Off The Bat: North Carolina Makes Strong ACC Statement

Brian Miller (Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode)

SEE ALSO: Top 25

In Off The Bat, Teddy Cahill wraps up the weekend in college baseball and looks ahead.


CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Atlantic Coast Conference play began this weekend with a marquee series between North Carolina and Virginia. Both teams were ranked in the teens and both had something to prove.

The Tar Heels won the opening game behind another strong start from righthander J.B. Bukauskas, and the Cavaliers evened the series in the first game of a doubleheader Saturday. Undaunted, North Carolina bounced back to win the nightcap, 12-2, and claim the series. It was UNC’s first series win against Virginia (13-3) since 2012.

With a tough series at Georgia Tech looming next weekend, coming back to win the nightcap and start ACC play with a winning record was imperative for UNC (12-4). Coach Mike Fox said it was the Tar Heels’ most important game of the year so far and he was pleased with how his team responded to losing the first game Saturday.

“We’ve talked about that all of preseason,” Fox said. “We can’t get deterred, we just have to keep playing. Lost a tough one in the first one, but we came back. That’s a sign of a good-quality, mature team that’s got some character to come back and win the second one like we did today, I think.”

UNC has finished under .500 in the ACC in back-to-back years and missed the NCAA tournament both times. The Tar Heels were sunk last year by their 11th-place finish in the ACC and missing the conference tournament. Though they had a top-20 RPI, they were unable to overcome their 13-17 conference record and losing 10 of their final 15 ACC games, including two losses at Virginia.

With that fresh in their minds, the Tar Heels’ returners were eager to start ACC play this season with a series win.

“Last year, we didn’t play well in conference and then when selection came, the ACC games seemed to be what mattered the most,” junior outfielder Brian Miller said. “We just wanted to come out and be aggressive and send a message to ourselves and to everyone else that we’re ready. So I guess we did that.”

Miller, a Preseason All-American, did his part Saturday. Hitting leadoff, he went 2-for-4 in the first game and 3-for-5 with two doubles and a home run in the nightcap. He is hitting .324/.378/.515 with two home runs and six stolen bases this season.

Fox said he thought Miller got into a bit of a funk earlier in the season when he was hitting too many fly balls to the opposite field. But the lefthanded hitter has gotten back in a groove at the plate and showed his multi-tool talents Saturday.

“Brian just keeps playing, he doesn’t let a whole lot faze him,” Fox said. “He’s an extremely positive kid and that plays well for him.”

No. 13 UNC will finish a 17-game homestand to start the season Tuesday against Maryland before traveling to Georgia Tech. Miller said the Tar Heels know they can’t let up after their big weekend.

“There’s a lot of good things we did this weekend and there’s definitely some stuff that we didn’t do so well,” Miller said. “We’ve got to carry that good stuff over and flush that bad stuff real quick. Anyone can beat anyone, it doesn’t matter who they are or what they’re ranked, any of that stuff. We’ve just got to bring it every weekend.”


FGCU Streaks Into Top 25

Florida Gulf Coast saw its 10-game winning streak come to an end Sunday with a 5-4 loss to Ohio State. But not before the Eagles displayed the same kind of belief that has carried them to a 14-3 start this season.

Ohio State led 5-1 entering the ninth and brought on closer Yianni Pavlopoulos, the 2016 Big Ten Conference saves leader. The Eagles greeted him with three straight doubles, eventually cutting the deficit to one run and bringing the winning run to the plate. Pavlopoulos rolled two ground balls to close out the victory salvage a game from the series for Ohio State (6-8).

Though the streak ended for the Eagles, it was an incredible week. FGCU swept a midweek home-and-home with Florida and won the series against Ohio State, last year’s Big Ten tournament champions. As a result, FGCU moved into the Top 25 at No. 21, its highest ranking ever. It was last ranked almost exactly four years ago, when it was No. 25 on March 11, 2013.

Coach Dave Tollett said it was a big week for FGCU.

“We played very, pitched well, got timely hitting,” he said. “It was a good ride. But it doesn’t get any easier for us because of our schedule.”

FGCU finishes Wednesday a stretch of 13 straight games against teams that played in the 2016 NCAA tournament when it hosts No. 2 Florida State at jetBlue Park, the Red Sox spring training facility. So far, it is 10-2 in those games, with losses to Bethune-Cookman and Ohio State bookending the 10-game winning streak, the second-longest in program history.

Tollett said the Eagles have played with a lot of confidence, in large part thanks to the leadership their older players have displayed.

“They were having a lot of fun,” Tollett said. “They were excited about where they were. They’re excited about coming to the park every day. It’s a loose group. They’re fun to be around and they believe they can win. They believe they can beat anyone.”

FGCU went 27-32 last year, but reached the championship game of the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament. It lost 5-4 to Stetson, falling just short of its first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament as a Division I program.

Following that loss, Tollett said the returning players have been ultra-focused on winning as many games as they can this spring. The Eagles had to replace All-American second baseman Jake Noll, a seventh-round pick of the Nationals, and brought in a large recruiting class heavy on junior college transfers.

Those newcomers are making an immediate impact this season. Righthander Kutter Crawford, the younger brother of Reds prospect Jonathon Crawford, has been the Eagles’ best pitcher this season. He is 4-0, 1.04 with 38 strikeouts and six walks in 26 innings. Tollett said it is only a matter of time before Crawford moves to Friday, but he has been unable to move Crawford up because he works too deep into games to throw him on a day less rest.

Shortstop Julio Gonzalez (.368/.436/.515) leads the team in hitting and has fit well in the lineup behind leadoff hitter Matt Reardon (.319/.436/.472), who tied a program record with eight RBIs on Saturday. Gonzalez has also allowed Reardon to move from shortstop to second base, improving FGCU defensively.

