Weekend Preview: May 19-22Weekend Preview
• Want more D1Baseball.com coverage? Subscribe Today
• Kendall Rogers on C-USA’s surge
• Aaron Fitt on upstart Louisiana Tech
• Aaron Fitt on surprising Utah
• National notebook
• Top 25 in Action
The Surge Of Conference USA
by Kendall Rogers
Conference USA is on the verge of potentially making a historic run to the NCAA postseason, and it has Florida Atlantic to thank for a strong first impression way back in February.
While many were focused on other, bigger, series around the country, the Owls traveled to Starkville, Miss., and took a pair of games from Mississippi State, outscoring the Bulldogs — who are now a virtual lock for a national seed – 14-6 to only get their season started on a positive note, but also giving C-USA a much-needed shot in the arm.
You see, while C-USA hasn’t been bad over the years, it had a tough stretch the past few seasons. The league had Conference RPIs of eight in 2015 and ’14, while also finishing 2013 with an RPI of 10. In those seasons, the conference got three bids last season and would’ve only been two had Florida International not win the automatic bid by winning the conference tournament. No one hosted. In 2014, the league recorded just two bids from Old Dominion and Rice, and the Owls hosted. Then, in 2013, C-USA was just a one-bid league with surprise, surprise, Rice getting the lone nod. Of course, the league got four bids in 2012 and 2011, but that was in a different era with teams such as East Carolina and UCF – now in the American Athletic Conference – still in the league.
With some newer faces in the league now, this season’s success presents the conference with a boost that could have long-lasting ramifications. The league got four bids to the NCAA postseason the last time it had a top five Conference RPI. And this year? C-USA sits at five and has five teams that would be on the Division I Baseball Selection Committee’s big board of teams to consider if the season ended today.
“Everyone has beaten someone in this league this year,” FAU coach John McCormack said. “We beat Mississippi State, WKU has beaten some teams, Rice has done it, Southern Miss has done it, and even Marshall has taken care of business. There are some teams in the league that are struggling, but for the most part, it’s teams that have proven something.”
McCormack’s Owls are one of those teams that can feel safe right now. The Owls are 22 in the RPI with a 6-4 mark vs. RPI Top 50 teams, while also possessing a non-conference SOS in the top 60. Those are impressive marks.
“I feel pretty good about our club. We didn’t play particularly great during our recent road trip, but we’re just making sure we get guys in the right position,” he said. “The whole thing for us moving forward is just getting Stephen Kerr into a groove. He can really make things go for us. We also need to get some pitchers healthy, namely Sean Labsan. Otherwise, I like the way we’re playing, particularly the offense.
“You’re kind of just waiting for everything to get over with and get ready for the second season, so to speak,” he continued. “We need to watch ourselves and make sure we’re taking care of business. We want to stay as close to the top of the league standings to avoid any possibility of being left out. I feel pretty good, but you just never know until you hear your name called on Selection Monday.”
Joining FAU in the safe category right now are Southern Miss and Rice. The Golden Eagles, as the top team in the league at the moment and with an RPI of 17 and a 12-11 mark vs. RPI Top 50 teams, are a strong possibility to host a regional, while Rice is behind with work to do with an RPI of 30 and just a 9-9 mark vs. RPI Top 50, not to mention a head-to-head series loss to the Eagles a few weeks ago. Rice, though, is safely in the field of 64.
That leaves a couple of very intriguing options in Marshall and Louisiana Tech. The Thunder Herd has not reached the NCAA postseason since 1978, but have made a furious run toward the top this spring, sitting just one game out of first place. That would indicate the Herd would be in the field if the season ended today, but they still need to improve their RPI (70) and a 4-7 mark vs. RPI Top 50 isn’t exactly overwhelming. Meanwhile, equally miraculous is the turnaround by Greg Goff and his staff at La Tech. The Bulldogs haven’t reached the NCAA postseason since 1987, but are 16-11 in the league and sitting at an impressive 34-16 overall. Tech probably needs to win the Rice series this weekend to stay on the good side of the bubble, but the mere fact we’re even talking about is a testament to how far this league has come over the past year.
“Marshall has really, really improved, we didn’t even see one of their good arms the weekend we played them and they were still impressive,” McCormack said. “Last year, it seemed like Marshall was a team that would implode a little bit if things didn’t go its way, but this year’s team is pretty tough. I think Southern Miss is a senior laden team who is playing with a chip on their shoulder after not making the postseason last year, too. The league is just really impressive.
