College Weekend Preview: May 3




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THIS WEEK:
1. Resilient Ole Miss hopes to bolster its hosting case against LSU.
2. Injuries continue to dog Florida, but Gators keep an even keel with Kentucky on deck.
3. Quick Takes on the weekend's other big series plus a look at four series that are important for NCAA bubble teams

Despite Tumble, Ole Miss Remains In High Spirits

PEARL, Miss.—Two days after a frustrating loss at Mississippi State, Matt Snyder and Bobby Wahl were in high spirits and relaxed, cracking jokes on the field at Trustmark Park, where Mississippi had just shut out Southern Mississippi 3-0.

Ole Miss isn't the type of team that is going to pout and fall into a prolonged funk after a dispiriting loss such as Sunday's in Starkville, when the Rebels out-hit the Bulldogs 8-2 but found a way to lose 4-2, dropping their third series in the last four weeks.

"I don't like to count them like that. I like to say, the second half (of the season) we're one out of two and we're 1-0 at home," Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco joked of his team's recent series performances. "There's nine games left . . . You can't look at the scoreboard because somebody will always beat the other team. You can't wait for help because it doesn't ever come. You have to take care of business and run to the finish line."

The Rebels have absorbed their share of punches to the gut this year, but they haven't been knocked out. Ole Miss let ninth-inning leads slip away two weekends in a row at the start of SEC play against Auburn and Alabama, but it bounced back from Saturday's loss at Alabama to win Sunday's rubber game, then took a series against Florida the following weekend. The Rebels haven't been swept on the road and they have protected their home field, going 21-6. At 10-11 in conference play, Ole Miss doesn't figure to catch Louisiana State in the SEC West, but a series win against the Tigers this weekend in Oxford would go a long way toward bolstering its hosting ambitions. The Rebels would then own series wins against heavyweights Florida, Arkansas and LSU—not a bad resume, though it's hard not to think about where they'd be if they had recorded an extra out here or there.

Top 25 Schedule
Maryland at (1) Florida State(7) Florida at (3) Kentucky
(4) Louisiana State at (24) Mississippi
(5) South Carolina at (18) Arkansas
Houston at (6) Rice
(8) Cal State Fullerton at Pacific
Texas Tech at (9) Texas A&M
(10) Oregon at (11) Arizona
(12) Stanford at Oregon State
(13) Purdue at (14) UCLA
Presbyterian at (15) Central Florida
Boston College at (16) North Carolina
Cal State Bakersfield at (17) North Carolina State
(19) San Diego at Brigham Young
Utah at (20) Arizona State
(21) Sam Houston State at Texas-Arlington
(22) Louisville at West Virginia
(25) Texas at Missouri
"I think there were a couple games, we were only a pitch way from winning three or four more games," said Wahl, the Rebels' sophomore ace. "It's so frustrating, but we always talk about how you can't let that stuff affect you. The SEC is the SEC. You've got to come back and play hard, and I think we've done a pretty good job of that."

After shutting down Florida in the series opener, Wahl went through a dead-arm period—or as Snyder joked, "He hit a wall." This is his first college season as a starting pitcher after spending his freshman year in the bullpen, and he said he just wasn't used to throwing that much.

Wahl did some extra work in the training room to try to build his arm back up, and he said now he feels 100 percent again. He pitched well in defeat last week against Mississippi State ace Chris Stratton, and his showdown against LSU's Kevin Gausman—a leading candidate for the No. 1 overall pick this June—should be a gem. Both guys are dogged competitors with fastballs that reach the mid-90s and quality secondary stuff.

"Gausman is a great pitcher, and I know he's got unbelievable stuff," Wahl said. "I love that. I love that battle, to match a guy pitch for pitch and try to win the game."

At the back of the pitching staff, the Rebels have taken steps to strengthen their bullpen, where closer Brett Huber had been hampered somewhat by a bout of tendinitis (though he looked good Sunday against MSU, pitching in the 89-92 range and locating well). The Rebels shifted righty R.J. Hively from the rotation into the bullpen over the last two weeks, and he has taken to the role.

