College Baseball Takeaways: Kumar Rocker Dominates, LSU Scores Upset
Kumar Rocker Shines, Commodores Cruise
In the latest high-profile series for No. 2 Mississippi State and No. 3 Vanderbilt, round 1 went to the Commodores. Righthander Kumar Rocker threw a complete game and Vanderbilt (30-6, 12-4) defeated Mississippi State, 6-2.
Rocker was outstanding Friday. He struck out eight batters, walked none and held the Bulldogs to two runs (one earned) on three hits. He worked efficiently, throwing 109 pitches in his second career complete game – and first since his no-hitter in the 2019 Nashville Super Regional.
Rowdey Jordan led off the game with a ground rule double to right-center field and singled two innings later in his next at bat. But those would be the Bulldogs’ only hits against Rocker until Luke Hancock’s two-out single in the ninth inning. Jordan went 2-for-4 on the night; the rest of the Bulldogs went a combined 1-for-25.
Rocker improved to 9-1, 1.55 with 89 strikeouts and 15 walks in 64 innings. Since giving up six runs on five innings – including three home runs – in his lone loss of the year March 8 against Georgia, Rocker has held Tennessee and Mississippi State – both top-10 teams – to one earned run on five hits and a walk in 16 innings.
Vanderbilt’s offensive output Friday was overshadowed by Rocker’s dominance, but the Commodores hitters did their part against a strong Mississippi State pitching staff. They used a patient approach against starter Christian Macleod and knocked him out of the game in the fourth inning after drawing four walks and collecting four hits. Catcher CJ Rodriguez led the way with three hits and two runs in the game.
Mississippi State (28-9, 10-6) has now played four games against Arkansas and Vanderbilt, the SEC’s division leaders, and is winless in those games. While the Bulldogs have proven themselves as a high-level team throughout the season, to take the next step and establish themselves among college baseball’s elite in 2021, they must find a way to break through over the next two days. It doesn’t get any easier Saturday, as Vanderbilt sends righthander Jack Leiter (7-0, 0.98) to the mound.
LSU Upsets Ole Miss In Oxford
Louisiana State on Thursday opened its series at No. 12 Mississippi with a 5-4 victory. But with the Rebels on Friday starting lefthander Doug Nikhazy, who last week threw a one-hitter at Mississippi State, the Tigers were in for a big challenge.
LSU and righthander AJ Labas rose to meet it and defeated Ole Miss, 7-2. Labas threw a complete game, scattering 10 hits and a walk to hold Ole Miss to two runs. The Tigers scored two runs (one earned) in six innings on Nikhazy and then went to work against the Rebels bullpen, punctuating the night with a ninth-inning grand slam from Gavin Dugas.
With the win, LSU (25-14, 6-11) clinched its first series win in Oxford since 2014. It’s a critical series win for the Tigers, which are trying to dig out of a big hole in the SEC standings to get into position to advance to the NCAA Tournament. There’s still a lot of work to be done, especially with a series against top-ranked Arkansas on deck, but winning this series was a big step.
Ole Miss (27-12, 9-8), meanwhile, has now lost four straight SEC series for the first time since 2002. It’s been a brutal month for the Rebels, who have played Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi State and LSU in succession and lost slugger Tim Elko to a potentially season-ending injury. But this weekend, at home against an LSU team that had won just one of its first five SEC series, should have been a chance to get right. Instead, the skid deepened for the Rebels.
Ole Miss started SEC play with six straight wins but would fall to .500 in conference play with a loss Saturday. Avoiding that fate is critical.
Charlotte, Old Dominion Split Doubleheader
It should really be no surprise that Charlotte and No. 25 Old Dominion split a Friday doubleheader to begin a huge series in Charlotte. These are the two best teams in Conference USA’s East Division, they’ve had similar seasons to this point and they’re similarly talented.
Charlotte (27-11, 15-3) landed the first blow with a 5-4 win early in the day. First baseman David McCabe connected for a three-run homer in the bottom of the first inning and second baseman Gino Groover added an RBI single in the second to push the 49ers out to an early 4-0 lead. ODU (28-8, 14-4) fought back to make it 4-3 in the top of the sixth, but an insurance run for Charlotte in the bottom of the sixth on a sac fly for center fielder Todd Elwood kept the Monarchs at an arm’s length.
ODU punched back in the second half of the doubleheader with a 9-5 win, and in this case, it was the team that jumped out to a fast start. The Monarchs plated three runs in the first on two homers, a two-run homer off the bat of right fielder Andy Garriola and a solo homer from DH Brock Gagliardi.
They added four more in the fourth in a frame that included a two-run single from left fielder Kyle Battle, and that was all the cushion that ODU would end up needing, although Charlotte did make a late run to make the score closer than the game actually was in many respects.
Righthander Hunter Gregory turned in a good start for Old Dominion, tossing five shutout innings with two hits and two walks with five strikeouts.
