Easter weekend is an important milestone in the college baseball season. Not only does it usually provide a de facto midpoint of the season, but it also means that weekend series are split between the traditional Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule and the adjusted Thursday-Friday-Saturday schedule to accommodate Easter Sunday, meaning fans can enjoy four days of weekend series games. Plus, for those who reside in areas that are reclaimed by ice and snow during the winter and early-spring months, this weekend can serve as an official warm welcome to springtime.
Of course, it makes for an even better weekend when there are a number of marquee matchups to take in, and this year’s Easter weekend slate of games does not disappoint.
no. 9 USC at no. 25 Arizona
Out west, we have a series between two teams that have been pleasant surprises of the first half of the season.
In USC, we have a team that was projected as a quality regional-caliber club that now looks like a legitimate regional host and potential contender in the Pac-12.
The Trojans will come into the series 22-6 on the season, led by a quality offense that is hitting .301 as a group. Bobby Stahel and Garrett Stubbs have been pests at the top of the lineup all season. They’re hitting .409 and .391, respectively, and with 15 stolen bases, Stubbs has also been a difference-maker on the base paths. There is also some pop sprinkled throughout the entire USC lineup with guys like David Oppenheim (.320/3/14), Dante Flores (.316/3/15) and A.J. Ramirez (.250/4/20).
On the mound, the trio of Brent Wheatley (2-1, 2.27), Kyle Twomey (4-1, 1.87), and Mitch Hart (5-0, 2.47) have made for an outstanding weekend rotation. When they turn things over to the bullpen, things haven’t gotten much easier for the opposition thanks to guys like Marc Huberman (0.81, 3 SV) and Alex Chavarria (2.16, 2 SV).
The Wildcats, on the other hand, were expected to be an improved team from a year ago, but few were so bold as to say that they would be back in the postseason in 2015. But with what we have seen in the first half, if their form holds, the Wildcats are certainly in a good position to be back in a regional come late-May.
They will also come into the series at 22-6 and much like USC, their offense is solid. As a matter of fact, the Arizona offense is better than solid; it’s frighteningly good. As a team, they’re hitting .332, led by a couple of guys in Scott Kingery (.453) and Kevin Newman (.426) who haven’t stopped knocking the cover off the ball since opening day.
That duo has been so good that the numbers of Justin Behnke (.352) and Zach Gibbons (.351) look pedestrian by comparison. Also worth noting is the power of Bobby Dalbec. He has six home runs on the year, which is a good number on its own and an even better number when you consider that he plays most of his games in the cavernous Hi-Corbett Field. It’s still too early to say that this offense will be as successful in the long-run as the Arizona offense that helped win them a national title, but there are similarities in the way they approach spraying lines drives all over the field to take advantage of their home ballpark.
If there is a concern with Arizona, it’s their pitching. Their rotation of Cody Hamlin (4-0, 4.03), Robby Medel (1-2, 3.89), and Tyger Talley (3-0, 3.18) isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but there isn’t a true ace in the group and none have been particularly dominant. If there is one that has shown the potential to become that, it’s Talley. He has 37 strikeouts in his 39.2 innings on the season, and opponents are hitting just .203 against him. He has the stuff to be a bona fide ace. His command does hold him back, though. He has issued 17 free passes this season either by walk (12) or hit by pitch (5).
In the bullpen, they have a couple of arms they lean on pretty heavily. Nathan Bannister (2.41) is a guy that can throw multiple innings for them, as evidenced by his 33.2 innings in just 12 appearances. When he isn’t starting games, Xavier Borde (1.52) has also proven to be effective. In closing games, they prefer to turn to two-way player Dalbec (4.32, 5 SV), but he has been far from perfect in that role this season.
This is a huge swing series in the Pac-12, but it feels like it means more to Arizona. For USC, a series loss could be excused pretty easily. The Wildcats are hot, the series is on the road, and the Trojans have enough other quality wins on the resume that no one would press the panic button. When it comes to Arizona, though, there is still some skepticism. They have some mystifying losses, such as their series loss against Utah, their schedule has been soft in some parts, and there is the concern over their pitching. But if they can pull out a series win here, most, if not all, of that skepticism will dissipate pretty quickly.
no. 17 Texas at Oklahoma State
This is a battle between two teams in need of this series win for different reasons.
For Texas, they need the win just to get things going back in the right direction. Their inconsistencies were chronicled earlier in the week here, but the Cliff’s Notes version goes like this: they got off to a quick start this season on the strength of a physical offense, which allowed their unsettled pitching staff to deal with some growing pains. But over the last few weeks, that offense has cooled off, which has forced the pitching staff to take back a leadership role. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been enough to overcome the offensive struggles, and the Longhorns are officially in a backslide.
