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In Off The Bat, Teddy Cahill wraps up the weekend in college baseball and looks ahead.
LUBBOCK, Texas—For the first half of the series between Texas Christian and Texas Tech, the top two teams in the Big 12 Conference, the Horned Frogs’ pitching staff quieted the Red Raiders’ potent offense. Freshman lefthander Nick Lodolo, the highest drafted player not to sign last June, turned in the best start of his young career Friday night and redshirt senior righthander Mitchell Traver was handling the Red Raiders on Saturday in the second game of the series.
But then a steady downpour forced Saturday’s game to be suspended. On Sunday, Texas Tech’s offense bounced back with a vengeance. After scoring two runs in the first 12 innings of the series, the Red Raiders exploded for 26 runs in 11 innings Sunday, leading to two wins (including a 21-3 rout in the finale) and a critical series victory.
Texas Tech (36-12, 11-7) had lost four of its last six games before Sunday’s sweep and had slipped three games behind TCU (31-11, 12-6) in the Big 12 standings. But the Red Raiders’ strong finish pushed them to within a game of the Horned Frogs with six conference games to play. Texas Tech also climbed to No. 5 in both the Top 25 and RPI, keeping it in good position for a national seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Coach Tim Tadlock, as always, remains more focused on the Red Raiders’ day-to-day improvement than any statement Sunday made.
“I’ll let you guys decide what statements are,” he said. “We played good baseball today at times. We’d like to get an out there in the last inning on both the balls on the ground (that went for errors). Coaches can always think of stuff like that.
“I don’t know that I’m into statements yet, but it was a fun day.”
The wind was blowing out Sunday at Rip Griffin Park, which helped Texas Tech’s lineup, but its offensive explosion was powered by more than the wind. Tadlock was much more pleased with the Red Raiders’ approaches at the plate Sunday than he had been earlier in the weekend, particularly against Lodolo.
In the final two games of the series, Texas Tech collected 28 hits and drew 15 walks, while striking out 17 times.
“It was better 1-9,” Tadlock said. “We broke down 6-9 on Friday. Today, 1-9 was good, and it was good yesterday. That’s something you can control that’s something we’ve done a pretty good job with and it’s really neat to see these guys grow.”
Shortstop Orlando Garcia said the Red Raiders hitters fed off each other Sunday.
“It’s a great feeling when you can’t be stopped like that and it keeps going on and on,” he said. “When you’re up 10, you’re comfortable a bit and it just keeps going.”
Texas Tech won the series despite missing Friday starter Davis Martin and outfielder Tanner Gardner, who both are sidelined by injury. Second baseman Michael Davis was limited to just three innings of action due to allergies affecting his eyes.
Texas Tech will likely have to continue make do for a while without some of its stars. Gardner has what Tadlock described as a “pretty bad ankle sprain.” Martin has already missed four starts and, while he is throwing, is not back to full strength. Davis is considered day-to-day.
But the Red Raiders didn’t let the absences stop them this weekend, and showed they had the depth, leadership and drive to keep winning while they work back to full strength.
“We really had to pull together and fight through the adversity, and the guys showed a lot of resilience today,” Tadlock said. “You see teams do it, but you don’t see college teams always do it. You might see big league teams do it and they’ve got pro hitters. We happened to have some guys step in there and get some big hits.”
Auburn Finds New Road Map To Victory
One of the secrets to Auburn’s success this season has been its dominance on Friday nights. Through the first six weeks of the Southeastern Conference season, the Tigers were 6-0 in series openers, thanks to its twin aces Keegan Thompson and Casey Mize.
Mississippi State broke that streak Friday, beating Thompson and Auburn, 5-2. On the heels of that defeat, coach Butch Thompson got more bad news. Because of expected bad weather on Sunday, the two teams would finish their series with a Saturday doubleheader. Mize, who missed last weekend’s start with a strained flexor muscle in his right forearm, was slated to return Sunday, but wasn’t quite ready to be pushed up a day.
But Auburn, as it has all season, found a way. The Tigers swept the doubleheader, winning a slugfest 17-8 in the first game and edging the Bulldogs, 5-3, in the nightcap. When the dust had settled in Starkville, Auburn (32-14) was tied with Mississippi State (30-16) for first place in the SEC West at 14-7. Auburn climbed to No. 4 in the Top 25 on Monday, its highest ranking since 1999.
“Our little ball club keeps finding reliance,” Thompson said. “It was a long day. It was a long day for both teams. I never felt like we could score enough runs to get comfortable. We were fortunate to get out of that town with a doubleheader sweep.”
This weekend was the third time this season Auburn has won an SEC series without either Keegan Thompson (5-2, 2.05) or Mize (6-1, 1.23) being available. The Tigers also won another when Thompson threw just four innings before leaving the game injured.
