College Baseball Central Weekend Preview: Houston, UCF, Miami, UNC

We’ve finally arrived to the part of the season where conclusions can be drawn on teams, or at least we’re pretty close. At this point, if your record is good, chances are you’re good. If you’re record is bad, chances are you’re going to struggle. If you’ve had wild ups and downs, there’s a decent chance that you’re going to continue to be inconsistent, leaving you to just hope that you get hot at the right time.

And yet, there is still plenty of time for teams to make a big statement. Several chances for teams to make big statements are on deck this week, as a matter of fact.

Courtesy Houston AthleticsHeadliners

no. 24 Houston Cougars at no. 16 UCF Knights

Week seven brings us the series that very well could decide the American regular season when it’s all said and done. These two were projected as the top two finishers in the conference, and six weeks in the season, nothing has happened that should really change anyone’s mind about that. Granted, it’s mildly surprising that UCF has been the better of the two so far, but here they are as the top two teams nonetheless.

Houston, after hitting the skids for a couple of weeks with losses against the likes of Texas State, Columbia and Houston Baptist and a 1-2 showing at the Houston College Classic, has rallied to win 10 in a row. The fact that they’ve won that many in a row with a team that is beginning to resemble a MASH unit is even more impressive.

The team more or less started the year without Connor Hollis, a valuable infielder last year’s team, and Michael Pyeatt, who had been one of the more consistent hitters in the UH lineup over the previous three years. Then, they lost key reliever Bubba Maxwell, Sunday starter Aaron Garza was moved to the bullpen after battling inconsistency and being a little nicked up, and finally, they’ve been without projected ace starter Jake Lemoine for the last few weeks with shoulder impingement. And yet, in the face of all that, they’ve been winning.

This weekend against the Knights, they will be even more short-handed, at least on Friday night. In the bottom of the tenth of their Tuesday night game against Lamar, outfielder (and leadoff hitter) Kyle Survance was tossed by home plate umpire Ryan Morehead for arguing balls and strikes. By rule, he will have to miss the series opener.

Fortunately for the Cougars, they’ve got a few guys in their lineup that will come in hot. Josh Vidales, a spark plug second baseman, is hitting .370 and has more than three times the number of walks and hit by pitches (20 total) as he does strikeouts (6). In the meat of the order, Chris Iriart has been exactly the type of big bopper the offense needed. He’s hitting .356 with eight doubles, six home runs, and 18 RBI. Freshmen Zac Taylor (.282, 11 SB) and Connor Wong (.263/3/22) have both acclimated nicely to college ball as well.

The damage done by Garza’s struggles and Lemoine’s injury have been mitigated by the performance of Andrew Lantrip (5-1, 1.73). I’m sure head coach Todd Whitting and staff shudder to think about where the team might be without that type of rock in the rotation. Kyle Dowdy and Taylor Cobb have been tasked with filling in the gaps in the weekend rotation and both have done admirable jobs in small sample sizes. Saturday and Sunday are TBA as of right now, but those two are the incumbents.

In the bullpen, the emergence of big JUCO transfer righty Patrick Weigel (3.24) and projectable freshman lefty Seth Romero (2.55, 3 SV) have been huge. Garza, after being moved to the bullpen, has shown some flashes in a closing role, tallying three saves of his own.

UCF’s offense has been every bit as explosive as expected. They have a .330/.424/.539 team slash line with 38 home runs. Only one player with double-digit starts in the field has a batting average lower than .299 and that’s Derrick Salberg at .253, and he’s been far from a poor offensive presence thanks to his .371 on-base percentage and perfect percentage (5-for-5) stealing bases. Tommy Williams (.414/3/25), Dylan Moore (.373/7/34), and Erik Barber (.365/6/22) have all been outstanding hitting for both average and power. Simply put, their offense just doesn’t let up from one through nine.

On the mound, freshman Cre Finfrock has led the way, going 5-0 with a 2.62 ERA as the ace of the staff. Behind him, the Knights have struggled to find consistency. Robby Howell (4-1, 4.70) has been decent and most recently, head coach Terry Rooney has deployed Eric Hepple (3-1, 4.24) as the team’s third starter, although this weekend, Sunday is listed as TBA. In the bullpen, Zach Rodgers (3-0, 3.68) has shown value as a versatile arm who can do a little bit of everything and Parker Thomas (2.41) has been reliable. They do have a couple of guys they are still waiting on to come around, however. Spencer Davis (not of “Gimme Some Lovin'” fame, apparently) has struggled to the tune of a 10.34 ERA and Trent Thompson, who spent time closing games last season has struggled even more (10.67).

