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Off the Bat: Three Teams Show Up Big Deep In The Heart Of Texas

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(Photo by Danny Parker)

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

Texas A&M Sweeps, Rice Bounces Back At Shriners College Classic

This year’s Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic could have doubled for an old Southwest Conference Tournament with former members Baylor, Houston, Rice, Texas A&M and Texas Christian in the field, joined by Texas State. The all-Texas field made for an entertaining weekend of baseball at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

While the Shriners College Classic is the granddaddy of college baseball’s early-season tournaments, it goes beyond baseball. Proceeds from the tournament support Shriners Hospitals, and the weekend also serves to shine a spotlight on some of the children who have been helped by Shriners Hospitals.

“This couldn’t be a better marriage with the Shriners Children Hospital and the Houston Astros,” Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said. “To be a part of something like the Shriners Hospital and for our guys to get the opportunity to go and visit with those kids and try to inspire those kids, I think we leave maybe more inspired than the kids at the hospital. Just very thankful to be a part of this.”

On the field, Texas A&M made the loudest statement of the weekend, beating Baylor, TCU and Houston to be named tournament champion. Rice and Texas State both went 2-1, scoring some impressive wins along the way.

For the Aggies, this weekend was a key test after they cruised through their first two series against Fordham and Illinois-Chicago. Texas A&M (11-2) ably handled the step up in competition, especially on the mound. It allowed just four runs all weekend, led by the duo of lefthanders John Doxakis and Asa Lacy at the front of its rotation.

Doxakis, a junior, and Lacy, a sophomore, combined to hold Baylor and TCU to just one run in 15 innings, while striking out 21 batters, walking three and allowing just four hits.

The bullpen was almost as good and combined to hold opponents to three runs (two earned) in nine innings on the weekend. Closer Kasey Kalich impressed with his outings in the first two weekends, and righthanders Bryce Miller and lefthander Joseph Menefee played their setup roles well.

The Aggies’ bullpen hasn’t been called upon much yet this year, but Childress has been pleased with its performance so far.

“Those starters are pretty greedy with the innings, you know?” he said. “So, we haven’t had to spread those guys thin. They’ve been fresh, and we were able to hit the reset button with the start the two lefthanders had on Friday and Saturday and those guys were ready to go.”

An injury to lefthander Jonathan Childress (no relation to Rob Childress) put a bit of a damper on their impressive pitching performance. The freshman left his start Sunday after three innings due to what Rob Childress called forearm soreness.

A&M has gotten off to a slow start to the weekend offensively and it is still trying to get on track, despite its three wins in Houston. The Aggies are hitting .232/.339/.320 as a team and don’t have any player hitting .300 or above.

Shortstop Braden Shewmake, a potential first-round pick in June, is hitting .260/.339/.420 but has started to heat up at the plate, this week going 8-for-23 with his first home run of the year, an opposite field shot Friday against Baylor. Getting Shewmake going in the middle of the order would be a big boost for the Aggies.

Childress said while the Aggies aren’t yet playing their best baseball, he was pleased with how they played in Houston.

“Bigger challenges lie ahead, but this was a big test for us coming down here and playing the three great teams that we did,” he said. “Definitely leaving here knowing a lot more about our team. Feel a lot better about our team than when we came in here on Friday.”

Rice coach Matt Bragga can also feel a lot better about his team after the Shriners College Classic. The Owls (5-7) had lost five of their last six games going into the weekend and then lost, 1-0, to Texas State on Friday, squandering an excellent start by Preseason All-American righthander Matt Canterino.

But they bounced back the next two days, beating Baylor, 6-3, on Saturday and then routing TCU, 12-2, in seven innings, to close the tournament.

“I was proud of them, they really fought,” Bragga said. “When you start out 3-7, and to be able to fight and to beat two really high-quality opponents the last two days, that’s a big deal. I’m excited for our guys.”

