Places to be this weekend
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
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
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
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."
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.
No. 24 Alabama at No. 1 Vanderbilt *
No. 2 Virginia at No. 11 Georgia Tech
No. 3 South Carolina at Tennessee *
No. 4 Florida at Mississippi State*
No. 5 Texas A&M at Texas Tech
No. 6 Arizona State at No. 19 Oregon State
No. 7 UNC at No. 10 Florida State
No. 8 Texas at Baylor
No. 9 Oklahoma at Kansas State
No. 12 Fresno State at San Jose State
No. 16 UC Irvine at No. 13 Cal State Fullerton *
New Mexico at No. 14 TCU
No. 15 LSU at No. 22 Arkansas *
No. 17 Southern Miss at Memphis
No. 18 Cal at No. 21 Arizona
No. 20 Stanford at USC
No. 23 UCLA at Washington State
No. 25 Rice at East Carolina
* Games can be seen on the ESPN family of networks. For the full college sports TV schedule, click here.
Q&A: Dave Serrano
Cal State Fullerton's Dave Serrano has had one of the more intriguing seasons in 2011 already. His team won an impressive series at TCU, then got swept at LSU. Then he had eight of his better players get suspended before a trip to Hawaii, only to see the replacements step in and sweep a good Warriors club. On the eve of the big rivalry series with nearby UC Irvine (catch Sunday's game on ESPNU), I caught up with Serrano to ask about the roller-coaster ride of a season he's had so far. -- Eric Sorenson
ES: Outside of the LSU trip, your team is not struggling as much as it did last year at this time, but do you still feel confident about where your team will end up?
DS: Yes. And it starts on the mound and defensively. I think we'll stay in every game with that. Take away one weekend from the season so far, and we've been on it from the pitching and defensive side. If we can limit our baserunning mistakes and be more aggressive, it makes us a scary team down the road. But we're still a work in progress as far as where we as a coaching staff feel this team can be.
ES: What was a better lesson for your team, getting swept at LSU? Or the sweep at Hawaii, considering the eight guys that were suspended for it?
DS: Oh, good question. (Pauses) I said this to the team after we completed that sweep out on the islands, when we look back on this, those teammates that made a mistake and missed that trip actually did this team a favor, because it allowed this coaching staff to give other guys an opportunity to play and to make us more of a team. We've platooned guys a lot more since then and given guys some valuable experience, and it has really brought the team together.
ES: Those guys that were suspended, were they pissed about their positions being platooned after that?
DS: Oh, I'm sure they were pissed at me. But I told them, no matter how pissed they were at me, it's nothing close to how pissed I was with them. But there was a method to my madness there. When I found out about what they did at Texas A&M, I could've suspended them for the Washington series, but I took it upon myself to wait until I knew it was a series that everybody had circled on their calendar against a team I knew was really good. And I told coach [Greg] Bergeron that if we had come out of that series two-and-two, I would've still said it was a successful trip. But when we showed our toughness and resiliency to say, "So what, we don't have eight of our players, but we can still be good," it showed me that we have a chance down the line.
ES: What did those eight players do while they were back here?
DS: They got up and ran 5 miles every day at 6 in the morning. It was no vacation. Then for four days they had to sit at the computer on Gametracker and keep a scorebook on everything that happened in the game and fax it to the hotel that night.
ES: Who has taken over the leadership role for this team?
DS: When you have a situation like what happened with the suspensions, it made us doubt whether we had leadership because a lot of those guys were older guys. Someone should've stood up and said, "Hey, this isn't right." I think on good teams, somebody is going to step up on something like that and say, "We don't do that here." Instead, as a coaching staff, we are the ones that have had to step up since nobody on the team is going to. And sometimes you have to do that with teams you coach.
ES: Has your pitching reached its potential yet?
DS: No. I still don't think so. We haven't seen Dylan Floro or Ray Hernandez or David Hurlbut pitch to their potential, but they're all getting close. I really don't think we've seen the full depth of this pitching staff, and that's pretty intriguing to me as a coach as we head down the road to May and June.
ES: Having been a head coach on both sides, what does the rivalry between Fullerton and Irvine mean to you?
DS: Well, I don't look at it as a hatred type of deal. Because I coached there, I don't look at it like, "Oh my gosh, let's circle that series on the calendar" or anything.
ES: I really didn't think about that question in a hatred sense. Is there still that perception there, you think?
