Off The Bat: Minnesota Sweeps Into First Place, South Carolina Hits Stride

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Minnesota Sweeps Into First Place

Indiana came into the season as the Big Ten Conference favorite and had a flashy start to the season in nonconference play, going 3-1 in a high-profile Opening Weekend tournament at Coastal Carolina and compiling a 10-2 record away from Bloomington before its home opener.

Minnesota, meanwhile, was picked third in the preseason coaches’ poll and looked more the part of darkhorse. The Golden Gophers have plenty of returning players in their lineup, but question marks on the mound. Minnesota had an uneven start to the season and had back-to-back losing weekends at the start of March in its own Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge and against Creighton, before a series win at Texas Christian put the Gophers on track in mid-March. They haven’t had a losing weekend since.

Indiana and Minnesota got there in different ways, but they both came into this weekend’s series in Minneapolis ranked in the Top 25 and as the Big Ten’s two best shots to host a regional this season. Both needed to win the series to stay in the hunt, however—Minnesota for the RPI help and Indiana to improve its conference standing.

In the end, it was Minnesota that emerged with a sweep and in first place in the Big Ten. The Gophers (32-12, 14-3) rose to No. 15 in the Top 25, their highest ranking since 1982, and have a top-15 RPI, putting them in position to host a regional for the first time since 2000. Minnesota and Florida are the lone Power Five conference teams this season not to lose a conference series.

Coach John Anderson said it hasn’t been an easy path to this point for the Gophers. The weather has hit Minnesota hard this spring and it hadn’t played a full series at Siebert Field, its on-campus home, until this weekend.

“We’ve had a tough spring, considering what we’ve gone through here in terms of weather it’s pretty significant,” Anderson said. “It’s a credit to the kids and the leadership of the team how they’ve stuck to the process.”

The Big Ten’s unbalanced schedule has done the Gophers no favors, either. The conference has a clear delineation between the top and bottom halves, with seven teams ranking in the top 60 of RPI and six teams with 100+ RPIs. Minnesota has played four of the six other teams contending for the NCAA Tournament in successive weeks. The Gophers went 9-2 in that stretch.

Minnesota’s offense has led the way. It ranks first in the Big Ten in scoring (7.09 runs per game), batting (.302) and on-base percentage (.404). Terrin Vavra is having a Big Ten player of the year kind of season, hitting .405/.477/.620 with seven home runs, and Luke Pettersen (.328/.411/.421) has also been key to the offense.

The Gophers have impressive depth to their lineup, giving them the versatility to exploit matchups and avoid becoming reliant on any one player.

“It’s been fun. We can mix and match, we can run the bases, we can do the short game, we can hit the ball out of the park—we can come at you in different ways,” Anderson said. “The fun part of this offense is it’s not just about the home run or manufacturing runs. It’s a fun team to watch play.”

As much as Minnesota’s veteran lineup has helped it offensively and defensively—it ranks second in the Big Ten with a .976 fielding percentage—its young pitching staff has also been critical. The Gophers ranks second in the conference with a 3.26 team ERA, a development that Anderson said he couldn’t have predicted at the start of the year.

The Gophers this weekend held Indiana’s powerful offense to just one run in both of the first two games of the series, led by strong starts from righthanders Reggie Meyer (5-2, 2.99) and Patrick Fredrickson (7-0, 1.44). Minnesota has also gotten a boost from closer Max Meyer (1-2, 1.95, 12 SV), who threw two scoreless innings to pick up the win Sunday.

Having navigated the toughest portion of its schedule, Minnesota can’t afford to let up now with a Big Ten title and a chance to host regionals in its sights. Its final two conference opponents are Michigan State and Rutgers, and while both are in the group of Big Ten teams with 100+ RPIs, they are both fighting for the final spot in the Big Ten Tournament and will push the Gophers down the stretch.

Regardless how the final few weeks play out before Selection Monday, Anderson said the Gophers aren’t worried about impressing the selection committee to be awarded a regional.

“We just try to win as many games as we can and stick to our values and who we are,” he said. “If we do, we do and if we don’t, we don’t. We’ll go anywhere and play anybody.”

