The midseason-and-a-week awards
Special to ESPN.com
Last week, I intended for the notebook to feature my midseason awards, but all the talk about the new bats kept me from doing it then. Without further ado, here you go.
• The Complete Makeover Award: Oregon State's pitching staff. The Beavers lost five top-10 round draft picks last June, including Friday starter Greg Peavey, Saturday starter Tanner Robles and Sunday starter Tyler Waldron, plus All-American closer Kevin Rhoderick. And yet, all they've done is improve their ERA to 2.88. They got an All-American performance from Friday starter Sam Gaviglio (6-1, 1.34) and sit at No. 19 in the country in team pitching. Amazing.
• The New Bats-Scheme Bats Award: James Madison. Somebody forgot to tell the Dukes these new BBCOR bats were going to tone down the offense. In 2010, JMU hit .319, with 68 home runs and 21 triples, as a team. In 2011, those numbers are .336, 62 and 17, with 22 games still left. Oh, and Jake Lowery leads the nation with 17 home runs, and David Herbek is third with 13 home runs.
• The Agatha Christie Award: The biggest mystery teams for 2011 so far are Clemson in the East and Oregon in the West. Clemson is 19-13 overall but has been terrible in ACC play, going 6-9 and getting swept by North Carolina and Virginia. Oregon is 15-14 and has gone 1-7 over the last three weeks. Also, the Ducks' offense is dead last in the Pac-10 at an embarrassing .232.
• The Sybil Award: California's athletic department. Seems as if the Cal administration has had multiple personality disorder. After announcing it was eliminating the baseball program then giving it a reprieve then eliminating it "for good" and now finally saying it has been saved, we've grown weary of its lack of sanity. But many kudos to coach Dave Esquer for his steadfastness.
• The Unstoppable Force of Nature Award: Ray Tanner, South Carolina coach. The Gamecocks win the national title and suffer some pretty significant losses in personnel and yet roar out to a 27-5 start, including a series win at once-invincible Florida. Seems as if Tanner is handling his team like a master marionette puppeteer so far.
• Best Debut Performance: Khayyan Norfork, OF, Tennessee. The mercurial Vols outfielder is second in the SEC in hitting at .389 and tops in the conference with 21 stolen bases. Now that's a helluva debut in the toughest conference in the country.
• The Total Collapse of the Heart Award: The Pac-10. With teams such as Oregon, Washington State and UCLA underachieving mightily so far this season, the quality of depth from the western monster conference has significantly dropped. The Pac-10 was expected to be the top conference in the country for this year but is now fourth in the latest Boyd's World conference Ratings Power Index.
• The Overrated Result of the Half-Year: Fullerton getting swept at LSU. Since that weekend, the Tigers have dipped to 6-11 and the Titans have ascended up to No. 11 in the RPI with a 16-2 spur. Wow, that early March meltdown is a long way in the rearview mirror.
• The Underrated Result of the Half-Year. Stetson's sweep of Georgia. Lots of people may not remember this from opening weekend, but they should. The Hatters took all three games, none of which were all that close. Since then, Stetson has gone 23-7, including a win over Florida State. The Hatters currently sit at No. 20 in the RPI and are in contention for hosting a regional.
• The Chasing Light From a Dead Star Award: Miami. The Hurricanes had a horrible start but have rallied to build up a 22-11 record going into this weekend. But the Canes lost all three games to Georgia Tech three weekends ago and still have three-gamers with North Carolina, Florida State and Virginia in their next four ACC weekends. So let's hold off on the "they're back" talk for now.
• The "Try To Act Surprised" Player of the Half-Year Award. Danny Hultzen, P/1B/DH, Virginia. The dude is 7-0 with a 1.33 ERA, 90 K's and just 10 BBs on the mound, is hitting .316 at the dish and has zero errors on defense. Game. Set. Match.
Wren makes instant impact for Yellow Jackets
Special to ESPN.com
No team in the nation is more dependent on freshmen than Georgia Tech, which lost nine players to the 2010 draft, including its top four hitters, its top two pitchers and its closer.
