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Off The Bat: Kentucky's Upset, Oregon State's Sweep Highlight Weekend

From the start, it was clear this weekend was going to be a chaotic one. Kentucky upset No. 1 Tennessee on Thursday night to set the tone, and even rain throughout much of the eastern half of the country couldn’t reign in another wild weekend. When it ended, Tennessee had lost its first series of the season and fallen out of the top spot in the Baseball America Top 25, replaced by Oregon State.

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

1. For much of this season, it looked like Tennessee couldn’t lose. The Volunteers ran off a 23-game winning streak that lasted more than a month. That streak included winning their first 12 SEC games, an unprecedented feat. They started 18-1 in SEC play, another record. They lead the nation in home runs and ERA. When one member of their vaunted rotation was sidelined for a couple weeks, they simply plugged in a Preseason All-American.

While Tennessee’s 23-game winning streak ended about a month ago against Tennessee Tech and it went on to lose a game to Alabama and another to Auburn, it still looked like the Volunteers were the dominant force in college baseball.

But this weekend at Kentucky, Tennessee finally was tripped up. In Thursday’s opener, the Wildcats stymied the Volunteers offense and won, 3-2, in 13 innings. On Friday, Kentucky kept its momentum going and led 4-2 in the eighth inning when rain forced the game to be suspended until Saturday. The Wildcats went on to win that game, 5-2. While Tennessee bounced back to win the finale, 7-2, in seven innings, the damage was done. For the first time this season, the Volunteers (42-6, 20-4) lost a series.

The mere fact that Tennessee lost a series is not alarming. Even the best college baseball teams generally don’t make it through 14 regular-season weekends without a series loss. The Volunteers had set their personal bar so high, however, that anything less than perfection is jarring.

But Tennessee was playing a road SEC series, oftentimes in adverse weather conditions, didn’t play its best baseball and paid the price.

“At some point in the year, you have to have the weekend where you don’t play your best,” coach Tony Vitello said. “If you’re having a successful year, you might even win on that weekend. We didn’t do that this weekend. But you’d like to look back and think this was something that wasn’t the norm for our team and yet something we can take a lot from.”

Tennessee’s struggles came at the plate. In the two losses, the Volunteers scored four runs on 10 hits in 22 innings—well below the more than nine runs per game they averaged coming into the weekend. At the end of the series, Vitello noted inconsistent at-bats and giving away outs on the bases as areas that needed improvement.

At its best, Tennessee has perhaps the deepest lineup in the country. But the Wildcats got the Volunteers out of their comfort zone at the plate and away from the patient approach that has served them so well all season. With Tennessee’s talent, getting back to its preferred approach should be manageable, but with a tough series against Georgia coming up this weekend, it will need to do so quickly.

On the mound, righthander Chase Dollander made his return after missing the last two weeks after he was hit in the arm by a line drive against Alabama. He threw 52 pitches in four innings of relief Friday, holding Kentucky to one run (unearned) on two hits and striking out five.

Vitello said Dollander is ready to return to the rotation, where he was serving as the No. 2 starter before his injury. Tennessee has four excellent options in the rotation and how Vitello and pitching coach Frank Anderson opt to set up the pitching staff the rest of the year will be fascinating to watch. With two more regular season series (Georgia, at Mississippi State) and the SEC Tournament to go before Selection Monday, they’ll have a chance to work it out.

2. Kentucky was certainly not the team anyone would have expected to be the one to finally win a series against Tennessee. The Wildcats had lost five straight SEC series coming into the weekend and were fighting for one of the final spots in the 12-team SEC Tournament field.

The Wildcats (26-21, 9-15) have been feisty this year. They were swept on the first weekend of SEC play at Arkansas but have been in every series since. They played a rubber game in each of the next five series and beat Georgia.

