Joshua Palacios, Auburn

Ten Thoughts: Saturday, March 19

Analysis

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Saturday’s Coverage

• Fitt: Rebuilt Gamecocks Showing Old Swagger
• Rogers: Mississippi State Shows Elite Tendencies
• Spratling: AJ Ramirez Leads USC To Series Win
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Kendall Rogers’ Five Thoughts

1. Team of the day: Alabama clean sweeps LSU

Mitch Gaspard’s Crimson Tide got a much-needed boost on Saturday when they swept a doubleheader on the road from rival LSU by scores of 4-3 and 6-0 with some superb pitching at times.

Alabama90X90There was some concern about the Crimson Tide entering the series. The Tide began the season with a series win over Maryland, and also were 10-2 entering the home series against Houston. However, they dropped two of those games against the Cougars and scored three runs in the process and were blown away 9-2 in midweek action against Southern Mississippi.

Well, the Tide responded in valiant fashion on Saturday with the doubleheader sweep. In the first game, veteran righthander Geoffrey Bramblett allowed just four hits in six shutout innings, while Jon Keller was terrific out of the bullpen. That performance by Keller was hugely important considering Thomas Burrows is out for the weekend because of an oblique strain. Meanwhile, talented and physical freshman Chandler Taylor led the offense with a home run and two RBIs. Interestingly, LSU All-American righthander Alex Lange allowed four runs on 10 hits in 6.2 innings, his ERA for the season shooting up to 4.50 in 30 innings of work.

In the nightcap, Alabama held off a late rally from the Tigers, but were in control of the contest much of the way. Tide starting pitcher Jake Walters allowed a run on seven hits in 5.2 innings, while the bullpen made it rather interesting without Burrows available. Offensively, six Crimson Tide hitters recorded a hit in the game with catcher Will Haynie hitting a big-time home run that nearly exited the stadium.

Geoffrey Bramblett, AlabamaAlabama’s Geoffrey Bramblett got his club off to a good start on Saturday. (Kendall Rogers)

“Offensively, we’re showing a little spark right now and starting to look like the offense we thought we’d be,” said Alabama head coach Mitch Gaspard. “With that, we’re getting some big two-out hits and critical hits at the right moment; that’s what you have to do to LSU. This is a tough place to win, so obviously when you can win two in one day here it’s awfully special. The series win means a lot and gets us off to a good start in SEC play.”

While the series win for the Crimson Tide is a springboard moving forward in SEC play, the Tigers head into the rubber match on Sunday with something to prove given a road trip to Texas A&M awaits them next week. On this day, though, the Tide showed us something.

Oh, by the way, that was Alabama’s first series win in Baton Rouge since 1986.

2. Player of the day: Auburn’s Josh Palacios goes wild

There’s no doubt the Auburn Tigers are working from behind from a pitching standpoint in Butch Thompson’s first season on the plains. However, the offense is in very good hands, as AU, which is hitting well over .300 as a team so far this season, combined with Texas A&M for 55 hits in a thrilling doubleheader split Saturday afternoon. A&M took the first game of the day 12-8 with a ninth-inning surge, while the Tigers battered Aggies pitching in the second game on the way to a 9-7 triumph.

Auburn Tigers logoThe Tigers had several key hitters throughout the doubleheader, but no one truly as electric as junior college transfer and 6-foot-1 195-pound outfielder Josh Palacios. Palacios was just terrific against the Aggies, showing a consistent and quality approach, while also showing some pop in his bat. He finished the two games 7-for-9 with a pair of doubles and triples, raising his season average to .425, which ties heralded AU slugger Anfernee Grier.

As one SEC assistant told me late Saturday night, the Tigers might have their issues at times on the mound this spring, they are going to hit, hit and hit some more, and this lineup is truly dangerous with Palacios, Grier and others leading the charge.

3. Another team to watch: Miami takes series from Louisville

Ever since dropping a tough home series to top-ranked Florida a few weeks ago, the Hurricanes have been looking forward to a little redemption against another highly ranked foe. And they got just that on Saturday night, just one night after watching legendary skipper Jim Morris notch win No. 1,500. Miami clinched a huge series win over No. 5 Louisville with a 6-3 victory.

“It was a big win for us, to guarantee us winning the series,” Miami head coach Jim Morris said. “They’ve got an outstanding club. They have a World Series-type club with outstanding pitching and really good position players. Our guys did a really good job to get it done.”

