Off The Bat: LSU, Oklahoma State Grab Big Wins In Thrilling Series

Image credit: Roc Riggio (Photo by Ben Ludeman/Texas Rangers/Getty Images)

The biggest series of the season so far lived up to the hype, as Louisiana State and Tennessee put on a show in Baton Rouge. But that wasn’t the only thrilling series around college baseball’s exciting week 7.

Here are 14 takeaways from the weekend that was in college baseball.

1. From the time the SEC first released its conference schedule in September, I was excited about this weekend’s series between LSU and Tennessee. The teams ranked Nos. 1 and 2 on our Never Too Early Top 25. LSU was the team of the offseason, having landed the No. 1 recruiting class and transfer class. Tennessee was the reigning SEC champion and featured a rotation that was arguably the best in the nation. There would be stars and big personalities on both sides of the field. In short, it was everything you could want in a series.

Six months later, the series absolutely delivered on the hype. It wasn’t No. 1 vs. No. 2 because the Volunteers had a couple losing weekends in the first half of the season, but that didn’t take much away from the weekend. We still got to see two elite teams going at it all weekend at Alex Box Stadium, highlighted by Thursday’s matchup on the mound between Paul Skenes and Chase Dollander, the top two college pitching prospects in this year’s draft class.

Fans responded to the matchup in a big way, which only added to the weekend. Over the three games, 37,424 fans packed into Alex Box Stadium. That total included a crowd of 13,068 fans for Thursday’s opener, setting a stadium record. It can’t be overstated how impressive it is that LSU—a program steeped in history and tradition—set an attendance record on a Thursday night in March. This wasn’t a weekend that was connected with a spring football game or a game in a super regional.

This series was as good an advertisement for college baseball as you could ask for.

2. Everyone can take something good from the weekend in Baton Rouge. LSU (24-4, 6-3) got another high-end series win and remains the top-ranked team in the country. It hasn’t swept a conference series, which wouldn’t ordinarily be odd but since 11 of the 21 SEC series so far this season have ended in a sweep, it does stand out a bit. But the Tigers still own a series win at Texas A&M and have taken down Arkansas and Tennessee at home. They’re doing just fine.

Tennessee (21-8, 4-5) certainly isn’t happy only winning once this weekend, but it did get its first road win of the season and pushed LSU in the other two games. Considering what still lies ahead for the Volunteers—their next three weeks are against Florida, at Arkansas and home to Vanderbilt—they need to look to build on Saturday’s win.

The rest of us won for having seen the matchup. There are going to be a multitude of big-time series throughout the SEC this spring but this one will be hard to top.

3. Oklahoma State closed the weekend with a couple of huge wins against Texas to claim the series. The Cowboys started the week with an 8-0 loss at Dallas Baptist, the first time their potent offense had been shut out this season, and then lost Friday’s series opener against red-hot Texas, which came into the weekend with the longest active winning streak in the country.

But the Cowboys got the response they needed. Righthander Juaron Watts-Brown on Saturday held the Longhorns to one run in eight innings and struck out 12 batters to lead Oklahoma State to a 4-1 win. In Sunday’s finale, Texas scored three in the first to take an early lead and it looked like that lead might hold up. Oklahoma State didn’t get on the scoreboard until a two-run home run from Chase Adkison in the sixth inning and it still trailed by a run going into the ninth against Texas closer Zane Morehouse, who has thrived as the staff’s fireman. The Cowboys rallied, battling hard against Morehouse, and freshman Nolan Schubert delivered the walkoff hit in a 4-3 win.

Oklahoma State (22-7, 6-3) now stands at the top of the Big 12 standings. It’s quite early, of course, but it’s a series win that feels particularly big. The Cowboys have already lost their series against Texas Tech. If they had also dropped this one against Texas with a trip to TCU on deck, they’d be fighting an uphill battle. Instead, everyone is looking up at the Cowboys and they can take momentum into their series against the Horned Frogs.