Hively's demeanor and aggressive approach seem well-suited for closing, and his 81-84 mph slider is a wipeout pitch that misses bats against both righties and lefties. He'll attack hitters with that pitch over and over again, much like former Ole Miss closer Scott Bittle used to dominate with his cutter. He also has a quality 90-92 fastball that he can cut or sink, and even an occasional changeup—but the slider is his bread-and-butter.

"When you see a closer, a lot of times you see a closer like Mariano (Rivera) or somebody like that who has an offspeed or a breaking pitch that can really shut the door," Snyder said. "That's what he has. He throws that thing as fast as his fastball sometimes. When you've got that thing coming at you, it's tough. It's fun to have him back there, kind of like Bittle."

Bianco originally planned to use Hively in more of a flex role, where he would pitch in relief if needed Friday or Saturday and otherwise would start on Sunday. But after seeing Hively bounce back from an extended relief outing Saturday to strike out two in a 1-2-3 ninth Tuesday against Southern Miss, BIanco indicated he was inclined to leave Hively in the bullpen stopper role.

"The last two weeks, he's come in and had those long stints, that Matt Price, Scott Bittle, three-plus innings," Bianco said. "He did that Saturday—threw 50-something pitches and wasn't available Sunday—but it's worth it if you can get the win. He hasn't done that since junior college, but he's done it in junior college, and you can tell he likes that role. He's pretty tough for one inning for sure, but a guy who can also go three, bridge the gap a little bit, which we haven't been able to do."

Talented freshman righthander Josh Laxer thrust himself into the mix to replace Hively in the weekend rotation after going a season-long seven shutout innings Tuesday against the Golden Eagles. Laxer showed explosive stuff for the first time all spring, pitching in the 91-94 range and effectively mixing in a sharp 82-83 power slider. The key, Bianco said, is that Laxer went back to attacking the zone like he did in high school, rather than trying to hard to nibble on the corners.

Laxer's outing was a very significant development, as he has the ability to be a major weapon down the stretch for Ole Miss. But Bianco said he is likely to start lefthander Dylan Chavez this Sunday after he pitched well in an extended relief outing last week against MSU. Chavez's command was shaky after he inherited a bases-loaded jam in the first, but he settled down to work four scoreless innings thereafter. His 88-92 mph fastball, 80-81 slider and funky delivery has made him a key bullpen option all year, and ideally the Rebels would keep him as a key southpaw in the bullpen, if Laxer can eventually seize the Sunday job.

So Mississippi's pitching appears to be coming together, but LSU has one of college baseball's premier pitching staffs, and the Tigers still have the edge this weekend, on paper. Ole Miss gets the check mark in the defense column—it is fielding .979 in conference play, while LSU is fielding .974 and coming off an uncharacteristically shaky defensive weekend against Georgia. Two of Mississippi's everyday infielders—second baseman Alex Yarbrough and third baseman Andrew Mistone—are fielding .990 or better, as each has committed just one error. The Rebels have gotten solid shortstop play from its platoon of Austin Anderson and Blake Newalu, while Auston Bousfield's superb defensive instincts allow him to cover abundant ground in center.

Snyder and Yarbrough also form a dangerous duo in the middle of the lineup. Line-drive machines Yarbrough (.417) and LSU's Raph Rhymes (.503) are the conference's two leading hitters. Snyder is Mississippi's version of Florida slugger Preston Tucker (or, if you like, LSU's Mason Katz)—a mature, physical presence with the ability to change the game via the long ball (he has 10 of them). And the Ole Miss crowd goes bananas when Snyder goes deep.

"It's fun to watch—the beer showers when this guy hits home runs," Wahl said, referring to the Ole Miss student section's propensity to throw their beverages up into the air beyond the right-field fence. "I think we have the best home-field advantage in the nation. Especially our student section out there; you can just hear them giving a hard time to the guy warming up or the right fielder."

