Strike One: Sweeping Entrance
Tennessee coach Todd Raleigh and Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan both made their Southeastern Conference debuts in grand fashion this weekend. The Volunteers and Gators swept their conference-opening series and sit tied with Kentucky atop the standings in the SEC’s Eastern Division. Tennessee ushered in the Raleigh era by sweeping Louisiana State for the first time ever, in a series that dates back to 1907. Florida celebrated the dawning of the O’Sullivan era by sweeping visiting Auburn. The Vols have won eight in a row to improve to 12-4 overall, while the Gators are riding a six-game winning streak that has boosted their overall mark to 14-3.
"I don’t know if we’ve excelled in any one area, but I think we’ve done pretty well in the most important areas: we’ve pitched and played defense," O’Sullivan said.
Florida got three more strong outings this weekend from steady starters Billy Bullock, Patrick Keating and Tommy Toledo. None possesses overpowering stuff, but all three throw strikes and are good fits for Florida’s style of play.
"They’ve kept us in the game," O’Sullivan said. "Just about every start we’ve had has been a quality start. I still don’t know if we’ve got the dominant No. 1 starter, but I think across the board we’ve got six or seven guys that have been very consistent. That’s all you can ask your guys is to be consistent and play good defense. We’re not going to strike out a lot of guys, but we keep the pitch counts down for the most part. Since we are going to give up a few more hits and let guys put balls in play, we can’t walk guys as well. You can’t average nine-plus hits per game and then average three walks per game."
Florida’s offense is cut from the same cloth: it’s not dominant, but it gets the job done. The heart of the order makes things happen, with star shortstop Cole Figueroa and senior third baseman Brandon McArthur sandwiched around freshman sensation Josh Adams. Adams had a huge weekend against Auburn, going 8-for-11 with three doubles, a homer and six RBIs to raise his overall numbers to .397/.478/.724 with four homers and 21 RBIs. But that only scratches the surface of his value; the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder is a natural shortstop who has played seemingly everywhere but short, including all three outfield positions and the three other infield spots. He was playing second base on Saturday when Auburn put runners on first and second with no outs in the fourth inning. Ben Jones hit a line drive that deflected off Keating’s glove and stayed in the air long enough for Adams to catch it, then make a backhand flip to Figueroa, who doubled the runner off second and threw to first for a triple play.
"Every time something happens on the field, it seems like he and Cole are in the middle of it somewhere," O’Sullivan said of Adams. "I was fired up, it was the first time I had ever seen one, I came charging out of the dugout. The kids are playing with passion and emotion, it looks like they’re enjoying playing. But you’ve got to keep things in perspective."
Tennessee had its own signature moment against LSU. With the score tied 3-3 in the seventh and final inning of the second game of Sunday’s doubleheader, Tennessee loaded the bases with one out for sophomore catcher Yan Gomes, who blasted a walk-off grand slam to left-center field.
"I wanted to hit hard somewhere, just to get the run in," Gomes told tricitiessports.com. "It just happened to go out."
The grand slam was Gomes’ second homer of the game; he also tripled and drove in six altogether. In Sunday’s first game, Gomes singled, doubled and drove in three.
"Yan seemed to pick it up this weekend," Raleigh told the website. "He seemed to play a lot harder. He was really locked in this weekend. I saw the focus in his eyes. There’s a lot to be said about a guy who comes back when he’s down."
The big weekend raised Gomes’ average to .275 overall, but Tennessee’s best player has been dynamic freshman center fielder Kentrail Davis, who might be the front-runner for national Freshman of the Year through the first month of the season. Davis didn’t get a lot to hit this weekend, drawing two walks and being hit by three pitches, but he’s batting .467/.607/.667 with two homers and 15 RBIs on the year. His three-run homer in the second inning of Sunday’s first game propelled the Vols to a 7-3 win.
Strike Two: Colonial Unrest
Oh, that topsy-turvy Colonial Athletic Association. The league that brought you a four-way tie atop the standings at 18-11 in 2007 looks as unpredictable as ever in 2008. Heavy preseason favorite Old Dominion got off to a strong start in CAA play by sweeping Delaware at home last weekend, but the Monarchs were swept at William & Mary this weekend. The Tribe put up seven runs over seven innings on ODU ace Dan Hudson on Friday, then hung seven more on 2007 All-American righthander Anthony Shawler on Saturday and six on flame-throwing righty Dexter Carter on Sunday. So much for notions of Old Dominion’s vaunted pitching staff rolling through the conference.
William & Mary is now 15-4 thanks largely to its high-scoring offense, but the Tribe lost its first CAA series against James Madison, which swept Towson this weekend to improve to 8-1 in league. The hottest team in the CAA, though, is perennial power UNC Wilmington, which has won 12 in a row and is 6-0 in league play. And the Seahawks probably have a better shot at an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament if they fail to win the conference tournament than the Dukes, because UNCW’s nonconference schedule is much stronger. The Seahawks have midweek games against the likes of Coastal Carolina, East Carolina, North Carolina State, Wake Forest and Elon, while JMU’s nonconference slate is soft. The Dukes’ signature win was a 10-3 victory at Tennessee on March 5, a win that is looking better by the week.
Strike Three: Silly Scoring
Heading into the season, coaches warned that the compacted schedule would lead to some wacky high-scoring games as pitching was stretched thin. College baseball will always have its share of slugfests thanks to metal bats and a limited supply of quality pitching, but we’re seeing some crazy offensive explosions in the first few weeks.
The most remarkable was Georgia Southern’s outburst Saturday against Columbia. The Eagles belted 14 home runs in the 26-8 blowout, the most homers in a game by one team in NCAA history–at any division. The previous record was 13 homers by Cal State Northridge in 1996 and Alabama in 1999. Twelve different players homered for Georgia Southern on Saturday, and the Eagles hit five in the eighth inning, including consecutive pinch-hit homers by Roman Grimaldi, David Richardson and Chris Bankerd.
" I thought we took some good swings and certainly conditions with the wind were right for it (Saturday) as well," Georgia Southern coach Rodney Hennon said.
Saturday’s action also featured Indiana State’s 26-20 win at College of Charleston, as well as Cal putting up 21 runs against Loyola Marymount.
In another eye-opener, Western Carolina scored a school record 32 runs in the first game of a doubleheader against Hartford on Sunday. The Catamounts scored 13 runs in the second inning en route to a 32-3 blowout, and they did all their damage in the first five innings. That same day, Charlotte scored 36 runs in a doubleheader win against Stony Brook, including 23 in the first game. We’re looking forward to the NCAA’s midseason trends report, which comes out the week after basketball’s Final Four concludes, to get the official word on whether offense is up. The anecdotal evidence so far is that the answer is yes.