Rice got strong pitching all weekend, starting with Canterino. The Owls' ace struck out nine batters in seven innings and allowed just an unearned run on four hits and no walks. But he was a hard-luck loser as Rice couldn’t solve Texas State righthander Nicholas Fraze.

Lefthander Evan Kravetz and righthander Jackson Parthasarathy both delivered quality starts the next two days for the Owls. On the weekend, relievers Kendall Jefferies, Addison Moss and Jackson Tyner combined for 5.1 scoreless innings.

Rice has the frontline pitchers to compete in Conference USA, but it needs to improve its defense, as it has already made 29 errors in 12 games. The lineup, led by shortstop Trei Cruz (.340/.424/.660, 4 HR) and third baseman Braden Comeaux (.333/.404/.431) showed its promise Sunday night but still needs to be more consistent.

Rice isn’t yet where Bragga wants it to be, but the last two days were an encouraging sign. Now, the Owls must carry that momentum into a challenging week as they face Houston and Sam Houston State before welcoming Oklahoma to Reckling Park for a weekend series.

“After Friday, I think they got a fire lit under them that we’ve got to be better, that this isn’t good enough,” he said. “We’re not there, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. They are playing with a sense of urgency that this isn’t good enough, and we’re better baseball players than what we’re playing.”

Baseball America has teamed with Shriners Hospitals for Children for a special offer this week. For any new one-year subscription using code: SHRINERS19, Baseball America will donate 20 percent of the proceeds to Shriners Hospitals. To subscribe, click here.

Texas Makes Statement With Sweep Of LSU

Between them, Texas and Louisiana State have 12 national championships (six apiece) and have made 54 appearances in the College World Series. They are perhaps the two biggest programs in the sport.

So any time they take the field against each other for a series, as they did in Austin this weekend, it’s sure to draw a lot of attention. That was the case this year, especially because it was a Top 25 matchup (LSU was No. 2 and Texas was No. 19), and the early season showdown at Disch-Falk Field promised to be both team’s first big test.

Texas passed that test with flying colors. It swept LSU and, in doing so, made the loudest statement of any team this season. As a result, the Longhorns (10-3) shot up the Top 25 to No. 9, while LSU fell to No. 10.

Texas, having already won the first two games of the weekend to clinch the series victory, trailed 6-3 going into the bottom of the eighth inning Sunday. But the Longhorns weren’t done. They scored a run in the eighth and then pushed three runs across in the ninth inning, punctuated by Austin Todd’s walk-off single to cap the comeback and complete the sweep.

“We were pretty ugly today for parts of the game, let some defensive plays get past us,” coach David Pierce said. “We had great at-bats throughout the day and put them together at the end to get the win.

“It was a gritty win, to be honest.”

Even without Sunday’s heroics, the weekend would have been a big success for the Longhorns. But finishing the sweep gave them a weekend that could resonate all season long. It also clearly stated that while Texas lost some key pieces from last year’s team, chiefly Kody Clemens, its All-American second baseman and Golden Spikes Award finalist, it doesn’t have to take a step back.

Texas got another strong start Friday night from sophomore righthander Bryce Elder, who has taken over as the staff’s ace after posting a 5.55 ERA in the bullpen last year. He held LSU to one run (unearned) in 6.2 innings to improve to 3-0, 0.44 with 22 strikeouts and six walks in 20.2 innings.

The rest of the pitching staff followed Elder’s lead. Righthander Kamron Fields slammed the door Friday with 2.1 scoreless innings to earn the save. Righthander Blair Henley, the lone rotation holdover from 2018, was solid Saturday, and righthander Cole Quintana followed him with three electric innings to finish the game. Freshman righthander Coy Cobb scuffled some Sunday, but he and the bullpen did enough to keep the Longhorns in it.

“Cobb wasn’t at his best, but he battled through it and we got good bullpen work,” Pierce said. “The combination of starters and relievers worked well for us.”

