Off The Bat: Lessons From First-Place Showdowns
What did we learn from this weekend’s first-place showdowns?
Around the country, the theme of this weekend’s schedule was teams at the top of their conferences meeting for series that would shape title races going down the stretch.
The biggest of those series was Texas and Texas Christian, the top two teams in the conference standings, meeting in Fort Worth with the Big 12 title on the line. But they were far from alone. Arizona at Stanford, UC Irvine at UC Santa Barbara, Tulane at East Carolina and Ball State at Central Michigan all were matchups of the top teams in their conference.
So, after a weekend of pivotal series, what did we learn? Let’s dig in.
The Big 12 race is going down to the wire
TCU came into its series against Texas with a two-game lead in the Big 12 standings and needing just a series win to clinch its third title since joining the conference. The Longhorns and the Horned Frogs split a pair of one-run games the first two days of the weekend, setting up a big game Sunday.
The finale broke the mold of the rest of the series, as Texas scored four runs in the first three innings and led 9-0 after six. While TCU avoided the shutout with three runs in the bottom of the ninth, it was too little, too late and Texas won, 9-3.
The most immediate fallout from the series is that TCU (34-12, 16-5) remains in first place in the standings, but did not clinch the title. Instead, it holds a one-game edge on Texas (38-12, 15-6) and because both teams don’t have a conference series this weekend—TCU plays Louisiana-Monroe, Texas is off for finals—the title will come down to the final weekend of the regular season when TCU visits Kansas State (28-18, 7-11) and Texas hosts West Virginia (17-23, 7-14). Both the Longhorns and Horned Frogs will be favored, but K-State this season upset Texas Tech in Manhattan and West Virginia has won just five true road games. That leaves the door open for Texas.
Taking a bit of a longer view, TCU’s Achilles’ heel has been laid bare: weekend finales. The Horned Frogs are just 6-6 in them this season and 28-6 in all other games. They’re just 1-4 in rubber games with the one win coming at Louisiana-Lafayette. Perhaps most worryingly, against Texas and Texas Tech, its toughest opposition, TCU was outscored 26-10 in Game 3.
Depth was supposed to be one of TCU’s strengths this season. Instead, it’s clearly a couple pitchers short on the weekend. Coach Jim Schlossnagle told reporters after the game that a change to the rotation could come next week against ULM.
“We have to get better starting pitching if we’re going to be an elite team,” Schlossnagle said. “We’re still in control of the season that we want to have, but it’s not an easy road.”
Texas this weekend got a needed response after losing a home series last weekend to Texas Tech. The Longhorns had their own rotation shakeup, returning lefthander Pete Hansen to the group after a stellar relief outing last Sunday against the Red Raiders. He this weekend silenced the Horned Frogs, throwing seven scoreless innings.
When it gets that kind of starting pitching and a solid output from some of the big bats in the lineup—Zach Zubia homered twice Sunday, Mike Antico scored six runs on the weekend and Ivan Melendez went 7-for-12—Texas is tough to beat.
UCI is the best team in the Big West
UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara came into their weekend showdown virtually tied atop the standings. After four games in Santa Barbara, UCI heads home in control of the conference race.
The Anteaters lost Friday’s opener, 6-5, despite loading the bases in the ninth inning with no outs. But they bounced back well from that disappointment, sweeping a Saturday doubleheader with a pair of 5-1 victories and then closing out the series with a 7-2 win. UCI (29-15, 21-7) holds a two-game lead on UCSB (30-16, 21-11) with three weekends to play. UCI is chasing its second Big West title ever and its first since 2009.
There should be no doubt UCI is the Big West’s best. It has not lost a conference series, its lone blemishes coming in series splits against Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State. It’s 7-6 against Pac-12 competition, including a series win two weeks ago against Oregon State.
Righthanders Trenton Denholm (4-2, 4.15) and Michael Frias (7-0, 2.45) give the Anteaters a strong 1-2 punch in the rotation and closer Jacob King (2-1, 2.35, 4 SV) anchors a standout bullpen. UCI also has the league’s top offense, averaging 7 runs per game, and a steady defense.
UCI is firmly on track to be a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, likely headed to one of the regionals hosted by a Pac-12 team. It will be a dangerous draw, the kind of team no host will be happy to see.
