|TOP 25 SERIES|
|Georgia Tech at (1) Virginia|
|UCLA at (2) Oregon State|
|(3) Louisiana-Lafayette at South Alabama|
|(18) Vanderbilt at (4) Florida|
|(5) Florida State at North Carolina|
|Bethune-Cookman at (6) Washington|
|(23) UC Irvine at (7) Cal Poly|
|(8) Miami at Duke|
|(9) Indiana at Penn State|
|(10) Louisville at Temple|
|Georgia at (11) Mississippi|
|Oklahoma at (12) Texas Christian|
|(13) Oklahoma State at Kansas State|
|(14) Rice at Texas-San Antonio|
|(19) Alabama at (15) Louisiana State|
|(16) Houston at Connecticut|
|Missouri at (17) South Carolina|
|(20) Texas A&M at Arkansas|
|Tennessee at (21) Mississippi State|
|Coastal Carolina at (22) Liberty|
|Stetson at (24) Mercer|
The top two teams square off this weekend in several mid-major leagues—the Big East, Ohio Valley, West Coast and Missouri Valley conferences. We'll touch on all of those series later, but let's focus on the only series of the four that features two teams on the at-large bubble: the MVC showdown between first-place Evansville and second-place Illinois State.
As the No. 6 conference in the Ratings Percentage Index, the Valley has a chance to send four teams to regionals, although Evansville and Illinois State have both seen their RPIs dip in the last week. The Purple Aces fell from No. 51 to No. 61 after winning two of three at Southern Illinois last weekend, then fell another 10 spots after dropping a midweek game to Belmont. The Red Birds tumbled from No. 32 to No. 57 after dropping a series at Western Illinois. So this series is critical for both teams to preserve their at-large hopes.
"We’ve got graduation weekend, senior weekend, and a chance to win another Valley series," Evansville coach Wes Carroll said. "We’ve got Illinois State coming to us, we don’t have to go on the road, which is nice. We’re going to have to play good baseball, no doubt, but I think this team knows what it takes to win a weekend series in this conference. It’s definitely an energetic dugout right now . . . I like my team. It's a high-character team that's been sticking together all year."
Evansville (30-17 overall, 11-4 in the MVC) has lost one series all year—in Week Two at Mercer. The Aces took two of three from each of the other MVC contenders (Indiana State, Wichita State and at Dallas Baptist), putting them in their current unexpected position atop the standings. Evansville was picked by league coaches to finish sixth in the preseason (with Indiana State picked seventh). The Aces haven't been to a regional since 2006, so this season marks a significant step forward for the program.
"I'm in my sixth year, so it’s exciting to have this opportunity," Carroll said. "We’ve got balance, that’s what I like about it. We have balance in the lineup, we can get you a couple different ways. But it starts with (Kyle) Freeland on the mound. Having a shutdown guy on Friday sets the tone for the whole weekend. And that’s why we’ve had success."
Freeland, a junior lefthander with a chance to be drafted in the top five picks next month, has more than lived up to his preseason All-America billing, going 8-1, 1.90 with a stunning 106-7 strikeout-walk mark in 81 innings. Our Clint Longenecker broke down Freeland in depth after seeing him strike out 15 at Charlotte a month ago. That long road trip was a key moment for the Aces, according to Carroll. "That's where I thought we came together," he said.
Friday's pitching matchup between Freeland and Illinois State senior ace Dan Savas (7-3, 1.64) should be a good one. Both were Cape Cod League all-stars last summer. Savas has a longer track record of MVC success, having gone 10-0, 1.79 last year as the Saturday starter. Illinois State coach Mark Kingston said he has been even better this year, although he has taken a couple of tough losses in Friday pitching duels. Savas ran his fastball up to 93 last summer, but a scout who saw him early this year reported seeing him work in the 83-88 range and top out at 90. Kingston said his stuff has been firmer lately.
"The fastball has been 88-91 for the most part," Kingston said. "As of late his velocity has started to come up a little bit, touching some 93s. But he's a competitor. He competes, finds his way out of tough situations, and makes a big pitch when he needs to. He has four pitches, but the curveball he uses very sparingly. He's more a fastball-slider guy, with an occasional changeup and curveball. The slider is a good pitch, probably a 50 slider (on the 20-80 scouting scale)."
As expected, pitching has been the greatest strength for Illinois State (26-15, 10-5 in the MVC). The team's best prospect is junior righthander Jeremy Rhoades, who posted a 1.54 ERA as the team's closer last year and has thrived in a relief and a starting role this spring, going 6-3, 2.22 with 79 strikeouts in 65 innings. He has made seven starts among his 14 appearances, and Kingston said he has held his 89-92 velocity well into ballgames, though his stuff plays up in relief. "When he comes in as a closer, he's more 93-95," Kingston said. "The breaking ball, same thing: it's harder and sharper when he can just come in and let it fly for a few outs. It can be a hard slider, at times up to 84-85."
