Off The Bat: Arkansas Rises To No. 1, Chaotic ACC Opening Weekend

Image credit: Notre Dame catcher David Lamanna (Photo courtesy of Notre Dame)

Arkansas On Top After Wild Weekend

Coming off a thrilling Opening Weekend that saw the top three teams in the Preseason Top 25 combine to win two games, the schedule for college baseball’s second weekend looked like it would give the sport a chance to settle into a more defined pecking order.

Even with the ACC becoming the first major conference to open conference play, there was only one matchup between ranked teams – North Carolina State hosting Georgia Tech. Perhaps teams that were licking their wounds after a disappointing Opening Week could get back on track and others could consolidate their position in the rankings.

That notion quickly proved incorrect once the baseballs started flying around the country. In hindsight, North Carolina’s upset of Virginia on Thursday – moved up a day to beat a poor weekend weather forecast – should have been an omen.

When weekend series on Friday began around the country, top-10 teams combined to go 3-6. Among the losses was top-ranked Mississippi, which was upset at home by Central Florida. The Knights (3-4) the next day went on to win the series in Oxford with a victory in the nightcap of a doubleheader. North Carolina (6-0) also finished off a series win against Virginia, and Virginia Tech took down Miami. Just like that, the top-three teams in the Top 25 had for the second straight weekend all posted losing weekends.

As a result, there is a new No. 1 team for the second straight week. Arkansas (7-0) rises to the top of the rankings after sweeping a four-game series against Southeast Missouri State. This is the first time the Razorbacks have been ranked No. 1 in the 40-year history of the Top 25.

Arkansas has rocketed up the Top 25 thanks in large part to an impressive, new-look pitching staff. The Razorbacks have held opponents to 25 runs on the season – nine of which came in the opener against Texas Tech. Second-year freshman righthander Peyton Pallette has been a breakout star, piling up 16 strikeouts in 9.1 scoreless innings while holding opponents to four hits and two walks. He hasn’t thrown a fastball less than 90 mph on the season and is averaging 94.1 mph with the pitch.

With Pallette’s emergence and veterans like Kevin Kopps (1-0, 3.38, 1 SV), Lael Lockhart (0-0, 4.50), Connor Noland (1-0, 0.00), Zebulon Vermillion (0-0, 5.14) and Patrick Wicklander (0-0, 0.00) off to solid starts, Arkansas is finding its way on the mound.

Arkansas’ lineup is similarly deep and is averaging nearly eight runs per game. Catcher Casey Opitz (.381/.480/.524) and shortstop Jalen Battles (.379/.400/.517) are off to hot starts, while second baseman Robert Moore (.286/.364/.429, 3 SB) and outfielder Christian Franklin (.276/.344/.655, 3 HR, 2 SB) are as dynamic a duo as any team in the country can claim.

While Arkansas overmatched SEMO after a tough opener Thursday – which the Razorbacks needed a comeback to win 6-5 in 10 innings – it more than proved itself against premium competition last weekend in the State Farm College Baseball Showdown, when it swept through Texas, Texas Christian and Texas Tech. The Razorbacks get Murray State (4-3) at home this week before at tricky trip to Louisiana Tech (4-2) and then the start of SEC play.

The SEC West will again be a grind all season long. But the Razorbacks have already shown they’re up for the challenge.

ACC Chaos

Every fall, the ACC football season takes a spin on the “Wheel of Destiny,” a term coined by Matt Hinton at Yahoo Sports more than a decade ago. The idea is that through the power of the transitive property, the ACC – and especially its Coastal Division, which does not include powerhouses Clemson and Florida State – eventually forms a complete circle.

This year, that principal is coming to the diamond.

The ACC this year expanded its schedule from 10 conference weekends to 12, a move intended to keep Covid-19 protocols strong and maintain scheduling flexibility. While the schedule may be the conference’s best attempt to play as close to a regular season as it can in the midst of a pandemic, it is also going to be a grind. In a season where the conference is as deep as it ever has been and every team can legitimately feel like it has improved, the intensity of that grind will only increase.

