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Off the Bat: Arkansas Sweeps, Army Stars

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Arkansas righthander Isaiah Campbell (Getty Images)

Teddy Cahill runs through the biggest storylines that emerged from the weekend. To see the updated Top 25, click here.

Arkansas Sweeps Into First Place

After beating Mississippi State in both of the first two games of this weekend’s series, Arkansas on Saturday came to Baum Stadium with a strong focus. Nearly a year ago to the day—364 days before, to be exact—Mississippi State had completed a lightning quick sweep of Arkansas in Starkville, winning three games in little more than 24 hours. The Razorbacks now had payback on their minds.

Arkansas got its revenge, beating Mississippi State, 10-2, to complete a sweep of its own. The victory propelled the Razorbacks (30-10, 12-6) into first place in the SEC West and to No. 6 in the Top 25, their highest ranking of the season.

Coach Dave Van Horn said the Razorbacks remembered what happened last year in Starkville. At the time, it opened them to questions about how good they really were because the Bulldogs had gone into that weekend at 5-10 in the SEC. Both teams ultimately ended up in the College World Series, but the sweep put the Razorbacks in an uncomfortable spot.

“It was a bad weekend,” Van Horn said. “It was miserable. Our guys remembered that. (Saturday) we had a chance to sweep, and you could tell they weren’t satisfied with winning the series.”

Arkansas outscored Mississippi State 27-10 on the weekend, the most runs the Bulldogs (32-9, 10-8) have allowed in a series this season. The Razorbacks’ hitters carried momentum from last Sunday’s wild, 14-12 comeback victory at Vanderbilt throughout the week and have scored 57 runs in their last five games.

Arkansas’ offense is humming this season, averaging 7.55 runs per game with a team OPS of .873. The Razorbacks came into the season with some established stars in outfielders Dominic Fletcher and Heston Kjerstad and shortstop Casey Martin, but it wasn’t clear how deep the lineup would run. The Razorbacks had lost six everyday players from last year’s national runner-up team, but they’ve been able to rebuild a strong lineup this spring.

This weekend, that depth manifested with catcher Casey Opitz going 3-for-5 with three RBIs in Friday’s victory and third baseman Jacob Nesbit going 2-for-4 with a homer in the series finale.

“The top five to six hitters, you have to manipulate your way through it or they’ll hurt you,” Van Horn said. “I was concerned about the bottom of the lineup, but they’re all coming up with hits. They keep getting on base or getting one big hit a game. It’s been good lineup, a little deeper at times than I thought it would be.”

Fletcher (.325/.397/.544, 6 HR) and Kjerstad (.317/.384/.527, 9 HR) have been consistent forces this season, as expected. Martin went through a rough patch but has gotten back on track lately. In his last five games, he’s 11-for-23 with nine runs, two home runs and two doubles. He hit a grand slam in the second inning Friday that gave Arkansas an early cushion.

Van Horn said Martin was pressing during his slump. He’s now gotten back to the basics and got a little less pull happy at the plate.

“He took a step back, started listening, using other side of the field,” Van Horn said. “He hit one off the batter’s eye for his grand slam. He realizes, ‘The team is pretty good, and I just have to do my part.’”

While Arkansas’ offense stood out this weekend, its pitching staff more than held up its end of the bargain against Mississippi State’s offense. Righthander Isaiah Campbell has been excellent all season and was again Thursday night, holding the Bulldogs to two runs in 7.2 innings while striking out 10 batters. The redshirt junior is the Razorbacks’ lone returner in the rotation and has given them a presence at the front of the rotation, going 7-1, 2.44 with 78 strikeouts and 10 walks in 66.1 innings.

“He continues to pound the strike zone with three or four pitches, and he always has two or three working,” Van Horn said. “If he has two, it’s a good night. When he has three, he has a great night.”

Arkansas has gotten solid contributions in the rotation out of freshmen Connor Noland and Patrick Wicklander. Noland, who also plays quarterback for the Razorbacks, bounced back after a poor start last week at Vanderbilt to throw 7.2 scoreless innings Saturday to clinch the series sweep.

Noland’s start was especially important because righthander Cody Scroggins, who has also spent time in the rotation, is out for a couple weeks due to arm soreness. Righthander Jacob Kostyshock, a top reliever, is also only recently back from injury, leaving Arkansas a little thinner on the mound.

Getting healthy and getting a couple more relievers to step up will be a point of emphasis for Arkansas down the stretch. But with a month remaining in the regular season, the Razorbacks are well positioned. They are up to No. 5 in the RPI and are leading the SEC West, putting them in line right now for a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Nothing comes easy in the SEC, but given where the Razorbacks are and the kind of attitude they’ve played with this season, there’s every reason for confidence as they look to finish strong and return to Omaha.

“This team is pretty tough,” Van Horn said. “I’ve seen a lot of toughness from this bunch that I didn’t know was in there.”

