Thursday Thoughts - The Long, Hard Road Edition

Hey stitch-heads. I have to admit, this Thursday column may be a bit abbreviated than normal. I just got back from the long road trip going from SoCal to San Antonio for the Final Four and back again and I've got "car-lag", if that's a word. It was arduous at times, but still a really cool time. I have to admit, the Final Four is a real happening, a spectacle if you will, not just a way to decide a national champion in the peach basket sport.

80mph.jpg
(Ahhhh, the most welcome sign on the trip. This was the speed "suggestion" in most of West Texas.)
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THE ROAD, PART I---
I have to say, I saw some interesting college baseball along my journey as well as some wicked' college basketball post-season action. Also lucked out with no problems along the way, mechanical or otherwise. Well, unless you count the high school soccer team that stayed in the same hotel as I did in Midland, Texas. Damn, I forgot what I was like as a high schooler on a team road trip.

Here are a few quick observations, then on to the baseball weekend at hand...

- Number of miles driven: 3,759.2
- Number of large dead animals seen on the side of the road: 8 (mostly in West Texas)
- Number of times I got stopped by the heat: 0 (I drove conservatively this week)
- Highest gas price: $4.19 in Blythe, California
- Lowest gas price: $3.08 in San Marcos, Texas
- Number of times I thought about how much obscene amounts of money oil companies are raking off us gullible Americans: 57
- Number of new baseball stadiums I saw a game in: 4
(Arizona, Texas Tech, TCU and Texas State)
- Number of Texas drivers I had to pass on the right side because they were driving slow in the fast lane: approx. 12 (I lost count and Jeremy Mills was right)
- Number of times ESPN's Shelley Smith asked me in a crowded bar in downtown San Antonio, "How are you doing?": 1

GasSign.jpg
(The most ominous sign of our times on the entire trip. Thank you glutenous oil companies.)


THE ROAD, PART II---
Couple of thoughts about being on the road in college baseball.

- Long Beach State just wrapped up what is thought to be its longest road trip since 1959, going 1-9 in games against Pepperdine (1), Cal (3), Stanford (1), Fresno State (1), UC Riverside (3) and LMU (1). Prior to that trip, the Dirtbags were 17-3 and in the top five of the polls.

- Prior to that horrid road trip, the Beach was 5-0 away from Blair Field.

- Arizona State took to the road for the first time in 2008 this past weekend and, voila', the Devils got blown out twice at Stanford, 12-2 and 10-2. In fact, the lone win at Sunken Diamond was a 6-4, 10-inning affair. The two losses cost them the No. 1 ranking this week.

- Before we crucify those two teams and drop them mercilessly, consider that new-No. 1 Miami has played only six road games in building up its 27-2 mark, including a loss at N.C. State and an extra inning win at Duke. The Canes' next seven games are going to be on the road. Let's take a wait-and-see attitude.

- Meanwhile, No. 2 Florida State is 27-3 and has played 10 roadies. Two of their three losses have come on the road. And take this however you want to, but five of their road games have been one-or-two run wins. So that either says they've got a lot of moxie, or they don't play quite as well on the road. FSU travels up to Boston College this weekend.

- Worst road team in the country, besides Long Beach?:
I'm thinking it might be Auburn.
The Plainsmen are 22-12 overall, 6-6 in the SEC. But in games played on opponents' home field, they are just 3-7, including 2-4 in SEC road games.

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SPEAKING OF THE ROAD, HERE'S WHERE I'D WANT TO BE THIS WEEKEND---
If I had traded my father's milk-cow for three magic beans and those magic beans allowed me to travel at the speed of light to anywhere I wanted to...

1- Amherst vs. Williams in Pittsfield, Mass.
These two rivals are going to reconvene for the 149th anniversary of the first college baseball game on record. Waconah Park in Pittsfield will be officially dubbed as "The Birthplace of College Baseball" since it is very close to the location of the original game, which was held on July 1, 1859. Williams will certainly be looking to exact revenge, having lost that first game 73-32 in a game that last 25 innings.

The 150th anniversary will be next year and there are plans in the making to have the College Baseball Hall of Fame involved in making a formal ceremony and event, including bringing these two teams back once again to face each other. Pittsfield Mayor James Ruberto said, "It's a warm-up. We're looking at giving the schools an opportunity to see what it would be like in anticipation for doing this next year."