The key matchup in this series is going to be the Houston pitching staff against the gauntlet that is the UCF offense. If the Cougars can get good starts from not only Lantrip, but the entire rotation, you have to feel good about their chances to come away with a series win, even on the road. But if they don’t, and their compromised depth gets exposed, it could be a long weekend featuring a lot of lengthy innings.

Photo Miami Athletics

Photo Miami Athletics

no. 13 Miami Hurricanes at no. 18 North Carolina Tar Heels

Quietly, the Hurricanes have been plugging along nicely this season. They’re 18-8 on the season and 6-3 in ACC play with their only “setbacks,” to the extent that they could be called that, coming in series losses to Florida and Louisville. With so much attention being paid to Virginia’s struggles, Florida State’s rise up the rankings, and even North Carolina’s ups and downs (more on that in a minute), Miami has largely been the forgotten man in the league.

The time-honored tradition for Miami, at least over the last several years, is to dominate on the mound and get just enough offense to get the job done. The 2015 Hurricanes haven’t completely flipped that script, but the pendulum has definitely swung back in the other direction a little bit.

Leading the UM attack is David Thompson, a player who any college baseball fan should be rooting for. Thompson’s first couple of years on campus were compromised by injuries, and as a result, he had yet to fulfill his immense potential. Through six weeks of this season, it appears safe to say that he is reaching that potential now. He’s hitting .356/.447/.713 with eight home runs and 39 RBI, and over the last couple of weeks in particular, there may not be a hotter hitter in college baseball.

Catcher Garrett Kennedy, who had primarily been known as a defense-first catcher in previous seasons, has been a pleasant surprise in hitting .353/.476/.559 with three home runs. Christopher Barr (.323) and Ricky Eusebio (.310, .500 OBP), after holding bit parts in the past, have embracing larger roles in 2015 as well. George Iskenderian, a bounceback JUCO transfer who began his career at South Carolina, has been outstanding from the start. He’ll come into this series hitting .360 with two homers and 24 RBI.

Perhaps most notable for the Miami offense is who is not leading the way. Zack Collins, who was expected to back up his Freshman All-American season with another huge campaign, has yet to get going. He’s hitting .250 with two homers and 14 RBI. There is good news, however. First off, he does have an on-base percentage of .431, so he’s still finding his way on base, and second, he began last season in a similar slump before breaking out in the second half of the season. You have to figure he’s due for a torrid weekend sooner rather than later.

Against the Tar Heels, the Canes will go with a rotation of Thomas Woodrey (3-1, 2.93), Andrew Suarez (2-0, 2.81), and Enrique Sosa (3-2, 3.62). Getting Suarez back into the rotation in time for the meat of their ACC schedule is huge. Previously, the Hurricanes had been piecing the rotation together around Sosa and Woodrey, the latter a bullpen pitcher who was actually just more or less shoehorned into the rotation (with great success, obviously) when head coach Jim Morris ran short of other options. Last week, Suarez was solid, if unspectacular (5 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 3 K) against Wake Forest.

As usual, the Hurricanes have several reliable options in the bullpen, led by Bryan Garcia (1.15, 4 SV), Daniel Briggi (2.35), Michael Mediavilla (2.92), and Cooper Hammond (3.38).

The Tar Heels have been a little more up and down than have the Hurricanes to this point, with their most notable down being that series loss to Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago. Since then, though, they’ve rebounded nicely in winning a series on the road against Georgia Tech.

Like Miami, UNC features a quality starting rotation that, as it stands right now, probably won’t go down as a vintage rotation in the history of the program, but does feature some big arms. Their rotation this weekend will go Zac Gallen (1-1, 4.05), J.B. Bukauskas (3-1, 3.09), and then Benton Moss (3-0, 2.08). None of the three have been eye-poppingly dominant thus far, but all three have been solid at the very least, and all three have more strikeouts than they have innings pitched. In the bullpen, the Tar Heels are anchored by versatile arms in Trevor Kelley (1.74, 2 SV) and Trent Thornton (3.95, 4 SV).

Offensively, the Heels are hitting .284 as a team, and like the Hurricanes, they are getting it done without huge production from some places you would have expected it. Tyler Ramirez is hitting just .229, and even Landon Lassiter, hitting .279, really hasn’t completely gotten it going yet. Making up for that, though, has been the production from the likes of Korey Dunbar (.367), Zach Gahagan (.292/2/17), and Skye Bolt (.291/4/18), who has shown good form in his attempt to bounce back from a tough 2014 season.

Louisville and Florida State have emerged as the early favorites to win the ACC regular season crown, but when one of these two teams comes away with this series win, they will have officially interjected themselves into the conversation.

