Off the Bat: Stanford, TCU, UConn Make Opening Weekend Statements

Image credit: Stanford's Kyle Stowers (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

The first weekend of college baseball is in the books. Teddy Cahill runs through the biggest storylines. To see the updated top 25, click here. 

Stanford Starts Strong

After winning the Pac-12 Conference in coach David Esquer’s first season at the program’s helm, Stanford came into 2019 ranked No. 7 and with some lofty expectations. But unlike so many Cardinal teams under longtime coach Mark Marquess, this one appeared to have more firepower in the lineup than on the mound, at least in the starting rotation.

The Cardinal’s pitching did its best to disabuse that notion on Opening Weekend at the Angels College Classic in Tempe, Ariz. No. 7 Stanford started 3-0—it finishes the tournament Monday with a game at Grand Canyon—and held its opponents—Ball State, Wichita State and Pepperdine—to six runs.

Stanford beat Pepperdine, 6-1, on Sunday, a final score that didn’t reflect how close the game was. The game was tied at one until Stanford broke out for five runs in the bottom of the eighth. It was a reminder of how explosive its offense can be when everything clicks.

That hadn’t happened much for the Cardinal on Opening Weekend, which Esquer said was in part because the hitters were pressing.

“I think the guys are maybe pressing to get off to a good start, and you saw that last inning was the most relaxed at-bats that we took,” he said. “That’s the maturing process, just take the base hit and you’ll get your opportunities to square one and gap one and better.”

The breakthrough came when Will Matthiessen drove a double to deep center and Andrew Daschbach rumbled around the bases to score all the way from first base. It was the first of three doubles in the inning as Stanford broke the game open late.

Matthiessen, who also earned the win after throwing four scoreless innings of relief to finish the game, agreed with Esquer’s assessment of the offense’s sluggish start to the season.

“I do feel like we’ve been pressing a little bit, maybe trying to do a little too much,” he said. “That five-spot there in the eighth inning will hopefully move us forward as the season moves on.”

Stanford certainly has enough fire power. But while Matthiessen is 4-for-10 in the early going, Preseason All-American outfielder Kyle Stowers was 0-for-10 until he hit an RBI double in the eighth inning Sunday. Tim Tawa (2-for-14) and Daschbach (2-for-9), who follow Stowers in the Cardinal lineup in the third and fourth spots, also got off to slower starts.

The Cardinal are sure to improve as the season continues. In the meantime, their pitching and defense is doing plenty to carry the load. Stanford’s defense was a little out of sorts on Opening Weekend as shortstop Duke Kinamon wasn’t quite ready to go after missing last season due to injury. He is expected back soon, but in his stead, Tawa moved from third base to shortstop and Brandon Wulff from the outfield to the hot corner. It may not be ideal, but the Cardinal made just one error in their first three games and that came in the outfield.

On the mound, Stanford is replacing righthander Tristan Beck and lefthander Kris Bubic, both top four round draft picks last year, in its rotation. The Cardinal got a strong start from sophomore righthander Brendan Beck, Tristan’s younger brother, on Friday against Ball State, as he struck out 11 and held the Cardinals to four hits and no walks in 6.1 innings. Junior lefthander Erik Miller, a Preseason All-American, delivered another impressive start Sunday, surrendering one run on four hits and two walks while striking out nine batters in five innings. In between, righthander Jacob Palisch, who excelled as a setup man last year, struck out seven batters in five innings, but gave up four runs on five hits and two walks against Wichita State.

Stanford’s bullpen, anchored by Preseason All-American closer Jack Little, was outstanding. In 10.2 innings, it didn’t allow a run, struck out 15 batters and held opponents to three hits and two walks.

Getting Miller going is especially important for Stanford. He has had mixed results over the last two years, at times showing the promise that makes him a potential Day 1 draft pick and at times struggling mightily with his control.

On Sunday, in front of a large scouting contingent, Miller ran his fastball up to 95 mph, showed off a sharp breaking ball and mixed in a changeup. Listed at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, he has long been on scouts’ radars. If he’s able to pitch with more control and consistency, he has as much upside as nearly anyone.

