There is a time in the course of the college baseball season where teams can feel things out, see what they have, and work to become a cohesive unit.
Those days are now long gone. From this point forward, every game will be viewed through the lens of what it does to a team’s postseason outlook. Each result pushes a team up the postseason pecking order or slides them further down. There really isn’t any in between. Simply put, and at the risk of using a cliche, it’s time for teams to make a statement.
no. 4 UCLA at no. 8 USC
For the second week in a row, our headline series is a Pac-12 series, and more specifically, it’s a USC series for the second week in a row.
Last week, we took a look at the Trojans’ road series against Arizona. That was a test that USC passed with flying colors, as they swept the series against a Wildcats team that came in to that series rolling. The Arizona offense is among the best offenses in the country, but USC outdid them in the series winning by scores of 13-6 and 10-9 on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, after winning 4-1 on Friday.
Leadoff hitter Bobby Stahel continues to be the linchpin of the USC attack. Last weekend, he went 9-for-14 in the Arizona series to set the tone for the outstanding offensive weekend for the Trojans. All told, he’s hitting .438 this season with seven doubles, four triples, and 21 RBI. In the two spot, Garrett Stubbs is hitting .368 with a team-leading 17 stolen bases. Led by these two spark plugs, and with a team average of .305, the Trojans are going to score some runs, even against premium arms like the ones that UCLA will throw at them.
Of more concern for USC, at least of late, is their starting rotation, whose respective performances last weekend were less than ideal at times. Brent Wheatley got the series against Arizona started with 5.2 innings of two-hit, one-run ball, but he also walked eight batters. He did a great job of working around those baserunners, but you can’t count on having similar luck every time out. On Saturday, Kyle Twomey was solid, if unspectacular in allowing seven hits and two runs in five innings of work. And on Sunday, Mitch Hart was lifted after just 2.1 innings, having given up five runs, three of which were earned. On the other side of the coin, this trio has been incredibly consistent this season, so it’s tough to see them collectively struggling two weekends in a row.
The Trojans have been able to keep themselves in and around the range they will need to be in to be considered for a national seed, and this series gives them a shot to solidify their position in that discussion.
Because they’ve been something of a surprise team, USC has made a lot of noise on their way to the top of the rankings, but UCLA has just kind of coasted along to a 23-6 overall record and 10-2 start in league play. Some jumped off the Bruins’ bandwagon after they went 0-3 in the Dodgertown tournament earlier this season, but their performance since that setback has shown that those jumpers were doing so prematurely.
Not shockingly, pitching has been the calling card of this UCLA team. The rotation of James Kaprielian (6-2, 2.09), Grant Watson (5-2, 1.53), and Griffin Canning (5-1, 2.84) has been outstanding, even if Canning did struggle a bit in his start last weekend against Oregon State (3.1 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 4 ER). In the bullpen, you can just about set your watch to the appearances of Grant Dyer and David Berg, who have both appeared in 20 of the team’s 29 games so far. The former has 36 strikeouts in 28 innings to go along with his 1.61 ERA. The latter has struck out 40 in 29.2 innings with a 1.21 ERA and seven saves.
What makes this Bruins team even more dangerous, though, is an offense that can pick up the pitching staff in the unlikely event of a poor outing. As a team, they are hitting .286, led by Kevin Kramer (.387/4/18), Ty Moore (.378/2/28), Chris Keck (.318/6/29), and Luke Persico (.310/3/22).
It’s been a long time, since 2000 or so as a matter of fact, since both USC and UCLA were relevant programs at the same time, so this series is a real treat. You have to think, even with a lot of baseball to be played, that the victor in this set will have the inside track on winning the Pac-12 regular season.
no. 19 Iowa at no. 13 Maryland
The Big Ten has been an incredibly fun league this season and these two teams have been right in the middle of it.
Maryland was the preseason favorite to win the conference crown and nothing that they have done to this point has made that prediction appear off-base. Even their “hiccups” like series losses to UNC-Wilmington and Michigan aren’t all that bad. Both of those series were on the road and both of those teams have shown potential to be regional clubs as well.
