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Weekend preview: Statement time
Friday, April 19, 2013
Cal Poly might just be ready to make its biggest statement of the season.
The Mustangs entered the season with high expectations, thanks to the return of some talented pitchers and hitters. And as expected, they haven't disappointed thus far, sitting at 25-9 overall, 6-3 in the Big West, and just two games behind top-five and conference leader Cal State Fullerton.
They have a chance to make the Big West title race rather interesting this weekend, as they play host to the red-hot Titans for a series expected to draw record crowds.
"We've been pretty consistent overall this season. Our Friday and Saturday starting pitchers have been pretty good, and though, we don't blow anyone out, we seem to perform well in tight situations," Cal Poly coach Larry Lee said. "With that said, we'll be in for a fight this weekend. Fullerton is the type of team who doesn't give you a lot of opportunities, so when you do get them, you better take advantage of it."
Cal Poly LHP Matt Imhof has been fantastic so far this season. (Cal Poly photo)
Cal Poly's offense certainly will have their hands full against the Titans, as Rick Vanderhook's club possesses two of the nation's elite freshman arms in right-handed pitchers Thomas Eshelman and Justin Garza. Eshelman has struck out 46 and walked just one batter this season, while Garza is a hard-nosed pitcher with a good repertoire, and who tops out at 93-94 despite his smallish frame.
Good news for the Mustangs, they enter the weekend with a similarly strong one-two punch in the weekend rotation with senior right-handed pitcher Joey Wagman and sophomore left-handed pitcher Matt Imhof leading the charge.
Wagman has a fastball in the mid-to-upper 80s and his strength is commanding the strike zone. The talented righty has a 2.95 ERA in 61 innings, along with 72 strikeouts and 17 walks. Stuff-wise, he has good fastball command, along with good command of his secondary pitches, which includes a changeup, curveball and revamped slider.
Imhof, a rising sophomore lefty, also is having a solid campaign. He has a 1.51 ERA in 59 2/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 57 and walked 17, while he possesses some wipeout pitches. Imhof sits anywhere from 88-93 with his fastball, along with a much improved slider and changeup that continues to progress.
"Wagman and Imhof have been really good starting pitchers for us this season. We're usually good on the mound for two days on the weekend, but we need to get better on that third day," Lee said. "Wagman is a three-to-four pitch guy and mixes really well, while Imhof has some real deception with his fastball."
While Wagman and Imhof are consistent arms for the Mustangs, Lee's hope is that the No. 3 spot in the weekend rotation becomes a positive down the stretch, and not the potential negative that it is right now.
Also important against the Titans this weekend is the Cal Poly bullpen, which possesses one of the fastest rising arms in the country in sophomore draft-eligible right-handed pitcher Reed Reilly. Reilly was overshadowed by Chase Johnson before the season, but Reilly has developed into a premier arm with a 1.83 ERA in 39 1/3 innings, along with nine saves, 50 strikeouts and 11 walks. Reilly also possesses big-time stuff with a fastball in the low-90s, up to 93 at times.
"You know, the big thing about Reed is that he wants the ball. He has some deception with his fastball and his velocity is up a tick from last year. He also throws a good splitter, a true slider and has really developed his cutter," Lee said. "He's just a very resilient pitcher who loves to compete. No matter what the situation is, bases loaded, no one on, whatever, Reed always seems to rise to the occasion."
With most of the pitching staff in good shape heading into the Fullerton series and to the final month of the regular season, the biggest concern from Lee's point of view is the offense, which has an excellent leader in second baseman Denver Chavez (.403/0/14), but for the most part, is inconsistent with a .287 team batting average. Nick Torres (.328/6/30) is the other key consistent contributor for the Mustangs.
Brian Mundell has shown good power production this season with seven homers, but only has a .282 batting average, while David Armendariz, a preseason All-Big West selection, is struggling at the plate with just a .264 average, a home run and 12 RBIs.
"On a game-by-game basis, our offense just hasn't been clicking, and that's something that must change down the stretch," he said. "We'll continue to work on that and see if we can't get some of our position guys to step it up a bit."
The Mustangs have the arms needed to make a statement not only the rest of the regular season, but also in the postseason. However, the offense must be there, too, for the 'Stangs to make their first postseason appearance since 2009.
A series win over the Titans would be a monumental step forward.
Pitching prowess: Gonzaga's Gonzales as good as ever
It's a good thing not much has changed for Gonzaga junior left-handed pitcher Marco Gonzales this spring.