“I think he was good (Sunday), at times excellent,” Esquer said. “He continues to get better. He’s not one of those finished product guys yet, but he’s working toward there and I think he’s getting better.”

Like Miller, Stanford is still a work in progress. But what it showed this weekend in Tempe was a strongly positive sign as it aims for another conference title.

TCU’s Nick Lodolo (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

TCU Bounces Back

Texas Christian started the season and the MLB4 Tournament at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Ariz., with a tough, 2-0 loss to Cal State Fullerton.

The Horned Frogs had last season struggled offensively and missed the NCAA Tournament after going to the College World Series in 2017. TCU got nine hits and walked six times against Fullerton but stranded 12 runners, unable to come up with a clutch hit.

Over the next two days, the Horned Frogs bounced back in a big way. TCU on Saturday beat Virginia, 9-4, and on Sunday knocked off No. 1 Vanderbilt, 10-2.

Lefthander Brandon Williamson, who on Sunday was the beneficiary of the offensive onslaught against Vanderbilt, said TCU wasn’t going to let Friday’s loss fester.

“Our motto for the year is ‘Something to prove,’” he said. “When you come out like that and get shut out right away, it said a lot about our team whether we were going to roll over or pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and get back after it. Not for once did we think we were out of it. We knew what we had and what we needed to do.”

Williamson, one of TCU’s key junior college transfers, combined with righthander Jake Eissler to shut down Vanderbilt’s potent offense. Williamson, who last year ranked No. 168 on the BA 500, struck out seven batters in 3.2 innings, and Eissler held Vanderbilt to one run on three hits and a walk in 5.1 innings to finish the game.

Williamson joins lefthander Nick Lodolo, a Preseason All-American, and veteran righthander Jared Janczak in what could be one of the best rotations in the country. He showed his potential on Sunday, throwing his fastball in the low 90s and mixing in a good slider.

TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle was pleased with Williamson’s debut, particularly because an injury had kept him out of fall practice, limiting his time on the mound since last spring.

“We were excited about him, we just didn’t get a chance to work with him much because he missed the whole fall,” Schlossnagle said. “Hopefully it’s something he can build on, maybe throw his fastball for more strikes, not get in so many deep counts.”

Williamson wasn’t the only member of TCU’s 20th-ranked recruiting class to get off to a strong start. Freshman outfielder Porter Brown went 7-for-12 in the leadoff spot and junior college transfers Austin Henry (6-for-15, 2 2B) and Jake Guenther (5-for-13) solidified the heart of the order. Senior outfielder Josh Watson, one of the few holdovers from last year’s lineup, went 5-for-11 with two doubles. TCU’s lineup will get even deeper in the coming weeks once sophomore infielder Adam Oviedo returns from injury.

Schlossnagle said he knew coming into the year that the Horned Frogs’ offense was much improved, especially in its physicality and talent. That showed over the last two games of the weekend.

“Even Friday night when I met with them after the game, I didn’t think anybody was wide-eyed,” he said. “That says a lot for those kids to come in this environment and manage their emotions the right way.”

TCU will need to continue to stay mentally strong over the next several weeks. It returns home this week for a midweek game against Abilene Christian and a weekend series against Grand Canyon before heading to Houston for the always difficult Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic and then travels to Long Beach State for a weekend series.

But Schlossnagle thinks his team is better for the experience of playing in the MLB4 Tournament against three other programs with significant Omaha experience, and the next few weeks will present the Horned Frogs with further tests and challenges that will help them during Big 12 Conference play.

“The beauty of playing this kind of competition in this setting is that you expose your team,” Schlossnagle said. “Anything you don’t do well, it’s going to get exposed so you learn more about your team than you would playing against a lighter schedule and blowing somebody out.”

UConn Scores Big Upset

Connecticut delivered the biggest upset of Opening Weekend, which mostly saw the favorites come away with winning weekends. Facing No. 11 Louisville in Lakeland, Fla., the Huskies on Sunday grabbed a series win with an 8-3 victory.

