Teddy Cahill and Michael Lananna break down three big tournaments and a classic rivalry series going into this weekend’s action.
Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic at Minute Maid Park, Houston
Teams: Houston, No. 8 Kentucky, Louisiana-Lafayette, Mississippi State, Sam Houston State, No. 18 Vanderbilt.
Three Players to Watch
T.J. Collette, DH, Kentucky: The sophomore last week went 8-for-20 with four home runs and enters the weekend on an eight-game hitting streak. He provides a powerful bat in the heart of the Wildcats’ lineup.
Trey Cumbie, LHP, Houston: The 2017 co-American Athletic Conference pitcher of the year is off to a fantastic start to his junior season. He has a 22-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 12 innings and has limited opponents to two runs and four hits.
Logan Stoelke, OF/RHP, Louisiana-Lafayette: Stoelke started his career at ULL as a pitcher, mostly played in the outfield last year as a junior and has now moved back to the mound as a senior. He’s been a lockdown reliever. He’s saved all three of the Cajuns wins this season and has struck out five batters in 4.2 hitless innings.
Two Storylines to Follow
Vanderbilt’s freshmen class steps into the spotlight: Vanderbilt this fall brought in the top-ranked recruiting class in the country and the newcomers have wasted no time making their presence felt as the Commodores have gotten off to a 9-1 start. Infielder Austin Martin (.517/.650/.690) and outfielder Pat DeMarco (.487/.556/.718) are off to sizzling starts at the plate, and third baseman Jayson Gonzalez (.351/.400/.568, 2 HR) and catcher Phillip Clarke (.333/.488/.433) aren’t far off the pace. Several freshmen have gotten into the mix on the mound, including Mason Hickman, who has yielded just one run in nine innings, and Aaron Brown, who leads the team with three appearances.
With the freshmen hitting the ground running, Vanderbilt is off to a fast start and comes to Houston on an eight-game winning streak. But this weekend will present a bigger test for the Commodores. They are leaving the familiar confines of Hawkins Field for the first time and will be taking a step up in competition. Vanderbilt’s schedule hasn’t been laden with cupcakes, but it also has not yet played a team that made regionals last year. How the young Commodores react to a bigger stage and better competition will be telling.
Mississippi State faces stern test before ending road trip: It has been a tough start to the season, to say the least, for Mississippi State. First, the Bulldogs were swept at Southern Mississippi on Opening Weekend. Then they were hit with the bombshell news that Andy Cannizaro had resigned as head coach a week into his second season due to off-field conduct. Gary Henderson was promoted from pitching coach to interim head coach and led the Bulldogs to three straight wins, but they lost back-to-back games to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and McNeese State going into the Shriners College Classic. To top it off, Mississippi State has yet to play a home game as the renovations to Dudy Noble Field continue.
This weekend is Mississippi State’s final weekend on the road before returning to Starkville and it will be eager to get back on track. The Bulldogs have started swinging the bats better over the last week but still hasn’t gotten into a groove offensively. It will face some tough pitching in Houston but with Southeastern Conference play on the horizon, this weekend will provide an important test.
One Team with The Most to Gain
Sam Houston State: The Bearkats have won seven straight games since losing on Opening Day to Kent State and come into Houston with momentum. That positions Sam Houston well for the Shriners College Classic, which holds more importance for it than any other team in the field. This weekend provides the Bearkats with the opportunity to prove itself against three SEC teams, an opportunity unlike anything else it will get the rest of the season. It may only be the first weekend of March, but if the Bearkats are able to win a couple games in Minute Maid Park, it will resonate throughout the spring and provide a marquee weekend for its NCAA Tournament resume.
Dairy Queen Classic at U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
Teams: Arizona, Illinois, Michigan State, Minnesota, No. 11 UCLA, Washington.
Three Players to Watch
Joe DeMers, RHP, Washington: It will be impossible for DeMers to top his last start, when he needed just 84 pitches to throw a perfect game against UC Riverside. All eyes will be on the Washington ace to see what he does for an encore.
Riley McCauley, RHP, Michigan State: One of the top arms in the Big Ten Conference, McCauley has had mixed results in his first two starts this season. He has struck out 18 batters and walked four in 10.2 innings, but he’s also given up 13 hits and six runs. Michigan State will be looking to him to set the tone for the weekend.
Michael Toglia, 1B, UCLA: The sophomore slugger is off to a great start to the season, hitting .433/.538/.867 with three home runs in eight games. His powerful bat in the heart of the Bruins’ lineup is critical to their offensive success.
Two Storylines to Follow
Can Arizona’s offense get on track? After an Opening Weekend sweep of Bryant, Arizona (5-3) stumbled last week in San Diego, where it went 1-3. The Wildcats have pitched well so far and their 2.01 team ERA ranked 16th in the country entering the week. But their typically potent offense has been sluggish in the early going.
