Weekend Preview: Vandy-Mississippi State Highlights SEC Openers

Weekend Preview highlights some of the most important story lines from around the game of college baseball.

Vanderbilt-Mississippi State Highlights SEC Openers

With seven teams ranked in the Top 25, including three of the top 5 (No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Texas A&M, No. 5 Vanderbilt), the Southeastern Conference looks to be as tough as ever. But now, about a month into the season, the schedule takes a more serious turn as conference play begins this weekend.

Top 25 Series
Missouri at (1) Florida
Auburn at (2) Texas A&M
Arizona State at (3) Oregon State
(4) Louisville at (6) Miami
(15) Mississippi State at (5) Vanderbilt
Alabama at (7) Louisiana State
West Virginia at (8) Texas Christian
(9) California at Southern California
Wake Forest at (10) Virginia
(11) Florida State at Pittsburgh
(12) North Carolina at Duke
(13) Mississippi at Tennessee
Washington State at (14) UCLA
Arkansas-Little Rock at (16) Louisiana-Lafayette
(17) Arkansas at South Carolina
(18) Michigan at (22) Oklahoma State
Utah at (19) Oregon
Grand Canyon at (20) Houston
Notre Dame at (21) North Carolina State
Virginia Commonwealth at (23) College of Charleston
Columbia at (24) Long Beach State
(25) Michigan State at South Florida

While the early nonconference weekends are an important part of the season, Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said he views them more as preparation for the SEC slate.

"The unique thing in college baseball is our spring training counts," he said. "I look at this portion of our schedule as games that are important because they count, but at the time, you have to develop your roster. You have to put as many parts on the field as possible to figure out what can be the combinations once you start conference play."

The 14 teams in the conference have a combined winning percentage of .795, and all enter SEC play with a winning record. Louisiana State coach Paul Mainieri said if he thinks about it too much, the depth of the conference "can be overwhelming."

"Everybody's just doing so well," he said. "It's going to be a dogfight every weekend, it doesn't matter who you play.
"It's just a typical season."

Opening weekend in the SEC is highlighted by No. 15 Mississippi State traveling to Vanderbilt for a series that will begin with potential first-rounders Dakota Hudson and Jordan Sheffield facing off on the mound. Other ranked teams traveling on the first weekend of conference play are Texas A&M (at Auburn), No. 12 Mississippi (at Tennessee) and No. 17 Arkansas (at South Carolina). Fans can follow all the action Friday at home, as the SEC Network will have a Bases Loaded broadcast, like ESPN does during the NCAA Tournament.

Mississippi State looked like it would head to Nashville with some momentum following a sweep of Oregon last weekend. But following midweek losses to Eastern Kentucky and Oral Roberts, the Bulldogs will have to get back on track against Vanderbilt.

The Commodores, despite losing its entire weekend rotation and No. 1 overall pick Dansby Swanson to pro ball, once again look to be one of the best teams in the country. Vanderbilt (16-1) has reloaded on the mound, with Preseason All-Americans Sheffield and Ben Bowden stepping into new roles at the front of the rotation, and righthander Hayden Stone returning from Tommy John surgery to anchor the bullpen. Offensively, Preseason All-American outfielders Jeren Kendall (.400/.487/.708) and Bryan Reynolds (.339/.494/.593) are off to hot starts, and freshman DH Alonzo Jones (.340/.426/.560) has made the transition to college look easy.

Corbin said he would prefer to have a few more games to evaluate his team before beginning conference play. But SEC play has arrived, beginning a 10-week long trial for all 14 teams in the conference.

"All the teams, when you look at them, they're all good," Corbin said. "They have different separators, different abilities. The best team in the SEC is the next one you play, period."

Traveling Wolverines

Northern schools typically spend the first several weeks of the season away from home, until the weather warms up enough to allow them to play home games. But even by those standards, Michigan's season-opening road trip has been an adventure.

The 18th-ranked Wolverines (11-3) have spent the first four weekends away from the Wilpon Complex and have one more road series to go before their home opener. After this weekend's trip to No. 22 Oklahoma State, Michigan will have logged 18,454 miles on the road.

Coach Erik Bakich said the early schedule—which has taken Michigan to Port St. Lucie, Fla., the Bay Area and Hawaii—hasn't been easy, but that his team has responded well.

"Even though they're out of a routine with all the travel, they're keeping to a routine," he said. "Nutrition, academics, sleep schedules, all the little things that have an impact, they're doing a good job staying in a routine with that."

Michigan has gotten off to a strong start, but this weekend's series at Oklahoma State, the preseason Big 12 Conference favorites, represents its best chance to make a statement in nonconference play. But Bakich said he and the Wolverines are not looking at the series in that way.

Instead, Bakich said Michigan has done a good job of keeping its focus on the present and its goal of making incremental improvements every day.

"The focus is more on the little things of how you play, more than on the brand name school of Oklahoma State that has a lot of tradition," Bakich said. "(The Wolverines have) been excited to play in every game. No question it will be a great challenge and a great test."

