Off the Bat: Texas Proves Its Resiliency, UCLA Gets Marquee Series Win

Image credit: Texas shortstop Masen Hibbeler (Photo by John Williamson)

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

Texas Opens Big 12 Play With Resilient Series Win

Little had gone right for Texas as Sunday’s rubber game against Texas Tech went into the bottom of the sixth inning. The Longhorns were down 1-0 and didn’t have a hit. Starter Coy Cobb hadn’t made it out of the third inning, and key reliever Ty Madden had left the game with a trainer after injuring his shoulder. Five pitchers had combined to walk eight batters.

But the Longhorns luck soon turned. Austin Todd led off the inning with a single, and Eric Kennedy followed with a drag bunt single. After a couple outs, Masen Hibbeler punched a single up the middle for two runs. He would come around to score after a balk and a throwing error by catcher Drew Fulford, who was trying to catch Hibbeler stealing third.

All of a sudden, Texas had gone from scuffling to in control. The Longhorns tacked on a key insurance run in the eighth and held on for a series-clinching, 4-3 victory.

“They just figured out a way to win,” coach David Pierce said. “That’s a tribute to our program, to our team right now. They’re not going to be denied. You’re going to have to beat them.”

That resiliency is nothing new for Texas. The season is only five weeks old, but the Longhorns have already faced plenty of adversity. Shortstop David Hamilton was lost before the season began to a torn Achilles tendon, and catcher D.J. Petrinsky suffered a torn labrum and was lost for the year two weeks into the season.

But Texas (15-7) has fought through those injuries and a difficult early season schedule—it has already played three series against top-10 teams—to rise to No. 4 in the Top 25. And with the series win against Texas Tech, which entered the season as the conference favorite, the Longhorns have established themselves as the team to beat in the Big 12.

That gritty attitude is a familiar one for Texas under Pierce. The Longhorns last year finished the season with a magical run to the Big 12 title and a College World Series appearance but started the season 9-9 and did little easily. In 2017, Pierce’s first on the 40 Acres, Texas fought its way into regionals and then pushed host Long Beach State to the brink.

Texas’ resilient attitude has been built under Pierce and his coaching staff to the point where it is a program expectation at this point.

“Honestly, we just don’t accept guys being individuals, and we don’t accept guys not playing hard,” Pierce said. “So, we just continue to work at that. And then we do look at guys that we feel like have grit. I would much rather have a guy that overachieves a little bit but has that toughness in his gut and he has that ability to go out and play the game to its entirety and whatever happens be prepared to do it the next day.”

Texas this year is winning thanks in large part to a deep pitching staff. The Longhorns have a 2.97 team ERA and a staff full of exciting arms. While Cobb struggled with his control Sunday, righthanders Bryce Elder (2-1, 2.22) and Blair Henley (2-1, 4.23) were strong the first two days of the series. And the bullpen impressed all weekend, starting on Friday night with an outstanding outing from righthander Kamron Fields (3 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 5 K) and finishing with a crucial effort on Sunday from freshman righthander Kolby Kubichek to close out the victory for his first save.

Texas’ offense is still a work in progress. In addition to losing Hamilton and Petrinsky to injury, the Longhorns are still looking for a replacement for All-American second baseman Kody Clemens, who was instrumental to last year’s Omaha run.

Getting outfielder Austin Todd (.289/.400/.434) back from injury has been important and he’s the team’s leading hitter, but it’s been more of a group effort to this point. Hibbeler was the hero on Sunday, a game that could give him a spark as he’s hitting just .230/.319/.246 while taking over at shortstop.

Texas Tech (12-5) also is still working to smooth out some of its rough edges. It got good starting pitching this weekend—the trio of lefthander Erickson Lanning, righthander Caleb Kilian and Montgomery combined to give up two runs in 17 innings—but Texas got to its bullpen a bit. And the Red Raiders’ lineup, which can be so potent, was held to nine runs on the weekend.

Coach Tim Tadlock said some of Texas Tech’s young hitters had the game speed up on them in the first conference series of the year, but said he still believes in his team’s ability.  

“We’ve all seen that happen in Big 12 baseball games, especially the first weekend,” he said. “I like where we are. I like our guys, I like our team, but by no stretch are we a finished product.”

Neither team is where it will be in May, but after finding a way to win another big series, Texas is off to one of the most impressive starts of any team in the country. This series win may have been just one weekend but given the opponent and the way Texas fought for it, it’s meaning is a little greater.

“It’s series one, but it’s series one against one of the top teams in the conference,” Pierce said. “So, it gives you hope that if you just keep getting better, we’ve got a chance to contend for this.”

UCLA Breaks Out Against Oregon State

The Pac-12 Conference title race got off to a roaring start this weekend with a heavyweight showdown between Oregon State, the defending national champion, and UCLA, this year’s preseason conference favorite.