The Yellow Jackets (25-9, 12-3 ACC) reloaded with 17 freshmen, the nation's largest haul. As many as seven freshmen have been on the field at once and four are regular starters.
Of all the rookies, none is more valuable than Kyle Wren, who is at or near the top in the ACC in batting average (.410), hits (59) and runs scored (38).
The son of Atlanta Braves general manager Frank Wren, the emerging star has stunned just about everyone with his quick rise to the top of the charts in a highly rated league.
"I don't think you can ever expect a freshman to do what he's done," Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said.
Wren, who leads off and plays center field, agreed.
"I'm definitely surprised," he said. "My goal was to hit .300, get on base, score and help the team win. I'm thankful I've been able to do that."
Wren has done that and more, getting on base in 31 of GT's 33 games. He has had 19 multihit games, including five hits against Maryland on March 12 and five in three games against top-ranked Virginia this past weekend.
Wren, a 5-foot-9, 158-pound left-handed hitter, plays to his strengths.
"He's the best bunter I've ever seen," Hall said. "He could probably hit .300 just by bunting. But teams are now trying to take the bunt away from him. Both corner infielders come in tight, halfway to the plate, like in fast-pitch softball."
Against Duke, Wren said the third baseman was "right on the line" about 10 to 15 feet in.
"I kind of didn't like it because bunting is a huge part of my game," Wren said. "But it left a huge hole between third and short. So, either way, [my bunting ability] is helping me out."
Also helping is Wren's speed. Hall said Wren has been clocked at 6.4 or 6.45 in the 60-yard dash, rating him "plus-plus" on the major league scouting chart. (Wren said his fastest clocking was actually 6.36.)
On bunts, Wren gets to first in 3.45 seconds, a half-second faster than the major league average of 4.0 to 4.1.
"He has the green light to steal at any time," Hall said. "When he gets on, he puts a lot of pressure on the pitcher."
Tech, meanwhile, is putting pressure on the ACC's powers, including Virginia, Florida State and North Carolina. The Yellow Jackets are led by the 1-2 pitching combo of Mark Pope and Jed Bradley.
But the team really got hot when Hall flipped his middle infielders, putting freshman Mott Hyde at second base and moving junior Jacob Esch to shortstop.
Tech was just 5-4 at the time, and the idea was to take some of the pressure off Hyde by moving him away from shortstop. Hall also put junior Jake Davies at first base full time.
Since the moves were made, Tech is 19-5.
One position Hall didn't have to worry about was center field, where Wren has played for years.
"He excels out there," Hall said. "He can go get the ball. He is also constantly talking to the other outfielders. Prior to the pitch, you can hear him. He has natural leadership ability, and I think that comes from his father and being around the game."
Wren gives his father full credit for being the "foundation" of his game, as well as that of his twin brother, Colby, a backup first baseman for Tech, and younger brother, Jordan, a promising sophomore outfielder at Landmark Christian High School in Georgia.
"My dad has had a huge impact on us," said Wren, whose uncle, Jeff, is a scout for the Braves.
Wren said the demands on his father's time are great, but his dad has always found time to help his sons with their games.
"I'm used to him being on the phone or getting home late from games or being gone for spring training," Wren said. "It's never bothered me."
In fact, Wren would love to follow in his father's footsteps and work in baseball once his playing days are done.
"As we've gotten older, he has talked to us about his job," Wren said. "There will be a certain trade rumor, and I will ask him if it's true. Sometimes I'll say, 'Dad, I don't know if I like that guy too much.' It's fun.''
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. 1 Vanderbilt at No. 3 South Carolina
Watch: Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN3.com; Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN3.com
By the numbers:
Vandy: 31-3, 10-2 SEC, No. 7 RPI
S.C.: 26-6, 10-2 SEC, No. 4 RPI
Another ho hum weekend in the SEC, another showdown of national-title contenders in full-on gut-check mode. These two, along with Florida, are the triumvirate of powers dominating college baseball. After seeing the Commodores take two of three games at LSU last May, I'm pretty confident they won't have any problem performing in a big-time environment such as Carolina Stadium. In fact, the Dores have gone 9-1 in road games this year. The pitching depth for Vandy is ridiculous, and the Commodores may have the better bullpen, especially since Carolina's Matt Price has looked human lately.
