Off The Bat: Texas Wins Big 12, UNC Claims ACC's Top Seed
Texas Wins Big 12 Title With Sweep
Texas three weeks ago was faced with a steep hill to climb if it was going to claim its first Big 12 Conference championship since 2011. It was in second place but was coming off a series loss at West Virginia and trailed first-place Oklahoma State by three games with six to play.
But once the calendar flipped to May, the Longhorns found their stride. Texas won a series at Texas Tech, becoming the first visiting team this season to win a series at Rip Griffin Park. It carried its momentum through its finals break and, led by righthander Nolan Kingham, on Thursday claimed the opener of its series against Texas Christian with a 3-2 victory.
Oklahoma State, meanwhile, hit a skid. It last weekend lost a series at Baylor, leaving the door cracked open for Texas. This weekend the Cowboys hosted Texas Tech, which won the opener, 9-4. Suddenly, the Cowboys’ lead in the standings was down to one game with two to play.
Friday night in Austin, Kody Clemens produced a game for the ages. The junior second baseman slugged a two-run homer in the fifth inning that erased TCU’s early lead. Then, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Duke Ellis beat out an infield single to bring Clemens back to the plate. He delivered again, crushing a two-run, walk-off home run to give the Longhorns a 5-3 victory.
With another Red Raiders win in Stillwater, the Longhorns were just a win away from the Big 12 title. Clemens hit another two-run homer in the first inning Saturday and Texas went on to a 7-3 victory. In front of 7,294 fans—the largest crowd of the season at Disch Falk Field—the Longhorns (37-18, 17-7) raised the Big 12 trophy aloft.
Coach David Pierce said for the past three weeks the discussion around the team was that nothing was going to be handed to them.
“If we were going to have the opportunity to win the championship, we were going to have to go and take it,” he said. “We played hard, unselfishly, smart, got really good defense and timely hitting and fed off Kody Clemens, as well as having some really good pitching this week.”
Clemens, the youngest son of Roger Clemens, has been the Longhorns’ best hitter all year and he again came up big this weekend. He is now hitting .344/.437/.703 with 19 home runs and has struck out (37) about as many times as he’s walked (34). He has put together a strong case to be the Big 12 player of the year and an All-American.
Pierce said he knew Clemens had this ability but couldn’t have predicted that he’d have this kind of year.
“I saw a very productive hitter,” Pierce said. “I saw a kid that had pop at times, but it’s been very consistent this year. His swing plane is right. He’s not trying to force home runs. He’s driving the ball and has been on time and his angle has been good.”
Texas’ offense has at times this season been overly reliant on Clemens. But the Longhorns have a solid top half of the order that has strengthened since David Hamilton got on track and moved into the leadoff spot. The sophomore shortstop is hitting .308/.422/.495 with 27 stolen bases. With him and Ellis (.309/.415/.382, 13 SB) getting on ahead of Clemens and Zach Zubia (.293/.430/.538, 10 HR) hitting cleanup, the Longhorns have the offensive firepower to support its solid pitching staff and defense.
Kingham on Thursday pitched like an ace, throwing a complete game and holding TCU to two runs on six hits and a walk. Righthander Chase Shugart on Friday followed with a solid start and the bullpen was excellent over the final two days of the series, holding the Horned Frogs to one run in 9.1 innings.
Closer Andy McGuire (1-2, 2.20, 7 SV) has been solid all season and Kameron Fields (1-0, 1.93) Parker Joe Robinson (3-0, 1.46) and Josh Sawyer (1-0, 3.71) all stepped up against TCU.
“They played their roles really well this weekend,” Pierce said. “I liked everything about the way we attacked the strike zone and I love the way the defense is playing.”
Texas this week rose to No. 15 in the RPI. That, combined with its Big 12 title, means the Longhorns figure to host a regional for the first time since 2011.
After a bit of a shaky start to the year—they were 9-9 going into Big 12 play after a typically ambitious nonconference schedule—the Longhorns are playing their best baseball at the right time of year. And Pierce believes there is more in the tank.
“When you look at this team, I feel like we can get better in some areas,” he said. “We have some guys who are overachieving for sure, but we can have better at-bats, shore up the defense and I know we can throw more quality strikes. I don’t think we’ve peaked yet.”
North Carolina Claims ACC’s Top Seed
North Carolina, fresh off being the No. 2 overall seed in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, came into this season with high expectations and was the preseason favorite in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division. It took the Tar Heels some time to find their stride, but this weekend with a sweep of Virginia Tech they claimed the division title and the top seed in this week’s ACC Tournament.
North Carolina (37-17, 22-8) got off to a bit of a shaky start. It split its first four series and was just 9-8 a month into the year. Adding to the early struggles, Opening Day starter Gianluca Dalatri suffered a stress reaction in his elbow and was sidelined indefinitely.
