Off The Bat: Georgia Claims Marquee Series Win, ECU Stays Hot
Teddy Cahill runs through the biggest storylines that emerged from the weekend. To see the updated Top 25, click here.
Georgia’s Strong Start Continues With Series Win Against LSU
Georgia opened Southeastern Conference play last weekend with a statement as it went on the road to sweep South Carolina. This weekend provided the Bulldogs an opportunity to double down on that early result with Louisiana State coming to Foley Field.
The Bulldogs did just that. After losing the opener, 1-0, in a classic pitchers’ duel between Emerson Hancock and Zack Hess, Georgia bounced back to win Saturday, 2-0, behind an outstanding effort from lefthander C.J. Smith. The Bulldogs claimed the series win with a 9-7 victory Sunday.
LSU provided a strong test for Georgia, but the Bulldogs (21-3) proved to be up to the challenge and won a series against the Tigers (17-7) for the first time since 2011. The Bulldogs have now won 12 of their last 13 games and are off to a 5-1 start in SEC play, matching Arkansas and Texas A&M for the best in the league. As a result, Georgia rose to No. 6 in the Top 25, its highest ranking since March 30, 2009, when it also ranked No. 6.
“We knew it would be a tough series,” coach Scott Stricklin said. “We felt like it was very evenly matched coming in and it played out that way. All three games were in question late and all three were well played.”
Coming into the season, Georgia stood out for its pitching and defense and it has excelled at those two areas of the game all season. The Bulldogs again were able to rely on them against the Tigers.
Georgia held LSU’s potent lineup to just one run on eight hits over the first two games. The Tigers’ offense made more noise Sunday, mostly against the Bulldogs’ bullpen, but their eight total runs were the least they have scored in a weekend series since Texas A&M held them to seven runs last April.
Hancock, who is establishing himself as one of the premier pitchers in the 2020 draft class, and Smith were excellent to lead the pitching staff. Hancock held LSU to one run on two hits and two walks in eight innings Friday, and Smith scattered four hits and a walk in six scoreless innings Saturday. Righthander Tony Locey also delivered a solid start Sunday, holding the Tigers to one run in 5.1 innings, despite walking five batters.
The Bulldogs also did not make an error this weekend and have committed just one error in six SEC games. On the season, they are fielding .982 as a team, which ranks in the top 10 in the country.
“Emerson Hancock and C.J. Smith just had plus stuff,” Stricklin said. “They were very good. The defense has been lights out. It’s tough to score when you don’t give people opportunities. We saw some runs today because we walked a bunch of people.”
The weak point on Georgia’s pitching staff this weekend was the bullpen on Sunday. After throwing four scoreless innings in the first two games, it gave up six runs in the final 3.2 innings of the series, allowing LSU to remain in the game. The Bulldogs led the game the whole way, but the Tigers nearly erased deficits of both 6-1 and 9-5.
The Bulldogs this weekend were missing two key pieces of its bullpen as righthander Will Proctor (3-0, 4.35) and lefthander Ryan Webb (0-0, 1.86) were sidelined. Both are expected to return in the next two weeks and their ability to throw multiple innings will be a big boost to the bullpen’s depth. Even without them, however, Georgia’s bullpen remains solid, anchored by closer Aaron Schunk. A Preseason All-American as a two-way player, he gave up his first runs of the season Sunday and is 0-0, 1.64 with nine saves in 11 innings.
“We have a good bullpen and there’s depth there once we get healthy with Webb and Proctor coming back,” Stricklin said. “We need some guys who don’t typically throw much to step up.”
Georgia’s lineup isn’t as high-profile as its pitching staff, but it is averaging 7.4 runs per game. Outfielder Tucker Maxwell (.333/.432/.681, 5 HR, 11 SB), Schunk (.313/.333/.521, 4 HR) and second baseman L.J. Talley (.398/.510/.590, 4 HR) are leading the offense this season.
Maxwell, a junior, is coming into his own. He was a standout football player in high school and was a little raw coming into college. He’s starting to get the most out of his impressive raw tools and has become a force at the bottom of the Bulldogs’ lineup. Despite hitting in the nine-hole all year, Maxwell has driven in 26 runs, tied for the most on the team.
“He’s a more mature kid,” Stricklin said. “We’ve got him in the nine-hole. He’s in a real comfort zone hitting in the nine-hole.”
Stricklin moved Maxwell out of the nine-hole for the first time Saturday, when he hit him seventh. Maxwell wasn’t a big fan of the move, however, and Stricklin wasn’t either, moving him back to ninth on Sunday.
“I’ve been saying if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” Stricklin said. “I was tempted, but if it’s working, why fix it? I un-fixed it Sunday. I think I’ll keep him down there.”
Georgia will need Maxwell and the rest of its lineup to continue to produce over the next couple weeks, as the schedule remains tough. It plays its next six games on the road, including midweek visits to rivals Georgia Tech and Clemson, before returning home to host Vanderbilt.
