Entering the season, East Carolina right-hander Jeff Hoffman was on a short list of prospects the Astros were expected to consider with the first pick of the 2014 First-Year Player Draft. The club won't have to go far to scout him this weekend, as he starts Friday night against Rice in Houston.
Though Hoffman, ranked No. 2 on MLB.com's Top 50 Draft prospects list, hasn't been as sharp this season as he has been in the past -- especially last summer in the Cape Cod League -- he is still expected to be picked early in the first round. Hoffman's opponent Friday night hopes to join him.
Rice right-hander Zech Lemond was an All-American closer in 2013 and broke the Owls single-season saves record, which had been held by David Aardsma and Tony Cingrani. He opened this season in the same role, but moved to the front of the rotation in early March when right-hander Jordan Stephens underwent Tommy John surgery and was lost for the season.
Lemond has thrived as a starter, posting a 1.23 ERA and 32-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 29 1/3 innings. He attacks hitters with a fastball that reaches 95 mph, as well as a power curveball and solid changeup. Though Lemond's still getting used to starting, he said the transition has been relatively easy.
"What I think about when I'm pitching, I just think about going out there to get outs," Lemond said. "It wasn't that big of a jump, except for the higher pitch counts. I still go out there with the same mentality."
This weekend's three-game series is also important for both team's title aspirations in Conference USA. When the two teams met last year in Greenville, N.C., Hoffman struck out nine batters in eight shutout innings, before giving up three unearned runs in the ninth to lose the game. Lemond earned the win in relief and said he remembers that game well.
"He threw a gem, really," Lemond said. "He's a good pitcher, obviously. He's been dominant when I've seen him.
"If we can win on Friday, we'll have the momentum going into the rest of the series."
This year's meeting is likely to be well attended by scouts, cross checkers and executives. That will give Lemond an opportunity to make a strong impression as he attempts to climb Draft boards into the first round.
"I'm trying to go on the first day [of the Draft], just like everyone else in the country," Lemond said. "Just keep working, keep pushing, so I can do as well as I can."