Weekend Preview: May 2-4

THIS WEEK:

1. Breakout years from Allemand and Banks lead Aggies into regional race.

2. Arizona State heats up behind the arms of Lilek and Kellogg.

3. We break down the races in the SEC West, Big West and American Athletic Conference.

TOP 25 SERIES
(2) Oregon State at California
(3) Louisiana-Lafayette at Arkansas State
(4) Cal Poly at UC Riverside
(5) Florida at (12) Alabama
Minnesota at (6) Florida State
(7) Washington at Utah
(8) Louisiana State at Texas A&M
(9) South Carolina at Georgia
Alabama State at (10) Miami
Arkansas at (11) Mississippi
(13) Louisville at South Florida
Purdue at (15) Indiana
(23) Central Florida at (16) Houston
Kansas State at (17) Texas Christian
Arizona State at (18) Oklahoma State
(19) Texas at West Virginia
(20) Vanderbilt at Missouri
(21) Texas Tech at Kansas
(25) Kentucky at Tennessee

The double-edged sword that is life in the Southeastern Conference provides teams with plenty of chances to get quality wins but also comes with the risk of piling on losses anytime a team is not on its game.

Texas A&M has been living that reality while clawing its way into the at-large race. The Aggies lost home series to Alabama and Kentucky in April but scored a pair of landmark series wins—both on the road—against Vanderbilt and then last week at Mississippi State. The Vandy and MSU wins added to a resume that also includes a series win against Florida in March, which puts A&M on track for regionals despite still sitting below .500 in SEC play at 10-11. Up next: a visit from No. 8 Louisiana State, the fifth straight weekend the Aggies will face a ranked foe.

“We feel like we’ve played really good the last week and put ourselves back in the postseason photograph,” A&M coach Rob Childress said. “Winning on the road at Rice (in a midweek game) and winning two out of three at Mississippi State can only mean something if we’re able to validate it and finish strong these last 10 games. This weekend is a big challenge with LSU coming in. For us, it’s just about continuing to play good baseball.”

The Aggies’ strength is a lineup that includes four .300 hitters and no real let up, top to bottom. Their .287 team average ranks third in the 14-team SEC and their 259 runs rank fourth, making up for a pitching staff whose 3.58 collective ERA stands 11th in the conference.

“I think the last six weeks we’ve been very consistent offensively,” Childress said. “Moving Blake Allemand to the leadoff spot has been great for us. He’s been very competitive. He’s been really good from an on-base standpoint and taking his walks and getting innings going. The guys in the middle of the order, Cole Lankford and Nick Banks, have done a really good job for us driving in runs. Just been very consistent one through nine.”

The switch-hitting third baseman Allemand has enjoyed a breakout junior season. He’s not your classic slugging corner infielder—he has only one career homer—instead taking slashing swings and harrying opposing pitchers with his plate discipline and ability to compete with two strikes, leading the Aggies with a .438 on-base percentage. Allemand was a constant thorn in Mississippi State’s side, reaching base nine times in the series (6-for-12 with three walks), and enters the weekend hitting .373 in SEC play.

Then there’s Banks, the freshman right fielder who hit eighth in the order on Opening Day. He offers an intriguing blend of strength and speed from the left side of plate, and Childress praised his competitive drive as well. Forcing his way up the lineup, Banks has emerged as the Aggies’ leading overall hitter at .343/.397/.460 for the season and has been even better against SEC foes, sitting just a notch behind Allemand at .363 in conference games.

Daniel Mengden (Photo by Danny Parker).

Daniel Mengden (Photo by Danny Parker).

On the pitching side, although Daniel Mengden remains the team’s best arm, he’s slotted into the Saturday role the last three weeks and will stay there against LSU. After trying Jason Jester and Tyler Stubblefield on Fridays since moving Mengden, the Aggies will turn to to senior righty Parker Ray against Tigers ace Aaron Nola this week. Ray hasn’t enjoyed the same success he did as a junior, entering this weekend with a 5.48 ERA, but the Aggies trust him to handle the weight of the moment.