It’s not an easy stretch, but if Georgia can navigate it successfully, it will be well on its way to establishing itself as one of the best teams in the SEC and competing for a top-eight national seed for the second year in a row.
ECU Starts AAC Slate With Sweep
The American Athletic Conference standings have routinely been tightly packed at the top since the conference’s inception in 2014. In five years, the margin between first and second place has never been more than two games and twice it has been less than one game.
East Carolina coach Cliff Godwin is as aware of how competitive the top of the American is as anyone. In each of his first two years at the program’s helm, the Pirates finished in second place in the standings, within a game of the conference champion.
ECU doesn’t yet have an American regular season title but came into this season as conference favorites. If the margins are as tight as they usually are in the ultra-competitive American, the Pirates have to take full advantage of all their opportunities.
That’s what ECU did Sunday. Having already clinched a series win against Central Florida to open conference play, ECU took a late two-run lead in the finale. But UCF wasn’t going to go away quietly. With one out in the top of the ninth, the Knights got three straight hits to cut the lead to one and put runners on the corners. UCF called for a suicide squeeze with three-hole hitter Matthew Mika at the plate, but lefthander Alec Burleson pounced on the bunt and threw out speedy Ray Alejo at the plate before getting cleanup hitter Dallas Beaver to pop up to end the game, securing a 6-5 victory and the sweep.
Godwin said the difference between winning the series and sweeping it was huge.
“The message before the game was 2-1 vs. 3-0 is a big swing,” he said. “Our first two years here as a coaching staff, we sat in hotels and restaurants, swept the last weekend, and said, ‘Hey, if so-and-so loses, we have a tie for the conference championship.’ We want to win the conference championship. There is a lot to be done between now and then, but it's a lot better being 3-0 than 2-1.”
No. 13 ECU (18-6) has found its stride at the right time. The Pirates have won six in a row and swept three straight series against Marist, Maryland and UCF. The sweep at Maryland was more about pitching, as the Pirates held the Terrapins to one run all weekend and lefthander Jake Kuchmaner closed out the series with a perfect game.
This weekend was the offense’s turn. The Pirates scored 26 runs on the weekend and pounded out at least 10 hits in all three games. Junior sluggers Spencer Brickhouse and Bryant Packard led the way for ECU, as is often the case. Brickhouse went 6-foor-12 with a double, a triple, two home runs and eight RBIs in the series. Packard went 5-for-10 with two doubles and two walks.
Brickhouse and Packard have been closely watched since they came to ECU together as highly touted freshmen. This year, along with Burleson, a sophomore two-way threat, they are the focal point of a potent ECU lineup and figure to both be drafted in the first three or four rounds. Brickhouse is hitting .397/.537/.762 with five home runs, while Packard is hitting .346/.416/.538 with two home runs.
“When you look at it, teams really pitch their best when those two guys are up,” Godwin said. “They’re going to pitch them tough. They don’t mind walking them. They just don’t want them hitting the ball out of the ballpark. Both those guys have had a lot of quality at-bats.”
ECU has the offensive firepower to overpower opposing pitching staffs, as it did to UCF. But it also seems to have found a good setup on the mound with a rotation of lefthander Jake Agnos, righthander Tyler Smith and Kuchmaner, as well as Burleson and fifth-year senior righthander Evan Voliva working out of the bullpen in high-leverage spots.
ECU will need that core to step up over the next month as it faces an imposing gauntlet. Eleven of its next 12 games are on the road, including consecutive series at South Florida, Houston and No. 1 UCLA. It then comes home to face Connecticut.
Godwin said his message to the Pirates going into the weekend was to not treat the games any differently just because they were conference games. Keeping that mindset will be crucial over the next month, as ECU faces the hardest stretch of its schedule.
“We’re going to do the same thing we’ve done for every single day,” he said. “If we play well most of the time we’ll come out on top. But if we don’t play well, then we won’t. The league’s very tough. If you don’t play your best baseball, then you most of the time will lose the game.”
Projected Field of 64 (4/24/19)
Baseball America presents our latest projection for the NCAA Tournament.
Eight For Omaha
Florida State, Georgia, Mississippi State, North Carolina, Stanford, Texas, UCLA, Vanderbilt
After stubbornly refusing to change the field last week, I’m being slightly less obstinate this week. So, Florida is out, and Georgia is in. Vanderbilt comprehensively swept the Gators this weekend in Nashville, leaving some real concerns about Florida’s pitching staff. The Gators are running out a bunch of freshmen in their lineup and growing pains are to be expected, but what’s not to be expected is the rotation struggling. Georgia, meanwhile, is humming along. The Bulldogs have what may be the best pitching staff in the conference, are fielding at a very high level and have a sneaky good lineup. Georgia hasn’t been to Omaha since 2008, but this team has the firepower to get back. I am going to continue to stick with the two Atlantic Coast Conference teams in Florida State and North Carolina. I still like the Seminoles’ upside and the Tar Heels’ rotation, but, yes, I do see you Arkansas, and Arizona State is really starting to feel like a team that has a long postseason run in it.
