Ten Takes From Opening DayAnalysis
Aaron Fitt’s Five
1. Upset of the Day: VCU blanks Florida State
Upsets aren’t usually that big of a deal in college baseball, especially early in the season. It’s baseball, after all — it’s a long season, and nobody goes undefeated. VCU is an intriguing club with a number of veterans back from its 2015 super regional team, so the Rams winning a game or even two games in Tallahassee this weekend wouldn’t be that stunning.
But the way VCU won Friday was downright shocking. Facing a lineup that we hyped up as the best in college baseball in the preseason, three VCU pitchers combined on a one-hit shutout at Dick Howser Stadium, as the Rams rapped out 12 hits of their own in a 3-0 win. Starter Sean Thompson is one of the better pitchers in the Atlantic 10 Conference, a polished strike-thrower with good feel for his offspeed stuff, but doesn’t have overpowering velocity. Thompson threw the first five shutout frames (and allowed FSU’s only hit). Matt Jamer followed with three scoreless, and Sam Donko worked a scoreless ninth for the save.
The Rams committed three errors (to FSU’s zero) and made some baserunning mistakes according to our Thomas Woodrey, who was in Tallahassee — but they got a few timely hits, executed the hit-and-run and scrapped across a few runs. And that proved sufficient against a dormant Florida State offense. “It’s just one of those days you tip your hat to the other club and be ready to go the next day,” FSU coach Mike Martin said.
2. Bukauskas stifles Kentucky
First-team preseason All-American J.B. Bukauskas turned in a stellar season debut for No. 9 North Carolina, which beat Kentucky 3-1 in the first game of one of this weekend’s more compelling series. Bukauskas breezed through six shutout innings, allowing just three hits and a walk while striking out 10. I saw him in a scrimmage a couple of weeks ago, and the thing that jumped out to me was the development of his changeup, which has emerged as a legitimate third weapon to go along with his 93-96 mph fastball and devastating 84-87 slider. He was able to use the changeup to get weak contact and get swing-and-misses a couple weeks ago, and he had more success with the pitch on Friday according to Frankie Piliere, who watched the live stream.
The Tar Heels supported him with a balanced attack against talented Kentucky ace Sean Hjelle (5 IP, 11 H, 3 ER), with hit machine Brandon Riley leading the way with three hits. Riley is another player who really stood out in the preseason — he’s a sweet-swinging sophomore who looks primed for a big year. UNC also got two hits and two RBIs from second baseman Zack Gahagan, who had a breakout summer in the Cape and began the season in UNC’s cleanup spot.
3. Heimlich maneuver headlines Oregon State’s big day
No. 8 Oregon State got off to an outstanding start Friday with two wins against teams that should be strong regional contenders, Indiana and Duke. Ace lefty Luke Heimlich (5.2 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 11 K) was masterful in the opener, a 1-0 win against the Hoosiers, who got a strong start from emerging talent Jonathan Stiever (5.2 IP, 3 H, 1 ER) in defeat. Heimlich’s 11 strikeouts marked a career high.
First-team preseason All-America shortstop Nick Madrigal had three hits (including a homer) and three RBIs to pace the OSU offense in the second game, a 6-3 win against Duke. Madrigal, who had four hits on opening day last year, sparked the offense out of the leadoff spot, and the Beavers got a strong start from Bryce Fehmel (6 IP, 8 H, 3 R, 2 ER). It was an inauspicious start for Duke’s remade rotation, as ace Mitch Stallings (2 IP, 5 H, 6 ER, 4 BB) struggled, and fellow lefthanded reliever-turned-starter James Ziemba (4.2 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 3 ER) took the loss in Duke’s other game Friday, 6-1 against Gonzaga.
4. New-look Rebels edge Pirates
In a matchup between one of college baseball’s most experienced teams and a team leaning heavily on the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, youth prevailed in Oxford. Ole Miss started five freshmen and one junior-college transfer behind junior ace David Parkinson (7 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 6 K), and a couple of the newcomers delivered big in the Rebels’ 5-4 win.
