Georgia, Oklahoma Face Big Weekend Tests After Surprising Starts

Florida, the defending national champion and top-ranked team in the preseason, has lived up to expectations and remains No. 1 in the country as the season progresses into the second half. The Gators are 29-6, sit atop the Southeastern Conference standings, and lead the nation in wins.

Behind Florida, however, the Top 25 looks much different today than it did entering the season. North Carolina State (2), East Carolina (8) and Duke (10) have all entered the top 10 after being unranked in the preseason. Stanford, not Oregon State, looks to be the team to beat in the Pac-12, NC State has raced to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Oklahoma rushed out of the gates in the Big 12 Conference. Georgia, which hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2011, is pushing to host a regional.

On the flip side, preseason top-15 teams Texas Christian (7), Cal State Fullerton (11) and Virginia (15) have fallen out of the rankings and are facing uphill battles to regionals.

For some of this season’s biggest surprises, this weekend presents a critical test. Duke travels to No. 9 Florida State on the heels of its first series loss in ACC play last weekend. No. 15 Oklahoma hosts No. 24 Texas in a rivalry series between the top two teams in the Big 12 standings. No. 21 Georgia welcomes No. 13 Kentucky to Athens in a critical SEC East series that could go a long way to cementing the Bulldogs as a host contender.

Ahead of this weekend’s key series, we examine how Georgia and Oklahoma became two of this season’s biggest surprises.

Georgia Breaks Out

The Bulldogs last season went 25-32 and finished 12th in the SEC. But Georgia was a very young team last season, relying heavily on a recruiting class that had that fall ranked No. 24 in the country and included All-Freshmen shortstop Cam Shepherd, who earned an invitation last year to USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Georgia lost home nonconference series against College of Charleston and Rider and then six of its first seven SEC series. But the Bulldogs got hot down the stretch and won their last three SEC series, including beating Kentucky and Mississippi State.

That experience was important for the Bulldogs, coach Scott Stricklin said. When the team returned in the fall to Athens, they talked about building on the momentum they had at the end of the season.

“We talked about how we finished as a good team and there’s no reason we can’t be a good team,” he said. “Having that success was important. And to that we added some good pieces with our freshmen class. We added some depth and we had some experienced guys come back.”

Georgia started this season well, running out to a 7-1 record. But it was then swept at Charleston and dropped a fourth straight game the following day at Charleston Southern. It was after that 5-4 loss to the Buccaneers that the Bulldogs’ season changed.

Stricklin said after the loss he read his team the riot act. The Bulldogs had blown a late lead and Stricklin felt they had given a game away by playing tentatively.

“I was hard on them and challenged them,” he said. “I challenged the upper classmen to make sure things were going to change immediately.”

The message was received. Georgia shutout Citadel, 5-0, and went on to win 14 of its next 15 games. The Bulldogs won their first three SEC series before falling at No. 14 Vanderbilt last weekend. The run has helped Georgia rise to No. 7 in RPI and second place in the SEC East, a position that puts it on pace to host a regional for the first time since 2008.

Georgia (24-9) is still a young team. Four players in its everyday lineup are second-year players and two members of its rotation are true freshmen. Those young players have taken a step forward this season and are shouldering a large load. But Georgia’s resurgence has also been keyed by bounce-back years from senior outfielder Keegan McGovern (.364/.493/.709, 10 HR) and junior DH Michael Curry (.336/.404/.544, 7 HR) at the plate, as well as senior righthander Chase Adkins (3-0, 4.35) and junior lefthander Kevin Smith (5-1, 4.33) on the mound.

Following the sweep at Charleston, Smith moved from the rotation to the bullpen, where he has found a role as a key setup man. Freshman lefthander Ryan Webb took his spot in the rotation, teaming with classmate Emerson Hancock in support of Adkins. At the same time, Aaron Schunk also added pitching to his duties at third base and has emerged as an anchor at the back of the bullpen, amassing five saves in his first nine appearances.

Georgia has waited a long time for a season like this. The Bulldogs have not had a winning conference record since 2011 and have often been left fighting just to make the SEC Tournament. Now, in his fifth season in Athens, Stricklin has the Bulldogs poised for much more.

