Thursday, February 25, 2010

ACC baseball preview: part 1

Believe it or not, the spring sports are here. Strange but true. I've given you what you're gonna get as far as a lacrosse preview goes: there's no point in any kind of ACC preview because the four teams are pretty much equally awesome every year.

But baseball is another matter entirely. The ACC is also a power baseball conference - one of the best in the country. Baseball America places six ACC teams in its preseason top 25, and Rivals projects seven conference teams in its field of 64, with honorable mention of sorts to an eighth. This will be a three-part preview; part 1 today, parts 2 and 3 sometime next week. We're still playing basketball, after all, and football news never stops. (Like this ray of sunshine.)

As always, alphabetically. Today: BC, Clemson, Duke, and FSU.

Boston College

Last season: Made ACC tournament, lost in NCAA tournament regionals
Record: 34-26 (13-15 - 8th in ACC)
Return: 65% of ACC starts, 70% of total innings pitched
Names to know: 3B Mickey Wiswall, CF Robbie Anston, SP Pat Dean

The Eagles are a team you just have to tip your hat to. Alas, college baseball is inherently biased against northern teams thanks to the weather and the season's start date. Boston College, as with many teams in snowy climes, won't even play a home game until more than a month into the season.

So to make the NCAA tournament as a northern team playing in a southern conference is pretty remarkable. Still not the most remarkable thing they did, though: that would be going toe-to-toe with eventual runner-up (and this year's preseason favorite) Texas for a thoroughly unbelievable 25 innings, before giving up a third run, losing 3-2, and setting an NCAA record in the process.

BC returns a pretty solid percentage of their key players. They should have two of the three weekend starter spots well settled, but the third may be up for grabs thanks to John Leonard's hideous stats (7.09 ERA and .341 opponent's BA) in 12 starts, 8 of which were ACC games. But they'll have to answer questions about some of the most important spots on the field, starting behind the plate where all-world catcher Tony Sanchez departed as a junior after being selected fourth overall by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Sanchez was one-third of a trio of sluggers BC depended on for offense. The Eagles need a new closer as well, with Mike Belfiore also off to the pros. Belfiore dueled Texas's Austin Wood for almost 10 innings in that epic game, and aside from being the closer, was also the starting first baseman and provided another third of BC's slugging punch.

The final third remains in Chestnut Hill and could be one of the top players in the league this year. Mickey Wiswall started every game for the Eagles as their regular third baseman, though at least one pub pegs him as a first baseman this year, and a damn good one. He'll be a big hitter, but BC has to find some extra base hits from someone besides him as well.

Most of the rest of the starters are back, too. BC doesn't actually have a lot of holes to fill, just a couple of really big ones. How well they do that will determine if they can make a repeat visit to the NCAA tournament.


Last season: Made ACC tournament, lost in NCAA super-regional
Record: 44-22 (19-11 - 3rd in ACC)
Return: 77% of ACC starts, 46% of total innings pitched
Names to know: OF Kyle Parker, OF Jeff Schaus, P Scott Weismann

The story for Clemson is all the bats they have coming back and all the pitching they have to replace. The Tigers were hit especially hard by the MLB draft. Fortunately for them, there is talent waiting to step up, and it's led by sophomore Scott Weismann. His sparkling performance as a freshman, mostly in relief, should open the door for him to step up to one of the weekend starter slots alongside last year's workhorse and wins leader Casey Harman.

Still, the pitching staff on the whole is an extremely inexperienced bunch, and Clemson will probably need to look to their bats to bail them out of a few games. These, they have plenty of. Seven of eight non-pitcher starters in the field return, and the one hole in the lineup (1B) is expected to be filled by super-recruit Richie Shaffer. Ben Paulsen's shoes will be tough to fill but the plethora of returning bats should be more than able to do the job by committee.