Center fielder Ryan Olenek led the offense with three hits in the 2-hole, and fellow freshman DH Chase Cockrell went 2-for-4 with a run and an RBI in the cleanup spot. Ole Miss also got hits from freshmen Thomas Dillard and Cole Zabowski in a fun back-and-forth affair in front of a Swazye Field-record 12,117 fans. Cockrell’s RBI single in the eighth inning provided an insurance run that proved to be crucial, as ECU drew back within a run in the ninth on a homer by its own blue-chip freshman, Spencer Brickhouse. Ole Miss improved to 16-1 in opening days under Mike Bianco.
5. Irvin shines for Sooners
In a series that was moved from Long Beach to Norman due to the wet weather forecast in Southern California, Oklahoma struck first with a 6-2 win. Ace righty Jake Irvin sparkled for the Sooners, striking out 10 without issuing a walk over seven innings of one-hit, shutout ball. And the Sooners knocked around Long Beach star Darren McCaughan (6 IP, 7 H, 6 ER). Jack Flansburg had three hits, and Renae Martinez went 2-for-3 with two RBIs to lead the OU attack. But Irvin’s brilliance was the big story of this game; he’s a rising star in his own right with very good stuff and pitchability. He had a good freshman year and wound up as the team’s ace by the end of the season, but Friday was a real coming-out party for him.
Kendall Rogers’ Five
1. Pitcher of the Day: Sam Houston State’s Heath Donica
The Bearkats are the Southland Conference favorites and welcome back several key cogs, including elite outfielder Bryce Johnson and third baseman Andrew Fregia, among others. They also welcome back a talented weekend rotation, which includes 6-foot-2, 200-pound, righthanded senior Heath Donica, who put together a terrific performance in a 1-0 win over Nevada.
Donica struck out 14 batters and allowed just two walks, while also tossing a complete game no-hitter. The 14 strikeouts were the most an SHSU pitcher had tallied since the 2005 campaign. The senior threw 107 pitches, 74 of them for strikes. From a stuff standpoint, Donica typically is anywhere from 88-90, while also throwing a low-80s slider and attacking hitters with a three-pitch mix.
It was a night to remember for the Corsicana, Texas, native.
2. Player of the Day: Virginia Tech’s Sam Fragale
Some hitters began the season with solid performances. No hitter on Friday night was as ridiculous as the veteran Hokies first baseman. The 5-foot-10, 205-pounder, had the most striking offensive performance of the day, going 5-for-5 with, yes, three homers, a double, triple, seven RBIs and a whopping 17 total bases.
Oh yeah, the Hokies also took care of business against the Spartans with an 11-3 victory. As for Fragale, he must now feel confident he’ll surpass his home run total from last season. That number? Seven.
It’s safe to say Fragale rocked USC-Upstate.
3. Wright State and Ball State do it for the North
Most years, we enter the season discussing how much of an advantage the southern schools have at the beginning of the season. After all, the weather typically is better in the Deep South. However, the weather has been warmer than normal nationwide during the past month and the northern schools have reaped the benefits with more outside practice time than usual.
That seemed to show on Friday as Wright State and Ball State notched big-time upsets, the Raiders beating Clemson 6-4 in Jeff Mercer’s debut as head coach and the Cardinals controlling No. 22 Maryland 8-3.
Wright State’s Ryan Weiss threw a pair of shutout innings to end the game as the Raiders mounted a comeback against the Tigers, while the offense rose to the occasion late in the contest with first baseman JD Orr leading the way with a double, triple, three hits and three RBIs. While we’re on Clemson, super sophomore Seth Beer finished the night with a double.
Ball State’s BJ Butler allowed three runs on three hits in 4.2 innings, but Colin Brockhouse was the man of the hour out of the bullpen, striking out eight, walking two and allowing just a hit in 4.1 scoreless frames. Seth Freed and Trent Theisen led the Cards with two hits a piece while Sean Kennedy put the game away in the eighth with a two-run blast to left field.
4. Notre Dame … not so lucky against Lafayette
And no, we’re not talking about Louisiana-Lafayette. We’re talking about the Lafayette Leopards.
