Off The Bat: Louisville, UCSB Sweep Crucial Conference Series

Image credit: Logan Wyatt (Photo by Jaylynn Nash/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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

Louisville Climbs Atop ACC Standings With Statement Sweep

Having swept a doubleheader Saturday at North Carolina State, which came into the weekend ranked No. 4 and leading the ACC, Louisville had a big opportunity in front of it Sunday. The Cardinals had a chance to sweep their way into first place and put themselves in a strong position for the stretch run.

Louisville did just that, defeating NC State, 6-3. As a result, the Cardinals (28-8, 13-5 ACC) left Raleigh with a one-game edge in the standings on the Wolfpack, with Clemson and Florida State two and three games off the pace, respectively. Louisville also climbed to No. 7 in the Top 25 and into the top five in RPI, leaving it well positioned to garner a top-eight national seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The only part of that Louisville wants to focus on, however, is the victory Sunday.

When coach Dan McDonnell addressed his team after the game, he reminded the Cardinals of the importance of keeping their heads down and staying focused.

“We don’t listen to the noise, we don’t get caught up with projections and rankings,” he said. “That’s a lot of fun for fans and people to look at. But we just try to challenge these guys to play good baseball against a good team. That’s what it was. We’ve got a lot of baseball left to play.”

Louisville played perhaps its best baseball of the season against NC State (29-8, 12-6 ACC). After Friday’s opener got rained out, the Cardinals beat the Wolfpack, 14-10, in a soggy slugfest in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader. The weather cleared up for the nightcap and they rolled to a 14-2 victory. Their offense stayed hot Sunday, and they finished the weekend with 34 runs on 47 hits.

It was the kind of breakout offensive weekend Louisville had been waiting for. It has struggled at times at the plate this season, especially as it has had to deal with injuries to Zach Britton, Lucas Dunn and Danny Oriente. That trio is now back, and, in their absence, the Cardinals found some more options, especially freshman Alex Binelas.

“We knew it was in there,” McDonnell said. “Offenses are going to go in and out throughout the year, that’s normal. You’re never going to be locked in for 56 games, but we went through a tough month there.

“This weekend was a big weekend for our offense. It just shows the talent and the depth and the job that (assistant coaches) Eric Snider and Adam Vrabel are doing with our hitters.”

Juniors Tyler Fitzgerald (.306/.371/.469, 4 HR) and Logan Wyatt (.283/.470/.450, 4 HR) are, as expected, leading Louisville’s offense. But Binelas has been a revelation since McDonnell committed to keeping him in the lineup. The freshman is hitting .293/.402/.560 with a team-high five home runs in 75 at-bats. This weekend he went 7-for-12 with three doubles and a home run.

Freshman catcher Henry Davis has also stepped up and is hitting .301/.363/.466 with three home runs, while also handling Louisville’s powerful pitching staff. He went 4-for-10 and scored four runs in two games at NC State.

Davis said the Cardinals are feeling locked in at the plate.

“We’re all on the same page offensively,” Davis said. “What it means to have team at-bats and what it means to get runners in no matter what.”

The offensive explosion was a welcome sight for the Cardinals, and it only serves to complement the strong pitching they have gotten all season. Their rotation of lefthanders Reid Detmers and Nick Bennett and righthander Bobby Miller matches up well with any in the country. And they have depth in the bullpen, as they can turn to power righthanders Bryan Hoeing, Michael Kirian, Michael McAvene and Shay Smiddy in any tight spot.

Detmers is putting together an All-American caliber campaign, though Clemson and NC State have now gotten to him in successive weeks for a total of 10 runs in 11.2 innings. Still, the sophomore is 6-2, 2.24 with 94 strikeouts and 13 walks in 60.1 innings on the season. Bennett (5-2, 3.35) and Miller (2-0, 4.11) round out the rotation formidably, and the trio combined to hold NC State’s powerful offense to seven runs on the weekend. The Wolfpack came into the weekend averaging 8.5 runs per game, the most in the ACC.

