Strike One: Wild Weekend Roundup
Week 12 in college baseball was chock full of memorable individual performances and eyebrow-raising games. Here's a roundup:
• Florida International middle infielder Garrett Wittels extended his hitting streak to 45 games in a sweep of South Alabama. Wittels' streak is tied for third-longest in Division I history; Arizona State's Roger Schmuck hit in 45 straight games in 1971. Next up: Wichita State's Phil Stephenson, who hit in 47 straight in 1981. The record, of course, belongs to Oklahoma State's Robin Ventura, who hit in 58 straight in 1987.
• Here's another impressive streak: Vanderbilt sophomore third baseman Jason Esposito has reached base safely in 15 consecutive plate appearances, breaking Tim Brecht's 27-year-old school record. Esposito went 5-for-5 on Saturday against Mississippi State, then had a double and tied a school record with five walks on Sunday.
• Oregon catcher Eddie Rodriguez hit for the cycle Sunday against East Tennessee State. He completed the cycle with a home run to right-center field in the bottom of the eighth inning of Oregon's 17-7 win.
• St. John's freshman outfielder Jeremy Baltz blasted four home runs and drove in seven in an upset of Louisville on Friday. In the process, he broke the school records for most homers (18) and RBIs (68) in a season. A lock for first-team freshman All-America honors, Baltz is hitting .412/.487/.784.
• Two ranked teams staged huge comebacks Sunday, as Rice overcame an early 10-run deficit to beat Southern Miss, and Florida State erased an early 8-0 deficit to beat North Carolina State. But the most improbable, remarkable comeback of the weekend belonged to Michigan, which fell behind Northwestern 14-0 heading into the bottom of the third but rallied back to win 15-14 in 10 innings. Senior catcher Chris Berset—one of the nation's best under-the-radar stars—keyed the furious charge with a pair of two-run homers, and senior first baseman Mike Dufek gave Michigan the win with a walk-off homer in the 10th.
The Wolverines needed the comeback to remain within a game of first place in the zany Big Ten. Minnesota has put its ugly start behind it and surged into first place after sweeping Penn State. Michigan and Purdue are a game back, Northwestern is two games out, and Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana and Iowa are three games out. The top six teams in the league go to the conference tournament in Columbus.
• In the first round of the Patriot League playoffs, top-seeded Army was ousted by fourth-seeded Bucknell, and second-seeded Lehigh was eliminated by third-seeded Holy Cross—both series went to three games. That sets up a best-of-three championship series between Holy Cross and Bucknell next weekend in Worcester, Mass.
• Finally, two teams punched their tickets to the NCAA tournament this weekend, as Cal State Fullerton and San Diego clinched their respective conference titles. Neither the Big West nor the West Coast Conference has a conference tournament. The Titans and Toreros join Dartmouth as teams that have earned automatic bids so far.
Strike Two: Tumult In The SEC
With a week remaining in the regular season, South Carolina and Florida have established themselves as the class of the Southeastern Conference. The Gamecocks and Gators are tied atop the SEC's overall standings, three full games ahead of No. 3 Auburn. The SEC's regular-season crown will be decided next weekend in Columbia, where Florida will take on South Carolina (plenty more on that series coming later this week in Weekend Preview).
But behind the Gamecocks and Gators, the SEC is very muddled. Auburn is clearly the most surprising team in the league, having surged to the top of the SEC West and clinched its first trip to the conference tournament since 2003. But the Tigers are just a game ahead of Mississippi and Arkansas heading into their series in Oxford next weekend, so the West remains up for grabs.
The Razorbacks, who were held to five runs all weekend in a home sweep at the hands of South Carolina, have now dropped three of their last four series and are struggling for the second straight May. Arkansas now finds itself on the outside looking in at a national seed (more on that in tomorrow's Stock Report), and its final week is no picnic, with a midweek game at Oklahoma and a road series at streaking Vanderbilt.
The Commodores (15-10 in the league) have now won four of their last five series, and if they win that series against Arkansas next weekend, it stands to reason they could elbow the Hogs out of regional hosting position. Vandy's pitching has come and gone this season, but its bats have come on strong down the stretch, and it has enough depth on the mound to ride the hot hands.