4. While Oklahoma State will take momentum to Fort Worth, TCU is still looking for some of its own. The Horned Frogs continued their up-and-down season with a tough series loss at Texas Tech. They came into the weekend on a six-game winning streak and built a big lead Friday night—16-10 at the stretch—only to see the Red Raiders score nine runs in the bottom of the seventh and go on to win, 20-16. TCU won Saturday, but lost the finale, 10-5, and has now lost two of its first three Big 12 series.

It’s very difficult to win a series in Lubbock, so this weekend shouldn’t be a big cause for concern for TCU (17-11, 5-4). But it’s hard not to look at Friday as a missed opportunity and the schedule the Horned Frogs face in the second half of the season is just as difficult as what they’ve faced so far. Finding a way to string solid weekends together will be important, but first TCU needs to get ready for a big home weekend against Oklahoma State.

5. Texas Tech, meanwhile, got the series win it badly needed. After getting swept last weekend at Texas and then losing Tuesday at New Mexico, the Red Raiders came into the TCU series on a skid. Friday night’s rally was huge, as was Sunday’s 10-5 victory.

Righthander Brandon Beckel threw two scoreless innings to close out both wins, and he’s been lights out for Texas Tech. He’s now 3-0, 0.50 with 27 strikeouts and seven walks in 18 innings and has allowed just one earned run this season. Pitching in Lubbock isn’t easy, but when Texas Tech gets Beckel the ball with a lead, it can feel good about its chances.

6. Vanderbilt swept Georgia and is off to a 9-0 start in SEC play. The Commodores (23-5, 9-0) are the fifth team in SEC history, and the second since 1991, to sweep their first three SEC series. They’ve won 11 straight games, now the longest winning streak in the nation.

Some might look at Vanderbilt’s opponents the last three weeks—Mississippi, Mississippi State and Georgia—and note that they each only have one conference win. There’s no getting around the fact that the Commodores have played three teams that are most likely not going to be in the NCAA Tournament. But I don’t think that should take away from what Vanderbilt has done. Sweeping three straight series is hard no matter who the opponent is and what the conference is.

Still, there are harder weeks ahead for Vanderbilt and it’s difficult not to look a couple weeks ahead and see showdowns with South Carolina and Tennessee looming. Those should make for fun weekends.

7. How about Boston College and Kentucky? The Eagles and Wildcats both this week moved into the top 10 after they continued their strong starts. BC has never before ranked in the top 10. Kentucky, meanwhile, is in the top 10 for the first time since 2018.

BC (20-6, 8-4) beat Connecticut on Tuesday and then won a series against Georgia Tech, its fourth straight ACC series win to open the season. Kentucky (25-3, 8-1) swept Missouri and is now off to the program’s best ever start to SEC play.

It’s not just the Top 25 that has BC and Kentucky in the top 10. Both also rank in the top 10 of RPI (Kentucky is No. 1 and BC is No. 7). With eight conference wins for both already, they’re rolling toward NCAA Tournament appearances. Kentucky would likely get a bid if it merely avoided being swept the rest of the season. BC is in a similar situation.

BC was picked last in its division in the preseason ACC coaches’ poll and Kentucky was picked second-to-last in its division in the SEC coaches’ poll, so just making the tournament would make this a strong season for either program. But they can now think bigger, like playing in a home regional. It’s harder to project exactly what each would need to get on the host line, but if they keep winning games, that will sort itself out.

For now though, I’m simply going to enjoy these unexpected stories.

8. While BC and Kentucky have unexpectedly surged, some of the sport’s blue bloods are sagging. Ole Miss and Mississippi State both this weekend got their first SEC wins of the season but are now just 1-8 in conference play. That’s a massive hole to climb out of, but the Rebels and Bulldogs can take heart that LSU did it two years ago.

Meanwhile, Florida State’s streak of 44 straight NCAA Tournament appearances is in early jeopardy. The Seminoles were swept this weekend at Miami and fell to 12-15 overall and 3-9 in the ACC. They have lost nine straight and 12 of their last 13.