Miami Florida logoMiami received a nice crop of performances against the Cardinals, but the tone-setter in this one was athletic outfielder Jacob Heyward, whose one-out two-run home run to left field in the fourth inning igniting the Hurricanes and set the stage for the rest of the night. Heyward finished the game 2-for-3, while leadoff hitter Carl Chester and Willie Abreu, who had the walk-off grand slam on Friday night, also collected a pair of hits. In all, the ‘Canes touched up usually dominant UL starting pitcher Brendan McKay for four runs on four hits in 5.1 innings.

Jacob Heyward, MiamiJacob Heyward keyed Miami’s big win over Louisville. (Miami)

For Miami, Michael Mediavilla put together a high quality start, striking out four, walking one and allowing a run on five hits in seven innings.

What does this series win or loss mean for both teams? For the Cardinals, that’s now series losses against the best two teams they’ve played so far this season – Ole Miss and now, Miami. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes appear to be on a roll and all the pieces seem to be coming together with series coming up against Clemson and North Carolina the next couple of weekends.

4. Oregon State appears to be the class of the Pac-12

It shouldn’t come as a surprise given the Beavers’ preseason ranking, but they looked very good once again on Saturday in a series-clinching 12-2 demolition of Arizona State, which entered the series sizzling hot.

OregonStateOfficialLogo90X90Despite scoring 12 runs against the Hever Bueno-less Sun Devils, the story of the night was the start by righthander Jake Thompson. Thompson has always had a power arm, but consistency has been an issue at times throughout his career. Thompson, though, was terrific on Saturday, striking out six, walking two and allowing just five hits in seven shutout innings. Thompson, a 6-foot-2, 205-pounder, sat anywhere from 89-93 mph with his fastball, flashing some 94s and 95s at times, while also showing feel for an above-average slider and changeup.

Offensively, the Beavers had another solid day at the plate, with youngster Nick Madrigal collecting three hits, one of them a double, K.J. Harrison hitting a double, Jack Anderson knocking in a pair of runs and Caleb Hamilton collecting a pair of hits.

There’s no doubt there are some solid teams in the Pac-12 this season. UCLA will only get better as the season progresses, Oregon has the potential to be an elite club if the offense can come around and California has the personnel to make a national title run. But if you’re asking me today, the Beavers are reinforcing the preseason take that they are the class of the league.

5. UC Santa Barbara continues to win in “rebuilding” year

After such a fruitful 2015 campaign for coach Andrew Checketts and his program, the 2016 campaign was supposed to be a major rebuilding campaign of sorts. And sure, the Gauchos would’ve liked to take a hard-fought road series from Oregon a few weeks ago. But, they’ve rebounded since with five-straight triumphs, including a 9-6 win on Saturday to clinch a series victory over a quality Connecticut club.

UCS Santa Barbara logoUCSB stud freshman Michael McAdoo had a day to remember at the plate, going 3-for-5 with a double and three RBIs, while shortstop Clay Fisher chipped in a two-hit performance. The Gauchos also got some quality pitching from Noah Davis, who tossed six serviceable frames, while the bullpen took care of the rest.

As it stands, the Gauchos improved their overall record to 14-3 and are a clear contender for the Big West regular season crown. Speaking of, the Big West suddenly looks to be in rather good shape with Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, Cal State Northridge, Cal Poly and UC Irvine all having quality seasons. What once was projected to be a one or two-bid league at most now looks like one that could end up a three or four-bid league by season’s end.

Aaron Fitt’s Five Thoughts

1. Puk beats Houck

FloridaGators2015Prospect hounds will never find a better Saturday pitching matchup than the one in Gainesville between Missouri’s Tanner Houck and Florida’s A.J. Puk — a pair of potential top-five overall draft picks for the 2017 and 2016 drafts, respectively. But while Puk ranks as college baseball’s best prospect, he sure hadn’t pitched like it this spring — until now.

AJ Puk, FloridaFlorida lefthander AJ Puk (Tim Casey)

In his first four starts, Puk battled command and control issues. He walked four batters in each of his last two starts against Ivy League opponents, and he failed to get out of the third inning in a loss the week before at Miami. We’ve all been waiting for Dominant Puk to show up, and he finally did against Missouri, allowing just three hits and a walk while striking out 11 over seven shutout innings to lead the Gators to a 6-2 win. It also gave Puk his first victory of the season. And although he hadn’t exactly been dominant over the first month, his overall season numbers look just fine: 1.88 ERA, 29 strikeouts, 10 walks in 24 innings. Normalcy has been restored, it appears.

