inside, and that's hard to do with these new bats that have half the sweet spots as the old ones."
FIU pitching coach Sean Allen compared Rendon to MLB star Albert Pujols -- a player you pitch around, if possible.
"Most hitters need a couple of at-bats to make adjustments, but Rendon adjusts right away," Allen said. "I told my pitchers: 'If you throw him a breaking ball, make sure it's out of the strike zone. If he gets something in the middle of the plate, he's going to kill it.'"
About the only question with Rendon is whether he can stay healthy. He has had two surgeries on his right ankle -- once after he stepped in a "pothole" chasing a foul pop and the second after he was hurt running the bases.
Earlier this season, he strained his throwing shoulder while stretching.
"I would say the same thing as them if I didn't know me," said Rendon, when asked to respond to critics who say he's injury-prone. "But these were freak injuries, unrelated."
Injuries aside, Rendon's teammates have taken note of his elevated draft status.
"A lot of them have said we're a package deal -- you draft one of us, you have to take both," Rendon said. "Others have said they'd be my gardener or my driver."
After all, someone has to take care of his BMW.
Places to be this weekend
Special to ESPN.com
If you have your hands on a Learjet this weekend, here are the places you need to get, pronto.
1. No. 1 Florida at No. 7 LSU
Watch: Friday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN3.com
Armageddon, SEC style. I can't wait to see how this one transpires. You think the Tigers can pull the trick again in back-to-back weekends? They've got their work cut out for them, that's for sure, as Florida could have the most complete team in the country with power (Preston Tucker, Daniel Pigott and Mike Zunino), defense (SS Nolan Fontana, C Zunino, etc.) and a deep pitching staff that is headed by wonder-frosh Karsten Whitson (3-0, 2.21 ERA). Don't sell the youthful Tigers arms short again (like I did last week). It was obvious to me that these guys pitch with confidence, especially when at home in the Box.
Key matchup: The nerves of Kurt McCune and Kevin Gausman versus the experience of the Florida batting order. The young guns handled the pressure of a big-time opponent last weekend, but this will be an opponent who is more familiar with them. Plus, the Gators feature a bevy of lefty bats in Fontana, Tucker and Brian Johnson, among others, so that presents a problem for the right-heavy Tigers arms.
2. No. 13 Texas A&M at No. 3 Oklahoma
The classic unstoppable force meets the immovable object. This kickoff series to Big 12 play is a tasty one. OU starters Michael Rocha (4-0, 1.20 ERA) and Bobby Shore (2-0, 4.43) won't overpower a flea, but if they are getting good movement on their pitches and locating low in the strike zone, they're as difficult to hit as anyone in the country. A&M comes into Norman off a 2-0 win versus Cal State Fullerton midweek, and will feature two of the better pitchers in the country in John Stilson and Michael Wacha.
Key matchup: A&M's Dylan Mendoza versus OU's Burch Smith. There's a good chance the Aggies' duo of Wacha and Stilson will be able to pull at least a split in the first two games. Game 3 probably will come down to these two Sunday starters. Mendoza is a slightly built lefty who has emerged after throwing just six innings last year. I saw Smith throw versus Cal two weeks ago, and he is a strapping power guy. If he's on target with his meaty fastball, it's lights out. OU got two-hit last weekend versus Arkansas-Little Rock in a getaway game; don't look for a repeat two Sundays in a row.
3. No. 4 Florida State at No. 5 Virginia
Talk about a team we're dying to find out about. The Noles have been a little suspect so far, nearly blowing a series at Georgia, getting pushed by Boston College and playing a lot of stiffs. This could be a comeuppance weekend. UVa stud Danny Hultzen is still playing like the best player in the country, hitting .372 and pitching at a 4-0/0.66 ERA pace. Even after facing marquee names like Clemson, East Carolina and Auburn, the Cavaliers' pitching staff holds a ridiculous 1.71 team ERA and 188-to-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Key matchup: The battle of the two-way stars. Hultzen has been dynamite, and the team has followed his lead so far. But FSU's Mike McGee has been wicked big time, too, hitting at a .411 pace at the dish with three saves. McGee has thrown only four innings so far, but my guess is his services will be needed here. Whichever team uses its dual-threat star more probably will be the winning team. In other words, if Hultzen has another crazy-good start and goes deep into Friday's game, that's a good omen. Likewise, if McGee is called to the mound a couple of times this weekend, that just means FSU is protecting late leads. And that's a good thing.