South Carolina Hitting Its Stride In the Second Half

Three weeks ago, at the midpoint of the Southeastern Conference season, South Carolina’s record stood at 20-17 and 6-9 in conference play. It had just lost a midweek game to Presbyterian, had won just one of its first five SEC series—a sweep of Tennessee—and looked like a team that would miss the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four seasons.

The Gamecocks’ trajectory changed that weekend, however. South Carolina swept Louisiana State in convincing fashion at Founders Park, outscoring the Tigers 30-10 over the course of the weekend. South Carolina has carried that momentum into the last two weekends, winning a series at Vanderbilt and this weekend taking a series against Mississippi, a top-five team.

South Carolina has won eight of its last 10 games to improve to 28-19 overall and 13-11 in the SEC. It is now well positioned to make the NCAA Tournament in coach Mark Kingston’s first year in Columbia.

Kingston said the reasons for the turnaround have been simple.

“We’ve just gotten healthy and we’ve gotten a good feel for how to prepare our players best,” he said. “We finally hit our stride.”

When Kingston took over the team last summer, replacing Chad Holbrook, he inherited a talented team, but also one with many question marks. South Carolina lost the vast majority of its pitching staff, which had been the strength of the Gamecocks in 2017. The lineup had versatility, but few defined roles. A top-five recruiting class, which Kingston was able to hold together, added more talent, but not experience.

On top of that, the injury bug bit the Gamecocks early. Key hitters Noah Campbell, T.J. Hopkins and Madison Stokes have all missed significant time this season. South Carolina has only four players that qualify for the batting title.

But the Gamecocks have persevered and have hit on a lineup that works. Over the last three weeks, they are averaging 7.9 runs per game and have scored at least 10 runs six times.

Kingston said familiarity has bred comfort for the Gamecocks.

“The longer you coach these guys, you get a feel for what makes them tick and what they need to be ready for games,” he said. “Getting healthy and having all our top players playing at the same time—they all feed off each other.”

South Carolina has also found a formula that works on the mound. Righthanders Adam Hill (5-5, 4.58) and Cody Morris (6-3, 4.74) opened the season as the Gamecocks’ Friday and Saturday starters, but have been pushed back a day over the last month and freshman Logan Chapman (3-0, 4.72) has taken over on Fridays.

Kingston said the move originally was made when South Carolina had a Thursday-Saturday series at Arkansas and he didn’t want to push Hill and Morris up a day. But Chapman pitched so well that day, beating the Razorbacks, 3-2, that they have let it ride and South Carolina has won four straight series openers.

“Logan’s a guy that goes out there as a gamer and he’s got good stuff,” Kingston said. “He goes through some ups and downs as all freshmen do, but he keeps us in ballgames and the way we’ve been swinging the bats, we’ve been able to hand it to the bullpen.”

As the Gamecocks have heated up, the fans in Columbia have responded. South Carolina averaged more than 7,300 fans over the weekend as it won its third straight SEC series—the first time it has done so since 2012, Ray Tanner’s last season as head coach.

In some ways, this year’s Gamecocks harken back to teams from that era, an aspect the fans appreciate, Kingston said.

“The fans have really hopped on board with this team,” he said. “They identify this team as being an old-school Gamecocks type of ball club. They’re blue collar and they don’t give up.”

South Carolina still has work to do to reach the NCAA Tournament. But going just .500 over its final two series—at home against Missouri and at Texas A&M—would give it 16 SEC wins, all but guaranteeing it a bid.

Kingston said the Gamecocks didn’t pay attention to the prognostications early in the season when they were struggling and they’re not about to start now. He wants his team to stay with the approach that has worked so well over the last three weeks.

“Just put your heads down and prepare for the next game,” Kingston said. “If you do it long enough, then those things take care of themselves.”                                    

Cal State Fullerton Back On Track

Cal State Fullerton this weekend swept UC Davis to extend its lead in the Big West Conference to 3.5 games with nine games to play. The Titans have swept back-to-back series, won six straight games and eight of their last 10.

