Off The Bat: Florida Finds A New Formula, AAC Play Begins
Florida Finds The Right Formula
A week ago, Florida faced a gut check after getting swept by South Carolina for the first time since 2006. The Gators were 15-9 and had lost series to the two best teams they had faced—Miami and South Carolina.
On the trip back to Gainesville, coach Kevin O’Sullivan decided to make a bold move with his pitching staff the following weekend when No. 3 Mississippi came to Florida Ballpark for a critical series. Instead of using righthanders Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich in the rotation, where they had pitched for the last three seasons, the Gators would instead use a tandem-starter strategy with righthanders Franco Aleman and Christian Scott starting and Mace and Leftwich coming on in relief.
O’Sullivan’s decision was rooted in a desire to get the ball in the hands of his best pitchers as much as possible. While Florida’s typical rotation of Mace, Leftwich and lefthander Hunter Barco can be one of the best in the country, none of the trio had thrown more than five innings at South Carolina. Aleman and Scott, meanwhile, both have starter abilities and on nearly any other team in the country they would be in the rotation. Too often, they were not pitching the most impactful innings.
“Our best arms need to throw the most innings,” O’Sullivan said. “You can have a traditional closer and go the whole weekend and he might not throw meaningful innings. We’ve got a bunch of good arms that need to throw.”
By flipping Aleman and Scott to the front of games, they would be assured to throw significant innings, rather than getting held in reserve for a high-leverage moment that might never come. Pairing them with Mace and Leftwich would ideally mean that Florida wouldn’t need to get into its bullpen in the first two games of the series.
Largely, the plan worked. Aleman held Ole Miss to one run in four innings in Thursday’s opener and Mace followed with five scoreless innings in a 4-1 victory. Scott started game 2 by limiting the Rebels to two runs in five innings. But the Gators got little offense going themselves against lefthander Doug Nikhazy and never led. Ole Miss scored six runs against Leftwich in the eighth and ninth innings in an 8-2 victory that evened the series.
In Saturday’s rubber game, Florida got a solid start from Barco, who held Ole Miss to three runs (two earned) in five innings. Lefthander Trey Van Der Weide, righthander Jordan Carrion and lefthander Ryan Cabarcas held the Rebels off over the final four innings to finish a 6-5 victory.
Florida (17-10, 5-4) picked up a massive series win and rose to No. 10 in the Top 25. While too much emphasis can’t be placed on a series on the first weekend in April, it is the Gators’ first series win against a ranked opponent and keeps them above .500 in the SEC going into a big weekend at No. 7 Tennessee.
More importantly, however, the Gators learned more about their pitching staff and may have hit on a formula to use going forward.
O'Sullivan said he wasn't sure if the Gators would again employ tandem starters this weekend at Tennessee. But with Aleman and Scott pitching the way they did, Florida now has that as an option. O'Sullivan said even if they return to the bullpen, he would likely be more aggressive in going to them earlier in the game and for longer outings.
“Franco and Christian were really good,” O’Sullivan said. “Tommy was what we expected. With Christian and Franco, it gives us options.”
Florida came into the spring expecting to have the deepest pitching staff in the country. But, at the season’s midpoint, that staff has not materialized. The Gators in February lost righthanders Tyler Nesbitt and Nick Pogue to Tommy John surgery and righthander Ben Specht, who emerged as their closer in 2020, has also been limited by injury. Without a few of its top arms, Florida has tried to find others to step up in their absence, a process that hasn’t always been easy.
Still, the Gators have a 3.86 team ERA and are doing a good job throwing strikes (2.66 walks per nine innings, a top-15 mark nationally). The pieces are all there for them to lock in on the mound in the second half of the season. While that’s easier said than done against a schedule that includes Arkansas, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, Florida did just hold Ole Miss to 12 runs on the weekend, well below the 7.2 runs per game it was averaging coming into the weekend.
The Gators stopped the Rebels’ hitters before they could get going.
“They’re difficult to navigate and they had a bunch of leadoff hitters on throughout the weekend,” O’Sullivan said. “They’re explosive and they score runs in bunches.”
One of the keys for the Gators was playing better defense. They made just two errors on the weekend (both in Sunday’s finale) and are now fielding .970 on the season. That’s still a lower fielding percentage than Florida typically posts, but it has improved over the course of the season.
