College Baseball Takeaways: Opening Day Celebrations, Upsets Abound

College Baseball Is Back

Three hundred and forty-four days after the 2020 College World Series was canceled, college baseball returned.

That’s it. That’s the story.

Ok, there’s a little more to it than that. After an 11-month hiatus, college baseball returned from its longest, most trying offseason. It might have looked a little different – masks were common on the field and crowds were either not allowed or required to be socially distant – but the game was much the same. There were walk-offs, pitchers’ duels, bursts of emotion, gutty performances and bat flips. In short, there was everything we love about college baseball.

As glorious as the return to play was, it wasn’t without challenges. Winter weather across much of the country led to a spate of cancelations and postponements. The State Farm College Baseball Showdown at Globe Life Stadium in Arlington – featuring six teams ranked in the top 15 – was delayed by a day. Kumar Rocker’s return to the mound for Vanderbilt has been pushed back to Sunday. Many other series and tournaments throughout the Southeast were affected.

There were also several series that were canceled due to Covid protocols. Among the series lost were Kentucky at North Carolina and Fresno State at UC Irvine. As the pandemic continues to afflict the country, more postponements and cancelations are inevitable.

Not every conference was in action this weekend, either. Many teams and conference chose to delay the start of their season a week or two. For those teams, the wait to return to the diamond continues.

But with the right precautions and protocols, college baseball can continue. That’s what it did Friday, much to the delight of players and fans around the country.

San Francisco Upsets UCLA

Opening Day’s biggest upset came at the end of the night, as San Francisco defeated No. 2 UCLA, 6-2. It was the Dons’ first win against the Bruins since Kyle Zimmer outdueled Gerrit Cole in the 2011 Los Angeles Regional.

USF took the lead with two runs in the fourth inning and another in the fifth, and then never looked back at Jackie Robinson Stadium. Outfielders Harris Williams and Jordan Vujovich provided the big hits – an RBI triple for Williams in the fourth and a solo home run for Vujovich in the fifth.

Landen Bourassa, Grant Young, Alex Pham and Jesse Barron combined to hold the Bruins to two runs on five hits and three walks, while striking out five. Pham was particularly strong in relief, throwing three scoreless innings to bridge between Bourassa and Barron and give the Dons a chance to extend their lead.

USF finished just 9-8 in 2020 but was heating up as the season was halted. It won six of its last seven games, including a series against California. Now, USF will aim to clinch the series win Saturday.

For UCLA, the loss is jarring. The Bruins were without ace Zach Pettway, who they are being cautious with after an offseason injury. But for a team with as much experience and depth as the Bruins, that should have been an absence they were able to overcome on Opening Day. It’s just one game and it’s important not to overreact, but it’s also important for them to bounce back Saturday.

Santa Clara Upsets UC Santa Barbara

With the leadup to the season being so disjointed for so many teams, it was a bit of a surprise that Friday’s results were as chalky as they were, but one big exception was the upset Santa Clara pulled on the road against No. 21 UC Santa Barbara by an 8-4 score. 

Pitching is likely going to be UCSB’s strength this season, but the Broncos got to them on opening day, scoring two runs on six hits off of lefthander Zach Torra, chasing him after just 3.2 innings, and then three runs each off of two of the Gauchos’ most reliable relievers from last season, righthanders Conner Dand and Conner Roberts

Perhaps this result says more about Santa Clara than UC Santa Barbara. For the Gauchos, it is most likely just a case of it not being their day. But recall that Santa Clara was one of the more pleasant surprises on the west coast early last season. Because it was such a small sample last year, it was easy to look at what the Broncos did with some level of skepticism, but if they continue to play well this weekend, it might be a sign that the program really is ready to turn a corner.

The Wild West?

The West Coast got wild on Opening Day. In addition to San Francisco upsetting No. 2 UCLA and Santa Clara beating No. 21 UC Santa Barbara, Sacramento State shocked Arizona State with a ninth-inning grand slam and Cal Baptist routed Pepperdine, the West Coast Conference favorite. For good measure, Loyola Marymount and Pacific took Southern California and California, respectively, to the wire before suffering walk-off defeats.

Any one of those upsets would have been significant. Taken together, they look shocking. But does a string of results on a given day in February mean anything?

Those Opening Day upsets will probably end up being relatively fluky by the end of the season. UCLA, UCSB and Arizona State are still three of the most talented teams in the region. Baseball is hard to predict, especially on Opening Day.

But they might also be representative of how little separation there is out west. If parity is a dominant force out west in 2021, a year where there will be more intraregional competition than usual, things could get rocky and it would have an effect on the Field of 64.

But it’s too early to draw those conclusions. For now, just enjoy a fun day of baseball that showcased the depth of the WCC.

Abbott Thrives in Starting Role

After dominating in a relief role last season, putting up a 1.35 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 13.1 innings, and then somewhat surprisingly going undrafted last summer, fourth-year junior lefthander Andrew Abbott returned to Virginia for the 2021 season and began the process of becoming a starter. 

It’s just one game, but so far, the move is going swimmingly. Against Connecticut on Friday, Abbott threw 5.2 scoreless innings, giving up two hits and one walk with nine strikeouts in a 2-1 win for the fifth-ranked Cavaliers. The nine strikeouts are a career-high for Abbott, and he ran through the finish line, retiring the final nine batters he faced. 

