Auburn Again Off To Strong Start
For the second straight year, Auburn opened Southeastern Conference play with a series win in Plainsman Park against a top-10 opponent. Unlike last year’s shocking sweep of a top-five Florida team, this weekend’s series win against then-No. 10 Texas A&M was not landscape altering in the SEC.
Auburn, which moved up from No. 13 to No. 6 in this week’s Top 25, had already this season established itself as a contender in a loaded SEC. Last season’s team used the sweep of Florida to announce its presence in the race.
The Tigers (19-2) this season are set up to compete with the SEC’s best. Ace Casey Mize was magnificent Friday night in a 4-1 victory, showing why he is becoming a leading contender to be the top overall draft pick in June. The rest of the pitching staff is solid and Auburn has a deep, experienced lineup that is averaging 8.6 runs per game.
Coach Butch Thompson said this weekend’s performance proved the Tigers can compete with anyone in the country if they play to their potential.
“I took a lot of faith out of this weekend with our ballclub,” he said. “We are going to be matched athletically – just like A&M and every other ballclub is going to be matched athletically, I think that’s what makes it the best conference in America. But we’ve got a shot. It’ll always be a requirement to play at your best and play sound, quality baseball.”
Auburn showed this weekend it has the ability to beat teams in multiple ways. On Friday, Mize led the way in a pitchers’ duel, the kind he will often find himself in this spring in SEC play. The next day, the Tigers exploded for eight runs in the eighth inning in a come-from-behind, 11-5 victory. A&M won the finale, 5-1, behind a strong start from righthander Mitchell Kilkenny.
No matter what kind of game the Tigers find themselves in right now, they believe they can win. Starters Mize (5-0, 1.93), Davis Daniel (2-0, 4.35) and Tanner Burns (2-2, 2.05) and relief ace Calvin Coker (3-0, 1.78, 3 SV) have the stuff to win a pitchers’ duel. First baseman Brendan Venter (.418/.526/.646, 4 HR) and outfielder Steven Williams (.316/.389/.582, 5 HR) are among the newcomers that have lengthened the Tigers’ lineup, making the kind of offensive explosion they had Saturday possible.
Auburn is playing confidently right now and for good reason. They have won 16 of 19 series since the start of last season.
Thompson said the Tigers do a good job of playing for each other.
“I appreciate them staying inward and just really listening to each other and trying to play the best they can and pick each other up,” he said. “We’re not perfect, that is for sure, but we’re kind of ok with that. We figure every human is like that – nobody’s perfect. We’ll just keep playing, keep seeing opportunities and just stay after that. We want to be resilient.”
The Tigers fell behind both Saturday and Sunday, but never felt like they were out of the game. As they started coming back Saturday they kept the pressure on A&M, in part by turning their dugout into a club during the Aggies’ pitching changes.
Catcher Brett Wright said the team has developed a close bond.
“I think we’ve got good team chemistry right now,” he said. “Everybody in the locker room pretty much is best friends.”
Auburn will face another stern test next weekend when it travels to No. 8 Kentucky. The Wildcats were swept at Arkansas over the weekend and will be eager to get back on track. The Tigers will be ready for another tough weekend in the SEC.
“All 10 weekends, it’s going to be the same requirement, just getting up for it and playing steady baseball,” Thompson said. “It’s time to go on the road and play a little bit and we look forward to it.”
Wolfpack Make a #STATEment With Road Sweep
North Carolina State packed its early-season schedule with home games, playing 18 games in the first four weeks and leaving Doak Field just once. The slate wasn’t just easy on the Wolfpack’s travel budget, it also included just one game against a team that was in the preseason projected NCAA Tournament field – and NC State lost that game, 3-2, to Canisius.
NC State piled up wins, going 15-3 to start the season, but the team’s biggest test waited for it this weekend with a trip to Clemson, which came into the series 16-1 and ranked No. 5. The Wolfpack proved to be up to the task. They swept the series and vaulted to No. 10 in the Top 25.
NC State (18-3) held Clemson’s powerful offense to just one run in the first two games and then completing the weekend with a 5-4 victory in Sunday’s finale. Before this weekend, NC State had swept Clemson just once, at home in 1997.
After leading the first two games of the series from start to finish, NC State had to come back Sunday on what turned into a bullpen day. None of it fazed the Wolfpack.
“We got behind 3-1 but found a way,” coach Elliott Avent said. “The other two we led from start to finish. We just go about our business. We don’t get too emotional when we’re up or down. It’s a great thing to watch this team play right now.”
Clemson’s offense stands out as one of the best in the country, reputation Avent said is well deserved. Avent said Seth Beer is one of the best hitters he’s faced in his 20 years in the Atlantic Coast Conference, stacking him up with the likes of J.D. Drew and Will Craig. Sluggers Chris Williams, Logan Davidson and Robert Jolly add plenty of depth to the lineup and have made life tough on opposing pitchers this season.