DS: I think there's a perception there, yeah. I'm sure they're happy now because they've got a legend coaching there in Mike Gillespie, but at the time when I left to come here, I think there was a doubt about my character and how I could leave the program like I did. But it's not about hatred. What's really intriguing is that it's a great rivalry between two great Orange County teams and these stands will be packed.
Under the radar: Stetson
Stetson (22-7), ranked 29th in the nation, is 1-0 so far this season against Florida State, beating the host Seminoles 6-4 on March 23. The teams will meet again May 10 at Stetson. In the meantime, the Hatters lead the Atlantic Sun with a 9-3 conference record and haven't lost a series to anyone this season. Among the Hatters' victims: Georgia, which was swept by Stetson to start the season. Junior closer Robbie Powell, who has four saves, a 4-0 record and a 1.05 ERA, is a key figure for Stetson and was recently named A-Sun player of the week. He has helped Stetson get off to its best start since its 2001 team went 25-3. -- Walter Villa
It almost seems too early in the season for this, but in many conferences across the country, there will be huge showdowns of the top teams in the standings. So instead of spotlighting just one team this week, let's shine the light on a handful of good matchups on tap:
Georgia State (23-8, 5-4) at James Madison (20-9, 10-5): The Dukes are an offensive juggernaut, hitting .336, and have the top two home run hitters in the country in Jake Lowery (14) and David Herbek (12). GSU has the better RPI at No. 84, compared to JMU's 129.
Creighton (20-6) at Illinois State (20-7): It'll be the two best pitching staffs in the MVC for opening weekend, as ISU has given up just 84 earned runs this year and the Jays have given up 88. But CU is eighth in the nation at .980 fielding. ISU is just .957.
Eastern Michigan (18-10, 5-1) at Kent State (16-10, 5-1): The two division leaders in the MAC face off here. The Flashes have the numbers, like the 2.78 team ERA and the No. 45 RPI, but the Eagles have Daniel Russell (.351) and Brent Ohrman (.339) to lead a formidable attack.
Kennesaw State (19-12, 8-3) at Stetson (22-7, 9-3): The Hatters are prohibitive favorites in the A-Sun thanks to weekend sweeps of Georgia and Mercer and a win at Florida State. But the Owls just got done stunning No. 11 Georgia Tech and are looking for more RPI bumps here.
-- Eric Sorenson
Under the radar: Gonzaga
Pitching: 3.10, 217 Ks, 103 BBs, .253 opponent average
This Weekend: vs. San Diego
Reason to watch: The Lefties. It could be argued that the Zags are the hottest team on the West Coast, having swept both New Mexico and UC Irvine the past two weekends. The Bulldogs began the season 0-5, but on Feb. 27, they took down Texas A&M 6-3 and have gone 15-5-1 ever since. In their all-southpaw rotation of Ryan Carpenter (a tall, mid-90s flinger), Saturday starter Tyler Olson and frosh Marco Gonzales (who was drafted by the Red Sox last summer), they bring three strong horses to the mound who can match up with just about anybody. Also, saves leader Cody Martin (2-0, 0.89, 3 saves) was drafted in the 20th round last summer but chose to return for his senior season. This is a formidable weekend arms corps that John Stockton U. has, with a great defense behind it.
What they're saying: Iowa assistant coach Ryan Brownlee told me after seeing that the Zags had swept UC Irvine, "I should have given you a heads up on Gonzaga after we played them. Our strength of schedule was No. 13 in the country, and I thought they were by far the best team we had played." -- Eric Sorenson
Watch out for: Will Roberts
When Virginia right-hander Will Roberts tossed just the eighth nine-inning perfect game in Division I history last week, only one ball left the infield. Roberts, a 6-4, 205-pound junior from Richmond, had only one serious threat -- a hard liner up the middle that he fielded. Roberts had never previously thrown a complete game in college, but he has been effective. He is 5-0 this season with a 1.13 ERA and 12-0 for his career. But as good as he's been, he is just fourth in Virginia's rotation. The Cavs (28-2) have eight shutouts already this season, just three off the ACC record. Ace Danny Hultzen leads a stellar rotation that also includes Tyler Wilson and Cody Winiarski, and closer Branden Kline has 10 saves. -- Walter Villa
Capital One Cup
The Capital One Cup rewards the best Division I men's and women's programs in the country for their on-the-field performance throughout the year. For more information about the Cup, visit capitalonecup.com.