Eventually, however, North Carolina got back on track and is 23-7 since losing a home series to Florida State in late March. The Tar Heels go into this week’s tournament at Durham Bulls Athletic Park as the top seed for the first time since 2013 and just the second time since the conference adopted a divisional format. They will be one of the favorites to win the tournament and look to be in line for a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.
“They’ve been a tough bunch and played hard all year,” coach Mike Fox said. “It was a little bit of a tough start for us. I’m happy for them more than anything else for what they’ve accomplished.”
Claiming the top seed in the ACC Tournament was a significant accomplishment for the Tar Heels, but they got even more encouraging news Saturday. Dalatri on Saturday made his return to the mound in the series finale against Virginia Tech and threw four scoreless innings.
Dalatri held the Hokies to two hits, struck out three batters and walked one. The sophomore largely looked to be back to the form he showed during his 2017 Freshman All-American campaign, when he emerged as one of the Tar Heels’ most consistent pitchers.
Dalatri had struggled in his first two starts of the season and he said he was happy to get back to pitching the way he expects to.
“I was just trying to go out there and pound the zone and make them beat me with my best stuff,” he said. “That’s something I don’t think I could truly say in the two outings I threw. Obviously, something was lingering, and I didn’t have my best stuff.”
Dalatri will get another start in the ACC Tournament to give him a chance to build up more stamina before regionals. Adding him back into the rotation is a big boost for the Tar Heels, who have plenty of depth on their pitching staff but have never been able to settle on a rotation.
The Tar Heels in the second half have also come on offensively, finding more depth in their lineup. Third baseman Kyle Datres (.344/.435/.493) leads the team in batting and first baseman Michael Busch (.305/.450/.502, 11 HR) is its primary power threat.
But players such as Zack Gahagan and Ashton McGee have turned around their seasons in the second half. McGee, who last year was a Freshman All-American, in late-March was hitting .159. Down the stretch, he is hitting .326 to raise his season line to .259/.368/.373 and help lengthen the lineup.
“You’ve got to give some credit to the bottom of the order, especially this weekend,” Fox said. “Just like before, we’re getting contributions from everybody.”
With the Tar Heels finding their stride offensively and welcoming their ace back into the fold, they are well positioned going into the ACC Tournament. They still face a tough assignment this week in Durham, where the ACC Tournament figures to again be one of the best in the country.
“The league’s been just as good as ever,” Fox said. “Those 30 games, they’re all tough. You see it at the end, the teams that are playing, they’re playing well. There’s a lot of talent in this league. The tournament’s going to be tough, it’s a tough one to win.”
Nevada Climbs Atop The Mountain West
The Mountain West Conference made some early waves this season. San Diego State was ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 2009 and Nevada-Las Vegas started the year 20-3.
In the end, however, it was Nevada (29-22, 20-9) that claimed the conference championship. The Wolfpack bounced back from a series loss at UNLV last weekend to win a series against San Diego State and finish with a 2.5-game cushion in the standings.
The title was Nevada’s second since joining the Mountain West in 2013 and its first since 2015.
“We’ve done a really nice job of staying the course,” coach T.J. Bruce said. “You set out that goal at the beginning of the year and that’s step one. The guys bought into believing in each other.”
Six players remain who were on Nevada’s 2015 championship team, including outfielders Grant Fennell (.387/.465/.546), the team’s leading hitter, and Cole Krzmarzick (.350/.419/.419).
But there has been a lot of turnover in the program as well, beginning with Bruce taking over the program from Jay Johnson, who left to become head coach at Arizona following the 2015 season. The Wolfpack have several high-impact underclassmen on this year’s roster, including third baseman Joshua Zamora (.366/.433/.577, 9 HR) and righthanders Jake Jackson (8-3, 4.83) and Jordan Jackson (3-1, 3.86).
The team has come together well, Bruce said. The Wolfpack have done a good job of staying in the moment, which helped them overcome a six-game losing streak in late-April that included a sweep at Nebraska. Following that weekend, Nevada responded with a 4-0 week at home that included a sweep of Fresno State.
“Our short-term memory was such a big deal,” Bruce said. “Short-term memory loss no matter whether you win or lose. How can we get through this and into the next day or the next pitch? I feel like we’ve had that for a long time. It gets tested over time during the season.”
It will get tested again this week, when Nevada heads to San Diego for the conference tournament. With an RPI of 59, the Wolfpack are in a position where they will have to win the conference tournament to advance to regionals.
And it won’t be easy. San Diego State has homefield advantage and has been consistent all season. UNLV has cooled off after its hot start but has a formidable offense. San Jose State got hot in the second half and won 10 of its last 14 games.
Bruce is counting on the Wolfpack to maintain the same mentality they have all season. He told them Saturday to enjoy their accomplishment over the weekend and then to come back to practice Monday focused on the conference tournament.