Five players or programs who put together big weekends.
Cal Baptist: The Lancers wasted no time announcing their presence in the Western Athletic Conference. In its first conference series after reclassifying from Division II to Division I, CBU (16-8, 2-1) went on the road and won a series at Grand Canyon, one of the conference favorites. The Lancers aren’t postseason eligible this year, but if this weekend was any indication, they should be in the mix all spring in the WAC race.
Nebraska-Omaha: The Mavericks swept Purdue-Fort Wayne, wrapping up the weekend with a 26-0 rout to extend their winning streak to 10 games, the longest active streak in the country, and to race out to a 6-0 start in the Summit League. The winning streak is Omaha’s longest since 2011, when it was still a Division II program. It is off to a 6-0 start in conference play for the first time since 2015 and is the early leader, two games up on preseason favorite Oral Roberts and South Dakota State.
Braden Shewmake, SS, Texas A&M: The junior started this season slowly but has found his groove over the last two weekends as SEC play has begun. This weekend at Kentucky, Shewmake went 10-for-16 with a double, two home runs and nine RBIs as Texas A&M completed the sweep. He is hitting .336/.383/.523 with three home runs on the season and is off to a scorching .483/.516/.793 start through six SEC games.
Connor Thomas, LHP, Georgia Tech: Facing Louisville on Saturday, Thomas threw five-hit shutout as Georgia Tech won, 4-0, to clinch a huge road series win. The junior struck out five, walked two and needed just 96 pitches to throw the fourth complete game of his career. Thomas improved to 3-1, 2.83 with 37 strikeouts and eight walks in 41.1 innings.
Southern: The Jaguars this weekend swept rival Grambling State to open a three-game lead in the Southwestern Athletic Conference West Division. Southern (14-9, 8-1) scored 46 runs on the weekend. The Jaguars, under second-year coach Kerrick Jackson, have already surpassed their 2018 win total both overall and in SWAC games and are on track for their best season since 2012.
Three weekend series we’re most excited for
(17) Louisiana State at (2) Mississippi State: The SEC West Division gauntlet means that neither LSU, coming off its series loss at Georgia, or Mississippi State, following a series win against Auburn, gets any break. The Tigers (17-7, 4-2) are just 1-6 on the road, but will get another shot at a marquee road series win. The Bulldogs (22-3, 4-2) are 17-2 at home and are gearing up for what should be a blockbuster weekend at Dudy Noble Field. The pitching matchups in the first two games (LSU righthander Zack Hess against Mississippi State lefthander Ethan Small followed by freshmen Cole Henry and JT Ginn) should be electric.
(8) Oregon State at Washington: There’s no love lost between these two Pacific Northwest powers. The Beavers (16-4-1, 3-3 Pac-12) have won this series five straight years and go to Seattle favored to do so again. But the Huskies (14-5, 5-1 Pac-12) are undefeated at home and playing well, having won five of their last six games after the Seattle Baseball Showcase. A series win this weekend would be a big boost for Washington.
(22) Mississippi at (10) Arkansas: Both teams started SEC play with Missouri and Alabama but are now entering a meatier portion of their schedules. The Razorbacks (20-4, 5-1) are flying high and have home field advantage, which has been very good to them so far—they are 15-1 at Baum Stadium. The Rebels (17-8, 3-3) need to regroup quickly following a series loss at Missouri. Arkansas has a strong pitching staff, but it will be tested by Ole Miss’ explosive lineup, making for an intriguing matchup.
Two weekend series to watch
Nebraska at Minnesota: The last two Big Ten Conference champions will square off this weekend in Minneapolis. Both the Huskers (11-7) and Gophers (8-13) are coming off sweeps in the first weekend of conference play—Nebraska against Michigan State and Minnesota at Penn State. The competition will stiffen considerably this weekend as both teams look to establish themselves as title contenders.
UC Santa Barbara at Cal State Fullerton: Big West Conference play starts this weekend with a key series. UCSB (17-3) travels to Fullerton (11-10) in a matchup between two of the three serious title contenders (No. 19 UC Irvine remains the favorite). The Gauchos have been excellent all season, while the Titans looked shaky the last few weeks before sweeping their non-conference series against Long Beach State. In such a top-heavy league, this series will have outsized importance on the title race.
One midweek game to keep an eye on
(6) Georgia at Georgia Tech, Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET: It’s time this week for “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” and it couldn’t fall at a better spot on the schedule. Georgia (21-3) is rolling, having won 12 of its last 13 games and Georgia Tech (16-8) has won back-to-back Atlantic Coast Conference series and is coming off an upset of then-No. 10 Louisville. That should make for a great rivalry game Tuesday in the Flats.