Off The Bat: Ole Miss, Duke On The Rise

Ole Miss Rises In The Wild West

A week after winning a tightly-contested road series against then-No. 13 Texas A&M—all three games were decided by one run—Mississippi returned home to do it all over again against then-No. 6 Arkansas. Again, the Rebels came out on top in a close series.

Such is life in the Southeastern Conference West Division. Five teams from the division are ranked in the Top 25. Four of those five have top-15 RPIs. The fifth is perennial powerhouse Louisiana State.

Through the first three weeks of SEC play, Ole Miss has risen to the top of the rugged division at 25-4 and 6-3 in the SEC. It has climbed to No. 3 in the Top 25, its highest ranking since it finished the 2014 season at No. 3.

The Rebels are off to an outstanding start this season and are tied with top-ranked Florida for the most wins in the country. Coach Mike Bianco knows there is a lot of time left in the season and the conference schedule won’t get any easier, but he has been pleased with how his team has risen to the challenge.

“It’s hard to imagine that we could have played much better than we have,” Bianco said. “Even the four losses, we’ve been in every game. There hasn’t been a loss by more than a run or two. The guys have played pretty consistent and I’m proud of our guys.”

For the second week in a row, Ole Miss lost Thursday night with Preseason All-American lefthander Ryan Rolison on the mound and then bounced back to win the next two games to claim the series. Ole Miss won Saturday’s series clincher against Arkansas, 11-10, in a wild game that came down to the final at bat.

Luke Bonfield led off the ninth inning for the Razorbacks with a double, but Rebels closer Parker Caracci retired the next three hitters to close out his sixth save of the season. It was a familiar ending for Arkansas, which also stranded the tying run in scoring position in the ninth inning of a rubber game last week at Florida. For Ole Miss, it was the latest demonstration of the depth and strength of its pitching staff.

The Rebels have a 3.06 team ERA and lead the SEC in both strikeouts (290) and walks (77). Caracci has been a revelation, going 2-0, 0.89 with six saves and a 38-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20.1 innings. He has taken over the closer’s role from Preseason All-American righthander Dallas Woolfolk, who is 1-0, 1.50 with six saves. Sophomore righthanders Will Ethridge (1-0, 3.15) and Greer Holston (1-0, 3.52) give the Rebels two more big arms out of the bullpen.

With that kind of bullpen depth in support of Rolison (3-3, 3.63), Brady Feigl (6-1, 2.23) and James McArthur (4-0, 2.38), the Rebels are tough to beat on the mound.

“At the beginning of the year, the starters were doing a great job getting us in ballgames and giving us space,” Bianco said. “The bullpen has sharpened itself the last couple weeks. Everyone has earned their stripes.”

Pitching was expected to be Ole Miss’ strength this season. Its offense has stepped up as well, however, and is proving to have impressive depth of its own. The Rebels rank third in the SEC in hitting and seemingly every hitter has stepped up in a big spot over the course of the year. In Friday’s 5-4 victory, it was junior Nick Fortes who hit the crucial home run. Saturday, it was freshman Tyler Keenan’s turn. Sophomore sluggers Thomas Dillard (.308/.419/.596) and Cole Zabowski (.324/.383/.662), both a part of Ole Miss’ top-ranked 2016 recruiting class, lead the team with seven home runs apiece.

One of the offensive keys this season has been shortstop Grae Kessinger, also a part of the 2016 recruiting class. The sophomore has taken a big step forward at the plate after hitting .175/.287/.247 as a freshman. He is this year hitting .321/.402/.434 and has solidified the leadoff spot, a role the Ole Miss coaching staff wasn’t sure they were going to use him in until a week before the season. Kessinger isn’t a prototypical leadoff hitter, but he has taken to the role.

“He was certainly much better than he played last year, offensively,” Bianco said. “He’s had a terrific year. He’s back to being who he is and he’s swung the bat with a lot of confidence.”

Ole Miss as a team is playing with a lot of confidence and for good reason. After last season going 32-25 and missing regionals with a young team, the Rebels have grown up and look like serious College World Series contenders. They face a tough stretch ahead with their next eight games on the road, including next weekend at archrival Mississippi State.

There will be plenty more tough games ahead this season. But after two hard-fought division series wins, Bianco is pleased with his team’s performance.  

“I’m impressed and proud,” Bianco said. “The last two weekends we had six games that could have gone either way. The guys have hung in there and had enough good at bats to come out on the right side of most of the games.”

