Michigan will spend this weekend, along with all of its BigTen brethren in the Tampa, FL area in one of the nation's premiere early season tournaments of college baseball, The BigEast/BigTen Challenge. The Challenge was created last year as a showcase for two of the better mid-major conferences from north of the Mason-Dixon line, featuring 10 BigTen teams and 8 BigEast teams. This year, the BigEast will send 10 teams to Tampa, including a ranked Louisville team that was absent in the inaugural tournament.
This year's tournament has also not been quite the media darling as last year. As an Opening Day tournament, it was the headliner. No major teams played real opponents in week one, but with the addition of the week to the beginning of the season on short notice, the Challenge has fallen to second fiddle to other tournaments and weekend series. Luckily, the top challenger for tournament of the week was cancelled due to cold, so we're getting back a little bit of our limelight.
Michigan has drawn a tough schedule in this year's tournament, featuring two of the top 3 teams in the BigEast. The Wolverines open with #11 (CBI Composite Poll) Louisville, then St. John's, and a South Florida team picked 2nd in the BigEast coaches' preseason poll.
Michigan should be a strong enough team to finish 2-1, with the loss coming at the hands of Louisville, but it will take some mental toughness without LaMarre to get to that point. I'm hopeful that only having 3 games this weekend should help us out. The less we see of our fourth starters on the weekend the better for the time being.
Team previews and conference outlook after the jump.
Might get a little wet this weekend, particularly Saturday. The chance of rain has jumped 30% in the last 8 hours. We'll have to wait and see if things don't improve.
Friday 7:30pm ET– Live Video, Live Stats
Alan Oaks (1-0, 3.00 ERA) vs Thomas Royse (1-0, 0.00 ERA)
All Time Series: 0-1 (L 1-11, at Louisville, March '94))
The Cardinals are a rarity among northern, mid-major programs – they are one of the best baseball programs in the nation. Louisville moved into the BigEast 5 seasons ago, but their baseball roots to Conference USA still hold strong. They still remain a top 25 favorite year after year, and this season is no different. They currently rank anywhere from 11-16 in the major college baseball polls, tops among any of Michigan's future ranked opponents.
We don't have a whole lot of info on this year's Cardinals with only one week of games in the books. They swept Bowling Green in a three game set at home and beat Morehead State on Tuesday in a mid-week game. The weekend against Bowling Green was closer than I would have expected. While the Cardinals dominated game one 13-1, game two was close at 5-2. Game three had the Cardinals overcome a 0-7 first inning (all with no outs) deficit to win 8-7.
Michigan will see 6'-5", junior, righty Thomas Royse on the mound. In his first start, he went 5.0 innings giving up 2 hits and hitting a batter while only giving up one unearned run. Royse did strike out 5 batters and posted a 7:2 ground out to fly out ratio. Royse is returning from a season ending back surgery last year, but he still managed to make the 2nd Team All-BigEast.
The bullpen behind Royse looked VERY good against Bowling Green and Morehead State, but what does that really mean? I'm not very sure. If anything, I expect them to be well above average as Louisville normally has plenty of depth on the mound. Gabriel Shaw is supposed to be the full time closer this year (committee last year), and he has been named to the National Stopper Watch List.
On offense, the Cardinals are a very stacked team with a good portion of juniors and seniors. Their star is Preseason All-American Phil Wunderlich. Wunderlich is an outfielder converted to third base and is also coming off off-season surgery, his on the right shoulder. He is supposedly healthy and looking to up his numbers as a sophomore when he hit .367 with 18 homers and 78 RBI (1.113 OPS).
Wunderlich had a slow start last weekend, but the rest of his team has made up for the sub-par numbers. Ryan Wright has posted a .750 slugging percentage with a double, triple, and home run. His 7 RBIs is a team high. He and 3 other Cardinals have posted on base percentages of at least .500.
As a reminder, CollegeBaseball360 will be streaming select games throughout the weekend. This will be Michigan's one game to be streamed.
4:30pm *8:00pm* ET – Live Audio, Live Stats
Matt Miller (0-0, 3.00 ERA) vs TBA
All Time Series: 5-3 (W 4-2 in last year's Challenge)
Al Lang Stadium
St. Petersburg, FL
The Red Storm also enter the challenge undefeated, beating University of New Orleans last weekend, including a 5-2 12-inning affair and a 31-6 blood letting in the finale. Those are two pretty drastic differences, especially against a team only finished last year around the 160 mark of the RPI rankings. St. John's is a middle of the road mid-major team, capable of great years like 2008 when they ended up as a fringe top 30 team, but they're also generally more like last year when they finished around 110.
