In short, this weekend of college baseball is one of the better weekends we’ve seen all season. There are three series between teams who are both ranked in the College Baseball Central Top 25, and beyond that, there are even more matchups that will carry a great amount of weight in postseason positioning.
It starts, as it so often does, with marquee matchups in the Southeastern Conference.
no. 1 Texas A&M at no. 4 LSU
This is certainly the biggest series of the upcoming weekend, and there’s a pretty decent chance that it will also end up being the biggest series of the entire season.
Texas A&M has been the most dominant team in college baseball thus far. They actually dropped a series to Arkansas last weekend, their first series loss of the year, and their 36-5 record is still the best in the country. Who has the second-best record, you ask? Well that would be LSU, who sits at 36-6.
It seemed inevitable that the Aggies would slip up at some point and drop a series in SEC play, and there’s no real shame in losing two of three, even at home, to a very good (and hot) Razorbacks team. But with that being said, the series loss did raise some potential red flags for the Aggies.
For one, it was the first time we have seen cracks in the armor of their previously-impenetrable bullpen. In the resumption of game two of the series, when A&M had an 8-3 lead heading into the top of the seventh, Kyle Simonds allowed three runs in 2.2 innings, Blake Kopetsky surrendered a run in two-thirds of an inning, and Mark Ecker allowed five hits and two runs in 1.1 innings of work in the eventual 9-8 loss. Considering each of those three guys have ERAs under 2.00, and Simonds and Ecker have ERAs under 1.00, it was a little out of character.
Then there’s the issue of Matt Kent. His emergence played as big a role as any in helping the Aggies deal with the losses of Tyler Stubblefield and A.J. Minter in the weekend rotation, but of late, he has hit the skids. In game three against the Hogs, he allowed six runs (five earned) in just one-third of an inning. Currently, his ERA sits at 3.96 on the season. He still isn’t walking batters (5 BB in 52.1 IP), which is a positive, but he’s getting hit around to the tune of a .319 batting average against him.
With his struggles, he has not been announced as a member of the rotation this weekend. On Friday, A&M will turn to the steady Grayson Long (8-0, 2.73), with the relatively unproven Ryan Hendrix (3-0, 1.40) set for Saturday. Hendrix has been outstanding in relief this season, with much of that experience coming in a closing role, but there’s a difference between that and starting on the weekend against an offense like LSU’s.
Speaking of the Tigers’ offense, that is still the unit that makes them go, as they have a .320 team batting average. Kade Scivicque (.396/5/32), Mark Laird (.354, 17 SB), Andrew Stevenson (.351, 12 SB), Chris Chinea (.346/6/35), Conner Hale (.331/4/36), Alex Bregman (.329/8/34, 24 SB), and Jared Foster (.298/8/26) combine to form an offense that can beat you in so many different ways. They can pummel you into submission with innings that string together five, six, or seven hits in a row, they can beat you with the three-run homer, and they can beat you by manufacturing runs using their considerable speed.
You know the offense is talented and deep when they are able to do just fine with guys like Chris Sciambra (.337/.391/.518) missing significant time and Danny Zardon (.291/.365/.405) playing a part-time role.
That offense has been able to make up for a rotation that has dealt with some uncertainty. This weekend’s Friday starter, Jared Poche (7-1, 2.90), has performed about as expected. He has been solid, if unspectacular and not particularly overpowering, and he brings a “veteran” presence as a sophomore surrounded by freshmen for much of the season. Alex Lange, one of the aforementioned freshman, has acclimated himself to DI college baseball quite nicely (7-0, 1.40). He’ll go on Saturday.
That third spot, though, is a bit of a question. For much of the season, that spot was held down by Lange’s fellow freshman Jake Godfrey (6-0, 4.07). He got off to a hot start right along with Lange, but as the season wore on, whether it was hitters forming a more complete book on him or just his body wearing down in his first college season, his production tailed off. This weekend, Austin Bain (1-1, 3.07) will take the mound in that role. Several weeks ago against Alabama, Bain was at his best. After Godfrey was lifted in the first inning, Bain threw 6.2 innings, giving up three hits and no runs with one walk and nine strikeouts.
The Tide’s offense is pretty good, of course, but A&M’s is better. Nick Banks (.407/.471/.580, 5 HR), Logan Taylor (.376/.447/.669, 10 HR), Mitchell Nau (.363/3/32), Hunter Melton (.349/4/24), Ronnie Gideon (.324/7/35), and Blake Allemand (.311/4/27) will have something to say about the success of the entire LSU staff.
Perhaps it’s an overly simplistic way of looking at it, but it would seem that the team who gets more quality mileage out of their starting rotation will have a big leg up this weekend. With A&M starting Long, Hendrix, and TBA compared to LSU’s Poche, Lange, and Bain, the advantage seems to be with the Tigers in that regard. In any event, college baseball fans are in for a big treat with this series this weekend.
no. 18 Missouri at no. 7 Vanderbilt
Surprisingly, we now live in a college baseball world where Vanderbilt is in need of some consistency. Don’t get me wrong, at 30-12 and 12-6 in SEC play, it’s far from panic time in Nashville, but this was a team that was floating along just a few weeks ago, seemingly on cruise control waiting for the postseason to begin.