Duke Focused On The Journey, Not The Destination

Duke used an eighth-inning offensive explosion Sunday to power past Notre Dame, 16-4, and complete a series sweep. The Blue Devils scored 12 runs and sent 18 batters to the plate in the inning to break what had been a taut game wide open.

Until Duke’s eighth-inning onslaught Sunday, the series had been a close, well-played affair. But the Blue Devils found a way to win all three games and swept their first Atlantic Coast Conference series since 2014. Duke improved to 24-5 and is 9-3 to start ACC play for the first time since 1961, also the last time it advanced to the College World Series. After four conference weekends, Duke leads the ACC Coastal Division and is tied with No. 6 North Carolina State for the overall conference lead. As a result, it this week moved up to No. 10 in the Top 25, entering the top 10 for the first time in the rankings’ 37-year history.

For a program that has reached regionals just once in the last five decades (2016), this kind of start is uncharted territory. Some teams have to learn how to handle success, but the Blue Devils are an older group and are embracing coach Chris Pollard’s message to avoid what he calls “distraction disease.”

“I’ve told our guys and I’ve challenged our guys and we’ve talked about it openly, the farther you go, the harder it is to stay in the moment and not give in to the distraction of the destination or hearing all the good things people are saying about you,” Pollard said. “It’s just to focus on what you’re doing that day and to really commit to being the very best you can at that.”

Pollard knows it will get harder and harder to keep that kind of focus the deeper into the season Duke continues its impressive run. The schedule is about to ratchet up as well. Duke has played three of its four ACC series at home and still has a trip to No. 4 Florida State and home series against local rivals North Carolina State and North Carolina to come in the next two months.

But Duke is an experienced team. Twenty Blue Devils are in at least their third-year of college baseball, meaning most of the team was a part of the regionals run. It also gives Pollard plenty of trust in the team’s veteran leaders, especially captains Ryan Day, Jimmy Herron and Max Miller.

“They’re really good at keeping these guys in a good place,” Pollard said. “In big spots in big games to this point of the year, our team has been loose and focused.”

Duke’s captains led by example Sunday. Day delivered his best start of the season, holding Notre Dame to three runs in six strong innings. Herron drove in the go-ahead run in the early stages of the eighth-inning explosion and Miller went 2-for-4 with two doubles.

Herron said the Blue Devils have taken Pollard’s message to heart and have stayed even-keeled.

“After each of our wins, (Pollard) tells us to enjoy it for a few hours, but when you wake up in the morning it doesn’t matter, it’s in the past,” Herron said. “Really treating each day as its own and each pitch as its own season.”

Herron and fellow junior outfielder Griffin Conine were this year both voted Preseason All-Americans by major league scouting directors after impressive summers in the Cape Cod League. Their presence in the lineup this spring made the Blue Devils a trendy ACC dark horse. Herron is hitting .294/.419/.422 with 11 stolen bases out of the leadoff spot, but Conine has struggled in the first half. He homered Sunday—his sixth of the season—but is hitting .233/.362/.485 with 19 walks and 34 strikeouts.

Pollard dropped Conine from the three-hole down the lineup in the last couple weeks, hitting the lefthanded slugger as low as eighth. Conine has responded well and Pollard said the quality of his at bats has improved over the last week.

“Griffin has continued to grind and grind,” Pollard said. “You’re seeing better and better at bats, I thought he had really good at bats today. You’re really seeing good at bats going all the way back to Saturday at Pitt. I really feel like Griffin’s in a good place.”

Even with its best hitter scuffling, Duke’s offense has been solid. But its run prevention has been a key part to its success. The pitching staff—the team’s biggest question mark entering the season—has the second-best team ERA in the ACC (3.15) and Duke leads the conference in fielding percentage (.978).

Duke is coming together and maturing as a team. There is still a long way to go this season, but it is emerging as a contender for the ACC title and to host a regional. The Blue Devils may not be focused on those destinations, but they know winning games like Sunday’s is vital to reaching their potential.

“Good teams, when they win the first two games, they come out and win the third,” Herron said. “That was definitely a point of emphasis to make sure that we came out and did that.”

Eight for Omaha

Arkansas, Florida, Florida State, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oregon State, Stanford, Texas Tech.