Two-way player Brock Stewart and bulldog David Suarez have anchored the bullpen as co-closers with Rhoades in the rotation. Stewart has more arm strength, with a fastball that reaches 92-93 and a good changeup, while Suarez locates an 87-88 fastball and a mid-70s slider. Lefthander Dylan Craig (5-1, 2.32) is the other key mound piece, a Saturday starter with good feel for a fastball that bumps 91 and a quality slider/cutter.
"There's no question we knew this would be a pitching-first team, and that has proven to be true," Kingston said. "Our pitching has carried us for much of the year. But our offense has probably proven to be better than we hoped coming into the year. Most of the lineup has never started Division I baseball before. We lost a lot of guys off last year's team, so this could have conceivably been a rebuilding year. The fact that we are right there in the mix is a good thing for us."
Speed merchant Sean Beesley (27 steals in 36 tries) has emerged as a catalyst atop the ISU lineup, helping set the table for second baseman Paul DeJong (.374/.456/.642, 8 HR, 43 RBI) and catcher Mike Hollenbeck (.370/.443/.494, 37 RBI). DeJong arrived at Illinois State as a recruited walk-on, then redshirted his first year in the program. He worked hard and exceeded Kingston's original projection that he could be a nice utility player for the Red Birds, emerging as the centerpiece of the lineup.
Hollenbeck is the general, a senior who runs the show from behind the plate while also turning in his best offensive season.
"Last year he battled a little bit putting pressure on himself because it was his draft year," Kingston said. "This year he's just had fun, focused on being a great team player, and everything has fallen into place for him. Lefthanded catchers that hit .370 with that many doubles and a plus arm—he definitely should get a very strong look (in the draft)."
Evansville's lineup has a strong core of seasoned upperclassmen leading the way, and a trio of junior-college transfers who have added depth to the lineup. One of those transfers, Josh Jyawook (.314/.419/.357), has emerged as the team's leading hitter out of the leadoff spot. He has walked (29) more than he's struck out (23), making him an ideal table-setter in front of veterans Kevin Kaczmarski (.309/.372/.521, 4 HR), Kyle Pollock (.305/.356/.457, 4 HR) and Jake Mahon (.287/.395/.362).
"Our on-base percentage is outstanding, we’re at .381 as a team," Carroll said. "The top of our lineup does a fantastic job getting on base. The heart of our order, Pollock and Kaczmarski, both have 44 RBIs, they're both upperclassmen. Jake Mahon does all the dirty work, the two-out RBIs, sac flies, moving runners. Those are three tough guys in the middle of our lineup."
The scrappy Kaczmarski should be a solid draft this year, a center fielder with good speed and a quality gap-to-gap approach (he leads the team with 18 doubles and five triples). Pollock is a solid all-around catcher with some juice in his bat. Carroll said he has been pleased with his team's defense, led by those two key up-the-middle pieces.
"We’ve been able to develop those guys from freshmen to now to make our Valley run," Carroll said. "At a private school like the University of Evansville, our window is every three years or so. It took me six to build this foundation, but I'm proud of how we got here."
With Freeland and senior lefthander Cole Isom (5-4, 3.50) atop the rotation, and a gritty, experienced lineup, the Aces could be a tough out in the NCAA tournament if they can make it that far. The same goes for Illinois State.
"If we can somehow find our way into a regional, we have the kind of pitching—if you put Dan Savas in a regional, he's got a great chance to win that game," Kingston said. "If we can just get into a regional, we'll be a team that will be very dangerous, very dangerous."
Around The Nation
• West Coast Conference leader Pepperdine hosts rival San Diego in another mid-major showdown this weekend. The Toreros are 15-9 in the league, part of a three-way tie for second place behind 15-6 Pepperdine.
The Waves have lost four of their last five but remain inside the top 40 in the RPI, putting them in good at-large position if they fail to in the four-team WCC tournament. The Toreros are not in good RPI shape (No. 74) despite winning series against Mountain West leader New Mexico and Big 12 leader Oklahoma State (on the road). USD's RPI woes are another example of a handful of games against teams with awful winning percentages killing a quality team's at-large chances, even though that team proved it is good enough to win series against regional foes this year. Four games against 14-31 Northern Kentucky, three against 10-35 Portland and three against 14-34 St. Mary's have crushed USD's strength of schedule (which makes up 50 percent of the RPI formula). Of course, the Toreros also can blame themselves for going 1-5 against Santa Clara and Pacific in back-to-back weekends in April. The Pepperdine-USD series features a fascinating contrast in styles, pitting the league's most offensive team (San Diego is hitting .324 as a team with 38 homers, 120 doubles and 371 runs, all conference bests by a landslide) against its best pitching club (Pepperdine's 2.26 ERA is more than a run better than the next-lowest ERA in the league, USD's 3.39).
