Off The Bat: TCU, Wofford Win First-Place Showdowns

Image credit: Austin Krob (Ken Murphy/Four Seam Images)

While last weekend had more wild upsets, this weekend of college baseball was not short on drama. The Big 12 title fight between Oklahoma State and TCU delivered on its promise, as did the Southern Conference showdown between Mercer and Wofford. While those two series had the advantage of pitting the top two teams in the conference standings against each other, there were impactful series all over the country as conference races heat up everywhere.

Here are 12 thoughts on the weekend that was in college baseball.

1. The weekend’s biggest winner was TCU, which won a series at Oklahoma State and left Stillwater in first place in the Big 12. The way the Horned Frogs (27-13, 12-6) did it made the series win even more impressive.

Oklahoma State won the series opener, 13-2. The Cowboys (27-13,10-5) matched the most runs allowed by the Horned Frogs this season and got to ace Riley Cornelio in a way no one had this season, scoring eight runs (seven earned) on 11 hits in 3.1 innings. TCU bounced right back, however. It never trailed Saturday en route to a 6-4 victory, setting up a rubber game Sunday.

In the finale, TCU came away with a hard-fought, 7-6 victory to win the series. The Horned Frogs got a strong effort from their bullpen, which limited the Cowboys to two runs (one earned) in six innings. Their offense also did work late, scoring a run in each of the last four innings, which proved to be decisive.

The weekend could have slipped away from TCU after a bad loss Friday night. Instead, the Horned Frogs persevered and showed their mettle the rest of the weekend. Not only did TCU win a pair of close games, it had to stave off late rallies both days. On Saturday, Oklahoma State brought the tying run to the plate with one out but couldn’t break through. On Sunday, the Cowboys scored twice in the ninth inning and had the winning run on base with two outs. Again, the Horned Frogs slammed the door.

In the two wins, TCU’s bullpen threw 9.2 innings and held Oklahoma State to two runs (one earned) on five hits. Among the highlights out of the bullpen was righthander Garrett Martin getting the final outs in both wins and lefthander Austin Krob on Sunday making his first appearance in more than a month. Martin earned his first two saves of the season, as he struck out three of the four batters he faced over the two games. Lefthander River Ridings has served as TCU’s closer this season and has 10 saves, but twice this weekend coach Kirk Saarloos turned to Martin for the final outs.

Krob started the year in the rotation before his injury and worked hard to get back on the field, throwing two scoreless innings Sunday. He’s sure to pitch significant innings down the stretch for TCU in some role and Sunday was a big step forward.

In the last two weekends, TCU has gone 5-1 against Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. It’s been a big response by the Horned Frogs after back-to-back series losses to West Virginia and Texas. And it’s not just elevated TCU to first place in the Big 12, it’s also put the Horned Frogs in the mix to host regionals. Their RPI (26) is still a little light, but a non-conference series at Florida State next weekend presents a big opportunity to make up some ground there and bolster their NCAA Tournament resume.

As for the Big 12 race, TCU has six conference games left—three fewer than the other contenders. It holds just a half-game lead on Oklahoma State, but with series against Oklahoma (25-13, 7-5) and Kansas (16-23, 2-10) left, TCU is well positioned for the stretch run.

2. While the weekend was a big win for TCU, it goes down as a missed opportunity for Oklahoma State. After Friday’s big win, the Cowboys had an opportunity to solidify their position atop the Big 12 standings. Instead, they finish the weekend looking up at the Horned Frogs.

Oklahoma State will take heart in the fact that it is a game in front of TCU in the loss column and still controls its own destiny in the Big 12 race. But the Cowboys face a more challenging finishing stretch, as they still must play No. 18 Texas, No. 15 Texas Tech and Baylor.

The Cowboys on Tuesday lost to Oral Roberts, 15-9, in 12 innings, making for an especially difficult week. It cost them 12 spots in RPI, dropping them outside the top 25. While that’s not going to cut it to host regionals, it’s also not a huge deal for Oklahoma State. If the Cowboys take care of business enough in the Big 12 to finish in first or second place, the RPI will likely take care of itself. But with such a challenging remaining schedule, they will have to be on top of their game over the final month of the season.