Texas may have lost more star power from its lineup with Clemens moving on to pro ball and shortstop David Hamilton out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon, but remaking the pitching staff may have been the bigger task. Gone are starters Nolan Kingham and Chase Shugart, as well as closer Andy McGuire and relief ace Parker Joe Robinson.

But Texas has recruited well and continues to develop high-end talent. Through the first few weeks of the season, its new-look pitching staff has delivered. The Longhorns have a team ERA of 2.75, have yet to give up a home run and are averaging 8.5 strikeouts and 3.58 walks per nine innings.

Offensively, the Longhorns will probably need a more team-based approach this year without Clemens anchoring the lineup. So far, they’re getting it. Todd (.357/.471/.524) and junior third baseman Ryan Reynolds (.356/.463/.533) are leading the team in hitting, but production is coming from throughout the lineup. Junior outfielder Duke Ellis has a .527 on-base percentage and freshman outfielder Eric Kennedy has hit two home runs, tying him with redshirt-sophomore slugger Zach Zubia for the team lead.

Having Todd back in the mix is a key for Texas. He hit cleanup on Opening Day last season but was limited to just 73 at-bats by injuries. Now he’s healthy again and hitting in the three hole.

“He’s always been considered to be one of our better hitters,” Pierce said. “To overcome the injuries, travel with us to Omaha, go through a grueling offseason to get ready, it’s gratifying for him to have success. I’m really proud of him. He’s a great hitter. He has great hand-eye coordination.”

Texas doesn’t have any time to rest on its laurels after its statement weekend. After a midweek game against Texas-Rio Grande Valley, it hits the road for a four-game series at No. 4 Stanford. The following weekend, it starts Big 12 Conference play at home against No. 11 Texas Tech.

Pierce said the Longhorns are into the toughest stretch int their schedule, which they have known was coming all along.

“We can’t get caught up in ‘We’ve got to win X amount of games,’” he said. “We’ve got to trust ourselves, understand about doing your own jobs and creating continuity together.

“We understand we have a tough grind here and it’s a challenge for us more than anything. Up to this point, we’ve handled everything, The key is to stay healthy and just compete.”

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Off The Bat: Georgia Claims Marquee Series Win, ECU Stays Hot

Georgia won a showdown against LSU and East Carolina swept UCF to open AAC play, highlighting the weekend in college baseball.

Eight for Omaha

Florida, Florida State, Louisiana State, North Carolina, Stanford, Texas, UCLA, Vanderbilt

After leaving the field unchanged over the first two weeks of the season, this week sees the first movement. Texas moves in, replacing Texas Tech. I don’t want to overreact to the results on the first weekend of March, but the Longhorns have come out of the gate very strong and have built to this weekend’s sweep of LSU. Texas Tech, meanwhile, still seems to be searching for the right formula on the mound. That’s not entirely a surprise and the Red Raiders will probably get their pitching staff straightened out sooner than later, but the Longhorns are already rolling and still have plenty of room for improvement. As for LSU, I’m not ready to cast aside a team that we had rated as the second-best team in the country coming into the year. But the way Mississippi State and Oregon State are playing certainly had me thinking about making another change.

Weekend Standouts

Nine players or programs who put together big weekends.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils swept Michigan State in emphatic fashion, outscoring the Spartans 29-7 over three games, to improve to 11-0. Arizona State is already almost halfway to its 2018 win total (23) and is off to its best start since 2010, when it won its first 24 games of the year. The schedule toughens this week, as the Sun Devils hit the road for the first time this season for two midweek games at Cal State Fullerton before returning to Phoenix for a series against Xavier.

Bryant: The Bulldogs bounced back well after getting swept at LSU last weekend and won a big series at Virginia Tech, which entered the weekend 7-0. Bryant (4-5), the favorite in the Northeast Conference, won a series against an Atlantic Coast Conference team for the first time in program history.

Tanner Burns, RHP, Auburn: Burns on Friday dominated Cincinnati, in a 5-0 victory. The sophomore struck out 15 batters and threw a two-hit shutout. His 15 strikeouts matched a program record shared by five other pitchers, including Casey Mize and Tim Hudson. The Preseason All-American improved to 2-0, 0.92 with 29 strikeouts and three walks in 19.2 innings.