Kentucky was more than feisty this weekend. After Tennessee took a 2-0 lead in the third inning Thursday, the Wildcats bullpen held the Volunteers to one hit over 10.2 innings. Righthander Tyler Guilfoil did most of the lifting in that game, throwing six scoreless innings out of the bullpen to earn the win. The bullpen threw 5.2 scoreless innings in game 2, holding the Volunteers to just two hits.

Kentucky couldn’t pull the trick for a third straight game as Tennessee scored six runs in the final three innings Saturday, but it was still a banner weekend for the Wildcats’ pitchers. Kentucky is without ace Cole Stupp, who was injured against Georgia and is out for the season. That’s left the Wildcats short on the mound, but they’ve pieced the staff together, starting at the back with Guilfoil (1-1, 1.45, 4 SV). This weekend, they hit on a winning combination.

The series win has significant implications for Kentucky beyond the bragging rights of knocking off No. 1. The Wildcats' RPI is up to No. 59 and they now own series wins against Tennessee, Georgia and Texas Christian—all projected NCAA Tournament teams. Instead of just fighting for one of the last spots in the SEC Tournament, Kentucky can now reasonably set its sights on its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2017.

The Wildcats still have work to do and have little margin for error. They’ll likely need five more SEC wins (including the conference tournament) to reach regionals. It won’t be easy, as they travel to South Carolina (24-22) next week before finishing the regular season against Auburn (32-16), but this weekend opened a clear path to the postseason.

3. It was rivalry week in Oregon, as Oregon and Oregon State met four times. At the end of it, Oregon truly was the Beaver State.

Oregon State (38-9, 18-6) swept through the week, winning Tuesday’s non-conference game in Eugene, 2-0, and then sweeping the Ducks (28-19, 13-11) this weekend in Corvallis in the series that counted toward the Pac-12 standings. The Beavers won 5-1 Friday, held off a late comeback for an 8-7 victory Saturday and then completed the sweep with a 4-0 victory Sunday.

With its big week, Oregon State took control of the Pac-12 race, opening a three-game lead on Stanford (29-14), and rose to No. 1 in the Top 25 following Tennessee’s series loss. It is the first time the Beavers have been No. 1 since their 2018 national championship.

Not only did Oregon State sweep its in-state rival this week, it also beat Oregon in another midweek, non-conference game two weeks ago. The Beavers are 5-0 against the Ducks this season and have outscored them, 23-8.

While Tennessee drew the attention of the college baseball world for its 23-game winning streak and sensational start to the season, Oregon State has quietly gone about its business and built a similar resume. The Beavers have also lost just one series this season (against Stanford on the first weekend of April) and hold a three-game lead in the Pac-12 standings. They have the highest-scoring offense in the Pac-12 (7.77 runs per game), rank in the top 10 nationally in team ERA (3.52) and lead the nation in fielding (.989). Lefthander Cooper Hjerpe (9-1, 2.08) is the best pitcher in the country and outfielder Jacob Melton (.376/.451/.708, 12 HR, 18 SB) projects as a likely first-round pick.

Oregon State may have gotten even better this weekend. Righthander Jake Pfennigs (2-0, 0.48) came into the season in the rotation but missed six weeks due to injury before returning in mid-April. He’s been working back to full strength and on Sunday threw 69 pitches in five scoreless innings against the Ducks, matching his Opening Weekend start for his longest this season. If the Beavers can roll out a postseason rotation of Hjerpe, Pfennigs and righthander Jacob Kmatz (8-0, 3.41), backed by a strong bullpen, they will be very difficult to beat in June.

4. Arkansas continued its steady run this season with a series win at Auburn. The Razorbacks came back for an 11-8 victory in Friday’s opener and, after losing Saturday’s game, 5-3, claimed the series with a 7-4 victory Sunday. The series win saw Arkansas (36-12, 16-8) open a two-game lead atop the SEC West standings over LSU and Texas A&M with six games to play.

