Off The Bat: Bad Weather, Big Series Deliver Wild Weekend

Image credit: Carson Liggett (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Bad weather throughout the Southeast, combined with a holiday weekend, made for a messy week of college baseball. But there was still plenty of fun to go around from coast-to-coast.

Here are 14 takeaways from the weekend that was in college baseball.

1. I try not to get too deep into our rankings in Off The Bat, primarily because the rankings are a collaborative process and I don’t want to speak for the group (if you’ve seen any of the weekly college football rankings shows on ESPN during the playoff era, you know how fraught that can be). But after a weekend when the weather played a huge factor and we had more debate about the top of the rankings than we’ve had all season combined, I’ll wade into the Top 25 waters here.

This was an extremely tight decision. Anything that would have made it easy didn’t happen—the third game of LSU and South Carolina got rained out, as did the third game of Wake Forest and North Carolina State; meanwhile, Florida and Vanderbilt both missed the opportunity for road sweeps—so we were left with an imperfect set of circumstances.

I think any of Florida, LSU, Vanderbilt and Wake have cases to be No. 1. Florida is 8-0 in weekend series and owns series wins against Miami and Tennessee, two Top 25 teams. LSU has the best RPI (4) and strength of schedule (9) and has series wins against Arkansas and Tennessee, two Top 25 teams. Vanderbilt is in first place in the SEC at 11-1 and is 7-3 in non-conference play against likely NCAA Tournament teams. Wake leads the ACC at 12-2 and is 8-0 in weekend series. There are small knocks to be had on all four—Florida is third in the SEC East at 9-3, LSU’s 7-4 SEC record ranks sixth in the conference, Vanderbilt’s electric SEC start has come against teams likely to miss the NCAA Tournament and Wake’s strength of schedule is the weakest (46).

Ultimately, you’re splitting hairs on this decision. I personally believe the No. 1 spot in the Top 25 should be as fluid as any other. I don’t believe the No. 1 team has to remain No. 1 just because it didn’t lose a weekend series. So, for me, LSU didn’t stay at No. 1 because it was the incumbent. The Tigers are still No. 1 because they have the best series win of any of the four teams (against Arkansas) and have the best metrics to this point.

But with the teams as tight as those four teams are, we’ll certainly revisit this again next week and may find a different result, as LSU hosts Kentucky, Florida has four rivalry games this week against Florida State and Georgia, Vanderbilt hosts South Carolina and Wake visits Louisville.

2. On the field, LSU and South Carolina delivered a thrilling weekend before rain washed out the finale. The Gamecocks controlled the first 16 innings of the weekend. They won Thursday’s opener, 13-5, and held a 7-3 lead after seven innings Friday. But the Tigers’ lineup can change things in a hurry, and they did in the eighth. A pair of walks and a pinch-hit single from Brayden Jobert brought Gavin Dugas to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. Dugas wasted no time, launching the first pitch he saw out to left field for a game-tying grand slam. The Tigers pushed across the go-ahead run in the ninth on a Cade Beloso single and Gavin Guidry pitched around a walk and a hit to slam the door for an 8-7 victory.

You can choose to look at the series in a variety of ways. With garnet-colored glasses on, South Carolina pushed LSU harder than any team has so far this season and should feel good about that. Its offense put up 20 runs in two games against a pitching staff that came into the weekend with a 3.51 ERA, 14th nationally. Freshman outfielder Ethan Petry became the first batter this season to homer off ace Paul Skenes, the top pitcher in the country. As coach Mark Kingston said after Thursday’s win, the Gamecocks keep proving themselves.

“I just think every day we have a chance to prove one more brick in the wall, here’s another brick showing we’re pretty darn good,” he said. “We don’t put too much emphasis on any one day, but I think the total picture of what we’re doing right now is hard to ignore.”

With purple and gold glasses, LSU fought through a difficult road environment and some serious challenges on the mound to get a quality series split. The Tigers became the first team to this season beat the Gamecocks in Founders Park and showed their grit, conjuring a comeback with the bottom of their lineup. While most of their wins this season have followed a script of getting ahead early and staying ahead, they showed they can win close games late.

Both teams should feel good about how they acquitted themselves this weekend. It’s a tough break that we didn’t get a game three out of it, but that shouldn’t take away from the fun.

3. Louisville went into its series against Boston College needing a result. The Cardinals had lost five of their last eight games, including back-to-back series at Notre Dame and North Carolina State. Another setback and not only would they lose touch with the division leaders, they would fall further under .500 in conference play and hosting a regional would start to look like more of a longshot.

Louisville got its result and then some, sweeping BC (21-9. 8-7). The Cardinals (24-7, 7-5) became the first team to win a series against the Eagles this season and won their 13th straight series at Jim Patterson Stadium.