3. No. 1 Tennessee this weekend swept Florida in Gainesville to improve to 37-3, 17-1. In the process, the Volunteers set the SEC record for the best start to conference play. The previous record (16-1) was held by 1951 Tennessee.

The Volunteers opened the series with an 8-2 victory Friday and clinched the series with a 3-0 victory Saturday. They held the Gators to a total of five hits in those two games and never trailed. Sunday was much more dramatic. Florida was up 4-0 after six innings and still held a two-run lead when Tennessee was down to its final strike in the ninth inning. But freshman DH Christian Moore delivered a two-run single to tie the game and then hit a two-run home run in the 11th inning to send Tennessee to a 6-4 victory.

The biggest development of the weekend for Tennessee was the return to the rotation of Preseason All-American Blade Tidwell. The sophomore righthander was in line to be the team’s Opening Day starter before shoulder soreness sidelined him to start the season. He this week took the place of righthander Chase Dollander, who missed his start after being hit in the arm by a line drive last week against Alabama. Tidwell on Saturday struck out five batters and held Florida to two hits and a walk in 4.2 scoreless innings, his longest outing of the season.

Tidwell’s return and his impressive outing—beyond the raw numbers, he showed premium stuff, running his fastball into the upper 90s—only further underscore Tennessee’s depth on the mound. Its 2.03 team ERA is the best in the nation and whenever Dollander (6-0, 2.93) is ready to return, the Volunteers will have the good problem of trying to find the right way to line up him, Tidwell and freshmen Chase Burns (7-1, 2.12) and Drew Beam (8-0, 1.86) into the rotation.

Tennessee swept Florida (23-17, 6-12) in Gainesville for just the third time in program history and the first time since 2001. It was the Volunteers’ eighth sweep of the season, setting a program record.

Tennessee already holds a five-game lead for the top seed in the SEC Tournament and has a magic number of eight with 12 games to go. At this rate, the Volunteers may well have the SEC title clinched by Mother’s Day (May 8—get your cards now!).

4. If TCU was the biggest winner of the weekend, Wofford wasn’t far off. Like the Horned Frogs, the Terriers went on the road and won a first-place showdown. They won the first two games of their series at Mercer before they lost the finale, 12-10, on a walk-off.

Sunday’s loss couldn’t spoil a huge series win for Wofford (30-10, 8-1), however. It rolled to a 17-7 win Friday and on Saturday shut out Mercer, 5-0, to clinch the series. The Terriers left Macon, Ga., with a one-game edge on Mercer (32-8, 7-2) in the Southern Conference standings and a top-10 RPI.

Wofford got strong starting pitching in the first two games of the weekend. Righthander Matthew Marchal (4-2, 2.75) on Friday struck out nine batters and held Mercer to three runs on three hits and three walks in six innings. On Saturday, righthander Josh Vitus (4-3, 2.88) scattered three hits and three walks in five scoreless innings, striking out three batters.

Marchal and Vitus, as well as closer Dalton Rhadans (5-2, 3.27, 9 SV), have been a big part of Wofford’s success this season. Their offense is operating at a high level, averaging 7.88 runs per game, and their aggressive game plan—they have 117 stolen bases in 40 games—makes them difficult to face. The whole combination has been hard for any team to deal with this season. Wofford also has a series win at Dallas Baptist and it’s now won at least 30 games for the seventh time in the last eight full seasons, a testament to its consistent excellence under coach Todd Interdonato.

Still, Wofford is operating at near unprecedented levels for the program. The Terriers have made the NCAA Tournament just once in program history (2007) and they’ve never won the SoCon regular-season title. There’s still a long way to go—more than half the SoCon season remains—but Wofford already has series wins against Mercer and East Tennessee State, which are second and third in the standings.