UCSB, meanwhile, has had some big chances this season, but it hasn’t been able to take advantage of the opportunities. It in March was swept at home by Oregon and this weekend could have positioned itself to win back-to-back Big West titles. Instead, the Gauchos have fallen behind UCI and rank No. 67 in RPI, outside the typical range of an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament.
The Gauchos get another big opportunity this weekend in the form of a series against UCLA. They’re likely still on track for an NCAA Tournament bid, but they’ll need a solid finish to the season.
The Pac-12 is a thriller
Arizona held a slim lead in the Pac-12 standings going into its series at Stanford. A series win would have put it on track for its first conference championship since 2012. The Cardinal, meanwhile, were looking to make a statement and position themselves for a title run.
Stanford won the opener, 5-4, in 13 innings, before Arizona roared back for a 20-2 victory Saturday. The Cardinal responded well, however, and claimed the series with an 8-2 victory in the finale.
The Wildcats (32-13, 16-8), Cardinal (26-10, 12-6) and Oregon (30-11, 14-7) are all locked in a virtual tie atop the standings. Oregon State (31-15, 13-8) and UCLA (27-15, 14-10) are not far off the pace either. The race to the finish over the next three weeks will be a nail-biter.
Arizona still merits being the favorite in the race because it has the most wins on the board and Stanford and Oregon still have to play each other. But this weekend provided little clarity on the race.
What we did learn is that the Cardinal are legit. Arizona has the best offense in the country, but Stanford twice held it in check, even if the Wildcats did get loose Saturday. The Cardinal’s own offense did enough to earn a big series win and likely secure a spot as a regional host.
Stanford has the hardest finishing run to its schedule of any of the Pac-12 contenders—at California, at Oregon and vs. Oregon State, but its not going anywhere in the title race.
ECU deserves to host
Tulane was the surprise leader in the American Athletic Conference entering its weekend series at East Carolina. The Pirates have long appeared this season to be the conference’s best team, but back-to-back series splits left them trailing the Green Wave and falling in the RPI—both of which imperiled their chances to host a regional.
The Pirates this weekend righted the ship, riding through the Green Wave for a pivotal series win. ECU (33-10, 15-5) holds just a slim lead on Tulane (25-17, 14-5), but it has shown enough to merit a spot on the host candidates short list. As long as it finishes the season well with series at Cincinnati and South Florida, it should be rewarded with a home regional.
ECU’s offense impressed all weekend long, scoring 34 runs and hitting nine home runs over the four games. Also significantly, lefthander Carson Whisenhunt returned after missing the last month to throw three scoreless innings Sunday. Getting him back in the rotation lengthens the whole pitching staff and could be a big boost down the stretch.
The MAC deserves two bids
Ball State and Central Michigan might not have drawn as much attention as some of the other first-place showdowns this weekend, but they played a thrilling four-game series in Mount Pleasant, Mich. CMU took the first two games of the series before Ball State bounced back in the second half of the series. The Cardinals completed the split with a ninth-inning comeback Sunday, scoring three runs for an 8-7 victory.
After the split, CMU (30-13, 22-6) holds a one-game edge on Ball State (30-14, 21-7). The race now is a three-week sprint to the finish and the Chippewas have the easier remaining schedule, though they next week travel to third-place Western Michigan.
If both CMU and Ball State can finish strong, they are both deserving of NCAA Tournament bids. They could both finish the season with at least 38 wins, have been dominant in their conference and have had success in non-conference games.
The Cardinals have the better at-large case, by virtue of their superior RPI (No. 49 vs. 69) and non-conference resume, which includes a series win at Kentucky and a split at Arizona. The MAC hasn’t received an at-large bid since 1993, but the Chips and Cards showed this weekend they both have that kind of potential.
There were this weekend four no-hitters thrown around the country and a couple other near misses.
It started Friday with North Carolina State righthander Austin Vernon, who threw an eight-inning no-hitter in a 14-0 victory against Delaware State shortened by the run rule. His no-hitter was the first in the program’s modern history.
Campbell threw his no-hitter in a 19-0 victory against Kansas. He struck out 11 batters, walked one and worked efficiently, throwing just 99 pitches. His no-hitter was Oklahoma State’s first since 1968.
Powell threw a seven-inning no-hitter in a 6-0 victory against Middle Tennessee State. He struck out 12 batters, walked one and celebrated his senior day with a performance to remember.
Dombkowski threw his no-hitter in a 4-0 victory against Albany. He struck out nine batters and walked two. His no-hitter came at the end of what was a difficult week for the Hartford athletic department, after the school earlier in the week announced it would reclassify from Division I to Division III in the coming years.