The Cardinals got great starts from Ryan Hawks (8 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 8 K) and Carson Liggett (7 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 6 K) on Thursday and Saturday, respectively. That duo has been huge for the Cardinals this season. Hawks is 5-1, 3.06 and Liggett is 7-0, 1.47. Together, they’ve combined for 94 strikeouts and 25 walks in 93 innings.

Greg Farone (1-2, 5.52) has not been as consistent in the middle of the rotation, and he threw just one inning Friday. But with Hawks and Liggett in the rotation and Tate Kuehner (1-0, 3.77, 4 SV) anchoring the bullpen, Louisville’s frontline pitching stacks up well in the ACC and could take it for a deep postseason run.

4. BC was bound to hit a bump in the road sooner or later. The Eagles have lost four of their five ACC series openers, which makes winning series all the tougher. But up until this weekend, they had just kept finding a way.

There’s no shame in losing at Louisville—the Cardinals are 51-10 over the last two seasons at Jim Patterson Stadium—but it is imperative that BC bounce back from this weekend. It faces Harvard in the Beanpot championship Tuesday and hosts Duke (20-11, 7-7) this weekend. The Eagles are still on track for an NCAA Tournament bid and hosting a regional is very much still on the table as well.

At the midpoint of the ACC slate, BC is 8-7. I’m sure the Eagles would have signed up for that coming into the year, but now they have to finish the job in the second half and winning their three remaining home ACC weekends (Duke, Clemson and Notre Dame) is critical.

5. Florida got a big series win at Tennessee, taking the first two games of the series 6-1 and 9-3. In those wins, the Gators got excellent efforts on the mound. Starters Brandon Sproat (5.2 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 4 BB, 9 K) and Hurston Waldrep (7 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 2 BB, 9 K) set the tone and a trio of relievers—Philip Abner, Brandon Neely and Cade Fisher—combined for 5.1 scoreless innings against the Volunteers, scattering four hits and three walks.

The finale did not go quite so well for Florida (27-6. 9-3), as it lost 14-2 in eight innings. Starter Jac Caglianone walked six batters and got just two outs, putting the Gators in an early hole they never dug out of. In all, six Florida pitchers walked 18 batters on the day. While it was a damp day, Tennessee starter Drew Beam walked one in seven innings, delivering a quality start.

Coach Kevin O’Sullivan said he didn’t want Saturday’s loss to take away from the series win and it shouldn’t. This Tennessee team is not the juggernaut that the 2022 Volunteers were, but they’re a solid team and winning a road SEC series is always deserving of celebration.

O’Sullivan also said that the Gators need to develop more depth on the mound, both in the rotation behind Sproat and Waldrep and in the bullpen. Caglianone was excellent to start the season but in four SEC starts he is now 0-1, 9.95. He’s still raking at the plate, hitting .340/.375/.755 with six home runs in 12 SEC games. The first baseman/lefthander has incredible upside on the mound, but he needs to throw more consistent strikes to get to it.

“To be honest with you, winning two out of three on the road at Tennessee is a really good weekend when you look at it that way,” O’Sullivan said. “But at the same time, I’m looking at the big picture here. We need to figure out this third starter situation. I thought we were off to a good start. Both Brandon and Hurston gave us good starts the first two games. But at the same time, this is a long season, and the goal is to win the last game of the year. And in order to do that, you have to have three starters. You have to have a guy at the end that you trust. And you have to have some guys in the middle that can bridge the gap.”

Pitching depth has rarely been an issue for Florida under O’Sullivan, but it may be the key area to watch in the second half this season.

6. Tennessee is also searching for some answers on the mound in SEC play. Righthander Chase Dollander, the 2022 SEC Pitcher of the Year, is 1-2, 6.00 in four SEC games this season. Righthander Chase Burns, a Preseason All-American, is 0-3, 11.94. Beam has been his typically excellent self, going 1-1, 2.45.

The Volunteers approach the weekend differently from most teams because they are comfortable giving the ball to righthanders Seth Halvorsen and Andrew Lindsey in the middle innings and letting them air it out. But the pitching staff—specifically the rotation—was supposed to be Tennessee’s strength coming into the year.

If the Volunteers (22-10, 5-7) are going to kick into gear in the second half, it probably has to start on the mound.

7. The Big 12 race is looking as messy as ever this week. One week after beating Texas at home, Oklahoma State went on the road and lost a series to Texas Christian. Those three teams are now separated by just a half game, with the Longhorns (23-10, 6-3) holding the early edge after this weekend beating Kansas State.

For TCU (20-12, 7-5), this was an important series win. The Horned Frogs were coming off a tough series loss at Texas Tech and then lost Thursday’s opener, 7-6. But they evened the series with a 7-6 win Friday and then won the finale, 12-5, scoring seven runs in the eighth inning to push past the Cowboys.

