Thursday Thoughts - Carolina bound/Surprise Teams/Music

I tell ya' stitch-heads, I'm so excited about this trip to Tobacco Road, it almost makes me wish I was a smoker.

The company Learjet is officially mine for the weekend as I've been able to purloin the machine to fly to North Carolina, the land otherwise known as the center of the college baseball universe for the next three days.

Can't freakin' wait.

I haven't been back to the Tar Heel state for baseball since the 2002 season, when I saw UNC sweep then-No. 1 Florida State. Since then, things have exploded baseball-wise in the area. East Carolina has built a wicked new stadium to appease its rabid fan base. The ACC has become THE monster conference in the country. And the Tar Heels themselves have ascended to national championship contention. And frankly, those are three things I never thought I'd say... er, write. But it's true. So let's get on with the games. This promises to be fun.


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A quick snapshot of each series I'll get a chance to see a part of---

No. 6 Cal State Fullerton (12-4) at East Carolina (8-6):
Well, two things jump out here. One, unlike last year, Wes Roemer has proven to be hittable, making the Titans beatable on Fridays. And two, ECU has to be brimming with confidence after over-coming Pepperdine ace Barry Enright last Friday. Can't wait to see Pirate starter T.J. Hose, the architect of the Pepperdine upset. Hell, can't wait to see Clark-LeClair Stadium. I've heard that place rocks. I'd still give the edge to Fullerton's depth on Saturday and Sunday, but the Pirates are capable of pulling off an upset, maybe two.

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No. 5 Virginia (15-1) at Wake Forest (9-4):
Alright Wahoos, time to step up to the plate boys. UVa has quietly raced out to a glossy won-loss mark as it enters the first ACC weekend of the season. But the one loss was its only real challenge of the season, at Coastal Carolina. Still, this will be a good chance to see Sean Doolittle again as well as lead off hitter Greg Miclat, who is at a .443 stroke and is 12-of-12 in the stolen base department (I love a good lead off guy). One drawback to the Cavs is their scant road experience. And this will be a big one. Wake simply needs to pitch better. The opponents hit .286 and the Deacon team ERA is 4.86. And this is still before the rugged ACC slate takes hold. Doesn't bode well for Wake.

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No. 14 Miami at No. 3 North Carolina (12-1)
Okay, if there's a team that has been the Britney Spears of college baseball so far, it could be the Canes, because you never know what they'll do next. But whatever they do, it causes headlines. Miami has lost to Mercer, swept UCLA, lost to Florida and even lost a game to Elon. Now they take to the road and a tough venue. But Weeks, Alonso and Raben will wield the best bats UNC has seen. In fact, the comparison is not even close. Games with the Penn States and Seton Halls of the world won't help them here. As strange as it may sound, this may be a very offensive weekend. If so, give the edge to Miami, because there have been times when the Heels have been shut down by the weaker opposition. So I'll pick the U to take this series. Then again, there's that wild Britney factor...


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Other top series to watch---
And my gawd! there are a whole lot of them. I am so glad this weekend is here. Do the sport of college baseball a favor and get out and see a game near you. Here are a few more suggestions.

- No. 22 Nebraska (6-4) at No. 13 Alabama (12-4):
Whoa man! The Tide really needs this one. They are dangerously close to joining Georgia Tech in the "Why the hell are they still ranked?" category. Especially after starting this week off with losses to Southern Miss and Tennessee Tech(?).

- Evansville (9-4) at No. 8 Oregon State (14-3):
I really like the all-senior starting rotation that the Aces feature, especially Ben Norton, the lead starter. But Norton and Co. ran into a buzz saw tonight, losing by a 9-2 count. Can we stop hearing about a possible drop-off from OSU now? I expect games two and three to be closer.

- Miami University (2-4) at No. 11 Texas (13-6):
The Hawk arms have given up just 20 runs in six games and have a 2.91 ERA. So they can throw it. But this is UT we're talking about. They've got more arms, and more bats to do damage with - like Brad Suttle and his .436 average. Ouch.

- No. 10 Pepperdine (14-4) at No. 20 Oklahoma State (11-3):
The Pokes have taken some lumps from their toughest opponents so far and the Waves are road warriors. If Adrian Ortiz can continue to set the table (.408) and the staff keep its 2.94 ERA going, P'dine is the choice here, even as a roadie.

- No. 19 Long Beach State (8-4) at No. 12 Arizona State (12-5):
The Devils are chomping at the bit to take last week's frustrating losses to Auburn out on someone. But this ain't exactly the same Beach outfit from '06. With a 3.17 ERA against the second toughest schedule, LB won't be intimidated by ASU's bats.

- UCLA (7-7) at No. 16 Mississippi (11-4):
If Wright State can come down and take two of three in Oxford, shouldn't the Bruins be able to do the same? That Tyson Brummett vs. Will Kline matchup on Friday could really be the best mound matchup of the weekend.

- Kansas (9-5) at No. 15 Arkansas (10-5).
Have you noticed that the Jayhawks have kind of fallen off the national radar? Well, here's their chance to re-establish some street cred. But they'll have to do it on a day other than when Nick Schmidt is pitching, because that guy is just too bad ass.


