College Baseball Takeaways: Arkansas Wins First SEC Title Since 2004

Image credit: Arkansas' Christian Franklin and Brady Slavens (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Arkansas Walks-Off Florida To Win SEC Title

All season long, Arkansas has made a habit of dramatic rallies and winning close games. So, with a chance Friday to win the SEC regular-season title, it’s no surprise that the Razorbacks did so with another late-inning comeback and walk-off.

Trailing No. 8 Florida by a run in the eighth inning, No. 1 Arkansas tied the game on a home run from Robert Moore. The Razorbacks walked off with a 4-3 victory in the ninth when Casey Opitz led off the inning with a double, advancing to third on an error. After a pop out, Charlie Welch delivered a pinch-hit, opposite-field double to score Opitz and set off a raucous celebration in Baum-Walker Stadium. With the victory, Arkansas (41-10, 21-8) clinched its first SEC regular-season title since 2004.

Florida (35-18, 17-12) took an early lead Friday, scoring three runs in the first two innings off righthander Caleb Bolden. But he settled in to strike out seven batters in four innings before turning the game over to the bullpen. Righthander Peyton Pallette, lefthander Caden Monke and relief ace Kevin Kopps combined to strike out 10 batters and hold the Gators to four hits and a walk in five scoreless innings, giving the Razorbacks offense time to mount a comeback.

The Gators didn’t make it easy, however. Lefthander Hunter Barco held Arkansas to two runs on four hits and three walks in six innings before turning the game over to veteran righthander Jack Leftwich. He retired five of the first six batters he faced before Moore blasted a two-out homer in the eighth inning to tie the game. After that, there was no denying Arkansas.

The lone concern from Friday’s game for Arkansas was that Pallette left the game with a trainer due to an apparent injury. He has pitched in a variety of roles this season but is an important piece of the pitching staff whether working as a starter or reliever.

The Razorbacks won all their series this season and will this week be ranked No. 1 in the Top 25 for the 13th straight week, the longest streak atop the rankings since 2013 North Carolina also spent 13 consecutive weeks at No. 1. Arkansas likely also has locked up the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The Razorbacks have loftier goals ahead of them, but Friday provided them with a special moment and an important milestone.

Big 12 Title Race Comes Down To Final Day After Texas, TCU Win

As expected, the air-tight Big 12 title race will come down to the final day of the regular season.

No. 4 Texas and No. 14 Texas Christian both won Friday and, as a result, the Horned Frogs maintain their one-game lead going into Saturday. Texas holds the tiebreaker by virtue of its series win against TCU, giving it a chance to nip the title on the final day.

On Friday, TCU defeated Kansas State, 8-6, and Texas routed West Virginia, 14-3. Both TCU (36-15, 17-6) and Texas (39-13, 16-7) lost Thursday and did a good job of bouncing back Friday.

TCU scored four runs in the second inning off starter Connor McCullough and never trailed. While K-State did come back to bring the go-ahead run to the plate in the eighth inning, closer Haylen Green squashed the threat, as he got the final five outs of the game to earn his 11th save of the season. Outfielder Porter Brown led the way offensively for the Horned Frogs, going 3-for-4 with a home run, two runs and three RBI.

Texas also jumped out to an early lead, scoring twice in the second and then adding five more runs in both the third and fourth innings to remove all doubt. Shortstop Trey Faltine homered twice, and DH Ivan Melendez went 2-for-4 with a home run, a double and three runs to pace the Longhorns offense. Righthander Tristan Stevens held the Mountaineers to three runs in eight innings, delivering yet another solid start.

Both Texas and TCU will likely feel confident going into tomorrow. The Horned Frogs will be mindful that they control their own destiny and just need to beat K-State to win their third Big 12 title and first since 2017.

To claim its second Big 12 title in three seasons, Texas needs a win and a TCU loss. But the Horned Frogs have struggled in weekend finales all season long, going just 7-6 in those games and just 1-4 in rubber games.

Texas takes on West Virginia at 3:30 p.m. ET, while TCU faces K-State at 5 p.m.