But NC State was able to contain the Tigers and limited them to three extra-base hits, all in the finale. It helped, Avent said, that the wind was blowing in the first two days of the weekend. But he said pitching coach Scott Foxhall did a great job of calling pitches and the staff executed the plan well. Starters Michael Bienlien (2-0, 0.68) and Brian Brown (4-0, 0.57) were strong the first two days and six relievers combined to hold the Tigers to one run in 15 innings over the three games.
Meanwhile, NC State’s offense continued to roll. The Wolfpack scored 15 runs in the series, with Josh McLain, Brett Kinneman, Will Wilson and Evan Edwards – the first four hitters in the lineup – leading the way. Wilson homered twice in the finale and went 6-for-12 on the weekend and is hitting .364/.479/.675 with six home runs this season. Kinneman homered Friday to continue his sensational start to his junior season and is now hitting .371/.452/.854 with 11 home runs.
The Wolfpack have impressive depth to their lineup. They have nine regulars hitting at least .295 and don’t even have the services of senior leadoff hitter Stephen Pitarra, who remains sidelined as he recovers from a hamstring injury he suffered Opening Weekend.
After playing 21 games in the first 31 days of the season, NC State will this week get a breather for the first time. The Wolfpack have no midweek games and Avent said they will take it easy in practice, allowing the players a chance to refresh and get caught up in school if they need it before welcoming Georgia Tech to Doak Field for the weekend.
It is a well-earned break, following an impressive all-around performance at Clemson.
“It was a total team effort,” Avent said. “Clemson is a tremendously good team and they’re tough here in Tiger Town. It was a really good week for us.”
Ohio State Heats Up
After last season going 22-34 and finishing 11th in the Big Ten Conference, Ohio State quietly flew under the radar coming into 2018 and was not picked by the conference’s coaches to finish in the top half of the league.
But, a month into the season, Ohio State is 14-6 and has the second-best record in the Big Ten, trailing only No. 19 Indiana (15-4). The Buckeyes this weekend swept Cal State Northridge to extend their winning streak to six games. The streak began last Sunday with a win at Coastal Carolina, then ranked No. 24, and continued with two midweek wins at UNC Wilmington, which was coming off a series win at Arizona State. Four of Ohio State’s losses have come against teams that were in the preseason projected to reach the NCAA Tournament – including two at the hands of top-ranked Oregon State.
It remains very early – the Buckeyes won’t even start conference play for another two weeks – but Ohio State is putting together a solid resume.
“We’ve had a pretty good schedule,” coach Greg Beals said. “I feel pretty good about where we’re at. And we still have room for growth. We’re getting there, but we’re not all the way there yet.”
Ohio State is averaging 7.45 runs per game, the best in the Big Ten, and its 18 home runs are tied for the second most in the conference. The Buckeyes have an older, experienced lineup that has grown up a lot since last season. Seniors Noah McGowan (.392/.474/.696, 5 HR) and Tyler Cowles (.368/.449/.553), who had rough first seasons after transferring from junior college, have taken significant steps forward and are leading the team in hitting. Sophomore outfielder Dominic Canzone (.359/.406/.500), who led the Buckeyes in hitting as a freshman, is off to another strong start at the plate, giving Ohio State a solid core.
While Beals wasn’t sure the lineup would click like it has, he came into the season feeling good about Ohio State’s offense.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Beals said. “You can’t predict hitting to a T, but it doesn’t surprise me. There’s a depth to the lineup.”
Ohio State’s pitching staff also brought back some experienced pieces, which has helped it in the first month. Junior lefthander Connor Curlis (3-0, 3.07) and senior closer Seth Kinker (3-1, 1.06, 4 SV) have been strong anchors for the staff, while redshirt-senior righthander Yianni Pavlopoulos (1-2, 3.20) continues to pitch important innings for the Buckeyes.
All eyes have been on junior righthander Ryan Feltner, who ranks No. 182 on the Top 300 draft prospects list. He has a powerful arm and is coming off a strong summer in the Cape Cod League but hadn’t been able to put it all together in his first two seasons with the Buckeyes. He has drawn all of Ohio State’s toughest matchups this year, moving around the rotation during Ohio State’s slate of tournaments to face the best team in the field. The first four weeks of the season, he faced Canisius, Oregon State, Southern Miss and Coastal Carolina. His numbers to this point – 2-0, 6.26 with 30 strikeouts and 11 walks in 27.1 innings – don’t jump out. But he was strong on Sunday, striking out nine batters in 6.2 innings and holding CSUN to three runs (two earned) on four hits and one walk. The Cleveland native ran his fastball into the mid 90s and, most importantly, showed progress with his control, which has held him back in the past.
“He was nails today,” Beals said. “He was dominating through the middle innings today. I feel like he’s pitching pretty good.”
To reach their potential, Ohio State will need Feltner at his best. Like the rest of the Buckeyes, facing such tough early-season competition has him well positioned as the season moves into its second month.
The top of the Big Ten turns over more often than most conferences and in recent years few teams have been able to put together sustained runs of excellence. That makes big turnarounds possible and Ohio State would be far from the first team to go from not making the Big Ten Tournament one year to contending for the conference title the next.
Ohio State still has a lot of work to do to make that happen. Beals said the Buckeyes want to cut down on their strikeouts and improve their infield defense (their .954 fielding percentage is tied for the worst in the Big Ten).