That grind began this weekend – an early start to conference play that resulted from the expanded schedule and rules for most ACC schools requiring teams to either be idle during finals or at least only play home games during the exam period – and already the ACC has gotten a taste of the kind of chaos this season has in store.

ACC play opened with six conference series on the slate – Clemson and Louisville will begin conference play next week. All six series resulted in an upset and five of the six were won by the visiting team (rankings listed going into the weekend).

  • North Carolina defeated No. 2 Virginia in Chapel Hill
  • Virginia Tech defeated No. 3 Miami in Coral Gables
  • Pittsburgh swept No. 9 Florida State in Tallahassee
  • Boston College defeated No. 11 Duke in Durham
  • 21 Georgia Tech defeated No. 15 North Carolina State in Raleigh
  • Notre Dame defeated Wake Forest in Winston-Salem

Those results led to a complete shakeup of the ACC’s teams in the Top 25. Florida State, Duke and North Carolina State dropped out, while North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Boston College entered.

Pitt coach Mike Bell has been coaching in the ACC since 2012, first as an assistant at Florida State and now as the Panthers’ head coach for the last three seasons. He said that for a variety of reasons, weekends like this one are likely to continue.

“Because of Covid, you have teams playing each other in weekend 2,” he said. “Teams don’t know what you have right now. We ran three guys out there hadn’t pitched yet this year and they’re facing Florida State at home on a Sunday. That’s tough to do.

“With these rosters, everyone returning, Covid, 12 ACC weekends, I think you’ll see some of this throughout the year.”

The uncertainty and unknowns players, coaches and observers are dealing with this early in the season undoubtably played a role in this weekend’s wildness. There’s a chance that we just got our ACC predictions completely wrong and that by May, with the benefit of hindsight, these results won’t seem like upsets at all.

More likely, however, is that the ACC’s depth is going to make handicapping the conference a challenge all season long. Drawing conclusions at this time is probably just as difficult, but here are some of the key storylines coming out of the ACC’s opening weekend.

Notre Dame was ready to play. The Fighting Irish were the lone ACC team not to play on Opening Weekend, as they were held out of competition due to Covid protocols. Despite not getting any games in before beginning conference play and the challenges that go with being one of the northernmost teams in the conference, they were ready to go this weekend at Wake Forest.

After rain forced Friday’s game to be delayed to Saturday, Notre Dame got out to an early lead in the opener before Wake stormed back in the late innings for a 10-8 victory. The Irish rebounded to win the nightcap, 5-4, and then rolled to a 10-0 victory in Sunday’s finale.

“This was our opening outside baseball for the year,” coach Link Jarrett said. “I’m proud of the way the guys responded. We’re dealing with Covid, we weren’t at full strength, but most teams across the country are dealing with things. We managed it, made adjustments and performed.”

Notre Dame was particularly hard hit this weekend on the mound. Dominic Cancellieri and Joe Sheridan are still out due to protocols, as was pitching coach Chuck Ristano. That could have been an especially bad recipe against a powerful Wake offense in Winston-Salem. Instead, the Irish held the Demon Deacons to 14 runs on the weekend and closed out the series with 14 straight scoreless innings.

Jarrett said Ristano still made the scouting reports for the pitching staff and delivered instructions via Zoom. Hitting coach Rich Wallace took over pitch calling duties, Jarrett managed the bullpen and volunteer assistant Scott Wingo took on additional defensive responsibilities.

“It makes you proud to see your staff is adaptable and can handle different scenarios,” Jarrett said.

The Irish pitchers delivered on the mound. Ace Tommy Sheehan was solid in the opener, relievers Liam Simon and Aidan Tyrell combined for 5.1 scoreless innings in Saturday’s victory and righthander Christian Scafidi, a graduate transfer from Pennsylvania, and reliever Alex Rao combined on a four-hit shutout Sunday.

