College Baseball Takeaways: Upsets Slow Big 12 Title Race

Texas, TCU Upset As Big 12 Title Race Enters Final Weekend

Entering the final weekend of the regular season, the Big 12 title chase was coming down to the wire and looked to be the most exciting race to be decided this weekend. Texas Christian entered Thursday holding a one-game lead on Texas in the Big 12 standings, though the Longhorns held the tiebreaker thanks to their head-to-head series win.

Both Texas and TCU were upset Thursday – Texas falling to West Virginia, 5-4, and TCU losing 4-2 at Kansas State – leaving the standings as tight as ever but dampening the excitement of the title race at least for the night.

K-State lefthander Jordan Wicks, a projected first-round pick, delivered a strong start against TCU in what was likely the final home start of his career. He held the Frogs to two runs on five hits and two walks in 7.2 innings, striking out seven batters. Lefthander Eric Torres earned the save as he got the final four outs via strikeout.

Texas had the chance to pull even in the standings with TCU, but it was never able to push ahead of West Virginia. The Mountaineers became just the third team this season (Mississippi State, Texas Tech) to beat righthander Ty Madden, a projected first-round pick. He gave up five runs (four earned) on seven hits and a walk in six innings, striking out nine.

Righthander Tanner Witt threw three perfect innings in relief to keep it a one-run game and give the Longhorns a chance, the West Virginia bullpen matched the freshman. Righthanders Noah Short and Jacob Watters combined for 3.2 scoreless innings, scattering two hits and three walks to close out the win.

Because both Texas and TCU lost, nothing materially changed in the title race. But both teams must view Thursday as a missed opportunity, especially the Longhorns. To win the conference title, they must better the Horned Frogs’ result this weekend and now will need the Wildcats to win another game in the series.

Arkansas Beats Florida, Moves Closer To SEC Title

Top-ranked Arkansas followed a familiar script Thursday for another top-10 win as it knocked off No. 8 Florida, 6-1. With the win, the Razorbacks (40-10, 20-8) lowered their magic number to one to win their first SEC regular-season title since 2004.

Lefthander Patrick Wicklander stymied the Gators, holding them to one run on three hits and a walk in six innings. He struck out 11 batters and improved to 5-1, 1.89. Relief ace Kevin Kopps followed Wicklander with three scoreless innings to earn his eighth save of the season and lower his ERA – the nation’s best – to 0.76.

While Florida (35-17, 17-11) took an early 1-0 lead on a solo home run from Kendrick Calilao in the second inning, Arkansas scored six unanswered runs to finish the game. Right fielder Cadyn Wallace homered twice, as the Gators pitching staff was unable to hold the Razorbacks at bay.

It’s what Arkansas has done all season long and on Thursday it brought the Razorbacks one win away from a conference championship.

East Carolina Clinches Regular-Season Title

By sweeping a doubleheader at South Florida, No. 10 East Carolina (38-11, 20-6) clinched the American Athletic Conference regular-season title. 

In game 1, a 10-1 win, righthander Gavin Williams gave up three hits and one run and struck out 11 in six innings of work, while a seven-run sixth inning broke things open for ECU to cruise to the win. Second baseman Connor Norby led the way on offense by going 3-for-5 out of the leadoff spot. 

The Bulls (22-26, 12-14) stayed within striking distance in game 2, which ended in a 5-2 score, but it was once again a big inning for ECU that made the difference. This time, it was a five-run third inning highlighted by a three-run home run for Bryson Worrell

The bullpen was also excellent in locking down the win in the second game, with Cam Colmore, C.J. Mayhue and Matt Bridges combining to throw 4.1 shutout innings. 

With a regular-season title in hand and a healthy RPI that sat inside the top 10 after the win Thursday, East Carolina has likely locked up a spot as a host. It’s just a matter now of how high it can climb. 

Tennessee Rides Big Inning to Win Over South Carolina

Coming off an emotionally taxing series loss to Arkansas at home, a three-game set that was decided by just a handful of plays and that could have gone either way, Tennessee has a potentially tricky series this weekend against resurgent South Carolina. 

Thursday, though, the Volunteers (41-13, 19-9) succeeded in landing the first blow, a 10-4 win against the Gamecocks (32-19, 15-13).

Tennessee got the scoring started in the third inning on a Max Ferguson sacrifice fly, but it really broke things open with a six-run fourth inning, pushing the lead to 7-0, that was bookended by two-run homers for Luc Lipcius and Ferguson. 

South Carolina chipped away and made it a 7-4 game after an Andrew Eyster two-run homer in the eighth, but Tennessee scored three insurance runs in the ninth to cut off the comeback at the knees. 

Even in the loss, it was positive news for the Gamecocks that they got homers from Eyster and Wes Clarke, two hitters who have recently started to hit the ball with authority again after suffering through power outages in the meat of SEC play. 

The rest of this series is important for South Carolina if it wants to host. Wins the next two days would likely keep it in pretty good shape. One win from the weekend would at least keep the path open if it were to also play well next week in the SEC Tournament. But getting swept would probably be a death knell for those hopes.

Streaky Play Continues In ACC

No. 24 North Carolina State stayed hot with a walk-off win against No. 12 Florida State, its 11th win in its last 12 games. But the Wolfpack were far from the only streaking ACC team Thursday to continue their momentum – positive or negative.