Army Captures Star With Series Win At Navy

The Army-Navy rivalry, one of college sports’ best traditions, returned to the diamond over the weekend in Annapolis. And for the first time since 2014, Army won the season series and the star that the rivals compete for in every sport.

The teams split a Saturday doubleheader, with Navy righthander Noah Song dominating in a 3-0 victory in the opener and Army bouncing back for an 11-3 victory in the nightcap. On Sunday, the Black Knights used a five-run sixth inning to break a deadlock and went on to a 7-5 victory.

“It was a good series, good baseball, both teams played hard,” Army coach Jim Foster said. “Both sides represented themselves, competed well, got after it, but you could see the brotherhood out there, too. It was like two brothers going at it.”

Beyond the typical Army-Navy rivalry, these two teams have emerged as the two best in the Patriot League in the last two years. They finished tied atop the standings last year and Army got the better of Navy in the Patriot League Tournament championship series, which the Midshipmen hosted. They are again atop the standings this season, with Navy (30-14, 15-6) holding the edge on Army (24-16, 11-6), though the Black Knights have four games in hand.

The title chase is important, especially so in the Patriot League, which awards home-field advantage to the higher seed in its tournament, but bragging rights were also on the line this weekend. Army’s nine seniors had never won the star and could have become the second straight class to graduate without winning the season series against Navy.

Instead, they helped produce a big series win, stepping up as they have so many times over the last few years as the Black Knights have gotten the program back on track under Foster. They last year made the NCAA Tournament and upset North Carolina State and this year are aiming for a return to regionals.

“It was nice to get them (a star),” Foster said. “I remember Jon Rosoff and Matt Ball from last year, and these guys this year have helped put the program back on the map.”

With Song, an All-American candidate, on the mound in the opener, Navy took the advantage in the series. The senior threw a one-hit shutout and struck out eight in the seven-inning game. Foster, who was the pitching coach at Boston College before being hired by Army and coached first-round pick Justin Dunn with the Eagles, said Song ranked among the top five college pitchers he’s ever seen.

But after Song’s gem, Army’s offense broke out. Over the next two games, the Black Knights scored 18 runs on 24 hits. With solid efforts from their pitching staff, led by senior righthander Daniel Burggraaf, who delivered a quality start in Saturday’s nightcap, it was more than enough to win the series.

Army’s offense has taken a big step forward this season after last year hitting .263/.368/.343 with 10 home runs as a team. This year, the Black Knights are hitting .275/.402/.398 with 20 home runs and averaging about one more run per game.

Senior shortstop Trey Martin has played a key role in Army’s improved offense. He is hitting .328/.387/.576 with six home runs and leads the team in batting average, slugging percentage and home runs. Foster said Martin is playing relaxed this season.

“it’s his last year playing ball and he’s going out and enjoying it, not trying to do too much,” Foster said. “He’s hitting with power, playing with confidence and playing a great shortstop.”

The Patriot League wraps up its regular season early, and Army has just two more weekends to chase down Navy for first place. Foster said a key down the stretch will be for the Black Knights to continue to develop depth in their bullpen and to continue to build on their offensive breakout.

Whether the Black Knights can chase down the Midshipmen for the regular season title or not, these two teams appear to be on a collision course for another meeting in the Patriot League Championship series. They are the only two teams in the league with overall winning records and neither has lost a league series to any other team this year.

But all of that is still to come. This weekend was another exciting edition of the rivalry, which makes for a win for college baseball.

“They were three good games this weekend,” Foster said. “For the Army-Navy series, it was really good. I’m just glad we came out on top.”

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Alek Manoah Leads West Virginia To Key Big 12 Tournament Win

West Virginia scored a crucial win Thursday at the Big 12 Tournament.

Eight for Omaha

Arkansas, Georgia, Louisville, Mississippi State, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, Vanderbilt

This was perhaps the hardest Eight for Omaha of the season. Ultimately, I made one change to the field, swapping Arkansas for Louisiana State. I really like the Tigers’ talent level and lineup, but, ultimately, they feel a little light on the mound right now. Righthander Zack Hess should be back at the front of the rotation soon, which will help, but some injuries and ineffectiveness are showing. Arkansas, meanwhile, is in much better shape to be a top-eight seed and therefore not have to travel during the NCAA Tournament. The Razorbacks are 21-4 at Baum Stadium and will be a very tough out if they get to host. Mississippi State is in much the same boat as LSU right now, but I think its frontline arms a tick better, giving it the edge here.

Weekend Standouts

Seven players or programs who put together big weekends.

JJ Bleday, OF, Vanderbilt: Bleday went 7-for-18 with five home runs last week, homering in all four of Vanderbilt’s games. His home run binge, which began last month, has seen him soar into a tie with Tulane’s Kody Hoese for the national lead with 20. On the season, Bleday is hitting .363/.462/.796 with 30 walks and 32 strikeouts.

