ACC Opens With A Bang: Georgia Tech at Florida State

Conference play begins in most leagues next weekend, but as usual the ACC is getting a one-week head start. The clear marquee series on the schedule for Week One of the ACC season is No. 21 Georgia Tech at No. 15 Florida State.

The two teams enter the weekend with a combined 22-3 record, though Florida State has played a somewhat stronger schedule, with home weekend series against quality mid-major contenders College of Charleston and St. John’s. But Georgia Tech has dominated a decent schedule, going 12-0 while out-hitting opponents .321 to .238. The Jackets have a 1.72 ERA, and their opponents have a 6.62 ERA. And there were a few decent tests sprinkled in there — Georgia Tech’s best wins came against VCU (which has plenty back from last year’s super regional team), Auburn, Georgia State and Georgia Southern. Its best series win was a sweep of UMBC, which has designs on contending in the America East this year.

“We’re definitely encouraged by what we’ve seen and how we’ve played, for sure,” Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said. “I think our schedule’s been fine. These mid-majors that are in our state, they’re all definitely good and capable of beating you. So it’s gone fine; we’ve pitched well, and we’ve played well. But we start that new season this weekend.

“They’re Florida State. I say it every year, if you want to win the ACC regular season or finish near the top, you’re gonna have to do well against Florida State, because they’re going to be there every year. Definitely a tough assignment on the road. But I have the utmost respect for Mike Martin and his staff.”

That respect is mutual.

“My gosh, holy smoke, do we know what a challenge we’re up against, opening up against Georgia Tech,” Martin said.

Like Georgia Tech, the Seminoles largely dominated their preconference schedule, out-hitting their opponents .321 to .217, and posting a 2.07 staff ERA compared with their opponents’ 7.89 mark. So something’s got to give this weekend.

These two clubs have a number of interesting similarities. Let’s look at a few of the parallels:

Blue-chip freshmen

When asked which player in his lineup has stood out the most to him through three weeks, Martin doesn’t hesitate: “Cal Raleigh, catcher. He’s pretty darn good. He’s a freshman — don’t get excited, Mike! — but he’s pretty darn good.”

It isn’t in Martin’s DNA to hype up freshmen until they’ve truly established themselves. In that regard, he’s a little like Dean Smith, whom he said he emulated when he was a young coach. But Martin just can’t suppress his enthusiasm for Raleigh, a switch-hitting catcher batting .311/.431/.422 with 12 RBIs. It isn’t easy for a freshman to step right in and catch every day, and also hit in the 3- or 4-hole in the lineup, but Raleigh has done just that.

“You don’t see it in this program. J.D. Drew hit eighth against lefties (as a freshman),” Martin said. “This guy, being a switch-hitter, hitting third and fourth . . . I don’t know when I’ve had a switch-hitter that I truly don’t give a flip whether he hits lefthanded or righthanded. I honestly can say I don’t care. I can go all the way back to Luis Alicea — I wasn’t in love with Luis from the right side. He only played 13 years in the big leagues. This kid’s pretty good.”

Raleigh has also impressed the coaches with his toughness and leadership behind the plate.

“He’s growing up every game,” Martin said. “He’s yelling at pitchers to make sure they get over against a lefthanded hitter. He’s reminding infielders, watch the delay. He’s on top of the game in many respects that go unnoticed. And he’s doing that as a 19-year-old kid.”

Raleigh was our preseason pick for ACC Freshman of the Year, but Georgia Tech righty Jonathan Hughes wasn’t far behind him, ranking fourth on our list of impact freshmen in the ACC. And like Raleigh, Hughes has lived up to the advanced billing.

MORE: TCU's Saarloos doing wonders with Frogs' pitching staff

An unsigned second-round pick by the Orioles out of high school last year, Hughes was about as marquee as a recruit can get. And he has stepped right into a rotation that needed a boost and has been the Jackets’ best arm so far, going 3-0, 0.50 with just three walks in 18 innings as the Sunday starter. Given the quality of his stuff — a power fastball that touches 94, a swing-and-miss slider, quality curveball and feel for a changeup — it’s a little surprising that Hughes has just six strikeouts in 18 innings, but that’s largely a product of his control and willingness to pitch for the sake of efficiency.

“The thing you always look for in a pitcher is when they get in trouble, what happens to them? He’s done a tremendous job of pitching out of trouble. And he’s done a tremendous job of holding baserunners,” Hall said. “I’m probably a little surprised on the strikeouts, but because he throws so many strikes, balls get put in play on him pretty early in counts. We’ll probably take that over the strikeouts.”