The Rebels feed off the energy of their crowds—which regularly check in between 10,000 and 11,000 on weekends—and are very tough to beat at Swayze Field. So if Ole Miss can host a regional, its path to its first College World Series since 1972 will be much more navigable. And a series win this weekend is critical for hosting to remain a viable possibility. Fortunately, the Rebels are at home.

"We're going to have a very, very, very strong crowd this weekend," Snyder said. "I know they're not happy with us (and) what happened this weekend, but they're great fans, they forget about it. They're definitely going to be back out supporting us. They're going to be going crazy. I can't wait to see how they are out there. I'm already getting goosebumps for it."

State Of The Gators

College baseball doesn't have an unstoppable juggernaut in 2012, an undisputed favorite to win the national championship. With three weeks left in the regular season, a dozen teams look like legitimate title contenders, but every one of them has flaws.

That includes Florida, a team that entered the season as the clear-cut favorite to win the College World Series and reinforced that position by dominating its first-half schedule. But injuries (especially on the mound) and a midseason offensive slump joined forces to cause the Gators to lose three of their last five weekend series, two of them at home against LSU and Arkansas. Florida looks considerably more mortal now than it did a month ago—but Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan doesn't really care what his team looks like to outsiders in early May.

"I feel fine—I've always felt fine," he said. "We've got good players. It's one of those types of teams, once we get everybody healthy and start playing our best baseball, we'll get a chance to do what we've always set out to do at the beginning."

Because Florida has racked up so many quality wins (14 against the top 25 in the Ratings Percentage Index), it could lose the rest of its games and still finish among the nation's top eight teams in the RPI. But the Gators can't afford to stagger through the last three weeks and still earn a national seed based on their RPI—not when the SEC has three other strong national seed contenders in Kentucky, LSU and South Carolina.

So Florida's series at No. 3 Kentucky starting tonight is important. It is a matchup between the SEC's two most powerful teams; Florida leads the conference with 56 homers overall and 21 in SEC play, while Kentucky ranks second with 48 and 18. But perhaps Florida's ability to hit the long ball is undermining its offensive efficiency; the Gators are hitting just .257 in conference play, eighth in the league.

"What we haven't done is we haven't done a good job of maintaining innings, getting innings started," O'Sullivan said. "We rely on the big inning too much. We need to do a better job applying pressure each inning and not relying on the three-run homer. We need to get the leadoff man on and do a better job situational hitting. You've got to be able to manufacture runs, get on base, handle the bat. . . . We just haven't really clicked offensively for a while, but I know we'll get back to it, hopefully this weekend."

Coaches who have faced the Gators walk way saying the bottom half of the lineup is not as imposing as it was a year ago, but O'Sullivan said that part of the lineup has done exactly what the Gators needed it to do. The key is getting the top five hitters all swinging the bat well at the same time.

Freshman Josh Tobias returned from a broken hand last weekend and figures to see plenty of playing time as a righthanded bat against Kentucky's all-southpaw rotation this weekend. Fellow switch-hitter Taylor Gushue has seen his average dip to .215 after a hot start, but O'Sullivan said he just went through typical freshman fatigue. Now, he said, Gushue looks refreshed and is showing more bat speed than he did two weeks ago.

But anytime one Gator returns to action, it seems like another gets hurt. Vickash Ramjit sprained his shoulder making a diving catch in the outfield last week, and closer Austin Maddox (1.58 ERA, 12 saves, 51-8 K-BB ratio in 46 innings) came down with tendinitis in his rotator cuff. O'Sullivan said he "had no idea how long they'll be out" but said both could play this weekend. If Maddox is unavailable, flame-thrower Jonathon Crawford will slide from the rotation to the back of the bullpen, where his strikeout stuff should be an asset.

"Once we get Maddox and Ramjit back, we'll be as healthy as we've been all year."