Head coach John Szefc has mixed and matched some pieces in the starting rotation throughout the season, but what has not changed is the steady performance of staff ace Mike Shawaryn, who is 7-0 on the season with an even 2.00 ERA. In 54 innings of work, he has struck out 60, walked just nine, and opposing batters are hitting just .192 against him.
The likes of Bobby Ruse (4-1, 5.52), Brian Shaffer (2-0, 6.29), Jake Drossner (0-1, 7.11), and Willie Rios (1-1, 9.42) have all had their fair share of struggles starting games this season, but if his success last weekend in helping sweep Nebraska is any indication, it would appear that the Terps have found a guy in Tayler Stiles (3-2, 3.27) who can back up Shawaryn on the weekend. Stiles threw seven six-hit, one-run innings with no walks and eight strikeouts in an 8-2 win over the Huskers.
The third spot in the rotation remains a concern, though. Last weekend, converted closer Kevin Mooney got the start, but he was chased after just three innings, having given up five runs. The defense didn’t help him much, as just two of those runs were earned, but by the same token, the four walks he issued didn’t help, either.
Because they’ve spent a good portion of the season moving pieces around on the pitching staff, the bullpen core is fluid, but they’ve gotten good work out of Alex Robinson (0.00, 14 IP), Robert Galligan (1.72, 15.2 IP), Ryan Selmer (2.05, 22 IP), and Zach Morris (2.25, 16 IP).
Offensively, the Terrapins boast a physical lineup, led by do-everything second baseman Brandon Lowe. The sophomore from Suffolk, Virginia, leads the team in average (.385), on-base percentage (.490), slugging percentage (.697), and home runs (8), and is tied for the team lead in triples (2). He’s tied for second on the team in doubles (10) and RBI (26). Not shockingly, he finds himself on the Golden Spikes Award watch list.
But he’s far from alone in the Maryland attack. Kevin Martir (.376/5/25), Nick Cieri (.327/3/26), Anthony Papio (.319/4/16), Kevin Smith (.266/3/19), and Jose Cuas (.256/5/28) have all been consistent power threats in the order.
Iowa, on the other hand, has been the surprise of the Big Ten season thus far, as they’ve jumped out to a 21-8 record overall with a 6-0 mark in league play.
For the Hawkeyes, starting pitching has been the key to success. Their weekend rotation of Tyler Peyton (4-2, 2.17), blue-chip prospect Blake Hickman (4-1, 3.13), and Calvin Mathews (3-0, 1.25) has been metronomic in its consistency. Things could conceivably even get better as Hickman continues to hone his craft. The converted catcher has incredible raw stuff, but he has battled command more often than his counterparts in the rotation.
Highlighting the rotation, however, is not meant to downplay to the efforts of the bullpen. Luke Vandermaten (0.51, 17.2 IP), Ryan Erickson (2.45, 18.1 IP), and Nick Hibbing (3.38, 16 IP) have all provided quality relief work. Interestingly, Iowa doesn’t have any one guy they lean on to close games. They have 10 saves as a team spread across six different relievers.
Offensively, they’re solid, but they’re not going to blow you away. They’re hitting .276 as a team, led by two-way player Peyton (.364), Eric Toole (.358, 18 SB), Nick Day (.324), and Jake Mangler (.306, 21 RBI). Whereas Maryland can pummel an opposing pitching staff with power bat after power bat, Iowa doesn’t have that ability. The Terps have 31 homers as a team compared to the Hawkeyes’ nine.
We’ve seen enough from Iowa to this point to know that they are more than just a flash in the pan, but we are going to learn a lot more about them after this weekend, as Maryland is easily their stiffest test to date.
Off the Beaten Path
Seton Hall at St. John’s
The Northeast has finally begun to thaw out after a brutal winter, and these two teams are hoping that they will start to warm up right along with the weather. Coming into the season, both the Pirates and Red Storm were expected to be real players in the Big East race, but neither have been quite as good as expected to this point.
Seton Hall is 16-10 overall. That’s not too bad when taken at face value, but they’ve missed several chances to score big wins. They were swept on their opening weekend against North Carolina, they were swept by USF in early-March, and they lost two out of three games at the Strike Out Cancer Classic to Connecticut.