Davis said it’s a challenge to catch Louisville’s staff, which is filled with power arms, but that it was easy to see what led to its success this weekend.

“They just dominated the strike zone,” he said. “It’s hard to get beat when you can throw all three pitches for strikes, keep them guessing, keep them off balance.”

The stretch run for Louisville isn’t easy, but it also only has one game left against a team currently ranked in the Top 25 (against Vanderbilt on May 7). ACC weekends at home against Florida State and Miami and road trips to Notre Dame and Virginia can’t be taken lightly, but given that run in, their current position in the conference and RPI, it’s hard not to feel like things have set up well for the Cardinals to finish strong.

Just a week ago, coming off a series loss at Clemson and staring a trip to NC State in the face, things didn’t look so rosy for Louisville. But this weekend’s sweep has flipped that script and with the Cardinals finding their stride, they now look like a team poised to take flight in the season’s second half.

UCSB Takes Control In Big West Race With Sweep

After the high of hosting a regional in 2015 and reaching the 2016 College World Series, when Omaha became Ch-Omaha, UC Santa Barbara has had a couple lean years. The Gauchos brought in strong recruiting classes and had high hopes coming into each of the last two years but finished under .500 each time.

Now, however, the Gauchos are back.

In a showdown this weekend between UC Irvine and UCSB, the only two Big West Conference teams with overall winning records, the Gauchos swept the Anteaters, finishing the series Sunday with a 3-2 victory. UCSB (27-5, 5-1 Big West) vaulted to No. 8 in the Top 25 and is up to No. 4 in the RPI. UCSB leads the nation with an .844 winning percentage and is tied with Stanford (23-5) for the fewest losses.

This weekend’s series could end up as a title decider. Cal Poly (16-17, 7-2 Big West) has recovered from a rough start to the year and awaits UCSB on the final weekend of the season. But the Gauchos were fully aware of the implications of this weekend’s series.

“Everyone knew it was a big weekend,” coach Andrew Checketts said. “We had some moments with some jitters. Besides that the guys had their foot on the gas and everyone did a good job.”

The Anteaters had stifled opponents this year with their pitching staff, particularly their rotation of righthanders Andre Pallante, Tanner Brubaker and Trenton Denholm. But the Gauchos’ own rotation of lefthanders Ben Brecht and Jack Dashwood and Rodney Boone outdueled them. UCSB’s starters held UCI to four runs in 21.1 innings. The Gauchos used only three relievers—righthanders Conner Dand, Chris Lincoln and Michael McGreevy—and they did not surrender a run in 5.2 innings.

In all, UCSB has allowed just six runs in its last six games, a streak that began with a 7-0 victory on April 7 against Stephen F. Austin.

“Our guys have thrown the ball well and they threw the ball well on the weekend,” Checketts said. “They made some clutch pitches. They got run support, we played good defense but they also made clutch pitches.”

Perhaps the biggest difference for UCSB this season is its offense. The Gauchos are averaging 7.3 runs per game, more than two runs more than they did last season while using essentially the same lineup. Junior outfielders Tommy Jew (.276/.356/.591, 8 HR) and Armani Smith (.301/.367/.659, 8 HR) have been the bigger names in the lineup and are living up to expectations this spring. But seniors Tevin Mitchell (.333/.418/.556, 16 SB) and Thomas Rowan (.333/.407/.587, 7 HR) have taken important steps forward.

Some of the development is a product of having an older, more mature lineup. The Gauchos have just one true freshman who has more than 10 at-bats this season. Some of the credit also goes to assistant coaches Donegal Fergus and Matt Fonteno, who are both in their first season at UCSB and have encouraged the hitters to adopt a more aggressive approach at the plate.

“You have to look at the kids first,” Checketts said. “They’re experienced and they got tired of losing, tired of not being great. Donegal Fergus and Matt Fonteno have really given them an identity and changed how they go about their business. They’re aggressive. They’re trying to drive baseballs and hit balls over outfielders heads, which plays into our profile.”