It hasn’t always been pretty this season for Arkansas and this weekend was no different. Auburn touched up ace Connor Noland in a way few teams have this season, but the Razorbacks picked him up and erased a 6-2 deficit. After being held to just three runs on three hits in Saturday’s loss, the Razorbacks on Sunday got a solid start from righthander Jaxon Wiggins and quickly took control of the rubber game. Arkansas even overcame uncharacteristically sloppy defense that saw it make six errors in the series.

The series win pushed Arkansas into the top 20 of RPI, which when combined with its conference record and position in the standings, puts it in a strong position to host regionals. With series against No. 25 Vanderbilt and at Alabama to close out the regular season, the Razorbacks can feel good about their position as they go down the stretch in 2022.

5. It’s been a couple tough weeks for Auburn (32-16, 13-11), as it has taken on Tennessee and Arkansas. The Tigers went 2-4 against the SEC’s division leaders and while they certainly would have liked another win or two in that stretch, they played well against a pair of top-five teams.

The Tigers have to move on from the disappointment of the last two weekends and refocus for the final two weeks. After Sunday’s loss, coach Butch Thompson said the key is to focus on process and not results.

Auburn must refocus and finish the regular season strong. It gets archrival Alabama (26-22) at home this weekend before a trip to Kentucky (26-21) to close out the regular season. Win both of those series—and the No. 21 Tigers will be favored to do so—and there will be an Auburn Regional for the first time since 2010.

6. Close readers of the Projected Field of 64 will have noticed that Oklahoma has spent most of this season hanging around the NCAA Tournament bubble. That’s primarily been a function of the Sooners putting together some solid weekends but not putting a marquee series win on their resume and an expectation they would ultimately finish in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 standings.

This weekend, however, Oklahoma took care of that marquee series win when it went to Lupton Stadium and won a series against Texas Christian. The Horned Frogs won the opener, 9-7, but the Sooners bounced back to win the next two games and take the series. Saturday’s 11-7 victory for Oklahoma snapped a seven-game losing streak for it against TCU.

Oklahoma (29-17, 11-7) has now won three straight Big 12 series and is tied with Texas Tech for third in the conference standings, behind only Oklahoma State and TCU. The Sooners have consistently beaten the teams they should on weekends, but to this point hadn’t really stepped up against the top-end competition on their schedule. But their bats went to work against TCU, continuing a trend from the last two weeks against Kansas and Kansas State. In their last three Big 12 series, the Sooners are averaging 12.44 runs per game.

That run has pushed Oklahoma into the Top 25 for the first time this season and has it looking solidly like a regional team this season. It finishes the regular season against West Virginia and at No. 15 Texas Tech, neither of which will be easy series. But the way Oklahoma has swung the bats of late, it can hang with any team in the conference and can’t be overlooked in the postseason.

7. TCU’s series loss put Oklahoma State (34-13, 13-5) firmly in the driver’s seat in the Big 12. The Cowboys now own a three-game lead in the loss column on TCU (28-18, 13-8) and their magic number to clinch the conference title is four.

For TCU, it’s been a brutal two weeks since upsetting Oklahoma State. The Horned Frogs are just 1-5 since leaving Stillwater and have fallen out of first place in the conference standings. They’ve also missed valuable opportunities to improve their RPI and now, short of a Big 12 Tournament title, look destined to play on the road in regionals. That’s especially notable, as TCU is just 8-10 in road games.

Oklahoma State, meanwhile, has gone the opposite direction since that series loss to TCU. The Cowboys are on a seven-game winning streak since that weekend with sweeps of Texas and, this weekend, Southeast Missouri State. Their RPI has rocketed up to No. 3, trailing only Tennessee and Oregon State.

Oklahoma State has a critical series this weekend against Texas Tech (32-16) before finishing the regular season at Baylor (23-22). The Cowboys are tracking toward their first Big 12 title since 2014 and a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament, which would give them home-field advantage until the College World Series.

