The regular season finishes with a bang in most conferences this weekend (although the Pac-12 and Big West have another week of regular-season play after this, since neither has a conference tournament). The Week 14 schedule features six meaningful series between ranked opponents, with national seeds, regional hosting spots and at-large bids on the line. We’ll touch on all six below, but we’ll focus on one of the most compelling matchups of the season--Oregon State at Oregon.
Civil War Hostilities Resume In Eugene
It remains one of the most improbable developments of the past decade that the state of Oregon has become one of the nation’s premier hotbeds for college baseball. A decade ago, Oregon State had been shut out of regionals since 1986, and Oregon’s program was still years away from being resuscitated after it was discontinued in 1981.
But heading into this weekend, both teams are ranked in Baseball America’s top 10, and both teams have strong chances to earn national seeds that could set the stage for two super regionals in the state. They are back-to-back in the Ratings Percentage Index rankings (OSU is No. 6, Oregon is No. 7), and back-to-back atop the Pacific-12 Conference standings (The Beavers are 20-4, the Ducks are 19-5).
|Top 25 Series|
|Alabama at (1) Vanderbilt
(24) Mississippi at (2) Louisiana State
(7) Virginia at (3) North Carolina
UC Irvine at (4) Cal State Fullerton
(5) North Carolina State at Duke
(17) Clemson at (9) Florida State
(6) Oregon State at (10) Oregon
(8) UCLA at Southern California
(11) Arkansas at Auburn
(21) Pittsburgh at (12) Louisville
Arizona at (13) Arizona State
(14) South Carolina at Mississippi State
(15) Indiana at Ohio State
(16) New Mexico at San Diego State
Troy at (18) South Alabama
(25) Oklahoma at (19) Kansas State
West Virginia at (20) Oklahoma State
Wake Forest at (22) Virginia Tech
The Civil War rivalry between the two teams has reached a fever pitch--tickets for the series in Eugene this weekend have already sold out.
“It’s just worked out perfect where two teams are playing at the end of the year, they’re both ranked so high and it has so much on it,” Oregon State coach Pat Casey said. “I think (the fans) are having a great time with it. It’s like that in football, it’s that way in basketball. I’m sure they’re excited about the fact that both teams are having really good years, on top.”
The Clemson-South Carolina rivalry is the most intense in college baseball, for our money, but the Civil War is gaining ground. And this is just the second series in 2013 that features a pair of heated in-state rivals who are both ranked in the top 10, joining North Carolina-N.C. State.
“It’s obviously a game that’s on the calendar every year--circled and starred and squared and highlighted,” Oregon assistant coach Jay Uhlman said. “The fans obviously make a rivalry what it is in terms of the atmosphere and environment. It’s two good baseball teams locking horns for everything you work all year for, the outright regular-season championship for the conference. I think it’s not only great for college baseball but we think it’s great for the state of Oregon and the Northwest. It speaks to how we’re doing as a program and their body of work over the course of their program. We’re pumped for this weekend. We’re embracing it more than just kind of dismissing it.”
These teams appear evenly matched, so it isn’t easy to break down the series and determine which team is the favorite, but we’ll give it a go.
Oregon State and Oregon boast two of the nation’s top 10 pitching staffs in terms of ERA, as the Beavers rank second (2.06) while the Ducks are 10th (2.58). Both staffs feature three rock-solid weekend starters, deep bullpens and money closers.
The Friday matchup pits OSU senior lefthander Matt Boyd (10-2, 2.04) against Oregon sophomore lefty Tommy Thorpe (5-4, 2.62). Both are converted middle relievers who have proven great fits atop the rotation. Boyd is the more experienced of the two and has the firmer stuff, so we’ll give him a slight edge in this matchup. Boyd’s resume this year also features wins against potential first-round picks Mark Appel, Trevor Williams and Marco Gonzales.
“He’s a four-pitch guy. I think he always wanted to prove he could be a starter, and we always had him in that setup role--we usually had good starting pitching,” Casey said. “They said in the Cape (Cod League last summer) there were many times they saw him at 93-94 and even touching 95. He obviously doesn’t sit there, more of a low-90s guy, but he’s held his velocity (as a starter). I think either the slider or the changeup on any given night can be his No. 2 pitch. And there’s times that breaking ball is the No. 2 pitch, so that gives him a nice luxury. He’s really a guy that can pitch to both sides of the plate, mixes his pitches very well, just has good feel to pitch.”
