Sorenson: College Baseball’s March MadnessColumns
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• Five Quick Hits
• Midweek Madness
• Who Still Hasn’t Allowed An Earned Run?
• Cal State Fullerton/Long Beach Overview
• Winless Teams
• Eight For Omaha
Ahhhhh. March Madness. The intensity. The upsets. The heartbreak.
Oh, you think we’re talking about that hoops sport here. Pfft. No. While basketball this time of year can be completely insane — thank you Ja Morant, for one — this is also becoming an insane portion of the college baseball season. Conference play has heated up as we head into Week Six of the 2019 college baseball season. And things should dial up even more this weekend.
The Big 10 joins the rest of the Power Five conferences in getting league play under way. While 13-3 Penn State has been the biggest shock in the conference, they’ll get tested by a Minnesota team that will be snorting steam from its nostrils (more on that in a bit). Texas and Texas Tech got the Big 12 season started last week, and the rest of the league gets going in earnest this weekend, highlighted by Texas making a trip to TCU. The SEC, Pac 12 and ACC continue their meat-grinder schedules that aren’t for the faint of heart.
We’ll touch on a lot more below, but let’s start with this:
FIVE QUICK HITS
A few things that jump out to me about the upcoming weekend in college baseball:
• Arizona State gets a test . . . finally.
According to the RPI, the Devils have played the 220th toughest schedule in the country. Oregon is ranked as the No. 11 team in the RPI, and I was impressed with their improvement when I saw the Ducks in Hawaii a couple weeks ago, taking three of four. This will be just the second road trip of the season for the Devils (the first was a win at Cal State Fullerton). So there are a lot of challenges in their first Pac 12 road trip this weekend.
• Are we underrating Auburn? We’re about to find out.
I hate to agree with the RPI, but I have had a sneaky feeling the Auburn Tigers might be the best team in the southern monster conference. Hear me out . . . I know it sounds crazy. With a talented batting order and the way their pitching staff has looked against good teams (particularly vs. Tennessee last weekend), I think they are slightly underrated. Of course, now they play at Mississippi State, which has wins against Texas Tech, Sam Houston State and a series win at Florida. Two impressive resumes go head to head here.
• SEC road tests.
Auburn isn’t the only team putting its reputation on the line away from home this weekend in the SEC. Lots of intrigue here:
—No. 10 LSU, which is 0-4 in road games this season, plays three games at No. 5 Georgia.
—No. 13 Texas A&M, which went 3-0 at the Shriners College Classic but is 0-1 in true road games, plays three games at Kentucky.
—No. 14 Florida, which is 1-1 in road games and comes off losing two of three vs. Mississippi State, plays three games at No. 8 Vanderbilt.
—No. 11 Arkansas, which has three losses on the year with two of them coming away from home, travels to Alabama. The Tide has started 18-4 this season and is looking for legitimacy.
—South Carolina, which has given up 32 runs in four games away from Founders Park, goes to Knoxville to face Tennessee.
—No. 18 Ole Miss, 2-3 on the road, plays three games at Missouri.
• How will UCLA wear the No. 1 crown?
With last week’s series win over Oregon State and Vanderbilt’s series loss at Texas A&M, UCLA moved up to the No. 1 spot in the D1Baseball Top 25. Now that the Bruins have the white-hot spotlight on them, they’ll take on a capable Arizona team that has gotten out to a 13-7 mark. In their last four games the Cats have scored 50 runs to keep their team average at .327, good for fourth in the country. This will be a huge test for the Bruins pitching staff, which is ranked second nationally with a team ERA of 1.79. Something’s got to give.
• Looking for an Off The Radar series?
Look no further than Illinois State at Illinois.
Weird as it sounds, the Redbirds are 13-6 and ranked No. 27 in the RPI while the Illini are 14-4 and rank 12th. If you had told me before the season that week six of the season would feature these two teams as one of the best series in the country, I would’ve sent the men with the white jackets that buckle from the back for you. We know a bit about the Illini, and you might remember Illinois State as the team that took down then-No. 1 Vanderbilt on the Sunday of their three-game series two weeks ago. They also come in with the 12th-best offense in the country, batting .312 as a team.
THE LAST EARNED RUN WATCH
Three pitchers (who have thrown at least 10 innings) have yet to allow an earned run so far this season:
Jake Miller, San Diego
The bespectacled Torero freshman has made seven appearances and two starts, throwing 21.2 innings. He has held opposing hitters to seven hits, good for a .102 opponent average. Only one of those seven hits was for extra bases, a double.