Now, they’ll come into this weekend having lost back-to-back series, both of which were considerable upsets. Two weekends ago, they dropped two of three to Mississippi at home. After a dominant performance from Carson Fulmer led them to a 6-0 win on Friday, they dropped the last two games of the set. In the Saturday game, they even took a four-run lead to the ninth inning, but Mississippi’s Colby Bortles launched a grand slam to keep the Rebels in the game, giving them the chance to win it in extra innings.
Last weekend, they dropped two of three on the road to a desperate South Carolina team who would probably have been out of the postseason altogether had the season ended before last weekend. Once again, they got a dominating win on Friday behind Fulmer before losing the last two in the series.
In the starting rotation, they’ve had some moving pieces behind Fulmer (7-1, 1.69). Walker Buehler (3-1, 2.68) missed the first few weeks of the season, but he’s been as good as expected ever since returning. The third spot in the rotation has bounced around a bit, heavily featuring the likes of John Kilichowski (2-2, 3.63) and Jordan Sheffield (3-1, 3.27). While neither of those guys have been lights out, they have helped mitigate the damage stemming from the struggles of Tyler Ferguson (0-1, 10.12), who, coming into the season, was thought to be the third ace in an all-ace rotation along with Fulmer and Buehler.
Philip Pfeifer (3.27, 5 SV) has also been a key piece filling in for the injured Hayden Stone as the key cog in the bullpen, but he’s far from alone. Kyle Wright (1.25), Ryan Johnson (1.94), and Ben Bowden (2.25) are all very capable relievers who can give the ‘Dores multiple innings of work.
Offensively, they’ve gotten quality performances from just about everyone they were banking on coming into the season. Dansby Swanson (.354/.455/.628, 7 HR), Bryan Reynolds (.331/3/35), Zander Wiel (.318/6/38), Rhett Wiseman (.318/7/27), and Ro Coleman (.313) have all been very good.
Missouri is the surprise of the Southeastern Conference this season. They’re 26-15 overall and their 12-6 record is good for a first-place tie with Vanderbilt and Florida in the SEC East. Vanderbilt has done some shuffling in their rotation throughout the season, but Missouri has had the exact opposite experience. Their weekend starters have taken the ball each and every weekend this season and that’s been a huge part of their success. Reggie McClain (5-4, 2.95), Tanner Houck (6-2, 2.88), and Peter Fairbanks (4-3, 2.48) have all proven to be SEC-quality starters.
Houck, a freshman, has been most impressive of all. He has the lowest batting average against of the three (.230), he has the best K/BB ratio of the three (58/7), and to boot, he has the best stuff and is the best pro prospect of the three. Furthermore, he shows no sign of slowing down as the season wears on, which would be unusual for a freshman, particularly in a conference as taxing as the SEC.
The early assumption about the Tigers was that their pitching staff was driving the bus and the offense was just doing enough to get by. And for a while, at least, that was true. But as the weather has improved in Columbia, Missouri, so has the offense. A .259 team average with 25 home runs isn’t going to strike fear in the hearts of opposing pitching staffs, but it’s an improvement and several players have shown real promise.
Catcher Brett Bond (.310, 4 HR) has been a pleasant surprise from day one of the season, and the trio of Jake Ring (.295/.396/.468), Ryan Howard (.292/3/29), and Josh Lester (.270/3/27) has shown some extra-base pop. Brett Peel (.262/ 17 SB) provides some speed at the top of the order. The Tigers may also have uncovered a couple of useful pieces in guys who were pressed into duty somewhat unexpectedly. Jack Klages (.280/.368/.460) had a huge series against Tennessee when Bond went down with injury after a collision at home plate, giving head coach Tim Jamieson another option at catcher. More recently, Shane Benes, son of former major leaguer Andy, has started off his Mizzou career 5-for-10 after being forced into the lineup. He could be a nice weapon down the stretch as well. It’s still not an offense that is going to blow many teams out, but they’re warming up, and opposing teams would be wise to avoid overlooking them.
At this point, it’s clear that the Tigers are more than just a flash in the pan. These guys are good. But if they can pull off a series win on the road in Nashville, it will be their most impressive result to date. Meanwhile, this series looms just as large for the Commodores as they try to get back on track against a quality opponent.
Off the Beaten Path
Georgia State at South Alabama
Don’t look now, but the Georgia State Panthers are leading the Sun Belt Conference with a 13-3 record in league play to go along with their 25-15 overall mark, also the best in the league. They’ll come into this series against South Alabama hot as well, having won 10 of their last 11 Sun Belt games.