That's because two of the three preseason All-Americans in Florida's weekend rotation—Hudson Randall and Karsten Whitson—are both finally back to 100 percent, as O'Sullivan put it. Randall, who had missed two starts with arm soreness, threw six strong innings to earn the Gators' lone win against Arkansas last weekend, and he will be unrestricted in his start tonight against the Wildcats. Whitson, the likely starter in game two on Friday, worked in the 92-95 range during his 55-pitch outing over four shutout innings in midweek play last week, and O'Sullivan said he'll throw 75-80 pitches this week.

"It's just been hard to get him back going right in the middle of the season," O'Sullivan said. "I think we did the right thing and backed off, did some side sessions. He's in a much better frame of mind right now than when he first came back."

Lefthander Brian Johnson is likely to get the start Sunday, bumping Crawford (who has filled in admirably in the rotation just about all season) to the bullpen.

Power isn't the only area where Florida and Kentucky are similar; both teams also have very good bullpens, anchored by one righty (Maddox and UK's Trevor Gott) and one lefty (Florida's Steven Rodriguez and Kentucky's Alex Phillips).

It is an intriguing matchup. But if the Gators lose the series—as they certainly might, on the road against a team that has lost just one series all year—don't write them off. They certainly won't write themselves off.

"There's a lot of good teams in our league, and we've played some really good teams that have quite frankly played pretty good against us; the games we've lost, they've just played better," O'Sullivan said. "But we're not panicking or worrying, it is what it is. We've got to get better in certain areas like everybody else. So I'm hopeful one of these days it'll get going for us."

Florida has never lost sight of the ultimate goal: to peak in June, not in early May. But that's not to say this weekend doesn't matter.

"Obviously, if we want to get back in the SEC hunt, we'll have to do some damage this weekend," O'Sullivan said. "It's an important weekend for both teams. We want to be playing our best at the end. Hopefully this will be a weekend we play better than we have."

Quick Takes

• South Carolina visits Arkansas in the other big SEC showdown this weekend. The Gamecocks have won five straight weekend series and 11 consecutive SEC games. South Carolina isn't afraid to rally around the goofy and the bizarre (remember the Avatar Spirit Stick two years ago?), and during this hot streak the Gamecocks have embraced third baseman L.B. Dantzler's pet fish, Reptar. Dantzler brought the fish along on a road trip to Auburn, when the South Carolina bullpen took care of it during the game, and put their hands on their heads mimicking dorsal fins after Dantzler homered. Whatever works; Dantzler was hitting .370 with four doubles, three homers and seven RBIs in his previous seven games heading into Wednesday's win against Davidson. His eight homers are tied for most on the team.

Arkansas, meanwhile, is also carrying some confidence into this weekend, riding a four-game winning streak after winning a road series at Florida and sweeping two midweek games against Missouri. The Hogs allowed just five runs total in those four games, and they lead the SEC with a 3.20 ERA in conference games and a 2.61 ERA overall. Runs could be hard to come by this weekend in Fayetteville. With the postseason picture still so unsettled, this series looms large; the Gamecocks and Hogs are back-to-back in the updated Boyd's World RPI (No. 8 and No. 9), so both are jockeying for hosting and national seed position.

• Oregon and Arizona are tied atop the Pac-12 standings with identical .667 winning percentages (the Ducks are 14-7, the Wildcats are 12-6). So the team that emerges as the victor in the series between the two clubs this weekend in Tucson will take control of the conference race, while cementing itself as a host and bolstering its national seed prospects. The buzz in the Pac-12 is that Arizona's new home park, Hi Corbett Field, offers a distinct home-field advantage because of the fast playing surface and spacious dimensions, which put outfield speed at a premium. The Wildcats play very well at home, going 22-7 and sweeping a home series against Stanford a month ago. Arizona is also swinging the bats with a lot of confidence, coming off a 51-run outburst in a sweep of East Tennessee State. But the Ducks are pitching with great confidence—they allowed just four runs in three games against a quality California offense in a three-game sweep last week, then swept a two-game midweek road series at Gonzaga. This series presents a fascinating contrast in styles: Arizona leads the league in hitting (.336) by a wide margin, while Oregon ranks second to last (.261) and has scored 99 fewer runs than the Wildcats (315-216). But the Ducks have the conference's best ERA (2.99) and fielding percentage (.979), while Arizona ranks third-to-last (4.21) in ERA and second-to-last in fielding percentage (.962). It's also the first trip back to Arizona for longtime Andy Lopez assistant Mark Wasikowski, now the top assistant at Oregon.
 