The streak included Tollett’s 500th career victory, which came last Sunday at UNC Wilmington. The win doubled as the 500th in program history, as Tollett has spent his entire career at the program he founded and built. FGCU held its first classes in 1997 and Tollett was named head baseball coach four years later. The team played its first season in 2003 and transitioned to Division I five years later.

Tollett, 50, joked that reaching 500 wins “means I’m old.” But he had time to reflect on the accomplishment on the plane ride back and said reaching the milestone was rewarding because he remembers what the program was like when it started and the sacrifices made by the players.

“It’s amazing what we’ve done since starting from scratch and playing the schedule we play every year,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of good baseball players that have helped us get there and a tremendous set of assistant coaches. (Associate head coach Rusty McKee) been with me 12 of the 15 years and he’s been exceptional.

“We don’t have a lot of stuff, we’re very blue collar, but the kids play hard. Early on we’re traveling and we’re sleeping four to a room, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because we just didn’t have money.”

Now, both FGCU and its baseball program are rolling. The school reached a new level of prominence when its men’s basketball team reached the Sweet Sixteen in 2013, popularizing the “Dunk City” nickname. FGCU men’s basketball is back in the NCAA tournament for the second straight year and will on Thursday face Florida State in the first round in Orlando, a day after the baseball team takes on the Seminoles.

Tollett said all the teams at FGCU feed off each other’s success. And his team is eager to get back on the field and start a new streak Wednesday.

“It’s been a good run, we’re excited about getting back on the field,” Tollett said. “The locker room is just tremendous. We’ve got a good bunch of kids that really, really want to win and make some noise this year.”


Eight for Omaha

Cal State Fullerton, Florida, Florida State, Louisiana State, Louisville, Oregon State, South Carolina, Texas Christian

For the first time this year, Louisville moves into the field. The Cardinals start to the season has been very impressive in all facets of the game and they’re 15-0 as a result. Louisville’s schedule hasn’t really tested it since opening weekend, but the Cardinals have done everything they can, outscoring opponents 139-32. While East Carolina has recovered well from the opening weekend sweep at Mississippi, going 12-1 since, it is also banged up right now, which has exposed its depth a bit. The Pirates will be fine in the long run, but for now, they move out.


Eye-Catchers

Five players or programs who stood out this weekend.

Miami’s offense: Miami went into its series against then-No. 19 Georgia Tech hitting .172/.273/.237 as a team. The Hurricanes (6-9) got their bats going in a series win, however, combining for 32 runs on 37 hits and 23 walks in three games.

Missouri: The Tigers extended their winning streak to 15 games with a sweep of Appalachian State. Missouri (15-1) capped the weekend with a walk-off, 3-2 victory Sunday to match the best start in program history.

Jared Poche’, lhp, Louisiana State: With seven scoreless innings against Wichita State, Poche’ extended his scoreless innings streak to 29 and improved to 4-0, 0.00 to start his senior season. His streak is the second longest in program history, trailing only Ben McDonald’s 44-inning streak in 1989, a year that ended with him winning the College Player of the Year award.

Alex Robles, rhp/dh, Austin Peay State: With a three-hit shutout Saturday and a walk-off home run in the 14th inning Sunday, Robles led Austin Peay to a sweep of Jacksonville State on the opening weekend of Ohio Valley Conference play. The senior is hitting .389/.450/.704 with four home runs and is 2-2, 4.70 with 28 strikeouts and six walks on the mound this season.

UC Irvine: The Anteaters won the first two games of their series against Texas Christian, which had been the top-ranked team all season. Irvine became just the second team to beat TCU (joining Arizona State) and gave the Horned Frogs their first series loss. Preseason All-American Keston Hiura went 4-for-9 with four walks in the series and infielder Cole Kreuter added five hits and five runs.


Looking Ahead

Three weekend series we’re most excited for

(15) Virginia at (9) Clemson: After sweeping Notre Dame to start ACC play, Clemson (12-3) has won 11 straight games against conference opponents, including sweeping through last year’s ACC tournament. Virginia (13-3) faces another tough road weekend to start conference play after losing a series at North Carolina.

(11) Texas Tech at Texas: Texas Tech (14-3), last year’s Big 12 Conference champions, begins its title defense at Texas (12-6). It is a week of in-state rivalries for the Longhorns, who also host No. 22 Texas A&M on Tuesday.

Utah at (25) Washington: These two teams met in Salt Lake City on the final weekend of the regular season last year in what was a de facto Pacific-12 Conference championship series. The Utes (9-4) won the last two games of that series to claim their first ever Pac-12 title. The Huskies (9-6) will look for payback this season on opening weekend of conference play.


Two weekend series you shouldn’t overlook

New Mexico at (7) Cal State Fullerton: New Mexico (10-3), last year’s Mountain West Conference champions, will play its third weekend series against a defending conference champion when it travels to Fullerton. The Titans (9-5) have faced a challenging schedule of their own, but are unbeaten in weekend series this year.

Southern Mississippi at Louisiana Tech: Two of Conference USA’s four regional teams from last year will meet on opening weekend of conference play. The Bulldogs (13-2) and Golden Eagles (11-4) have the two best records in the league this season and have a chance to make an early-season statement.


One midweek game to keep an eye on

(2) Florida State at (5) Florida, Tuesday, 6:30 p.m. ET: One of college baseball’s best rivalries returns Tuesday. Florida (12-5) has dominated Florida State (13-3) in recent years, winning 12 of their last 15 games and winning back-to-back super regionals. But the Gators are just 1-4 in midweek games this season and the Seminoles will be eager for payback.

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