Arizona is hitting .221/.350/.288 with just 12 extra-base hits as a team. The Wildcats have the potential to be a strong offensive team, but need some of their top hitters to get going. Third baseman Nick Quintana (.207/.281/.310) and shortstop Nick Moniot (.053/.280/.053) are among the hitters struggling, but they are far from alone. For Arizona to reach its potential, it will need to wake its bats up.
Illinois looks to build momentum: After a 1-3 start to the season, Illinois won its last two games last weekend at Coastal Carolina’s tournament to get back to .500. Now it faces a difficult weekend, starting with No. 11 UCLA on Friday morning. The Illini face a tough schedule to start the season, but getting a good start is critical. Winning a couple games in Minneapolis would be the kind of weekend they could build off the rest of the spring.
One Team with The Most to Gain
Minnesota: The tournament hosts come into the event hot, having won five straight to improve to 7-2. The Gophers have a chance to make an early statement with a big weekend against some high-profile competition. Minnesota has a tough slate over the next month that includes series at No. 7 Texas Christian and Nebraska and visits from Creighton and No. 22 St. John’s. Starting this month with a strong showing in their second home would likely open some eyes.
Frisco College Classic in Frisco, Texas
Teams: Texas A&M, Baylor, California, Louisiana Tech
Players to watch
Stephen Kolek, rhp, Texas A&M: The flamethrowing younger brother of former first-rounder Tyler Kolek, Stephen is off to a sizzling start this season as the Aggies’ Friday starter. He’s 2-0, 0.77 with 15 strikeouts to four walks in 11.2 innings and has the power stuff to deliver a dominant outing on any given night.
Tanner Dodson, of/rhp, California: Dodson had a huge, breakout summer in the Cape Cod League and has emerged as one of college baseball’s best outfield prospects. He’s also a premium closer on the college level and serves both roles for Cal—making him one of the most valuable players in the Pac-12. He’ll almost assuredly be a factor this weekend.
Cody Bradford, lhp, Baylor: It’s hard to get off to a better start than the sophomore lefty Bradford has for Baylor. Baylor’s Friday starter yielded just one hit in eight innings on Opening Day against Houston Baptist, and through 13 innings this season he has allowed no runs on five hits and struck out 15.
No. 9 Texas A&M is off to a perfect 9-0 start this season after last year’s Omaha run. However, the Aggies have yet to face premium competition and haven’t yet played outside of College Station. This weekend offers an opportunity for both. How will the Aggies fare in their first real test of the season?
California first baseman Andrew Vaughn, last year’s Pac-12 freshman of the year, is off to an eye-opening start to his sophomore campaign. Through seven games, he’s batting .542/.676/1.208 with five home runs and 14 RBIs. Can he keep it cooking at the plate against the premium arms he’ll see?
Team with something to gain
Louisiana Tech: The Bulldogs won’t have a better RPI-building opportunity than this one for some time. While the Bulldogs have a conference series against Rice and Southern Miss to look forward to, a big splash this weekend could go a long way toward bolstering Louisiana Tech’s at-large chances later in the season.
No. 10 Clemson vs. South Carolina
Players to watch:
Drew Wharton, of, Clemson: For all of the name-brand power in Clemson’s lineup, it’s the senior Wharton who leads the Tigers with four home runs on the season, and he was a huge factor in leading Clemson to a series sweep over Dallas Baptist. He’s red-hot entering this series.
Seth Beer, 1b, Clemson: While Beer hasn’t quite gotten in a groove yet this season (.259/.447/.556), the junior has game-changing power and one of the quickest bats in college baseball. Not only that, but Beer has shown a knack for rising to the occasion in his time with the Tigers, especially against the rival Gamecocks.
Adam Hill, rhp, South Carolina: Hill had a rough outing on Opening Day against Virginia Military Institute, inflating his ERA (5.73). But the junior righthander has Friday ace stuff and excellent peripherals (20 strikeouts and three walks in 11 innings) and could give Clemson fits in the series opener.
Can the Gamecocks get their bats going? While middle-of-the-order hitters Jacob Olson and Carlos Cortes have hit for power so far (six homers between them), they aren’t yet hitting for average (a combined .194). South Carolina needs both players to carry the offensive load this season.
Clemson has a brand new weekend rotation, fronted by lefthander Jacob Hennessy and featuring a much-anticipated return from now-healthy lefty Jake Higginbotham. While Clemson has pitched well up to this point, it’s possible that rotation could go through a few permutations this season. A weekend against South Carolina could serve as a valuable barometer.
Team with something to gain
South Carolina: In their first season under new head coach Mark Kingston, the Gamecocks could make a huge statement—and potentially enter the Top 25—with a series win against Clemson. This series is Kingston’s first big test as head coach and a success could go a long way toward endearing him to South Carolina’s passionate but demanding fanbase.