This weekend and the conference tournament should help shake out the hosting situation and a potential fourth postseason bid.
But no matter what happens, we see you Conference USA.
Goff Works Magic At La Tech
By Aaron Fitt
When Greg Goff took over as Campbell’s head coach in 2008, the Camels went 21-37. It took him five years to turn Campbell into one of the best programs in the Big South, winning 40-plus games three years in a row from 2012-14.
Then he left to take on another tough building project closer to home at Louisiana Tech. He inherited a program that had won 15 games in 2014, and he led it to a 25-27 record in his first season last year. But Goff wasn’t content to wait five years to contend like he did at Campbell. He wanted to win fast — so he overhauled the roster with 19 junior-college transfers in the fall.
“I’m just not a patient guy — ‘Hey, in four years we’re gonna be good.’ I want to win now,” Goff said. “I mean, this is how I support my family. I’ve got four daughters — that like to spend money.”
Goff’s daughters can rest easy, because he’s got the Bulldogs rolling much faster than anyone could have anticipated. Two years after going 15-35, Louisiana Tech heads into the final weekend of the regular season with a nearly inverted record — 34-16. The Bulldogs are 16-11 in Conference USA (the No. 5 RPI league) and 47th in the RPI. Simply put, if they can win two out of three at home from C-USA powerhouse Rice this weekend, they’re almost a lock to make their first regional since 1987. And even if they lose two out of three this weekend, they’ve got a real chance.
“I’m telling you, it’s a miracle,” Goff said. “I thought we’d be pretty good, we signed some good players. But our league is so good. I couldn’t believe we kept beating people — I mean, we won six series in a row. Without our No. 1 guy.”
That No. 1 starter, Tyler Clancy, has been limited to seven starts by bicep soreness. But MRIs revealed no structural damage, to the Bulldogs gave him some rest, and now they’ll get him back. He should be available for a few innings this weekend, and Goff hopes to start him in next week’s conference tournament.
Goff thinks Clancy might have gotten hurt because his velocity jumped from 84-85 last year to 88-91, and perhaps his arm hadn’t really caught up with his arm speed, as he put it. Clancy was already winning games with a mid-80s fastball thanks to his advanced feel for pitching with his three-pitch arsenal, so he has been even better with his firmer fastball. His return gives Louisiana Tech a nice boost down the stretch.
In the meantime, lefthander Phillip Diehl (4-4, 4.22) has done a nice job leading the staff. Diehl threw 5 1/3 solid innings in last Friday’s win at Southern Miss, racking up seven strikeouts thanks to a slider that had very good depth. He pitches at 88-91 from the left side, and when his slider is on, he’s tough to beat.
That win last Friday followed a familiar recipe — Nate Harris earned the win with 2 1/3 innings of relief, and Adam Atkins slammed the door for his ninth save. That bullpen duo gives Louisiana Tech incredible confidence in the late innings, and that might be the team’s greatest strength. Harris (4-2, 2.89, 57 strikeouts in 53 innings) sits at 85-86 with his fastball, but he can really spin his slider, giving him a true swing-and-miss pitch. Atkins (5-0, 0.76, 45-8 K-BB in 35.2 IP) has been one of the nation’s most effective closers, and he reminds Goff of his former All-America closer at Campbell, Ryan Thompson. Like Thompson, Atkins is a lower slot guy, pounding the zone a three-quarters slot at 88-91 mph. The fastball is his bread and butter pitch, but he mixes in a little slider from time to time.
“He doesn’t walk anybody, and he’s pretty firm from that angle,” Goff said. “He’s throwing 90 percent fastballs, and hitters just can’t see it. He really hides it well, and it gets on the hitter real quick.
“We have two dudes in the bullpen, if we get a lead, it’s over. That’s really been our trademark this year. Like against Northwestern State, we bet them twice, Atkins finished them out. If you’ve got that trump card at the back you can go to, it makes a world of difference.”
Harris is a juco transfer, and so is righthander Casey Sutton (6-1, 1.47 in 61.1 innings), who had Tommy John surgery just about a year ago but has made a remarkably fast recovery. Sutton slid into the weekend rotation after Clancy went down, and he has thrown two shutouts among his six starts. Sutton works at 87-89 and “can really pitch, and throws a cutter that’s really good.” He’ll slide up a spot into the No. 2 starter role this week against the Owls.