“Parker’s a senior and was a big part of our success down the stretch last year,” Childress said. “It’s time for him to go be that guy for us again. He’s a four-pitch guy. He’s 88-91. Very good athlete. Very competitive.”

Mengden pitched through an illness two weeks ago against Kentucky but Childress liked how the junior righty looked against Mississippi State. Mengden’s command of his 88-94 mph fastball was on point, and his 83-85 slider was working as well.

Another key has been the emergence of several arms in the A&M bullpen, which was critical to winning the MSU series. Switching Ray into the rotation and putting Stubblefield back in the pen adds another quality lefthanded option to a group that already has plenty, like Matt Kent, Ty Schlottmann and A.J. Minter, who Childress said was up to 97 last week. That should help combat an LSU lineup that features a couple of prominent lefty bats in Andrew Stevenson and Mark Laird.

“It gives us another lefthander in the bullpen, and I think that’s real important, especially this weekend, with Tyler Stubblefield,” Childress said. “The other guy that’s been good for us at the back end of the bullpen was Andrew Vinson, a righthander that’s 88-90, very athletic, four pitches and throws strikes. (Making Ray a starter) does take a righthander out of there for us but it also puts another lefthander in there for us that’s pretty good.”

Lilek, Kellogg Lead Sun Devil Surge

Usually, when teams step out of conference for weekend series at this time of the year, those games serve as a bit of a respite (see: Miami-Alabama State and Florida State-Minnesota). That won’t be the case in Stillwater, where No. 18 Oklahoma State, the Big 12 leader, faces off with Arizona State. Both teams have been playing well entering the stretch run. The Cowboys are flying high after taking two of three from Texas in Austin last weekend and have won five straight series, while ASU has won five of its last six series in the Pac-12, a stretch that began when it took two of three at Oregon State—the Beavers’ only series loss of the season—in late March.

Brett Lilek

Brett Lilek (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

Arizona State has largely flown under the radar, not appearing in the Top 25 all season. The Sun Devils have been winning lately on the strength of the one-two punch at the top of their rotation with Brett Lilek on Fridays and Ryan Kellogg on Saturdays, both sophomore lefties. Outside of a couple hiccups in March, Lilek has been a rock since taking over the Friday starter role in Week 4. The Sun Devils sorely missed Lilek last season, as he showed promise early but missed much of the middle portion of the season with shoulder issues and wasn’t the same after he returned. However, his three-pitch mix looked good in the fall and he’s kept the momentum up this spring. He hasn’t allowed an earned run in either of his last two starts against Stanford and Arizona and owns a sparkling 1.75 ERA through 62 innings. Not to be outdone, Kellogg, ASU’s steadiest starter as a freshman last year, has won each of his last three starts and is 5-0, 2.61 against Pac-12 opponents.

All that being said, the Sun Devils’ success has come with an irritating pattern for coach Tim Esmay. In three of the last four weekends, the Sun Devils have won the first two games of their series only to lose on Sunday. They’ve lost six of their last eight Sunday games in all. Even though ASU has climbed to third place in the Pac-12, it’s only 12-9 in the league, and not being able finish sweeps has made it tougher to make headway. Esmay was most upset after his team lost again this past Sunday, failing to sweep rival Arizona. The Devils fell behind 2-0 in the first inning and went on to get outhit 11-2 for the game.

“We had a chance to sweep somebody on the road and the effort we had today was very frustrating,” Esmay told Scott Bordow of azcentral.com after the loss. “… I felt like we let this one get away without any sense of urgency. That’s what upset me a little bit.

“We need to have the mindset of going out and playing hard, aggressive, confident baseball. The result will take care of itself. It’s not chasing the result. It’s chasing the attitude . . . We have to remind them of what their mindset has to be every day because it’s playoff baseball every day. That’s why we can’t afford to let one get away on effort.”