Arizona, Oregon Get Key Wins As Pac-12 Race Enters Stretch Run

A pivotal weekend of play in the Pac-12 began Friday with No. 9 Arizona and No. 13 Oregon earning key victories to remain neck-and-neck atop the conference standings.

Arizona went on the road to beat Oregon State, 7-4, and Oregon won a pitcher’s duel at home against No. 17 Stanford, 2-1. The Wildcats (37-13, 20-8) and Ducks (35-11, 18-7) are effectively tied in the standings, but Oregon has three more conference games to play due to the way the bye week fell for both teams.

Arizona on Friday brought its tenacious, powerful offense to Corvallis. The Wildcats drew 11 walks and made the most of their eight hits, pounding out two doubles and three home runs. Outfielders Mac Bingham (1-for-2, 3 BB, 2 R) and Donta Williams (1-for-3, HR, 2 R, 2 BB) led the way and the Wildcats pitching staff held the Beavers in check.

Oregon, meanwhile, rode the duo of lefthander Robert Ahlstrom and closer Kolby Sommers to victory. Ahlstrom struck out 10 batters in 7.1 innings and held the Cardinal to one run on three hits and two walks. Sommers recorded the final five outs to pick up his 10th save of the season.

The Ducks produced just enough offense against righthander Brendan Beck, who held them to four hits and no walks. But first baseman Gabe Matthews delivered a two-run home run in the seventh and Ahlstrom and Sommers made sure that advantage held up.

Oregon holds a slight edge on Arizona in winning percentage now, but the Wildcats hold the tie breaker thanks to their head-to-head series win. The race is sure to go down to the wire, as the Ducks next week travel to California. Until then, every game will carry significant weight for both Arizona and Oregon.

ACC Bubble Picture Gets Murkier

If it’s possible, the results this weekend in the ACC have only served to make the bubble picture in the conference even murkier than before. 

One day after losing series openers, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, Louisville and Clemson all lost again. 

The series loss for Pitt (22-18, 16-16) against Wake Forest (19-127, 9-22), which was already eliminated from the ACC Tournament race, counts as the most surprising. On Friday, the Demon Deacons jumped out to a 12-3 lead after the fourth inning on the way to a 12-5 win over the Panthers. 

Virginia Tech (27-22, 16-19) was shut out 4-0 by No. 3 Notre Dame (28-10, 24-10). Aidan Tyrell (5.2 IP), Tanner Kohlhepp (2.1 IP) and Jack Brannigan (1 IP) combined to hold the Hokies scoreless on five hits. 

Louisville was also shut out by Miami 2-0. The Hurricanes (31-17, 19-15) used four pitchers to limit the Cardinals (27-20, 16-15) to three hits, and they got all the offense they needed from a two-run homer by Yohandy Morales in the second inning. 

Clemson (24-25, 16-19) dropped a 14-8 slugfest to Duke (27-20, 15-17). After falling behind 13-1 going to the bottom of the fourth inning, the Tigers’ offense worked hard to get back in it, but the comeback came up short. 

The fallout from these results is significant. Pitt and Louisville were thought of as potential hosts just a few weeks ago, and for that matter, the Panthers were put on the shortlist of 20 preliminary host sites just eight days ago. Now, hosting as a No. 1 seed is out of the question for Pitt, and both teams are now much closer to the bubble than hosting. Certainly, wins in the series finales Saturday would be huge. 

Clemson and Virginia Tech, meanwhile, are in a position where each will have work to do in the ACC Tournament next week to be at-large teams. The Tigers have had a roller coaster of a season and it was always possible they would end up in this position. 

It’s more shocking, though, that the Hokies ended up in this place. As recently as April 11, they were 14-7 in ACC play and were showing signs of being a team that could host. Since then, they are 2-12 in conference games.

Many years, it feels like there’s not much at stake in the final days of the ACC regular season and in the ACC Tournament. In those years, the elite teams are locked in as hosts and the at-large teams are clearly defined. But this year is not one of those years. There is still much to be determined.