Butch Thompson said he wouldn’t have thought the Tigers could do that coming into the season. But lefthander Andrew Mitchell has stepped up the last two weekends. The sophomore held Arkansas to one run in five innings of relief last weekend and on Saturday held Mississippi State to one run in 4.1 innings in his first conference start of the year.
“At the time, it seemed like no one had stepped up to show you a roadmap (without Thompson or Mize),” Butch Thompson said. “Andrew Mitchell stepped up the last two weekends.
“Casey’s one of the hottest guys out there, but he would have been hard-pressed to throw better than Andrew the last two weeks.”
But Thompson knows getting Mize back in the rotation is a key for the Tigers. The sophomore will throw a simulated game Tuesday and Thompson hopes to have him back this weekend against archrival Alabama.
Auburn’s offense has also started clicking in the last couple weeks, taking some of the pressure off its pitching staff. The Tigers have scored 53 runs in their last six SEC games after scoring 61 in their first 15.
Outfielder Jonah Todd has been a sparkplug for the Tigers all season long and is leading the team in hitting with a line of .396/.485/.509. He is hitting .526 in the last 10 games, but has gotten support from teammates such as Conor Davis and Jonah Todd, who has a 13-game hitting streak.
Thompson said hitting coach Doug Sisson hasn’t changed his approach any, which Thompson thinks is a key part of the Tigers’ bats coming alive.
“I think a lot of people would have just panicked and started teaching something totally different,” Thompson said. “He believes so much in what he’s doing that he just hung in there and the guys hung in there with him and it’s started showing up.”
For the last two weeks, Auburn has played the first place team in the SEC West. After going 4-2 against Arkansas and Mississippi State, it is now in first place in the conference, tied with Mississippi State and Kentucky (31-14, 14-7). It is quite the turnaround for a team that went 23-33 a year ago and finished second-to-last in the SEC at 8-22.
Thompson gives every series a title. This weekend against Mississippi State was “Don’t lose sight.” It is a message he wants his team to continue to embrace over the last few weeks of the regular season.
“Our team sets itself up for getting lost or beginning to struggle if we look past any one day,” he said. “It’s so important for us to be locked in on every pitch, every inning. I’m afraid of us to look past anything.
“It don’t take but a second for you to lose sight. We cannot afford to lose sight. We’re just going to continue that.”
South Florida Wins Series On Emotional Weekend
South Florida bounced back from a Friday night loss to win the next two games and claim a series win against then-No. 20 Houston. At the end of the weekend, the Bulls were one of five teams tied for first place in the American Athletic Conference.
It was a big result on the field for USF (34-10, 9-6), and propelled it into the Top 25 for the first time this season at No. 24. But the biggest performance of the weekend belonged to righthander Peter Strzelecki.
Strzelecki’s father, Kevin, suffered a heart attack and passed away Thursday. Strzelecki went to his home in Boyton Beach, Fla., returning three days later to the mound at USF Baseball Stadium. He threw 1.2 innings Saturday before coming out to an emotional scene, as the Bulls came out of the dugout en masse to embrace their teammate.
“It was a very inspirational scene,” coach Mark Kingston said. “They were all out in front of the dugout, almost out all the way to the field of play. The crowd gave him a standing ovation just for being on the field. It showed his strength of character. It’s a scene I’ll never forget.”
Strzelecki typically is USF’s Sunday starter. He requested to move up a day in the rotation so that he could pitch before going back to Boyton Beach for the funeral. Kingston also went to the funeral Sunday, a decision he said was a no-brainer.
Back in Tampa, the Bulls finished off an emotional series win with a 5-4 victory. Trailing by three runs at the stretch, they scored four runs in the bottom of the seventh. Luke Borders delivered the go-ahead two-run double, as he continued his impressive season at the plate. The senior is hitting .356/.426/.546 with six home runs.
USF won this weekend’s series despite missing shortstop Kevin Merrell, the team’s leading hitter. The junior is hitting .403/.494/.619 with 17 stolen bases and has been rising on draft boards all spring. But he has been sidelined for the last week by a muscle strain in his left foot. Kingston said Merrell is considered day-to-day.
The Bulls cannot replace Merrell with just one player, but one of their keys to success this season has been their overall balance. They are hitting .303 as a team, have a .977 fielding percentage and a team ERA of 2.77.
“We can win games a number of different ways,” Kingston said. “Our wins come from a complete effort.”
The Bulls will need more complete efforts in the final few weeks as the AAC race looks certain to go down to the wire. USF hosts East Carolina this weekend before traveling to Connecticut and Central Florida in the final two weeks. USF swept UCF at home earlier this year and can draw confidence from its 6-3 record against UCF, Houston and Tulane, which are all tied for first place (along with UConn).
Kingston said getting Merrell back would be big for the Bulls as they go down the stretch. Beyond improved health, he simply wants his team to keep playing the way they have all spring.
