With Friday's college baseball action in the books, here's our inside look back at the highlights and lowlights from around the country.
TEAM OF THE DAY: Stanford
The Cardinal has been outstanding so far this season, and that trend continued Friday night in a 4-2 win in 10 innings over Rice. Outfielder Justin Ringo smashed a two-run walk-off home run in the 10th to win the contest, but it was the pitching performance put together by Mark Appel that caught the most attention. Appel struck out a career-high 14 batters and allowed just two runs on four hits in nine innings of work. What a clutch performance by the Cardinal.
PLAYER OF THE DAY: Adam Plutko, rhp, UCLA
After opening the season with a tough series loss to Maryland, the Bruins have played well the past couple of weeks. That continued on Friday night, as the Bruins defeated previously red-hot Georgia 2-0 behind the arm of right-handed pitcher Adam Plutko. Plutko struck out 11 batters and allowed just five hits in a complete-game shutout of the Bulldogs. He threw 127 pitches, 93 of them for strikes. What a road performance by the righty.
UPSET OF THE DAY: Illinois over Oregon
The Ducks have been one of the nation's biggest surprises this season, but ran into a buzz saw in Illinois junior right-hander pitcher Kevin Johnson. Johnson pitched an absolute gem in a 2-1 win over the Ducks. Johnson struck out five batters and allowed just a run on four hits in a complete-game performance. He threw 109 pitches, 79 of them for strikes. Offensively, Jordan Parr and Willie Argo each finished the contest with two hits.
FIVE BEST TEAMS
Stanford: What a game it was in Palo Alto, as right-hander Mark Appel tossed a gem in a 4-2 win over Rice. Appel struck out a career-high 14 batters, while Justin Ringo had the big hit in extra innings. Stanford just continues to find impressive ways to win games.
Texas A&M: The Aggies faced their toughest test of the season to-date, and passed with flying colors, striking out 13 Cal State Fullerton hitters en route to a 6-1 triumph. Starting pitcher Michael Wacha struck out eight and allowed just one run (not earned) on two hits in six innings, while Estevan Uriegas, Kyle Martin and Daniel Mengden did a nice job out of the pen. Tyler Naquin, as usual, had a productive night at the plate.
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets have a stiff test at N.C. State this weekend, but they made the series opener look easy, winning the contest 14-6. Leadoff hitter Kyle Wren recorded three hits and knocked in two runs, while catcher Zane Evans recorded three hits and four RBIs in the victory. It was a very impressive statement to start the weekend.
UCLA: Remember when everyone was concerned about the Bruins after the Maryland series? Yeah, well, that's no longer the case. The Bruins won their eighth-straight contest on Friday with a 2-0 triumph over Georgia. UCLA starting pitcher Adam Plutko tossed a complete-game shutout against the Bulldogs.
Illinois: The Illini have had some consistency issues so far this season, but continue to show that if those issues are solved, they've got a chance to do some special things in the Big Ten this spring. Willie Argo and Jordan Parr were solid at the plate, while veteran pitcher Kevin Johnson tossed a gem in a road win over Oregon.
FIVE WITH SOMETHING TO PROVE
Oklahoma: The Sooners showed a lot of heart by mounting a fierce ninth-inning rally, but still dropped an 8-7 decision to Connecticut. OU starting pitcher Steven Okert didn't have a good day on the mound, as he struck out five, walked four, and allowed five runs on six hits in seven innings of work. The OU bullpen didn't fare much better.
Gonzaga: The Bulldogs were on an absolute roll entering Friday's game against the Lobos, but dropped a tough 11-6 decision in shocking fashion. Gonzaga starting pitcher Tyler Olson, who had been solid so far this season, allowed four runs on 10 hits in 5 1/3 innings, while the bullpen struggled immensely with Derek Anderson and Zach Abruzza getting touched up for a combined seven runs.
UC Irvine: I think it's officially time to come out and say the Anteaters aren't impressing me this season. They had another poor performance on Friday, dropping a 6-1 decision to BYU to fall to 7-6 on the season. The Anteaters got a solid performance from starting pitcher Andrew Thurman, but struggled in a big way on the mound.
Long Beach State: Dirtbags head coach Troy Buckley will have nightmares about one-run games for a few weeks. His team dropped all three games to Oregon last weekend by one run. Well, the Dirtbags continued that trend on Friday with a tough 3-2 extra-inning loss to Arizona State. LBSU starting pitcher Shawn Stuart was solid, striking out five and allowing just two runs on five hits in a complete-game performance.