8. UCLA had a brutal week, going 0-4 against Long Beach State and Washington, both of which have losing records. The Bruins (30-17, 14-10) lost to the Dirtbags, 4-3, in 12 innings Tuesday. They then were swept in Seattle by the Huskies and scored just eight runs in the series.

UCLA fell four games behind Oregon State for first place in the Pac-12 and saw its RPI drop to 63—far enough that the Bruins are now in a somewhat perilous position for the NCAA Tournament.

UCLA is a very young team and is dealing with some injuries that have cut into its depth, especially on the mound. But it has had some bad weekends this season. It opened Pac-12 play with a series loss to Southern California, which currently is in last place in the conference. It needed extra innings to win a rubber game against Harvard (18-20) and was swept by Washington (21-24, 11-16).

UCLA will be eager to break out of its funk this week when it travels to Cal State Fullerton (18-27) and then hosts Washington State (21-23).

Harney, Sean (Kentucky Sarah Caputi)

Alabama, Kentucky Keep NCAA Tournament Hopes Alive With Crucial Wins

At the SEC Tournament on Wednesday, Alabama and Kentucky both won games critical for keeping their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.

9. Georgia Tech may be the most confounding team in America. A week ago, the Yellow Jackets were flying high after a series win against Miami. It was their latest marquee series win, joining series wins against Florida State, Georgia and Virginia Tech. Georgia Tech had a top-20 RPI and at 12-12 in ACC play, appeared to have a clear path to hosting a regional: it simply needed to finish with a winning conference record.

But Georgia Tech couldn’t keep that momentum going this week. It was swept at Clemson and was outscored 35-14 on the weekend. The Yellow Jackets (27-21, 12-15) saw their RPI slip to 29 and now will need to make a run in the ACC Tournament to have any chance at hosting.

The Yellow Jackets have some of the best series wins in the country—Miami and Virginia Tech both rank in the top 10—but they’ve also been swept twice (Clemson and North Carolina State) and have lost series to two teams that are fighting for the last spot in the ACC Tournament (Clemson and Duke).

Georgia Tech plays Georgia Southern on Wednesday before taking the weekend off for finals. It finishes the regular season at Pittsburgh (26-19) for a series that suddenly has serious bubble implications. Georgia Tech is just 6-12 away from home this season and another series loss at Pitt would likely leave it with work to do at the ACC Tournament just to make regionals.

10. Connecticut this weekend swept Creighton in a Big East title fight, edging past the Bluejays in a trio of close games. The Huskies (40-8, 14-1) have a four-game lead on Creighton with six games to play and are closing in on their second straight Big East title since returning to the conference.

With Sunday’s victory, UConn became the second team in the country to reach 40 wins this season, joining Tennessee (42). The Huskies have done it largely thanks to their pitching staff, which has a 3.03 team ERA—second in the nation to only Tennessee.

The Huskies’ rotation of Austin Peterson (9-0, 2.66), Enzo Stefanoni (6-1, 2.74) and Pat Gallagher (7-3, 3.01) has been strong all season long and closer Justin Willis (1-0, 4.15, 13 SV) is among the national leaders in saves.

It’s just another outstanding pitching staff for coach Jim Penders and pitching coach Joshua MacDonald, and made all the more impressive because UConn has not had lefthander Reggie Crawford all season. Crawford, a two-way star, spent the summer with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team but was injured in fall ball and is out for the season due to Tommy John surgery.

UConn’s strength of schedule is poor—it ranks 206th nationally and it’s played just 11 games against teams that currently have winning records—but that pitching staff is going to make it a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.

11. It was a tough weekend for a couple of mid-major at-large hopefuls in the Peach State. Mercer (35-12, 9-6 Southern) was swept at Western Carolina and Kennesaw State (27-21, 15-9 ASUN) lost a home series to Florida Gulf Coast.

Kennesaw State is in worse shape thanks to its overall record and RPI (46). But the Owls do still have a series at first-place Liberty, which gives them a chance to undo the damage this weekend’s loss dealt.

