Originally Published: April 7, 2011

Places to be this weekend

By Eric Sorenson
Special to ESPN.com

If you get your hands on the company Learjet, here are the places you want to put into the flight plan this weekend.

1. No. 2 Virginia at No. 11 Georgia Tech

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AP Photo/Paul SakumaThe new bats have had their intended effect: they're playing much more like wood.
By the numbers:
UVa: 28-2, 11-1 ACC, RPI No. 3
Tech: 23-6, 11-1 ACC, RPI No. 5
Tech has been living pretty high on the hog in conference play so far, as the only team hitting better than .300 and pitching an ERA less than 3.00 in conference games. The starting rotation of Mark Pope, Buck Farmer and Jed Bradley has combined to give up just 13 earned runs and 87 K's in 87 innings of work in ACC play. But this will be nothing like what they've seen up until now. Virginia comes in as a composed and battle-tested team. Its conference weekends have come against the likes of Florida State, Clemson and Virginia Tech.
Key matchup: UVa's starting rotation vs. Tech's battle axes. The reason the Cavaliers have just two losses is their insanely talented pitching staff, led by Friday guy Danny Hultzen (7-0, 1.36) and saves specialist Branden Kline (1-0, 1.08, 10 saves). As a unit, they're holding opponents to a miniscule .202 batting average. (You kiddin' me?!) But they'll have their hands full with the lethal Bees, who hit .331 as a team. Kyle Wren, Jake Davies, Matt Skole and Jacob Esch all hit better than .350. Also, that Hultzen versus Mark Pope (7-0, 0.66) showdown will be the top attraction in the country Friday night.

2. No. 7 North Carolina at No. 10 Florida State
UNC: 26-4, 10-2 ACC, RPI No. 4
FSU: 21-7, 8-4 ACC, RPI No. 10
This is one of those "puts hair on your chest" trips for the Tar Heels. Everyone was impressed by their West Coast conquest to open the season, including a win over Cal State Fullerton. But in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world we live in, we're looking to see whether they can handle the home environs of Florida State and the best fan base in the country, the Animals of Section B. One of the things you have to like about UNC is that most of its lineup is left-handed at the dish. That short porch in right field at Howser Stadium could get a lot of dings.
Key matchup: Scott Sitz and Gary Merians vs. Jesse Wierzbicki and Colin Moran. The Saturday and Sunday games have been a crapshoot for the Seminoles this season. In fact, they've been shut out the past two Saturdays by Maryland and Wake Forest, so beyond Friday ace Sean Gilmartin, Sitz and Merians will have to be stout this weekend. Wierzbicki (.364) and Moran (361) have ignited a Tar Heels offense that was thought to be a soft spot coming into this season. Also, watch the efficient speed of the Heels, who have been caught only 10 times in 58 steal attempts.

3. No. 6 Arizona State at No. 19 Oregon State
ASU: 21-6, 5-1 Pac-10, No. 6 RPI
OSU: 20-7, 2-1 Pac-10, No. 27 RPI
With UCLA, Oregon and Washington State all hitting major skids so far this season, it appears these two teams are the class of the Pac-10 for now (heavy emphasis on the "for now" part). The Beavers will show ASU the best pitching staff it has seen this season with Sam Gaviglio, who is third in the country with a 0.39 ERA. But the Devils are blazers who stretch singles to doubles and doubles to triples. Austin Barnes hits in the .425 range, Zack MacPhee is one of the best on-base batters in the country (.510) and Johnny Reuttiger has 17 stolen bases, so there's versatility in abundance here. OSU's RPI needs the boost more here. We'll see whether the Beavers play like it matters more.
Key matchup: ASU pitchers vs. the "other eight." Oregon State's Andrew Susac, who is hitting .364, is the bellcow of the Beavers' offense, but other than him, the rest of the team is hitting more than 100 points less (.263) and really needs to amp up its game, or it could be "tap city" -- to use an Al McGuire phrase -- for the Beavers and their No. 1 seed hopes come this June. (I know, it's too early to say something like that, but you get my meaning here.)

For the full weekend preview, check out the college baseball blog.

Meet Mr. Smith

By Walter Villa
Special to ESPN.com

Now that Kevan Smith has backed away from football, the former Pitt quarterback's pro prospects appear brighter than ever. Smith, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound catcher, leads the Big East in hitting (.420), and his confidence is soaring.

"The ball looks like a volleyball to me right now," said Smith, whose Panthers (15-10) took two games from Big East rival Notre Dame this past weekend.

Smith graduated last spring with a degree in marketing and could have been drafted in the 17th round in June by Seattle had he agreed to financial terms. Instead, he decided to return for his senior season, and Pitt coach Joe Jordano thinks his strong-armed star could get drafted in the first 10 rounds this June.

"He was away from baseball for three years [playing football]," Jordano said. "But he has God-given hitting ability. He is a pure hitter with power to all fields. He may be the best two-strike hitter I've ever coached."

That's high praise, especially considering the offensive ability of last season's team, which finished second in the nation in batting average and fifth in runs. Three of those Pitt hitters were drafted and signed with the pros -- Big East player of the year Joe Leonard (third round, Braves), catcher Cory Brownsten (15th round, Braves) and shortstop Danny Lopez (17th round, Mariners).

Smith faced two other challenges this season -- the new and less potent bats, which he called "brutal," and Pitt's new home park, which came with much deeper dimensions. The left-field fence in old Trees Field was only 280 feet -- now it's 325. And the gap in left-center has gone from 325 to 385 at new Cost Field.