Reggie McClain dominated in an 8.1 inning outing. Photo courtesy Mizzou Tigers Athletics

Photo courtesy Mizzou Tigers Athletics

Notables

Missouri Tigers at no. 5 Texas A&M Aggies

These two teams have been two of the biggest surprises in college baseball so far. The Aggies were a team that most expected to be pretty good, and perhaps even a sleeper contender in the SEC, but no one would have predicted they would start the season 25-1. The expectations for Missouri, on the other hand, were much lower. Their first two seasons in the SEC have not gone well, and going into 2015, it was unclear if they were going to be any better. So far, they’ve been much improved, sitting at 19-7 overall and 5-1 in SEC play, with a sweep of Georgia and series win over South Carolina under their belts.

For the Tigers, their weekend rotation has been carrying the load. JUCO transfer Reggie McClain (4-1, 1.74), freshman Tanner Houck (3-1, 3.02), and junior Peter Fairbanks (2-2, 1.82) have all given head coach Tim Jamieson and staff more than they could have reasonably expected.

Offense was the bugaboo for the Tigers in 2013 and 2014, and while they’re not going to challenge the likes of LSU for the best offense in the league, they have shown some improvement. Freshman Brett Bond (.291/3/11) and veteran Josh Lester (.289/2/21) have shown some physicality, and Brett Peel (.269, 15 SB) has been a spark plug at the top of the order.

The Aggies really haven’t had any issues offensively to speak of. After all, they’re hitting .311 as a team, led by Nick Banks (.426/.491/.553), Mitchell Nau (.364), Ronnie Gideon (.355/4/21), and Logan Taylor (.321/5/19). Blake Allemand, who seems to have been at A&M for at least a decade, has once again proven to be a pest at the top of the order. He’s hitting .333 with a .427 on-base percentage.

On the mound, the Aggies have been dealt some blows. Before the season, they lost projected rotation member Tyler Stubblefield to injury. Then, about a month into the season, they learned that A.J. Minter would be lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery. And yet, they’ve kept it going. Grayson Long (5-0, 2.08) has blossomed into a staff ace in his own right and Matt Kent (5-0, 3.20) just refuses to walk hitters (3 BB in 39.1 IP). A&M has used Turner Larkins (3-1, 2.94) in that third rotation spot, but this weekend, they will go with Kyle Simonds (0.00 in 20.2 IP), who will be making his first start of the season.

The formula for success if you are Missouri is pretty simple. If McClain, Houck, and Fairbanks pitch as they have all season, the Tigers will be competitive and be in a position to win this series. If they don’t, it could be tough for their offense to keep up with the deep, balanced Texas A&M attack.

texas basbeallno. 9 Texas Longhorns at Nebraska Cornhuskers

Even in the meat of conference play, these two programs have given us a tasty non-conference matchup to sink our teeth into.

The Huskers will come in as hot as just about anyone else. Prior to their 4-3 loss to Cal State Fullerton on Wednesday night, they had rattled off 11 wins in a row, and after some fits and starts in the first few weeks, it looks like they are really beginning to round into form.

A big part of that success has been the settling of their weekend rotation of Chance Sinclair, Kyle Kubat, and Derek Burkamper. After a really tough start to the season, Sinclair (3-3, 3.93) has settled down and shown, of late, why head coach Darin Erstad and staff trusted him in the Friday night role. Kubat (4-0, 1.60), a senior, has taken a star turn after being a solid, reliable starter as a junior. Burkamper, who appeared sparingly last season as a freshman, has stepped up in a big way as a sophomore (3-1, 3.07). Nebraska also features a number of reliable bullpen arms in the likes of Jeff Chestnut (1.00), Colton Howell (1.29), and Jake Meyers (2.57).

Offensively, Ryan Boldt is the big name, and understandably so. He’s hitting .349 with a .457 on-base percentage. But he’s been far from alone in the NU lineup. Ben Miller (.348, 23 RBI), Blake Headley (.326, 23 RBI), and Jake Schleppenbach (.303) have all been very good over the first six weeks.

The Longhorns’ offense has cooled a little bit in the recent weeks, but make no mistake about it; that’s still their bread and butter in 2015. Ben Johnson (.393/.436/.626) has kept up his torrid pace, and the catching duo of Tres Barrera (.318/.444/.568) and Michael Cantu (.297/.441/.405) continues to be the envy of all the coaches across the country that would like to have one catcher who could provide a consistent offensive threat, much less two.

