Vanderbilt Clinches SEC Title, Stanford Starts Strong
Vanderbilt Wins SEC Regular Season Title
There were twists and turns throughout a long SEC season, but in the end, the team that came out on top was the team predicted to do so back in February, Vanderbilt.
On Friday night, combined with Arkansas’ 6-2 loss at Texas A&M, the No. 2 Commodores’ 12-4 win at Kentucky clinched the outright title.
As has been the case so often this season, particularly lately, the Vanderbilt offense jumped on opposing pitching right away.
After a run in the second inning on a solo homer from Stephen Scott, six runs came home in the third on a two-run home run by right fielder J.J. Bleday, an RBI double from catcher Philip Clarke, and a bases-clearing double from first baseman Julian Infante.
Kentucky (26-28, 7-22) tried to make it a game with a run in the second inning and three runs in the fifth, but Vanderbilt just continued to play add-on as the game went on, including scoring three runs in the eighth on a three-run blast from shortstop Ethan Paul and never really allowed the Wildcats to get within striking distance
Perhaps the best way to examine how good the Vanderbilt offense has been is to look at the numbers of the players who have been overlooked.
A ton of attention has been paid to Bleday and third baseman Austin Martin, and rightfully so. Bleday has hit 24 home runs this season and is in the discussion to be a top-five pick in next month’s draft. Martin leads the nation in batting and is now hitting .438/.521/.637, giving the sophomore his own claim to some big postseason hardware.
But then there’s Scott, who is hitting .330/.451/.581 with 18 doubles and 10 home runs. On most teams, he would be the biggest threat in the lineup. Then there’s Paul (.326/.388/.514) and Clarke (.319/.400/.498), who have combined for 31 doubles and 13 home runs.
For that matter, Infante’s .222 batting average might not impress, but the senior is still getting on base at a .348 clip and he’s mashed eight home runs, which you will take for a player typically occupying the nine-hole.
As if the Commodores (44-10, 22-7) weren’t already stacked for a deep postseason run, the emergence of freshman righthander Kumar Rocker as the season has gone on has been a key development.
On Friday, he was solid against a UK offense that can hit for power when it’s rolling. He threw seven innings, giving up seven hits and four runs with no walks and six strikeouts. Early on, he was outstanding, as he gave up just one run on two hits in the first four innings before the Wildcats plated three runs in the fifth.
But just as impressive as those first four innings, Rocker came back out after that tough fifth inning and threw a perfect sixth and seventh inning to round out his outing.
The overall numbers, including a 4.32 ERA, might not jump off the page, but there is little denying that Rocker has been really good of late and looks poised to be a real weapon in the postseason pitching in the rotation with veteran righthanders Drake Fellows and Patrick Raby.
Vanderbilt has been a juggernaut all season long and was ranked No. 1 in the preseason for a reason, but in sprinting through the finish line in SEC play, it has been playing up to every last bit of its immense potential.
Offense Leads Stanford To Key Series Opening Win
There’s a lot at stake this weekend as No. 3 Stanford hosts No. 11 Oregon State. The two teams came into the weekend tied with UCLA for first place in the Pac-12 with six games to go. This weekend’s series winner will also still be alive in the race for a top-eight overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But, at its core, this weekend’s series is a matchup between Stanford’s dynamic offense that is averaging nearly seven runs per game and Oregon State’s pitching staff that came into the weekend ranked second in the nation with a 3.03 team ERA.
On Friday, it was the Cardinal offense that claimed superiority, as Stanford pounded out 13 hits—five for extra bases—and defeated Oregon State, 8-5. Every Cardinal starter recorded at least one hit or scored a run, and they chased Beavers senior righthander Bryce Fehmel in the fifth inning.
First baseman Andrew Daschbach, who was last seen hitting four home runs in Tuesday’s victory against Cal Poly, went 3-for-5 with two triples to lead the way. Four other Cardinal had two-hit nights, including outfielder Brandon Wulff, who went 2-for-5 with a home run, his team-high 17th of the season.
Stanford needed its offensive firepower Friday night because Oregon State was able to get to righthander Brendan Beck, knocking the sophomore out in the fifth inning having scored five runs against him. But the Stanford bullpen picked up their ace, as lefthander Jacob Palisch and righthanders Zach Grech and Jack Little combined for 4.2 scoreless innings of relief. Grech and Little combined to retire the last nine batters of the game, stifling any hope of an Oregon State comeback.
Little pitched a perfect ninth inning to record his ninth save of the season. It was the 25th of his career, matching Colton Hock for the second most in program history. He is one shy of tying Steve Chitren’s program record, which has stood for the last 30 years.
Stanford’s bullpen, anchored by Little, has been a key to its success all season. None of its starters—Beck, righthander Will Matthiessen and lefthander Erik Miller—typically works more than five or six innings. Instead, they cover the first half of the game before turning it over to the Cardinal’s deep assortment of relievers, an arrangement that has proved to be quite successful, as it was Friday night.