Breakout infielders

Both of these teams have balanced, dangerous lineups, but both have been led early on by unexpectedly stellar performances from veteran infielders. For Georgia Tech, shortstop Connor Justus has been a defensive whiz since the start of his college career, but his bat has taken a big step forward early in his junior campaign. After hitting .254 as a freshman and .249 last year, Justus has had a torrid three weeks in 2016, batting .435/.519/.652 to lead the team. After

“That’s the bonus this year,” Hall said of Justus’ offensive production. “He worked really hard in the offseason on his hitting. I think he worked a lot on his approach. The work that he’s done is paying off. He’s always been a plus defender, now he’s realizing the fruits of his labor.”

When D1Baseball’s Kyle Peterson returned from broadcasting the Georgia Tech-Auburn game this past Tuesday, he raved about the quality of Georgia Tech’s up-the-middle defense. Justus and second baseman Wade Bailey form a very slick double-play tandem, and Bailey has also gotten off to a strong start with the bat, hitting .373. And then there’s sophomore Trevor Graport, who made the team as a walk-on last year and wound up seeing some time in Tech’s beleaguered bullpen. Craport has forced his way into the lineup in eight of Tech’s first 12 games this year, providing improved defense at third base and a surprising offensive lift. He’s hitting .414.

“Going into the fall, we felt like, ‘OK, we’ve got enough pitching,’ so we played him at third and we caught him. But he’s one of those guys that, for whatever reason, every time we’d play an intrasquad game, he’d find a way to get a couple hits, every time we’d play,” Hall said of Craport. “Sometimes it wasn’t pretty, but he just has that knack for getting hits. He’s worked pretty hard on his defense at third and he’s gotten better there. He hasn’t started every game, but been in there a lot.”

Florida State has its own breakout player at third base in senior John Sansone, who has been a fixture in the lineup at second base over the last three years. Despite playing 60 or more games in each of his first three seasons, Sansone never hit better than .245, and never struck out more than 56 times. So it’s pretty noteworthy that he leads the Seminoles with a .341 batting average and, just as strikingly, has a 10-4 walk-strikeout mark.

“I’m very pleased with the leadership of John Sansone — can’t say enough about when we moved him from second to third, he had absolutely no gripes, no questions. His response was, ‘Whatever it takes,’” Martin said. “I think you can give the credit to Mike Martin Jr. and the way he has just worked dilligently with John. And I honestly believe the second part to this is john finally feels like he belongs. I think he just felt like he was walking on eggshells, playing a little tentative, then would get so frustrated when the hits weren’t coming, and the strikeouts were. Now he has a better grasp of the game. He’s not pressing, he’s the captain of the team, he’s the unquestionable leader. And he’s learned how difficult this game is.”

Shortstop Taylor Walls is also off to a strong start, and Martin lauded him for hitting four balls hard in Wednesday’s win against Toledo. Walls and Sansone are two of six FSU regulars with more walks than strikeouts — a sure sign that this group of Seminoles has bought into the ultra-disciplined approach taught by the coaching staff. Juco transfer Matt Henderson, the starting second baseman, leads the way with 16 strikeouts and just four walks, for a .509 OBP.

Veteran strike-throwers atop the rotation

The Yellow Jackets and Seminoles have both gotten strong work from polished upperclassmen in the Friday starter role. For Georgia Tech, two-way star Brandon Gold is Mr. Steady, pumping quality strikes with an 88-91 fastball, a good breaking ball in the 76-79 range and a solid changeup. With last year’s Friday starter, Jonathan King, dealing with a shoulder issue that kept him out last week and makes him questionable for this Saturday, Gold has become the leader of the pitching staff, setting the tone on Fridays. He’s 1-0, 2.00 with 21 strikeouts and five walks in 18 innings.

“Steady as she goes. He just throws a lot of strikes, he’s not gonna strike a bunch of guys out although he’s had some games he’s struck guys out,” Hall said. “He’s gonna locate and trust you to play good defense behind him.”

That formula works for Florida State fifth-year senior righthander Mike Compton, too. Compton was solid but unspectacular last year, going 4-4, 3.55 in 71 innings, but so far he has been outstanding this spring, going 2-1, 2.16 with 13 strikeouts and four walks in 16.2 innings. His mid-80s fastball won’t overpower anyone, but he’s been around the block a few times, and he knows how to set hitters up.

“Michael will go out and everybody that he faces knows him, because he’s been around,” Martin said. “He’s a good battler, he fields his position well. His changeup’s getting better. He just is one of those guys that has to locate.”

“I thought he was very sharp in the way he threw all three pitches, and spotted his fastball better,” Martin said. “You can see him saying, ‘This is not what I’m used to.’ So he’s growing up. His bad pitches have been getting hit hard — welcome to Division I baseball.”