This weekend’s series against Kentucky is part of a critical four-week stretch that features four-straight series against ranked opponents and midweek home-and-homes with rivals Clemson and Georgia Tech. This weekend is particularly important because Kentucky, after starting the season as hot as anyone in the country, has stumbled at the outset of SEC play. Georgia this weekend can open a larger lead on Kentucky in the SEC standings and further solidify its place among the top five teams in the conference, all of whom are likely to host a regional.

But the Bulldogs know they can’t get ahead of themselves.

“We have to keep playing hard, keep expecting to win—that doesn’t mean we’ll win every game, but we have to stay positive,” Stricklin said.

Oklahoma Continues Rise

The Sooners breakthrough season came a year ago, when they returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013. Despite the success, Oklahoma parted ways with coach Pete Hughes and elevated pitching coach Skip Johnson to head coach. Johnson inherited a veteran team that returned every pitcher who started a game last season and an offense led by Preseason All-American outfielder Steele Walker.

But Oklahoma also lost several key pieces from last year’s team, including six seniors who played key roles on and off the field. Those departures, as well as the unknown following the coaching change, meant that the Sooners came into the season with some questions to answer.

Oklahoma went 4-5 in February, including a tough 1-3 showing on Opening Weekend at Coastal Carolina’s Baseball at the Beach Tournament. As the calendar flipped to March, however, the Sooners began to heat up. They went 16-5 in the month and swept their first two Big 12 Conference series to get off to their best start to conference play since 1984, when they were members of the Big Eight Conference.

Johnson said the team has stressed taking the season one pitch at a time. He knows it’s a cliched approach, but it has worked for the Sooners.

“There’s more consistency in that than in looking at the end result,” Johnson said. “That’s really what we’ve done more than anything.”

Oklahoma (25-11) also has plenty of talent on its roster. Walker, as he has done throughout his college career, has impressed at the plate and is hitting .338/.444/.571 with eight home runs and nearly as many walks (22) as strikeouts (24).

Walker has been supported by the breakout of outfielder Kyler Murray, who is hitting .306/.417/.537 with five home runs and five stolen bases. Murray is one of the best athletes in the country and is pulling double duty this spring as he is also participating in spring football practice, competing for the starting quarterback job at Oklahoma. Johnson said Murray reminds him of former Mets’ prospect Brian Cole, who he coached at Navarro (Texas) JC.

“He’s got that electricity,” Johnson said. “He understands the moment. He’s been under center with a hundred thousand people screaming down his throat, so nothing bothers him.”

Walker and Murray have made a strong combination in the heart of Oklahoma’s lineup. Around them, the Sooners have done a good job of getting on base, extending innings, and getting timely hits. Oklahoma doesn’t hit for much power—as a team it has 24 home runs—and it doesn’t run wild on the bases—it has 16 stolen bases. But the Sooners are hitting .284 as a team and are finding ways to be productive.

And with Oklahoma’s pitching staff, the lineup doesn’t have to carry the load itself. Righthanders Jake Irvin (5-0, 2.77) and Devon Perez (4-0, 2.61) form a strong duo at the front of the rotation and the Sooners have several reliable arms in the bullpen to turn to.

Thanks to its strong start to Big 12 play, Oklahoma has raced to the top of the standings. The next three weeks will be critical to its title hopes. It starts this weekend with a showdown against Texas, which trails Oklahoma by a half-game in the standings. Following is a trip to Texas Tech, the preseason favorite, and rival Oklahoma State, which sits a game behind Oklahoma. That stretch of games will determine whether Oklahoma is able to ride its early-season momentum to its first regular-season conference championship since 1995.

It starts with a series against Texas, a team Johnson knows well after spending a decade as the Longhorns’ pitching coach before moving to Norman after the 2016 season. Johnson said the Sooners aren’t focused on the rivalry between the schools but expects this weekend to produce a fun series.

“Texas has a good baseball club,” Johnson said. “They’ll be ready to play, I can tell you that. It’ll be a good matchup.”

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