Strike One: Handicapping The Horse Races
One NCAA tournament bid has already been secured (Princeton won the Ivy League title last weekend), and another will be awarded next weekend when Army and Navy clash in the best-of-three Patriot League championship series. Army swept Lafayette in one best-of-three semifinal series this weekend, while Navy lost the opener of its series against Bucknell, 1-0, but bounced back to win the next two games, 6-1 and 6-0. The Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference, Northeast Conference and Southwestern Athletic Conference tournaments start this week also (more on those below).
Here's a look at how the other conference races shape up at this point in the season. Most of these races fit into neat categories, and since it's Triple Crown season, we'll go with the horse racing terminology:
Trotting around the winner's circle:
These teams have already clinched the regular-season titles in their conferences:
• Stony Brook: The Seawolves swept Binghamton this weekend to clinch the America East regular-season crown. Stony Brook is 18-2 in conference play and owns a three-game lead over Maine with one weekend remaining. Stony Brook took three of four from Maine in April, so it owns the tie-breaker.
• Stetson: Stetson clinched the Atlantic Sun with a series win at Lipscomb. The Hatters are 22-5, four games ahead of second-place Jacksonville.
• Connecticut: UConn clinched its first-ever Big East regular-season title with a series win against Louisville this weekend. The Huskies are 20-4, 3 1/2 games ahead of second-place St. John's.
• Bethune-Cookman: The Wildcats went 18-0 in MEAC play for the second straight season, winning the regular-season crown by seven games. B-CU opens the MEAC tournament with Florida A&M on Wednesday.
• Texas Christian: After taking two of three from Utah with their top three weekend starters sidelined, the Horned Frogs secured their sixth consecutive Mountain West regular-season crown.
• Monmouth: The Hawks took three of four from Mount St. Mary's this weekend to win the Northeast Conference title by two games over Sacred Heart. Monmouth opens NEC tournament play on Thursday against Central Connecticut State.
• Austin Peay State: The Governors clinched the Ohio Valley Conference title with a series win against Southeast Missouri State this weekend. Austin Peay is 15-5, up 3 1/2 games on SEMO. For more on the Governors, see Strike Two below.
• Texas State: The Bobcats swept Nicholls State to earn their third consecutive Southland Conference title. Texas State (23-7) has a five-game lead over Stephen F. Austin State with one weekend remaining.
• Alcorn State went 19-4 to win the SWAC's regular-season title by 3 1/2 games over Western Division champion Southern, and by five games over Eastern Division runner-up Mississippi Valley State. The Braves start the SWAC tournament against Texas Southern on Wednesday.
Sprinting toward the finish line:
These teams are the clear front-runners to win regular-season titles:
• Virginia: The Cavaliers lead Georgia Tech by two games with one weekend remaining. Virginia has a tough weekend ahead, with a road series against North Carolina, while the Yellow Jackets travel to Virginia Tech. UVa. won the head-to-head series, so Tech needs to sweep this weekend and needs UNC to sweep Virginia to steal the top seed in the ACC tournament.
• Cal State Fullerton: The Titans swept Long Beach State this weekend to improve to 17-4 in the Big West, 2 1/2 games ahead of second-place UC Irvine. Fullerton has just one conference series remaining (at Cal State Northridge in two weeks) while the Anteaters have two (at UC Riverside, vs. Long Beach State). But it is very unlikely that Irvine will catch the Titans.
• Manhattan: The Jaspers won the first two games of their series against second-place Rider this weekend, and the series finale was postponed by rain until Monday. Manhattan (17-2) has a three-game lead over Rider and can clinch the title with a win Monday.
• Kent State: The Golden Flashes won the first two games of their series against Bowling Green State to improve to 19-4 in the conference, but they were denied a chance to clinch the Mid-American Conference title when Sunday's game was canceled by bad weather. Still, their magic number is down to one, as they lead Miami (Ohio) by 2 1/2 games heading into the final weekend.