Clemson comes into the season a top-15 team, and there's no reason to think they'll fail to live up to that billing. They'll contend for the ACC championship and expect to host a regional - anything less would be a disappointment. Last year we got to skip them on the ACC schedule, but no such luck this year - it's Wake Forest that goes off the schedule, and that's a terrible tradeoff.


Last season: made ACC tournament
Record: 34-22 (15-15 - 7th in ACC)
Return: 63% of ACC starts, 64% of total innings pitched
Names to know: OF Will Piwnica-Worms, LF Jeremy Gould

For whatever reason I feel like Tobacco Road ought to be a baseball hotbed. Maybe it's Bull Durham, or because we always hold the ACC championships down there. It's not. Duke scraped into the ACC tournament (it certainly helped that they didn't have to face FSU) and even did manage to beat Clemson once there. That seems to be their ceiling anymore.

This year's schedule isn't as kind: instead of ACC runner-up Florida State, they skip bottom-feeding Maryland. And the prevailing opinion is that VT has passed them up. It's probably a sound opinion. Duke's returning a reasonable amount of its talent from last year, but the guy they'll miss is Andrew Wolcott, undeniably the staff ace last year. It was Wolcott who beat Clemson in the ACC's, but he was the only one who started more than two games and finished with an ERA better than 4.80. It was all the way down at 2.77, phenomenal for the college game. But he's gone, and the returning pitchers were serviceable at best, and at worst, thoroughly awful.

Duke has some bats that should help keep them at least on the fringes of contention throughout the season, Piwnica-Worms and Gould leading the way. But the one guy who could really put a charge into a ball is also gone: Nate Freiman accounted for 20 of Duke's 53 homers. There's a little bit of pop in all the remaining bats, but mostly these guys are contact hitters who aren't gonna put on a fireworks display. Bottom line here is that Duke shouldn't really be expected to make a return appearance in the ACC tournament - it'll take a pitching miracle.

Florida State

Last season: Lost in ACC championship game; lost in NCAA super-regionals
Record: 45-18 (19-9 - 1st in ACC)
Return: 77% of ACC starts; 82% of total innings pitched
Names to know: SP Sean Gilmartin, SP Brian Busch, CF Tyler Holt, SS Stephen Cardullo

There are two threats to UVA repeating as ACC champions and these guys, the heavy favorite last year, are one of them. Returning everyone who started an ACC game on the mound has a lot to do with it. In fact, FSU really has only to find a new starting first and second baseman, but the guys they tried out in this past weekend's Georgia State series looked like they fit right into that heavy-hitting lineup. And last year's starting 1B, Jack Posey, was an extremely light hitter; freshman Jayce Boyd appears to be the front-runner and he can't be any worse at the plate.

That lineup is a beastie, too. They like to lead it off with CF Tyler Holt, who batted a whopping .401 last year and got on base at a .520 clip. Holt was one of two players to start every game for the Seminoles, and oh by the way, made just one error all season long. And when you have guy that gets on base more often than not, and guys behind him to drive him in, it's a formula for a lot of runs. FSU scored way more of them than anyone in the league - more than nine per game. Four players in double digits in the home run department, and only one of them departed. (Scary to think he could have come back, too, but he was an 8th-round pick and decided to take off.)

The starting pitchers are pretty butch, too; the regular weekend rotation of Gilmartin, Busch, and McGee combined for a 3.81 ERA, outstanding in college. If there's a weakness in the Seminole roster, it's the bullpen. It's not bad, but simply pedestrian. They're hittable by a good lineup, and they're searching for a closer this year.

Bullpens are frustrating, though, because all they do is keep good teams from being great. FSU is already a damn good team and a lock to earn a high seed, if not the #1 seed, in the ACC tournament. It's hardly fair, in fact: the one team they skip is Georgia Tech, only the other top ten-ranked team in the ACC. They're our season-opening series, in fact: just three short weekends away. It'll be a bellwether series for both teams, and oh-by-the-way we're on the road for it.

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