Key matchup: Sonny Gray versus Michael Roth. How tasty is this? Two All-Americans toeing the rubber in a Friday night showdown. There is actually a whole host of great matchups all over the field, including whichever power hitter gets the best of the other (Aaron Westlake's .398 BA versus Christian Walker's .352), whichever closer pitches better (Navery Moore -- 3-1, 0.48, 6 saves versus Price -- 3-2, 2.82, 10 saves) and whichever lockdown defense stays the course (VU's .971 versus SC's .976). But the Gray versus Roth matchup will be a tone-setter, and both pitchers have been dead-on so far. Keep an eye out for Gray and his tendency to walk batters, since he has issued 24 free passes. Can't let that pattern continue here.
2. No. 15 Oregon State at No. 23 Stanford
OSU: 24-7, 5-1 Pac 10, RPI No. 18
Stanford: 16-9, 3-3 Pac 10, RPI No. 15
These two teams suddenly took off in opposite directions last weekend, with the Beavers ruffling some national feathers by sticking Arizona State with three losses in three games in Corvallis. The Cardinal had a rough road trip to the last place team in the Pac-10, USC, where they lost two of three games because they just weren't able to string together any key hits. For the Beavers, this is a chance to jump up even further in the RPI to national-seed consideration and to put to rest all that talk that they couldn't beat anyone without their All-American catcher Andrew Susac, who is out indefinitely after having surgery to repair a broken hamate bone.
Key matchup: Battle of the minds. These teams come into this weekend with totally different dispositions. Maybe a change of venue will do wonders for the youthful Cardinal, who are 9-1 at home this season. On the other end of the spectrum, the Beavers can't let their recent success -- they jumped up nine spots in the RPI from last week -- go to their heads. They have to bank on their propensity to come back from behind, like they did against Arizona State a couple of times last weekend.
3. No. 10 Oklahoma at No. 21 Oklahoma State
OU: 25-8, 6-5 Big 12, RPI No. 25
OSU: 25-8, 8-4 Big 12, RPI No. 35
Ahh, the Bedlam Series. This is one of the true beauties in college sports. Doesn't matter if it's baseball, football or Pictionary, these two are going at it with cut-throat intensity. Since dropping a double-header at Kansas on March 20, the Pokes have gone 11-3, including a pair of wins over Texas, a pair of wins at Nebraska and a sweep of Missouri. Even with a lot of new faces, the Cowboys have seemed to put last year's last-place hiccup behind them. The Sooners could use a series win to improve their psyche, having lost two-of-three at K-State last weekend.
Key matchup: OSU's Dane Phillips versus OU starters Bobby Shore and Burch Smith. Friday starter Michael Rocha has been total nails for the Sooners. But the Saturday and Sunday starters can't let the Big 12's best hitter get hot and set an early tone for the Cowboys' offense. The key to the weekend will be whether Shore and Smith can go deep into the game and save the bullpen from being overtaxed.
4. No. 19 Arizona at No. 18 UCLA
UA: 2-11, 4-5 Pac 10, RPI No. 46
UCLA: 17-11, 7-2 Pac 10, RPI No. 86
It looks as if the Bruins will just have to play this season knowing they can't count on their offense for anything. Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer continue to throw unhittable pellets at their opponents, but the offense still offers little run support. The Bruins have scored more than five runs just seven times this season and still struggle, with a .253 team average. The Wildcats have to be spitting mad right about now, as this will be week four in their death-walk Pac-10 slate, which started with Arizona State then home against Oregon State and last week's home series with Cal, in which they won their first weekend in four weeks. As opposed to the Bruins, the Cats have two .400-plus hitters in Joey Rickard (.428) and Cole Frenzel (.408).
