D1 Digest: Opening Day 2022Analysis
Kendall Rogers’ Five
1. Long Beach State Silences Defending Champs
Long Beach State head coach Eric Valenzuela has had this Mississippi State series circled for a long time. Not because he has some personal grudge against the Bulldogs or anything like that, but because he couldn’t wait for his kids to experience the environment at Dudy Noble. He was thrilled about the opportunity to go play at Mississippi State, the defending national champion, with his team on Opening Weekend, and he didn’t hide that during a conversation last summer.
It also must be said that Valenzuela, a hard-nosed coach, is an avid boxing fan. He loves the sport like no other. So, you just knew the Dirtbags were going to show up in Starkville ready for college baseball’s version of a prize fight.
Long Beach State shocked the defending champs with outstanding pitching in a 3-0 win on Friday. I mean, get this. MSU First Team All-American righthanded pitcher Landon Sims, who was making his first start as a reliever turned starter, was sensational. He struck out 13 Dirtbags, didn’t walk anyone and allowed just one run on five hits in seven innings. Yet, he got the loss.
Why, you ask? Luis Ramirez, and others.
Ramirez, another hard-nosed LBSU pitcher, started and was terrific against the Bulldogs. He struck out five, walked two and didn’t allow a hit in six innings. He was that good, and the LBSU bullpen didn’t let off the gas pedal. Matt Fields struck out three in two shutout frames and heralded reliever Devereaux Harrison tossed a scoreless ninth frame to finish off the victory.
Neither team had a great day offensively, but Kaden Moeller did hit a home run for the Dirtbags, while Eddie Saldivar chipped in a three-hit performance.
2. LSU’s Blake Money Shines In Friday Debut
We all know LSU is going to hit the ball incredibly hard this season. That much is true. However, the pitching staff, and, particularly the starting rotation, is a huge question mark coming into the season. Interestingly, if you’ve listened to our podcast over the past few weeks, I’ve mentioned how LSU righthander Blake Money was someone on the staff with big-time stuff, but who needed to take a huge step forward.
Lo and behold, new LSU coach Jay Johnson put Money in the weekend rotation and the Friday night role entering the opener against Maine. And boy, did he impress.
When I saw Money against Vanderbilt last season, it was a fastball up to 95-96 mph with a hammer slider in the mid-80s. Well, his fastball once again was electric Friday night against the Black Bears in a 13-1 win. Money was in command the entire night, striking out 10, walking one and allowing just two hits in seven shutout innings. He threw 79 pitches in the start, 56 for strikes. Stuff-wise, he was anywhere from 91-95 mph with his fastball, along with a slider at 80-83 mph.
As for that vaunted LSU offense, Tre Morgan had three hits, including a triple, while Brayden Jobert had a home run, two walks and two total hits.
The offense had a great night, but the story on this night was Money and the sudden emergence of a potential, bonafide, ace for Jason Kelly’s pitching staff.
3. Top-ranked Texas Looks The Part
Texas comes into the season with many of the key pieces that got it to the national semifinals last season. So, naturally it’s expected that it will compete for the national title in 2022. But I was interested to see what kind of killer instinct the Longhorns would have against in-state rival Rice on Friday night.
My take? The Longhorns passed the test in a dominant 7-0 victory. They left zero doubt.
UT veteran lefthanded pitcher Pete Hansen was terrific against the Owls, striking out eight, walking one and allowing three hits in six innings of work.
The offense also took care of business, and I had particular interest in the night put together by UT backstop Silas Ardoin. Ardoin was already one of the nation’s premier defensive catchers. But I said last week on our podcast that he could be one of the top two or three overall catchers in college baseball if he took a big step forward offensively. Well, he did that on Friday at least, hitting a home run, double and finishing the night with three hits.
His potential emergence at the plate could be massive for the Longhorns should it continue.
It was business as usual for the top-ranked Longhorns in their season opener.
4. Maryland’s Dean Shines Against Baylor
One of the more intriguing series this weekend involves a pair of teams in the Terps and Bears who are expected to make the NCAA tournament at the end of the season.
Maryland righthanded pitcher Nick Dean stole the show in the series opener. Dean, whom our staff picked as the Preseason Pitcher of the Year in the Big Ten Conference in our conference preview, here, controlled the BU offense throughout the night, striking out eight, walking one and allowing just four hits in seven shutout innings.
He overshadowed Baylor lefthanded pitcher Tyler Thomas, who also put together a solid start in the season opener. Thomas struck out nine, walked one and allowed two runs on four hits in six innings.
