• It’s just another fantastic week in the SEC, led by two showdowns between teams ranked inside the top dozen. Two of the nation’s most talented weekend rotations face off in Gainesville, where LSU visits Florida. But LSU will be without its usual No. 3 starter, freshman Aaron Nola, who left Sunday’s win against Arkansas with a sore shoulder (though he has no structural damage). The Tigers will hand the ball to erstwhile Sunday starter Kurt McCune in Thursday’s opener, letting Kevin Gausman and Ryan Eades maintain their usual rest. Florida, meanwhile, finally got its own sidelined Sunday starter, Karsten Whitson, back on the mound for an inning in Tuesday’s loss to Florida Gulf Coast. Coach Kevin O’Sullivan said Wednesday that Whitson’s stuff and command looked good, but he was uncertain whether or not Whitson would be able to return to the weekend rotation Saturday.
The Tigers might have had this stretch of their schedule circled on their calendars in the preseason, and they aced their test against preseason SEC West favorite Arkansas last weekend, sweeping the series. Now they face SEC East favorite (and national title favorite) Florida on the road. Another series win would establish LSU as the new team to beat in the SEC. The Gators suddenly appear mortal, having lost three of their past four games heading into the LSU series—but the smart money is on them rebounding.
|TOP 25 SCHEDULE|
|(12) Louisiana State at (1) Florida
(2) Florida State at Georgia Tech
(3) North Carolina at (18) Miami
(4) Arizona at Utah
(22) Oregon at (5) UCLA
(6) Stanford at Washington
Oklahoma at (7) Texas A&M
(10) Mississippi at (8) Kentucky
(9) Rice at Tulane
Tennessee at (11) South Carolina
Georgia at (13) Arkansas
UC Davis at (14) Cal State Fullerton
Alabama-Birmingham at (15) Central Florida
(16) Baylor at Missouri
(17) North Carolina State at Maryland
(19) Purdue at Northwestern
(20) Oregon State at (24) Arizona State
Gonzaga at (21) San Diego
(23) Auburn at Alabama
(25) Texas at Texas Tech
• The other big SEC showdown series pits No. 8 Kentucky against No. 10 Ole Miss. The Wildcats have shown admirable toughness over the last two weeks, following their sweep of South Carolina with back-to-back road series wins against Tennessee and Georgia. The Rebels, of course, carry their own positive momentum into the series, having won two of three from Florida last weekend. Both of these teams have gotten solid work this season from their upperclassmen-laden weekend rotations, but they are also two of the most offensive teams in the conference, and the bats did the heavy lifting for the Wildcats last weekend at Georgia. Kentucky leads the SEC in batting (.333) and ranks second in homers (36), while Ole Miss ranks second in batting (.311) and third in homers (24). Don’t be surprised if offensive fireworks ensue in Lexington.
• The ACC has its own pair of showdown series on the docket, as Florida State visits Georgia Tech while North Carolina heads to Miami. Injuries have hit the Yellow Jackets hard this year, and Luke Bard joins Matt Grimes on the shelf this week after exiting his start last week against Duke with tightness in the back of his arm. Freshman Cole Pitts, who threw four scoreless innings Tuesday against Kennesaw State, will slide into the Sunday spot against the Seminoles. The Yellow Jackets also played error-free baseball Tuesday for the first time in six games. The Jackets still rank last in the ACC in fielding percentage (.954), but Tech coach Danny Hall told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his team is “definitely playing better defense” of late. The Seminoles, who feature four reliable upperclassmen in the infield, have fielding .970, fourth-best in the ACC.
• UNC vs. Miami is a battle between two of the league’s best pitching staffs. North Carolina coach Mike Fox said Tuesday that “the bullpen has definitely been the story for us.” Led by closer Michael Morin—the lone reliever on our Midseason All-America team—and lefthander R.C. Orlan, the Tar Heels have a deep, versatile ‘pen capable of shortening games considerably. Led by the bullpen and starters Kent Emanuel (5-1, 1.59) and Benton Moss (2-1, 1.93), UNC owns a league-best 2.58 team ERA. But UNC is still without its best player, Colin Moran, and its lefty-laden lineup will face two very good lefthanders in Miami’s rotation, Eric Erickson and Steven Ewing. So this will be a major test for a UNC team that has shown admirable resilience by winning back-to-back series without Moran. But it is an even more important test for Miami, which enters the second half on much more precarious footing than UNC in the regional hosting picture. The Hurricanes have lost three of their last four games (losing a series at Clemson and a midweek game against Central Florida), and they are starting to fall into the same pattern as last year, when they were good enough to win all their series against the teams they “should” beat, but not good enough to beat the best teams on their schedule. Through seven weeks, Miami has lost its only two series against projected regional teams (Florida and Clemson), while winning its other five series against Rutgers, Albany, Boston College, Duke and Maryland.