New lineup, new bats, new park … and yet Smith is still spraying line drives all over the field.

"He has power -- big time," Jordano said. "But he doesn't have a home run swing. If the ball is on the outer half, he will drill a double to right-center. If the ball is on the inside half, he will turn on it and hit it as far as anyone.

"At the next level, they may tweak his swing so he hits more home runs. But at our level, it's perfect."

Smith started three games at quarterback for Pitt before returning to the bench. He asked then-coach Dave Wannstedt for the opportunity to play baseball in the spring and football in the fall but was denied.

"I was a great long-snapper in high school," Smith said. "I told Coach [Dave] Wannstedt I would bust my [butt] on all the special teams and be his backup quarterback as long as I could play baseball, too. I wanted to be an asset to him.

"But he wanted me to pick one sport. I knew he wanted my scholarship [to offer to a new recruit]. I thought about it for a few minutes while I was in his office, and I chose baseball."

Smith was an immediate success in his first year back in baseball in 2009, starting 27 games and hitting .363, second best on the team. He also had a 21-game hit streak, the longest by a Pitt player in a decade.

He started 51 games in 2010 and made first-team All-Big East, ending the year on a 20-game hit streak. His final numbers: .339, five homers and 41 RBIs. He also hit .750 to make the Big East's all-tournament team.

Defense has been a bigger transition because there is so much involved in playing catcher at a high level. Jordano said Smith is "evolving into a fine catcher," and -- ironically -- football gets at least partial credit.

"He has that analytical mind that you have to have as a quarterback," Jordano said. "As a quarterback, you have to read defenses and anticipate plays. And as a catcher, you need similar skills to know scouting reports and how to handle a pitching staff."

Smith said his only frustration is not getting to catch as often as he would like. With Brownstem entrenched as the starting catcher last season, Smith was used mostly at DH. This year, he hurt his knee on opening day, and even though the "MRI came back clean," according to Smith, the decision was made to use him at DH until conference play began.

"Scouts have told me the only thing they are hesitant about is my defensive ability," Smith said. "They want to see me catch more. It was frustrating because I was killing the ball in Florida, it was great weather, and now when I can catch, we're back home, and it's 25 degrees with the snow blowing in my face."

Smith realizes it's only a minor setback, and his coach is confident in his catcher's pro prospects.

"At the next level, Kevan has everything the scouts look for -- size, power, arm, hitting ability," Jordano said. "He has better-than-average speed for a catcher. He is the prototypical catcher."

BBCOR blues

By Eric Sorenson
Special to ESPN.com

A couple of weeks ago, I got the chance to see Wichita State play a game down at Tulane in New Orleans. The game ended up a 1-0 win for the Shockers with Tim Kelley holding the Green Wave to three hits. After the game, I cringed to bring up the "new bats" conversation with another coach, but I had to ask Tulane head man Rick Jones.

Jones shot back with, "I'm so tired of talking about the new bats. Look, everybody has to use them; they're no longer an excuse. We just didn't hit, that's all."

That pretty much shut me up. But the fact remains, the impact is profound. There have been a half-million articles on the subject, but all you have to do is look at the top hitting teams from last season. With most of their personnel returning this year, the stats show it's a whole new bat game.

Of the top 10 offenses from 2010, almost none of them are hitting anything close to what they did last season, with the exception being the freakishly good New Mexico State team. But the differences among the remaining teams are staggering. Here's a quick look at last year's top hitting teams and how they're faring this year:

1. Utah Valley: 2010 average: .373 / 2011 average: .277 / Starters back: 7
2. Pittsburgh: 2010 average: .365 / 2011 average: .296 / Starters back: 6
3. Georgia State: 2010 average: .355 / 2011 average: .317 / Starters back: 7
4. South Dakota State: 2010 average: .350 / 2011 average: .350 / Starters back: 8
5. New Mexico State: 2010 average: .349 / 2011 average: .358 / Starters back: 6
6. Auburn: 2010 average: .348 / 2011 average: .296 / Starters back: 6
7. Southeast Missouri State: 2010 average: .346 / 2011 average: .299 / Starters back: 8
8. New Mexico: 2010 average: .346 / 2011 average: .269 / Starters back: 1
9. Campbell: 2010 average: .345 / 2011 average: .299 / Starters back: 4
10. Northern Colorado: 2010 average: .345 / 2011 average: .261 / Starters back: 6

Not only are these numbers drastic, but you've probably noticed some of the best pitching staffs in the country can't seem to get even a hint of run support from their offenses. Here are a handful of examples.

• Texas: Team ERA: 2.41 / Team average: .254
• UCLA: Team ERA: 1.99 / Team average: .244
• Cal State Fullerton: Team ERA: 2.41 / Team average: .272
• Oregon: Team ERA: 3.06 / Team average: .229
• Louisville: Team ERA: 2.12 / Team average: .257
• Wichita State: Team ERA: 3.14 team / Team average: .265
• Coastal Carolina: Team ERA: 2.90 / Team average: .252

All those teams are good bets to make the postseason but are worth keeping an eye on once they get there. Like a hot goalie in hockey, these teams could ride hot pitching all the way to Omaha. But the flip side is they also could stay stone cold at the dish and flounder away some great pitching with a lack of run support.

Just something to ponder. Check back with these teams in June when the fun begins.

For more on the other effects of the BBCOR bats, check out Jeff Sackmann's article for Insider.

Eric Sorenson, who runs College Baseball Today, is a regular contributor to ESPN's college baseball coverage. Follow Eric on Twitter: @stitch_head

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