Setting the Stage
With gorgeous weather in hand, Rice and Tulane took the field in a battle of Top 20 teams. The lofty rankings are nothing new to these perennial national powerhouses, so any pressure that may exist because of the big time match up should be minimal. Normally, Tulane plays their home games at Turchin Stadium, but due to delays caused by Hurricane Katrina, "the Turch" is not quite ready for games. Instead, Tulane will be playing their home games at Zephyr Field, the home of the AAA New Orleans Zephyrs. Zephyr Field plays a bit bigger than Turchin, and should accentuate the need for top quality pitching and defense, something both teams have in excess on their current rosters. Without further delay, it's on to the bullets.
• For the first game of the weekend series, Tulane tossed staff ace Sean Morgan on the hill against the 4th ranked Owls. Morgan struggled through the first inning after a passed ball on a strikeout of the leadoff hitter led to a runner on with one out. With two outs, Rice's Tyler Henley stole second and scored on an RBI single by Josh Rodriguez. Morgan battled himself throughout the first and second innings; only demonstrating an ability to command his fastball. After an unearned run in the second, Morgan settled in and was dominant through the seventh (recording 10 K's in the process). His fastball sat in the 90-92 range, and touched 94 once in a while with occasional sink. Sean demonstrated the ability to spot the ball, peppering the strike zone all night (104 pitches, 72 strikes), and consistently worked low in the zone with the knowledge to work up the ladder as he got ahead of hitters. As a sophomore, Morgan won't be eligible for the draft until 2007, but if he continues to progress he should be a very interesting prospect to watch. With a plus fastball, great pitchers frame, and dominating potential, Morgan should have scouts drooling over the next 14 months, and could be a high round choice.
• Toeing the rubber for Rice was senior right-hander Eddie Degerman. Degerman is Rice's top returning pitcher, and his calling card is a hard breaking, 12-6 curveball that leaves hitters baffled more times than not. Eddie didn't have his best stuff, but managed to hold the Tulane bats at bay for six innings and 112 pitches (yes, I'd still like to strangle Rice head coach Wayne Graham). Degerman's curveball was inconsistent early but became his go-to pitch as the game progressed. Combined with his ability to command his 87-89 mph fastball on the inside corner, Degerman turned in a very, very strong outing. With a below-average fastball, Degerman doesn't project as a top-notch prospect, but should still be a solid senior sign from the middle rounds of the draft.
• In my inevitable quest to question every manager that opts for the sacrifice bunt early in games, I'll touch on Wayne Graham's choice to do so in the 2nd inning. With nobody out and a runner on second, Graham had his seven hitter bunt the runner to third. The runner later scored on a squeeze bunt to the third baseman. Now, even though the run scored in spite of these strategic blunders, I will forever fail to see the logic in reducing your teams chances of scoring runs (particularly in college baseball) in any given inning unless you are absolutely certain that single run is going to win the game. In fairness to Graham this game proved to be a very tight contest where that run made a significant difference, so it should be acknowledged that his strategic decisions did not end up costing his team the game. However, basing your decision to play for one additional run in the second inning on the supposition that the game will be low-scoring seems risky in my mind.
• When the starters tired, both teams turned to their top relief options, Daniel Latham for Tulane and Cole St. Claire for Rice. Both pitchers showed dominating stuff, with the potential to become lights out relievers. Latham flashed a 91-93 mph fastball that touched 95, as well as a very good curveball and change-up. His slider lags behind his other three offerings, and he'll need to keep from dipping his elbow to gain consistent movement on the pitch. The lefty, St. Clair, sat in the 92-94 range on his fastball with very good life. Cole has a very unorthodox delivery that adds to his deception, but because of all the ancillary movement, he struggles to maintain his arm slot. He also flashed a potential plus curveball that should improve with experience. Latham should be a mid-round choice in this year's draft, but he would probably benefit from another season in college. St. Clair is only a sophomore, but if he improves his secondary pitches, he could become a premium relief prospect in time for the 2007 draft.
• Some quick impressions on four Tulane players that caught my eye: Brad Emaus, Warren McFadden, Nathan Southard, and Cat Everett. Emaus struggled defensively in 2005, but seems to have found a home at second base this season, flashing the leather on back-to-back balls up the middle in the sixth. With his offensive ceiling, Emaus could be an elite keystone prospect. McFadden was a highly touted recruit with high expectations in 2005, but injuries derailed his freshman campaign. He showed tremendous plate coverage, very good pop, average speed, and lightning quick hands. He's a physical specimen with tons of potential. Despite his small stature, Southard flashed a cannon arm in center, and drove the ball hard in two of three official at-bats. Lastly, Cat Everett looked eerily similar to Tiger prospect Tony Giarratano. He has great actions in the field, a strong arm, and solid potential at the plate.
• Possibly the top two players on display at Zephyr Field last Friday were Tulane's Mark Hamilton and Rice's Joe Savery. Savery may have more potential on the mound with a low-90s fastball and bulldog mentality, but his offensive upside will be hard for teams to pass on. He drove the ball hard in all four at-bats and showed a very good approach at the plate. Hamilton struggled mightily on Friday, but his potential is undeniable. He has plus power and the ability to hit for average, but he sometimes takes his plate discipline to an extreme, as he did Friday night. He recognizes pitches well, and is knowledgeable enough to wait for a pitch he can drive, but as with all good things, they must come in moderation. Savery won't be eligible for the draft until June of 2007, but look for Hamilton's name on the first day of this year's draft.
Overall, it was a very well-played game by both teams. Pitching dominated the evening, and will likely be the calling card of both squads throughout the season. Along with Southern Mississippi, these two ball clubs should be battling for the Conference USA title right down to the last weekend of the season. I would expect both to make the NCAA Tournament, but I don't see either making too much noise this year.
Next up 'At the Game' - Florida St. vs. Boston College.