Nebraska Widens Big Ten Lead

With Michigan playing a series against Maryland and Nebraska and Indiana playing in a pod with Ohio State in Bloomington, some movement seemed inevitable in the Big Ten race this weekend, and we saw plenty just in one day of action. 

It started with Maryland (25-14) winning a wild 11-8 game against Michigan in 11 innings. Early, it looked like things were going to come easy for the Terrapins, as they went up 8-0 in the top of the sixth after catcher Justin Vought’s second home run of the day. But the Wolverines (25-14) scored three in the bottom of the seventh and then put up a five-spot to tie it in the bottom of the ninth.

In the 11th, Maryland pushed three more runs across, taking the lead one last time, and this time for good. 

In the nightcap of the Big Ten schedule, Nebraska scored an 8-5 win at Indiana. The Cornhuskers (26-11) got a fast start offensively, scoring seven of its eight runs in the first four innings, with the bullpen holding off the Hoosiers (24-14) down the stretch. 

As it stands now, Nebraska has opened up a two-game lead in the standings, with Maryland and Michigan now tied for second and Indiana in fourth, two-and-a-half games back. There is still enough baseball to be played this weekend (to say nothing of next weekend) that nothing is set in stone, but Friday’s results certainly broke in the right direction for Nebraska. 

Tulane Drops Series At Cincinnati

Coming into the weekend, Tulane had a reasonable, if somewhat tenuous, case to be an at-large team in the NCAA Tournament. It was on track to finish a fairly close second to East Carolina in the American Athletic Conference standings, its RPI was inside the top 60 and was likely to push closer to the top 50 if it took care of business this weekend and it seemed plausible that the No. 5 RPI conference in the country would get a second bid largely out of respect for the quality of the league.

But with an 11-1 loss to Cincinnati on Friday, the Green Wave (28-21, 17-9) dropped a third straight game to the Bearcats (28-24, 17-14), and now, it’s getting tougher to make the at-large case. They are now as close in the standings to fifth place as they are to first place, and their RPI has fallen into the mid 70s. 

Setting aside the impact of the series loss on the team’s postseason hopes, it hasn’t been a pretty weekend for Tulane. It has given up double-digit runs to Cincinnati in all three games, and Friday’s loss was shortened to seven innings via run rule. 

Even more surprising than Tulane dropping this series is that the AAC is really staring down the possibility of being a one-bid league. It can still get two bids, of course, and the beneficiary of Tulane’s tumble this weekend is Wichita State (30-20, 18-12), which now has the second-best RPI in the conference (67) and with three wins against Memphis has edged closer to Tulane in the conference standings. But other than ECU, no AAC team can feel confident of its standing going into the conference tournament.  

Brett Kerry, Brady Allen Lead South Carolina To Victory

With a 3-2 win Friday against No. 5 Tennessee, No. 21 South Carolina is one victory away from arguably its biggest series win of the season and one that could propel the Gamecocks to a spot as a regional host. 

Tennessee (41-14, 19-10) got single runs in the third on a Connor Pavolony RBI single and in the fourth on a Luc Lipcius solo home run, but the 2-0 advantage didn’t last long, as South Carolina (33-19, 16-13) took the lead back in the bottom of the fifth on a three-run homer off the bat of Brady Allen

And with the way Brett Kerry was pitching, that narrow 3-2 lead was all the team needed. The righthander was only inserted into the weekend rotation last weekend, but he’s been excellent in those two starts. He tossed a shutout against Kentucky and on Friday gave up just two runs in seven innings of work with eight strikeouts against a powerful Tennessee lineup. Once Kerry was lifted, lefthander Julian Bosnic came on and threw two scoreless innings of relief with four strikeouts. 

A win Saturday would push South Carolina’s SEC record to 17-13. Hosting would be no guarantee with that record, and doing at least a little bit of work at the SEC Tournament might be necessary, but either way, the push the Gamecocks have made over the last two weeks just to be in this position is impressive. 

Old Dominion Sweeps Louisiana Tech

After winning game 1 of its two-game non-conference road series against conference foe Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion completed the sweep Friday with an 8-7 victory. 