Andrew Daschbach, 1B, Stanford: The Cardinal’s offense broke out in a big way this weekend in a sweep at Oregon and Dashbach was the heart of it. The junior went 6-for-11 with three home runs, scored seven runs, walked twice and struck out just once. He is hitting .308/.394/.547 with seven home runs this season.

Duke: The Blue Devils (24-16, 11-10 ACC) put together a huge 4-0 week, beating Texas Tech on Tuesday and then sweeping Clemson on the road. The sweep was Duke’s first at Clemson since 1948 and also pushed Duke back into the NCAA Tournament discussion, though it's not out of the woods yet.

Kansas State: On consecutive weekends, Kansas State (19-22, 5-7 Big 12) has won series against Texas and Texas Christian. It was the first time since 2009 that the Wildcats have won back-to-back series against ranked teams. K-State’s impressive run has opened a path for it to regionals, though it first must get its overall record above .500. Regardless of whether it successfully navigates that path, the Wildcats are showing some impressive fight under first-year coach Pete Hughes.

Alek Manoah, RHP, West Virginia: Manoah has been the best pitcher in the country over the last three weeks, and on Saturday threw his second straight shutout in a 1-0 victory against Kansas. The big righthander struck out 15 batters and held the Jayhawks to three hits and no walks. He has thrown 31 straight scoreless innings and has 41 strikeouts in his last three starts, which have come against Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Kansas. On the season, he is 6-2, 1.81 with 95 strikeouts and 15 walks in 69.2 innings.

Nick Silva, RHP, MaineRyan Turenne, C, Maine: The two Black Bears on Friday combined to produce one of the most unforgettable games of the season. Silva threw a no-hitter and Turenne hit a pinch-hit, walk-off grand slam to send Maine to a 4-1 victory in a seven-inning game against Massachusetts in the first game of a doubleheader. Silva, a senior, walked two batters and struck out two, but was in line for the loss until Turenne, a freshman with one RBI to his name, hit an unforgettable first career home run.

Looking Ahead

Three weekend series we’re most excited for

(3) Georgia at (9) Mississippi State: The weekend’s marquee series lost the slightest bit of luster when Mississippi State (32-9, 10-8) was swept out of first place in the SEC West at Arkansas. Georgia (33-8, 13-5) will come to Starkville as the SEC East leaders and is hunting its best road series win of the year. This weekend will have big implications on the hosting and top-eight seed race. This series may also see Mississippi State center fielder Jake Mangum break Eddy Furniss’ all-time SEC hits record, as he enters the week four hits behind the former Louisiana State great.

(13) Arizona State at Washington: These two teams are both still pushing to improve their NCAA Tournament resumes, albeit in different ways. Arizona State (30-8 12-6) is trying to get back in the hosting race and hang in the Pac-12 title race. Washington (17-17, 5-10) is trying to keep its regional hopes alive. The Huskies’ biggest problem is its Pac-12 record, and it needs to start turning that around this weekend against the Sun Devils.

(22) Oklahoma State at (15) Texas Tech: The Big 12 title race is jumbled entering the stretch run. Oklahoma State (25-13, 10-5) sits in first place, two games ahead of Texas Tech (25-13, 8-7), but now faces a very difficult trip to Lubbock. The Red Raiders are coming off a series win against Baylor that knocked the Bears out of first place and will now try to do the same to the Cowboys. Oklahoma State will be looking to reverse the outcome of last year’s series that saw Texas Tech sweep in Stillwater, which denied the Cowboys the title, which went to Texas instead.

Two weekend series to watch

Connecticut at Sam Houston State: Both UConn (24-16) and Sam Houston (22-15) have at-large hopes and can boost their resumes this weekend in an intriguing non-conference series. The Bearkats need this series more, as they are winning the Southland Conference, but rank No. 69 in RPI, outside the range for a regional bid. The Huskies have slipped to 7-8 in the American Athletic Conference after getting swept at East Carolina and righting that record is more important as their RPI (25) is in good shape. Still, another strong road series win would help them build momentum for the stretch run.

Xavier at Creighton: The top two teams in the Big East standings meet this weekend at TD Ameritrade Park. Xavier (16-23, 7-1) survived a brutal non-conference schedule and has won its first three Big East series, including a visit to preseason favorite St. John’s. Now it faces another difficult road test against Creighton (22-8, 5-1), which ranks No. 17 in RPI and has legitimate hopes to host a regional in the home of the College World Series. But to keep those hopes alive, the Bluejays will likely need to win the Big East and face one of their toughest tests this weekend.

One midweek game to keep an eye on

(23) Mississippi vs. (9) Mississippi State in Pearl, Miss., 7 p.m. ET: The Magnolia State rivals meet for their annual Governor’s Cup showdown at the home of Double-A Mississippi. Mississippi State (32-9) has owned this series, winning three straight and eight of nine cups. Ole Miss (27-14) will be eager for revenge, however, after losing last year’s meeting on a walk-off.

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