Off The Bat: Welcome Back, College Baseball

Welcome back, college baseball. Three hundred and forty-four days after the 2020 season was halted due to the pandemic, the sport returned Friday. It was a beautiful sight.

College baseball wasted no time in delivering all the things that make the sport special. Miami upset No. 1 Florida in Gainesville for its first series win in the rivalry since 2014. San Francisco stunned No. 2 UCLA in Westwood. Mississippi rose to No. 1 for the first time in the rankings’ 40-year history after a 2-0 start to the season at the State Farm College Baseball Showdown at Globe Life Field in Arlington.

Beyond that, there were some outstanding individual performances. Florida Atlantic catcher Caleb Pendleton hit two grand slams … in the same inning … in his college debut. Kansas State lefthander Jordan Wicks, a Preseason All-American, outdueled Oregon State righthander Kevin Abel, the 2018 Freshman of the Year, in one of the first games of the season. Second-year freshman lefthander Connor Prielipp still hasn’t allowed a run in his Alabama career—a streak now spanning 26 innings.

It was, in so many ways, everything you’d want after nearly a year away from the game and then some. But, as is the case so often these days, it wasn’t quite right.

The winter storm that blew across the country early in the week wreaked havoc on weekend schedules. The tournament in Arlington, which featured six of the top 15 teams in the country, was pushed back a day. Series from Kansas to Florida and everywhere in between were impacted—some outright canceled, some delayed a day or two.

Beyond the weather, the pandemic’s effects were also felt. Several series were canceled due to Covid-19 protocols following positive tests. More broadly, several conferences, most notably the Big Ten, and some individual teams opted to delay the start of the season by a week or two. Some did it because they are playing more regionalized or conference-only schedules and are waiting for warmer weather. Some needed extra time to get ready for the season after local protocols impacted their preseason preparation.

No matter the reason, there were a lot less teams in action than usual, especially on Friday and Saturday. For the first time since the universal start date was implemented for the 2008 season, Opening Day felt anything but universal.

Still, college baseball’s return is something to be celebrated. And while I usually use this space to dig in deeper about a couple of the biggest stories of the weekend, I couldn’t contain myself this week. So, here are five thoughts coming out of Opening Weekend.

Miami spoiled Florida’s party and looked good doing it. After starting last season 16-1 to rise to No. 1 in the Top 25, and then having the good fortune during the draft to both return nearly every player from that team and enroll a top-five recruiting class, Florida entered this spring ranked No. 1 and as a clear national championship favorite. On top of that on-field talent, Florida had a new $65 million stadium.

The Gators’ preseason hype and the excitement for the new Florida Ballpark combined with a rivalry series against Miami, moved up a week to Opening Weekend to accommodate the ACC’s expanded conference schedule, made for a massive weekend. It started well for the Gators. Catcher Nathan Hickey homered in the first inning—the first hit in the new stadium—and Florida opened a 7-1 lead going into the ninth inning. The Hurricanes rallied in the ninth and plated four runs, but it was too late and the Gators celebrated an emotional Opening Day victory.

Florida came back Saturday with another good start, scoring five runs in the first inning off freshman righthander Alejandro Rosario, a key member of Miami’s top-ranked recruiting class. But, again, Miami didn’t quit and this time its late comeback bore fruit. The Hurricanes tied the game in the ninth inning thanks to a patient approach against righthander Franco Aleman, who struggled with control, and then outlasted the Gators for a 10-9 victory in 13 innings.

“I liked the fight, the never giving in mentality,” Miami coach Gino DiMare said. “That’s a good sign on the team. I worry about chemistry because in college baseball there are so many good players on teams that there are good players on the bench.”

In Sunday’s rubber game, Miami flipped the script. The Hurricanes got to Florida second-year freshman lefthander Hunter Barco, an early favorite to be the top pick of the 2022 draft, and opened an 8-0 lead in the fourth inning. The Gators fought back and had the go-ahead run at the plate in both the seventh and eighth innings, but couldn’t break through. The Hurricanes hung on for an 8-6 victory to win the series, their first series win in the rivalry since 2014.

Considering its overall dominance over the last decade, it’s no surprise that Florida has owned the state of Florida during the same stretch. Getting the rivalry at least back to even, and eventually swinging it back in the Hurricanes’ favor has been part of DiMare’s responsibility since he took over the program from Jim Morris three years ago.

So, while this Miami team didn’t bear responsibility for the streak, the series win still means a lot.

“We know the history,” DiMare said. “I’ve been around Miami for a long time and, let me tell you, we had Florida’s number for a long time and now they’ve had ours. Hopefully that tide turns. It’s a confidence boost to win two-of-three on the road against the No. 1 team in the country. And it’s Florida, so it’s big, but it is just three games.”

Beyond just winning the series, Miami can be encouraged by the way it did so. Not only did the Hurricanes show fight—losing the opener only to come back and win the next two and rallying from big deficits twice—their newcomers showed the hype was justified. Rosario (0-0, 4.50) and righthander Victor Mederos (0-0, 1.93) fared well in their college debuts despite the difficult assignment of making them at Florida. Infielder Yohandy Morales (5-fot-16) was dropped right into the middle of the order and wasn’t fazed. Transfers Christian Del Castillo (4-for-12) and Ben Wanger (1-0, 3.00) were solid.

