Setting the Stage
Army enters the weekend series tied with Holy Cross at the bottom of the Patriot League standings with a 3-7 record (17-16-1 overall for Army), but has the talent to make a run down the stretch. Holy Cross has been a perennial doormat within the conference, but they have just enough pitching to win on any given day. Despite the fact that Army has several very good prospects, none are likely to be considered early in the draft because of their remaining military obligations after graduating from West Point. With a beautiful spring day at my back, it's on to the bullets.
• Easily the top player of the day was Army first baseman Cole White. Not only is White one of their top pitchers (2.48 ERA in 26.1 innings), but he is also one of their top offensive threats. White brings a solid approach to the plate, waiting for a pitch he can drive. His swing is short and quick, and he centers the ball well; consistently driving it to all fields. He's still a bit wiry, and should add some bulk in the coming seasons, allowing him to increase his already above-average power. He has below-average speed, but is a very good base runner. His instincts in the field were solid, and he demonstrated soft hands at first. His offensive ceiling is quite high, but with his impending military obligations, it's unlikely he'll get a chance to showcase them on the pro stage.
• Holy Cross' top player was Tucker Frawley, who was coming off a 2005 campaign that saw him hit .409 as a junior. Frawley is listed at 5-8, 165, and for that reason alone, many teams will pass on him in the upcoming draft. He brings a lot to the table, and is a tough player to ignore. He has phenomenal hand-eye coordination and in spite of his size, he has the ability to drive the ball from gap to gap with great frequency. He's literally a hit machine. He demonstrates a very good eye at the plate, and is rarely fooled on pitches of any kind. His defensive actions at second were outstanding, showing very good range, a strong arm, and good hands. His speed is a tick above-average, and he uses it well both offensively and defensively. Tucker is a 'gamer' in every sense of the word, and teams would be wise to keep him on their radar come draft day. I'll be mildly surprised if he goes on the first day of the draft, but I do expect him to be a solid hitter and defender at the next level.
• Nick Hill started the first game of the day for Army, and he pitched an outstanding baseball game. Hill is a very intriguing lefty prospect. He sat in the 87-89 range, topping out at 91 with his fastball, and mixed a very good curveball with late bite. His slider and change-up are average pitches, but lack consistency. Nick is a firey competitor, who won't back down from anyone. Hill projects as one of the top pitchers in the Patriot League, and he should get a long look come June's draft. In the second game, Army tossed right-hander Ben Mayhew. Mayhew is a big kid (6-6, 220), but doesn't throw as hard as you might expect. His fastball was consistently in the 86-88 range with good sink and a stellar change-up. He moved the ball well throughout the zone and was able to hit spots with regularity. His pro prospects are minimal, but he should help Army challenge for a run at the conference title.
• The Cruzaders' starters didn't have much flash or name recognition, but both pitched very well. The game one starter, Scott Hampe, threw a complete game, gem to start the day off; taking the hard-luck loss in the end. Nothing about his arsenal was overly impressive, but his side-arm delivery gave the Army hitters a very hard time. Hampe's pickoff move was outstanding, and kept the Black Knight running attack at bay despite his catcher's poor throwing arm. Game two saw Mike Miller take the hill, but for a much shorter outing than expected. Miller was cruising along until five batters into the fifth inning, when he abruptly left the game due to an apparent shoulder injury. Miller didn't record an out in the fifth, and would end up taking the loss for Holy Cross. The Holy Cross pitchers gave them every chance to win both games, but the offense just was not enough to match the outstanding Army pitching.
• At the end of the first game, Army brought in closer/left fielder Milan Dinga to shut the door. Dinga is the teams hardest thrower and most prolific hitter. He came in the game pumping fastballs at 91-93 with good late movement, complimented by a hard slider and slow curve. At the plate he shows very little patience, but seems to make hard contact consistently. He crowds the plate and shows a willingness to take outside pitches to the opposite field. If he focused on pitching, he could likely become a dominating reliever, but for a second-tier program like Army, they need his bat in the lineup every day.
• In addition to the aforementioned Army talent, two other players stood out. Freshman centerfielder Andrew Ernesto showed a very mature approach at the plate as well as the ability to drive the ball to all fields. He's very slight, and could stand to add muscle, but given his age and inexperience, he is a very good ball player. Ernesto has plus speed, and tremendous instincts as well. Even with the departure of Schuyler Williamson last season, Army reloaded behind the plate with sophomore Chris Simmons. Simmons lacks a true power arm, but has excellent footwork and very good mechanics. He blocks balls well and shows a leader mentality from the catcher position. At the plate, Simmons has good power to the gaps, and demonstrates the ability to hit for average while controlling the strike zone. Chris has the potential to be a very good catching prospect with a little refinement.
• Speaking of catchers, it seems there is a trend going around all levels of baseball. While the old-school thought was that big catchers would eventually have to move to another position, I'm seeing more and more catchers in the 6-2 to 6-4 range than I can ever remember. In today's game, Chris Simmons checked in at 6-1, 215. Last week, Florida State catcher Danny Diaz was listed at 6-3, and Boston College's catchers, Shawn McGill and Jett Ruiz, were listed at 6-4 and 6-1, respectively. Now, it is certainly possible that I just caught a streak of catchers who reside in the minority, but it seems to be more frequent in recent seasons. It wasn't that long ago the shortstop position underwent a change of a similar nature. This should be something interesting to keep an eye on.
In the end, Army took both games with final scores of 2-1 and 5-1. The pitching came up huge for the Black Knights, on a day when the offense struggled a little bit. These two wins bring Army's conference record to 5-7, putting them right back in the thick of things in the Patriot League. Army has a lot of talent, but you will be hard-pressed to see that talent go in the upper rounds of the 2006 or 2007 drafts. All Army players are obligated to fulfill additional military obligations after graduation, and to play professional baseball, the drafting team must go through extensive negotiations with the US Army. The Tigers went through these steps with Schuyler Williamson after last season's draft, only to lose him prior to the 2006 season because of his desire to go fight for his country. With developments like this, more teams may think twice before taking players from West Point. On a side note, after speaking briefly with Army head coach Joe Sottolano, it sounds as though Williamson is doing well, and is pleased with his decision to return to active duty as a soldier defending our nation. It was yet another great day of baseball in the Northeast and for now, it's time to sign-off, this time from Fitton Field in Worcester, MA.
Next up 'At the Game' - Clemson vs. Boston College.