No matter the outcome, St. John's teams have recently been more offensive oriented than pitching. This year, the offensive focal point centers around third baseman Greg Hopkins and first baseman Paul Karmas. The juniors already have 10 RBI each on the year, and Karmas has a team leading 3 homers.
The leading returning hitter for the Red Storm is senior outfielder Jimmy Parque. As a junior, the lefty hit .360 with a .509 slugging percentage. His 61 RBI was second on the team.
On the mound, I'm not sure who to expect to start. Their second starter last week was Nick Cenatiempo, who went 4 scoreless innings, giving up one hit and striking out seven. Last season, Cenatiempo went 5-3 in 17 appearances, 7 of which were starts. He posted a team best 5.17 ERA among pitchers with more than 50 innings. He struck out only 28 in 54 innings of work, with an opponent batting average of .293.
None of their starters went more than 5 innings last weekend, and it appears that might have been planned so the bullpen could get some work and the starters wouldn't be over worked to start the season. The bullpen looked decent last weekend, and senior Ryan Cole was one of the better relievers in the BigEast last season, working 28.1 innings and giving up only 11 earned runs for a 3.49 ERA.
Sunday 1pm ET – Live Audio, Live Stats
TBA vs Andrew Barbosa (0-0, 4.50 ERA)
All Time Series: 5-6 (W 6-5 in last year's Challenge)
St. Petersburg, FL
South Florida comes in with some lofty expectations this year, so don't let that 0-3 record make you think they're some sort of slouch. All three losses came against the University of Florida, a team expected to win the SEC East, in Gainesville. The Bulls were picked to finish second in conference by their coaches this preseason, and they have a pretty stacked roster.
Luckily we'll miss Preseason BigEast Top Pitcher Randy Fontanez who should start Friday. The USF third starter is lefty Andrew Barbosa. Barbosa is 6'-9" and a two time MLB draftee, once out of high school and once out of junior college. The Puerto Rican native has all but locked down the 3rd starter role. Last week against the Gators, he went 6 innings, giving up 3 runs on 5 hits, a walk, and 4 strikeouts. All three runs were scored in the first, and at one point, he did retire 12 straight batters (13 of his last 14 batters faced).
The USF bullpen has a solid duo of Kevin Quackenbush and Joe Cole, but after that it becomes anybody's guess. Andrew Salguiero was supposed to be one of the best relievers in the nation last year, but he never lived up to expectations. Sophomore Trey Dahl will also get his share of innings, but like Salguiero, he hasn't lived up to expectations yet either.
Two of USF's top prospects are sophomore first baseman Todd Brazeal and sophomore shortstop Sam Mende. Both are coming off a Freshman All-American season, and Mende was an invite to the Cape Cod League this past summer, although he turned it down due to rehabbing an ankle injury. Both should be extremely tough outs in the middle of the lineup.
One big question in the lineup is when will Ryan Lockwood re-emerge from his sophomore slump. After being named Freshman of the Year nationally in 2008, he had a very quiet 2009. Lockwood showed he was capable of hitting .415 over an entire season, but last year he was mired in the .280s. He's started slow this season, but the guy is a sleeping giant on their roster.
One of the biggest questions I have coming into this game is who will be starting for Michigan? I thought Burgoon had a decent game for week 1 last week. Why is this TBA? Did Sinnery earn a shot at the starting rotation? Is Burgoon moving back into the bullpen after one meh start? Is he not making the trip? Time will tell.
- CollegeBaseball360 Preview– Challenge Preview is his preseason team capsules with slight updates.
- Rival Tournament Cancelled – The other top tournament this weekend in college baseball was cancelled due to cold weather. I tell them they don't know what cold is and they should have added the week to the end of the season so the tournament would have been pushed back to next weekend anyway.
It really depends on if Michigan can respond knowing LaMarre is out. If they can come back strong, I think we got 2-1 with a close loss to Louisville. If we still are left clueless, it's going to be a long weekend against Louisville and USF. I think we still stand a very good chance against St. John's.
As far as the conference as a whole, I think we take the tournament by a small margin, certainly less than 5 games. The bottom of our conference, minus Northwestern, to come out with a winning record. The middle of the two conferences should create some great matchups. MSU's finale with West Virginia might be one of the best games not getting a ton of attention. This is where the tournament will be won or lost.
The top three teams, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio State have some tough games ahead of them. OSU faces South Florida on opening night with Fontanez on the rubber. They'll get a solid Notre Dame team on Saturday and in-state rival Cincinnati. Minnesota will face St. John's, a UCONN team picked by many to be in the top 3 of the BigEast, and Louisville to close the tournament. Those schedules are pretty tough, but I have to imagine both emerge with at least 2 wins each.
(All stats for this season do not include mid week games)