Now, Stanford (39-9, 20-5) is just one victory away from its third straight 40-win season and clinching a crucial series win. With No. 1 UCLA defeating Washington, 8-3, Friday, Stanford remains tied for first place in the conference standings. Its RPI also climbed to No. 12. If it can push into the top 10 in RPI and maintain its standing at or near the top of the conference, it will have a good shot at a top-eight overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, which would give it homefield advantage until the College World Series.
Oregon State (34-16-1, 19-6), meanwhile, must regroup in a hurry after Friday’s loss. The Beavers are 3-6 over the last three weeks, imperiling their own chances at a top-eight overall seed. They are also now a game off the pace in the Pac-12 race with time running short. Oregon State will turn to righthander Dylan Pearce on Saturday as it tries to even the series.
Also in the Bay Area on Friday night, Arizona State defeated California, 6-5, in 11 innings. The victory was big for the Sun Devils, who have stumbled in the second half of the season, losing five of their last six series. But ASU (36-14, 15-10) is now assured of finishing at least .500 in the Pac-12 and pushed ahead of Cal (29-18, 14-11) for fourth place in the conference standings.
Both teams should be safely in the NCAA Tournament (provided they don’t lose out), but the winner of this weekend’s series will certainly have an edge, both in the conference standings and in head-to-head action.
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Friday night is for the aces. Here we highlight some of the best pitching performances of the day.
Jack Leftwich, RHP, Florida: Facing No. 21 Missouri, Leftwich threw a two-hit shutout to lead Florida to a 2-0 victory that clinched the series win. The sophomore struck out nine batters, walked two and retired the first 14 batters he faced. Leftwich outdueled Missouri ace T.J. Sikkema, who struck out 10 batters in nine innings and held Florida to two runs (one earned) on three hits and a walk.
Seth Lonsway, LHP, Ohio State: Lonsway struck out 14 batters in eight innings to help lead Ohio State to a 6-1 victory at Purdue. The redshirt freshman held the Boilermakers to one unearned run on two hits and two walks. Lonsway’s 14 strikeouts were the most by a Buckeye since Alex Wimmers whiffed 14 in 2009, and they raised Ohio State’s season total to 496, a new program record.
Collin Sullivan, RHP, South Florida: Sullivan threw a two-hit shutout and South Florida beat Wichita State, 2-0, to force a rubber game Saturday with a spot in the American Athletic Conference Tournament on the line. He struck out seven batters, walked three and led the Bulls to their first shutout of the year.
Connor Thomas, LHP, Georgia Tech: Thomas threw a two-hit shutout in a 2-0 victory against Pittsburgh that, combined with losses by Miami and North Carolina, clinched the ACC Coastal Division for Georgia Tech. The junior struck out nine batters, walked one and worked very efficiently, needing just 93 pitches in the victory. Thomas improved to 9-1, 3.11 with 93 strikeouts and 17 walks in 98.1 innings.
Ryan Zeferjahn, RHP, Kansas: Facing rival Kansas State, Zeferjahn threw 7.1 scoreless innings to help Kansas to a 10-0 victory. The junior struck out eight batters and scattered three hits and two walks. Zeferjahn, projected to be drafted in the first two or three rounds next month, improved to 5-2, 3.37 with 101 strikeouts in 82.2 innings and became the first player in program history to record two 100-strikeout seasons in his career.
Around The Horn
— No. 13 North Carolina State (40-15, 17-12 ACC) evened up its key series with No. 20 North Carolina (38-16, 17-12 ACC) with an 11-2 victory. The top two hitters in the NC State order, left fielder Jonny Butler and shortstop Will Wilson, were a two-man wrecking crew. Butler went 4-for-6 with three runs scored, while Wilson was 4-for-5 with two doubles and a home run. Righthander Reid Johnston gave the Wolfpack solid work, throwing 5.1 innings and scattering eight hits, with only one run allowed. The rubber game in this series is huge, as the winner will have a leg up on hosting a regional, not to mention bragging rights in one of the ACC’s fiercest rivalries.
— No. 18 Texas A&M scored a big 6-2 win against No. 4 Arkansas (40-14, 20-9 SEC). Shortstop Braden Shewmake and second baseman Bryce Blaum set the tone offensively in a couple of ways. First, they got the Aggies (35-19-1, 15-13-1 SEC) on the board with solo homers to begin the game in the first inning. And by both going 2-for-4, they were the only A&M hitters to enjoy two-hit games. Considering the opponent, lefthander John Doxakis did a nice job, throwing 5.2 innings, giving up six hits and two runs with two walks and eight strikeouts. A&M’s win sets up another big rubber game Saturday.
— Florida State’s back is very much against the wall when it comes to getting into a regional for the 40th time in Mike Martin’s 40 years at the helm, so you can’t overstate the importance of its 14-3 win at No. 10 Louisville (42-13, 20-9 ACC). The Seminoles (35-19, 17-12 ACC) did a number on Louisville lefthander Nick Bennett, scoring six runs on nine hits in 2.1 innings. Shortstop Mike Salvatore led the way out of the leadoff spot, going 4-for-5, while catcher Matheu Nelson went 2-for-3 with two homers and four RBIs. With the win, FSU’s RPI jumped into the low 50s, which, when combined with its 17 ACC wins, should secure it a spot in the NCAA Tournament. A win Saturday to win the series would remove any doubt.