Sutton is one of six imports on the La Tech roster from Hinds (Miss.) CC, where Goff has a connection. Three of the key pieces of the offense also came from Hinds: third baseman Chase Lunceford (.321/.397/.558, 7 HR) and twin brothers Jonathan Washam (.325/.364/.463) and Jordan Washam (.305/.378/.411). Goff called that trio “our centerpiece guys.”
“Chase is a really good player,” Goff said. “He’s a third baseman for us, hits from the left side. He has some pull power, been hitting 3 or 4 hole for us, been our RBI guy. Just kind of that guy you want up in an RBI situation.
“Jordan is more athletic (than Jonathan). He swings from the left side, he plays second. Jonathan is a hitter, he’s our DH. He’s not as athletic, but man, his barrel just stays in the zone and he really uses the whole field. He’s one of the purest hitters I’ve had in terms of staying inside of the baseball and using the whole field.”
Louisiana Tech’s leading hitter, Sean Ullrich (.343/.428/.526, 11 SB), is a bounceback from Missouri by way of Johnson County CC, and Goff called him an SEC kind of player — an athletic, physical outfielder who can run, throw and drive the ball. But Ullrich is dealing with some nerve issues in his shoulder and down his arm, so he played just one game last weekend at Southern Miss. Goff said the Bulldogs will have to pick and choose what games he can play in through the end of the season, which is a bit of a setback.
But Louisiana Tech isn’t overly reliant on an individual players. This is a complete team offense that manufactures runs by any means necessary.
“We have nine guys that just really battle and compete,” Goff said. “We have a couple guys that can run a little bit. Our park is made for a lefthanded-hitting lineup, so we went out and got some lefthanded hitters. But it’s the same as it was at Campbell — we get hit by pitches, run bases, just put pressure on people. Execute the hit-and-run, push and drag, the same little things we did at Campbell. We’re doing anything we can to get on base, scrapping to get runs. And then we’ve had some guys step up in the middle of the lineup to get some RBIs.”
With so much turnover on the roster, building chemistry was a major goal in the fall for the coaching staff. Fortunately, they recruited a number of high-character players, and they gelled quickly.
This group has already accomplished some special things this year. And now they’ve got a real chance to do something even bigger — getting this program back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in nearly three decades.
“I told our guys today, ‘I don’t know how this has happened. You guys have played extremely well over the last month,’” Goff said. “We’ve gotten some breaks, and it’s happened.”
By Aaron Fitt
The Utah Utes know you don’t believe in them. They get it — they’ve still got a losing overall record. You’re thinking, “How could this team possibly win the mighty Pacific-12 Conference?” Admit it.
There’s plenty of reason for skepticism. In the Utes’ first four years in the Pac-12, they never won more than seven conference games in a season. With two weeks left, they’ve already more than doubled their previous high, with 15 conference wins. And in their first four years in the league, the Utes won three conference series total. That’s three series wins in four years. This season alone, Utah has won six series.
“It’s interesting. I think everybody’s waiting for us to crash,” Utah coach Bill Kinneberg said, a bit coyly. “I don’t think it’s gonna happen.”
About that elephant in the room: Yes, Utah is 21-25. But don’t let the record fool you — this isn’t the same team that opened the season 4-11 heading into conference play. It took until mid-March, but Utah got some things figured out just in time for its first Pac-12 series on the road at Oregon, where the Utes won two of three. Then the next weekend, they took two of three at Arizona State. Then they swept Arizona at home. They’ve never strayed far from the top of the standings since.
“Our month of February and early march were awful,” Kinneberg said. “We were not the same team that we are right now in any phase of the game. There were days we had good pitching but not very good defense, or we didn’t hit. We were completely out of sync. We played horribly, to be honest with you, for what we were thinking that we were capable of playing. So that got us in a big hole. But once we started Pac-12 play, and maybe this is still our growing pains of getting into the Pac-12, our depth is not where it needs to be to compete with everybody. We’re winning our weekend games, but I think we’re using every bit of energy and mental capacity to win our weekend games. When we swept Arizona, then we had to play Tuesday, we could have played a Little League team and we weren’t going to win. We were so mentally spent and exhausted that it didn’t matter who we played. It’s an excuse, and it’s something we’re going to have to get better at.”