As recently as mid-March at Southern California, Ducks coach George Horton said he was considering moving Thorpe back to the bullpen, but since then he has solidified himself as a starter. He moved into the Friday starter spot on April 12 at California, and he has pitched at least into the seventh inning in each of his five starts since, posting a 1.54 ERA during that stretch. Thorpe pounds the strike zone with an 87-88 fastball and three quality secondary pitches.
“The thing that Tommy does is he throws strikes, he’s able to pitch in and out of trouble if he gets in it,” Uhlman said. “He trusts his defense and trusts his stuff, just attacks the zone and attacks the glove.”
Oregon’s Saturday starter, freshman lefthander Cole Irvin (10-2, 2.64), has a similar approach, pitching to contact and throwing strikes. He can bump 90 or 91 with his fastball but pitches in the mid-to-high 80s, his changeup is outstanding and his breaking ball is coming along.
Irvin faces another righthander Andrew Moore (10-1, 1.48) in an intriguing matchup between likely freshman All-Americans. Last week against Stanford, Casey said Moore lacked his best stuff, but he impressed the coaching staff by battling through six strong innings, allowing just two runs. But at his best, his stuff is very good: an 88-92 fastball that he locates well to the corners and at the knees, a swing-and-miss 80-82 slider, a downer curve at 74-78 and a solid 79-82 changeup. He has better breaking stuff and velocity than Irvin, and he has the better ERA to boot, so we’ll give him a slight nod over Irvin in that matchup.
Sunday’s matchup is also outstanding. OSU junior lefthander Ben Wetzler (6-1, 1.46) and Oregon sophomore righty Jake Reed (6-3, 3.00) have both come on very strong down the stretch. Since moving into the Sunday starter spot against Cal, Reed is 3-0, 1.87. Uhlman said being able to study how Thorpe and Irvin attack hitters for the first two games of the series has paid dividends for Reed on Sunday, and taken some pressure off him. His 89-92 mph two-seamer has serious life, and he has regained confidence in his slider, which “can be devastating” when it’s working, as Uhlman put it.
Heading into the season, the Beavers expected Wetzler to be their Friday starter, but a pulled muscle in his back shelved him early in the season, and the Beavers built him up slowly. But Wetzler has won each of his six starts since picking up his first win at UCLA on April 7, posting a 1.04 ERA in that span.
“He wasn’t able to do a whole lot with the muscle strain he had, so I think he just wasn’t in the best shape the first four or five starts,” Casey said. “But every outing, pretty much, he went out and got better and better. He certainly is throwing the ball very, very well right now, his command has been outstanding. Hopefully it will help him finish strong that he didn’t pitch the first four weeks. I want to say he was 89-92 down there at Stanford, he’s able to hold it longer.”
That velocity uptick is an indication of how much stronger Wetzler has gotten in the second half, because he worked at 85-88 at UCLA. Wetzler and Reed are both very good and experienced, so we’ll call the Sunday matchup a push.
Oregon State righthander Scott Schutlz (2-1, 1.24 with 10 saves and a 28-6 K-BB mark in 36 innings) has been dominant in the closer role this season, and he has a pair of real weapons in his lively 88-93 fastball and quality 81-83 changeup. But Oregon might have college baseball’s best closer in junior righty Jimmie Sherfy (2-0, 1.00, 19 saves, 50-13 K-BB in 36 innings). His slider is one of the nation’s best out pitches, and his fastball reaches the mid-90s. We’ll give Sherfy the edge in this category.
Both teams have rock-solid setup men. Garrett Cleavinger (8-0, 1.06 in 34 innings) has slid seamlessly into Thorpe’s vacated setup role, eating hitters up with an 88-90 fastball from a low three-quarters slot and a good mid-70s breaking ball. Oregon State leaned heavily on sidearm lefty Max Engelbrekt (3-0, 1.69) earlier in the season, but senior righty Tony Bryant (1-0, 1.55) has been lights-out in the setup role lately. A former closer who saved 12 games in 2011 and nine games during an up-and-down 2012 campaign, Bryant has regained his confidence in tight spots, according to Casey. He’s not a strikeout pitcher, but he was more dominant than Casey had ever seen him last week against Stanford, striking out six over 2 2/3 innings of one-hit, shutout relief on Friday.
