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College  | Story  | 4/7/2016

Weekend Preview: Week 8

Patrick Ebert      Jheremy Brown      Andrew Krause      Mike Rooney     
Photo: East Carolina

Midseason AwardsNational Notebook | Perfect Game Top 25 | Video VaultPerfect Game College Baseball on SiriusXM College Sports

We're at the midpoint of the season as teams start to jockey for postseason position. Wins at certain times and in certain places start to mean bigger and potentially better things as we can start to decipher the importance of RPI. While conference play is still relatively new to the 2016 season, seven weekends of the regular season are down with seven more to go.

This weekend there are four series that include Top 25-ranked opponents playing one another, all of which are detailed below. There are also two other crucial series as No. 21 UC Santa Barbara plays at College of Charleston and East Carolina looks to continue their winning ways in a difficult AAC matchup at Tulane.

And speaking of the midpoint of the season, be sure to read Perfect Game's midseason report in which several honors were handed out, including a Midseason Player, Pitcher, Freshman, Coach and Team of the Year, to go along with a pair of Midseason All-American squads. Congratulations to everyone honored, but a special mention needs to go out to Clemson's Seth Beer, who was named both the Player and Freshman of the Year so far. That feature is linked just above.

Stay tuned to Perfect Game this weekend for first-hand reports from Jheremy Brown, who will be at Virginia/Boston College, Andrew Krause, who will see Dakota Hudson take on Logan Shore in Gainesville on Friday, as well as Mike Rooney, who is scheduled to see both Arizona State and Arizona over the weekend.

Top 25 in Action

Rk. Team Opponent Location
1 Florida home vs. No. 8 Mississippi State Gainesville, FL
2 Miami at Notre Dame South Bend, IN
3 Vanderbilt at No. 25 Louisiana State Baton Rouge, LA
4 Louisville at No. 10 Florida State Tallahassee, FL
5 Texas Christian at Kansas Lawrence, KS
6 Texas A&M home vs. Georgia College Station, TX
7 California at Oregon Eugene, OR
8 Mississippi State at No. 1 Florida Gainesville, FL
9 Oregon State home vs. Central Arkansas Corvallis, OR
10 Florida State home vs. No. 4 Louisville Tallahassee, FL
11 South Carolina home vs. Tennessee Columbia, SC
12 North Carolina home vs. Virginia Tech Chapel Hill, NC
13 NC State home vs. Wake Forest Raleigh, NC
14 Mississippi home vs. Arkansas Oxford, MS
15 Florida Atlantic home vs. Charlotte Boca Raton, FL
16 BYU home vs. San Diego Provo, UT
17 Oklahoma State home vs. No. 19 Texas Tech Stilllwater, OK
18 Michigan home vs. Minnesota Ann Arbor, MI
19 Texas Tech at No. 17 Oklahoma State Stilllwater, OK
20 Coastal Carolina at Radford Radford, VA
21 UC Santa Barbara at College of Charleston Charleston, SC
22 Clemson at Duke Durham, NC
23 Virginia at Boston College Boston, MA
24 Houston home vs. UCF Houston, TX
25 Louisiana State home vs. No. 3 Vanderbilt Baton Rouge, LA

Marquee Matchup #1

East Carolina at Tulane

While this space is usually reserved for matchups regarding two teams who are ranked within the Top 25 nationally, the East Carolina and Tulane matchup will offer as much entertainment as both are strong contenders to take down the American Athletic crown. And though neither are in the current Top 25, they’re both close and a series sweep for either squad could put them in good favor come Monday morning.

Coach Cliff Godwin has done wonders with the Pirates, finishing with a 40-win campaign in his first year last spring before opening up this year at 20-9 and coming off an emphatic series win over then-ranked No. 15 Houston to open conference play. Freshman Dwayna Sutton-Williams may lead the ECU offense with a .382/.473/.632 triple slash, and has served as one of the more consistent bats, but it’s a well-rounded offense that has plenty of experience. Senior Parker Lamm in addition to juniors Luke Bolka, Kirk Morgan, Eric Tyler and Travis Watkins are all hitting north of the .300 mark.

Stephen Alemais (Parker Waters)
The 1-2 punch in the Pirates’ weekend rotation has been extraordinary this spring with junior lefthander Evan Kruczynski taking the ball on Friday nights and senior righthander Jimmy Boyce following on Saturdays, while Jacob Wolfe has thrown well on Sundays. After facing a difficult lefthander last weekend in Connecticut’s Anthony Kay, Tulane will again be tasked with another difficult lefthander in Kruczynski, who is now 4-0 on the year with a mere 1.88 ERA. After Kruczynski struck out eight and went eight strong last Friday, Boyce finished with eight punchouts in 8 2/3 innings of his own, and combined the duo allowed just two runs opposite Houston’s dynamic duo of Andrew Lantrip and Seth Romero. And if the starters are capable of going deep once again they’ll be able to hand the ball off to closer Joe Ingle, one of the better stoppers in the entire conference.