So that explains the 6-16 nonconference record. But that doesn’t matter — all that matters is winning the Pac-12 title. There is no conference tournament, so the regular-season champion earns Pac’s automatic bid, regardless of its overall record. But if Utah fails to win the Pac-12, its season will be over, because teams must finish at least one game above .500 just to be eligible for an at-large spot.
With two series left — at California this weekend, then vs. second-place Washington next weekend — the Utes are 15-9 in the league, all alone in first place, one game ahead of the Huskies. They control their own destiny, and they know it.
And they believe in themselves. Kinneberg thinks that belief really started in the Arizona State series. Utah won Friday’s opener, then got no-hit by ASU’s Ryan Hingst on Saturday. It must have been demoralizing, but rather than feel sorry for themselves, the Utes bounced back and scored 16 runs to win Sunday’s rubber game.
“Maybe that was the turning point; we’d just been kicked in the mouth and we got back up the next day,” Kinneberg said. “It’s really funny, because that Saturday night you were thinking it’s absolutely the smallest field on earth when we were hitting. But then the next day we came out and nobody flinched. Maybe that was the defining point, that maybe these guys are a little tougher than we thought they were.”
That toughness might be Utah’s biggest asset — it’s not like this team stands out statistically. The Utes rank seventh in the Pac in scoring, eighth in homers, sixth in steals, and 10th in ERA and fielding percentage. The one category where Utah leads the conference: hit by pitches (64). That seems appropriate for this gritty bunch, which stands out for its toughness — and its experience.
Kinneberg recalls talking with UCLA associate head coach Rex Peters a couple of years ago, lamenting the fact that he couldn’t get his team to hit. Peters responded, “Bill, you just don’t have enough at-bats.” It’s not easy to stay afloat in the Pac-12 with a lineup filled with young hitters, but now those young hitters have grown into mature, confident veterans.
“You look at our lineup, six or seven of them are three-year starters, and they’ve kind of come into their own,” Kinneberg said. “They’ve got a lot of at-bats in this league, and I think they finally have become good hitters.”
One freshman has played an important role — outfielder DaShawn Kiersey, an exciting talent that Kinneberg thinks has Pac-12 Player of the Year-type potential over the next couple of years. But Utah’s top three hitters are seniors: DH Kellen Marruffo (.326/.400/.459), middle infielder Cody Scaggari (.319/.374/.482) and third baseman Dallas Carroll (.319/.444/.500). Carroll and junior outfielder Josh Rose (.285/.367/.453) also provide some muscle in the top half of the lineup, combining for 11 of the team’s 20 home runs.
“Rose has got tremendous power. Dallas has got six home runs, I think he had 10 prior in his career,” Kinneberg said. “Coach (Jason) Hawkins and coach (Mike) Crawford have done a tremendous job with our offense to get them where they’re at right now. But Dallas has become a guy offensively. He’s a tough out. He’s always been a really good athlete, always been strong and fast. But he’s always had a real good eye. He sees pitches very well. You rarely see him swing at bad pitches. Something’s clicked offensively with him, and he’s been a real force for us.”
Two sets of brothers — twins Dallas and Dalton Carroll, plus Josh and Jayson Rose — really form the backbone of this club. While Dallas and Josh lead the offense, Jayson (7-5, 2.48) and Dalton (5-6, 4.86) hold down the top two spots in the weekend rotation. Dalton Carroll has been a workhorse, pitching into the sixth or seventh inning just about every weekend, pounding the bottom of the zone with his 88-92 fastball and getting plenty of groundball outs.
But Jayson Rose is more of a strikeout pitcher (he has 90 in 87 innings this year), and he truly sets the tone for the Utes every Friday night. Rose has a real chance to be Pac-12 pitcher of the year.
“He’s the best pitcher we’ve had at Utah, there’s absolutely no doubt about that,” Kinneberg said. “I know he gives us tremendous confidence when he goes out on the mound. A terrific competitor and he’s got three pitches, a good fastball, an average breaking ball, and a knockout changeup. He’s 93 every time out. And that changeup is a true out pitch because of his arm speed and the way the ball moves, it’s really hard to hit. They’re all expecting it, they all know he’s throwing it, and it’s hard to hit. He’s really good; I think he’s the best in the league.”
