Florida’s Response, Clemson’s Big Win Highlights College Baseball’s Weekend (Off The Bat)


Image credit: Florida RHP Brandon Neely (Photo by Danny Parker/Four Seam Images)

This weekend was the most exciting so far this season, loaded with Top 25 showdowns, upsets and wild finishes.

Here are 15 takeaways from around the country on the weekend that was in college baseball.

1. A few days ago, I was quite down on Florida. After losing Tuesday to Florida State, the Gators were 10-6 and had the worst ERA in the SEC. They had six losses going into conference play for the first time since 2014 and a series against undefeated Texas A&M awaited.

Florida rose to the challenge. After splitting the first two games of the series, the Gators on Sunday defeated the Aggies, 4-2, in the rubber game. Tyler Shelnut hit a go-ahead, two-run home run in the eighth inning that proved to be the difference and the Florida pitching staff had one of its best games of the year, as Jac Caglianone (5.1 IP), Ryan Slater (.2 IP), Brandon Neely (2 IP) and Luke McNeillie (1 IP) combined to hold down the powerful A&M offense.

Florida (12-7, 2-1) made some important strides in the series. Neely, the Gators’ all-SEC closer, threw five scoreless innings between Friday and Sunday, earning his first save and win of the season. Lefthander Cade Fisher (6 IP, 6 H, 6 R, 1 BB, 10 K) wasn’t at his best Friday, but battled through six innings and handed a lead to the bullpen. The lineup wasn’t struggling, but it did hit eight home runs against a pitching staff that had allowed just six in its first 17 games.

The Gators didn’t erase all their concerns this weekend. They still haven’t won back-to-back games in two weeks and need further improvement on the mound. But they got a quality series win to open SEC play and can now look to build some more momentum.

2. Texas A&M came into the weekend as one of two undefeated teams in the country, along with Florida State. Many fairly looked critically at the schedule that had allowed them to build that 17-0 start. The Aggies had played away from home just four times and only one true road game (a midweek at Texas). Just four of their first 17 games came against teams with winning records, as of today.

The series at Florida represented a tough test and the Aggies fell a bit short. I don’t think there are any sweeping conclusions to be drawn from a road series loss against a top-10 team. A&M returns home for the next two weeks against Mississippi State and Auburn and it needs to take advantage of its home-field advantage.

3. Clemson’s series at Duke played out like a heavyweight fight. The Blue Devils landed the first punch, winning Friday’s opener, 5-2. Clemson bounced back for a tight, 8-7 victory Saturday and then won the series Sunday with an 8-6 victory in 10 innings in a wild rubber game.

Clemson right fielder Alden Mathes and second baseman Jarren Purify combined to throw out the would-be winning run at home to end the ninth inning and send the game to extra innings. Jimmy Obertop and Jacob Hinderleider both homered in the 10th for the Tigers and Matthew Marchal got out of a jam in the bottom of the inning to send Clemson to its eight-straight ACC series win.

The Tigers (17-2, 2-1) just keep finding a way to win. Every game seems to bring a new hero and there’s still plenty of upside left with this team. This weekend’s home series against Florida State (18-0, 3-0) ought to be another thriller.

4. Duke (15-5, 3-3) is a bit confounding. The Blue Devils have some huge winsthey won at Coastal Carolina on opening weekend, won a series at Wake Forest and on Friday beat Clemson. They also have two brutal home lossesMarch 2 against Akron (4-14) and Tuesday against Rider (2-13).

At the risk of reading too much into a pair of early-season losses (one of which came in a midweek game), I think it’s a function of Duke’s depth. At its best, it can play with and beat any team in the country. The Blue Devils have some real stars like lefthander Jonathan Santucci (4-0, 2.19), closer Charlie Beilenson (0-1, 1.96, 8 SV) and AJ Gracia (.357/.483/.671, 6 HR). But they still need to find the depth and consistency to roll through the full 56-game slate.

That depth is going to be further tested. Freshman lefthander/outfielder Kyle Johnson (3-0, 1.13; .333/.360/.542) didn’t play this week and is out for 3-4 weeks with a lower body injury. Lefthander Tim Noone (1.1 IP, 1 H, 2 R, 0 BB, 1 K) took his place in the rotation Sunday.

5. Mississippi and Mississippi State entered Friday with identical 13-5 records and the opportunity on the first weekend of conference action to prove they had turned the corner after slow starts to the season. They did just that, as Ole Miss won its series against South Carolina and Mississippi State upset LSU.

The Bulldogs put together a big offensive weekend, scoring 33 runs against the Tigers. That performance was all the more impressive as it came against LSU, which came into the series with a 2.81 team ERA, sixth-best nationally. First baseman Hunter Hines homered three times in the series after hitting just one in the first 18 games of the season and outfielders Aaron Downs (7-for-14, 5 R) and Connor Hujsak (6-for-12, 6 R) both had big weekends.

Ole Miss beat South Carolina, 5-4, on Friday night and then clinched the series with a 12-3 victory Saturday that it broke open with eight runs in the eighth inning. It was a good couple days on the mound for the Rebels. They got solid starts out of Gunnar Dennis (5 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 2 BB, 7 K) and Liam Doyle (5.1 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 10 K). In the bullpen, five relievers combined to hold the Gamecocks to one run in 7.2 innings.

