Ten Thoughts: Friday, May 20Analysis
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Aaron Fitt’s Five
1. Tar Heels bludgeon Wolfpack
RALEIGH, N.C. — From time to time, North Carolina’s offense has shown flashes of excellence this year. It has been inconsistent, especially when it comes to getting timely hits, which is why it ranks right in the middle of the ACC pack (eighth out of 14) in scoring. But UNC scored 14 runs in a game against UCLA, and 14 on a Friday against Pitt, and 31 runs in a three-game sweep of Duke, and 15 runs in a midweek blowout of South Carolina.
So it’s not like Friday night’s 16-4 rout of rival NC State came out of nowhere. But watching the Tar Heels string together one quality at-bat after another as they shellacked the Wolfpack’s best pitcher (Brian Brown) on the Wolfpack’s home field, it was easy to imagine how dangerous UNC can be if it can just find its way into the postseason. And Friday’s series-leveling win, which improved North Carolina to 13-16 in the ACC, went a long way toward improving the team’s postseason chances.
The top six hitters of UNC’s lineup — Brian Miller, Logan Warmoth, Tyler Ramirez, Zack Gahagan, Brandon Riley and Kyle Datres — combined for 15 of the team’s 18 hits. The Tar Heels worked counts very well, drawing nine walks and getting hit by two pitches. They successfully executed two squeeze bunts. They were confident and locked in, and they kept the pedal down throughout the game.
“I think just seeing how we had the game in the bag last night and kind of threw it away, it really put into our minds that we can’t let up once we get a couple runs on the board, and that’s why we stayed locked in through nine innings tonight,” said Datres, who led North Carolina with four hits.
At No. 14 in the RPI, the Tar Heels stand a pretty good chance to land an at-large bid even if they lose Saturday’s rubber game to fall to 13-17 in the ACC. They are now very likely to make the ACC tournament, which certainly helps (only a BC doubleheader sweep at Georgia Tech coupled with a UNC loss would keep them out). And Auburn got in last year with a 13-17 SEC record and a No. 22 RPI, providing a roadmap for North Carolina. But the Heels could breathe a lot easier if they can win Saturday to get to 14 ACC wins.
NC State has nearly as much to play for; at 14-13 in the league, they need to win Saturday to finish above .500 in the league — and no team in the 64-team era has hosted a regional with a .500 conference record.
2. Long regional droughts in jeopardy
You can take this to the bank: Duke will play in a regional this year for the first time since 1961. The Blue Devils clinched a trip to the ACC tournament by clinching a road series at Pittsburgh with a 7-5 win Saturday. The Devils improved to 14-15 in the ACC with one game left to play, and they climbed to No. 22 in the RPI. We’ve been saying for the last few weeks that if they won their last two series against Florida State and Pitt to get to 14 conference wins, the RPI would take care of itself and they would make a regional. Now they’re in firm at-large position, whether or not they win on Saturday. And that’s an incredible story for a team that entered the season without any expectations. In 2012, Chris Pollard led Appalachian State to a regional for the first time in 26 years. Now he’s going to end Duke’s 55-year NCAA tournament drought. He deserves to be the ACC coach of the year.
Take this to the bank too: Louisiana Tech is heading to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1987. I wrote in this week’s Stock Report that Louisiana Tech could lock up an at-large berth if it could win its final series against Rice — but how many of us actually expected that to happen? Rice has ruled Conference USA with an iron fist for years, and the Owls always seem to win the big series whenever a challenger rises up late in the year. But the Bulldogs pulled it off.
After blowing out the Owls 12-2 in Thursday’s series opener, Louisiana Tech had to scrap and claw for 15 innings to clinch the series with a 4-3 win. Rice scored a run in the top of the 11th, but Louisiana Tech answered with a run in the bottom of the frame to prolong the game. Then the Owls took the lead again with a run in the top of the 15th — but La Tech responded once again, winning on Chase Lunceford’s walk-off two-run single. At 18-11 in C-USA, No. 41 in the RPI and 7-3 against the top 50, the Bulldogs can breathe easy. They’ve earned their way in.
3. Mercer repeats in SoCon
Mercer and UNC Greensboro entered this weekend tied atop the Southern Conference standings, and they split Thursday’s doubleheader to set up a winner-takes-all showdown Friday to determine the regular-season champion. The Bears jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first and a 5-1 lead through three innings, then cruised to a 9-1 victory to claim their second straight SoCon regular-season crown. Charlie Madden and Hunter Bening combined for five hits and seven RBIs to lead the Mercer offense in support of Kevin Coulter (8 IP, 7 H, 1 ER). At No. 88 in the RPI, Mercer still isn’t within at-large range in the RPI, but the Bears have won seven straight series down the stretch, so they will carry momentum and confidence into the SoCon tournament.