But the Buckeyes have put themselves in a good position to start the season and are showing how far they’ve come since last season.
“We have grown in every aspect,” Beals said. “We’re more physical, we’re mentally stronger, our skill set is better, our toughness is better.
“We’re not there yet, but we’re close to being pretty good. These guys have some toughness to them.”
Eight for Omaha
This was not an easy week to put a field together. Not only did three teams in last week’s field have losing weeks (Kentucky, Texas Christian and Texas Tech), so did the two teams that had been the closest to breaking into the field (Clemson and Texas A&M). Ultimately, I only made one change, bringing Mississippi in and dropping TCU. It feels odd to put together a field without TCU, which has been to Omaha for four straight years, but the Horned Frogs just haven’t found their groove yet. I still think they can, but they need to find more consistency. To replace TCU, I carefully considered Auburn and Ole Miss. I picked the Rebels based on the depth of their pitching staff. Coming into the year, that figured to be Ole Miss’ strength and it has not disappointed. Auburn has an excellent rotation and a couple reliable relievers, but I think Ole Miss just has a little more margin for error.
Five players or programs who stood out this weekend.
Arkansas: After not sweeping a series since Opening Weekend against Bucknell, Arkansas opened SEC play in style. The Razorbacks’ offense exploded against Kentucky, scoring 39 runs on the weekend – the most they had scored in a three-game conference series since 1997. In a doubleheader Saturday, Arkansas slugged 10 home runs as it extended its winning streak to six games.
Gage Canning, OF, Arizona State: The junior was locked in all weekend for the Sun Devils, who swept Oregon to begin Pac-12 Conference play. Canning went 10-for-13 with two home runs and two triples and at one point had eight consecutive hits. He is hitting .506/.558/.867 and leads the country with 42 hits.
Loyola Marymount: The Lions started the year 3-10 but are riding a six-game winning streak after sweeping Valparaiso and Brigham Young on back-to-back weekends. LMU became the first team to sweep BYU in Provo since San Diego did so in 2014. It has also been that long since the Lions started 3-0 in West Coast Conference play.
South Florida: Lefthander Shane McClanahan and righthander Carson Ragsdale combined Friday for a no-hitter in a 12-0 victory against Army. It was the Bulls’ first no-hitter since 2010 and the third in program history. McClanahan struck out 15 batters in six innings to improve to 2-1, 0.00 with 41 strikeouts in 24.2 innings.
Bren Spillane, 1B, Illinois: Spillane had an outstanding day at the plate in a Saturday doubleheader. He homered three times in No. 24 Illinois’ 16-6 victory at Southern Illinois and doubled twice in the nightcap. He finished the day 8-for-10 with a stolen base and four runs. The junior went 9-for-15 on the week and is now hitting .419/.471/.887 with a team-high six home runs.
Three weekend series we’re most excited for
No. 4 Arkansas at No. 2 Florida: The SEC’s division favorites square off in Gainesville for what should be a highly entertaining series. Florida (18-4) opened SEC play with a series win at South Carolina, while Arkansas (16-4) swept Kentucky at home. While both teams are strong in all facets, the best matchup of the weekend will be the Gators’ elite pitching staff against the Razorbacks’ red-hot hitters.
No. 6 Auburn at No. 8 Kentucky: Up until this weekend, Auburn and Kentucky had been two of the hottest teams in the country. But while the Tigers (19-2) started SEC play with a series win against Texas A&M, Kentucky (14-6) was swept at Arkansas. The Wildcats will be eager to get back on track at home in Lexington. The series also will be the first time Auburn coach Butch Thompson and Kentucky coach Nick Mingione face each other as head coaches after spending several years together on staff at Mississippi State.
No. 21 East Carolina at No. 20 Central Florida: The American Athletic Conference schedule starts with a marquee matchup between the two teams in the conference off to the best starts. UCF (17-4) last season won the conference title in coach Greg Lovelady’s first season at the program’s helm. ECU (16-4) is looking to get back on top of the conference after a disappointing 2017. Both teams have a chance to make a splash on opening weekend.
Two weekend series you shouldn’t overlook
No. 15 Southern Mississippi at Florida Atlantic: Southern Miss (14-4) and FAU (15-5) came into the season regarded as the top two teams in Conference USA and have lived up to those expectations so far. They’ll meet in Boca Raton for a big early-season series that will likely have a significant impact on the CUSA title race.
Long Beach State at Cal State Fullerton: While both Long Beach (8-12) and Fullerton (7-10) are off to disappointing starts this season, this rivalry remains one of college baseball’s best. This is a nonconference series but could be very beneficial for the winner as both teams look to build momentum after winning series at home this weekend.
One midweek series to keep an eye on
No. 20 Central Florida at No. 5 Florida State, March 20-21: UCF already this season swept a midweek series against Florida. Now, it will try to repeat that feat at Florida State (16-4). Both teams face tough weekend series – UCF hosts East Carolina and Florida State travels to North Carolina – and will be looking to build momentum going into the weekend.