There is still a lot of baseball to be played between these two teams this weekend, to say nothing of the four games set for Norfolk next weekend, but it’s hard right now to imagine there being much daylight between the two when it’s all said and done.
Baylor Blows Out Texas Tech In Lubbock
Any win a visiting opponent gets against Texas Tech in Lubbock is impressive, but Baylor took things to the next level Friday night by blowing out the Red Raiders, 12-4.
The Bears (25-12, 6-7) got solid work on the mound by lefthander Tyler Thomas, who gave up four hits and two runs with two walks and seven strikeouts in six innings. At the plate, they got all the runs they would need in the sixth, when they scored six runs against the Red Raiders (26-9, 7-6), all against lefthander Patrick Monteverde.
That big inning featured a solo homer and an RBI walk by DH Cade Currington and RBI singles by Kyle Nevin, Chase Wehsener and Tre Richardson. By the time the game was over, Baylor had also clubbed four homers. In addition to Currington’s blast, Wehsener, Jack Pineda and Davion Downey went yard.
The big-picture ramifications for the rest of the series are immense. There would be no better way for the Bears to feel much more confident in its postseason future than to finish off this series win, and for Texas Tech, if it’s going to make a late run to win the Big 12, it can’t afford to fall any further behind than it already is.
Notre Dame Stunned By BC
No. 6 Notre Dame has flown high all season long. The Fighting Irish have risen to their highest ranking in the Top 25 in more than 15 years and have yet to lose a series.
But on Friday, Notre Dame had no answer for Boston College. The Eagles rolled to a 10-0 victory, dealing the Fighting Irish their biggest loss of the season. Previously, Notre Dame (18-8, 16-8) had lost by more than three runs just once (13-7 at Clemson, March 5).
BC (16-19, 6-16) got an excellent start from righthander Emmet Sheehan, who struck out 10 batters in 6.1 scoreless innings. Lefthander Joe Vetrano followed with 2.2 scoreless innings to complete the Eagles’ first shutout of the season.
BC hit Notre Dame’s pitching like few teams have all season. The Fighting Irish have given up more than five runs in a game just five times in 24 games. The Eagles wasted no time getting to starter Will Mercer, pushing a run across in the first and scoring seven on the lefthander in four innings. They hit three home runs Friday.
The teams will finish the series with a doubleheader Saturday. Notre Dame has done a good job all season long of brushing off defeats – it is 7-0 in games following losses – and will need to do so again to keep its perfect weekend series record.
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Oregon State Fights Back For Win At UC Irvine
Premium non-conference series aren’t the typical late-April fare. But No. 22 Oregon State and UC Irvine, the leaders in the Pac-12 and Big West, are providing that this weekend and the series opener was one of the best games of Friday.
The game featured a matchup of Oregon State righthander Kevin Abel and UCI righthander Trenton Denholm, two of the best pitchers on the West Coast. The Anteaters and Denholm got the edge in that showdown, as Abel was wilder than normal and was relieved after walking four batters in three innings. UCI led 4-2 when Denholm exited after seven innings, having limited Oregon State to two runs (one earned) on four hits and two walks.
But the Beavers weren’t done yet. They scored in the eighth inning to half the deficit and then, down to their last out of the game, Jacob Melton hit a two-run home run off Jacob King to give them a 5-4 lead. UCI rallied to tie the game in the bottom of the inning and would have walked off with a win if not for a web gem from shortstop Andy Armstrong that would have made Derek Jeter proud.
Oregon State pushed ahead in the 11th inning on a pinch-hit, two-run single from Matthew Gretler and Joey Mundt threw a scoreless inning to close out a 7-5 victory.
This weekend doesn’t have the immediacy of a conference matchup, but it is a showcase for both teams – Oregon State (26-10) to bolster its hosting resume and UCI (22-12) to lock in a potential at-large NCAA Tournament bid. But if the opener was any indication, it’s also just a high-caliber college baseball series.
Oregon Beats UCLA To Open Pivotal Series
After losing back-to-back series against Washington and Stanford, UCLA ran off six straight wins to put itself back into contention in the Pac-12 going into a series this weekend at No. 14 Oregon. The Ducks, meanwhile, came into the series with a chance this weekend to take hold of first place in the conference standings.
Oregon took the early advantage in the series with a 5-3 victory Friday. The Ducks got an excellent start from lefthander Robert Ahlstrom and their offense outlasted UCLA ace Zach Pettway, pushing across five runs against the righthander in the sixth and seventh innings. It was the Ducks’ first win against UCLA since 2017, snapping a six-game losing streak in the series.
For the first half of the game, Pettway stifled the Ducks. They had just a hit and a walk through five innings and he had faced the minimum. But they pushed a run across in the sixth on doubles from Sam Novitske and Gavin Grant and then broke through for four runs in the seventh on four hits, a walk and a hit batter.