• While King is Georgia Tech’s most notable injury, Florida State is dealing with three nagging injuries. Middle-of-the-lineup banger Quincy Nieporte sprained his ankle on Tuesday and is questionable for Friday’s series opener. Third baseman Dylan Busby is dealing with a quad injury; he came off the bench to pinch-hit Wednesday night (and had a bad at-bat), so he seems likely to play this weekend. And center fielder Ben DeLuzio has been playing through a hamstring issue — not a great thing for a player whose calling card is his premium speed. “He knows how to play hurt,” Martin said. “I’m really feeling like Busby and DeLuzio will be ready to go, just not sure about Nieporte.”

Other notes

• Georgia Tech closer Zac Ryan will make his season debut this weekend after serving a three-week suspension for violating university policy. He only strengthens a bullpen that has gotten outstanding work so far from righty Matthew Gorst (four saves and a 1.00 ERA in nine innings as the fill-in closer), sinker/slider specialist Burton Dulaney and undersized freshman Micah Carpenter (0.00 ERA in 6 IP). Hall said Carpenter has been a pleasant surprise, working consistently at 90-91 mph with a very good slider and a quick tempo that Hall likes. Gorst has made “the most dramatic improvement from last year to this year,” in Hall’s words, thanks to improved strike-throwing and a much better breaking ball. Junior lefty Ben Parr has also found a fit in the bullpen after spending much of the last two years as a starter.

• Florida State expects Jacksonville transfer Tyler Warmoth (1.69 ERA, 5.1 IP) to serve as the primary closer, though the Seminoles haven’t played many close games and have just one save as a staff. Brothers Jim and Ed Voyles have taken big steps forward, combining for 15 innings of work without allowing an earned run over eight appearances. Jim Voyles worked four innings Wednesday to finish off FSU’s combined no-hitter against Toledo. And 6-foot-6 freshman Chase Haney (0.00 ERA in 5.1 IP) adds a different look, attacking hitters from a submarine angle. A big key will be getting prized sophomore righty Cobi Johnson on track. “We’re still looking for him to gain more control with the fastball,” Martin said. “The changeup has been a very good pitch for him, a very good pitch. It’s all about fastball command with him.”

• While Georgia Tech will go Gold-TBA-Hughes this weekend (and it hopes King will be able to start Saturday), Florida State counters with Compton-Drew Carlton-Cole Sands. Martin said Carlton, a sophomore righty, is starting to do a better job locating his fastball, but the coach still wants to see him pitch inside better, and his changeup remains a work in progress. Sands, a heralded freshman, struggled last Sunday in a short outing, then came back and worked three hitless innings in Wednesday’s combined no-hitter, breezing through those three frames with just 26 pitches. The Seminoles hope that outing helped him build confidence heading into conference play.

“I thought he was very sharp in the way he threw all three pitches, and spotted his fastball better,” Martin said. “You can see him saying, ‘This is not what I’m used to.’ So he’s growing up. His bad pitches have been getting hit hard — welcome to Division I baseball.”

• While King is Georgia Tech’s most notable injury, Florida State is dealing with three nagging injuries. Middle-of-the-lineup banger Quincy Nieporte sprained his ankle on Tuesday and is questionable for Friday’s series opener. Third baseman Dylan Busby is dealing with a quad injury; he came off the bench to pinch-hit Wednesday night (and had a bad at-bat), so he seems likely to play this weekend. And center fielder Ben DeLuzio has been playing through a hamstring issue — not a great thing for a player whose calling card is his premium speed. “He knows how to play hurt,” Martin said. “I’m really feeling like Busby and DeLuzio will be ready to go, just not sure about Nieporte.”

Freshman Focus: Minnesota’s Terrin Vavra

It’s only natural that Minnesota freshman Terrin Vavra begins his collegiate career in impressive fashion.

Vavra, helping lead the Golden Gophers to a 7-3 start so far this spring, comes from a fruitful baseball family that includes his father Joe, who serves as the Twins’ bench coach, and brothers Tanner and Trey. Tanner was a standout player during his career at Valparaiso, while Trey played his college baseball at Florida Southern. While dad has a big league job, the brothers are currently in the minor league ranks with hopes of someday joining their father.

Sometime down the road, there’s a good chance Terrin joins the crew, too. Terrin, a 6-foot, 180-pounder, wasn’t a highly touted prospect out of high school. Go to any recruiting or scouting service’s website and you won’t get any results when you type in “Terrin”. But make no mistake about it, Vavra is an electric young player and it’s a product of his tenacity as a player, and his baseball-heavy family pedigree.

“He flew under the radar in high school a little bit, but he’s the son of a professional coach, has two brothers in the pro ranks, and he’s just got such a special familiarity with baseball because of his family,” Minnesota coach John Anderson said. “He wasn’t a showcase guy or a summer travel ball player, but we identified him the summer and fall of his senior year and started recruited him. He didn’t actually sign until last spring.”

Vavra hasn’t taken long to make an impact on Anderson’s club. So far this spring, he’s hitting .500 with a double and six RBIs, while he has an outstanding .528 OBP.