4. No. 9 Arkansas at Auburn
The Tigers must have steam coming out of their noses after they dropped out of the rankings following two losses to Arizona State at home last weekend. Before that, the only top-notch opponent they faced was Virginia, which lambasted them by a 13-2 count. The Hogs still are a bit of a mystery since their schedule has lived up to its No. 250 degree of difficulty. Last week, they took three of four at San Diego State, which is a pretty good team but struggling with its youth. This series will give a good indication of who will challenge LSU in the SEC West.
Key matchup: Ryne Stanek versus the top five of Auburn. Last week, the Hogs' frosh wunderkind couldn't get out of the second inning on the mound against a youthful San Diego State team, so his start here against the Plainsmen will be crucial in determining whether this is a winning weekend for the Razorbacks. Auburn's big five of Wes Gilmer (.408), Casey McElroy (.386), Dan Gamache (.349), Justin Fradejas (.339) and Justin Hargett (.338) will be the key to making amends for last week's losses, in which they just didn't come up clutch.
5. Washington State at No. 19 Fresno State
After a pair of blowout losses to South Alabama and Dallas Baptist, Wazzu kind of fell off the radar, even though the Cougs come in with a decent 9-4 record. Their losses have been to Cal State Bakersfield (which just beat South Carolina), Minnesota (which beat UConn), South Alabama (which beat Alabama) and Dallas Baptist (which beat TCU). So you get the picture. Fresno, meanwhile, has been red-hot under the radar at 11-2, including a solid series win at Nebraska last weekend. However, a slight word of warning: staff ace Derek Benny was able to go only 1.2 innings in Lincoln last Friday. So he'll need redemption this weekend.
Key matchup: WSU pitcher James Wise versus Fresno's power sticks. Why James Wise here? He's been the Saturday starter the past few weeks, and in the three-game weekends that the Cougars have been able to complete this season, their Achilles' heel has been that they are 1-2 in Saturday games, with the one win being a white-knuckler against Utah Valley. Wise must hold down the fort and go deep in the game against the intimidating bats of Jordan Ribera, Dusty Robinson & Co.
6. No. 12 TCU at UNLV
Well, look at it this way: If the Rebels are going to stick a flag in the ground and announce they've arrived, might as well do it here in the opening weekend of Mountain West play. And why not? The Frogs come in as a humbled unit. They had their big horse Matt Purke back on the hill with no blister problems and a team named Houston Baptist nailed him with his first career loss. Gah! UNLV has scored nine runs or more in 10 of its 16 wins, so it could get hot here and make problems. The big key will be getting pitchers Tanner Peters (4-0, 0.00) and Tyler Iodence (3-0, 1.67) to throw the best games they have so far.
7. Kansas State at No. 10 Texas
The Cats were cruising along, feeling pretty good about themselves, until Saturday and Sunday rolled around. That was when they dropped back-to-back games with Long Island at home, 4-2 and 6-5. Really? Wow. But the reason they still have a lot of optimism heading into this one is that Texas has shown to be vulnerable any time Taylor Jungmann is not on the hill. The Longhorns have lost games to Maryland, Hawaii, Stanford and Brown so far. This won't be easy, but give K-State a puncher's chance after Friday.
8. Oregon State at Long Beach State
If anything, pay attention to the Friday night lid-lifter as the Dirtbags will toss out Andrew Gagnon, who has been named the Big West pitcher of the week three times in a row. He'll give the Beach its best chance at a win here as he faces off with Sam Gaviglio, who is 3-0 and 0.000 so far. Great matchup. Also watch for the potentially formidable Beavers batting order led by Andrew Susac's insane .449 average. OSU will have the advantage Saturday and Sunday.
9. Georgia at No. South Carolina
OK, the past two weekends, just about everyone in the country has underestimated the Bulldogs. They nearly pulled off a series win over No. 4 Florida State two weeks ago (winning one game) and then swept the field at the Dodgertown Classic in L.A. Now, this weekend will be the ultimate proving ground for Dave Perno's squad. Can it beat last year's runner-up (UCLA) and national champion (South Carolina) in back-to-back weeks?
