Weekend Preview: Quick Takes On Week Eight

We’re midway through college baseball’s regular season, so our annual Midseason Update took the place of our usual Weekend Preview this week. But below we’ll take a look at some of Week Eight’s top storylines.

Top 25 Schedule
Maryland at (1) North Carolina
(2) Vanderbilt at (17) Mississippi
(7) Kentucky at (3) Louisiana State
(4) Cal State Fullerton at UC Davis
(5) Virginia at Wake Forest
(6) Oregon State at (10) UCLA
Miami at (8) Florida State
(9) Louisville at Cincinnati
(11) Oregon at (24) Arizona State
(12) Georgia Tech at Duke
(13) Oklahoma at Texas
(14) Arkansas at Alabama
(15) South Carolina at Tennessee
Illinois at (16) Indiana
(18) Rice at East Carolina
(19) Houston at Marshall
Villanova at (20) Notre Dame
(21) Cal Poly at UC Santa Barbara
(22) Virginia Tech at North Carolina State
(23) San Diego at Loyola Marymount
(25) Florida Atlantic at Louisiana-Monroe

• A pair of top 10 showdowns lead the docket for Week Eight. In one of the marquee series of the year in the Pacific-12 Conference, No. 6 Oregon State visits No. 10 UCLA. Both teams are looking to rebound after dropping their first series of the year last weekend (at San Diego and Arizona State, respectively). Oregon State’s infield defense has struggled without senior shortstop Tyler Smith, who has missed the last three weeks with a hairline fracture in his hand. In his place, Andy Peterson made four errors in OSU’s two losses at USD, then another error in a midweek win against Portland. Fourteen of San Diego’s 20 runs during its two victories were unearned. Smith will be available for late-inning defensive duties this weekend, and his return to full strength will be a welcome boost in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the Beavers need to play better defense for nine innings. “If we pick up the ball in San Diego routinely, we win all three games,” OSU coach Pat Casey told the Portland Tribune after Tuesday’s win against the Pilots. “We have to play better defense, no question about it.”

Incidentally Casey signed a contract extension this week that binds him to Oregon State through 2018. This is his 19th season at Oregon State, which he led to back-to-back national championships in 2006-2007.

• The other top 10 showdown pits No. 7 Kentucky against No. 3 LSU in Baton Rouge. Neither team has lost a weekend series all season, but LSU looks like a solid favorite at home this weekend. For one thing, LSU’s righthanded-heavy lineup presents a tough matchup for Kentucky’s all-lefty weekend rotation, though Jerad Grundy and Corey Littrell both have outstanding changeups that help them handle righties. Still, few teams have more offensive firepower than the Tigers, led by midseason All-Americans Mason Katz and Alex Bregman. LSU also has the edge on the mound in the first two games of the series, as righthanders Aaron Nola and Ryan Eades comprise one of the nation’s best one-two punches, but Kentucky gets the edge on Sunday behind Littrell, the nation’s best No. 3 starter. Littrell is coming off a career-high 12 strikeouts in a win against Georgia last week, and he has gone 8-0, 1.68 in rubber games over the last two years, so if the Wildcats can manage to head into Sunday with the series tied, they’ll feel good about their chances.

• Sticking in the SEC, Alabama has a chance this weekend to prove that its 7-2 start in the conference isn’t just a product of a soft schedule. The Crimson Tide hosts Arkansas in a series that began with a 3-1 Hogs victory Thursday, as five Arkansas pitchers combined on a four-hitter.

• South Carolina hopes to get ace lefty Jordan Montgomery back from his elbow injury Sunday against Tennessee. Gamecocks coach Chad Holbrook told reporters that Montgomery felt fantastic after a bullpen session this week, giving plenty of reason for optimism. Nolan Belcher will get the nod Friday, and Evan Beal is slated for Saturday.

• Speaking of restored aces, Florida will move junior righthander Jonathon Crawford back to the Friday starter role this weekend at Mississippi State. Crawford, a preseason All-American, picked up his first win of the season last week against Mississippi, throwing a two-hit shutout. MSU’s own ace, sophomore lefty Jacob Lindgren, remains questionable for this weekend with an elbow issue. The desperate Bulldogs, who have lost four straight weekend series, will start senior lefty Luis Pollorena on Friday.

• Perhaps the weekend’s most compelling pitching matchups take place in the Vanderbilt-Ole Miss series. Kevin Ziomek (5-1, 1.89) takes on Bobby Wahl (6-0, 1.80) in a premier showdown between a pair of top prospects Friday. Sophomore flame-thrower Tyler Beede (7-0, 0.99) takes on talented but scuffling Mike Mayers (2-3, 3.55) in the Saturday matchup. The Rebels are hungry for a series win after losing back-to-back series against Texas A&M and Florida. They scored just four runs in three games in Gainesville, and runs don’t figure to be much easier to come by this weekend against Vanderbilt’s elite pitching staff.

• Florida State vs. Miami is one of the most intense rivalries in college baseball; before both teams joined the Atlantic Coast Conference, they played back-to-back home-and-home series, and of course they also met for the 1999 national championship, with Miami winning a 6-5 game. The series lacks its usual luster this year, as Miami has spent the entire season outside of the Top 25. The Hurricanes have lost six of their last seven games heading into this weekend, capped by a midweek loss to Bethune-Cookman during which they committed three errors. Miami has lost three of its first four ACC series, creating a sense of urgency for this weekend’s series in Coral Gables. Of course, Miami has not been swept, helping it remain inside the top 20 in the Ratings Percentage Index. So a series win against the Seminoles (No. 4 in the RPI) could put Miami back onto the road to regional hosting contention.

• Virginia Tech visits North Carolina State in another intriguing ACC series. With Trea Turner back from his ankle injury and entrenched at shortstop for the past four games, the Wolfpack quietly has started to warm up. The ‘Pack has won five of its past six games, including a series win against Maryland sandwiched between quality midweek wins at UNC Wilmington and at East Carolina, plus another good midweek win against Elon. N.C. State’s other preseason All-American, ace lefthander Carlos Rodon, struck out 11 over 7 2/3 strong innings last week, and his velocity and command have started to approach his 2012 level after a rocky first half. He hit 95 mph regularly last week in a tough 3-2 win against Jimmy Reed and Maryland. The Hokies have gotten a boost over the past three weeks from the return of ace Joe Mantiply to the rotation. He started each of the past three series finales, helping to lead Virginia Tech to wins at Duke and Miami, and in the rubber game at home against Florida State.

• Like FSU-Miami, the Oklahoma-Texas rivalry isn’t a marquee showdown this weekend because the Longhorns, like the Hurricanes, have not spent a day in the Top 25 rankings this season. At 25-5 overall and 5-1 in the conference, the Sooners are the class of the Big 12, while the Longhorns have lost their first two conference series (vs. Texas Tech and at Oklahoma State). Generating consistent offense has been UT’s primary bugaboo this season, and the ‘Horns will have their work cut out for them against OU stars Jonathan Gray and Dillon Overton. In each of his last three starts, Gray has thrown nine innings and recorded 12 strikeouts, and he’s allowed just two earned runs on 10 hits during that stretch. Overton has given up just one earned run over 12 innings over his last two starts, wins against Kansas and TCU.