Stilson doing wonders at Texas A&M

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas – John Stilson is a name to remember the rest of the season.

The Texas A&M right-hander pitcher is off to a start most pitchers can dream about.

In eight appearances for the Aggies, Stilson has struck out 34, walked six and has a 0.81 ERA in 22 1/3 innings of work. The righty also has limited opposing teams to a .087 batting average. But not until last weekend’s series against Washington State did Stilson allow a run.

Those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.

“He has an ability about him that he just can’t lose,” Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said. “He is an extreme competitor and has worked for absolutely everything he has gotten in this game. He is just one of those guys that gives 110 percent in everything that he does.”

Though Stilson quickly is becoming one of the nation’s elite relievers, his outlook wasn’t always this perfect.

Photo Texas A&M reliever John Stilson is holding opponents to a .087 batting average.
(Texas A&M)

Out of high school in Texarkana, Texas, Stilson was offered an opportunity to play for former Texas A&M assistant Will Bolt at Texarkana Junior College. Stilson obliged. But there was a kicker. He wasn’t recruited as a pitcher. He was to play shortstop.

Stilson didn’t pitch in high school. He had plenty of other elite arms around him, but everyone knew that he had a strong arm so Bolt decided to experiment with him on the mound.

Stilson pitched in some relief roles until some suspensions hit and Bolt to put him in the weekend rotation.

In his first performance, Stilson struck out 12. He never left the weekend rotation and eventually accomplished enough to generate interest from Childress and the Aggies.

Still, during his time at Texarkana JC, Stilson never threw harder than 92 MPH.

That has changed this season.

“Last year, he was 88-92, but nowhere near where he is now,” Childress said. “In the fall for us, he was 88-92 and there wasn’t an awful lot of wowing going on in the dugout when it came to his velocity. You weren’t saying here is a guy with a velocity in the upper-90s.”

Now, the Aggies, scouts and opposing teams are saying that.

Stilson went through a rigorous weight-training program in the fall that allowed him to gain some strength. And that additional strength has turned Stilson into a hard-throwing pitcher.

In a recent outing against Washington State, Stilson kept his fastball between 95-98 and also approached hitters with an 81-82 MPH slider and a curveball and change in the mid-to-upper 70s.

In other words, when under control, Stilson is nearly impossible to hit.

“I really couldn’t ask for more from a guy that has the ability to dominate like he does,” Childress said. “He has a heavy fastball and heavy sink, and an outstanding breaking ball. There is no doubt he would be in the weekend rotation if there weren’t other guys doing so well so far this season.”

In addition to his role as a reliever for the Aggies, Stilson has spent time at shortstop, where he has just a .214 batting average through 14 at bats. Though he loves playing in the field, Stilson admits his future is on the mound.

“I know I’m a better pitcher, so I like pitching better right now,” Stilson said. “It really kind of surprises me that I have done this well. I didn’t think I would have only given up two runs so far this season. I knew I had the potential to be pretty good, though.”

But even with the insane numbers Stilson has compiled so far this season, like a true competitor, he believes there’s still much work to do.

“I think I can do better. I need to put more stuff on my pitches. I can always do better,” he said. “I probably need to stick with my fastball more often. I try to get a little too fancy at times. So I need to learn to stay with it sometimes.”

Stilson believes he can be better.

Childress, meanwhile, can’t find anything that Stilson needs to improve.

That’s when a coach knows he has something special.


RED HOT

Arizona State – The Sun Devils are playing wonderful baseball so far this season with coach Tim Esmay leading the way. The Devils still haven’t lost a game.

UCLA – Story of the year so far, anyone? The Bruins are off to a 13-0 start with starting pitchers Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer and Rob Rasmussen in addition to a surprising offense leading the way.

Georgia Tech – After beating rival Georgia in the midweek, the 14-1 Yellow Jackets have won seven-straight contests and is red-hot entering the Maryland series.