2- THE ACC BIG THREE, ON THE ROAD
Once again, the ACC is the place to be this weekend (fire up the CSTV company jet, right?... if it wasn't busy collecting dust bunnies now). Miami, FSU and UNC all head out on the road to test their mettle. So it will be really interesting to see how these behemoths measure up away from the comforts of home (well, almost home for UNC, since they're playing their games in Cary this season). This will also be a good chance for Tech to put together a season-solidifying week, having already beaten Georgia in the mid-week. Clemson shouldn't be ranked at all, but does have the opportunity to put a lot - make that A LOT - of doubts to rest, going up against the Heels. BC just needs wins. The Eagles came close vs. GaTech, but had no luck. This will be a tall mountain to climb with red-hot FSU coming to Beantown, but it can be done. They cannot get off to a bad start in Friday's double-header.

2A- No.1 Miami at No. 25 Georgia Tech

2B- No. 2 Florida State at Boston College

2C- No. 4 North Carolina at No. 27 Clemson

Tekotte-Weeks.jpg
(Blake Tekotte and Jemile Weeks will have their hands full with the Jackets this weekend.
Special thanks to Kenny Cook, the Doctor of College Baseball, for the use of this picture)


5- No. 7 UC Irvine at No. 16 Long Beach State
Redemption weekend for one of these. As discussed, it's been a hellride for the Beach lately. UCI lost a pair of tough games with rival Fullerton, but didn't drop too far in the rankings. That Scott Gorgen-Andrew Liebel matchup on Friday should be sweet. If I had more time to break down the top pitching matchup of the weekend, that'd be the one I'd choose.

6- No.11 Texas at No.12 Missouri
Questions abound here. UT has questions about its pitching staff that seems to be far from what we're used to seeing in an Augie Garrido coached team. And at .957%, is that REALLY the worst fielding team in the Big 12? Gah! Mizzou's rep has taken a bit of a shot after series losses to Texas Tech and Okie State the last two weeks.

7- No. 9 Kentucky at No. 24 Georgia
The Wildcats take their SEC-best hitting (.350), pitching (3.16) and fielding (.979) to Athens. The up-and-down Dogs will be fighting mad having just come off a loss to rival Georgia Tech. Again, it's another road test for the Bat Cats.

8- No. 14 Nebraska at No. 20 Oklahoma State
The more you keep wondering "Is this Husker team for real?" the more that team ERA of 2.89 team ERA starts to sparkle and shine. And how's the "Matt Hague Watch" going so far? The OSU strapper has been as advertised, going .355-4-32 after transferring from Washington in the off-season.

9- No. 26 Stanford at Oregon State
This is a classic Pac 10 matchup of teams with ugly records (both 15-10) who have played tough schedules (No. 3 and 6 respectively). OSU may be in more need here as they have played .500 ball in Pac 10 play... Ah hell, who am I kidding, the Beavers finished at 10-14 in conference play last year and still won it all. So nevermind.

10- No. 5 Wichita State at Creighton
It's beginning to look like the Big Shockers and the Little 9 in the MVC again. If that's true - heavy emphasis on the "if" part - then this could be one of the few tough spots they'll face.


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OFF-THE-BEATEN-PATH CONFERENCE LEADERS,
PRETENDERS? OR CONTENDERS?---
Twenty bucks to the person who actually thought the following teams would enter this weekend at the top of their respective conference standings:

- Duquesne (8-1 in the A-10)
Currently, the Dukes are tied with Charlotte. After an 0-10 start against the likes of Florida State, LSU and South Carolina, DU is hitting its stride. By the way, the Dukes are last in the A10 in batting (.256) and second to last in pitching (7.12).

Up Next: vs. last place LaSalle
Conclusion: Pretenders. (After the LSU series, reality will catch up with them.)


- Florida Gulf Coast (15-3 in the A-Sun)
There's actually a lot to like here, including the Eagles having far and away the best arm staff (3.16ERA, no one else under 4.50), the best hitter in Jason Peacock (.466-6-36 and I'm wondering if he's any relation to former OU running back Elvis?) and the best pitcher in Richard Bleier (5-0, 1.73) in the A-Sun.

Up Next: at 2nd place Lipscomb
Conclusion: Contenders. (Even though they can't go to the post-season)


- Cincinnati (7-2 in the Big East)
Tied with St. John's and Notre Dame, the Bearcats are on an 11-2 spree, including a series win in South Bend. UC relies on some solid pitching (3.94ERA and just 70BBs) and pressure on the opponents (68SBs).

Up Next: home vs. 2nd-to-last place Pitt.
Conclusion: Contenders. (I think the UND series showed us that.)

UCStadium.jpg
(UC's home stadium is one of the most impressive I've ever seen.)


