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College Baseball Takeaways: Upsets Highlight Friday's Action

Virginia Tech (Courtesy Of Miami Thomas Brogdon)
Photo courtesy of Miami/Thomas Brogdon

Upsets Abound Friday

This weekend’s schedule provided just one Top 25 matchup – a series between No. 21 Georgia Tech and No. 15 North Carolina State. While such a slate might lack a bit of pizzaz on paper, it delivered plenty once play began Friday.

Nine of the top 10 teams in the country were in action Friday (No. 2 Virginia had its game at North Carolina postponed). Those teams went a combined 3-6.

No. 1 Ole Miss lost for the first time since Opening Day 2020, as Central Florida defeated it, 3-2, in Swayze Field. No. 3 Miami and No. 9 Florida State both lost their ACC openers at home. No. 4 Vanderbilt was upset by Georgia State, No. 8 Mississippi State was knocked off by Tulane and No. 5 Louisville was stunned by Western Illinois, which was playing its first game of the season and hadn’t won a game since May 18, 2019.

College baseball is a game of weekend series, not individual games, and those six top-10 teams – plus Virginia, which lost its opener Thursday at North Carolina – will have a chance to come back and win the series over the next two days. With that in mind, it’s hard to take too much from that run of results, especially in February.

But this is an unprecedented season being played during a pandemic. All six top-10 teams that lost Friday did so at home where there were either no fans or a very limited number. Had Florida State or Louisville been able to pack the stands, perhaps the results are different. There is also more talent in college baseball than ever before after the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to all 2020 spring sports athletes and the draft was shortened to five rounds. UCF and Tulane both returned their aces from last season, both of whom might now be pitching in pro ball in a normal year.

Regardless of the reasons or broad conclusions to be drawn, the unpredictability of college baseball has always been one of the great things about the game. Time will tell if 2021 will have more days like Friday going forward. But for one day, while the top of the sport was knocked back on its heels, fans were reminded nothing can be taken for granted in this sport.

UCF Takes Down No. 1 Ole Miss

There were more surprising upsets elsewhere in college baseball on Friday, but none were as significant as Central Florida taking down No. 1 Mississippi, 3-2, at Swayze Field. UCF (2-3) dealt Ole Miss (4-1) its first loss of the season and snapped the Rebels’ 20-game winning streak, which had been the longest in the nation.

The Knights began the season ranked No. 24 but had a difficult first week, losing an Opening Weekend series against Florida Atlantic and then getting shutout by Stetson in midweek action. The biggest culprit of their slow start was their pitching – in their first four games, the Knights gave up 45 runs. But UCF’s pitching staff bounced back in a big way Friday behind ace lefthander Colton Gordon.

Gordon struck out six batters and held Ole Miss to one run on six hits and a walk over seven innings. He retired the last eight batters he faced and largely stayed out of trouble throughout his outing. Righthander David Litchfield threw the last two innings to earn the save, holding Ole Miss to just a ninth-inning solo home run from Hayden Dunhurst.

In short, it was a typical start for Gordon, a fourth-year sophomore. He has made six starts over the last two seasons since transferring from junior college – four of them have been quality starts. He is 3-0, 2.12 with 37 strikeouts and seven walks in 34 innings with the Knights and he has been outstanding in his two biggest starts – Friday at Ole Miss and last year at Auburn. Against SEC competition, he has struck out 13 batters, held hitters to two runs on 10 hits and two walks in 13 innings. Most importantly, UCF has won both games.

UCF and Ole Miss will finish the series with a Saturday doubleheader due to a poor forecast for Sunday. If the Knights can take one of those games, their poor first week of the season would be all but washed away. But even if the Rebels come back to win the series, Friday’s game is a reminder of what the Knights are capable of and gives them something to build on.

Western Illinois Shocks Louisville

In the biggest single-game upset we’ve seen so far this season, Western Illinois defeated No. 5 Louisville 8-3 on a rain-soaked afternoon at Jim Patterson Stadium.

There are a litany of amazing tidbits from this result; just pick your favorite from this list:

  • Friday was Western Illinois’ first game of the season
  • The victory was WIU coach Andy Pascoe’s first career win
  • The Leathernecks went 0-13 in 2020
  • They hadn’t won a game in 649 days, a streak that dated to a May 18, 2019, when they defeated Purdue-Fort Wayne

What is most surprising is how thoroughly Western Illinois outplayed Louisville. The Leathernecks outhit the Cardinals, 15-5, hung at least two runs on three of the four pitchers they faced and they played better defense, with Louisville committing three errors to WIU’s two.

