Playing at the University of Virginia, at or near the top of most Top 25 rankings, is tough enough. Doing it with some key players on the shelf is like facing Goliath without a slingshot. It appeared that Clemson might be a bit shorthanded after missing a key member of the rotation a week ago, but the Tigers likely will head to Charlottesville, Va., at full strength.
Virginia is playing without outfielder Derek Fisher, its top Draft prospect who is recovering from a hamate bone injury in his right hand. But the rest of that deep team is firing on all cylinders, from a starting rotation of underclassmen to closer Nick Howard, a potential early-round pick, along with intriguing Draft-eligible position players Mike Papi and Brandon Downes.
"Their pitching is always sound and they compete," Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. "Offensively, they're an execution-type team. You have to play defense to beat them. You have to grind it out all weekend. It'll be a challenge for us. We're looking forward to it. It helps that everyone's healthy."
The key returnee is right-handed starter Daniel Gossett. Gossett, believed to have top-three-rounds-type talent, missed his start a week ago against North Carolina State because of shoulder soreness. But Gossett, 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA over his first seven starts, won't have any restrictions when he takes the ball on Saturday.
"He'll be fine; he feels good, confident," Leggett said. "He woke up with soreness last week, maybe he slept on it wrong. He'll be ready to go."
Gossett began the year as Clemson's Friday night starter, but for this week, he's flip-flopping with Draft-eligible sophomore Matt Crownover. While Gossett features more of a power arsenal -- 90-93 mph fastball, hard slider -- Crownover is more of the prototypical college lefty. He'll top out in the upper-80s, with a good changeup and breaking ball. Crownover, a little less highly regarded than Gossett, but still a top-10-rounds type, is a strike-thrower who mixes his pitches well, to the tune of a 6-2 record and a 2.24 ERA over nine outings.
California prep pitcher Ortiz to throw for scouts
When the spring started, Luis Ortiz was one of the most intriguing high school arms in the Draft class. He wasn't quite the top prep pitcher, but he wasn't far off and he has the kind of stuff where a strong spring could jump him up to the top part of the first round.
Instead, Ortiz has been on the shelf for the last few weeks, dealing with an injury that's been described as a forearm strain by the coaching staff at Sanger High School in Northern California. They've been very protective of Ortiz, not even letting scouts know about side sessions.
It appears, though, that the shroud of secrecy is about to be lifted. Ortiz was initially slated to pitch on Friday, but he was moved back a bit. Now scouts around the country have Tuesday circled on their calendar so they can start evaluating Ortiz once again.
"We're a little anxious," one area scout said. "There will be a lot of people out there. We have to stay on him to see if the injury is more than [they say] it is."
The expectation is that Ortiz will throw somewhere around 75-80 pitches as he tries to shake off the rust. After the layoff, scouts will be looking more at his pure stuff than his command or results, knowing they can't expect to see all that in the young pitcher who was the MVP of the 18-and-under U.S. National Team over the summer right away. If Ortiz shows glimpses of his 92-95 mph fastball, his outstanding slider and his changeup, it should put him right back on the map. If he can continue to show he's healthy, there should be no perceivable hit to his Draft stock.
"You can't expect to miss three weeks and be right where he was," the area scout said. "We all know that. I'm not expecting too much.
"Guys who are projected to go this highly, even with an injury, someone will take him, kind of like with Lucas Giolito. It's an issue, but it's not that much of an issue. He's one of those Jose Fernandez type kids with ridiculous stuff."
Gillaspie moving up among dearth of college bats
It has not exactly been a secret that the pool of college bats come Draft time in recent years has been less deep than an episode of "Real Housewives." Every year, the expectation has been that the college hitters who perform will move up Draft boards.
Last year, Colin Moran, Hunter Dozier, D.J. Peterson and Hunter Renfroe all went in the top half of the first round. Moran was an expected top-of-the-Draft guy, but the others hit their way up to the first 15 picks.
The 2014 amateur season began once again with a relative dearth in advanced hitters. Those who were thought to be the top guys have had mixed results. North Carolina State's Trea Turner has been OK, but not great. San Francisco's Bradley Zimmer (brother of Royals pitching prospect Kyle Zimmer) has been outstanding and could very well be the top college bat in the class now. Virgnia's Derek Fisher broke the hamate bone in his right hand, forcing him out of action for more than a month. Indiana catcher Kyle Schwarber was one spot ahead of Fisher on MLB.com's Draft Top 50 back in the fall, and he's hit well.
But just like the lack of elite hitters at this level is almost a given, so is the appearance of college bats popping up because of performance. Some aren't overwhelmingly surprising, such as Oregon State's Michael Conforto. No. 28 on that preseason Top 50, Conforto has hit .383/.531/.551 over his first 31 games, living up to the billing of one scout who said before the season began that the OSU outfielder would be the first college hitter taken.
Then there's Casey Gillaspie, the Wichita State first baseman. It's not that Gillaspie was completely unheralded coming into the season. The younger brother of Conor Gillaspie, currently playing third base for the Chicago White Sox, Casey had a solid Cape Cod League season over the summer. But he's exploded onto the scene in 2014. The switch-hitter is hitting .393/.497/.697 with nine homers in 32 games so far this spring.
"He's probably the best hitter in the country," one cross-checker said. "He's a switch-hitter with power, more power than Conforto."
Gillaspie is making a steady climb up Draft boards into the first round. If he continues at this pace, something he'll try to do this weekend at Evansville, he could be this year's version of Peterson, who hit his way up to the Mariners at pick No. 12.