The loss was a huge setback for the Spartans, who entered the weekend with an RPI in the 50s and a realistic shot at an at-large bid. But they needed the regular-season conference title to give them a real shot. Not only did they fall short of that goal, but their RPI has dropped down to No. 73. UNCG will need to run through the conference tournament and win the automatic bid in order to continue its outstanding season.
4. Changing of the guard in the Southland
For most of the second half, it almost seemed like a foregone conclusion that Southeastern Louisiana would win the Southland Conference regular-season title. After sweeping Lamar on the road two weeks ago, the Lions were 21-3 in the SLC, seemingly cruising to the league title and an easy at-large bid if they failed to win the conference tournament. Then Southeastern dropped a series against New Orleans last week, and they opened this weekend with back-to-back losses to Central Arkansas.
Meanwhile, Sam Houston State has been drafting Southeastern Louisiana throughout this race, quietly keeping pace just a game or two back. After winning their own road series at Lamar last weekend, the Bearkats entered the final weekend of the regular season just a game behind the Lions. And Sam Houston took care of business in its first two games against Houston Baptist, winning 6-3 on Thursday and 2-1 on Friday to clinch at least a share of the Southland regular-season title. Sam Houston now leads Southeastern by one game and has a chance to clinch the title outright with another win tomorrow, or another SLU loss.
All of a sudden, Sam Houston State has a very realistic chance at an at-large bid. For most of the season, its RPI held it back — just one week ago, it was No. 79, well outside at-large range. But the road series win at Lamar and a midweek win against Texas A&M made a huge difference; now SHSU is all the way up to No. 45 in the RPI. Combine that RPI with a regular-season conference title and a very strong finish, and Sam Houston has a chance to land an at-large bid even with a rather unsightly 3-9 record against the top 50. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Matt Deggs has gotten so much out of his Bearkats, because he’s a very good coach. But nobody expected him to lead Sam Houston into at-large contention in his second year at the helm. It’s yet another great surprise in a year full of such stories.
5. Update on the Wacky Pac
It seems like the postseason picture in the Pac-12 shifts in a meaningful way every day. First-place Utah was idle Friday (its series at Cal runs Saturday through Monday), so the Utes remain atop the standings, just a half-game ahead of Washington — which beat Stanford 4-3.
But suddenly Arizona State has climbed all the way up to third place. The Sun Devils beat up UCLA 12-4 in Friday’s series opener in Westwood, improving them to 14-11 in the conference, just a game behind UW and 1.5 games behind Utah. Meanwhile, Arizona was shut out in its series opener at Oregon, 3-0, dropping the Wildcats to fourth place at 15-13. We still had Arizona projected as a regional host this week (the lone host out of the Pac-12), but now it’s worth pondering whether the Sun Devils have a chance to supplant the Wildcats as a host. Arizona is still 14 spots ahead in the RPI (No. 24 vs. No. 38), and Arizona still has the better top 50 record (12-8 vs. 9-7). But ASU won the head-to-head series in Tucson last week, and it is now ahead in the standings, and its RPI is trending in the right direction. Tracy Smith’s miracle in the desert continues to chug along.
Elsewhere in the Pac, Oregon State actually fell out of our preseason field of 64 this week after slipping to 11-13 in the league and into the 60s in the RPI. The Beavers need a strong finish to salvage their postseason hopes, and they got off to a strong start Friday, winning the opener of a road series at Southern California 3-1. Travis Eckert carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning and finished with a complete-game two-hitter, striking out five and walking just one. I’m told he worked at 91-93 mph and had a very good, sharp breaking ball working for him. And the Beavers needed him to be at his sharpest, because they are desperate for every win at this stage in the season. Friday’s win lifted them up to No. 56 in the RPI, and 12-13 in the league. That’s progress.
Kendall Rogers’ Five
1. Six national seeds seem to be set
This time of year, we’re usually in a situation where a majority of the national seeds are still up for grabs. However, after Friday’s contests, it looks like six of the eight national seeds are seemingly set in stone.
Florida and Miami entered the weekend in locked up status, while Texas A&M, Louisville, Mississippi State and Texas Tech were nearing that status as well. Well, all of those teams clinched important series wins on Friday, and all will be national seeds barring a major surprise on Selection Monday in a couple of weeks.