This has already been a special season for the Terriers. It’s tracking toward a historic one for Wofford.

5. This weekend’s series was a showcase not just for Wofford, but for the SoCon. The conference hasn’t been a multi-bid league in the NCAA Tournament since 2012, when it got three bids. Ten years—and a hefty dose of conference realignment—later and the conference again deserves to have more than one team advance to regionals.

Wofford’s case has been clear for weeks and its series win at Mercer only bolstered its resume. But Mercer is also a deserving tournament team. Only Tennessee has more wins this season than the Bears and they rank in the top 25 of RPI. Their strength of schedule (106) may leave a lot to be desired, but they have wins against Florida State and Georgia Tech and a series win at Utah.

Mercer’s job isn’t done. It needs a strong finish and a series next weekend against ETSU (24-12, 6-3) will be critical. But if the Bears don’t slip out of second place in the SoCon, they’ll likely have a regional-caliber resume and should be rewarded with their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2017.

This weekend didn’t have the outcome the Bears were hoping for, but don’t lose track of them over the next month. If they do get into regionals, no host is going to be happy to see them drawn into their bracket.

6. Texas A&M has been one of the hardest charging teams over the last few weeks. The Aggies kept that momentum going this weekend with a huge series win against Arkansas, which came into the weekend ranked in the top five.

A&M and Arkansas split a pair of pitchers’ duels in the first two games of the series, as a total of seven runs were scored. That set the stage for Sunday’s rubber game, which was a wild affair. The Aggies scored five runs in the first inning and opened a 9-1 lead after four innings. The Razorbacks didn’t go quietly, however, and rallied hard. They cut the deficit to one run in the eighth inning and had runners on second and third with no outs. Lefthander Jacob Palisch was able to escape the jam with three strikeouts and then retired the side in order in the ninth to close out an 11-10, series-clinching victory.

A&M (25-14, 10-8) has won nine of its last 12 games, dating to a series loss at Alabama the first weekend of April. That stretch includes back-to-back series wins against Arkansas and at Georgia, with a 14-1 victory against Dallas Baptist on Tuesday thrown in for good measure.

That hot stretch has pushed the Aggies into the Top 25 for the first time this season, debuting at No. 23. After last season finishing in last place in the SEC West, the Aggies in coach Jim Schlossnagle’s first season have already exceeded last season’s SEC win total (nine).

A&M is firmly on track to reach regionals and can dream bigger as it enters the stretch run. It has pushed its RPI up to 21. If it can continue to build on its momentum over the final month, when it faces Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, it could host regionals for the first time since 2016.

7. The Big Ten title race and NCAA Tournament picture got a significant jolt this weekend. The biggest result was Iowa’s series win at Rutgers, but Maryland’s series win at Illinois also had big implications.

The Hawkeyes (23-13, 8-4) have had some mixed results this season, but captured their biggest series win in Piscataway, N.J. Iowa won the first two games of its series at Rutgers (32-9, 12-3) before losing Sunday’s finale. It handed the Scarlet Knights their first conference series loss of the season.

For Iowa, the series win pushed its RPI to 57. That’s still probably a bit light for an at-large bid, but the Hawkeyes have a manageable closing stretch as they won’t face a team that currently has a winning Big Ten record. That means the margin of error is minimal, but if they win the games, a return to regionals for the first time since 2017 is within reach.

Rutgers, meanwhile, went 1-3 on the week, as it also lost on Wednesday to Princeton. That saw the Scarlet Knights’ 16-game winning streak end and their RPI plummet to 54. Rutgers is still in first place in the Big Ten and has everything in front of it. But with series against No. 20 Maryland and Michigan still on tap, big tests still await Rutgers. It will need to earn its way into regionals.

Maryland (32-8, 9-3) faced a difficult spot of its own after losing Friday at Illinois, 19-1. But the Terrapins showed their resilience by sweeping a doubleheader Saturday to win the series. They’re 1.5 games behind Rutgers in the standings but are even in the loss column and still have a head-to-head series against the Scarlet Knights. Everything—including hosting a regional—is still on the table for Maryland thanks to its bounce back Saturday.