The teams split the first two games, with the Bruins winning the opener, 8-0, and the Beavers evening the series Saturday with a 7-3 victory. UCLA on Sunday claimed the series with a 9-7 victory, staving off a comeback attempt by Oregon State.

With a combination of its series win and Vanderbilt’s series loss at Texas A&M, UCLA (14-4) takes over as the top-ranked team in the country. The Bruins are ranked No. 1 for the first time since they won the 2013 national championship.

Oregon State (14-3-1) didn’t make it easy for UCLA.  The Beavers scored twice in the top of the first and after the Bruins countered with a five-spot in the bottom half of the inning, they fought back to tie the game in the fifth. UCLA again pushed ahead with three runs in the bottom of the inning, but Oregon State kept coming and got the go-ahead run to the plate in the ninth before UCLA finally slammed the door.

“Whenever you start off conference play against the defending national champions, it’s certainly going to be a challenge and an opportunity,” coach John Savage said. “It was a good series win. Today could have gone either way. It was a wild Sunday on both sides, really.”

Both teams came into the weekend ranked in the top 10 nationally in ERA, but both teams flexed their muscles offensively over the weekend. Oregon State didn’t have the services of 2018 Freshman of the Year Kevin Abel, who on Friday missed his second start with a back strain, but even without him, the Beavers still have one of the best pitching staffs in the country. It didn’t matter against UCLA’s potent lineup, which had the breakout weekend it has been looking for.

Preseason All-American second baseman Chase Strumpf and first baseman Michael Toglia, who both could be drafted in the top two rounds in June, got off to slow starts this spring, but both homered in the series finale and combined to go 8-for-24 on the weekend. Freshman center fielder Matt McLain, an unsigned first rounder who was also off to a slower start, went 5-for-12 with a double and a triple in the series.

UCLA’s strong pitching staff and the production of infielder Ryan Kreidler (.358/.429/.562) and outfielder Garrett Mitchell (.324/.403/.456), who have been its top hitters this spring, have covered for their slow starts and the loss of outfielder Jeremy Ydens to injury. But if the Bruins can get the trio of McLain, Strumpf and Toglia going, their offense can be very dangerous.

“We swung the bats a little better this weekend,” Savage said. “We know we’re very capable. We’ve been off to somewhat of a slower start offensively. This weekend, it seemed that some guys got going a little bit.

On the mound, UCLA was outstanding for the first half of the weekend before Oregon State got to it in the second half. Righthanders Zach Pettway and Kyle Mora combined for a four-hit shutout Friday night, and righthander Jack Ralston held the Beavers to one run in six innings Saturday. But Oregon State got to the back of the UCLA bullpen on Saturday and Sunday, scoring eight runs, and it knocked out starter Jesse Bergin in the second inning of the series finale.

But UCLA is starting to get back to full strength on the mound. Righthander Ryan Garcia was supposed to be the Bruins’ Opening Day starter but missed the first month of the season due to injury. He made his season debut Tuesday against Long Beach State, throwing 30 pitches, and he relieved Bergin on Sunday. The junior struck out eight batters in 4.2 innings and held Oregon State to two runs to pick up his first win of the season.

Garcia figures to soon move into the rotation, possibly this weekend against Arizona.

“We’ve taken our time bringing him back,” Savage said. “He threw multiple bullpens. We were slow, cautious in bringing him back. It looked at times like he was back to where he was in January.”

Garcia’s return is a big boost for the Bruins as they move into Pac-12 play. A rotation of him, Pettway and Ralston will stack up well with anyone else in the conference.

Many of UCLA’s problems on the mound this weekend came courtesy of Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschamn. The Preseason All-American went 7-for-11 with two home runs and seven RBIs on the weekend.

“We probably pitched to him too much,” Savage said. “But you’ve got to give him credit too. He’s hitting good pitches, getting into good counts. He’s the best hitter we’ve see this season—his plate discipline, a level swing, he has power, he’s very difficult to strike out.”

Rutschman, who is the favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in June, is hitting .456/.619/.895 with eight home runs, 26 walks and 10 strikeouts this spring.

Savage and the Bruins can rest easy knowing that unless they face the Beavers in super regionals or in Omaha, they have seen the last of Rutschman. But that doesn’t mean the path ahead is easy for UCLA. The Bruins must contend with finals this week before hosting Arizona (12-7) and its powerful offense on the weekend.

“Our bullpen probably needs a break so it’s probably a good thing,” Savage said. “We’ll take a couple days off and then get back to practice. There are quite a few teams in our league that are on quarters, so everyone has to deal with (finals), but we don’t want to lose that momentum.”

Eight For Omaha

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

Despite three of the teams in the field losing series this weekend, I’m stubbornly not making any changes. Vanderbilt has some issues to work out on the mound, but, frankly, that’s not unexpected. I still believe in the Commodores’ array of arms and their lineup getting it figured out. Florida ran into the freight train that is Mississippi State and is only going to get better this spring as its young players get more experience. Florida State’s 1-3 week was the most concerning of the three, but like the Gators, the Seminoles are very young. It’s March and they had a bad week. We’ll see how they respond.