Are the Magnolia State powers back? Ole Miss didn’t look this good in any SEC series last year. Mississippi State did win the series against LSU in Baton Rouge a year ago, so it’s possible the Bulldogs just have the Tigers’ number. But both teams look to be much improved.

6. LSU (17-4, 1-2) took it on the chin this weekend in Starkville. Not only did its pitching staff give up 33 runs, but it made two errors in all three games.

Was this just a weekend to flush and forget or the sign of something more for LSU? I’m inclined to believe its pitching staff will bounce back. Righthaner Luke Holman (4-1, 0.63) and lefthander Gage Jump (2-0, 2.12) had been outstanding prior to this weekend. The Tigers need to get righthander Thatcher Hurd (1-2, 6.54) and lefthander Justin Loer (1-0, 7.20) right, but they have solid depth.

But LSU has to make whatever adjustments it needs to in a hurry. It’s entering a brutal run, as it has Florida, Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Tennessee in successive weekends.

7. After losing Tuesday at Southern Miss and then dropping Friday’s series opener against Tennessee, Alabama bounced back Saturday and Sunday to score a big series win. The Crimson Tide (17-3, 2-1) pounced on the Volunteers early Saturday and held on for a 6-3 win and then won Sunday’s finale, 7-6, in comeback fashion thanks to a three-run, eighth-inning home run from Gage Miller.

Coach Rob Vaughn was pleased with the response from the Crimson Tide after those losses, especially Friday’s 11-3 drubbing. Alabama hasn’t lost much this year and that loss could have lingered. Instead, it bounced back and knocked off a top-10 team.

“What I think we showed ourselves more than anything is what this group’s able to do,” Vaughn said. “We can swing it with anybody, we can pitch it with anybody, we can go compete. That’s not necessarily a statement to college baseball. I think that’s just for our locker room, for our boys to see that and to believe that.”

8. I spent the weekend in Charlottesville, where Virginia won its series against Wake Forest. The Cavaliers used two big innings Friday to win, 16-10, and the Demon Deacons bounced back for a 9-3 victory Saturday behind Chase Burns. Wake had a 10-5 lead at the seventh-inning stretch Sunday, but Virginia scored five runs over the next three innings to send it to extras and then took advantage of a walk and two errors in the 10th to walk off with an 11-10 victory and the series win.

Virginia (16-4, 3-3) continues to be great offensively (10.35 runs per game), while fighting it on the mound (5.87 team ERA). The Cavaliers need to find another couple reliable pitchers if they’re going to make another run at Omaha. That’s easier said than done, but Virginia should be encouraged by righthander Jack O’Connor’s performance against Wake. He threw three scoreless innings to close Friday’s game and got two outs Sunday, though he was not as sharp. O’Connor (0-1, 7.50) opened the season in the rotation but struggled and has moved to the bullpen, where he looks rejuvenated. If he can establish himself in the new role, the bullpen starts to look deeper and better.

9. Wake Forest (13-6, 2-4), meanwhile, is in a tough spot. The Demon Deacons have lost five of their last seven games and are also dealing with a few big injuries. All-American first baseman Nick Kurtz left Friday’s game after injuring his shoulder while diving for a ground ball. He’s expected to miss at least 3-4 weeks. Righthander Michael Massey missed his start Sunday with a hamstring injury. Righthander Cole Roland has yet to pitch this season due to injury and lefthander Joe Ariola only just made his season debut this week. Wake was never the deepest team in the country and these injuries are taking their toll.

The good news for Wake is that it’s March 18. There’s time to work through this. The bad news is that it’s 8-6 in games Chase Burns doesn’t start and has already lost two ACC series. It’s not time to panic, but Wake is facing an early season gut check.

10. Arguably, the loudest result of the weekend was Oklahoma’s sweep at TCU. The Sooners (13-6, 6-0) scored five unanswered runs Friday night for a 7-3 victory, scored twice in the ninth Saturday for a 7-5 win and then never trailed in Sunday’s 9-4 win. Since an abbreviated 0-2 weekend at the Las Vegas Classic, they have won eight of nine games.

Oklahoma last weekend swept UCF in its Big 12 opener. This weekend it went on the road, played typical chaos baseball (10 SB), made just one error and pitched well all weekend, especially out of the bullpen.

Oklahoma has found a formula and it looks like one that it can have plenty of success with this season.

“Good vibes are rolling,” first baseman Michael Snyder said. “We’re having fun, we’re playing loose. That’s kind of the big mantra that we’re going with.”

11. The good vibes are not rolling for TCU, however. Since starting the year 13-0, the Horned Frogs are 2-5 with a series loss at Kansas and now a sweep at home against Oklahoma. And that hot startright now it doesn’t look nearly as good. Just three of its wins during the 13-game winning streak came against teams that have a winning record a month into the season (Texas State, Washington State and Abilene Christian).

