Off The Bat: ACC Depth Stands Out, Pac-12 Teams Make Big Moves
Is the ACC The Deepest Conference?
For the first time this season, the top-ranked team in the country produced a winning weekend and retained the No. 1 spot in the Top 25. Arkansas swept Murray State—though not without some late drama in Friday’s opener as Robert Moore homered twice to lead the Razorbacks to victory—to extend its hold atop the rankings.
While the Top 25 found some stability for the first time this season, the same cannot be said of the ACC. The second weekend of conference action continued to produce unexpected results that have the early season standings in a jumble.
Georgia Tech and Louisville engaged in a weekend-long slugfest in Atlanta that the Yellow Jackets came out on top of thanks to a 13-9 victory Sunday. Georgia Tech (8-3, 5-1) now tops the ACC standings and has scored 63 runs over six conference games.
“I give our guys a lot of credit they competed hard for nine innings each day,” coach Danny Hall said. “They were able to get a lot of hits and put a lot of runs on the board.”
Virginia Tech (7-2, 4-2) now owns series wins against North Carolina and Miami after beating the Tar Heels twice in Blacksburg. Notre Dame (4-2, 4-2) won its second straight road series, edging Clemson with a 3-2 victory in Sunday’s finale a week after beating Wake Forest.
Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech are the only teams in the conference to this season win each of their first two ACC series (Boston College didn’t get the chance to join that group when its series at Wake Forest was canceled due to Covid-19 issues for the Demon Deacons). The Yellow Jackets did rank in the Preseason Top 25, but the Fighting Irish and Hokies did not.
ACC chaos is already in full swing. The conference’s preseason division favorites—Louisville and Virginia—are a combined 3-6 (though neither has played a home ACC game) and Florida State and North Carolina State, perennial contenders to host regionals, are a combined 3-9.
At this stage, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech are playing the best baseball in the conference. But with the ACC this season playing an expanded slate of 12 conference series, it’s too early to draw any sweeping conclusions about the state of the race.
What is clear, however, is that the conference runs incredibly deep. That depth is already manifesting itself as the ACC beats up on each other and is making it difficult to identify clear national title contenders. Whatever teams emerge from the ACC during the postseason will be heavily battle-tested.
The SEC’s dominance in the top 10 is indicative of its elite teams. But the ACC may well be the deepest conference in the country.
Pac-12 Teams On The Rise
Just two Pac-12 teams were ranked in the Preseason Top 25, a reflection of how muddled the conference was as much as anything. UCLA came into the season as the clear favorite and ranked No. 2 in the Top 25, with Arizona checking in at No. 15. Arizona State has been on the bubble of the Top 25 all season.
Beyond that trio, it was difficult to separate the teams. Oregon State and Stanford had talented rosters, but after disappointing 2020s, how would they bounce back? Washington had a strong group of newcomers, but how would they meld with the returners? Oregon, Southern California and Washington State all last spring showed reasons for optimism under new coaches, but would that momentum carry into 2021?
Three weeks into the season, we’re starting to get some more definitive answers. This weekend was an especially strong one for the league’s contenders. UCLA (8-3) swept through the Los Angeles Classic, beating Pepperdine, Cal State Fullerton and USC. Arizona (10-2) swept the Frisco Classic, beating Oklahoma twice, Dallas Baptist and Missouri. Oregon State swept Brigham Young, extending its winning streak to 10 games. Stanford (7-1) swept San Francisco, which has a series win at UCLA to its credit. Arizona State (8-2) swept Utah and Oregon (6-2) delivered perhaps the loudest statement of all, sweeping UC Santa Barbara, the Big West favorite, on the road.
As the top of the conference takes shape, it’s time to check in on some of the Pac-12’s early risers.
Oregon made a statement at UCSB. It was a challenging first two weeks for the Ducks. First, Oregon’s Opening Weekend series against Nebraska-Omaha was canceled due to Covid-19 issues in the program. It was able to get on the field in Week 2 and started well, winning its first two games against Seattle. But the Ducks lost the next two to split the four-game series.
Coach Mark Wasikowski said the Ducks were too passive and uncompetitive offensively against Seattle.
“We let the ebbs and flows affect us mentally and it was embarrassing for all of us,” he said. “I take full responsibility for that as a head coach. We needed to do better job of teaching and coaching and preparing the team.”