Miami defeated No. 19 Louisville, 6-1, in a game between two teams going in the opposite direction. The Hurricanes (30-17, 18-15) are 7-3 this month, while the Cardinals (27-19, 16-14) have lost eight of their last 12 games.

Duke beat Clemson, 5-1, behind a strong start from righthander Jack Carey. The Blue Devils (26-20, 14-17) have won six straight, while the Tigers have lost six of their last eight games.

No. 3 Notre Dame defeated Virginia Tech, 8-2. The Hokies (27-21, 16-18) have lost four straight and have won just two ACC games since April 12.

North Carolina beat Georgia Tech, 3-2, to run its winning streak to five games. The Yellow Jackets (26-21, 19-15) have lost three of their last four, while the Tar Heels (26-22, 18-16) are on a five-game winning streak.

Virginia defeated Boston College, 7-1, and has won nine of its last 12 games. BC (20-27, 9-22) has lost six of its last eight.

Wake Forest defeated Pittsburgh, 6-1. The Panthers (22-17, 16-15) have lost four straight and seven of their last nine.

So many teams in the ACC are now congregating around .500 in the conference, further clouding an already hazy NCAA Tournament picture. Pitt, which just a week ago was announced as a potential host site for regionals, has played its way out of the host race and could fall further if it can’t arrest its slide. Louisville was believed to have a case for hosting just a couple weeks ago and is now falling back toward the bubble. Clemson has straddled the bubble in recent weeks, but now is just .500 overall and Virginia Tech is also moving in the wrong direction, away from the bubble.

On the flip side, Miami is doing everything it can to prove the selection committee should have included it on the shortlist of potential host sites. North Carolina’s win Thursday should secure it an NCAA Tournament berth as it is now assured of at least a .500 ACC record. Virginia (26-21, 17-17) is one win away from joining UNC in that distinction and Duke is making a hard, late charge at the bubble.

Momentum is playing a key role in shaping the NCAA Tournament push for so many ACC teams. That promises to make the final two days of the regular season and next week’s ACC Tournament in Charlotte plenty entertaining.

Fairfield Wins MAAC Quarterfinal Series

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament got underway Thursday with the quarterfinal round, and although Fairfield got pushed by Manhattan, it was able to sweep the  series and move on to the next stage. 

Game 1 was a classic pitchers duel, with both starters, Manhattan’s Logan Muratalla and Fairfield’s John Sansone, throwing eight innings. The difference was that the Stags were able to touch up Muratalla just a bit more in a 2-1 win. 

They pushed across one run in the second on a Mike Caruso RBI single. They added a second run in the fourth on a Mike Becchetti solo homer. And Sansone cruised through eight scoreless innings, allowing just six hits and one walk with eight strikeouts. 

But in the ninth, the Jaspers came alive against reliever Eli Oliphant, putting two men on, forcing a pitching change to Bryson Cafaro. After Cafaro recorded a strikeout for the second out of the inning, Sam Franco hit a double into the LF corner, scoring a run and putting the tying and go-ahead runs into scoring position. Cafaro got Matt Padre to fly out, however, to end the threat and the game. 

In game 2, after falling behind 3-0, Manhattan took a 5-3 lead with a five-run fifth that featured a three-run home run for Dan Ryan and a solo shot for Justin Guerrera. The Jaspers (12-24) answered with two in the seventh on a Franco homer to tie it, but the Stags (35-1) pulled away again with three more in the eighth, including two on a costly Manhattan error, on the way to an 8-5 win. 

It wasn’t easy, but the dream season for Fairfield just keeps rolling on.

Ace Watch

We’ve already highlighted the work of Arkansas’ Patrick Wicklander, Duke’s Jack Carey, East Carolina’s Gavin Williams, Fairfield’s John Sansone and Kansas State’s Jordan Wicks. But several other pitchers stepped up around the country. Here are five more who had impressive games.

Andrew Abbott, LHP, Virginia: A week after leading Virginia to a combined no-hitter against Wake Forest, Abbott threw 6.2 scoreless innings in a 7-1 victory at Boston College. He struck out 11 batters and held the Eagles to three hits and three walks. Abbott improved to 7-5, 2.87 with 126 strikeouts (only Kumar Rocker has more) and 27 walks in 81.2 innings.

Austin Love, RHP, North Carolina: Love threw a complete game to lead UNC to a 3-2 victory at Georgia Tech. He struck out 15 batters, walked none and scattered eight hits in his second straight complete game. Love improved to 7-4, 3.51 with 111 strikeouts and 26 walks in 89.2 innings.

Jack Myers, RHP, Butler: Myers threw a seven-inning shutout in a 2-0 victory at Georgetown. He held the Hoyas to four hits, walked none and struck out eight batters. Myers is 4-5, 4.39 this season.

Doug Nikhazy, LHP, Mississippi: Nikhazy struck out 13 batters in seven scoreless innings in a 2-0 victory at Georgia. He scattered four hits and two walks. Nikhazy improved to 8-2, 2.12 with 107 strikeouts and 26 walks in 72.1 innings.

Dustin Saenz, LHP, Texas A&M: Saenz led A&M to a key 2-1 victory in a pitcher’s duel. He struck out eight batters in eight innings, while limiting the Tigers to one run on two hits and two walks. The victory kept the Aggies tied with Auburn for the last spot in the SEC Tournament, while Saenz improved to 6-6, 4.27 with 104 strikeouts in 84.1 innings.

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