Late scoring was a theme for the Monarchs in the series. In the first game, a three-run eighth inning gave ODU the lead late. Friday, it scored seven runs combined in the seventh and eighth innings to jump out in front in the final stages of the game and secure the win. 

Going into the weekend, this series looked like an entertaining two-game set between two of the best teams in Conference USA that might not actually matter all that much in terms of postseason positioning. 

But instead, ODU’s sweep has changed fortunes on both sides quite a bit. After the Friday win, the Monarchs (38-14, 22-10) moved up to 13 in RPI and pushed its record against RPI top 50 teams to 8-5. If they play well in the C-USA Tournament next week, and especially if they win the whole thing, the committee’s hand might be forced into considering the Monarchs for a spot as a traveling No. 1 seed (ODU did not bid to host a regional). 

Meanwhile, La Tech’s RPI was down to 31 after the loss Friday, and suddenly, its place as a host is very much in doubt. With the likes of Mississippi and South Carolina playing well in the final days of the regular season, you can make the argument that, if anything, the hosting bubble has firmed up rather than softened, which is to say it was a poor time for the Bulldogs (36-16, 22-8) to stumble. 

La Salle, North Carolina Central Face Ultimate Elimination Games Saturday

La Salle and North Carolina Central have both played all season long knowing the end of the 2021 season – whenever that came – would also mark the end of their programs, as both schools moved to eliminate baseball.

The Explorers and Eagles both rallied for historically successful seasons. La Salle last weekend won its 32nd game of the season, setting a program record. NC Central last weekend won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference South Division for the first time ever.

Now, however, both La Salle and NC Central are on Saturday facing what could be their final day. La Salle must beat cross-town rival St. Joseph’s to advance to next week’s Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament. NC Central is playing in the MEAC Tournament championship game against Norfolk State, but after losing today’s winner’s bracket game against the Spartans will need to sweep a doubleheader to win the title and advance to regionals.

For La Salle and NC Central, Saturday is the ultimate elimination game: win and keep playing; lose and see the program shuttered.

Ace Watch

Friday is for the aces. We’ve already highlighted the work of Oregon’s Robert Ahlstrom and TCU’s Tristan Stevens. But several other pitchers stepped up around the country. Here are five more who had impressive games.

Will Bednar, RHP, Mississippi State: Bednar threw eight scoreless innings to help Mississippi State to a 7-0 victory at Alabama. He struck out 11 batters and held the Crimson Tide to three hits and two walks. Bednar improved to 6-1, 2.90 with 97 strikeouts and 16 walks in 62 innings.

Elliot Carney, RHP, Wofford: Carney silenced Mercer – which ranked 17th in the nation in scoring coming into the day – with seven scoreless innings. He struck out nine batters, walked none and scattered five hits. Carney improved to 6-3, 2.71 with 101 strikeouts and 20 walks in 83 innings.

James Deloatch, LHP, Norfolk State: Deloatch threw a shutout to outduel North Carolina Central’s Austin Vernon in a 1-0 victory in a critical winner’s bracket game in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament. He struck out five batters and worked around four hits and four walks. Deloatch improved to 7-2, 2.58 on the season, while helping the Spartans moved one win away from their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.

Richard Fitts, RHP, Auburn: Fitts held Missouri to one hit in eight scoreless innings to lead Auburn to a 3-0 victory. He struck out seven batters and the lone blemish to his night was a two-out single in the fifth inning. Fitts was a Preseason All-American but wasn’t able to put everything together and Friday was his first win of the season. Still, it was a reminder of how good he can be and helped Auburn clinch the final place in the SEC Tournament.

Matt Mikulski, LHP, Fordham: Mikulski struck out 12 batters in a 2-1, seven-inning victory against St. Bonaventure and set the program record for most strikeouts in a single-season and a career. He has 124 strikeouts this season, breaking Hank Borowy’s record of 115 that had stood since 1939. He has 272 career strikeouts, breaking Javier Martinez’s record of 264 from 2004-07. On the season, Mikulski is 9-0, 1.45 and projects to be the highest drafted player from the program since Pete Harnish went 27th overall in 1987.

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