Whatever its issues last weekend against Seattle, Oregon cleaned them up before facing UCSB. Facing one of the most talented pitching staffs on the West Coast, the Ducks scored 38 runs in the sweep. But aside from a 17-2 victory in the nightcap of Saturday’s doubleheader, they didn’t just bash their way to victory. Oregon’s first two wins came by one-run margins (7-6 and 5-4) and Sunday’s finale went 10 innings before the Ducks put away the Gauchos, 9-4.
Wasikowski credited hitting coach Jack Marder and Brett Thomas, director of player development/analytics, for putting together an approach that worked against UCSB’s high-powered pitching staff. But the Ducks also came ready to play all weekend and ground out difficult wins.
“There was a toughness element and the guys persevered,” Wasikowski. “College baseball doesn’t look super pretty most of the time and this weekend was an example of that. We played good defense and had a competitive spirit.”
Getting veteran slugger Kenyon Yovan back in the lineup was also a key. He went 7-for-15 with four home runs on the weekend. After he homered in the first inning Sunday, UCSB effectively quit pitching to Yovan. He was intentionally walked in three of his final five plate appearances, including his last two, which both came with two outs and the bases empty.
Oregon hit eight home runs on the weekend—in addition to Yovan’s four, outfielders Tanner Smith and Aaron Zavala both hit two. After hitting nine home runs in 15 games as a team in 2020, that power was a welcome sight for the Ducks.
Yovan might be anchoring the lineup, but it isn’t just about him.
“He’s a real presence in the lineup and it led to other guys in Oregon uniforms having great weekend as well,” Wasikowski said. “He brings a longer lineup to the table. I think what you see at Oregon is a more physical group. We’ve gone in stretches where we haven’t scored, but I think it’s a more impressive group.”
Oregon taking a step forward offensively would be significant as the season continues. Its pitching staff remains a strength—anchored by starter Cullen Kafka (0-0, 1.00) and closer Kolby Somers (0-0, 0.00, 2 SV)—and if the Ducks lineup packs more of a punch, weekends like this one will become more common and they will be ready to again compete for regionals appearances.
Oregon State is streaking. After an Opening Day loss in Surprise, Ariz., to Kansas State and Preseason All-American lefthander Jordan Wicks, Oregon State has run off 10 straight wins. The Beavers this weekend extended that streak with a sweep of BYU in Corvallis, holding the Cougars to six runs, and as a result entered the Top 25 at No. 17.
The competition has been more solid than elite, but Oregon State is pitching as well as any team in the country. It has a 1.64 team ERA and has yet to surrender more than four runs in a game.
Ace Kevin Abel, the 2018 Freshman of the Year, is back after missing most of the last two seasons due to Tommy John surgery and has been excellent. He’s 1-1, 0.57 with 26 strikeouts and seven walks in 15.2 innings. He this week held BYU to one hit in six scoreless innings, running his scoreless streak to 11 innings.
Abel’s velocity isn’t overpowering—his fastball sits around 90-91 mph—but he’s tough for hitters to square up, especially when his changeup and curveball are working the way they have been this season.
“We’re seeing when he gets in jams, the couple times he’s been in them, he elevates his game even further,” coach Mitch Canham said. “Look at his changeup, his curveball, being able to throw those two makes his fastball jump on guys even more.”
The Beavers in 2020 were off to a tough 5-9 start when the season was halted. But Canham said that record wasn’t indicative of the way they had played, and they felt good as they prepared to start Pac-12 play. While we don’t know how that would have played out, Canham said since the team returned to Corvallis in the fall, it’s been clear that its responded well to the adversity of the last year.
As well as Oregon State has played to this point, Canham said it still has another level to get to. If it gets there, the Beavers will be fighting to host a regional and contend at the top of the Pac-12.
“It will be fun to watch when the pitching and bats align because then we’ll be scoring a lot of runs and preventing a lot of runs,” he said. “I’m enjoying watching the guys compete. This is a great group of young men who love one another and care so much about the Beaver family here.”
Arizona is red-hot. After splitting an Opening Weekend series against Ball State—the Cardinals have since proven that was no fluke, running out to a 6-4 start with a series win at Kentucky—Arizona has won nine straight games.
The Wildcats this weekend showed just how dangerous they can be. They battered the pitching at the Frisco Classic to the tune of 55 runs in four games. They pounded out 53 hits (19 extra-base hits) and drew 32 walks, while striking out 24 times.
Coach Jay Johnson didn’t mince words about the way he thinks of his team’s lineup.
“This is the best offense in college baseball right now,” he said. “I haven’t paid attention (to anyone else), but I don’t need to pay attention to anyone else.”