TCU has been up and down this season, but this was probably its best weekend since Opening Weekend, especially the way it bounced back from Thursday’s loss. Now, it’s about building on this weekend and creating momentum. TCU this weekend faces UNC Wilmington (19-11) before returning to Big 12 play at West Virginia.

8. Oklahoma State (23-10, 7-5) has also been up and down over the last month. Following that big series win a week ago against Texas, the Cowboys went 1-3 last week, including a home loss Tuesday against Wichita State.

Tuesday’s loss notwithstanding, Oklahoma State has been very difficult to beat in Stillwater (18-3) but has struggled away from home (5-7). That’s not terribly unusual and it’s played very difficult games away from home—the College Baseball Showdown on Opening Weekend, at Texas Tech and at TCU. But it will want to take advantage of its next five games, all of which are at home, and none of which are easy. Oral Roberts (23-10) comes to town Tuesday, followed by West Virginia (23-9) on the weekend and Oklahoma (17-16) for a Bedlam game on April 18. Building some momentum back in the friendly confines of O’Brate Stadium will be important.

9. If you keep looking down the Big 12 standings, who do you find in fourth place? Kansas. The Jayhawks (15-15, 5-4) are red hot and have won seven of their last eight games, including this weekend’s series at West Virginia. First baseman Cole Elvis this weekend led KU as he homered in all three games in Morgantown. He is now hitting .298/.341/.570 with seven home runs.

The Jayhawks are much improved under first-year coach Dan Fitzgerald and they’re off to their best start to conference play since 2014. They’ve also now won back-to-back Big 12 series for the first time since 2017.

This coming week is a big one for KU. Having built this momentum, the Jayhawks now must prepare for the Sunflower Series against Kansas State (20-14, 6-6). KU is undefeated at home (6-0) and has a big opportunity ahead of it.

10. This weekend’s rivalry series between Oregon and Oregon State carried a lot of weight for both teams. For the host Ducks, it was an opportunity to keep pace with the conference leaders and a chance to start building a potential hosting resume. The Beavers, meanwhile, were looking to build on the momentum of back-to-back series wins and keep themselves from falling too far down the standings.

Oregon stymied Oregon State in the opener, holding it to two hits in a 2-0 victory. But it was the Beavers who shone on the mound the rest of the weekend. They won Saturday, 4-2, and then cruised to a 12-2 victory Sunday, carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning. The Beavers (20-11, 7-8) have righted the ship after a tough stretch in mid March saw them lose six of seven games, including their first two conference series.

Oregon State’s pitching staff was excellent all weekend, holding Oregon to six runs on 14 hits for the series. The bullpen in particular stood out, holding the Ducks to two runs (both of which came Sunday after the Beavers had a 9-0 lead) in 13.1 innings. Oregon State has a solid rotation of Trent Sellers (4-3, 3.76), Jacob Kmatz (2-4, 3.64) and Jaren Hunter (1-1, 3.13), but the depth it has in the bullpen can be a differentiator for it in the second half.

11. Oregon (20-9, 7-5) is in fine shape moving forward but this was a missed opportunity. After winning Friday’s opener to extend its winning streak to 11 games, the Ducks took an early lead Saturday but couldn’t build on it or hold it, eventually losing, 4-2. Little went right in the finale and Oregon lost the series for the fifth time in six seasons.

The Ducks have to find some answers behind ace Jace Stoffal and closer Josh Mollerus. Stoffal on Friday held Oregon State to one hit and three walks in seven scoreless innings to improve to 4-2, 3.31, while Mollerus, a graduate transfer from San Francisco, has five saves and has not allowed a run in 15 innings.

While those two have been excellent this season, Oregon ranks last in the conference with a 6.48 team ERA in Pac-12 play. Building some more depth is critical in the second half.

Oregon still ranks highly in RPI (No. 12) and if it gets rolling again in the second half, a hosting resume is attainable. But with series against Stanford, Arizona State and Southern California—the top three teams in the Pac-12 standings—still to come, it won’t be easy.

12. Cal State Fullerton had the biggest response of the weekend, bouncing back from a 14-0 loss Thursday to UC Santa Barbara to win the next two games 8-1 and 5-0. That gave the Titans a massive series win.

“Santa Barbara’s a really good team, they’ve been good throughout the years,” coach Jason Dietrich said. “We just wanted to compete and give our best effort. As you saw, we gave our best effort all weekend, especially after Thursday. I thought our guys rebounded well.”

After Thursday’s loss, Fynn Chester and Jojo Ingrassia combined to hold UCSB to one run on six hits and no walks in Friday’s 8-1 win. In the finale, Evan Yates and Trevor Hinkle combined for the shutout, scattering nine hits and three walks. Chester was making his first start of the season, while Hinkle was making his first relief appearance and the role swap worked at least for the weekend. If they can build on that moving forward, the Titans will start to look exciting on the mound.