One X-factor for the Beavers this weekend and beyond is Fry, who made his first appearance post-Tommy John surgery two weeks ago against Cal.
“He feels 100 percent,” Casey said. “He was actually cleared two weeks before that but he got the flu, we didn’t want to take any risk with that. We just didn’t have any opportunity to use him against Stanford. He threw a simulated game Monday; I’ve seen him probably five or six times to live hitters, and his stuff seems to be pretty good. I’m sure it’ll get better as time goes on, but it looked pretty good. It’s just a matter of time with him, because his stuff’s real good. We really think he’ll help us down the stretch.”
The Beavers have more power arms in the bullpen between Fry, righty Taylor Starr, potentially righty Dan Child (who has seen plenty of action as a midweek starter), and righty Cole Brocker. Tyler Painton gives them another good option from the left side, and Brandon Jackson is another solid righthander. The Ducks have good depth as well, but the key setup pieces are Cleavinger, lefty Christian Jones and righty Darrell Hunter, who have both been extremely dependable. We’ll call the middle relief and setup casts a push.
Both teams are very good defensively, but Oregon’s defense is elite, ranking fifth in the nation with a .980 fielding percentage, while OSU is 46th at .973. As good as Tyler Smith (.953) is at shortstop, Oregon’s J.J. Altobelli (.980) is one of the nation’s premier playmakers at short, and the Ducks are better in the outfield. Give Oregon the edge in this category.
Offensively, both teams have a formidable power threat in the middle of the lineup (OSU’s Michael Conforto and Oregon’s Ryon Healy), but neither relies heavily on the long ball. The Beavers are the higher-scoring team (5.8 runs per game, third in the Pac-12, while Oregon scores 5.1 runs per game, sixth in the conference). Both teams grind out at-bats, hit situationally, execute small ball and put a lot of pressure on opposing defenses, but OSU’s offense is a bit more potent. Slight edge, Beavers.
Add it all up, and Oregon State looks like a slight favorite on paper, but the Ducks have home-field advantage, and both teams are red-hot. “It’s only a rivalry if both teams are worthy of it,” Uhlman said.
The Beavers and Ducks are very worthy.
Around The Nation
• The Big East title is on the line when No. 21 Pittsburgh travels to No. 12 Louisville. The Panthers bring a one-game lead over the Cardinals into the series, and both teams are riding waves of positive momentum. Louisville has won 13 straight games, while Pitt has won 20 of its last 23. The Panthers have one of the nation’s most potent offenses, averaging 7.9 runs per game (fourth in the nation) and posting a +3.5 runs per game scoring margin (seventh nationally). But Louisville is allowing just 3.1 runs per game (ninth in the country) and ranks 11th in scoring margin (+3.3 runs per game). The Cardinals have thrown three shutouts in their past six games, and the rotation has really taken off since hard-throwing junior righty Dace Kime moved into the Sunday role. As good as Pitt’s offense is, Louisville has the pitching to keep the Panthers in check, and the Cards have home-field advantage.
• No. 7 Virginia travels to No. 3 North Carolina, and the Cavs (20-7) have managed to get within striking range of the Tar Heels (20-5) in the ACC’s Coastal Division. UVa. needs to sweep the series to win the Coastal Division, because UNC would finish percentage points ahead if Virginia takes two of three. Both of these teams are likely locked in to national seeds, but a series win for either team would remove any doubt. It should be fun for fans in Chapel Hill to watch these two ultra-athletic, extremely dangerous offenses go at it. UNC got a boost Tuesday when cleanup man Skye Bolt returned from his broken foot to go 1-for-3 against Appalachian State. Virginia will still be without one of its biggest stars, shortstop Branden Cogswell (broken middle finger). But the Cavs have scored 54 runs in four games (against VCU and Duke) since losing Cogswell.