Miami also can be happy with its offensive performance. After scoring just eight runs in this series a year ago, the Hurricanes broke through for 23 in Gainesville. DiMare credited assistant coach Norberto Lopes for making it a point of emphasis ever since the team returned to school in the fall to get its high-powered offense on track after a disappointing showing in 2020.

“If we’re going to get back to Omaha and win this, we have to face guys like they had,” DiMare said. “I didn’t feel like we were overmatched at any point. It showed, not only in outcomes of the game but in body language as well.”

DiMare was also pleased with the way the Hurricanes finished games and the series—something they have struggled with in the past. Now, they will have to take that same attitude forward. Because the ACC is this year playing 12 conference series, there’s no letup in the schedule. Miami returns home next weekend to play Virginia Tech before traveling to North Carolina State.

Ole Miss backed up the hype. The Rebels finished the 2020 season on a 16-game winning streak and brought back almost everyone from that team. It was enough to enter the season ranked No. 4, matching their best preseason ranking ever (the 2008 team also ranked No. 4 in the Preseason Top 25).

While the Rebels are replacing the left side of their infield after third baseman Tyler Keenan and shortstop Anthony Servideo were both drafted in 2020, they have not missed a beat. They started the season 2-0 at the State Farm Showdown, beating TCU, 7-3, on Saturday and holding off Texas Tech, 5-4, on Sunday. Those wins ran Ole Miss’ winning streak to 18 games, breaking a program record that had stood since 1960.

As a result, the Rebels are No. 1 in the Top 25 for the first time in the rankings’ history. They previously peaked at No. 2 on March 3, 2008, after starting the year on an eight-game winning streak.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign so far for Ole Miss has been the play of freshman shortstop Jacob Gonzalez. He’s 3-for-9 and homered in Sunday’s victory. Expectations were high for Gonzalez after he led the Rebels in hitting during fall ball to win the shortstop job. The early indications are that he’s carrying that performance into the spring.

Ole Miss’ rotation was expected to be a strength, but neither lefthander Doug Nikhazy nor righthander Gunnar Hoglund had their best outings in Arlington. Nikhazy, a 2019 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team alumnus whose track record stacks up well with anyone in college baseball, faced just eight batters Saturday before getting chased. Hoglund, a Preseason All-American known for his control, struck out 11 batters in 5.1 innings Sunday, but also uncharacteristically walked three.

The bullpen more than picked up the starters, however. In 11 innings in Arlington, the Rebels’ relievers combined to hold opponents to one run and struck out 15 batters. Righthanders Taylor Broadway and Braden Forsyth, Ole Miss’ lockdown duo at the back of the bullpen, already have both recorded saves.

Ole Miss this weekend passed a pair of big tests and showed it can win in multiple ways. That’s got the Rebels to a new height and will make them dangerous all season long.

The Big 12 had a weekend to forget. This comes with the caveat that it’s just Opening Weekend and there is still a day of play to come at the State Farm Showdown, but the Big 12—which was expected to run exceptionally deep—did not get off to a good start to the season.

The State Farm Showdown format this year pitted three SEC West teams against three Big 12 teams and, after two days, the Big 12 is just 1-5. Texas Tech, the preseason favorite, and Texas are 0-2. Just TCU has won a game in Arlington.

Given the prominence of that tournament, the results in Arlington get outsized attention. But things weren’t much better elsewhere. West Virginia split a four-game series at Georgia State. Kansas State got a big Opening Day win in Arizona against Oregon State, but lost its next two games against Gonzaga and New Mexico. Oklahoma, which saw three different series canceled due to the weather, finally was able to find a game Sunday against Nebraska-Omaha—but lost. Baylor found itself in a similar situation and split a doubleheader against Texas-Rio Grande Valley. Only Oklahoma State (1-0) and Kansas (2-1) have winning records. In all, the conference is a combined 8-12.

Given the effects of the winter storm throughout the region, especially on Texas, it’s difficult to read too much into the weekend’s results. We’ll get a better feel for the conference in the weeks to come. But it’s safe to say this wasn’t the start any of the conference’s teams envisioned.

What’s going on out West? San Francisco’s upset of UCLA was a stunner. The Dons went 9-8 last season (although they were heating up as the season ended, including winning a series against California) and tied for fifth in this year’s preseason West Coast Conference coaches’ poll, while also being shut out on the preseason all-WCC team. So, seeing them go into Jackie Robinson Stadium and win their first ever series against the Bruins was far from expected.

But that’s what USF did. It won 6-2 on Friday night and 8-3 on Sunday, taking a deep Bruins’ pitching staff to task. And while UCLA was without ace Zach Pettway, who is being brought back slowly following an offseason injury, his absence shouldn’t have swung the series.