“He’s had a real pleasant spring. He’s got a high baseball IQ and he’s been around the game his whole life. He’s fundamentally sound and just has a relaxed confidence about him. He’s been an impressive player, and it’s interesting that he’s the last guy we signed in last year’s class,” Anderson said. “He has a very consistent approach and a very quiet hitting style in the batter’s box. There isn’t a lot of movement in the box, but he’s got a swing that’s fundamental and repeated.

“He’s got a very quiet approach, but he doesn’t swing and miss much and he’s able to do some other things in the short game when he’s asked to do it. He can move runners, while also stealing some bases for you.”

While Vavra has yet to display an overly impressive power tool, Anderson said he had a double into the gap against Oregon State and certainly has the ability to get into the gaps at times. For now, Vavra is hitting in the two-hole for the Gophers, but likely will be in the three-hole in the future.

Finally, he has been an impressive defender so far, too, carrying a perfect fielding percentage in 16 chances.

“[His defense] has been a surprise to be honest with you,” he said. “He doesn’t make mistakes on defense and he’s got great glove habits. He’s got a consistent throwing window with his arm and has been able to make both some routine and exceptional plays for us. He doesn’t get himself into bad positions and just has a great baseball IQ. He’s well advanced for his age in terms of his understanding of the game.”

The Vavra family tradition continues.

Surprise Risers: New Orleans

To say first-year New Orleans head coach Blake Dean is surprised by his club’s start this season would be quite an understatement.

In the weeks leading up to the start of the 2016 campaign, Dean set forth some goals for his team. In essence, the goals were pretty straight-forward, with the most important avoiding getting swept in a three-game series. You see, the Privateers finished last season with a 15-40 overall record, 3-27 mark in the Southland Conference, so getting swept was part of their DNA. It has been for a while it seems, as the Privateers haven’t won more than 15 games since the 2009 season, winning four in 2011, 17 in 2012, seven in 2013 and 11 in 2014 before the 15-win mark last season.

But, this season? Somehow, Dean, a former LSU standout who helped guide Paul Mainieri’s program to their last national title as a player in 2009, has guided his program and players to a shocking 11-2 start, including a current five-game winning streak, a walk-off win over Tulane on Wednesday and a program milestone last weekend by sweeping the first Power Five conference member in school history in Pittsburgh.

“No question, [the start] it wows me. There’s no doubt in my mind we’ve gone above and beyond my wildest expectations early this season,” Dean said. “I was giving our team goals that I felt were reachable before the season and not getting swept was one of them. Considering where this program has been the past four years, even that was a lot to ask for.

“We’re a lot more physical with the addition of some new guys and the guys as a whole are finally believing in themselves a little bit. I keep waiting for all of this to come to an abrupt halt,” he continued, jokingly. “These guys play with a chip on their shoulder and they created some real toughness. They didn’t know how to win the past few years and faced constant adversity, so that made them tougher. They’ve bought in and are now believing in each other, so that’s becoming a little contagious. We don’t take anything for granted, we just take to the dirt and play some ball.”

The Privateers open Southland play this weekend with Sam Houston State at home. And while Dean is pleased with what his team has done so far this spring, they are still very much an unfinished product. For instance, UNO has a pitching staff earned-run average over five with only 11 pitchers on the roster, so that’s a concern entering league play.

The constant for this team thus far has been the offense, which enters the SHSU series with a .348 batting average and a club OBP over .420.

“We’re making things work right now with 11 arms, and that’s including having to really piece things together in the midweek. We’ve got 11 arms coming in next year, though,” he said. “I told our offense coming into the season, listen, we’re going to need 6-10 runs a game to win consistently. The pitching is definitely a concern.”

The offense is surging because of a trio of talented newcomers in C Kyle Bracey, OF Dakota Dean and SS Aaron Palmer. Bracey, a physical 6-foot-2, 220-pounder, is a former Southeastern Louisiana product who went to UNO by way of Delgado (La.) CC. Bracey is off to a torrid start, hitting .500 with three homers and 15 RBIs, while Dean, Blake’s brother, is hitting .417 with a home run and 13 RBIs, and Palmer, a former Georgia Southern product, arriving at UNO by way of Northwest Florida CC is hitting over .300 while showing good pop.

“From a power standpoint, he’s a plus power guy. His power is really off the charts. He’s strong as an ox and moves really well for his position. The thing that separates him from everyone else is he’s the toughest place I’ve ever seen, and that includes guys I played with in college,” he said. “Palmer is rangy and makes the difficult and easy plays. He’s a solid runner and just an overall sound player, while Dean has good speed around the bases, is a gap-to-gap power guy.”

UNO would be one of the great success stories in college baseball history if it could continue winning at this clip. But Dean and the Privateers are taking things one day at a time, with Dean having constant pinch-me moments over the past week.

Welcome to your first head coaching job, Blake Dean.