Notre Dame enters this season with high hopes with the return of some talented arms, including Brandon Bielak and Peter Solomon, among others. However, Bielak had an Opening Day to forget in a shocking 10-2 setback to the Leopards, walking six, striking out four and allowing four runs on five hits in just three innings.
Lafayette was led at the plate by Alex Woinski and John Selsor, who combined for two homers, five hits and five RBIs in the victory. The Leopards also received a strong pitching performance from senior righthander Trevor Houck, who struck out seven, walked one and allowed two runs on a hit in eight innings.
5. Houston’s Romero Deals vs. Demon Deacons
There’s no doubt Cougars lefty Seth Romero had a little extra motivation Friday night in a dominant 8-1 win over Wake Forest. This time last year, Romero wasn’t allowed to play as the Cougars coaching staff thought he wasn’t doing enough to take care of his body.
Romero, of course, went on to have a solid sophomore campaign. But he wants to flourish from start to finish as a junior this spring. He made a strong first impression at Cougar Field, striking out 12, not walking anyone and allowing just a run on five hits in six innings. Romero threw 84 pitches with 58 of them for strikes.
Romero has a big-time arm and appears to be read to put all the pieces together. Note: That’s terrible news for Houston’s opponents.
Spratling: Raby Finds His Groove For Vandy
SAN DIEGO — In his collegiate debut last February, Vanderbilt righthander Patrick Raby allowed two runs on three hits and three walks in 2.1 innings of relief against San Diego. On Friday night, the 6-foot-3, 230-pounder faced the same team and shook off an unlikely start to show why he will be a mainstay in the Commodores’ rotation for at least the next two years.
Pitching in front of a sparse crowd that braved the threat of torrential rain that later caused the game to be suspended, Raby’s first three pitches were wide and he walked the first San Diego batter. It was uncharacteristic. His fell behind the next batter 3-0 as well. It was unusual. Raby typically has terrific control. He walked only 19 batters a year ago despite making 15 appearances, including 10 starts. He was 7-1, 2.61.
Raby bounced back to earn a strikeout in the at-bat. Things seemed back to normal, but he fell behind and lost a 3-2 battle against Colton Waltner for his second free pass in the first inning, bringing up the dangerous Riley Adams with two men on. San Diego’s star catcher had homered off of Kyle Wright the previous night in a 3-2 Torero upset. That’s when Raby locked in and fired three straight strikes, getting Adams to chase a high fastball. One pitch later he got a fly out to escape the jam.
In the second inning, Raby again stranded two Toreros. A two-out double was followed by a full-count walk when Raby’s cleat got caught on the mound and he fired a full count pitch halfway up the netting behind home plate. For the second straight season, he allowed three walks to San Diego, but unlike last season, he did not allow any runs.
Raby got a pop up to end the second inning and retired the next 10 batters in order. He exited after five innings, having allowed only one hit. He didn’t overpower San Diego. His fastball touched 92 in the first inning before sitting at 90-91 mph. Neither his 77-79 curveball or 83-84 changeup wowed, but they had just enough movement to stay off the barrel of the bat, as Raby’s pitches always seem to do.
He doesn’t have the same electric stuff as a David Price, Carson Fulmer, Kyle Wright or Jordan Sheffield, but Raby is able to carve up lineups with his ability to use any of his pitches in any count and any spot.
Once Raby settled in with the strikeout of Adams, he consistently attacked the zone. He threw 11 balls to the first three batters of the game and 19 to the next 16 Toreros to step in the batter’s box.
While the game was suspended Friday night, Raby is in line for the win with Vanderbilt holding an 8-2 lead. Alonzo Jones reached base four times and scored three runs and Julian Infante ding donged a two-run homer off the left field foul pole as the Commodores look to even the series. The game is scheduled to be resumed in the top of seventh Saturday at 6 p.m. PST with the third game being played on Sunday at 1 p.m. PST. There are concerns that the current storm will not vacate in time for the game to be resumed on Saturday, which would push both the conclusion and Game 3 to Sunday afternoon.