Image credit: Cliff Welch
Florida Wins Showdown of SEC Favorites
Florida and Arkansas met in Gainesville this weekend for a highly anticipated top-five series between the two teams favored to win their Southeastern Conference divisions. The Gators and Razorbacks did not disappoint, putting on a show that wouldn’t look out of place if it was replayed three months from now in Omaha.
Arkansas won Friday’s series opener, 6-3, but Florida bounced back with a vengeance Saturday for a 17-2 win. The Gators claimed the series Sunday with a 5-4 win that came down to the final out—a groundout to first with the tying run at second base.
Following the series, Florida (21-5, 4-2 SEC) stayed at No. 2 in the Top 25, while Arkansas (17-7, 4-2) slid from No. 4 to No. 6.
Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said the Gators showed a lot to come back and win the series after losing the first game.
“That’s one of the better lineups in the country,” O’Sullivan said of the Razorbacks. “Dave (Van Horn) has got a really good team, they’re extremely well coached and they play the game the right way.
“It was everything I anticipated the weekend to be.”
Arkansas showed their offensive prowess Friday night, when they scored six runs in seven innings off Brady Singer and became the first team this season to beat the Preseason All-American.
Florida has some offensive firepower of its own and it exploded Saturday. Third baseman Jonathan India hit a first-inning grand slam to give the Gators an early lead and they never looked back.
India, as he has been all season, was at the heart of Florida’s offense this weekend. He went 6-for-9 with three walks and extended his hitting streak to 11 games. He is now hitting .429/.535/.909 with nine home runs. The junior has been a constant presence in Florida’s lineup since arriving on campus as a heralded recruit and is reaching another level this spring.
O’Sullivan said India’s approach has improved this year. While India has already set a career high in home runs, he is also fast approaching one in walks. He has walked 17 times in 22 games (against 15 strikeouts) and is just six walks shy of his career high, set last year in 59 games.
“What you’re seeing now is a more approach at the plate,” O’Sullivan said. “His numbers and production are matching up with his skillset. It’s just a matter of putting it all together.”
Having split the first two games, the Gators found a way to grind out a series win Sunday. Arkansas out-hit Florida (10 to 5) and knocked out righthander Tyler Dyson, a likely first round pick in 2019, after four innings.
But Florida got a two-run home run from Nelson Maldonado in the seventh inning to break a 3-3 deadlock and All-American closer Michael Byrne did the rest. Byrne gave up a run in the ninth inning, ending his 26-inning scoreless streak, which dated back to last season, but got the job done to improve to 1-0, 0.44 with five saves.
Byrne was vital last season during Florida’s run to the national championship and he has picked up right where he left off this season. Byrne can’t match the stuff of many of his teammates, but he has an excellent understanding of his craft and what he needs to do to get outs.
“He’s got the right temperament, the right heart beat,” O’Sullivan said. “He never gets too high or too low. He’s a classic pitcher.”
Florida is off to an excellent start to the year—its only hiccup coming a few weeks ago when it lost a pair of midweek games to Central Florida. But it must continue to play at that level because its schedule doesn’t get any easier this week. Florida on Tuesday plays archrival No. 5 Florida State in Jacksonville and next weekend hosts No. 8 Vanderbilt.
O’Sullivan said the Gators have to be ready mentally because every opponent is going to be ready to give them their best shot.
“It doesn’t let up,” O’Sullivan said. “Playing these types of series, playing a good team Tuesday and another good one next weekend forces you to focus. When you play good teams like that, you’ve got no choice but to stay focused and play at a high level.”
Army Steps Up On Big Stage
The Army-Navy rivalry on Sunday resumed on the diamond on the big stage of Camden Yards. It was the first time since 2006 the two rivals played on a neutral field and the doubleheader had a little of everything—pomp and circumstance, a snow delay and extra innings.
Army swept the doubleheader, winning the first game 5-3 in 10 innings and following that up with an 8-2 victory in the nightcap. It was a strong showing for the Black Knights, who improved to 11-12 and 4-0 in the Patriot League.
Senior catcher John Rosoff said playing at Camden Yards was a dream come true. He delivered the game-winning hit in the first game, an RBI double in the 10th, and drove in two more runs in the nightcap.
“When I found out we were playing at Camden, every day I looked forward to it.,” he said. “it was absolutely amazing.”
The doubleheader was originally scheduled to be played in Annapolis but was moved to Camden Yards last month as a part of a new partnership between the Naval Academy and the Orioles. Despite temperatures that began the day near freezing and a popup snow shower that interrupted the first game, a good crowd of 3,221 came Sunday to Camden Yards. The two teams will meet again next month at Fenway Park for the first game of a three-game series hosted by Army.