“Just continue to focus on things that have helped us to have season we’ve had so far,” he said. “Keep throwing strikes on mound, take good at bats. There are no secrets, there’s no magic formula. Just play consistent baseball.”
Eight for Omaha
Auburn, Florida, Long Beach State, Louisville, North Carolina, Oregon State, Texas Christian, Texas Tech
Auburn moves into the field this week, while Clemson drops out. Auburn’s rise has been incredible to watch this season, as it continues to win series even when aces Keegan Thompson and Casey Mize are sidelined. But what pushes the Tigers over the top this week is its offensive development. Early in the season Auburn needed to outpitch its opponents, and was often capable of doing that. But now it is winning even when it finds itself in a slugfest. The Tigers are playing with incredible belief and should get Mize back this weekend. Clemson, meanwhile, has hit a rough patch in the season, losing two of its last three series. Both were tough road series (at Florida State and at North Carolina), but the Tigers’ bullpen, which had been an early strength, has sputtered and they are fielding .970 as a team. Clemson could certainly heat up in May, as it did last season, but, for now, it drops just outside the field.
Five players or programs who stood out this weekend.
Dalton Guthrie, ss, Florida: Guthrie showed off his defensive prowess Sunday in Florida’s 4-3 victory at Georgia. The Preseason All-American’s effort helped the Gators complete a sweep of their rivals.
— Gators Baseball (@GatorsBB) April 30, 2017
Devin Hemmerich, lhp, Norfolk State: Hemmerich carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning of Game 1 of a doubleheader Saturday against Delaware State. He retired the first two batters of the inning and had the Hornets down to their final strike before giving up a hit. Hemmerich, a senior, finished off a one-hit shutout in a 5-0 victory to improve to 9-2, 1.85.
David Peterson, lhp, Oregon: Peterson struck out 20 batters in a four-hit shutout Friday in a 2-0 victory against Arizona State. Peterson became the second pitcher in the country with a 20-strikeout game this year, joining Citadel’s J.P. Sears, and set a program record for most strikeouts in a game. Peterson improved to 9-2, 1.94 with 107 strikeouts and six walks in 74.1 innings this season.
Stanford: The Cardinal (27-12, 11-7) extended their winning streak to eight games with a sweep against then-No. 13 Arizona. Stanford has swept back-to-back Pac-12 Conference series for the first time since 2012, climbing to second place in the standings and No. 13 in RPI.
Texas-Arlington: Louisiana-Lafayette came into this weekend’s series with a nine-game winning streak, one of the longest in the country. UTA (26-17, 16-5) swept Louisiana (27-17-1, 13-7-1), extending its own winning streak to eight games, and taking over first place in the Sun Belt Conference. The Mavericks became the first team to sweep the Ragin’ Cajuns since 2013.
Three weekend series we’re most excited for
(9) Mississippi State at (16) Texas A&M: Mississippi State is coming off a series loss to Auburn, but the SEC West Division slate doesn’t offer any letup. The Bulldogs face a tough trip to Texas A&M, which has won five straight series. Since losing their first five SEC games of the season, the Aggies are 13-3 in conference action and will look to continue their hot streak at home against the Bulldogs.
(25) Texas at (7) Texas Christian: Despite a tough series loss at Texas Tech, TCU still holds on to a one-game lead in the Big 12 Conference with six games to play. The Horned Frogs will look to bounce back at home. Texas has won seven of its last eight games and will look to keep that hot streak going in Fort Worth.
Cal Poly at (8) Long Beach State: The top two teams in the Big West Conference standings are set for a showdown at Blair Field. The Mustangs are 19-23 overall and No. 132 in RPI after a disappointing nonconference slate, and will need to win the conference to earn an NCAA Tournament bid. That makes this weekend a must-win series for Cal Poly. The Dirtbags are trying to shore up their hosting resume and have a chance to put away one of their closest competitors for the Big West title.
Two weekend series you shouldn’t overlook
Florida Atlantic at (20) Southern Mississippi: The top two teams in the Conference USA standings will meet in Hattiesburg, Miss. Southern Miss holds a one-game lead on FAU, the defending CUSA regular-season champion. The Owls won the series at home last year en route to the title, and the Golden Eagles will be looking to return the favor this season,
Sam Houston State at Southeastern Louisiana: McNeese State remains atop the Southland Conference standings, but Sam Houston is coming off a series win against the Cowboys and will look to close the gap further down the home stretch. SELA is four-games off the pace, but with an RPI of 40, is still pushing for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. A series win this weekend would bolster its resume.
One midweek game to keep an eye on
Missouri State at Kansas, Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET: Missouri State brings a nine-game winning streak, the longest in the country, into Lawrence on Tuesday. The Bears are No. 16 in RPI and need all the premium wins they can get as they try to build a resume to host a regional. Kansas is No. 62 in RPI, and a win Tuesday would help the Jayhawks build their case for an NCAA Tournament berth.