Weekend Standouts

Six players or programs who put together big weekends.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils swept Washington State to improve to 19-0 and now stand as the last undefeated team in the country after North Carolina State lost to Florida State on Sunday. Arizona State is off to its third-best start in program history and is averaging 9.89 runs per game. It will look to extend its streak Wednesday against California Baptist before traveling to Oregon for its first road series of the year.

Hayden Cantrelle, SS, Louisiana-Lafayette: In a 16-10 victory Saturday at Arkansas-Little Rock, Cantrelle hit three home runs—his first three of the season—and finished the day 4-for-5 with a double and five runs. On the weekend, the sophomore went 7-for-12 and is now hitting .268/.424/.451 with 11 stolen bases.

Grant Judkins, UTL, Iowa: Judkins powered Iowa to a doubleheader sweep Sunday against Cal State Northridge. In the first game, he delivered a pinch hit, two-run double to give the Hawkeyes a 5-4, walk-off victory. In the nightcap, he threw eight innings and held the Matadors to one run on three hits and a walk in a 3-1 victory. The hit was Judkins’ first of the season, and he improved to 2-1, 1.52 on the mound.

Jake Kuchmaner, LHP, East Carolina: In a 3-0 victory at Maryland, Kuchmaner threw a perfect game, the first in program history. The sophomore struck out eight batters and threw 103 pitches. Kuchmaner’s gem came 11 days after he had a no-hitter broken up with two outs in the ninth inning at Mississippi. He is 2-0, 1.48 with 28 strikeouts and five walks in 30.1 innings on the season.

James Madison: The Dukes won a series at Cal State Fullerton and became the first team ever to shutout the Titans in back-to-back games at Goodwin Field. Kevin Kelly (4-1, 0.93) and Shelton Perkins (1-0, 1.56) combined for a 1-0 win Friday, and Nick Stewart (2-2, 2.35), Brett Ayer (2-1, 0.64) and Nick Robertson (2-0, 0.00, 5 SV) combined for a 2-0 win Saturday. James Madison improved to 14-6 on the season and is 7-2 since getting swept at Louisville.

Miami (Ohio): The RedHawks swept St. Bonaventure to extend their winning streak to 12 games, the third longest active streak in the country. Only Arizona State (19) and Auburn (13) have longer winning streaks. Miami (15-3) visits Eastern Kentucky on Wednesday before traveling to Kent State, the Mid-American Conference favorite, on the weekend.

Looking Ahead

Three weekend series we’re most excited for

(9) Florida at (5) Vanderbilt: A week ago, this would have been a top-five matchup. Instead, after Florida lost a home series to Mississippi State and Vanderbilt lost a series at Texas A&M, it’s only a top-10 matchup. This is traditionally a matchup of premium pitching staffs, but it figures to be a bit more offensive this season, as the Gators (15-7) are averaging 7.82 runs per game and the Commodores (15-5) are averaging 8.3.

(12) Louisiana State at (11) Georgia: This is a very intriguing matchup as both teams have something to prove. LSU (15-5) is coming off a sweep of Kentucky but is 0-4 on the road and will now face a premier opponent. Georgia (18-2) is coming off a series sweep at South Carolina and can now add another high-end series win to its resume.

(23) Michigan at (13) Texas Tech: This isn’t a completely traditional series—Stetson is also in Lubbock this weekend and will face Michigan on Saturday before two games with Texas Tech—but it will still be a good matchup. For the Wolverines (13-4), it is their last opportunity to make a statement before next week beginning Big Ten Conference play. It will be a tough weekend for the Red Raiders (12-5), who play five straight days, but it could be a nice boost for their resume as well.

Two weekend series to watch

Cal State Fullerton at Long Beach State: Both teams have struggled this season, but this is still one of college baseball’s marquee rivalries. Fullerton (8-9) is coming off back-to-back series losses at New Mexico and against James Madison, and now must go into a hostile atmosphere at Blair Field. Long Beach (3-15) has played one of the most difficult schedules in the country but has little to show for it. Both teams need a series win this weekend to kickstart their seasons.

Grambling State at Southern: One of college sports’ classic rivalries will have a little more juice this weekend. The Tigers (9-8, 7-2) and Jaguars (11-8, 5-1) are the top two teams in the SWAC West Division standings in the early going, and both already own series wins against perennial powerhouse Texas Southern. These two teams will meet again at the end of next month, but this weekend’s series represents a chance to take control of the division race.

One midweek series to keep an eye on

(15) Arkansas at (4) Texas: The old Southwest Conference rivals will be back at it this week in Austin. The Razorbacks won all three meetings last year, sweeping the two-game set in Fayetteville and then opening the College World Series with another win against the Longhorns. Texas (15-7) will look to return the favor this week. Arkansas (17-2) is riding a six-game winning streak, but this will be its toughest test yet.

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