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Off The Bat: Coastal Clinches, Pepperdine Closes In

Coastal Caps Big Week With Title

Coastal Carolina last week lost its first series of the season, dropping its first two games at Louisiana-Lafayette. The Chanticleers bounced back with a win in the series finale, but the series loss was a blow to their hopes of hosting a regional as their RPI fell out of the top 25.

Undeterred, Coastal returned home for a big week at Springs Brooks Stadium. It had a midweek game against then-No. 3 North Carolina and a series against Arkansas-Little Rock in a matchup of the Sun Belt’s division leaders.

The Chanticleers bounced back with a perfect week. They beat the Tar Heels, 5-2, and then swept the Trojans. With the sweep, Coastal clinched the Sun Belt title, its second consecutive title since joining the conference for the 2017 season and its third straight conference title overall. The Chanticleers (36-16) rose to No. 16 in the Top 25 and are right back in the hosting mix with a top-20 RPI.

Coach Gary Gilmore said he is proud of his team.

“I keep preaching to them it’s not about how pretty it is but it’s about finding ways to win and to be a little better than the other team,” he said. “This time of year, it’s not all going to go to script. It’s just about finding ways to win.”

Coastal is plenty used to winning. From 1998-2016, its last season in the Big South Conference, Coastal won either the regular season or tournament title in all but five years. Their move to the Sun Belt has done nothing to slow that momentum.

Coastal fought through an up-and-down 2017 hampered by an injury bug it couldn’t seem to shake, but won the regular season title anyway, edging South Alabama by a half-game. The Chanticleers have left no doubt about their conference supremacy this year. In their two years in the conference, they are 43-13-1 in Sun Belt games. Only South Alabama (39-17) is within even eight wins of Coastal.

“This is a different team than last year’s team, a different focus,” Gilmore said. “We’ve got a good mix of freshmen, sohpomores and older guys with two or three juco guys tossed in. We’re better in a lot of areas.”

About half a dozen players on this year’s team were a part of the 2016 national championship team. That group includes senior infielders Kevin Woodall (.281/.401/.571, 17 HR) and Seth Lancaster (.286/.439/.577, 13 HR, 22 SB), who anchor the lineup, and righthanders Jason Bilous (7-2, 3.00) and Zack Hopeck (5-4, 4.44), who lead the team in innings. But this team also has an infusion of new talent such as hard-throwing freshman righthander Zach McCambley (2-0, 3.69) and sophomore sparkplug Cory Wood (.308/.444/.407, 14 SB).

The Chanticleers have a deep, powerful offense but this week leaned heavily on their pitching staff. Coastal gave up a total of six runs over four games and twice shut out Little Rock.

Coastal on Friday got a strong start from Bilous, who has long excited with his powerful arm but has often been undone by shaky command. Against Little Rock, however, the junior was outstanding. He threw seven scoreless innings, struck out 11 batters and held the Trojans to one walk and two hits. It was Bilous’ third straight quality start, a development that is coming just in time for the Chanticleers.

Gilmore said Bilous’ improvement can be traced to a few different factors. He moved out of the Friday starter role for a few weeks about a month ago, a move Gilmore said allowed the junior to relax more. Then at Louisiana, Bilous twisted his ankle when he leapt over a low bullpen fence and landed awkwardly on a weight anchoring a tarp. Gilmore said he thinks because Bilous wanted to protect his ankle, he is landing softer in his delivery, which is helping his command.

Whatever the reason, Bilous has started throwing strikes more consistently. With Hopeck, a steady veteran, and McCambley following him in the rotation and lefthander Anthony Veneziano (5-0, 3.88) providing a solid fourth option, Coastal has the pitching depth to matchup favorably against most teams in the country.

“(Bilous) had complete command of his fastball,” Gilmore said. “That’s the first two times he’s been able to do it for more than an inning or two. If he can continue it on, with him and Anthony and the way McCambley came on, we can be competitive in a regional with our starting pitching.”

With a week to play in the regular season, Coastal has already wrapped up the Sun Belt title and assured itself of a spot in the NCAA Tournament regardless of how the Sun Belt Tournament unfolds, two of its goals this season. Now it can turn its attention to where it will play in regionals.

