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College  | Story  | 2/22/2018

Weekend Preview: Week 2

Patrick Ebert      Mike Rooney     
Photo: LSU Athletics

Quick Take: North Carolina | Quick Take: South Florida | Quick Take: TCUPlayer/Pitcher of the Week

One week into the college baseball season and there's no shortage of big storylines. While we like to keep our focus on the action on the field it's hard not to ignore what happened in Mississippi State with the resignation of now former head coach Andy Cannizaro, not to mention two big arms being lost for the season in Texas Tech's Steven Gingery and Florida State's Tyler Holton. It's hard to even think of any other starting pitchers who have as great of an importance to their teams' success as those two.

The second weekend of the 2018 season will have no shortage of drama on the fields with some really interesting matchups, especially on the West Coast. San Diego State and the University of San Diego are hosting the Tony Gwynn Classic that includes No. 6 Arkansas, Arizona, Cal Poly, Grand Canyon and Michigan. Moving up the Pacific Coast No. 15 UCLA hosts Baylor, No. 19 Houston will be at Cal State Fullerton and Rice will play at No. 10 Stanford.

In the middle of the nation the bigger series will take place in Fort Worth, Texas (Long Beach State at No. 3 TCU), Baton Rouge, La. (Texas at LSU) and Oxford, Miss. (Tulane at No. 11 Ole Miss). And on the East Coast No. 7 North Carolina and East Carolina will square off against one another at three different locations while No. 22 Clemson will welcome a dangerous Dallas Baptist team in a series that promises a lot of fireworks.

And just to prove we're paying attention, there's also the No. 1 Florida Gators traveling to Coral Gables to take on the No. 9 Miami Hurricanes. Given the importance of this series PG has dispatched Vinnie Cervino to cover the two teams in person so be sure to stay tuned for those updates during the weekend. In addition, Mike Rooney will keep his eyes in Arizona with No. 2 Oregon State and others participating in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge.

Top 25 in Action

Rk. Team Opponent Location
1 Florida at No. 9 Miami Coral Cables, FL
2 Oregon State vs. Nebraska, Ohio State Surprise, AZ
3 Texas Christian home vs. Long Beach State Fort Worth, TX
4 Texas Tech at Texas-San Antonio San Antonio, TX
5 Florida State home vs. Troy Tallahassee, FL
6 Arkansas at Tony Gwynn Classic (Cal Poly, SDSU, USD) San Diego, CA
7 North Carolina vs. East Carolina Greenville, Durham, Chapel Hill, NC
8 Kentucky home vs. Oakland Lexington, KY
9 Miami home vs. No. 1 Florida Coral Gables, FL
10 Stanford home vs. Rice Stanford, CA
11 Ole Miss home vs. Tulane Oxford, MS
12 NC State home vs. Furman Raleigh, NC
13 Louisville home vs. Youngstown State Louisville, KY
14 Texas A&M home vs. Cornell College Station, TX
15 UCLA home vs. Baylor Los Angeles, CA
16 Louisiana State home vs. No. 21 Texas Baton Rouge, LA
17 Indiana at Snowbird Classic (Rutgers, Boston College, Chicago State) Port Charlotte, FL
18 Southern Miss at SFA Tournament (South Dakota State, UT Arlington, Stephen F. Austin) Nacogdoches, TX
19 Houston at Cal State Fullerton Fullerton, CA
20 Sam Houston State home vs. Cincinnati Huntsville, TX
21 Texas at No. 16 LSU Baton Rouge, LA
22 Clemson home vs. Dallas Baptist Clemson, SC
23 Vanderbilt home vs. UMass-Lowell Nashville, TN
24 Oklahoma home vs. Holy Cross, Valparaiso Norman, OK
25 Duke home vs. Bucknell Durham, NC

Do you remember?

Between 1999 (the first year of the Super Regional era) and 2008, Rice and Stanford combined to make an astonishing 12 trips to Omaha. And that era seemed to peak in 2003 when Rice defeated Stanford in the College World Series finals. However, neither program has been back to the CWS since the 2008 season. When considering these lofty standards, it’s fair to say both programs have down trended over the last decade.

Well, it feels like it’s time to get excited about these two proud programs again. Stanford has an elite rotation and shortstop Nico Hoerner is a winner deluxe. New skipper David Esquer’s club is off to a 4-0 start with their impressive home sweep over Cal State Fullerton being an immediate postseason resume builder.

Wayne Graham’s Owls are off to a 3-1 start including a big road win over preseason darling UCF. Most importantly, familiar names like Ryan Chandler, Ricardo Salinas and Chace Sarchet look like potential breakout candidates. Add that group to mainstays like Ford Proctor, Dominic DiCaprio and Matt Canterino and you have a club that looks capable of sending Coach Graham back to the center of America.

Trade partners

Texas’ David Pierce must fancy himself the Evil Knievel of College Baseball because the Longhorns non-conference schedule is not the work of a sane man. Texas won their opening series with Louisiana but six games with Stanford and Arkansas remain before Big 12 play begins. And I may have forgotten to mention that they also head to LSU this weekend for another non-conference battle royale.

Meanwhile, the LSU fan base may be searching for the panic button as the Tigers lost their opening home series to Notre Dame in a matchup that nearly ended up in a sweep for the visitors. Most importantly, the doubts around star reliever Zack Hess’ ability to transition to starter were confirmed and then some. Adding to the uncertainty is the recent injury to star shortstop Josh Smith.

This series is fascinating because these two clubs are polar opposites. LSU, even without Smith, has a dynamic offense. Countering that is the stellar Texas pitching staff and its team ERA of 1.00. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that these two outstanding units will do battle in what is typically a very hitter-friendly ballpark (Alex Box Stadium).