The setting and spectacle were special Sunday, but the day also stood out for Army’s on-field success. The Black Knights went 2-12 against the Midshipmen over the last three years and are now well-positioned to win the season series for the first time since 2014.
Taken with a doubleheader sweep Saturday at Bucknell, Army is off to a perfect start in the Patriot League. Coach Jim Foster, in his second season at West Point, said it was a good weekend, but didn’t want to get ahead of himself.
“They’re showing a lot of good qualities,” he said. “I’m proud of the progress they’ve made. Trying not to get too high or too low, trying to teach them that. It was a nice day, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
The Black Knights have already come a long way under Foster. When he took over following the 2016 season, Army was coming off a 16-32 season and had finished under .500 in back-to-back years for the first time since 1998-99. The Black Knights went 25-31 last year and are poised to take another step forward this season.
Army started the season 6-4 with wins against Boston College, Bryant, Michigan and Maryland. But the Black Knights hit a skid during a trip to Florida, going 1-8 against Rutgers, Stetson, Rhode Island and South Florida. The trip included getting no-hit last Friday by Preseason All-American Shane McClanahan and Carson Ragsdale in a 12-0 loss at USF.
Foster said despite the record, the trip helped his team improve. And it was ready to go this weekend when it began Patriot League play.
“They showed that fight and that grit,” Foster said. “When you have that you can overcome a lot of things. We have to get more talent, we have to develop players, we have to recruit, but it’s a nice start. When you have players doing it the right way it’s a lot of fun to come to the ballpark every day.”
The Black Knights aren’t brimming with talent and are still working to find a rhythm at the plate. Rosoff, listed at 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, last year won the Patriot League batting title with a .362 average, but this season is hitting .291/.436/.342 to lead the team. Army has a solid pitching staff and played clean baseball Sunday, but perhaps its best attribute is its mentality.
Rosoff said Foster has helped instill confidence in the Black Knights.
“He’s holding people accountable, he’s making us believe that we are good – because we are good,” Rosoff said. “Years in the past, we’ve struggled not because of a lack of talent but just the attitude. This year guys are hungry. 100 percent of the guys want to win a Patriot League championship.”
The Black Knights still have a long way to reach that goal, but this weekend was a strong start. And after sweeping Navy at Camden Yards, Army is ready to chase its dreams.
“They’ve really come together,” Foster said. “Everybody is all in. It’s taken a while to get to that point, but they’re all in, they’re pulling for each other, they’re a team, they care about each other. Once you set that culture, anything’s possible.”
San Diego State Passes Big Test
San Diego State traveled to Nevada-Las Vegas this weekend knowing it was in for a tough series. The Rebels were 19-3 and had lost just once this season at Wilson Stadium.
The Aztecs were off to a solid start of their own and were in the Top 25 for the first time since 2009. It was very early into the Mountain West Conference slate, but there was plenty of intrigue to be found in the series.
UNLV won the first game, 4-3, before SDSU broke out offensively, scoring 39 runs over the next two days to claim the series and emphatically state that the defending Mountain West Conference champion was again the team to beat in the league. The Aztecs (16-7, 6-2) rose to No. 23 in the Top 25.
Coach Mark Martinez said the Aztecs knew they would have to step up offensively this weekend to match the Rebels in a hitter-friendly environment. They went into Saturday’s game with an attacking mindset and it paid off.
SDSU on Saturday pounded out 18 hits, walked seven times, struck out just three and scored a season-high 17 runs. It used the same approach Sunday, scoring 22 runs on 23 hits, six walks and whiffed just once.
“You have to give our guys a lot of credit the way they focused on trying to win each inning,” Martinez said. “The biggest key was having quality at bats and the way we managed at bats.”
The Aztecs didn’t return many regulars from last year’s team and Martinez and his staff made an early decision that they were going to, for the most part, stick with one set of regulars to allow them to get comfortable playing together.
That approach has paid off. SDSU has eight regulars hitting better than .500, led by outfielder Matt Rudick (.382/.500/.434) and first baseman Jordan Verdon (.367/.416/.656). Verdon leds the team with 19 extra-base hits and homered in both wins this weekend, including a grand slam in the third inning Sunday that gave the Aztecs the lead for good.
“He’s done a nice job the last couple weekends of bailing us out a couple times and getting big RBIs,” Martinez said. “The grand slam he hit today was at a critical moment in the game. The team hadn’t been hitting very well with the bases loaded and it felt like the whole team took a breath when the ball went out.”
SDSU has pitched well all season with Harrison Pyatt (1-1, 4.45) and Garrett Hill (5-0, 1.32) leading the way in the rotation and Jacob Erickson (1-1, 1.95) and Jorge Fernandez (3-1, 1.84, 4 SV) solidifying the bullpen.