Neither team did much offensively, but Chris Alleyne’s big hit in the first inning and Nick Lorusso’s RBI groundout in the same frame proved to be more than enough.
Speaking of the Big Ten, Iowa’s Adam Mazur was terrific in a 12-2 win over Air Force and John Anderson’s Minnesota squad also used strong pitching in a dominant 9-1 win over Florida Atlantic.
In Waco, it was the Nick Dean show.
5. UC Irvine Shows Moxie Against Louisiana
Even with the chilly temperatures in Lafayette, it’s never easy to roll into Russo Park and beat the Cajuns, especially on Opening Night when they lead you 4-2 after three innings of play. But UC Irvine, ranked No. 20 nationally coming into the weekend, isn’t just any team. The Anteaters are hard-nosed, just like Ben Orloff, their head coach.
So, even though the ‘Eaters got into a bit of a hole against Louisiana, they fought back in the middle innings with a five-run fifth inning before the two teams traded zeroes the rest of the way.
In that crucial fifth frame, Connor McGuire led the way with a three-run double before Taishi Nakawake brought in another run with an RBI single. Most impressive is the fact the Anteaters did this damage against stud Louisiana reliever Brandon Talley. Talley finished the night allowing five runs on five hits in just 2.1 innings, while Cajuns righthanded starter Drew Shifflet struck out four, walked four and allowed two runs and five hits in 2.2 innings.
As for UCI, Thomas McCaffrey was the other slugger who had a nice day — he had a three-hit performance, while on the mound, starting pitcher Michael Frias struck out seven, walked two and allowed four runs on five hits in six innings.
It’s one game, and it’s Opening Day. But the fact the Anteaters were able to crawl out of a tiny hole on the road against a solid team is promising for what’s to come.
Aaron Fitt’s Five
1. Meet NC State’s New Whammer: Tommy White
In the fall, I wrote that NC State freshman Tommy White “looks like a surefire star and an instant-impact middle-of-the-order run producer.” How about this for “instant impact”? White went bonkers in his collegiate debut, going 5-for-6 with three home runs and six RBIs in NC State’s 24-6 thrashing of Evansville.
In our Fall Report, NC State coach Elliott Avent compared White to former North Carolina slugger Aaron Sabato. As a thick-bodied corner infielder with light-tower power along with an uncommonly mature plate approach and more athleticism than you might think, White reminds me of former Arizona State great Brett Wallace, except White is a righthanded hitter while Wallace batted from the left side. Pick whatever comp you like – White is the real deal.
The Wolfpack also got strong debuts from its two other key freshmen in the lineup: catcher Jacob Cozart went 2-for-4 with a double and two RBIs, while shortstop Payton Green went 2-for-4 with three runs and two RBIs in the 9-hole. Everybody in the NCSU lineup got into the hit column as part of a 24-hit barrage, and fellow newcomer Dominic Pilolli (a transfer from Charlotte) hit a pair of homers and drove in five runs. The beneficiary of all that support was NC State ace Sam Highfille, who allowed three runs over 5.1 innings to pick up the win.
2. NC Upset Alert: VMI, Bryant Take Down Ranked Teams
Across the Triangle, No. 23 Duke did not enjoy opening day like NC State did. The Blue Devils were doubled up by visiting VMI 10-5. The Keydets bested third-team preseason All-American Marcus Johnson (4.1 IP, 8 H, 5 R, 4 ER) and piled on against the Duke bullpen. Trey Morgan, Zac Morris and Will Knight had three hits apiece to pace VMI’s 15-hit attack in support of Tyler Bradt (6 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 8 K).
The other ranked team in the Old North State, No. 12 East Carolina, also stumbled on opening day, getting blown out at home by Northeast Conference power Bryant, 10-2. With ECU ace Carson Whisenhunt suspended for violating team rules, Garrett Saylor (4 IP, 4 H, 4 ER) got the start and took the loss. Cleanup man Derek Smith led the Bryant attack, going 3-for-4 with three runs and an RBI double. The Bulldogs took the lead early on Alex Lane’s two-run homer in the third inning and never looked back, as Collin Lowe (5 IP, 4 H, 0 R) turned in a strong start and and the bullpen held.
3. Illinois State Topples No. 2 Arkansas
Perhaps the most surprising result of opening day came in Fayetteville, where Illinois State knocked off juggernaut Arkansas 3-2. The Razorbacks are going to have one of college baseball’s most explosive offenses this year – take that to the bank — but five Illinois State pitchers combined to limit the Hogs to just five hits Friday, with lefty Jared Hart earning the win with two shutout innings of relief. After the Redbirds took a 2-0 lead in the first, Arkansas came back to tie it with a pair of solo homers in the fifth courtesy of Jalen Battles and Zack Gregory. But Illinois State answered two innings later, breaking the tie for good on an RBI double by Aidan Huggins.
