LSU jumps for joy (Eric Sorenson)

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Sorenson: Off The Top Of My Head

Analysis

Welcome to the second-to-last regular season weekend for most conferences out there. The battle for at-large positioning gets wicked serious from here on out. As you’ll read below, this is where the mid-majors can’t have a faceplant and where national seed contenders try to peacock their feathers as pretty as possible for the NCAA selection committee.

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The best part is that there will be one tux fitting this coming weekend as the Ivy League playoffs begin between Yale and Princeton to see who gets the first bid to the Big Dance. Elsewhere there are so many good series to see it’s ridiculous. Bedlam Baseball between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State is always fun. NC State has a lot to prove at No. 6 Louisville. Suddenly-hot Arizona State goes to Arizona. Vanderbilt is playing for its national seed life in a roadie at Florida.

Lots of good stuff on the menu. But let’s start with this.

THERE NEEDS TO BE AN ACC-SEC CHALLENGE.
A lot has been made of nonconference schedules in the last few years… okay sure, mostly by me. Anyway, I think one thing that could make the months of February and March much more interesting would be an ACC-SEC Challenge. Wouldn’t that be cool? Match up some of the best teams from each of the monster conferences and have them face off in a three-game series. Ideally, I’d like to see it happen on opening weekend to really kick the season off with a huge bang. But I suppose waiting a week or two could allow for these teams to get up to speed and playing a little better baseball.

We’ve had mini versions of ACC-SEC face-offs this year, including tasty weekend matchups like Florida at Miami, Louisville at Ole Miss and South Carolina vs. Clemson. Then, I spent my Wednesday watching LSU play the rare road game in nonconference play that is out of their area code when the Tigers played a pair of games at Notre Dame in South Bend. And that was really, really interesting.

Talking with Minnesota head coach John Anderson last weekend, he told me the new US Bank Stadium that will facilitate indoor baseball in Minnesota once again, will be the home of the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge in 2018 (Minnesota, Michigan State and Illinois vs. Arizona, Washington and UCLA) and the Big Ten/ACC Challenge in 2019 (Minnesota, Ohio State and Penn State vs. North Carolina, NC State and Duke).

I also recall a couple of years ago there was talk of a Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge that would take place in the later stages of the season, but most of that had to be scrapped when the two conferences kept expanding to double-digit membership. Though you still see some semblances of those matchups remaining like when Cal plays at Northwestern this week.

That bought me to the idea of the ACC-SEC Challenge. I mean, really now, how great it would be to have an early season weekend of – for example – Texas A&M-North Carolina, LSU-Virginia and Georgia-Florida State, instead of any of these teams playing the likes of Hofstra, Albany or North Dakota State or any teams of that ilk?

Coinciding with that, it would allow one weekend where the sacrificial lambs of the Snowbelt could go down and take part in tournaments like the Russ Mat Invitational down in Florida. Or what the hell, how about if we still have the low-major Snowbird teams come down to these Southern locales and play same day matinees? So before Georgia and Florida State square off at 7 p.m., you’d have a 2 p.m. game between Western Illinois and Buffalo. Not bad, right? Then all four teams can take pride in playing someone from their skill level and help build some intrigue into the early part of the season.

WHAT I SAW IN SOUTH BEND
Talk about an intriguing matchup. It wasn’t beautiful baseball. It wasn’t high-energy. But it was interesting to see what transpired when LSU made it’s way up North to play Notre Dame in a two-game mid-week series.

Tuesday’s game ended up getting rained out, making for a Wednesday double-header of seven-inning games.

Before Tuesday's rainout, Paul Mainieri spent most of the pregame yuckin' it up with old friends and ex-players from his Notre Dame days. Before Tuesday’s rainout, Paul Mainieri spent most of the pregame yuckin’ it up with old friends and ex-players from his Notre Dame days.

What followed was an arms battle. Or maybe I should say a battle of weak sticks? Or a battle of solid defenses? Either way, game one ended up going 11 innings and game two came down to a final teeth-gnashing ending as LSU ended up prevailing in a pair of one-run games, 1-0 and 3-2.

To me, it proved to be a showdown of pretty even teams. Yes, LSU was ranked No. 16 in the RPI and Notre Dame was ranked No. 73 going into the two games, but you could’ve fooled me on the rankings when it came time for these two teams to take the field and play things out.