There’s no way around the fact that, outside of Friday starter Parker French (2-1, 1.69), the weekend rotation has been a concern, although Chad Hollingsworth (3-1, 2.97), who will go on Sunday, has emerged as a reliable second starter. On Saturday, the Horns will throw Kacy Clemens (2-1, 4.68), who has been up and down. Hitters aren’t getting good looks off of him, as they’re hitting just .225 against him, but his 11/13 strikeout-to-walk ratio will have to improve.

No matter who comes out on top in this one, it will be a huge resume-building series for the victor.

Off the Beaten Path

Old Dominion Monarchs at Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders

These Conference USA teams both pulled off big upset series wins last weekend, both over teams nicknamed the Owls, interestingly enough. ODU took two of three from conference favorite Rice, while MTSU was busy winning two of three from the surprise team in the conference, Florida Atlantic.

Old Dominion is led by a veteran offense featuring Taylor Ostrich (.382/.490/.553), P.J. Higgins (.360/.404/.472), and Connor Myers (.338/.383/.405). Fully, seven different hitters with at least seven starts are hitting .300 or better. Their blueprint for beating Rice was to pile on runs early and often, and with their offensive attack, it’s safe to say that approach will serve them well moving forward.

On the mound, things are significantly more unsettled. In the rotation, Greg Tomchick (3-1, 2.42) has been very reliable, but behind him, there are a ton of question marks. Nick Hartman (0-1, 7.94) is set to throw on Saturday, and Sunday is TBA as of right now. Thomas Busbice (2.00, 2 SV) has been their best arm out of the bullpen.

The Blue Raiders will counter with Johnathan Frebis (3-2, 3.47) and Nate Hoffman (1-1, 2.96) in their rotation. Like ODU, Sunday is TBA and there isn’t a ton of depth to lean on in that third slot, although closer Nathan Foriest (1.38, 4 SV) and the versatile Kooper Kessler (1-0, 1.20) have both provided MTSU with quality work.

The difference in these two teams may very well lie in their respective offenses. Whereas ODU has a deep offense featuring a number of hitters with averages at or above .300, MTSU has a top-heavy lineup that’s not as strong one through nine. Top hitter Ronnie Jebavy (.375, 13 SB) has made their offense go, along with the likes of Brad Jarreau (.344), Michael Adkins (.295, 20 RBI), and their big power bat Jared Allen (.255/5/22).

Prior to the season, many wondered if Rice was even going to be challenged in Conference USA. With the rise of FAU, it was made clear that they were going to have company at the top, and now, it doesn’t seem like it would be a shock if one or both of ODU and MTSU end up in that mix as well. Certainly, the winner of this series will be in a good position.

Way Off the Beaten Path

Southeastern Missouri State Redhawks at SIU-Edwardsville Cougars

The Ohio Valley Conference provides us with a nice matchup between the preseason conference favorite, Southeastern Missouri State, and the biggest surprise in the conference thus far, the SIU-Edwardsville Cougars. The Redhawks are 15-9 overall and 7-2 in OVC play, while the Cougars are 8-11 and 8-1 in OVC play.

Certainly, if this series comes down to who gets better starting pitching, you have to like SEMO. Their starting rotation of Travis Hayes (4-2, 4.32), Joey Lucchesi (3-0, 4.94), and Alex Winkleman (0-2, 3.20) has been far more solid than SIUE’s trio of Ryan Daniels (1-3, 7.43), P.J. Schuster (3-0, 4.43), and Jarrett Bednar (0-3, 9.15). Daniels has been of particular concern, as he was very good last year for the Cougars (7-0, 3.53) as their Friday night guy.

In the bullpen, Greg Mosel (1.50), Matthew Wade (1.54, 2 SV), and Alex Siddle (2.57) have all given SEMO quality work. The Cougars, however, have some good bullpen arms of their own in Brett Thomas (2.60, 2 SV), Ryan Agnitsch (3.54), and Zach Malach (3.78, 3 SV).

SEMO also boasts an advantage on offense, with a .290 team average compared to SIUE’s .261. Andy Lennington (.403/3/22), Jason Blum (.348), and Dalton Hewitt (.316) have been their best bats. Comparing best to best, though, the Cougars can go toe-to-toe with the Redhawks. Keaton Wright (.429/.525/.633) and Dustin Woodcock (.387/.466.613) has been raking all season, while Nick Lombardo (.273, 4 HR) and Parker Guinn (.246, 6 HR) have provided the power.

About the Author

Joseph Healy
Growing up in Houston, Joe Healy was introduced to college baseball at a young age, and it was love at first sight. Like most good love stories, that love has only grown throughout the years. When he's not at the ballpark, he enjoys tacos, college football during the fall, and the spectacle that is American politics. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from Sam Houston State University and a Master's in Public Administration from Southern Illinois University- Edwardsville.