Houston, San Diego Rising; Fullerton, UNC Falling
Teddy Cahill and Michael Lananna examine which teams' stock is rising and which teams' stock is falling after the second weekend of the season.
The Cougars ranked 15th nationally in team ERA last year with a 3.43 mark and returned the bulk of that staff, so it isn’t surprising to see them off to a strong start on the mound. Houston (4-2) ranks 14th in the country this season with a 1.94 team ERA. Lefthander Trey Cumbie, the 2017 co-American Athletic Conference pitcher of the year, leads the staff and 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. The Cougars have lost both games he started, but Cumbie will keep giving them a chance every Friday night.
Houston’s offense is still finding its form early in the season, but may have picked up momentum last weekend at Cal State Fullerton. After being held to just one run in 15 innings in a loss Friday night, the Cougars scored 19 runs over the next two days to win the series. First baseman Joe Davis hit his first homer of the season Sunday and getting him going is key for the lineup.
Houston on Tuesday faces Texas Southern before it heads into a critical weekend at the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic in Minute Maid Park. Houston will face No. 8 Kentucky, Mississippi State and No. 18 Vanderbilt in the event and a winning weekend would propel the Cougars into the Top 25 and provide it with a marquee weekend.
After a 2-2 Opening Weekend against California and Cincinnati, San Diego went 5-0 last week, including sweeping through the Tony Gwynn Legacy Classic against Michigan, Grand Canyon, Arkansas and Arizona. The Toreros have started out hot offensively and scored 25 runs in four games over the weekend. Freshman outfielder Tora Otsuka is off to a red-hot start to his college career and is hitting .444/.500/.500 with six runs and six RBIs through nine games. Junior slugger Jay Schuyler provides power in the middle of the order and is hitting .316/.325/.500 with two home runs.
San Diego (7-2) is doing it without big contributions yet from some of its high-profile pitchers. Preseason All-American lefthander Nick Sprengel didn’t pitch on Opening Weekend and struggled in an exhibition game against British Columbia last Monday. He was much better Sunday in his official debut against Arkansas, when he struck out eight batters in four innings, though he also gave up three runs on three hits and two walks. Talented sophomores Chris Murphy, who has given up nine runs on nine hits and nine walks in nine innings, and Louie Crow, who has given up seven runs on five hits and six walks in eight innings, have also struggled out of the gate. If San Diego can get them in form, the Toreros have the potential to be a dangerous team this spring.
Cal State Fullerton
Ranked No. 11 in the preseason, the Titans have one of the more difficult nonconference slates in the country. And so far, Fullerton hasn’t been able to hold its own against it. The pitching-rich Titans are a surprising 1-6 to start the year, with their lone win—against Houston—requiring 15 innings to seal. While ace Colton Eastman has been serviceable (0-1, 3.48), junior college transfer Andrew Quezada (0-2, 8.71) and freshman Tanner Bibee (0-1, 15.43) have struggled to round out the weekend. And that’s a significant concern for a team that perennially rides its pitching and defense to the postseason.
The Big West Conference as a whole has stumbled out of the gate, with expected contenders Long Beach State (2-5), Cal Poly (3-4) and UC Santa Barbara (2-5) all below .500. This early-season performance could come back to haunt the conference come June, as the Big West could get fewer bids if the overall conference RPI dips below its typical range. Obviously, there’s plenty of season left to correct this. But it certainly would behoove Fullerton to get back on a winning track sooner than later.
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The Tar Heels plummeted out of the top 10—from No. 6 to No. 13—after beginning their season 0-3 at home for the first time since 1962. After winning a series at South Florida to open the season, UNC went 1-4 against St. John’s, UNC Wilmington and in a weekend series against East Carolina. All three teams are worthy foes, with St. John’s ranked No. 22 and ECU firmly on the Top 25 radar, but a team with UNC’s level of talent shouldn’t have a losing record (3-5) two weeks into the season.
Is it time to panic? No, not quite. Unlike the Big West, which has to schedule marquee matchups early in the season to inflate RPI, the Tar Heels will have plenty of resume-building opportunities as they enter conference play. Thus far, outside of hot starts by sophomore Michael Busch and junior Kyle Datres, UNC has yet to find any sort of offensive rhythm. Losing table-setters Logan Warmoth and Brian Miller in the first 36 picks last June has seemingly sapped UNC’s lineup in the early going. The Tar Heels will need someone to take a jump at the plate. In particular, Zack Gahagan, Ashton McGee and Brandon Riley could all give UNC a lift if they can bust out of early season slumps and capitalize on the offensive potential they’ve flashed in previous seasons. UNC has top 10 talent, but the team has yet to hit that ceiling on the field.