In game one, the Tigers threw some of the best pitchers on their staff, including erstwhile Sunday starter John Valek, two of their most used relievers in Parker Bugg and Hunter Newman and even Friday ace Jared Poche got in on the action. Yet, there were the Fighting Irish matching them pitch for pitch and turning the seven-inning game into an 11-inning marathon, finally decided on LSU outfielder Jake Fraley’s solo home run.

Jake Fraley seems like a lone wolf on this LSU team, but he did account for the only run in game one with a home run... solo home run, of course.Jake Fraley seems like a lone wolf on this LSU team, but he did account for the only run in game one with an 11th-inning home run… a solo home run, of course.

The Irish can only be kicking themselves over it as they had runners reach third base in the seventh and ninth innings, and ultimately the game ended when Kyle Richardson was called out on a steal attempt that at first blush appeared that he got in well before the tag. My pictures of the final out seem to indicate he was safe as well. But… that’s baseball.

As Notre Dame's Kyle Richardson slides into second on this steal attempt, LSU shortstop Kramer Robertson catches the ball.As Notre Dame’s Kyle Richardson slides into second on this steal attempt, LSU shortstop Kramer Robertson catches the ball.

Robertson's tag is just about to hit Richardson's helmet as his chest hits the base... or so we think.Robertson’s tag is just about to hit Richardson’s helmet as his chest hits the base… or so we think.

Game two saw another tight-knit, white-knuckle finish as the game followed game one’s pattern once again of the pitchers dominating the batters on both sides and had a bunch of zeroes put up across the board. Finally, in the seventh and last inning, LSU plated three runs, two on a Bryce Jordan RBI single and then what would be the “winning run” on a wild pitch that allowed Chris Reid to score from third base.

The Irish would not go quietly in the bottom of the inning, scoring a run on Nick Podkul’s single and a bases-loaded wild pitch. Finally, with men on second and third, the Irish appeared primed to even the series, but three-hole hitter Ricky Sanchez got caught looking at strike three – his third punch out of the game – and ended the threat with the Irish one run short for a second time. Again, that thumping you hear is the Irish kicking themselves repeatedly.

Yack! Ricky Sanchez gets caught looking at strike three to end the nightcap with the tying run on 3rd and the winning run on 2nd.Yyyyack! Ricky Sanchez gets caught looking at strike three to end the nightcap with the tying run on 3rd and the winning run on 2nd.

LSU came into the game with a batting order that had only one starter hitting below .300, which was Greg Deichmann’s .262 average. But Notre Dame ended up out-hitting LSU in both games, combining for 11 hits in all to LSU’s eight. On the day, there were 18 innings of play between the two teams but there was only scoring in two of those 18 frames. Other than that, this was a game of zeroes that only the 1970 LSU-Notre Dame football game could be proud of. (Google it.)

To give you an idea of the even-ness of the games, here is how the two linescores looked.

Game One:
LSU – 000 000 000 01 – 1  4  1
UND – 000 000 000 00 – 0  6  0

Game Two:
LSU – 000 000 3 – 3  4  1
UND – 000 000 2 – 2  5  1

FYI, on Thursday morning, LSU’s RPI ranking had jumped up to No. 13. Notre Dame’s had dropped to No. 83.

MORE PICS
A few more images from the LSU-Notre Dame doubleheader.

LSU players warm up in the cool 60s temps of South Bend, Indiana. LSU players warm up in the ‘frigid’ 60s temps of South Bend, Indiana.

Torii Hunter Jr. is working his magic with this game of pepper during pregame.Torii Hunter Jr. is working his magic with this game of pepper during pregame.

Notre Dame left-fielder Jake Shepski gets his pregame throws in under the glares of Jake Kline and Frank Eck.Notre Dame left-fielder Jake Shepski gets his pregame throws in under the names of Jake Kline and Frank Eck.

In the pregame it looked like Notre Dame players were loose and ready for the visit from LSU. In the pregame it looked like Notre Dame players were loose and ready for the visit from LSU.

LSU certainly brought out some of their big guns on the mound, including Friday starter Jared Poche.LSU certainly brought out some of their big guns on the mound, including Friday starter Jared Poche.

Coach Aoki and Cavan Biggio had some very bad words to say to home plate umpire Mike Conlin after he rung up Biggio on a check swing strikeout.Coach Aoki and Cavan Biggio had some very bad words to say to home plate umpire Mike Conlin after he rung up Biggio on a check swing strikeout.