Easton Walker, Brigham Young
After 19.2 innings of work in nine appearances, the diminutive sophomore righty (he’s 5-foot-9, 160 pounds) has given up just two walks and 11 hits. Two runs have crossed the plate on his watch, but neither was earned. Opponents are hitting just .159 against him.
Brandon Eisert, Oregon State
We all remember Eisert as being one of the bullpen heroes from last year’s College World Series. He has made seven appearances with 18.2 innings of work and is a punchout machine, racking up 30 Ks against just one walk. Eisert is also 5-0 on the season, tied for tops in the country.
BEST MIDWEEK WIN
– Oklahoma’s two game sweep of New Mexico, 8-1 and 8-6.
Doesn’t seem like this should be the biggest win(s) of any team in all of D1, however due to these Ws the Sooners saw their RPI ranking skyrocket 33 places from No. 83 up to No. 50. And the weird thing is it’s not like the Lobos were top 10 or something, they enter this weekend as the No. 126-ranked team in the RPI. So who knows why this was such a valuable pair of wins for the Big Red.
But also, OU is looking good under second year head coach Skip Johnson sitting at 18-4 and open Big 12 play hosting 13-7 Kansas this weekend.
WORST MIDWEEK LOSS
– UNC-Greensboro dropping an 8-5 decision to North Carolina A&T.
Unless it’s Texas A&M, anytime you lose to a team with an ampersand in its name, it can’t be good. The Spartans can attest to that, seeing their RPI drop from No. 24 down to No. 47 with that lone loss to the Aggies. Problem is, A&T was ranked at No. 211 coming into the game, so any loss to a 200-plus team is really bad news. Good thing this isn’t mid-May or something, then the Spartans would REALLY be kicking themselves.
THE MOST BIZARRE MIDWEEK GAME, EVER?
I spent Tuesday afternoon riding up to Malibu and checking out the Minnesota-Pepperdine matchup at Eddy D. Field Stadium. Gah, was I ever in for a bizarre ending.
It was looking like a certain Pepperdine victory all day long thanks to a four-run first inning for the Waves which included three walks, a single and a double. They had a 9-2 lead going into the eighth inning when all hell broke lose in this one. Minnesota scored four runs in the eighth to make it still a benign 9-6 game, especially when the Waves answered back with two more in the bottom of the eighth and UofM was facing a five-run deficit going into the final frame.
Keep in mind the game started at 3:05pm and was played under the marine layer along the Pacific coast, so it was dark, overcast and gray all game long. Since it was also a slow game, when the ninth inning started, I texted Lady StitchHead at 6:07pm saying that “if something happens and Minnesota scores five runs to tie this game, it is going to have to be called due to darkness.” It was 6:09pm at the beginning of that inning and sunset was 6:55pm. And since it was overcast with low-hanging clouds, it was already starting to get dark out.
Well sure enough, the Gophers didn’t just scrap together five runs, they got six runs in the top of the ninth inning to take a 12-11 lead. They batted around in the inning and forced two Pepperdine pitching changes. The big blow was Jordan Kozicky’s bases-loaded/bases-clearing three-run double which tied the game. Then a batter later Riley Smith cracked a double which scored Kozicky with the go-ahead run.
At that point Pepperdine went to another pitching change, bringing in Edward Yost, their fifth pitcher of the day. During that change I could see the umpires huddling together and looking at how dark it was getting. Keep in mind, if they called the game due to darkness, the game would revert back to the last inning and Pepperdine would be awarded with an 11-6 win, nullifying Minnesota’s miraculous ninth inning comeback.
With the streetlights on campus coming on and the skies looking progressively darker, Minnesota leadoff hitter Ben Mazzenga took ball one on a pitch that was waaaaaaay outside, then fouled off a pitch, then swung at a bad pitch and then, which I can only guess was completely on purpose, swung on a pitch that was inside, near his ankles. In fact, Mezzenga’s swing looked like a golf swing he made WHILE jumping back to avoid the ball hitting him. upon that third strike, Mezzenga leapt out of the batter’s box and ran – yes, ran – back to the dugout, grabbed his glove and quickly ran to his post in centerfield. It was obvious he was told to strike out and get his team on defense to hopefully finish the game.