In short, the Titans (25-20, 12-3) are just where everyone expected them to be at the outset of the season. But they have taken an unfamiliar path to their familiar perch atop the Big West. Fullerton lost seven of its first eight games and was just 10-15 at the end of March. Since then, the Titans have won four of their last five series to push aside concerns that they would miss regionals for the first time since 1991.

“They’re pitching and catching the ball pretty good,” coach Rick Vanderhook said. “The offense is coming back as we’re rolling along. We’re scoring some runs and not giving up a bunch of runs.”

Fullerton got a strong start from ace Colton Eastman on Friday night in a 5-4 victory, as the righthander held UC Davis to one run on one hit and two walks in seven innings. The Titans then finished the series with back-to-back shutouts for the first time since 2015, led by righthander Andrew Quezada, who on Sunday threw his second career complete game in a 5-0 victory.

The Titans were counting on Quezada, a junior college transfer, to be a key part of their rotation this season. But he, like the rest of the team, scuffled out of the gate and was 0-2, 6.00 through his first four starts. His turn was skipped the next weekend and he has pitched much better since returning to the rotation the following weekend, going 3-1, 3.06 over his last seven starts.

“It’s more figuring out how to call a game for him,” Vanderhook said. “He’s got three pitches and a plus fastball. Sometimes you get caught up in 93-95 mph, but it still can be hit if it’s not in the right spot.”

With Quezada now settled in on Sundays, Eastman (7-3, 2.44) in fine form on Friday nights and closer Brett Conine (8 SV) anchoring the bullpen, Fullerton is again formidable on the mound. It is fielding .981 in Big West play, a welcome improvement for Vanderhook after the Titans struggled defensively in the early going.

With that kind of run prevention, the Titans don’t need much offense. But junior outfielders Ruben Cardenas (.316/.384/.458) and Mason Berryhill (.311/.392/.377) have settled in and are producing in the top half of the lineup. Fullerton doesn’t have as much power as it did last year when Taylor Bryant, Scott Hurst and Timmy Richards anchored the lineup, but it has good team speed and is well versed in manufacturing runs.

From the outside, it looks like Fullerton is marching to another Big West title—its sixth in the last eight years. No team is going to want to see the Titans drawn into their regional, where their pitching and experience will make them tough outs, as usual. But given where Fullerton has come from this year, Vanderhook won’t let his team look any further ahead than the next game, which right now is Friday against UC Riverside.

“When you’re laying for dead, you have to cherish what life you have,” he said. “They’ve handled it extremely well. They understand what they’re dealing with. They have a little more confidence now. We’ve just got to prepare for Riverside next Friday”

Eight for Omaha

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

Last year at this time, it felt like the top eight teams in the country had separated themselves from the pack. They did not all make it to Omaha, but there seemed to be a clear group of national title contenders. This year, that is not the case. Right now, it feels like there’s Florida, then Stanford and then a mess. This year’s NCAA Tournament looks like it will mirror March Madness and provide plenty of upsets throughout the bracket. That will make for an exciting June, but it makes for a difficult time prognosticating the Omaha field in early May.

With that in mind, this week Southern Miss enters the field, replacing UCLA. As I surveyed the field following this weekend, I could have gone in numerous directions. Atlantic Coast Conference teams such as Clemson, Duke and North Carolina State all have cases. Seemingly any Southeastern Conference team could make a deep postseason run and I nearly found room for Georgia. Texas made a compelling statement this weekend in Lubbock and Minnesota did the same in Minneapolis. In the end though, I just moved in Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles are probably not going to host a regional due to their No. 34 RPI. And for the past few weeks, our Projected Field of 64 has had them going to the Oxford, Miss., regional. I’m not prepared to pick Southern Miss to win a regional over Ole Miss, but maybe it gets sent to Auburn or Florida State, both of which are only slightly farther drives from Hattiesburg than Oxford. Southern Miss has the powerful offense to matchup in a regional and ace Nick Sandlin (7-0, 0.88) is a difference maker at the front of the rotation. The Golden Eagles’ veteran experience could carry the day in what figures to be a wild June.