Well, I have been paying attention to the rest of the country and I don’t think I can argue. Arizona is averaging 11.56 runs per game during the streak. It ranks sixth on the season (among teams with at least five games played) and it’s done so against a strong schedule. Every team Arizona has played is likely to finish at least in the top half of the sport in RPI. The Wildcats are hitting .336/.464/.512 and have walked (91) more times than they’ve struck out (88). They have four players with an OPS better than 1.000.
As good as Arizona’s offense has been, it will eventually slow at least somewhat. The good news for the Wildcats is that even when that happens, they’ve shown signs of improvement on the mound. Righthander Chase Silseth got knocked around Thursday by Oklahoma, but the rest of the rotation—Garrett Irvin, Chandler Murphy and T.J. Nichols—has been solid. Relievers Quinn Flanagan, Preston Price and Vince Vannelle give Arizona a solid core in the bullpen.
Johnson said the Wildcats have started developing a template for success this season. If they can stick to it through Pac-12 play, they’re going to be a challenge for every team in the conference.
Three Week 4 College Series To Watch From An MLB Draft Perspective
Identifying the top college baseball series to watch this weekend if you're looking for MLB Draft prospects.
Eight for Omaha
Arkansas, Florida, Miami, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Texas Christian, UCLA, Vanderbilt
It’s not getting any easier to pick the field as the weeks go by. In fact, it’s getting harder. The ACC starting conference play already has been great for entertainment purposes, but as those teams beat up on each other early in the season, it is difficult to get a good read on what is and isn’t real. Meanwhile, contenders from other conferences are difficult to evaluate while they play mostly overmatched competition. Still, you have to put eight teams in the College World Series, and this is the set for the week. UCLA and TCU move into the field and their depth and status as conference favorites give them a strong boost.
Air Force: The Falcons walked-off with a 5-4 victory in 10 innings Sunday to complete a sweep against Army in the Freedom Classic in Kinston, N.C. The Falcons (4-5) outscored the Black Knights, 16-2, over the first two games of the series. It was Air Force’s first sweep against Army since 1995.
Jackson Fristoe, LHP, Mississippi State: Fristoe on Sunday threw six perfect innings against Kent State, the beginning of a combined no-hitter for Mississippi State. The freshman struck out eight batters, threw 87 pitches and earned his first career win. Landon Sims, Mikey Tepper and Cam Tullar combined for three innings to complete the Bulldogs’ first no-hitter in 22 years.
Ty Madden, RHP, Texas: Madden dominated Friday in a 1-0 victory at Houston. He threw a two-hitter, struck out 14 batters and became the first Longhorn to throw a shutout since 2017 (Nolan Kingham). Madden improved to 2-1, 1.35 with 30 strikeouts and six walks in 20 innings this season.
Oral Roberts: The Golden Eagles (4-7) delivered the upset of the weekend as they won a series at Louisiana State. ORU beat Preseason All-American Jaden Hill on Friday in a stunning 22-7 victory and then won the series with a 3-1 victory Sunday.
Jacob Young, OF, Florida: Young on Sunday extended his hitting streak to 30 games, breaking the Gators’ program record. His streak dates to the 2019 season and breaks a record that Tim Olson had held since 2000. Young is hitting .393/.444/.518 with six stolen bases on the season.
De facto SEC-Big 12 Challenge: The SEC and Big 12 annually play a challenge in basketball with schools from the two conferences facing off over a week. Baseball has no such scheduling arrangement, but this weekend will serve as a de facto one on the diamond. No. 10 South Carolina will travel to No. 20 Texas and No. 3 Vanderbilt travels to No. 19 Oklahoma State. Baylor will also travel to Louisiana State to participate in a tournament. Both series should provide plenty of excitement and a chance for a marque series win for both teams.
No. 13 Boston College at No. 15 Louisville: The ACC continues to provide early season showdowns and this week’s biggest matchup sees Boston College (8-2, 2-1) travel to Louisville (7-4, 1-2). The Eagles are off to a great start to the year and are coming off a thrilling series win at Auburn. The Cardinals will be looking to get back on track at home after a tough series loss at Georgia Tech.
Rivalry weekend out West: This weekend will provide some great rivalry matchups on the West Coast. The best series figures to be Oregon (6-2) taking on No. 17 Oregon State (10-1) in a non-conference series. But that isn’t the only intrastate rivalry to watch. BYU (3-8) travels to Utah (1-8) and Washington (4-6) will host a round-robin with Washington State (9-2) and Seattle (5-5). For good measure, Cal State Fullerton (4-6) travels to Arizona State (8-2), to rekindle a matchup that has a lot of postseason history.