The Southeastern Conference has had three of the top four teams in the Baseball America Top 25 for most of the season, and no other conference is as stacked at the top as the SEC—though the ACC isn't far behind with Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Florida State. The SEC also has the deepest collection of solid teams, with 10 teams that have legitimate shots at regional bids. But after the elite teams, there is little separation between teams No. 4 through No. 10.
The Pac-10 has a deeper pool of top contenders, though a couple of them are still finding their way. But good luck sorting out the top six. Which brings us to this week's mailbag question:
Oregon State took it to the Sun Devils this weekend to continue their very impressive season thus far. Still, the Pac-10 is full of tough and talented teams top to bottom. How do you see the race for the Pac-10 title shaping up?
The Pac-10 seems more wide open than any other conference. Six teams from the Pac-10 have been in our Top 25 for most of the season, and all six are talented enough to win the league. It's not easy to handicap the race, but let's give it a shot.
UCLA is 7-2 in the conference, but the Bruins have played a softer Pac-10 schedule so far than the other contenders, and really UCLA has just done was it was supposed to do, sweeping Washington at home and winning road series against Southern California and Washington State. Now the road gets tougher: five of UCLA's remaining six conference series are against the league's other ranked teams, starting with Arizona this weekend. UCLA's inconsistent offense remains a significant concern, but it's tough to bet against the Bruins in weekend series when they have a pair of innings-eating power pitchers going every Friday and Saturday in Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer. Freshman Adam Plutko has been dynamite on Sundays as well. The remaining schedule is tough, but the pitching is good enough to carry UCLA through.
Oregon State surged into first place by sweeping Arizona State this weekend, the first time the Sun Devils have been swept in Pac-10 play since 1999. While UCLA has fared no better than expected through three weeks of conference action, Oregon State has done better than expected, winning a road series against Arizona and sweeping ASU. So Oregon State looks to be in better shape than UCLA, since it is 5-1 in the Pac-10 and still has Washington and USC left on the schedule. In theory, those should be the two easiest weekends in the Pac-10 this year (although both teams are coming off series wins, against Oregon and Stanford, respectively, so you can't take them for granted). The larger question about Oregon State is how well it will weather the loss of its best hitter, All-America catcher Andrew Susac, who had surgery to repair a broken hamate bone. Parker Berberet is a capable fill-in behind the plate, but he certainly will not be able to replace Susac's offense. Of course, Oregon State won three games this weekend even though Berberet went 1-for-11. Oregon State's team offense is just much better than it was a year ago, and its pitching remains very solid.
You certainly can't write off the Sun Devils, who are still 5-4 in conference thanks to back-to-back series wins against Arizona and Oregon. Both those series were at home, though, as was ASU's midweek sweep of Oklahoma. Arizona State is very difficult to beat in Tempe—but this team is plenty battle-tested on the road, having won two of three at Auburn and split two at Cal State Fullerton. And two of ASU's remaining three road series are very winnable, at USC and Washington.
The Sun Devils also travel to California, which sits in third place at 6-3. Cal's final three weeks are daunting: trips to Oregon State and UCLA, then a home series against rival Stanford. The Golden Bears need to build up a cushion by performing well in the next three weeks—at Washington and at home against ASU and Oregon.
Stanford (3-3) and Arizona (4-5) are right in the mix also. You can make a very solid case for all six teams, and there is a lot of baseball left to be played. While Oregon State seems to be in the best position, I have enough concerns about the Beavers' offense without Susac that I can't tab them the favorites. There is certainly reason to worry about UCLA's offense, too, and its remaining schedule is less than favorable . . . but in Cole and Bauer I trust. The Pac-10 is a free-for-all, truly, but forced to pick, I'll take the team with potential top 10 overall picks toeing the rubber every Friday and Saturday.
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