Florida is averaging 5.56 runs per game through three SEC weekends. With that offense, if it's able to get closer to the kind of elite run prevention it was expected to have coming into the season, it figures to contend at the top of the conference.
There’s a lot of baseball left to be played this spring, but this weekend against Ole Miss could prove to be the start of a run for Florida.
American Athletic Conference play begins
The American Athletic Conference this weekend became the last major conference to begin its schedule. While the American had a sub-par performance in non-conference action, there was still plenty to watch on its opening weekend.
Here are some of the lessons from the first conference action of the season.
East Carolina pitched at a high level. ECU swept Cincinnati, a result that wasn’t surprising on the surface. The Pirates were the one team in the conference that stood out over the first six weeks of the season and ECU has been at the forefront of the AAC—it won the conference by seven games in 2019.
But to see ECU pitch at the level it did this weekend was notable. Cincinnati came into the weekend averaging seven runs per game. The Pirates held the Bearcats to seven runs in the four-game series and twice shut them out.
The Pirates rotation of Jake Kuchmaner (2-1, 4.46), Tyler Smith (1-1, 3.91), Carson Whisenhunt (4-0, 3.13) and Gavin Williams (3-0, 0.68) is strong. But what really stood out against Cincinnati was the bullpen. ECU relievers didn’t allow a run in 15 innings and scattered two hits and three walks, striking out 25.
ECU, ranked No. 8 in the Top 25, had already established itself as the class of the league. But if it gets that kind of work from its bullpen all year, a lot of teams will meet the same fate Cincinnati did.
Wichita State asserts itself. Coming into the weekend, the most intriguing series on paper figured to be Wichita State visiting Houston. Aside from ECU, the Shockers and Cougars were the only two teams in the conference with winning records in non-conference play. This weekend represented a chance for one of them to assert themselves as a regionals contender.
Wichita State did just that. The Shockers lost Thursday’s opener, 5-3, when the Cougars got a fantastic start from ace Robert Gasser. But they bounced back and won the next three games, all pitchers’ duels, by a total of three runs.
The nature of those wins doesn’t create a lot of separation but winning a road series in this conference is likely to be difficult with four-game weekends. The Shockers (15-9, 3-1) did just that behind an impressive pitching performance and two home runs from Paxton Wallace.
Wichita State has a chance to double down this weekend when Houston returns the trip. The Shockers haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2013 (and that appearance was technically vacated by the NCAA due to violations). It’s too early to seriously start thinking about breaking that drought, but with a schedule that looks to be front-loaded (its first 12 games are against Houston and Tulane), Wichita State has a chance to make some noise.
Tulane makes early hay. The third team to this weekend record a series win was Tulane, which beat Memphis three out of four games (the fourth series was split between Central Florida and South Florida). After losing the opener, 4-3, to the Tigers, the Green Wave won the next three games by a combined margin of 26-5. Ace Braden Olthoff was held out due to what coach Travis Jewett told the New Orleans Times-Picayune was a tired forearm—a precautionary move that isn’t expected to linger past this weekend.
Tulane (14-13, 3-1) has had an up-and-down season. Its lost four series this season and in three of those, it had a chance to win the series. The Green Wave lost twice in extra innings on Opening Weekend to Louisiana-Lafayette, twice blew ninth-inning leads at Mississippi State and lost a game to Grand Canyon that was tied in the ninth. It won close games in each of those series as well, but if Tulane could flip just one or two of those results, its season would have a different feel at the halfway point.
Now that conference play has started, Tulane gets a fresh slate and, unlike Wichita State, it has a back-loaded schedule. It visits South Florida (12-14, 2-2) this weekend before hosting Wichita State and then returning the trip to Memphis. If it can keep making hay over the next few weeks, Tulane would enter the meat of the schedule in a position to challenge the leaders. This weekend was a good start to doing just that.
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Eight for Omaha
Arizona, Arkansas, Louisville, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, Texas, Vanderbilt
There are a lot of ways I could have gone with this week’s field. Florida’s series win against Ole Miss was loud enough to get it considered for inclusion again. East Carolina dominated Cincinnati to open AAC play. South Carolina and Tennessee won quality road series. Florida State bounced back well.