With that in mind I have never seen a pitcher warm up quicker than Ben Radel did for the Gophers, still racing to finish the game before the umpires called it due to darkness. In pretty quick fashion, Radel got a pop-out to Mezzenga, gave up a single to PU’s Quincy McAfee and then got a grounder back to him on the mound for the second out. McAfee advanced to second on the play. Then, with both dugouts howling and the players somehow able to see the ball, Aharon Modlin sent another bouncer up the box, but Radel couldn’t make the play and McAfee rounded third base with the tying run, 12-12. The Gopher effort to quickly get three outs and win the game was done.
Now tied, Modlin quickly stole second base to put the winning run in scoring position. But Waves pinch hitter Mike Malinchak hit a bouncer to Kosicky at third, who had just moved over from shortstop at the beginning of that inning. Kosicky, the surest glove on the Gopher team, mishandled the ball making Malinchak safe at first and putting Modlin 90 feet away at third base.
That’s when Billy Cook strode to the plate and with a 1-0 count and bounced the game-winning run up the middle, sending Modlin home, the Waves running out of the dugout to mob Cook and the Gophers to the floor.
When the two teams went to the “fist-bump” line the Malibu hillside was nearly covered in darkness. Here is my tweet from that moment after the game had just gotten completed…
A COUPLE THINGS ABOUT EAST CAROLINA
1- The Perfect Game
Don’t know if you missed it or not but how about what Jake Kuchmaner did on Sunday? The sophomore southpaw threw the first-ever perfect game in Pirates history as they beat Maryland 3-0 in College Park. Twenty-seven up, twenty-seven down, with no walks and no errors. Kuchmaner continues to have a banner second year for the Purple and Gold, now sporting a 2-0 record and a 1.48 ERA with an opponent batting average of .093. Our Josh Connor wrote a good profile article about him here:
2- The One That Got Away.
This week, the Angels all-star outfielder Mike Trout cashed in on the highest contract in professional sports history, signing a 12-year deal worth $426.5 million. What you might not have known is that Trout was originally slated to be an East Carolina Pirate. The Millville, New Jersey native committed to the Pirates and then head coach Billy Godwin when coming out of high school in 2009. In his Perfect Game profile Trout is listed as an “OF/RHP” but his stat sheet shows his fastball topping out at a relatively mild 86 miles per hour. The good news is that he turned out to be quite a good outfielder, so no need to put him on the mound. Bummer for ECU he was shot up the draft boards as a senior and ended up being the 25th overall draftee and never made it to campus.
Then head coach Billy Godwin thought they had Trout ready to come to ECU but his stock kept rising as his senior year in New Jersey unfolded. Godwin was quoted a few years ago saying, “Going into the fall (of his senior year) I thought he was probably a third-to-seventh round pick, maybe. But then I saw him play in the spring and there was no shot.”
PLAY OF THE WEEK
Although it wasn’t listed as my Best Midweek Win, Sam Houston State’s 8-7 win over Baylor on Tuesday was a huge boon for the Bearkats, jumping their RPI 15 places up afterward. We’ll see how big it plays when the battle for the post-season rolls around but anytime the Cats can get a win over a Power Five school – particularly one that is in the state of Texas – it will help their post-season resume that much more.
Here is the biggest play from that game, a daring double steal which eventually proved to be the winning run as they went up 8-4 at the time, on the way to a one-run win:
Double steal as Riley McKnight steals home!
— Sam Houston Baseball (@BearkatsBSB) March 20, 2019
IT’S FULLERTON-LONG BEACH WEEKEND, PART I
This is one of the best rivalries in college baseball, even though this year it will be a little soured by the fact that both teams come into this non-conference series with sub-.500 records. Fullerton is 8-10 and the Beach is a disappointing 3-16. So thinking back to better days of this rivalry, here are a few of my favorite Titan-Dirtbag games I’ve been able to see over the years that I’ve lived in SoCal.
– APRIL 28th, 1996
No. 1 Cal State Fullerton – 6
No. 25 Long Beach State – 9
Blair Field was still in its infancy of being Long Beach’s home facility, as the Dirtbags made the switch from their high school-like field to the storied city-owned ballpark in 1993. But this was part of a record setting weekend of crowds at Blair Field, including this Sunday showdown in front of a scoot-in-tight 3,107 fans. But JJ Newkirk seemed to have about 10 stolen bases and All American closer Ryan Brannan got his second save of the weekend against Mark Kotsay, Brian Lloyd, Jeremy Giambi and Co. in a wild back-and-forth game. However, even more notable was that the Titans entered the weekend 38-6, but lost two of three to The Beach. What followed was an inexplicable slide as Fullerton would end up finishing fourth in the Big West and got eliminated from the Regionals by Rice in the Midwest Regional in Wichita. This game would also be historic because it would also be the final regular season home game in the Augie Garrido era. The longtime Fullerton skipper would take the job at Texas in the off-season.
