NC State, Oklahoma Surging; Texas A&M, TCU Scuffling
Teddy Cahill and Michael Lananna examine which teams’ stocks are rising and which teams’ stocks are falling ahead of a few crucial series.
North Carolina State
This weekend: at No. 24 Louisville
The Wolfpack didn’t rank in the Preseason Top 25 in large part due to concern over the depth and quality of its pitching staff. So far, N.C. State pitching has not only proven those doubts wrong, but the team’s 2.98 ERA is tops in the Atlantic Coast Conference and ranks 20th in the country overall—a huge reason why N.C. State has now catapulted to No. 6 in the Top 25.
While that pitching staff doesn’t have the same caliber of stuff and prospect upside as many of the teams in the Top 25, the Wolfpack’s veterans have performed admirably. Senior lefthander Brian Brown has performed on an elite level (4-0, 0.41), artfully pinpointing his mid-80s two-seamer, while using a plus changeup and show-me curve to keep hitters off-balance. Sixth-year senior righthander Johnny Piedmonte (4-0, 2.93) has also pitched like the grizzled veteran he is, despite not having overwhelming stuff. Outside of those two, the Wolfpack has mixed and matched to great effect, featuring a bullpen heavy on lefthanders. Sophomore righthander Michael Bienlien has been knocked out early in his last two Friday starts, but if he can get on track, he possesses the best raw stuff on the staff and could help N.C. State maintain its hot start on the mound.
That pitching prowess, combined with an offense that has lived up to its explosive billing, has fueled N.C. State to a 23-5 overall record. At 9-3 in ACC, the Wolfpack ranks first in the Atlantic Division. The team’s batting order stands as one of the country’s most balanced, with lefthanded power in the form of Brett Kinneman (12 homers) and Evan Edwards (eight homers), speed threats in Brock Deatherage and Josh McLain and talented shortstop Will Wilson—who scouts already peg as one of the top college shortstops for the 2019 draft. Even if N.C. State can’t continue to pitch at the same level it has to this point, that offense gives the Wolfpack some margin for error.
This weekend: at Texas Christian
The Sooners have swept their first two Big 12 Conference series and are 6-0 in conference action for the first time since 1984, when they were a part of the Big Eight Conference. No. 19 Oklahoma (21-10) has won seven of its last eight games and moved this week into the Top 25 for the first time this season.
After going 1-3 on Opening Weekend at Coastal Carolina’s Baseball at the Beach tournament, Oklahoma returned home for six weeks and hasn’t had a losing weekend since. Led by the 1-2 punch of Jake Irvin (5-0, 2.27) and Devon Perez (3-0, 2.27) atop the rotation, the Sooners have this season been strong on the mound. Preseason All-American outfielder Steele Walker (.321/.430/.455, 3 HR) has been steady at the heart of the Sooners’ lineup.
Oklahoma’s offense is not explosive—its 14 home runs and 13 stolen bases are both the least in the Big 12—but it has been effective overall. Oklahoma must prove it can maintain its success on the road, as 16 of its remaining 27 games are away from L. Dale Mitchell Park. But the Sooners have a talented, veteran roster that should be able to handle the rigors of the Big 12 and contend for the conference title.
This weekend: vs. No. 17 Louisiana State
While a 21-8 overall record usually wouldn’t indicate a team in decline, the Aggies have undoubtedly scuffled in the first three weekends of Southeastern Conference play. Texas A&M sits at 3-6 in the SEC after losing series at Auburn, against Mississippi and, most recently, at Georgia. The competition won’t get any easier with No. 17 Louisiana State coming to College Station this weekend.
An Omaha team a year ago, the now-No. 23 Aggies are on their last legs in the College Top 25. They lack a marquee series win, after going 18-2 against a relatively soft non-conference schedule. It’s by no means time to press the panic button, but the Aggies could use a conference series win sooner than later, before they dig themselves into too deep a hole.
At first glance statistically, Texas A&M shows few glaring weaknesses. Middle infielders Braden Shewmake (.322/.397/.483) and Michael Helman (.400/.482/.575) have paced the team offensively, while starters Stephen Kolek (3-3, 3.02), John Doxakis (4-1, 2.03) and Mitchell Kilkenny (6-0, 1.59) have been strong on the weekends. The biggest cause for concern is that A&M has yet to find the right formula out of the bullpen.. In SEC play specifically, Texas A&M relievers have combined for a 6.93 ERA, while the staff as a whole has pitched to a 4.68 ERA. Traditionally a pitching-rich program under head coach Rob Childress, the Aggies should have the talent on hand to piece together a strong relief unit, but they haven’t hit on it yet..
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This weekend: vs. No. 19 Oklahoma
The Horned Frogs have been one of college baseball’s most consistent teams in recent years and have made four straight appearances in the College World Series. Despite some significant losses from last year’s team, they carried Omaha expectations again into this spring and were ranked No. 7 in the Preseason Top 25. TCU (14-11, 3-3) has yet to hit its stride and has lost four straight games after getting swept at Oklahoma State last weekend and then losing Tuesday at Dallas Baptist. The Horned Frogs this week fell out of the Top 25 for the first time since 2014.
Most of the players TCU had to replace this season were in the lineup and the Horned Frogs are still trying to get their offense on track. Outfielder Josh Watson (.330/.474/.538) started the season hot and is having a bounce-back junior season. Preseason All-American first baseman Luken Baker (.279/.417/.512, 6 HR) remains dangerous and shortstop Adam Oviedo (.297/.366/.330) is having a solid freshman season. On the mound, TCU’s highly regarded rotation of righthanders Jared Janczak (1-1, 3.07) and Sean Wymer (1-1, 4.60) and lefthander Nick Lodolo (4-1, 4.41) is also still looking for consistency. Relievers Durbin Feltman (24 K, 2 BB, 13.2 IP) and Augie Mihlbauer (20 K, 11 BB, 13.2 IP) have yet to give up a run this season.
The talent is there for TCU to get back on track. It is 3-5 in one-run games, accounting for nearly half its losses. But the Horned Frogs are 6-8 over the last four weeks and are No. 86 in RPI. As TCU approaches the season’s midpoint, it must find a way to get back on track this weekend against Oklahoma, which comes to Fort Worth on a hot streak.