Illinois (19-17, 11-4), meanwhile, missed a big opportunity Saturday. The Illini came into the weekend on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament but have little margin of error after a poor non-conference showing. This weekend was Illinois’ last chance to make a statement in the regular season, as it has just one game left on its schedule against a team with a winning record. The Illini now need a red-hot finish to make a run at regionals.

Also hanging around in the Big Ten and regionals picture is Michigan (22-16, 8-4), which won its rivalry series against Ohio State. The Wolverines play Maryland and Rutgers on back-to-back weekends to close the regular season and can’t be counted out.

8. After going 2-10 to start Pac-12 play, Washington State is suddenly relishing the role of spoiler in the conference race. It won a series at Arizona two weeks ago and this weekend won a series at Oregon. The Cougars had a chance to sweep the series, as they lost Friday’s opener only when the Ducks scored five runs in the ninth to send the game to extra innings and then won, 8-7, in 10 innings. Washington State won Saturday’s game, 10-8, and then staged its own late comeback in an 8-7, 10-inning victory Sunday, as it erased an early 6-0 deficit.

Washington State (15-22, 7-14) is still three games behind California for the last spot in the inaugural Pac-12 Tournament and may have dug itself too big a hole to get out of. Minimally, UCLA should be on alert when the Cougars arrive in Westwood in three weeks.

As for Oregon (26-13, 11-7), this weekend was a brutal series loss. The Ducks are now two games behind first-place Oregon State in the crowded Pac-12 standings and their RPI slipped from No. 2 after Friday’s win to No. 14. They still have a hosting resume as it stands now, but they still have to play the Beavers and Arizona over the final month of the season. They’re going to have to earn that home regional with their play down the stretch.

9. One of the most impressive weeks belongs to Clemson, which beat Georgia and East Tennessee State midweek and then won a series against Florida State. The Tigers (26-14, 6-11) have won back-to-back ACC series and are 7-2 since getting swept at Notre Dame.

It wasn’t an easy weekend for Clemson. It needed late comebacks in both of its wins against Florida State. On Friday, it scored four runs in the eighth inning to win, 6-4. After a one-run loss Saturday, the Tigers came back to win, 8-5, in the finale, scoring five unanswered runs in the final four innings.

The question now for the Tigers is if they have left themselves enough time to dig out of the hole they put themselves in when they went 2-9 to open ACC play. Their RPI isn’t a problem, but they’ll need at least seven more ACC wins over the final four weeks of conference play to give themselves a chance at an at-large bid going into the ACC Tournament.

With series against Louisville (road), Georgia Tech, Virginia (road) and Boston College to close out the regular season, it won’t be easy. But if Clemson plays the way it has the last two weeks, it’s not unreasonable either. If the Tigers do end up on the NCAA Tournament bubble, they’ll also be able to point to a 5-0 record against SEC opponents, which could be a differentiator.

10. This weekend featured two perfect games and a no-hitter. Grambling State’s Shemar Page threw a seven-inning perfect game Friday in a 16-0 victory against Alcorn State. Fairfield’s Jake Noviello threw a seven-inning perfect game Sunday in a 10-0 victory against St. Peter’s. They were the first perfect games thrown this season.

Page set a career high with 13 strikeouts in his perfect game and threw 84 pitches. On the season, he is 5-4, 2.67 with 98 strikeouts and 29 walks in 64 innings.

Noviello struck out four batters and threw 71 pitches. His perfect game was the first in program history and the program’s first no-hitter since 1977. He improved to 3-2, 4.88 on the season.

Vanderbilt’s Chris McElvain and Christian Little combined for a no-hitter Friday in a 10-0 victory at Kentucky. McElvain started the game and went seven innings and Little threw the final two innings to complete the no-hitter.