Eye Catchers

Five people or programs who stood out this weekend.

Kody Clemens, 2B, Texas:
The junior homered three times on the weekend to help lead Texas to a crucial series win at Texas Tech. Clemens homered twice in Friday’s 12-6 victory and hit a game-tying home run in the seventh inning Sunday, a game the Longhorns went on to win, 7-5. He is hitting .345/.439/.680 with 16 home runs.

Mike Martin, Florida State: Martin on Saturday became the all-time winningest coach in college baseball history when Florida State defeated Clemson, 3-2, in 13 innings. Martin, 74, broke Augie Garrido’s record with his 1,976th win in 39 years at Florida State. The Seminoles have won at least 40 games and advanced to regionals every year of Martin’s career.

Pepperdine: The Waves won a series against San Francisco to take control of first place in the West Coast Conference. After losing the series opener, the Waves won the next two games to claim their fifth straight series win. Pepperdine (24-18, 14-7) is chasing its first WCC title since 2014 and next weekend will face another big series against second-place Saint Mary’s.

Rhode Island: The Rams swept La Salle to extend their winning streak to 11 games, tied with Purdue for the longest active streak in the country. Rhode Island (19-25) last lost April 13 at Massachusetts and has won three straight series. It will look to extend its winning streak next weekend at Dayton.

Stetson: The Hatters swept a rain-shortened two-game series against Jacksonville and took over first place in the Atlantic Sun Conference. Stetson (37-11, 11-3) is tied for third in the nation in wins, trailing only Tennessee Tech (40) and Florida (38) and entered the Top 25 for the first time since May 16, 2011.

Looking Ahead

Three weekend series we’re most excited for

(2) Stanford at (4) Oregon State: The Pac-12 Conference title likely comes down to this weekend. With nine games to play, Stanford (37-6, 17-4) holds a 2.5 game lead on Oregon State (35-7-1, 14-6-1). The Cardinal can this weekend all but lock up their first Pac-12 title since 2004. The Beavers, meanwhile, can turn this race into a six-game sprint with a big weekend at Goss Stadium.

(3) North Carolina at (9) Duke: The top two teams in the ACC Coastal Division are set to square off in a series rife with postseason implications. North Carolina (32-13, 18-6) can this weekend clinch the division title and cement itself as a top-eight seed. Duke (35-11, 15-8) is looking to keep its division title hopes alive and solidify its chances to host a regional.

(12) Georgia at (1) Florida: The Florida vs. Georgia rivalry has lacked some spice in recent years as the Bulldogs have not made the NCAA Tournament since 2011. That isn’t the case this year, as the Gators (38-11, 18-6) and the Bulldogs (33-14, 15-9) are the top two teams in the SEC. Florida can clinch its second straight SEC title this weekend with a series win, while Georgia is looking to spoil the party.

Two weekend series you shouldn’t overlook

Oklahoma at Central Florida: An intriguing nonconference series brings together two teams looking for a late-season resume booster. The Sooners (31-18), after losing three straight series, got back on track over the weekend with a sweep of Kansas State and will take that momentum to Orlando. UCF (32-16) also has been playing well of late and has won six of its last eight games.

Louisiana Tech at (13) Southern Mississippi: Southern Miss (35-12, 19-4) can this weekend claim its second straight Conference USA title. Louisiana Tech (32-17, 16-8) is looking to stay alive in the title race, but more importantly shore up its NCAA Tournament resume. The Bulldogs need the RPI boost road wins in Hattiesburg would provide, while the Golden Eagles are hoping a strong finish would get them back in the hosting picture.

One midweek game to keep an eye on

(25) Connecticut at Northeastern, Wednesday, 1 p.m. ET: Two of the top teams in the Northeast meet for an intriguing midweek matinee. Northeastern (30-14) is in first place in the Colonial Athletic Association and look to be solidly in the NCAA Tournament, but adding another strong nonconference win wouldn’t hurt. UConn (27-14-1) are aiming to host a regional and need to keep collecting wins.

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