TCU was the runaway preseason Big 12 favorite. After two weekends, it’s in last place at 1-5. You don’t need to hit the panic button yet, but TCU needs to turn things around quickly and this weekend faces a trip to Oklahoma State (12-8, 1-2).

12. I didn’t come out of the weekend feeling great about the Big 12 overall. It’s the middle of March, so it’s probably wise to stay away from sweeping conclusions about an entire conference. But it hasn’t been the best first impression for the Big 12.

In addition to TCU’s struggles, Texas is 11-8 and just lost a home series to Washington (6-8-1). Oklahoma State, picked third in the preseason poll, has series losses at Sam Houston State and UCF. Texas Tech, picked fourth in the preseason poll, has lost back-to-back series to open conference play, including this weekend at Baylor (7-12). West Virginia, picked sixth, lost this weekend at home to Ohio State and is still without All-American JJ Wetherholt.

I’m sure Big 12 fans would argue that the upside-down early season standings serve to show how deep the conference is. And that may well be true. Newcomers Houston (12-6, 4-2) and UCF (12-5, 2-4) look better than expected and Kansas State (13-6, 2-1) may be ready for its closeup. But I also don’t think this is going to help on Selection Monday. The Big 12 only had one host last year and I think that’s where it’s headed again this spring.

13. Miami won its series against North Carolina, rolling to a 14-1 win in seven innings Friday and then coming back for a 2-1, walk-off win Saturday. The Hurricanes (11-8, 4-2) have now won their first two ACC series, taking down Virginia and North Carolina in Coral Gables.

Those are two big series wins for Miami and a strong response after the series loss against Florida. I’m still not sure how good the Hurricanes arethey’ve lost three straight series finales, are just 6-6 in their last 12 games and have yet to leave South Florida but taking down UVA and UNC in consecutive weeks is a solid start to conference play.

14. Georgia Tech swept NC State in Atlanta to open ACC play. The Yellow Jackets (15-4, 3-0) are on an eight-game winning streak and are rolling offensively, scoring 31 runs on the weekend. Freshman outfielder Drew Burress, unsurprisingly, was at the heart of everything this weekend, as he went 4-for-10 with three home runs, raising his season line to .378/.468/1.027 with 13 home runs. Also at the heart of everything? Shortstop Payton Green, who went 6-for-13 with two doubles and a home run against his former team.

Georgia Tech has bounced back well from its series loss against Georgia a couple weeks ago. It’s in for another big test this weekend, as it travels to North Carolina for its first road series of the year.

15. The Sun Belt opened conference play this weekend with a couple surprises. The first was Georgia State (11-9, 3-0) sweeping South Alabama (12-8, 0-3) in Mobile. The Jaguars had looked solid in the first month of the season and had just beaten Mississippi State on Tuesday in Biloxi, Miss. But the Panthers laid down an early marker in conference play.

The second surprise was James Madison (13-7, 1-2) giving Coastal Carolina (17-3, 2-1) all it could handle in Conway. The Chanticleers on Friday handily won, 12-1, before having their 15-game winning streak snapped with a 7-4 loss Saturday. The Dukes nearly landed the series upset but came up short in the rubber game. Coastal came back from multi-run deficits in the ninth, 11th and 13th innings, ultimately coming away with a wild, 11-10 victory. JMU now owns wins against Arkansas, Coastal and Virginia Tech. There’s a long way to go, but those wins could help it build toward an NCAA Tournament resume.

Eight for Omaha

Arkansas, Clemson, LSU, Oklahoma, Oregon State, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt

A few changes to the field this week. Clemson replaces Duke, not just because it won the head-to-head showdown but because the Blue Devils’ depth is starting to worry me, as I detailed above. Oklahoma replaces TCU after sweeping the Horned Frogs in Fort Worth and starting 6-0 in Big 12 play. It’s obviously still very early, but the Sooners now look like favorites in the conference. The last change is Vanderbilt replacing Wake Forest. This leaves just one ACC team in the field and while that doesn’t strike me as terribly likely, I’m not comfortable with any of the ACC’s contenders beyond Clemson. So, Vanderbilt and its impressive rotation get the nod.

Looking Ahead

Florida, LSU meet for national championship rematch. Last year’s College World Series finalists will meet again this weekend in Baton Rouge, as No. 5 LSU (17-4, 1-2) hosts No. 8 Florida (12-7, 2-1). It’s the first time there will be a rematch from the previous year’s CWS finals since Michigan and Vanderbilt played on Opening Day in 2020.

No. 7 Florida State faces its biggest test yet at No. 3 Clemson. The Seminoles (18-0, 3-0) are the last undefeated team in the country and, as long as they beat Stetson on Tuesday, they’ll put that mark on the line this weekend at Clemson (17-2, 2-1). The Tigers are coming off a series win at Duke and could put a firm grip on their status as ACC favorites with another series win this weekend.

No. 20 Dallas Baptist travels to Sam Houston State for key Conference USA series. The Patriots (16-3) will open conference play against the Bearkats (13-7, 2-1), who beat New Mexico State for their first ever C-USA series win. Louisiana Tech (16-5) will factor into the C-USA title race as well, but this early showdown pits DBU, the reigning conference champion, against one of its key challengers.

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