That was all the support Ahlstrom (3-3, 2.70) needed, as he continued his strong campaign. He struck out eight batters, walked none and held the Bruins to three runs on seven hits in eight innings. UCLA scored just one run in the first eight innings before finally getting to the fourth-year junior with three straight hits to open the ninth, forcing Oregon to bring in closer Kolby Sommers to finish the game.
The Pac-12 race is tight at the top of the standings, but with Oregon State playing a non-conference series and Stanford out this weekend due to Covid-19 issues, Oregon has a chance this weekend to put its stamp on the conference. Its 9-4 Pac-12 record is now the best in the conference by percentage (.692) and it is one win away from its first series win against UCLA since 2015. Saturday represents a big opportunity for the Ducks.
Messick Dominant For Florida State
Florida State lefthander Parker Messick was excellent in a 9-0 win for the No. 17 Seminoles (19-14, 14-11) at No. 20 Georgia Tech (18-15, 14-11).
Messick threw six innings, giving up three hits and three walks with five strikeouts, lowering his season ERA to 2.41. That’s the pitching headline of the night for FSU, but they also got great relief work from the trio of Jonah Scolaro, Jack Anderson and Ross Dunn, who combined to give up just one hit in three scoreless frames.
Offensively, it was a big day for DH Davis Hare, who went 3-for-5. Catcher Mat Nelson also went 2-for-4 with a home run, his 16th of the season, and right fielder Robby Martin added a three-run blast in the ninth inning for good measure.
It was good news for Georgia Tech that lefthander Brant Hurter was able to take his turn in the rotation after he was scratched last weekend, but that was the end of the good news on that front, as FSU tagged Hurter for five runs in five innings on the way to handing him the loss.
Fairfield Stays Undefeated With Doubleheader Sweep
Teams don’t get any hotter than Fairfield is right now. The Stags moved to 24-0 on Friday with a doubleheader sweep at Manhattan (6-14) by 16-4 and 12-4 scores.
Lefthander Michael Sansone was solid in the game 1 win for Fairfield, giving up five hits and two runs in six innings and the lineup took advantage of 11 walks issued by Manhattan pitching and got two homers from right fielder Mike Handal. In the second game, righthander Jake Noviello held Manhattan to two runs in five innings, and the offense got 12 runs on 12 hits, including a two-run homer off the bat of second baseman Mike Becchetti.
The season-long stats for Fairfield are kind of insane, as you might expect from a team that is 24-0 against its conference foes.
The Stags are hitting .322 while their opponents hit just .186. They’ve scored 185 runs compared to 50 for the opposition. Their pitchers have a 2.21 ERA compared to 8.21 for their opponents. Fairfield has now opened up an insurmountable lead on second-place Monmouth in the MAAC standings, and the only real question remaining in the regular season is if it can pull off a perfect record.
Friday night is for the aces. We’ve already highlighted the work of Vanderbilt's Kumar Rocker, Florida State's Parker Messick, Boston College's Emmett Sheehan, UC Irvine's Trenton Denholm and Louisiana State's A.J. Labas. But plenty more pitchers stepped up around the country. Here are five more who had impressive games.
John Baker, RHP, Ball State: Baker struck out eight batters in a 3-1 victory against Northern Illinois, passing Bryan Bullington for the program’s all-time record. Baker finished the day with 359 career strikeouts, the most of any active player in the nation, and is now 4-2, 2.74 with 62 strikeouts in 62.1 innings on the season. Bullington, the first overall pick of the 2002 draft, struck out 357 batters in his Ball State career.
Landen Bourassa, RHP, San Francisco: Bourassa struck out 16 batters and threw a three-hit shutout in a 5-0 victory against Portland. He retired the final 13 batters he faced and worked efficiently, throwing 108 pitches. Bourassa improved to 5-2, 3.12 with 54 strikeouts and 15 walks in 60.2 innings this season.
Kyle Hampton, RHP, Eastern Illinois: Hampton faced the minimum and threw a three-hit shutout in a 7-0 victory in game 1 of a doubleheader against Tennessee-Martin. He struck out eight batters, walked none and erased the three base runners on a double play, caught stealing and batter’s interference. Hampton is now 5-2, 4.95 on the season.
Garrett Schoenle, LHP, Cincinnati: Schoenle threw eight scoreless innings in a 6-0 victory against Wichita State, part of a doubleheader sweep for Cincinnati. He struck out nine batters and scattered four hits and two walks. Schoenle improved to 4-1, 4.03 with 67 strikeouts and 18 walks in 51.1 innings this season.
Austin Vernon, RHP, North Carolina Central: Vernon threw a three-hit shutout and struck out 11 batters in a 3-0 victory at Florida A&M in game 1 of a doubleheader. He improved to 3-2, 2.25 with 73 strikeouts in 44 innings. Combined with a shutout Sunday against Delaware State, it marked the first time in program history that NC Central threw consecutive shutouts.