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Others of note---
Yes, there are this many intriguing matchups. So let's press on:

- Florida (9-7) at No. 21 Texas A&M (15-2).
Looks like both teams can make amends for last season, but A&M is doing it better. Ag Blake Stouffer is piping hot lately, raising his average to .429.

- Purdue (4-2) at No. 18 Auburn (14-2)
The Tigers can't relax after the ASU series or they could get boiled by the 'makers here, who appear to be legit.

- Penn State (2-5) at No. 23 Wichita State (10-4)
Judging by their good play at UNC and WSU's shaky play vs. Richmond, the Lions are sleepers here.

- No. 25 Arizona (13-5) at Hawaii (14-6)
UofA needs to make amends for ugly losses to Arizona State and Eastern Michigan last week.

- No. 26 Southern Mississippi (11-2) at LSU (8-6)
Is this the last time we see the Tigers on the national landscape this year? Say hello while you can.

- Maryland (9-3) at No. 27 North Carolina State (11-4)
Terps big chance to make some waves, but they must hit better than their .274 average, especially facing Brackman and Co.

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Surprise teams---
Although the coaches of these teams will probably hate the moniker, after one full month of college baseball, here are the 10 biggest surprise teams in the country.

- Duke (14-1)
The jury is still out until this team goes to Clemson in two weeks. But any other year would've seen the Dookies lose to teams like St. Bonaventure, Washington and St. John's. Outfielders Jonathan Anderson and Jimmy Gallagher both have averages above .400 and on-base percentages above .500.

- Auburn (14-2)
Well, I'll admit it, I just thought this was another smokescreen job. That is until the Tigers took two from Arizona State this past weekend. Bringing the bash back to the SEC, Josh Donaldson has already hit seven home runs and Mike Bianucci has crushed five.

- Texas A&M (15-2)
See Auburn above? Ditto for the Aggies. After last year's swoon, I keep expecting reality to hit. But Rob Childress is more comfortable at the helm this year and wins over two of last year's final four (Rice and Oregon State) show this is no fluke.

- Lipscomb (11-6)
Nice series win at LSU (albeit watered-down LSU) to go along with wins over Evansville and Auburn. But Bison have to be kicking themselves for letting Tennessee off the hook on Tuesday (a 4-3 loss).

- Minnesota (6-2)
The Gophers missed out on the NCAA tournament the last two years and weren't mentioned among the Big 10 contenders entering this season. I know it's early, but wins over Ole Miss and Arkansas indicate their want to get back to Big 10 kingpin status, and the ability to do so.

- Long Beach State (8-4)
Like Minnesota, the Dirtbags aren't used to missing the NCAA tournament like they did in '06. But the Beach is notorious for bringing in hordes of JC transfers, so you never know how they'll turn out. Seeing them get Ws vs. USC, Texas, Rice and Cal is a nice surprise. Need to get a healthy Manny McElroy back on the hill though.

- VMI (9-3)
The Keydets (yes, that's their name) pulled off a 2-of-3 series win at Florida that had everyone slapping their forehead like the guy on the box cover of a 60s board game. Soph pitcher Michael Bowman has 23 strikeouts in 16.1 innings and a 1.77 ERA.

- USC (13-8)
Oh sure, go ahead and smirk at their won-loss mark. Then look at who they played, and beaten. The Trojans are extremely young too, Freshmen like SS Grant Green (.329), Robert Stock (2-0, 3.12, 2svs) and Brad Boxberger (1-1, 1.84) show the Men of Troy have a bright future. But who's pointing to the future with all the impressive wins they're piling up now?

- Southeastern Louisiana (11-4)
Don't let the directional name fool you. The Lions opened things by beating Tulane two-of-three, including a 4-0 shutout. Didn't it always seem like the Southland Conference was good for a surprise or two? Not lately though. But SLU's next two mid-weekers are at Southern Miss and at LSU. We'll see.

- Florida Atlantic (13-3)
The Owls (don't call them "Blue Waves" anymore) are coming off a 30-28 season last year, after being a pre-season Top 25 pick. Now, they're cashing in on better luck and health, including a win over Oklahoma State and nip-and-tuck battles with Rice and Nebraska. A now-healthy Robbie Widlansky is hitting .435, bested only by SS Daniel Cook, who is clipping along at .509.


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Best pitching matchup of the weekend---
Wes Roemer vs. T.J. Hose.
Okay, this isn't the most interesting matchup because they are the two best pitchers to face each other this weekend or anything, it's more about the underlying story of whether its true that these hurlers are indeed going in opposite directions. Because in case you guys didn't know it, Roemer has an ERA of 3.60 and opponents are hitting .294, the equivalent of a natural disaster to Titan fans (although his K-to-BB ratio is still an amazing 46-to-3). Hose hasn't been stellar, at 2-2 and 4.70 so far, but against a good Pepperdine team he went 7.2 innings, giving up just six hits and striking out seven.