• UCLA takes a break from Pac-12 play to welcome Purdue in a huge nonconference showdown. The Bruins (No. 4 in the RPI) and Boilermakers (No. 6) are both in national seed range, and whichever team prevails this weekend will get a major boost, while the other team will probably wind up as a host but not a national seed. These teams are constructed somewhat similarly. Both are potent offensive clubs loaded with athletic veterans who hit for average and occasional power. Both lineups are very deep, and both weekend rotations rely on solid strike-throwers more than big, overpowering velocity. Both teams do have a big arm anchoring their bullpens (Scott Griggs and Nick Wittgren), and both bullpens have proven deeper and more reliable than expected. It should be a fun series; I'll be on hand and have a report Monday.

• All those series are big, but none of them have as much on the line as the Dartmouth-Cornell showdown in Ithaca, N.Y. The winner of the best-of-three Ivy League championship series will earn the first automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. The first two games will be played as part of a doubleheader Saturday, with the rubber game Sunday if necessary. Both teams went 14-6 in Ivy League play to win their respective divisions. Cornell has already tied a program record with 29 wins overall, and the Big Red swept the only other two meetings between the teams in early April, including an April 1 win that saw Connor Kaufmann no-hit the Big Green in a seven-inning game. Cornell last won 29 games in 1977—the last year it went to regionals. Dartmouth is playing in the Ivy Championship Series for the fifth straight year (it went to regionals in 2010 and '11), and the Big Green enters the weekend on a roll, having won 15 of its last 16 games. Dartmouth owns the Ivy's most potent offense and is averaging 8.57 runs per game during its last seven.

Bubble Watch: Four series with major at-large ramifications this weekend:

Wichita State at Indiana State. Both teams rank in the 50s in the RPI and need to finish strong to put themselves in at-large position. The Sycamores are two games up on the Shockers in the conference standings, but the Shockers have more quality wins (5-5 against the top 50 compared to Indiana State's 2-1). Each team has boosted its stock with a series win against Dallas Baptist over the last two weeks, but this is a do-or-die series for both teams' at-large hopes.

Washington at Southern California: The Huskies and Trojans don't have any room for error, either. USC has lost eight of its last 11 games, and its remaining schedule includes trips to Oregon and UCLA along with a home series against Arizona. The Trojans (No. 56 in the RPI and 7-10 in the Pac-12) simply cannot afford to let a home series against Washington slip away. Washington won its second Pac-12 series at Utah last week, but it remains 49th in the RPI and below .500 (8-10) in conference play.

Auburn at Georgia: The Bulldogs have now lost five of their last six conference series, though like Washington they haven't gotten swept. Georgia is hanging around at-large range at 25-20 overall, 9-12 in the SEC and No. 44 in the RPI, but another series loss this weekend would sink it into a very deep hole. Auburn took care of business last weekend, sweeping three games against Tennessee to end its three-series losing skid (during which it went 1-8 in conference play). Auburn is 25-19 overall, 10-11 in the SEC and No. 48 in the RPI—in other words, right on the bubble.

Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State: The annual Bedlam series is critical for the Sooners, who need to boost their RPI (No. 64) and climb higher than fifth place (9-8) in the Big 12. The Cowboys are actually ahead of the Sooners in the standings (11-7), but an RPI of No. 98 will be difficult to rescue. The opener of this series in Tulsa features a fine pitching matchup between a pair of quality lefties: OSU ace Andrew Heaney and Oklahoma's Jordan John, who is coming off back-to-back complete-game gems against Alabama State and Kansas.