Friday - 6:00pm
Saturday - 1:00pm
Sunday - 1:00pm
Two of the top collegiate baseball programs in the country renew their rivalry this weekend when the 4th ranked Stanford Cardinal host the 6th ranked and currently undefeated Texas Longhorns. Stanford has won all three of their series' this season, most notably a sweep of nationally ranked Cal State Fullerton three weeks ago. The Cardinal enter this weekend with a five game overall winning streak while they've also been victorious in 15 consecutive contests at Sunken Diamond dating back to last season. Meanwhile, the Longhorns have yet to be beaten in 2004. They were a perfect 3-0 last weekend at a round robin tournament in Houston which included a victory over #1 Rice.
PROBABLE STARTING PITCHING MATCHUPS
Friday : Texas - J.P. Howell (LHP; 1-0, 0.00) vs. Stanford - Mark Romanczuk (LHP; 2-1, 3.12)
Saturday : Texas - Sam LeCure (RHP; 1-0, 2.77) vs. Stanford - Jeff Gilmore (RHP; 2-0, 2.00)
Sunday : Texas - Justin Simmons (LHP; 2-0, 1.93) vs. Stanford - TBA
WHO AND WHAT TO WATCH
* J.P. Howell - I would have put Texas' All-American closer Huston Street in this spot, but it appears he won't be pitching at all this weekend (more on that later). However, Howell is certainly no slouch. A junior left hander who transferred from USC to Austin after his freshman campaign, Howell is the ace starter for this ballclub and one of the top pitchers in the country. Last season, Howell went 10-2 with a 2.52 ERA and he's off to a fast start here in 2004 despite not having yet made a start. Howell was bothered by some tenderness in his elbow, so the Texas coaching staff was being extra careful in terms of how many innings he was going to throw over the first few weeks of the season. In two relief appearances spanning 4 2/3 innings, Howell did not allow an earned run while striking out five. He's ready to start now and he'll get the ball on Friday night.
* Sam Fuld and Danny Putnam - This is no doubt one of the biggest series' of the season for Stanford. Because of this, look for the leading hitters in the Cardinal lineup - Preseason First Team All-Americans Sam Fuld and Danny Putnam - to have big series'. Fuld has a respectable .323 batting average, but has yet to really have a huge game at the top of the order in 2004. Putnam has hit safely in all nine contests this year and his .395 average reflects that, but he's connected for just two extra base hits all season. I'd look for big things from both of these All-American outfielders this weekend.
* The teams' contrasting styles - Both of these offenses are capable of putting up big numbers, but they each go about it in very different ways. Stanford's lineup is loaded with power hitters and thus far in 2004, they've been relying on home runs and big extra base hits to score runs (the Cardinal are averaging an excellent 8.3 runs per game). Meanwhile, the Longhorns will play a lot of small ball to manufacture runs (Texas averages 7.1 runs per game). Expect anyone and everyone in the Texas order to lay down a bunt at any time while this team also steals a ton of bases.
The 4th ranked Cardinal moved their overall record to 8-1 with a three-game sweep of visiting Kansas last weekend (7-1, 6-3, 10-6). Sunday's game was one to remember as Stanford rallied for seven runs in the bottom of the ninth inning capped off by Brian Hall's walkoff grand slam to win the game. With an 8-1 record, you'd expect Stanford's overall team statistics to look good and they certainly do. The Cardinal boast a .310 team batting average, a 3.38 ERA, and an excellent .979 fielding percentage.
Individually, ace pitcher Mark Romanczuk is coming off a great outing against the Jayhawks. In seven innings of work, the sophomore lefty surrendered just one run while he struck out a career-high 13. Fellow sophomore Jeff Gilmore appears to have a strong hold on the #2 spot in the rotation after another very solid outing last weekend (7 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 5 SO). The Sunday starter position though is still very much up for grabs. After a great outing against Fullerton three weeks ago, Mark Jecmen (1-0, 11.81) has been knocked out of the game in the first inning in each of his last two appearances. Coach Marquess has yet to announce a starter for this Sunday. The one thing Jecmen has going for him right now is that despite his poor performances the last two weekends, Stanford has still found a way to win both games (thanks in large part to David O'Hagan and his magnificent long relief work). Does Marquess give Jecmen another crack at it assuming O'Hagan is ready to bail him out if he struggles? Or does he turn to maybe Matt Manship or possibly O'Hagan to start the series finale?
Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Sam Fuld, CF (Sr., .323, 0 HR, 6 RBI)
2. Jonny Ash, 3B (Sr., .353, 0 HR, 10 RBI)
3. Jed Lowrie, 2B (So., .429, 2 HR, 12 RBI)
4. Danny Putnam, LF (Jr., .395, 1 HR, 7 RBI)
5. John Mayberry, Jr., 1B (So., .353, 3 HR, 8 RBI)
6. Donny Lucy, C (Jr., .375, 1 HR, 6 RBI)
7. Brian Hall, RF (Sr., .219, 1 HR, 9 RBI)
8. Chris Carter, DH (Jr., .200, 2 HR, 8 RBI)
9. Adam Sorgi, SS (Fr., .240, 0 HR, 3 RBI)
Player Notes: Fuld has drawn a whopping 13 walks which has translated to a .523 on-base percentage ... Ash is second on the club in RBI, first in triples (2), while he's only struck out once in 34 AB's ... Lowrie looks to have settled into the #3 spot in the order as he leads the club in batting average and RBI ... Lucy has been the beneficiary of Stanford facing so many left handed starting pitchers (Card have seen five in their first nine games while they should face two more this weekend) ... Lucy hits lefties very well and is off to a great start with his .375 average ... Carter is on the other end of that spectrum ... He doesn't hit lefties very well and is still looking to get his average going this year ... Don't be surprised if we see John Hester get a start or two this weekend at DH (when UT starts a lefty).