For the second straight week, there are no changes to the field. Three teams lost series this week – Arkansas, Kentucky and Oregon State. Of the three, I’m least concerned about Arkansas. The Razorbacks went 2-4 on the road over the last two weeks against Florida and Mississippi and three of the four losses were by one run. As jarring as Oregon State’s series loss at Utah was, it was probably due for a weekend like that. Still, it’s clear that the Beavers aren’t going to pitch at the level they did last season and remain without Nick Madrigal. Things aren’t going to be as easy as they were last season. Kentucky is more concerning and is now just 3-6 in the SEC after a series loss at Alabama. The Wildcats again this season seem to be a different team at home than they are on the road. Is it stubborn to keep them in the field? Maybe, but even as well as North Carolina State and Clemson have pitched this season, I still don’t feel comfortable with the way they would matchup in the postseason against the kind of elite arms they’ve both run into the last few years in regionals. East Carolina is also an intriguing option but needs to get Friday starter Trey Benton back on track after back-to-back tough outings to open American Athletic Conference play.

Eye Catchers

Five players or programs who stood out this weekend.

Seth Beer, OF, Clemson:
The Preseason All-American homered in four straight games last week, helping Clemson (22-6, 8-4) to a 4-0 week. Beer is now hitting .284/.441/.632 with 10 home runs and leads the Tigers in all four categories.

Colton Eastman, RHP, Cal State Fullerton: The junior threw a no-hitter Thursday in a 3-0 victory at UC Santa Barbara. Eastman struck out seven batters and walked one to improve to 3-2, 2.47. He became the fifth pitcher in program history to throw a no-hitter, joining the likes of Justin Garza and Kirk Saarloos.

Elon: The Phoenix became the first team this season to win a series against College of Charleston, something Georgia and Kansas State couldn’t do. Elon (16-12) is off to a 4-2 start in the Colonial Athletic Association and is tied for first place going into a big series this weekend at Northeastern (14-10).

Bren Spillane, 1B, Illinois: The junior continued his incredible season by going 8-for-11 with five home runs in four games. Spillane is hitting .494/.579/1.149 with 14 home runs and 12 stolen bases this season and leads the Illini in nearly every offensive category.

Utah: The Utes beat Oregon State twice on the weekend to snap the Beavers’ streak of 14 straight Pac-12 Conference series win, a streak that dated back to 2016. After starting the season 0-13, Utah is 6-7 over the last three weeks.

Looking Ahead

Three weekend series we’re most excited for

No. 15 Auburn at No. 9 Arkansas: The Tigers (22-7, 4-5) and Razorbacks (19-9, 5-4) have both lost back-to-back series, making this SEC West clash even more important for both teams. Auburn is coming off series losses at Kentucky and against Missouri and will be eager to get back on track. Arkansas lost tight road series at Florida and Ole Miss but will now return to the friendly confines of Baum Stadium, where this season it is 14-2.

No. 2 Stanford at No. 20 UCLA: The Cardinal (20-3, 5-1) are off to an outstanding start and has established itself as an Omaha favorite. The Bruins (16-7, 6-3) are off to a solid start of their own and just a half-game off the pace in the conference race. This weekend will have a big impact on the Pac-12 race and is critical for UCLA, which will have home-field advantage and is coming off a series loss at California.

No. 6 North Carolina State at No. 24 Louisville: The Cardinals (19-8, 5-7) have lost three straight series and are four games behind the Wolfpack (23-5, 9-3) in the ACC Atlantic Division. Louisville is tough to beat at Jim Patterson Stadium and it will look to use its home-field advantage to break out of its skid. North Carolina State hasn’t played on the road much this season, but has already this season won two ACC road series and will be looking for a third.

Two weekend series you shouldn’t overlook

San Francisco at St. Mary’s: The Dons are off to a surprising 18-9 start to the season and are in first place in the West Coast Conference with an 8-1 record after the first three weekends. Now, USF will travel to St. Mary’s (15-10, 5-4), the preseason conference favorite. The Gaels’ have won back-to-back series and will be eager to cut into the Dons’ lead in the standings.

Ohio State at Iowa:  The Buckeyes (19-8, 2-1) are one of the surprise teams in the Big Ten Conference and are 11-2 over the last three weeks. Now they will travel to Iowa (14-9), the defending Big Ten Tournament champion, which is off to a solid 3-2 start in the conference. The Hawkeyes split an abbreviated series against conference-favorite Indiana and last week won a series at then-No. 22 Illinois.

One midweek game to keep an eye on

No. 24 Louisville at No. 13 Kentucky, Tuesday, 6:30 p.m. ET: The Bluegrass State rivals will square off this week for the first time this season. Both have hit a rough patch, with Louisville (19-8) losing its last three series, while Kentucky (19-8) has lost two of its last three. Both teams will be eager to grab bragging rights and to recapture some momentum with a midweek victory.  

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