Obviously, FSU just needs to win some games before we can even chart a path for it to get an at-large bid. But more worryingly than the Seminoles’ overall record is their conference mark. If the regular season ended today, FSU would not qualify for the ACC Tournament. And while losing conference records in the SEC are often tolerated for at-large bids, the ACC doesn’t enjoy as much leeway. No ACC team has earned an at-large bid with a losing conference record since 2016 and, memorably, 2022 NC State was left on the wrong side of the bubble after going 14-15.

The good news for FSU is that it has an elite strength of schedule, which has played an important factor in the selection process in recent years. But if the Seminoles go worse than 12-6 the rest of the way in ACC play, they would be courting disaster. FSU needs a bounceback series this weekend against Clemson.

9. Miami (19-9, 8-4) got a bounce back series of its own against FSU. After getting swept last weekend at Wake Forest, the Hurricanes returned home and went 4-0 on the week, culminating with their first sweep of the Seminoles since 2001.

The Hurricanes got three outstanding starts on the weekend. Karson Ligon threw eight scoreless in Friday’s 11-0 victory. Gage Ziehl followed Saturday with 7.2 innings, holding FSU to one run, and Alejandro Rosario finished out the series with 12 strikeouts in a career-high eight innings. The trio combined to hold Miami to five runs on 11 hits and five walks while striking out 27 batters in 23.2 innings. The rotation has had some ups and downs, but this weekend serves as a reminder of its upside.

Miami now faces a challenging two-week stretch, with series at Virginia and North Carolina on deck. The Hurricanes are just 2-6 on the road this season, though five of those losses have come against Florida and Wake. Still, if Miami is going to challenge for the ACC Coastal Division title, it will need to take a step forward on the road.

10. Virginia Tech went into a big rivalry series against Virginia in a rough patch, having lost three straight ACC series to begin conference play just 2-7. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, had lost just twice all season.

But after Virginia won the opener, 9-5, Virginia Tech bounced back for two much needed wins. The Hokies broke out for 12 runs in both games, outslugging the powerful Cavaliers’ offense. Outfielder Jack Hurley went 9-for-15 with two doubles and three home runs to lead the Hokies.

Virginia Tech (17-10, 4-8) has now won the rivalry series in back-to-back seasons for the first time since it joined the ACC in 2004. Now, the challenge is to build on the momentum from this series win, especially with a tricky series at Duke on deck. There’s still time to turn around the slow start if the Hokies can string together some wins.

11. Through the first six weeks of the season, Iowa looked like the Big Ten’s best team. The Hawkeyes were off to a 19-3 start and had wins against LSU and Texas Tech. Even after losing Tuesday at Illinois State, snapping a nine-game winning streak, they came into their series against Maryland, the reigning champion and preseason favorite, in a strong position.

Iowa started strong, scoring five runs in the first inning, but Maryland’s powerful offense came back for a 10-9 victory. The Terrapins did it again Saturday, scoring the game’s final four runs in a 7-4 victory. The Hawkeyes (20-6, 1-2) won the series finale, 12-8, but Maryland (17-10, 2-1) reasserted itself as the team to beat in the Big Ten.

This was a matchup of the Big Ten’s top two offenses (both came into the weekend averaging more than 8.5 runs per game) and the Terrapins outslugged the Hawkeyes. Iowa must quickly get back on track as a trip to Indiana (20-8, 5-1) is on tap this week.

As for Maryland, after taking some early lumps, it’s showing why it came into the season as the Big Ten favorite. It gets Rutgers (14-13, 1-2) at home this weekend. The Scarlet Knights have been up and down all season and have lost five of their last seven, but they have the talent to push the Terrapins.

12. The Pac-12 continues to provide weekly surprises. A week ago, Washington was riding high after a series win at UCLA. This weekend, it was swept by Oregon State. The Beavers, meanwhile, are suddenly hot after losing their first two Pac-12 series. Washington State won a series against UCLA for the first time since 2017 and the Bruins have now lost five straight. Oregon swept Arizona in a series between two teams headed in opposite directions—the Ducks have won nine straight, while the Wildcats have lost nine straight conference games. Meanwhile, Southern California and Arizona State just keep winning and join Stanford—which split a wild four-game series at Oklahoma—at the top of the standings.