Baylor – The Bears have found an identity the past couple of weeks with seven-straight victories and an offense that is hitting .321. Big 12 plays begins at Oklahoma this weekend.

Texas A&M – The Aggies have been a huge surprise on the mound so far this season. They are 13-3 and have won nine of their last ten games. Conference play begins against Texas Tech this weekend.

Louisville – Will the Cardinals ever leave the red-hot list this season? They are 15-1 and have won nine of their last ten games. UL is doing a great job without Josh Richmond and Andrew Clark.

Arizona – The Wildcats are quietly starting to make some noise in the Pac-10. The Wildcats have won nine of their last ten and eight-straight contests dating back to the Cal State Fullerton series.

Southeastern Louisiana – It’s safe to say the Lions are legit. They are dominating opposing teams so far this season and have a 16-1 record through 17 games. UTSA was no match the Lions last weekend.


ICE COLD

Wake Forest – The Demon Deacons are still having issues finding an identity with a 6-12 record and six-straight losses.

Penn State – Didn’t look too bad before the Lone Star State road trip, but now the Nittany Lions are 4-8 and have lost seven-straight contests. At least this weekend’s games aren’t in Texas.

Iowa – The Hawkeyes are another team that had a tough time in the Lone Star State last week. Iowa also happens to be struggling with a 4-10 record and seven-straight setbacks.

Texas Tech – It may take coach Dan Spencer some time to turn things around. The Red Raiders are 8-10 and have lost five-straight entering the Texas A&M series this weekend.

Cal Poly – The Mustangs continue to struggle and need to turn the corner soon if they plan on making an NCAA regional.

Hofstra – The Pride has played a tough schedule by their standards, but not having a win through nine games is a tough pill to swallow.

Kent State – The Flashes entered the season with high hopes, but some luster has worn off with a 5-10 record and five-straight losses. It is not like the Flashes to struggle this much.

New Orleans – The Privateers are 4-10 so far this season and have lost five of their last six games. UNO definitely was expected to be better than this.


WEEKLY STORYLINES

SEC play begins this weekend – Last week the ACC earned headlines by beginning conference play. Now it is the SEC’s turn to take center stage. There are plenty of intriguing matchups, too. Arkansas heads to LSU in the national series of the week. Florida hosts Mississippi State, Alabama hosts Vanderbilt in a very interesting series, Kentucky plays host to Mississippi, South Carolina hosts Tennessee and Georgia and Auburn in a series that could have regional implications.

Big 12 set for three conference series this weekend – The SEC isn’t the only conference beginning league play. Texas hosts struggling Nebraska for a home series, Texas Tech travels to College Station, Texas, to face red-hot Texas A&M and the series of the week features sizzling Oklahoma and a Baylor squad that is much more offensive than previously expected. Texas, Oklahoma and A&M should exit the weekend with series wins.

Florida State faces North Carolina in ACC showdown – It’s an important weekend for both teams. The Seminoles were close to earning a home series win over top-ranked Virginia last weekend. However, that bid came up just short thanks to Saturday’s late rally by the Cavaliers. Now the Seminoles hope to avoid falling behind in the ACC at North Carolina this weekend. The Tar Heels dropped a tough rivalry series to Duke last weekend and desperately need an impressive series win over the ‘Noles. Both teams don’t want to start conference play 0-2 in series.

Arizona State continues its magical ride – What the Sun Devils have accomplished so far this season is impressive. The Devils entered the season with some question marks, particularly at the plate. But so far this season those questions have been answered in a big way. The Devils get another interesting test this weekend when they host Houston. The Cougars have played a much better brand of baseball the past couple of weeks. Can the Sun Devils keep their hot streak going?


MID-MAJOR SPOTLIGHT

Liberty is in a new era with coach Jim Toman in charge.

Toman knows what it takes to get to the elite level of college baseball. After all, he helped South Carolina make three-straight College World Series appearances during his tenure as an assistant on Ray Tanner’s staff.