• As we detailed in the analysis section of Wednesday’s Field of 64 projection, this weekend’s series at Texas A&M is almost must-win for Oklahoma, which desperately needs to improve upon an RPI in the 90s, and has precious few remaining games against teams inside the top 100—just eight of its final 26 games, to be precise. A series against Alabama State in late April will be an RPI killer, so the Sooners really must make waves at Texas A&M and in May against Baylor to salvage a season that began with a spot in the preseason Top 25 and high hopes around Norman. Moving Jordan John into the No. 1 starter slot two weeks ago was a brilliant move by the Sooners, as John is the team’s most reliable pitcher, and he is coming off an 11-strikeout complete game against Kansas State. Fireballer Jonathan Gray has been up-and-down all season, but he’s coming off a solid outing against the Wildcats (seven innings, three runs), and he’ll need to be sharp for the Sooners to have a good chance this weekend. Certainly, A&M has a major advantage on the mound with Michael Wacha and Ross Stripling fronting the rotation, but that is the case every week for the Aggies.
• It’s also a huge weekend for Missouri, the fifth and final Big 12 team with a realistic shot at an at-large bid. The Tigers held their own in College Station last weekend, winning one out of three and competing hard in their two losses, and now they’ll face the Big 12’s other RPI powerhouse, Baylor. The Bears carry a 9-0 conference record into the weekend, but they have not hit the meat of their Big 12 schedule yet, building their resume with sweeps of Texas Tech, Kansas and Oklahoma State, all at home. Missouri should present more of a challenge. Heading into the year, we highlighted veteran outfielders Blake Brown and Dane Opel as two keys to Mizzou’s season. The talented juniors had yet to live up to expectations in their first two collegiate seasons, but they have provided most of the thump in the Missouri lineup in the first half of this season, combining for 12 of the team’s 16 home runs.
• There are three intriguing series in Southern California this weekend, and I’ll try to catch one game of each. Gonzaga travels to San Diego in a matchup between the West Coast Conference’s top two RPI teams, but the Toreros hold a significant advantage playing at home against a Gonzaga team that is still without its most valuable hitter and pitcher—Marco Gonzales. His absence didn’t stop the Zags from taking two of three from Pepperdine last weekend, as their bats did the heavy lifting scoring 10 runs in Friday’s win and 14 more in Sunday’s victory. But San Diego is the WCC’s premier offensive team, leading the league in batting (.328), runs (205) and home runs (22) by considerable margins.
The UCLA-Oregon series features two of the four teams separated by a game in the Pac-12 standings. It pits one of the league’s top offensive teams (UCLA, which ranks second in the conference in batting) against one of its top pitching teams (Oregon ranks second in ERA). And it pits Oregon freshman Scott Heineman against his older brother Tyler, a junior catcher for the Bruins. Scott has cooled down after a fast start, but Tyler has emerged as one of the top catchers on the West Coast, hitting .400 and playing stellar defense behind the plate.
USC and Cal, meanwhile, might be the most important series of the three, as the two clubs look like bubble teams at the season’s midway point, so this weekend could have significant at-large ramifications. We figured Cal would take a step back on the mound after the losses it sustained from last year’s Omaha staff and the hits its recruiting class took during its reinstatement drive, and the Golden Bears rank ninth in the 11-team conference in ERA (3.91). But we also expected Cal’s offense to carry it back to the NCAA tournament, and so far that unit has been just average, ranking in the middle of the Pac in batting and scoring. USC’s bats have come alive of late, averaging eight runs per game over its last five, including four quality victories against Stanford, UC Irvine, Washington State and Pepperdine. Cal picked up a little momentum of its own last weekend, taking two of three from Texas, but neither team can afford to let its momentum wane this weekend.