LSU players had their Rally Possum working its magic... if you believe in that sort of magic, that is.LSU players had their Rally Possum working its magic… if you believe in that sort of magic, that is.

Beau Jordan slides into home after his brother Bryce knocked him in with a two-run single.Beau Jordan slides into home after his brother Bryce knocked him in with a two-run single.

Cotton candy skies. It was a nice, cool night for baseball at Eck Stadium. Cotton candy skies. It was a nice, cool night for baseball at Eck Stadium.

Okay, onto some other business from across the country. Let’s see who’s smiling and who’s smirking.

BIGGEST WINNERS
Five teams making the biggest jumps in the RPI since last Tuesday:

– TCU, from No. 23 to No. 17
It’s not a huge jump numbers-wise, but this puts the Frogs on the cusp of getting a No. 1 seed and home Regional.

– Tulane, from No. 33 to No. 23.
This is a big move. Now the Greenies are being talked about as a possible Regional Host over LSU, due to their 2-0 record vs. the Tigers.

– Duke, from No. 44 up to No. 36.
Normally, beating teams like Gardner-Webb (No. 158), Longwood (148) and Norfolk State (274) wouldn’t help much, but this is an ACC team, so there you go.

– Southeastern Louisiana, from No. 55 to No. 35
Impressive sweep of then-No. 54 Lamar catapulted the Lions into solid at-large territory. Upcoming series vs. No. 73 New Orleans won’t hurt too much either.

– Nebraska, from No. 69 to No. 44.
Winning two of three at Michigan State was a huge booster shot to the arm of the Cornhuskers. Any Big 10 team in the low 40s is usually a lock to get in.

BIGGEST LOSERS
Five teams that made the biggest nosedive in the RPI since last Tuesday:

– UC Santa Barbara, from No. 9 to No. 24.
It’s pretty simple, you lose a series to No. 209 UC Davis and a mid-week game to No. 247 Cal State Bakersfield and you drop out of Regional hosting consideration.

– Florida State, from No. 6 to No. 14.
The Seminoles dropped this much due to their Wednesday loss to Florida-Gulf Coast. Now, a road trip in the Supers is possible… and you know how poor FSU plays on the road.

– Creighton, from No. 21 to No. 34.
Ack! What has happened to my beloved Bluejays? Dropping 12 spots solely from their Tuesday loss to Wichita State? Terrible. Remember when it was dignifying to lose to the Shockers?

– Southeast Missouri State, from No. 38 to No. 57.
The Redhawks are a prime example of what a mid-major team just can’t afford to do: have a late season meltdown. Losing twice to No. 204 Tennessee Tech is crushing.

– California, dropping from No. 42 to No. 52.
Bears have just gone cold, going 3-7 in their last 10. But the good news is that staff ace Daulton Jefferies is expected back soon. So there’s hope.

THE ST. MARY’S DILEMMA
While fans, teams and media members are all consumed by the RPI and where both our favorite and most-hated teams stand in that horrible, pathetic excuse for a gauge of how teams rank, I have found plenty of coaches out there who are not the least bit interested in what the RPI says and how it affects them.

And I’m not saying that in a negative way, there are just some coaches out there who see a bigger picture and their duties as coaches aren’t to concern themselves with these kind of things. It is a little bit refreshing, to tell you the truth.

One of those coaches is the youthful Eric Valenzuela at St. Mary’s. And this is a coach you would figure was completely consumed with the RPI and how his team is treated by it. After all, Valenzuela’s Gaels are leading the West Coast Conference with a 14-7 mark, one game ahead of Gonzaga and BYU at 13-8. But the thing is that SMC has an RPI at No. 65, while the Zags and Cougs are Nos. 43 and 44 respectively. Sadly for the Gaels, that ranking was No. 55 before Tuesday’s loss to San Jose State.

Saint Mary's head coach Eric Valenzuela addresses his troops after a loss at LMU.Saint Mary’s head coach Eric Valenzuela addresses his troops after a loss at LMU.

I caught up with the unflappable coach Valenzuela after the Gaels’ Sunday loss at LMU and asked him about his team and yes, about the RPI. Here are the highlights.

– Concerning the Gaels’ RPI ranking:
“We don’t even look at those things. I’m not smart enough to know about that RPI stuff, maybe coach (Rich) Hill (of San Diego) is smart enough, I don’t know. All I’m trying to control is today’s game. That’s it. You know, I’m not even sure our guys know anything about it, they just go out and play and get better. That’s it.”