Now, after two seasons with the Flames, Toman hopes to spread the same feeling of success he had at South Carolina to everyone at Liberty.

The Flames still have much work to do, but Toman means progress. After his first two seasons, Toman had a 68-47-1 record. It was the best start for any coach in the history of the program.

But after two seasons of showing improvement, Toman and the Flames finally are ready to earn an NCAA regional appearance.

There’s still much more work to do, though.

Photo Jim Toman has done a great job at Liberty thus far.
(Liberty)

Rogers: Your team is off to a solid start this season. What are the primary reasons for the fast start?

Toman: Our starting pitching has been really good so far this season. We’ve got three good starting pitchers and that is always a bonus to have at this level. That has given us a chance to win each time out. We’re in the process of trying to get Dustin Umberger back on the mound, too. Umberger had Tommy John surgery last year, but has been our No. 1 in past years. He’s not quite ready to start, but he is ready to throw an inning here or there. We’ve been thinking about maybe starting him in the near future. He is around 88-90 MPH in terms of his velocity. Overall, I’ve just been real impressed with our starters on the mound.

Rogers: The offense is hitting over .300 and also has done a solid job so far this season. Any surprises in that area of the team?

Toman: Tyler Bream was a Freshman All-American last season and definitely has the bloodlines to be a great player. Nathan Thompson hasn’t played a whole lot for us the past few years, but he is off to a surprising start at the plate and is catching everything behind the plate. Curran Redal had a 32-game hitting streak last season and is off to a solid start this season, too. Freshman Josh Richardson really has filled in nicely at shortstop. He may not play there, too much, though, because we will get Matt Williams back from an injury.

Rogers: The program has experienced success since you took over. What are the reasons for such a quick turnaround?

Toman: I left South Carolina and won 33 games here and didn’t make a regional. I really had to get used to that. Our guys now know that our goal around here is to make an NCAA regional. We’re working pretty hard. With that said, we had some pretty good players around here when I showed up. The recruiting aspect of things certainly has gotten better and much easier, and the athletic director here is starting to put more money into the program. The school as a whole is just blowing up and getting better. We’re actually starting to bring in some very highly touted high school prospects. We’re not like some bigger programs where we can go out two years in advance and get players, but we’re getting the really good players that are still available later in the game.

Rogers: What are the challenges and advantages of coaching at a place like Liberty?

Toman: Obviously the weather around here early in the season really hurts us from a scheduling standpoint. It’s really tough to get a good non-conference schedule without hitting the road all the time. It’s just almost impossible to get top-25 programs to come play here. It’s colder early in the season and our facility isn’t yet up to par, though we’re working on that. The main thing, though, is trying to get some good teams to come up here so we won’t have to go on the road so much. I understand why those programs don’t, though. After all, I dealt with the same things on the other end of the spectrum when I was at South Carolina. In terms of advantages, I would say we have a great school and an administration that really wants to win in college baseball. When you have an athletic director that really wants to win, it certainly makes things much easier, too. We’re a relatively inexpensive private school, and an evangelical Christian school, too. It’s arguably the top Christian institution in the country. That eliminates some kids from our recruiting list, but it also attracts some very high character kids that want that type of environment. Hopefully sooner rather than later we can make a regional here.

Rogers: You left a good post at South Carolina to be the head coach at Liberty. Why the move a few years ago?

Toman: I had been with Coach Tanner at South Carolina for a long time, so it was time for me to go out and make my own mark. I was with him at N.C. State before South Carolina, too. It was time to get my own job. Liberty was a Christian school and my wife and I just fell in love with the place when we visited it before I took the job. It has been great for us.

Rogers: What things could improve and must improve to make an NCAA regional at the end of the season?

