Thursday, February 21, 2013

Series Preview: Valparaiso @ Dirtbags, 2/22-24

First, allow me to piggyback an Arizona Series Recap on here…

-The Mid-Week Starter spot is most likely settled. Ryan Millison (5 IP, 3 ER) was solid in his first start of the year, but Nick Sabo (5 IP, 1 ER, 6 K) put together the best start of his career on Tuesday. According to Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt, Sabo was working a strong change up which Fitt described as “disappearing”. Sabo, who struck out just ten men in 16 innings last year, has already racked up eight punch-outs in seven innings in 2013. Expect to see Sabo pitching on Tuesdays from here on out.

-Richard Prigatano now has seven strikeouts for the season, and one in each game thus far. I know I’ve been harping on this a lot, but Prigatano’s ability to avoid the strikeout will remain on of the biggest X-factors for this offense all year.

-The Dirtbags’ new RPI record is 2 wins, 2.7 losses.

Now moving on the Valpo...

Two home games down, only 31 to go.

The Dirtbags seasons has started about how one would’ve expected, dropping two of three to Vandy in Nashville, then splitting a pair with Arizona.

Just two miles from the Dirtbags-Commodores contests, Valparaiso was playing in the Belmont Tournament to open the season. There they dropped both games versus Belmont and squeaked out a 1-0 win over the Ohio Bobcats. Thus far the Crusader offense has pushed just seven runs across the plate, though Valpo figures to be more of a pitching/defense team. After taking the Horizon League crown a year ago, a deeply experienced Valpo team looks ready for a dogfight in a wide-open conference this season.

What’s At Stake
This weekend won’t have the same stakes as the Vandy or Arizona series however, thanks to the new RPI system, the Dirtbags have to make sure they take care of business during their large home schedule this year. Even winning two out of three this weekend would result in only 1.4 “RPI wins”, and a series loss could really hurt.

And here’s a fun fact: Valpo Athletic Director Mark LaBarbera is serving on the Baseball Selection Committee this year. A series win over LaBarbera’s school probably won’t help the Dirtbags at all much, but it couldn’t hurt.

Tale of the Tape
Pitching Match Ups
UPDATED: I'm never going to get this rotation figured out...

Friday: RHP Kyle Wormington (6.2 IP, 2 ER, 4:3 K:BB) vs. RHP Shane Carle (5 IP, 1 ER, 3:3 K:BB)

Wormington is a workhorse that logged 102.2 innings a year ago while issuing a remarkably low 19 walks. He also posted a solid 3.33 ERA.

Carle assumes the Friday role we figured he'd get at the start of the year.

Saturday: RHP Cole Webb (8 IP, 0 ER, 4:1 K:BB) vs. LHP Landon Hunt (4.1 IP, 7 ER, 2:2 K:BB) 

Webb tossed a gem versus an albeit weak Ohio team. He had a solid 2012 season with Coffeyville College, posting a 3.13 ERA, though that came with a less-than-impressive 46 walks in 75.2 innings of work.

Though no one seems poised to grab a rotation spot from Hunt, the senior southpaw holds the most precarious weekend spot and could use a good start after melting down in the fifth inning last week.

Sunday: RHP Chris DeBoo (5 IP, 6 ER, 2:1 K:BB) vs. RHP Jon Maciel (5 IP, 5 ER, 3:3 K:BB) 

DeBoo returns to the west coast where he served in the Cal State Northridge bullpen for three years. His best season came in 2011 when he posted a 3.91 ERA with 16 K’s in 25.1 innings.

Maciel’s status in the Dirtbag rotation seemed safe, until we learned he was bumped to the Sunday spot. Most likely this move is to rest him a bit after pitching an inning on Wednesday. He could use a rebound from a shaky debut last week versus Vanderbilt. 

Valpo has boasted three different batting orders through their first three games; though the defensive lineup should remain something along these lines:

C Billy Cribbs, RH
1B John Loeffler, LH
2B Tanner Vavra, RH
3B Elliot Martin, RH
SS Spencer Mahoney, LH
LF Michael Morman, RH
CF Bryce Hara, LH
RF Chris Manning, RH

Vavra and Mahoney make for one of the better DP combos the Dirtbags will see this season. Both are tough outs at the plate as well, with Vavra hitting .332 with 15 steals in 2012, and Mahoney batting .348 as a true freshman.

Last week I spoke to some of the regulars at Valpo Fan ZoneForum. I’ll have more from our chat below, but for now here’s some notes on the Crusaders’ players from forum commenter “Jetz”, who is the parent of a current Crusader:

“Mahoney was named to a couple of Freshman All-America lists last year.  He hurt his knee early in the season, then returned for the last third and had a great month or so. [He's] 6'4" with good range.