• No team in the Big East has an RPI inside the top 100, which means the team that wins the conference tournament will be its lone NCAA tournament representative. But this weekend's series between St. John's and Creighton (which are tied atop the standings at 10-2) features two teams with positive momentum. The Red Storm has won 11 of its past 12 games and 15 of its past 17, capped by a road sweep of Xavier last weekend. The Bluejays have won five straight series, including a big set last weekend against dangerous Seton Hall. As usual, Creighton is a premier defensive club, with a .982 fielding percentage that leads the conference by a wide margin. In conference games, Creighton is fielding .986—a full 16 points better than any other team in the Big East. St. John's, meanwhile, has been the best offensive team in the league during conference play, batting .322 and scoring 86 runs in 12 games. And the Johnnies have a 2.55 ERA in conference games, also tops in the league. The Friday pitching matchup should be a good one, pitting Creighton sophomore righty Matt Warren (9-1, 2.00) against St. John's fifth-year senior bulldog James Lomangino (5-4, 3.88), whose 89-92 fastball induces plenty of ground balls thanks to its sink.
• In the Ohio Valley Conference, preseason favorite Tennessee Tech (36-13, 16-8 in the OVC) is chasing upstart Southeast Missouri State (31-16, 21-6), and the two teams face off this weekend at TTU. Tennessee Tech garnered 19 of 21 first-place votes in the OVC's preseason poll, while SEMO was picked to finish sixth. The Golden Eagles must sweep the series to keep their regular-season conference title hopes alive; if they can do that, they can tie for the championship with two wins next weekend at Belmont, or win it outright with another sweep. As expected, Tennessee Tech has been the most dangerous offensive team in the conference, leading it with a .316 average, 65 home runs and 409 runs. SEMO is plenty offensive in its own right, ranking second in the league in batting (.307) and third in runs (338). Several of the top candidates for OVC player of the year honors will also face off in the series, as SEMO's Derek Gibson (.404/.530/.557) and Matt Tellor (.398/.448/.707, 14 HR, 60 RBI) take on Texas Tech's Daniel Miles (.397/.494/.629, 9 HR, 44 RBI) and Dylan Bosheers (.381/.461/.619, 10 HR, 46 RBI). Expect offensive fireworks.
• SEMO isn't the only unexpected conference leader heading into the last few weeks. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi sits atop the Southland Conference standings at 17-7, a game ahead of Sam Houston State, McNeese State and Nicholls State (16-8) and two games ahead of Northwestern State (15-9). The Islanders host Lamar (13-11) this weekend before finishing with a showdown series at preseason favorite Sam Houston. The major key for Texas A&M-Corpus Christi has been the performance of its bullpen. Sidewinding closer Jacob Dorris has been stellar in conference play, posting five saves, a 0.84 ERA, a .139 average against and a 28-8 strikeout-walk mark in 21 innings. The movement on his mid-80s fastball makes it play up, and his slider gives hitters fits. And Kevin Landgrebe has allowed just seven hits in his last eight appearances out of the pen, spanning 14 innings.
• Finally, there are also three key showdowns between Top 25 teams.
The top two teams in the Big West get together when second-place Cal Poly hosts first-place UC Irvine. The Anteaters have been the hotter team of late and are coming off a sweep of UC Santa Barbara (we wrote about Irvine in this week's Three Strikes). The Mustangs hit their first real rough patch of the season in the last 10 days or so, dropping four straight games, but they have gotten back on track by winning their last three games, two at UC Riverside and a midweek game against Pepperdine. Scouts have reported seeing a little less velocity lately from two of Cal Poly's key arms, ace Matt Imhof and closer Reed Reilly. "Cal Poly hasn't really played well lately; I think they're starting to get run down," one area scout said last week. Of course, it's easy to nitpick a team that is 39-9 overall and 14-4 in its league, but it will be interesting to see if the Mustangs can return to peak form this weekend against a confident Anteater team.
• In the Southeastern Conference's East Division, first-place Florida hosts second-place Vanderbilt in a series that matters more for the Commodores than for the Gators (who look just about locked in as a national seed). Vandy controls its own destiny; at No. 7 in the RPI, Vandy can easily secure a home regional with a decent showing in its final two series (it hosts South Carolina next weekend). Moving Carson Fulmer from the closer role into the rotation has paid off for Vandy, as the flame-thrower has stabilized the weekend rotation, while Walker Buehler, Brian Miller, Hayden Stone and Adam Ravenelle are more than capable of holding down the bullpen—and matching up with Florida's deep stable of arms.
In the SEC West, LSU (13-10-1) visits Alabama (13-11) in a series with huge regional hosting implications. The Crimson Tide has dropped two straight series and must avoid a third straight series loss to preserve its hosting hopes. LSU had won four straight series before losing two of three last weekend at Texas A&M, so taking two of three this weekend against the Tide could put the Tigers in very strong position. This series features a quality Friday matchup between junior righties Aaron Nola and Spencer Turnbull, a nice Saturday matchup between a pair of quality lefthanders (Jared Poche and Justin Kamplain), and a pair of TBAs slated for Sunday.