• No. 14 South Carolina travels to No. 24 Mississippi State in a series that has huge hosting ramifications. If the Gamecocks win or sweep the series, they could also sneak into the national seed mix, depending on how some other teams do. The Bulldogs need to win the series in order to host a regional, because having seven series losses and a losing record in the SEC will torpedo their hosting chances, regardless of their No. 10 RPI and tough schedule. Whichever team wins this series should host, and the Gamecocks could still host if they lose two of three, based on a solid conference record (16-10 going into this weekend), good RPI (No. 11) and loud series wins at LSU and against Clemson. But the Gamecocks could fall to fifth in the SEC hosting pecking order if they lose this weekend; maybe the SEC gets five hosts, but it isn’t a lock. But the Gamecocks do have momentum, with a 14-6 SEC record since opening the conference slate 2-4. Darryl Slater of the Charleston Post & Courier points out a major reason for South Carolina’s surge: Grayson Greiner and Max Schrock have gotten hot, making the offense more formidable. Greiner hit .231 in the first half but is hitting .360 in the second half. Schrock hit .212 in the first half, but .370 in the second half.
• No. 17 Clemson visits No. 9 Florida State in a series brimming with hosting and national seed implications. The Seminoles put themselves in the national seed driver’s seat by taking two of three at North Carolina State last weekend, and they can clinch the ACC Atlantic (and a national seed, for all intents and purposes) with a series win this weekend. But Clemson has surged in the second half, climbing within a game of the Seminoles in the standings. If Clemson takes two of three on the road to finish with the same conference record as FSU (and earn the head-to-head tie-breaker), the Tigers could conceivably leapfrog Florida State for a national seed. Winning a division that features three national seed contenders (N.C. State being the third) would be loud, and would outweigh a head-to-head series loss to South Carolina, if the Tigers wind up vying for a national seed with the Gamecocks. Of course, if Clemson loses this series (and especially if it gets swept), it could still find itself outside the hosting picture, because it would be the clear No. 5 team in the ACC pecking order. In that scenario, the Tigers would be in much the same position as South Carolina, should the Gamecocks lose their series this weekend. If Clemson and South Carolina both lose their series, they could wind up competing with each other for a hosting spot--and whichever team fares better in its respective conference tournament might end up getting the nod.
• Of course, if No. 19 Kansas State loses its home series to No. 25 Oklahoma this weekend, the Wildcats’ hosting ambitions would take a big hit, boosting the chances for the ACC and SEC to each host five regionals. (But South Alabama might also be the benefactor if K-State stumbles, especially if the Jaguars finish with another series win against Troy this weekend). As important as this weekend is for Kansas State, it is even more important for Oklahoma, which has tumbled to No. 60 in the RPI after losing a midweek game to Dallas Baptist (No. 162 in the RPI). The RPI Needs Report at Boyd’s World says the Sooners can still finish in the top 45 if they take two of three in Manhattan, so their at-large chances essentially come down to this weekend.
• Finally, three automatic bids will be claimed this weekend. In the Patriot League, top-seeded Holy Cross hosts third-seeded Army in a best-of-three series starting with a doubleheader Sunday. It’s a rematch of last year’s Patriot League championship series, which Army won in three games.
The Mid-Eastern Athletic and Southwestern Athletic conference tournaments are already underway, and the championship games will be played on Sunday. Delaware State, which went 21-3 in MEAC play during the regular season, headed into the tournament as the strong favorite, but the Hornets were upset by fourth-seeded North Carolina A&T on Wednesday, 16-11. Second-seeded Bethune-Cookman also lost Wednesday, 10-8 against Coppin State. That sets up a surprising elimination game today between Delaware State and Bethune-Cookman.
The SWAC favorites fared better in the opening day, as East champion Jackson State (19-5 in the regular season) beat Texas Southern 5-3, and West champion Southern (14-10) topped Alabama A&M 7-1. Keep an eye on Mervyl Melendez’s Alabama State team, which blasted Prairie View A&M 16-0 on Wednesday. The Hornets finished strong, winning eight of their last nine conference games (including a series win at Jackson State) to pull within a game of Jackson State in the standings.