- VMI (7-2 in the Big South)
You guys remember last year's season opening series win at Florida? Or that the Keydets went 34-21 in '07? This shouldn't be a huge surprise. After this weekend, the slate gets a little tougher with a trip to Liberty and a home series with Coastal Carolina. Stay tuned.

Up Next: at last place UNC-Asheville
Conclusion: Contenders. (Though this is a shaky thumb's up for now.)


- UC Santa Barbara (7-1 in the Big West)
Maybe Bob Brontsema is finally getting the breaks in the injury department (that's the GOOD kind of breaks) and making some headway in the Big West. Granted, they've only played Northridge and Pacific in conference play so far, but the three most used arms have ERA's of 2.64, 2.70 and 3.38.

Up Next: vs. 2nd place UC Davis
Conclusion: Contenders. (They're SOS is rated at No. 51. That's enough for me.)

- Northern Iowa (5-1 in the MoValley)
Currently tied with Wichita State at the top, but don't look for this to last. The Panthers, though decent at 17-10 overall, after this weekend will have played the three worst teams in the MVC.

Up Next: at 2nd-to-last place Illinois State
Conclusion: Pretenders.


- Elon (10-2 in the SoCon)
After a 16-1 start, it looked the Phoenix had hit the wall. But then they went out and knocked off No. 5 North Carolina this week, 2-0. So go figure. The big test is next weekend when they'll travel to 23-9 College of Charleston.

Up Next: vs. Western Carolina
Conclusion: Contenders. (It's a no-brainer)


- Grambling State (11-4 in the SWAC)
This one is a total surprise. GSU has gone from six wins in 2006, to 18 wins in 2007, to already having 15 wins this year. Nice work Coach Ray. But now the Tigers, ranked No. 6 in the Black College Baseball poll, face off with pre-season SWAC favorite Prairie View A&M. Earlier this year, they took two-of-three from the Panthers.

Up Next: Three games vs. Prairie View
Conclusion: Contenders. (Earlier series win over PV proves that.)


- UL Monroe (12-3 in the Sun Belt)
The Warhawks were picked to finish 8th in the SBC pre-season coach's poll. Josh Lett (5-1, 3.32) and Jared Jennings (3-2, 3.48) have been a good one-two punch on weekends. Beyond them, the starters drop off. Weekend series at UL-L should be interesting.

Up Next: at Louisiana-Lafayette
Conclusion: Contenders. (But hold final judgement until after this weekend.)


- San Francisco (5-1 in the WCC)
Shades of the 2006 season, where USF won a school record 45 games. But a trip to Pepperdine this weekend could be the end of the ride. Or a springboard to bigger things.

Up Next: at Pepperdine.
Conclusion: Pretenders. (Hmmm. Then again, the Dons have beaten Houston, Fresno and Cal)


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THE ONE SIDE-TRIP I DIDN'T MAKE---
Derek David, a lumberjack slugger from D-III McMurray had an NCAA record-tying seven game string of hitting a home run. One more circuit clout and he would've broken the mark set by Ryan Jackson of Duke (1994) and Andy Bruce of Georgia Tech (1991). On Tuesday, McMurray was hosting Wayland Baptist in Abilene, Texas, a little out of my way on my return drive from San Antonio. But alas, my fatigued body trumped all and I decided to drive on home and not see potential history in the making. In the end, David didn't get his home run on Tuesday, so the string of seven still stands tied between the three players after all.


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WHATEVER HAPPENED TO---
Baylor's Ben Bronson?
The Bear center fielder and lead-off hitter was the best athlete on the Baylor team I saw play Creighton and Rice at old Baylor Ballpark back in 1995, before the stat-of-the-art stadium they've got in Waco now. Not only was Bronson a great lead-off man and obviously a good athlete, but a few years later, while at a San Jose SaberCats Arena Football game against the Houston Thunderbears, there's Ben, playing receiver and cornerback on the 50-yard, indoor war. So now I'm wondering if he ever went into coaching, be it baseball or football.


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Have a great college baseball weekend out there stitch-heads, in the full knowledge of the fact that baseball is now on the college sports main stage... or, well, after the Frozen Four is over. Having fun out there in Denver, Tanner?

G'night.

Comments

Thanks for the Gaucho love...good to see (at least early in league play) some potential parity in the Big West. Here's to hoping some of those kids peel themselves out of Woodstock's and off DP to actually get more than 51 people in the stands...

No problem Horn-man. You and Jim Rome should be proud of your alma mater so far. (If only Rome actually recognized college baseball as a sport... oh sure, but golf IS a sport? No, it's a skill. I digress.) Anyway, the Gauchos kept it up with the Friday win over UC Davis so that's not bad. But as you know, there's bigger fish to fry ahead.

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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