Key matchup: The Achilles' heel of Arizona versus the Achilles' heel of UCLA. As you probably know, Arizona can hit like nobody's business (.342 team average), and UCLA can pitch better than anyone (2.05 team ERA). But this weekend, it's the opposite crew that will decide things. Kurt Heyer (5-1, 1.38) has been lockdown good on Fridays, but the remainder of the staff needs to throw better. Likewise, and this is an old story by now, the Bruins' offense needs to ramp up, as not a single player hits over .300.
5. College of Charleston at Elon
CofC: 22-11, 7-5 SoCon, RPI No. 58
Elon: 22-12, 12-3 SoCon, RPI No. 38
You know how a mid-major's RPI is always a precarious thing? One bad weekend can cause a non-Big Six to freefall out of at-large consideration. As you can see by their RPI numbers, neither one of these teams can afford to kick the can here. The Cougars took a shot to the chops last weekend, losing two-of-three at The Citadel and giving up 28 runs to the Bulldogs along the way. Elon has been shaky as well, going 7-6 since an impressive road sweep at Western Carolina in mid-March. The bats have gone south as well, with the Phoenix now hitting a SoCon-worst .253.
Key matchup: Elon's speed versus CofC's catchers. With the Phoenix being the worst hitting team in the conference, they've relied on their mercurial feet, stealing a SoCon-best 66 bases. Unfortunately for them, that formula doesn't work well for the Cougars, as they have caught only four base-stealers in 53 tries this year. The interchangeable catching crew of Rob Kral, Jimmy Holton and Robert Pritcher must stop the steal parade, otherwise walks and singles will quickly turn into de facto doubles this weekend.
For the full weekend preview, check out the college baseball blog.
No. 1 Vanderbilt at No. 3 South Carolina *
Duke at No. 2 Virginia
No. 4 Florida at Georgia *
No. 5 UNC at NC State
Baylor at No. 6 Texas A&M
Texas Tech at No. 7 Texas
No. 8 Florida State at Virginia Tech
UC Santa Barbara at No. 9 Cal State Fullerton
Washington State at No. 10 Arizona State
No. 10 Oklahoma at No. 21 Oklahoma State
No. 12 Georgia Tech at Wake Forest
Nevada at No. 13 Fresno State
No. 14 TCU at San Diego State
No. 15 Oregon State at No. 23 Stanford Mississippi State at No. 16 Arkansas
UC Davis at No. 17 UC Irvine
No. 19 Arizona at No. 18 UCLA
New Orleans at No. 20 Southern Miss
No. 22 Cal at Washington
Auburn at No. 24 LSU
No. 25 Troy at Middle Tennessee St.
* Games can be seen on the ESPN family of networks. For the full college sports TV schedule, click here.
ESPN's resident NCAA baseball bracketologist, Jeremy Mills, offered his latest projections. Mills' eight national seeds are:
1. South Carolina
4. North Carolina
6. Arizona State
7. Cal State Fullerton
8. Texas A&M
You can find the rest of his projected 64-team field in ESPN.com's college baseball blog.
Q&A: Tim Corbin
In his seventh year at Vanderbilt, coach Tim Corbin's team has ascended to the top of the rankings and wears a sizable target. Of course, Corbin's white whale is making the trip to Omaha and ending the season at the top of the rankings in late June. On the verge of their big weekend series at South Carolina, I caught up with the Commodores' coach to get a pulse of where he feels his team is. -- Eric Sorenson
ES: Is this the most talented team you've had at Vanderbilt?
TC: Well, there's more depth here than any team we've had before. When you look at the position players we have and the depth that we have, there's more quality on the bench. And our pitching is the same, just because of all the guys we have that have been around for a while. I think that having some guys stick around for their fourth year has helped us tremendously, and because of our academics we're able to keep some of those kids around for another year.
ES: Would you call your pitching staff better than the 2007 staff with David Price?