Like Stanford, the Longhorns played in last year's College World Series. And like the Cardinal, Texas was eliminated by the Rice Owls. Stanford fell in the Championship Series while Texas was taken out in the bracket final just days earlier. The Longhorns did get some revenge last weekend when they knocked off #1 Rice 6-3 at Minute Maid Park (home of the Astros) at a tournament. Texas pushed across three runs off Rice ace starter Jeff Niemann through the first six innings and when Niemann left the game at the start of the seventh (with the game tied 3-3), the Longhorns pounced all over the Owl bullpen to claim the victory.
Texas has a pair of series sweeps to their credit this season. They swept host Hawaii the first weekend of the year before coming home and taking out defending WCC Champion San Diego in three straight games (twice winning in their last at-bat). Following their 3-0 showing in Houston last weekend (their other wins came over unranked Ohio State and Houston), the Longhorns shut down Texas State, 4-1, this past Tuesday.
Texas doesn't have as much offensive firepower as the Cardinal, but they still find a way to score runs. First baseman Curtis Thigpen (.311, 6 HR, 38 RBI in 2003) and catcher Taylor Teagarden (.315, 5 HR, 41 RBI in 2003) are two key holdovers from last season's lineup. The Longhorns lost five of their top seven hitters from last year's club, so Thigpen and Teagarden were expected to carry the load here in '04. Both have impressed early on, especially Thigpen. The man at the top of the order for UT is right fielder Dooley Prince. Prince, a transfer from McNeese State, makes a lot of things happen with his good speed. Finally, junior second baseman Seth Johnston is finally getting a chance to play everyday and he's making the most of it. Johnston was named Big 12 Player of the Week for his efforts last weekend and is someone to keep an eye out for.
Pitching is definitely the strength of this Texas team. I could count the teams on one hand that have the ability to shut down this Cardinal offense for an entire weekend and Texas is one of them. The crafty lefty J.P. Howell leads the way. #2 starter Sam LeCure is a sophomore right hander and a budding star. LeCure was used mainly a s a reliever last season, but has stepped up nicely this year to the tune of a 2.77 ERA through his first three starts. Finally, #3 man Justin Simmons has to be the most experienced Sunday starter in the country. He went 16-1 as Texas' ace in 2002 in leading the Longhorns to the national championship. He dropped off to 5-6, 4.29 last year, but the early returns here in 2004 (3 starts, 1.93 ERA, .156 opposing average) show that Simmons may be back to his 2002 form. He's another crafty, soft throwing lefty who lives on the outside corner. If he's not getting that call on Sunday, then Stanford could get to him. This is an excellent starting rotation and I, for one, am very anxious to see how the Stanford hitters stack up against them.
Stanford looks to have caught a break this weekend as Longhorns All-American closer Huston Street suffered a pulled groin muscle last weekend. It was reported earlier today that Street will not pitch this weekend, but should be available when Texas hosts San Diego State next week. Street was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2002 College World Series and is the premier closer in the game. Last season, he saved 15 games while compiling a 1.33 ERA. He's off to a fast start this season with just one earned run allowed through 12 innings.
Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Dooley Prince, RF (Jr., .302, 0 HR, 3 RBI)
2. Curtis Thigpen, 1B (Jr., .447, 2 HR, 9 RBI)
3. Taylor Teagarden, C (So., .333, 1 HR, 12 RBI)
4. Seth Johnston, 2B (Jr., .371, 2 HR, 9 RBI)
5. J.D. Reininger, 3B (Jr., .276, 1 HR, 9 RBI)
6. Drew Stubbs, CF (Fr., .333, 1 HR, 6 RBI)
7. Michael Hollimon, DH (Jr., .261, 0 HR, 4 RBI)
8. Nathan Warrick, LF (Fr., .310, 0 HR, 5 RBI)
9. Robby Hudson, SS (Jr., .308, 0 HR, 3 RBI)
Player Notes: Prince was a two-time All-Southland Conference outfielder at McNeese State before transferring to Texas ... Thigpen leads the Longhorns in batting average, runs, hits, homers (tied), slugging percentage, and on-base percentage ... Teagarden has the highest average of any returning Texas hitter (.315) and could be an All-American before his career is over ... Stubbs is one of the top freshman players in the country (starting center fielder at Texas as a freshman is a pretty good indicator of his skills).
KEYS TO THE SERIES
* "Touch It" - This is a phrase Coach Marquess will constantly yell to his hitters when they're batting with two strikes (meaning to make contact with the ball). He wants anything but a strikeout, so the opposing team at least has to make a play. This phrase really holds true this weekend because if there's one glaring weakness on this Texas team, it's their defense. They've committed 19 errors through their first ten games for a dismal .953 fielding percentage. Stanford needs to put pressure on their defense this weekend because they'll likely make their fair share of miscues.
* Get to their bullpen - Texas has a strong bullpen, but their starters are even better. And with Street reportedly out this weekend, their 'pen does take a hit. Howell and Simmons especially could give Stanford some problems this weekend, so even if the Cardinal can't get to them in terms of scoring runs, hopefully they can work some counts to limit the number of innings they can pitch. Simmons, by the way, threw a ten inning shutout against Stanford at Sunken Diamond in 2002.
* Big series' from the big boys - As mentioned above, Sam Fuld and Danny Putnam are primed for big series' this weekend. When you're playing in big-time games, your big-time players need to lead the way. It's only February, but a series win for the Cardinal this weekend would be huge down the road when the selection committee is seeding teams. If Fuld, Putnam, Lowrie, and Mayberry, Jr. rise to the occasion, I like Stanford's chances.