Opposite the Pirates is Tulane, a club that is now 19-9 after splitting the first two games at Connecticut before Mother Nature claimed game three, though they did go 2-1 last week after adding an impressive midweek victory against Louisiana State, 6-1. The Green Wave is 13-2 at home this spring and with the Pirates making the trip south, it’s something that could play as an advantage for Coach David Pierce’s club.

Tulane’s top offensive performer, shortstop Stephen Alemais, is one of the best defenders in all of college baseball, and he’s also considered one of the top draft prospects in the American Athletic Conference. After missing some time with an injury Alemais is back and looks to build off of his .391 batting average while making slick plays up the middle. Freshman Grant Witherspoon took Anthony Kay deep last weekend for a grand slam and has been arguably the most consistent bat in the lineup for Coach Pierce, hitting .341/.455/.516. Hunter Hope leads the team with eight home runs, while Jake Rogers, another potential day one draft pick, continues to show his plus defensive skills while tapping into his power offensively as he is hitting a hair shy of .300.

Ross Massey has thrown well on Fridays and creates a formidable matchup against Kruczynski, meaning runs may be hard to come by as Massey sports a sub-2.00 ERA of his own on the year. Senior Emerson Gibbs has logged a team-best 43 2/3 innings and should give Tulane a quality start on Saturday with Alex Massey rounding out the trio before dipping into their bullpen, an area that features several reliable arms that can be called upon. 

Marquee Matchup #2

No. 21 UC Santa Barbara at College of Charleston

According to the RPI, the nation's Nos. 10 and 11 teams will play this weekend, and you will never, ever guess who they are. I'll give you a hint: these are two of the very best mid-major programs in the country, and that's not all they have in common. 

UCSB (No. 10 RPI) travels across the country to play at the College of Charleston (11) and this is a series with massive postseason implications. As it stands right now, both of these clubs are legitimate Regional host candidates.

Bailey Ober (College of Charleston)
Charleston has a rich postseason tradition and the Cougars have been to an incredible seven Regionals since 2004. In two of those efforts (2006 and 2014) this program won their Regional and advanced to the Super Regional round.

UCSB is tracking along this same trajectory under Andrew Checketts and the Gauchos have been to two Regionals in his four-year tenure. And if that wasn't enough, the 2015 club hosted the school's first ever Regional with a team that had a school record 10 players drafted. One of those ten players was first rounder Dillon Tate, who was taken fourth overall by the Texas Rangers.

Additionally, both of these skippers have been mentored by some of the best in the business. Charleston's Matt Heath played for two Hall of Famers in Andy Lopez and Skip Bertman. Heath then apprenticed under John Pawlowski and Monte Lee.

Andrew Checketts played for Pat Casey at Oregon State. He soon began a long and impactful journey as an assistant coach and his first stop was Riverside City College where he worked for California Junior College legend Dennis Rogers. Checketts then had great success as Doug Smith's pitching coach at UC Riverside, where he mentored Joe Kelly. Finally, Checketts was George Horton's lead assistant at Oregon, helping the Ducks to two Top 8 National Seed seasons.

Both clubs stand out on the mound with two strong starters and one elite reliever. The Cougars rotation begins with Nathan Helvey and Bailey Ober and these two are first and third respectively in the CAA in batting average against. Both Helvey and Ober were key arms on the 2014 team that won the Gainesville Regional, and the 6-foot-8 Ober started game two of the Lubbock Super Regional as a true freshman. Closer Carter Love has six saves and a 1.86 ERA.

UCSB leads their rotation with Shane Bieber and Noah Davis. Bieber is one of the nation's best strike throwers (1.13 walks per nine innings) and the freshman Davis is a star in the making. Dynamic reliever Kyle Nelson has a minuscule ERA of 0.65 and he will be used in any winnable game.

Neither club has an overwhelming offense but they are efficient nonetheless. Both squads are strong in the area of free passes with Charleston ranking eighth in the nation in walks drawn while the Gauchos are fifth in the country in the most important stat in college baseball: hit by pitch.

The winner of the series will leave the weekend with the inside track on a Regional Host position and a signature series victory on their postseason resume.

Mound Matchup

Dakota Hudson (No. 8 Mississippi State) vs. Logan Shore (No. 1 Florida)

Dakota Hudson came into the 2016 with plenty of buzz, as he put together an impressive summer stint in the Cape Cod League for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks. However, there were still some question marks surrounding the 6-foot-5, 215-pound righty as he had thrown only 34 innings combined in his freshman and sophomore seasons for the Bulldogs and been a bit erratic with his command during that time frame.

Suffice it to say, Hudson has answered plenty of the questions evaluators had about him in his first seven starts this season. The junior’s mid-90s fastball and low-90s cutter have been devastating as he’s posted 56 strikeouts in 48 2/3 innings, and after his most recent outing (9 innings, 4 hits, 0 runs, 0 walks and 11 strikeouts against in-state rival Ole Miss), Hudson now owns a 4-1 record and a conference-best 0.92 ERA. As a result he also was recently named Perfect Game’s Midseason Pitcher of the Year.