TC: It's a different kind of staff because we have the ability to mix and match more than that staff did. There are more left-handers on this staff than there were on that staff. There are more go-to guys at the end of games on this staff. Then again, when you look at a David Price or a Casey Weathers, you say, 'How can you be better than those two guys?' I don't know if we've got a David Price or a Casey Weathers, we do have a Sonny Gray and we do have a Navery Moore; we've got a Mark Lamm. But because there are as many lefties as there are righties on this team, we're able to be a lot more versatile coming out of the bullpen and finishing games. That's the big difference.
ES: Comparing this year's team and last year's team, what's the biggest difference between the two?
TC: Everyday maturity, which leads into everyday preparation. This group is self-directed and self-motivated. As a coaching staff you try to empower them in August to become that kind of team, and they have. These kids have a very workman-like attitude. They're loose but they're very workman-like, and I think that's been the key to their success up to this point.
ES: Your defense has really stepped up this year as well. You've got to be happy with the way they've played.
TC: I am. We're a really good defensive team. I really love our outfield defense; they have a lot of speed and can really track the ball. Tony Kemp made a miraculous catch on Sunday, is just so quick and so fast, and been a great addition to our team from the leadoff position as well. Connor Harrell and Mike Yastrzemski are both really good, too, so our outfield has been outstanding. And our infield defense is really experienced and can really make a lot of plays, too. I really like our defense a lot.
ES: One guy I'm looking forward to seeing at some point soon is your freshman Kevin Ziomek. How does he compare with some of the talent you've had go through your program in recent years?
TC: Yeah, he's a talent. He's not like David Price or Jeremy Sowers or Mike Minor. He's a 6-3 lefty with a good arm, but I wouldn't say he's got Price's arm right now, but he might eventually. I do know he's got more feel for a changeup than Price did coming in. And also, he's got a little heavier of a fastball and more of a breaking ball than Mike Minor had. He's got a special arm, and it's just a matter of getting him on the mound a little bit more. He comes from Massachusetts and he didn't get a lot of innings before he came here.
ES: I saw you guys win two-of-three at LSU last year, so I'm guessing your team's mental toughness is prepared for a place like South Carolina, too, right?
TC: We're not going to go in there and get blown away by that atmosphere. It's a great college baseball atmosphere, no doubt, but we've played in plenty of big places, and I think our team is used to that. It's just part of playing in the SEC. Over the last few years, we've played in a lot of big venues, at Alex Box Stadium, at Arkansas, at Florida State. So it'll be big crowds every day and those crowds are not on your side, but you've got to welcome it and you've got to love it. That's why you play college baseball.
Under the radar: SoCon
The Southern Conference is one of the most underrated baseball leagues in the nation. Last year, it had three teams qualify for the regionals -- Elon, The Citadel and College of Charleston. Another SoCon team to watch is Georgia Southern (20-14), led by Victor Roache. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound sophomore outfielder hit eight home runs as a freshman and already has 15 this year, tops in the league. He hit six homers in four games last week, earning him national player of the week honors. -- Walter Villa
Mid-major spotlight: Kent State
Record: 21-10, 8-1 MAC
Offense: .287, 17 HRs, 23 SBs
Pitching: 2.69 ERA, 229 K's, 82 BBs, .251 OBA
Boyd's World RPI: 27
Reason to watch: KSU is the poster child for why the Ratings Power Index is not just a head-scratcher, but a head-basher for reasonable thinking humans. The Flashes have done well in the nonconference portion of their schedule and moved as high as No. 24 on Tuesday. But then, an odd thing happened. The Flashes beat Youngstown State 7-0 that night, only to wake up to find that they had dropped in the RPI to No. 27. Oddly enough, they also had the indignity of seeing fellow mid-major East Tennessee State jump up from No. 23 to No. 20 after beating South Carolina-Upstate. Arrrgh!