• Oregon State: The Beavers won a road series from Washington, and Arizona State lost a road series at USC, giving OSU a two-game lead over the Sun Devils and UCLA with two weekends remaining. Oregon State's remaining schedule is favorable (vs. USC, at Oregon), and they sit squarely in the Pac-10 driver's seat.
• Elon: The idle Phoenix saw their SoCon lead shrink to two games when red-hot UNC Greensboro swept The Citadel this weekend, and it's worth noting that UNCG owns the head-to-head tie-breaker against Elon, having won the series in early April. But Elon can wrap up the regular-season title with a series win at home against Furman this weekend.
• Atlantic 10: First-place Charlotte (17-7) took two of three from La Salle this weekend, but Rhode Island (15-6) swept UMass to pull within striking range of first place. Charlotte's conference schedule is finished, but it owns the head-to-head tie-breaker over URI, so the Rams need to sweep a road series at third-place Dayton (13-8) this weekend to win the regular-season title.
• Big 12: Texas A&M leads Texas by a game, so the team that wins the head-to-head series between the two teams this weekend will win the Big 12 regular-season title. Nice and simple.
• Conference USA: The situation here is the same as in the Big 12. Southern Miss leads Rice by a game, so the winner of this weekend's series between the two teams in Hattiesburg will be the regular-season champ.
• Colonial Athletic Association: Old Dominion won two of three from UNC Wilmington this weekend, but James Madison swept Towson to pull even with the the Monarchs at at 18-9, two games ahead of third-place UNCW. ODU travles to Hofstra (10-17) next week, while JMU finishes at Northeastern (12-15).
• Big South: Coastal Carolina hit a speedbump this weekend, losing two of three at Winthrop, with both losses coming in extra innings. That allowed second-place Liberty to climb back within a game of first place after winning a series at Gardner-Webb. The Flames host Radford (12-12) in their regular-season finale, while the Chanticleers host Charleston Southern (14-10).
• Summit: Oral Roberts won three of four from South Dakota State this weekend to pull even with the Jackrabbits at 17-7—4 1/2 games ahead of any other team in the league. SDSU finishes with a home series against IPFW (11-13), while ORU hosts Southern Utah (11-13).
• Sun Belt: Troy won two of three from Louisiana-Monroe to remain in first place (19-8), while Florida International lost a chance to move into a tie for first when Sunday's game against Arkansas State ended in a tie. So Troy carries a half-game lead into its final regular-season series at South Alabama (14-13), while FIU hosts Florida Atlantic.
• West Coast Conference: This one has the most significance since there is no conference tournament, so the automatic bid (and likely the only WCC regional spot) goes to the regular-season champ. San Francisco swept Pepperdine this weekend to remain in first place (14-4) with one conference series remaining—at second-place Gonzaga in two weeks. But the Zags (11-3) have work to do to make sure they remain in striking distance heading into that last weekend. Gonzaga won its first two games at Portland this weekend, but Sunday's series finale was postponed until Monday. Gonzaga also must travel to Pepperdine next weekend.
• Western Athletic: Hawaii (15-5) clings to a half-game lead over Fresno State (16-7) after taking three of four from San Jose State, while the Bulldogs swept New Mexico State. Fresno's conference schedule is nearly complete—all that remains is a makeup game against Nevada—while Hawaii finishes at New Mexico State next weekend. The Rainbows and Bulldogs split the four-game head-to-head series.
• Big Ten: Just when it looked like Michigan State was pulling away, the Spartans were swept by Indiana this weekend, falling to 13-8 in the league—one game ahead of Minnesota and Illinois, and just two games ahead of Purdue, Indiana and Ohio State. The Spartans remain in the catbird seat, with a home series against Northwestern remaining next weekend and a one-game lead. Minnesota hosts Ohio State, while Illinois welcomes Indiana. The Spartans own the head-to-head tie-breaker against the Gophers, but not against the Fighting Illini.