– MAY 16th, 1998
Long Beach State – 12
No. 12 Cal State Fullerton – 0
The Dirtbags were still unranked after their ignominious 2-8-1 start and came into this game at 35-20-1. This game was an elimination game in what would be the final edition of the old Big West Tournament. Head coach Dave Snow decided to save his best pitche, Mike Gallo, for the third game of the tournament, and he delivered. In a very efficient complete-game eight-hitter with 11Ks, Gallo catapulted the Dirtbags into the championship game, which they won 24-10 over Sacramento State the next day. This win at Goodwin Field over the Titans was the catalyst for their huge post-season run. The Beach went on to stun No. 3 Stanford and No. 10 Alabama to win the West Regional title in Palo Alto. Once in Omaha, the Dirtbags also eliminated No. 1 Miami and No. 5 Florida State as part of a 2-2 showing.
– MAY 22, 2005
No. 10 Long Beach State – 0
No. 1 Cal State Fullerton – 10
This was another packed house, this time at Goodwin Field as 3,247 fans wedged in. This Sunday win for the Titans was part of a record-setting weekend through the turnstyles as the stadium record The Titans locked down the Big West regular season title by taking two of three from their local rivals as Ricky Romero and Scott Sarver picked up Ws, with Sarver’s coming in this Sunday clincher. Sergio Pedroza smashed his Big West-best 13th home run to the Arboretum and Danny Dorn had a two-run single in the fourth inning to account for the winning runs.
– MAY 27th, 2007
No. 22 Long Beach State – 6
No. 28 Cal State Fullerton – 7
In what would be the final home regular season win for George Horton as the coach of the Titans, this would be one of the great comebacks in the series history. Down 6-1 in the seventh inning, Matt Wallach would crank a game-tying grand slam in that frame. An inning later in their final at-bat, Wallach would start the inning with a double and then score the winning run on an Even McArthur double. Despite a rough start, giving up two runs in the first and another run in the second, Wes Roemer pitched his fifth complete game of the year, striking out 11. Oddly, Fullerton would lose the next two to The Beach and finish 33-23 and in fifth place in the Big West. It was their worst finish since 1989, yet they got hot and earned another trip to Omaha with a solid postseason run.
– JUNE 11th, 2017
Cal State Fullerton – 2
Long Beach State – 1
What an atmosphere this one had. After Long Beach had beaten the Titans in five of six regular season meetings, a trip to Omaha on the line here as the teams split the first two games of the Long Beach Super Regional. That set the stage for game three and it was intense. Both head coaches said that was the most intense crowds they’d ever heard for a game at Blair Field. Titan spark plug Hank LoForte provided both runs on a two-run single in the fourth inning. On the mound, Colton Eastman didn’t give up his first hit until the fifth inning and pitched seven complete. The Dirtbags had the tying run 90 feet from home plate when David Banuelos struck out to end the high-intensity game.
Just to show you the ire that is raised between these two, here is a snarky tweet that Long Beach put out last year…
POOR WINLESS SODS
So it looks like we’re down to our final two teams here people. If you had these programs in your Winless Pool at the start of this season, you’re still alive to win the prize.
This Weekend: At Youngstown State (1-18)
This looks like a pretty perfect situation for the Golden Grizzlies, as the Penguins are expected to be another bottom feeder of the Horizon League. The Griz has an RPI of No. 295 while the Penguins are No. 255. If this doesn’t work out for a win, next weekend they’ll host Northern Kentucky, whose RPI is No. 259.
– St. Peter’s
This Weekend: At Quinnipiac (5-11)
Oof. Things don’t look good for the Peacocks, at least not this weekend as the Bobcats have five wins and are ranked No. 117 in the RPI. Of STP’s 14 losses, only two of them have been within two runs, most of the rest have been via blowout. By the way, in late April the ‘Cocks will play four games against No. 284 Fairleigh Dickinson.
EIGHT FOR OMAHA
If the season ended today, these are the fan bases that would be lining up for something good at Zesto.
– Mississippi State
– N.C. State
CURRENTLY IN OMAHA…
It’s 55º and sunny in the Big O and there is no rain. Which is good because with all the flooding going on around Omaha and the state they don’t need no stinkin’ rain.
There are 86 days till the start of the College World Series.