Texas A&M put together yet another impressive performance. After getting off to a rough start against Ole Miss, down 3-0 early, the Aggies scored six runs in the bottom of the second inning to take total control. SEC leading hitter Boomer White had a massive night, collecting four hits, a home run and knocked in three runs.
Mississippi State cruised past scuffling Arkansas 5-1 with righthander Austin Sexton leading the charge on the mound. Sexton struck out seven, walked two and allowed just a run on four hits in seven innings.
Louisville pieced together quite an impressive performance in a 9-5 win over Wake Forest. Brendan McKay went 3-for-3 at the plate, while rising lefthander Drew Harrington tossed seven shutout innings.
Texas Tech finished off a series win over West Virginia with a 4-2 victory. Tech’s Steven Gingery had a quality start on the mound, striking out five, walking one and allowing just two runs on four hits in six innings.
So, your national seeds at this point include the teams above, and the final two national seeds lead with South Carolina and Virginia with others still in the mix, including LSU, which could get back into the hunt with a series win over Florida and a strong showing in the SEC tournament.
2. Heavy-hearted Minnesota twins Big Ten title
You never want to pick teams to root for, but a little piece of everyone in the college baseball community was rooting for the Golden Gophers to win the Big Ten regular season title while honoring pitching coach Todd Oakes, who continues to fight leukemia.
Well, the Gophers took care of business on Friday, beating Ohio State 4-3 to clinch the regular season crown, thanks in part to Indiana’s loss to Nebraska. Minnesota lefthander Dalton Sawyer had a quality start against the Buckeyes, striking out nine and allowing just two earned runs on five hits in 7.2 innings, while Jordan Jess closed out the contest. Austin Athmann led the charge at the plate with a pair of hits and an RBI.
Win on Friday night? ✅
Claim the #B1G regular season ?? ✅
— Minnesota Baseball (@GopherBaseball) May 21, 2016
The regular season title is Minnesota’s first since 2010, and though hosting seems out of the question at this point with an RPI still in the mid-40s, this is a very good team that could be a postseason force.
Here’s to you, Coach Oakes. Enjoy it.
3. Marshall one win away from C-USA crown
It seems like we spend each day talking about the Thundering Herd, and why not? Jeff Waggoner’s club continues to make history, and this program is a win away from winning their first regular season conference crown since taking home the Southern Conference championship in 1981.
Marshall continued its amazing ways on Friday, winning its 11th-straight Conference USA game with a 4-3 win over Old Dominion. Parker Danciu put together a solid start for the Herd, striking out five and allowing just three runs on eight hits in seven innings, while Burris Warner tossed two shutout innings out of the bullpen.
With the win, Marshall’s RPI still sits at 58, but a conference regular season crown in the elevated C-USA should get the job done for a postseason bid. The Herd is 21-18 in the league and 32-18 overall, while also possessing a 4-7 mark vs. RPI Top 50 clubs.
What a season for this program.
4. Clemson gets back above .500 in the ACC
As we’ve done regional projections over the past couple of weeks, an abundance of questions have been about the Tigers and their ability to host. Well, over the past few days, the answer has been no because of a losing or .500 conference record. History suggests teams in that area will not host a regional even with an incredibly strong RPI.
Well, the Tigers got back above .500 in the ACC (15-14) with a dominant 11-1 win over Notre Dame. Clemson’s offense went wild, scoring those 11 runs on 13 hits with Reed Rohlman having a huge night two hits and three RBIs. Meanwhile, Eli White had three hits and Chris Pinder and Weston Wilson each had two hits. On the mound, Clate Schmidt struck out six and allowed just a run on three hits in 8.1 innings.
Resume-wise, the Tigers have an RPI of 12 with a 15-14 mark vs. RPI Top 50 and 22-17 mark vs. RPI Top 100.
There’s a good chance the Tigers move into hosting position with another win over the Fighting Irish to close out the weekend.
5. South Carolina bounces back against Alabama
We talked about how six of the eight national seeds appear to be set in stone. Well, the last two spots have several candidates, including the Gamecocks. Chad Holbrook’s club entered the danger zone last weekend after losing back-to-back series to Kentucky and Texas A&M. However, they’ve turned the tide a bit this weekend with a road series win over Alabama, taking the series with a 4-2 triumph.
South Carolina freshman righthander Braden Webb put together a strong start, striking out nine, walking two and allowing a run on seven hits in six innings, while Dom Thompson-Williams and Madison Stokes finished the contest with a pair of hits.
With the win, the Gamecocks are now a so-so 9-10 vs. RPI Top 50, while they’re 15-13 vs. RPI Top 100. Again, not an overly impressive resume, but not bad when you combine an RPI of 5 and a rather weak national seed bubble.