After UConn won Friday’s opener, 3-2, Louisville bounced back for a 12-2 victory Saturday. The Huskies came through in the clutch Sunday to win the rubber game and finish Opening Weekend with a statement series victory.

“I liked our resilience and our bounce back,” coach Jim Penders said. “We had some positives (Saturday), too. A lot more positives than negatives. It’s just one weekend. We beat a quality opponent. We’re happy to get a series win over a really good opponent.”

UConn was able to practice outside just twice before Opening Weekend, though Penders said that was more than it does many preseasons. It also was without All-American lefthander Mason Feole, who is out as he recovers from a triceps strain.

But the Huskies overcame those challenges against the Cardinals, one of favorites in the Atlantic Coast Conference. On Friday, senior righthander Jeff Kersten stepped up at the front of the rotation to fill Feole’s spot. He held Louisville to one run (unearned) on five hits and three walks in six innings.

“I’m not used to having seniors on the mound,” Penders said. “Most of our guys don’t get to be seniors. It was nice to plug Jeffrey in there.”

In Sunday’s victory, UConn pieced together the game on the mound and got six strong innings from its bullpen. Its lineup proved to be up to the challenge of facing Louisville’s hard-throwing pitching staff, especially in clutch situations. Their first six runs of the game were scored with two outs.

On the weekend, second baseman Christian Fedko went 3-for-7 with a home run and shortstop Anthony Pratto went 5-for-12 with two doubles to lead UConn’s offense. The Huskies have good offensive depth and versatility and showed what they can do even against premium pitching.

“They threw some arms at us that were lights out,” Penders said. “They’ve got arms after arms. Our guys acquitted themselves very well.”

UConn should soon get a boost when Feole returns to action. Penders said Feole is already chomping at the bit to return and will face live hitters in practice Tuesday. There is a chance he’ll be back in action this weekend at the College of Charleston, but Penders said they may hold their ace back another week out of caution.

The Huskies were expected this season to compete for another NCAA Tournament appearance and they reaffirmed their potential with their Opening Weekend statement. There’s still a lot of baseball to be played and UConn will face a daunting schedule, so Penders doesn’t want them to get ahead of themselves. But he was pleased by the attitude his team showed.

“We don’t want to make too much of it other than we’re proud of the way the guys fought,” he said. “Our No. 1 starter’s not going, but the kids didn’t hang their heads.”

Eight for Omaha

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

I think the field is very open this year and pretty much any team in the Top 25 is in contention for the College World Series. So, for now, we’ll just go with the top eight teams in the Top 25—which match the eight teams I last July picked for Omaha. Mississippi State was tough to leave out and Oregon State is also coming away from Opening Weekend looking pretty good. In the end, they fall just on the outside of the field for now.

Weekend Standouts

Ten players or programs who put together big weekends.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils swept Notre Dame, outscoring the Fighting Irish 46-13 in the process. This weekend was the first time since 2012 that ASU scored at least 10 runs in three straight games. All-American slugger Spencer Torkelson, the 2018 NCAA home run champion, didn’t homer, but he did go 9-for-14 with two doubles and nine RBIs to lead the Sun Devils’ offense.

Trei Cruz, SS, Rice: In a 15-3 victory Sunday against Rhode Island, Cruz went 4-for-6 with two home runs (including a grand slam), two triples, four runs and nine RBIs. The sophomore fell one RBI short of matching the Rice single-game record held by his father Jose Cruz Jr. After three games, Cruz is 8-for-18 with a 1.444 OPS.

Florida State pitchers Drew Parrish, Conor Grady and Chase Haney: On Opening Day, Parrish, Grady and Haney combined for a no-hitter in an 11-0 victory against Maine. Parrish started the game and went five innings. Grady, a freshman, covered three innings and Haney closed out the victory. The no-hitter was the 10th in program history and made sure Mike Martin’s 40th and final Opening Day as Seminoles’ head coach was one to remember.

