Sorenson: OTTOMH, March 24Columns
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Have you heard enough of the word “parity” yet?
Last weekend snuck up on all of us. How could we possibly have predicted that top-flight teams like LSU, Vanderbilt, Fullerton and Louisiana-Lafayette would all get beaten twice at home? Or that Louisville and Cal would drop a pair on the road? Or that Arkansas would get swept by South Carolina? Last weekend caused us all to take a couple steps back and do some reevaluating.
Let’s see if we’ll have another one of those type of weekends as Pac 12 and Big 12 conference play gets into full force this time around. More sleepers and sheep in wolves clothing are about to get exposed. I feel it.
Snowbelt Teams To Watch
Okay StitchHeads, lets let these teams knock the snow off their gloves and give ’em some praise. The following teams have all done well so far in the non-conference portion of their schedules despite playing nearly all their games on the road and dealing with Old Man Winter and his ever-changing moods. If the season ended right now, these teams would be Big Dancing. But the bad news is the season isn’t ending now. The worse news is these teams will all have to play their conference slates, which to many of them means that confounded anchor effect comes into play.
For now, here are the snowbelt teams to watch, in no particular order. Oh, and the strength of schedule is based on the more-sane ISR rating service by Boyd Nation…
Best Win: at Samford (3)
This Weekend: at home vs. LMU
The Cougars three-of-four series win at Samford, who is rated No. 56 in the RPI, is pretty good. The only decent teams left on their schedule are three-gamers at home vs. No. 26 Creighton and No. 24 Gonzaga.
– Old Dominion
Best Win: vs. Kent State
This Weekend: at Rice
Lucky for the Monarchs, Conference USA has a few strong teams to build their RPI in Rice (29th) and Florida Atlantic (38th). Too bad they won’t be facing off with 15th-ranked Southern Miss.
– Kent State
Best Win: at Liberty (3)
This Weekend: at Central Michigan
Unfortunately, Eastern Michigan is the best team left on their MAC schedule and the Hurons’ RPI is just No. 121. The Flashes also hope to hit better than the .269 they are swinging it at now.
– Michigan State
Best Win: vs. Troy
This Weekend: vs. Rutgers
The Big 10 isn’t as strong as last year but Sparty has the advantage of playing Michigan (35th), Nebraska (57th) and Maryland (43) with seven of those nine games coming at home.
Best Win: vs. Kentucky
This Weekend: vs. Long Island
Wow, this is a drag. The next two weekends sees the Bulldogs play No. 267 LIU and No. 284 Fairleigh-Dickinson. Senior first baseman Robby Rinn is hitting .415 and a .634 slugging percentage.
– Wright State
Best Win: at North Carolina State.
This Weekend: at Valpairaso
The upcoming series against the Crusaders is going to be the best games remaining on the Raiders slate as VU is ranked No. 62 currently. To their credit, WSU went to NC State and also won a game in a series at Georgia.
Best Win: vs. UAB (3)
This Weekend: vs. Stony Brook
This is a great example of how just winning ball games helps. The Jays started 0-3 after getting swept at Fresno State. Since then they’ve gone 13-1 with the best wins being the three vs. UAB, who is rated at No. 143.
Best Win: at No. 10 TCU
This Weekend: at St. Mary’s
That win at TCU was huge. The Zags also won a mid-weeker at Arkansas, although the Hogs have an RPI at No. 163 right now. The offense hits a robust .315, but the pitching staff needs to bear down as it sports a 5.17 team ERA.
– Missouri State
Best Win: vs. Oral Roberts.
This Weekend: vs. Minnesota
The Gophers come into Springfield with an RPI at 73, which is 43 spots better than the Bears’ best win so far. They need some MVC teams to step up as Dallas Baptist is the only other Valley team in the top 100. For the MVC, this sure ain’t 2015.
Best Win: at Oklahoma State
This Weekend: vs. Illinois-Chicago
It was good to see the Wolverines get a win in the Sunday game at Oklahoma State. They needed it. The pitching staff has a 2.33 team ERA and is holding opponents to a minuscule .176 batting average. My word.
– West Virginia
Best Win: vs. Old Dominion (2)
This Weekend: at Kansas
My gaw-wed. The Mountaineers RPI dropped 11 spots and their ISR dropped 22 spots after Tuesday night’s loss to Penn State. It could get worse, KU’s ranking is nearly twice that of the Nittany Lions, at No. 206. Just win baby.
10 BEST PLACES TO BE THIS WEEKEND
I haven’t dusted this old gem off the shelves yet this year. So just for fun, here are the 10 places I’d have the Easton Lear Jet fly me off to if I had full control of it this weekend.
10- Georgia (14-8, 1-2) at No. 15 Mississippi State (15-6-1, 2-1)
Dudy-Noble Field, Starkville, Mississippi
Sponsored by the Westminster Dog Show, this one should be really interesting. How will MSU respond after the last two weekends they’ve made national news by sweeping Oregon and taking two at Vanderbilt? And this could be statement-making time for the Silver Britches.