There’s a lot to parse there and it seems like the Pac-12 has a fair amount of parity this year, so these week-to-week swings may well continue all spring. I wrote last week that ASU and USC were positioning themselves well for postseason runs and that remains true. Oregon State got the weekend it needed to get back on track.

For me, the biggest question in the conference now is the Evergreen State. Washington (17-9, 4-5) and Washington State (17-9, 5-6) have both shown they can hang with the conference’s traditional powers—both have series wins against UCLA and the Cougars took down Oregon State earlier this year. But do they have the consistency to keep it up over the course of 10 weeks and compete for a spot in regionals? They both will play the Arizona schools over the next two weeks in a key test.

13. Arizona can be added to the group of traditional powers struggling this year, along with Florida State, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. The Wildcats (14-12, 3-9) gave up 36 runs this weekend to Oregon and blew a 10-run lead in Saturday’s 13-11 loss.

After the series, coach Chip Hale didn’t mince words.

“We’re going to have to play much better to win, and it’s not acceptable for this program to lose three series in a row and get swept,” he said.

The sweeps came at the hands of three of the Pac-12’s better teams—UCLA, ASU and Oregon—and the first two were on the road. But there’s no denying the hole that the Wildcats have dug over the last three weeks. No Pac-12 team has made the NCAA Tournament with fewer than 16 conference wins since the league expanded in 2012. That means that anything less than 13-5 over the next six conference weekends is probably going to see Arizona miss regionals.

14. Conference play started in the American over the weekend and it delivered a couple surprises, as Houston (14-14) upset East Carolina (20-8) and South Florida (12-17) won its rivalry showdown with UCF (17-11). The league is down this year—ECU is the only team with a top-100 RPI—and that means unless someone really gets hot in conference play, this is a one-bid league.

With conference realignment set to completely reshape the conference after this season, a one-bid year would be a sad way to close this chapter of conference history. But if it must be that way, hopefully this weekend is an indication of what’s to come. Although ECU’s dominance the last couple years suggests differently, this has typically been a league of tight standings and plenty of parity. To get that one more time with these eight teams would feel right.

Eight for Omaha

Arkansas, Florida, LSU, Stanford, Texas Tech, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Wake Forest

Two new teams in the field this week, as Arkansas and Stanford move in, and Louisville and UCLA move out. The Cardinals and Bruins have both lost back-to-back series and while I still generally believe in them, clearly they’ve got some things to work on. So, in come Arkansas and Stanford, two teams that you bet against at your own risk. It wasn’t easy for Arkansas this weekend against Alabama, but the Razorbacks gritted out a series win. Stanford fought to a four-game split at Oklahoma, not an optimal result, but someone from the Pac-12 is going to end up in the College World Series. Might as well ride with the team that’s been there the last two years.

Looking ahead

No. 6 South Carolina hosts top-ranked LSU in a huge test. The Gamecocks (26-3, 8-1) are off to a flying start but haven’t faced an opponent near the caliber of the Tigers (24-4, 6-3). LSU, meanwhile, is in for another marquee series, having taken on Arkansas and Tennessee the last two weeks. This one will come on the road against the powerful South Carolina offense.

No. 9 BC looks to stay hot at No. 17 Louisville. The Eagles (20-6, 8-4) have won their first four conference series for the first time since joining the ACC and will look to continue that streak at Louisville. The Cardinals (21-6, 4-5) have lost back-to-back series at Notre Dame and NC State but now return to Jim Patterson Stadium, where they haven’t lost a series since 2021.

UC Santa Barbara, Cal State Fullerton meet with first place in the Big West on the line. The Gauchos (18-6, 5-1) travel to take on the Titans (14-9, 7-2) in a series that has serious title implications in the Big West. Fullerton looks like it’s back having won its first three Big West series, but the reigning champion will be a different test. UCSB is coming off its first series loss of the season at Fresno State and now returns to conference play.

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