“We’re there to win just like the other three teams,” he said. “We’re going about our business the same, nothing’s going to change. We’ve got to keep everything consistent and the same.”
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Arkansas, Coastal Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon State, Stanford, Texas Tech.
No changes this week to the field after a relatively quiet week for these teams. North Carolina and Texas Tech this week did seem to bolster their chances, however. Dalatri’s return from injury is significant for the Tar Heels, who get their Opening Day starter back just in time for the postseason. Texas Tech needed to make a statement coming out of its finals break and it did, sweeping Oklahoma State in Stillwater. The Red Raiders will look to carry that momentum into the postseason, where they figure to be formidable.
Five players or programs who stood out this weekend.
Will Holland, SS, Auburn: The sophomore went 10-for-14 with four doubles and two home runs in Auburn’s series win against Louisiana State. Holland is the Tigers’ leading hitter and is batting .329/.418/.546 with 10 home runs.
Seth Lancaster, SS, Coastal Carolina: In the first game of a doubleheader Saturday at Appalachian State, Lancaster homered three times, matching a program record. The senior went 6-for-9 with three home runs, a double, four runs and eight RBIs in the doubleheader and is now hitting .303/.448/.627 with 16 homers.
Missouri State: The Bears claimed the Missouri Valley Conference title with a series win at Dallas Baptist. Missouri State (35-15) has won the MVC in three of the last four years and claimed back-to-back titles for the first time since joining the conference in 1991. The Bears are 36-4 in conference play in the last two years.
North Carolina A&T: The Aggies on Sunday won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005. NC A&T defeated Bethune-Cookman, 12-9, in the championship game and first baseman Zach McLean was named tournament MVP after going 3-for-4 with a home run and five RBIs. The Aggies improved to 32-23, setting a new program record for wins.
Texas Tech: The Red Raiders (38-15) swept Oklahoma State in Stillwater in emphatic fashion, outscoring the hosts 30-12. The sweep denied the Cowboys a Big 12 title and bolstered Texas Tech’s chances to be a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament, as its RPI rose to No. 5.
Three conference tournaments we’re most excited for
Atlantic Coast Conference in Durham: There’s a lot going on at this year’s ACC Tournament, but perhaps the biggest storyline will be Miami’s quest to send Jim Morris off with an NCAA Tournament appearance. The Hurricanes begin the tournament on the bubble for regionals and will need to win their pool to play their way in. Georgia Tech also enters the tournament on the bubble and Florida State comes to Durham with a chance to earn a top-eight seed.
Big 12 Conference in Oklahoma City: Last weekend cleared up a lot of the Big 12’s NCAA Tournament questions. Texas and Texas Tech will host and have a chance to move into the top-eight seeds with big weeks in Bricktown. Baylor moved from the bubble to safely in, while Texas Christian now knows it likely needs to win the Big 12 Tournament to get to regionals. But just because things look tidy doesn’t mean there won’t be excitement in what should be a hotly contested tournament.
Southeastern Conference in Hoover, Ala.: Things will get lively immediately in Hoover. With Kentucky and Texas A&M going to the tournament with top-25 RPIs and 13-17 SEC records, the first two games of the tournament will be critical. Both teams will be looking at anxious weeks should they lose Tuesday—A&M against Vanderbilt and Kentucky against Auburn. Beyond Tuesday’s immediate drama, there will be plenty of scouts getting late looks at the conference’s many high-round draft prospects.
Two conference tournaments you shouldn’t overlook
Atlantic Sun Conference in Jacksonville: Stetson and Jacksonville have put together outstanding seasons and are safely in the NCAA Tournament. The Hatters have also put themselves in position to host thanks to a top-10 RPI, but they likely need to pair their regular-season title with a tournament championship to stay there. Kennesaw State, which won its series against Stetson, and host North Florida will be looking to spoil the party and make the Atlantic Sun a surprising three-bid league.
Sun Belt Conference in Lafayette, La.: Much like Stetson, Coastal Carolina has a chance to host a regional if it pairs its regular-season title with a tournament championship. Louisiana-Lafayette, South Alabama and Troy are all hanging around the bubble and could play their way in with big weeks. The Trojans are in the best position now, but the Ragin’ Cajuns have been strong down the stretch and will have homefield advantage.
One weekend series to keep an eye on
(3) Stanford at Washington: The Pac-12 Conference race comes down to the final weekend and the top-four teams in the conference will all matchup. First-place Stanford travels to Washington, while second-place Oregon State hosts UCLA. Oregon State trails Stanford by 2.5 games in the standings, while UCLA and Washington are tied for third, three games back. The Cardinal need just one win or a Beavers’ loss to clinch their first conference title since 2004. The Huskies, despite a subpar RPI, are probably just one win away from garnering an NCAA Tournament bid.