Red Storm Ahead

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Third-seeded St. John's will roll out a 6-foot-7 freshman to try and keep the second-seeded Rebel bats at bay, which has been an easier task than it should be for pitchers lately.

The 195-pound, right-handed freshman Kyle Hansen has been on a roll. Hansen, the younger brother of major league pitcher Craig Hansen, has given up one earned run in his last three starts, which covers 21.1 innings.

His last start was a 3-0 St. John's win against Connecticut for his team to claim the Big East Tournament crown. He went 6.1 innings allowing two hits with five walks and five strikeouts.

That performance came on the heels of only three days' rest after Hansen had thrown eight innings in his teams' 3-2 win against South Florida on opening day of the conference tourney. Against the Bulls he allowed one earned run on three hits with one walk and eight strikeouts.

Red Storm head coach Ed Blankmeyer said the collegiate rookie has steadily grown in his role on the St. John's staff this season.

"He's had a very good year," said the veteran SJU manager. "He's been consistent. He started slow. We pitched him out of the bullpen early. We decided as he got a little stronger, we moved him into the starting role. He moved from our three starter in the Big East to our No. 1 starter in the Big East."

Blankmeyer said he has the intangibles as well as the obvious plusses to get the job done.

"He's improved throughout the year, and he just competes," he said. "He's a winner. The kid's a winner. He's a strike thrower. He's advanced for a freshman."

The Red Storm hitters will face Drew Pomeranz, who perhaps will be the first pitcher taken in Monday's draft. The Red Storm players say they know what they are up against.

"We've seen some tape on him," said sophomore shortstop Joe Panik. "We know he's a helluva ball player. We've heard all about him. We know he's going to be a top five pick. We know he's got great stuff."

Panik says it's a challenge to know how to work counts against a guy like Drew.

"It can go both ways. You want to be aggressive, because if he gets you into a hole, he's got the stuff to pitch away right away. So you want to be aggressive with him and try to get at him early in the count where you might not have the advantage but some sort of idea of what's coming."

Panik, his team's second-leading hitter with a .383 average and eight home runs, said the coaches have tried to simulate in practice what they will see in Pomeranz.

"This past week we've been facing machines, and coaches throwing a lot shorter," he said. "Our pitching coach is a lefty who used to pitch in college. So he's been throwing all his stuff at us from close range, trying to get the bats sped up."

"He's going to be a good challenge for us (Friday) night," said senior outfielder Jimmy Parque of Pomeranz. "We've been in the cage off the machines getting them up to 95, stuff like that. Then we've been going off the curve ball machines, just trying to simulate it as much as we can."

Panik said theirs is a 40-win team that is playing its best baseball now.

"Early in the season we went through a pretty tough stretch. Lately we've been playing well. Defense and pitching have been great. I'd say we're getting hot at the right time. We took two games from Louisville (No. 7 national seed) last week and beat UConn that's No. 18 in the country. So we're coming in with a lot of confidence and playing well. We're excited."

Parque agreed the Red Storm seems to be hitting its stride as NCAA Tournament time rolls in.

"The last couple of weeks we've been coming together, swinging the bats well, pitchers have been there," said Parque, at .352 one of five SJU hitters batting at least .350. "So we're just looking to try to keep it going this weekend."

Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco continues to make sure people understand his team isn't worried about a rematch from last year's Super Regional with Virginia, at least not yet. He says his players know all thoughts are to be on St. John's now.

"The truth is our guys know we open up with St. John's," he said of a Red Storm team that has a batting average of .327 and is holding its foes to .262. "We want to win and move on. We need to make sure we're motivated Friday night against a very good St. John's team."

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