Toman: Every game is important for us, both in the midweek and on the weekend. We have to get a lot of wins in the Big South because our conference RPI isn’t great. Therefore, there is very little room for error. That is difficult with a program like Coastal Carolina in the conference. Every single midweek game is just as important as a weekend game for our program. We’re trying to teach our guys that. Every game is going to have regional implications. If we don’t take care of business in midweek games, we’re forced to win the conference tournament. That is not easy.

Rogers: What do you want people to think when someone mentions Liberty baseball?

Toman: I want them to talk about us when they’re talking about regionals teams each season. We want to be good enough to be consistently mentioned as a regional team. I also want people to think we’re doing things the right way both on and off the field. We’re not going to be doing bad things at 2 a.m. on the weekend. We want people to think we’re getting after it each time we step on the field.


ROGERS' REACTION

Do you think Arkansas is meeting expectations so far this season?

The Razorbacks dropped a midweek game to South Dakota State and didn’t look too great at times in last weekend’s series against Wisconsin-Milwaukee. But overall, the Hogs have been impressive so far this season. The offense is doing about what was expected of them. The pitching staff, though, has been a huge surprise with a 2.73 ERA entering the weekend. Weekend starters Drew Smyly, Mike Bolsinger and Brett Eibner have compiled outstanding numbers so far this season. Arkansas is in business if that continues through SEC play.

With a few weeks under his belt, how would you grade the coaching job done by Arizona State’s Tim Esmay?

Anything but an A+ would be a slap in the face. After Arizona State forced long-time coach Pat Murphy to resign in the fall, the Sun Devils were left with a tough decision on how to bring in as interim head coach. Esmay, though, was the choice. And now the Sun Devils couldn’t be happier about it. Esmay’s familiarity with the program helped the Devils move forward from Murphy’s departure sooner rather than later. He also is well versed on what it takes to win at a high level at ASU. Unless the Sun Devils collapse to end the season, it would be a surprise if Esmay weren’t eventually named the full-time coach. He certainly deserves it right now.

Who has the nation’s best weekend rotation so far this season?

It is Texas and UCLA, and then everyone else. The Longhorns get a slight nod because they have the nation’s elite ace pitcher in Taylor Jungmann. However, the Bruins quickly are catching up ground. UCLA Friday night starter Gerrit Cole has been fantastic so far this season. The same goes for No. 2 starter Trevor Bauer. Also, No. 3 starter, left-hander Rob Rasmussen, has blossomed the past few weeks and is dominating opposing teams. It’s too bad we can’t see the Longhorns and Bruins in a regular season three-game series.


LINEUP CARD

Photo LSU won’t have Anthony Ranaudo against Arkansas this weekend.
(US Presswire)

Everyone the past few weeks has been concerned about the situation regarding LSU ace pitcher Anthony Ranaudo. Well, there’s not too much to report on Ranaudo again this week. We spoke with LSU coach Paul Mainieri on Tuesday, who said Ranaudo had a solid workout of simple toss this week. However, Ranaudo will not pitch this weekend against Arkansas and will continue to be evaluated. The Tigers still aren’t sure when Ranaudo will return to the weekend rotation … TCU infielder Taylor Featherston missed a few games because of a thumb injury. But he returned to the Horned Frogs’ lineup against Oral Roberts on Tuesday. Featherston finally appears to be back to normal … Washington State outfielder Kyle Johnson suffered a scary injury at Texas A&M last weekend when the knee of fellow outfielder Derek Jones hit his forehead as both were going after a fly ball into the power alley. Johnson will not play at Wichita State this weekend because of a concussion. The Cougars expect him back sooner rather than later, though … Another scary injury to report, this time at Florida, where starting pitcher Tommy Toledo was hit in the face by a line drive off the bat of a Charleston Southern hitter. Toledo had multiple fractures to his face and a broken nose. He will have surgery next week and UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said he will be back a minimum of two or three weeks after the surgery. As for Toledo, O’Sullivan said he is ready to get back out there and pitch again … Tennessee desperately needs starting pitchers Stephen McCray and Steven Gruver when it heads to South Carolina this weekend. McCray started against Ohio State last weekend and through 4 1/3 innings. However, he was pulled from the game because right elbow soreness. Gruver, meanwhile, didn’t pitch at all last weekend because of elbow tendonitis. Both pitchers are listed as day-to-day entering the weekend series against the Gamecocks … Louisville has fared just fine without them, but the Cardinals will have to wait at least two or three more weeks before seeing sluggers Josh Richmond and Andrew Clark back in the lineup. Richmond is getting over a ribcage fracture and Richmond is rehabbing a broken left hand … Still not much new on the situation regarding Arizona State left-handed pitcher Josh Spence. Spence missed last week’s start against Auburn and still is expected to return to the weekend rotation the first weekend of Pac-10 play. Conference play for the Sun Devils begins next weekend against California. It’ll be nice to see Spence finally take the mound.