• Horizon: Wright State (14-6) owns a one-game lead over Illinois-Chicago (13-7) and a 1 1/2-game lead over Valparaiso (13-8). Even Wisconsin-Milwaukee (13-9) is still alive. The Raiders finish up with a home series against Butler (10-12) next weekend, while UIC hosts Youngstown State (7-13) and Valpo travels to Milwaukee.
• Missouri Valley: Four teams are within two games of first place heading into the final weekend. Creighton (12-6) remained in first after a series win at Evansville, but Missouri State (11-6) climbed within a half-game after a sweep of Bradley. Wichita State (11-7) is a game back, and Illinois State (10-8) is two back but has been mathematically eliminated from the title. Creighton hosts Missouri State in a series that is likely to decide the title this weekend. Wichita needs to sweep its final series and have Missouri State win two of three from Creighton in order to steal the regular-season title.
• Southeastern Conference: As you might have heard, the SEC is all kinds of bunched up, with three teams tied atop the Eastern Division, and four teams tied for first in the West. Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida are all 20-7 in the East, and South Carolina owns the tie-breakers against both teams because it won the head-to-head series against both. But South Carolina also must go on the road to face Alabama this weekend, and Vandy also hits the road against Georgia, while Florida hosts 7-20 Kentucky. Of course, the Wildcats also have a Friday starter capable of beating anyone in Alex Meyer (who, in fact, beat Vanderbilt two weeks ago), so it's tough to say Florida's schedule gives it much of an edge. Stay tuned. In the West, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Alabama and Auburn are all 13-14, and the schedule favors Auburn, which finishes its regular-season slate at 5-22 Tennessee. Of course, the other three teams are all at home: Arkansas hosts Mississippi, while Mississippi State hosts LSU and the Crimson Tide hosts South Carolina. Good luck trying to predict how this mess will shake out—but whichever team does prevail in the West (and it will probably come down to convoluted tie-breakers) will earn the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, ahead of two of the three East powers.
Strike Two: Governors Deliver On Campaign Promises
In 22 years as the head coach at Austin Peay State, Gary McClure has led four teams to Ohio Valley Conference regular-season titles. But the 2011 Governors have done it more convincingly than any other in school history, clinching the title this weekend with a series win against Southeast Missouri State.
"It's hard to believe, we've got a week left," McClure said. "Gosh, I've been doing this a long time, and we've won several conference titles and some tournaments, but I've never done this. I've had some teams going in that you knew you were going to be pretty doggone good. But these guys just kept getting better, and they won every series (in conference play). They just got better."
McClure wasn't sure what to expect from his young team heading into the season. OVC coaches certainly did not expect much from the Governors, voting them seventh out of nine teams in the league's preseason poll.
But Austin Peay was not short on talent, and it got boosts from the return of third baseman Greg Bachman (.325 with six homers) and senior lefthander Jack Snodgrass (2-6, 4.42) from labrum injuries that cost both players all of 2010. New arrivals gave a further boost, as junior-college transfer Zach Toney (5-2, 4.50) found a home in the all-lefty weekend rotation, and three or four freshmen found their way into the everyday lineup. Second baseman Jordan Hankins (.369) leads the team in hitting (.369), while right fielder Rolando Gautier (.295/.416/.392) has been a quality table-setter atop the lineup, and catchers Matt Wolenzin (.373) and defensive stalwart P.J. Torres have formed a nice platoon.
"We knew we had a great freshman class coming in, probably overall the best freshmen we've recruited," McClure said. "We knew they were kind of a notch above. So we knew we were going to have good players, but how freshman are going to handle things is what you don't always know. But as the year went on they kept getting better and better. We've got the right kind of kids. We've got some really talented kids, some dirtbags, and they're fun to coach."