Mercer took the bigger RPI hit, dropping from 10 to 33 after the sweep. It doesn’t have many opportunities to correct that the rest of the way and won’t be able to slip much further. A season-ending series at Samford, which last week upset first-place Wofford, could loom large in two weeks.

Both Kennesaw State and Mercer have spent most of this year in a position to earn at-large bids. But now they will need strong finishes down the stretch to stay in the mix.

12. College of Charleston this weekend won a series at UNC Wilmington to clinch the Colonial Athletic Association title for the first time since 2015. The Cougars joined the CAA in 2014.

Charleston (31-15, 18-3) lost a series to Hofstra on the first weekend of CAA play, but has been consistently excellent ever since, going 15-3. The Cougars this weekend won their first ever series at UNCW.

Charleston has been particularly tough on the mound. The Cougars have a 3.77 team ERA and are led by relief ace William Privette (3-0, 0.76, 10 SV). There’s good depth on the staff beyond Privette, and starters Ty Good (7-4, 3.63) and Trey Pooser (4-1, 3.04) have been solid for the Cougars.

Coach Chad Holbrook is aiming to guide Charleston to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2015, when it advanced to super regionals. The Cougars will be heavy favorites later this month at the CAA Tournament, which will be hosted by Elon.

Eight for Omaha

Arkansas, Louisville, Miami, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Stanford, Tennessee, Virginia Tech

One change to the field this week after Southern Mississippi lost its second straight series and fell out. Louisville enters, following a week that saw the Cardinals push their RPI into the top 15 and remain atop the ACC Atlantic Division standings. The Cardinals are building a hosting resume and one that could well see them land a top-eight national seed. Louisville is always difficult to beat at Jim Patterson Stadium and that postseason home-field advantage combined with the Cardinals powerful offense (9.2 runs per game) makes them dangerous. But very little about this field feels secure beyond Oklahoma State, Oregon State and Tennessee.

Looking Ahead

No. 3 Oklahoma State hosts No. 15 Texas Tech in Big 12 clash. This is a matchup of two of the best teams in the Big 12, as the Cowboys (34-13, 13-5) are in first place of the Big 12 standings, two games ahead of the Red Raiders (32-16, 11-7). Texas Tech has an opportunity to give its RPI a needed boost if it is going to get back into the hosting race, while the Cowboys are aiming for their first conference title since 2014. There’s a tiny chance they could clinch the title this weekend (Oklahoma State would need a sweep, as well as Oklahoma, TCU and West Virginia all losing at least once), but it’s more likely that the title race will come down to the final weekend.

No. 4 Virginia Tech, No. 7 Louisville meet for ACC showdown. The Hokies (33-10, 14-8) have been the hottest team in the ACC and in recent weeks have won series against Miami and Virginia, which were both ranked in the top 10 at the time. Now, Virginia Tech is set for another top-10 opponent as the Cardinals (33-13-1, 15-8-1) come to Blacksburg. Both teams are eying not only hosting regionals, but top-eight national seeds and this weekend presents a big opportunity for both. It also figures to be full of offensive fireworks as both teams rank in the top 12 nationally in scoring (Louisville 9.2 runs per game, Virginia Tech 8.8 runs per game).

No. 6 Miami, No. 13 Florida State renew rivalry. One of the best rivalries in college baseball is back this weekend as Miami (35-12, 17-7) travels to Florida State (28-17, 13-11). The Hurricanes are leading the ACC title race and are chasing their first regular season title since 2016. The Seminoles, meanwhile, are looking to bolster their hosting resume. The series has something for everyone: an incredible rivalry atmosphere, postseason stakes and a premium Friday night showdown between Seminoles lefthander Parker Messick (6-2, 2.56, leads the nation with 128 strikeouts) and Hurricanes lefthander Carson Palmquist (7-3, 2.95), two All-American candidates.

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