Gonzales hasn't been around the headlines all-season long like Stanford's Mark Appel, or better yet, Oklahoma's Jonathan Gray. But nestled away in Spokane, Wash., and once again dominating in quiet fashion, is the talented lefty.
Though Gonzales may not get some of the same fanfare as Appel, Gray and others, he's still considered to be one of the earliest picks in the upcoming MLB draft, ranked No. 27 overall in our latest MLB Draft Top 100 rankings. Marco Gonzales has only taken another step forward this season. (Gonzaga photo)
Gonzales is known for his overall good stuff, but what stands out most about him as we close toward the final month of the regular season is his sheer consistency. Gonzales has been terrific all three seasons with the Bulldogs. As a freshman, he had a 2.57 ERA in 105 innings, along with 90 strikeouts and 21 walks. Then, as a sophomore last season, he scaled the charts as a prospect, tallying a 1.55 ERA in 92 2/3 innings, along with 92 strikeouts and 23 walks.
Despite the fact opposing offenses have gotten up for each bout with Gonzales this season, he's only continued his dominant ways, perhaps being more impressive than ever. Gonzales has started nine games (appeared in nine) and has a 2.71 ERA in 63 innings of work. He also has struck out 60 and walked 14, with teams only hitting him at a .243 clip.
"I think teams gear up for him quite a bit, and with his reputation, you get teams best shot. But he's been very effective and is throwing well," Gonzaga coach Mark Machtolf said. "He just continues to improve as a pitcher. This is college baseball, so you're not always going to have a 1.10 ERA or whatever, but he has been good and just continues to develop."
The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder, won't blow you away with his fastball, but it's a pitch that he commands exceptionally well, sitting 88-91. Meanwhile, his 78-80 changeup is very much a plus pitch that he continues to use effectively this season, while his breaking pitches also have improved.
Gonzales has particularly focused hard on improving his cutter, a pitch the left-hander began building and refining at the end of last season. Gonzales throws that cutter anywhere from 77-81.
"He has really been good this season. His changeup has always been there, and he just locates his fastball really well like he always has. He has also developed a bit of a cutter along with a breaking ball. He's just always improving," Machtolf said. "He really uses that cutter well against right and left-handed hitters right now.
"Going further, he's even more consistent this season and I think his stuff is firmer overall, he continued. "He's throwing all of his pitches to all sides of the plate, and there's a lot of sharpness to his stuff."
Gonzales and the Bulldogs are on the road this weekend, where they look to take total control of the West Coast Conference title race. Gonzales toes the rubber against another heralded MLB draft prospect, Pepperdine right-handed pitcher Scott Frazier, who has a 4.65 ERA in 62 innings.
Series to watch
2 LSU at Alabama: After getting swept last weekend at Ole Miss, the Crimson Tide heads home this weekend in a series that really could help their postseason chances. The Tide desperately needs a strong performance from starting pitcher Spencer Turnbull, who has a 2.30 ERA in 54 2/3 innings of work. Meanwhile, it's important the offense rise to the occasion against the Tigers. Alabama is hitting just .250 as a team for the season, with freshman Georgie Salem serving as a spark plug, hitting a team-high .289 with 18 RBIs. For the Tigers, freshman shortstop Alex Bregman, who's hitting .424 with 10 doubles, six triples, four homers and 38 RBIs, just continues to rake. The Tigers should take this road series. THE PICK: LSU
Duke at 1 North Carolina: The Blue Devils took a huge step forward two weekends ago with a home series win over Georgia Tech. However, they took a step back last weekend by getting swept on the road by Florida State. Left-handed pitcher Trent Swart (2.59 ERA, 55.2 IP), must have a strong weekend on the mound, while the Andy Perez-led offense must rise to the occasion. For the Tar Heels, freshman outfielder Skye Bolt remains out with a foot fracture, but third baseman Colin Moran continues to hold his own, hitting a team-high .396 with nine homers and 61 RBIs. THE PICK: North Carolina