In the fourth, it looked like Louisville was going to wrest control away from Western Illinois. Down 3-0, it scored three in that frame to tie it up and hit the ball hard all inning. But in the top of the fifth, the Leathernecks got all three runs back and were never pushed again.

Righthander Brett Sears got the start for WIU and threw five innings, allowing three runs, giving his team some length, but it was lefthander Brian Raymond who really stole the show out of the bullpen. In four scoreless innings, he allowed three hits and two walks, striking out six batters and dancing out of some trouble in the last couple of innings along the way. The top two hitters in the WIU lineup, right fielder Kevin Raisbeck and DH Trenton Bauer, reached base a combined seven out of the 12 times they stepped to the plate.

We’ve got a long season still ahead of us, but this will be a hard upset to top the rest of the way.

Braden Olthoff PItches Tulane To Win At Mississippi State

In the bottom of the fifth, with Tulane up 3-1 thanks to three unearned runs in the third, two of which came on a two-run homer off the bat of shortstop Collin Burns, the Mississippi State coaching staff asked the umpiring crew to check the wristband and glove of Tulane starter Braden Olthoff for foreign substances.

The umpires cleared Olthoff of any wrongdoing, after which the Green Wave righthander gave a sarcastic thumbs up to the MSU dugout. After retiring the side in that frame, he gestured back at the dugout again, as if to further prove there was nothing on his wristband.

Whether that incident served as extra fuel to the fire of the Tulane lineup or the timing was merely coincidental we’ll never know, but what we do know is that they came back out in the top of the sixth and added three more runs, effectively putting the game out of reach on the way to a 7-3 win over the No. 8 Bulldogs.

Olthoff was excellent overall. He threw eight innings, giving up six hits and two runs with one walk and six strikeouts. And while the Tulane lineup did a solid job of keeping pressure on Mississippi State pitching for much of the game, it wasn’t the cleanest game for the Bulldogs, either, as they committed four errors, leading to just two of Tulane’s seven runs being earned.

For the Green Wave, this win was just what the doctor ordered after a hard-fought home series loss to Louisiana last weekend. Mississippi State on Saturday will turn to righthander Eric Cerantola making his first start of the season.

Georgia State Upsets Vanderbilt On Next Stop In Gauntlet Schedule

When Georgia State announced a 2021 schedule that included series against West Virginia, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Kentucky, plus midweek games against Georgia, Georgia Tech, Florida and Clemson, all before beginning Sun Belt Conference play, it was easy to imagine the losing piling up.

But after a 4-2 win Friday at No. 4 Vanderbil, the Panthers are sporting a pretty impressive 3-3 mark.

Georgia State largely shut down the Commodores’ offense, led by righthander Ryan Watson, who threw five innings, giving up four hits and one run with two walks and seven strikeouts. All told, the GSU pitching staff punched out 13 batters.

Offensively, the Panthers scratched a run across on a sac fly in the second inning and another one on a Tanner Gallman RBI double in the fifth, but the deciding blow came in the ninth, when Elian Merejo connected for a two-run home run. At this point, all of the other power conference opponents ahead on GSU’s schedule should take notice. This team can compete with anyone.

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ACC Play Begins With Rain, Surprises

The ACC on Thursday became the first major conference to begin its conference season when North Carolina upset No. 2 Virginia, 3-2, in a game that was moved up by a day to beat a bad weekend forecast in Chapel Hill.

That game turned out to foreshadow Friday’s action around the conference. There were six conference games scheduled for Friday. Four were in North Carolina and they were all affected by rainy weather. Virginia at UNC and Notre Dame at Wake Forest were postponed, while Boston College at Duke and Georgia Tech at North Carolina State were both suspended. The other two games were both in Florida and both resulted in upsets. Virginia Tech took down No. 3 Miami, 5-3, and Pitt outdueled No. 9 Florida State, 1-0.

The Hokies (4-0) on Friday continued their impressive start to the season. Virginia Tech has played a solid slate of Kent State, Radford and Miami and has surrendered eight runs in four games. On Friday, it got a strong effort out of relievers Matthew Siverling and Shane Connolly, who combined for six scoreless innings. As coach John Szefc begins his fourth season at the program’s helm, Virginia Tech is stating its case as a team to watch.

Pitt (4-1) also rode an impressive performance on the mound to victory. Righthander Mitch Myers got the Panthers started with 13 strikeouts in six scoreless innings. Righthanders Dylan Lester and Jordan McCrum combined to strike out six batters over the next three innings to complete the shutout. The Panthers have surrendered nine runs on the season, a credit to the work coach Mike Bell – Florida State’s former pitching coach – has done since taking over the program three years ago.

The ACC looks to be as deep as it has ever been. Every team in the conference can legitimately feel like it is improved from 2020. With the ACC expanding its conference slate to 36 games over 12 weekends, this year will be a grueling test for all 14 teams.