— Tennessee (38-17, 14-15 SEC) likely secured its first regional appearance since 2005 with a 7-5 win against No. 17 Mississippi (32-23, 15-14 SEC). With the game tied 4-4 going to the bottom of the eighth, the Vols scored three runs with some help from sloppy play from the Rebels. One run came home on a sac fly off the bat of DH Evan Russell, but the other two came home on a wild pitch and passed ball. Tennessee still needs a win in the series finale to get its conference record up to .500, but with an RPI inside the top 10 as it stands, it seems a good bet that it is safely in regionals even without a .500 league record.
— There is a switch at the top of the Big 12. With its own 7-2 win against Texas Christian (29-23, 11-12), and No. 15 Baylor’s 5-4 loss to No. 16 Oklahoma State (32-17, 14-9), No. 9 Texas Tech (35-15, 15-8) is now all alone in first place. The Red Raiders had much more success against righthander Charles King than they did against lefthander Nick Lodolo in the first game of the series, scoring six runs on nine hits in six innings, led by a 3-for-5 day with a home run from right fielder Gabe Holt. The Bears (33-15, 14-8) scored four runs in the first three innings off Oklahoma State righthander Jensen Elliott, but couldn’t play add-on as Elliott settled in and held them scoreless for the final six frames. With Texas Tech just a half-game up, if the roles reverse on Saturday, the standings would flip one last time.
— A trio of ACC teams enhanced chances to hear their name called on Selection Monday with wins Friday:
- Clemson (33-22, 15-14) clinched its series and guaranteed finishing at least .500 in league play with a 10-9 win against Wake Forest (29-25, 13-16). The Demon Deacons scored eight runs in the final two innings to make it close, but the Tigers’ offense was just too much. Right fielder Michael Green went 4-for-5 with two doubles and three RBIs, with first baseman Grayson Byrd adding a two-run homer as part of a 2-for-5 game. If Wake wants to give itself any chance of an at-large bid, the finale of this series is a must-win.
- Duke (30-23, 15-14) put some room between itself and the bubble with a resounding 12-3 win at Miami (37-17, 17-12). The Blue Devils scored two runs against Miami righthander Evan McKendry in his first start since returning from injury, chasing him in the fourth inning as part of a five-run rally. DH Chris Crabtree went 3-for-5 with two doubles and three RBIs to pace the Duke offense.
- Virginia (32-21, 14-15) clinched its road series with a 5-4 win against rival Virginia Tech (25-27, 8-21). Down 2-1 after six innings, the Cavaliers scored four runs in the seventh inning, two of them on a double by left fielder Brendan Rivoli. Righthander Chesdin Harrington was fantastic, throwing seven innings, giving up six hits and two runs. Virginia can finish no worse than 14-16 in ACC play, and this win moved its RPI up around 40. Barring a slew of stolen bids or a subpar showing in the ACC Tournament next week, that’s likely an at-large resume.
— With an 11-4 win against Rutgers (20-30, 9-13), Indiana (35-19, 16-7) now finds itself tied with Michigan at the top of the Big Ten standings. Indiana really took it to lefthander Tevin Murray, scoring six runs in 2.1 innings, including three on a homer off the bat of first baseman Scotty Bradley. Meanwhile, Indiana righthander Tanner Gordon threw seven innings, allowing just three hits and two runs with no walks and six strikeouts. Michigan (38-16, 16-7) split its doubleheader at Nebraska (28-20, 15-9) to conclude that series a day early due to anticipated poor weather Saturday. All Indiana has to do to clinch its first Big Ten title since 2014 is beat Rutgers on Saturday afternoon. A loss would give the title to Michigan.
— With a doubleheader sweep of Texas-Arlington (31-24, 17-12) by scores of 10-9 and 13-11, Texas State (36-18, 20-10) clinched the Sun Belt Conference regular season title. In game 1, the Bobcats took the lead in the bottom of the eighth thanks to a two-RBI triple from shortstop Dalton Shuffield, part of his 3-for-5 game, and an RBI double from left fielder Travon Benton. Texas State mounted another comeback in the nightcap, this time with a six-run seventh inning after having fallen behind 10-7. The big blow in the inning came courtesy of a John Wuthrich grand slam.
— The regular seasons champion in the Ohio Valley Conference is Jacksonville State. JSU clinched the conference title with a 14-5 win against Austin Peay (30-22, 19-10). The Gamecocks (33-21, 21-8) trailed 2-1 going to the sixth inning, but they fought back to score three runs in the sixth and then exploded for seven runs in the seventh to turn it into a blowout. Catcher Nic Gaddis had a huge game, going 3-for-5 with two home runs and five RBIs.