They did start off Big East play last weekend with a sweep of Xavier, however, and all will be forgiven if they can get it rolling in league play.
It has been a struggle for Seton Hall on offense. They’re hitting .251 as a team, and just one regular is hitting .300 or better. That would be Kyle Grimm, who is hitting .367. That’s not to say that their lineup doesn’t have potential, as there are several key pieces from 2014’s offense that have yet to get it going in 2015, including D.J. Ruhlman (.351 in ’14, .259 in ’15) and Sal Annunziata (.330 in ’14, .198 in ’15).
It’s been a bit of a similar story on the pitching staff. In 2014, the Pirates were led in the rotation by the likes of Luke Cahill and Anthony Elia, who had 2.65 and 2.77 ERAs, respectively. So far in 2015, that duo sports respective ERAs of 7.24 and 6.30, and neither have been a part of the regular rotation of late.
This weekend, the Pirates will throw out a rotation of three pitchers who have still been very good. On Friday, Zach Prendergast (4-2, 2.49) will take the hill, followed by Shane McCarthy (4-1, 0.99) on Saturday. On Sunday, Zach Schellenger will get the ball. In three starts this season, he is 1-1 with a 3.18 ERA.
The Johnnies sport a 16-11 record on the season, and their campaign to this point has been very similar to Seton Hall’s. The overall record isn’t ugly, but they haven’t been able to make any real statements. Also like the Pirates, St. John’s got off to a 3-0 start in league play last weekend, in their case on the strength of a sweep against Butler.
For a lineup that returned everyone from a group that hit about .300 last season, the offense has been a bit underwhelming in hitting .271 as a team. They have, however, gotten quality performances out of Robbie Knightes (.359), Alex Caruso (.349), Michael Donadio (.344), Matt Harris (.341), and Zach Lauricella (.313). The offense is pretty top-heavy, as no player outside of those five is hitting better than .242.
On the mound, St. John’s will turn to Cody Stashak (4-3, 3.25) on Friday and Ryan McCormick (4-1, 4.50) on Saturday. Sunday is TBD as of right now. Should the rotation falter, they do have a couple of incredibly reliable bullpen arms in Thomas Hackimer (1.80, 25 IP, 5 SV) and Joe Kuzia (2.45, 14.2 IP, 2 SV).
Creighton is going to have something to say about it, and they’ve had the best season of the three so far, but the winner of this series will have taken a big step toward winning the Big East regular season.
Way Off the Beaten Path
Ball State at Kent State
There’s nothing like a series between two definitive favorites in a league, and that’s what we have this weekend with Ball State and Kent State taking the field in MAC play.
The Cardinals will come in with impressive records of 21-10 overall and 7-2 in MAC play, led by an offense featuring Elbert Devarie (.347/4/26), Jarett Rindfleisch (.313/6/25), Ryan Spaulding (.313/2/19), and Alex Call (.305/3/22). The BSU rotation is shrouded in mystery coming into this weekend, as only Friday night starter Zach Plesac (2-1, 2.92) has been announced. No one else with more than two starts on the season has an ERA lower than 4.72. The most reliable reliever has been rubber-armed closer B.J. Butler (3.09, 35 IP, 5 SV).
When it comes to their weekend rotation, the Flashes are the polar opposite of the Cardinals in that their rotation of Nick Jensen-Clagg (5-3, 3.00), Eric Lauer (2-2, 2.27), and Andy Ravel (4-1, 2.77) is rock solid. They also boast a quality bullpen duo in Zach Willeman (0.61, 14.2 IP, 6 SV) and Dan Kopcak (2.51, 14.1 IP).
Offensively, Kent State is led by powerful sophomore Conner Simonetti (.380/.444/.761, 5 HR), who homered in two of the team’s three games last weekend against Northern Illinois. He has been supported by Zarley Zalewski (.365), Luke Burch (.360), Sawyer Polen (.313), Jeff Revesz (.287/4/15), and Tommy Monnot (.275/4/14). All together, the lineup has done a fantastic job of mitigating the effects of senior outfielder Alex Miklos being missing from the lineup since March 13. Miklos hit .362 last season overall and .450 in conference play, so that’s no small loss.