Against UCI, 11 of UCSB’s 28 hits went for extra bases, including four home runs. It has worked throughout the season as well. The Gauchos lead the Big West in nearly every significant offensive category and have nearly 30 more extra-base hits than any other team in the conference.

With a premium pitching staff, a high-octane offense and a solid defense, UCSB is back in rare air. Its top-five RPI suggests it can start thinking about hosting a regional for the first time since 2015, but that isn’t as straight forward as it appears. Because the Big West is down this year and UCSB faces a second half full of RPI landmines, it won’t have much margin for error to keep its RPI strong enough to host.

Then there’s the matter of where it would host a regional. When the Gauchos hosted in 2015, they did so at Lake Elsinore Stadium, the home of high Class A Lake Elsinore. UCSB has improved Caesar Uyesaka Stadium over the last few years, but it still probably isn’t ready for a regional. That means it will probably be looking at minor league stadiums again.

The Gauchos are again forcing the hosting issue to be addressed with their play. They’re putting together the kind of special season that Checketts said he first realized was possible in early March after UCSB swept Tulane in New Orleans.

“We were across the country, playing against a team playing well at the time and that has played well since, in a little bit of a different environment and our guys handled it well,” Checketts said. “That was the point where I thought, ‘OK, these guys aren’t going away.’”

If it wasn’t apparent then, it certainly is now. UCSB has established itself as the team to beat in the Big West and is now again taking aim at Ch-Omaha.

Eight for Omaha

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

A busy week for the Eight for Omaha field as we have two changes. Louisville and Oregon State are in, Arizona State and Texas are out. Now, this might seem like a strange week to move the Beavers into the field after I haven’t had them all year (rather stubbornly, in the eyes of some on Twitter). It wasn’t the best week for Oregon State as it lost to Oregon for the first time in years and ace Kevin Abel announced he was undergoing Tommy John surgery. But the series win at Arizona State leaves Oregon State in exceptional position to host and be a top-eight seed if it just takes care of business. And it beat one of the best offenses in the country on the road. No one is going to want to come to Goss Stadium this June, even without Abel in the rotation. As for Louisville, I know I saw it at its best this weekend in Raleigh. But the Cardinals are a pretty complete team and are now winning the ACC. It’s not in the bag by any means, but they also are suddenly looking good for a top-eight seed. Louisville has the arms to match up with nearly anyone and if its offense maintains the momentum it built this week, it’s going to be a tough out.

Weekend Standouts

Seven players or programs who put together big weekends.

Jordan Butler, 1B, Florida: In Florida’s 6-4 victory Saturday against South Carolina, Butler homered twice, including a walk-off, three-run shot to clinch a series win. The sophomore came to Florida as a two-way player but has primarily been used as a pitcher. Butler on Saturday got the start at first base, however, and went 4-for-5 with his first two career home runs.

Florida State: After losing three of its last four ACC series and seven of its last nine games going into the weekend, Florida State (22-13, 10-8 ACC) put together a massive weekend with a sweep against Clemson. The Seminoles played up to their potential and outscored the Tigers 28-8 on the weekend.

Cody Luther, RHP, Saint Louis: Luther threw a no-hitter Saturday in a 5-0 victory against Saint Bonaventure. He struck out a career-high 11 batters, walked two and faced just one batter over the minimum as he threw 106 pitches. The no-no was the Billikens’ first nine-inning no-hitter since 1961, and Luther improved to 5-2, 2.30 with 55 strikeouts and 15 walks in 54.2 innings.

Alek Manoah, RHP, West Virginia: Manoah delivered the best performance of his career Friday, as he struck out 15 batters in a four-hit shutout in a 2-0 victory against Texas Tech. The big righthander did not walk a batter and allowed just one runner to reach first base. Manoah, who projects as first-round pick in June, extended his scoreless innings streak to 22 and improved to 5-2, 2.08 with 80 strikeouts and 15 walks in 60.2 innings.