GSU has been anchored by a physical offense and a deep bullpen. At the plate, (with stats coming into Wednesday’s game against Savannah State) the attack is led by Ryan Blanton (.342/5/20), Joey Roach (.338/7/36), and Matt Rose (.321/12/38). Justin Jones (.319) and Caden Bailey (.291) have also provided quality averages, if not the power of their colleagues.
In the aforementioned bullpen, Connor Stanley (0.90), Logan Barnette (1.29), Alex Hegner (1.65), Kevin Burgee (1.93, 7 SV), Will White (2.61), and Jerry Stuckey (2.95) have all been reliable. That group has provided support for a rotation of Nathan Bates (4-0, 3.48), Kenny Anderson (4-2, 5.19), and Cole Uvila (1-4, 3.92) that isn’t really going to dominate anyone. The latter two, in particular, have had issues with free passes, as they have 27/28 and 29/26 K/BB ratios, respectively.
For their part, traditional Sun Belt power South Alabama has had a nice season as well. They’re 26-16 overall with an 11-7 mark in league play.
USA has mixed and matched their rotation a little bit. Kevin Hill (6-0, 2.64) has been very good in his seven starts. Austin Bembnowski (2-3, 3.46) has been solid across 12 appearances, including six starts. Ryne Long (2-3, 3.67) and Jared Gates (3-2, 4.38) have been up and down. Like Georgia State, though, they also have a bullpen that can bail the rotation out if they need to. Ben Taylor (0.40, 5 SV), Shane McKinley (0.69), Cameron Cochran (1.08), Cody Van Aken (2.72, 3 SV) and Mike Dolloff (3.07) have all given the Jaguars quality relief work.
Offensively, they’re not going to beat you with the three-run homer, as they have just nine home runs as a team this season, but Cole Billingsley (.327, .429 OBP, 20 SB), Matt Bolger (.301, .396 OBP), and Bud Collura (.292, .371 OBP, 14 SB) can employ the “death by a thousand paper cuts” method of beating a team by getting on base, stealing a base, and just generally putting pressure on the opposing defense and pitching staff.
Despite their quick start, GSU still has a lot to prove. So far, they’ve only played one of the three teams right behind them in the standings, and they lost two of three in that series to Louisiana-Lafayette. This series against South Alabama is the next, and they play Georgia Southern to end the season. To prove their staying power at the top of the Sun Belt, they need a series win like this.
Similarly, the Jags haven’t played any of the upper-crust teams in the league, as their series against Georgia State, Georgia Southern, and Louisiana-Lafayette are all coming up in the next three weekends. Every potential outcome is in front of USA. After this three week stretch, they could rocket their way up the Sun Belt standings on the strength of wins in those series, they could find themselves near the bottom after struggling with the cream of the Sun Belt crop, or they could end up somewhere in between.
Way Off the Beaten Path
South Dakota State at Oral Roberts
The Golden Eagles of Oral Roberts must feel right at home. After a two-year detour as a member of the Southland Conference, 2015 has brought a return to the Summit League, the conference they dominated for so long before their move. ORU wasted little time imposing their will on the rest of the league once again, as they find themselves at the top of the standings with a 15-3 conference record, a full four games ahead of anyone else.
The Golden Eagles feature a veteran lineup led by seniors Audie Afenir (.356/.425/.473), Anthony Sequeira (.345/.446/.566, 7 HR, 40 RBI), Derrian James (.341/.418/.520), Matt Brandy (.329/.437/.441), and freshman Matt Whatley (.329/.418/.479).
On the mound, Xavier Altamirano (5-1, 2.61) has set the tone. In 58.2 innings of work, he has allowed just 51 hits, struck out 58, and walked only nine. Around him, Bryce Howe (2-1, 2.83) and Guillermo Trujillo (6-2, 4.39) have completed what has been a quality rotation. In the bullpen, two-way player Sequeira (1.42, 6 SV), Kyler Stout (0.83), Hayden Holley (1.26), and Sean Leary (1.72) have been outstanding.
It’s unlikely that any team really challenges ORU for Summit League supremacy the rest of this season, but if one team were going to do it, it would probably be South Dakota State. At 11-7 in league play, they are the team that sits second in the conference, four games behind the Golden Eagles. They already played one series against ORU this season, and they dropped two of three to the favorites, but for what it’s worth, it may be the most competitive series Oral Roberts has played this season from beginning to end.
The Jackrabbits do feature some bats that pitchers have to work around, most notably offensive spark plug Zach Coppola (.401, 30-30 SB). Luke Ringhofer (.333/.433/.461), Eric Danforth (.324), Reid Clary (.305/.373/.458), and Al Robbins (.305) have all had good seasons. Matt Johnson may not be hitting for quite the same average as the others (.269), but he has given SDSU some extra-base pop (11 doubles, 4 HR).
On the mound, the rotation of Adam Bray (5-3, 2.79), Chris Anderson (4-2, 4.18), and Ryan Froom (4-2, 2.95) has given the team a chance to win more often than not. Bray, in particular, has been outstanding. In 61.1 innings, he has struck out 50 and opposing batters are hitting just .230 against him.