UCLA wasn’t the only West Coast power to fall over the weekend. Arizona, which was ranked No. 15 in the Preseason Top 25, lost two of three against Ball State (the Wildcats have a chance to salvage a series split Monday). Pepperdine, the WCC favorite, lost a series against Cal Baptist. California lost a series to Pacific. UC Santa Barbara and Arizona State both lost on Opening Day before rallying to win their series against Santa Clara and Sacramento State, respectively.

Is this how it’s going to be all season out West? In a year where inter-regional competition is sparse, will parity reign and the top teams out West beat each other up all spring? It’s certainly possible. The Pac-12 is, as a conference, not particularly veteran-laden, which may make it susceptible to upsets in this disrupted season. Transfers have had an effect on many programs—USF brought in five transfers this offseason—evening out the talent base. California had some of the strictest pandemic protocols this summer and fall, which severely limited practice time for many teams.

Whether this was a one-week blip or part of a larger trend remains to be seen. But, for now, buckle up for a wild ride out West.

Defense is going to take some time to get right. It’s a bit anecdotal—historical Opening Weekend fielding stats aren’t something that’s readily available—but one of the effects of the lost 2020 season and the abnormal offseason seems clearly to be that defense has suffered.

East Carolina, which led the nation with a .990 fielding percentage in 2020, through three games is halfway to its 2020 error total (six in 17 games). Florida, annually one of the best defensive teams in the country, made six errors in three games. UCSB, which returned a veteran infield, is also halfway to its 2020 error total (eight in 15 games). Seemingly everywhere you look, errors are up.

The same thing happened last year in summer ball, as players came off a spring of not playing. It’s not unexpected and players will get back to form in the field the more games they get under their belt. But, for now, clean defense is not to be taken for granted.

Eight for Omaha

Florida, Louisville, Miami, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Texas Tech, Vanderbilt, Virginia

Recently on the Baseball America College Podcast, Joe Healy and I talked about needing to avoid overreacting to early season results this season. There’s a lot that’s strange about this season. That strangeness only increased with the poor weather many teams dealt with throughout the last week. So, this is me trying not to overreact. It’s seven of the top eight teams in the Top 25, with Texas Tech instead of Arkansas. Sorry, Hogs fans. I’m going to stick with the Big 12 favorites for at least one more week. When we do this again in a week, hopefully every team in the mix will have at least taken the field.

Weekend standouts

Caleb Pendleton, C, Florida Atlantic
: Pendleton on Saturday made his college debut one for the history books. He hit a grand slam in each of his first two plate appearances—both of which came in the second inning. Pendleton’s power helped the Owls to a 20-15 victory to clinch the series win.

Blayne Jones, SS, Dallas Baptist: Jones started the season with a bang, homering three times in two games against Austin Peay State. Going into Monday’s series finale, he is 4-for-10 with three home runs and eight RBIs.

Miami (Ohio): The Hurricanes weren’t the only Miami that had a big weekend on the road in Florida. MU went to Jacksonville and swept the Dolphins. Ace Sam Bachman, a projected top two-round draft pick, impressed in Saturday’s opener, holding JU to one run on three hits and a walk in five innings, while striking out six batters.

North Carolina Central: Just a week after finding out the program will be eliminated following the 2021 season, NC Central regrouped and opened the year with a sweep of Army, the Patriot League favorite. The Eagles are 3-0 for the first time since 2013 after outscoring the Black Knights, 22-9, over the weekend.

Landon Sims, RHP, Mississippi State: Sims came on in relief of Christian Macleod with the bases loaded and no outs in the fifth inning of Saturday’s game against Texas. He struck out the side to escape the jam unscathed and went on to strike out 10 batters in four perfect innings.

Three things to watch in the week ahead

ACC play begins:
The ACC this season expanded its conference schedule from 10 three-game weekends to 12. That decision, combined with most ACC schools requiring their teams to either be idle or at least at home during finals week, means conference play starts this weekend for 12 of the 14 ACC teams. The highlight of the schedule is No. 21 Georgia Tech (2-1) traveling to No. 15 North Carolina State (2-0). But Boston College (3-0) traveling to No. 11 Duke (2-1) can’t be overlooked. The Eagles have a trio of Preseason All-Americans and impressive upside as a team and will get a stern test in the veteran Blue Devils to open conference play.

Clemson vs. No. 16 South Carolina: Clemson is one of just two ACC schools that won’t open conference play this weekend (Louisville is the other). But the Tigers won’t get it easy, as they take on their in-state rivals in one of the best college baseball rivalries. Clemson (3-0) swept Cincinnati over the weekend, while South Carolina (3-0) swept Dayton. This is a big test for two teams looking to make a statement.

Round Rock Classic: Texas is home to this year’s best early season tournaments and this week the fun moves to Round Rock. The field consists of Auburn (3-0), Baylor (1-1), No. 25 Oklahoma (0-1) and Texas A&M (1-2). This weekend will be a step up in competition for all four teams and after a difficult start to the season for three of them, it takes on even greater importance. A good weekend in Round Rock will kickstart the season, but a poor showing will leave some team digging out of an early hole.

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