Duke pitchers Graeme Stinson, Mat Dockman and Jack Carey: The trio of Blue Devils combined to throw a no-hitter Friday night in a 14-0 victory against Penn State in Bradenton, Fla. Stinson, a Preseason All-American, started the game and threw five innings. Dockman pitched one inning and Carey threw the final three innings. It was Duke’s first no-hitter since 1955.

Tennessee: The Volunteers went 3-0 in the Cox Diamond 9 Invitational in Pensacola, Fla., to become the first team in the country to reach 12 wins and remain undefeated. Tennessee matched the best start in program history, set in 2014, and is now outscoring opponents 82-12.

Cooper Swanson, INF, Florida State: The Seminoles broke out their big bats this weekend against Mercer, crushing seven home runs in a sweep. Swanson provided three of those long balls, as he homered in all three games. Entering the weekend, the sophomore had two career home runs.

Andrew Vaughn, 1B, California: The 2018 Golden Spikes Award winner has picked up where he left off last season. Through 10 games, Vaughn is hitting .529/.680/1.176 with seven home runs, 15 walks and five strikeouts. Against Saint Mary’s this weekend, he had back-to-back two-homer games and went 7-for-13 during the series.

Looking Ahead

Three weekend series we’re most excited for

(3) North Carolina at (21) Clemson: The Atlantic Coast Conference this weekend becomes the first power conference to open league action, with a showdown between last year’s division champions highlighting the action. North Carolina has swept its first three series (Xavier, South Florida and Massachusetts-Lowell), but now hits the road for the first time this season. Clemson is coming off an emotional series loss against archrival South Carolina and will be eager to get back on track as conference play begins.

(9) Texas at (4) Stanford: Texas (10-3) is coming off a huge sweep of LSU, but Stanford (9-2) is also riding a wave of momentum after winning its series at Cal State Fullerton. This annual series is always one to watch, but with both teams ranked in the top 10, it is elevated even further. It will be especially interesting to see how Texas’ pitching staff handles what can be a very explosive Stanford offense.

St. John’s at (24) UC Irvine: The Red Storm’s grueling early season schedule continues with a series at UCI. This should be a low-scoring series, as both teams have plenty of talent on the mound. The Anteaters (7-3) have won three-straight series to open the year against regional-caliber competition and will be looking to extend that streak this weekend against St. John’s (1-6).

Two weekend tournaments to watch

Dodger Stadium Classic in Los Angeles: This is annually one of the premier tournaments in the country in the best setting, as the first two days are held on campus at Southern California and UCLA before shifting to Dodger Stadium for the finale. In addition to the hosts, Michigan and Oklahoma State make up this year’s field. No. 2 UCLA and No. 18 Michigan have raced out of the gate this season, while Oklahoma State and USC are off to slower starts and coming off series losses. Friday night’s showdown between Michigan, led by lefthander Tommy Henry (3-0, 0.00, 34 SO, 2 BB, 23 IP) and UCLA will be a highlight.

Safeco Baseball Showcase in Seattle: This is a new tournament on the calendar and the field is a strong one, featuring No. 7 Oregon State and No. 19 Coastal Carolina, as well as Indiana, Minnesota, San Diego and Washington. Friday’s action includes a rematch of last year’s Corvallis Super Regional with Minnesota taking on Oregon State. The Beavers and Chanticleers meet on Sunday, in what also promises to be a highlight of the event.

One midweek game to keep an eye on

(14) East Carolina at (8) Mississippi State, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET: ECU (8-4) heads to the Magnolia State for midweek games against both Mississippi State (10-1) and Mississippi (8-2). Either could have been the pick here as the Pirates have been scuffling and could use a jolt. The Bulldogs are looking to build on a strong start to the season as they build toward the start of Southeastern Conference play in two weeks.

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