After starting the season 2-5, Oklahoma State has won its last two series and enters the weekend 11-6 and on a five-game winning streak. Senior shortstop Donnie Walton (.361/.487/.475) leads the Cowboys offense, while righthanders Thomas Hatch (1-0, 1.67) and Jensen Elliott (2-0, 1.93) give them a solid pair of starters at the front of their rotation.

Michigan's hitters have started the season well, led by catcher Harrison Wenson (.404/.466/.660, 3 HR). Two-way star Carmen Benedetti (.298/.452/.426) has drawn the attention of opposing pitchers, but he has done a good job of staying patient (10 walks to four strikeouts) and trusting his teammates to come through behind him, Bakich said.

"It certainly seems like people nibble around him when he's up, especially in RBI situations," Bakich said. To Carmen's credit, when he can take those walks, he just keeps the line moving and passes the baton on to the next guy. He feels that trust and connection to the guys behind him."

That kind of trust is common throughout the Wolverines. Coming into the season, Bakich believed Michigan had a strong team chemistry. Four weekends together on the road have only brought them closer together.

While in California, the Wolverines visited Alcatraz and went to a Warriors game. During their trip to Hawaii, they visited Pearl Harbor. Bakich said those parts of the trips have been particularly rewarding.

"The baseball part has been terrific, and there's been a lot of great bonding throughout the course of competitions we've played," Bakich said. "But all the experiences we've had have been great."

Cards, Canes Set For Top-10 Battle In Miami

Miami head coach Jim Morris needs only one more win to become the sixth coach in Division I history to reach 1,500 wins. As you might expect though, Morris quickly downplays the milestone.

"The game's a lot bigger than that," he said. "To be honest with you, 1,500 just means I've been coaching a long time, which I have. It's not a number which has any special meaning for me, other than the fact that we need to win and play well in every game."

Getting that win this weekend won't come easily, as Morris' sixth-ranked Hurricanes host No. 4 Louisville in a matchup of the Atlantic Coast Conference's two highest ranked teams. The Cardinals have won 10 straight—all at home—since their series loss at Mississippi in Week 2, while the Canes have likewise won nine of 10 since losing a series to Florida that same weekend.

"We've played well," Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell said, "but the whole reason we took the Ole Miss trip was, for us it's our first time going to Miami, our first time going to Florida State and North Carolina this year. So it worked out well that that Ole Miss trip was definitely great preparation for us leading into ACC play."

Both coaches expect the series to feature tight, low scoring games. Through Tuesday, Louisville ranked fourth in the nation in ERA at 1.88, while Miami was also in the top 50 at 3.31. Take away the outlier that was Miami's 14-3 loss to Virginia Tech last Friday, and its ERA shrinks to 2.61.

The Hurricanes do need a bounce back outing from Friday starter Thomas Woodrey, who didn't have his usual stuff or command and got roughed up by the Hokies. He'll be going opposite Kyle Funkhouser, who's adjusted since a shaky outing at Ole Miss to allow just three runs in 15 innings over his last two starts. The senior allowed just one run on three hits in eight innings against Notre Dame last week, throwing the best he has all spring.

The same could be said for Saturday's game, where Miami's Michael Mediavilla needs to get back on track after lasting just four innings against Virginia Tech, albeit in a game Miami was able to win, as he faces Brendan McKay, who's picked up where he left off in his Freshman of the Year campaign, going 4-0, 0.33 in four starts.

"It comes down to, for the most part, pitching and defense," McDonnell said. "Any time you're playing really good teams, you don't want to give extra at-bats in an inning. The reason both of our teams are ranked in the top 10 are we pitch really well and we play good defense. When you have good offenses, it's usually about capitalizing on other teams' mistakes. So it's very much like a regional final or a super regional matchup. It should be a lot of fun."

Preseason All-American Zack Collins leads the Miami offense, hitting .417/.592/.729 with five homers—and 21 walks—in 17 games, though leadoff man Carl Chester also had a big weekend in Blacksburg and is off to a .371/.453/.468 start. But Morris knows the Canes need everyone to be involved if they're to outpace a deep Louisville lineup that's hitting .332 as a group and has two regulars—Nick Solak and Devin Hairston—hitting over .400.

"There's no doubt Collins was our toughest out (last week)," Morris said. "But we need a team effort. We need a lot of guys to play well. Chester's an important guy in the leadoff position. Johnny Ruiz has been playing very well. (Jacob) Heyward hit the big home run, the game winner on Sunday. But it's a combination of a lot of things. We need to play good defense and we've gotta pitch good. If you're going to beat them, it's going to be a low scoring game."

And while Morris might downplay the wins milestone, it's not lost on McDonnell how meaningful it is to coach against someone with that kind of resume.

"I've always had so much respect for him," McDonnell said. "When he was at Georgia Tech, I used to work his camps. Of course at Miami, I ran into him that one time at Ole Miss in the super regionals (in 2006) when he had (Yonder) Alonso and Jemile Weeks and Jon Jay and that whole crew. It's what makes the ACC so respectable in baseball—the legendary coaches you have in the league, with obviously him being one of them. I'm always honored I get to coach against the great coaches like that."