On the LSU front, I’d like to offer a long-term pitching solution if I may be so bold. Start from the back and work forward. Reports from last weekend indicated that Matthew Beck and Austin Bain were dominant in their relief work. Add Zack Hess to that duo and you have an intimidating 12-out bullpen. This part isn’t ideal, but then move talented freshmen Devin Fontenot and Ma’Khail Hilliard to the rotation. If they can give you 15 outs per start, the Tigers may be on to something.

This idea will have to wait as Hess has been announced as the Friday starter versus Texas. And in all fairness, it is possible that the return of starting catcher Hunter Feduccia may make a big difference for Hess.

Hungry for more

The East Carolina-North Carolina series will travel throughout the state of North Carolina this weekend, as one game each will be played in Greenville, Durham and Chapel Hill. These are two programs with something to prove in 2018.

The Pirates struggled through a highly anticipated 2017 season that was supposed to salve their disappointment from a heartbreaking elimination in the 2016 Lubbock Super Regional (they were literally 90 feet from Omaha). Cliff Godwin’s program did show its muster with a late run to the AAC Tournament Championship game, re-assuring us that this program is ascending.

Mike Fox led the Tar Heels to the No. 2 National Seed a year ago, and this was an impressive program reboot after UNC has missed two consecutive NCAA Tournaments in 2015 and 2016. Unfortunately, a Cinderella named Davidson showed up to the Chapel Hill Regional and the rest is history as they say.

UNC is 2-3 currently but that does include two road wins versus highly regarded South Florida. That said, questions remain as to whether this very deep and talented roster can overcome the losses of three players taken in the first 36 picks of the 2017 MLB Draft, J.B. Bukauskas, Logan Warmoth and Brian Miller.

ECU is off to an impressive 4-0 start and this is a roster that features many newer names in prominent roles. This should come as no surprise however, as Godwin and his talented coaching staff bring strong recruiting chops to the party. The Pirates have earned four Super Regional births since 2001 and this program’s eventual arrival in Omaha feels inevitable. There is little doubt that this weekend series will have a Super Regional flavor to it.

– Mike Rooney

Strong first impressions

Two of the more impressive wins during the first weekend of the 2018 season came from SEC West teams, No. 6 Arkansas and No. 11 Ole Miss. Each made quick work of Bucknell and Winthrop, respectively, with the Razorbacks out-scoring Bucknell 49-7 in three games (which included a 32-4 blowout on Saturday) and Ole Miss allowed only one earned run against a team expected to win the Big South.

While the Razorbacks’ bats were the talk of their opening series, and Carson Shaddy was named the SEC Player of the Week given his gaudy results, it’s the pitching staff that is the most interesting development. Staff ace Blaine Knight was a draft-eligible sophomore a year ago and yet he opted to return for his junior year. Isaiah Campbell missed most of the 2017 season due to injury and he returned to fire low-90s fastballs, much like Knight did, on his way to striking out seven in four innings of work.

Sunday starter Keaton McKinney doesn’t throw as hard as consistently as Knight and Campbell but he possesses one of the nation’s best changeups, and after he too missed the 2017 season due to injury made a triumphant, albeit short, return to the mound over the weekend.

The depth doesn’t stop with those three starters, as 12 other pitchers took the mound during Arkansas’ series sweep and threw at least one inning. None of those pitchers made more than one appearance, and only three of them, outside of the three starters, threw more than one inning.

It’s clear there remains some on-the-job competition in Fayetteville, and they have a bigger test this weekend in San Diego as they’re participating in the Tony Gwynn Legacy tournament hosted by San Diego State and USD. They will face off against Cal Poly in addition to the tournament’s two hosts, and began their time in San Diego with a mid-week win over Arizona on Wednesday.

In that contest Kacey Murphy threw six scoreless innings of one-hit ball to earn the win in a 1-0 victory, as freshman Heston Kjerstad’s solo home run in the fifth inning proved to be the only run that would cross the plate.

Ole Miss also enters the weekend at 4-0 and will host a dangerous Tulane club that is trending upward, coming off a weekend sweep of their own against a solid Wright State team. Similar to Arkansas, Ole Miss used 11 different pitchers in their series against Winthrop, and no pitcher took the mound more than once. Of the five runs they allowed only one was earned, and each of their starters went at least five innings and recorded at least six strikeouts.

Ryan Rolison set the tone early with a 12-strikeout performance in five innings on Friday that earned him SEC Pitcher of the Week honors. Brady Feigl and James McArthur followed in the weekend rotation, with numerous hard-throwing (and strike-throwing) options to come in from the ‘pen.

That depth carried over to Ole Miss’ mid-week win over Memphis, as Houston Roth, who threw three innings in relief or Rolison on Friday, got the starting nod and provided four strong innings to get the win. Fire-balling closer Dallas Woolfolk eventually recorded his second save of the young season to preserve the win.

What’s especially encouraging for the Rebels is that a few of the prized members of their 2016-17 recruiting class are starting to show signs of life offensively. Shortstop Grae Kessinger is hitting .444 so far out of the leadoff spot. Outfielder Thomas Dillard opened the year with a three-hit game. Cooper Johnson has looked better at the plate as he shares catching duties with junior Nick Fortes. And Fortes is coming off of a two home run, six RBI mid-week contest, playing first base on the days he doesn’t catch.

While it’s far too early to get too far ahead of ourselves with any team’s initial success, both teams are winning exactly as projected prior to the start of the season. One thing’s for certain, Swayze Field in Oxford is going to be rocking when the two teams face one another during the final weekend in March.

– Patrick Ebert