9- No. 16 Virginia (16-6, 4-2) at No. 9 Louisville (17-4, 4-2)
Patterson Stadium, Louisville
The Cavs have been a little “meh” so far, not sweeping a single weekend yet, and that includes series against Monmouth, Duke and Wake. The ‘Ville has been beaten in each of its two marquee weekends so far this year, so this is a “prove it” weekend for them.
8- No. 18 UCLA (11-7, 3-0) at Arizona (14-6, 1-2)
Hi Corbett Field, Tucson, Arizona
Since losing the opening weekend series vs. North Carolina, the Bruins have won the last four. Bruin arms struck out 36 batters in their sweep of Washington State last week. UofA’s Bobby Dalbec is 4-1, 1.21 as the Sunday starter but hitting just .258 so far.
7- Georgia Tech (16-4, 3-3) at #4 North Carolina (18-2, 5-1)
Boshamer Stadium, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Big test for the Jackets, coming off a nice sweep at Virginia Tech. SS Connor Justus leads the Jackets in average (.416), slugging (.649) and walks (10). On their current six-game win streak the Tar Heels are averaging 11.7 runs per game.
6- No. 13 North Carolina State (16-7, 3-3) at No. 11 Florida State (17-5)
Dick Howser Stadium, Tallahassee, Florida
Nobody plays their home field better than the Seminoles do. The Pack comes in cold, having gone just 3-4 in their last seven games. They’ll have to tangle with SS Taylor Walls (.395) and 3B John Sansone (.415), who have both been brilliant at the dish and in the dirt.
5- No. 21 Long Beach State (14-6) at Cal State Fullerton (11-9)
Goodwin Field, Fullerton, California
Unfortunately this is a non-conference series between these two rivals. This is also the first time in a long time that the Beach comes in as the ranked team and Fullerton doesn’t. Keep an eye on the late leads, Long Beach’s Chris Rivera has eight saves but his ERA is a tad high at 3.72 in 9.2 innings of work.
4- No. 12 Clemson (17-3, 5-1) at No. 7 Miami (17-4, 4-2)
Mark Light Stadium, Coral Gables, Florida
Hurricane closer Brian Garcia leads the ACC with eight saves this year and he picked up his 33rd of his career in Wednesday’s 5-4 win over Bethune-Cookman. This will be a great road test for CU freshman wonderkind Seth Beer and his .453 average.
3- No. 14 South Carolina (20-2, 3-0) at No. 8 Ole Miss (20-2, 2-1)
Swayze Field, Oxford, Mississippi
The Gamecock bats were hither-and-yon early on but pounded out 24 runs in the sweep of Arkansas last week. But the Rebs will be a different monster with Sean Johnson (3-0, 1.96) and Brady Bramlett (4-0, 2.03) on lock-down duty so far this season.
2- No. 3 Oregon State (16-2, 3-0) at No. 17 California (11-6, 1-2)
Evans Diamond, Berkeley, California
The Beavers have won five straight series vs. the Bears. OSU hasn’t officially announced a starting pitcher but if form holds true it will be Drew Rasmussen, who is 4-0, 2.94 and holding opponents to a .188 average. He’ll toe off against Cal ace Daulton Jefferies, who is 5-0, 1.09. My gosh, this is going to be epic. Luckily, despite what I wrote above, the Easton Lear Jet IS mine for a day or two so I am looking forward to hitting the jet stream to go see this Thursday match.
1- No. 10 LSU (15-5, 1-2) at No. 2 Texas A&M (19-2, 2-1)
Olsen Field, College Station, Texas
Beware Tigers. Remember how young this team is? Well this will be the first weekend road trip of the year for LSU and they are coming off a series loss to Alabama. Not a great place for all those novices of the Tigers to get their feet wet in SEC road play. But A&M gave up 27 runs in their series win at Auburn last week so the strategy against them is, swing away.
– New Orleans (16-5) at Lamar (13-7)
The newbie vs. the old vet. This should be fun. Youthful Blake Dean, who seems like he played at LSU just one or two seasons ago, is the first-year head coach of the Privateers and has them ballin’ to say the least. Sitting at No. 25 in the RPI, the Privateers swept a series vs. Pitt, who is now No. 27 in the RPI, and also beat No. 13 South Alabama and No. 47 Tulane. The Cardinals are coached by legendary Jim Gilligan, who is making this 2016 season his 39th and final campaign in Beaumont. They’ve got some decent wins as well, taking down Arizona, LSU and sweeping Southeast Missouri, who is No. 38 in the RPI. The Privateers lead the Southland with a team average of .322 and have 12 games of double-digit hit totals. Lamar counters with reliever extraordinaire Jimmy Johnson, who is 5-0 despite making no starts and on the hill for just 13.1 innings so far this season. Starters Jayson McKinley (1-0, 2.45) and Billy Love (0-1, 2.89) have been good, but need to bear down even more this weekend.