– Discussing his teams’ mindset leading the WCC with two weekends left:
“We’re sort of in uncharted waters with this crew. These guys have just played good no matter what the circumstances. I think we had a little bit of a learning curve when we went to Washington where we won the first game and started feeling pretty good about ourselves, but then we lost three in a row.  But on the morning of that Sunday game, it was rainy and cold and they asked if we wanted to cancel the game that day. That would’ve left us 1-2 that weekend up there. But our guys said they wanted to play it. Well, we lost the game to go 1-3 on the weekend, but I think that mentality of ‘let’s go, lets get after these guys’. That’s been our mentality after the Washington weekend, that little jolt of ‘We’re not scared. We’ll play anybody.’ I like that mindset that we have developed.”

– On what he told his team after the Sunday loss to LMU:
“If you look at our weekends, there are so many times where we’ve started out 2-0, just like this weekend here at LMU. And we’ve just got to keep grinding. The two times in conference play where we’ve gone 1-1 to start the weekend, we’ve won the Sunday games and each time we started 2-0, we’ve lost the Sunday game. So I was just telling them to relax, we’re okay. Going 2-1 on the road in a tough place like this is okay. But I asked them if they remember how good it felt to win those Sunday games. We need to feel that again. I’d still like to see us put it all together and get a sweep here or there because I know we’re capable.”

– On what he likes about his team:
“I think we’re pretty talented. We’ve got a good mixture of speed and some power. We’ve got three really good starters on the mound and we’ve got a good closer. I think if we put it together – like we did on the first two games of this series – I think we are pretty good. But at the same time, everybody we play down the stretch is pretty good and they are not going to quit. It’s not like we’re running away with this thing, we’re fighting for our lives to win the conference.”

– On the West Coast teams and their perceived “down year.”:
“I’ve seen a couple different articles saying that the West is down this year but i’ve got so much respect for the teams out here on the West Coast, I think there is parity, sure, but it is a lot different out here. The schools in the West Coast Conference are more prime places to go for a family that wants the whole package for their son: the academics, the best weather, the great degree and the good baseball that’s played out here. I think teams like us, LMU, USD, Pepperdine the good players used to go to the Fullerton or Long Beach or USC, but I think The WCC is getting more and more of those kind of players and it is evening things out all across the board in the West. I will say this, in my few years here at Saint Mary’s we’ve played teams from back East. And I’d much rather play them than the teams we have to play out here.”

THE IVY LEAGUE PLAYOFFS. 
One of my favorite weekends of any college baseball season is when the best two teams of the Ivy League square off in a best-of-three to decide who goes to the NCAA tournament. Well, that’s this weekend. And yes, I am planning on being there for the fourth straight year. Only thing is, for the first time in four years it is not a showdown of Dartmouth and Columbia. This year it is Princeton and Yale going toe-to-toe at the Tigers home den of Clarke Field. In the only two games they played this year, the Bulldogs swept a doubleheader on April 8th by 6-3 and 6-1 scores. Yale also has a seven-game win streak against the Tigers.

The two teams will play a doubleheader on Saturday, starting at noon, and if there is a third game necessary, it’ll be Sunday at noon.

The visiting Bulldogs come in at 18-26-1 and 12-9 in Ivy League play. The Tigers finished the regular season at 22-18 and 13-7.  And no, neither team is an at-large bid candidate for the NCAA tournament, but Princeton does sit at No. 92 in the RPI, which is better than teams like Indiana, Oklahoma, Cal Poly, Oregon, UC Irvine, USC, Auburn and Texas.

Yale is expected to start a pair of Freshman on the mound in RHP Scott Politz (6-3, 3.62) and Benny Wanger (1-3, 6.81). Princeton’s top two arms are Chad Powers, who was 5-3, 2.01 in nine starts, and Keelan Smithers, who went 4-1, 2.52 in seven starts. Both teams hit in the low .260s as a team, so this series will come down to pitching. Princeton’s 3.84 team ERA and just 133 walks allowed stands out between the two staffs. Yale’s arms corps has an ERA of 5.89 and has issued 176 walks on the year.

THE SIOUX GO THE WAY OF THE BUFFALO.
It’s official now, baseball at North Dakota will definitely come to an end after this season. Here’s the details in case you missed them from Wednesday:

http://grandforksherald.com/sports/local-sports/4030511-und-athletics-und-announces-baseball-program-wont-be-saved

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