11. On a weekend full of rivalries—Arizona vs. Arizona State, Michigan vs. Ohio State and Mississippi vs. Mississippi State were all played this weekend—Army-Navy delivered again. Playing at West Point, the Black Knights swept Saturday’s doubleheader to clinch the series before the Midshipmen won the finale, 5-0. Army (20-18, 13-5) previously had swept a doubleheader in Annapolis and finishes the regular season 4-1 against its archrival.

The Black Knights outscored the Midshipmen, 18-4, in the doubleheader sweep, as they got impressive all-around performances in both games. The Army offense is led by the left side of its infield—shortstop Kevin Dubrule (.352/.402/.478) and third baseman Sam Ruta (.378/.493/.655, 6 HR). The duo combined for 11 hits in the doubleheader sweep, including two home runs by Ruta.

With just two weekends left in Patriot League play, Army holds a two-game lead on Bucknell in the standings. Navy (18-22, 9-13), meanwhile, is a game behind Lafayette for fourth place and the last spot in the Patriot League Tournament. A showdown this weekend between the Midshipmen and Leopards could decide that spot in the standings.

12. After Rutgers’ 16-game winning streak was snapped Wednesday by Princeton, the nation’s longest active winning streak was passed to Central Michigan. The Chippewas this weekend swept Akron to extend their streak to 18 straight wins. Only Tennessee (23) has a longer winning streak this season.

Central Michigan (27-10, 21-1) is aiming for its third straight Mid-American Conference title and this weekend faces its biggest conference test as it travels to second-place Ball State (24-14, 18-4). This isn’t the same kind of 1 vs. 2 showdown as it was last year when both the Chippewas and Cardinals deserved regional bids, but it still will feel like a title fight. Adding to the drama is that the regular-season champion will host the MAC Tournament.

Eight for Omaha

Arkansas, Miami, Oregon State, Southern Miss, Stanford, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia

There’s one change to the field this week, as Southern Mississippi replaces Oklahoma State. The Cowboys get squeezed out following their series loss to Texas Christian, which knocked them out of first place in the Big 12 and out of the top 25 of RPI. They’re still in the hosting mix, but things got a bit harder for them coming out of this weekend. Southern Miss, meanwhile, has pushed into the top 10 and has a pitching staff that matches up with any in the country. The Golden Eagles haven’t been to Omaha since 2009, but there’s no reason why this team can’t make it back.

Looking Ahead

No. 5 Virginia and No. 9 Virginia Tech are set for massive rivalry showdown. It’s hard to imagine there’s been a bigger edition of this rivalry and there certainly hasn’t been in the 21st century. The Hokies (28-9, 12-7) this week moved into the top 10 for the first time in more than 25 years, while the Cavaliers (31-10, 13-8) are back into the top five this week. The two teams are locked in a virtual tie in the ACC Coastal Division and they’re both firmly in the mix to host regionals. Virginia Tech comes into this series hot, having won 18 of its last 21 games, but Virginia has homefield advantage and is 23-2 this season in Charlottesville. Something’s got to give this weekend.

No. 8 Oklahoma State looks to bounce back at No. 18 Texas. After a tough series loss to TCU, Oklahoma State (27-13, 10-5) now faces a difficult trip to Austin to take on Texas (30-13, 9-6). The Cowboys fell behind TCU in the Big 12 standings but still control their own destiny and could retake first place this weekend against Texas. But beating the Longhorns at Disch-Falk Field is no easy task. Texas is 18-4 at home this spring and still has its own sights on the Big 12 title.

No. 1 Tennessee, No. 21 Auburn square off in Top 25 showdown. The Volunteers (37-3, 17-1) are fresh off a sweep at Florida and have broken the record for best start in SEC play. Now, Tennessee is set to return home, where it is 26-1 this season, but it has a tough opponent in Auburn (29-12, 17-11). The Tigers have won six straight and are coming off a sweep of South Carolina, which left them just a game behind Arkansas in the SEC West race.

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