Notre Dame is still settling in at the plate – not surprising given that it was their first action of the season and it came against a high-octane pitching staff. So, while they struck out 42 times on the weekend, there were still bright spots for the Irish. First baseman Niko Kavadas, a Preseason All-American, homered in his first two plate appearances and second baseman Jared Miller is off to a hot start at 7-for-13.

Once leadoff man Spencer Myers gets going and running wild on the bases and the Irish get settled at the plate, the lineup will get closer to their ceiling.

The schedule doesn’t let up at all – trips to Clemson and Virginia are up next before Notre Dame will finally play its home opener March 19 against Duke – but no one in the ACC will be overlooking the Irish anymore. They are now 13-3 in the last two seasons under Jarrett, including a 5-1 mark in ACC play.

Pitt broke through at Florida State. The Panthers have never been a baseball powerhouse, but they’ve really struggled since joining the ACC in 2014. They have never won more than 11 ACC games and only qualified for the conference tournament once.

But, as Bell begins his third year at the program’s helm, the Panthers are positioned to take a step or two forward. They swept Florida State, Bell’s alma mater, in Tallahassee and picked up a series of firsts as a result. It was Pitt’s first:

  • Series win against Florida State
  • Sweep against a ranked opponent since 2014
  • Road sweep in ACC play

Pitt (6-1) opened the season with a series win against Indiana State in Port Charlotte, Fla., a result that looks even better after the Sycamores this weekend split a four-game series at Tennessee. It also beat Jacksonville in midweek action and now leaves Florida on a six-game winning streak.

The Panthers have pitched well, posting a 2.01 team ERA, which isn’t a surprise given Bell’s background as a pitching coach. They’ve impressed offensively, as well, and are averaging six runs per game. Outfielder Nico Popa (.414/.528/.793, 3 HR) is leading the way, with fellow outfielders Kyle Hess (.375/.444/.500) and Ron Washington Jr. (.310/.412/.345) also locked in early.

Bell said he likes the experience and balance of the lineup.

“There’s a lot of balance there with speed and power, balance with left and right and there’s a lot of guys with a lot of quality at bats within our program,” he said. “Top to bottom, they take a lot of pride in either turning it over to the next guy or taking advantage of stuff thrown at them.”

Pitt will be tested with three more weeks of road games – Duke, Georgia Tech and Virginia – before finally getting a chance to play at home in late March. That’s a daunting road, but the Panthers have shown they’re ready for it.

The Scott Forbes era is off to a soaring start at UNC. After a disappointing 2020, the Tar Heels have come storming out of the gate in 2021 in Forbes’ first season as head coach. After winning a series against Virginia, UNC is now 6-1 and has looked great on the mound.

The Tar Heels have a 1.57 team ERA, and their bullpen has allowed just three runs (one earned) in 22.1 innings. They held the Cavaliers to six runs on the weekend and have shown off impressive depth. With a rotation of Austin Love (2-0, 1.35), Max Carlson (2-0, 2.25) and Max Alba (1-1, 4.50) backed by a bullpen with Joey Lancellotti (0-0, 0.00, 1 SV), Caden O’Brien (0-0, 0.00), Connor Ollio (0-0, 0.00, 2 SV) and Nik Pry (0-0, 0.00, 3 SV), runs are going to be at a premium all year for UNC’s opponents.

The Tar Heels will need to work some things out offensively. Outfielder Justice Thompson (.520/.586/.920, 2 HR, 3 SB), a junior college transfer, is off to one of the best starts in the country but can only carry the lineup for so long.

Still, as long as UNC’s pitching staff can keep piling up zeroes, it’s going to compete at a high level in the ACC.