“Tanner Vavra is the son of Twins assistant Joe Vavra.  It's been well documented that the senior 2B suffered an eye injury early in life, yet still led the Northwoods League in batting average last summer.  He is the player that scouts came to Valpo to see this fall on scout day...

“Closer/DH Karch Kowalczyk is the player the scouts ended up watching on scout day.  He hit a few balls out of the park, and hit 90+ on the gun from the mound.

“Michael Morman returns from ACL this year and has the team's most powerful bat.  The sweet swinging LF will hit some HRs this year. 

"OF Chris Manning played in the Cape for a while last summer and has great range defensively.  Like LBSU, Valpo has a vast outfield, and Manning gets to a lot of balls.  He played both right and center field in our opening series at Nashville."

The Dirtbags’ lefty lineup seems to be a work in progress; lucky for them they’ll face three right-handers on the hill this weekend. The lineup should look like this:

CF Colby Brenner, LH
2B Jeff McNeil, LH
3B Juan Avila, RH
DH Ino Patron, LH
RF Richard Prigatano, RH
1B Jeff Yamaguchi, RH
C Eric Hutting, RH
LF Josh Guerra, RH
SS Michael Hill, LH

Dirty Talk
As mentioned before, I had a chance to get the 411 on the Crusaders thanks to the fine folks at Valpo Fan Zone Forum, and most notably Mr. “Jetz”. Here’s a few of the questions Jetz was able to answer for me.

Dirtbag Blues: How’s the Valpo pitching staff looking this year after suffering some big losses?

Jetz: We got over 100 innings each from our three weekend starters in 2012.  [Wormington] is back as the ace this year and looked decent in our first game… I'm guessing that we won't get as many innings out of the starters as last year, and our bullpen will be much more important this year.  We have a deep pen with the ability to go righty-lefty as the situation dictates.  We also lost our all-time saves leader and closer Jarad Miller to graduation.  Karch Kowalcyck will inherit the role and is probably our best pro prospect.  It's no secret that he throws hard.

DB: In a nutshell, what does the Valpo lineup look like? What’s the offensive game like?

Jetz: In 2012 we played a lot of small ball. The lineup this year features more power and a lot more speed.  We have to wait and see about the overall philosophy this year … we're experienced and I look for good things offensively.

DB: 2012 looked like a banner year for the Crusaders. What was different about that squad that finally got Valpo to the Regionals?

Jetz: Last year we got over the Wright State hump in Horizon League play to get to the Regionals.  Our starting pitching was outstanding, and we went into basically every series knowing that we had the better of the pitching matchups.  We also played good defense for the most part until the Regionals, where we made way too many errors.  We should be solid defensively this year as well.  Overall I think our outfield play will be much improved over 2012.

DB: Any words on the impact Head Coach Tracy Woodson has had on the program?

Jetz: Coach Woodson has invaded your neck of the woods and Texas and brought some good JuCo players to northwest Indiana.  That has been his most significant recent contribution.  It doesn't hurt that he and Brian Schmack are both ex-MLB players.  Valpo may have the only coaching staff in the country that can boast two former major leaguers.  We all can find decisions that we might question with any coach, but I contend that we won't get outcoached in game situations very often.  We have a lot of talent for a small northern D1 school, and the coaching staff is a direct reason why the kids play here.  

Special thanks to “Jetz” for this week’s chat. Also want to give thanks to “valpotx”, a former Valpo player, who also provided some useful info, though I was unable to add a quote from him into this post.

Dirtbags’ Keys to the Series
Revolutionary concept, huh? As stated above, the new RPI will make any home losses hurt badly and though Valpo fields a competitive team, this is a winnable series for the Dirtbags’. Protect this house*.

Find a Closer
Maciel picked up the first save of the year, finishing the Tuesday/Wednesday suspended game, but otherwise we're five games into the season with still have no answers whatsoever as to who the new Dirtbag closer could be. I’ve had my eye on David Hill, but Eddie Magallon may also try to win his old job back.

The Colby Brenner Show
Though I’d like to see what the lefty Brenner can do versus southpaws, coaches Buckley and Zepeda has been reluctant to start him versus left-handed pitching thus far. With three right-handers on the bump this weekend we should get a good look at what the slick fielding, speedster can do in big Blair Field.

*Under Armor, please don't sue me. I make no money from this blog, am giving you free advertising and, hey, I plan on having some Maryland Terrapin coverage eventually (seriously).