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Best mid-week win---
South Carolina - 4
College of Charleston - 5 (10inns.)
The Cougars finally get legitimacy points here as they've played a Stay-Puft soft schedule prior to this. Nice win here. But it almost didn't happen, as CofC blew a late lead, allowing the Cocks to take the lead in the 8th and had the bases loaded before the Coogs escaped further damage. South Carolina also had the winning run stranded at third in the 9th. With SC coming off the sweep of Clemson, and beating their Sunday starter, this is an impressive win for Charleston.


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Second best mid-week win---
St. John's - 7
Rice - 6
Every year you hear it, the Big East doesn't get enough respect in the at-large land of the NCAA tournament. Paul Mainieri said so during last year's tournament selection show, "I've coached in the South and out West and I can assure you that teams like St. John's and Connecticut are as good as those teams." he stated after those two teams were passed over for bids (I still have the show on my TiVo, so it's a direct quote). Okay, so the Johnnies are just 3-7 now. But typical of a northern team with no outdoor practices, they've had a horrid start but are playing better now. The three wins have come against UC-Santa Barbara, Lamar and now Rice. That's good stuff. We'll see where they end up when May and June comes around.


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Most anticipated debut---
Quinnipiac.
The Bobcats (22-23-1 last year) are picked second in the Northeast Conference (behind Central Connecticut State), but return five All-NEC performers including a pair of seniors that will play a huge part in their quest to return to the post-season. The NEC's leading hitter Ryan Rizzo (.402) returns as does 2005 NEC Pitcher of the Year Pat Egan, who comes back after sitting last year out for Tommy John surgery. Egan was drafted in the 35th round of last June's draft but chose to return for his senior year. The 'Cats will open with Michigan State on Friday down in Tampa, Florida.


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Pro stadiums, college games---
The Whataburger Classic down in Corpus Christi will be played at AA Whataburger Field. With Rice, TCU, Texas Tech and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi taking part, it's a pretty good field of teams too. According to Rice play-by-play announcer Matt McCabe, who I talked to last week at Fullerton, it's as nice of a stadium as he's ever worked in. Even Arizona State's Pat Murphy, who's team played in the tournament last year says the facility "far surpasses any other stadium I've seen."

Meanwhile, down at Petco Park in San Diego, a Saturday double-header featuring Oklahoma vs. San Diego and Michigan vs. San Diego State will be a part of the Tony Gwynn Classic. Mr. Gwynn will be feted with a between-game ceremony as well. They are expecting a crowd somewhere between 15-and-25,000 for the games.


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A tid bit about the North Carolina music scene---
With icons like John Coltrane, Roberta Flack, Thelonious Monk and the venerable James Taylor having grown up there, Carolina is home to some of the most influential musical minds in history. (Okay, so John Tesh grew up there too. Shhhhh. Let's just glaze right over that one.)

Back in the mid-90s, MTV called the Chapel Hill-Raleigh-Durham area "the next Seattle in the music scene." It was, in essence, giving it the kiss of death since that never did materialize. But a few college-radio/rock bands made waves nationally and were on the cusp of huge breakouts. In honor of this weekend's trip, here are the best bands to come out of the Research Triangle area:

1- The Connells
Starting out with a "Civil War" rock sound, this band made a string of beat-friendly albums and played good-sized venues across the country. The "74-75" video, directed by Mark Pellington ("The Mothman Prophecies"), is downright brilliant.

2- Superchunk
Indy rock darlings were critics faves all through the 90s. If you've got five minutes, download "Hyper Enough", one of the great college radio tunes of all time. Lead singer Mac McCaughan's own record company, Merge Records, launched The Arcade Fire, a band who played on Saturday Night Live two weeks ago.

3- The dB's
Carolina music historian Matt Barrett wrote, "The dB's merely influenced every pop band in America." Guitarist Peter Holsapple has long been the 5th touring member of REM. The song Holiday Spirit is a crack-up ("I've got that holiday spirit, gimme! gimme! gimme! gimme! gimme!").

4- Flat Duo Jets
The name itself is one of the best in music history and Hall of Fame worthy. This rockabilly outfit never got the big break but is well-known to be one of the biggest influences to Jack White of The White Stripes.

5- Squirrel Nut Zippers
Part of the mid-90s swing movement. In one 18-month stretch, the Zippers, named after a peanut and caramel candy from the 20s, played the Olympics, a presidential inauguration and Dick Clark's New Year's Eve.

Honorable mention to these Carolina bands that have had their moments too:
- Fetchin' Bones
- The Ben Folds Five
- Let's Active
- Southern Culture on the Skids
- Corrosion of Conformity

I'll be sure to check on the listings for shows at the famous Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill this weekend.

On that note, hope you guys have a great college baseball weekend. I'll give you updates as we go.

Now I've gotta go catch a red-eye flight to Raleigh/Durham. See you when I land.

G'night.

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Eric Sorenson Eric Sorenson
Eric Sorenson is CSTV.com's National Baseball Columnist, and also appears on CSTV as a baseball expert