Eight for Omaha

Arkansas, Florida, Louisville, Miami, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Virginia

Can the College World Series really be an ACC-SEC Challenge? Well, as far as I can tell, there aren’t any rules to prevent that. It’s probably not likely though. Texas Tech, Texas Christian, UCLA and UC Santa Barbara all have the talent to break up that duopoly, to say nothing of East Carolina, Indiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, Oregon State and Texas. But, two weeks in, if I’m being made (or choosing to, really, the format of this column is my own doing) to pick a CWS field, this is what I’m picking. Come back next week and there will probably be at least one team west of the Mississippi getting in on the action.

Weekend standouts

Andrew Eyster, OF, South Carolina: On back-to-back days against archrival Clemson, Eyster delivered a walk-off hit to keep South Carolina undefeated and lift it to a big series win. On Saturday, with the teams tied at 2 in the 11th, Eyster doubled home Brady Allen for a 3-2 victory. The following day, after the Gamecocks had fallen behind 7-5 in the seventh, Eyster completed their comeback with a single in the ninth to again score Allen. He is hitting .393/.433/.786 with two home runs on the year.

Joe Rock, LHP, Ohio: Rock on Friday threw a seven-inning no-hitter in a 6-0 victory against Morehead State in the first game of a doubleheader. It was the first no-hitter of the season in college baseball. Rock struck out six batters and walked two in seven innings. He faced one batter over the minimum and threw 89 pitches.

Sacramento State: After losing its series this weekend against Pacific due to the Tigers’ Covid issues, Sacramento State was able to quickly schedule a series against Texas State, which lost its own series against Lamar due to Covid issues. The Hornets, the Western Athletic Conference favorites, swept the Bobcats, the favorites in the Sun Belt West Division, to improve to 4-2.

South Carolina-Upstate: The Spartans swept College of Charleston to improve to 6-0 on the season and extend their winning streak to nine games, dating back to last year. Upstate’s pitching has been particularly impressive, totaling 80 strikeouts in 54 innings.

Stetson: The Hatters swept North Alabama to complete a 5-0 week that also included a win at Central Florida and improved to 9-0 on the season. They lead the nation in victories after two weeks of play.

Three things to watch in the week ahead

The Big Ten returns: After not playing the first two weeks of the season, the Big Ten will join the college baseball party this weekend. Its 44-game, conference-only schedule begins with three games at three sites: Minneapolis; Greenville, S.C., and Round Rock, Texas. With no non-conference games to give teams a chance to ease into the season, the season will start with the immediate urgency conference play provides. Highlights of the first weekend’s schedule are No. 21 Michigan taking on an experienced Iowa team in Round Rock and an Opening Day showdown of Michigan State’s Mason Erla and Maryland’s Sean Burke, two contenders for the conference’s pitcher of the year award, in Greenville.

No. 4 Louisville at No. 14 Georgia Tech: If the ACC’s first weekend of conference play if any indication, the league is in for a wild ride in 2021. It continues this week with Louisville (6-1) travelling to Georgia Tech (6-1). This will be the conference opener for the Cardinals and a big step up in competition after playing Bellarmine and Western Illinois the first two weekends. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, is coming off a series sweep at North Carolina State, its first conference sweep in three seasons. That was loud. A series win against the Cardinals would be even louder.

Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic: Annually one of the best tournaments on the calendar, the Shriners College Classic this year will feature an all-Texas field of Rice, Sam Houston State, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, No. 10 Texas Christian, Texas State and No. 11 Texas Tech. It isn’t the blue-blood laden field that often takes the field at Minute Maid Park in Houston, but it is a very intriguing weekend of baseball with a lot at stake for the teams. A&M-Corpus Christi, Sam Houston and Texas State effectively form one pod and Rice, TCU and Texas Tech form the other, with teams playing every team in the other group. That format makes for a big opportunity for the Islanders, Bearkats and Bobcats to get some marquee wins and face high-level pitching. That’s especially important for Texas State, which was the preseason favorite in the Sun Belt West Division and could find itself on the bubble come May, and Sam Houston outfielder Colton Cowser, a Preseason All-American who this weekend could make a big statement for scouts.

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