THINKING POSTSEASON

Duke – It’s an important week for the Blue Devils. The Devils finished last season on the wrong side of the NCAA regional bubble. And this season, the Devils finally hope to seal the deal. Duke earned a great series win over rival North Carolina last weekend. But a series win over Miami this weekend would give the program two marquee series wins only two weekends into conference play.

Louisville – It’s strange to say this early in the season, but the Cardinals already are in fantastic shape to earn a national seed at the end of the season. The Cardinals had their toughest test of the year on the road last weekend, where they took two of three from Mississippi. That was without key hitters Josh Richmond and Andrew Clark. Now the Cards look ahead to Ball State this weekend and the Big East schedule. This team is in great shape for a national seed.

East Carolina – The Pirates really let things slip away last week and now have much ground to make up. ECU entered last week with hopes of taking care of business on the West Coast. That didn’t happen with a 1-3 record on the road trip. Now the Pirates are 9-6 with a weekend series against Monmouth coming up. The focus now is a regional host.

Houston – Welcome back to the regional discussion, Cougars. UH was in dire straits three weeks ago, but now the idea of it making an NCAA regional isn’t so far fetched after all. The Cougars have won six of their last seven games and have a chance to make a huge statement this weekend with a possible series win over Arizona State. UH is now far from being out of the regional discussion.

Southeastern Louisiana – The Lions appear to be the same type of team Texas State was when it made an NCAA regional as an at-large team last season. The Lions earned a solid series win a few weeks ago by sweeping Mississippi State. They also swept Texas-San Antonio at home last weekend to open Southland Conference play. Though it’s still early, the Lions have a very solid RPI of 9 so far this season.


TRAVEL GUIDE

For the second-straight week, we traveled to familiar territory in the Lone Star State to take in a couple of games of the great series between surprising Washington State and Texas A&M. Here are a few must-sees if you’re ever in College Station, Texas, to watch your team play.

Chicken Oil Co. – The name definitely says it all when it comes to this place. If you’re looking for a healthy lunch or dinner, this is not your place. But if you’re looking for a fantastic burger at a cheap price, this is your place.

Casa Rodriguez – You’re in the State of Texas, which means my standards for quality Mexican food is high to say the least. This place certainly meets my standards. Very good salsa mixed with a menu full of great dinners makes this a great place.

Layne’s Chicken Fingers – Another place where the name just says it all. I know there are places such as Cane’s and Zaxby’s in the southern part of the United States. But in terms of chicken fingers and great sauce to dip those lovely tenders into, it doesn’t get better than Layne’s. A College Station staple, this place has been around for years for a reason.

Longhorn Tavern – If you’re a beef lover, this is your place if you’re in Bryan-College Station. This place has fantastic steaks and hamburger steaks, but the specialty is the famous chicken fried steak. Some opt for the small chicken fried steak, but the large is worth getting.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter and follow Yahoo! Sports College Baseball on Facebook. Send Kendall a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Mar 18, 2010