Even after that piece was published, the slide has gotten worse, as Texas dropped their midweek game this week to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in extra innings. They key to success in this series for Texas is pretty simple, it would seem. They have to find a way to get contributions from someone other than Ben Johnson (.379/3/19) or Tres Barrera (.295/4/17). Those two guys have really been carrying the load of late.
If the pitching staff was rock-solid, it would be important that the offense gets going, but with there still being some question marks in the rotation, it’s imperative that it happens. You know what you’re going to get from Parker French (2-2, 2.16), but the rest is a little up in the air. It looked like Chad Hollingsworth (3-2, 4.36) was settling in nicely alongside French, but he got hit around pretty hard in the series finale against Nebraska last weekend by a Huskers lineup that hadn’t done much in the series prior to that point. Kacy Clemens (2-1, 3.66) has come on as of late, but with his inexperience, it would be understandable if there is still concern about him stringing together good starts week after week.
Oklahoma State has been somewhat up and down this season. Most everyone wrote them off when they dropped two of three to Illinois at home back in early-March, but since then, we’ve found out that the Illini are much better than most were giving them credit for, and as evidenced by their series win over TCU, Oklahoma State was far from finished as a player in the Big 12 race. They just need to establish consistency against good teams, and this series gives them a chance to do that.
Perhaps part of the reason the Cowboys were relatively easy to write off earlier in the season is that they don’t really do a lot that jumps off the page at you.
Offensively, to many observers, they don’t have that one impact bat that scares everyone on the opposing pitching staff or the one guy with overly gaudy numbers. But what they are is an offense that gets contributions up and down the lineup. Gage Green (.321/3/11, 11 SB) does a little bit of everything for them. Dustin Williams (.288/4/16) and Conor Costello (.255/5/22) provide some punch. And all around those guys, there are quality hitters like Corey Hassel (.329), Ryan Sluder (.300), Kevin Bradley (.292), and Tim Arakawa (.289).
In the starting rotation, they are still experimenting a little bit. Jon Perrin (2-3, 4.55) hasn’t had the first half that he or the team would have wanted, but he has the stuff (29 K/31.2 IP) to be a dominant force and he has plenty of experience, so the team appears ready to practice patience and stick it out with him. Balancing Perrin’s struggles out, though, is how incredible Michael Freeman (5-0, 1.32) has been. He’s been going on Sundays for them, but make no mistake; he’s every bit the ace that most teams have going on Fridays.
To close out games, the Cowboys turn to Koda Glover, who has been reliable (2.25, 4 SV). Glover is helped out in the bullpen by the likes of Remey Reed (0.42), who has also been starting some lately, and Tyler Buffett (1.65). Of course, even with guys like that going for them, it’s a tough row to hoe if you’re going to get into a bullpen battle with Texas, who has one of the deepest bullpens in the country. Jon Malmin (0.68), Jake McKenzie (0.82), Travis Duke (1.23), Kirby Bellow (1.57), Connor Mayes (1.90), and Ty Culbreth (2.20) have all been fantastic.
Something has to give in this three-game set. Texas’ offense has been struggling of late, but the OSU pitching staff (save for Freeman) isn’t the type of pitching staff that is normally going to just shut a team down. On the flip side of that coin, there are some questions marks in the Texas rotation behind Parker French, but the Cowboys’ lineup also probably isn’t going to bludgeon anyone.
The bottom line is that both of these teams have a lot to prove. Texas was a top-ten team at one point and deservedly so, as they were playing like a top-ten team. They certainly have top-ten talent. They just haven’t played up to that expectation lately, but this series is a chance to get back on track and start to fulfill those expectations. In the same way, OSU began the season as a team many considered contenders in the Big 12, but they were quickly written off. A series win against Texas, no matter how much the Longhorns have been struggling, will put them right back in that picture.
Off the Beaten Path
Dallas Baptist at Missouri State
This should be a fun one in the Missouri Valley. These two teams figured to be the two favorites in the conference, and to this point, they’ve played like it.
Dallas Baptist will come into the series at 22-3 overall, winners of 17 out of their last 18 games. The assumption about the Patriots coming into the season was that they were going to throw some outstanding pitching at teams, and that has held true. Joseph Shaw (5-0, 1.95) has been incredible as the staff ace, and more recent addition to the rotation Trevor Conn (2-1, 1.98) has been nearly as good. Cory Taylor (3-1, 4.34) hasn’t been as consistent, but he is still flashing pretty good stuff (30 K/29 IP).