In their Friday story looking ahead to some Midwest storylines this season, our Burke Granger and Patrick Ebert wrote that the Missouri Valley Conference is usually a two-bid league, but heading into the season it was unclear who the second contender is behind Dallas Baptist. “Indiana State and Illinois State are the other two teams most likely to make the Field of 64 (Indiana State reached the postseason in 2019 and 2021), and both the Sycamores and the Redbirds have scheduled aggressively early in the season for a potential RPI boost.” It’s only one game, but Illinois State certainly made a strong opening argument that it is DBU’s strongest challenger.
For the record Indiana State also won its opener, beating a quality BYU club 3-2 in Florida. Matt Jachec (6.1 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 7 K) turned in a strong start for the Sycamores.
4. Ace Watch: Pitching Prospects Deliver The Goods
Four starting pitcher performances really caught my eye Friday, from talented arms that rank high in our Top 250 Prospects list for the 2022 draft:
• Second-team preseason All-American Hunter Barco (No. 11 on our Top 250 prospects list) shined in Florida’s 7-2 win against a very dangerous Liberty club coming off a trip to the Knoxville Regional finals. Barco struck out 11 against just one walk and yielded only one hit over six shutout innings, throwing just 88 pitches. Florida also got a pair of homers (one of them a grand slam) from my preseason Breakout Star pick, right fielder Sterlin Thompson.
• Speaking of my preseason picks, my non-Top 25 Omaha sleeper pick was Campbell, which blanked Appalachian State 9-0 in its opener. One big reason I’m so high on the Camels is its exciting starting pitching, headlined by draft-eligible sophomore righty Thomas Harrington (No. 37 on our Top 250). Harrington dazzled in his season debut, striking out 13 without issuing a walk over six innings of one-hit shutout ball. Armed with four quality pitches including a fastball that reaches the mid-90s, Harrington is a high-end talent with pitchability to match. Campbell also got a big day from its biggest star, second-team preseason All-America shortstop Zach Neto, who went 2-for-3 with a triple and four RBIs, as the Camels out-hit the Mountaineers 15-1.
• Iowa hoped it landed a true ace through the transfer market in Adam Mazur (No. 61 in our Top 250), but Mazur had plenty to prove after going 2-7, 5.43 last year for South Dakota State. But Mazur impressed us last summer in the Cape Cod League, and he sure impressed on opening day, allowing just one run on one hit and no walks while striking out nine over six innings, leading the Hawkeyes to a 12-2 win against Air Force. Notably, Mazur bested first-team preseason All-American Paul Skenes, the nation’s premier two-way player. Skenes, who is shifting from the back of the bullpen into the Friday starter role, allowed four runs on seven hits over 3.1 innings, though he did strike out eight.
• First-team preseason All-American Parker Messick (No. 56 in our Top 250), the reigning ACC pitcher of the year, racked up 11 strikeouts over 5.2 innings of two-hit, one-run ball in Florida State’s 4-1 win against James Madison. In case you’re wondering how his matchups against JMU preseason All-American and likely first-rounder Chase DeLauter went: Messick struck him out swinging in the first, caught him looking in the third, and got him swinging again in the sixth.
5. Nail-biters By The Bay
The MLB4 tournament in Arizona and the State Farm College Baseball Showdown in Arlington get more attention, but there’s a neat gathering of four teams in Tampa this weekend as well. And both games at USF Baseball Field delivered the drama.
In the opener, Louisville held on to beat Charlotte 8-7, in a matchup between two clubs we project to make regionals heading into the season. Ben Metzinger hit a two-run homer in the first inning, and Louisville extended its early lead to 5-0 through three, but the 49ers fought back repeatedly, with help along the way from a two-run homer by All-American Austin Knight. Cam Fisher added another two-run homer in the ninth to draw Charlotte within a run, but the Cards held on for the victory, as Michael Prosecky completed a two-inning save. Leadoff man Christian Knapczyk led Louisville’s offense with three hits.
In the late game, Big East powerhouse Connecticut rode a 10th-inning homer from Seton Hall transfer Casey Dana to a 5-4 win against host South Florida. UConn ace Austin Peterson (5.2 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 13 K) turned in a gem for the Huskies against another legit ace in USF’s Jack Jasiak (6 IP, 6 H, 2 ER). Erik Stock and T.C. Simmons had three hits apiece to pace the UConn offense.