For a team that has wins over the likes of Georgia Tech, Coastal Carolina, UAB, Houston, Pitt and Penn State and a trio of nip-and-tuck losses to Louisville, according to Boyd's World's RPI Needs Report, the Flashes will need to go 24-0 the rest of the way just to stay within the top 45 of the RPI. Too bad more weight can't be given to a team's top wins and less to its conference-mates who weigh it down. Or too bad we can't have the NCAA selection committee use more than one rating system to base its guesses on for the field of 64. Keep an eye on the Flashes and how far they drop, despite their win total increasing. -- Eric Sorenson
Hot and cold: RPI effect
Now that we're creeping toward the cut-throat time of the season as the battle for NCAA at-large bids gets serious, we'll do a weekly pulse on which teams benefited (and which didn't) in the pursuit of the golden ticket to the big dance. (Change in RPI ranking from last week to this week in parentheses.)
1. No. 27 Kent State (+21)
Despite all the complaints about the treatment of the Flashes (22-10, 8-1) above, they still benefited in the big picture, after taking down East Division leader Eastern Michigan in three games. But No. 184 Central Michigan is up next.
2. No. 73 UCLA (+20)
Hard to believe the Bruins (17-11, 7-2) were No. 93 to begin with. But as they inch into Pac-10 play, look for their ranking to continue to climb. As long as they get some offense to go with that awesome arms staff, of course.
3. No. 15 Arkansas (+14)
Wow. The Razorbacks (24-8, 6-6) made a quantum leap into No. 1 seed-status-land with their sweep of LSU and a win versus Texas State last week. The youthful Hogs are now one game behind Alabama in the West Division.
4. No. 29 Oklahoma State (+12)
It's almost weird to think the Pokes (25-8, 8-4) actually benefited so much from a three-game sweep of Missouri. The Tigers are so toothless this season (they just got done losing to SIU-Edwardsville). Let's see what the Bedlam Series does to their RPI.
5. No. 25 Miami (+12)
After a sluggish start, the Hurricanes (22-11, 11-3) have come on like gangbusters, winning eight straight and 17 of their last 20. This week, the U will go to upstart Maryland to see if its ACC streak continues.
1. No. 61 Long Beach State (-27)
Now you see what a series loss to lowly UC Davis will do to a team. Twenty-seven spots? Dang. The shocking part for the Dirtbags (16-15, 3-3) was seeing Friday ace Andrew Gagnon getting roughed up by the Aggies, dropping his record to 4-4.
2. No. 50 Gonzaga (-25)
This one is really weird. The Zags (19-10, 3-0) swept San Diego at home on the weekend, but their precipitous drop of 27 spots comes from a pair of midweek losses to Washington State. A showdown with WCC co-leader Loyola Marymount is next.
3. No. 33 Ole Miss (-19)
The Rebels are in reverse now at 20-14, 5-7 and have gone 3-9 in the last three weeks. You'd think losses to improved teams such as Georgia and Southern Miss wouldn't hurt this much since both are in the top 20 of the RPI.
4. No. 36 Texas State (-19)
The Bobcats are in free fall, having lost a series to Central Arkansas last weekend and dropping a game to Houston Baptist (its sixth win of the season). They're still in first in the Southland at 11-4 but face No. 47 Southeastern Louisiana this weekend.
5. No. 9 Southern Miss (-7)
Can you believe the Eagles (24-8, 6-3) were actually up to No. 2 in the RPI? Two losses to Memphis may have cost them a place in national-seeding territory, but I predict they'll drop even more this week, win or lose versus New Orleans. -- Eric Sorenson
Watch out for: North Carolina
North Carolina (30-5, 12-3 ACC) is serving notice that it has the talent to host a regional as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels took two of three games from Florida State this past weekend, marking their first series win in Tallahassee in eight tries since 1995. The Heels also ended FSU's uncanny 25-game Sunday win streak. With four straight ACC series wins for the first time since 2008, UNC should extend that streak this weekend at NC State before playing host to suddenly resurgent Miami. The Heels are unafraid to fall behind, doing so in 11 straight games and winning nine of those contests. -- Walter Villa
Inside The Program
While many teams are banning their players from using social media, Oklahoma's baseball team has embraced it. The Sooners' success has even spawned a fan Twitter account for coach Sunny Golloway's pencil. Inside The Program
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.