Will There Ever Be A Big 12 Network?
There has been a lot of talk about how the Big 12 is hurting itself by sticking with 10 teams and not offering a championship game in football. Meanwhile, baseball is a sport that has certainly taken a hit the last few seasons. Last year, TCU and Oklahoma State were the only teams headed to the NCAA Tournament as the remaining seven teams were not in at-large contention. Texas saved some face by making it a three-bid league by winning the conference tournament in Tulsa.
One of the biggest gripes throughout the Big 12 is the fact that there is no TV network akin to the Big 10 Network, the SEC Network or the Pac 12 Network. The biggest hurdle in accomplishing that? The school-centric Longhorn Network. Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy says it is vital for the conference to get a network and if LHN is not disbanded it could eventually land Texas in the SEC or the Pac 12 and bring instability to the rest of the Big 12.
Now I’m not saying the Longhorn Network is the reason Big 12 baseball has been diminished as well, but it is really strange for UT to be struggling the last few years, even with its own network televising games and a Hall of Fame coach at the helm.
Here is the article, written by CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodds that explains it all:
Talking To The O.G.
Last Sunday, after the South By Southwest Music Festival was over in Austin, I got the chance to drive down to San Antonio and catch the last six innings of Rice’s 1-0 win over UT-San Antonio, one which gave the Owls the series win and improve their record to 10-9. The story for the Owls is what you usually expect of them, they will pitch you to death. Coming into the game the team ERA sat at 3.25. Opponents were hitting a boney-armed .244. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, the Owls were hitting just .247 coming into this series with the Roadrunners. That punchlessness continued on Sunday as they managed just three hits in the game, and still won.
I admit I am not used to seeing the Owls play near-.500 baseball over the years. So when I caught up with the Old General, Wayne Graham, my knee-jerk reaction was to ask him “What the hell is going on with you guys?” But I decided to keep it positive and see what he had to say about his team. I didn’t have a lot of time for chit-chat because the team was loading up the bus and getting back to H-town. But here are the nuts and bolts of what he told me…
– On what he liked from his team on that day:
“We have been plagued by defensive woes so far this season. But today we made a number of great defensive plays, a couple great catches in the outfield and a great throwout on a bunt attempt down the third base line and some great throws from the outfield. I think today we showed we are capable of playing great defense.”
– The biggest key to getting this team on track and playing Rice baseball:
“We’ve really got to get the hitting game going. We can’t win many games one-to-nothin’. We just can’t. To be honest, offensively, we can’t really get much worse. But I know there are a couple of guys who we know will hit better than they have been and we’ll need that. Ryan Chandler is starting to hit. Ford Proctor is just a really good hitter. and Grayson Lewis is a better hitter than he showed today. So we’re going to try to get these guys going and we think they will.”
– On Glenn Otto, his ace reliever, who threw 3.1 innings of no-hit ball with eight Ks:
“I don’t know if he compares with some of the greats we’ve had here but when he is on, he is as good as anybody. He really is. You saw flashes of that today. He kinda got roughed up a little bit last week (against TCU) because he was working out the day before he pitched. I asked him ‘What are you doing working out the day before you pitch?’ But he was better rested today and it showed. His curve ball is good and his fastball is really good. We just have to make sure he is well rested before the days he pitches from now on.”
– How he sees the potential of this team:
“I’ve always thought that if you have four really good pitchers and a good defense you can go a long way. And I think that’s what we’ve got here with Parthasarathy, Duplantier, Fox and Otto. And we’ve got a couple more guys we think will come along and start to pitch really well. We can pitch and defend with anybody. But the big question will be whether we can hit with anybody. If we do that, we’ve got a chance to be something special. But again, we won’t be beating a lot of people down the road if we’re still hitting poorly.”
Where are they now?
Two weeks ago in this column I asked you StitchHeads out there if you knew the whereabouts of former Clemson outfielder Gary Burnham, who was a Tiger player on their 1996 CWS team. Special shout-out to Vanderbilt trainer Chris Ham, who informed me that Burnham came by the Commodores practice a few weeks ago to talk to the team about baseball and their futures beyond their pro careers. VU head coach Tim Corbin was an assistant on that 1996 College World Series team that Burnham played on. Burnham is apparently in surgical sales and still conducts hitting clinics for area youth baseball players.
Eight for Omaha
Yes, this isn’t my current top eight rankings or anything. But if the season ended today, these are the eight teams having to withstand hearing “left field sucks!” and “right field sucks1” in TD Ameritrade Park:
– Oregon State
– North Carolina
– Ole Miss
– UC Santa Barbara
Damn, that’s too many ACC teams, isn’t it? Gonna have to shake it up next week.