This weekend presents both teams with an opportunity to win a series against a top-50 RPI opponent outside their conference, something that always looks good on Selection Monday. The teams actually enter the weekend back-to-back in the boydsworld.com RPI at Nos. 37 and 38. The Sun Devils have shored up their at-large candidacy with their recent run, but this weekend looks like aspiring regional host Oklahoma State’s last real chance at scoring marquee wins until the Big 12 tournament, which it will need to keep raising an RPI that entered the week at No. 40 in the NCAA’s official rankings. OSU will finish the regular season against Kansas State and Oklahoma, neither of which are in the at-large picture anymore.

Around The Nation

Trey Killian

Trey Killian

The A&M-LSU series is one of several key matchups in the tightly packed SEC West, where the seven teams are separated by just four games. Division leader Alabama, 13-8 in the SEC, hosts East leader Florida. The Crimson Tide is tied with Mississippi atop the West and holds the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of sweeping the Rebels back in March. Fresh off its demolition of Kentucky, Ole Miss returns home to face Arkansas, which hasn’t had a winning weekend away from Baum Stadium all season. The Razorbacks, tied with A&M for fifth in the division at 10-11, will need their stingy pitching staff—second in the league in ERA at 2.31—to cool off the Rebels’ hot bats after Ole Miss scored 39 runs against Kentucky last week. Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn likes how his top two starters, Trey Killian and Jalen Beeks, have been throwing. Killian in particular has been a victim of poor run support, his 2-7 record belying the quality of his work. No. 3 starter Chris Oliver struggled against Auburn last week but had been showing solid stuff previously, reaching 91-95 mph and making progress with his curveball.

• After streaking out to an 11-1 conference record mostly against the Big West’s lesser lights, UC Irvine gets its first major test this weekend as the Anteaters host UC Santa Barbara. Irvine enters the tough portion of its backloaded schedule that has it playing UCSB, No. 4 Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State, all teams contending for at-large berths, to close the season. Both UCI and UCSB are on the bubble, hanging around the fringes of the top 50 in the RPI, though the Gauchos could stand to improve their 7-8 conference record, which has them in sixth place in the nine-team league.

“We will preach the doctrine that we should know we can play with anybody,” Anteaters coach Mike Gillespie told Barry Faulkner of the Daily Pilot. “We know the early conference schedule has worked in our favor, but we have played other good teams and played other good teams well, even in some (nonconference games) that we have lost. It’s a confidence that we’ve developed.”

Cal Poly, which has played one more conference series than Irvine and sits a half-game back in the standings at 12-3, will try to rebound from its first series loss of the season by traveling to UC Riverside. In a series with significant bubble implications, Long Beach State hosts old rival Cal State Fullerton. The Dirtbags are in better RPI shape at No. 55 after last week but need to make sure they finish over .500 overall, as they’re just 21-21. Fullerton snapped a six-game losing streak by sweeping last-place Hawaii last week. However, the Titans’ RPI continued to fall and now sits precariously at No. 72 on Boyd’s World after they split midweek games with San Diego and Fresno State. The bottom line is the loser of the Long Beach-Fullerton series will be in significant trouble, but the winner will still have work to do as well.

Justin Montemayor (Photo by Andrew

Justin Montemayor (Photo by Andrew Woolley).

• The top four teams in the American Athletic Conference all go head-to-head this weekend, as first-place Central Florida travels to fourth-place Houston, while second-place Louisville heads to third-place South Florida. Houston figures to have the most on the line. The Cougars are just 8-7 in the AAC and have already been swept by Louisville, so this is their last chance to prove themselves against one of the league’s other heavyweights. (Houston did take two of three from USF but the Bulls aren’t in the at-large discussion). A series loss would be a significant blow to Houston’s hosting chances, despite a top-10 RPI, if it is unable to climb above fourth in the AAC standings. Meanwhile, as Aaron Fitt wrote in this week’s Stock Report, UCF can firm up its at-large hopes just by not getting swept. Doing that would also make the AAC regular-season title UCF’s to lose, if it isn’t already. The 15-3 Knights lead Louisville by 2 1/2 games and have only one conference series remaining after this weekend (Louisville will have two left), and it’s against last-place Cincinnati.