10. The Cougar Invitational
Teams participating: College of Charleston, Southern Mississippi, Connecticut, Rhode Island
This could be a redemption weekend for somebody here. The shortcomings of these teams have outweighed their accomplishments so far. CofC blew a shot at an upset versus Auburn. Southern Miss dropped a series against Troy. UConn got off to that slow start, including a 10-2 loss to Purdue to start things. Rhody hasn't been the same since unfairly losing out on an NCAA at-large bid in 2009. You get the picture; everyone needs redemption here.
No. 1 Florida at No. 7 LSU
Mississippi State at No. 2 Vanderbilt
No. 13 Texas A&M at No. 3 Oklahoma
No. 4 Florida State at No. 5 Virginia
Georgia at No. 6 South Carolina
Oral Roberts at No. 8 Arizona State
No. 9 Arkansas at Auburn
Kansas State at No. 10 Texas
No. 11 UC Irvine at Loyola Marymount
No. 12 TCU at UNLV
San Francisco at No. 14 Arizona
No. 15 North Carolina at Virginia Tech
No. 16 UCLA at Cal Poly
Duke at No. 17 Clemson
No. 18 Cal State Fullerton at Washington
Washington State at No. 19 Fresno State
Xavier at No. 20 Louisville
NC State at No. 21 Georgia Tech
Michigan at No. 22 Stanford
Southern Miss/UConn/Rhode Island vs. No. 23 College of Charleston
Louisiana Tech at No. 24 Rice
Ohio state at No. 25 Cal
ESPN's resident NCAA baseball bracketologist, Jeremy Mills, offered his mid-March projections. Mills' eight national seeds are:
4. Florida State
7. Cal State Fullerton
8. South Carolina
You can find the rest of his projected 64-team field in ESPN.com's college baseball blog.
Q&A: Paul Mainieri
The LSU head honcho came into this season with an all-new pitching staff thanks to injuries, transfers and the draft. Yet, as I saw this past weekend, those newbies he's thrown out there -- Kurt McCune, Kevin Gausman and rarely-used senior Ben Alsup -- have all played laser tag from the mound. So when I sat down with coach Paul Mainieri, my first question was an easy one.
ES: So how good is it to be you right about now?
PM: (Laughs) Well, this is a very humbling game, Eric. Just when you think you've got it figured out, something jumps up and bites ya. Just like Fullerton; they were riding so high coming into this weekend, and then this happens. Well, the same thing could happen to us at any time. But I was really proud of how our freshmen threw; they really set the tone for the weekend. We've been playing pretty sound, fundamental baseball all year, and even though this was a step up in competition, our guys just kept playing at that same level that they have been.
ES: The last two years, I've talked to you on the phone after Illinois beat you in a three-game series and after Kansas beat you in a three-game series. Each time, you put things in perspective. Does that philosophy change after a huge series win like this?
PM: We have a rule that you can celebrate a win or analyze a loss until midnight that night. After that, it's a whole new day and you have to look forward. I like that we won these games, but nothing really changes. We know we still have 40 games to go and 30 of those are in the SEC. I'm glad our record is 15-1 and I like where we are, but we've got a long way to go.
ES: Do you have any fears that your team won't keep playing at this level, since a lot of young teams tend to wear down as the season goes on?
PM: I like where we are right now, but we need to continue to improve. One of the things that's been the hallmark of our program -- last year being the exception -- is that our teams are better in late April and into May than we are in February and March. So that will continue to be the goal.
ES: Do you have any concerns about your team once it finally does go on the road, especially in SEC play?
PM: Our guys have to play before 10,000 people every night, and they all expect them to play well. That's not easy for those kids. So whether it's a road game or a home game, the expectations are very high. From May 3rd in 2008 to March 27th, 2010, we won eight straight SEC road series. I don't see why these guys can't play at that same level. We've pitched well, we've hit well, we've executed well. If we lose a road series, it's not going to be because we've played too many home games; it'll be because the other team played well.
ES: Don't get mad at me, Coach. But does winning a series like this one against Fullerton make you think that you should schedule more high-profile opponents like this?
PM: Well, we always try to schedule as tough of an opponent as possible the weekend before SEC play, which was Fullerton this year. Next year we have a combination of Michigan and Notre Dame coming in, and we've got USC in a couple of years. We can't do a home-and-home because of the revenue we have to make to pay for our new stadium -- that was mandated on us. And a lot of teams won't come without a home-and-home agreement, so that means a team like Texas won't agree to come here without a return trip. So with those limitations, we're still trying to play as good of teams as possible.