Virginia has a surplus of starting options to choose from. In addition to Abbott, they also bring back righthanders Griff McGarry and Mike Vasil (both of whom are set to take the ball this weekend against the Huskies), and lefthander Nate Savino. That type of rotation depth will always give the coaching staff the latitude to move Abbott back to his relief role if he struggles as the season goes on, but after Friday, it’s hard to feel anything but incredibly optimistic about the lefty as a starting pitcher.

Connor Prielipp Picks Up Where he Left Off

It’s been 11 months since college baseball games were played, but with Alabama second-year freshman Connor Prielipp on the mound on Friday, it sure felt like the season picked up right where we left it last year. 

The lefthander, who didn’t give up a run in four starts last season, still hasn’t allowed a run as a college pitcher. On Friday, he tossed five shutout innings against a veteran McNeese State lineup, giving up four hits and no walks with eight strikeouts in a 10-6 Crimson Tide win. 

As you can tell by the final score, the Cowboys had some success against the Bama bullpen, but they were always kept at an arm’s length. It does, however, suggest that McNeese isn’t going to wilt in this series and Alabama will have to play well over the next couple of days. 

The Prielipp scoreless streak will be a fun subplot to watch play out for at least one more Friday, because eventually, Prielipp has to give up a run, right? No, seriously, we’re asking.

Jordan Wicks Outduels Kevin Abel

In one of the best pitching matchups of Opening Day, Kansas State lefthander Jordan Wicks, a Preseason All-American, took on Oregon State righthander Kevin Abel, the 2018 Freshman of the Year, in the Sanderson Ford College Baseball Classic in Surprise, Ariz.

Both Abel and Wicks came into the game with something to prove and both did just that, but it was Wicks that came out on top. He struck out 10 batters in seven scoreless innings and led the Wildcats to a 3-2 victory.

Wicks, the 2019 Big 12 freshman of the year, has been excellent throughout his college career. Going into Friday, he was 9-3, 2.85 with 112 strikeouts and 30 walks in 110 innings. But between the 2020 season being cut short and K-State having a lower profile, Wicks was still flying a bit under the radar until he put together a standout summer in the Northwoods League. The lefthander struck out 29 batters in 20 innings and held opponents to two runs (one earned).

After that summer performance, Wicks started to get buzz as a potential first-round pick. Now, this spring he has to prove that evaluation true. Friday was an excellent start to that end. He showed off the above-average changeup he’s known for, sat around 93 mph with his fastball and worked in a good breaking ball. After the Beavers loaded the bases with no outs in the second, he locked in, escaped the jam and retired 18 of the final 20 batters he faced.

“He was awesome,” coach Pete Hughes said. “When he gets into that rhythm, he’s really tough to beat.”

Abel, meanwhile, is trying to prove himself after not pitching in an official game since March 1, 2019. He underwent Tommy John surgery not long after that start, an injury that has sidelined him since. In his first start back, he struck out seven in 4.2 innings and held the Wildcats to two runs (one earned) on one hit, two walks and two hit batsmen.

It was a good first step for Abel. Continuing to build up more strength and his pitch count are his next task.

Tulane Walks Off with Wild Win over Louisiana

It’s a shame that we’re not able to have stadiums full of fans right now, because Louisianans love their college baseball and Turchin Stadium would have been rocking for the series between Louisiana-Lafayette and Tulane this weekend. And on Friday, in a 3-2 Tulane win in 10 innings, the teams gave the small crowd that was in attendance one heck of a show. 

The starting pitching was excellent, with Louisiana righthander Hayden Durke throwing five shutout innings and Tulane righthander Braden Olthoff countering with 5.1 shutout frames. The bullpens were nearly as good, and the teams went into the 10th tied 1-1. 

In the top of the 10th, Louisiana first baseman Brennan Breaux drew a bases-loaded walk to put the Ragin’ Cajuns up 2-1. Undeterred, the Green Wave came back in the bottom half and walked off with a 3-2 win thanks to a two-run single off the bat of DH Luis Aviles

Even in a loss, the Cajuns should feel pretty good about how things went down. One of the questions that was asked of this team is how good we could expect their pitching staff to be, and in the opener, they showed that the ceiling is pretty high. For Tulane, it was no surprise that Olthoff did what he did after a standout 2020 campaign, but it will look for more production out of a revamped lineup moving forward. 

Evansville Stymies Georgia’s Offense

Georgia went into the weekend down two of its best arms in lefthander Ryan Webb and righthander Jonathan Cannon, but in an upset loss at the hands of Evansville on Friday, offensive production was the bigger issue. 

Missing Webb and Cannon this weekend moved veteran lefthander C.J. Smith to the front of the rotation, and he was solid, throwing four innings, giving up four hits and two runs (one earned). That performance, combined with the bullpen giving up just one run in five innings after him, was good enough to get the win, but Evansville’s Shane Gray was on his game. The righthander threw six innings, giving up four hits and one run with no walks and four strikeouts. 

Georgia tacked on one more run in the eighth, but even that was unearned, and UE righthander Jakob Meyer was able to close out the game with little incident. One game is no reason to panic about a lack of offensive production, but until the Georgia rotation is back at full strength, it is incumbent upon the lineup to help carry the load. 

NC Central Bounces Back

A week ago, North Carolina Central found out that this season would be the program’s last. The athletic department last Thursday announced the baseball program will be eliminated at the end of the season as it looks to cut its budget amid the financial fallout from the pandemic.

The Eagles were, however, able to put that behind them before their Opening Day game against Army. They took an early lead thanks to a second-inning grand slam from Nick Fajardo and went on to a 9-4 victory.

Good days may be hard to come by right now for the Eagles, but they certainly got one Friday.

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