Other coaches around the Pac-12 have echoed that sentiment. In a year when injuries to marquee arms at Oregon State, Cal, Stanford and Arizona State have flipped the Pac-12 on its head, Kinneberg realizes that one of the reasons his team is sitting in first place is simply because it has been able to stay healthy. Maybe the Pac isn’t as strong at the top of the league as usual, with no national seed contenders to be found. But it’s still the Pac-12, still the No. 4 RPI conference, and Utah has a real chance to win it. Get used to it — the Utes aren’t going away.
“We did have expectations on this club that we were gonna be better. So it’s not shocking that we’re — I was thinking 15 wins would be an unbelievable season, not knowing that with two weeks left we’d be in the lead,” Kinneberg said. “So it’s been a little bit funny this year as far as that’s concerned. But we gained some confidence, and we’re playing really good baseball right now. So I don’t know. Now it’s kind of like: It’s here, let’s take it.”
• California was one of the last two teams in our latest postseason projections, and the Golden Bears could be getting some terrific news this weekend with the expected return of junior righthander Daulton Jefferies. Jefferies had been dealing with a SLAP Tear [details here] since March and hasn’t pitched since the Oregon State series. Jefferies threw a live bullpen session on Wednesday, and he sat 91-94 mph with his fastball. Cal will put the elite righty in the bullpen this weekend with hopes of getting him more innings in the postseason should it get that far.
• LSU has a huge series at home against Florida this weekend, and yes, with a series win over the Gators and a huge run in Hoover next week, the Tigers are not out of the mix for a national seed just yet. Well, the Tigers are picking an interesting time to shake up the weekend rotation with junior college transfer and righthander Riley Smith starting against the Gators. If you remember, in our LSU Fall Report, we mentioned that Smith was impressive in workouts with a fastball sitting anywhere from 92-94, and up to 95 mph, along with good feel for his secondary stuff, particularly a changeup. Smith has a big-time arm, but commanding the zone the zone will be key against the seasoned Gators.
• Oregon State, just like California, heads into the final two weeks of the regular season in need of some wins to reach the postseason. The Beavers might have trouble doing that if heralded freshman infielder Nick Madrigal can’t return to the lineup against USC this weekend. Madrigal missed last weekend’s home series against Oregon with an injury, and remains questionable for the USC series this weekend. One of the top first-year players in the country, Madrigal is hitting .333 with 10 doubles, five triples and 26 RBIs, along with 14 walks and just 14 strikeouts.
• Florida thought it might be without freshman righthander Jackson Kowar for the year after he suffered a collapsed lung during its trip to South Carolina a few weeks ago. Well, Kowar is now expected to be cleared to pitch on Monday, UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan told D1Baseball.com on Wednesday. Kowar’s addition gives the Gators yet more premium depth heading into the SEC tournament and NCAA postseason. Kowar, whose fastball sits in the mid-90s, has appeared in 12 games this season, six of them starts, and has a 3.37 ERA in 34.2 innings, along with 44 strikeouts and 10 walks.
• Conference tournaments are beginning this weekend for some teams, and one of those is Alabama State in the SWAC tournament. The Hornets have put together a consistent winning trend under coach Mervyl Melendez, and that has continued this season with a stellar 24-0 regular season conference record. Now, ASU hopes to win the automatic bid to reach the postseason. They started the tourney in stellar fashion with a 27-9 win over Southern on Wednesday. Keep an eye on slugger Carlos Ocasio, who’s hitting .333 with 13 homers and 58 RBIs.
Top 25 In Action
1 Florida at 10 LSU
7 Ole Miss at 2 Texas A&M
3 Miami at 9 Florida State
Arkansas at 4 Mississippi State
5 Louisville at Wake Forest
West Virginia at 6 Texas Tech
Virginia Tech at 8 Virginia
11 South Carolina at Alabama
Auburn at 12 Vanderbilt
North Carolina at 13 N.C. State
14 Tulane at Houston
15 Rice at Louisiana Tech
Kansas State at 16 TCU
17 Southern Miss at Florida International
Hawaii at 18 Cal State Fullerton
19 Clemson at Notre Dame
Campbell at 20 Coastal Carolina
Kansas at 21 Oklahoma State
Boston College at 22 Georgia Tech
Stanford at 23 Washington
Ohio State at 24 Minnesota
Western Kentucky at 25 Florida Atlantic