Ultimately, I opted for two changes. Texas replaces Texas Tech and Arizona replaces UCLA. For a few years now, I’ve said Texas Tech is simply a different team in Lubbock. It this weekend again reminded me of that, losing its first true road series of the year at Kansas State. If Texas Tech can play at home in the NCAA Tournament, it will be an incredibly difficult out. But the bad news for the Red Raiders is their series this spring against Texas, the team I expect to be their biggest challenger in the Big 12, is in Austin. Finishing first vs. second in the Big 12 could be the difference maker on both teams’ top-eight seed resume. I’ll give the edge to the Longhorns.
Elsewhere, UCLA lost its third series of the season. Consistency has eluded the Bruins in the first half of the year, making them difficult to trust over back-to-back weekends against quality competition. I’m still convinced the Pac-12 produces at least one College World Series team, however, thanks to its impressive depth. So, while Arizona may be a little light on the mound, it has the best offense in the nation and if it can get home-field advantage in the NCAA Tournament—a real possibility if it can rise to the top of the Pac-12 standings—it's going to be very difficult to beat in Tucson.
Jimmy Borzone, RHP, Dixie State and Riley Sorenson, RHP, Merrimack: Borzone and Sorenson both threw no-hitters Friday. Borzone’s was a seven-inning no-hitter in a 5-1 victory against Tarleton State. Sorenson threw his in a 2-1 victory against Sacred Heart and needed just 98 pitches to complete nine innings. Borzone’s gem came six years to the day after the only other no-hitter in program history, while Sorensen’s was the third in program history.
Ben Chapman, RHP, Southern Illinois: Chapman has been a regular member of SIU’s rotation all season and took his regular turn in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader against Illinois State. But Chapman was later pressed into emergency duty behind the plate. Catcher Austin Ulick left the game injured and the Salukis were already without Tony Rask, who last weekend was hit in the head by a pitch. That left Chapman as the emergency catcher. He hadn’t this season appeared as a position player but caught in junior college. He caught the next 18 innings of the weekend—all but the final three innings of Sunday’s game. Chapman went 1-for-6 with a double at the plate and this season is 5-2, 2.45 on the mound.
Jacob Melton, OF, Oregon State: Melton homered three times Friday in a 17-3 victory against Utah and went 7-for-13 with a triple and a double in the series. He became the first Beaver to homer three times in a game since Andy Jarvis did so in 2001. Melton is hitting .456/.500/.754 with four home runs on the season.
South Alabama: For the first time since 1976, USA swept a three-game series against in-state rival Troy. The Jaguars threw a pair of shutouts in the series, including a one-hitter Saturday in an 8-0 victory in the series finale. USA (16-10, 5-1) has won nine of its last 11 games and is emerging as one of the Sun Belt Conference favorites.
Stony Brook: The Seawolves swept a four-game series against Hartford to extend their winning streak to eight games, all in America East Conference play. Following the sweep, Stony Brook (12-7, 8-0) has left little doubt as to which team is the conference favorite.
No. 1 Arkansas visits No. 3 Ole Miss for the latest SEC West showdown. Two weeks after sweeping then-No. 2 Mississippi State in Starkville, Arkansas returns to the Magnolia State to take on Ole Miss. First place in the SEC West will be on the line, as the Razorbacks (22-4) and Rebels (21-6) are tied atop the division standings at 7-2. It’ll be another heavyweight clash in Oxford.
No. 14 Texas Christian looks to stay hot at No. 11 Texas Tech. The Horned Frogs (20-7, 6-0) are on a nine-game winning streak and have swept their first two Big 12 series against Baylor and Oklahoma. Now, they’ll put that on the line with a difficult challenge at Texas Tech (20-6, 3-3). The Red Raiders are coming off a series loss at Kansas State, but get home-field advantage this weekend and are very difficult to beat at Griffin Park—the Red Raiders haven’t lost a home series since 2018.
Ohio State at No. 24 Michigan brings rivalry heat to the Big Ten weekend. The Buckeyes (12-7), fresh off a four-game sweep of Indiana, head to Ann Arbor for a showdown with the Wolverines (13-5). Michigan on Monday plays a series finale at Maryland, but no matter how it goes this will be a matchup between two of the top three teams in the conference. The Big Ten standings are starting to bunch up and the top four teams—Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Indiana—are within two games of each other. This weekend is a chance for the Buckeyes or Wolverines to create some separation.