Coastal has not hosted a regional since Springs Brooks Stadium opened in 2015. The Chanticleers very much want to show off their gem of a ballpark and get homefield advantage in the postseason. They have gotten their RPI back into the range it needs to be but there isn’t much margin for error. Coastal’s only regular season games left are at Appalachian State, which ranks No. 180 in RPI. It will face higher ranked competition in the Sun Belt Tournament, but even those games won’t afford the Chanticleers many opportunities to improve their RPI.

Regardless of how the hosting race turns out, Coastal knows what it takes to win in the postseason. And the Chanticleers will be ready to take another run at Omaha.

“This team is an interesting team,” Gilmore said. “There are days we play that I think we’re really, really good and there are days when we’re good but we’re missing this and that. I would bet 90 percent of the colleges in the country feel that way. There are just a handful that have a little more overall depth than some of us.

“At the end of the day, having experienced it, you don’t have to have 27 studs. You have to have enough guys to find a way to win.”

Pepperdine Closes In On WCC Title

Pepperdine sputtered out of the gate this season and after losing its first two West Coast Conference series, its record dipped under .500 in late March. At about that time, the Waves held a players-only meeting.

A common phrase around baseball is that “losers meet.” Winning teams don’t need players-only meetings and many players-only meetings produce minimal returns. But sometimes a players-only meeting provides the spark a team needs.

That was the case for the Waves. They have won their last six series and are 18-6 in that stretch. After this weekend winning a series at Saint Mary’s, Pepperdine (28-19) holds a two-game lead on Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s in the WCC with three games to play. It will have a chance to win its first WCC regular season title since 2014 next weekend at home against Portland (20-28).

Coach Rick Hirtensteiner said the players-only meeting was a turning point for the Waves.

“A couple of the older guys got them together,” he said. “Since then, they’ve been a different group.”

Pepperdine has won back-to-back series that matched up the top two teams in the conference standings. A week ago, it beat San Francisco twice to move into first place. It this weekend claimed a series at Saint Mary’s to extend its lead.

The Waves won the first game against the Gaels, 9-5, riding back-to-back, third-inning home runs from Matthew Kanfer and Jordan Qsar to victory. A strong start Saturday from Jonathan Pendergast, who held the Gaels to one run in 7.1 innings, and another Kanfer home run led the Waves to a 2-1 victory.

“It was about timely hitting and a great pitching performance from Pendergrass,” Hirtensteiner said. “We got on their starter Friday and kept getting hits and timely hits. Pendy threw a great game Saturday and Kanfer hit a two-run homer and it held.”

And now Pepperdine is on the precipice of claiming an unexpected title. Pepperdine was picked in the preseason coaches’ poll to finish seventh, which wouldn’t have even qualified it for the WCC Tournament. The Waves are also doing this without the premium draft prospects they often produce, such as A.J. Puckett and Aaron Brown.

Juniors Kanfer (.310/.343/.467, 5 HR, 7 SB), Pendergast (6-4, 2.84) and Qsar (.270/.322/.489, 9 HR; 0-1, 1.59, 7 SV) form a strong core for the Waves, who are built around pitching and defense, as is often the case. The Waves rank third in the WCC in ERA (3.34), despite losing sophomore righthander Wil Jensen to injury midway through the year when he was leading the nation in ERA. The Waves’ .976 fielding percentage ranks second in the WCC.

The players-only meeting may have been the impetus to Pepperdine’s turnaround, but the Waves have put in the work necessary since then. The Waves’ early season record probably looked worse than it really was because they were 2-7 in one-run games.

“We made it a point keep working hard in practice and to do the things we need to get better,” Hirtensteiner said. “The guys continue to have great practices and weight training sessions and extra work and early work. And we started winning ballgames.”

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Eight for Omaha

Arkansas, Coastal Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon State, Stanford, Texas Tech.

A week ago, I said I thought this year’s NCAA Tournament might resemble this year’s March Madness with myriad upsets defining the tournament. I still think that’s a likely outcome, but I now wonder if we might be in for one of the most straightforward tournaments in recent years. So many teams across the country have such significant home-road splits that hosting may be more of an advantage this year than it has been in recent tournaments.