It helps that Austin Peay played three freshmen a year ago, and they have taken steps forward as sophomores. First baseman John Hogan (.319 with 10 homers and 51 RBIs) is the team's best power threat, and he delivered four RBIs in Sunday's win against Southeast Missouri State. Outfielder Cody Hudson (17 stolen bases) brings speed—complementing junior burner Michael Blanchard (24 SB), who has been clocked at 6.2 seconds in the 60-yard dash. And shortstop Reed Harper (.353/.394/.511 with 10 steals) is a quality all-around player.
Harper's brother Ryne (5-1, 4.28 with six saves) has developed into a reliable closer, with a fastball that reaches 94 mph and a very good slider. Their father Ralph was a star second baseman for Austin Peay from 1978-81, and they grew up in Clarksville, Tenn., wanting to be Governors.
At the front of the pitching staff, junior lefty Jeremy Dobbs (8-2, 3.91) has blossomed into a quality Friday ace.
"He's been so up and down since he's been here, and had off-the-field stuff, but he's really put it together and figured it out this year," McClure said. "He's consistently 90, he'll run it up there to 93 sometimes, and he's really developed his offspeed to where he's throwing them for strikes consistently. He competes, and he has an electric arm, he really does. He does a great job pitching inside. His slider's come a long way, and he can throw it to the back foot or back door it, and he can get ahead with it. His changeup is the pitch that's really come on for him and been huge, giving him that third pitch. That's been really huge for him."
Toney pitches at 88-91 and had good deception, while Snodgrass has outstanding sink on his upper-80s fastball, as well as a good changeup.
All the pieces fit together very well, making Austin Peay (27-21 overall, 15-5 in the OVC) a solid favorite in the upcoming Ohio Valley Conference tournament, and a dangerous team in regionals should it win the conference's automatic bid.
"I really like our team," McClure said. "I know they're not going to be fearful of anybody, and they think they're going to win. And they've got some talent. That's what I said going in: We've got talent. I don't know if we'll win it, but I think we'll compete for it, and they're definitely capable, no question about it. I'm looking forward to this thing."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Mike Zunino
Florida sophomore catcher Mike Zunino carried a 2-for-16 "slump" into Sunday's crucial rubber game at Vanderbilt. Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan was surprised to learn of it.
"Certain guys are 2-for-16 and you know it, but other guys, it's like, I didn't even know that," O'Sullivan said. "It's just quality at-bats, presence in the box. He never gives in, he's going to battle. He's got really good disposition."
It's hard to keep a good man down, especially when he's as even-keeled as Zunino. The catcher slugged two home runs Sunday, including a tie-breaking three-run shot off Vanderbilt closer Navery Moore in the 12th inning to propel the Gators to a thrilling 6-3 win and move them back into a three-way tie for first place in the Southeastern Conference.
Zunino is hitting .367/.437/.654 with 12 homers and 51 RBIs on the season, leading the sixth-ranked Gators in each category. He's been at his best in the rigorous SEC season, hitting .400 with six homers and a league-best 13 doubles in conference play, making him a leading contender for SEC player of the year honors. He's already surpassed the nine homers and 41 RBIs he compiled as a freshman.
"He's always been strong," O'Sullivan said. "He's 6-2, 220 pounds, he's put together well. I went back and told the guys at the beginning of the year when he started hitting well, I said, 'The last month of the season last year, he was our best hitter.' He hit more balls hard than anybody in our lineup, and he carried it over into this year.
"Like most good hitters, he tries to use the middle of hte field. He doesn't get pull happy. That's what got him going last year: He used both sides of the field. He likes to pull the ball like most hitters, but when he learned to stay back and see the breaking ball better, not chase the one down, that really helped him."
Zunino is also a standout defender—he has a .998 fielding percentage and has thrown out about a third of opposing basestealers. His all-around package makes him a possible first-round pick in the 2012 draft. And he's a big reason the Gators carry a 39-13 record into the final week of the regular season.
"I think Mike's special behind the plate," O'Sullivan said. "He throws good, blocks good, receives well, but he's just got good leadership skills, and he knows how to handle a staff . . . I think he's just a baseball player."
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