The best way to get a feel for an opponent is to ask the guys who cover them on a consistent basis. That's why we reached out Jordan Zimmermann, who covers Fightin' Texas Aggie baseball for Good Bull Hunting. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about A&M and the opening SEC series. You can read my answers for Jason's questions over at Good Bull Hunting. Give him a follow on twitter: @jzimmermann11
A&M is nationally ranked and has only five losses but you've already called for a change for Coach Rob Childress. Even if the Aggies make it to a Regional, do you still stand by that?
Jason Zimmermann: I do ... to an extent. Obviously there is plenty of time yet to fix a number of the issues - namely hitting and baserunning - and make a run in SEC play. At the end of the day, though, one of my main points in this week's rather scathing article was that with all of the resources that A&M Baseball has, simply making regionals every year shouldn't be the standard. If this season ends with another exit in regional play, that will be year 9 under Rob Childress with zero national seeds, 1 trip to Omaha, and 0 wins there. I don't think for a second that A&M will actually make that change unless we miss a regional - and maybe not even then - but changing up the hitting coach is probably a more realistic move.
What are the biggest strengths and weaknesses of this year's club?
JZ: Strengths: Pitching, which has been par for the course for just about every Aggie Baseball team under Childress. Daniel Mengden and Parker Ray have yet to really have their best stuff so far this season, but they've both competed pretty well, and Grayson Long has been outstanding on Sundays. The depth of this pitching staff is also quite strong, with a number of guys in the bullpen who have pitched pretty well so far. Andrew Vinson and Ryan Hendrix have both impressed me, and Matt Kent as well although he'll likely be starting tonight. There also is quite a bit of speed in the outfield for the Aggies, starting with CF Krey Bratsen who has some terrific range.
Looking over at Auburn, what are some matchups that might give you pause and could expose some weaknesses for A&M?
JZ: Keegan Thompson definitely worries me; just 1 earned run allowed in 30 innings over 4 starts is very impressive, as is the 0.95 batting average against. For an A&M team that didn't exactly tee off against a mostly bad Louisiana Tech pitching staff last weekend, that's definitely a concern. The rest of the pitching staff looks solid, so we may have some low scoring games this weekend, and it looks like the bullpen innings have been spread out pretty well. Damek Tomscha looks like a guy who will cause problems for our pitchers, with stats similar to or better than Logan Nottebrok - who I'll talk more about in a bit. I do take a bit of comfort in noticing that only one of your top 9 hitters are left-handed, as A&M features a right-handed dominant pitching staff. I also noticed that y'all have stolen 35 bases on 47 attempts, and our catchers have allowed opponents to successfully steal 13 times on 16 attempts, so that is certainly a bit worrisome as well.
Biggest surprise and biggest disappointment for this young season?
With the gorgeous facilities, baseball-crazed state of Texas, size of the school, etc, would you agree that A&M is one of the most -- if not the most -- high-pressure baseball coaching jobs in the SEC?
JZ: I would absolutely argue that it should be, yes. I'm not sure that it is right now, although I guess we may find out what new Athletic Director Eric Hyman thinks about it depending on how this season goes. You hit on some of the points I made in my criticisms of this coaching staff, namely that simply making a regional with all of the resources A&M has shouldn't be the accepted standard. I would say LSU and South Carolina are definitely higher pressure, and you could probably put the likes of Arkansas and Vanderbilt up there, but A&M should definitely be right there in that discussion.
Tyler Stubblefield is 3-1 with a gaudy 0.35 ERA, but he seems to be more of a midweek guy. Any chance Auburn sees him this weekend? He and and Mengden seem to be the best pitchers on the staff. Anyone I'm overlooking on the mound?
JZ: As mentioned, Stubblefield has been tremendous so far this season. He tossed 83 pitches last night over 5 innings, so I definitely think it's possible that you'll see him out of the bullpen for an inning or 2, but I don't think Childress intends to make any changes to the rotation just yet. If Stubblefield keeps pitching the way he is, though, he's definitely going to put some pressure on Saturday starter Parker Ray - and potentially even Mengden - to go out there and have more success on the mound. Mengden is the ace of the staff, technically, but the best weekend starter so far this season has been sophomore Grayson Long. Like Stubblefield, Grayson has allowed just 1 earned run in his 4 starts and they have identical 0.35 ERA's. Last season A&M had all kinds of issues with the Sunday starter spot, so it's been a luxury to finally have some serious consistency there. If Mengden and Ray can get it going, having a guy like Long out there on Sundays has the potential to be a huge luxury for A&M in SEC play.
Who is the biggest offensive threat for A&M?
JZ: Logan Nottebrok, without a doubt. And, for the record, that's pronounced like naughty brook. Nottebrok leads the team in a number of offensive categories - home runs (4), total bases (30), RBI (16), and slugging percentage (.526). I wouldn't be surprised to see your pitchers be pretty careful with him, as he's proven to be the most dangerous hitter on our team by far and they may prefer to take their chances with letting one of our other guys beat them. If you want another guy to keep your eye on that would be 1B Cole Lankford, who (*knocks feverishly on wood*) has yet to strike out in 60 at bats this year. Lankford is also right behind Nottebrok in total bases (29), RBI (14), and not far behind in slugging (.483).
Thoughts on the series?
JZ: I keep going back and forth on this one. If I'd been writing this on Sunday or Monday after we lost that 3rd game to Louisiana Tech, I'd probably say that I absolutely expect y'all to either win or sweep this series. The bats woke up for us in a big way last night, and although it was indeed UTPA it was still a UTPA team that came into the game with a combined ERA of 2.58 and allowing less than 3.5 runs per game. On paper, these are 2 teams that are relatively evenly matched - team ERA's and batting averages are both pretty similar. I don't expect this to be a high-scoring series, and ultimately I think the series probably comes down to the Friday night game. You guys should have the advantage with Tompson on Saturday and that should flip over to us with Long on Sunday, so for me it comes down to Mengden against Dillon Ortman. I still have a feeling that y'all take the series, but I do think it's a winnable one from our end. After y'all came to College Station last season and took the series, hopefully we can return the favor this weekend!
Jason also added the following notes after we did the initial Q&A:
Logan Nottebrok didn't play in the 2 midweek games with a bit of a tweaked wrist, but he's fully expecting to play this weekend. Matt Kent tossed 58 pitches in 3 innings of work yesterday, and I heard he was on a pitch count so that he could be available this weekend. Expect to see him out of the bullpen either for a big lefty-on-lefty matchup or if an inning or 2 is needed to bridge to the rest of the 'pen if any starter struggles.