In the conference standings, UC San Diego (20-9, 10-2) is in first place, but the Tritons still aren’t eligible for the NCAA Tournament as they are in their third season of reclassifying to Division I. Fullerton (16-10, 9-3) is in the driver’s seat having just knocked off the reigning champion, but UCSB (19-9, 6-3) can’t be counted out. Long Beach State (20-10, 8-4) and Cal State Northridge (18-8, 6-3) are in the mix as well.

Fullerton looks to be back after a few challenging seasons. The Titans haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2018 and finished under .500 in each of the last two years. Now, however, in Dietrich’s second year, they’re in a good spot and own series wins against Texas and UCSB.

13. Indiana has surged to the top of the Big Ten standings, as it’s won its first three conference series. This weekend was the biggest, as the Hoosiers took down Iowa. The Hawkeyes won the opener, 7-1, but Indiana bounced back for a 2-0 win in 10 innings on Saturday and then scored three runs in the eighth on Sunday to win, 4-2.

The Hoosiers (22-10, 7-2) stepped up on the mound, starting Saturday with Luke Sinnard and Ryan Kraft. Sinnard struck out 12 batters, walked none and scattered three hits in six innings before Kraft took over with four scoreless of his own, allowing the offense to work. Sunday, four Hoosiers combined to hold the Hawkeyes to two runs (one earned), working around six hits and six walks. Sinnard is 3-1, 3.68 with 61 strikeouts and nine walks in 44 innings to lead the staff. Kraft is 3-1, 0.90 with five saves in 30 innings over 13 appearances.

Iowa may have the best pure stuff of any pitching staff in the conference, but Indiana went toe-to-toe with the Hawkeyes to come away with a key series win. The Hoosiers are far from home free—their next two conference series are a tricky one at Illinois and then at home against preseason favorite Maryland—but for a team that last year finished eighth in the Big Ten and hasn’t made regionals since 2019, things are very much looking up.

14. Southern Illinois claimed a big sweep in Missouri Valley play, taking down Belmont. The Salukis (19-13, 8-1) walked off with a 7-6 win in 11 innings Thursday, won 6-1 on Friday and then completed the sweep with a 4-3 win in 12 innings Saturday. SIU, which last year won the MVC regular season title, is off to the best conference start in program history.

SIU has the league’s most potent offense, averaging 7.1 runs per game, but Belmont has the league’s best pitching staff with a 4.24 team ERA. The Salukis got just enough offense on the weekend, led by Cole Christman, who went 5-for-15 with two home runs and four runs, including Saturday’s game-winner.

SIU hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1990 and it’ll probably have to win the MVC Tournament to get back. But after winning at least 40 games in each of the last two seasons and now racing off to this start, there’s plenty to feel good about in Carbondale. Meanwhile, circle the matchup in two weeks against Indiana State (18-12, 8-1), which is tied atop the conference standings for first place.

Eight For Omaha

Arkansas, Florida, LSU, Stanford, Texas, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Wake Forest

One change this week, as Texas moves in and Texas Tech moves out. The Big 12 is confusing, to say the least. One of those teams is likely to end up in Omaha—the league has had at least one representative in the last eight College World Series—but all of these teams appear to be flawed. I feel the best about Texas right now. The Longhorns are in first place in the conference, have the best RPI and still have a chance to add an impact pitcher in the coming weeks if righthander Tanner Witt comes back healthy. So, let’s add the Horns to the field.

Looking Ahead

No. 5 South Carolina and No. 4 Vanderbilt meet for a top-five SEC East blockbuster. The SEC East is the toughest division in college baseball this season and the stretch run could be full of these kinds of series. The Commodores (24-6, 11-1) sit in first place now, but the Gamecocks (28-4, 9-2) present a significant challenge. The matchup to watch this weekend is Vanderbilt’s pitching staff against South Carolina’s offense, which leads the nation in home runs.

No. 3 Wake Forest faces big challenge in trip to No. 10 Louisville. The Cardinals (24-7, 7-5) are coming off a big sweep of Boston College, reigniting their hopes in the ACC Atlantic Division and the hosting race. The Demon Deacons (28-4, 12-2) are storming ahead, eyeing an ACC title and a top-eight national seed. This weekend, however, presents their biggest test of the regular season. Louisville this season is 18-3 at Jim Patterson Stadium and hasn’t lost a home series since 2021.

No. 25 Connecticut travels to Xavier in first-place showdown in the Big East. UConn (22-8, 2-1) is the two-time reigning champion in the Big East and is off to a strong start this season. Xavier (20-12, 3-0) has played an ambitious schedule, ranks in the top 50 in RPI and has the nation’s longest active winning streak at 10 games. The Huskies are still the conference favorites, but the Musketeers get this showdown at home and carry plenty of momentum into the series. A series win this weekend would be a big boost to Xavier’s NCAA Tournament hopes.

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