Regardless, I made one change to the field this week, moving Coastal Carolina in and Southern Mississippi out. The Golden Eagles’ series loss this weekend dashed their slim hopes of hosting. The Chanticleers’ own dreams are very much thriving, but more importantly it looks like Jason Bilous may have finally harnessed his powerful arsenal. If that’s the case, Coastal has the pitching staff to match up with most teams in the country and it has a wealth of postseason experience to draw on. If the Chanticleers don’t host, they’ll be one of the two seeds teams least want to be drawn with.

Eye Catchers

Five players or programs who stood out this weekend.

Nick Angelini, OF, Bryant: Angelini on Sunday hit a walkoff home run in the rubber game between Bryant and Wagner, giving the Bulldogs the series win and sending them into first place in the Northeast Conference. The junior is hitting .248/.371/.389 with four home runs.

Florida: The Gators clinched their second straight Southeastern Conference title with a series win against Georgia. The championship is Kevin O’Sullivan’s fifth, making him one of four coaches in SEC history to win five or more league titles.

Logan Gilbert, RHP, Stetson: In a 4-2 victory Friday at Florida Gulf Coast, Gilbert struck out 13 batters and held the Eagles to two runs on four hits and two walks in 6.2 innings. The junior broke the program’s single-season strikeout record, pushing his total to 134 in 93 innings and surpassing the mark of 132 set by Lenny DiNardo in 2000. Gilbert improved to 9-1, 2.61.

Oregon State: The Beavers this weekend continued their domination over Stanford. They won their eighth straight series against the Cardinal and improved to 21-3 in that stretch. Oregon State’s series win also tightened the race for the Pac-12 Conference title, which now will likely come down to the final weekend of the season.

Saint Peter’s: The Peacocks on Sunday snapped their 77-game losing streak with a 7-1 victory against Iona in Game 1 of a doubleheader. Saint Peter’s last win was on the final day of the 2016 season, some 722 days ago. The win was also the first for Danny Ramirez as a Division I head coach. He took over the program following the 2016 season.

Looking Ahead

Three weekend series we’re most excited for

(7) North Carolina State at (14) Florida State: This series probably means more for Florida State (37-16, 15-12), which could use a series win to boost its Atlantic Coast Conference record and shore up its hosting credentials. North Carolina State (39-12, 18-9) is one game behind first-place Clemson in the Atlantic Division and will be eager to chase down the Tigers to improve its chances at a top-eight seed. Beyond those implications, it figures to be a great series with two of the ACC’s best teams going at it.

(10) Texas Tech at (25) Oklahoma State: The Cowboys (29-19-1, 16-5) are trying to close out the Big 12 Conference title. The Red Raiders (35-15, 12-9) are trying to get back on track after losing their last two series before this weekend’s finals break. Texas will be keeping a close eye on the goings on in Stillwater, as the Longhorns (33-18, 14-7) are still alive in the conference title race.

(5) Arkansas at (12) Georgia: Both the Razorbacks (36-15, 17-10) and the Bulldogs (35-16, 16-11) project to be top-eight seeds and this weekend is unlikely to change that. Still, the winner will have sewn up a top-eight seed, while the loser may have to be careful next week at the SEC Tournament. It figures to be an entertaining series between two of the best teams in the SEC.

Two weekend series you shouldn’t overlook

Army at Navy: The Patriot League Tournament championship series comes down to one of the best rivalries in sports. Army vs. Navy with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line is probably the best possible argument for conference tournaments. The Midshipmen (38-14) went 3-2 against the Black Knights (33-22) during the regular season and get home-field advantage for the three-game series.

Marist at Canisius: The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference race is the tightest in the nation going into the final weekend. Marist, Monmouth and Quinnipiac are all tied for first at 14-7, while Canisius is one game back at 13-8. While Marist and Canisius square off in Buffalo, Monmouth will host Fairfield and Quinnipiac will host Rider. It figures to be a weekend of scoreboard watching around the league.

One midweek game to keep an eye on

(21) Stetson at Miami, Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET: The two hottest teams in the country will meet Tuesday in Coral Gables. Stetson (40-11) has won 10 straight games, the longest active winning streak in the nation, while Miami’s eight-game streak is tied for second. The Hurricanes (25-25) have more to play for Tuesday as they are again in a position where they need to keep winning down the stretch to make the NCAA Tournament. The Hatters are trying to secure a spot as a regional host, though Tuesday’s game is unlikely to move the needle much in that regard.

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