One thing you’ll notice about their starters is that they don’t throw a ton of innings (32.1, 27.1, 29 for Shaw, Conn, and Taylor), but when you have a versatile bullpen that features stretched out arms like those of Chance Adams (1.33), Drew Smith (2.00), and Sean Stutzman (2.87), that’s perfectly fine. At the back end, calling closer Brandon Koch dominant is a gross understatement. He has a 0.00 ERA and five saves on the season. In 12.1 innings, he has struck out 26 and opposing batters are hitting just .079 against him. It’s tempting to say that those are video game numbers, but if those are your numbers on a video game, it’s time to turn the difficulty up. That’s how unreal Koch has been.
The pitching has been the focal point of the team, but as it turns out, these guys can also hit. As a team, they’re hitting .305, led by the wonderfully named Tagg Duce (.379/.477/.563, 3 HR, 25 RBI) in the middle of the order. Around him, Justin Wall (.345/3/21), Camden Duzenack (.343/3/30), Drew Turbin (.330, .488 OBP), and Nash Knight (.312) have all been great. David Martinelli (.321/7/20) and Trooper Reynolds (.258/5/21) have also provided considerable pop. The offense could actually be even better, as top prospect Daniel Salters is hitting just .200 so far. If he can get going, their lineup goes to another level.
Missouri State will come into the series riding high, having just beaten Arkansas 2-0 on the road in the midweek, running their overall record to a very solid 18-7.
Like the Patriots, MSU is known for their stout pitching staff and their rotation of Jon Harris (3-0, 1.33), Matt Hall (4-1, 2.64), and most recently, Jordan Knutson (1-1, 2.32) has lived up to that billing. The two teams have a vastly different approach to splitting up their innings, however. Whereas DBU chooses to pull starters earlier in the game and use relievers for multiple innings, MSU leans heavily on their starters to carry the load, and they keep a pretty thin bullpen. Bryan Young (2.57, 4 SV), Zach Merciez (3.50), and Sam Perez (6.45) are the only three relievers with more than 6.1 innings to their name.
On offense, Tate Matheny is the big name and he has been pretty good for them, hitting .292 with a .421 on-base percentage. He has, however, been outdone in the MSU lineup by Blake Graham (.338), Dylan Becker (.313, .487 OBP), Joey Hawkins (.311), and Jake Burger (.297). They’re not an overly explosive lineup on the whole, but they are going to make the DBU pitchers work and they aren’t going to beat themselves. They have exactly as many walks on the year (133) as they have strikeouts.
There’s a lot of baseball yet to be played, and there are a couple of other teams in the league capable of interjecting, but this series could go a long way toward crowning the MVC regular season champ.
Way Off the Beaten Path
Sacramento State at Seattle
In the WAC this week, we have a series between the prohibitive favorite in the league (Sacramento State) and an upstart squad off to a good start in league play (Seattle). For the Hornets, pitching is the name of the game. Their rotation of Brennan Leitao (3-1, 1.64), Sam Long (5-0, 1.73), and Justin Dillon (3-3, 2.70) has led them not only to a 6-0 start in conference play, but also to series wins against the likes of Utah and Cal Poly and a close series loss to nationally-ranked UC-Santa Barbara.
On offense, Nathan Lukes has done the heavy lifting with a .408/.500/.571 slash line. He leads the team in all three of those categories along with home runs (3) and RBI (17). Overall, the Sac State lineup isn’t overly imposing with a .265 team average and 11 total home runs, but Lukes is a legitimate threat.
You also can’t overstate how battle-tested the Hornets are. In addition to the aforementioned games against UC-Santa Barbara, Cal Poly, and Utah, they have also played Texas Tech and Nevada (twice) in midweek affairs.
Seattle is just 12-14 overall, but they’ve gotten off to a 5-1 start in conference play with a series win over Utah Valley and a sweep of UT-Pan American under their belts. Their rotation isn’t quite as stacked as that of Sacramento State, but the trio of Will Dennis (4-2, 2.49), Skyler Genger (3-4, 3.57), and Tarik Skubal (2-3, 3.26) has been very solid. Like Sacramento State, the Redhawks’ lineup isn’t all that deep, but in Sheldon Stober (.340/1/21) they have a quality middle-of-the-order bat.
On paper, it’s tough to see Seattle playing up and stealing this series from the favorites, but series like this are how plucky upstarts like the Redhawks graduate into legitimate contenders.