Louisiana Tech: The Bulldogs swept in-state rival Southeastern Louisiana, becoming the first team to sweep the Lions in Hammond, La., since 2010. LaTech’s veteran lineup exploded for 40 runs and hit .364/.459/.500 as a team. While they did give up 27 runs, the Bulldogs are off to a strong start in 2019.

Ohio State freshmen Seth Lonsway and Garrett Burhenn: Ohio State has a new look at the top of its rotation with Lonsway and Burhenn taking the first two spots. They delivered in a big way this weekend against Seton Hall. Lonsway, a blue-chip recruit in 2017 who redshirted last year due to an academic issue in high school, struck out nine batters in six innings on Opening Day and held Seton Hall to one run. Burhenn followed the next day with eight scoreless innings, struck out six batters and held the Pirates to just one hit. Ohio State finished the weekend with a sweep, a strong start as it aims for back-to-back regional appearances for the first time since going three straight years from 2001-03.

Southern: The Jaguars went 3-0 at the Andre Dawson Classic in New Orleans, beating Florida A&M, Grambling State and Alcorn State. Southern went just 9-33 last year and didn’t have a winning weekend. Now, in Kerrick Jackson’s second season at the program’s helm, the Jaguars are off to a strong start.

Virginia Tech: The Hokies went 3-0 in the RyCass Classic, hosted by Stetson in DeLand, Fla. Virginia Tech shut out the hosts, 5-0, on Opening Day and went on to defeat Manhattan, 15-3, and Sam Houston State, 3-2. The Hokies never trailed on the weekend and their starting pitchers combined to allow just one run in 15 innings.

Looking Ahead

Three weekend series we’re most excited for

(3) UCLA at Georgia Tech: The Bruins started the season well against St. John’s and now will hit the road for an intriguing cross-country series at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets are a trendy surprise pick this season and started the year 2-1 in the Atlanta Challenge. UCLA will be looking for a solid, early season road series win, while Georgia Tech has a chance to make an early statement.

(21) Southern Mississippi at (9) Mississippi State: This matchup last season precipitated college baseball’s biggest drama, as Southern Miss swept Mississippi State and just two days after the series ended, Bulldogs coach Andy Cannizaro resigned as the result of off-field indiscretions. Now, Mississippi State (3-0) has a new head coach (Chris Lemonis) and will be looking for payback against a talented Southern Miss (3-0) team.

(18) Auburn at Central Florida: Auburn (2-1) pulled out a close series win against Georgia Southern and will now face a tough road test with a trip to UCF (3-0). The Golden Knights, meanwhile, are in for a step up in competition after a sweep of Siena. The weekend should provide a good measuring stick for both teams.

Two weekend tournaments to watch

Tony Gwynn Legacy in San Diego: The tournament, co-hosted by San Diego and San Diego State, will bring in Cal State Fullerton, Fresno State, Kansas State, Missouri State, Oklahoma and Utah. Fullerton (2-1) comes to town following a strong showing the MLB4 Tournament and Oklahoma (3-0) also arrives with momentum following a sweep of Cal Poly. On the flip side, Missouri State (1-2) and Kansas State (1-2) are looking to turn things around after a tough Opening Weekend.

Brittain Resorts Baseball at the Beach in Conway, S.C.: Coastal Carolina annually hosts a strong slate of early-season tournaments and this weekend is no exception. In addition to the 23rd-ranked Chanticleers, Kent State, the Mid-American Conference favorite, Michigan State and North Carolina State make for a tournament that will feel like a regional. Coastal and NC State swept their Opening Weekends, while Kent State (0-3) and Michigan State (1-2) are looking to rebound after tough road series losses at Dallas Baptist and New Orleans, respectively.

One midweek game to keep an eye on

(19) Texas at Rice, Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET: On its surface, this game should be a fun one, as two traditional powers go at it. But the storylines go deeper than that. First year Rice coach Matt Bragga last year led Tennessee Tech in its super regional showdown against Texas and now faces the Longhorns for the first time with his new team. It’s also a homecoming for Texas coach David Pierce, who spent nine years an assistant coach at Rice.

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