Houck, meanwhile, allowed five runs on seven hits and three walks over six innings to take the loss. The Gators got two hits apiece from Peter Alonso, Deadon Liput, Mike Rivera and Jonathan India, and they built an early lead that Puk protected with an iron fist.

2. Trojans win crucial rubber game

USCLogo90X90Southern California desperately needed to win its series this weekend against No. 12 California to avoid its fourth losing weekend in the first five weeks. The two teams split the first two games of the series (which began Thursday to appear on the Pac-12 Networks), and the Trojans won Saturday’s finale 5-4 to take the series and even their record at 9-9 overall. I’ve been waiting for junior lefthander Andrew Wright to get a chance to make his mark for USC — scouts out West have reported seeing him run his heater into the mid-90s — and he came out of the bullpen to work three strong innings Saturday, allowing just one run and picking up his first career victory. Entering the game, Wright had logged just 9.2 innings in his three seasons on campus, but he suddenly looks like an intriguing X-factor on a staff that could use a boost.

Behind Wright, Brooks Kriske continued to perform very well, striking out three and allowing a run on one hit over two innings to earn the save. A.J. Ramirez led the offense with three hits including a homer. Now, the Trojans need to use this series as a springboard and get some real momentum going. It doesn’t get any easier — USC faces four tough games against Big West contenders Cal State Fullerton and UC Santa Barbara next week.

3. Clemson keeps it going

Clemson Tigers logoNo. 19 Clemson has been one of the season’s most pleasant surprises, jumping out to a 15-3 start and winning each of its first five series. The Tigers have won quality series each of the last three weekends, taking two of three from rival South Carolina, two of three on the road against a dangerous Wake Forest team, then winning the first two games against upstart Boston College (fresh off a series win at NC State). The Tigers won Saturday’s game 6-1, as lefthander Charlie Barnes (7.1 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 4 K) turned in a strong start, and freshman sensation Seth Beer notched his sixth consecutive two-hit game. The Tigers are now 4-1 in conference play, and they’re looking like a real contender in the ACC. First-year coach Monte Lee has to be one of the very early front-runners for coach of the year honors — he’s got this club (which is still inexperienced on the mound) believing in itself.

4. Cowboys get two-hit — and still win

Oklahoma State University logoOklahoma State clinched its big series against Michigan with a 5-4 win Saturday, even though the Wolverine out-hit the Cowboys 9-2. Oklahoma State’s plate discipline is one of its best assets — the Cowboys really use the walk as a weapon, and they drew 11 of them Saturday, then got a couple of big hits from Garrett Benge (a three-run triple in the third) and Donnie Walton (an RBI double in the fourth). Meanwhile, Trey Cobb racked up a career-high 13 strikeouts over six innings of work, allowing just two runs (one earned) on six hits and no walks. The three Oklahoma State pitchers combined to strike out 17 Wolverines. Michigan coach Erik Bakich can’t be pleased after his pitchers issued 11 walks and his batters struck out 17 times — and his team made two errors on top of it.

5. Huskies could be the Pac-12 darkhorse

Washington logoWashington has quietly gotten off to a nice 10-5 start, winning each of its first five weekend series. The Huskies clinched their first Pac-12 series Saturday with an 8-5 win against Arizona, which had carried a 12-4 record into the weekend. First baseman John Naff smacked a pair of homers and drove in four, while freshman shortstop A.J. Graffanino went 3-for-3 with 3 runs to help lead the Washington offense. The Huskies also got two more hits from third baseman Josh Cushing, who boosted his average to .426 on the year — he looks like one of the Pac-12’s breakout stars.

But perhaps Washington’s best asset is its bullpen, led by veterans Will Ballowe and Troy Rallings. Ballowe worked 2.1 scoreless innings Saturday, allowing just one hit and one walk while striking out five, and Rallings retired all three batters he faced in the ninth to end the game. The Huskies really needed Ballowe to return to his 2014 form after he struggled last year, and he hadn’t gotten off to a great start this spring, but maybe Saturday will be a turning point. Rallings, meanwhile, has simply been one of the nation’s best closers: he has yet to allow a run in 15.2 innings over 10 appearances, posting a 19-4 strikeout-walk mark.

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