Presbyterian: The Blue Hose went on the road to beat Wofford in extra innings Tuesday and then swept South Carolina-Upstate to extend their winning streak to seven games, their longest winning streak since March 2013. Presbyterian (18-18, 10-5 Big South) is in second place in the Big South Conference having won four of its five Big South Conference series, with its lone conference series loss coming against first-place Campbell.

Ryan Shreve, RHP, Pacific: In a 1-0 victory Sunday at Santa Clara, Shreve threw a no-hitter to complete a sweep. The junior struck out nine batters and his lone blemish was a hit batter in the fourth inning. The no-hitter was the fourth in program history and the first since D.J. Houlton threw one in 2001. Shreve improved to 4-2, 2.18 with 47 strikeouts and nine walks in 62 innings.

Texas-Arlington: In a series between the top two teams in the Sun Belt Conference West Division entering the weekend, UTA (24-13, 11-4 Sun Belt) swept Arkansas State to claim sole possession of first place in the division. It was a big week overall for the Mavericks, who on Tuesday beat Baylor. The perfect week improved their RPI to No. 63, putting it on the edge of the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Looking Ahead

Three weekend series we’re most excited for

(3) Mississippi State at (10) Arkansas: It’s another SEC West showdown. At the halfway point of the SEC season, Mississippi State (31-6, 10-5 SEC) leads the division, with Arkansas (26-10, 9-6 SEC) just a game off the pace. The Razorbacks will be eager to get back home for an SEC series after spending the last two weekends at Auburn and Vanderbilt, going 3-3 in that stretch. Mississippi State, meanwhile, has won its last two SEC series but faces a tough challenge at Baum Stadium with first place on the line.

Connecticut at (12) East Carolina: UConn’s home series loss to Cincinnati last weekend took a little bit of shine off this series as the Huskies (23-13, 7-5 AAC) come to Greenville 2.5 games behind the Pirates (25-10, 8-1 AAC) in the American Athletic Conference standings. But it’s still a big series for both teams. ECU needs to rebound after getting swept at UCLA and is still chasing the chance to host a regional. If UConn is to stay in the AAC title race, it needs a series win this weekend.

(19) Baylor at (16) Texas Tech: The Big 12 standings are as bunched up as ever, but Baylor (24-10, 8-3 Big 12) remains in first place. Texas Tech (23-11, 6-6 Big 12) is 2.5 games off the pace, but has a chance to make up ground in Lubbock, where it is 15-3. The Red Raiders need to bounce back after losing a series at West Virginia, while the Bears are entering a difficult 10-day stretch with back-to-back road series against Texas Tech and Texas Christian.

Two weekend series to watch

Army at Navy: It’s one of the best rivalries in college sports and this weekend will bring the top two teams in the Patriot League to Annapolis. Army (21-15, 8-5 Patriot) and Navy (27-12, 13-4 Patriot) split a two-game set last month in West Point and will now settle the season series with a three-game series. The Midshipmen have a three-game lead on the Black Knights, but with three games in hand, Army will have a chance to make that ground up. It will look to start this weekend in Annapolis, where it last year swept the Patriot League Tournament championship series.

Indiana State at Evansville: These in-state rivals both harbor Missouri Valley Conference title aspirations and hopes of securing NCAA Tournament bids. This series will have plenty of implications for both. Evansville (17-15, 5-1 MVC) has hit a skid and has lost six straight games after getting swept at Indiana this weekend but remains tied for first place in the MVC. Indiana State (27-7, 4-2 MVC) is a game off the pace, but its RPI slipped out of the top 50 last week. Both teams will be looking to take advantage of a big opportunity this weekend.

One midweek game to keep an eye on

Florida Atlantic at Central Florida, Tuesday, 6 p.m. ET: UCF (22-14) and FAU (24-11) begin the week back-to-back in the RPI, at Nos. 58 and 59. Both are coming off tough conference series losses—UCF at Cincinnati and FAU against Louisiana Tech—and both need a boost to their NCAA Tournament resumes. Tuesday gives both a chance to do just that when they meet for the first time this season.

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