4 Cal State Fullerton at 22 Cal Poly: The Mustangs have put together a solid campaign, but must get three solid starts this weekend to have a chance to win this crucial Big West home series. Starting pitchers Matt Imhof (1.51, 59.2) and Joey Wagman (2.95/61) who have been terrific so far this spring, while reliever Reed Reilly, who has a low-to-mid 90s fastball, is a big-time arm to watch out of the bullpen. For the Titans, freshman right-handed pitcher Thomas Eshelman continues to have a terrific campaign. He has only walked one batter in 66 innings, along with 46 strikeouts, with teams hitting just .172 against him. THE PICK: Cal State Fullerton
12 UCLA at 10 Oregon: The Bruins responded in positive fashion last weekend with a home series win over Loyola Marymount. Now, they hit the road this weekend for a huge Pac 12 series against Oregon. UCLA must rise to the occasion offensively with a .253 batting average, while the pitching staff is in good shape with a fantastic reliever in David Berg (0.92, 39 IP) and starting pitchers Adam Plutko (2.62, 58.1), Nick Vander Tuig (2.09, 60.1) and Grant Watson (2.79, 51.2) leading the way. For the Ducks, the pitching staff has been fantastic all year, but it's imperative hard-hitting first baseman Ryon Healey has a productive weekend. Healey is hitting a team-best .349 with 13 doubles, seven homers and 34 RBIs. THE PICK: Oregon
Texas A&M at 9 Arkansas: It's now hard to imagine the Aggies were 5-1 in the SEC at one point, especially considering they're 6-9 in the league and really need a road series win over the Hogs this weekend. Accomplishing that goal will be very difficult with shortstop Mikey Reynolds (knee) and Cole Lankford (illness) on the shelf. That means Daniel Mengden (1.94, 60.1) and the A&M pitching staff must rise up. For the Hogs, they must rebound offensively from a poor midweek showing at Nebraska. Meanwhile, right-handed pitcher Ryne Stanek is coming off a good performance against LSU last weekend. He has a 1.64 ERA in 64 1/3 innings, along with 43 strikeouts and 19 RBIs. THE PICK: Arkansas
15 Kentucky at 14 South Carolina: The Wildcats appeared to be in very good shape in the SEC standings. Well, that was until they dropped a tough home series to rival Tennessee last weekend. Now, two-way star A.J. Reed and UK have some work to do down the stretch to get back in the mix for one of the postseason host sites. For the Gamecocks, it's all about creating consistency and overcoming injuries. It seems like the Gamecocks have been plagued by injuries the entire season, with the latest and most important setback coming to left-handed closer Tyler Webb. This is a huge series for both squads. THE PICK: Kentucky
16 North Carolina State at 13 Georgia Tech: The Wolfpack have played an impressive brand of baseball overall the past two weekends, sweeping Virginia Tech and Boston College back-to-back weekends, but there's no doubt Georgia Tech on the road is a new and bigger challenge. The Wolfpack needs left-handed pitcher Carlos Rodon to get back on track this weekend. Rodon was just OK against the Hokies two weekends ago, and took a step back last weekend, allowing five runs on four hits in just two innings against the Eagles. For the Yellow Jackets, right-handed pitcher Buck Farmer has been terrific this season, while the offense seems to be back in a groove with Brandon Thomas back after being out because of mononucleosis. THE PICK: Georgia Tech
22 Rice at Houston: Both the Owls and Cougars are going through some bizarre times right now. The Owls dropped a home series to a struggling UCF club last weekend, while the Cougars have dropped back-to-back series to Marshall (on the road) and Seton Hall (at home). UH starting pitcher Austin Pruitt (1.99, 68 IP) is having a great year, but fellow talented right-hander Daniel Poncedeleon (4.28, 48.1 IP) needs to have a big weekend, as he tends to be a bit inconsistent. Meanwhile, for the Owls, right-handed pitcher Austin Kubitza continues to have an All-American type of campaign. He has a 1.36 ERA in 59 2/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 80 batters, but needs to show better command down the stretch with 34 walks. THE PICK: Rice
Arizona at Stanford: The Wildcats had been struggling, but have started to put all the pieces together here the past couple of weeks. Brandon Dixon (.390/4/32) and Johnny Field (.373/4/30) continue to have solid offensive campaigns, while on the mound, Augey Bill and Mathew Troupe are stalwarts out of the bullpen, and James Farris and Konner Wade have earned-run averages of 3.70 and 3.86, respectively. For the Cardinal, versatile outfielder Austin Wilson must have a good weekend at home, while right-handed pitcher Mark Appel is having an incredible year. He has a 1.41 ERA in 63 2/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 78 and walked 10, while teams only are hitting him at a .178 clip. THE PICK: Stanford
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