But, if Friday was any indication, that will make for exciting viewing all season long.

Joe Rock No-Hits Morehead State

Ohio lefthander Joe Rock threw a seven-inning no-hitter in a 6-0 victory against Morehead State in the first game of a doubleheader. It was the first no-hitter of the season in college baseball.

Rock struck out six batters and walked two in seven innings. He faced one batter over the minimum and threw 89 pitches.

Rock, listed at 6-foot-6, 200 pounds, is the No. 87 prospect in the 2021 draft and has been trending up over the last several months. He last week started the season with 12 strikeouts in five innings at Radford, though he wasn’t as clinical as he was against Morehead State and gave up three runs (two earned) on four hits and three walks.

If Rock continues on his current trajectory, he could join Marc Cornell (fifth round, 2001) and Marc Krauss (second round, 2009) as the only Bobcats drafted in the top five rounds in the 21st century. He’d also make Ohio difficult to beat on Friday nights and contend with Kent State’s Luke Albright, Miami’s Sam Bachman and Ball State’s John Baker for the Mid-American Conference pitcher of the year.

UC Santa Barbara Scores Hard-Fought Win Against Pepperdine

In a battle of two conference title favorites out West, No. 19 UC Santa Barbara snuck past Pepperdine, 7-6.

Down 4-3 going to the seventh, the Gauchos put up four runs in the top of the seventh, three of them coming on a home run by second baseman Marcos Castanon, and although the Waves answered immediately with two runs of their own, the Gauchos held on to win.

UCSB (3-1)  pitching survived a four-homer barrage from the Pepperdine lineup, with relievers Conner Roberts and Christopher Troye combining to hold the Waves scoreless over the final three frames.

UCSB still hasn’t gotten the level of starting pitching it expected to get, but for the most part, it has been able to withstand that and win games in other ways. With the loss, Pepperdine falls to 1-3, with the struggles of lineup stalwarts Wyatt Young and Billy Cook really standing out. Young went 1-for-4 on Friday, just his second hit of the season, raising his average to .125. Meanwhile, Cook went 0-for-2. He’s now 0-for-13 on the season with nine strikeouts.

Oklahoma and Texas A&M Collect Much-Needed Wins in Round Rock

In Round Rock, No. 25 Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Baylor came into the weekend looking for wins after rocky starts to the season, and Auburn also came in with something to prove against tough competition after a sweep of Presbyterian last weekend. On day 1 of the event, it was Oklahoma (3-2) and Texas A&M (3-3) that got the wins they needed.

Oklahoma stormed back from an early deficit to beat Auburn, 4-3. Trailing 3-1 going to the bottom of the eighth, the Sooners scored one in the eighth on a Diego Muniz RBI single, tied it in the bottom of the ninth on a Tyler Hardman sac fly, and then walked off with the win in the bottom of the 10th on an RBI bloop single by Hardman. Together with an RBI single in the fifth, it was a three-RBI game for Hardman. On the mound, the star was righthander Jaret Godman, who threw six shutout frames in relief of starter Wyatt Olds.

In the nightcap, Texas A&M blew out Baylor, 12-4. The Aggies jumped out to an early lead, but really got rolling with a five-run fifth inning that made it a 9-1 game halfway through and never looked back. A&M second baseman Bryce Blaum went 3-for-6 out of the leadoff spot, and first baseman Will Frizzell continued his hot start to the season by going 3-for-5.

Both Texas A&M and Oklahoma have a real chance to get things headed in the right direction with another win or two this weekend.

Louisiana Tech Opens New Love Shack In Style

Nearly two years ago, a tornado ripped through Ruston, La. The storm caused destruction across the city, including to Louisiana Tech’s baseball, soccer, softball and tennis facilities. Baseball’s J.C. Love Field had to be rebuilt, leaving the Bulldogs without a true home field for the last 22 months.

On Friday, that changed. The new Love Shack, as the stadium is known locally, reopened and the Bulldogs wasted no time making themselves at home. They defeated Southern, 9-2, on a big night for the program.

LaTech played just four “home” games in 2020, as it swept a four-game series against Maine at Ruston High’s field. If the season had continued, it would have hosted games at a combination of Ruston High, Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson, Miss., and Louisiana-Monroe’s Warhawk Field.

Now, however, the Bulldogs have a brand new stadium to call their own. Eleven of their next 12 games, including the next six, are at home, giving them a chance to settle in. The Bulldogs have high hopes for the 2021 season and are 2-2 after an up-and-down opening week.

With Friday’s excitement now behind them, the Bulldogs will look to get on a roll in their new friendly confines.

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