The weekend could have seen even more no-hitters, but two others were broken up in the ninth inning. Oklahoma was working on a combined no-hitter Saturday against West Virginia, when the Mountaineers hit a leadoff triple. Wofford’s Elliot Carney saw his no-hit bid Sunday end with a two-out infield single in the ninth inning. Carney nearly completed what would have been his second no-hitter of the season, after he last month no-hit UNC Greensboro.
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Eight for Omaha
Arizona, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Texas, Texas Christian, Vanderbilt
These are the same eight teams I picked a week ago and I still feel good about all of them, despite three taking series losses this week. As outlined above, Arizona had a bit of a weird weekend at Stanford, but it still has a top-10 RPI and is in the mix for the Pac-12 title. If it gets to play at home in the NCAA Tournament, I like its chances. Notre Dame is in much the same boat after a series loss to Florida State. Plus, it was the first time all season the #OmaIrish have lost a series. I’m still driving the bandwagon.
TCU is a slightly more interesting case. The Horned Frogs remain likely to win the Big 12, though they’ll now have to wait until the final weekend of the regular season, and their top-five RPI means they’re on track to be a top-eight national seed. As I wrote last week, TCU is 26-5 in the NCAA Tournament at Lupton Stadium and has lost a home regional or super regional just once. That being said, the way it lost the series to Texas is somewhat disconcerting. The Horned Frogs are now 6-6 in weekend finales and could be vulnerable in Game 7 of a regional or the third game of a super regional.
Florida State: The Seminoles (25-17, 17-13) won a series at Notre Dame, becoming the first team this season to win a series against the Fighting Irish. Florida State’s pitching staff, which has been the best in the ACC, continued to impress, holding Notre Dame to eight runs on the weekend.
Will Frizzell, 1B, Texas A&M: Frizzell hit five home runs in Texas A&M’s series win against Mississippi. He homered twice in Friday’s 9-8 victory, including a walk-off solo shot, once Saturday in a loss and in Sunday’s 6-5 series-clinching victory, he drove in all six runs on a pair of home runs. Frizzell this season is hitting .349/.438/.699 with 18 home runs, a total that trails only Florida State’s Mat Nelson nationally.
Jackson State: The Tigers (31-8, 24-0) swept Mississippi Valley State to complete the regular season undefeated in Southwest Athletic Conference play. There were few close calls for JSU all season, as just six of the 24 games were decided by two runs or less. The Tigers are the second team in five seasons to accomplish the feat, joining 2016 Alabama State, and will now move on to the SWAC Tournament, which begins May 19.
Kevin Kopps, RHP, Arkansas: Kopps this weekend threw 7.1 scoreless innings of relief to help Arkansas win its series against Georgia. He struck out eight batters and held the Bulldogs to six hits and a walk, earning one save and one win to improve to 7-0, 0.72 with seven saves and 83 strikeouts in 49.2 innings.
Northeastern: The Huskies (27-6, 15-0) swept Hofstra to extend their winning streak to 17 games, which is now the second-longest of the season (Fairfield, 25). Northeastern last lost April 6 against Boston College. Following a game Tuesday against Connecticut, Northeastern has a chance for revenge against BC with a home-and-home this weekend.
No. 1 Arkansas travels to No. 5 Tennessee for another top-10 road series. The Razorbacks have already played four weekends against teams ranked in the top 10 at the time, all of which have come away from the friendly confines of Baum-Walker Stadium. The Volunteers, meanwhile, get another shot at a statement series win at home, having already won a series against Florida and lost a series to Vanderbilt in Nelson Stadium.
No. 21 Indiana continues its challenging stretch with a trip to Michigan. The Hoosiers (23-10) are in first place in the Big Ten, but that position will be on the line this weekend against the Wolverines (23-12). IU, Michigan and Nebraska (22-11) are all duking it out for the Big Ten title and any head-to-head meetings at this stage of the season are critical.
The postseason begins, as the Patriot League on Saturday will become the first conference to open its tournament. The Patriot League uses a format of two rounds of best-of-three series and this weekend begins with the semifinals. The matchups are Lehigh (21-16, 17-10), the South Division champion, against Navy (16-13, 11-12), and Army (23-20, 15-10), the North Division champion, against Lafayette (13-15, 12-13).