ES: Lastly, how is it that your young guys have adjusted and played so well already this year?
PM: It's something that is passed on from year to year. Before these guys get to their first game, they've seen us play on TV or they've heard it from the upperclassmen in the fall about what it's like playing for LSU in big games. They know there is a tradition to live up to and there has been a foundation of excellence to live up to. So if you're a freshman or a JC transfer, you know that when you put that uniform on, you're expected to play well in big games.
In focus: Tulane
Boyd's World RPI: No. 2
This week: vs. New Orleans
Reason to watch: Expediency. These guys are the poster child for the new, faster-paced games in college baseball this year. On Saturday, I caught their game with Wichita State, and it lasted 1 hour, 48 minutes, with the Shockers winning 1-0 in their only victory of the weekend. Obviously, the Green Wave can pitch with anyone. Even with the devastating season-ending injury to 16th-round draft pick Randy LeBlanc, who was going to be leaned upon big time this year, the Greenies are pitching with aplomb, holding their opponents to a .227 average. But their own offense? It's still a work in progress.
What Coach Rick Jones says: "Obviously, on offense we've been inept. We've had some timely hits but you just have to look at our team batting average. Defensively, we've been very good and our pitching is in the low 2s, so we're good there. But losing LeBlanc hurts tremendously. He was really something special for us, and now, three weeks in, he's lost for the season. So that really changes everything for us, even though we have a lot of pitchers to work with. But somehow, I hope we have an out-of-body experience that gets some guys swinging the bat better." -- Eric Sorenson
Under the radar: Southern Miss
Only the rain has stopped Southern Miss and junior shortstop B.A. Vollmuth, a potential first-round pick this June. Bad weather forced the Golden Eagles (12-3) to cancel or postpone four home games in a one-week span earlier this month. Despite the interruptions, Vollmuth has continued his torrid pace from last season, when he hit 20 homers. This year, he is hitting .333 and leads Conference USA with six homers, including four in the past four games. Southern Miss won all four games, including Tuesday's 9-2 victory over Northwestern State, which featured a seven-run ninth inning to snap a 2-2 tie. On Monday, Vollmuth was named the C-USA player of the week. -- Walter Villa
Sam Houston State at Texas State
The Southland Conference might just be the "it" mid-major conference this season. Its list of victims includes the likes of Rice, Texas, Nebraska, Oregon State and Garrett Wittels' hit streak. But the Bearkats and Bobcats could be the best of the bunch. The Sam leads the SLC in hitting at .311 and has speed to burn, as witnessed by the 40 stolen bases this season. But Texas State will counter with a power game that features Casey Kalenkosky, who hit a pair of game-changing home runs versus Houston last week. Also, watch for the Smith versus Smith battle. The Bearkats' Caleb Smith leads the SLC with a 0.48 ERA and 2-0 mark. The Bobcats' Carson Smith is expected to be a high-round draftee and has a 28-to-6 K-to-BB ratio. -- Eric Sorenson
Showdown of aces
Virginia's Danny Hultzen vs. Florida State's Sean Gilmartin
Watch out for: Miami
On March 6, things looked bleak for Miami, and fans were wondering whether this season would mark the end of the Hurricanes' NCAA-record streak of 38 consecutive years playing in regionals. The Canes had lost four in a row, including scoring a total of just six runs while being swept three straight by rival Florida. And, oh yes, veteran Canes coach Jim Morris was sidelined by gallbladder surgery. Since his return March 8, however, the Canes (9-8) have won five of six, including three straight over Virginia Tech in the ACC's opening weekend. The Canes' offense is still not doing much (.242 team batting average), but the pitching (2.65 ERA) has been excellent. -- Walter Villa
What we're reading
• Ten innings, 15 pitching changes, 5,930 fans. When Florida and Florida State meet, it's no ordinary midweek matchup.
• Jeff Sackmann of College Splits looks at the value of a sacrifice bunt in college baseball as compared to the pros.
• Ron Polk, the SEC's winningest coach, who has long been critical of the NCAA, sounds off regarding Logan Ehlers' suspension and the NCAA's inconsistent enforcement of the "no agent" rule.
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.