After that group, four teams are tied at 12-15: Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and, stunningly, Louisiana State. The defending national champion Tigers were swept this weekend by Kentucky and have lost their last four weekend series since starting the SEC season 11-4. Now they find themselves in jeopardy of missing the conference tournament and, perhaps, regionals. The good news for LSU: it hosts lowly Mississippi State (5-22) this weekend, giving it the easiest path of the four teams contending for the final two SEC tournament spots.
Kentucky has the next-easiest path, with a series remaining against Georgia (3-22), but it is on the road, where the Wildcats are just 6-13 this season. Tennessee has a slight edge against Alabama, because the Volunteers host the Crimson Tide next weekend. But 'Bama is coming off a big series win against Ole Miss, while Tennessee lost its series against Auburn.
Tomorrow in Stock Report, we'll try to figure out how many teams the SEC is likely to send to regionals. But even putting aside the question of how many at-large bids the league will get, the SEC features three very compelling races—for first place overall, for first place in the West, and for the final two spots in the conference tournament.
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Bryce Brentz
When you hit .465/.535/.930 with 28 home runs and 73 RBIs as a sophomore, people begin to expect you to walk on water. In fact, one coach whose team played Bryce Brentz in 2009 jokingly compared the Middle Tennessee State slugger to Jesus Christ after facing the Blue Raiders.
So perhaps expectations were just a bit unrealistic for Brentz heading into his junior season this spring. But even despite missing time with a slight stress fracture/severe sprain in his ankle, Brentz is hitting .366/.461/.696 with 15 homers and 48 RBIs in 161 at-bats. And that ain't bad, as MTSU coach Steve Peterson readily points out.
"In baseball, there's a statement—a guy had a career year," Peterson said. "How many times did Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs? How many times did (Roger) Maris hit 61? You have career years, and last year was a career year for him. But he's had some home runs and some big RBIs, and he's making up for lost time. I'll take it."
Brentz missed 12 games after hurting his ankle while horsing around with teammates in pre-game warmups on March 26. He returned to the starting lineup as a DH on April 16, but Peterson said the the ankle injury continued to affect his performance over the next few weeks.
"He's a guy that generates a lot of power when he turns on his back leg, and he was taped so much it was difficult for him to have some flexibility," Peterson said. "But if Bryce can play at 75 percent, he's better than most guys at 100 percent. (Sunday) he beat out a base hit, so I can tell the ankle is doing better and he's running full speed. I'm not going to say he's 100 percent, but by the time we get to the Sun Belt tournament, at least I'll feel comfortable telling him to steal a base or whatever."
As Peterson said, Brentz is making up for lost time. In MTSU's sweep of New Orleans this weekend, he went 9-for-16 with nine RBIs and two home runs, including the game-winner in the seventh inning Sunday. He also has returned to playing the outfield, sliding into right field after starting the year in center.
Brentz also has the best arm on the team and was a key member of the weekend rotation his first two years at MTSU, but Peterson wanted him to focus on learning center field early in 2010. Brentz hurt his ankle right as Peterson was preparing to start using him in a relief role, but he finally returned to the mound Wednesday againt Tennessee, working a scoreless, hitless inning of relief. Brentz's future is undoubtedly with a bat in his hands, because his 6-foot, 185-pound frame generates tremendous righthanded power, but in the short term he wants to do whatever it takes to help the Blue Raiders get back to regionals, including pitch. After all, he was drafted out of high school by the Indians as a pitcher.
At times in Brentz's career—and particularly last summer with Team USA—scouts questioned his hyper-aggressive approach and wondered if he was capable of making adjustments and using more of the field. Peterson said he is making progress in that area this spring.
"This is my 23rd year here as the head coach, and I've seen some big league hitters," Peterson said. "This guy can consistently do things at the same age those other guys couldn't do. I've seen him hit balls out of the park, and I've been on his (rear end) about chasing pitches and being over-anxious. Then he'd take the ball out of the park and it wasn't a strike, and he'd come back and say, 'Coach, I knew he was going to throw it there.' Yogi Berra had a reputation as a bad-ball hitter, but he'd say, 'It wasn't a bad ball if I could hit it.' " Bryce has as much talent at the plate, as much bat speed, creates backspin and stays in the zone longer than anyone I've ever coached. That allows you to check your swing and hit the breaking ball.
"He's a good enough player, and he's smart enough that he can sit on a pitch and try to hit it out of the park, but he also knows there's times you need to spread out and trust your swing and make contact. He is a better hitter right now than he was this time last year. I know the stats don't show that, but from a coach's standpoint, he's a better baseball player now."