San Francisco: The Dons started the season on a high note, but now must find their way back after dropping a 6-2 decision to Fresno State. With the loss, the Dons' season record dropped to 7-8. USF starting pitcher Kyle Zimmer had a bizarre outing. He struck out 10 batters, but also allowed six runs on nine hits in six innings of work.
FIVE QUICK THOUGHTS
* The series certainly could go either way the rest of the weekend, but if you were looking at one game as a measuring stick, Texas A&M looked much better than Cal State Fullerton in Friday's series opener, a contest in which the Aggies won 6-1. A&M pitchers struck out 13 Fullerton hitters. Quite frankly, the Fullerton hitters had terrible approaches at the plate. For instance, in one situation, a Fullerton batter tried to call timeout while A&M starting pitcher Michael Wacha was almost ready to release the ball. Just little things like that seemed bizarre, because the Titans certainly looked the part against Florida a couple of weekends ago. How the Titans get things back on track after the last couple of games is a good question. Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook headed for the team bus as soon as the team meeting was done following the game, obviously disgusted with his team's play. While Fullerton starting pitcher Dylan Floro started the game on a bad note, he got stronger as the game progresses and only was lifted after the rain delay. He topped out at 91 with a nasty curve, when he threw it for strikes ... Meanwhile, for the Aggies, Wacha looked fantastic, sitting at 92-94 despite the 45-degree temperatures. But most impressive to me, left-handed reliever Estevan Uriegas, who has had consistency issues in the past, was fantastic in an inning of work, while freshman closer Daniel Mengden flashed a solid 92-93 fastball and a buckling changeup. Talking about how impressive All-American outfielder Tyler Naquin would almost seem cliche at this point, so how about shortstop Mikey Reynolds? He made some fantastic plays in the field, while also hitting the ball hard. He continues the tradition of very solid shortstops during the Rob Childress era.
* It likely won't happen with Stanford right-handed pitcher Mark Appel putting together such a strong junior campaign thus far, but I'm warming up to the idea of Florida catcher Mike Zunino ending up the No. 2 pick in the MLB draft come June. Sure, some people have Arizona State's Deven Marrero ahead of him in the position player pecking order, but it's so hard to beat the Zunino package. In a 4-2 win over Florida Gulf Coast, Zunino hit two home runs and knocked in all of the Gators' wins. For the season, he's now hitting .440 with seven home runs and 19 RBIs. On top of that, Zunino is an excellent defensive catcher and a fantastic leader. There's nothing not to like about Zunino.
* There was a lot of talk in the offseason about Stanford right-handed pitcher Mark Appel and his past inability to overwhelm opposing hitters. That concern is being lifted so far this spring, with Appel showing much more overpowering stuff than usual. Sure, he had the tough showing at Fresno State last weekend. But again, with the lights on against Rice, Appel shined with 14 strikeouts in nine innings of work. Appel has always had the stuff to be a tremendous pitcher at the collegiate level. He's picking a good time to rise to the occasion.
* It's funny how things work sometimes. After losing a season-opening series to Maryland and getting pounded in the series opener to Baylor a few weeks ago, there's no doubt there was some collective grumbling amongst the UCLA faithful. Now, coach John Savage has turned things around in quick order, and the Bruins are 10-3 after a solid win over a good Georgia team. The Bruins have played outstanding baseball during their eight-game winning streak, with the offense really stepping up. The Bruins are now hitting .304 for the season, and guys like Kevin Williams (.483) and Jeff Gelalich (.478) leading the way, while Trevor Brown, Cody Keefer and Tyler Heineman continue to do nice things. One prominent West Coast head coach told me before the season he thought the Bruins would have a very productive offense in 2012. We're seeing why he thought that.
* Even if he never wins a national title, North Carolina head coach Mike Fox should go down as one of the great coaches in college baseball history. On multiple occasions over the past few years, the Tar Heels have had teams where observers thought they might be in the midst of a rebuilding process. And each time, it almost seems like the Tar Heels were actually better than the previous team. That could be happening again this season. UNC picked up a solid 4-3 win over Clemson to begin the weekend. Left-handed starting pitcher Kent Emanuel struck out seven and allowed just one earned run on six hits in seven innings, while R.C. Orlan and Michael Morin took care of business out of the bullpen. Sitting at 11-2 overall after the triumph, I can't help but to be impressed with the new-look contender Fox and his staff is putting together.