Dakota Hudson (Mississippi State Media Relations)
While he entered the season as a possible first-rounder, Hudson has seemingly cemented himself as a Top-20 pick this spring, and he should give Mississippi State a good chance to win the opening game of the series.

However, the Gators will counter with a likely first-rounder of their own in Logan Shore. While Shore’s stuff and velocity may not have quite the same flash as Hudson’s, he possesses a tremendous knowledge and feel for pitching. He’s been as consistent as ever this season and has even posted a much-improved whiff rate (10.58 strikeouts per nine innings) while cutting into an already miniscule walk rate (1.73 walks per nine). The Bulldogs’ lineup is typically pretty right-side heavy, but that shouldn’t stop Shore from throwing his plus changeup, as he has the confidence and command to effectively use the offering against any hitter.

After Friday the hitters from both teams won’t get much respite, however, as aside from the stable of quality bullpen arms both teams can use the expected starters for the Saturday contest have been exceptional this year as well. Austin Sexton led Mississippi State in innings pitched (76.1) and strikeouts (61) one season ago, and he’s taken his game to another level as a junior. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound righty has combined with Hudson to form one of the more potent and consistent 1-2 punches in the SEC and he’s thrown two complete games, including one last weekend to help secure a Bulldogs series victory over Ole Miss.

Florida sophomore Alex Faedo has been the most effective starting pitcher within the uber-talented Gators rotation, and he’s missed bats at an extremely high level, striking out a conference-best 60 in just 42 2/3 innings pitched. Sporting a quality three-pitch mix that includes a steady 92-95 mph fastball, plus slider and effective changeup, Faedo presents opposing hitters with an unenviable task as he also owns above average command and pitchability.

Sunday’s game could be more of a wildcard, as A.J. Puk was lifted after just 10 pitches last weekend (back spasms), but he will probably be available as he was removed largely for precautionary reasons, while Mississippi State skipper Josh Cohen has implied that the Bulldogs will likely turn to a pitcher that has yet to start a Southeastern Conference game. Regardless, there’s enough depth and talent on both staffs to provide hitters with another day of uncomfortable at-bats.

National Notes

• Although they opened the year as PG’s sixth-ranked team, the LSU Tigers are on the cusp of being bounced from the Top 25 if they don’t claim their home series against the third-ranked Vanderbilt Commodores. LSU got off to a hot start against a weak non-conference slate but have since fallen back, going 6-6 since the beginning of SEC play. While the offense is doing its job, per usual, as are starters Jared Poche and John Valek III, Alex Lange has been unable to carry the success from his sensational freshman season to the 2016 season. Whether or not he’s able to re-find that form could be the difference for LSU the rest of the year, especially considering the lack of productive arms past Poche and Lange a year ago is essentially what ended their season last June in Omaha.

Vanderbilt on the other hand appears to be trending in a positive direction now that they have found some staff stability with Jordan Sheffield, Kyle Wright and Hayden Stone as the weekend starters. Moving Stone to the Sunday role allowed Ben Bowden to move back to the bullpen to serve as the team's closer, where he has been dominant. However, winning at The Box in Baton Rouge is never an easy task.

• The fourth-ranked Cardinals of Louisville face another stout ACC test as they travel to Tallahassee to take on the 10th-ranked Seminoles. Kyle Funkhouser enjoyed his best start of the season after being removed from the Friday role and re-inserted into the Sunday role (in a game played on Monday), as he struck out 11 in seven innings as Louisville swept Virginia Tech at home. Florida State is just anxious to get a weekend series in after losing two games from each of the past two weekends to bad weather. Slowing down John Sansone and the FSU offense will prove to be a difficult task, although the same can be said for Louisville’s offense. The Cardinals have more to play for in the resume building department, as taking a series, especially on the road, against a fellow top 10 ranked opponent would be huge after losing road series to Miami and Ole Miss earlier this year.

• Keep an eye on an important Big 12 Conference tilt between No. 17 Oklahoma State and No. 19 Texas Tech in Stillwater, Okla. Texas Tech has to feel good about themselves after splitting a pair of midweek games against Florida State in Tallahassee, and they have also swept their last two Big 12 series (Oklahoma and Kansas State) after taking two of three from Baylor to open conference play. Although the Cowboys lost their last weekend series to a scrappy West Virginia squad, on the road, they did claim a midweek contest against Arkansas, took their home series against Michigan in mid-March and have midweek road wins against both Missouri State and Dallas Baptist. Obviously a series win will prove to be huge for either club.

There’s not a single easy out in the Red Raiders lineup, a group that is cumulatively hitting .292 on the year with 26 home runs. The pitching staff hasn’t been as strong as they hoped, although relievers Hayden Howard and Robert Dugger are pulling some serious overtime as both have over 30 innings logged so far this year out of the bullpen. Oklahoma State on the other hand has two weekend starters (Thomas Hatch and Jensen Elliott) with ERAs below 2.00, and two integral relievers who can claim the same. The offense is only hitting .241 as a unit, but there is a lot more potential for bigger numbers if sluggers like Ryan Sluder, Collin Theroux and/or Dustin Williams catch fire.