While Tony Gwynn Stadium is more of a pitcher friendly park, the league is favorable to hitters, making SDSU’s identity of pitching and defense even more important. It has been a winning strategy for the Aztecs, who have made the NCAA Tournament in four of the last five seasons.
AS SDSU tries to make it five regional trips in six years, Martinez said he wants his team to focus on winning every week. So far, the Aztecs have done a good job of that and have gone 3-1 in each of the last two weeks.
“That helped build confidence,” Martinez said. “This was the first true in-conference road test against a team that’s been on a roll. It’s a great barometer for us and it was good to come over here and get two of three.”
Eight for Omaha
Arkansas, Florida, Florida State, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oregon State, Stanford, Texas Tech
After last week’s upheaval, this weekend was steadier. Of the eight teams in the field, only Arkansas lost its series and that came at Florida. So there are no changes to the field this week. Vanderbilt is making a play for inclusion in the field and will get a chance to prove how good it is this weekend when it travels to Florida.
Six players or programs who stood out this weekend.
Ball State: The Cardinals opened Mid-American Conference play with a series win at Kent State, the preseason conference favorite. Ball State (12-11) won the series Sunday with a 6-4 victory, becoming the first MAC team to win a series at Kent State (11-8) since 2015.
Danny Collier, OF, New Mexico: With the Lobos and Air Force tied in the 10th inning Saturday, Collier blasted a walk-off home run to give New Mexico (10-12) a 12-11 victory. The home run was his first of the year and completed the cycle for the redshirt senior, who went 4-for-5 in the win. He is hitting .337/.414/.495 this season.
Trey Cumbie, LHP, Houston and Aaron Fletcher, LHP, Houston: The lefthanders threw back-to-back shutouts Friday and Saturday to help Houston (16-8) extend its winning streak to eight games and sweep Memphis to open American Athletic Conference action. Cumbie struck out eight batters and walked one Friday in a three-hitter and Fletcher followed the next day with nine strikeouts and no walks in a four-hitter.
Miami: The Hurricanes swept Virginia, finishing the weekend with an 8-1 victory Sunday. Miami (12-11) became the first team to sweep the Cavs since 2015 and climbed into a tie with No. 13 Duke atop the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division at 6-3.
Nebraska-Omaha: The Mavericks won their series against Oral Roberts, the perennial Summit League powerhouse. Omaha has won its first two conference series of the year and is off to a 9-13 start this season, a marked improvement from last year, when it went 12-40.
Three weekend series we’re most excited for
(8) Vanderbilt at (2) Florida: For the second week in a row, Florida welcomes a top-10 team to Gainesville. While it is still early, this week’s showdown could have big implications in the race for the SEC East Division. The Gators (21-5) have won their last three series against the Commodores (17-7) and will be eager to extend that streak.
(6) Arkansas at (4) Mississippi: While two of the leading contenders in the SEC East meet in Gainesville, two of the leading contenders in the SEC West will be facing off in Oxford. Arkansas (17-7) is looking to bounce back after losing a tight series last weekend at Florida, while Ole Miss (22-3) is carrying momentum after a big series win at Texas A&M. This is a key series for both teams as they try to establish themselves as division favorites.
(20) Louisville at (5) Florida State: The Seminoles (20-5) are one of the few teams to have been able to tame the Cardinals (18-6) since they joined the conference for the 2015 season. Florida State has won this series in each of the past two years and will be looking to pick up another big win this weekend. Louisville, meanwhile, is looking to get back on track after losing back-to-back series.
Two weekend series you shouldn’t overlook
Wichita State at (17) East Carolina: After an impressive start to the season, Wichita State (17-4) is carrying momentum into its first ever American Athletic Conference series. East Carolina (18-5) is also coming in hot after last weekend winning a big series at Central Florida, the defending conference champion. The megaphones in left field at Clark-LeClair Stadium will surely give the Shockers a warm welcome to the American.
Virginia Commonwealth at St. Louis: The two hottest teams in the country come together for an Atlantic-10 Conference showdown. SLU (15-7) has won 14 straight games—the nation’s longest active streak. VCU (16-8) has won 12 straight games—the nation’s second longest active streak. Turning that momentum into a series win this weekend could have a big impact on the A-10 title race later this season.
One midweek game to keep an eye on
(14) Southern Mississippi at (4) Mississippi, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET: Having swept Mississippi State to open the season, Southern Miss (17-5) now gets its shot at Ole Miss (22-3). Both teams are off to strong starts this season and coming off big conference road series wins—Southern Miss at Florida Atlantic, Ole Miss at Texas A&M, setting up a marquee midweek matchup.